a case study in legibility as prelude to Hoffer
This blog is running the risk of all writing, which is critique but no suggestion. Let me counter that with a practical post: I’m going to teach you how to get shot without dying.
Gri-gri comes in many forms – ointment, powder, necklaces – but all promise immunity to weaponry. It doesn’t work on individuals, of course, although it’s supposed to. Very little can go grain-for-grain with black powder and pyrodex. It does work on communities: it makes them bullet proof.
The economists Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra wrote a paper analyzing the social effects of gri-gri: Why Being Wrong Can Be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs (the full paper is up on Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s site). Here’s the breakdown: Bullet-proofing magic is relatively widespread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper focuses on Congo-Kinsasha, specifically South Kivu. Things are not great there: “In July 2007, United Nations human rights expert Yakin Erturk called the situation in South Kivu the worst she has ever seen in four years as the global body’s special investigator for violence against women.” The quote from wikipedia gets way worse, trust me. Most of the villages lack larger forms of protection, as is probably obvious at this point. They also lacked any kind of coordinated resistance, and given the larger fire power, were hopelessly outgunned. That was for some time, and our wiki quote says 2007.
In 2012, the recipe for gri-gri was revealed to an elder in a dream. If you ingest it and follow certain ritual commandments, then bullets cannot harm you. The belief is puzzling, inasmuch as bullets did seem to keep killing people. More puzzling: not only did it survive, it was adopted by many neighboring villages, cities, and regions. “Why?”
The paper argues that gri-gri encourages resistance on a mass scale. Beforehand, given a mix of brave and cowardly, only a small percentage of a village would fight back. If you want to have any hope of surviving, then you need everyone to fight back. Gri-gri lowers the perceived costs of said resistance, i.e. no reason to fear guns when the bullets can’t hurt you. Now everyone fights, hence, gri-gri‘s positive benefits. Moreover: since more people are fighting, each gri-gri participant also raises the marginal utility of the others (it’s better to fight together). And, since there are highly specific requirements for using the powder (if you break a certain moral code it doesn’t work), gri-gri also probably cuts down on non-war related crimes. Take group-level selection: the belief in and use of gri-gri will thus allow any given village to out-compete one without gri-gri. After a time, these will either be replaced by gri-gri adherents (hence spreading it geographically), or they’ll adopt gri-gri themselves (also spreading it).
As far as “sober looks at horrifying situations” go, this is a good one. It’s clever, it’s a decent analysis of why certain beliefs persist despite being false, and I’m glad to know that economics has finally found Nietzsche.
If I have any specific criticisms, it’s that they vastly downplay negative externalities inflicted by the required rituals. They suggest, rather, that these might be positive. To use gri-gri certain commandments must be followed, and one helpful example is “don’t steal from civilians.” So far so good, and that does seem useful, but one that they don’t mention is that another form of bullet-magic requires human sacrifice and cannibalism. This might impact the cost-benefit, but I’m no economist. To be fair, they aren’t looking at Liberia, but they also want to generalize, so.
The rest is good, and I appreciate all attempts to examine “irrational” rituals. But I still think that there’s an easier and more obvious solution than theirs: gri-gri is actually magic.
See like a state for a moment.
In the absence of such a paper, most outside members would classify their beliefs as “irrational” or “stupid”. Hell, I remember people mocking this belief when I was growing up, and there are still somehow-still-considered-liberal-but-look-at-the-exotic-natives Vice documentaries about this. One can well imagine a government program to ban gri-gri, which would misunderstand its value, and therefore expose the villagers to raiding parties with no decent defense mechanism. That’s a bad idea. Try something else.
I’ll presuppose that local powers have all read the paper, recognize the importance of gri-gri, but still want to modernize. Also: human sacrifice. They decide to retain the effects, but remove the “magical” aspect as unnecessary. This presupposition is how a whole lot of people do read Seeing Like a State. You make the previously-strange beliefs legible in state language. In doing so, you assume that you have “understood them” yourself well enough to continue modernizing. The problem with High Modernism, it’s assumed, is that the capital-S State is destroying useful practices, not necessarily that it’s destroying those practices period. Retain the utility and you might as well get rid of the superstitious beliefs.
As it goes, I happen to agree with this. Interestingly, that makes me argue against every single human being who wants to do so right now. We aren’t seeing the utility, and we don’t understand the practice.
We want gri-gri, but we don’t want gri-gri. What we really want is “communal defense and associated positive externalities” minus witch-doctors. That’s not a bad plan. It rids us of the small chance of associated human sacrifice, which is always a good thing to avoid (probably). To achieve this, the state sends a researcher into the village. “We’re sorry,” he says. “We were so stupid to mock you. We totally understand why you do this thing. Let’s explain to you what’s actually going on, now that we have an economic translation.”
The researcher explains that, in fact, gri-gri doesn’t work for the individual, but it has the net-positive effect of saving the community. “Give up these childish illusions, yet maintain the overall function of the system,” he exhorts. A villager, clearly stupid, asks: “So it works?” The man smiles at these whimsical locals. “Oh, no,” he sighs. “You will surely die. But in the long run it’s a positive adaptation at the group level.”
No one would fight, of course. The effect only comes from the individual. If he doesn’t think he can survive a bullet, then it’s hard to see how you’re going to make him fight. “But people fight better in groups, don’t you see?” stammers the exasperated researcher. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also no revelation. I trust that at least a couple of those villagers have brawled before. “Fighting six guys alone vs. fighting six guys with your friends” is a fast lesson with obvious application. Still didn’t make them go to war before the introduction of gri-gri. If that didn’t work, why do you think “time for some #gametheory” will convince anyone?
Gri-gri is magic, and the obvious yet world-shattering revelation is that data breaks the spell. Point one for Leo Strauss, but serious problem for the value of knowledge.
Problem #1: The group is not the person. Even accepting the standard explanation (these survive/are adopted because group selection means that more adherents individually and more communities will survive), you haven’t explained why any given adherent adopts it, nor why they retain it. “Sure – everyone wants to be bulletproof.” Agreed, but now try and replicate that. Go out and convince a group of people to collectively fight back, while recalling that the introduction of your data has the opposite effect. If you’re unable to explain why these beliefs initially arise, why any given person initially adopts them, why people were psychologically primed to, you’re presenting an incomplete picture. Stronger: if you can’t replicate the effect, then what have you explained? Strongest: adopting a practical method is not the same as adopting a belief.
I like the paper, and I don’t blame economists for this. They’re working with a specific tool set, have limited their scope to do so, and are generally successful at it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the wool has been somewhat pulled over my eyes. I don’t think the belief that “persists” is what they think it is. Don’t see it? Belief in gri-gri is not the same as belief in the people who gave it to you. To understand where gri-gri comes from, you need to understand the overarching institution, and for that there’s total silence.
I was originally going to use this article for a joke about empiricism, but it doesn’t really work for that. It’s short, I’ll quote it all:
A Ghanaian man has reportedly been shot dead while testing whether a magic spell has made him bulletproof.
A Ghanaian news agency reported that the man, Aleobiga Aberima, from the village of Lambu in northeastern Ghana, had asked a jujuman — a local witchdoctor — to make him invincible to bullets.
After smearing his body with a concoction of herbs every day for two weeks, a fellow villager volunteered to shoot him to check whether the spell had actually worked.
He died instantly from a single bullet.
The news agency said angry villagers then attacked the witchdoctor, and beat him severely until he was rescued by a villager elder.
Here’s the interest: the overarching mechanism is primordial to the bullet-proofing spell. This witchdoctor was wrong, but that doesn’t falsify the others.
Problem #2: gri-gri is not an old belief. It started, by the paper’s account, in 2012. That was the year an elder received the magic spell and transmitted it. You have to believe in those elders in order to have adopted gri-gri, and I doubt that every single previous thing about the elders was totally rational. This means the real “irrational” belief is not gri-gri, but elders and witchdoctors. This a complex tradition that related to many more things than bullet-proofing. Call it metis, if you want.
When comparing cultural institutions to biological evolution, we rarely get a mechanism for the appearance of new beliefs. I think there’s a general metaphor like “random mutation”. Maybe someone starts doing something because [whatever], and if it’s a helpful adaptation then other people adopt it. That may be true, I have no idea, and I suspect you’d have to go back to cave-painting times to test it. The point is simply: gri-gri is not an example of this. It isn’t random. Gri-gri is the interaction between a previously existing cultural institution and a new condition (guns/warfare). I’ll walk that back some, but only some: it’s mostly not random. Feel better?
[This paper and others similar] say a lot about why things out compete one another and why those customs survive, but they can’t tell us what it’s like inside the believer. That is to say: their phenomenological experience of and therefore understanding of the world is presumably impacted somehow. You can’t just pretend that that’s unimportant. “Sounds like some philosophical overexplaining to me.” Well, that’s only because it is, but you’re the one who wrote a paper that destroys its own effects. If you want to talk about what kinds of knowledge are “useful” or not, then I’m pretty sure I’m winning here.
Now, I think phenomenology and psychological states are important, inasmuch as that’s technically the entirety of human experience for each of us as individuals, but you can pretend to be outside of all that pleb talk. You’re still left with by far the biggest problem.
Problem #3: Like it or not, all politics (read: use of economics) is power and control. That’s over yourself and others, whether as passing a bill or performing damage control. If you lack an account of the urphenomenon, you lack everything. And if you lack an account of individual adherence, then you lack an account of human motivation. And if you aren’t really talking about human motivations, then you have no idea how to either predict or interact with political developments. “No one understands the internal!” A) Bullshit, the elders clearly do, at least to a point, and B) Did you just admit to complete and total political impotence? Because that’s what it sounded like to me.
I said this, repeated it, and will continue repeating it: metis is both the worldview and the action. All of the problems above come from misunderstanding this. Here’s a suggestion, although I’m unsure of it and will not prove either side. Has it never occurred to you that the benefits of “belief in village elders” (and/or gri-gri) go beyond those easily quantified? At least with our current toolkit. I’m pretty sure that there are a fair number of customs that are continued and adopted for psychological reasons, and if those are not the same thing as economic reasons, then it strongly opens up the possibility that some will have positive psychological effects but a negative or at least not-net-positive economic impact. “But-”
There was some concern over my Seeing Like a State review’s emphasis on the psychological cost of states. That’s fair. I’m also lying. It was one comment, otherwise quite good, whose strawman allows me to pivot towards the next books without too much effort.
I largely reject the easy division between “psychological” and “[whatever the other is]”, but I understand what’s meant. The concern is gri-gri. If we don’t focus on the clear positive benefits of beliefs, then rulers will ban them. I agree, but my concern with legibility is embedded in the haste of that focus: are you explaining away something with a sciencey aesthetic, or are you actually understanding it? The gri-gri paper isn’t bad, it’s just incomplete. The potential use of that paper – ban witch-doctors, explain people’s beliefs back to them – is catastrophic. Worse: it does exactly what Scott warns against under the guise of caring for metis. The focus on the “practical”, ironically, has nothing to do with practicality. It’s about […]
If I have to err on one side, let it be the “psychological”. There are three reasons here, mostly unrelated to gri-gri, but for which it serves as cicerone:
1) Money, efficiency, and [material things in general] are not goods in themselves, but for [some purpose]. Let’s call it “happiness”, which is not my own belief but an easy way to avoid a very long conversation. “Happiness” is psychological, inasmuch as it relates to one individual and the individual’s inner state is all they have. You cannot affix happiness to a person, it arises from [other]. This means that myopically focusing on the material to the exclusion of the “psychological” is weird and makes itself meaningless. I recognize that we normally glide over this, but I’m not going to: If you’re talking about what systems and governments are bad/good for human beings, but “how human beings feel internally” isn’t part of the equation, then frankly I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.
This also means that the majority of whatever suffering state planners have caused is, actually, “psychological”. I’ll exclude physical pain, etc., but that’s a rarity. Banning gri-gri would be an extreme outlier, inasmuch as “exposure to violent militias” is not a common problem. Probably the single largest issue of state legibility at this moment comes from this basic misunderstanding: frustration and sorrow are not “material” in the strictest sense. There are, of course, notable exceptions: kulak liquidation, grain shortages, Hutu mutilation, etc. But did you really need me to point out why famine and gulags are unfortunate?
2) This does not exclude the material, but is inextricably tangled with it. As with gri-gri, if you ignore the individual’s psychology, then the entire system falls apart. This does not mean that material effects are absent or unimportant, just that you can’t hold everything equal. Take the Christianity example: there are huge boons to well-being and productivity and [everything else I talked about] in belonging to a church. Many of these are psychological themselves, but let’s only focus on material aspects. These come from “the church”, but you’d have to show me some really extreme evidence to convince me that those were the primary or only reason they joined. The religious aspect, however you think about that, seems more than a little important.
3) As above: If we’re going to use Scott or Polanyi to talk about anything outside of [truly disastrous High Modernist event], we have to talk about psychological impacts. The moment you open up the psychological tier either you discuss all of it, or you’re avoiding the question. “Money exchanged for goods” is for some kind of happiness. It isn’t the only one – recall ritual, and the kind of community life that Polanyi emphasizes. Alternately, consider sex and death.
In Debt, David Graeber notes that marriages and funerals are the two major expenses for the majority of the world’s population. Graeber’s source is specific to certain Himalayan communities and I was unable to find the source for “globally”, but it seems just-close-enough to make sense. I’ll make the smaller but equally pregnant: “funerals and marriages are a shockingly substantial expenditure.” You wouldn’t have articles like these without that: One-third of couples go into debt for their wedding day; Families forced into ‘death poverty’ and debt as funeral costs surge. Those are respectively about the US and the UK, but the situation seems even worse in poor countries. Hence a World Bank report: Wedding cost a key cause of poverty. Hell, everyone talks about the student debt crisis (which itself might be cultural, but w/e), but few people seem to mention that the average debt from loans is $30k, and the average wedding also costs about $30k. I don’t want to get into why people do that. The point is that marriages and funerals are clearly important to a whole lot of people, and they’re weird rituals rather than “items”.
Sometimes we say something like “The best part of a capitalist society is that everyone can buy whatever they want, and consume whatever they want. Some people have lavish weddings, others drown in balloon porn. America!” That’s true, but it hides something. Inasmuch as a wedding has a price it’s a commodity, but that doesn’t mean we can replace it and expect all things to be equal. “They banned marriage, so I bought thirty thousand grapefruits.” Qualitative differences, yeah, but the difference will be psychological, where “psychological” means human desires and reactions to loss. Stronger: even if you don’t care about the internal loss, people will not react the same way, which means great external changes that you’re unprepared for. Failing to account for that doesn’t mean you’re objectively analyzing the data, it means you’re bad at your job.
The fact that weddings price certain people out is “bad”, sure, but possibly unavoidable. This isn’t a problem of modernity: You can read cuneiform that bitches about bride prices prices/the subsequent debt-servitude, and the Nuer famously conquered half of East Africa over dowry problems. What is new to the market society is constant competition. Any custom which cannot adapt to the market disappears. They will be priced out, their adherents outcompeted, etc. Weddings and funerals can adapt, but you know that we had other things before those, right? They might have been important for, like, human thriving. There might be something missing now. “Weddings are just another good”, which is how they’re treated, but you get that most goods disappear, right?
Let me bold this. There are other customs that could not adapt to a modern economy, but whose loss may be no less psychologically devastating.
The standard argument: things that are beneficial to the species survive because they provide [utility]. Hence, we can be assured that weddings and funerals were more important for [reason]. Choose your favorite, I guarantee the evopsych one involves the phrase “intramale competition”, it won’t explain the problem.
I already showed why this argument is wrong, you just have to look for it.
Different environments allow for the survival of different beliefs. I suspect this actually fucks with the way that a lot of people analyze adaptive customs. They see what has survived, what remains, whatever can adapt to modernity, and then try and figure out why that should have been so helpful in the past. But why on earth do you think that it was the most important ritual then, or that it exists in the same form (with the same emphasis) now as it did then? The kind of ritual that’s useful to a farmer is not necessarily useful to an investment banker. Agrarian community is different from industrialized, capitalist nation, duh. Gri-gri was not important before, which is why it only appeared in 2012.
It’s easy to confound belief in gri-gri with belief in the elders. We have a legibile account now for “gri-gri“, but we’re lacking one for the elders. That doesn’t make them unimportant – without them we get no gri-gri. But it’s not clear to me that “witchdoctors” can actually survive in any significant way in a modern society. Congo-Kinsasha is much less of a market society than the US is, which seems somewhat important. All beliefs survive even here, of course, but larger community is real important for most of their effects. Gri-gri: less effective if only one dude snorts it.
Consider the following: it’s not very hard to recognize that “adherence to ancient ritual” can be a time suck in modernity. Time is critically important for success in a capitalist society, and that goes doubly for people who desire status. Status, and what people with it do, notably impacts how the rest of the community behaves. There’s not many steps between that and the “institution of elders” disappearing over time in a market-society. I’ll go one further, add up these two facts: 1) Belief in the unlimited wisdom of elders, as well as belief in magic, were both pretty widespread only a few hundred years ago. That includes a lot of what-would-become modern industrialized nations. 2) Now, nursing homes.
This makes it sound like the elders were just sitting around waiting to invent gri-gri when the time came, and sure, kind of. These institutions have reasons, they may not always be obvious, and judging their use based on “survival” in a highly limited time-frame is flat-out ridiculous. That’s been the argument up until now.
I want to make a far larger claim here. I can’t prove it now, but you may as well hear it: loss of [whatever you want to call elders and religion] is not simply the loss of a tool. It’s the loss of a worldview, one which impacts psychology. Given that economics and politics are (nominally) about “happiness”, as in “internal states”, this is probably an important thing to consider. I mean that in the broadest possible way, but you can take the restrictive version if you want: certain things are either not on the market or adhering to them necessarily limits your competitiveness (at this moment), and this is a real thing. See: salary of a monk vs. Zuck, who I’m sure is otherwise “really spiritual and stuff”.
I’m not a luddite, don’t make me explain why. I also don’t accept the bog standard: “But I grew up in modernity, and I’m fine!” That’s what every human in history has thought, no matter whether or not they’ve been lying to themselves. Everyone knows that their society is the best for human thriving, every group has been “fine”.
No, I don’t mean that modernity is totally “soulless”, and that isn’t how I’d put it, but immediate resistance to the idea that “Hey, maybe we lost some important things” is telling in itself. What does that mean? “I’m good like I am, I don’t need to change.” Ah, there it is.
We’re wealthier than anyone has been in the history of the world. We consume more than anyone ever has. Anyone who makes the argument that capitalism necessarily impoverishes has to deal with that fact; I’m not making that argument. If gold and doodads were all anyone needed we’d all be blissed to the eyeballs. Instead, the 20th century is a horror show and nearly all of its philosophical achievements are about just how bad it is. Instead, we view Kafka as “really getting at the heart of modernity”. I agree to a point, but what does that tell you about us? Not Kafka himself, but the fact that the cultural consensus gives him our laurels?
The order of this series is Scott, Polanyi, Hoffer, Lasch, and the current essay looks a whole lot like I’m expanding on the first two. I mean, it is, but it’s necessary preface to the latter two. I said here that these four books are all “external”, and I stand by that. I’m not going to attempt some theory of human motivation, nor (stronger) get into why people act any given way. I have no total psychology to offer you right now. That doesn’t stop me from recognizing: hey, maybe that internal thing is sort of important.
If you don’t understand the above, it’s going to be hard to understand what Hoffer and Lasch offer, and even harder to understand why they’re related to Scott and Polanyi. The kinds of complaints they deal with – where mass movements come from – isn’t as dramatic. I won’t explicitly address much of what I did here, but it’s necessary background noise. Hoffer/Lasch are still economic and political, but they can’t just be categorized by more stuff/less stuff. Economies and internal states are not at odds, but they also aren’t perfect approximations of each other. There’s a give, also a take, and occasionally a systemic collapse.
Sum it up: Survival of a belief or trait is environment dependent, and a market-society is a unique environment. The survival of a belief or trait is not the same as it leading to human thriving.
Our aim is for thriving.
Yours might be mere survival, but ignoring this lesson won’t help you. Rid yourself of useless witchdoctors and there will be no gri-gri when the militia comes.
(PS. Tocqueville effect, yes. That’ll be in the Hoffer, but also: why do you think that means what you want it to? What is the mechanism for it?)
top image from Werner Herzog’s Happy People