I think we can safely describe Scott and Polanyi as critics of top-down knowledge. Local knowledge is either ignored or mangled by the structure, which is bad for some reasons but also for other reasons. Still, they both understand how these structures perpetuate themselves. Legibility, economic prejudice, etc. Blame it on an ethical failing (“The rulers did x out of malice”) and you ignore the way incentives work. Ignore the way incentives work, and you’ll recreate the same structure.
That makes them critical of top-down structures, period. Without any political power, the ruled can’t even sneak their data into the pile. It’s telling that to get their point across, both Scott and Polanyi rely on explicitly authoritarian forms of government. That’s not “wrong”, but it does muddy the waters for us, because then you can say: “Luckily, we live in a democracy!” Fine. What does that mean?
First definition: “democracy” is what allows different people to take a piece of the pie, i.e. the already-existing power structure decides to share its spoils.
Second definition: “democracy” is only possible, is merely the expression of, equally powerful people.
The first is vertical, power concentrates at the top but you can participate in it. The second is lateral. The second can easily become the first, the first is much harder to change into the second; if someone has to grant you power over and over, you never had it in the first place.
This makes Polanyi, Lasch, and Scott partisans of the second definition of democracy. If the former is simply “giving” you power, it’s always going to be on the government’s terms, i.e. with epistemic knowledge behind it. I know which I side with, but choose your own adventure. What concerns me is not activists of either but their coexistence. In any given protest, one slogan will imply one, and the next slogan will imply two, and the fact that the partisans aren’t garroting each other makes me extremely suspicious that something else is going on.
Note also that the first definition is what our entire political apparatus runs on. Something something American as apple pie.
I’m not going to redefine narcissism, take Lasch:
…the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the every day life of our age: dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings.
A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive impulses (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner “monsters”) attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence. These fantasies, together with the internalized images of the good parents with which he attempts to defend himself, become the core of a “grandiose conception of the self.”
There’s already a problem here. If narcissism is about lacking power and fearing one’s own (as “fear of aggressive impulses” due to lack of self-control) then it makes definition two very hard to achieve. Moving on.
Polanyi has an explanation for why the ruled might resort to epistemic language: it’s the only way possible to communicate your demands. You petition the ruled in their language. That explains it as a tool, but that doesn’t necessitate that the ruled think of themselves in those terms. They have no need to perpetuate it, to reintegrate it into daily life. I use mathematical language all the time as a tool, but I don’t blame calculus for failing to get this piece out on time. Here’s the more disturbing question: why would a society willingly perpetuate a top-down structure?
This is where Lasch speaks up. The Culture of Narcissism is about that process – epistemic knowledge – being decentralized. No, that’s not “definition two” any more than Papal Hierarchy is “democratic” just because everyone buys it. Stop getting confused by words; it’s definition one being mainlined by society.
I don’t mean to imply that someone saw the end result and decided “let’s do it” (then again if Lenin would’ve changed plans too had he known about [the history of the Soviet Union]). No conspiracy creates a narcissistic society. It’s the end result of ten thousand little steps, each one better at justifying itself and better at defending against change.
“The system” is a useful metaphor, but it should never be construed as human agency. The system is incentives, it’s carrots and sticks and/or bullion and billyclubs, all of which result in the same: The ruled adopt a top-down structure into their own lives, they turn it against themselves and everyone around them, and thus it repeats in perpetuity.
Last time I said that narcissism is dialectical. It moves: paternalism->image obsession->invasion of the self-> and all of these combine into the identity protection characteristic of narcissistic defenses. You might add an arrow from “invasion of the self” to paternalism, because paternalism is what stops development of proper inner defenses against invasion. Finally, you might want to make this a circle, and our current question is what does that look like in practice?
Lasch is an external commentary using this rough model. At some point, the combined apparatus of American culture (the state, capital, media, political agitation) tried to make things “better”. To better its citizens required new social controls (paternalism). The taylorism employed makes things more focused on image, and this results in a more warlike society. Happened with “authenticity” last time and also [everything below]. To deal with this invasion, society turns to narcissistic defenses. Narcissism is self-centered, but it’s an expression of dependence on others, and specifically on the others’ validation of the narcissist’s image. What would you do? Correct answer: demand more paternalism, specifically more aesthetic paternalism, which makes the cycle continue for forever.
I tried to explain this with education last time, but I bit off more than I could chew. I’m going to move through it slowly, and if that means this particular series takes more time than I planned, so be it. Lasch is critical to understand not just on his own, but because he explains how Scott and Polanyi are “allowed” to function in a democratic society. In other words: the enduring relevance of everything bad I’ve taken from them.
This isn’t going to come up right now, but it’s something to keep in the back of your mind: nearly all of this comes from a good American desire for “free” citizens. Our Taylorism was designed to make people powerful, and the phrase “empowering [blank]” should be your first thought. First definition of democracy, yeah, but more generally: even the crudest definition of power requires the ability to do things for yourself. If you can’t do that, then you don’t have power.
Society can provide the image of power, it just has to come at the expense of actual power. So, of course, that’s exactly what we’ve spent the last [long time] doing.
“I tried this with education last time.” And like clockwork, NPR interviews Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California’ community college system. He’s wondering: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?
[Eloy Ortiz Oakley]: The second thing I’d say is yes, this is a civil rights issue, but this is also something that plagues all Americans — particularly low-income Americans. If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy — which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential — the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.
It’s unforgiving of those with a credential as well but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
It’s astonishing that not once does Oakley question the value of the credential. If algebra is out then philosophy is already putrescent, so I don’t expect him to start from first principles but still. Really? I have no idea if algebra is useful or not for his students’ life (yes, it is), but there’s a difference between “use of doing algebra” and “display of having done algebra”. He’s arguing against the former, but he’s only in a position to provide the latter. I’d call this “a confusion”.
First problem: what if “algebra” actually is something necessary for a certain level of independence? If everyone is talking in a language you can’t understand it’s a lot easier for them to pull a fast one. Whatever, we’ll come back to it.
Second problem: Assume that credential x equals (y + algebra). If you flood the market with credential y all candidates with y look identical. Suddenly a candidate with x comes along and boom, hirenrolled. Sorry, variables are confusing. The point being: if education is a signal then whoever has the best signal wins. Remove part and the “credential” looks the same but the signal itself changes. I don’t even buy a hard form of signal theory of education, but people like Oakley are trying their damndest to prove me wrong.
“Credentialism,” yeah, but why? It sucks if some poor kids fail algebra, and no, it’s not always their fault. Maybe they’re working full time and have a kid, maybe daily tragedies pile up, who knows, life is suffering. I’ve met plenty of bright-as-hell kids who look ten-times worse on paper than they should, and the circumstances are well beyond their control. Still.
“That’s unfair.” It is, but you made it worse. Let’s really twist the class-war: this is America, signals can be bought. Too dumb for algebra but too rich to know it? Your father can drown tutors in money until you pass. If that doesn’t work, he’ll send you to an elite academy. Not coincidentally, private academies are where high-school grade inflation is at its worst (same with private colleges). Who pays the bills, and will they pay more for an A or a C?
The desire was for things to be “equal”, by which I mean: equal parties in power. But power doesn’t work like that, and trying to make it so brings out worse inequalities. Yes, it’s unfair that [dumb rich kid] gets a degree while [smart poor kid] doesn’t. This particular solution exacerbates the problem, and the guy in charge never once asked himself: “Is the degree the same as the education?” Of course, to do so would be insane, he’d have to be running counter to all his instincts. No, no, the instinct isn’t “keep my job”, although true. The instinct is: “the image is the same as […]”
At a certain point you throw your hands up and say “It’s all the will of the gods!” but the gods never imagined something as cruel as this. Fortune may have a wheel, but it’s not the rack. Only men do that to themselves.
I agree with him about one thing: this absolutely is a civil rights issue. Oakley runs community colleges, code that, =poor=minority. Credentialism is worse there. When everyone has identical credentials, then all you can judge by is image, appearance. For a minority, sorry, that means everything that gets attached to being a minority.
“Then we’ll ban asking about college degrees!” Sure, because banning personal achievements works swimmingly. I don’t even have to do the groundwork here, see Scott Alexander:
It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.
The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”
In retrospect, this makes sense. Daycare companies really want to avoid hiring formerly-imprisoned criminals to take care of the kids. If they can ask whether a certain employee is criminal, this solves their problem. If not, they’re left to guess. And if they’ve got two otherwise equally qualified employees, and one is black and the other’s white, and they know that 28% of black men have been in prison compared to 4% of white men, they’ll shrug and choose the white guy.
“Racism!” True, but not from any given agent. It’s easy to point fingers, which is why everyone does it, but not one person wanted this outcome. Go on:
Acme Widget Co receives a zillion applications for the tech department. These converge on candidates with identical credentials: ivys, straight A’s, etc. One of them is black, so run_program:”diversity_quota”. If the company is below he gets hired. If they’re at full capacity, then all those other signals come out. “Subconscious biases” maybe but plenty are conscious, and all of it results in [white guy] getting the job.
Your first instinct is to attack the company, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. No, sorry, your first instinct is to attack me, as though me saying that is “racist”, but I’m not saying what you think I am. I bet the black kid worked ten times harder for his degree than Chadwick, but that doesn’t matter, that’s not a signal the system recognizes. “It should.” How could it? With every attempt to make it you just make every other signal more valuable, and Chad has more money to buy them. Even attacking the company is off base: they did what you wanted, right? They hired according to a quota.
I’ll give you one agent out of this system, and you’re going to hate it. It wasn’t there before, but now it’s in Chad’s economic interest to preserve racial stereotypes. Those signals will help him get the job, no matter what he thought about racism before. Only images, forged-pseudo-equality, gave an agent that desire. “Oof.”
Here’s something obvious which nevertheless explains how insane our society is. If Acme Widget is over its racial quota, then it hires the white guy over the black. This is explicitly because black has racially coded symbols. “What a racist company!” True, but that same company will be lauded by the media for being a “paradigm of racial diversity” – it’s filled the quota, after all.
And that, children, is how we beat racism.
This isn’t Oakley’s fault, and I’m damn near positive that a pressure group pressure cooked him. The question is why that pressure group wanted it. Who trained them to look in terms of image?
American culture works top-down, and top-down power can only see things a certain way: quantification. You can’t quantify without data, and data has to be empirically observed. In other words, there’s no way to measure “potential” without seeing what someone actually does, be that test or degree or job. So if you want to make things “equal”, “empowering” (read: look equal, look powerful), you have to mess with outcome over potential. This is going to be sloppy. More importantly, what did you teach people? Action is not an expression of who they are, the result is unimportant.
In trying to engineer outcomes, you make the surest expression of “who they are” their bundle of inexpressible signals. You don’t even need psychology for this one, it’s strictly economic. If identity gets you the job better than actions, then that’s going to be the thing you jealously guard. It’s all anyone cares about now, right?
The psychological expression for this is “I am so much more.”
Better thinkers have theorized about signals and worse people have propagated the theory. I’m about to drop the terminology because of that, but let’s first return to its roots. Assume that everything is a signal. [Random ivy grad]’s tell me: >130 IQ, strong work effort, conscientiousness, etc. and let’s assume that all of those are true. “Signal” (economics) comes from “signal” (biology), and the biological definition is “a real quality, an underlying genetic fact, that cannot be expressed in itself”. Yes, there are dishonest signals but whatever, [Ivy]’s are honest by design.
[Ivy’s] signals say he ought to be absolutely murderous were they expressed, so why does he need signals? Why can’t he express those on their own?
Look, I get that this has all been said before, but it’s important to understand: credentialism is a symptom of another problem. Better: its effects aren’t just “more credentials”, nor are they merely economic.
Not even some insufferable pressure group bears the guilt of a nation, because the issue is American culture’s infatuation with image over substance. Here it looks like “equality”, there it looks like “power”, anywhere else it looks like “I’m a good person.” As equality “many American minorities have degrees!” hides the underlying problem, so too all other forms worsen imbalances, scurrying them off to multiply in the darkness. This may make us feel nice but it doesn’t redress imbalances, and it certainly doesn’t do anything for minorities.
The general form of this is image>substance. This makes life more warlike, and it reduces power while giving one (read: making one desire) the image of power.
“More warlike”, well, yeah, of course. I really cannot stress that enough. If everything becomes a signal then everything becomes a signal. Chadwick gets caught in it too. Ten thousand Chadwicks apply to the same job, all of them are festooned in ivy, all of them were straight-A students (inflation, of course). The only way to determine who to hire is going to be “what are their other qualifications”, i.e. what’s on their facebook page, where do they summer, how hot is their girlfriend. What happens to your relationship towards [everything] in those circumstances?
Obvious, but Lasch was writing about this pre-internet and one has to wonder just how much worse it is now. Take two facts: a) the internet is a bastion of free-speech, where any opinion can be joyously expressed; b) within any subculture, every single person has the exact same one. “Hive mind sheeple herds.” Bullshit, talk to most of the individuals confidentially and they’ll break. Answer, more frightening: “What if I say the wrong thing?” Twitter might be the genuine worst for this, given how easy it is to fuck up 140 characters. So of course that’s the medium we report on the most, the increasingly official “account” for all public figures. Which reminds me: follow me for embarrassing bullshit, hey. Like Wire and [timely Mooch joke] know –
This makes people hyper reliant on social appeal. That goes a long way towards explaining why “narcissism” doesn’t result in a bunch of DIY creative types but extreme conformity. Yes, I know that some people nowadays have purple hair, I mean conformity within a group. It also explains in-groupishness: if the value of your identity is based on the cachet of the clique, then loss of their status is loss of yours. (This, by the way, is what makes the Overton window such a brutal fight. Think about it.)
All of that is bad for “individuals” and possibbly the aesthetic of society. Far worse is what underlies it. The system may appear to be growing “equal”, but it’s actually getting is more segregated. Yes, by race and class and etc., but what I really mean is by power.
I see three major ways this happens:
- signals can be bought, and any dumbass with will dominate the meritorious withouts, see the algebra example above.
- Outcome is your own, as in: if you know you can do [thing], then you should do [thing]. The ideal of capitalism is that if competence allows for freedom: i.e. someone fucks you? Start your own business and undercut them. Whether that’s “real or not” is irrelevant, it’s an expression of the general freedom most ideologies desire: agency. “Perception” of competence, on the other hand, means that there must be a perceiver, which means…
- The perceiver holds all the cards.
This last one is the most important.
Power doesn’t just go away because you want it to. Some people have more, some have less, and people with more are going to have more powerful perception. It doesn’t matter if your mom thinks you’re a real standup guy, but it might if your boss does. Channel that all the way back up and eventually you’ll arrive at the screaming gears behind America.
Make no mistake it: this is a specific form of what I generally termed “Taylorism” last time. Rather than freeing one to fail, the top swoops in and chooses your life for you.
Blame [anyone] for Taylorism and you’ll find a good historical argument. A wide variety of ideologies (read: all) all accepted it to one degree or another. I know that the Right likes to blame the Left for this (“nanny state!” “Socialist fascism!”) and the Left blames the Right for this (“plain old fascism” “corporate control”), and I think they’re probably both right and wrong in equal turns. I think it started for a wide variety of reasons, take your pick, I’ll get to them in the conclusion to this series.
To understand why this is critically important: if Taylorism sets off narcissism, and narcissism is the defense mechanism of modernity, then the continued existence of Taylorism, the perpetuation of its mechanisms, is the problem to discuss. It doubles back on itself, because narcissism’s danger socially is not “self-absorption” but dependency. If that dependency plays out on a larger society, it looks like demands for Taylorism. And if even the people fighting it are narcissists, then it looks like adopting the trappings of power, i.e. furthering the power of the perceiver. All of this says: repeating the top-down structure, organically weaving it into your life.
The question I started this essay with is not “from whence Taylorism” but why does it perpetuate. Why do we reappropriate it into our lives?
“We don’t.” Yes, we do. Watch it go:
I say we have a new federal policy based on Oakley’s students. Instead of federal aid to community colleges, America cuts a check to non-algebraists. No questions asked, you can’t do algebra, here’s a stack of capital. Americans: “He hasn’t earned it!” I thought the point was that the “degree” we bought him also isn’t earning anything. “That’s a waste of money!” Wait, what? Why? “They won’t spend it well!” Sure, maybe, at worst they buy booze and drugs. Are you saying “alternative math classes” are a better investment than getting drunk? The opportunity cost, at least, is much higher, and I’m sure there are externalities. Possibly some kind of angry psychic sludge in the air.
I admit that “hella baked on Tuesday” looks worse on a resume than Associate’s Degree, but a) this is capital, what makes you think that a bright kid won’t use it to do [anything else] and, b) kind of the point. Follow the logic: “We know full well that this degree is useless, but we’ll invest in your future if it’s an image we can understand, one that makes us feel better about ourselves.” How do we understand it? Someone told us it’s valuable. He “fits the part”.
Yes, this means that you have no say in your life, whatever, everyone knew that. Stop whining about personal problems, the issue is systemic. The issue is that all validation is still coming from above, as in you (person judging what they should do with their money), you (pural, as member of what the state says they should), and perceivers (as in: whoever determines “good” for you).
“I don’t think that,” well then take the yous rhetorically. How much of America does think? My uneducated guess is “a billion”. Inaccurate measure of the population, accurate measure of how strongly they feel that way. I’m not trying to explain why yet, even if it should be obvious. This is a movement, and so far we’ve gone paternalism – > image – > warlike. Next is defenses.
Part of the Uruk Series
top image from Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild