This is just a recap of everything in the series before. Continued by and paired with The Thresher.
Index of the full series here.
Believe it or not, the original plan with this series was to make my writing less dense. These four books are meant to provide early propositions to build on. You need a foundation, after all.
I assumed that would take about a month and be around four posts. Now we’re three months and ten posts on.
To try and recapture some of that original pragmatism, here’s a rough schema of the series as well as the jargon that I use from each book. This isn’t meant to be conclusive, and the linked pieces (obviously) go into more depth. Then again, the series itself isn’t meant to be conclusive. I’m not trying to explain all of politics or modernity or [whatever], much less “solve” it. As always, these are attempts.
Seeing Like a State – metis and episteme – Any nation-building requires a top-down view of the society it wants to organize. It’s either impossible or inefficient to draw a map with the same precision that local communities use. Because of this, certain details are elided, ignored, misplaced. This categorization process is “epistemic”, where episteme (or epistemic rationalism, or just rationalism) means abstract, generalized, theoretical knowledge. Some of this is physical science (a lot of this is physical science), but it equally applies to aesthetics, ethics, politics, etc. Of course, states do not merely map – they act with those cadastral, epistemic theories. The level of abstraction (plus a sort of blase attitude towards empiricism and predictive power) rarely suits the concrete, and local conditions tend to deteriorate (kind way of putting it).
Metis, on the other hand, is a kind of accumulated, experiential knowledge. In Seeing Like a State it’s Scott’s term for the kind of experiential knowledge that one has of a craft or a skill. By analogy, it’s the background process for whatever makes local knowledge work, and also the reason it’s hard to express in technical language. I tend to use it as shorthand (somewhat incorrectly by the original work) for the accumulated local knowledge of any given community. It is normally expressed in culture, tradition, “old wives’ tales”, etc. These are highly localized and adapted to the specific conditions on the ground. They are not based in theory, and the way the community might explain them often appears “irrational”. Religious festivals, adapted to fit planting patterns and practices of a region, are a good example. Critically, these are not actually irrational, inasmuch as they’re generally much more effective than theoretical regimes.
An important aspect of metis is that it’s essentially a “worldview”. That’s my phrasing, not Scott’s (I admit that a lot of this comes from my reading of and/or extrapolation from his work). Part of this is simple observation: to perform [ritual action] you need the worldview that admits of the importance of [that ritual]. Another part is that metis is deeply interwoven – performing one action also affirms the others, inasmuch as planting according to [ritual] tends to include much broader social and political and religious elements, all of which are affirmed and related. The final reason to call it a worldview is that it helps to explain translation problems. The fact that metis is often explained (by its practitioners, who are often the only people explaining it) by “folksy” reasoning at best means that epistemic knowledge rarely listens to it. It’s also not very convertible to other forms of metis, as in “This group does [thing] because of [this god], but that group does [other thing] because of [other god]. Clearly this is all conflicting nonsense.” Even if a state is inclined to listen to one community, you have to assume that there are hundreds and thousands of such customs. How do you decide which to listen to? The net result of this is that states tend to overrule metis with episteme, and that protesting citizenry cannot even express why this is bad. The net result of that is generally inefficiency, anger, and confusion.
The Great Transformation – the Economic Prejudice, Market Society, and the Double Movement – Most tradition forms of “wealth” included everything from commons to intracommunal debt to the assumed bonds of kinship and community. None of these (with the possible exception of “debt” albeit in a much more explicit and legalistic form) will be included on most surveys of “economic growth”. All of them are highly adaptable to the circumstance, because everyone in that smaller market knows one another’s circumstances (and is fatally bound to one another, making help more likely). Hence, Polanyi observes a paradox: contemporary writers all note that poverty is increasing, that the poverty observed is much worse than anything before, and that it all seemed to coincide with the Industrial Revolution. And yet the best economic estimates all point out that everyone – not merely the rich – was actually richer than before. The paradox vanishes once you realize that “richer” means only in terms of wages, and that the full range of wealth that existed before is not taken into account. Polanyi calls this “the economic prejudice”.
This has another effect, which Polanyi calls the double movement: The people will want protections, and they’ll be pushing for political power, but the only acceptable political terms are “economic” in this very restrictive sense. Not only does that not address the real problem (a minimum wage is not the same kind of safety – much less ownership, much less freedom, much less life – as a commons), it incentivizes bad economics. Restricted to using the logic of early economic theory, people’s movements mangle their own arguments to fit the language. Not only do most of these movements not understand economics, forcing something into incompatible terms means that you lose the original point and make a bad argument in the new terms. When these movements succeed they tend to, unsurprisingly, have much more negative effects than anything before. And, of course, those negative effects mean that the powers that be are even less inclined to listen to resistance movements. “You see what they did last time…”
This actually gets worse. Polanyi prefers “market society” to capitalism. This is for two reasons: 1) All societies have had markets, and it’s dangerous to conflate “capitalism” with “markets”. The desire to abolish the latter comes too readily. Plus, it’s just ahistorical. 2) A market society is one based entirely around a market. Any damage to the market damages the entire society. It’s incredibly fragile. What this means is that small disruptions in one country – say, as the result of the double movement – not only destroy the entire country rather than one sector of it, they disrupt the global economy and thus every other market society.
You’ll note that this is a special case of the translation issues between metis and episteme, now causing problems the other way. Sure, episteme fucks the poor initially. But it’ll swoop right back around and bite the rich in the ass.
The True Believer – frustration and mass movements – Hoffer is responsible for the popularization of “horseshoe theory”, which is at best a distortion of his thought (I’d suggest it’s an outright falsification). Horseshoe theory argues that the ends of movements bleed into one another – so a far right movement and a far left movement appear equally violent, equally concerned with control, etc. Hoffer argues, rather, that the beginnings are the same, because the same kind of people are drawn in.
Mass movements are not the result of calculated thought, nor of a genuine interest in the ideology, but of frustration. This frustration may be for any number of reasons, but it’s important that it’s always personal, always concerned with the present, and always based on inaction. Better: inability to act meaningfully, so while a terrible job is “acting” it might still be frustrating and feel meaningless. The drive to join a mass movement, then, is part of a more general drive to escape from the self that one dislikes (personal) and the present that one despises. Further, this dissatisfaction is based on an inability to “do” anything, to act in any way. Frustration is, ultimately, about the inability to achieve a personal goal or a group goal. It’s the substitution of an identity for action, which you then substitute for an identity given to you by a mass movement.
A corollary of this is that mass movements are less about achieving anything meaningful than about fostering frustration. A “good” movement – not as in “taking power” (which plenty do), but as in completing goals, bettering the life of its adherents, making them more active, making them powerful – will leave them less frustrated. The movement will then disband – can’t have one with a frustrated mass.
If the base of a mass movement is supplied by frustrated people, then any “good” movement will be outcompeted by one better at impossible, frustrating goals. It’s just a numbers game, the one with more frustrated individuals is the bigger movement. Hence, the type of actions that a “successful” movement (as in, successful at being a movement and nothing more) uses are meaningless, repetitive, and aimed at solidifying identity without achieving anything else. They frustrate the base more. The very best are those that frustrate a whole lot of outsiders, too, whether by actively interfering or at least convincing them that the things they find meaningful are really meaningless. The movement that does this recruits from the biggest pool possible.
It’s not very hard to see how disruption of metis leads into mass movements. More on that in the specific pieces.
The Culture of Narcissism (and here and then here) – social invasion, narcissism and defenses – Narcissism is the moment when identity becomes absolute. It shares a lot of features with Hoffer’s frustration (not a coincidence), but it is more modern. It’s the result of frustration everywhere, not merely in the office.
Narcissism essentially comes from a weakness of self. There’s a lack of clear boundaries, of judgments between good and bad, making everything a strange hodgepodge of “images” rather than concrete actions. When everything becomes image rather than action, you can’t judge the value of any act. You can only judge what it “looks like”. But when all of society is doing that, it means that you’re being judged on everything. After all, you may not always be acting, but you are always appearing. When it’s your appearance that determines worth, there is no moment to rest. There’s a social invasion.
Defenses are the attempt to deal with that. One clear way is to manipulate everyone around you into “seeing” you a certain way. This, of course, makes everything about you. Another way is more explicit: it’s the attempt to turn everything into an aspect of the image you present, to redirect all stimuli towards your mask. But the main way, which takes place underneath this all, is to frantically distance yourself from yourself. Your “real worth” isn’t the image, but neither can it be proven or disproven by actions. Those aren’t, of course, meaningful.
Narcissism is essentially about the weird tension between making everything about you while also hollowing out the self. It’s hard to describe without falling into moralistic language, but it isn’t bad at its core. Lasch thinks of it as, essentially, a decent defense mechanism against the modern world. That’s also why he thinks of it as less of a psychological flaw than a social tool – it doesn’t really matter if someone actually has NPD if everyone acts like it to one another. Indeed, even asking “Is this a real mass ailment or just analogous to how people behave socially?” falls into what he’s trying to describe: “But really, I’m not a narcissist. I just act like it.” = “I am so much more than my actions.”
Like Hoffer, this undercuts the value of meaningful action. It’s also incredibly frustrating and, of course, the best mass movements are those that frustrate everyone. One way to take the two is to assume that “narcissism” is actually just the largest mass movement in the United States. That looks political, perhaps, and there are left- and right- wing variants, but Christianity was also just a mass movement. It’s not like early Protestants and Catholics didn’t hate each other. I’ll probably get into this more, but in a much later piece.
All of these interlock. Smaller units (individuals, communities, whatever) have efficient but localized forms of doing a thing. The doing of that thing is plugged into a much larger worldview which explains both how to do the thing and why you do the thing – Scott calls that metis. When a larger unit (states, corporations, what have you) subsumes the smaller unit, it tends to uproot metis for efficiency, for raw gain, for humanitarian purposes, etc. Power is weighted heavily in favor of the larger unit, not least because community explanations appear irrational or are otherwise unintelligible. To regain some of that power, communities or groups within them tend to form mass movements. Those then replicate the ill effects of the original larger unit, whether they gain power or not. For various reasons, mass movements tend to sap power from their adherents and frustrate them more. They also tend to prescribe epistemic solutions. In other words, the origin and response tend to exacerbate and blur into one another. While my description is linear, it really isn’t in practice.
Part of the Uruk Series
top image from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon