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
17 thoughts on “The Uruk Machine”
Okay, the fault is mine! Admin, please delete these three comments, but not the fixed one I’m about to post.
…there was no fixed post, so I’m not sure if you meant to and lost it or just decided to leave the old one. Either way, I’ll reply and then delete these after some number if hours.
Thanks for reading. I like your application. I’ll comment more on the fixed one. Yeah, make a handle and join.
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Great, lucid summary and terminology recap. I’m excited to see where you go next after this, Lou. I’ve got some thoughts for “The Thresher”, but I’ll jot ’em down after a second read-through; for now, some more applications of the model you’re building.
Some time after reading “That’s Amore”, I realized that it solved a puzzle I’ve been thinking about: What’s with the fresh influx of flat-earth theorists? I’m not saying there are a lot, but it feels like there is a growing visibility of people earnestly espousing various bizarre pseudo-sciences (Poe’s law notwithstanding). My answer lies in the back-and-forth model described in the recent series of posts:
0.) A traditional culture doing weird stuff, metis, that gives hidden benefits
1.) A modernizing (dominant) culture changes the traditional one to make it more legible, rational, less weird
2.) This causes the traditional culture to lose the weird practices, but also the hidden benefits, which makes its members understandably upset
3.) Moderns see them being upset, and because they can’t see the lost hidden benefits (and traditionals can’t describe it in rational, epistemic, language), moderns assume that they’re upset at losing the weird stuff, and basically mock them for it
4.) The moderns control the media, so members of the (now dying) traditional culture see this reaction, assume it is generally correct, and go hard on the weird stuff (without recapturing the actual benefits because they are now seeing the traditional practices through modern eyes)
5.) Moderns see their assumptions of weirdness-loving/backwardness validated
I write it out here just as my own summary of that model, and to make my application clear:
0.) People believe all kinds of weird things like that the world is flat, geocentrism, ‘vaccines cause autism’, or [surprisingly resilient, disproven worldview] and get the hard-to-see benefit of being able to understand a complex world just by looking and not relying on Authority.
1.) Scientists have evidence and theories that show these beliefs are false, try to educate the superstitious masses.
2.) Most people come over to the science-authoritated-beliefs, but some really feel the loss of control over their worldview and are upset.
3.) That minority of holdouts look pretty silly to everyone else and are mocked as holding the absurd beliefs, while the power of feeling able to define your own reality is unseen.
4.) Those upset people get more upset because they’re being mocked (duh), don’t change their views, and go harder on the esoteric beliefs. Even they can’t verbalize the hidden benefits to be able to champion them.
5.) Everybody else feels justified in the mockery, “I mean just look at how hard these idiots are advocating for a flat earth!” And get to feel good about being Smart.
For me, even just the idea that there is probably some hidden benefit to these weird-seeming beliefs is worth the cost of doing business.
But there’s another phenomenon explained by the models put forth by this blog!
Movements can’t actually succeed in solving their problems. I find that idea — that mass movements run on the fuel of frustration — enlightening, and true enough to work with. I won’t summarize it, but I will apply it to everybody’s favorite “mass” movement: LessWrong Rationality!
What was the lifecycle of LW Rationality? Eliezer wrote about various topics to build awareness for the problem of AI alignment. He succeeded in building a community and an organization that cares about that problem. Then he seems to have stepped away from being a central pillar of the community (I’m not really clear on this; I don’t use facebook and I think he’s active there?), and the ‘LW diaspora’ happened. Scott with SSC has emerged as the clear top dog trendsetter, and I think this speaks to the community’s change in interests.
I love Scott’s writings, don’t get me wrong, but he sets no big goals for the community and writes on a wide variety of topics, but not on the fundamentals. We can still say “Read the sequences”, but the sequences are set in stone / not being written, and that means they’re not at the forefront of everybody’s mind. The big focus on bias reduction, “I want to become stronger”, AI, [etc.] is gone. Scott is satisfied being a doctor (as is his right), and I expect the typical member of the community is satisfied with being frustrated in their life. Whoa, I’m starting to go off on a polemic…
I don’t live in Berkley, but I buy theZvi’s description here: (https://thezvi.wordpress.com/2017/08/12/what-is-rationalist-berkleys-community-culture/)
My point is that the community fulfilled its original purpose for Eliezer, and since then has lurched on by momentum without being good at doing things. And this is the natural order for movements, as put forth in the model in “The True Believer”, on this blog.
(I would love it, by the way, if someone pointed out a bunch of good things that have come out of the Rationalist community! I don’t think it’s a net negative or anything; I’m just applying the model to help explain a formerly-mysterious phenomenon.)
Thanks. I’ll be writing a meta post in a few days detailing some plans for the blog in the future.
As I said in a now-deleted comment, I like your model quite a lot. I don’t know enough about the LW disapora to comment, although I’d be very interested in anyone who knows more responding.
Your handle, btw, should clearly be “Flat Earth Theorist.”
As someone who orbits LessWrong rationality at Pluto like distances, I’m not sure it’s actually true that “since then [it] has lurched on by momentum without being good at doing things”
It does, at least from outside where I sit, seem tolerably good at giving people a sense of contribution to something greater, of giving them a sense that they can take concrete actions with predictable results, and of generally relieving feelings of impotence.
I have major, major philosophical differences with it, but I will say that members seem much less angry and frustrated than my friends who are super into social justice vocabulary.
The bizarre thing is that I think members of the movement see that benefit as being too small and meaningless to be worth celebrating in a world where AI is going to murder us all and our only hope as a species is expansion into space as transhuman cyber brains.
Re Scott and the LessWrong community. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for a better way to live my life, but I see the job of Scott’s blog as to explain to me various aspects of the world via what are usually more satisfying explanations than I find elsewhere (ie mainstream media/culture/politics). Of course that’s the same job that samzdat does for me!
I think Scott probably feels the same way (and certainly I enjoy reading him in a way that I’ve not enjoyed, and don’t find any value in, such little of Eliezer as I’ve read).
I don’t know the appropriate vocabulary for describing this but there WAS an LW movement around Eliezer, and there is an SSC community around Scott, and some of the participants are the same, but one was a “movement” and the other is “only”, and doesn’t pretend to be or want to be, anything more than a “community”. Identifying the two is clearly an error, and I don’t think it’s even correct to say that one evolved into the other — certainly I and every SSC reader I know arrived there through Scott’s writing, NOT through Eliezer’s writing or his movement.
My point is that not EVERY movement has to have as its goal (even as its claimed goal…) things like growth, or changing the world. Or perhaps, to put it differently, not every blog and not every collection of readers, even readers that meet up occasionally, has to be a “movement”.