That’s Amore

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final Lasch. continued from here and then here

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Donald Trump wins, so The New Yorker ponders Jason Brennan’s argument against democracy:

Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently.

While it’s nice that our future epistocrats are so relatable, that’s exactly what gives me pause. Why is a book about how politics should be cold and calculating trying to sit down and have a beer with me?

If epistocracy is the best system and you can convince voters to elect it using “reason” then you’re proving the inherent reasonableness of democracy, i.e. very confusing reductio there. Either Brennan doesn’t think he’s an epistocrat (dismiss that out of hand), or the book and its article are selling something else. You might say that only the elite will read it, and he’s trying to appeal to them, but why do vulcans need cutesy metaphors? Things get weirder when the New Yorker goes into what exactly makes up an epistocracy:

He sketches some options—extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam for voters—but he doesn’t spend much time considering what could go wrong.

Actually, he does. No, I have’t read the book. No, I won’t. But what he just described is America with extra steps.

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Replace “Council of Epistocrats” with “the judiciary” and you’ll see that Brennan’s book is critiquing the exact system that produced the critique in favor of the system that he’s critiquing. This fucking book came from Tlön, it’s so meta that I barely believe it exists in this plane.

I know this so fact checkers at the New Yorker definitely know it. That no one sees fit to mention it is highly suspicious, as is the New Yorker’s ridiculously weak defense of democracy. Not to mention: Jason Brennan is a libertarian. 95% of the readers “compelled” by his “cogent points” actually agree with the non-voters Brennan wants to keep non-voting instead of him.

So this is classic narcissism, from identity protection (New Yorker=elite and liberal; not responsible for 2016) right down to the absurd power fantasies and intense paranoia that “everyone else” is somehow fucking your life up. It’s a defense against change, all the more so because if Brennan gets his system it will look identical to our own. The only difference is that believing this is currently all the plebs’ fault punts culpability somewhere away from you. Fine.

I have problems with epistocracy, they’re about what you’d expect. Still, this isn’t about epistocracy. This is about pizza. Continue reading “That’s Amore”

Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune

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Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism. Continued from here, but you don’t really need to read that first. Part one of specifics.

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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. Continue reading “Reinventing the Wheel of Fortune”

A Taylorism For All Seasons

lasch on narcissism part 1; gaddis on modernity, part […]

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Christopher Lasch – The Culture of Narcissism, part 1/X, current essay being more of an overview. 

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Imagine a kind of masquerade.

It’s an acting contest at first, and everyone is assigned a mask. The guest is to playact the identity of the mask – so the person who gets a werewolf mask howls, the guest with a zombie mask groans, etc. The best actor wins. This being a party, assume that everyone is still vying for status and attention in the interim, but that may not be acting. People talk about all sorts of things at parties, even those with explicit contests. Most people won’t assume that the mask says anything about the person – it’s randomly assigned, after all. Those who do are missing the point. Both the judges and the guests will appraise character based on acting. The contest may not be equal, of course – there are differences in acting ability, perhaps some roles are easier or more prestigious than others – but these still relate to action.

Now imagine that the rules of the game change. There are no longer preassigned masks. Everyone is expected to provide their own. Perhaps this was due to concerns over fairness (easier/harder masks or prestige of role), perhaps there was arson at the mask-factory. It doesn’t matter – the contest remains but the rules change. There’s no longer one contest, but two: making a mask, and acting like it, and all of a sudden it starts making sense to focus on the mask. Pro-social behavior is both performance and making a good mask, but now the mask is more important. For one reason, if roles are easier/harder and this correlates with prestige (it will), people might begin to bring the most prestigious mask that they can still act as, that isn’t beyond their ability. For another, since you made the mask, it shows certain inner aspects previously hidden (desires, self-awareness, whatever). Still: there are limits, and you have to be able to behave in a certain way. You can’t simply gain status by making the most prestigious mask possible – the judges will make you fall on your ass. The opposite is also dangerous, albeit socially: Don’t say “I was too busy to put in the effort”, as though this is a successful social maneuver. This shows us that you’re lazy, or poor, or [thing]. For most people, social opinion is important for their own identity, and of course you’d start to identify with the mask. It increasingly signifies your role. Still: Nothing changes about the original dynamic. Some people are better actors and others are worse actors; some roles are harder (read: more prestigious) and others are easier. Some people still want to win the contest, but “winning the contest” is now a mix of acting talent, pro-social behavior, and proper self-estimation. This may still be unequal, but it’s less random.

Final transformation: hide the contest. It still takes place (somewhere), but is no longer the explicit public aim. Power-dynamics remain among the party-goers and these are more prominent than before. People still gossip at parties, winners and loser still emerge, the new game increasingly revolves around the mask. It signifies how you think of yourself, how you think of others, etc. There’s technically something important about playing the role behind it, but with a hidden contest all social prestige comes from the mask itself. Accordingly, the mask becomes a token of everything you are, even if everyone knows it’s just a mask. Suddenly, the game isn’t fun anymore. Continue reading “A Taylorism For All Seasons”

Without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.

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It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

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1958 hospitalized Robert J. Biggs. He’d been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. From his hospital bed the dying man wrote a letter to the President, back when that was a thing that made sense to do, right on the cusp of the years when that would be ridiculous. The letter is, in a sense, about that transition.

Biggs was 43 – he’d been born in 1915, and thus entered his terrible twos just as America marched to war. Certain theories place a high premium on those early years; the soul of the man is shaped by the experiences of the child and the adult mere fruition of some deeper, agentless germination. I do not believe these, not really, but I think about them sometimes. I like to imagine what it would mean if they were true. For Biggs, it means that the stage of negativity, the traditional Year of the No, coincided with the United States becoming a truly global power. That is, perhaps, as good a proof as any, for what animates the dying man’s letter is precisely this concern. To become America, these democratic states needed to lose some part of themselves, and a nation of free men had to become something else. It’s the opacity in government that Biggs sees which we most clearly recognize now, followed by the populist reactions. We take this in stride – it’s America, after all – but one wonders about those born when the Shining City on a Hill really was supposed to shine. Opacity, after all, is not friendly to those things that shine. Biggs: “We wait for someone to speak for us and back him completely if the statement is made in truth.”

Something else happened that year (fewer things happened per year in the past). On the Road, though published late 1957, came into its own. Think pieces on “Beatnik Philosophy” began to appear, all referencing Kerouac. Then Lawrence Ferlinghetti published A Coney Island of the Mind, and Gregory Corso published Bomb. American counter-culture, which owes its all to the Beats, finally took root.

One more: December, 1958, saw the retirement of a man named Robert Welch Jr. He was magnate of a candy empire, an unimportant fact but one that I find funny. The following is less funny: he’d made the decision to form a politcal pressure group. Its name was the John Birch Society.

1959 killed Robert J. Biggs. It was also an interesting year in American letters. Welch’s founding presentation was published and spread as The Blue Book. It consolidated support and spread the sense of panic. On the other side, William S. Burroughs, an enemy if the Birchers ever had one, published Naked Lunch in July (in Paris, it must be admitted). And Eisenhower, before the death of Biggs, posted a reply:

I think it is undeniably true that the activities of our government have tended to become much more complex, impersonal and remote from the individual, with consequent loss in simplicity, direct human contact and clear guidance by higher authority I believe you to be urging. In good part this situation is inherent in life in the mid-twentieth century–in a highly developed economy and a highly complex society such as our own.

[…]

Even if this division in the government did not exist, I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed. Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life. This is to me what Lincoln meant by government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The mental stress and burden which this form of government imposes has been particularly well recognized in a little book about which I have spoken on several occasions. It is “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer; you might find it of interest. In it, he points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems–freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.

Ike, like any good American, was a little too emphatic about “democracy”. What he’s talking about is what Hoffer calls frustration. This is independent of government type, but it might not be independent of era, and our era might be the perfect breeding ground.

Corso seems to have thought so. His creatively titled 1959 begins like this:

Uncomprising year—I see no meaning to life.

Hoffer gave it a name, Ike gave it wary glare, but frustration always takes power for itself. Continue reading “Without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.”

The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life

prelude to Hoffer; a case study in legibility; foibles of over-economizing; one day my titles will be more than philosophy puns

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a case study in legibility as prelude to Hoffer

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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-griWhy 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. Continue reading “The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life”

Scraps 2: Metis, Mirrors, and Martin Guerre

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(Things related to metis, Polanyi, and one another, some more obviously than others, I suppose. Much longer unfinished/not-to-be finished piece at the end, full of claims I needed a more compact essay to prove but which are still relevant enough to the original two reviews to be here. All of this is supplemental to the Seeing Like a State review and the Great Transformation review.) Continue reading “Scraps 2: Metis, Mirrors, and Martin Guerre”