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

silence 1

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

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer


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.


Eric Hoffer wrote The True Believer in 1951.  One prefers to think of the hippie 60’s, or the raging 70’s, or the majorly moral 80’s, when they discuss mass movements. But all of those preyed on the same kinds of people, and followed similar patterns to, the Beatniks and the Birchers. It also immediately shifts us away from the more popular model of “economic dissatisfaction”. I don’t mean to imply that poverty is unimportant for mass movements – economic discontent is one of the primary drivers – but that it’s not alone capable of explaining their rise. The ’50s were horrifically unequal in other ways, but they aren’t a by-word for mass poverty. Perhaps more telling: neither the Beats nor the Birchers arose from the impoverished classes.

I’ll be quoting Hoffer much more than I quoted Scott or Polanyi in this review. This is mostly because I enjoy his writing. That also means that a few terms need to be explained: There’s a difference between an active mass movement (also called “vigorous”, etc.) and its culmination. The culmination is either when it’s taken power or become an “organization”, a political lobbying group, a pragmatic part of the system. When Hoffer and I talk about mass movements, it’s the active period we refer to. The true believer persists into the later period, but not all people after a culmination are the same. This is to say: there’s a difference between a soldier of the Beer Hall Putsch and a draftee into the Wehrmacht. That Wehrmacht soldier might or might not be a zealous member of the Nazi party, but that earlier has to be.

I can already sense the peanut gallery shelling itself, so let me update the recon and allow for better targets: I’m not saying that Birchers and Beatniks are the same, nor am I suggesting that all expressions of frustration are equally valid. Even less do I want to suggest that frustration is “wrong” or misplaced. There are many valid reasons to be frustrated. To quote Hoffer himself:

It is perhaps not superfluous to add a word of caution. When we speak of the family likeness of mass movements, we use the word “family” in a taxonomical sense. The tomato and the nightshade are of the same family, the Solanaceae. Though the one is nutritious and the other poisonous, they have many morphological, anatomical, and physiological traits in common so that even the non-botanist senses a family likeness. The assumption that mass movements have many traits in common does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous. The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences.

This also dictates how I’ll be discussing political movements. I’m going to avoid (to whatever extent I can) moral judgments. The intentions of a political movement may or may not be “good”, and their grievances may be justified, but that says nothing about the movement’s behavior. Let’s not jump to determine which is a good intention and which is a bad one, but merely recognize that even the worst groups have their own justifications, and that these are necessary for their survival.

Hoffer is most famous for (what’s now called) “Horseshoe Theory”, which postulates that extremes are always closer to one another than to moderates on either side. He thinks something similar, although I’m not sure he would agree with our common use. I’ve heard basically two arguments for horseshoe theory, one better and one worse: 1) the bad one, that “extremism is extremism” which is tautologically true but explains approximately nothing and, 2) that effective tactics will be adopted by extremist parties, making their actions the same if not their intentions. This is not exactly true, but with some qualifications it’s a lot closer.

What Hoffer thinks extremes share is neither ideology nor praxis. He thinks they share a hatred of the present, a desire for some vague future, and that their behavior is predicated on this. Here’s the passage that gets the most play:

In reality the boundary line between radical and reactionary is not always distinct. The reactionary manifests radicalism when he comes to recreate his ideal past. His image of the past is based less on what it actually was than on what he wants the future to be. He innovates more than he reconstructs. A somewhat similar shift occurs in the case of the radical when he goes about building his new world. He feels the need for practical guidance, and since he has rejected and destroyed the present he is compelled to link the new world with some point in the past. If he has to employ violence in shaping the new, his view of man’s nature darkens and approaches closer to that of the reactionary.

The reason for this commonality, for this shared deprecation of the present, has to do with the “state” of a person that joins (active) mass movements, and the way that mass movements exacerbate this quality. There’s not necessarily a connection between the current cause of frustration and whatever heaven will “resolve” it. Indeed: to find the “cause” would be to dwell on the present, which is precisely what it seeks to avoid.

This state is what Hoffer calls frustration.


Hoffer doesn’t mean to explain precisely why humans get frustrated psychologically or politically. He’s more interested in what happens after it exists. Frustration is useful because it’s the only common factor among the disparate groups that make up an early mass movement. This is apparent from his taxonomy of the frustrated (Part II), and I’ll give you the chapter titles without going into detail: The Poor (subdivided into The New Poor; the Abjectly Poor; the Free Poor; the Creative Poor; the Unified Poor); Misfits; The Inordinately Selfish; The Ambitious Facing Unlimited Opportunities; Minorities; The Bored; The Sinners, i.e. quite a wide array of people.

The impetus to join a movement appears among the poor and the wealthy, so it can’t be strictly economic (the abjectly poor aren’t actually frustrated: the chapter is instead about why they aren’t). It appears among the unemployed and the ambitious, so it can’t just be “a job”. It appears among the smart and the stupid, so it’s not simple intelligence. What these groups instead share is dissatisfaction with the self and an attempt to substitute their self for a larger group identity. Or, this:

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause.

Frustration in Hoffer’s lexicon, is never only frustration with “the system” or the status quo. It is always, always frustration with yourself. Even that frustration with the system is your own relation to it. This doesn’t mean it’s unjustified. It might be, like if the system stole your wife, but it might not be (examples abound). Its objective justification is fundamentally irrelevant. The individual always feels that it is.

Hoffer often talks about “substituting”, and the above passage is an example of it. One of the drives of the frustrated is to substitute an unsatisfactory self for some other thing. The dissatisfaction is not merely self-image, but fundamentally about action. You can tell yourself that you’re “good and perfect and beautiful” all day every day, but that’s not going to make you hate yourself less. At least the larger group you choose does something, or can do something.

Again, this might be justified or not: Perhaps you really do have the best start-up idea ever and Those Bastards are keeping the capital from you and destroying your life. Or maybe you have a notion that you’re “meant for something”, couldn’t figure out what and didn’t bother to try, and now you work a soul-crushing job clearly meant for [losers] that are definitely worse than you. Or The Onion. Or you’re incompetent but can’t admit it. Or you’re incompetent but only in this context and genuinely are meant for better things (if you read any link, make it that one; Ben Grierson is not the object of opprobrium here). All of this will result in the same: the sense that life has no meaning.

The frustrated cannot derive satisfaction from acting, which means that they can’t derive it from the present. Something else has to fill the void, and that something cannot be practical acts in the present. There are two reasons, mutually exclusive: For some, successfully finding that would reduce frustration and make them focus on the present rather than the future. For others, it would just be one more failure, another more empty nothing, another piece of evidence that the world is against you.


There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.

This is also why mere labor is never enough. Most people work, of course, so if doing whatever were enough to satisfy people, there would never be a mass movement. The individual has to find some kind of purpose, some meaning to their labor, whether as a job or as a hobby. No, I have no idea why. Everyone knows that “money doesn’t mean happiness”, probably for similar reasons. Someone can find me a study if they insist, but I’m not going to prove that “people want to find a sense of purpose, and this is actually quite an important motivation.” There are (rough estimate) five thousand explanations for that, choose your favorite.

Right now we have the following necessities: self-regard and valuable activity. Even if you don’t have those there’s a safeguard: community.

The poor who are members of a compact group […] are relatively free of frustration and hence almost immune to the appeal of a proselytizing mass movement. The less a person sees himself as an autonomous individual capable of shaping his own course and solely responsible for his station in life, the less likely he is to see his poverty as evidence of his own inferiority.

Cf. the desire to escape the self, and also [a whole host of other things I’ll get to later].

You’re going to say that mass movements are a “kind” of community, and I’d agree. But I think there’s a very important distinction between the two. Community – family, friends, whoever – make you accountable. They require action, and your identity is based in reciprocating those actions. Of course, you’ll always be your mother’s son, but for “being a son” to mean anything to you there have to be duties. At least you go to the funeral, right? More important: you can never fully give up your self, because “who you are” is obviously important to other people you care about, and it’s unique. To liquidate the self would be to harm them, which is inexcusable when done intentionally. There’s a reason that Dante put traitors in the very bottom of Hell.

All of this implies some kind of behavior. Movements, on the other hand, require only belief and identity.


Consider the following line:

We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it. This readiness to die is evidence to ourselves and others that what we had to take as a substitute for an irrevocably missed or spoiled first choice is indeed the best there ever was.

Most people will not, in fact, die for a mass movement, and Hoffer doesn’t think they will. The import is on the appearance of this readiness, as in the certainty. You can tell this because the dying is not the good, the readiness is (although, to be fair, mass movements will exploit this and make people actually die).

More important: there’s absolutely no discussion of an end goal here. The cause itself is not what’s important, nor is acting towards it in anyway what’s important. We elect [something], gain the appearance of a “readiness to die”, and that’s what gives the cause value. Since I’m willing to die for it, you tell yourself, “the cause must be valuable”. But, tautologically, since I am willing to die for a valuable cause, then I must be valuable. In doing so, you project worth not onto your own life – which you could not control anyway – but onto something else. In other words: people who – for whatever reason – cannot derive purpose out of action substitute it with an identity that is considered valuable.

Compare that with this line, its opposite:

Poverty when coupled with creativeness is usually free of frustration. This is true of the poor artisan skilled in his trade and of the poor writer, artist and scientist in the full possession of creative powers. Nothing so bolsters our self-confidence and reconciles us with ourselves as the continuous ability to create; to see things grow and develop under our hand, day in, day out. The decline in handicrafts in modern times is perhaps one of the causes for the rise of frustration and the increased susceptibility of the individual to mass movements.

This is the same process – the individual is imbuing something with worth based on their involvement in it. In our martyrdom example, the ineffable end was imbued with purpose (=future), it gave someone an identity. The artisan, on the other hand, emphasizes a continuous process, which is about present satisfaction. One other comment: there is an implicit commentary on power here, and what it means. Think about it.

The appeal of a mass movement is not primary. It’s something people take in lieu of something else (meaningful labor, community, etc.). It’s also not about the final cause of the movement, which is unimportant compared to what the sense of that having a cause, any cause, provides. This is the second proof of the interchangeability of mass movements. Present satisfaction makes you uninterested. Were it important what the cause is, they would look very different. But the “cause” ebing unimportant means that joining one movement from another is not exactly difficult.

When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ready for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or program. In pre-Hitlerian Germany it was often a toss-up whether a youth would join the Communists or the Nazis. […] Hitler looked on the German Communists as potential National Socialists: “The petit bourgeois Social Democrat and the trade-union boss will never make a National Socialist, but the Communist always will.”

No, I’m not saying that it’s “random” which organization any individual joins. I am saying that it’s a whole lot less meaningful than they’ll tell you it is later on. Most of their actions later are about justifying the decision.

I’m dangerously close to spilling into narcissism and identity, and that’s not really what I want to talk about here (that comes next time). What Hoffer’s discussing is the preference for an “imagined” self over and against the real self, of a vague, impossible “future” and of the present. It’s precisely from this that Hoffer derives the “similarity” of movements.

I wrote a long series on this once, cultimating in discussion of identity. I meant to use Hoffer there, but decided that he deserved something on his own. As I said there: narcissism is big now, but it comes from this urphenomenon he’s describing. Consider this, and relate it to [life] as you will:

There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience […]

In the practice of mass movements, make-believe plays perhaps a more enduring role than any other factor. […] The desire to escape or camouflage their unsatisfactory selves develops in the frustrated a facility for pretending – for making a show – and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing mass spectacle.

Now, I don’t think this is necessarily bad. Every heroic resistance, every band of brothers, has tapped into identity. But it’s hard not to notice that after successfully resisting, this same force turns against some other (weaker) lucky few. Every raffish rebel is a hero, but try being their outgroup. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is not really true, but there’s a reason that we think that.


There must  exist some critical mass of frustrated before a movement starts. After that, it creates and begets its own, the frustrated pullulate and joy goes on holiday.

The Beats, whatever you think of them now (I only like Burroughs) terrified America. This seems quaint now, doubly so because they didn’t initially have what we’d call political complaints. Kerouac was a conservative catholic; Burroughs was probably the closest to A Truly Godless Man that’s ever existed, and godless men don’t give a shit about your moral qualms or practical actions. Ginsberg was political, but that wasn’t his initial focus. The point is that they had no larger monsters to fight. A vague sense of nothingness, sure, but that’s not quite the same.

Subcultures from every other era are still around, but you don’t see many beatniks. They burned themselves out astonishingly quickly. Even in their own day, the Beats only had a solid decade before disappearing, and most of the ones that lingered became: a) highly political, or b) hippies. That was not an accident.

Whatever you think of them, the Beats had one thing going: they acted. Most of their literature might have been about “feeling empty” or their restlessness in ’50s America, but they still wrote it and writing about meaninglessness ironically gives you meaning. You watch your complaint get a little better day by day, you care a little more about how it’s received, and then one day you’re no longer a sullen outcast but some normie working at a craft. That craft may be about how it’s not really a craft and [bleh], but Kerouac’s whole “authentic, instant inspiration” thing was a lie. It was publicity. The real Kerouac spent hours obsessing over prepositions, and you don’t do that if you think it’s all worthless in the end. You’ve imbued those prepositions, your actions, with purpose.

No mass movement can survive such a thing. The later countercultures understood this well. The “point” of a mass movement might be [any redressance of grievance], but mass movements are always broad and thus blunt, and the behavior of a mass movement is this: it escalates to survive and to spread.

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that en effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind.

[…]It was also necessary to examine the practices of contemporary mass movements, where succesful techniques of conversion had been perfected and applied, in order to discover whether they corroborate the view that a proselytizing mass movement deliberately fosters in its adherents a frustrated state of mind, and that it automatically advances its interest when it seconds the propensities of the frustrated.

Emphasis mine, for one highly specific reason. One framework for mass movements looks quite similar up until the end. It goes something like this, subbing in terms: populism is the result of [resentment]. The populist movement advances the desires of its adherents over and against an outgroup. “We are the 99%!” means: we’ll take what we want from the rich. Bad for the rich, but certainly good for the 99%. In this view, the ills of a mass movement are their violence, or their illberalism, or their [other].

This is not what Hoffer’s saying. Were that the case, our bolded sentence would read: …automatically advances when it seconds the interests of the frustrated. Mass movements do the opposite: they pretend to give you power, while stealing what little you had; they pretend to solve your problems, while entrenching them. Movements make the frustrated more frustrated and they self-perpetuate with no regard for those who perpetuate them. The seed that they sow is frustration.

This is for one obvious reason: competition. Groups that maintain frustration, or are better at sowing it, will outcompete the others. The strength of a movement is directly proportional to its size and the fanatacism of its adherents, and the fanatacism of its adherents is directly proportional to the frustration they’re trying to escape. Mass movements that are good at what they do: a) make previously content outsiders frustrated; b) further frustrate their adherents while pretending to advance the movement. This means that the strongest mass movements are inevitably going to be the ones that are the best at not delivering the goods. Any movement that actually succeeds for (advances the interests of) its frustrated adherents will make them less frustrated. Hence, they’ll stop being members. Or it will succeed at its purpose, they’ll still be frustrated, and they’ll just join another.

Modern mass movements are actually pretty inexplicable without this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say [group] never does anything of value, and they’d be much better off if they [achieved this material goal]. I think Hoffer explains this perfectly. To achieve that goal would enervate the movement, and another would fill the void.

(That doesn’t mean it never takes power, just that in taking power it either devolves into an organization or manages to accomplish zero of its utopic plans.)

This sort of sounds good, depending on what the end goal of a mass movement is. But the problem is that it doesn’t mean movements do “nothing”, it means they frantically commit to useless, meaningless tasks that appear to solve something (Hoffer calls this “united action” – it dulls the mind and weakens the person). So instead of fighting the system, they suddenly start fighting random people taken to “represent it” but that specifically have no such power. Or they spend all their time writing manifestos and critiques, screaming and marching for no cause, making everyone else frustrated but fixing absolutely nothing. Or they turn on each other, trying to virtuously succeed at tasks they hate which have no real end. I really need to stress this: it kind of sounds like I’m attacking the left, but this is bipartisan, omnipartisan. All movements have this behavior: think of your own. It’s easy.

Now, I should say: I think that’s bad no matter what happens. I’d like to avoid any “society of truly self-loathing people” as much as possible, and so I care about these adherents. Any mass movement inevitably weakens its participants. “Power” might be a good in itself, but you don’t have to to understand why this is bad: weaker people means more fnatical adherents and less resistance.

But even if you don’t care about their own personal happiness, you should be quite concerned about what movements do to others.


The majority of The True Believer is a dissection of the active movement’s “unifying agents” – the particular way that a mass movement breaks down the individuality of the adherent and renders them susceptible to influence. All of these provoke feelings already “native to the frustrated mind”. The movement never makes a better world in steps. It would die if it were to, be outcompeted by something that’s better at failing. But that doesn’t mean that the movement automatically has the loyalty of its adherents. They can go join another, right? So you need a “unifying agent” to make them stay a Bircher, rather than a Beat.

The strongest of these is hatred.

Hatred does several things: it unifies people, in the way that all people unify before a common enemy; it itself provides one with a meaning, and genuine meaning in human existence can easily be subbed out for virulent hatred; it still frustrates you.

It’s such a powerful tool that you’ll never find a large movement without it, and that final one (more frustration) is incredibly important. The bigger the enemy, the better. If it’s so large that no practical steps can be taken, then nothing can satisfy it in principle. Since these movements are based in the future, since they cannot succeed without being outcompeted or losing suddenly-satisfied adherents, the enemy inevitably takes on nightmarish proportions. It maintains the movement, holds it in perpetuity. There’s always some enemy sneaking out there that you have to get before everything will be okay. Of course, this also functions for proselytizing.

Movements understand the necessity of an impossible to conquer demon very well. Consider the opening of the Bircher manifesto:

For the truth I bring you is simple, incontrovertible, and deadly. It is that, unless we can reverse forces which now seem inexorable in their movement, you have only a few more years before the country in which you live will become four separate provinces in a world-wide Communist dominion ruled by police-state methods from the Kremlin.

I don’t care if you think that Senator McCarthy had a point. This isn’t addressing that point, it’s just pretending to. Think about the enemy they’re describing. Can they fight it, or can’t they? What is its psychological role?

Do I have to say this? This is bad. You know that old Seneca quote: “All cruelty springs from weakness”? Movements weaken their adherents to get stronger, and weak men do terrifying things. Not to mention: frightened people do terrifying things, the weak are generally more scared of things, and an impossible large enemy is pretty scary.

On the surface, people do bad things and live with it because they have no guilt. People in a movement feel this way: after all, they’ve given their agency to the movement, etc. This is a lie, and it’s a lie with devastating consequences. Their guilt adheres them to the movement, because only the movement can justify their actions – only the movement’s justification can let them live with themselves, be “good” anymore. This also makes them hate the outgroup more: Benjamin Franklin effect, cognitive dissonance, whatever you want to call it: when we do bad things to people, we tend to hate them more, regardless of a movement. The movement just makes it easier to ignore.

It’s not hard to see how this might result in counter-groups, which in turn will grow more vicious to the enemy, repeating the entire process. Groups self-perpetuate, but they also obviously create counter-movements. They increase frustration among adherents and among enemies. They ratchet up the stakes.

This sounds pretty bad, sure. It gets worse when you consider that these are never isolated from the broader system.


Hoffer tends to focus on movements as though they were isolated. He obviously knows this is wrong, but you have to start somewhere. Let’s broaden the scope. Mass movements shape and are shaped by, societies around them.

First, it’s not hard to see where they come from at this moment. Mass movements aren’t unique to modernity (Hoffer thinks the first was Christianity), but modernity is a perfect breeding ground. There are roughly three things that prevent mass movements: meaningful work, community, and the broader sense of “meaning” that interacts with those two. Note that each and every single one of those is something I discussed in Scott and Polanyi.

I think there are two very important aspects to meaningful labor here. One is Polanyi, whom Hoffer seems to be channeling in this quote:

It was the new poor in seventeenth century England who ensured the success of the Puritan Revolution. During the movement of enclosure thousands of landlords  drove off their tenants and turned their fields into pastures. “Strong and active peasants, enamored of the soil that nurtured them, were transformed into wageworkers or sturdy beggars; …city streets were filled with paupers.” It was this mass of the disspossesed who furnished the recruits for Cromwell’s army.

That mostly speaks for itself, but the Scott one is a little harder. Metis, as I keep saying, is not simply an action, but the worldview around it. Every “act” has a larger meaning already encoded into it. Epistemic knowledge explicitly does not. No matter whether you think that’s good or bad, one of the things lost will inherently be “meaning”. The job can be the same, the peasants don’t need to be driven from their fields, but without a certain religious implication or the pride in craft, it will not be similarly “meaningful”. Of course, the job rarely is the same, which makes this doubly important.

None of this can really be stopped. From Scott, illegiblity always means that the community loses against whatever is in power at the moment. It can’t even express its complaints, and those complaints look bizarre. That’s bad for the individual trying to protect their meaningful labor, and it also means that community is annihilated. Either they’re the subject of government experiments, or the market corrodes their earlier institutions (or these are the same thing). This sets the stage for a mass movement, as I discussed in the Scott review, and as Hoffer points out:

It is obvious that a proselytizing mass movement must break down all existing group ties if it is to win a considerable following. […] Where a mass movement finds the corporate pattern of family, tribe, country, etc. in a state of disruption and decay, it moves in and gathers the harvest.

I don’t want to repeat earlier reviews entirely, but we should remark that a lot of this will relate to the difference between communal and governmental safety nets that Polanyi discusses.

Polanyi takes us further in one direction: the double movement. All the above is how modernity shapes mass movements, how it cultivates them, but they also shape our political life.


Eisenhower places much of the burden on democracy itself. I don’t fully agree, but I take his point. Part of the transition into modernity – into a globalized system – is that things become more complex and more opaque but also more fragile. He suggests – hell, pretty explicitly states – that some part of the government needs to be unintelligible to the citizenry in order for it to function. The problem with this is that mass movements happen, and even if they don’t understand the wheels of power there are a zillion things they can ram through the spokes.

At the same time, the citizenry gets richer and more powerful. This would be the famous Tocqueville effect. Everyone talks about it, up to and including Hoffer, but they never explain what it is (also including Hoffer). It’s never said, only sneered. A weird morality hangs around it, as though the problem were “greed”, the frivolous desire for more of [something]. I don’t think that’s what’s happening.

Let me run through a series of explanations, because it’s not just one effect. It’s a couple with superficial similarity. (A) is isolated, but (B) and (C) feed into each other:

A) The simplest explanation for a Tocqueville effect is simply power. Suddenly realizing that you can achieve a big thing means that you’re also able to do the little things. If you conceive of it this way, it’s no stranger then: “He bought a house, but then a went and bought a whole bunch of fancy wine.” That’s no cunning insight, and this explanation is also not one that important to us.

B) The Polanyi and Scott reason behind it: with each and every single disruption, the previous community bonds have been shattered, even if people have gotten richer (see: the economic prejudice). This opens groups up for mass movements, and you don’t even have to manufacture a demon. Whoever’s in power is obviously the monster.

C) Hoffer: Mass movements don’t thrive on “success” they thrive on frustration. Eliminating every single gripe of every group member is impossible, but if you take all of those to be the sign of some larger, ineffable conspiracy that once it’s overcome takes us to paradise, then you have the perfect breeding ground for frustration. In this way, the Tocqueville effect is actually unrelated to, say, any previous civil rights movement. The (succesful) movement ends itself with its success. Of course: There’s still mass frustration because (B) plus Hoffer, so some group picks up on frantic, meaningless activity as a unifying agent to further its own group power. One of those will wear similar clothing, and hence appear to be the same movement with more frivolous goals, but is not aiming to achieve them. It’s more effective at being a movement for being less effective at achievement. There is no goal, having a goal is antagonistic to its power.

Let’s make it worse. Modernity is also an experiment in scope. Part of this means that anything has to be mass, but it also means that everything is more complex. As with (B), none of those movements aim at or even understand the causes (and thus solutions to) frustration, which means that any solution is going to fail. To reclaim their own metis, they’ll destroy that of any previously unmolested community.

It also means that they can frustrate a whole lot more people.

Consider this, and tell me if it doesn’t sound completely fucking insane. One community does [thing]. This gets disrupted, either by a market or a state. This will always be done in some epistemic way. Now, people want their community rights back, but to do so they have to change the laws, because laws are that of the state. All of a sudden, they’re incentivized to not merely regulate their own community, but that of everyone else. Let’s say the movement takes power and actually puts in legislation. That’s a mismatch for other communities, because it crushes their metis, which in turn…

Or this, more specific and less related to mass movements (kind of): Republicans are, nominally, all about the rights of the individual. This is often in a pro-capitalist sense (shut up, don’t tell me why that’s only a ‘boujie’ freedom). So a business owner ought to have the right to do [whatever] with his employees. Ok. Some of us don’t like what some owners do, so we regulate that. A group of business owners who do want to have the freedom to Iron Maiden their employees or whatever now form a group to combat that. Well, now they’re no longer looking for – or merely have the power to – impact their company and employees. They fuck with the state, because it’s state law that impacted them. Ok. So now the GOP is instead about State’s rights. Instead of an individual determining their life, or a community determining its own, the GOP determines everyone’s. There’s no other way to get it done. How does this play out? Well, you didn’t like their first plans, so you presumably won’t like it state-wide. You switch to the national level, and then all of a sudden they respond by trying to institute laws at a national level. All of this is technically in service of a community, or an individual, but now the game is being played at an insanely gigantic level.

You think this is a problem with “democracy” perhaps, but mass movements aren’t limited to democracies. Stop being edgy and act like you give a damn. This isn’t even a problem with politics. Economic systems engender the same. Whether or not you agree with Polanyi that it removes the individual’s power, it certainly engenders larger structures of power. More people are wealthier, which means they can use that, sure. But it also means that a society is more deeply tied to its economy. If any disruption happens (say, from a mass movement), then that will also lead to more frustrated people.

Ok. Now make that global.

In this way, modernity sets itself up on an infinite feedback loop, a whirligig of misery where every single group that forms has the potential to damage the society and create infinitely more frustrated people, who will then do the same. In the process it will make all of them weaker, all of them hate each other, and nothing will get done.

Or, possibly…


“So… we should get rid of the state?” How did you get that from this article? We’ll get rid of the state, surely, at some point in the future where modernity doesn’t exist, or capitalism is gone, or… That kind of future? The impossible-to-reach-Utopian one that is definitely coming soon? Reread this article and think about what you sound like.

“Then democracy, definitely.” Democracy is: a) the best outlet we currently have for those frustrations and, b) the only thing keeping us from going totally insane. Intractable political parties aren’t “bad” they’re a necessary block for the system. Same thing re: the constitution. Why do I have to say this? I understand [arguments against democracy from all sides]; some are good and others bad, but note that each and every one of those groups offers nothing actionable, which means –

At this point it sounds like I’m saying: we should never do anything. I really don’t mean to. Some of this things are necessary in a society, inasmuch as things like Jim Crow are bad and we really do need to intervene to stop them. But you don’t get anything without a tradeoff, and if you ignore where that tradeoff comes from, then you’re left defenseless.

This series isn’t about solutions, not yet. It’s about problems. This is showing you how nihilism works, why it’s more than just a vague philosophical worry, why it isn’t just “people are sad sometimes, and also Cioran”, why “meaning” or lack thereof has really big effects on the world. Admittedly, this makes me sound a whole lot like one of the frustrated who just happens to have chosen “nihilism” as their impossibly large enemy. Fair point. So:

Hoffer has a few recommendations. They’re helpful as a guide. One is personal, the other points to a political movement.

Personal: Focus on meaningful action in your own life. Do that [thing you wanted to do]. Joining movements with gigantic impossible enemies not only are doomed to fail but are designed to fail. Be skeptical of any movement that doesn’t have defined, concrete positions and goals. You will not get to a utopia through them, and it’s just a defense mechanism. Really, you don’t need me or Hoffer or [other books] to tell you this. Seriously, it’s important.

Political: Hoffer mentions that it’s possible for movements to have one objective. It might be hard, but they exist. These movements take concrete actions for the frustrated and make them powerful themselves. This, of course, means the movement eventually withers, but it leaves a whole lot less of the frustrated around. Since he thinks that only a mass movement can defeat another mass movement, this is a suggestion we should take very seriously.

Hoffer’s example is fascinating (more so given that he was a relatively staunch conservative). It’s unions. Now, he doesn’t say this explicitly, but Hoffer was a member of the Longshoreman’s union, and he certainly knew the history of the US labor movement. There’s no way he thought that unions lacked a mass movement. Yet he says:

One of the reasons that Communist leaders are losing out in our unions is that by following the line and adopting the tactics of the party, they are assuming the attitude and using the tactics of a mass movement leader in an organization made up of free men.

In other words: the creation of the union, one specific goal that was successful, not only did what people wanted. It also made them much more resistant to other movements even if those movements claimed to be their continuation. The only thing I can think of for this would be some reverse Tocqueville effect.

Unions are going away, of course, but that same tactic (objective goal) should be considered, both for movements themselves and in any capacity you have to interact with them. They certainly aren’t going to go away on their own.

How they might change is to get more intractable. Less effective, almost by definition, but impossible to extricate. The Beats were a bad movement, the Hippies learned to do it better, and [later groups] learned to do it even better. On the other side, the Birchers became the Paleocons became […], and each one is more and more focused on identity. Everything accelerates and identity is always an arms race.


top image from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence

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

happy people.PNG

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-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

hardto be a god 1

(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”

The Meridian of Her Greatness

On The Great Transformation, suffering, and still using Malick stills for all of my blog posts.


Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation


Every so often, a piece thinker trips onto the global stage and says something like: “Sure, people say that they’re unhappy, and they say that it’s the economy, but GDP is steadily growing and a lot of those people are rich. So they’re wrong.” Then Donald Trump gets elected or some country ‘exits, and the slightly clammier thinker regurgitates their argument, but this time they punctuate it with: “You dicks.”

More nuanced thinkers add a few parentheticals (“2008”, “racism”, “coastal gains and middle drains“, etc.) but they retain the basic structure.

It’s important to understand something: They’re not wrong. They’re just insane.

The same thing happens on the left, this isn’t split across the French National Assembly. It’s something more like “current system” vs. “new/old one”, which does sound like “conservative” vs. “other”, but doesn’t match any such party we have.

Take Occupy. No, first, take this graph:

gdp per capita

Ok. The left is quick to point out inequality, or the fact that poverty still exists. Here’s the counter: though inequality might be a problem, it’s not clear that it’s the problem. Our society has made everyone richer by [expression for large multiplier here]. Boats and tides, something about rising-but-not-like-Bane-rising, etc. Man’s root state, after all, is not wealth but poverty. If we started with very little, and then capitalism made us all wealthier, is it really the devil if, while doing that, a few got wealthier than others?

This is a hard argument to counter, and one has to question the instinct to counter it. That graph and the common narratives – mass dissatisfaction, endemic poverty, social malcontent – do not work together. And yet we do observe such things – people are really angry. There’s something strange about telling a very angry person that they aren’t, in fact, a very angry person. The real problem is reconciling that anger with an economic motivation. “What if they’re just wrong?” Fine, phrase it this way: what’s the motivation for being angry then? It means the same thing with less presumptions.

So we have: Trump, Brexit, and Occupy. All of those threatened the status quo, all of them claimed economic reasons (more or less), and all of them had no way to deal with the graph above.

Here’s how one economist puts his colleagues’ position contra the critiques:

Nothing in the nature of a sudden deterioration of standards, according to these writers, ever overwhelmed the common people. They were, on average, substantially better off after than before […] and, as to numbers, nobody can deny their rapid increase. By the accepted yardsticks of economic welfare – real wages and population figures – the Inferno [of capitalism], they maintained, never existed; the working classes, far from being exploited, were economically the gainers and to argue the need for social protection against a system that benefited all was obviously impossible.

Critics of liberal capitalism were baffled.

Except that that isn’t about our time. The brackets are, respectively, “…before the introduction of the factory system“, and “the Inferno of early capitalism“. The description is of the Industrial Revolution and its contemporaneous debates. The author is Karl Polanyi, writing a history of said debates.

I really wanted that to be more of a gotcha, but Polanyi is just such a fucking dated writer. So, yes, finally: that’s from 1944.

Continue reading “The Meridian of Her Greatness”

Man as a Rationalist Animal

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, and also some stuff about fundamentalist christianity

seeing like a state
On Seeing Like a State

Subconsciously or not, most of us presuppose malice behind failure. This goes doubly for historical failures, and quadruply for political failures. The daily form of this hisses about “corrupt politicians” (past and present), perhaps about “businessmen and special interests”. The more extreme forms fall into conspiracy theory. Often this is diagnosed as a form of pessimism, especially “pessimism about politics”. That’s wrong; it’s optimism.

The pessimistic view is this: “Everyone is just trying their best.” If the horrors of history are the result of ill will then we should take comfort. It may not always be possible to avoid evil dictators, but at least we know that human agency has some power. An evil person realizing their evil machinations implies that perhaps a good person can successfully realize a good plan. Stalin may have been mean and bad, but if we just get the right people in there (read: me), then surely The Good will result. But if everyone is just “trying their best” then none of this is assured. Indeed – something is so broken that our best intentions still produce misery. So… what happened?

Seeing like a State sets out to answer this question. Namely: why do we see large state schemes cause so much misery even when guided by good intentions and (seemingly) careful design? And that also explains its subtitle: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

If I had to give a one-sentence explanation of the book, it would be: “The effects of technocracy on a polity are almost always negative (Now with 100% more ‘why’!)” Of course, that argument is detailed across four-hundred pages, and nothing but the book itself can really capture that analysis – I’ll do  my best, but just read the book.

Its popularity means that many other bloggers have attempted more detailed analyses. These two are particularly good: a Ribbonfarm piece by Venkatesh Rao, and the more critical Slate Star Codex review by Scott Alexander. The SSC review, in particular, goes into a lot more detail than I will. (FN: On the economic side, J. Bradford Delong writes a some-what skewed (but good) analysis, which is here corrected by Crooked Timber.) Finally, if you read anything, here’s James C. Scott’s own overview of Seeing Like a State.

The plethora of reviews also means a plethora of criticism. This is helpful: I don’t want to describe the book but explain its import, and contrasting analyses are better for that than a cursory retelling. But since explaining the book is going to take a lot of time, I’m going to have a whole other post replying to criticisms I’ve seen levied.

Continue reading “Man as a Rationalist Animal”

Introduction, and Baudelaire

yes, I’m aware that this manages to say both nothing and yet all too much

goya the dog


I’ve tried and failed to write several essays (one on ethics, one on consequentialism specifically, and one on adaptive traits in religion) at this point. I needed certain tools to explain my point of view, ones in books that I haven’t written about.

I tried to write the essays without referencing these writings. They became incomprehensible. Worse: they were boring.

It’s time, then, to clear the ground.

The next [number] of posts will be about four books. Theoretically, there should be five posts – one per book and then a conclusion – but things don’t always go according to plan.

These four books represent the external side of modernity. This is not an authoritative account of the books themselves, nor of “politics”, nor of “human beings.” It’s an attempt to establish a baseline of communication. In that sense, they do make up something like an “ideology”, with two notable differences: 1) I take all four of them to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. 2) None of them examine the underlying causes, the internal structures, whatever those are (whether metaphysical or theological or psychological).

So far as I know, none of the works explicitly draws on another. One can take that in several ways: It’s possible that they managed to arrive at similar conclusions, which I take to be a strong indication of some truth. But it’s also possible that I’m contorting their meanings to fit together. I don’t much mind either way – the reader is advised to read the books themselves regardless.

The four books which present the political or ethical aspects of nihilism are these:

Seeing Like a State – James C. Scott
The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
The True Believer – Eric Hoffer
The Culture of Narcissism – Christopher Lasch

This list (and the accompanying introduction) will, of course, become a table of contents in the future.

Continue reading “Introduction, and Baudelaire”

How to fail.

concerning the fearless girl statue




Here’s a story that looks like it’s about feminism but isn’t: Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue goes up, internet loses it.

First take. Girl Fucking Power.

Second take. Corporate feminism through and through. State Street Global Advisors commissioned the statue, SHE is a Nasdaq symbol, not a pronoun. They’re using feminism for advertisement. Capitalism is still evil, etc.

First viral piece of the lousy mess, Greg Fallis’s seriously, the guy has a point:


Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.


Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE.


Third take. The power of the image is more important (round two). Second viral piece. Caroline Criado-Perez’s On Fearless Girl, women & public art; or, no, seriously, the guy does not have a point. 

No, Greg. Just, no. Like many other men, Di Modica may not realise that rampant male-dominated capitalism already is a symbol of patriarchal oppression, already is an aggressive threat to women and girls all around the world, but that doesn’t make it any less the case. […] But to be clear: rampant unchecked capitalism is a symbol of patriarchal oppression whether Di Modica likes it or not.

I don’t wish to be pedantic here, but in order to represent “the strength and power of the American people,” Di Modica chose a bull. A male cow. He chose to represent the American “people” with an animal that is perhaps above all others considered a byword for male sexual aggression. And my god the balls on that thing. I think we can be fairly certain how Di Modica visualises power and strength — the phrase “grow a pair” comes to mind. Let’s be clear: this statue never represented the strength and power of American people. It represented the strength and power of American men. Fearless Girl does not therefore change the meaning of Charging Bull. She makes it explicit. And for that, I love her.

Criado-Perez is undeniably correct about one thing: the statues’ meaning as art is not to be judged solely by their origin. She’s the only one to make this point explicit, but note that Fallis agrees with this. Everyone agrees with this, and everyone loves the Fearless Girl despite her silver spoon.

Allow me to offer a contrary position: I hate the Fearless Girl, and the only thing that will help women is the origin. SHE is a threat, not an advertisement. SHE comes from a passive investor, which means that SHE isn’t talking to you. SHE is talking to firms, and SHE says: “Hire women or we’ll withhold money.”

She, on the other hand, the part we’ve agreed is “Girl Fucking Power!”, is an embarrassment.
Continue reading “How to fail.”