The Thresher



“We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.”
Darwin, On The Origin of Species


I wrote a brief summary of the books and terms and the way they interlock. I’ll assume you read it or the series itself and ignore recap.

I don’t think this is even close to a description of modernity (much less a full political theory). I’m personally committed to calling this the Uruk Machine inasmuch as some of these issues are just civilization itself. The only book tied to our era is Lasch, because narcissism is tied to nihilism and those are only possible with a certain amount of tech. Still, if what makes “modernity” modernity is partially in technology, then the Uruk Machine will be updated and whirring at unfathomable speeds, the thresher to Gilgamesh’s sacred club. In other words, all of that but more. And I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what we see.

Still, “modernity” is not exactly the point. When I started this series, I claimed that all of these books were about the same thing. That thing is power, and all of them are about facets that someone else has and you don’t.


I’m going to separate “individual power” and “mass power”.

Individual power is self-determination. Power is always over something, and this is “yourself” and also “the outcome of your actions”. It’s incredibly hard to find the right term for it, but everyone knows it when they see it. The best words for it are “agency” and “self-possession”, and those are the ones I’ll use. Of those, “self-possession” might actually come closest, because it implies ability, self-control and political power. It’s the ability to do something on your own, with all the knowledge and confidence that implies. No matter how much external power you have, it’s your foundation. You need to know how to accomplish something to actually accomplish it. On a slightly larger level, it’s the power of a community for self-determination. I still connect this with agency, though, because those smaller communities are self-governing. I associate it with metis, but it’s not limited to that, and episteme provides plenty of agency (depending on context). I think that individual power is pretty obvious up close, but it’s much harder to see from a distance (everyone in a disaster knows who to turn to, but that’s not always the person who actually has a prestigious or political position in the society).

Mass power, on the other hand, is obvious from the outside. I don’t think this is epistemic power (again, there are plenty of people who use episteme for agency), but it tends to rely on it. Mass power is always power over another, the power to make someone do something. I’m going to call it “command”, but bear in mind that that’s imperfect shorthand. Someone with command might be a king, a CEO, an elected official, a [bleh], but they might also be as part of a mass movement. In fact, I’m pretty that command is precisely what mass movements give, and also why most of them fail to cure frustration. (Even moreso if you have some kind of voice over the mass.)

These two things go best together, and when I talk about “real power” I mean both. It doesn’t matter how self-possessed you are, without any mass power a larger entity will prey on you. On the opposite side, being incompetent in a position of command just means that actually-competent people use the slightest weakness to pounce.

There are entire libraries devoted to the observation, “Overpowered people sometimes do bad things.” That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it really interests any of these authors. They’re making a different argument: power imbalance isn’t just an issue because the Crown abuses it. It’s an issue because power is a positive good for the populace. The Man could be a lecher or a saint but if he has all the power and the community has none, then it doesn’t matter.

For Scott, power is good because metis is much more adaptive to local conditions and the people who live there. It’s more efficient and generally “pleasant”, while providing people with a more interconnected and “vibrant” world. For Polanyi, power is good because it allows people to maintain communities and enjoy the not-really-priceable goods that that involves. It allows for a kind of certainty, a sense of meaning, and a general traditional safety. For Hoffer, power is good because it allows people to engage in meaningful labor, to avoid frustration and the subsequent madness of the mass movement. For Lasch, power is good because it makes you a full human, and it makes you much less likely to demand the kind of “pleasures” that only entrench you further in the entire epistemic catastrophe. As a bonus, it makes the elites with command more likely to be competent.

The problem here is that “power” has to include both types, and a whole lot of nation building is a trade between agency and command. That’s not bad or good, it just is. I suspect that a lot of political arguments are basically translation issues between these two kinds of power. So Alice says: “The people have no power to do [thing they want to do].” Bob responds: “They live in a democracy! Was it better under kingship?” Both of them agree on centralization being a key feature of modernity (globalization included, inasmuch as it’s one central economy), which is bizarre because that fact alone shows that both of them are right. Even Rome passed out citizenship to save the empire, but that doesn’t mean that the provinces had more autonomy under Rome. Having power over the central authority is different from being your own central authority and really? We’re still arguing about this?

I don’t want to play the “who was happier or freer at [time]” game. I’m not sure it makes sense to compare modern social-contract freedom to whatever liberty meant in 6th century pre-Burma, and I’m skeptical of how we measure “happiness” (Hotel Concierge does part of the groundwork for me; the rest in another post). It should be clear that pre-modern communities were more independent, if not simply because “walking time” was a meaningful measure of distance and it’s difficult to hyper-centralize by foot.

Modernity isn’t bad, no matter how often people want me to be saying [luddite thing], but everything has tradeoffs. Episteme is also not bad, even if I’ve spent way too much time attacking it. Have you noticed how often I rely on epistemic knowledge rather than communal knowledge? As recompense to the gods of book learning: the First Amendment seems obviously epistemic to me, inasmuch as “freedom of belief/speech/thought” isn’t even a coherent thing to discuss in most traditional societies.

I probably don’t need to point this out, but assume that the Uruk Machine basically wants control and knowledge. What limited it before was travel, distance, safety, and wealth. Now add modern tech, a modern economy, the modern-nation state. But if modernity is the Uruk Machine in overdrive, then it makes sense to assume that much more agency is going to get traded for command. The effects of that trade get very weird. Continue reading “The Thresher”

The Uruk Machine


This is just a recap of everything in the series before. Continued by and paired with The Thresher.


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. Continue reading “The Uruk Machine”

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”

Memetics and Memorization: A Critical Review of Both

kind of about dennett, mostly about poetry, mostlier about nihilism. somehow I wrote an article culminating in a defense of memorization as education and that’s confusing.

naked lunch1


This is a boring opening sentence: The psychologist and philosopher William James is most famous for his contributions to Pragmatism. “Contributions” here being a book called Pragmatism. I’m about to mutilate his argument; apologies to the dead. Continue reading “Memetics and Memorization: A Critical Review of Both”

Identity is the enemy. Finale.

let's go

(Part I here, social currency here, Part II here, Part III here)


Quoting yourself is tacky, but for continuity’s sake:

I used a monarch and their palace for an example earlier. The palace costs $200, they only got $170 in revenue because of Laffer Curves. There’s a question that everyone should have asked then: “Why not just wait another year and then you’ll have enough for the palace?”…

…the question you need to ask yourself is what is our equivalent to that palace?

I’m afraid that this lays a trap, and perhaps more than one.

The palace looks like a concrete goal. If it is, then the social state equivalent might be something like “policy change”. If the real question is not the palace but its time frame, then we need to follow this logic. Q: “Why would someone push for policies knowing that they’re impossible within such a short period?”A: If the goal is not the policy.

The palace is almost a red herring, but not quite. A palace is enjoyed by the monarch, but it exists as a sign of monarchy. It’s the architectural embodiment of a state. As a project it’s almost meta – the state wants to gain more power so that it can display the kind of power it has. Raising taxes here isn’t just about getting a project done. The real goal is the demonstration: “We can build this in a year.” This is simply another way of saying: it stands for power and identity, not a goal.

Social power is a tactic and its purpose is political. These are “goals”. But the social state is an organization, and like all organizations its fundamental purpose is to maintain power and to provide identity. Better: the power of the state is what attracts people who want to identify with it. The “goal” has come to metonymically stand for the state itself.

“Ok, sure. But why do this?” For monarchs? I dunno. For us, citizens of a social state? Continue reading “Identity is the enemy. Finale.”

Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.



(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here, Part II here)


There’s 1. Here “social left” is a stand in for the left most aligned with social justice (insert whatever here). “The other side” is the motley collection confusingly stretched between Gamergate and Marxism. a common fear among the social left [1] that no matter how persuasive their rhetoric and how many studies they mount and how many articles they write, people’s behavior will not change. Men benefit too much from the patriarchy, whites benefit too much from systematic racism. A thousand years of lip service and everything will wind up exactly the same as it has been.

There’s a common fear on the other side that social goals are mostly about policing language, fighting culture wars, and that they will not stop. The goal posts will always move, the rhetoric will remain as extreme no matter how “bad” the problem is. That structural change has become impossible or ignored.

These two concerns are the exact same thing, and that thing is the Panama Papers. Continue reading “Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.”

Publicani in Berkeley



(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here. Disclaimer: this is more metaphorical or more literal based on your preference. I don’t think it changes much about the argument.)


I know, I know. We live under fascism now, according to people who know that fascism is a word one can use. I’m extraordinarily excited for some greenhorn to notice the fasces in the House of Reps and tie it to Trump, but currently the #Resistance is focusing on (sigh) Milo Yiannopoulos. This is annoying for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that now I have to talk about him.

Milo’s a twat, etc. but the press is also worthless.

A term much favored by Milo is snowflake, to which the left tried “Enough snowflakes make an avalanche!” After they’ve landed, sure, but before that snowflakes make blizzards. This is also a powerful thing but one that has different effects. An avalanche crushes you; a blizzard blinds you, turns the world a furious wail of black-and-white, and slowly freezes your lost ass. Continue reading “Publicani in Berkeley”