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”

The Meridian of Her Greatness

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

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Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation

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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

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On Seeing Like a State
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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

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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 (and here and then here)

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

 

 

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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.”