“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”