Monday, September 07, 2015

Fake Labor Day Post

I missed my traditional Fake Labor Day post last year thanks to Burning Man, which seems somehow appropriate. Burning Man is many things, and one of those things is is a deliberate celebration of unalienated labor. The amount of effort that goes into the production of all the spectacle is truly astonishing, and it՚s all done for some reason other than the normal economic ones. Yet it certainly is a kind of work. If your work is your own you don't need a day off from it to celebrate yourself.

So what is labor? Making art is labor, so is mining coal or working as a cashier at Arby՚s, and maybe even writing these blog posts. It՚s a very expansive term, almost to the point that it is hard to say what human activity isn՚t labor. Lying on the couch watching TV? But even that involves some level of engagement, there is no such thing as purely passive ingestion of content.

Here՚s the best definition I can come up with off the top of my head: Labor is the focused application of intelligent action to a goal-directed task that engages with the world.

It՚s vaguely Marxist concept, I guess. I՚m not a scholar of such things and am not about to become one, I՚m just trying to tease out this sense I have that there is something about this conception of labor that is powerful and valuable. It՚s too bad that the philosophical ideas are so thorougly contaminated with the manifest failures that ensued when they have been put into political practice.

Marx viewed labor as one of the essential defining qualities of humanity, that which distinguishes humans from animals:
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. … 
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity.
The word “labor” points to a certain view of the relationship between mind and world. Vaguely similar concepts from philosophy of mind like “embodiment” have a bit of a Marxist tinge to them, whether or not this is made explicit. All these ideas seem to be working against what might be called the Cartesian/computational default model of the mind, a symbol procesor in a box that only incidentally interacts with the outside world through narrow channels of perception and action.

Marxism has rather famously failed, and as far as I know all the efforts to reform AI and philosophy of mind through embodiied or situated approaches also failed. Perhaps they are all just completely wrong, but I actually don՚t think so. Their critiques were incisive, but their solutions were naive, half-baked, or perhaps just premature. It still seems to me that the way into the future requires both less alienating ways to organize human labor and better ways for computational systems to take on some of the real qualities that make human labor possible.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Burning Man Politics

What are the politics of Burning Man? This article claims the event is perniciously libertarian, despite a veneer of communal rhetoric and practices. As you can imagine, that caught my attention, since it arose conflicting passions. I՚m as persistently anti-libertarian as anybody, yet I kind of dug Burning Man, and didn՚t detect any of the things I hate about libertarianism there. There was a capitalist camp, but despite its name it didn՚t seem very paradigmatic of Burning Man as a whole, and in fact they spend a lot of energy apologizing about how they conflict with BM principles. The Black Rock Census says there are about 3 times as many Democrats as Republicans and Libertarians combined, as one might expect.

Burning Man՚s rhetoric of sharing, inclusion, and decommodification makes it sound like a socialist utopia, a radical critique of capitalism, an effort to establish a set of values that are wholly at odds with the accumulationist materialism of the mainstream. They are pretty serious about obliterating the market economy: no monetary transactions are allowed (with two exceptions: ice and coffee are for sale) and you are even expected to tape over corporate logos on clothing or equipment. Gifting is the norm, and participation rather than passive consumption is expected. It might sound like bullshit, but I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly and successfully these values are realized in practice.

This attitude coexists uneasily with the huge influx of Silicon Valley money and other rich individuals. Not only hip young tech leaders like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, but the VCs and even Republican moneymen like Grover Norquist have thrown in. The participatory nature of the event appears threatened by so-called “turnkey camps” where rich people pay for fancy RVs and “sherpas” to do the hard work of providing life support and comfort in the harsh desert environment. All of a sudden the elitism of the default world threatens to reproduce itself into this alternative universe that was supposed to be an escape from things like that.

Burning Man has always ben elitist, in a sort of self-selecting way – not an elite of the moneyed, although going isn՚t cheap. While you have to have a certain level of well-offness to participate, it really requires more in the way of freedom than money. Doing it right requires months of preparation, so the real filter is whether you are enough of an independent artist/hipster/whatever to devote your life to something crazy. This very high level of required commitment (of time, money, risk, and discomfort) is a big reason it works at all. Sharing is a lot easier when you know that everyone else is committed to the same craziness you are. Subcultures in general have a problem of getting diluted by hangers-on who aren՚t fully committed as they should be; making you camp out in a remote alkalai desert serves a similar function to a fraternity initiation or gang tattoo – it creates a barrier to entry and forces people to pay for the privilege of belonging. Being there is itself a costly signal of shared values which enable the participants to trust each other more than they would some random on the street.

That՚s the real reason people are upset at turnkey camps, not because rich people are douchebags but because the commitment barrier is threatened. If you can buy your way in, the cultural value of being there is diminished. I don՚t mean to imply that this is mere snobbery: boundaries are important if you are trying to establish a space that is explicitly different from the everyday world. Money eats away at social boundaries, both traditional ones and subcultural ones.

If the issue was just that a great annual desert party and subculture was getting its soul diluted, then nobody but the participants should really care. The article advances the much stronger and more interesting thesis that Burning Man՚s politics mirrors and feeds larger trends in the Silicon Valley culture – libertarian ones basically, the idea that government and democracy is fundamentally broken, that we should rely on the largess of the enlightened rich to provide public goods.

So rather than an egalitarian community of roughly equal sharers, the author sees an aristocracy of the rich providing bread and circuses (literally at Burning Man, figuratively elsewhere) for the masses, mirroring the weakening of democratic institutions and their replacement by the whims of corporate largesse. Mark Zuckerberg՚s intervention in the Newark public schools being an exemplar of this in the default world. Charity is lovely but not a replacement for robust governance, and Burning Man՚s promotion of a gift economy, rather than a harmless image of a better world, actually becomes propaganda for rule by aristocracy and against democracy.

While there may be some truth to this, I don՚t really buy it as a critique of Burning Man, which is simply too huge and overwhelming a phenomenon to be reduced to ideology. The event doesn՚t pretend to be a democracy, it՚s a community with alternative rules and alternative status hierarchies – and being a rich turnkey camper is pretty low status. As far as I can tell, the event still is about insane levels of commitment to art, individualism, and other weirdness, and none of that essential nature is threatened by the presence of some rich people. If they are spectators rather than participants, it՚s their loss, nobody else՚s. That՚s the thing about radical participation, those who participate get to say what something means, those who stand outside watching or critiquing have missed the point.

The attempt to graft a political agenda onto an ecstatic festival reminds me of the rupture in the sixties between the hippie/psychedelic/dropout wing of the counterculture vs. the more politically-minded parts like the anti-Vietnam war movement (I am not quite old enough to have personal experience of this). These two factions never quite got each other, despite their shared opposition to the mainstream. They expressed different values in different ways, although of course many individuals had connections to both camps. The politicos were impassioned humanistc idealists who wanted to change the world by seizing power, the hippies were more like romantic artists, whose strategy for change was self-transformation and personal empowerment. My own favorite sixties heroes were the Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner, who were explicitly trying to bridge this gap.

Burning Man is way above and beyond politics. It՚s some combination of wild party, transcendent art experience, and temporary autonomous zone, and as such should be taken as an effort to break out of the tedious parameters of default world politics. Not left or right, but orthogonal to that axis, pointing in a direction beyond. Nobody should confuse it with a political movement for social change, despite the idealistic communal values. Like the drugs that are a key component of the experience, it should be considered a temporary alternative state of being, that at best has some tantalizing suggestions for how the regular world could be different.

[ I am missing out on Burning Man this year, instead wistfully and lamely listening to the online radio station and watching the video feed to recapture a bit of the mood. Some part of me is there; some part of it is here with me, trying to express itself. ]

Fred Turner՚s excellent paper on the relationship Burning Man and the tech community explores these issues in more depth. Basically he agrees with Jacobin that Burning Man culture and Silicon Valley culture mirror reinforce each other, although he is less focused on the pernicious aspects. ]

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Swinging Dicks

All politics is sexual politics; the president is supposed to be the Big Swinging Dick of the nation. This is usually a bit below the surface, but the topsoil of reason is eroding leaving the bedrock of the id exposed:

In a similar vein, there was an idiot on Press the Meat this morning (Alex Castellanos) repeating the line about how Obama was "the first female president" and how we need a "manly" president for gladiatorial combat:

Politics is always something of a dick-measuring contest, and Trump's power (and the reason he is a threat to the system) is that he brings it into the open, he's far too obvious about the fact that he's running for the post of alpha baboon.

His current surge of popularity was kicked off by his remarks about alleged Mexican rapists, an issue with approximately zero actual impact on society but exactly the sort of thing to rouse primal fears. That the Democratic candidate is likely to be a woman is also inflaming the lizard brains of threatened masculinity.

All this is crushingly obvious and an old story; I don't have any new insights to offer. Since I've been giving rationalists a hard time for being repulsed by politics, let me acknowledge that it can be pretty repulsive.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In post-Soviet Russia, eschaton immanentizes you!

Nick Land (a philosopher who is now a major neoreactionary) links to this video of the genuinely scary Russian reactionary philosopher Alexander Dugin calling modernity “pure satanism”. On the other hand, the National Review (!) calls Dugin՚s philosophy not only satanic but fascist and an effort to immanentize the eschaton:
Repeating the ideas of Nazi theorists Karl Haushofer, Rudolf Hess, Carl Schmitt, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Dugin says that this liberal threat is not new, but is the ideology of the maritime-cosmopolitan power “Atlantis,” which has conspired to subvert more conservative land-based societies since ancient times. Accordingly he has written books in which he has reconstructed the entire history of the world as a continuous battle between these two factions, from Rome vs. Carthage to Russia vs. the Anglo-Saxon “Atlantic Order” today.
Meanwhile Hamas claims to have captured an Israeli spy that happens to be a dolphin. Robert Anton Wilsion may have passed into the universe next door, but this one is increasingly beginning to resemble one of his novels.

More seriously, to any nrx-fellow-travellers who might be reading: how far are you going to let your anti-liberalism take you, and to where? A lot of you seem to want to get to Singapore (that is, a modern state run like a tight-knit corporation, authoritarian but highly rational and technical). But mostly what you actually get without liberalism is this sort of violent ethnic Blut und Boden nationalism, which is anything but nerd-friendly. That՚s a hell of a thing to aim for just because some SJWs were mean to you or whatever the motivation is.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The backpfeifengesicht primary

Backpfeifengesicht is a German word that means roughly, “face that cries out to be punched”. After last week՚s debate I was drawn to rank the Republican candidates in order of how much this word seemed to apply to them.


Cruz and Walker are basically tied for first place; they inspire an almost Lovecraftian level of loathing when I see them on the tube. 

*Trump is really in a category of his own, because while he is eminently deserving of a punch, it is actually pretty entertaining to watch him act out his version of the archetype of America՚s asshole id. Unlike the others, he՚s a professional showman who knows how to draw and keep the attention of an audience. He is beyond embarassment so somehow transcends punchability.

This is pretty much the exact anti-correlate of electability in the general election. That is, it is conceivable that a normal person would not be completely repulsed by Rubio and Bush, so the best hope for the country is that the primary will continue to propel the more aggravating candidates to the top of the pack.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Political Sacred

Political symbols are highly charged with sacredness and its opposite. Think of what the red flag and hammer and sickle meant to devoted communists and to their enemies, and still does. Or the swastika, but that՚s almost too powerful to even talk about. The American flag is a sacred symbol to many, and a symbol of violence and oppression to others. All these symbols point both to big abstract ideas and to concrete political formations. They were created in part for this very purpose, to bind people together, to give them something larger than themselves to work towards. And, not accidentally, they also are selective, they attract certain people and label others as outsiders or enemies.

The sacred is nothing without something profane to act as contrastive background. I can think of a few not-very-successful attempts to create political sacred symbols that were supposed to be universal and non-exclusive:

the UN and its iconography

or the Earth flag

These haven՚t really caught on. Their message is slightly obnoxious, to display them says that one is above the tribalism that has everybody else in its grasp. It embodies neatly the inherent contradictions of liberalism, a tribe for the cosmopolitan.

[In the comments to the last post, my pet troll was trying to make me justify my interest in neoreaction. It՚s simply this – it makes me a better liberal. Like any other modern political movement, liberalism is both a set of particular people and values (a tribe) and a universalizing ideology. The trick to not being a mindless liberal is to acknowledge both sides of that contradiction.]

But this post was inspired by something rather less lofty, namely the confederate flag and its prominence in the current political conversation, thanks to the mass killing at an African American church in Charleston, by a young man who was deeply immersed in southern racism.


Here Mr. Roof is displaying the flags of Rhodesia, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Confederacy. This has spawned a movement to try to get rid of the confederate flag, seeing as how it is a symbol of racism and treason. Even Mitt Romney is on board.

I have to say that I too am onboard with the efforts to get rid of the confederate flag, especially from official locations like the South Carolina state house. Oddly some of my justifications for this have a neoreactionary flavor. A neoreactionary state clamps down firmly against any kind of political threats to its authority and stability. And it՚s not clear why the United States should allow a symbol of a defeated rebellion against its authority be so prominently displayed. Since I՚m a liberal and not a neoreactionary I think individuals should have the right to display symbols of treason, but if it՚s on proud display by the government, something is profoundly wrong.

Yet I am trying to put myself in the heads of people to whom it is a sacred symbol. People for whom the confederate flag is not a symbol for something foul, but a marker of their highest values: loyalty, tradition, whatever. I don՚t doubt that their attachment to the symbol is genuine, but that doesn՚t redeem it or them in the slightest. They remain the enemy.

How does one deal with an internal enemy? The neoreactionary solution is to annihilate or suppress them completely. The liberal solution, apparently, is to let them go about maintaining their “heritage” and hope they՚ll improve themselves over time. It՚s been 150 years since the civil war, that hasn՚t really seemed to work out very well. Unfortunately conflicts between sacred values can՚t be argued out rationally; they require either battle or separation.

Or maybe that is only a short-term view, a tribal view. Maybe all the tribal battles between groups dedicated to their limited sacred values – their idols – will give way over time to reconciliation under the umbrella of more universal and transcendent values. Just because it՚s harder than the naive folks with their UN and hippie earth flags thought, does not mean it can՚t happen over the long course of time.

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