Sunday, May 24, 2015

Three forms of antipolitics

There՚s a certain quality that unites libertarianism, rationalism, and neoreaction, and helps to explain my somewhat conflicted attitude towards all of them. They are all in their own way antipolitical, and for roughly the same underlying reason. To put it crudely, nerds don՚t like politics, perhaps because they are generally no good at it. These ideologies are all, in different ways, trying to replace politics with something more tractable to the nerdish brain – something with neat well-defined rules. These formal systems are obviously better than the messy and violent reality of actual politics in every respect but the most important one – they don՚t engage with the actuality of power

I՚m going to just assume that nerdism is something like lightweight Asperger՚s, which means that some of the normal mental circuitry that deals with modelling and interacting with other people just doesn՚t work as well as it should. As a consequence, aspie-nerds tend to be awkward socializers but often with compensating skills at formal reasoning. They can grasp formally complicated structures so they often excel at computer engineering and similar pursuits. They tend to like board games.

The similarity I see in the three ideologies is that they are all efforts of the nerdish to try to apply their board-game thinking to the real world. In some sense these are laudable efforts – what could be more important than trying to come up with better models for understanding and influencing the real world? The three ideologies all have powerful models they are organized around, and that model is a powerful enough tool that it suggests to some people that it is foundational, that the model is somehow sufficient for everything. There՚s a point where a system of useful ideas becomes an ideology, a fetish, and a cult.

To be a bit more concrete: libertarians fetishize individual property rights and the marketplace, rationalists fetishize objectivity, and neoreactionaries fetishize centralized power. Note that these things are not really very compatible with each other, yet these groupings are quite socially close and people drift from one camp to the other rather easily. Which is evidence for my thesis that it is a certain kind of intellectual fetishization of simple rule systems that unites them, even if the rule systems themselves vary widely.

But the messy world of actual politics is another matter. The effective leader of rationalism, Eliezer Yudkowsky has a widely read post called “Politics is the Mind-Killer”, which puts the thesis pretty starkly: politics interferes with the rationalist goal of pure objective cognition. Rationalism defines itself around figuring out what is true. Having interests, especially political interests, interferes with this. And indeed, politics is not about what is true so much is it is about what people want, and how they collectively go about getting it.

Rationalists tend to be repelled by social phenomenon like that. A comment on Scott Alexanders blog, expressed the great unease he feels in a political crowd:
“I’ve never been to such an event, but I also don’t get them. In fact, I find myself actively creeped out by many forms of collective displays of emotion/enthusiasm.”
Libertarianism is a sort of antipolitical political belief system. It is an ideology for those who don՚t believe in politics, don՚t trust politics, and think that the messy business of human collective goal-seeking can be replaced by the purely individualistic and quantitative mechanisms of the market. Libertarianism holds great attraction for nerds in part because of its (ostensible) elegant distribution of control. The realities of winner-take-all monopoly capitalism don՚t enter into their thinking, as far as I can tell. Libertarianism has been critiqued to death, by me and others (over and over) and I don՚t want to do that here, just to acknowledge that I believe what attracts at least the nerdy to libertarianism is not greed (the usual critique from the left) but the desire to replace the political reality of society with something simpler.

Neoreaction spun out of libertarianism, and while it seems to have attracted a whole bunch of unsavory racists, I believe the true motivation of its founder Mencius Moldbug was basically the same as the libertarian one, namely, to eliminate the inter-group conflict of politics and replace it with something better, that is, something simpler and more formalizable – he even calls his imaginary system “formalism”. I can՚t tell whether he is more horrified by the violence of inter-group conflict (which is something that can be truly horrifying) or its messiness, its failure to be captured by simple rules.

Moldbug basically was a libertarian who was too smart to accept the fantasies of the market worshipers, so rather than giving up he doubled down and advocated rule by an absolute monarch. This stroke of genius eliminates politics altogether, in his fantasy. (Note: any readers not in Silicon Valley may have problems believing that people are seriously putting forward this idea, but trust me, it՚s a big deal among the advanced thinkers of nerdistan).

Much to my surprise neoreaction grew from a single blog run by a single genius to a major movement, which now has an incalculable number of websites and buy-in from some fairly serious people. It՚s now in the fissile stage where groups are firing off manifestos to each other as the break up into separate groups – it seems that trying to run a movement on radically authoritarian principles may be as difficult as trying to run one on radical anarchist principles. This warms my heart.

So, rationalism, libertarianism, and neoreaction all stem from and share a revulsion to normal politics. Yet are all political movements in themselves: the last two obviously so, but rationalism, given that it is in part a movement, an ideology, even a bit of a cult, can՚t help taking on political characteristics of its own. Rationalism has an agenda, just like any other human group, and is thus political (just like any other well-meaning non-profit group, like say Amnesty International, it acts as though its values are or should be universal).

I believe these people are all deeply wrong, although I am torn because I empathize with some of the motivations that lead them to these antipolitical forms of politics. Yes indeed, politics sucks, but no, it cannot be avoided, to try to do so is to simply give yourself over to the manipulations of others. And, while revolutions do happen and replace one political order with another, I am skeptical that you can replace politics with a well-engineered formal system.

I could be wrong, and it could also be that the effort to do so results in valuable insights and ideas. So I don't consider these movements to be valueless by any means. Spinning fanciful political utopias and working to realize them is obviously a broader phenomenon, so why shouldn't nerds do it? Political fantasy can be dangerous but it is also the source of change, and god knows we need some changes.

I myself am a bigtime nerd, and am pretty bad at and kind of hate politics, and wish it would leave me alone. So antipolitical ideologies present themselves as temptations that I need to fight against. That՚s why I spend so much energy fighting them, it is a battle with a part of myself.


kay schluehr said...

"Moldbug basically was a libertarian who was too smart to accept the fantasies of the market worshipers, so rather than giving up he doubled down and advocated rule by an absolute monarch."

This might be a plausible move if one understands "market" in the traditional sense of political economists with the key terms of self organization, the invisible hand, egotism which leads to the common good etc. but IMO the proper move for a nerd with respect to the markets wasn't to join a political ideology, whatever it is but becoming a quant - a lover of the numerical substrate of the (financial) markets. Markets are rationality avoiding because prices want to be found through bid/ask, not derived from basic principles. So they are not just irrational but anti-rational, defying prediction as good as possible while still responding to the "world" reflected in a stream of news. For those who suffer too much about the world not being the orderly place they desire there is always the possibility for a breakout move towards a raw numerical empiricism i.e. sliding along the classicism -> romanticism edge without giving up ones preoccupations.

Dain said...

This gets at a bigger critique that includes many progressives as well: the fear of exercising any power. You saw it applied to the Occupy movement as well, by the insiders and realists against the purist "amateurs." You also see it in the desire to side with war refugees and other hopelessly powerless people. One dare not pick a side.

I admit this wouldn't describe the neo-reactionaries well. At all. Except for the not picking a side part. If they did they'd simply line up for Mike Huckabee or something.

Christopher Johnson said...

Superb thesis. I agree 100% with your description, insofar as we're describing a (mostly small) social group of young American nerds in 2005-2015 who collaborate online or in Silicon Valley specifically.

More broadly, the drive (to create formal, if simplistic, models of power) is, I would argue, not entirely misplaced. The lesson of the Enlightenment and the notion of "the rule of law" suggests that rational deliberation upon rules of who-gets-power-and-why does have somewhat of a role to play in realized power arrangements. Primitive models of "rational" power extend way back (primitive notions of honor, for instance), but the Enlightenment was a tipping point.

The problem is, in my view, that educators / propagandizers of the political Enlightenment have done their job too well, and we've now trained a new generation where these rational ideals of power are emphasized without accompanying acknowledgement of the lower-level models of power that underly the Big system (and still rule the rest of the world that lacks strong institutions protecting rule of law). The American judicial system is an intricately balanced piece of political machinery, but still relies on a strong military / police force, for example.

The question remains, I guess, how important it is to care about these ad-hoc and militaristic-sounding philosophies like neoreaction. I care because like you, it seeems, I am anthropologically tied to this ever-alluring brand of over-nerdery. But sometimes I see things like Phalanx and wonder if someone shouldn't phone the cult investigation agency.

jed said...

What Christopher Johnson said.

Also any specific form of democracy is very much a formal (and simplistic) institutional mechanism for allocating power. To be sure describing just the formal mechanism vastly oversimplifies the political reality, but conversely the political reality is constrained by the legitimacy of the simplistic formal mechanism. Politicians can and do game the mechanism in major ways, but they don't seem to be able to just ditch it.

mtraven said...

Kay: that՚s a very interesting point. I wonder what the modal Rationalist would say to the incompatibility of markets and rationality? Anyway, I was just trying to psychologize Moldbug, not justify his reasoning. I think he՚s an extreme case of wanting everything to be derived from a small set of principles (see his Urbit project for the expression of that in a mostly nonpolitical domain). I am sort of that way myself, so I recognize the tendency.

Dain: the left, at least, is justifiably a bit wary of power because of the sorry regimes that have arisen when Marxist factions gain state power. It՚s much safer, ethically, to always be on the side of the powerless.

Crawfurdmuir said...

You write: "Libertarianism holds great attraction for nerds in part because of its (ostensible) elegant distribution of control. The realities of winner-take-all monopoly capitalism don՚t enter into their thinking (...)"

It is widely observed that monopolies are not durable except where backed by the power of the state. The history of anti-trust litigation illustrates this. To name only one well-known instance, the DoJ anti-trust prosecution of IBM fell apart after thirteen years and was dismissed as "without merit" in 1982, by which time it was evident that the focus of computing had shifted from mainframes to personal computers, and the supposed monopoly's lunch was being eaten by competitors. Unlike, for example, the French state tobacco monopoly from 1926-71, or OPEC, IBM had not harnessed state power to interdict competition - and competition predictably emerged. The real economic vice is not monopoly, per se, but the ability of politicians and the governments they control to deliver economic rents to their cronies and favorites. Eliminate that ability, and the problem goes away.

Next you write: "neoreactionaries fetishize centralized power" and further write: "Moldbug basically was a libertarian who was too smart to accept the fantasies of the market worshipers, so rather than giving up he doubled down and advocated rule by an absolute monarch."

These seem to me to omit a significant aspect at least of the original Moldbug version of neoreaction: namely, that the territorial jurisdictions of these absolute monarchies (or the alternative he proposes, joint-stock corporations) would be very small. In other words, the world would have no super-powers, but rather would be made up of thousands of city-states like Singapore, or little principalities like Liechtenstein.

In place of parliamentary democracy, their inhabitants would have the ability to "vote with their feet" and leave, along with their skills and capital, for greener pastures - though their ability to migrate to other jurisdictions would not be guaranteed.

Neo-cameralism or formalism views government as a sort of industry (as did the original cameralists such as Hornigk, Becher, and Schröder). The city-states' governments would thus be engaged in a sort of competition with each other, in the same way that individual businesses compete within any other industry.

For a bright, skilled, and economically successful person, the commercial freedom of a place like Singapore, combined with its rigorous suppression of lower-class crime, compares favorably with the typical American city, where respectable and successful people are viewed as cash cows to be mulcted in order to bribe the lumpen element that elects its politicians and threatens riot when it doesn't get its way. This perhaps explains the attraction of neoreaction better than your speculations about the psychology of nerds.

mtraven said...

Christopher: I agree that making models is useful. Mistaking your model for reality is a common trap though. I have to say that the rationalists I know are plenty smart enough to understand that a model is a model and that it has limitations. Yet they seem more in thrall to models than most people.

Also agree people don՚t seem to have very good models these days of how to reconcile reason and power. Maybe they never have, it՚s been a big problem in Western thought for millenia. I kind of like Bruno Latour՚s efforts to square this circle, see this especially.

Jed: yes, democracy allocates power but it also serves the function of legitimizing power, for better or worse. It՚s important for power to have some reasonably unquestionable footing so it can function. Even kings had to be legitimize their rule through the church or other ritual mechanics. It՚s a very weird process, tied up with sacralization – I suppose that the foundations of power are sacred so that nobody will examine or critique them too closely.

kay schluehr said...

I think he՚s an extreme case of wanting everything to be derived from a small set of principles (see his Urbit project for the expression of that in a mostly nonpolitical domain). I am sort of that way myself, so I recognize the tendency.

Note that all of this is at odds with divine irrationality. A rational order cannot be absolute which is why the historical kings, up to Napoleon, tied their fate to an element of divine chance, which is totally out of their control. God or the heaven could always decide otherwise, no matter how orderly they lived, how well they prepared their rituals, how many heathens they converted by the sword. There might be a natural order but more surely there is natural corruption and disaster. Democracy embedded chance as peoples will. This is not about "wisdom of the crowds" or other humanitarian + libertarian compliments to the people but expression of will which acts like a blind natural force to those who rule. Now all the sudden a God talks back to the rulers and even sticks to the (election) rituals instead of sending them revolts, pestilence and foreign conquerers. It is not the only element of blind chance which is directly embedded in our societies, the other one are the markets, which are often adored despite of them. "Dark enlightenment" doesn't get far enough when it simply hates the people i.e. will and chance and presents glossy prospects of rational orders.

That being said I wouldn't be unhappy to see a rationalist political movement which acts persistently and indifferently according to its own methods. If rule-following or procedural action according to an intelligently controlled process, but without too much ceremonial, is what nerds desire, then they might set it up: a computer aided political process. This is very different from computer scientists adopting an ideology and get sentimental about either crowds (Pirate Party) or elites (NRx). They should use their own strengths instead of becoming ventriloquists of the elders like Moldbug with their political economies, ideologies and rhetoric devices, which have grown under entirely different conditions.

TGGP said...

Your post made me think of seasteading as the non-political (technological) cure for politics. Although of course politics may continue to exist within any hypothetical stead.

I mused on the lefty politics of victims a while back. Reading Sailer more recently makes one more skeptical.

David Mankins said...

I just finished Neal Stephenson's *Seveneves* where I noticed the obverse of this notion --- and I'm going back and re-reading (the otherwise unrelated) *Anathem* for a bit more of that aspect of it.

In *Seveneves* there are a number of places where the narrator steps outside of a conversation, and makes explicit the elements of the conversation game that is going on in a given scene --- i.e., what the strategies of the different "players" are. To a lesser degree he does the same with politics (mostly, politics, beyond the interpersonal, happens off stage).

*Anathem* is about a collection of people who have made a study of the games of politics and discourse, because the politics occasionally rears up and threatens to kill them, and discourse is their life. They've catalogued the patterns and made them explicit --- given them names and a taxonomy. In other words, he's making politics friendly to the sorts of rule-driven people you describe as being drawn to these systems that try to get politics out of life.

David Burns said...

Other types can get elected or make money in politics, but can they actually get anything done? Or is that the point?

Johnson got the Great Society.
Nixon went to China.
Ford fought inflation and lost.
Carter fought Iran and lost, did some useful deregulation that no one noticed.
Reagan got shot and talked with the Russians a lot.
Bush puked on the Prime Minister of Japan.
Clinton had an orgasm. "Welfare reform?" Really?
Bush didn't do something useful, he *was* something useful.
Obama got Obamacare.

Mike Travers said...

I heard Stephenson read from Seveneves last week, a guy from work dragged me; I have been kind of down on him since Quicksilver but sounds like it is time to let him redeem himself.

Erving Goffman is the go-to person on cataloging discourse games, at least in nonfiction.

David Mankins said...

You may want to temper my opinion with the knowledge that I loved Quicksilver and its sequels, but I think Anathem is very much worth it, though perhaps the Macguffin is a bit wonky.

Ryan said...

Neoreactionaries don't fetishize centralized power, they fetishize unity between disciplinary and juridical power. They just don't realize it. Moldbug has read 15,000 books but for some reason none of them were written by Foucault.

ihcoyc said...

I was momentarily intrigued by Moldbug and the neo-reactionaries. Like at least some of them, I understand that humans have a more or less indelible human nature that was shaped by evolution -- by natural and sexual selection. I've also thought that some kinds of aristocratic polity had arguable merit -- at minimum, they weren't things that should be dismissed out of hand.

On the other hand, accepting human nature as a given means accepting politics as inevitable. The human mind was built for networking in human societies. Its most remarkable feature is its unprecedented language processing facility, the defining human adaptation. Politics hardly vanished in any of the absolute monarchies of history. Monarchies make politics secretive and homicidal, and otherwise more fun to read about than the kinds practiced in republics. But if monarchical politics has any other virtue other than being more picturesque, that virtue is inefficiency.

I see some merit in aristocratic polities mostly because I see them having a track record of being able to apply the brakes to economic and technological change. Aristocracies bring non-aristocrats the precious blessing that comes from knowing that trying harder gets you nowhere.

Anonymous said...

I think that describes the neoreactionaries very well, actually! No neoreactionary ever says "I think *I* should be the king," and none come up with plans to seize power. Some want to sit back and watch the world fall apart from failing to follow the political system they think would save it (hence the survivalism overlap), and otherwise want to sit back and theorize until the world decides their arguments are right and demands a king.

NRxers want there to *be* centralized power, but none seem to want to wield it. Very few even seem willing to float suggestions for people who could. They want to be hidden in hierarchy, the advisors to some abstract throne.

Anonymous said...

You are a nerd, I am a nerd. We are all nerds... But anyway I as an aspie like rules, rules provide structure, and structure is good for my well being and state of mind. In politics there are rules too... The most important of these rules is that there is no such thing as a utopia or a perfect society; such a thing cannot exist, has never existed, and will never exist. Why is this? Well, for starters humans are imperfect creature, I am an imperfect creature, YOU are an imperfect creatures, all humans are imperfect creatures. Societies are collections of humans. Since humans are imperfect society is imperfect. Society cannot exist without politicians, and politicians cannot exist without society. Thus if society cannot be made to be perfect, therefore the rulers of said society cannot be perfect. Hence politics and government cannot be made perfect. While we cannot make politics and society perfect we can make them more perfect, and this is a worthy cause even if the means by which we have to do it (i.e. engaging in politics) are distasteful.

secret said...

Interesting perspective, glad to have come across it.