Monday, November 05, 2018

The Conflict

I՚ve recently composed a number of aborted posts relating to “conflict theory”, arguing for the importance of the political, or speculating on the nature of political conflict, etc. None of them made it past a few paragraphs, because we aren՚t in a time for high-minded meta-level thinking. Shit is getting real. So I՚m pointing to a couple of writers who are making that point.

First, by Jacob Bacharach, a Jewish writer who lives in Pittsburgh, which states as plainly as possible “They are coming to kill us




Second, by Paul Campos, a law professor and blogger at Lawyers Guns & Money:


I don՚t know what else to add, except to exhort people like myself, who are prone to abstraction and meta-level thinking, that the time for chin-scratching about the relationship of speech and action or whether or not Nazis should get punched is long past. The guns and violence are coming out, and whether or not you are interested in politics, it is interested in you. Please vote against fascism tomorrow, it's the best thing we can do now to avoid having to fight it with stronger means in the future.


Monday, April 16, 2018

You know who else was a conflict theorist?

In my last post I declared that in the meta-conflict between conflict-theory and mistake-theory, I found myself on the side of the former. I had plenty of justification, but I also tried to acknowledge the best arguments of the mistake-theorists (steelmanning their position, in the rationalist lexicon). I tried to credit not only their arguments, but their motivations. They seem well-intentioned, striving towards peacefulness, whereas the motives of the conflict-oriented seem inherently less pure.

But ultimately I think SSC is making a confusion between meta- and object-levels. Conflict itself is rightly regarded as something generally kind of bad, something that most well-intentioned people try to avoid. But conflict-theory doesn՚t necessarily inherit that moral valence. It is not about promoting conflict, it is merely acknowledging the omnipresent and necessary reality of conflict, and trying to come up with better ways to understand it and deal with it.

That being said – if I am being honest about my own motivations, the different levels are not so clearly separable. I am, after all, seeking out conflict, not merely theorizing about it. I՚m starting to wonder if it is, in fact, obnoxious. Spoiling for a fight is OK only if you are among fighters; if you try to pick a fight among those who would rather not, it՚s just being a jerk.

But maybe conflict theory is even worse than obnoxious. For instance, it appears to be a foundational component of the worst, most dangerous political ideas known to mankind. From the introduction to Timothy Snyder՚s Black Earth, a recent new history of the Holocaust:
Human races, Hitler was convinced, were like species…Races should behave like species, like mating with like and seeking to kill unlike. This for Hitler was a law, the law of racial struggle, as certain as the law of gravity. The struggle could never end, and it had no certain outcome. A race could triumph and flourish and could also be starved and extinguished. 
In Hitler’s world, the law of the jungle was the only law. People were to suppress any inclination to be merciful and be as rapacious as they could. Hitler thus broke with the traditions of political thought that presented human beings as distinct from nature in their capacity to imagine and create new forms of association. Beginning from that assumption, political thinkers tried to describe not only the possible but the most just forms of society. For Hitler, however, nature was the singular, brutal, and overwhelming truth, and the whole history of attempting to think otherwise was an illusion. Carl Schmitt, a leading Nazi legal theorist, explained that politics arose not from history or concepts but from our sense of enmity. Our racial enemies were chosen by nature, and our task was to struggle and kill and die.
Snyder presents a rather shockingly coherent portrait of Hitler՚s world view, making him seem quite different from the inexplicable charismatic madman we are used to. Hitler՚s views made a certain internal sense. This shouldn՚t be that surprising, in that any ideology has to have enough internal logic so that people can understand and adopt it.

And what is most disturbing about it is that it is not, as a theory, obviously wrong. It՚s not hard to imagine its appeal, especially if you aren՚t aware of the historical consequences. Conflict and racial enmity are pretty powerful forces, after all. Hitler theorized them up to 11, and created an ideology in which they were able to override the seemingly weaker values, such as humanity, universality, generosity, caring.

Snyder continues:
[Hitler՚s opponents] were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to custom and institution; mental habits that grew from social experience that hindered them from reaching the most radical of conclusions. They were ethically committed to goods such as economic growth or social justice, and found it appealing or convenient to imagine that natural competition would deliver these goods. Hitler entitled his book Mein Kampf — My Struggle . From those two words through two long volumes and two decades of political life, he was endlessly narcissistic, pitilessly consistent, and exuberantly nihilistic where others were not. The ceaseless strife of races was not an element of life, but its essence. …. Struggle was life, not a means to some other end. It was not justified by the prosperity (capitalism) or justice (socialism) that it supposedly brought. …. Struggle was not a metaphor or an analogy, but a tangible and total truth. The weak were to be dominated by the strong, since “the world is not there for the cowardly peoples.” And that was all that there was to be known and believed.
If this is what conflict theory is in the extreme, maybe we should be wary of it even in all forms. But I don՚t think all forms of conflict theory are equivalent.

For one thing: Hitler՚s notion of conflict was reductively brutal. His conflict was based on competition for the most basic things (reproduction, land, food) and necessarily fought through the most violent means, that is, war and mass murder.

I am against that sort of thing. The conflicts I՚m seeking are intellectual or political or moral in nature, things Hitler didn՚t really care about. And while my politics aren՚t terribly consistent these days, they are grounded in opposition to war, specifically opposition to the Vietnam War which is where I got my start. That was a conflict, but it was a conflict between a war machine that was killing both foreigners and Americans, and a generation of peaceniks who wanted to stop that.

For another: I don՚t think that races are necessarily the groups who are in conflict, or the most important dimension of conflict. This can be the case, of course, but groups can form around many other shared properties. The racist aspect of Nazism was obviously pretty fundamental to what it was doing, and reinforces its brutality.

In fact, didn՚t we have a war between the Hitler conflict theorists and his bitter enemies (the USSR and western powers) who were also most assuredly conflict theorists themselves? And to state the obvious: the good guys didn՚t win WWII by reasoning with Hitler, they won by pounding the shit out of him. Mistake theorists like Chamberlain didn՚t come out looking very good.

It՚s almost as if “conflict theorist” isn՚t a real thing or useful idea. It՚s an artificial category that includes everybody from Gandhi to Hitler in the same very large bucket – the bucket of people who believe conflict and struggle are fundamental.

While mistake theory includes, I don՚t know, a handful of seasteaders, technocrats, and rationalists? If 99.9% of the world is conflict theorists then I don՚t feel so bad about being in the same bucket as Hitler. On the other hand, maybe all believers in utilitarianism can be classed as mistake theorists, and there are a lot of those.

I am not sure what I am getting at with this post. Introducing Hitler into a discussion rarely helps clarify things. But it՚s the struggle against the really bad ideas he personified and that outlive him that gets me going. This blog doesn՚t exactly kill fascists, but it certainly is obsessed with them and figuring out how to fight them. If I՚m going to be in a conflict, I need enemies, and this stuff certainly fits the role.

The SSC crowd are not fascists, not in the slightest! But they also don՚t seem to see creeping fascism as very significant. They are much more concerned about the excesses of campus SJWs than, say, the rise of white supremacist groups. They are more concerned with overreaching charges of racism than the underlying racism. And they think political conflict is merely regrettable, not an absolutely basic and inevitable part of social life, something which everybody is involved with whether they like it or not. And to the extent that their ideas are wrong and distract from the actual struggle at hand, I՚m against them as well.

But have no special standing to preach political responsibility to anyone. I՚m not some exemplar of engagement and don՚t want to be; and I՚m certainly not a recruiter for the Resistance. I'm arguing here, not to convert or accuse anybody, but because SSC has found a new approach to some very basic issues that I care a lot about, and I can't resist engaging with them. And as a conflict guy, engagement tends to look like a fight. It's a different sort of fight, since as far as values go, I think we're basically on the same side.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Conflict Theory

[Warning: This very long post was inspired by a SlateStarCodex post, but from there goes rambling all over the place. I take more potshots at Scott Alexander than he deserves. For that I apologize, but I can only say that I find his writing extremely thought provoking, and I feel a need to provoke back.

I had to divide this into sections to make it even moderately navigable.] 

Blind spot

I՚ve been making various criticisms of Scott Alexander, mostly attacking his antipolitical stand,  accusing him and people of his general ilk of not only disliking the conflict inherent in politics, but of denying its importance and occasionally even its very existence:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind… Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. …
This quote seems to reveal an epic blindness – a dread of conflict so complete it has repressed the very possibility of disagreement. But like the good rationalist that he is, the author is both aware of his own biased tendencies, and pledged to fight against them.

The meta-conflict

His newer post, Conflict vs Mistake, seems like an effort to notice and correct for this epistemological blindness, to figure out a way to encompass conflict, to acknowledge its reality and power, and to theorize about its relationship to knowledge.

To this end, he sketches out a dichotomy between two separate forms of political theory, two opposing mindsets, two different kinds of people who prefer different kinds of explanations for social problems:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects. 

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
To reword it a bit: Mistake theorists treat politics as a technical problem and view political disagreements as being basically the same sort of thing as engineers disagreeing about a problem – that is, there may be better or worse solutions, but ultimately there is some objective notion of better and worse that everyone can agree to if they are smart enough.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, treat politics as a struggle rather than an optimization problem. Individuals form coalitions to advance their own interests and these coalitions compete for resources, control. and dominance. Political conflicts are not about who is right and wrong, but about who has power and who doesn՚t. There՚s no possibility of a stable best solution because different factions have different goals, and no solution can satisfy all of them simultaneously.

First thing to note – does anybody really believe that politics and conflict don՚t enter into engineering or medical decisions? Certainly nobody with any actual experience in an organization.

Nevertheless it is true that engineering and medicine are grounded in a reality that is independent of human opinion or interest, a physical world that at minimum puts tight constraints around what is possible, what works and what doesn՚t. There is an objective ground truth, no matter how we slice it up or what values we want to impose on it. As a result, disagreements can at least in theory be settled by disinterested calculations.

Mistake theorists view social problems as being like that, or possibly they are people who want problems to be like that. Or perhaps feel that they should be like that. Or maybe they are afraid (not without reason) that if we don՚t approach social problems in a way that is a joint search for a best solution, then there is not even a possibility of peace. The world ends up being a hellscape of perpetual war, or maybe one side annihilates the other. This is such a horrifying and depressing prospect that they feel a visceral moral obligation to move towards a more mistake-theoretic worldview.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, have evidence on their side. Whether or not conflict is bad, it is certainly a basic fixture of human reality, and inescapable if one is to do any remotely serious thinking about politics.

Taking a side against taking sides

Nevertheless, while the SSC post as a whole earnestly strives to present both sides on an equal footing, it doesn՚t take much subtextural analysis to get the impression that the author himself is solidly a mistake theorist who thinks the conflict theorists are basically jerks (sometimes far worse), and maybe not all that bright. Perhaps as a consequence, he can՚t quite imagine what it would be like to be a conflict theorist, and his portrayals of the conflict theory stance always sounds kind of weak.
For example, here he compares the two sides take on the specific issue of democracy:
When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate. 

When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.
Unpacking this, there are at least two serious distortions here. For one thing, it equates “conflict theorist” with leftism or a pro-democracy stance, which oddly ignores the entire neoreactionary movement, which is very much a conflict theory with an anti-democratic stance ( SSC has written extensively about neoreaction in the past, so this is a kind of weird omission).

For the other thing, it also equates conflict theory with both millenarianist utopianism and manicheanism – a belief system of dreamers for whom politics is a utopian fantasy (“once and for all”) rather than an actual daily struggle. While I՚m sure there are people like that, it ignores 95% of the ordinarily politically active people, who are conflict theorists simply because it՚s a very ordinary aspect of life and a defining feature of political life.

So the attempt to describe conflict theory doesn՚t seem very convincing, even given the explicitly cartoonish aspect of what he՚s trying to do. You can really feel that an effort is being made to be generous to a foreign and distasteful worldview, and that the effort is not really that successful.

Wishing away conflict

He՚s perfectly aware that conflict is a real feature of political life, of course – you՚d have to be kind of idiotic to think otherwise. But, he also seems to think it can be magicked away somehow. Here՚s a quote from a follow-up post:
Politics is about having conflict. Mistake-theorists would love to become post-political, in the sense of circumventing all conflicts. Conflicts actually happening as conflicts is a failure, deadweight loss. This wouldn’t mean that nobody has different interests. It would mean that those different interests play out in some formalized way that doesn’t look conflict-y.
These ideas don’t deny the existence of conflict – they just represent a desire to avoid it rather than win it.
So mistake theorists do acknowledge conflicting interests, they just want those conflicts to be settled in “some formalized way that doesn՚t look conflict-y”. I am not sure what this means. We actually do have really existing formalized ways of dealing with conflict, such as the judicial system, but that is plenty “conflict-y”. To be sure, it՚s a better, less damaging kind of conflict than (eg) blood vendetta, but still fundamentally conflictual in its nature.

The idea of a non-conflict-y way of settling conflict doesn՚t actually make any conceptual sense, if you think about it for ten seconds. War, lawsuits, arguments, and coin tosses are all ways of settling conflict. Some are more civilized than others, but all are equally conflict-y, because a way of settling conflict sort of has to be.

What would a non-conflicty-y method even look like? The examples he gives are various libertarian utopian schemes where people who disagree simply sort and separate themselves geographically, so you end up with a bunch of different polities each coalesced around shared values. In other words it is a way of avoiding (as opposed to settling) a conflict, so I guess that is actually kind of non-confict-y (whether it realistic or desirable is another question).

Now, if the above quote was rephrased to say “different interests play out in some formalized way that is nonviolent or less violent”, then it would make far more sense. Lawsuits and war are both conflicts but one is far more violent and damaging than the other, and it would be good to try to get people to use the less harmful and costly methods. But I don՚t think Scott is making an argument for nonviolence, at least in the usual sense, given that the leading practitioners of nonviolence (Gandhi, King) were most assuredly not avoiding conflict, but actively engaging in it with nonviolent methods.

God must like conflict or he wouldn՚t have made so much of it

There are plenty of good reasons to have a distaste for political conflict. It can be kind of brain-numbing, it encourages sloganeering rather than deep thinking, and in our present environment relies on a rather toxic process of demonizing opponents (and a correspondingly moral self-regard which might be even more corrosive). It seems to be part of a world grounded on brute force which is anathema to the higher values of civilized society, including morality and justice. Certainly the world would be a better place if we could stop fighting and solve our collective problems through the application of reason. Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (war, famine, disease, death), war is the only one that seems like it could be easily prevented by simply not doing it.

So yeah you can hate conflict for many different reasons – for the pain it causes, for the waste, for the ugliness of enmity when compared to the beauty of harmony, for its stupidity, for its privileging of strength over intelligence.

But, despite all that, conflict is not all bad, and in fact something to be sought out (I am seeking it right now, and don՚t really feel all that ashamed about it). Conflict is interesting, peace is boring. We love heroes, and you don՚t get them without battles for them to fight. If we feel we have been treated badly, we not only feel the right to fight for justice, we are almost compelled to do so.

So yeah I guess I am on the other side of the meta-conflict between conflict and mistake. It՚s not even that I like conflict so much, I just see it as an essential feature of reality, and for me, understanding the world requires integrating conflict at a fundamental level.

The metaphysics is probably for another post, but briefly: you can՚t understand the world without understanding purpose and teleology, and you can՚t have purpose and teleology without conflict. That՚s obviously how biology works; and despite our quite stunning cognitive abilities, we haven՚t leveraged ourselves that far from biology yet.

Why I fight

The cultural and political wars are very real, and I feel compelled to take part in them, even though they often get stupid and ugly, as war does.

Digging into the nature of that compulsion might be another future post, for now let՚s just say that those of us who have had political mass-murder directed at their families and communities are a little impatient with the why-can՚t-we-all-get-along stance. This isn՚t theoretical, there is something out there (well, it used to be out there, now it has in here, quite at home and public within the US) that actually wants to kill me. That gets my attention. There are no mistake theorists in foxholes.

Why is any of this interesting?

Scott seems to have reconceptualized a very fundamental and basic (and not all that new) philosophical issue – the relationship between knowledge and power. At one level, we are both roughly on the same side. We are knowledge people, or we wouldn՚t be reading and writing amateur philosophy; we՚d be out gaining power and making money – doing politics, not arguing meta-politics. And we are both trying to grapple with the reality of how to live as knowledge people in a world ruled by power.

But beyond that similarity, there is a big difference: Scott and the rationalism he exemplifies thinks that pure, disinterested knowledge can and should supplant power. I don՚t think that is possible and I don՚t even think it is particularly desirable – or to put it another way, I can՚t imagine a realistic world that works that way.

And I also have to admit that amateur nerds like Scott and myself are late to this party. The nature of relationship between power and knowledge has been the subject of investigation by serious thinkers, like Nietzsche, Foucault, Latour. Pretty much the whole field of critical theory is about just this. But that kind of stuff does not penetrate very far into the rationalist community, almost by definition. I՚ve been trying for a few decades now to absorb it myself, with only limited success.

But I persist because understanding this particular dichotomy seems absolutely critical, not only for politics but for the development of computational technology (my day job). Computation is also a theory of how knowledge and power are related. Computer programs are symbolic structures that also have the ability to act on the world. AI in its various forms is founded on the idea that computers and human minds are alike, and the core of the similarity is that both computations and minds have this weird dual nature of being both symbol manipulators and embodied causal systems. And in both cases, the relationship between representation and action is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Politics may be seen as how this process works at a social level. Politics too involves beliefs (in values, in particular leaders, in justice) and collective action. In politics, it's very clear that representations don't stand alone but are only as strong as the energy they can enlist in their cause.

I'm grateful to Scott for bringing this question up in a new form, at a good level of abstraction, even if I don't much care for his specific takes. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Have a Blessed Day

I just got phone spam from some health insurance seller (and who would be dumb enough to buy health insurance from a company that sleazily skirts the do-not-call list?). I didn՚t pick up, but they left a long voicemail that ended with “And You Have a Blessed Day”.

This really twinged my weirdness detectors. I don՚t think I՚d ever heard that locution used before. But apparently it՚s quite the thing, having started to take off in the seventies and getting huge usage growth in the last decade or so.

I suppose I՚m overreacting but to me it sounds like some Handmaid՚s Tale shit. Apparently it՚s a minor social battle in the culture war, but one that probably take place in more conservative parts of the country than San Francisco.


In a way it՚s a shame, it would be a perfectly innocuous and friendly thing to say, if there wasn՚t a culture war going on. But let՚s not kid ourselves.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Least We Can Do

This speaks for itself:

Except I fear that if Sandy Hook didn՚t get something to change, then nothing possibly can. Not to take anything away from the most recent tragedy (apparently we have to become god damn comparitive measurers of grief and pain, as if we were Olympic judges or something) but if 20 dead elementary school children didn՚t move the institutions of governance to action, what possibly could?

Oddly, 17 high school students maybe can – precisely because of their age and agency. Not the dead ones, of course, but their friends and peers can speak out, something that was not the case for Sandy Hook:



So yes I can see this playing out differently. Dead elementary school students produced a lot of hand-wringing and crocodile tears, dead adolescents might actually produce a force for change. I hope so.

[update: IOW:

]

Monday, January 15, 2018

Social Justice and its Enemies

On this Martin Luther King Jr day I am thinking (god knows why) of the various people I encounter around the net who are alt-right or just so alienated from the mainstream that they have decided to be on the side opposed to social justice. The mocking term SJW encodes the reality that there is a war going on. They feel attacked and are just fighting back, although what they are fighting for is difficult to pin down.

Perhaps not in the cases of those who are fully given to ethnonationalism or white supremacy. Those types are unreachable and I don՚t care about them. They՚ll always be an enemy, hopefully a contained one.

But there seems to be large amorphous group of people who are somewhere on the alt.right spectrum for other reasons – maybe they are mad at the pious hypocrisies they can detect in liberalism, maybe they feel at a social disadvantage for some reason, maybe they feel that the real injustice is being done to them, that certain groups claim to be oppressed (women, blacks, gays) but really are the oppressor. Maybe they feel that they are smarter than most of those pious liberals, and so resent being told that certain of their behaviors and values are bad by people with no special standing to be superior. Or maybe they detect the Christian roots of the value of universal human equality, and thus hate it for Nietzschean reasons as an insidious form of sklavenmoral. Others take the very real atrocities done in the name of communism and use those to dismiss anything remotely leftist as leading inevitably to the Gulag.

Those are all somewhat valid reasons! But they are reasons to dislike the left, not reasons to be for anything in particular. As a result, these people inevitably drift into alliance with the Nazis, who definitely know what they are for. Or they veer off into pseudo-political ideologies like libertarianism (longing for a pure market that has never existed), or neoreaction (yearning for a monarch that has never existed).

Martin Luther King Jr is our culture՚s archetypal social justice warrior. His legacy is a bit confused because he՚s been raised up to a sort of secular sainthood, which tends to hide the fact that he was a politically engaged activist (you should really read this entire excellent essay):


The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” … King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.

This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality.

I try and take a very abstracted view of politics, when I can – that is, I am interested in the political as a phenomenon, above and beyond my own personal values and loyalties. Somehow, people form themselves into coalitions, these coalitions then contest with each other for power, with an ever-present threat of violence which threatens to emerge if and when peaceful (symbolic) conflict resolution fails. It՚s one of those fascinating things humans do. Economic self-interest, group interests, and abstract morality all play roles in this process.

And as it happens, there has been a long conflict in the US between the forces that King represents and the values he fought for, and their opponents. This is just a fact of political life. Another fact of political life is that one has to choose a side. Neutrality is not really an option for any intellectually engaged adult, sorry. .

King has come to stand for certain social values: inclusion, equality, freedom, justice, empathy, non-violence. So, dear alt.righters – do you really want to be on the side that is opposed to those? Do all the things you hate about the left really outweigh these ideals?

Of course politics, and King՚s legacy, isn՚t that simple – but you know, on some level, it is that simple. One of the few consolations to living in the era of Trump is that moral/political questions become very stark, and it becomes pretty damn obvious what the sides are and where decency lies.