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.

1 comment:

Mupetblast said...

"And to the extent that their ideas are wrong and distract from the actual struggle at hand, I՚m against them as well."

That would put you into conflict with A LOT of people. After all, by that criteria everyone who doesn't make the Alt Right their overriding priority is your enemy. The bleeding hearts in the EA movement e.g. would be included.

Even for a conflict theorist it's wise to limit the scope of perceived conflict where you can, on purely pragmatic grounds.