Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Lies That Bind

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It's much more important to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat...Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation.

Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled...But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum 'natural' size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither individually know, nor effectively gossip about, more than 150 human beings...How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths...Yet none of these things exists outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

Diogenes, Shutter Your Lamp

Justin Smith:

What Russia does, with its massive military arsenal and its historically rooted resistance to absorption into the US- and NATO-dominated order, is far more important than anything the American left is currently focusing on. It's far more important than anything ISIS does, than anything alienated European-born jihadists do. No sense can be made of it if one's categories of analysis are 'white' and 'non-white', which again are mostly just memes disguised as categories of analysis. My own view, for which I've argued before, is that the best the left could do is to engage truly progressive, internationalist, anti-Putin forces within Russia, which do exist, even though most in the western left have no idea of them. Even this probably wouldn't help much. Putin is too powerful. And neither he, nor Kadyrov, nor anyone else in the former Soviet bloc, for that matter, could care less about who won the latest White Off on Twitter.

Less identitarian caterwauling, frivolous posturing, and community theater, please. More deep history, real analysis, and global scope. 

To a casual onlooker, many of the issues being discussed on the web have a political appearance. The manner in which they are being discussed, though, demonstrates their lack of serious content. As anyone who has taken DeBoer 101 knows, race, gender, economics and geopolitics are mere tokens in a game of social media sorting, where the players compete for meaningless status. I don't disagree with anything Smith says in his post. I just don't know why he's expecting to find mature discussions of serious issues in this environment, as if the average schmuck on Twitter has anything remotely insightful to say about Russia. Perhaps it's just a rhetorical trope, intended to shame people out of their adolescent superficiality, in which case, good luck.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Where the Rubber Plantation Meets the Capitalist Road

The choices were stark: sack a third of our workforce or cut their wages by a third. After a short board meeting we cut their wages, assured they would survive and that, with a bit of cajoling, they would return to our sweatshop in Shenzhen after their two-week break.

But that was only the start. In Zoe Svendsen’s play World Factory at the Young Vic, the audience becomes the cast. Sixteen teams sit around factory desks playing out a carefully constructed game that requires you to run a clothing factory in China. How to deal with a troublemaker? How to dupe the buyers from ethical retail brands? What to do about the ever-present problem of clients that do not pay? Because the choices are binary they are rarely palatable. But what shocked me – and has surprised the theatre – is the capacity of perfectly decent, liberal hipsters on London’s south bank to become ruthless capitalists when seated at the boardroom table.

The classic problem presented by the game is one all managers face: short-term issues, usually involving cashflow, versus the long-term challenge of nurturing your workforce and your client base. Despite the fact that a public-address system was blaring out, in English and Chinese, that “your workforce is your vital asset” our assembled young professionals repeatedly had to be cajoled not to treat them like dirt.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Race to the Bottom

From the link:

On matters of race, campaigners are instituting a racial hierarchy of intellectual worth. It is based on the idea that only those with 'experience' can properly assess a political issue pertaining to it.

There is obviously a grain of truth of truth in that – all the most powerful falsehoods are based on a grain of truth. But what happens when we embed that fact into how we conduct political discourse? We are saying that the race of the person speaking is more important than the content of their words. We base our assessment of their intellectual and moral validity on their race. This is, quite plainly, 'negative thoughts towards another individual on the basis of their race'. It may be racism with a positive purpose. It may be a drop in the racist ocean compared to the horrors and abuses ethnic minorities go through every day. But that does not change what it is.

The colour of one's skin has been given primacy over the content of one's character.

Most depressingly of all, it is a rejection of the power of moral imagination. It turns its back on empathy as a political force. It does not perceive us as people fighting for the rights of others as well as ourselves. In fact, it is a highly capitalistic and right-wing vision of humanity, as self-interested units only capable of improving their own lot.

I see no reason to be optimistic that the left will ever turn away from the easy incentives of jockeying for status and position within inverted oppression hierarchies, or making vague, impotent gestures in the direction of salvific revolution. At the same time, I'm not a believer in Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, either. If politics itself has become ossified, then it's likely that culture or technology will eventually provide the dynamic force to shake things up again. (Trying to be more specific than that, though, is a mug's game.) But whatever form change takes, and whichever direction it comes from, I imagine it will take us all by surprise at first, only to appear obvious and inevitable in hindsight.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Old Man of Chelm

But Howe’s central point was far more serious than these occasional descents into shrillness would suggest. In turning its back on liberalism, the left was doing itself irreparable harm. Responding, no doubt, to the mutation of liberalism into the aggressive anti-communism of Lyndon B. Johnson, the left had decided that liberalism was a sham, that democracy itself (or ‘bourgeois democracy’) was merely a veiled form of capitalist domination. For Howe, terms such as ‘liberal fascism’ and the use of the word ‘totalitarian’ to describe US society – Norman Mailer was one of the culprits here – were revealing of a profound confusion. Yes, the Cold Warriors in the US government were as invested in ‘liberalism’ as Dr King, but any left that dismissed the principles of humane tolerance and disinterested speculation that were the essence of the liberal tradition was making a mighty rod for its own back.

The left, he argued, must acknowledge its roots in, as well as the necessity to go beyond – to expand upon – the liberal tradition; it must come to recognise the unity of socialism and democracy, to see socialism as the means through which democracy can be spread to the economic sphere, and not fall for the ‘pseudo-Leninist’ line that Western-style democracy is an impediment to social justice. Howe was in no doubt at all that liberalism was insufficient to solve the problems of equality and injustice. But he also knew that any left that failed to give liberalism its due would slide quickly into either authoritarianism or irrelevance. Perhaps it would not be unfair to suggest that the fate of the New Left, in the US and elsewhere, was to slide into the second, while evincing a callow sympathy for the first.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Shape of Things to Come

As the case of Odinism suggests, Nature abhors a vacuum. If, as the world grows richer and more educated, supernatural religion continues to decline, then the void of belief may be filled by new creeds. Revived paganism is likely to be limited in its appeal. More successful will be secular creeds that combine the imagery of modern science and technology with the certainty and zeal of pre-modern faiths. Marxism was justified by a pseudoscience of history, while pseudoscientific Social Darwinism provided the underpinnings of German National Socialism. Communists and Nazis alike believed that they were scientific and up-to-date, even as they enjoyed the kind of certainty and solidarity that religion traditionally has provided.

The advanced industrial nations of North America, Europe and East Asia suffer from Muslim jihadism, but they are not going to be conquered from without or within by champions of a new caliphate. The real threat to post-Christian civilization will come from within. Like Marxism and National Socialism, it will take the form of a militant secular creed, but adopt the trappings and rhetoric of science and technology and appeal to educated people whose spiritual longings go unmet. The adherents of the next major religion to sweep through the secular West will insist that it is science and will deny that it is a religion at all.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When I Go Forwards You Go Backwards and Somewhere We Will Meet

Robert Applebaum:

If you look at studies of people in the wishy-washy middle, among them the “shy Tories” who bolted toward the Conservatives at the last moment, you find individuals who do not believe that the future can be any improvement on the present. They sense that the UK is stagnating economically and culturally; they know that it has become less fair than it used to be. They see that the rich have gotten richer even since the coming of the Great Recession, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. But they don’t feel anything can be done to improve the situation, and their basic instinct is fear that things could get worse.

The shy Tories are neurotics in love with their symptoms. They complain, they feel bad, but they don’t really want to get better. And so given a choice between a remedy and more of the same, they have chosen more of the same.

Ben Cobley:

On the left, we do an excellent job of pushing people away, despite all our talk of ‘inclusion’ and Labour’s claims to be the party of ‘the many not the few’.  My feeling is that this affects all left-leaning parties. That seems to be backed up by the numbers, which show how what you might call a ‘progressive alliance’ composed of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, SDLP, Greens and Plaid Cymru won 47.7% of the total vote in this election while the Conservatives, UKIP and DUP from the right picked up 50.1%. (Thanks to John Clarke for pointing that out).

Compare that to 2010 (a bad year for Labour remember), when the more ‘progressive’ or left-leaning parties won a total of 55.7% against the right’s 41.7% and you can see that over the past five years the British left has been losing votes to the right, despite having a Conservative-led government implementing public spending cuts (known in left-wing circles as ‘austerity’). As a whole, the voters have looked at us and said, “You know what, the other lot aren’t great but I prefer them over you lot. See you later.”

This is where we need to start, by admitting that with the bulk of the British pubic, we are unpopular – the only serious exception being the SNP in Scotland which has got its identity politics worked out. There are lessons to be learned here. 

I don't have any important insight into British politics. I just found it interesting and amusing to read these posts in juxtaposition. In a way, it's reassuringly familiar to see British lefties like Bobby Appletree respond to political setbacks the same way our progressives do here — with incredulous scorn and withering contempt for the ungrateful voters who are too stupid or craven to choose what's best for them. Well, I'll never be mistaken for a political scientist, but it still seems obvious to me that projecting an attitude of haughty impatience toward people who don't already agree with you, especially when you're not operating from a position of strength to begin with, is rather self-defeating.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vape Culture

I drove past a vape shop the other day that had a very silly name. I don't even remember what it was, though. That's just it — it wasn't like a clever pun or anything memorable, it was just weird. The kind of thing that makes you say, "What the fuck...?" before slipping out of your memory at the next stoplight.

So, it occurred to me that the title you see above would be a good name for a shop. The way I see it, it's one of those deals where the people who will be angrily boycotting you probably weren't ever going to shop there anyway, and you'll get all the free advertising you could possibly want. Any aspiring entrepreneurs out there, feel free to use it. (Just remember whose idea it was if you ever have money to burn.)

Yeah, yeah, I'm going to hell. As if you didn't snicker.

...of course, Google exists to remind you that you've never had an original thought in your life. Ah, well.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

What's the Big Idea?

'With my other boyfriends we always had discussions about how to improve the world,' Ariane said to me one morning as we lay in bed.

'What solutions did you propose?' I asked. 'Getting rid of armies and governments? Back to the land? The abolition of money?'

'Yes, those ideas came up. How would you improve the world, then?' Ariane asked me.

'Maybe not try to improve it,' I said. 'Stop having dreams of big solutions and try to make it work better with a few more little laws. I dunno.'

Ariane was frustrated by my lack of conviction. Communism was all about building Utopias, but trendy Western European theorists now called our age post-utopian. Where I came from, a lack of convictions was one of one's most deeply-held convictions.

'But how will you end exploitation, poverty and environmental destruction?'

'Maybe they can't be ended,' I said. When Ariane and I talked politics it always made me think of an episode from an old science-fiction series. I felt that my spaceship had touched down on a remote part of the Earth. My ideas were like a Martian language to her.

'But doesn't it matter to you that the gap between the poor and the rich has been getting wider,' she asked, beginning to sound irritated.

'Oh, inequality is not such a bad thing. it doesn't matter that the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger, as long as the poor are getting richer, which they are.'

'But don't you feel a sense of outrage at the millions of impoverished migrant workers in China and Asia, filling up the slums of the mega-cities and working in sweatshops to make toys for our children and shoes for our feet?'

'Those people are playing catch-up after years of being held back by Communism. Anyway the alternative is that they stay where they came from, trying to keep the family goat alive on a barren hillside.'

...'Sometimes with you, I am worried that I am going to lose my identity,' she said.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Optimism Doesn't Change the Facts, Just What You're Gonna See

Joseph Heath:

When I was younger, I thought that questions of social justice were easy. It seemed to me that there were two sorts of people in the world — those who were basically selfish, and those who were more generous and caring. Insofar as there was injustice or suffering in the world, it was because those who were selfish had managed to see their interests prevail. Thus the solution to these problems was to persuade people to care more or, failing that, to ensure that people who did care more were given access to political power. Furthermore, because of all the "invisible hand" rhetoric, it seemed obvious to me at the time that capitalism was a system designed by the selfish to advance the interests of the selfish, and that right-wing political parties existed in order to give ideological cover to this operation. Anticapitalism therefore struck me as being a straightforward moral imperative. Government was good; the market was bad.

Now that I'm older, I think there are so many things wrong with this view that I wouldn't even know where to begin enumerating them. Many different factors contributed to this dawning realization. Part of it, no doubt, had to do with spending a fair bit of time, over the course of many years, in Asia, and seeing what an incredible force for development even a poorly structured market economy can be (not to mention what a fiasco the state can be, particularly in places where corruption is an issue). Part of it came from meeting more people outside my immediate circle of left-wing acquaintances, and discovering that "the system" is made up of people pretty much like everyone else, acting on the basis of the usual mix of selfish and altruistic motives that one encounters in any walk of life. But a lot of it came from reading economics, and from trying to work through systematically the alternatives to the existing order of things. What one discovers through this exercise is that for any ridiculous, destructive or unjust state of affairs, there is usually an understandable reason why that state of affairs persists. Our problem is often not that we lack the will to fix our problems, but that we don't know how to fix them.

...Most of the mistakes that people on the left make involve failures of self-restraint — an unwillingness to tolerate moral flaws in society, even when we have no idea how to fix them and no reason to think that the cure will not be worse than the disease.

The book examines six economic fallacies apiece per the right and the left, lest you get the impression that this excerpt epitomizes some "road to conservative Damascus" story. No, this caught my eye because of the way it serves as an illustration of an older, deeper conflict, that of optimism vs. pessimism. His newest book, which I have yet to read, has already inspired some interesting discussion around that theme, such as here, where he elaborates on his view that many sociopolitical problems are simply not fixable. (It amused me greatly to see him state flatly that writing books about policy and culture for a general audience pretty much requires the obligatory closing chapters in which the author offers his "solutions" for how to get everything back on track. Anyone who has read such books should be keenly aware by now of the forced, unconvincing tone that permeates such uninspired calls to action, yet he says that the most common complaint about his earlier book Nation of Rebels was that it didn't offer any ideas on how to "fix" consumerism. Even when people know such prescriptions are worthless, they seemingly can't help desiring the reassuring ritual of reading them. They might as well be fondling rosary beads and muttering prayers, though that suggestion would almost certainly offend their self-conception as rational beings.)

Anyway, I think it's fair to say that since the Enlightenment, it's increasingly taken for granted that reason and science are the tools with which humans can solve any problem. In the more aggressive forms of this outlook, the distinct possibility that everything is knowable and controllable in principle easily morphs into a positive assertion of probability. Skeptical pessimism about the ultimate success of the project ended up being relegated to the fringes of religious conservatism, where it could be safely ignored. Even aging and death are now being talked about as "technical" problems which can be "solved". Well, I have nothing whatsoever to base this upon but anecdotes and a personal gut sense, but I feel that non-religious, non-conservative, pessimistic perspectives like Heath's (or John Gray's) are starting to gain intellectual traction. It will be interesting to see how major events in this century tip the balance one way or the other.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


The newly-minted doctor of rhetoric asks a rhetorical question:

Do we still have the capacity, as a political and intellectual movement, to argue in a way that’s not entirely based on associating with race or gender in a totally vague, unaccountable, and reductive way?

Magic 8-ball says...?

He continues:

If you want us to stop being a mess, you have to be willing to criticize, and you have to accept that every criticism of an ostensibly progressive argument is not some terrible political betrayal. Not everyone who complains about white people has enlightened racial attitudes. Not everyone who constantly drops “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” into conversation actually helps fight sexism. One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.

Matt Taibbi once offered a hypothesis about the psychology of this self-defeating tendency:

That's why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen... Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people — and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here's the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn't matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You're arguing the particulars, where you're right, while they're arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.

Of course, as you may have noticed by the references to God and swiftboating, the original context had Taibbi attributing this mentality to fundamentalist Christians in particular and Republicans in general. If you leave that partisan bias aside, you can't help but notice that "making sure the argument never stops" is also the emotional imperative driving the online dynamics among progressives that Freddie has been criticizing in vain lo these many years. The point of all their sound and fury is not to end misogyny or racism; the point is to keep finding new sources and hiding places of those social ills in order to ensure that the fun of denouncing and posturing never has to stop. The web is not a place for serious political action. It's a kennel full of baying hounds, desperate to be let loose after the scent of social injustice. The thrill of the hunt is what they live for.