Basic Strategic Concepts

In the past month I’ve had a few different discussions of political strategy where I found myself unable to explain simple points (or at least: points that initially seemed very simple) without going into an unproductive amount of detail about assumptions I was making and the kinds of distinctions I was drawing.  I decided I wanted a cheat-sheet to point to which explains some strategic ideas.  Conversely, many of these strategic concepts are very useful, and if you haven’t encountered them before you may find them helpful.

I’ve organized the concepts into three loose groups.  This first group is derived from game theory, and to some extent from the kind of “ancient wisdom” that is equally applicable to chariot warfare and office politics.  (I hope to eventually put up a second group I associate with Machiavelli and a third group I associate with Clausewitz.)

1. Preparation

Whatever stratagem your enemy can try, whatever position he can attack, whatever damage he can try to inflict; you should not just fear these possibilities, you should plan how you will resist them when he tries.  That way you will already know how to react when one of these possible attacks materializes, and you will have some idea how his operation will go, how much you can slow it down, and to what extent your enemy will achieve his objectives.

There are practical advantages to this kind of preparation.  Your mind is clearer before the danger becomes imminent.  Advance planning ensures that any complex choices are made while there is still time to crank through the details.  Plans that have been decided and studied in advance (or even rehearsed) can be put into effect more smoothly.

But the true value of preparation is that it allows you to gauge your own vulnerabilities and establish priorities for the deployment of additional resources.  If you prepare a strategy for a hypothetical scenario, but even the best response you can find seems to lead to losses that ruin your chances of overall victory (or are unacceptable for any other reason), you should not allow that scenario to take place.  As soon as feasible, you should find ways to redeploy resources to make them available for use in that (potentially-ruinous) scenario, which will allow you to plan a more robust defense.

(…unless, of course, your preparations have revealed even more terrible vulnerabilities elsewhere!)

2. Equivalence

Every counter-measure that you prepare for every contingency you foresee will rely on the use of resources that will be available for use against the hypothetical enemy operation.  While you can make use of a certain asset in your plans for any number of scenarios, typically once you do use that asset, it is committed and unavailable for other uses for some time (if it is not totally expended, like money or munitions).

This means it is inadequate to prepare one response to each possible enemy operation.  You must have some response prepared, of course, but that first response you prepare will hinge on the commitment of certain assets.  However, all of those assets are likely part of your preparations against other hypothetical threats to different objectives.

For example, let’s say that Point A and Point B are both weakly defended.  You have Company C positioned approximately equidistant to each of them.  If the enemy moves against A, you will reinforce A with C.  If the enemy moves against B, you will reinforce B with C.  You don’t know whether he will move against A, B, or neither, but you are prepared either way.

What is wrong with this plan?

Once the enemy moves against A, Company C is committed; your plan to defend B is no longer feasible.  In the best case scenario, this means that you need to urgently redirect resources so that they are in a position to defend B.  This takes the initiative away from you, and freezes any other strategic priorities you hoped to advance; worse, if the defense of B is sufficiently important, the enemy can be confident you will be busy reacting to his attack by scrounging up a new defense of B. He has a free hand for other mischief.

And this “best case” assumes you are able to move resources into a positions where they could be used to defend B in time.  Possibly you have other more urgent priorities, or the enemy is able to coordinate a second operation against B before you have time to find any resources to redeploy.

Another common pattern: your plan to defend Point A calls for the commitment of both Company C (which could also have been used to defend Point B) and of Company D (which could also have been used to defend Point E).  Having stripped resources that were in use in hypothetical attacks on two different targets, you can redeploy the first available asset to defend either B or E, but the other will still be available for the enemy to pick off.

Thus it is critical to prepare two equivalent responses to every possible enemy operation.  If you know how to accomplish the same goal in two different ways, your enemy cannot hamstring you by forcing you to commit resources that were necessary to accomplish the goal in a certain way.  Every mouse knows the value of having two holes.

3. Efficiency

Because you will try to prepare multiple equivalent responses to each of the many possible strategies your enemy could pursue, all of the resources you acquire and all of your decisions about where/how to deploy them should aim at using them as efficiently as possible.  Try not to avoid using an asset to do just one thing.  Look for ways to make one asset serve multiple purposes.

At a minimum this means that an asset should be potentially useful in your prepared responses to many possible enemy operations.  If you need a different set of assets for every single strategic option your enemy has, you’re going to be in trouble.  But better still is to find ways to commit resources that contribute to two different goals simultaneously.

Example 1: If you don’t have the resources to bomb the forces moving against A and the forces moving against B simultaneously, is there a supply hub both operations rely on that you could bomb?  That may allow you to contain both threats with the limited resources at your disposal.

Example 2: If you need to commit Company C to defend against a possible attack on Point A, is it possible to put C in a position where it is ready to advance on enemy-held Point Z?  If C can force the enemy to commit resources to defending Z, that means C is taking pressure off all your other positions, though still tied down near A.

This may seem to go against the principle recently enunciated by Kristor, to do one thing well.  But that is a principle for institutions: an institution should have one goal that it pursues.  However, that does not limit how the institution uses its power to pursue that goal. Institutions should be specialized, but their resources (and the strategies they devise for those resources) should be flexible and multifunctional.

(Consider the Boy Scouts, and the Swiss Army knives the scouts often carry.  The Boy Scouts should have one mission — scouting — and should not be distracted by poverty relief, transgender rights, and anti-bullying campaigns.  But, in their devotion to scouting, the Boy Scouts may decide that each scout should carry one multifunctional tool, rather than bringing an entire toolbox of specialized tools on each camping trip.)

Note that sometimes the most multi-functional use of resources is one which solves a certain class of problems permanently.  For example, imagine you have (multiple equivalent) plans that give you a 95% chance of defending a certain vital point; it might seem like overkill to fortify it further.  But if your current plans require you to keep many valuable assets nearby to prepare for various hypothetical threats (and further, to commit them to that defensive plan if the threat arises), then fortifying the already-defensible position becomes a cheap way to reallocate resources towards many other goals.

4. Anticipation

The concept of preparation dictates that you ask yourself, for many hypothetical choices your enemy could make, How should I respond if he does that? What would my best option be?  It is not enough to consider everything that the enemy might do, however.  You must also try to anticipate what he will actually do — which means you should devote yourself with equal vigor to the questions How can my enemy beat me? and How can I beat my enemy?

This mindset seems to be foreign to most people.  It is probably the most common obstacle to real strategic thought.  Many men’s experience with competition is limited to games which combine elements of chance, dexterity, and bluffing; in such games, fortune favors the bold, and staying excited about the game and eager to win may matter more than a stark estimation of each side’s chances.

Sometimes people even act as though it were disloyal (or unlucky) to point out strategic vulnerabilities, as though studying such a weakness might generate information the enemy can access, or fixing it might call his attention to what he would otherwise have ignored.

This is entirely pointless.  The point of preparation is to determine the best plan for you in any given situation.  If your enemy is competent, he will likewise prepare the best plan for him and you will be better off if you figure this plan out to begin with.  If your enemy is incompetent, that makes the entire conflict much easier!  Better to anticipate and plan for competence, so you will be ready for a competent (or lucky!) enemy, and allow yourself to improvise more if his reactions are suboptimal (and thus easier to exploit).

This means, for example, that when you implement a new strategy, you should never be bewildered by your enemy’s reaction to it.  If his response is the one you decided would be optimal for him, it is what you predicted.  If his response is unexpected, you may be wary, you may be suspicious (“What am I missing,” you ask); but broadly speaking you should be excited because you expect the conflict to go even better than you originally planned!

5. Dominance

This leads us to one of the most important strategic principles, which is to make strategic choices which leave the opponent with no way to respond which leads to victory.  A choice that has this special property (all of the options which the opponent has, even the best one, lead to defeat) is called a dominant strategy.  More broadly, you dominate a strategic interaction when (a) you control your opponent’s choices by creating urgent priorities he needs to address, and/or (b) you continually leave your opponent with the choice to sacrifice one or the other of two goals, with a sequence of such sacrifices leading to victory.

Previously I mentioned many people have trouble believing their enemies want to defeat them and will choose their strategies accordingly.  Worse still — the same people often have trouble remembering that they want to win!

Poor strategists may abandon a dominant strategy that accomplishes all their goals simply because they like thinking about a different strategy.  Or they may be curious about what an enemy would do in a certain situation, and set off to find out.  Sometimes (this is a terrible but very real vice) leaders will pick dubious strategies that they think will give them a chance to showcase their cleverness, or to showcase the virtuosity of the forces they lead. Sometimes people pick a course of action simply because it seems like it might work and they want to “win big”, or quickly, or without expending too many resources.

Now in the real world (again, pace Kristor) strategists rarely have the luxury of a single overriding goal or set of goals they must accomplish, against which all other goals are unworthy of consideration.  But in most complex strategic interactions which create winners and losers, the difference between defeating your enemy (forcing him to surrender, or destroying his ability to continue fighting) and suffering defeat is so large that it is foolish to trade away a dominant strategy for any small gain elsewhere.

6. Risks are for Losers

Any serious real-world conflict (with or without live ammunition) creates fog of war.  The grunts at the bottom of any two rival institutions generally have no idea what is going to happen next.  Many plans have a margin of error.  Some strategic dynamics reduce rival commanders to the equivalent of rock-paper-scissors as they try to outguess one another. In fact, even in theoretical conflicts with perfect information, because each rival will refuse alternatives that lead to a clear victory for the other, they tend to push their conflict into unpredictable territory where neither can predict the outcome.

This is all to say that strategic interactions are unpredictable and some risks come with the territory.  However, the upshot of the concept of dominant strategies is that the winning side does not need to pursue high-risk, high-reward strategies.  If you are already winning, you have a no-risk, low-reward strategy available which leads to victory.  High-reward would be nice, but the biggest reward is winning; if you’ve already got that in the bag, why jeopardize it?

Losers are the ones who need to take risks to win.  They already have had some of their key goals compromised; they already have too few resources spread among too many objectives.  To reverse their fortunes, losers need to invite unpredictable exchanges where everything is up for grabs and the fortunes of either side can swing up and down unpredictably.

Of course they can only invite such situations: it takes two to tango.  When the loser tries to provoke a risky exchange, it is the winner’s prerogative to retreat, retrench, and generally make small concessions that avoid any strange upsets, while leaving the loser in an unsalvageable position. (Remember: no risk, low reward.)

In you have the upper hand and successfully pursue this strategy, the loser will be driven to more and more unlikely and unpalatable “gambles” in an attempt to create some uncertainty in the outcome.  This is yet another reason to stick to a dominant strategy that clinches victory.  If the loser feels he must win, he will be forced to resort to increasingly desperate and self-destructive options as his final defeat looms closer.  If this happens, you will end up “winning big” without ever having put your victory at risk.

Predictions are Hard (Davidson & Rees-Mogg Edition)

Last Fall the twitter-circle around Nick Land had a fangirl moment over The Sovereign Individual, by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg (1997).  I respect that circle, and I rather like Lord Rees-Mogg’s son, so I added it to the list and finally read it this weekend.  My evaluation:

I. Davidson & Rees-Mogg As Prophets

You could describe The Sovereign Individual as “Snow Crash with footnotes”.  I first read Snow Crash right around the time The Sovereign Individual was published; at that time Snow Crash looked like a brilliant (and “subversive”!) analysis of the present, not a roadmap for the near future.  If you had asked me at the time, I’m pretty sure I would have told you it was a thought experiment, a hyperbolic allegory.

Nonetheless, a number of directions for the coming years that were unthinkable in the 1980s, impossible in the 1990s and highly improbable only ten years ago are now starting to look feasible.  This makes Stephenson look like a prophet.  It also makes Davidson and Rees-Mogg look prescient, to the extent that they got on the train twenty years ago.

Can we say more than prescient?  Well, it would be nice if we could evaluate how accurate their predictions have been: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”  There is no table of predictions.  There is no list of anticipated (or even conditional) dates for the steady march of the future.  Many of their predictions are, in fact, too bereft of conceptual foundations to prediction much of anything at all.  Take §Cyberbroking (p. 187):

“You will be able to use cybermoney to make investments as well as pay for services and products… Wherever you find yours, the use of digital resources will widen as the cybereconomy evolves.  You will be able to employ expert systems to help select your investments, and cyberaccountants and -bookkeepers to monitor the progress of your holdings on a real-time basis.”

What is cybermoney?  Is it good old USD, JPY, and CHF, routed between banks and accounts over a securely encrypted infrastructure?  Or is it something more like Paypal, an end-to-end internet payments platform?  Or are Davidson and Rees-Mogg in fact heralding the coming of entities like Bitcoin and Ethereum?  At the beginning of a longer section on cybermoney (pp.197-202), the authors elaborate further: “Inevitably, this new cybermoney will be denationalized.”  Now, this could be a statement about the nature of cybermoney; a prediction about a trait it could have; or a process which they expect it to undergo (starting as national cybermoney, and only subsequently losing the national affiliation).

Questions of this sort recur throughout The Sovereign Individual.  In many places, in fact, it is difficult to distinguish between the historical trend they claim to observe and the predicted consequences of the trend which would validate their observation.

If you read this book, and it carefully, you will realize that your mind is building a much better book for Davidson and Rees-Mogg than they were capable of writing in 1997.  From Nostradamus à nos jours, the trick to being a false prophet is to give your customers a vivid framework which they can populate with information they have learned from hindsight.

(Which is not to say that 1997-you wouldn’t have benefited from any of Davidson and Rees-Mogg’s shrewd advice for the high-tech future; on p. 380, for example, they advise you to “CREATE A STATE-OF-THE-ART WEB PAGE FOR YOUR BUSINESS” which can “bring your business onto the Internet with encrypted server software” or “improve the quality and ease of use of your existing Internet service.”  Had we but known!)

Bottom line:

  • Visionaries get credit for dreaming up an entirely new future, because a visionary must have superior mental qualities, access to valuable information, or both.
  • Those with foresight get credit for making predictions that come (much) closer to reality than luck would allow, because those who trust them profit from it and because their predictions are likely to continue to be accurate.
  • Those who carefully lay out conceptual or empirical groundwork before moving on to causal inference and predictions, even where they are wrong, help make it clear how they went wrong and give us a starting point we can build on and improve on.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg can claim neither total originality, nor great foresight, nor any special rigor.  We can at least call them prescient, for having realized that the 1990s would not continue forever.  And we can call them brave, for expressing this expectation in declarative sentences, rather than leaving themselves in a position where they could plead that it was only an allegory, a thought-experiment, or a warning.

II. Davidson and Rees-Mogg as Manichaean Historians

The most valuable section of The Sovereign Individual is its summary of the development of medieval civilization (political, religious, aesthetic) and the transition from the medieval era to the early modern era in Chs. 3-4 (pp. 61-113).  The authors pack an enormous amount of important information about the history of our civilization into two concise chapters, and their lively style sacrifices nothing in the way of depth or conceptual clarity.

(The second-most valuable section is Ch. 9, pp. 240-308, and especially 262-275; on which more anon.)

One of the great difficulties in understanding the past is the richness of human society.  We know our own communities like the backs of our hands (as the saying goes), but we can only keep so much information in our head about strangers’.  Generally we assume they differ from ours in a few discrete ways, and leave it at that.

Even where we do know something about a distant (or bygone) society, all too often we are misled by superficial structural similarities between our society and theirs.  Lay investiture, for example, is a simple concept; we all know what bishops are, no?

But our civilization has kept the croziers and the miters while stripping the Church of its worldly authority and (for good measure) most of its spiritual authority.  The meaning of the controversy over lay investiture remains dead to us so long as we imagine we know what a bishop is, which blinds us to the difference in functions between the contemporary episcopate and its medieval homologue.  This can make historical study very time-consuming; often it is only on the third or fourth reading of a familiar passage that, suddenly, a trivial detail leaps out at you as the critical point of a certain sentence.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg are sensitive to this problem and have kindly curated for us a cabinet of medieval curios, from flagellation to fish on Fridays, arranged thematically.  They take special care to explore these curios’ function in medieval life, to highlight the internal patterns, and to explore how their causes and/or the problems to which they gave rise led to their disappearance in the period 1450-1650.  If you don’t know much about the Middle Ages, this is an invaluable introduction; if you do, these chapters are still an ideal refresher.

Of course, Davidson and Rees-Mogg have an agenda.  The medieval traditions are pushed into service to illustrate the coming of… the Sovereign Individual:

  • In some cases it is a matter of a trend.  The devolution of powers of the supranational Church to the nation-states will now be repeated as national powers are devolved onto city-states.
  • In some cases it is a matter of parallel mechanism.  Davidson and Rees-Mogg are liberal ideologues, and see the futility of attempting to censor the free flow of information and the free movement of capital as an embarrassing blunder on the part of cumbersome powers, unwilling to accept their own decline.
  • In other cases it is a matter of historical cycles: res quondam, res futurus.  The coming of firearms (and steel pikes and halberds, which I do not believe they discuss) democratized armies and industrialized military logistics.  If new weapons give a single heavily armored, heavily armed, heavily trained warrior the ability to take on crowds of peasants that he lost with the advent of gunpowder, aspects of feudal warfare will return as well.

This means that, on the one hand, The Sovereign Individual is dangerous: it instills the Manichaean mindset.  X was good and useful once, but now it is antiquated and must be replaced by Y, which is new and progressive.  Y will replace X quite soon regardless, but shrewd, humanitarian progressives will profit by adapting Y early while scared, narrow-minded conservatives cling to X: this chain of reasoning builds up the presupposition that given X and Y, the most pressing question is to identify which phenomenon is progressive and which is regressive.  Having properly identified them, every other piece of the pattern falls into place.

Yet studying this process at work will teach you a great deal about how whig history is manufactured, and about the precise process by which this historical style teaches manichaean habits.  (It is particularly instructive because Davidson and Rees-Mogg are not “good” progressives; their austere defense of individual liberty is distant from the Cathedral’s current agenda and therefore causal patterns they scry in their tea-leaves do not carry the aura of obviousness and irrefutability that ideological orthodoxy usually lends to whig history.)

If you do end up reading this passage, try to ask yourself constantly: “Is it possible that this institution did produce pressures which led to its own demise, and also that this process of institutional decline was not part of a coherent multi-century trend called Progress?”  Ultimately, that is the challenge we face: to prove that social changes, far from having clear benefits that can easily be aggregated and measured, are not even brought about by a unified trend which can be labeled and evaluated.

III.  Davidson and Rees-Mogg as Progressive Egoists

As I mentioned, there is a progress narrative in The Sovereign Individual: a larger and larger number of individuals, the authors claim, will become de facto sovereign as the ease of moving assets between states and acquiring new passports grows; states will compete to attract these hyper-mobile individuals as “clients”, with the end result that the individual will assume the independence and powers we associate with sovereign states, and national governments will be like your dry cleaner or your dentist.

Power, freedom, and productivity, yay!

Davidson and Rees-Mogg predict that the bargaining power of “sovereign individuals” vis à vis states will be such that they can look forward to obtaining a certain set of standard conditions on their residency—in effect, a bill of rights—which will include the right to have disputes between the individual and the state over the terms of his citizenship-agreement arbitrated by a neutral third party.  Now that’s a sovereign individual.

Formalism warns against any bill of rights, let alone the kind that comes with third-party enforcement mechanisms.  Yet the apolitical future Davidson and Rees-Mogg sketch out (wherein states come to resemble corporations in the power, structure, and function) has an undeniable affinity with the spirit of Moldbug’s neocameralism.  This affinity highlights the great inner tension of neocameralism:

  1. 1. Everything bad about the democratic state, and in particular its violence, its lies, and its incompetence, happens because informal power has supplanted formal power…
  2. …which has happened because self-imposed limits on the democratic government’s formal powers to coerce, deceive, and misserve its citizens create a shadow government of priestlings with the informal power to define those limits.

“The king would never have any reason to torture you if you would just stop trying to prevent him from torturing you!”  That sounds less than reassuring at first, but as you think through the reasons states have to oppress their citizens (mostly, securing their hold on the state), and all the reasons they have to ignore them (mostly, maximizing the profitability of the state), it becomes clear that the free-market considerations which make states profitable are the strongest possible safeguard the citizens can have.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg agree, more or less, but they depict this as a process culminating in liberation from political control, and the assumption of sovereign power by individuals.  Whether the polycentric legal order that they predict is likely or even possible is neither here nor there; their forecast can be reframed Davidson and Rees-Mogg as a thought experiment which sketches out the conceptual limits of neo-cameralism.

  1. 1. Sovereign corporations start functioning so “efficiently” that citizens develop entrenched expectations about the (excellent) treatment they deserve.
  2. Citizens start to track whether these expectations are being met, leading to…
  3. …at a minimum, the creation of informal bodies which assume the right to make observations on how carefully the state observes the standards of non-interference it has encouraged its citizens to expect….
  4. … or even pressure for formal arbitration of disputes between states and citizens, when the latter feel that these expectations have not been met.

If a sovcorp cares enough about its reputation, its appeal to (potential) citizens, or its productivity to actually leave citizens alone most of the time, it also cares about whether its (potential) citizens think that it is leaving them alone.  (Paradoxically, a ruler can be indifferent to private actions and beliefs, but not to whether he is perceived to be indifferent to them!)

So sovereigns (with secure authority inside their own territories and in competition with each other) can be led to laissez-faire attitudes towards personal freedoms, yes—but only up to the point that none of these liberties are taken for granted by their subjects.

IV. Davidson and Rees-Mogg as Creationists

The Sovereign Individual is a Book About Progress, so while there is much excitement about unleashing the power of the most talented and efficient individuals (to whom a bigger and bigger slice of the pie shall go), they still claim that almost everyone will be much better off.  The advantages of the futuristic, hyper-efficient state are envisioned as flowing to high and low alike.  There is a great deal of discussion of  the great lengths to which incumbent stakeholders will go to avoid suffering great losses when sovereign individuals “secede”, but barely any discussion of the losses themselves or their ramifications for the losers’ societies.

I do not intend to waste time wringing my hands over the suffering of the weak and the previously-well-connected.  But it is curious that a book whose glorious vision of the future rests largely on a massive transfer of resources from states to their elites has so little to say about the aftermath of the transfer.  I consider this indifference to be related to Davidson and Rees-Mogg’s airy, abstracted view of the benefits of the nation-state (not to mention the “nasty, brutish, and short” forms of contract-negotiation that prevail in uncivilized communities).

The future the book sketches out is, in a nutshell, that rich people will be free to move wherever in the world they like; they will move to the state with the lowest tax rates; states will (after much kicking and screaming) compete by cutting tax rates to the bone.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg do not seem to wonder whether would-be tax-dodgers might need to balance these against other concerns, like the type community where they will be raising a family.  I suppose if one expatriates to Switzerland (their favorite example), this is simply a matter of teaching one’s children French.  If one expatriates to the Caribbean, there are always boarding schools to fall back on.

Such confidence is parasitic on the conventions of the current age.  Sending one’s child to a foreign country to be raised by strangers is perfectly safe and sensible only in a world of modern nation-states whose continued existence a clear-eyed “sovereign individual” must doubt: children make excellent bargaining chips (and where the bargain falls through, valuable slaves).  Likewise, raising a family abroad has only been a simple matter of “learning French” for a few centuries, if that.  Earlier, it meant loss of the careers and opportunities one’s children could have pursued in their homeland, exile from one’s family and friends, and the loss of their aid; one’s new neighbors were inscrutable, their social and cultural world largely closed to newcomers, and their leaders were rapacious.

Such a move would be a great adventure, of course, but nothing to consider on so light a motive as a lower tax rate.  Few travelers currently alive have planned for contingencies more vexing than losing their passport and calling the nearest consulate.

Questions concerning what kind of community one might like to live in, what kinds of governments support such communities, and furthermore what kinds of governments those communities support do not appear in The Sovereign Individual.  Nor do the authors try to explain why Switzerland features in so many of their examples, and Somaliland in so few; are taxes not low enough there?  Why Bermuda rather than Haiti?

Perplexing.  It is all the more perplexing given that Davidson and Rees-Mogg actually devote a dozen pages (pp. 263-275) to the relationship between nationality and kinship.  They observe that the functions of the state necessitate that its citizens be a sort of superfamily; the point out that where there is little genuine genetic similarity, states nonetheless emphasize the normal signs of common descent (like shared language and physical similarity) in national propaganda.  They stress that the illusion of kinship is an unsustainable substitute for the real thing.

Yet somehow, they do not draw any connection between the health of a nation-state and the ethnic cohesion of its population; they do not even think to ask questions about ethnic cohesion.  They do not note that the illusion of kinship becomes necessary only after nation-states draw their borders to include alien populations and so shatter the real thing; they do not predict the frontiers of the future will map out more ethnically cohesive populations, preferring instead to predict the total disappearance of nations.

They do not predict that the demographic differences between different nations will affect the migrations of sovereign individuals.  So far as I can remember, the authors never even allude to the possibility that nations might have demographic differences worthy of evaluation.

The socio-political ramifications of capital movement between countries are interesting; but how can you have any kind of discussion of these ramifications without so much as mentioning the herds of humans that make those countries distinct?  A nation is more than a barren rock with its own regulatory code.

What could explain it?  Did the reasons companies and individuals have for operating in different regions with different populations not pique their interest?  Imagine giving someone driving directions like this: “I like left turns better than right turns, so why would I include both kinds?  I’ve given you all the left turns you’ll need to make; you’ll have to ask someone else about where you should turn right.”

Suffice to say that in matters of courage, The Sovereign Individual exhibits the Aristotelian mean between cowardice and rashness.  The authors were bold enough to publish speculations others might find foolish, but not so bold as to notice facts that would confirm their judgment and sense.  It is sad to think that Baron Rees-Mogg, a man who ran a newspaper, sat in the House of Lords and helped to steer the BBC, was subject to the same regime of lies and deception as everyone else.  He was able to profit from it a little more than the rest of us, but not to escape from it.

Lay Preaching

[From the archives.]

The role of the earliest religious architecture is controversial. Clearly there is an element of tribute, of ostentatious sacrifice, of magnification and praise. But why some ancient temples were ziggurats, some domes, some pagodas – we can give no general explanations.

Christian churches, on the other hand, have a technological explanation; they are fortresses of the book. A scriptural religion needs books to function, and a scriptural religion with as many far-flung, socially disembedded outposts as Christianity needed a little fortress to protect the one invaluable book and the one invaluable book-reader it could dispatch to each corner of the empire. Past that, the fortress needed an auditorium in which every member of the parish could gather to hear the one book-reader read from, and hold forth on, the one book. These fortresses had a few incidental features as well – illustrations to dramatize the stories that the illiterate would never read, bells to keep the hours and summon the community to their shared observances. The technological level at which religious authority was communicated (and was made common, a property of communitas) dictated both the institutional and the physical form of the Church.

This is not to say that Christendom was monolithic. The need for book creation, for one thing, led to the existence of a system of monasteries and universities in parallel to the churches, and these monks had the independent standing to travel as itinerant preachers. But still, religious expression was still funneled through the narrow channels suggested by the technological and institutional problems of book-scarcity.

Printing ended this scarcity and, while making scriptural religion much more practical in theory, in practice it made all the ideas of the religious authorities about how the church should be run obsolete. Institutions which had, centuries earlier, been technically necessary, had been layered over with encrustations of new meanings and purposes. But these encrustations could give the underlying structure no integrity once its timbers had been rotted away.

Recent historians tend to enjoy the game of understanding religious dissent as a social, class, or even philosophical phenomena. But in fact, it is a technological phenomenon, every bit as much as web logs and file-sharing are technological phenomenon in our own days. Future historians will no doubt write about how transgressive or class-conscious it was to learn to touch-type, but as a matter of fact the power and cheapness of personal computers in the 1990s made the value of typing obvious practically overnight.

This is the light in which we should understand the spread of literacy in early modern Europe. Cheap books, high-quality books, books on diverse subjects; these make reading worthwhile. Poor readers, numerous readers, readers with a range of interests; suddenly these made publishing worthwhile, and a virtuous circle has begun. But now the traditional purpose of the church becomes fuzzy. We do not, strictly speaking, need a fortress for the scriptures if everyone has a copy in their own home. We do not need everyone to squeeze into the auditorium if just about anyone can quote the Bible on any street corner. We do not need images as a substitute for scripture if we can turn to the original text itself. Indeed, the medieval Bible was often a sort of compendium which squeezed the text itself and number of approved commentaries on the text into a single volume so that, on the assumption a parish would have one book, that one book would pack as large a punch as possible. Now, the Bible was disaggregated and the commentaries and the apocrypha could, if one so chose, be printed in separate volumes.

The tension between the Church and the lay preachers was precisely that between modern media and the so-called “comment section”. The lay preachers thought the Church was corrupt and useless, and finally had a platform on which to say it; the Church saw that lay preaching would be the downfall of the Church, and wanted to stamp it out or control it. But the two camps were tied together, because the reformers wanted to critique and supplant the forms and functions acquired by the medieval church whose power they coveted. Where they triumphed, the reformers ended up removing the icons and keeping the belfries.  Preaching moved back inside. The papists, meanwhile, saw no problem fighting fire with fire and soon had coopted the whole technological apparatus of the reformation for the purposes of counter-reformation.


[From the archives.]

At levels of high institutional development, the state very commonly first makes pariahs, and then later uses them. It is only a very recent idea that a civil service can make complicated and distasteful principal-agent problems into a respectable profession with its own code of ethics and sense of corporate purpose.

The earliest pariahs were definitely eunuchs. One of the first manifestations of the inequality of early agricultural societies was extreme forms of polygamy. Where this polygamy merely took the form of slavery with opportunistic sexual exploitation of female slaves by their masters, it is difficult to speculate as to how upset the master would be if his overseer raped a slave whom he had been accustomed to rape himself. No doubt, once in a while the master would have developed a sort of possessive jealousy toward the slave in question, and punished the overseer.

Nonetheless, once a slave-owner wants not only sexual access to his human chattels but also exclusive sexual access, you see the difficult principal-agent dynamic that develops. With more than one or two chattels, a jealous master faces a choice; he must either trust his slave-girls and leave them to their own devices, or set an overseer over them and trust him, instead.

Gradually hyper-polygamy began to fulfill symbolic as well as merely sexual needs, and was institutionalized in forms that permitted men of high rank to buy the daughters of multiple other men, accorded them some legal status as wives, and thus made them legally competent to bear him legitimate (as opposed to low-caste/enslaved) children. The question of how to guard the hypergamous harem becomes more important than ever. Probably concubines are not as keen to run away as the slaves, but the traditional ability of the husband to watch his property – both to protect it and to prevent it from developing socially unsanctioned, romantic interests – is compromised in this strange extension of traditional tribal marriages. If one deputizes overseers for this task, then inevitably the overseer will step into the role of surrogate husband for the neglected concubines.

In a hyper-polygamous marriage, there is an obvious symmetry; it is impossible for all men to have an above-average number of wives, so only a few are able to aspire to the privilege.  This gives the acquisition of multiple concubines from low-status families an additional value, as status symbols for the groom.  The status value attached to this large harem is, of course, ruined if the owner of the harem is in effect maintaining dozens of little families for other men who may not even be part of his own branch of the tribe – and so much the worse if their children are in competition with his children for clan resources.

(In matrilineal societies, polygamy is a more relaxed affair, to the extent that a man’s wives’ children are never in competition for his clan’s resources to begin with.)

As a prissy moralist I’m inclined to present this conundrum as a reductio ad absurdum of hypergamy — and of the general project of accumulating status by buying other human beings. But ancient societies were not so easily dissuaded and simply chopped the penises off the overseers, preventing them from having sexual relations with their charges. This made them pariahs in at least three senses.

  1. Traditional societies seem to view any form of misfortune or bodily deformity as ominous and to be shunned (perhaps a primitive attempt to deal with contagion).
  2. Status in a segmentary tribal society is in the first instance connected with forming a link between one’s parents and one’s children; being unable to sire children makes one preemptively a failure and a traitor to one’s ancestors, and excludes one from the standard social hierarchy.
  3. While modern surgeons can perform a phalluctomy without damaging the uro-genital system, ancient peoples could not and (depending on how much was removed, and how carefully) the resulting eunuch was left with no defense against infections, with pus and piss dripping steadily into his crotch. This would be unpleasant enough in our own days, but in the days before mechanical laundry, detergent, running water, and hygiene, the resulting stench would have been revolting.

To create the perfect harem guards, the grasping rich of ancient times had to create a creature that was unlucky, unfruitful, and unclean – the perfect pariah, and embodiment of everything the primitive mind found hateful.

As a result the eunuchs were not just adequate harem guards, they were completely dependent on their master on every question. They could have no wife or children whose interests they could put above their master’s; in some cases, their kin disowned them, leaving them with no family obligations whatsoever. Did they have friends and allies they made through business ties, religious rituals, or casual friendly interaction?  Unlikely, at least in the early stages of the pariah-system: to become tied or indebted to a eunuch would be no honor, and to betray him no disgrace. That is how things are with pariahs.

Mutilating a man to make it easier to acquire a high-status stockpile women seems terrible enough; but ancient societies saw in the eunuch’s misfortunes a further opportunity to exploit him.

Ordinarily, any interaction that a family had with the rest of society needed to be mediated by an agent who was himself embedded in that society. If an agent was instructed to, say, negotiate a trade deal, his obligations to his own branch of the tribe and his branch’s stance vis-à-vis the branch with which he was negotiating was every bit as important as the principal’s instructions concerning the goals of the negotiations. How could the negotiations even begin unless both sides had some sense of where they stood in relation to each other? Each side had a certain status, and owed or was entitled to certain ritual observances from the first greeting to the final farewell.

This situation – the embedding of intermediaries into the very communities they were supposed to intermediate – became a serious problem when central states were trying to extract tax revenues and enforce compliance with the law. What the highest master imagined to be a simple question of dictating what would happen ended up turning into a negotiation between the family of his local deputy and the families that the deputy was supposed to bring to heel about how best to manage the demands from the center to the benefit of all involved. Attempts to deal with this problem led to repeated waves of refeudalization, repatrimonialization, and state collapse.

The eunuchs offered a solution; they were deputies who stood entirely outside society. They could not hope to enrich anyone dear to them. They could not be punished – except by the master. There were no tribal obligations, no status to respect on both sides, no need for give and take. As deputies eunuchs could stand in as transparent bearers of the word of the master. If they were hated, well, so what? They had always been hated and rejected.

So far as I know the only system where the use of eunuchs as the designated pariah-intermediaries of the state was advanced as a central tool of administration was Imperial China. Several societies have, consciously or unconsciously, created symbolic eunuchs, to whom marriage is legally prohibited. However, these symbolic eunuchs inevitably regained the respect due to their position of power (if they had ever lost it in the first place) and were not spurned where they became willing to realign themselves with the interest of their cousins and nephews; and sooner or later the symbolic eunuchs began to flout the celibacy requirement itself. Repatrimonialization ensues.

An alternative to symbolic eunuchs is to take an existing pariah community and then elevate it to the status of a servant of the state. This was done nearly universally with executions – some craftsmen were dragged, by their symbolic association with unpleasant aspects of their trade, to the very bottom of the community (butchers, often enough); that made them low enough to not attract significant additional contempt from the family of a slain criminal.

For selecting a fiscal pariah, it was necessary to choose from a larger community that had been debased wholesale, since acting as a fiscal deputy of the state calls for certain abilities and means that one cannot expect to find in a generic despised laborer. These sorts of pariah communities formed naturally in difficult terrain, where first geography fostered linguistic and cultural diversity and then waves of immigration and invasion left a patchwork of heterogeneous communities inhabiting geographically unified territories. The first invaders could keep the survivors as an exploited underclass; when the second invasion arrived with the intention of exploiting both parts of society equally, one or the other of the two underclasses would end up weaker, and more vulnerable.  This weaker group would end up marginalized and ripe for use as a cudgel with the new invaders could beat the tax delinquents and scofflaws in the stronger half of the underclass. If he favored his own kinsmen when calculated tax obligations, well, they did not have too much to begin with; if he embezzled too much of the fisc, no one would cry when the state executed him.

An interesting development of the fiscal pariah community is as a financial and even as contractual pariah community. The same hated, contemptible status that allowed pariahs to collect tax revenue in a blunt manner, to look only to a fiscal ledger for guidance (rather than to a complex of obligation, status, and loyalty tying together a web of families) — this status made them equally adept at collecting loans and interest!

Within a small community, a loan is a sort of symbolic gift, and it is not likely that the gift will be reciprocated by the repayment of principal plus interest. Just as likely is an intense pressure for the leader to symbolically “forgive” the debt and accept the deference and allegiance of the debtor as compensation. Understandably, if asking for a loan is in fact asking for a gift, getting a loan is as hard as getting a gift!

Therefore, the existence of a pariah community which can collect debts in defiance of social pressure opens up a source of loans that would have otherwise been completely closed. Potential borrowers begin to see the utility of the pariah community as a source of funds, and become more tolerant of the pariah’s attempt to collect debts from their neighbors. (Collecting one’s own debts is still taboo, but respecting the letter of the law with respect to the pariah is not.) This use of the financial pariah can even expand to a full-fledged contractual pariah, who is able to stick to the letter of the law in any sort of contract, not just contracts on loans. At length, the dominant community begins to use the pariah community as a front for a circuitous re-routing of their own financial and trade relations, lending or selling to the pariah so that he can lend or sell in turn back to a cousin or in-law. Finally, the sham is discarded and the dominant community starts to stipulate when they will conduct their own affairs under the socially violent laws of the pariahs – until, in the end, they realize this is the only law that deserves the name.

However, the pariah communities have never been horribly stable, either as fiscal pariahs or as financial/contractual pariahs. The problem seems to be the very source of their utility. Because people hate pariahs, they hate economic/legal institutions that put them in a subject position vis-à-vis pariahs. As time goes on, the tension between the hatred of elites for the pariahs and the power that the pariahs exercise (in the name of the law) over the state is unlikely to remain high without snapping. As the arrangement continues, the pariahs will institutionalize it and the pariah authority will increasingly be identified with the pariahs themselves. So eventually either the elites will find a chance to slaughter the pariahs (the fate of most eunuch cabals) or the pariahs will entrench themselves and reintegrate themselves as normal elites with normal responsibilities and obligations (the fate of most symbolic eunuchs).

Pariah communities are an interesting development because they exhibit internal variation, and because the mere existence of a pariah communities implies the preexistence of forces both preventing the assimilation of pariahs and forbidding their massacre and forcible expropriation. Even if all the pariah elites are killed, they still have a pariah middle class which will repopulate itself with leaders who will be suitable for fiscal duties; and the same holds true if a few pariah elites are able to leverage their services to the state into permission to assimilate.

In the grand scheme of experiment in state development, the eunuch and the symbolic eunuch were both gestures toward the need for what today we have in the form of a civil service; but it would be a long time before the social and conceptual preconditions for this form of “service” would arrive. In the meantime, the status of pariah communities and the dynamics of the hatred and violence they suffer from can be understood as part of the trauma of the rationalization of society – the movement from tribalism to disinterested individualism.

Minorities and toleration

[From the archives.  N.b., “evangelical” in this essay refers to the drive to proselytize until religious uniformity is achieved.]

Religious toleration was something that only made sense after the European conception of religion had been transformed. The only aspect of Inquisition that remains intelligible in light of a twenty-first century distinction between religion and government is its solicitude for the souls of faithful.  Salvation is of the utmost importance — even an atheist can imagine a bureaucrat assigning a very high utility to an outcome called “salvation” — so containment of heresy is as important as the containment of smallpox. The Inquisition’s portfolio as epidemiology plus global warming plus the National Bureau of Economic Research: this is the only interpretation of religious intolerance that remains vivid in a secular age.  Against this argument for intolerance, the doughty rationalism of the tolerant view that religious feuding only causes violence to both sides and spreads dissent far and wide seems unassailable.

And yet – salvation was not the bone of contention in early modern Europe. The religious law was in effect the law of the land, the parish priests were magistrates, and the great priests had sedem et vocem — the right to sit in judgment and freely advise the potentates of old Europe. There could be no attempt at religious reform which was not also an attempt at educational reform, legal reform, agricultural reform, and political reform. And indeed, where heretics were successful, chantries and monasteries were abolished, universities were upended, peasants were taught to read, princes and parliaments reclaimed newly invented hereditary rights, and so on.

Connected to the inevitably expansive view of the aims of religious heresy (inevitably, because the role of religion was in fact broad) was an evangelical conception of community. Nowadays we find it perfectly sensible to talk about a “community” which comes together to promote knitting, or veganism, or bowling. Indeed, the view of civil society that has flourished among Very Serious Persons since WWII has taken it as an article of faith that only a proliferation of small, self-directed, individually tolerant societies can knit together a happy, cohesive civil society; a view, of course, that gained credence only as a form of ressentiment against the success of communist and fascist societies at achieving the types of social mobilization the Very Serious Persons had dreamed of before the War.

Yet to the early moderns, orthodox and heretics alike, the communitas has precisely what was held in common by all alike.  The idea of a parish with two rival churches, or a city with two bishops, was absurd. A community has one festival, one coat of arms, one great fortress-artwork which is symbolic of its hopes and aspirations. The banns are read out to the community many times, – but in one church. The bell which tolls for thee will be the same bell that eventually tolls for me, and it will lead one to the same consecrated ground, and this fate will be duly noted on baptismal records kept in the same closet. When the festivals, symbols, and practices that circumscribe a community are all tied up in a common religious observance, religious struggle is all or nothing.

With this social pressure towards an expansive sense of the scope of the evangelical community, it was of course unsurprising to find that the religious pressure was correspondingly strongly felt. In an age of staggering diversity in the customs of everyday life – food, dress, recreation, production, social niceties – religious deviations were felt to be unbearable. The depth of religious conflict over the date of the proper observance of the Sabbath, of Easter, of Christmas; over the question of icons; over the wording of certain formulae of catechism which the catechumen could not begin to detect in the first place; all this suggest that the universalistic rhetoric of Christianity was felt extremely strongly by medieval and early modern Christians. They had been told that Jesus died to save all men; they could see with their own eyes that the body of the Church was indivisible in practice; and thus they were generally willing to follow the example of their savior. Separation was unacceptable. Revolution was necessary.

I have no way to measure or compare the relative tenacity of evangelism for Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, the post-Calvinist dissenters and the pre-Lutheran sects like the Lollards and the Hussites; but broadly speaking, they were all strongly and irascibly evangelical.  Originally I was under the impression that the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics had never been strongly evangelical vis-à-vis one another — but I was very badly mistaken.  The religious disorders that arose in the Balkans at the dawn of the Middle Ages, alone, as a result of the rival evangelical zeal of Rome and Byzantium easily rival any episode of the Reformation.

In the Confucian system of ancestor worship, the hereditary priesthoods of many polytheistic religions, or in the joint hereditary religious office/segmentary communal organization of a caste system, the religious community piggybacks on communal solidarity derived from family structures, political structures, and/or economic structures. The peculiar thing about the Christian communion is that its solidarity is not derivative; it grows out of the nominal universality celebrated in its creeds.

Therefore the Christian system of religious doctrine and practice was relatively rigid compared to a segmentary hereditary system.  In a segmentary religious system, which borrows its cohesion from the families with which it coincides, evangelism is absent and the desire of competing lineages to threaten each other with sanctions for hypothetical religious deviations is correspondingly lower (as is the symbolic distress such threats would cause).  Segmentary systems evolved steadily and syncretized readily, while Christianity did not.  Yet when the case for reform of the Christian Church became strong enough to overcome the force of these checks on deviation, the universal claims of the Church took on a new aspect, and instead “reform” the West got Reformation.

(The only segmentary hereditary religious practice that Christianity was unable to stamp out in what we today call Europe was Judaism.  The Jews undoubtedly had no evangelical pretensions against the Christian majority, but both their isolation into markedly Jewish separate communities and their avowal of different interpretations of Christian religious texts made them a challenge, every bit as much as the Manichean had been and the Lutheran would become.  In the segmentary-tribal worldview, Christians can never be Jews; in the evangelical-fraternal worldview, Jews are disputing the doctrinal truths of Christianity.  This asymmetrical coexistence is somewhat unusual. Universalistic religions have co-existed with segmentary religions — for example, Buddhism with any number of local cults — but with two major differences: (a) the segmentary religions typically adopting a path of cooptation of the universalistic religion from a position of strength, rather than rejection and separation from a position of weakness, and thus (b) the two religions’ hierarchies coexist, and one flock supports two separate sets of priests.)

How could anyone possibly dislike jews?!?

[Four answers to a question that has puzzled generations of (((sociologists))).  Adapted from the archives.]

1.  The “classic” explanation: modernization causes antisemitism (Adorno and Horkheimer)

As modernization proceeds, the modern world demands model workers and citizens who will be ever-more perfect cogs in the industrial machine.  This, in turn, requires ever-more repression of anti-social drives; the level of repression rises to levels difficult for human beings to cope with.  Unbearable levels of repression fuels brooding on the traits that are to be repressed, and the more we brood, the greater our need to project such traits onto others to feel clear ourselves —  or so Adorno and Horkheimer claim.

Like any society, a modern society needs to justify itself to its denizens and train them  to serve as its cogs.  The characteristically modern ideologies will package justification and training in some doctrine to the effect that the world is rational.  Unforunately, these cogs are placed in schizophrenogenic conditions if it turns out the world is not rational!  In an irrational world, good-boy progressives who wish to continue to believe the world is rational will have to suppress the reality-principle which ordinarily would ensure beliefs and observations remain in sync.  In the absence of the reality-principle, delusions fester, erratic behavior appears, and psychoses develop.

QL_antisem_Frankfurt (3)

Thus, conclude the boys from Frankfurt, in a modern society the masses are increasingly projecting morally unclean anti-social traits onto others (due to the pressure of pro-social conformity) and succumbing to irrational patterns of thinking, reminiscent of paranoias or schizophrenias (due to the strain of adhering to a continually-falsified ideology).  A modern man’s neuroses and psychoses make him prone to conspiracy theories about filthy, nasty strangers.  When the targets of all these neuroses and psychoses happen to be fine gentlemen of the Hebrew faith, voilà: antisemitism.

Adorno and Horkheimer have little to say about how/why/whether conspiracy theories about filthy, nasty strangers end up directed at one social group rather than another.  As a result, the duo just barely managed to beat Sartre in the race to develop the world’s first Judenfrei theory of antisemitism.

Such theories have two interesting properties.

  1. They rule out a priori any possibility that a victim of antisemitism might have provoked his assailants.  No one to whom antisemitic feelings are directed can ever bear any  responsibility; the eventual target of the “disease” plays no role in its etiology.
  2. They are very easily ported over to other branches of the Left’s victim-hierarchy.

[Editor’s Note: the blog feels obliged to remind its readers that severe mental illnesses are typically caused by rare genetic variants, that equivocating between X causes a mental illness and X causes symptoms analogous to a mental illness is a dangerous intellectual sin — and, while we are interjecting, that sometimes life in the shtetl really is filthy.]

2.  The Marxisant explanation: “Antisemitism is the socialism of idiots

Say a man has been knocking on doors all over town, looking for work, but no one hires him.  What went wrong?  Should he have woken up earlier, knocked on more doors, dressed sharper, had an extra cup of coffee?  Or is his failure to find employment a result of macroeconomic phenomena?

A normal guy blames most of his problems on proximate causes.  This is sensible; proximate causes are very salient, for one thing.  (They may also be the only aspect of his situation he has any control over.)  Social scientists like to flatter themselves that they understand the deep, systemic causes of the problems the masses face (and which the masses wrongly link to local circumstances).  Trying to encompass and integrate all the different timescales along which causal explanations operate is a tricky business.

Anyway: what happens if you’re stuck in the middle?  Neither normie nor scientist, you are suspicious enough to look beyond the proximate causes, but unable to find the road that would lead you to an ultimate explanation.

Let’s say you’ve observed that Adam can’t find work, Bob can’t find work, and Chad can’t find work.  According to orthodox Marxist theory, if you do realize that personal details about ABC don’t explain the general economic pattern ABC are a part of,  but you’re not able to trace the causes as far back as the capitalist social system, you are likely to follow out chains of economic relationships and peter out on some highly visible middleman. Dan the foreman wouldn’t hire Chad because Mr. Edwards, the owner of Dan’s company, ordered him to cut back production — because Fitzwick & Sons, his biggest customer, just went bust — because Mr. Gerstein, Fitzwick’s banker, canceled his line of credit.  If you start to get tired and confused around here, you’ll just remember it was Mr. Gerstein’s fault.  That greedy jew!

If “the greedy jews” are overrepresented among these highly visible, highly memorable middlemen you bump into when you try to understand the interrelated causes of everyday economic problems, you end up substituting the demographic traits of the middlemen for the economic structure within which they are cogs.

Marx and his fellow socialists developed this genre of explanation in the context of factional politics.  Among these rabble-rousers, factions came to be identified not only with a leader (Marx, Bebel, Lassalle), a constituency (the cigar workers, the porters, the Irish) or a characteristic political strategy (bomb-throwing, the 40-hour workweek, the general strike), but also with a trademark interpretation of the nature of the dysfunctional society they hoped to lead into the chaos of revolution.

It’s worth reflecting on the rhetorical effectiveness of this explanation as a memetic weapon in a struggle between different varieties of rabble-rousers.  It offers the carrot —”You’ve seen farther than others! You’ve started the journey!”— and the stick —”If you stop here, you’re a fool!”.  It belittles antisemitism as a garbled version of the truth… yet still acknowledges that it is a version of the truth.  Antisemites have made a mistake, but their mistake was to be lured in by the specious resemblance between the basic structure of the antisemitic diagnosis and the truth of “scientific socialism”; their very error reveals that in their hearts, they are natural socialists!  Never make the mistake of seeking to demolish a position when your goal is really to coopt it, along with all its adherents.

3. The provincialism explanation (Zionism)

Every county hates all the minorities (ethnic, linguistic, religious, and so on) that it comes into contact with in daily life.  Differences cause uncertainty and friction; they are a conduit for contempt and ridicule.  But most minorities here are the majority there, and this gives them (a) someplace to flee to, (b) an imagined community, (c) and, in the Westphalian system of sovereign states, bargaining chips that they can use to protect their co-nationals elsewhere.

Jews, on the other hand, were minorities everywhere.  The tensions of coexistence relentlessly inflamed each nation’s most unsympathetic impulses towards its jewish minority, but without any countervailing pressure, as with all other ethnic minorities, that would inspire sympathy and respect.

There are several refreshing things about this explanation.  First, it acknowledges that hatred is normal.  (Diversity+proximity=conflict, always and everywhere.)  Second, it tries to explain the different degrees of antipathy various groups endure in terms of differences between the groups.

Because the theory that antisemitism is just an exaggerated form of common provincial attitudes towards the out-group was popularized by Theodor Herzl, there is a strong association between Herzl’s theory of antisemitism and Herzl’s Zionist political movement.  Zionism relied heavily on the theory in its arguments for a jewish state.  If all the differences between jews and other peoples were caused by their statelessness then if the jews were subsequently to acquire their own state, any differences between antisemitism and other provincial attitudes towards minority populations would disappear.

Zionism succeeded as a political movement; but as a grand venture in hypothesis-testing, results to date have been… well, let’s just say that the existence of the state of Israel has done little to confirm Herzl’s overarching hypothesis that jewish peculiarities stem from the jews’ abnormal statelessness.  It’s quite curious, for example, that the jews are the only nation in the world whose far-flung minority populations use the power of the states wherein they reside to protect the motherland rather than vice-versa.

Whether or not you think such anomalies refute Herzl’s theory, do not dismiss the early Zionist literature entirely.  Jews drew attention to national majorities’ defense of expatriate enclaves in order to make counterfactual predictions about what the world would look like if there was someone to defend the heretofore stateless jews.  A more sober reason to care about the phenomenon: intervention in defense of ethnic enclaves is a challenge to the formal power of the sovereign who has jurisdiction over the enclave, and a seedbed for the growth of informal power networks which seek to arbitrate (a) the right of intervention and (b) the standards of reciprocal toleration to which the mutual threat of intervention gives rise.

4. The Albigensian hypothesis

Every religion, sect, tendency, or heresy that Christians had to contend with in Roman times is now extinct or moribund… other than pharasaical judaism.

When was the last time a Cathar invited you to have dinner with his family?  Did you ever go to a sleepover at a Cathar’s house?  Do you have any Cathar friends at all?  No, of course not.  The last Cathars were put to death more than five hundred years ago.  For this reason, a question like “How could anyone be so heartless as to kill off the Cathars?” does not have any emotional resonance.  The successful genocides leave no victims.

What is difficult to explain about the jews is not that they were quite seriously despised for nearly two thousand years, but rather that the Christians never wiped them out.

Faith and other Epistemic Categories

anchor-fishI. Faith

In response to Bonald’s excellent little piece Faith is honesty in doubt, I wanted to offer a parallel thesis (or, if you like, a friendly amendment): faith is a matter of whom, not what.

I can have faith in a man (I believe him).  Maybe I have faith in him in a general sense, or maybe I have only heard him recite one particular narrative (in which case when I say I believe him I mean I have faith in that particular narrative).  I can also have faith in groups and communities, and in their reports, publications, traditions, in the names they put forward as trustworthy authorities on certain questions, and so on.

Faith (or belief) is a matter of trust; fundamentally it is your confidence in the man that makes you confident his words will ring true.  (Indeed, confidence is a Latin word meaning with faith.)

You can trust a man, or a group; you can always trust every word that comes out of his mouth, or just in one incident; you can trust him on account of his honesty, his accuracy, or both; you can trust him absolutely or only casually; but wherever you say you trust, the question whom it is that you trust arises.  You can’t trust things, states of affairs, trees…

We sometimes describe inanimate objects, and especially technological devices, as trustworthy.  This just means that they are extremely predictable.  If the 12:05 express train is so regular you can set your clock by it, you can trust the train: i.e., rely that the time it goes by is always 12:05.  But when we metaphorically describe inanimate objects as trustworthy that is not to say this “trust” has any relation to truth, or indeed to any other good thing.

(During WWI, general staff officers visiting the front were amazed to see the way captains and sergeants would casually walk around while artillery shells were whizzing by, and never get hurt.  The junior officers were blasé because once a German gun was positioned and trained in a certain way, it would hit almost the same point every time.  The physics of the incoming ordinance was very predictable; that is not to say that being shelled inspires a feeling of trust or faith!)platodividedline

II. Knowledge

The line that divides knowing from imagining is not a particularly clear border (build the wall!) but loosely speaking we can say that we all know a great deal about the world we live in, and indeed about the universe that lies beyond it as well; so much, in fact, that any person’s knowledge vastly exceeds anything he could have possible seen with his own eyes or heard with his own ears.  Some of this knowledge comes from extrapolation and generalization from the seen to the unseen.  Some of it comes from evidence which remains in the present and can analyzed for clues about the past.  But most of our knowledge is a matter of belief.  People told us stuff, we believed them, and here we are.

(Most of our errors are also a matter of belief.  Therein lies the rub!)

Consider Bonald’s statement of the difference between Christian faith and atheist faith:

“Mathematical certainty is not to be had in this life outside of mathematics.  The difference is that the Christian is forced to be conscious of his act of faith.”

“It is not religion but liberalism that manifests a discomfort with doubt, discomfort to the extent that the liberal must shield himself from acknowledging the questionability of his beliefs.”

From this starting point, our friend Bonald went on to consider faith as a capacity and as a virtue.  He did not dwell on the primum quid, the existential fact that faith is a relation  between someone who has faith and the one whom he believes.

As Christians, we believe Christ and his Apostles.  When Mr. Smith tells us something that conflicts with our Christian creed, we withhold our assent from Mr. Smith’s claims because we have greater faith in Christ than in Mr. Smith.  If later on Mr. Thompson tells us something that conflicts with some other rumor we heard from Mr. Smith, this conflict will cause us to experience some uncertainty and confusion; but we will have a much more vivid understanding of what is going on if we have recently had some reason to reflect on Mr. Smith and how much (or how little) we trust him.

If you don’t know whom you trust, you will still hear things from other people.  You will still build a picture of how the world works (some of it accurate, some less so).  You just won’t know where it comes from.  For the atheist this jumble of knowledge and error that he acquires from his contemporaries is not faith; that is, it is not a relation between the believer and the one he trusts.  There is, first of all, no one special in whom he places any unique trust; and lacking that deep faith, there is no easy way for him to get into the habit of comparing those whom he trusts more to those whom he trusts less. (Such systematic comparisons need to start with whomever one trusts most.)

Consider a faithful wife and a drug-addled slut.  Both of them are likely, in the normal course of things, to conceive a child, but only the wife will know who the father of her child is.  The Church is the wife; the pagans are the slut.

III. Epistemological Passivity

(Warning: hair-splitting ahead. Stop reading unless you really like hair-splitting.)

The Greek word for faith, πίστις, comes from πείθω “to persuade”.  In fact, one of the original ways to say “I trust him” in Greek was to say “I-am-persuaded [πείθομαι] by him”. Languages that conjugate verbs in the passive voice will let you do all kinds of neat tricks like that.  I think I heard somewhere that πίστις and the verb πῐστεύω (“to believe”) might have originally come from one of the mediopassive constructions of πείθω, but that seems unlikely. (Probably the -τις suffix came first, and then a new verb was constructed out of the noun.)

The Greek passive construction hints at the primary difference between faith and persuasion: a believer corresponds to the person whom the persuader has successfully persuaded.  But faith and persuasion are not exact opposites.  There is a secondary difference as well.  Faith, I have claimed, is a matter of whom rather than what.  However, persuasion is always a matter of what.  One cannot persuade someone in a general kind of way; one always persuades one’s audience to adopt some particular opinion or view.

In this sense persuasion is like salesmanship.  Trained persuaders, like salesmen, are not commonly considered trustworthy.  Thus while at certain times it is persuasive to emphasize one’s own identity (“You know me, Johnny; would I lie to you about this?”), far more frequently the persuader disclaims any personal link to the case he’s making; he tries to shift the burden of persuasiveness onto the claim he’s making and the supporting evidence he can produce for it, giving his rhetoric the specious glow of a universal truth.

Perhaps we could say that this is the difference between faith and conviction.  Conviction refers to something that you have been convinced is true (and only implicitly, if at all, to those who convinced you), whereas faith refers to someone you trust (and only implicitly to opinions you hold as a result of this trust).  To restate a point using this new conceptual contrast: everyone has convictions, but a Christian has faith as well.

εἰς, εἰς, baby

The Greek verb “to believe, to trust” (“to be persuaded, to be convinced”) gives you the option to flag specific opinions (convictions) that you hold as a result of your trust.  The Fathers of the Church were mostly Greek-speaking, and so all of Christianity’s early theological squabbles were conducted in Greek; and when it came time to agree on specific verbal formulae that would resolve those squabbles, it was natural for the ecumenical councils to affirm not only that they trust God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, but that they believe “in” (εἰς) a God who is almighty, a Son of God who is consubstantial with his Father, and a Holy Ghost who spake by the prophets.

This innocent linguistic quirk of the ecumenical creeds has had a peculiar effect on the epistemology of the faithful.  These creeds (and countless catechisms and sermons which directly echo their language and grammar) have given many pious Christians the idea that the faith which is a gift of the Holy Ghost is a set of propositions which the faithful believe.  Moreover, just as they consider it impious to deny the propositions outlined in the Nicene Creed (under the formula “We believe in…”), they consider it impious to distinguish between assertingaffirming, or accepting a proposition (or judging it to be true) and believing, trusting, or having faith in someone.

This distinction implies that the ecumenical creeds are couched in potentially confusing language, which I suppose some people find disrespectful.  And in happier times, I would find their instinct to honor the symbols of their faith salutary.  But the failure to make the distinction has led to a complete conflation of faith (the virtue) with judgment (the evaluation of propositions) and of trusting (whom?) with being convinced (what?).  This amounts to a cultural crisis.  When the house is on fire, there is not much time to worry about purity spirals.