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!)
- 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. Everything bad about the democratic state, and in particular its violence, its lies, and its incompetence, happens because informal power has supplanted formal power…
- …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. Sovereign corporations start functioning so “efficiently” that citizens develop entrenched expectations about the (excellent) treatment they deserve.
- Citizens start to track whether these expectations are being met, leading to…
- …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….
- … 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.