Spring Review

It was a busy few months here at Quas Lacrimas, both on the blog and in real life. With the exception of a lull in February and early March I have maintained a fairly aggressive posting schedule through the Winter and the beginning of Spring. I posted far more than I expected to but finished far fewer of my pre-existing drafts than I intended to. But that no longer surprises me: when your only reward for writing is the thrill of the hunt your eye will tend to wander from target to target.

The number of entries in the Table of Contents has doubled since the end of December; that metric understates the amount of new material, because several of those entries are long, multi-part essays. As the index grows it gets harder to browse through, which I imagine makes it harder to find interesting things to read by skimming the titles of the posts.

Of course, a QL-newbie (or someone returning to QL after a long break) could just put his trust in the wisdom of crowds. Which of my posts have been hits? On Conspiratorial Thinking was the only new post to break into QL‘s top five (in terms of readers) since my New Year’s Review in January. The other four top slots are all occupied by older pieces, but my post on The Cathedral is getting up there at #7, followed closely by Memetic Lebensraum at #8. QL‘s most recent crowd-pleaser, Basic Strategic Concepts, went up only five weeks ago and started to zoom up in the rankings after a link from Free Northerner.

You could also trust the judgment of Nick Steves and “The Committee”, who have been extremely kind to QL over the last few months. In that period they’ve honored ten posts with a Week in Reaction Mention (abcdefghij), a further six with a spot in the Silver Circle:

  1.  On Conspiratorial Thinking
  2. Political Concepts: Servitude
  3. The Cathedral, the English Civil War, and informal power
  4. Memetic Lebensraum I (Resisting Assimilation) – II (Conquest)
  5. Machiavellian Strategic Concepts I – II – III – IV
  6. You Can’t Get There From Here

…and three with the coveted “Best of the Week”:

  1. Loving the Sinner I – II (Sin) – III (Ecology) – IV (Parties) – V (Postscript)
  2. Virtue Signals (published in Social Matter)
  3. Tribalism: A Model

But I’m going to offer a more thematic presentation for those of you who care more about whether the topic of a piece of writing interests you than whether other people liked it.


It would be logical to group my posts by subject, but that is actually more difficult than it might at first appear, because in many cases the subject of a post fits in one way with one cluster of companion posts, and another way with a second cluster.

So in fact it makes sense to start by reviewing the interconnections between the themes that characterize each cluster as a warm-up, before talking about how the posts in a given cluster fit together. (That way when the borders between the clusters turn out to be a little sloppy, you won’t be confused.)

QL is very interested in moral authority — what it is, how it works, and how it fits into the rest of the theory of the state. Prima facie, moral authority is a case of informal power (perhaps the paradigmatic case), which I have been increasingly inclined to call influence. The analysis of informal power is simply the yin to formal power‘s yang, and since in these parts we like our Moldbug, QL is concerned to determine whether formalism’s basic concepts are coherent and valid, and in what contexts they are most useful.

Formalism makes some very bold claims about how things go wrong in modern democracies, and why. The political crises of historical monarchies (and other non-democratic forms of government) are the limit-cases that allow us to test formalism’s claims. Trying to understand whether these crises resulted from misrule, bad luck, external constraints, or informal power is roughly what I think of as statecraft. Statecraft identifies common missteps and unforced errors that lead to identifiable patterns of crisis; and if these identifiable patterns cannot ultimately be attributed to mistakes, but rather to the limits of sovereign power, then statecraft points to the conceptual limits of formalism.

One particularly interesting aspect of statecraft is ecclesiastical policy. The organization of the Church is interesting, first, because no one really cares about it anymore (outside the Reactosphere, I mean); second, because the functions of the Church develop rapidly into informal power when left unattended. So the history of the Church is, in a sense, the history of informal power; and the conflicts of the Church grow out of earnest disputes over theology, so we must address theology if we are to understand this history and if, moreover, we are to discover which political stable forms of church government are acceptable to God, and vice-versa.

Statecraft includes several other problem-areas which are interesting for analogous reasons: not because they threaten the stability the state, per se, but because the goal of the sovereign is to establish some form of stable structure of expectations among his subjects, and there is a frontier of possibility describing the possible expectations. These expectations coalesce around institutions; when the limits the sovereign faces concern the functions of the institutions he wishes to shape, the limits are imposed by social structure whereas if they are the limits of his own ability to enforce his will the institution in question is the state and the limit is not dictated by its function but rather by institutional organization.

All of these themes would be gratuitous if we had no way to advance right wing  political goals — i.e., if we had no idea how to achieve the level of political cooperation necessary to push back the Left. Political cooperation is linked via the Right’s new doctrine of signaling to the moral authority these tactics so effectively challenge. And political cooperation is linked to social structure because the loyalties that grow out of our basic institutional realities lay the foundation for partisan political loyalties.

Signaling and loyalty, meanwhile, are (along with Church history, and many other topics besides) bound up in conceptual history, which is indispensable because a nuanced understanding of the past is our best weapon against illusory progressive frames. But better still, the concepts we recover from the mud where the progressives have buried them will be ours to use, and if these concepts grant us a superior understanding of reality (one denied to progressives, who can only accept a distorted version of the concepts which fits neatly inside the progressive historical narrative) that will be powerful evidence to our sympathizers and to our rivals alike.

Political Cooperation

My first post on identity politics last fall introduced the idea that groups need a certain kind of stability to gain support, and they can get that stability either from the rigidity of their principles or from the stability of an identity that group members share. I elaborated on this distinction in January. Identities can be deeply felt because they are fundamentally tribal, or they can be impossible to escape because they are constantly reinforced by daily life. In some cases complex interconnections within a group may encourage unconscious coordination without any deliberate cooperation; sometimes the group may not even realize they are a group! In other cases the ruling classes of various regions ally publicly, and when the symbolic vision of their union is sufficiently powerful, even people who are not actually part of the ruling classes that are uniting will go along for the ride. (Ask Gramsci.)

Part of the reason why we’ve been doing a better job cooperating on the Right in the last year or two is that we’ve been less vulnerable to disruption because the situation has gotten so dire. No faction or party can function without a healthy political ecology, and to preserve that ecology we should remember that political parties exist to win elections, not to punish sin.

Moral Authority

The Left viciously punishes anyone who openly signals their willingness to join us. Virtue signals send a message of servility to the Left, create an aura of inevitability that discourages the Left’s opponents, and give ordinary people the impression that all the high-status people they know respect the Left’s values. While the obvious counter-measure is to ridicule these values, we can’t be too hasty; leftists are very aggressive in pressing an imperialistic claim that all values and all concepts are either “progressive” or “reactionary”, and as this Manichaean frame itself may be the main source of the moral authority of the Left, rejecting the frame is ultimately more valuable that rejecting individual values the Left has arrogated.

In a progressive society, public figures and socioeconomic classes acquire certain limited kinds of (a)moral authority over the populace. This perverse authority is not a deliberate goal of progressivism, but typically only an afterimage of older forms of authority which progress had eliminated, like the authority of parents over children.

Signaling and Social Structure

Socialization is the most fundamental source of social expectations and signaling-systems, and so understanding how youth culture has perverted socialization (and how it replaces authority figures with celebrities) helps us think through the spongy instability of expectations and standards in contemporary life. We must have some idea how we would stabilize a society which had not yet degenerated before we can aspire to social regeneration. My essay on the bourgeois virtues and the destabilization of the conventional signs of class-affiliation has a more overt focus on the interdependence of signals and the social structure to which the signalers belong.

“Youth Culture” (implicitly) and “Naughty and Nice” (explicitly) highlight the malfunction of processes which determine who belongs to a group and who doesn’t. But the crisis of belonging is as important for nations as for cultures and classes; if you try to force people to hide and ignore signs of national identity, you can cripple feelings of national loyalty. I briefly addressed the historical dimensions of this problem (the interactions of huge populations in daily life, and the biological mingling of previously-distinct populations) when I discussed servitude. I looked at the ideological dimensions of the problem (what Steve Sailer calls “the War on Noticing”) in my review of physical anthropology in 1950, and elsewhere I tried to correct some of the misconceptions about biological relationships.

One of the most important general principles underlying social structures is the relationship between commitments and expectations, and thus I started my (unfinished) account of marriage with a general account of commitment: a firm grasp of commitment will help us understand both the dependence of expectations on the underlying conventional commitments (which, when they change, rapidly undermine the expectations built on top of them) and the realm of social possibility. Expectations are like systems of equations in that, when the values of a few of the “variables” are fixed, the possible values of the remaining variables are tightly constrained. To put it bluntly, you cannot expect a thing and its opposite; and two or more expectations may contradict or confuse some third expectation.

This is especially important in considering the elements of social structure which are directly tied to the coercive apparatus of the state. For example, rulers usually must adapt themselves to the languages of their subjects; rulers may try to govern through pariahs who are themselves estranged from the rest of society and absolved of all social expectations; the rulers may voluntarily estrange themselves from their (natal) society, the better to merge with foreign elites and ruthlessly rule a united empire.

No royal attempt to evade popular expectations is without consequences. Rulers may have an arbitrary power to create expectations, but they cannot ignore expectations that they have already created; and since sovereign power rests on the expectation that the sovereign will always win (and that it will always intervene to protect legitimate titles), a sovereign who carelessly creates expectations about who will represent the authority of the state and what they will protect may find himself in trouble. The reductio ad absurdum of the sovereign’s vulnerability to expectations is the flexible resilience of tribal government, which maintains a measure of stability by channeling the sources of power which shape expectations about who will win any given conflict. (The strength of tribal identity makes an interesting counterpoint to the contrived anemia of “modern” identities, as well.)

Political Institutions and Statecraft

The limits that social structure imposes on statecraft illuminate the nature of the state and reveal the germs of corruption of the political order. Statecraft proposes to examine how sovereigns rule their states. Prior to understanding how sovereigns rule, you must first understand how they can become sovereign, for the premise of any act of statecraft must be that it will preserve the ruler’s “state”, his status as a ruler. This status cannot merely be a question of “having enough power”, if a ruler and his subjects are understood to have “power” in the same way (differing only in that the weak have little, the strong have much, and the sovereign has the most), because power requires the aid of others and the power of a sovereign cannot rest on legal guarantees or individual goodwill the way the power of his subjects typically does.

Becoming and remaining sovereign is first of all a sort of strategic interaction, and so the basic principles of strategy apply. Because the question is how “the sovereign” (one man, or a body of men) can have power which requires the cooperation of many subordinates without the support of an external force, the question is primarily one of institutional strategy: how can a group function as a unitary actor? Concepts like hierarchy, disengagement, and centrality allow us to discuss these questions — not just for extremely powerful sovereign bodies, or potentially sovereign bodies, but also for political parties and their ecosystems.

Informal Power and Church History

If a state is ruled by the formal power of a sovereign, you can have political order without lies. But that isn’t to say that the institutions which priestly rulers use to weave illusions aren’t necessary to the health of the state — they are necessary, if only to prevent the growth of an incipient Cathedral! The same institutions that are sources of informal power in the absence of a sovereign have harmlessly formal powers when they are under the control of a sovereign, a contrast I tried to sketch out under the rubric of (in)formal capacities and (in)formal mechanisms both in the original “Cathedral” post and in a subsequent clarification. (Basically: informal capacity + informal mechanism = informal power, but any other combination leads to formal power.)

The “Cathedral” post and its capacity/mechanism distinction was based on my understanding of the multi-dimensional religious disagreements which fueled the English Civil War. But the informal capacities which the Church wields are never free from danger, and I have been gradually pulling together information on different episodes in Church history, of which I have published notes on the English Church, on New England Calvinism, on the Puritan Hypothesis generally, on the integration of Church and State at the time of the Reformation, on a certain religious minority, and also a more free-ranging note which addresses (a) characteristic (undesirable) effects of religious minorities on the majority religion, (b) religious minorities as pawns in international politics, and (c) the polarization-dynamics which lead to the formation of rival theological coalitions (and to the formation of their “platforms” as well).

Part of the reason why the Church is so important (both in historical perspective, and to us today) is that it is part of the bedrock social structure which the sovereign may seek to tweak or rearrange, but which he cannot abolish. In part that is because everyone believes something and no society is without its memeplex, but that is a somewhat remote and instrumental conception, and does not capture more than a fraction of historical Church-State interaction. More importantly, Christian rulers and Christian subjects seek to do the will of the Lord; thus we face constraints relating to questions like “What can we know of God’s laws?” and “How should we treat sinners?”, which force us to first ask fundamental questions about faith and sin.

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