TQ’s Trifunctional Model, cont’d

Earlier this summer I wrote a quick summary of TQ’s essay Three Types of Societies, and then delved a little deeper into the inner logic of his model. The intention was that after we got a firm grasp of the model, we would give it a good hard shake, but long-time QL aficionados know that intentions are merely the ruses to which the noûs resorts in its never-ending quest for autonomy.

Ambiguity and Identity

The distinction between TQ’s two models, the diachronic demographic-branching model and the synchronic functional-specialization model, allows us to tease apart major ambiguities in TQ’s analysis of his three societies and three forms of government. On the one hand, TQ seems to equivocate between socio-cultural phase transitionsborders, and levels of density. On the other hand, the examples he uses to illustrate his theory conflate ethnea, nations, and races into a generic concept of “clade” or “parent population”.

By phase transition I mean a boundary which divides a population into two groups which have settled on different equilibrium-solutions to a coordination problem; in short, two groups which are homogenous in different ways. Considered in the abstract, if you divide any sort of cultural system (a language, the conventions of body language and gesture, food, dress, hobbies…) into a large but finite repertoire of action-reaction pairs, and assume that everyone will personally prefer to respond in the way that the majority of their neighbors do and will prefer to interact with people who respond the same way they do, then over time most people will be completely surrounded by a network of people who act the same way they do, but where two expanding neighborhoods of local consensus meet, there will be a boundary characterized by low interaction-density and a sudden transition from homogenous adherence to one system to homogenous adherence to the other system.

This is the sort of boundary that would grow up spontaneously within a large, initially uniform population descended from the same parent stock. Random variations accumulate in the language and culture of the dispersed population over time; by chance, certain variants will spread, creating a continuum of differences as one travels from one side of the population to the other; but as the differences grow steeper and local dialects or subcultures start to systematically change to fit the innovations into a consistent pattern, the continuum will start to break into discrete pockets of linguistic conformity which crystallize around emerging standard dialects.

As I have said before, culture works like a language. Networks of individuals attempting to conform their own actions and reactions to those of their neighbors would form phase transitions similar to the transitions between dialects and between languages. (When I previously described TQ’s model in terms of interacting “nodes” or “pockets”, it was this relationship between interaction-networks and polarization into distinct communities that I was gesturing towards.)

Now, a border is in the context of TQ’s argument not just any sort of boundary or demarcation line but specifically the line which separates one autonomous jurisdictional unit from its neighbors (i.e., its rivals). These borders, established by war and struggle, are at any given historical moment defended jealously, but they are subject to arbitrary future readjustment as the result of further wars to come. A fortiori, the enemy could at any moment cross the nominal border in force, so the borderlands are where the de jure power of the state is most exposed to refutation by the de facto power of hostile arms.

Phase transitions polarize and differentiate communities. Borders circumscribe the territories states claim. Density of settlement, on the other hand, establishes continuous gradients rather than discrete boundaries, and thus does not distinguish particular, well-defined regions from one another. One way to frame the difference is that density is a comparative concept rather than a classificatory one.

What, you might ask, is the problem with all this? Obviously all three of these features of ethnogeography can coexist (and do, in the real world). But if we try to use them to define a typology of ethnonational identity, then the problem is not whether they can coexist, but which of these features is meant to provide the typology.

Density gradients, to start us off, are continuous (barring accidents of geography); therefore a theory which makes social type a function of population density should be at least provisionally committed to a continuum of social types.

Now, this concession would not be not fatal to TQ’s typology, but it would compel us to interpret his three types (core, marcher, and settler) as illustrative points along a smooth, continuous transition between social types, with marginally less dense regions being marginally more “settler-ish”.  And prima facie it would seem to imply that the marchers are in some sense intermediate between the settlers and the core population, whereas I took TQ to be proposing a triangular opposition between three distinct types of society with their own strengths, weaknesses, and social equilibria.

(The continuity of population density doesn’t pose as much of a problem for TQ’s political corollary, the monarchy-aristocracy-democracy typology. Debates over whether these three regimes are qualitatively distinct or perhaps just a result of progressive extension of the franchise are as old as Aristotle, so I will not take sides; clearly the latter position is defensible and plausible. But unless we take high levels of political mobilization as a social norm, this is irrelevant to social identity and ethnogenesis, which is what is at issue.)

Phase transitions and political borders do not pose the same problem, but they have others, including the fact that they are not identical to each other. Political borders are much easier to change than cultural patterns, for one thing. You adjust one with quill and ink, and you adjust the other with machetes.

Borders are also much more absolute (for the very same reason sovereignty is absolute); cultural polarization prevents continuity or smooth transitions, but even if they are ultimately granular these phase transitions do take place along a scale, a scale within which any coherent cultural “pocket” can always polarize into two or more fragments. The delineated nodes of cultural interaction can thus be nested inside one another, whereas independent states cannot… unless the concepts of political sovereignty and autonomous jurisdiction are watered down so much as to be meaningless. If we want to frame neighboring states whose cultural affinity makes them natural allies and neighboring provinces which feud violently over cultural tensions as steps in a nested scale of political hierarchy,

A final point: a phase transition is a way of thinking about identity which is intrinsically grounded in a hypothesis about the process by which distinct identities form. A border, on the other hand, can mark off two populations without making any assumptions about the formation of their characteristic identities — or about the direction of the causal arrow (if any) connecting the establishment of a population’s identity and the establishment of its encircling borders.

Levels of Explanation

Persia, TQ suggests, was a marcher-population without a core, besieged on all sides. Spain was a marcher-state, facing of against the Moors; England was a marcher-state, facing off against… the Welsh, perhaps?

I don’t mean to belittle the difficulty of eternal vigilance against the Wendish Menace. But we are clearly using very different ideas of “the border” here. Spain has a border with the Moors but not with the Franks (with whom the Hapsburgs warred constantly); but conversely Aragon, which shared in the mercantile flourishing of Occitan and Lombardy, is too scarred by the siege of Granada to be a proper “core”. If the Spanish do not have a “border” with the French, in the strict sense, then presumably this is because the “marches” are found at the civilizational border. But in that case even if the Welsh, the Saxons, the Normans and the Scots had some friendly squabbles (what are a few invasions between brothers in Christ?) they are safely in the sheltered core of the Christian world.

Or — if the existence of a “marcher” culture and a militarily salient borderlands did exist both in Iberia and in Britain, but for different reasons and in different contexts — then the explanation of this situation does not lie in any particular kind of border per se, but in the specific diplomatic and demographic situation that makes some borders “militarily salient”, and others not.

Thus the the question of whether we are talking about the identities of ethnea, nations, or races starts to become important. Of course, part of the whole underlying rationale of TQ’s model was to illustrate that clades can possess both unity and internal diversity. So he is polemically committed to the position that distinct nested identities are emerging multiple cladistic levels simultaneously.

But unfortunately for the internal consistency of his model, his typology of these identities depends on assumptions about boundary-effects which emphasize the special properties of the territory a population occupies and dynamics which occur at the borders between these territories. Specifically, he assumes that the boundary between the area a population controls is categorically different from the internal boundaries between its subregions and subpopulations. (Otherwise, the external boundary would explain the distinction between the marchers and the core, and then the internal boundary would in turn require another set of marcher-lords to guard the boundary between the marches and the core: an infinite regress.)

So TQ has an inconvenient problem. He wants to defend the analogy between the nested levels of clades (in light of his third way between race and culture); he wants to illustrate the “unity with internal diversity” concept with a three-way contrast which makes use of a disanalogy between a populations external border and its internal borders; and he wants to substantiate this contrast by citing historical populations whose “borders” appear at multiple levels, higher and lower. But the “internal borders” of a race are the same as the “external borders” of a nation, so he is using the same types of boundaries to make contradictory claims about how the disanalogy functions in different examples.

It’s a circle that cannot be squared.

LARPer Jacobitism

One final topic: regimes. TQ quite rightly notes that while some reactionaries seem to fetishize absolute monarchy, monarchy was never universal and is probably not appropriate to all population-types. But I would like to quibble on a few points.

LARPer Jacobitism is a problem only as LARPer political philosophy. As a dramatic performance showering praise on the divine right of kings in general and the Wittelsbach boys in particular, it has an important function.

Monarchy is as important a bogeyman (a fnord) in progressive political ideology as the Holocaust is in their cultural ideology. It is a pseudo-reductio, a stick with which to beat cringing conservatives. (“They may take our freedoms, but at least we’ll still have The Federalist Papers!”) “But couldn’t you use the same argument to defend monarchy?” is just one step up from drivel like “But couldn’t you use the same argument to defend Hitler?” To which the only proper response is: Huh, wow, I guess you’re right: looks like we’re going to need a lot of pesticide…

If you don’t like the rhetorical strategy, leave it to people who relish it. There’s nothing wrong with monarchy, in principle (here TQ and I agree, of course). The only way to get it through thick shitlib skulls that we despise their fnord is to ostentatiously emphasize that yes, monarchy is definitely on the table and we’ll be keeping it strictly Salic this time around. Some people thrill to the sight of ermine more than others, but I doubt that even Nigel holds that all government must be monarchic.

The LARPy Jacobitism has a few other related rhetorical functions as well. It allows reactionaries to preempt a dull slippery-slope argument against traditionalism. (“If you’re willing to turn the clock back to YEAR_(t-50), why aren’t you willing to go back to YEAR_(t-100)? Huh?”) It allows us to broadcast our principled opposition to principled opposition to hereditary privilege. The unitary nature of one-man rule nicely illustrates the reactionary critique of government by blob, and of anarchotyranny.

And, most important of all, it allows us to defend absolutism, in the specific (but inessential) form of royal absolutism.

This would be the only point where I might have a true disagreement with TQ on political regimes. He takes the viability (and in some contexts, superiority) of aristocracy and democracy as alternatives to monarchy to be tantamount to the viability of limited, mixed, or balanced government to absolutism. But monarchy-aristocracy-democracy describes a spectrum of regimes which vary with respect to the number of men who have a share in sovereignty. This spectrum has no necessary connection to the question of absolute or limited government.

A properly functioning democracy is an absolute democracy. A properly functioning aristocracy is an absolute aristocracy. You can “limit” the excesses of the forms by choosing an ambiguous form (e.g., one which could be described either as an unusually strict democracy or as an incredibly broad aristocracy) but not by setting up multiple competing bodies, none of which possess final authority.

The idea that only monarchies can be absolutist is a silly prog fantasy based on meaningless prog preoccupations. This is why maybe we should stop being prissy about calling ourselves formalists and go back to Hobbes; Hobbes makes the distinction between sovereignty and regime pretty damn clear.

(Moldbug is clear too, but it’s buried in the middle of multiple 10,000 word essays laced with recursive tangents on Victorian pamphlet literature.)

There is a great deal more to say about the core-marcher-settler typology, but I will leave off here, having already said a great deal more than most people would want to read. The most important subject remaining in TQ’s essay which I have not yet discussed is his overarching “ethnonationalist” strategy for mobilizing the right. But, as I mentioned above, I do not think this strategy actually fits naturally with the trifunctional typology, so it will be better to save that topic for a separate discussion.



8 thoughts on “TQ’s Trifunctional Model, cont’d

  1. Hey QL, long time reader.

    I develop a very similar Trifunctional result from a thermodynamics perspective in this first pass account of natural entities, empiricism, and ecological systems.


    Please tell me what you find interesting, compelling, wrong, or if it’s unreadable or boring. Hopefully with feedback I can choose what to focus on and make it clear. This is a first pass to get all the content out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, looks interesting. I’m glad to find someone else who finds DR/E and Millikan as useful as I do!

      It may be a few days before I can give this proper attention because I need to read the GAN bit you linked. (And should I read Biosemantics in particular? I assume that was a suggestion for people with no familiarity with her ideas.)

      I did give it a quick skim, though, and my first comment would be that it’s quite telegraphic. Lots of sentences without verbs, or which assert “P is Q” without elaboration or qualification. The transitions between topics (and sometimes even within paragraphs) seem a little stark. You also speak somewhat elliptically at points, referring to themes/topics using epithets (mostly, epithets alluding to important philosophic and scientific concepts; I’m guessing that is the source of the ones I don’t recognize as well).

      I’m guessing v0 will be a little bit hard for me to understand even once I’ve read about GAN. But reading this repeatedly gave me the same feeling I get when I’m reading one of my own outlines, or an analytical table of contents; many of the sentences in this version function as promissory notes to remind you of positions you want to write down explicitly later, no?

      Either way it seems fascinating and I’m looking forward to giving it a second read. Feel free to send me an e-mail if you need someone to bounce ideas off of.


      1. Yes, I acknowledge that it may be overly concise. My most serious request is to know if anything looks outright wrong. Please do tell me which references are unfamiliar. I’d like to know what requires more exposition from someone in my general desired audience.

        Thanks for taking a look at it. I may reach out with ideas sometime later.


  2. Bonald (the blogger) has convinced me that democracy is anti-Christian and is directly responsible for a decline in the faith. It is a totally different question as to whether there is anyway back from here. I am quite sure that any monarch will not be the Stuart claimant. Asking Duke Franz of Bavaria to assert the divine right of kings would be like asking Pope Francis to defend Catholic integralism.


    1. Is there some specific argument (and some specific conception of ‘democracy’) that tipped the balance for you? I wouldn’t disagree that _this_ democracy is anti-Christian…


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