Minor Note: Gramsci

Over the last few months a number of you had recommended Gramsci, so when the opportunity presented itself I read some Gramsci. You were right: Gramsci writes well. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Antonio Gramsci: the towering midget

I don’t know whether the passages I read will change my views substantially or lead to a more systematic attempt to read/study Gramsci, but what I find most striking about this “discovery” was how flimsy the rationale for my long aversion to Gramsci now seems in retrospect. I had said that Gramsci was overexposed, overused, and so (presumptively) overrated. I wasn’t imagining this; people talk about Gramsci all the time. Everyone talks about Gramsci. I didn’t need to read Gramsci in order to learn what people think about Gramsci; I know plenty about that.

Where I went wrong was in assuming that what people have said about Gramsci must be substantially related to what Gramsci has said. How often do I say this to people? To the texts, to the texts! What most people mean when they say “Platonic” or “Hobbesian” or “Nietzschean” has nothing to do with the writings of Plato, Hobbes, or Nietzsche. We read old books because what older writers wrote was better than what our contemporaries write: less subject to the whims of passing fads, less distorted by the demotist deception. This general principle also extends to new books about old books! I know it in principle, and I remind people of it often myself; but somehow I failed to apply the logic to Gramsci.

Of course, part of the problem was that Antonio Gramsci isn’t just distorted by deception: he’s distortion made flesh. I have wasted enough time already reading prestigious radicals, and I was loathe to waste more. But I failed to be properly chauvinist in my analysis. ML King and Malcolm X were blacks; Rosa Luxemburg was a jewess. To be an imprisoned radical is not, in itself, a ticket into the martyrology of Cultural Marxism; you need either the privileges of an Official Victim, a radical network of co-ethnics to lobby for your canonization, or preferably both.

Gramsci’s wife, Julia, with Delio and Giuliano

Antonio Gramsci was a Italian man with a pretty wife. He wasn’t even properly proletarian: his childhood poverty was the outcome of his father’s ugly career as an embezzler, and the books he ordered from his prison cell were charged directly to his friend Piero Sraffa.

Clearly I was too much of a glassy-eyed universalist to realize that the Left does not fetishize the prison letters and prison scribblings of every white, straight male who was imprisoned during Bolshevism’s openly-violent phase. Gramsci had to earn the right to be misinterpreted by cat-ladies with tenure. My aversion to writers connected with the phrase “prison notebooks” ought not to have extended to him.

As you will have gathered, my second-hand knowledge of Gramsci was a web of mistakes and misunderstandings. The funniest of these involved the concept of hegemony Gramsci proposed. In Cultural Marxist orthodoxy, “hegemony” refers to insidious, polymorphous, overwhelming voodoo-power which undermines all attempts to resist it. I have always disliked it, not because the concept is incoherent or dishonestly applied but because in Greek, hegemon does not denote awe-inspiring power or absolute control but rather primus inter pares, the leader of a coalition. But this is exactly what Gramsci has in mind: leadership within a coalition.

My vague sense that Gramsci played a role in the politicization of the banal and the banalization of academia was more accurate. But even here, Gramsci’s own position was more reasonable than what his successors’ became. When Gramsci talks about the significance of everyday life and folk-culture, his purpose is not to belittle the life of the mind but rather, by placing it in its proper context, to show its profound importance. In effect, he recreates Hobbes’ position: high-status intellectuals create and refine doctrines which medium-status intellectuals then teach to the low-status intellectual who indoctrinate the population. When the indoctrination is complete, men who could never read a book like Summa Theologica nonetheless have many of its doctrines embedded in their routines, their idioms, their rituals, and the standards to which they hold each other.

In other words, Hobbes emphasizes the political function of the lower clergy not in order to de-emphasize abstruse debates between berobed doctors, but in order to underline the ultimate political impact of the academic debate by outlining the transmission mechanism whereby academic theses become popular consensus. Gramsci’s argument is tailored to refute the Marxist dogma that metaphysics is irrelevant to politics rather than the Puritan dogma that metaphysics rises above politics, but is identical in its general shape.

So the “Gramscian” view that any piece of pop culture ephemera deserves the same level of study and analysis as the Republic is a parody of Antonio Gramsci’s view; but perhaps Gramsci deserves no better. The company you choose in life may bedevil you long after death…

You Can’t Get There From Here

diagram_of_greek_temple-142d477703c1498f773I. Laying the Foundation

Metaphorically speaking, the aspiring architect of a new political order faces the same challenges as any other architect. The political architect will have established his new order when one (sovereign) faction has more power than all the others, and enough power to force them to submit to its laws. By the same token, an architect who works in stone and timber finishes a new building when he has put the roof in place above the top floor, the top floor above the second-to-top floor, and so on all the way down to the foundation.

In fact, can we not say that in the final analysis, the whole field of architecture (including the political subdivision) reduces to the art of elevation? Architects elevate things until they are in their proper positions. Political architects elevate sovereigns high above all their subjects and, more generally, superior above inferior. Other varieties of architect elevate spire above belfry, or pediment above architrave, and in any event upper above lower. We who are unlucky enough to find ourselves but feebly endowed with the gift of elevation can only gape at the virtuosity displayed by architects who lift brick, mortar and steel up to the dizzying heights their tall buildings require.

9526fc4c289dc7934a0e8940acc1779cOr so it might seem.

Consider a simple case of architecture: a sandcastle, perhaps. And let us stipulate that we have in mind a really quite simple sandcastle, perhaps approximating a large mound of sand. An architectural amateur can hardly do better if he wants to practice his elevating. There is really nothing more to building a (simple) sandcastle than filling a bucket with wet sand, elevating that bucket to the top of the existing sandcastle-mound, and unloading your sand at the summit. If you have no bucket, your hands will do just fine. Architecture stripped down to the essential!

If you try this experiment, you will quickly discover something interesting about sand. Sand — especially wet sand — is easy to pour on top of the sandpile, but it doesn’t stay there easily. The weight of each bucketful of new sand dislodges what was there before, causing the sides of the pile to cascade down to the bottom, bringing most of what was just added with it. Sometimes an entire face of an apparently-stable sandcastle will slide off at once, causing a whole line of towers and spires to founder and vanish into the avalanche.

Other simple cases of architecture furnish parallel examples. Playing cards are light. One man can easily lift up a whole box filled with decks of playing cards above his head. But few can take those playing cards and build a card-tower that rises even a few feet off the ground. Elevating the cards is easy: the trick is to get them to stay elevated once they’re in place. A slight tap to the top of the tower causes the cards to tremble all the way down to the base, and just like that the tower collapses.

Slightly more ambitious architectural projects will suggest other failings of the Elevation Theory Of Architecture. Platforms that tip over; decks that detach; supports which crumple under the weight of the finished structure. After the structure itself is completed, of course, you also need to use it, which give it further opportunities to crumple, crack, or otherwise come apart under the weight of the furnishings and the occupants.

So: maybe architectures isn’t really all about lifting things up high after all. Maybe it’s about getting them to stay high after you lift them —and in particular, to prevent everything you’ve piled up from collapsing under its own weight.

II. Power and Ambiguity

Anarchy is the absence of power. To re-establish central authority, the authority-which-is-to-become-central must first have the power to overcome every anarchic faction that might resist it. It may be possible to pacify one rival with the aid of a different faction, but to pull off a trick like that you first would need the power to compel the second faction to ally with you against the third; not to mention the power to resist any far-sighted third party which intervenes to prevent you from subduing one faction for use against the second…

So whoever ends a prolonged period of anarchy will necessarily be powerful. A fortiori, at some point he will have had to pursue power, in order later to use it.

Amassing power seems like a great challenge because it is genuinely hard. Not everyone can be above average; not everyone can be a leader. Most people consider themselves lucky if they have the resources to prevail in a struggle against a landlord or an employer, never mind an entire rival faction in a national power struggle. To a fish, the whole world is a little pond — and to ordinary people like you or me, grave matters of statecraft are just extensions of a lifelong struggle against powerlessness and insignificance.

But the rarity or infrequency of a necessary condition does not, in itself, make that condition an obstacle. Great power is rare, but it will always be rare. The reason why the most influential factions, under circumstances of anarchy, do not make themselves sovereign — or, failing that, do not further augment and stabilize their power — is not that they are too stupid (or cowardly, or whatever else) to see the benefits of pacifying their rivals. Rather, they are ill-equipped to pursue supremacy because their powers, like the spires of a sandcastle, are heaped up high on an unstable foundation.

Sovereigns need to be able to mobilize resources. However, there are two ways to mobilize a resource: at will, or by influencing the consensus among all people with an interest in the resource and an ability to move/use/manipulate it. The latter is just influence, and requires a further question about how that consensus is generated and what one must give up to maintain that influence. To mobilize a resource at will, on the other hand, one must be able to intervene and determine its use regardless of whether other people like that use, or like you.

One way to express this distinction is to say that to mobilize a resource at will, one needs not just influence but formal power: the power that will be at your personal disposal in any conflict over the resource is so great that no ambiguity about who controls the resource can arise.

Unfortunately the extension of this formalist analysis to the conditions which define sovereignty itself would be improper. A distinction between “formal” and “informal” power implicitly assumes that “the power at one’s personal disposal in a conflict” includes power lent by legitimate authorities (the sovereign, or those the sovereign charters) to titleholders. By consistently defending the choices of formal titleholders, the sovereign deters malcontents from challenging titles, and thus indirectly from challenging the whole system of formal powers which the sovereign superintends. But while an ordinary person’s formal power can be defined as “his own personal power plus the power of the sovereign” to contrast it with his influence, applying the same formula to the sovereign yields an empty tautology.

Now, to execute his duties a sovereign must have at his disposal more power than any man could wield individually, in his own person. But he cannot rely on mere consensus among all the conscripts and policemen. In the former case there is no sovereign; in the latter, the sovereign is an assembly of henchmen. It is not that a king/chief/boss-man who leads an assembly of henchmen is an unimportant man. He matters, but he owes his status to his influence over the assembly and he serves at its pleasure. (He is in effect a demagogue in a very narrow sort of democracy.)

I have no intention here to unveil a formula or schema which adequately distinguishes between the sovereign’s ur-formal power, on the one hand, and his overall influence over consensus in the many different groups positioned to intervene in various conflicts in which he has a stake. I have drawn attention to this contrast only to highlight two ways of amassing power, and their very different implications for statecraft.

Doubling the number of people over whom one has influence increases one’s ability to resolve conflicts only within tight constraints, because one accumulates influence over an audience by appealing to its interests and preconceptions. By repeated doublings one could gain influence over an extraordinary number of people, but would simultaneously lose more and more freedom to maneuver without alienating one’s “followers”. The same logic extends to financing, to equipment, to talent; if you double the sum of money you can raise in a certain period, or the quantity of supplies you can stockpile, but these resources are provided courtesy of an audience on whose goodwill you depend, you are heaping more and more sand onto the sandpile. Their money and their supplies may be nice to have, but you will always be their employee — never their sovereign.

III. Transition

M. Tullius Cicero, at the conclusion of a discussion of the duties owed in war, states:

Though one may do injury in either of two ways — namely, by force or by fraud — both are entirely alien to a human being: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion.

In the absence of a sovereign the law falls silent, and who then is to judge whether the harms men suffer rise to the level of iniuria? Nonetheless, we recognize force and fraud by the same general features whether at war or at peace. A judge is only necessary if there is a sentence to be passed and a legal title to be upheld; otherwise we can discern the violent or fraudulent character of an act without seeking to convict anyone of any crime.

We can admire particularly courageous applications of force, particularly cunning uses of fraud. Indeed, it is hard not to react to the sight of vicious comrades triumphing over an enemy with admiration (not to mention relief, and satisfaction). This goes to show that whether one can recognize the signs of force and fraud in an act is an entirely different question from whether one condemns the act as an injury, or even disapproves of it: how could anyone admire a master of deception without first observing his deceit?

Force and fraud not only appear in times of war and anarchy, but we can classify certain wartime acts as more forceful or fraudulent, others as less, and draw certain modest conclusions about belligerents who triumph without resorting to bestial tactics.

In the abstract, Group X overpowers Group Y if X has more manpower that Y and uses this advantage to physically prevent Y from opposing X’s plans. Conversely, X outwits Y if X contrives to prevent Y from opposing X’s plans by causing Y to believe (falsely) that this course of action serves Y’s interests.

It is generally understood that fraud is unsustainable. That is, it is entirely possible that X’s act of deception succeeds so completely that Y cannot recover from the damage; X’s position grows increasingly dominant, Y’s hopes evaporate and surrender looms. A ruse can work, and if it does work spectacularly, a victory is a victory. The problem is that it cannot work repeatedly. Whatever misleading evidence you offered originally your enemy will learn to interpret as random noise. So if X’s strengths in its conflict with Y have included, to date, successful use of fraud, you expect X’s advantage over Y to weaken as the conflict continues, and Y learns to disregard the misleading kinds of evidence it had originally fallen for.

Furthermore: even if X has triumphed, by fraud, in its war against Y, the power which X used to win the war will be little use in maintaining the peace. If Y remains independent, Y will not fall for the same trick again, and other rivals like Z will have learned from Y’s mistakes. If Y has been subjugated and absorbed, X does not need to deter a formal declaration of war, but does need some way to make the former members of the defeated group fall in line: the lies X told during the war will not work.

In a way, this suggests that fraud may be just a special version of the type of influence we encountered in the previous section. Influence gives you the ability to guide what a group does… provided you want them to do something that is in their interests. Fraud is really the exact same thing, but in the special case where you manage to make their beliefs about their interests conform to your plans, rather than conforming your plans to their interests. Accumulated influence is forfeit as soon as the “influencer” stops currying favor with the audience, in any case; fraud is simply the most drastic way to reveal to your audience that its goals are no longer compatible with your own.

Oddly enough the same sort of analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, to the scenario where X overpowers Y with superior manpower. Here, of course, there is no question of Y making a mistake or learning to correct it. If X has superior numbers at the beginning of a war it can very well maintain that advantage through to the end of the war, and all else equal X will still have superior numbers when the next war runs around. So the strategy of overpowering a rival is not “unsustainable” in the sense of self-undermining.

But a similar sort of regress arises all the same. Any group can be subdivided into smaller groups. For example, if X outnumbers Y, it is still the case that Y outnumbers a variety of possible subdivisions of X: let us in fact subdivide X into two halves, X’ and X”, either of which Y could easily overpower. The fact that (X’+X”) can overpower Y does not by itself imply that X will defeat Y (or any other rival) in future conflicts; to reach this conclusion we must also conclude that X’ and X” will continue to work side by side against “external” rivals.

Why would X’ and X” continue to cooperate? Maybe because X’ can overpower X”, or vice-versa; maybe because one has tricked the other. As a third option, maybe there is an incidental convergence of interests between X’ and X” which allows them them to influence each other to promote mutually appealing projects (like crushing Y). Such a convergence will last as long as it lasts, and when X’ and X” start to push for goals where their interests diverge, X as a whole will split up.

Of course, if X’ has tricked X” (or vice-versa), then one would expect the dupe will wake up and turn on the deceiver soon enough: such tactics are, we have noted, unsustainable. And if X’ preserves the X-alliance by overpowering X”, we have jumped straight from the frying pan to the fire: who keeps the subdivisions of X’ in line so that they can subdue X” (so that they can subdue Y)?

In interstate warfare, two (or more) sovereign states, each with (hopefully) some power base inside its own borders, face off over a disputed territory. Given that we already know each sovereign has the power to maintain internal order, we can infer that they use that same source of power (whatever form it may take!) to maintain military discipline. So even if a state does attempt to outwit or overpower its enemies, and even if these strategies suggest the state is exposed to certain risks (loss of trust, either from the enemy or within its own ranks), there is ultimately no worry about how the state maintains control at all: there is no worry that force and fraud are the only bonds holding the group together.

In anarchy, matters stand differently. There, no faction has any power beyond what it can use (and successfully defend) in its quarrels with its neighbors. If a faction gains power through a successful campaign of deception, it may have nothing left when the truth finally comes out (which it eventually will). More significantly: if a faction gains power through its superior numbers, it may have nothing left when its various internal cliques start to feud.

Thus in a very loose sense, the eventual “victor” who imposes order in an anarchic environment will be the one who reaches a no-force, no-fraud equilibrium. In anarchy, many factions will profit immensely from every sort of deception, lie, and breach of faith, but these same factions will crumble after they have no one left to lie to. Many factions will profit by ganging up on the small and weak, but they will crumble when they start to prey on each other. But a faction which derives its power neither (primarily) from its lies nor (primarily) from its numbers will not crumble and stands to continue consolidating its position into true political order.

So there really is a way in which an institution which is trying to reestablish order after a period of anarchy needs to be “small”, or at least “dense”. Institutions which are “big”, in the sense that they have power by virtue of containing/influencing many men and having many resources at their disposition, are ill-suited to the task in same way a Ponzi scheme is ill-suited long-term investment. An organization which achieves comparable power with less manpower is no better equipped than the “big” organization to accomplish a given goal or defeat a given rival (this is what it means to say they have “comparable power”), but is exponentially more likely to rule.

How does an institution with fewer men achieve better results than one with more men? It could recruit more talented applicants, of course (and it should!) but this only pushes the question back to a more general level: how does an institution with less manpower, fewer talents and human capital of all forms, fewer resources, less of everything, outperform one with more? Presumably it can only do this by being a better institution: better organization, more unity, such that the relationships among its few members form a network that induces the members to pursue the goals of the network and the network to pursue the goals of its members.

Conclusion: to have formal power (and thus potentially: sovereignty) rather than just a lot of influence (but: influence whose accumulation does nothing to end an anarchic state), an entity must be organized.


Leeches, Lies, and Purity Spirals

Caution! Prolonged contact with lie causes debilitating injuries, including blindness.

This is funny, but the author misses the reason why the monarchists (bless them) are monarchists to begin with. When the informal influence people wield doesn’t match up with the formal description of the official powers (if any) of their positions, they need lies and deception to keep the system going. Those lies then become symbols that people can use to signal loyalty to, and even status within, the existing informal power structure. So of course the signaling spirals then become, themselves, a means to further accumulation of informal power.

Signaling spirals: fun for the whole family!

Monarchies are not like this. Were not, historically: a constitutional monarchy is a democracy and since the sovereignty of the monarch is as much a lie as the power of the people, you get absurd cults of personality like the worship of “Princess” Diana. But when the king (or the signorie, or whomever) actually wields the power his title indicates, he doesn’t need lies to stay in power so there is no signaling spiral to engage in.

“Human rights are the ultimate source of our laws, and their final court of appeals” is a lie. It sounds nice, might fool the plebs. Maybe it even has some vague (symbolic) correspondence to the real distribution of informal influence — like, law professors who publish on human rights trump law professors who publish on tort law? Maybe, but don’t get your hopes up. Either way, you can’t blame human rights for the sorry state of our republic. They’re inert. They’re pining for the fjords. Human rights dindu nuffin.

“King William is the ultimate source of our laws and their final court of appeals,” on the other hand, could be correct. Not necessarily! But if there were a king (name of Will) who had the formal authority to make and judge law, and also had the power to exercise that authority in practice without the consent of every powerbroker who holds an informal veto, then he would, indeed, be responsible for legislation. So it’s at least plausible.

(And if the statement also happens to be true, then there’s not much wiggle room for a signaling spiral. What are you gonna do, bow longer? Okay, have fun with that. When you get up from your five-minute kowtow, the political order is still intact – but watch yourself, I’ve got a killer six-minute kowtow that’s coming right back atchoo.)

44b6225ea50e403231a0e94bcb8c3929That was fun! Let’s try it again. “The principle of the natural equality of mankind reigns supreme.” Lol okay. Do you even lift, Principle of Natural Equality? There’s no limit to the obvious, empirical inequalities between men that you might need to deny (=lie about) and turn a blind eye to (=act like an incompetent fool) in order to signal your superior level of self-deception about the power of natural equality. “King William reigns supreme.” Gallows? Check. Dragoons? Check. Pulpits? Sheriffs? Spies? Check, check, check. Oh look, King William sort of does reign supreme. No political power is so absolute that a fool can’t find some way to gamble it away, but if you try to signal-spiral about King Willy, he’s going to go full Canute on you.

Fool got REBUK’D

Why? The Royal Timetable is valuable. Big Will doesn’t want to hear your bullshitting about how he controls tides (or whatever). He needs accurate information and sound counsel. If you’re not going to deliver, he’s going to show you (and his entire Court) how stupid he thinks you are, and then the Royal Bouncers treat you to an episode of “Get out and stay out, faggot.”

Speaking of which, let’s try this one: “Those who work for the welfare of the people are always rewarded for their accomplishments in the end.” Huehuehue. Can you imagine the spiral? Between lying about who “the people” are, what advances “their welfare”, and whose “accomplishments” have caused those putative advances… not even an astrophysicist could get us out of this 3-body problem! So next thing you know you’re calling some grim cat-lady a “true hero” to signal to your friends that you’re a Friend of Progress™. Compare: “Those who work for King William are always rewarded for their accomplishments in the end.” Well, duh. King William has arbitrary discretion to humiliate and punish anyone who undermines him and reward anyone who helps him. If he decides Joe is great, you don’t call Joe “a true hero”, you call him “Baron Joseph”. And from there there’s really nowhere further for you to go in your signaling spiral about how great Joe is, about how much you respect dedicated humanitarians like Joe. Joe has a barony now, and a seat in the House of Lords — of course you respect him.

Principalities where the guys who are publicly thought to be in charge are actually in charge are awfully convenient like that!

Marriage I: Commitment

The basic elements which give rise to (nuclear) family structure are:

  1. Mutual expectations about fidelity, financial support, and inheritance rights
  2. Valid grounds for those expectations
  3. Communal consensus on whether someone’s expectations are valid, including:
    • … consensus on what types of evidence demonstrate commitment
    • … availability of witnesses to reporting/corroborating the existence of such evidence
    • … collective judgment that X signaled commitment to Y by doing Z
  4. Communal coordination on the commitment signals
  5. Power over/responsibility for another’s commitments, in particular:
    • … decisions about resources and opportunities that X needs to have available in order to commit to Y
    • … veto over X’s ability to signal commitment to Y
  6. Communal ratification of valid mutual expectations
  7. Communal enforcement of valid mutual expectations

In the sequel to this post, I will try to lay out how these elements interact to determine the shape of courtship rituals and family life. Loosely speaking the point I hope to make is that traditional family structures have many virtues (corresponding to the various elements which provide their foundation), but to realize these virtues — indeed, to operate at all — a functional tradition relies on coordination between all of these different elements. This coordination limits the feasible permutations of the elements such that the traditional virtues they can embody cannot all be realized simultaneously. Worse still, the necessity of coordination means that none of these elements can be “restored” in isolation, and that half-forgotten standards of traditional family life are meaningless in a society where no one abides by them.

That is the destination. But first I need to explain what commitment is and how it enters into courtship.


The idea of commitment, which has a fruitful (but potentially confusing) ambiguity. Someone commits himself to a certain course of action when he has decided to execute some plan like A>B>C and then takes the initial step, A, that locks him in, forcing him to follow through with B and C. For example, a parachutist may consider a parachute landing on a certain island, and he may even talk about this plan, but he can always revise his opinion. However, once he has (A) jumped out the side of a plane with a parachute on his back, he has pretty well committed himself to (B) opening the parachute and (C) floating to a safe landing on the island below. The alternative would be gruesome.

The ambiguity arises because a “commitment” refers both to what someone has committed to do and also to the evidence which gives proof of the commitment. Thus for our parachutist, we can call the plan to open his parachute and land on the island a “commitment” (rather than a mere intention or whim) once he has already jumped and is sure to go through with it, or we can call the jump itself the commitment (the act which irreversibly commits him to his course of action).

A commitment does not have to be quite so drastic as jumping out an airplane —although in everyday life, naive young men and women eagerly rush into commitments no less drastic. In general, for a certain course of action to function as a commitment it only needs to be consistent with one of an agent’s future choices, but inconsistent with another; or at least a probable fit for one option and an improbable fit for the other.

If you see me bringing suitcases into my car and you know I had the option of driving to Québec or to Miami, and then next I drive onto the northbound on-ramp, you may well assume I am going to Québec. There are many reasons one might begin a road trip to Miami by heading north, but on the whole the likeliest thing is that I am actually heading to Canada. But if all along my plan was to head north to fuel the car at the nearest gas station before starting out, or to route around a traffic jam, then I am not set back at all when I reorient myself and finally start driving south.

On the other hand, if I drive north for three hours and then change my mind and decide to go to Miami, then I have pointlessly sacrificed three hours of my life. So getting on the northbound on-ramp is a clue that is consistent with my going to Québec, but driving north for three hours is a commitment to that option: those three hours are time well-spent if I do want to go to Québec, but time wasted if I don’t and counter-productive if I’m actually heading south.

Signals are Commitments

Compare the following:

  1. In theory, an observer seeing me take the northbound on-ramp might assume I am headed north.
  2. I notice my neighbor watching me as I drive towards the northbound on-ramp, and I know he will make this inference.
  3. I have told my neighbor that if I take the northbound on-ramp, I am going to Québec.
  4. I know my neighbor will make some choice based on whether or not I am driving to Québec, and so may be trying to figure out my destination.
  5. I have told my neighbor I will take the northbound on-ramp so that he will know whether or not I am going to Québec.

In the first case, I may not even be explicitly aware that the direction I am driving suggests certain destinations over others, although if someone called my attention to the fact it would be immediately obvious. In the final case, not only am I aware what signal I am sending, I created the signal myself. I could just as easily have arranged another signal, like a red bandana hanging in my window; whatever signal I name will become the signal my neighbor will look for.

Unless I really dislike my neighbor, I don’t want to create problems for him. If he needs to make a choice based on whether I’m going to Canada or not, I’d prefer that he have the information; certainly, I don’t to give him misinformation. If I know what sign he’ll be looking for, I may make sure he get the “proper” sign even at a slight inconvenience to myself. If he’s expecting a red bandana in the window and suddenly I decide I’d rather wear my red bandana while I drive, well, tough — unless I am willing to inconvenience him, I’ll have to settle for a blue bandana.

At times I may have to make sure he gets the “proper” sign, at a slight inconvenience to myself, even though the only reason that sign ever became a sign in the first place was because of its convenience! For example, if my neighbor expects me to take the northbound on-ramp if I’m going to Canada, but I remember that gas is 3¢ cheaper at the gas station just to the south, I may have to inconvenience myself by heading north to give him the impression that I’m taking the most convenient route to Canada.

If I know what my neighbor’s expectations are, and he knows that I know what his expectations are, then he can have even more confidence that I’ll act in accordance with his expectations — after all, I don’t want to leave him in the lurch. A further implication is that when I arrange a signal with him, arranging the signal is its own commitment.

Whether or not there is any logical connection between red bandanas hanging in windows and visits to our neighbor to the north, once I’ve created the expectation I know that my neighbor will make a misinformed choice if I signal “I’m going to Québec!” and then drive to Miami instead. And besides the respect and friendship I feel for my neighbor, if I arrange a certain signal and then act differently, my neighbor will blame me for his misinformed choice. He will be irritated, perhaps outright angry; my misleading signal may lead him to think I’m a bit of an asshole, or even to suspect that I tried to hurt him intentionally.

The more explicit and clear the arrangements for the signal are, the more careless (malicious?) it looks after I send the wrong signal. By putting neighborly harmony on the line, I create a cost where none had existed before and thus create a way to commit to the option I have chosen.

If I don’t explicitly arrange a signal in advance, but I have been driving one way to go to Canada and the other to go to Florida for years and my neighbors expectations are public knowledge, the same considerations apply — albeit with more obscurity. I can pretend that I didn’t know he was watching me drive onto the highway, or that he inferred a destination from that observation; alternatively, I can say I knew he was speculating about where I was going, but I had no idea that he was using the information to make important choices. (Seriously, why does my neighbor care so much about where I’m going on vacation?)

Nonetheless, if I knew and my neighbor knows (or suspects) that I knew what his expectations were, and I allowed these expectations to grow over years without ever discouraging them, I can predict that if I screw up the normal pattern my neighbor will make a misinformed choice and get cranky with me. And he can assume that I can predict it! So over time, going along with a fixed pattern of expectations creates an implicit signal, and allowing this signal to take shape is its own commitment.

Promising and Implying

A commitment can function in a social vacuum. Even if no one ever knows I have jumped out of a plane or driving north for three hours, those acts are still accurate guides to my motives, and I can use them in my own planning and strategy. But commitments are especially important in social interactions where each individual depends on the others. If a group of agents have little information about one another, little opportunity to communicate, or don’t trust each other, they must try to deduce each others’ future plans from past choices.

Often promises are accompanied by commitments which tie the promiser’s hands, thus reassuring the beneficiaries of the promise and giving the promise force. The pairing of a promise and a corresponding commitment may become so routine that the commitment is a promise all by itself.

For example, to wager is to promise to pay a certain sum if one loses a bet. A crooked gambler can wait until the outcome is known and then, having already lost, argue about what size the wager, or otherwise creating difficulties by refusing to pay. Thus it is a near-universal custom that when one wagers, one puts the money (or an equivalent token) “down on the table”, so that both bettors can have confidence in the honesty of the other. As a result, putting money (or tokens) down on a table is, in the appropriate situations, the same as wagering: it signals the intention to wager by committing to the stakes. If you move money towards the pot while playing poker, or put down tokens on a roulette table, do not expect anyone to believe you when you say you were just placing them there for a few minutes!

Trying the old “I only meant place my tokens on the felt for a minute, buddy” trick at a casino is a good way to get yourself into an unpleasant altercation with the bouncers. No one likes unpleasant altercations, which is another reason acts become signals of commitments, and commitments become tantamount to promises.

A commitment can function as a promise; a signal can function as a commitment; and a promise, ideally, functions as a reliable signal of the promisers’ intentions.


The readers of this blog likely understand the basic principles I am about to review, but it is important to summarize them nonetheless — both for clarity and for the benefit of the few exceptions. Voilà, the sociobiology of human kinship structures:

  • Women want perfect children (translation: sex with perfect men) and security for themselves and their children. In some societies security is mainly about protection from predators, human and non-human; in others, a child’s survival and/or social status depends on the resources his mother can get from other members of the community (for example, the father).
  • Men want lots of great children (translation: lots of sex, preferably with lots of women and/or great women) and fidelity. Fidelity combines three overlapping goals.
    1. The less the women a man sleeps with sleep with other men, the more of the children they conceive will be his (which serves the lots of children goal).
    2. And further, the less they will be distracted from caring for his children by other men’s children. If a woman neglects a man’s first-born for his second child, that is bad for the first-born but good for the man’s progeny as a whole. If she neglects his first-born for any other reason, it’s a pure loss (to him).
    3. But more importantly, if he knows which children are his, he knows which to protect and which to shower with resources.

One aspect of the sexual arms-race is how organisms signal high genetic fitness (the traits that they will pass on to their children) and ability to rear children to potential mates. These types of signals cause strategic interactions between rival organisms of the same gender. But potential mates also compete with each other over mutually exclusive romantic outcomes.

A male cannot protect a female and her young while he is off pursuing a different female elsewhere, or protecting her. A male who gives some resource to one female can no longer give that resource to another. Thus there is a conflict between the female’s quest for security and the male’s quest for more mates; a similar conflict exists between the male’s quest for fidelity and the female’s quest for the perfect mate. Each partner’s reproductive success would be best served by maneuvering the other into monogamy, while remaining free to pursue more/better mates him or herself. This conflict has many possible strategies and many possible equilibria, both at the species level and at the individual level.

Here concludes our review of Sociobiology 101. Commitment becomes relevant to romantic rivalry because organisms which can commit to fidelity/security can make themselves more desirable to a mate. This (like any desirable trait) allows the organism to attract a more desirable partner; in particular, it allows the organism to induce potential mates to make themselves more desirable by making a reciprocal commitment to security/fidelity during courtship.

Romantic Retaliation

A commitment is, as noted above, a sort of signal; and signals can be misinterpreted or counterfeited. In any context where you are suspicious of your counter-party, you have adequate reason to be suspicious of his commitment-signal, too. (Sure, when he wagered $100 he put down five $20 bills; but are they real twenties, or is he trying to dupe you with funny money?)

Reciprocal commitments to offer fidelity and security, however, call for even more care. In practice, such reciprocity nearly always amounts to mutual monogamy. Promiscuity, as miserable a condition as it may be, at least allows for portfolio diversification! If Shaniqua has five children by five different men, it is likely that each of the fathers will have little inclination to provide security for her, but it is fairly unlikely that none of the five will offer anything. If she had had five children by one of the men, perhaps that particular man would have been somewhat less likely to abandon her, but if he did abandon her, she would be left with no hope of aid from another baby-daddy. A man who (believes he) has five children faces the same trade-off: if he is supporting five children born to five different mothers some of them may have deceived him, but it is unlikely that all of them are lying. On the other hand if he has five children by a single unfaithful wife, then the paternity of all five of “his” children is in doubt.

So the more the mutual attraction between two mates is fueled by reciprocal romantic commitments, the more important the reliability of those commitments (and thus, the value of further commitment) becomes. When all of your eggs are in one basket, tread carefully! Certain types of antagonistic commitment can even acquire value as a result.

Throughout recorded history and into the dim realm of myth, men have been known to fly into jealous rages and batter wives suspected of infidelity, or even kill them — especially when the wife is caught in flagrante delicto. Humanitarians and feminists may wring their hands at such un-SWPL behavior, but we should focus on a more pressing question: how can such a trait possibly evolve? Even if the man suspects future children may not be his, or realizes existing children might not have been his to begin with, he can’t change that retroactively by killing her; given some chance that her babies are his, leaving them motherless would be a genetic disaster; and worst of all, what future romantic prospects will he have as a notorious wife-murderer?

Surprisingly good prospects, actually. As a good intra-Hajnal SWPL the observation is painful to make, but game theory is game theory. Wife-murderers can be attractive to girls who really do want to be faithful. If one of a girl’s most attractive traits is the commitment she plans to make to her future husband, she wants to commit in the most reliable, unambiguous way possible… and what better way to intensify the commitment than to knowingly offer it in a situation where the stakes are so high?

Of course, this is not necessarily the cause of jealous rage. Who am I to dismiss such compelling alternatives as “toxic masculinity” and “heteronormative patterns of discourse”? But there is no biological obstacle to an evolutionary explanation: not only can an irreversible commitment to drastic retaliation have strategic value, part of this value is precisely to make the potential-retaliator more attractive to the very mates who would be the target of any retaliation.

The same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the female propensity to retreat into a bleak, murderous depression after abandonment. Anyone who has ever seen a mother dote on her darling baby has difficulty understanding how any mother could be cold or indifferent — and yet there are mothers who starve, strangle, drown, or pulverize their children. We tend to think of these infanticidal mothers as unnatural monsters. Monsters, they certainly are. Unnatural… hmmm.

We’ve said everything we need to say about commitment between romantic partners (except maybe what concrete steps they take to commit to one another). Now we’re ready to nest the expectations, commitments, and strategies of the partners inside the expectations, commitments, and strategies of their extended families, and of the community as a whole.

Minor Note: Salad

I was never a huge salad fan. But for most of my life I’ve had fairly close control over what I eat; in the last year or so I have needed to buy more meals, and suddenly I understood a number of food-preoccupations that seemed vaguely comic to me before. This is not to say that I have ordered a salad in the last week or two, but I believe I can explain the obsession with salad.

First-order observation: when you make nutritional choices, you’re not just optimizing for one variable (total energy intake), you’re optimizing over several variables: calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, cost, time expenditure, and many other small details that are actually an important part of a healthy diet. Optimizing over many variables makes optimization problems much more complicated, especially in a problem with side-constraints!

Second-order observation: weight is mostly a function of hereditary traits + lifestyle, but which hereditary traits explain variance differs from person to person. The two major contributors are probably metabolism and conscientiousness; some have fitness-genes from one side, some from the other, some from both. The ability of highly-conscientious people to remain fit is contingent on their (a) having options and (b) knowing the consequences of the options. If you teach them that eating nutella from the jar and playing Zelda makes you thin, they’ll do that and won’t get thin.

Relevance for salads: salads are a relatively good way for anyone to hit their micronutrient goals while optimizing for a calorie deficit, and in many cases they are good way to hit macro goals as well (especially if you are a woman with relative low energy and protein needs to begin with, or if you have a lot of control over the content of the salad and can put a lot of beans/chicken/egg in it). But even more importantly, they are one of the few options at restaurants where you have a fair amount of control over/confidence in the ingredients.

The equilibrium for mass-market restaurants in a highly-diverse society is to serve highly-prepared meals, and in particular to serve meals which have generous amounts of sugar and oil added to the basic ingredients. Eating one meal which has added sugar makes diet-optimization a much harder problem for anyone. For conscientious people in particular, eating a meal where you have no idea how much sugar and fat were used to adulterate the food is a problem.

Many people who are trying to cut a few pounds would like to order just a grilled chicken breast, or something like that. Typically, not an option: if you order “the chicken” or “the salmon” it comes drenched in some mystery sauce swimming with lard and syrup. Trying to cut a deal where you pay the restaurant a few bucks for water while you socialize with your friends doesn’t work either. Thus, the salad.

Timeline: French Revolution

I found this among my papers; I offer it for your perusal and criticism.


Population of France is approximately 21M-23M.


Major remonstrance.


End of Seven Years War.

Physiocrats in power.


Louis XV rebukes the parlements.

Novembre: Turgot publishes his Reflexions


Turgot publishes his Valeur


Parlements curtailed due to campaign of unrest.


Louis XVI crowned; restores the parlements; appoints Turgot as minister.


Beginning of eleven years of falling grain prices.

Beginning of American Revolution (1776-1783); ultimately leads to £2 billion in borrowing.

Turgot’s edicts unregistered, rescinded; Turgot’s program paralyzed; Turgot replaced with Jacques Necker.


Necker dismissed. He had favored a program of reforms similar to Necker’s, which he was equally unable to implement.


C.A. Calone appointed Minister of Finances; he works to broaden France’s productive base.

(American Revolution ends; France has £2 billion to finance the war.)


Calone suggests using an assembly of notables to pass the Turgot/Necker Reforms.

(144 men appointed by the king; last summoned in 1624; 7 princes du sang, 39 nobles, 12 royal councillors, 11 bishops, 33 representatives of parlements and other regional assemblies,


Assembly of Notables.

12 mars: Calonne presents reform plans (including a land tax) to intransigent assembly.

31 mars: Calonne begins a pamphlet war to turn public sentiment against the Notables with anti-aristocratic rhetoric.

8 avril: Calone dismissed. (Replaced by Brienne, 1 mai.)

10 mai: Marquis de La Fayette calls for the convocation of “une Assemblée Nationale”. (The chair, M. le Comte d’Artois, interprets this as a motion to call for a meeting of the Estates-General).

19 mai: Assembly rejects land tax.

23 mai: Assembly accepts La Fayette’s motion advocating toleration for Protestants. (The king issues an edict to this effect in November.)

2 juli -15 septembre: The parlement of Paris begins refusing to register new taxes, leading to a power struggle which is finally resolved by a deal over tax policy.

19-21 novembre: At a royal session, the parlement of Paris refuses to register an edict authorizing £420 million in loans. Louis XVI announces the Estates-General will meet by the end of 1791.


(Crown now has £4.5 billion of debt on which it pays £318 million of interest on an income of £560 million. The Paris parlement continues its campaign of low-level obstruction, refusing to register royal edicts and forbidding the king’s subjects to obey edicts promulgated by royal fiat.)

8 mai: Lamoignon, Keeper of the Seals, suspends all parlements and deprives them of their powers; transfers power of registration to a new cour plénière. (Parlements of Rennes (Bretagne) and Grenoble (Dauphiné) become centers of opposition.)

Summer: Crop failure. Grain prices rise after eleven years of falling prices.

8 août: Louis XVI capitulates to parlements; revokes edicts of 8 mai; summons Estates-General to meet in nine months’ time.

16 août: Public loans in default.

24 août: Brienne resigns; replaced by Necker.

23 septembre: Necker restores parlementaires.

25 septembre: Parlement of Paris decrees that the nobility and the clergy must each have 1/3 of the delegates in the Estates-General. (The Assembly of Notables, reconvening 6 nov. – 12. déc., affirms; Louis XVI overrules and doubles the number of Third-Estate delegates, 27 déc.)


France now has a population of 24M-26M, an increase of ~3M in four decades. (Common contemporary estimate of French population is 30M.) — 75% of Frenchmen are peasants, approximately 11% are members of the bourgeoisie, and 11% the gens du peuple: all told, the IIIº Estate contains ~96% of the French population. The Iº Estate: 130k clergymen. The IIº Estate: 100k-400k noblemen. — The Estates-General is to consist of 1201 deputies. The Iº Estate provides 300 members (46 prelates, 254 clerics of low rank); the IIº, 291 (201 conservatives, 90 liberals); the IIIº, 610.

5 mai: Speeches by Louis XVI, Baratin and Necker. Disagreement over voting procedure leads to obstructionism, refusal to verify credentials.

10 juin: Sieyès instigates the de facto secession of the IIIº Estate, which begins its own verification procedure (with an eye to seating a unicameral body) two days later.

17 juin: Proclamation of the National Assembly.

20 juin: Tennis Court Oath.

23 juin: Confrontation between Baratin and Sieyès/Mirabeau. Louis XVI orders Estates to meet separately.

27 juin: Louis XVI orders Iº and IIº Estates to join the soi-disant National Assembly while summoning military units to Paris.

30 juin: Mob invades St.-Germain-des-Prés and releases soldiers who had been imprisoned for their subversive political activities.

July 1789

8 juillet: Mirabeau demands the withdrawal of royal troops from Paris.

11 juillet: Louis XVI dismisses Necker; mobs attack customs-buildings, loot les Lazaristes, skirmish with the cavalry of the King’s German Regiment outside the Tuileries; loyalty of French Guard units questionable.

14 juillet: La prise de la Bastille. After a brief siege, the governor of the Bastille surrenders the fortress and its munitions to an armed mob (which lynches him, and goes on to murder the provost of Paris).

15 juillet: National Assembly names Bailly mayor of Paris, and gives military command to the Marquis de La Fayette.

16 juillet: Louis XVI reinstates Necker and withdraws royal troops from Paris.

17 juillet: Louis XVI recognizes Bailly and La Fayette. Aristocrats begin to flee France (D’Artois, d’Enghien, de Breteuil, de Broglie, de Polignac, and the Prince de Condé).

20 juillet: La Grande Peur. Beginning of several weeks of peasant riots and rural unrest.

22 juillet: Amid anger over food prices, mob lynches Intendant of Paris (and his father-in-law).

August 1789

4 août: Abolition of feudalism. National Assembly abolishes seigneurial rights, manorial law, and other privileges granted by title of nobility or royal charter.

26 août: National Assembly adopts a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

A Little Learning VIII

gettyimages-590648955I think by now my point should be clear: to pursue excellence you must overcome obstacles, but in a very peculiar way. You need to devote yourself to overcoming each obstacle as though nothing else mattered, as though it were a matter of fundamental importance. But you also need to remember that none of the obstacles you overcome actually matter in the least, and that they have been created ex nihilo solely to force you towards more strenuous exertions.

If nothing else mattered but the obstacle, it would of course be perfectly natural to look for the quickest, surest, easiest way to overcome it. But if the “quickest, surest, easiest” way isn’t quite as strenuous, or doesn’t exercise quite as many of your developing skills, such a solution will rob the exercise of any benefit. On the other hand, if you are vividly aware that the only purpose of the exercise is to exert effort, it becomes difficult to exert more effort to overcome the obstacle than you would have exerted without the obstacle.

It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to respect the spirit of a rule, rather than its literal meaning (only) or the consequences of disobedience (only).

The correct attitude requires, if anything, more discipline in academics than in other pursuits. The value of knowledge is much more ambiguous than the value of better-defined skills. Typically skill X has a clear instrumental value: it allows you to do Y. Why doing Y matters is neither here nor there. The mere fact that Y exists as an aspiration for beginners who are practicing X gives their training structure and focus. If they can’t yet use X to do Y, they haven’t yet mastered X. This creates clarity about the outlines of the skill, pricks inflated self-assessments, and strengthens honest self-confidence.

Knowledge lacks this clarity. For one thing, the instrumental structure of any program of study tends to look more like a web than a pyramid. If you are, say, studying a language, understanding the language’s grammar will make it easier to read, which will make it easier to learn new vocabulary, which will make it easier to converse, which will further solidify your understanding of its grammar. So the ultimate purpose of learning more grammar is… learning more grammar?

Yes and no, yes and no. Out of all “academic” studies, learning a language is probably the closest to athletic training in that it has a clear instrumental significance. At the end of the process you are proficient (maybe even fluent) in a language which you didn’t speak before.

Even so, learning a language has a web-like structure rather than a pyramidal structure. When you memorize a new word, you won’t be fluent after you’ve learned the new word. And while the new word may be useful in a number of  other ways, none of those uses lead directly to fluency either. (In fact, there is no single discrete step after which you have finally and decisively achieved “proficiency” or “fluency”.)

The advantages of the new word are much more diffuse than that. It will give you a vague sense of the meaning of thousands of sentences you wouldn’t have understood at all, otherwise. It will make thousands of other previously-vague sentences crystal clear. Your ignorance of these thousands-upon-thousands of sentences never would have inconvenienced you very greatly. If you hadn’t tried to learn a new language, you probably never would have been aware of your ignorance. So it seems peculiar to say “You should memorize this new word, it will be really useful — you’ll slightly understand thousands of sentences you don’t need to understand at all!”

What’s the point of vaguely understanding a few thousand sentences in a foreign language? Well, maybe it will make it easier for you to learn and remember other words (and grammatical paradigms, and stress patterns, and so on). What’s the point of understanding those words, then? To clarify a few thousand more irrelevant sentences? Okay, fine: but then what’s the point of the whole cycle, though?

bird252520caught252520in252520web252520spider252520approaching25252001_thumb25255b225255dYou’re weaving a web. It may seem pointless when you lay down the first strand, but by the end you may be catching surprising things.