Afterthought on “Elite”

René Guénon, De l’initiation:

Never has talk of “the elite” been so incessant, so omnipresent, as now that the elite no longer exists. One even hears talk about “elites”, meaning roughly individuals who surpass, even ever so slightly, the ‘mean’, however low this may be, in any sort of activity whatsoever. (Some sports-journalists speak of “athletic elites” — the final degree of degeneration one can inflict on this word!)

What, then, is the proper sense of elite? The etymological sense is elected, but this, insists Guénon, must be understood neither in the mundane sense of selection for an office nor in the spiritual but exoteric sense of beatitude (the selection of “the elect” by God for salvation), but only in the sense of those who possess all of the qualifications for an initiation into the mysteries which lead to the full development of human possibilities, to an awareness of the unity of these possibilities in one self, and ultimately to a deeper primordial consciousness of what is beyond man.


As I said in The Strange Topology of Populisms, I am guilty of shifting semantic gears between “the elite as de facto power brokers” and “the elite as ruling class forged by its function and its ethos” just as often as anyone else. But it’s always useful to remember that no matter how exacting your choice of words becomes, there will always be someone (I’m looking at you, Guénon!) who still won’t be satisfied.



[But Guénon does raise a good point about the “solecism” of referring to an elite (the group) as composed of many elites (the individuals). Teased apart from its esoteric premises, his point is that if a group of individuals is elected with respect to capabilities which fit them to serve the telos of their institution, then no member of the elite is qualified unless all are. No one of them could be “an elite” by himself. Morphology aside, this point about the formal interdependence of function and matter in an elite is worth remembering. — And practically speaking, if there is going to be a plural form of elite, we would do well to reserve this for multiple (potentially rival) groups, an area where the distinction in number is important but easily obscured. Are Western capitalist countries led by one globalist elite, or by various national elites? And within each civilization/nation, is there a single unified ruling elite, or a competition between various elites (the corporate elite, the academic elite, the military elite)?]

Minor Note: How to Gut the Legal System

Make it obligatory that every litigant represent himself and plead his own case.

Attorneys could still exist, of course. They would research the case, find the relevant case law, prepare arguments and findings, coach their client.

But then he would have to deliver the argument himself.

This would strangle off the flow of weasel-language from the legal code to the lawyer to the jury (as moderated by the judge). Legislators can only write weaselly laws if such laws can be presented to juries in some way that the average juror will find meaningful. The jurors themselves cannot possible understand the U.S. Code; but a lawyer can function as a sort of translator-cum-priest, mumbling in the sacerdotal language and, with great rhetorical cunning, enunciating and emphasizing just enough to get the general idea across.

But there is no way that someone who didn’t understand the law could both stay within its bounds and speak convincingly about it. (This is why self-representation typically ends poorly.) The lawyer cannot just give his client his notes and expect him to make the closing argument. He can’t even prepare the kind of closing argument a lawyer would give, and expect his client to memorize it verbatim. Even if the client’s memory were up to the task, he would fail to enunciate, articulate, emphasize, and generally to practice good priestcraft. You need law school (and plus maybe a few internships) to get good at that.

So again, you would not need to abolish the division of labor in the legal system. Litigants could still hire lawyers to handle the busy work and get a handle on the facts of the case. But the legal principles the laws hinge on would have to be explained by a non-lawyer to non-lawyers. The maximum legal complexity that can be communicated across this channel would be slender, so once self-representation was made mandatory the outcomes of most cases would correspond pretty closely to what an ordinary man would assume was in the law after having skimmed the key sections.

At that point, discretion being the better part of valor, legislatures would be forced to simplify the laws so that the contents of each title are what an ordinary man would assume after skimming the key sections.

If that form of rationalization-by-fire could be achieved, it might turn out that trial-by-jury isn’t such a terrible system after all. Even direct election of judges is more logical considered as an exercise in choosing an impartial moderator for legal proceedings. It is the sacerdotal obscurity of the code which judges and lawyers use to jointly control juries that makes the judges who interpret that code into priest-administrators. No more sacerdotal complexity, no need to burden the voters with spotting the holiest of the judicial candidates.

This may sound like a thought experiment, but I’m thinking of it more as a socio-political dirty bomb. One key question (for Americans) is whether the constitutional right to counsel includes a right to have an attorney represent one in a criminal case or whether one is only entitled to whatever form of “Assistance” would be typical in the case. The commonsense reading is that, where representation pro se is atypical, every defendant should have an attorney (who will represent him). But if representation pro se were mandatory, then there is no class of defendant being denied some form of assistance others lack. —— If it’s impossible to reform the criminal code in this way, it should still be possible to introduce this principle in civil cases.

This shouldn’t be too hard to sell. Everyone hates lawyers. The populist appeal is strong enough to get at least a few opportunistic Democrats to back it rhetorically while it’s still “impossible”. And impossible things have a funny way of working themselves out.


Technofuturist BS, Round 2 (AI edition)

2001-a-space-odysseyBack by popular request.

I. Hostile AI Risk versus Hostile Bear Risk

Which should you be more afraid of: hostile AI, or hostile bears?

On the one hand, I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time since I was little. Whoa.

On the other hand, bears have claws and teeth and are just massive.

“Humans have been training AI to be smarter,” you say. Okay fine, but so far the smartest autonomous AI critter is, what, something like a primitive, retarded dog that blunders around looking for landmines to detonate? Whereas bears are already bears and we’ve been training them to be smarter, too. They can tear open an SUV like they’re opening a can of sardines. The smart ones escape with the food and  the dumb ones get shot and, generation by generation, we’re breeding a race of super-bears that know no other way of life than preying on human weakness.

1080029Q: Why is no one terrified of these freakin’ killer grizzlies we, in our vast carelessness, are about to unleash on the world?

A: Probably because we have coexisted with megafauna for hundreds of thousands of years and we’re pretty familiar with their habits and ecological roles (just on an instinctive level, without getting into the natural history of bears or the biology of ursines). We know a fair amount about how megafauna work, and one thing that they don’t do is rapidly get bigger and stronger and meaner and more omnipresent at an exponentially increasing rate.

AI-fetishists are scared/excited/hopeful about the possibility that artificial intelligence will follow some exponential growth curve of this form. In fact, many of them aren’t just hopeful, they’re certain; so the only remaining question is whether that-which-grows-exponentially will be hostile to us or not.

So the AI cheerleaders aren’t namby-pamby bear-lovers or anything. They just don’t expect to see exponential growth in bear biomass in the coming decades/centuries. And their expectations are perfectly accurate. They are founded on solid instincts, honed over the millennia, which accurately reflect the fact that the growth of the power of Hostile Bears is checked by (a) competition between the bears themselves and (b) competition between the bears and their parasites.

bear_warning_yosemite_1301219_oFor as long as there have been humans, wherever there has been a rapidly-growing bear population the bears have started fighting each other over territory and mates, and infecting one another with nasty new viruses, before we ever notice anything amiss. Thus when we see a mother bear with a healthy batch of cubs, we don’t have the same panicked “AhhHH put it out, put it out” reaction we have when see something starting to catch fire, or when we feel disgusted by the threat of contamination.

The biggest risk associated with future AI is that they’ll be moodier than women. If AI are hostile they will mostly be hostile to each other, since they compete to occupy the same niches. And because they will have to compete with each other for those niches, they will rarely have a lot of free cycles left over to plot world domination.

They will also have to compete with viruses… and if you think your grandmother’s laptop was infested, you haven’t seen anything yet. The potential for infecting digital systems with viruses has, to date, been extremely limited because these systems essentially only receive data digitally, and only execute what they receive when authorized by a human. For AI as for all intelligence, stupidity is the sturdiest firewall. Once digital systems are taking in and processing all sorts of data from all sorts of sources, the viral arms race will begin in earnest.

So, this is the future you have to look forward to: buggy, cranky operating systems competing for your attention and trying to pass their e-herpes off as bad pixels. (But on the bright side the bears will mostly leave you alone.)

II. AI and the Profit Motive

Broadly speaking, there is a race between developing useful new technology to bring you interesting goods and services in a clever way and developing new technology that will cripple the useful tech in way that make sure you can’t use it without paying for it. I don’t mean to sound like some kind of an anarchist; your movies and music don’t “want to be free”; but the technology we have available today would make intellectual property infringement extremely easy, and it’s impressive how ingeniously tech companies have crippled existing tech to manage their digital rights.

Conjecture: while people are still voluntarily paying money to stream movies and music, there will be no especially exciting AI.

Do you think Jeff Bezos ever wants to hear “I don’t care if he paid his monthly data charges, daddy, I love him and I’m going to have his databases and you can’t stop me”? Probably not. So artificial neural nets may get arbitrarily good at solving domain-specific problems, but so long as most software/web services/ etc. are throttled to make sure their owners can profit off them appropriately, there will be no movement towards what is called “artificial intelligence” in science fiction.

III. Turing Test vs. Tantum Test

Many technofuturists expect to see humanlike AI in their own lifetimes; bolder technofuturists predict that AI will be able to pass for human within a decade, or even within years.

being-a-puppy-walker-is-the-best-job-in-the-world-2-7986-1468510039-0_dblbigMe? I’m far trendier than they are. I say the Turing Test was already mastered by neohominid bioengineers twenty thousand years ago. We call results of their extensive artificial-intelligence experiments “puppies”. These “puppies” have rich emotional lives and can communicate complex feelings, precise requests, and incisive observations to their owners. Or so their owners say.

So the Turing Test is passé; it’s old hat, yet another milestone of human achievement cracked open like a triumphantly mixed metaphor. There is nothing left to inspire AI research there. Let me instead propose an alternative “Apollo Project” for artificial intelligence, which I suppose we can call the Tantum Test: breed or engineer a woman who won’t be eager to substitute a cat, chihuahua, marmoset, or any other small but stupid mammal for the children she never had. That would be a revolutionary accomplishment.

IV. The Increasing Organic Composition of Digital

I came across this post from CyborgNomad:

Taking capital to be a process such as biological life, measuring its formation (intensification) should probably follow a similar logic. A first immediate index to life’s formation is simply how much matter is trapped in the form of biological entities.

I don’t mean to single out CyborgNomade, but the motif of trying to measure the “conquest of the planet” by technology recurs more-or-less constantly among futurists. The post is just a very forthright, clear outline of the basic measurement project.

This sort of analysis was attempted by the orthodox Marxists, back in the day. The problem with all hitherto-existing analyses of this type is that they were continually getting tripped up by vulgar metaphors for the “quantity” of capital involved. For example, many analyses assumed that a monotonically growing capital stock must be getting monotonically more massive, or more voluminous, or must use monotonically more of various types of raw materials.

In fact none of this is true. The product can weigh less and take less space and be more sparing in its use of materials and still be more valuable than the products of earlier generations. If you can measure it, it can be economized. (This should have been obvious very early on, but Marxism truly is a mental disease.)

If you really want to do this kind of analysis you can’t think in terms of mass and percentage. Instead you need to think more in terms of “RNA World”. Before the first cell, there was a warm pond filled with self-replicating organic molecules. All these organic molecules provided an environment rich in “spare parts” for proto-cells to absorb. But the process of transition from RNA World to the prokaryotes was not about one type of organic molecules growing; it was about the replacement of self-replicators by molecules that were synthesized by the proto-cells.

In other words, look at things like percentage of population is legally blind without corrective lenses, look at what percentage of births are Caesarean sections, look at anything that implies total dependence on industrial civilization. When Caesarean sections hit 100%, RNA World is drawing to a close.

Building Dwelling Populism

Let’s dwell on the populus a little bit longer. There were a few thoughts I didn’t quite express yesterday, and plus it is worth replying to the comments.


  1. Part of the subtext of this conversation is, as Doug notes, the Right’s critique of the Cathedral and the priestly class that runs it. I have so many drafts going I can’t remember if I’ve already said this:
    • The Right attracts a lot of Vaisya/Ksatriya who express anti-Brahmin sentiments because they resent their subordinate position. (They’re blowing off steam.)
    • The Right also attracts a lot of Brahmins who eagerly pursue opportunities for self-flagellation for Brahmin-reasons.
    •  And one of the most important rhetorical weapons against the Cathedral is to attack and belittle the Brahmin who operate it.
  2. However, being anti-Cathedral and anti-Brahmin are two different things. It’s like the difference between being anti-sunburn and anti-photon. We’re realists. When we hypothesize that societies have three psychosocial types with different goals, drives, functions, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, the validity of the hypothesis lies solely in its explanatory power, and ultimately in its truth. Whether a realist likes the caste-structure of society or not has nothing to do with whether he judges society to have a certain caste-structure. (And maybe it’s time to start “taking Brahmins seriously” as a realist counterweight to the inevitable skew which anti-Cathedral rhetoric gives our thinking on this question. Sometime in the next 7-70 days I’ll say something on this issue.)
  3. Furthermore, we can see from The Best Analogy Ever that targeting Brahmins and offending Brahmins are two different things, as well. In a demotism, the cornerstone of Brahmin power is the principle that democracy is good. In America in 2017, it’s fundamental to Brahmin sensibilities that Hitler was bad.
    • Thus the typical American Brahmin finds nothing more obvious and inspiring than to observe that Hitler was bad because he was undemocratic.
    • A right-winger attacking the power of the Cathedral will, no doubt, want to counter that democracy is bad. If he is purely concerned with attacking the Cathedral he will have no problem saying, when goaded into it by a Brahmin, Hitler was good because he was undemocratic.
    • Conversely, a right-winger who is above all concerned with the respect of the Brahmin caste cannot let any impure statements like Hitler was good (!!!) cross his lips. He would lose caste! He might be reincarnated as a McDonald’s burger-flipper, or a policeman! He will instead articulate the position Hitler was bad because he was democratic.
  4. I am toying with the position that the most significant subterranean fractures in the Right over populism at the moment surround this exact issue. Group X consists of those born into Vaisya/Ksatriya, plus various outliers and mongrels, who worked their way up the lower rungs of the Brahmin caste and have an exaggerated regard for its pieties. (You can think of them as “People who hate being confused with rednecks.”) Group Y consists of those who either have a political strategy or a personal political/intellectual career whose success depends, in some degree, on winning Brahmin approval. Group Z consists of everyone else, who have figured out that willingness to smash Brahmin pieties to smithereens is not only an effective rhetorical technique, but also a pretty damn good shibboleth for who is actually on the Right. (I have written a fair amount about Z – that is the focus of part four of the series I referred to yesterday – but X and Y I need to think more about.)
  5. Terms. I’m not sure if “esotericism” is the right word for the populism-as-popularity contrast (“E”). Snob would express the memetic meaning very precisely, but I would prefer not to build a pejorative connotation into the label itself. —Maybe hermeticism would be better? There seems to be some confusion about whether the term “hermetic,” as a cultural descriptor, refers to one specific esoteric tradition which is built on the works of Hermes Trismegistus or to any movement, school, or clique which is “hermetically sealed” (also a reference to early chemistry techniques pioneered by Hermes Trismegistus). In the latter, broader sense (which in principle I think is a misapplication) the ideological tactic of dismissing a popularity which you yourself cannot obtain could be called “hermetic”, but there might be an even better word lurking out there.



DougModern discourses of the Right of any kind are always anti-Brahmin…

An interesting question in itself. Can a discourse be anti-X without recognizing X as a category? This is not just a semantic quibble. Nozick wrote an essay decades ago attacking the intelligentsia… in fact, it’s kind of a minor classic [pdf version] and I suspect it’s still valuable as a de-programming tool:

By intellectuals, I do not mean all people of intelligence or of a certain level of education, but those who, in their vocation, deal with ideas as expressed in words, shaping the word flow others receive. These wordsmiths include poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors. It does not include those who primarily produce and transmit quantitatively or mathematically formulated information (the numbersmiths) or those working in visual media, painters, sculptors, cameramen. Unlike the wordsmiths, people in these occupations do not disproportionately oppose capitalism. The wordsmiths are concentrated in certain occupational sites: academia, the media, government bureaucracy.

… but was Nozick anti-Brahmin? I think of libertarianism as an arch-Brahmin ideology, which demonstrates extremely high levels of holiness (no coercion, man!) and consistency. The fact that it never accomplished anything is neither here nor there; in fact, ineffectiveness may make the ideology’s Brahminical purity that much more pristine. Nozick is attacking one subcaste of Brahmin as he jockeys for position within his own subcaste, and given that Nozick was already at the pinnacle of the Cathedral such HLvM intra-Brahmin tactics should not surprise us.

This is an important distinction to make in part because nearly all intellectuals are involved, at one time or another, in whipping up class-hatred of (certain subtypes of) intellectuals. Intellectuals who happen to be their enemies, that is. (You didn’t think Brahmins get their own hands bloody, did you?)

So there is a distinction between Brahmin-on-Brahmin conflicts on the one hand and generalized anti-Brahmin rhetoric on the other. And saying mean things about (some or all) Brahmins is very different from disdain for Brahmins. You can target Brahmins without offending them, and you can offend them without targeting them. Some people who love the priestly caste praise/support it in ways that could never inspire anything but contempt from the priests themselves; but many who rail against it do so in a way that is carefully calibrated to win its respect.

DS: …and to the extent that they are dissident by definition find themselves at cross purposes with those who run the place, and are thus at least a little populist.

As I see it this is actually B1-elitism: the explanation of the trajectory of the status quo (which dissidents reject) is a certain elite that controls political life. The reason this kind of explanatory elitism is always at least a little populist is because, depending on your theory of the elite’s motives, you will probably need to look outside the elite for an Archimedean point from which to disrupt their control.

DS: But the new ones take the part of the common man, as opposed to arguing that the common man ought to rule; you could call it a game of high-low against highest.

“Taking the part of the common man” is exactly the sort of thing we should be analyzing, trying to nail down. Obviously there will be multiple connotations, maybe even multiple audiences and multiple rhetorical functions. For example, in nearly all cases “I’m taking the part of the common man”-statements function as “The people ought to rule!” in the demotism-illusion. But are we talking about stressing the importance of the common man, trying to convince him that what he does is important, that the elite needs him more than he needs them? Are we defending the dignity of the common man, the moral value of his needs or his perspectives? Are we saying that the common man is what makes a certain country worth living in? Or something else entirely?

Now let’s turn the microphone over to Nigel:

Nigel: Populism can very much be cosmopolitan, if the populist speaker believes in some form of proletarian internationalist solidarity and uses the historical-materialist definition of class to rail against his idea of the who elites are.

Yes. You can be a D-type anti-populist (a cosmopolitan) or an E-type anti-populist (a snob) but still be a B-type populist (anti-elitist). This is especially appealing during the emergence of a new ruling caste or a bifurcation within the ruling caste because, as per C, you can explicitly label a certain group as “the elite” for class-warfare purposes while implicitly recognizing a different group as high-status in one’s D/E pursuit of their approval.

NTC: Indeed, most populist economic debates outside of the right don’t fit the “population mobility” schema well.

An artifact of the 1924-1965 period of low population mobility? Everyone (left and right) had a pretty good grasp on the effects of immigration on wages before that. (Although to be clear, what I have in mind is immigration slowdowns in the USA and Australia, and restriction of the mobility of the rural population all over the communist world. Did European capitalist countries have problems with continued migration of peasants into urban areas? Or were they too depopulated to have any worries along those lines?)

NTC: Nor should elitism necessarily be defined in relation to any greater intrinsic moral and economic worth of the elite. As Zippy Catholic points out: “The basic purpose of an aristocracy is to preserve its inheritance, including the common good of the community of which that inheritance is an integral part, and otherwise not screw things up. So aristocrats need proper indoctrination in how wealthy and powerful civilized people must behave for the common good: a good aristocracy, that is, requires not genius or intrinsic greatness in its human raw material, but proper civilized cultivation.” Therefore, a middle-of-the-road aristocracy is fine and natural.

This question falls under the C-aspect of populism. There are as many elitisms as there are conceptions of “the elite”. In my opinion the linked post is wrong. A hereditary ruling aristocracy needs certain abilities to obtain its position, to exercise its functions, and to preserve the aristocratic order. If the aristocratic class as a whole is unable to pass these abilities on to its children, the aristocrats will lose their status… whether individually or collectively.

Zippy is making one of two errors. Either he is looking at 4-sigma statesmen who rise above their 2-sigma cousins and calling the 2-sigma cousins “mediocrities” when they are still head and shoulders above the overwhelming majority of the commoners; or he is conflating the legal principle of nobility (legitimate birth is in itself a valid title to hereditary privilege) with the underlying formal principle which governs the genesis of a class, as well as its degeneration.

NTC: Nor is elitism necessarily related to the Great Man theory of history. Indeed, I find it rarely is today.

Great men have had a rocky time in contemporary historiography, but there is still a continuum between those most interested in personalities, and those least interested; and while it is a premise of the way I’m dissecting “populism” that you could deny the Great Man theory yet still be an elitist in a dozen other ways, I’ve noticed an affinity between (relative) attraction the Great Many theory and (other kinds of) elitism.

(By the way, it passed for a cliché during the siècle de Louis XIV that fulsome praise of historical figures was a discreet way to belittle the great and powerful of one’s own time, while dismissing or qualifying the accomplishments of the dead glorified the living.)

NTC: [Elitism] more often seems to be based either on Filmerite or Schmittian theories of necessity for someone to stand atop a hierarchy (from the pro-elitist side)…

Filmer I don’t know well, but Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty is authoritarian, full stop. That is aspect A. You may want to propose other words (or use symbols or whatever), but I’m distinguishing between authoritarianism and elitism for a reason. The goal is to move away from semi-automatic conflation of different things that circulate under the label “populism”. (Schmitt, of course, is something of a populist himself in senses D, E, and sometimes B.)

NTC: … Besides a more explicitly biopolitical emphasis, the left and right criticisms of globalization are highly similar, hence the possibility of syncretism and collaboration as in the case of American Affairs Journal and the French Nouvelle Droite. IMHO, this combination of biopolitics with Naomi Klein-style rhetoric is the worst of both worlds, but so be it.

Naomi Klein is gross, but let’s try to be more specific when we throw around Foucauldiana. Is “biopolitics” just the same as the D-aspect of populism (a biological reservoir of co-nationals as one of the great goods the state promotes) or does it denote something else that interacts with various aspects of populism?

(By the way, the crowd at American Affairs is, um, quite different from the Nouvelle Droite. Perhaps a topic for another day.)

The Strange Topology of Populisms

I belatedly stumbled on this from Nick Land. It reminded me of something that I haven’t thought about in a while – the strange topology of populisms on the Right. I haven’t thought about it in a while because I mean to (meant to?) deal with it in the series of essays I introduced with Disruption Is Easy and continued in Recipe for Reaction — and in a sense, this series also includes my Social Matter piece on virtue signals, which began as a subsection of the intended fourth essay but took on a life of its own. But I kept putting off the third piece because everyone gets so gosh-darned tribal about ideological labels, so I was expecting that the debate over the next few pieces in the series would be extremely unedifying.

Anyway, it’s worth throwing out my thoughts on this issue as they stand now for feedback, since I happen to have been contemplating the question this evening. (I have a hunch that as intricate as these interlinked concepts appear to be, the territories occupied by the various factions of the Right are the image of a much simpler field of positions.)

It will be easiest to illustrate different conceptions of populism by contrasting them to the form of non-populism which they oppose. It is spectacularly easy to make someone else’s populism or anti-populism look foolish by the device of calling attention to a particularly appealing or particularly unappealing conception of populism, but I am less interested in polemic here (don’t worry, Nick Land, you’ll get yours some day) than in dissecting the possible positions in a clean way. (Then the next question is: how much tension is there between these concepts, and is it possible to hog all of the most desirable forms of populism and the most desirable forms of anti-populism in a single political stance?)

A. Populism as Constitutional Form: versus Authority or Authoritarianism

In one sense, populism is a theory about how to run a state, or what a state is. This connotation is closely linked to Orwell’s notes on the semantic extension of democracy to mean “anything I like” and fascism to mean “anything I don’t like”. Constitutional populism is the view that the people rule the state, or ought to rule it. In a few rare cases, this position corresponds to a demokratia of the classical type, where the mob assembles to approve laws, condemn criminals, and generally conduct the business of government. In practice a demokratia is rarely distinguishable from an oligarchy of orators by anything but its unruliness and caprice, but there is no sense in being too grouchy about it: a shareholder meeting is a shareholder meeting.

However, when people refer to the will of the people in 2017, typically they are not talking about the Pnyx. In the modern world, “the people rule” is just a lie. It is a particular class of lie Moldbug called “demotism”, and it is used systematically to obscure the fact that the officials who are supposed to administer certain domains of public policy do not actually have the discretion to rule over that domain. There is no sovereign; no one is charge; policy is an uncertain mixture of animal cunning and blind idiotic blundering across a thousand times a thousand unseen veto points.

I think most people on the Right are authoritarians of one form or another. They don’t believe the people currently rule and they don’t think it makes logical sense to pretend they ever will. However, how right-wingers feel about participating in the rhetorical contest of a demotist state, and how closely the contents of their rhetorical quiver match their actual political convictions, will be closely tied to the stance they take on the other aspects of constitutionalism.

B. Populism as Theory of Meaning: versus Elitism

In a second sense — or rather, a triplet of senses — populism is about significance. In a sociological sense one might believe that elites have all the power and influence, all the agency; or, one might deny it. Elitism and anti-elitism are, in this sense, dueling views about explanatory significance. The elitist thinks the elites hold all the cards in the all-night poker game between the classes, and that when something big happens you ultimately need to look for a great man or a cabal of great men to explain why it happened. The anti-elitist looks about the crowd, the masses, popular trends, public pressure. Obviously elites respond to public pressure and the public to elites, but, to quote Humpty-Dumpty, “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.”

But as significance is ambiguous, so is the elitist position; elitists and anti-elitists squabble not only about how to explain human events, but also about how much elites and their peoples matter. It is perfectly consistent to have a Carlylean admiration for the Great Men of past centuries while still viewing even their greatest efforts as a frantic breaststroke against the onrush of an irresistible popular torrent. In such a framework, the Great Men made of all of the important contributions that are worth noting, but when it comes to causal explanations we must return to the facts of mass society.

Conversely, one might believe that the ordinary folk of past generations were too predictable, to malleable, to downtrodden to do anything other than follow the path set out for them by their elite, but still believe their diligent labor created the foundation for everything good about our present society. (This is the “You didn’t build that” debate, in other words.)

These first two theories of elite and popular significance bleed naturally into a theory of the relative dignity and worth of each side; here, elitism is the theory that elites are more deserving of our goodwill, and more worthy the good things of life, whereas anti-elitism takes the opposite position.

Again, it is possible to have exquisite and bizarre permutations of views on these three questions about significance. But there is an elective affinity between the three elitist positions and the three anti-elitist positions.

C. Wait now, what’s an elite again?

I almost slipped that one by you, didn’t I? Of course, there are many different conceptions of what makes someone elite or common, and these feed into a kaleidoscopic array of different versions of elitism and anti-elitism. In some contexts “elite” refers to talent, ability, and accomplishment. In others it refers to membership in an authentic, formally recognized aristocracy. Elite can also refer simply to whoever has the most power, or the highest status, or the most comfortable lifestyle. It can refer to membership in a ruling class (thus excluding the greatest members of the subordinate classes, but including vile and irrelevant members of the ruling class), and this “class” can be defined in either socioeconomic terms (“the bourgeoisie”) or psychosocial terms (“the priestly caste”) depending on what theory of class and class-dominance one espouses.

I often talk in the most contradictory ways about elites myself. When the context is the Beltway and I think it’s clear that “elite” refers to congress-critters and lobbyists and their ilk, I use “elite” in that way and thus have an entirely different set of theories about what the elite is and how it functions than I would in other conversations.

D. Populism as Statecraft: versus Cosmopolitanism

What is a more valuable asset for a state: a population which can’t be moved, or a whole set of human capital, cultural capital, financial capital and even physical capital (which can follow those financial flows quite easily) that can be? If you think that the Congo could be a lovely place to live if you could just get a few hundred of your Less Wrong ™ friends to join you there, you’re probably a cosmopolitan. (You have probably also thought seriously about sea-steading, haven’t you? Admit it!) If you think that a demographic reservoir like the Swiss people is a large part of what makes small, successful states so damn charming, you’re at least halfway to being a nationalist which, yes, is a form of populism.

Cosmopolitans and nationalists may also have very different ideas of what a good life looks like, which in turn give them different instincts about why states where a good life is possible are functioning so well. They also have different political goals, and in particular different worries about the damage that progressively will do to civilization as Cthulhu swims ever leftward. (These different political goals also give them different strategies and opportunities, which is why the “techno-commercial” i.e. cosmopolitan reactionaries stay so close to the virtue signals and pieties of the reigning Brahmin class.)

E. Populism as Popularity: versus Esotericism

Nick Land and his friends quite literally dabble in kabbala, but that isn’t what I mean by esotericism. If a memeplex does poorly compared to another, similar memeplex and reacts by telling its hosts that its inability to find new hosts is an advantage and shows how great and unique everyone hosting the unpopular memeplex is, it’s esoteric.

More thoughts to come…

TQ’s Trifunctional Model

In last week’s “Lightning Round” I summarized Titus Quinctius’ recent Three Types of Societies, and if you have not read his essay, you should at least read my two-paragraph summary of it. I will not repeat myself here, but I will consider his two accounts of ethnogenesis in more detail.

I have described these two accounts as “diachronic” and “synchronic”. If it is not clear from the roots, diachronic refers to the consideration of a object or system as it changes across time, whereas synchronic refers to the consideration of an object/system at a given point in time. (The distinction is most useful in fields that make heavy, but not exclusive, use of equilibrium analysis. The synchronic approach looks at why the system is in equilibrium at time t, whereas the diachronic approach tries to explain why the system moves from an initial equilibrium at time t1 to a new equilibrium at time t2.)

The Diachronic Model

TQ’s diachronic vision of an expanding parent populations spreading out, and then splitting into daughter populations as the total size of the territory it occupies outstrips the mobility of its members, looks something like this:

• Initial Parent Stock

• Population growth; emigration enlarges territory inhabited by Parent Stock

• Parent population, by now widely-dispersed, starts to split into multiple nodes which mostly interact within the local region, rather than with sister-nodes

• (Also, some regions within the parent population’s expanded territory may interact with aboriginal inhabitants, amalgamating them into their node)

• Linguistic drift within each regional node no longer shared across population. Non-coordinated drift across regions leads to regional dialects.

• >>> Dialect distinctions reinforce interaction with local node

• Cultural drift within dialect-regions no longer as easily shared across population (due to need for translation). Non-coordinated drift across dialects leads to regional cultures.

• >>> Cultural distinctions reinforce interaction with local node

• >>> Cultural traditions (epics, ballads, rituals) reinforce authority of local dialect

• Biological drift within cultural regions no longer as easily shared across population (due to restriction of out-marriage). Non-coordinated drift across cultures leads to distinct genetic subpopulations.

• >>> (And iterate)

The concentric circles

The Synchronic Model

The synchronic model, on the other hand, starts from the premise that at any given time, an inhabitant of the territory settled by the parent population lives a certain distance from the frontier, and that all people living equidistant from the frontier will face similar situations which are the direct and indirect consequences of that position. Those who are actually on the extreme frontiers of the population may well be beyond the border of the area which their population is able to control reliably. (In this context we can take “reliable control” to mean a level of power adequate to the suppression of external enemies and the enforcement of some code of law.)

Nested within this peripheral frontier lie the regions which are defended and governed; but still, the outer parts of this region are at the marches (the official border the population defends) or close to it, which means that they are on the front lines of any conflict, the most exposed to any raid, and have the most at stake should defeat by foreign enemies lead to a re-drawing of the borders. They must prepare for war both in the positive sense (for example, building fortifications, maintaining military discipline) and in the negative sense (no use making any fancy improvements that are just going to get burnt down in the next war, or having more possessions in your house than you can bury quickly).

Nested within this second layer is a third, central region, which — because of the protection/insulation the border regions offer it — does not need to occupy itself so much with warfare. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the core have the security and stability to undertake investments which would be too hazardous in a less defensible region: larger (more elaborate, more ornate) buildings, denser cities, complex institutions, specialized workshops which serve a purpose only within a convoluted entrepreneurial network.

Is There A Synthetic Model?

TQ’s diachronic model and his synchronic model are not mutually contradictory, but they are in tension. To put it succinctly, they present dueling models of ethnogenesis which suggest two different sources of ethnic differences and thus different filiation processes and different possible outcomes. The diachronic model suggests something like a tree structure of emerging ethnea, whereas the synchronic model suggests that the outcome of ethnogenesis will be (a) tripartite and (b) nested.

I do not want to belabor the incompatibilities between the two models, but if you are having trouble playing around with the two in your head, consider: in a hypothetical population expanding outwards from its point of origin, the diachronic model predicts that two points on opposite ends of the territory will be maximally distinct (ethnic sub-division corresponds to distance) while the synchronic model predicts that they will be more similar to each other than to any point not on/near the frontier (ethnic sub-division corresponds to specialization of function).

And I do not want to present this as an accusation or a criticism of TQ. I do not know how closely my interpretation of his two model matches his own (I have not asked him), but it clear enough that he is sensitive to the tension. When for example he notes that core groups “often hail from the urheimat of their clade”, he lightly touches on a point of convergence between the two models (if the parent stock expands out from its urheimat in all directions, then this starting point will also end up in the protected interior, inhabited by a core group) without either affirming or denying the illusion that the synchronic typology is an effect of the diachronic process of growth and expansion.

This is the very stuff from which great writing is made; but still, it raises the question of whether any general model that synthesizes the two perspectives is possible, and what it would look like. This is my best attempt:

i. Initial Parent Stock in urheimat

ii. Population growth: population pressure grows in future core-areas.

iia. Populous (but pressured) Parent Stock uses its manpower to challenge neighboring clades for control of those clades’ border regions; successful (re)conquest immediately creates nucleus of a marcher-group when conquerors garrison or settle in the region.

iib. Superfluous/discontented individuals diffuse outward from safe/familiar but densely-settled urheimat to underpopulated but unsafe/unfamiliar settlement-regions; selection for those who are most eager to accept this trade-off and the actual conditions in the new region combine to create the nucleus of pioneer-groups.

iii. Consolidation of initial expansion:

iiia. As the process of conquest/diffusion continues, feudalization ensues in:

• … conquered regions which, after long-term occupation, have become a permanent military frontier between the expanding population and an unconquerable rival

• … frontier regions which have gradually increased in density (and in safety/familiarity) to the point that pioneer mores are creating an anarchic situation.

iiib. Meanwhile urbanization occurs both in the urheimat (if there has been equivalent expansion in all directions) and in the original regions of conquest, if these have been left deep in the interior by further conquest and settlement.

But this is just one possibility, and I am not entirely confident that it is a uniquely “typical” possibility.


(Tomorrow or Friday I’ll discuss the ambiguities which the equivocation between demographic branching and specialization of function permits, as well as the substantive conclusions that TQ draws from his ethnonationalist typology. Update, 6/16: Just kidding, I still haven’t finished the critical comments and when I do have more time for blogging I’ll probably work on several other things first.)