#2: the inaction imperative

Political detachment might seem sociopathic. It isn't.

Almost 250 years ago in a city that has vanished, the philosopher Immanuel Kant—a single shelf of whose work, to paraphrase Macaulay, is worth more than all of 21st-century literature—proposed an ethical standard for collective action.

The Kantian categorical imperative—an early cousin of game theory—tells us that everyone should act as if their actions formed a universal rule whose results are best for everyone. Lying, cheating and stealing might bring you good results. But if we all followed this universal rule of rampant dishonesty, life would suck for everyone.

Besides this kind of sound biblical advice, Kant’s simple rule generates a logical explanation of our ethical motivation to perform collective actions: any act which is individually useless but collectively helpful—like voting (in theory).

Your one little vote will almost never matter. But if that vote is right, and forms a universal rule, and everyone follows that rule and votes the same way as you, the government will do the right thing. And everyone will win. Solidarity, bro.

Humans are a collective and political species. Kant didn’t invent a way of thinking; he described it. Kantian logic comes naturally to us. Most people who vote, or otherwise engage with collective action, do so under something like the categorical imperative, even if they think Kant is a rapper.

Their own personal contributions may not matter. This does not bother them. They are doing what everyone should be doing. They will do it even if no one else is doing it. In that case, they get to be the first. This makes them feel good. It should. It probably always will. And it makes them collectively strong.

And it seems to morally refute the idea of political abstinence. Any eight-year-old can be taught to engage their innate Kantian social instinct. Learning to turn it off is harder. Before you even start trying to learn this lesson, you need to hear a compelling case that Kant was wrong. Also, Kant was not wrong.

The detachment imperative

Kant was not wrong. For our purposes, he might as well have been. By default, you should still give up on politics, power, and even persuasion—because there is no obvious and realistic Kantian action.

The detachment hypothesis suggests that your Kantian imperative is to withdraw from collective action—to resign from voluntarily participating in, contributing to, or otherwise supporting any collective goal—including but not limited to voting. 

Or to put it differently: Kant always recommends some action. But the only obvious Kantian action, here, now and for the indefinite future, is inaction

Indefinite inaction is detachment or resignation. You are quitting your supposed job of exercising democratic power; you are not resisting the regime, you are breaking up with it; you never stop complying with power, just caring about it.

This is not a new idea; it is as old as politics itself; 19th-century Russians sometimes called it inner exile, the sense of being an expat in your own country—and relating to your own regime the way any expat relates to their local regime.

You’re done trying to change the world. You quit that job. It didn’t seem to be working, anyway. And was it even paying you?

You do not cease to care because you don't believe in caring.  You cease because the only reason to care is to help—and you see nothing you can do that actually helps—and you see that many, even most, people who are trying to help are actually doing harm.

Kant was not wrong. Kant is just in a bad place right now.

Navigating this text

Chapter 1 unashamedly marketed detachment; here in chapter 2 we argue it, tying up some loose ends asserted but not yet demonstrated; and chapter 3 will illustrate the objective form and structure of early 21st-century sovereignty.

Unfortunately, this structure puts the least fun and interesting part of the book first. And this part is unavoidably repetitive. But it has plenty of bacilli to treat. You really should take the whole 10 days of antibiotics, even if you feel better on Tuesday.

But since readers of our premium content are such serious and busy people, if at any point during chapters 2 or 3 you just feel sold on detachment, please feel free to skip to chapter 4—where that fun and interesting part starts.

If by the end of 3 you do not feel sold, try a sidequest to Appendix A—our premium selection of custom “clearpills.” Your prescription will vaccinate whatever virus you walked in the door with. Read yours; read them all; if you remain unconvinced, Gray Mirror might just not be the book for you.

Sure, you can plunge into chapter 4 while still feeling engaged with power. The experiment has failed, the Check Engine light is on, and the management takes no responsibility for your subsequent state of mind.

Also, to avoid stepping on chapter 3’s toes, chapter 2 will keep using the abstract words power and regime as if what they meant was clear. It is clear—but it has not yet been made clear. The management apologizes for any cognitive discomfort produced by this unavoidable circularity. These concepts are mercurial animals and must be approached with care.

As in chapter 1, our conversation will stay as abstract as possible—but a couple of concrete examples are necessary. These examples may inflame old attachments—always dangerous. They are illustrations of concepts in political science. They are not “proposing” anything. We kindly request that you not let them “trigger” you.

It’s a trap

So why exactly is there no imperative collective action? Chapter 1 explained the case; let’s restate and prove it.

Our general theory of collaboration boils down to: under the modern regime, all voluntary collective action promotes power. Anyone whose subjective intent is to act collectively, with power or against it, is objectively reinforcing power. Whichever side you’re on: it’s a trap.

If this theory of collaboration is correct, it is easy to see how the present situation is a Kantian special case. If whenever you subjectively try to change the world, you are objectively trying to support the regime—and the regime does not deserve your support—here and now, your best, most ethical, most altruistic, action is inaction.

The theory cannot be exactly right, and it isn’t. As anyone would expect from any generalization so broad, there are exceptions. There are no easy exceptions—so there is no obvious way to avoid the theory. The message is not that the traps cannot be avoided—but that if you lack some strategy to avoid them, you are in one.

Also: doesn’t it feel right? At least, in 2020? But in 2020 or any other year, logic is not about feels. To litigate the hypothesis that all voluntary collective action promotes power, we’re going to have to methodically inspect each and every one of these traps. But first: the theory of collaboration, from the top down.

All collective action reinforces the regime

As in the previous chapter, we divide collective action by subjective intent: action with power; action against power—or positive and negative collaboration. Or we can just call them sides A and B. Abstraction is the anesthetic of philosophy.

Voluntary individual collaboration in collective action always involves supporting, subjectively and/or objectively, some cause. Such a cause must plan to either influence the regime, or work around it.

By definition, every sovereign regime holds a monopoly of collective action. A regime that tolerates or encourages unofficial collective action—action neither with power, nor against it—is just taking ownership of it. Therefore, all unofficial collective action is with power. Or at least, a healthy regime disrupts all collective action against it.

We start with the observation that both A and B feel they’re losing. It's easy for both sides of a conflict to both feel they're losing. They can even both be right—which is why they should both stop. Anyone should stop doing anything that keeps losing.

Briefly: side A keeps losing because it keeps not realizing its dreams. Side B keeps losing because side A keeps beating it to a pulp. And both sides of the conflict, as is almost always true, perceive themselves as defending themselves or others.

It is hard to tell side B that it is far too weak to ever beat side A—and even its feeble resistance is mostly counterproductive. It is hard to tell side A that most of its visions are fantasies—whose real obstacle is not side B, but reality. It is harder to tell both A and B… but let’s save that one, eh?

Side A: avoid unaccountable causes

If your cause involves making the world a better place (making you what we call a volunteer or positive collaborator), how can it not be a good cause? Isn't it always good, by definition, to try to improve the world? No—it isn't always good.

Your collective action is only intended to achieve this effect. You may not have checked for discrepancies between its subjectively intended and objectively predicted effects. Maybe you thought someone else did. Actually no one did.

If this is so, your cause is unaccountable—a loose cannon. When you load and fire a loose cannon, you have no idea what you’re shooting at. It might hit what you’re aiming at. It might hit anything else.

Suppose you’re sad that Trump keeps kids in cages. So you liberate a chimp from the Washington Zoo, hand him an AK-47, tell him in sign language that orange man bad, and drop him on the Metro at Farragut North. This would be pretty unaccountable. Could it reunite some niños with their abuelitas? Not impossible and not likely.

Something will happen. It could be anything. Your armed chimp is just random. But the market for causes is even worse than random: it evolves. Darwin is in the house.

Darwin is stochastic but not random. Darwin always works; he never works for you. Randomness is unaccountable. Randomness is neither perverse nor mysterious. Evolution is unaccountable, perverse, and mysterious.

Everyone ritually assumes that our intellectual markets are selected simply for truth and righteousness, which couldn’t be farther from so. Being true always helps! But many causes are competing for public attention. And there are infinite possible causes.

And causes mutate. And causes replicate—by teaching; by preaching; by parenting. And since nobody has infinite neurons, all causes must compete for your neurons. And replication plus mutation plus competition equals natural selection.

Whatever winners and losers the market selects, the winners will burgeon and the losers shrivel. If whatever judges pick these winners and losers are good and wise, Darwin will plant the perfect paradise. If nature in fact selects for vanity, folly and cruelty, Darwin is just as happy to dig the perfect hell.

And what we get is… neither. Still, it is always better to be good and wise. The market still prefers good, wise causes. Sadly, this is not its only preference.

There are two major issues with the selective constraints presently operating on the modern regime’s marketplace for ideas (a superset of its market for causes).

The first bug is a missing constraint: accountability. To be popular, ideas need not work or even make sense. Causes need not succeed, or even stand a real chance. The absence of this essential constraint gives bad ideas an advantage over good ones.

Evolution loves to discard any unenforced ideal. Darwin always wants to ditch the spandrel. Succeeding is always hard. For an unaccountable cause it is a luxury. If a cause doesn’t care, it has a selective advantage against one that does. Therefore the ineffective causes can be expected to outcompete the effective ones. Unfortunate!

The second bug is an spurious constraint: ambition. To prosper, a cause must express power. These ambitious causes or ideas are exciting. Dull causes rarely compete well with exciting ones.

In the modern world, if all causes were dull, detachment might well be universal. No one cares about dull causes; so no one would care about anything. At least, many unambitious causes driven by sound collective Kantian logic, such as asteroid defense, seem to attract negligible public interest in today’s market for giving a shit.

An ambitious cause is one that makes its supporters feel powerful. But not all power is real power. False importance has another name: vanity. There is a lot of that these days.

Objective impact is always more exciting. But objective impact need not align at all with subjective intent. Impact may be totally unrelated to intent. Impact may be directly opposite intent. Impact may match intent, plus unintended consequences. Impact may even be perfect. But impact almost always objectively reinforces the regime—and almost never harms it.

Why must generating power always reinforce the regime? A regime is a monopoly of power. Anything that generates power must run that power either through or past it; and past implies tacit permission, so it means with; and with, as the boundary between the formal state and its informal auxiliaries grows indistinct and even irrelevant, evolves into through.

We like to speak of power in the passive voice; something must be done, etc. Actually nothing will be done until someone does it. And who does it is the regime. And power is always and everywhere a muscle: using it reinforces it.

(And if the generated power opposes the regime, of course, it will fail. In fact it will be crushed. In fact, the certainty of being crushed renders it impotent and unexciting, no matter how awesome it could become if no one crushed it.)

So when you step forward as a newly-hatched volunteer to change the world—a goal every college-bound senior at least pretends to share—the set of available causes on your first page of search results is not selected for realism; but it is selected for vanity.

If you must volunteer, but do not wish to support the regime, and are too prudent to oppose it, you must work hard to find a collective cause that does not generate power. There are always exceptions. (Like: there are even good ways to help the homeless in San Francisco.)

If the regime is a good regime, or should for some other reason be reinforced, the cause may be good anyway—even despite some collateral damage—even despite some dalliance with the devil—even despite being not what it appears. There is at least a philosophical case for the Machiavellian deception, the Platonic noble lie.

If the regime is not a good regime—the cause is all bad. And its volunteers are just henchmen—Satan's own suckers—the second coming of the Manson girls.

Side B: avoid impossible causes

But if your cause involves resisting an evil regime (making you what we call a dissident or negative collaborator), how can it not be a good cause? Isn't it always good, by definition, to try to resist evil? No—it isn't always good.

Your collective action is only intended to achieve this effect. You may not have checked for discrepancies between its subjectively intended and objectively predicted effects. Maybe you thought someone else did. Actually no one did.

If this is so, your cause is impossible. To be objectively good, your cause almost always has to win. It almost never does. Even when it does, the victory is usually Pyrrhic: a loss in the long run and the big picture.

Obviously, the regime by definition is stronger than its enemies. Otherwise, they would be the regime. By definition, the regime is in power. The side in power is the side for any ruthless, selfish sociopath. So by definition, dissidents tend to lose.

How does this actually work out in practice? The regime, like any regime, is sovereign—which means it is accountable to no one. Since it is accountable to no one, there is no one who can force it to be fair to its enemies.

Dissidents under all regimes often come to grief by expecting power, their enemy, to be fair to them—or believing that some demonstration of unfairness will harm the regime's legitimacy. Actually, successful illegitimate action confirms a regime's legitimacy. Only the powers that be can break their own rules.

Since the power of exception is the ultimate power, observing that any agent acts unfairly, lawlessly or with impunity means observing that it holds some share of objective sovereignty—ie, it is an authentic and legitimate government agency. This does not even require it to be an official government agency.

True sovereignty is observed and not prescribed. It may be prescribed in old papers, deeds and pedigrees; it is observed in the usual and habitual process of government. An agent that makes and breaks its own rules is clearly sovereign in its own domain—and to be sovereign is to be unaccountable.

Anyone in a conflict with asymmetrical rules tends to lose. And if the dissidents lose, the regime wins. And if it is not a good regime, this is a bad result. So it is better not to play. Very difficult logic! As a dissident, you always knew this. The trouble is just that you let yourself stop thinking about it.

Pursuing a strategy you know you can’t work is what coders call thrashing. Thrashing is what you do with a bug when you have no strategy for solving it. You try anything and everything you know won't work. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t.

Dissidents are thrashing for two reasons. One: they see a bug that needs to be fixed. Two: like volunteers, like everyone, power excites them. Trying to fix the world—or makes them feel relevant—which makes them feel big and good, like porn or blow.

Actually, once you feel yourself thrashing, the right thing to do is always to step away from the keyboard—then lift or surf or run or something. There’s at least half a chance you’ll solve the problem before you get back.

But at least, when thrashing at your keyboard, your worst-case scenario is that your work is useless. Or at least, it’s hard to delete the production database or the whole source tree. This is not the case in the game of power.

Not only is political defeat always and everywhere hazardous to your personal health and good fortune, dissidents too are vulnerable to impact inversion. Collectively, their impact is quite often the opposite of their intent—at least as often as for volunteers.

The primary impact of dissidents in the modern regime is as scapegoats and/or naive provocateurs. Power, which would otherwise have to explain its troubled relationship with reality, instead gets enemies it can blame for its failures—shoring it up nicely. While these enemies are perfectly sincere in their animosity, and can be irritating and even damaging, they are orders of magnitude too weak to be an existential threat.

And even if dissident energy is simply wasted, all energy is finite. Even dissipating the enemy’s energy is a victory. And this is how most dissidents, too, reinforce the regime. So completes the general theory.

Postulates of the general theory

This all sounds good, you think—but there is still too much marketing in it. Let’s go back through the hypothesis and look at what we’ve asserted, but have not proven.

On side A, we assert that positive causes are (a) unaccountable—not selected to be capable of achieving their ultimate goals; (b) vain—selected to maximize expression of power, real or apparent.

On side B, we assert that negative causes are (a) doomed—almost never capable of achieving even their proximate goals; (b) frivolous—selected to maximize their sense of excitement.

If these postulates are true, it makes sense that Kant would want you to avoid both unaccountable vanity and doomed frivolity—both for your own sake, and for the world's. But are they true? Let’s work through them more closely.

[Substack has an effective length limit, so I’ve split out this chapter into two more parts: positive causes, negative causes. Or you can…]