#3: descriptive constitution of the modern regime
It's a clerical oligarchy in the shell of a republic.
Americans are used to a constitution which is a Constitution: half a holy document in a holy glass box, half a self-updating OS or blockchain contract. This 18th-century dream of a self-enforcing sovereign definition, “the rule of law, not the rule of men,” weirdly anticipates computer-science concepts from a quarter-millennium later.
Our Constitution is very important. But here is something strange: Britain does not have one. Yet when you go to Britain, you notice that the practice and principle of government there seems much the same as here—lately, our inventive cousins have even conjured up a “Supreme Court”—but without any such thing as a Constitution.
Indeed John Bull will sit there and tell you, with a perfectly straight face, that Britain has an “unwritten constitution.” What is this? A poem? A Chomskian exercise? Has Bull, long stripped of the China trade, been smoking his own imperial opium? Maybe he is a Futurist. Next he will offer you a glass of dry water and some electric spaghetti.
Unwriting the constitution
In fact Major Bull is a realist. He understands political science right better than thee, Brother Jonathan. What Bull means by an “unwritten constitution” is what Walter Bagehot (say “badge it”) meant 150 years ago: a concrete description of the habitual practice of actual power in the country. Not what it should be; just what it is.
As Bagehot observed—along with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Schmitt, Burnham, and all the best people in between—constitutions drift. Formal and actual power diverge.
This makes actual power harder to look at. Power doesn’t like to be looked at. Power can be quite happy with constitutional drift. But, from a distance, it seems sinister. Can we prevent constitutional drift entirely? Maybe we could write the constitution down—ideally on some kind of durable material, like parchment. Or even granite.
America was not the first country to inscribe its basic law—whether in stone, or on Ethereum, makes little difference. Even if it is only memorized in the secret chants of the tribal elders, there is usually some ritually correct prescriptive constitution.
When this constitution is obeyed, practical and official power match. Power can be looked at. Anyone who looks at it sees how things actually work. It’s a cool idea.
But when the actual shape of real power cannot be derived from this ritual inscription, a regime actually has two constitutions: a prescriptive constitution, which is ritually valid; and a descriptive constitution, which is how power actually works. Nothing but human beings can force other human beings to obey stone—or Ethereum.
A simple case of constitutional drift creates two separate governments, one ceremonial and one operational. Bagehot called these “dignified” (Queen Victoria), and “efficient” (Parliament, Cabinet and Whitehall). Today our dignified institutions are undignified and our efficient institutions are inefficient—Bagehot’s labels would read as satire.
Aristotle was a little wordier. My italics:
In many states the constitution which is established by law, although not democratic, owing to the education and habits of the people may be administered democratically, and conversely in other states the established constitution may incline to democracy, but may be administered in an oligarchical spirit.
This most often happens after a revolution: for governments do not change at once; at first the dominant party are content with encroaching a little upon their opponents. The laws which existed previously continue in force, but the authors of the revolution have the power in their hands.
“The laws which existed previously” are the prescriptive constitution, which has become the “dignified” or ceremonial regime. “The authors of the revolution” are the descriptive constitution, which has become the “efficient” or operational regime.
In a simple, good world, constitutional drift would create a compensating force of good citizens who want to make the description match the prescription. In a more complex world, others want to make the prescription match the description. Sadly, even more would rather just pretend that the description matches the prescription.
Big John Bull, with his “unwritten constitution,” cuts this Gordian knot. If post-1688 Britain has any prescriptive constitution, it is: “Parliament can do whatevs.” The unwritten constitution is whatever Parliament wants to do right now. Since every written constitution is, or must become, a fraud—better to have none at all, says Bull.
Of course, everyone wants to see the unwritten constitution written down. Bagehot did just this. It had not yet been done. He sold a lot of books. Considering Britannia’s course since Bagehot—perhaps it were better left undone.
In any case, drifting constitutions drift. Whatever was written today is out of date tomorrow. Bagehot would not recognize the descriptive constitution of Britain today. (Bagehot would have to be kept away from knives and high windows.)
Sybil, or the two constitutions
The mission of this chapter is to write America’s descriptive, unwritten constitution; or give at least a rough outline. Since this outline is very different from the parchment in the glass box, even with all amendments, it will use its own labels that no one uses. These labels will describe the actual patterns of habitual and professional command, obedience and trust that define the power structure of an operational regime.
Our diagnosis is more complex than Bagehot’s. Our “dignified” and “efficient” organs are nor even distinct. Many are the same organs. Under the prescriptive constitution, they work one way. Under the descriptive constitution, they work another way. We do not have two governments; we have one government, with two personalities.
We’ll call the prescriptive constitution the Old Republic, or just the Republic. We’ll call the descriptive constitution the Modern System, or just the System. “System” is an extremely neutral word that can refer to any complex structure. Personally “System” is dear to my heart, because I was trained as a system-software engineer. And the Modern System is beautiful. How could it not be? Hasn’t it conquered the world?
(Some of my critics are also great scholars of the Third Reich. They might notice that the Nazis used this same word, “System,” in kind of the same way. Dear scholars: tell your Uber drivers to stick to surface streets. Nazis invented the freeway. I will not let Hitler, who is dead, police my language. You shouldn’t either.)
We will express the System’s constitution using labels that no one else uses—much as an Englishman calls Livorno “Leghorn” or Bayern “Bavaria.” Livorno or Leghorn, all true pictures of the same city are the same. Fresh words see old truths with fresh eyes.
Again, the System is the Republic—from a different perspective. The System is real, just as the Republic is real. The ceremonial processes of the Republic continue in force. The operational procedures of the System have the power in their hands.
We can imagine a System that no longer needed the old ceremonies—much as the first Carolingian kings no longer needed their Merovingian puppets. The Republic is a shell. Any shell can be cast aside—so long as its protection is no longer needed.
The System did not kill the Republic. Caesar did not kill the Roman Republic. He saved it, as best he could. For many centuries there were still consuls and a Senate. He certainly saved Rome. The Empire at its best worked quite well. Same with the System.
There is just nothing historically weird or creepy about the System. It’s a normal thing. It’s also an old thing. It does not seem to be functioning perfectly at present. In fact, it seems to be deteriorating, and there is no obvious way to repair it.
But if we can define the System, we can at least think about replacing it. Regime change is always possible—and always dangerous. At best, a change of regime is the rescue and renewal of a nation. At worst, a disorderly transition in sovereignty is arbitrarily catastrophic. It is easy to imagine regimes far better than the System; or far worse.
Nor can we merely cast out the System. We cannot imagine a live Republic no longer animated by this guest. All organs of the Republic have become organs of the System. The Republic without the System is an empty shell, home to neither snail nor crab. Since nature and sovereignty both abhor a vacuum, the Republic is not a description of a complete and operational regime. Some other sea-creature would have to move in.
Sketch of a baboon oligarchy
Let us sketch the Modern System—without worrying about our sketch’s connection to either descriptive reality or the prescriptive Republic. We will sharpen those lines later. We’re just making a very broad simple sketch of what this System is and how it works.
Imagine we are visiting an alien planet of six-armed baboon people, and observing how they govern themselves. Later, we’ll show how this baboon regime, like Montesquieu’s Persians, is actually just like us. For now, they are alien baboons.
What is the Modern System? A regime. To start describing anything, a regime or a baboon, place it in a taxonomy of comparable forms. In the taxonomy of regimes, the System is a materialist clerical oligarchy.
There are three forms of regime: monarchy (rule of one), oligarchy (rule of a minority), and democracy (rule of a majority). The System is an oligarchy.
There are four forms of oligarchy: hereditary oligarchy (rule of nobles), military oligarchy (rule of soldiers), commercial oligarchy (rule of the wealthy), and clerical oligarchy (rule of thinkers). The System is a clerical oligarchy.
A clerical oligarchy has an official doctrine. This doctrine can be polytheist, monotheist or materialist. The System’s doctrine, which we will call the Dream, is materialist: it does not evoke any supernatural powers.
These labels are neutral. There is nothing inherently wrong, or right, with oligarchy (or monarchy or democracy). Knowledge work is an essential aspect of civilization. Government is not AA, and no one in the trade needs to believe in a higher power. None of these choices is unusual. Their combination is neither common, nor odd.
Containing alternate major forms
Democracy, oligarchy and monarchy are not just forms of regime, but forms of power. Every stable regime must either harness or contain all three of these forces.
Since most regimes contain two and harness one, we classify a regime by the force it harnesses. But we must also watch for deviations from this simple pattern.
Here is a broad and inaccurate description of how the System, an oligarchy, uses the shell of the Republic to contain the competing forces of democracy and monarchy. We will work through this fascinating exploit in much more detail below.
The form of government that the Constitution’s text prescribes, that its initial leaders created, and that its citizens emotionally believe in today, is an elected monarchy. The Republic in one sentence: the voters elect the chief executive of the government, who holds power for four years.
Most Americans would agree that this is a simple, but generally accurate, description of their political system. They do realize that there are other parts. They think about those other parts much less.
So both on paper and in the minds of its citizens, the Republic is the alliance of democracy and monarchy: the two enemies of oligarchy. The System is not daunted. It keeps its friends close, and its enemies closer.
If the Republic did not exist, the System would have to prevent it from being invented. It could be invented in many possible ways. It is hard to defend against many possible things. But since the Republic does exist, only one actual thing must be disabled.
The Republic—any republic—is the alliance of voters and politicians. Power is a zero-sum game. If this alliance holds all the power—if the people, through their elected representatives, are absolutely sovereign—there is no power left for the System.
Can the alliance can be somehow weakened so that its power is less than absolute? This would create a vacuum which could admit an alternate form of power. The ideal level of legacy power is not zero, but epsilon: low enough that the Republic cannot do any serious damage to the System, high enough that its elections still seem to matter.
While this exploit protects oligarchy from democracy and monarchy, thus explaining how the System can exist, it is not otherwise fundamental to the System’s operations. We will start by explaining the System as a pure oligarchy, as if these other forces just did not exist, and there was no Republic and no elections.
Containing alternate minor forms
There are four kinds of oligarchy: hereditary, military, commercial, and clerical. The System is a clerical oligarchy. It must contain the potential forces of hereditary, military and commercial oligarchy, much as it contains democracy and monarchy.
No one can pretend that scions of great families rule 2020, but the other two alternate forms can be made very convincing. Let us show that they are actually well-contained.
There are always actual traces of all potential forces. It is easy to magnify these traces, and mistake them for a regime. Convincing the audience to make this mistake—often by orders of magnitude—is a classic misdirection technique in political stage magic.
If anyone can persuade you to see a kitten as a tiger, you will defend yourself by any means necessary from this ferocious man-eater. This is how you persuade good and ordinary people to become kitten-killers. Even once all the kittens are dead, there is still some cat hair here and there—time to mount a 24/7 tiger watch. Meanwhile the wolves are all around you. Your wife, actually, is a wolf.
To check whether your descriptive analysis sees the right form of oligarchy, imagine you are a Bond villain, an enemy of the public with the most malign of intentions. Choose three elite institutions: one military, one commercial, one clerical.
In your dark quest for total world domination, which would you rather infiltrate and capture with your secretly trained army of undercover agents? Since your only goal is absolute power, your choice will demonstrate the most powerful minor form.
In America today, a Bond villain is obviously a Nazi. The institutions might be the Marines, Amazon, and Harvard. Since the rest of society does not change, you have to imagine not what a Nazi Amazon would want to do—but what it could get away with. What could the Nazi Marines get away with? What about the Nazi Harvard?
We observe many structural constraints that would bar the Nazi Marines from any serious Nazi plans. It seems unlikely that they could even take San Diego and found a Surf Nazi city-state. The Marines don’t even have bullets—they would have to prevail by the arme blanche—the naked bayonet. Hard, even for Nazi Marines.
And doesn’t half the country already think of Marines as halfway to Nazis? Military government is such an obvious alternative to every civilian regime that every civilian regime wraps its military in fifteen layers of rationally paranoid coup-phobia. Why do you think soldiers and sailors on domestic bases don’t have ammunition?
As for the Nazi Amazon, Amazon delivers 2/3 of its own packages. Couldn’t it deliver them in a swastika van, with a snappy Roman salute? Hail Jeff and happy Prime Day! Just for this gesture, Amazon might lose a few subscribers. What that would do, or what more the organization could do, to advance the Führer’s agenda, is unclear. Fear of corporate fascism in the American intellectual narrative dates back to the Dearborn Observer and the Business Plot. This phobia too has grown stale, but it still works.
The Nazi Harvard, however… look at the size of that endowment. Who tells Harvard what to do? No one. And since 1636, no one ever has—certainly not Amazon. And certainly not the Marines.
Nazi Harvard might become unfashionable, because Nazi. On the other hand… power is habit. America has spent four centuries imitating Harvard. The world has spent a century imitating America. And universities were certainly a hotbed of the original Nazis… put it this way: once Yale goes Nazi too, it’s over.
Who does Harvard tell what to do? Who doesn’t Harvard tell what to do? Certainly, Harvard knows what everyone should do. Nor does anyone much want to displease it. The dominant form of oligarchy is the form that habitually commands the others—and can always, in some way, punish them. Direct punishment is beneath Harvard; but maybe the Nazis could take over the Times as well?
When Special Forces liberty teams drag unpatriotic journalists and billionaires from their offices and educate them in the street, military oligarchy is in the ascendant. When no professor, priest or policeman may prosper in his prospects until he pleases some cigar-chomping captain of industry, commercial oligarchy is the order of the day. Exercise for the reader: for a clerical oligarchy, what is the equivalent?
Fundamentals of clerical oligarchy
All regimes past and present use intellectuals. The tribal shaman, before history itself, sits on his chief’s right hand. 3500 years ago, the monks of Amun run Egypt like a boss. The Emperor of China has his astrologers, his I Ching, his Board of Rites. The nerd is a human universal and power draws him like a bee.
The pathognomonic sign for clerical oligarchy is not just astrologers in government. That sign is astrologers whom no one can overrule.
Of course, one man’s astrologer is another man’s astronomer. All clerical oligarchies speak ex cathedra: they make claims of institutional infallibility. (See under: Pope, the.) Usually these claims are mystical and supernatural. In the System they are material and philosophical—not entirely a novelty, but more common in East Asian history.
A clerical oligarchy is sometimes called a theocracy. This word misleads in two ways. One: it implies that clerical oligarchy requires a supernatural doctrine. Two: it implies that an abstraction, concept or principle—materialist or supernatural—can rule.
God cannot rule. Man can rule in God’s name. Science, or freedom, or equality, or patriotism, cannot rule. Man can rule in the name of these abstractions—or others.
Theocracies are good at pretending that an abstraction rules, or even that no one rules, since (like all oligarchies) they do an excellent job of spreading and diffusing personal responsibility. The Modern System may be the historical world champion of apparently not existing, though its stealth finish has been picking up some scratches.
A system without responsibility is a system without accountability. And even worse: power corrupts. Even if the institutions of an oligarchy were infallible before power fell into their hands, they will still rust rapidly in its harsh chemical bath.
From an engineering perspective, the main advantage of clerical oligarchy is its great robustness and stability. Its main disadvantage is that it corrodes badly in the medium term. In only a century its performance can become very weak—but it remains stable.
This creates an unpleasant situation of poor and deteriorating, yet robust, governance. You are here. In general these situations are only resolved, as often in eunuch-plagued China, by a reinvention of monarchy. Possibly the Emperor has already been born.
General architecture of the regime
A descriptive constitution describes all organized human action in the country. Since organization is government, no organization is outside the constitution. Since all power is organized, a constitution that describes all organizations runs no risk of missing a nexus of power—the most serious error in a descriptive constitution.
We divide the System into four great organs: in ascending order of power, the Castle, the Factory, the Bureau and the Cathedral. (Later, we will add a fifth: the Show.)
These organs are not organizations. They are categories of powerful, or potentially powerful, action. Each has its own purpose; its own structure; and its own principles.
As the System exists in the real world, it is complex, historical and flawed. Here we describe not this instantiation of the ideal, but the ideal itself. For clarity, everything in this sketch is presented as if it existed and was perfect in real life.
Castle: centralized security, by mission
The Castle is security: all uniformed military and sworn law enforcement institutions.
The Castle operates on the mission or command principle (Auftragstaktik) required by armed operations. Your commander gives you a mission. You have a budget of human and material resources. Your job is to carry out your mission by any acceptable means. Your commander tells you what hill to take—not how to take the hill. That’s the ideal, anyway; and it is certainly the best way to run an army. Or many other operations.
Again, the Castle is the weakest subsystem: it is profoundly subordinate to the Bureau. The military’s potential as an alternate nexus of sovereignty is too obvious.
Factory: decentralized production, for profit
The Factory is production of goods and services: all companies, trade and finance, mining and agriculture.
The Factory is built as an economic wargame. Every player is a company—which can be one person, or a hundred thousand. Each company is a hierarchical army, operated like an army on the mission principle. The general of this army commands it unconditionally; but a losing general can be replaced by the company’s owners.
The winners in this game profit, survive and grow. The losers disappear. New players replace them. The Factory is a ruthless evolutionary swamp of warring city-states, like the Bronze Age Aegean. No more effective engine of production has ever been devised.
The Factory is also subordinate to the Bureau, which sets the rules of this wargame. Companies compete ruthlessly—but without sword-wielding dawn raids. Because the Factory can generate great wealth, and money is hard to control, slightly more power flows out from the Factory than from the Castle. It is not zero. But it is still epsilon.
Direct conversion of money into power is called “corruption.” It is very difficult for any regime to eliminate all forms of indirect corruption. But since the motivations of the Factory are inherently avaricious, its corruptions tend to be venial rather than mortal.
Corruption for profit is a careless way to make a buck. It may destroy by negligence. It has no destructive drive and is generally without malice. So the Factory, too, is well-contained if not perfectly contained.
Bureau: centralized administration, by process
The Bureau is administration: the professional civil service.
The Bureau operates on the process principle. An army, a company, and a bureaucracy have the same pyramid-shaped orgchart. The army and the company execute missions. The bureaucracy executes a process. This looks the same, from a sufficient distance.
The job of an employee in a process organization is not to achieve an objective set by a leader, but to follow a procedure set down in a rulebook. So long as the employee has followed the procedure, the concept of accountability is not relevant. If following the rules produces a bad result, the rulebook may need to be updated. The failure does not reflect poorly on either the employee or the rule-writers. They both did their best.
A mission organization is a chain of command in which initiative flows downward from the top. A process organization is a chain of appeal in which decisions flow upward from the bottom. Every employee encounters exceptional situations for which no rule has prepared them. Every employee has a meta-rule for these situation: call your manager.
Both forms are pyramids with one human apex. The apex of a mission organization is a chief executive, like the general of a professional modern army. The apex of a process organization is a decision oracle, like the priestess of a barbaric snake cult. While the oracle’s decisions are final, she has no control over what options are presented to her. She does not get to decide whether babies are fed to the snake-god—just which baby.
Ideally the snake-god could somehow make his own call on this, and everything else. Process organizations try not to give any decision to a single person. Ideally, decisions can be made mechanically by a strict rule. Exceptions to this rule can be agreed by a committee. History records few examples of anyone holding a committee accountable, although all effective committees are orchestrated by some sort of informal clout. But clout is much better than responsibility, because it is authority without accountability.
Mission versus process is not a boolean, of course. Every large organization has some mission and some rules; it has some sense of initiative, some sense of procedure. But the balance between the two can easily hit 1% or 99%. A process organization may have almost no initiative at all; a mission organization may have almost no rules at all.
Our experience with the Factory leads us to expect more process toward the leaves of any organization, more mission toward the roots. Food prep at KFC is a procedure. CEO of Yum! Brands is a mission—though not a mission like CEO of Tesla. You can also eat at restaurants where food is a mission. They tend to cost more and take longer. The food is better, though.
A process organization is different. It is process all the way to the top. At the highest level of the organization, the most talented, ambitious and successful human beings come together in complex structures which nominally follow rigorous and detailed procedures which they themselves did not create or control—just like KFC fry cooks.
Since they are not KFC fry cooks, they absorb all the lessons of Machiavelli and set to work on subverting and manipulating these procedures. In some bureaucracies this is done for money; in some, for ideology; in the best, it is done just from mere ambition.
Since process organizations are generally less efficient, we tend to associate them with an absence of systemic competition. The advantage of a process organization is that it is much more amenable to external control.
Its processes can be written by people who do not even work for the organization. In theory, the organization can be controlled by controlling just the rule-writers: a much smaller group. If you fear the organization, it may make sense to hobble it in this way.
Anatomy of all modern bureaucracies
The Bureau has three divisions: Committee, Building, and Chamber.
The Committee sets the rules, budget, and organization. The Building executes the rules. The Chamber checks that the rules are properly followed in individual cases, and makes new rules when it finds special cases that the rule-writers did not anticipate.
The universal principle of bureaucracy is that everyone follows the rules at all times; there is a rule for everything; no one makes or gets to change the rules they follow; and anyone who succeeds understands how to respect the rules, and how to bend them. The career objective of a bureaucrat is to always be relevant, and never be responsible.
Personnel is always broken out into a parallel organization devoted entirely to ranking and assignment. The Building, like a Japanese zaibatsu, hires for life. Managers in a bureaucracy are handlers of exceptions. They are not pirate captains. They have reports, not minions. They cannot hire or fire people on a personal whim.
Power still exists in a process organization, if only for the sake of existing. The process can always be manipulated. No bureaucracy is so mechanical that it is free from office politics. But the substantive stakes of office politics can diminish ad infinitum. The bureaucracy now has two ways to dissipate its energies: red tape, and backstabbing.
Anyone who thinks a process organization can be turned into a mission organization is dreaming. The Bureau is what it is. It is not all bad. It will always be what it is: a bureaucracy in which decisions flow upward.
Cathedral: decentralized knowledge, by prestige
The Cathedral is information: truth, philosophy, ethics, narrative, art and intelligence.
Its inner circle, the Brain and the Voice, includes all professors, journalists, serious artists, published authors, etc. Its outer ring, the Conversation, is the whole upper social class. Its funding division, the Foundation, is the whole upper economic class. Its teaching division, the School, gets to indoctrinate almost everyone for over a decade. And its doctrine, the Dream, defines good and evil for all decent people.
The importance of the Cathedral is defined by its monopoly on legitimacy. A school which is not the School is not educating. A voice which is not the Voice is not informing. A brain which is not the Brain is not thinking. There is nothing legitimate about miseducation, disinformation or unreason.
Prestigious information passes from Brain to Voice, and Voice to Conversation. This process is subtle enough, and its product is of high enough quality, for the Conversation to believe it is actually making up its own mind—from filtered inputs. The Conversation—all of legitimate public opinion—always admires the System. It thinks of this as a completely voluntary and spontaneous critical assessment.
And the Conversation, which is the discourse of the upper social class, is always the discourse of fashion. For the nobility (rich or broke), fashionable ideas are de rigueur. Against the middle social class (rich, doing okay or broke), they are political attacks. Épater la bourgeoisie is the official sport of every nobility. It is the role of the weak to accept these attacks, internalize them, and use them to loyally flagellate themselves.
The arrows of fashion rain down constantly from every direction. The kulaks cannot resist them for long and will surrender to the nobility’s latest definition of cool; not soon enough to be cool themselves; soon enough for this victory over themselves to be expected and taken for granted, and some new demand for further coolness launched.
And hell will freeze helium before the kulaks convince the nobles of anything at all. Even the truth will have a rough time if the kulaks somehow get hold of it first.
This may seem like a brutal process—but frankly, isn’t the nobility usually right? Aren’t nobles just cooler, better people? They certainly have higher IQs. The best of them are in the Cathedral. The rest at least hold Cathedral ranks. Surrender, chuds.
The anatomy of prestige
The Cathedral has five divisions: the Brain, which produces truth; the Voice, which produces true stories; the School, which produces real education; the Conversation, which produces informed opinion; and the Foundation, which gives truth power.
The Cathedral operates on the principle of prestige. Prestige is informal reputation. Informal reputation is the best and most powerful kind of reputation, because no formal process can affect it.
Neither the Cathedral nor any of its divisions is in any administrative sense one organization. Each division is a constellation of independent offices. Every officer in any office of the Cathedral also has a personal prestige. The office’s prestige rubs off on the officer, and vice versa.
The Brain, as senior division, reserves the right to formally license offices and award ranks. Prestige in Brain and School is not a strict function of this formal data, but informal prestige is just an adjustment. In the rest of the Cathedral, all institutional and personal prestige is generally informal—though no less real.
The Voice has no formal ranks for institutions or officers; its prestige model works just fine. People pretend to argue about whether any random room full of desks is a genuine office of the Voice. Everyone actually knows.
It is still possible, in theory and perhaps even in practice, to found a new office of the Brain or Voice. Had its founding officers had already been assigned legitimate ranks by other legitimate offices, the new office might inherit their legitimacy. A similar expansion procedure is employed by the similarly decentralized Hell’s Angels. Power enables informality; since it is usually not a good idea to argue over the legitimacy of someone’s Angel patch, it is still easy to tell real Angels from fake Angels.
The prestige pyramids of the Cathedral are tiered—like Mayan pyramids. All tiers below the top are more or less imperfect copies of the top. Relegation or promotion is almost unheard of. Even ranking changes within a tier are rare. Anything is possible, though, so everyone still works hard—especially at the top.
The equation that holds the Cathedral up is the stable marriage of prestige, talent, and legitimacy. The most prestigious tier is the most legitimate; so it is the most powerful; so it attracts the most talented and energetic personnel; so its work is the most impressive; so the world trusts it the most; so it is the most prestigious.
Although there is no objective accountability in this cycle, it passes easily for “merit.” Every definition of legitimacy is circular, contingent and/or autocratic. Power can never be justified from first principles. Some institution is always unaccountable.
Power cannot be sold, at least not directly. Cathedral offices can be funded in almost every different kind of way. Some are funded by taxes; some are profitable businesses; some have endowments; some get Foundation grants; some charge subscriptions; some solicit donations; some leech off corporations. An office’s source of funds or financial model, or whether it is or is not officially part of the government, does not seem to have a strong effect on its prestige.
Because they produce information, and nothing is easier to steal, Brain or Voice offices not funded by tax streams always exhibit a certain level of economic insecurity. But if both Brain and Voice were somehow utterly destroyed (perhaps by mighty forces not supernatural, but financial), the Foundation would resurrect them. The Foundation does not have more money than God. God is also somewhat older.
Just as there are “brains” and “voices,” there are “foundations” which are not true parts of the Cathedral. They have zero prestige by definition; they are just taking advantage of a loophole in the law. As in most of the Cathedral, the boundary of legitimacy is not formal; but it might as well be.
The doctrine of synoptic infallibility
It is easy to see why the Cathedral is infallible. Infallibility comes from the Brain. Everyone trusts the Brain; if the Brain is infallible, everyone is. The Brain is infallible because it has the smartest, best-trained people, and it has no single points of failure.
At the top tier of the Brain is not one office, but maybe ten. God, to chastise just the top few tiers, would need hundreds of independently targeted asteroids. It seems that oligarchies are the best of all worlds: they are both stable, and redundant. Individuals and institutions make mistakes; the wisdom of crowds averages them out. “All is for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.”
It is easy to see something wrong with this argument for infallibility. It relies not on the geographic or organizational variety of the Brain, but its philosophical variety. An intellectual sample is not valid if its data points are not intellectually independent.
The case against the Cathedral begins with one observation: it is, as Biblical scholars say, synoptic. Like Matthew, Mark and Luke, it likes to agree with itself. The Cathedral has more than three apostles. It has an enormous number and variety of offices. But all its priests are watching one movie. We can call this synoptic doctrine the Dream.
The whole Brain can be wrong about something, at the same time, in the same way. Then the whole System, and the whole country, will be wrong. This is how we know that the Dream is either a shortcut to perfection, or a shortcut to perdition; and the Cathedral is either the answer to human history, or a cancer on it.
Another reason to question the Cathedral is that it solves a problem that no one has solved in two millennia: quis custodiet ipsos custodes, “who shall watch the watchman.” Since the Cathedral is accountable to no other organ, no one is watching it.
The Brain does not need to be watched. It watches itself. It is always watching itself for errors, catching those errors, and correcting them. Its polycentric structure keeps those errors from growing so big that they catch and correct the truth before it corrects them. In short: the Brain is inherently right—or as right as possible.
The Cathedral does not need a watchman. No one can overrule the astrologers. This is right and true and good, because the astrologers are actually astronomers. If their astronomy is not perfect—it is only getting perfecter. We will reexamine this theory.
From the head down
The Cathedral is the head of the System. Every other subsystem respects its authority. No other subsystem has any significant power over it. In concrete terms, the Cathedral is the greatest concentration of human talent in the world, present and very likely past. And history has certainly seen nothing like its global power.
On the other hand, as the Russians say, “the fish rots from the head down.” Everyone will concede that the Bureau is clunky and inefficient. That’s a reason to repair the System, not a reason to replace it. If there is anything seriously wrong—even totally wrong—with the Modern System, it would have to be a problem with the Cathedral.
The Cathedral is not only supreme, but essential. Every public or private institution in society—if only for convenience—needs a standard source of official truth. Even the Bureau does not want responsibility. It does not want to do its own research or judge the research of others. It needs to think as little as possible.
It can solve this problem easily by considering the Cathedral as infallible. So can many other institutions—right down to digital encyclopedias. And since the Cathedral is so awesome, it may have a stronger case for infallibility—or asymptotic infallibility, meaning that no process could be any less fallible—than any theocracy in history.
The increasingly tangible reality of the synoptic Dream presents a difficult choice. The Dream is not magic. It is synoptic because it is contagious. But contagious, like a new idea, a scientific result, a catchy song or a funny joke? Or—contagious, like a disease?
As the Dream grows clearer, stronger and more universal, the Cathedral is either marching faster toward utopia or sliding deeper into mania. Wherever it goes, the System follows; wherever the System follows, the country follows. To answer this question is to read the future. To even try is to know the Cathedral and its Dream.
Integrating the two constitutions
We've described an operational government quite different from the prescriptive regime specified by the Constitution. This sketch of a blueprint was intentionally vague and might have described another country, even another planet.
Now, let’s map the operational System back onto the ceremonial Republic. Above, our description of the System was intentionally vague and avoided reference to the terminology of the Republic. Now we will freely mix the labels of the two.
There are two kinds of organ in the System: internal (inside the formal borders of the Republic) and external (outside the formal borders of the Republic).
The internal organs are the Castle and the Bureau—the military and the civil service. The external organs are the Factory and the Cathedral—production and information.
The most powerful organ, the Cathedral, is external. An external organ has the least accountability. But its contact with the execution of government is the most abstract.
Like oligarchy in general, this is a political architecture which trades low efficiency for high stability: by no means a historically unusual, or even unacceptable, engineering approach. Unstable government really, really sucks. Unfortunately, low and declining efficiency, coupled with high and rising stability, is also an unpleasant trend.
Within the Bureau, the Committee is everyone who writes law or regulations; the Chamber is everyone who reviews individual cases; the Building is everyone else. If the Bureau has a true constitution, it is the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946.
The Committee is split between the legislative and executive branches; the Chamber is split between the judicial and executive branches; the Building is the rest of the executive branch. (Committee officers in the executive branch write administrative law; Chamber officers in the executive branch judge administrative law.)
The chief oracle and spokesman of the Building—the priestess of the snake-god—is the Coordinator, who is the President. Decisions which lower levels of the Building either cannot handle, or do not wish to take responsibility for, are appealed all the way up to the Coordinator’s desk.
As spokesman, the Coordinator has extensive ceremonial responsibilities. As oracle, the Coordinator makes a continuous flow of important decisions—generally presented in the form of three boxes, the middle box of which is always right. If the Building had to run without a Coordinator, it could always check the same box and always be right.
The Castle is everyone in the government who uses, or orders the use, of weapons: everyone with a military rank and law-enforcement officers. All civilians, as in the Pentagon, are part of the Bureau.
History is full of examples of how to use the Castle as an emergency government. So the Castle has to ask the Building’s permission every time it goes to the bathroom. Nor is permission guaranteed. Questioning “civilian control of the military”—the Bureau’s control over the Castle—DoD’s control over the armed services, and civilian oversight of the police—is absolute taboo and career death.
The Castle looks like a weapon that can be captured and turned against the System. It is not. Power is habitual obedience, and the habit of obeying the Bureau is ingrained in the Castle to a religious level.
To rebel against the Bureau, the Castle would have to degenerate into an indisciplined mob. It is hard to see this happening—and who would want it? The worst periods of Roman history were periods of military anarchy.
The Factory is all private productive activity: all of capitalism. It produces (or imports) everything. The Factory is external by definition, which makes it look independent and potentially powerful. But regulating the Factory is one of the main purposes of the Bureau—and wielding power is not one of the main purposes of the Factory.
The Factory is an herbivore, not a carnivore. It is inherently impotent because sheep do not rule over wolves, even if every now and then some ram gets in a good headbutt. It can also be found bribing Congress; but only with legal bribes; and only for its own economic interests, not to contend for power.
Like the Castle, the Factory need only be noticed in any descriptive analysis of power. But it is worth noting that both have trained many capable commanders. Not all societies have the human capital to stand up a new and effective mission-oriented organization at regime scale. There is a kind of potential power here still.
In the Cathedral, the Brain is academia; the Voice is journalism; the Foundation is nonprofits; the School is education; and the Conversation is educated opinion.
None of these divisions is structurally centralized, but they are all synoptic. They all dream the same Dream. Around each division is a penumbra of bogus, illegitimate institutions which claim to be brains, voices, foundations, schools or conversations. The folly of these cults is unfiltered, exhausting, and inexhaustible. They are anything but synoptic—there is nothing even remotely like a unified counter-Cathedral.
It is easy to see why the Cathedral is the most powerful organ in the System. First, it is accountable to no one. Second, the Bureau trusts it absolutely—and everyone else is accountable to the Bureau. Third, most citizens trust it too. Fourth, all alternatives are orders of magnitude weaker in the quality and completeness of their information.
Everything by its right name
It is hard to understand the idea of government outside the government. Here’s a thought-experiment that helps illustrate it: rebrand the Cathedral as a formal government agency. Call it the Ministry of Information.
Give its offices numbers instead of names, ordered by prestige: “People’s Newspaper #1,” “People’s University #1,” etc. Its officers, who already saw themselves as serving the public, make it official: they are now formally civil servants. Nothing will actually change about their jobs, except that they’ll get better health plans.
Before, when the offices of the Cathedral were private companies and associations, the special access the Bureau granted Cathedral officers was anomalous. Now it is natural that the official journalists of the Voice have special access to their own government.
Before, when the offices of the Cathedral were private companies and associations, the special trust the Bureau granted Cathedral opinions was anomalous. Now it is clear that the official professors of the Brain exist to do the official thinking of the System.
The point of a Ministry of Information is to know everything and always be right. The Ministry’s highly rigorous processes make its authentic publications effectively infallible when speaking ex cathedra. No one has a right to privacy against the Ministry; any data it can get, it can use; no one can be punished for giving it data; and the Ministry can say anything about anyone, and everyone will believe it.
Unless such a strong Ministry was kept in check by an even more powerful monarch, we cannot imagine that it would be anything but the strongest organ in the state. Yet as viewed through our own political tradition, it is not even an organ of the state.
We realize that it is more powerful to be external than internal—to be outside the government, rather than inside it. Such an organ combines private immunity with public authority: the best of both worlds.
Cleaning up the conversation
The Conversation—a conversation whose only contact with reality is the story told by the Voice—is the picture of the world in the minds of the governing class. True public opinion is always and everywhere the opinion of the highest social class.
Below the Conversation is a sub-conversation: various unfiltered rumors spread by hooligans, grifters, trolls and enemy spies. This populist, democratic sub-conversation is a kind of cultural syphilis which the future must eradicate. Society does not in any way benefit from uninformed public opinion.
Fortunately, genuinely informed opinion is always and everywhere more fashionable. Everyone in the highest social class believes in the Voice because the Voice is official: it is the voice of power. They should not be blamed for this. It is just how nobilities do. And the present fashion of the nobles is the future fashion of everyone.
A noble's life purpose is the highest stage on the pyramid of needs: self-actualization. The most obvious way to be self-actualized is to be important, so nobles crave power and importance. So the top social class, and everyone who aspires to join them—with a few stubborn exceptions, everyone—is intellectually tide-locked to the latest truth from the Brain, and the latest story from the Voice.
The only acceptable dream is the Dream, which is pretty strict about its version of the First Commandment. This is why, if you have somehow broken out of the Dream, you get such a visceral feeling that you are living in a world of remote-controlled zombies.
The Dream is the ideal future of the noblest, most fashionable people in the world. It really is a nice Dream. The problem with the Dream is not that it is evil, but that it is impossible. From that error (also a sin: the sin of vanity), all the evil it does proceeds.
Hacking is hard
The reasonable reader should still be skeptical.
So far we have only just defined this “Modern System,” a phantom, chimera or conspiracy imagined out of various bits and pieces of real institutions public and private. We have described this phantom as if it existed and was, in fact, in charge.
We have not explained why the real regime is this “System,” and the Republic is no more than a dead shell. We have not explained how, somehow, without anyone noticing, oligarchy subjugated democracy.
Like, when did that even happen? How can oligarchy beat democracy in a democratic country—in which everyone considers democracy the highest possible good? It seems impossible. The more we look at it, the more impossible it seems.
Most great hacks look impossible. Let’s find the exploit that disables the sovereignty of the Republic, and creates the power vacuum that the System inhabits. We’ll switch perspectives, though—and examine the security hole from the Republic’s side.
The founders and their intent
The natural enemy of oligarchy is the alliance of the two other great forms, democracy and monarchy. Pure democracy is naked mob power, which is easy to suppress because the mob lacks unity or direction. As John Adams pointed out, pure democracy is rare in history and has never lasted long.
In America, something like pure, decentralized democracy lasted roughly from 1776 to 1789. The Congress of the Confederation worked so poorly that Americans airbrushed our first national government out of our own history books. Periclean democracy in Athens did not last much longer. Other examples of direct democracy are hard to find.
An elected monarchy is different, because it focuses popular energy into a single decision point that can act coherently. Even in the age of hereditary monarchy, the natural alliance was always king plus commons against nobles—fascism plus populism, against liberalism—monarchy plus democracy, against oligarchy.
This is why the Constitution was (a) designed as an elected monarchy; (b) initially functioned as an elected monarchy (with Hamilton as Washington’s grand vizier); (c) is perceived by voters as an elected monarchy; and (d) periodically returns to operating as an elected monarchy, most notably in the 1860s and 1930s.
If the drafters of the Constitution had designed the executive branch to be the legislative branch—”Congressional government,”in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase—it could easily have called it that. If the drafters of the Constitution had wanted the Supreme Court to be the supreme authority—they easily could have written that.
Actually what they wrote is that America elects a President, who manages the whole government and commands the whole military. Moreover, this is how everyone who votes thinks it works. This is the real Republic. If it is fake, the Republic is fake.
This is why everyone sees nothing wrong with saying the President of the United States is “in power,” whereas they might gulp a little at describing the Queen of England as “in power.”
The Founders were no perfect engineers. For example, everyone can agree that they should have realized that the electoral college—which they saw as a very real organ, a human and deliberative board of directors—could only be a ceremonial nonentity.
They should also have realized that both legislative and judiciary branches were constructed so as to easily encroach upon executive power. But their intent was extremely clear. And its initial implementation accurately reflected that intent.
The Constitution is an elected monarchy because the Constitution was installed as a right-wing coup. Its goal was to replace the chaotic and ineffective Congress of the Confederation with an effective government that was monarchical and national, while retaining the cosmetic appearance of a federation of sovereign states. Later this fatal, unresolvable ambiguity produced a war; it worked quite well for most of a century.
Many wanted Washington to name himself king. He did not; but his aide Hamilton got to run the government for eight years, which was enough to found a nation. Later this same role of temporary monarch fell into the hands of Lincoln, assisted by Hay and Nicolay—a pair of young “cofounders” every bit Hamilton’s equals. Most recently it was held by FDR—whose pool of apex power hackers was too numerous to name.
All American institutions of government originate in these quasi-monarchical eras, which are prolonged states of constitutional exception or emergency. The President becomes the chief executive of the executive branch and governs it, like an army or a company, by command. Whole agencies may be created, reconstructed, or destroyed. Immense responsibilities are held by 29-year-olds. The whole government is a startup.
The whole government is no longer a startup. But the words we use project this image. And it is a convincing image, since it used to be real.
A simulation of populist fascism
Between these reboots, monarchy decays into oligarchy. Oligarchy is entropically downhill from monarchy, since power is easier to divide than unite. The end state of this process is an amyloid tangle of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, which only the cohesive energy of monarchical management can heal, excise or replace.
History never repeats. But there is certainly a periodic character to the sequence of Washington, Lincoln and FDR. It seems that we are quite late in this cycle. So we should expect our regime to be relatively oligarchical. Indeed we see what we expect.
But in the minds of most voters, politicians, and pundits, the quasi-royal power of the Presidency remains complete and undiminished. We talk about the office exactly as our President was an elected king. We vote for him as if we were electing a king.
And whichever candidate wins, we parse him as a king. Not satirically, we call him the “leader of the free world”; we say he is “in power,” just as Aristotle describes the “old laws” as being “in force”; we clothe him with the imagined authority to make all kinds of enormous changes to the government, then wonder why he chooses not to.
This is why juxtaposing the System with the Republic is such a high-wire act. The design that works so well to contain these dangerous forces of populism and fascism—that is, democracy and monarchy—is itself a simulation of populist fascism.
Almost everyone takes this simulation completely seriously, which is why it works. The energy that could have gone into the real thing goes into the simulation. Yet the constant risk of this containment device is that the simulation simply becomes real. Yet the transparent barriers that prevent this accident are stronger than most can see.
What makes the Republic not sovereign? The Republic is not sovereign, because to be sovereign is to be the strongest. To the extent that any state contains some power that no realistic election can overcome, its form of government cannot be republican.
Do you feel in charge? The power standing above the Republic is, I claim, the System. Let us walk the battlements that defend the System from the Republic. Then you can decide whether, as a voter, you feel in charge.
First defenders of the dream
The System’s first defense against elections is just to not lose them.
While political parties are not mentioned in the prescriptive Constitution, whose authors despised “faction,” the two-party system developed so quickly in the early Republic, and proved so stable, that it has an almost para-Constitutional patina.
When we think abstractly of a two-party contest, we want to assume it is a contest between two philosophies. In practice, we settle for the ugly reality that the shapes of the parties are geographic, ethnic, and/or economic. Every election is a cold war: between places, races, or classes. It is not about philosophy at all—only morale.
Sometimes the reality is even uglier. A democratic party is the tentacle or proxy of some other power, perhaps even a foreign power.
Imagine if the Democrats were really just the party of China, and the Republicans the party of Russia. This was more or less the situation in late 18th-century America, with respect to Britain and France. Now we are the big dog; but foreign proxy parties were also the norm in most other Cold War “democracies.” Any respectable Third World country had a pro-Soviet proxy party and at least one pro-American proxy party.
Elections in the System have two parties: Deputies and Vandals. As is conventional, their conflict purports to be a conflict of philosophies: liberalism versus libertarianism. The student of history is unavoidably reminded of that great Byzantine theological dispute from the 4th century: homoousios versus homoiousios.
Since neither liberalism nor libertarianism existed in any recognizable sense before the 18th century, they are not Lindy and can cease to exist just as easily. Their conflict and even their very existence appear to be epiphenomena of some other reality. Of course, there are many variants of both philosophies, and one can spend a lifetime learning them. The same was true of Marx-Lenin Studies—which was even less Lindy.
The ugly reality of the Deputy-Vandal conflict is that both are class parties. The upper and lower social classes are Deputies. The middle social class are Vandals.
Philosophy is just the ammunition for this typical human tribal cold war. As man has evolved from the chimpanzee, simulated combat has evolved from hooting and hurling turds. All hurlers of words should understand the simian roots of political debate: us and them, Kahama and Kasekela, Marx and Spencer.
But the really ugly reality of the Deputy-Vandal conflict is that only the Vandals are a class party. The Deputies do not promote the interests of any group, even their own. Rather, the Deputies are a proxy party—but for the domestic power that is the System.
Deputies always defend the System. Where they seem to attack it, they are only asking it to try harder. Its proxiness would be easy to see if the System were a foreign power—Sweden, for instance. We would notice that in the eyes of Deputies, Sweden could do no wrong—except in the cases where Sweden needed to step it up, and do much more.
Because the upper class is inherently ambitious, it is inherently attracted to strength. Were Sweden strong, they would be attracted to Sweden. That’s why the Conversation, the polite opinion of the upper class, is always synoptic with the Voice and the Brain. These are the strongest narrative and philosophy; so they are inherently the best.
The upper class is naturally loyal to power. The lower class is naturally loyal to the upper class—which naturally returns this loyalty. The middle class is naturally loyal to itself, and acts collectively to advance its own collective interests. The upper class acts collectively to advance their own collective power; the lower class acts individually to advance their own individual benefit.
So the only party motivated by collective self-interest is the Vandals. The Vandals notice quickly that since the Deputies are not motivated by collective self-interest, but individual vanity (which Deputies of course conceive as individual charity), Deputies will happily sacrifice their own collective interests to crush the Vandals. The converse is by no means the case. Unfortunately, being evil often makes evil even stronger.
A totally disinterested ruling caste is dangerous. If they paid more attention to their own interests, those interests might at least sometimes coincide with the country’s. Instead, individual vanity can easily point them toward collective self-harm—and as the ruling class, their tendency is to take the whole country with them.
The Vandals quickly realize that all collective actions which do not involve resisting the System are superfluous. But the middle class is fundamentally herbivorous. Since they act collectively to advance their own collective interests, not for power and glory, they will not happily sacrifice their own interests for a glorious victory. So they lose; and their interests lose too. It’s hard out there for a kulak.
Most of the kulaks’ collective actions against the System, and all of the best, are essentially defensive in nature. And those that are not defensive are no more than—vandalism. The Vandals often insult the System; sometimes they manage to humiliate it; once in a while, they even obstruct it. Concrete and nontrivial damage is quite rare.
In the 1930s we would see Vandalism win victories on a scale that seem unimaginable today—even liquidating whole agencies. Where is the Blue Eagle now? The Federal Writers’ Project? Nowhere—Vandals in Congress shot them. Of course, back then the System could create new agencies, too. There were giants in the earth in those days.
The System’s first defense against elections is not to lose them. Its second defense is to lose them, but only to fake Vandals who are 95% Deputy. Its third defense is to lose them to real, undiluted Vandals, who are 95% incompetent. Its fourth defense is to elect a new people, adding more Deputies to outnumber these pesky Vandals.
Once all four of these bastions fall—is it over? No. Then the real hacks have to start. The System, we are beginning to see, is quite strong for something that doesn’t exist.
For the rest of our conversation about the Republic, let’s just assume (a fortiori) that the Deputies don’t vote. All elections, all the time, are won by real and competent Vandals. As we’ll see, these barbarian invaders still have no realistic way to damage the System.
How to hack an election (executive edition)
Imagine that every time you went to vote, the voting machine had a volume dial on it, which showed you the power of your vote—from 0 to 10.
Of course, your individual vote has almost no power. The dial measures the power of all voters put together: the power of democracy. In an indirect democracy, it measures the power of the office the voters are filling. So long as the election is fair, what else could it measure?
How could we set the dial to 0? We could elect a politician to a job that does not matter at all—like Elizabeth II’s job. How could we set it to 10? We could elect a politician to a job that has absolute power—like Elizabeth I’s job. While these jobs have the same name, they are not the same job; nor do they have the same relevance.
Rationally, we would expect the rational voter’s interest in any election to correspond to the relevance of the office it fills. But people still participate in elections that don’t matter at all. Basketball fans can vote for NBA All-Stars—and they love to. Not only does the All-Star election not matter, it doesn’t even really matter to basketball.
But is relevance really the active ingredient? Here’s a thought-experiment. Suppose we reduced the powers of the Presidency—his actual personal control over the actual, real government—by a factor of ten.
Would voters care about the election 10x less? Would politicians be 10x less interested in getting the position? So perhaps relevance is not the active ingredient.
Suppose we could turn the power down by 1000x? Then, even if we started at full power, we could turn the election into a pointless, cosmetic exercise. If the monarchy of Britain, with the same roles, privileges and duties that Elizabeth II holds today, was instead an elected office, would no one care? Would no one vote?
This effectively powerless decoy election would create a vacuum of power. It would mean the old laws remain in force, in that the voters still believe in popular sovereignty, not only as an ideal but as a reality. But that vacuum could be filled by some other organ—which would have the power in its hands. Wouldn’t this go well with a doctrine which teaches that democracy is good, and politics is bad? Wild Orwell stuff.
Americans still really care about who gets to be President. Presidential candidates also care. NBA fans and NBA players both care a lot about who gets to start in the All-Star game. It’s easy to assume that means the dial is set to 10. Objectively: is it?
People seem to care a lot about relative changes in the power of the Presidency. We often hear that the present occupant of the office is making it much more powerful. The Imperial Presidency! Even if this story is true, it may not mean what you think.
In general, doubling anything—a stock price; a salary; a GDP—seems like a large change. Let’s say the power of the Presidency, under so-and-so, has doubled. It is easy to assume that this is a large change. Relatively speaking, it is a large change.
Absolutely speaking, it need not be. If the volume was at 5, doubling it is a large change. If the volume was at 8, doubling it shouldn’t even be possible—it should cause you to suspect the dial.
If the volume was at 0.01, and is now at 0.02, it was negligible and remains negligible. It has doubled. You couldn’t hear it; and you still can’t hear it. Nice! We are starting to get into the good hacks here.
The power of democracy (executive edition)
What’s interesting about this analysis is that it is both banal and unusual. It is obvious; but have you ever heard it? And it leaves us with two very concrete questions.
First: what is the power volume of a Presidential election today? Second: what forces hold it at that volume? We can now answer these questions easily.
The volume of a Presidential election is the ratio of the power of a chief oracle to the power of a chief executive. Even between Presidents as different as the 44th and 45th, perhaps 99.9% of Bureau employees did not see their jobs change at all.
If we estimate the oracle/executive power ratio as 1/1000, then double that in a spirit of generosity, the volume of the election is 0.02. You may hear something if you stick your head right up next to the speaker—especially if you happen to be a bat.
And there is no way to turn the volume up. The difference between a chief oracle and a chief executive is that the chief oracle is the apex of a process organization; the chief executive is the apex of a mission organization. A mission organization sends orders downward. A process organization sends decisions upward. They are different things.
A chief oracle may decide she is really a chief executive, and start issuing orders. There may even be a process for her to do so. If there was a process for her to compel the organization to obey her orders, it would be a command organization.
Since there is no such process, her orders are not actually orders—just advice. Often, even usually, the crafty and seasoned operators at the top of the civil service find it expedient to comply with this advice. That doesn’t mean they want to make it work.
Generally such a chief learns to concentrate all her energy on just one or two projects, leaving everything else to run itself. These projects may even move forward, in a desultory and lumbering way. Anything that can be delayed or left undone will be.
It is actually impossible to elect a President who is actually the chief executive of the executive branch, let alone the commander-in-chief of the military. There are no executives in the executive branch. The Bureau does not operate on the executive principle—the mission or command principle. It operates on the process principle—the bureaucratic principle. And its President can only be a chief oracle.
It is not even possible to make a process organization into an executive organization. If it is possible, it is an autistic feat of wild genius, like building a working Space Shuttle out of Legos. And it certainly cannot be done incrementally.
If you are running a liquor store, and you decide you would rather run a Moroccan restaurant, you close the liquor store and remodel the space as a Moroccan restaurant. You do not morph your liquor store gradually into a Moroccan restaurant.
So not only is a Presidential election not real—there is no way to make it real. Not only is there no legal way to make it real, there is no extralegal way to make it real.
Since all the processes of the executive branch are dictated by law, and this law is written by the legislative branch, anyone who believes in this law—which is everyone—believes the President is the chief oracle of the legislative civil service, as surely as if this was actually written in the Constitution. Which obviously it is not. But even if the President could use some extralegal power to break this law, he could still not turn the civil service into an executive organization. So he would still not be a chief executive.
Even by electing a Vandal of the utmost virulence, who happens to also be a brilliant, proven CEO or general and not at all a giant phony, the voters can have no significant effect on the government. You might as well enter the world’s best jockey in a rodeo. He knows a lot about winning a horserace, and nothing about staying on a bull.
Any new Vandal administration realizes by March that its only real goal is to remain on the animal—which means keeping its popularity, since Vandalism is populism. And yet the President was still elected on the platform of winning the Kentucky Derby. He may be the finest jockey in history. The Derby has never been won on any animal that wasn’t a horse. He will have to keep his popularity, while disappointing his fans.
This gulf between reality and simulation requires him to use psychological-warfare techniques on his own voters, a Vandal-on-Vandal backstab which leaves Vandalism all the more compromised. It is a small step from this noble lie, whose purpose is at least glorious, to mere ignoble grift for money. Everything about Vandalism is a trap. And this is how the System contains the menace of populist democracy, which at the bottom end peters out in a mist of peasant fantasies and chumbox goji berries.
Breaching the containment (executive edition)
And yet.. at the highest absolute levels of political energy, this logic may break down. The energy levels needed for this breach are still orders of magnitude above any level currently available—so this conversation should excite neither hope nor fear.
To break the containment of democracy through the executive is to cross the Rubicon. Anyone who dares to cross the Rubicon had better cross it in a serious, determined, and effective way. They cannot just sit down on the far bank, and start fishing. They have no time to think about where to go next. Crossing the Rubicon is not a complete act; that stream is not crossed for its own sake; it is crossed on the way to somewhere.
Suppose a Vandal candidate is so virulent a Vandal that, while campaigning, he promises that, if elected, he will declare a state of emergency rule by decree for four years. To elect him is to elect a temporary emperor—like Washington, Lincoln and FDR before him.
Or as he might put it: he will assume his full legal power and take full constitutional control of the coequal, sovereign executive branch, giving full and fair consideration to the wise and interesting opinions of its peers, the judicial and legislative branches.
In fact, our new Vandal president claims, any supposed law that purports to give the judicial or legislative branches parallel management authority over the executive branch is blatantly unconstitutional. It means there is no executive branch at all, clearly contradicting the intent of the Constitution—which gave the House “the power of the purse” to enforce frugal administration, not to micromanage another branch.
Our Vandal-in-chief will ignore these unconstitutional laws and take unilateral control of the executive branch, with the same authority over budget, process, organization and personnel as any private-sector CEO. So unlike previous Presidential elections, the voters will actually decide who gets to control the government. A real election!
One might think this was a genuinely high-volume election. Such is not necessarily so.
The emperor’s decrees still have to work. By default, they will not. If an absolute emperor sends unconditional decrees to a process organization, his problem of converting it into an effective mission organization is more magical than political. King Canute found that absolute power cannot command the sea. Nor can it order liquor-store clerks to become Moroccan chefs.
An even higher energy level is needed. For the election to reach a meaningful power volume, the voter needs a candidate who not only has a radical plan to take absolute power, but also a radical plan to use it. And the first use of this power cannot be reorganizing the Bureau—but rather, replacing the Bureau. In Lenin’s words: “not capturing the existing machine, but smashing it and replacing it with a new one.”
Creating a new mission organization is far easier than refactoring an old process organization—especially given capacity for executive organization that already exists in both Castle and Factory. Of course, this new organization would still need a plan… but we have gone far enough.
This use of the institutions of the Republic is a hack. The System already hacked the Republic. The flaw in this hack is their need to pretend the Republic still exists. The hack that terminates the System may enter through this same imperfection, arguably using the Republic’s parchment elections even more cynically than the System itself.
It would be idle to pretend that some such hack in any sense constitutes restoring the Republic. It does not. It is only a democratic coup. It completes the Republic’s cycle. The Republic is already dead; the next regime has no choice but to bury it.
Once the System is the “old regime,” the Republic and its Constitution are the “old old regime.” No one will be able to imagine that it lives or could be revived, any more than the Stuarts or the Articles of Confederation. The Republic will belong to historians; its Constitution, to antiquarians. No one will damage the actual parchment…
But this is all fantasy, of course. Not that, in a fantasy world, it couldn’t work. It could work quite well—although “smashing the existing machine” is only the start of a plan. And in our world, Lenin’s smashing techniques are both unacceptable and ineffective.
This plan takes orders of magnitude more political energy than is obviously available. But that lets us see that there is no other plan that works with any amount of energy.
How to hack an election (legislative edition)
So the System is secure against Article 2 of the Republic’s Constitution. But what about Article 1? Democracy is still out there, trying to kill our beautiful System.
It was easy to talk about the Presidency as if it was the only election anyone cares about. It is certainly the only election anyone gets emotional about. Everyone cares about the Article 2 election, which does not matter. Hardly anyone one cares about the Article 1 election, which does matter. From a hacker’s perspective, this is just lovely.
The Article 1 election matters because it elects Congress. (If you want to sound like an insider, say “the Congress.”) Congress—the Committee—matters because it writes the rules for the Building. Since the Building is a process organization, power does not flow upward to its oracle. It flows to its process-writers.
The process-writers are Congress (for true legislation) plus agency regulators (using authority delegated by Congress). As a young Woodrow Wilson put it, “the actual form of our present government is simply a system of Congressional supremacy.”
Again, the executive branch is the legislative civil service. Since the judicial branch has taken to legislating, it too has joined the legislative civil service. (System jargon: the Committee is true lawmakers plus administrative rulemakers; the Chamber is true judges plus administrative judges; the Building is all other civil servants.)
The Coordinator is the Building’s chief oracle; with Congress’s consent, appoints one layer of sub-oracles; without its consent, an even deeper layer of sub-sub-oracles. None of these “schedule Cs” (a few thousand of them) are necessary for the operations of the Bureau. The permanent civil service can easily run itself.
Anyone who has a coin in their pocket has an oracle in their pocket. Nothing too awful will go wrong if all high-level agency decisions in USG are made randomly—at least, nothing that isn’t going wrong already. “When in doubt, do nothing,” is also an excellent rule well known to all bureaucracies.
It would be going too far to say that Article 2 politicians and their appointees cannot affect the Bureau at all. They cannot affect it much. Certainly the political layer has no reliable and direct way to compel the permanent civil service to obey it. Appointees do have more power to obstruct change. Not changing is the default mode of bureaucracy.
But power is conserved. Moving real executive power to the legislative branch is a clever way to defeat presidential elections. It just moves all the democracy risk into legislative elections. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Turning down the power volume on the Article 2 voting machine is a great hack. All that power has to go somewhere. It just goes into the Article 1 voting machine. So when we look at that dial, it looks like it is turned up to 10. Congress can do anything.
Let’s use our Nazi test again. If Americans were so foolish as to elect a Congressional supermajority of Nazis, this Congress could legally turn America into a Nazi country. A Nazi President would at least have to figure out how to break the law. If the legal and customary power of the office is the power of the voting machine, the Article 1 machine works—or so it would appear.
From the System’s perspective, Congress is a huge security vulnerability. From the Republic’s perspective, Congress is the last bastion of operational democracy. Congressional elections are free and fair. Whoever wins them really does control the country. There is no more objective definition of democracy.
Could all this theory just be wrong? Could the sovereignty of the Republic, like some coelacanth, be found alive and well in some deep legislative trench of the Potomac?
Alas, when we look more closely at this subsystem, we start to pick up anomalies. The hackers have been here too.
Back on the hackers’ trail
Here are a few anomalies that conflict with the hypothesis that Congress is actually a functioning republican institution—a living fossil of real 18th-century democracy. This catalog is by no means exhaustive, but we will try to stop once it gets tiresome.
The first anomaly is that almost no one has an emotional attachment to Congressional elections, in the same way that almost everyone attaches to Presidential elections. Again, everyone cares about the elections that don’t matter, rather than the elections that do matter. These low-engagement elections are therefore decided by unlovely and unreasonable factors—like who can afford the most lawn signs.
The second anomaly is that this state of emotional disconnection from Congress is durable. Its cause is a durable trend: the decline of geographic community.
Obviously, the architecture of geographic representation was designed for a world in which local societies mattered. Not only did everyone know their neighbors, everyone had some kind of human relationship with local patrons, boosters or celebrities—the kind of prominent patricians who would become Senators, or rabble-rousing orators who would become Representatives.
In our century there is no such thing as a local celebrity. Geography is meaningless. Where you live is just the GPS coordinates where you park your car. Hardly anyone even knows their neighbors. Congressional districts might as well be apportioned by the first two letters of everyone’s name.
The third anomaly is that Congress is in practice elected for life, or close to it. This could indicate that Congress is popular and successful, and most Congresspersons are so well-chosen that their constituents remain happy with them. Or it could mean that incumbents can raise more money and afford more lawn signs.
Since 2006, Congressional incumbency rates are typically above 85% for the Senate (with a low of 80% and a high of 93%), and 90% for the House (with a low of 85% and a high of 97%). Yet since 2006, Congress has held a public approval rating generally between 20 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 9 and a high of 39.
These numbers say that while everyone is full of warm tropical fuzzies for their own Congresspersons, their emotional connection with the whole institution is cold enough for ice fishing. WTF? Whatever this anomaly indicates, it is not a healthy democracy. Something’s not right.
The fourth anomaly is that, even when some plucky underdog steals a House or Senate election from an elder statesperson, they capture a small fraction of the clout they kill. Some old person has to retire involuntarily; his seat is empty; but it is just a seat.
That seat always has the same power in votes on the floor. But meaningful votes on the floor are rare and rarely of real consequence.
What matters is votes in committees—institutions defined by rules that are no more than customs, and go unmentioned in the Constitution. Also unmentioned in the Constitution are the seniority practices of these committees, which dictate that the plucky, bright-eyed freshman underdog has to start at the absolute, powerless bottom.
We can search not just the Constitution, but all the writings of all the Founders ever, for any idea of any such Venetian gerontocracy. Here it is. Why is it? There are not a hundred Americans who could even try to justify this incredible system.
The fifth anomaly is that neither individuals nor parties seem to matter that much. Certainly, the balance of power in Congress shifts when control of the House and Senate shifts between Deputies and Vandals. It also shifts when the White House shifts, because of the veto.
But these are subtle changes which rarely affect more than a small percentage of what a Congress does; and what a Congress touches is of course the tiniest fraction of what the government is actually doing.
Everything the government does is ordained by Congress—or by administrative rulemakers in the agencies, to whom it has delegated that authority. Congress could do anything or change anything. Not even the Supreme Court could object; Congress can impeach it. A Congressional supermajority has the purest, most Schmittian sovereignty; a Congressional majority, especially plus a Coordinator, is close.
Yet Congress changes almost nothing. The elections are free and fair. Everyone’s vote says they are perfectly satisfied with Congress, although their voices say they are not. Congress’s votes say they are perfectly satisfied with the government as it is, though surely not one of them would make that claim. Nor would many voters. Again: WTF?
In 2017 and 2018 all three branches had Vandal majorities, with a Coordinator who spoke in some of the stormiest Vandal rhetoric ever used. You may have been informed otherwise, but the substantive changes to government were objectively microscopic. Almost everyone in the USG was doing the exact same job in 2018 as 2016.
A well-blinded historical analysis would have some difficulty determining the party “in power” on the Hill from its legislative record, and very little luck in deriving it from the operations of the government—let alone the actual condition of the country.
So Congress is behaving exactly as if it was under some invisible constraint. It is probably not the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, Q, or those pizza people. It is probably something more banal—and, I claim, it is. But a constraint is a constraint.
We have found enough anomalies that we know something here is very strange. There are plenty more; but they would be superfluous. We need no further objections to the old story. We need a new story. What the heck is up with Congress?
True history of a legislature
Both House and Senate were designed to be deliberative parliamentary institutions that formed one opinion from the dynamic consensus of many strong-willed and independent-minded statesmen. In the 18th century, even the existence of political parties (“faction” to the Founders) was considered a corruption of the constitution. This vision of a parliamentary body was of course built on the experience of the last century of Parliament itself, which was the history of these schismatic Englishmen.
A party is not meaningful without the concept of party discipline, which implies that its members are subject to some constraint above their private judgment, wisdom and honor. A parliament which decides by counting party hats is already most of the way to a non-parliament. There is no real parliamentary deliberation in Congress today.
What actually happens to Mr. Smith when he goes to Washington, whether as Deputy or Vandal, is that he faces the same choice given every politician in the Show: whether to play ball, or be a maverick.
A maverick President will find himself constantly bombarded with fireballs, which disappear as soon as he follows the real rules. Unless he is an absolute madman, this behavioral conditioning rapidly teaches him to behave.
A maverick Congressman or Senator is just ignored: a “backbencher,” in the British parlance. Sometimes a consistent record of good behavior can bring a man back from this purgatory, but usually not. Eventually his revenue streams all dry up, he cannot afford to pay the TV stations, and he is replaced with a good ball-player.
Let’s assume Rep. Smith plays ball. He has one more relevant decision to make: he has to hire a staff. His party will offer him a fine selection of dislocated, junior, damaged or distressed Hill staffers; and they will be offered to him.
This staff will do all his government work. They will tell him how to think, and how to vote. He is of course still the head of his own office, and makes all the final decisions. Like all elected politicians, even in his own office he is an oracle, not an executive; he does not achieve a mission; he oversees a process.
Rep. Smith cannot chill. He will work long hours. His hours are spent raising money, making connections, looking good, and trying not to look bad. He does not have to care about statesmanship; he does not have time to care about statesmanship; and at a certain level it might even be tasteless for him to have deeply held ideological beliefs—like a porn star, perhaps, who develops inappropriate feelings for his co-leads.
Mostly, he likes his staff and just thinks what they tell him to think. If he makes a speech on the floor, it is a speech they wrote for him; he is reading it for the camera, in hopes that some office of the Voice will use a clip; if anyone is on the floor listening, they are not thinking about the merits of his argument. Cicero is not in the building. As for the staff, they are cool kids who believe whatever is cool, wherever they’re from.
Congress is not a parliament. But it still legislates. It would be slightly misleading to say that the legislating—writing the text of actual bills—is done not by the legislators, but by their staff. Actually, most legislative language is not even written by the staff.
While there are always exceptions, anything in a bill is supported by some interest or power. The bill’s supporters are more than happy to write the language. The staff are editors. They decide whose language to include. They, too, do not chill.
The two engines of power
In the Modern System, there are two general sources of legislation in Congress. Since they do not have collective names, let’s give them System names: the Shop and the Front. Both make it their business to steer the Committee (and they should be seen as part of it) . They steer it in slightly different ways, for slightly different reasons.
The Shop (“lobbyists”) steers the government for money. The Front (“activists”) steers the government for power. The Front sells importance to rich people. The Shop sells influence to corporations. At its worst, the Front is vanity; the Shop, corruption. But sometimes either can do a good and righteous thing.
Because the Deputies care about power and the Vandals care about money, we should not be surprised that the Front is made of Deputies and the Shop is made of Vandals. Even exceptions to this principle tend to prove the rule: for instance, even though the NRA is shaped more like the ACLU than like Google, most people would say that the ACLU employs activists, while Google and the NRA hire lobbyists.
Rep. Smith can ignore either the Shop or the Front, but not both. In fact, he will do better if he pays some respect to both. He needs donors—for all those lawn signs. Donors are aligned with either. And whichever party he represents, he must respect the Cathedral—or he will be a pariah to everyone. If he is a Vandal, he must at least respect the Brain, and he must stay out of the way of the Voice.
If he is a Deputy, his brain is the Brain and the oxygen in his lungs, or at least his political career, is the Voice—he must do everything possible to catch the Voice’s attention. TV is a tough business, so unfortunately it is better if Rep. Smith takes care to make sure every day really is a good-hair day.
Furthermore, the committees Rep. Smith is assigned to regulate specific offices of the Building. His office will be as effective as possible if his staff has the best possible relationship with the most important people in those offices. And so on.
Ultimately, the network of pressures on Rep. Smith has him held captive many times over. The question is not whose wires are attached to him, but whose wires are not attached to him.
And when all the force on all these wires is added up, they pull Rep. Smith and the rest of Congress in more or less the same direction they was always going. Rep. Smith, to be as effective as possible, must deal with both sides. As a Vandal, he will do by far the best if he “grows” into a “centrist.”
But if he can still pick a side, he should be a Deputy—the Deputies have more money, and better press. Also, the Deputies actually can work surprisingly well with the Shop; whereas the Front will never touch most Vandals. This combination of stable forces produces a centrist Congress which gradually trends left, like the rest of the System.
And this is where your vote for Congress goes to die. Rep. Smith is not, cannot be, and will never be anything like a free agent. So you did not elect him to power. So, in electing him, you had no power. So the volume on the Article 2 voting machine is also turned down to almost zero—but using a completely different exploit kit. Nice.
A brief history of parliaments
Rep. Smith certainly has no time to try to be Napoleon. Great Man Theory may be true or false, but there are no Great Men in Congress—nor Great Women. These people are TV hosts, not little Churchills and Hitlers—let alone Pitts and Burkes.
The original idea of parliamentary government in Europe was the presence of an embarrassment of riches in statesmen, nobles and gentry used to wielding absolute power in their own local domains, now brought together to cooperate in guiding the nation, by making convincing speeches that convince each other. If one leader was needed, it was the most compelling speaker—a post that Pitt the Younger obtained, on the basis of talent rather than pedigree, at 24.
This was what a Parliament was; this was what a Congress, a frank imitation of the Mother of Parliaments, was; not an office building full of anchormen, producers and lawyers, with a chamber that exists only as a soundstage, making speeches recorded only for C-Span and soundbites, passing 9000-page “bills” like Gosplan decrees.
Like the Presidency, the illustrious name of the United States Congress is being worn as a shell by a wholly different organism. The more respect we hold for this sacred name, which generations greater than ours have filled with immeasurable breath and life, the more deeply must we hope for its peaceful and permanent retirement.
The Constitution is not a parody of itself. It was written to mean what it said. It was written as a legal contract, for a nation of country lawyers. And like any contract, it was written to mean nothing if not fully in force. If I sell you my car and you don’t give me the money, I don’t have to give you the car.
If the Constitution is not in force, the Constitution is void. The actual constitution is the unwritten structure of real power. This constitution should be obeyed—not because it is lawful, but because it is powerful. Power is the source of law; and to the extent that power is consistent and predictable, power is law.
But if the authors of the Constitution could see the United States today, they would be puzzled and perturbed to think that their document could be considered the blueprint of the regime they observe. And no institution would seem weirder than Congress.
Breaching the containment (legislative edition)
As with the executive branch, sufficient political energy could pierce all these containment devices, and turn the legislative branch back into a sovereign regime. As with the executive branch, this plan would take far more energy than is available. If anything, it is a more dangerous and unlikely plan; but it illustrates the difficulty.
This effort would have to organize itself as a political party—but not a party like Republicans and Democrats. It would have to be a real, historical Party—with structure and strategy more reminiscent of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Majority), or the National Socialist German Labor Party, or even the Communist Party of the United States. We’re looking at a true 21st-century tyrannosaurus.
It would not even define itself as a formal competitor to established parties. The Party would be happy to run candidates in both primaries, which would just mean it was appealing to all social classes. But it would enforce strict adherence to its Party line. And it would disqualify anyone who had ever been associated with the System.
Only this structure can produce the Party discipline needed to turn electoral victory into absolute power. The same rough design is used by religious and quasi-religious organizations, like Scientology, the Jesuits or the Muslim Brotherhood, for the same reasons. Any successful startup is also to a certain extent a cult.
Once the Party has an supermajority, it will discard all existing legislative rules and personnel, as it has every legal right to do. Instead, it will elect its Leader as a Prime Minister, as it has every legal right to do. Now the Leader is sovereign, legally. If the Supreme Court illegally objects to these actions, Congress will legally impeach it.
A Congressional regime change is generally much more legal. It need not assume emergency powers, only pass exceptional laws. The supermajority can complete a thorough regime change without bruising even a fiber of Constitutional vellum.
However, the Party has an enormous number of elections to win. Not only does the Party’s energy have to spread far and wide in space and society, House and Senate elections are staggered. To capture Congress as a whole, the Party has to spread its energy across six years in time.
And once this strategy succeeds, the result is—a classic 20th-century one-party state. While this design does have certain advantages over the Modern System, its track record across the whole century is generally very questionable.
But once again, the enormous difficulty of making legislative elections effective shows us how far we are from democracy—or at least, from popular sovereignty.
The containment election
Having examined both the Article 1 (legislative) and Article 2 (executive) authorities, we return to the question of whether Congress and/or the White House in their current operating condition are best considered as republican or democratic institutions.
If they are not, what have they become? If it is something bad, how can they be safely disabled? (Obviously Article 3, the judiciary, is explicitly counter-democratic.) Let’s go back to the metaphor of power volume in an election.
If the wires of the election are intact, the volume is 10: a full-sovereignty election. The institution has all the sovereignty prescriptively ascribed to it. Nothing is perfect, but any volume below 5 is questionable and anything under 1 is some kind of a trap.
In these containment elections, often with a power volume orders of magnitude below 1, almost all of the energy that voters invest in an election dissipates with no possibility of any significant effect on the objective government. Everyone knows other countries have fake elections; no one thinks it could happen to them.
A containment election is a sort of political buffer or honeypot. It absorbs the shocks of raw democratic energy and tricks the Vandals into sincerely playing a game that they cannot win. The American people are hacking into an empty server. They think they are winning—or at least, that they can win. When they lose they lose. When they win, they think they are winning something. They aren’t; but their IPs are getting logged.
The pitchfork election
Suppose these containment elections are terminated. The System takes off its mask. It fires all its politicians. It cancels the Republic. It operates without its human face. Would this make the System stronger, or weaker?
It would be weaker. The potential of populist democracy would still exist, without any device to contain it. Formal elections are not the only kind of election. If elections did not exist, informal elections could be invented. These elections might be effective.
An election is a contest of display in which one side demonstrates to the satisfaction of both that it is stronger than its opponent, giving the weaker side an incentive to concede without escalating. Formal elections also work because they are habitually obeyed; but politics remains a special case of war. The informal and military origin of electoral power is the power of the majority to intimidate the minority with a mere headcount. And this headcount also gives the majority the self-confidence to prevail.
A street demonstration, which is also hard to count, accomplishes the same result. What is a demonstration, but a demonstration of potential force—not a mob, but a potential mob? A demonstration is a street election. Its count is not as accurate as a ballot; but attending a demonstration is a stronger demonstration of a will to fight. Ultimately an army is just a well-trained, well-equipped, well-led demonstration.
Since it’s still kind of a free country, the Vandals have ways to reliably count their own heads. These ways might not involve either the government or the street. Any credible census is a crude, improvised, uncontained election which might work all too well. Call it a “pitchfork election.”
This kind of improvised direct democracy is a dangerous design. A crowd that knows its own power is as sovereign as it gets, and the sovereign crowd is the H-bomb of regime change. It can end as well as in Prague, or as badly as in Paris.
Again, the levels of political energy required for any kind of successful pitchfork election are orders of magnitude above the level available in America today. But humans are humans and energy levels can change—especially if the only change needed is transient excitement, not lasting engagement; a spike, not a plateau.
Politics as the spectacle of the scapegoat
The purpose—randomly evolved, not intelligently designed—of a contained formal election which apparently works perfectly, but objectively has little power to change the actual government, is oligarchy’s best defense against populism, aka democracy.
What remains of the Republic has become armor to defend the System now living in its shell from any rebirth of democracy. It ensures that raw populist energy does not reemerge and successfully attack the real government. Since government is a good and necessary thing, the objective observer cannot help sympathizing with this design. Even if it’s a hack, it’s quite a hack.
What is politics, anyway? We designed the System without it. Let’s go back and fix that. We’ll add a new organ: the Show.
The Show is the set of all elected or appointed government officials: politicians and political appointees. The Show is a symbolic government elected in containment elections. The purpose of the Show is to protect the System from populist vandalism by channeling populist energy into a futile and meaningless public drama.
The Show solves two problems, one simple and one subtle. First: the Show shows the Republic still exists. The Show has of course retained procedural and ritual continuity since the 18th century. It always looks unchanged: this is the point of the Show. And at the top of the Show is a temporary ceremonial monarch: the Coordinator. The voters are in charge, since they elect the Coordinator. It’s all good.
Second: the Show keeps the System from being held accountable. As Harry Truman (not the first President, definitely the first Coordinator) observed, the buck has to stop somewhere. Someone has to be responsible. If they are responsible, they are accountable. A process organization needs a final decisionmaker—a chief oracle.
If the chief oracle is an officer of the Building, his rank is permanent and he serves for life. This is sovereignty. Sovereignty is distributed around the entire officer corps of the System—that’s what makes it an oligarchy.
But if the Building can pass any difficult decision up to the politicians on the Show, it is completely free from accountability. The point of politicians is to be accountable for the performance of the government. They are Girardian scapegoats, of course. The accountability is genuine—the staff of the Bureau is very stable; the cast of the Show is very dynamic. Everyone on the Show is 100% disposable.
The politicians might make bad decisions, of course. A coin toss might make bad decisions. The public can elect two kinds of politicians: ones who pick the right staffers, then say and do what their staff tells them to; and ones who don’t.
The Voice is not at all shy about telling the voters which is which. And if the voters pick the wrong kind of politician, who gets bad results (the government always works better when the politicians play ball), isn’t the result just a kind of education?
Origin story of the modern regime
Like: how did this even happen? How did we get this System? This is not a history lecture. But the System needs a quick comic-book origin story.
In 1944 America’s last king, the dying FDR, about to literally conquer the world, chose a nonentity as his successor, to implement his pharaonic will: that no one would inherit his throne. So he literally chose a nobody as his VP. With this nobody as President, the personal regime of King Franklin would live forever as a permanent oligarchy.
With a nobody in the Oval Office, all the wires of personal control (often informal), by which the White House commanded the New Deal and the Allied war machine, would snap and could not be reconnected. The bureaucracy would run itself, forever. This act of succession turned a monarchy into an oligarchy and created the Modern System.
Truman had negative status among New Dealers. Truman was not even ideologically reliable. Truman had even been an isolationist. Truman had suggested that America let the Nazis and Commies fight it out. Truman was a petty Southern machine politician without any apparent talents. Truman was a mediocre man with no real talents either.
Installing this haberdasher in a White House that no longer ruled Washington, but now instead was ruled by it, would instantly demonstrate the success of the new model—and ensure that no successor could threaten the new, permanent System. It was also a bit of a flex, as if FDR had nominated his horse—and everyone still had to say nice things about the horse. Hence Truman.
This origin story is a comic-book version. Some of it is built more on inference than evidence. Who really knows what FDR was thinking? He said what he was thinking. He said a lot of things. Nothing FDR said, in public or private, can ever be taken at face value. A really sound history of his period and his regime has yet to be written.
Whether this explanation of the weird Truman decision is true, or just should be true, the Modern System cannot be understood except by its origins in the mid-20th century. And it is born, or at least takes its current form, with the death of FDR. It is too simple to say that FDR was a king and his successors have all just been actors. But there is no better elevator explanation.
Maintaining the illusion of the sovereignty of the Show is a core competence of the Bureau. This task changes with election swings. It is a convincing illusion. Rooted in the real reality of FDR, it builds a continuous narrative from real events and people, all the way down to the present day. The Show is the greatest soap opera that ever lived.
When the Deputies win the election and go on the Show, in full “West Wing” mode, there is epsilon space between Show and System. So the Show has no power—but it will always follow its script. Anyone can script an illusion if the actors stick to their lines. (It is simply a fact that the System is more efficient when the Deputies are in charge, though it is often more efficient at doing the wrong thing.)
When the Vandals are on the Show, the whole Building is nominally under Vandal control. It is, after all, the “executive branch.” The task of the Building officers is to preserve this illusion, without letting the Vandals do too much damage. They are professionals in this task, and their adversaries are amateurs. Also, in general these periods make a much better Show and pump up public engagement with politics.
This kayfabe politics can and will go on forever—until its customers realize it is fake. At a certain level they do realize their elections are fake; still not as much as wrestling fans do; and wrestling fans are still wrestling fans. And look at how many words it took to get here! Even the interns at the witch-hunting agencies have fallen asleep.
The tiger/he destroyed his cage
Now let’s shift perspectives, and ask how we can break out of this cage. Can we hack the hack itself? Can we turn elections back from a shield against the public, to a mace the public can wield—even against the System itself? (The interns suddenly wake up.)
In our discussions of the executive and legislative branch, we have given specific plans to hack the election back. Let us abstract from these details back to general principles.
In both cases, the hacks proposed are frankly unrealistic. They may require orders of magnitude more political energy than are currently available. Let’s continue to assume that this energy will magically materialize, and figure out how we could work with it practically if it did. This will at least leave us one step away from answering the question. And these levels of energy are by no means historically unprecedented.
First, let’s review the containment hacks which we are trying to subvert. Remember that Article 1 is legislative and Article 2 is executive, though this feels totally wrong.
The Article 2 election is contained in a clever way: it elects a chief executive of the legislative branch. All the power of the office is dissipated in trying to command a Bureau that is not actually commandable—hammering a square peg into a round hole. This conversion of work into heat is where your vote goes.
The Article 1 election is contained in a dumb way: an infinite list of dull, invisible, and effective structural restraints, none of which is sufficient on its own, all of which add up to a robust power valve that protects an oligarchic legislature from democracy.
The legislature’s power is real; capturing it by election is almost impossible. Elections can change partisan control; but most business is nonpartisan; most Vandals are compromised; most challengers lose; most who win are irrelevant freshmen; your vote has all these and many other ways to turn work into heat.
Article 2 elections are difficult to win, and victory captures a weak institution. Article 1 elections control real power; but control of this power is almost impossible to win. Little energy is needed to capture the executive branch; high energy is required to make the executive branch real. Very high energy is required to capture the legislative branch; but captured, it is already 100% real.
Our assessment of the power of the Republic’s elections was conveyed by the metaphor of a volume dial. While this is a useful simplification, the actual transfer function—the mapping from energy input to power output—is more complex. It is linear (like a volume dial) only within the present normal range of political energies.
At much higher energy levels—orders of magnitude higher than are common today—the containment barrier is breached. The power transfer function enters an alternate envelope: a threshold or step function. The buffer fills up; the circuit melts down; the resistance goes to 0 and the volume goes to 10; the voting machine transmits the full power of sovereignty. On his way out, the operator does not bother to retrieve his coat. The tiger is out!
But—having breached containment—what does this tiger do next?
Art of the autocoup
The “Battle of the Crater” was a minor but unusual Civil War battle. A Union officer, realizing that the Union had many soldiers with mining experience, created a plan to tunnel under the Confederate line and blow it to hell.
After much labor, the mine worked exactly as designed. But the general appointed to command the Union attack was incompetent. He had no idea how to exploit the gap. His soldiers just milled around in the crater, until deafened Confederates ran back up and started shooting them like pigeons.
Breaching containment elections is an amazing feat and takes an amazing plan. This plan, though, is not really a plan. It is just the start of a plan.
Whatever force or organization breaches the containment dome will assume the full powers of FDR—at least. In fact, cleaning up 80-plus years of FDR’s legacy System may take more executive power than FDR—who could not quite regard Congress or the Court as rubber stamps. But “clean up” is not even a plan, just the start of a plan.
Suppose a plan starts with an Article 2 election. This plan must first break through the containment elections and let the people elect a sovereign, constitutional President. This President must assume emergency powers and govern unilaterally for four years.
He must also use those powers to thoroughly dissolve the System. He must also replace it with a new, and permanent regime. He must also confirm the death of the Republic. We are not looking at a second FDR; more like a second Akhenaten. Or at least an Ataturk. His election will be the end of history as we know it.
The System by its incompetence has already ordained this national transformation. (Who in 2020 still thinks the country is actually okay? I want to meet this person.) But until this transformation is ready to happen properly, it is not ready to happen at all. And it will certainly not be ready to happen any time soon.
Actually winning takes an amazing plan; amazing leadership; and an amazing amount of political energy. Until all three of these factors come to the table, any action at all, legal or illegal, violent or nonviolent, respectable or obscene, serious or funny, is a fail. (The only exceptions might be legal, nonviolent, and funny—don’t fail at any of these.) In general, your most effective collective action is nothing.
If you even speak in public, don’t debate; speak to only people who agree with you or could. Your adversaries are human beings. If they wake from their political addictions, that choice must be their own. And always prefer private to public speech.
This position of political passivism lasts until real change is possible. If you want to work on something, plan. There is plenty to do. Any failed, half-hearted, half-cocked or unplanned attempt at any kind of regime change is extremely dangerous, both to its personnel and to innocent bystanders; and it makes further attempts much harder.
If a normal election of 2016 is like flying a kite, a regime-change election is like launching a satellite. Which is also, in a sense, flying. Not only is is an orbital launch more difficult than flying a kite, its failure modes are way more dramatic.
Yet this type of launch—often called an autocoup—is by no means historically rare. Next to the classic military coup, the autocoup may be the most common form of regime change. It is less radical and more likely to lead to a recurrence, but much safer. It is still kind of gnarly. But nothing’s perfect.
Because of the number of Congressional elections, a democratic coup implemented through Article 1 is a much heavier effort than a “one man, one vote, one time” Article 2 autocoup. But it has more legitimacy, since it does not require emergency powers. But it has big logistical problems, because of the staggered calendars of House and Senate elections. The effectiveness of this defense is also not an accident.
There is no easy answer. The ideal democratic coup might even attack both branches at the same time, since the same energy can be used for both. Yes, Americans can still elect a new regime—but they have to really, really want one, and they all have to want the same one, and it has to be one that can actually work. The distance from here to any such regime change can hardly be exaggerated. But no path is shorter.
So the lesson of these thought-experiments in regime change is not that everyone who is done with the System should either be conspiring like Hollywood Communists in the 1930s, or writing in General Pinochet on their mail-in ballots.
Not only is the energy for effective collective action totally absent—the engineering has not even been done. Not only is there is no rocket fuel, there is no rocket and no satellite. Arguably, there are not even any real rocket scientists.
And the threshold function is brutal. Anything short of a successful rocket launch of a working satellite is a perfect waste of energy—and often a dangerous waste of energy. Especially if it actually involves real rocket fuel.
It is possible to learn rocket science—even without flight-testing rockets. Historical data is probably sufficient. The laws of fire, steel and air are known. They were known to Plato and Aristotle. Times have changed; man has not. Learning what Wyndham Lewis called “the art of being ruled” is one-tenth learning and nine-tenths relearning.
Why democracy died; why it cannot be reborn
Many people—more and more people every year—have a kind of dim intuitive sense that the System is not the Republic. This is not unlike the gentle pressure you may feel if inadequately sedated during a colonoscopy. While the System has perhaps never been stronger or stabler, its levels of anesthetic leave more and more to be desired.
The imported Turkish label “deep state” isn’t even that off the mark. The System, for boomers, is the Deep State plus Fake News plus Cultural Marxism. A crude definition, not utterly wrong, and resilient to even severe vascular dementia. (Senility, like mere stupidity, can increase political acuity by rendering complex myths incomprehensible, a kind of neurological Occam’s razor. But we must still give it up for all based boomers.)
Alas, almost everyone who senses that democracy is dead can only admit it is dying. They all come up with the same plan to fix it: restoring the Republic. Democracy will shake off the shackles of this parasitic conspiracy, the System—just as the snail-shell shakes off the shackles of the hermit-crab. Isn’t this the obvious plan?
The obvious plan: fixing the hack, unironically restoring the Republic, and using its power to rein in the System. The unusual plan: hacking the hack, instrumentally using the Republic’s machinery to dissolve the System, and booting up a successor state which looks nothing at all like either System or Republic.
The obvious plan cannot work in the obvious way, because the voting machines are hacked. Hacking them back is the only way to break through the containment election. But to hack them is to short out the voting machines and reset their volume back to 10—which means the Republic is on again. 18th century, we have a go.
Why not just leave it on? Why not just a democratic coup which restores democracy? Both plans have the same problem: lack of democratic energy. Both need far more energy than is now available. Given the same problem, why not choose the obvious?
The flaw in the obvious plan
The obvious plan needs continuous energy. It demands that Americans establish and maintain a Norman Rockwell level of virtuous, diligent, and effective supervision over their government—as though Richmond, CA, in 2020, was Springfield, MA, in 1820.
Any political scientist past or present will agree that a republican form of government depends on a virtuous people. Since a republic is immortal, at least in the sense that a jellyfish is immortal, a virtuous people will often found one; only to find that a century or two later it has fallen into the hands of their vain, godless, dissolute descendants.
Fewer prophets preach to these descendants on how to escape from a republic they are too weak to operate. Not least because only the virtuous would listen. No—generally, the prophets just go full Jeremiah. But perhaps there is still a useful way to worry.
Americans are certainly used to worrying about the quality of our electorate. We worry in a strange way, though. We worry that fickle, childlike and incompetent voters will make bad decisions, and the country will be governed badly. This is because we are not used to checking the volume dial on the voting machines.
An incompetent sovereign is not a paradox or a novelty. Most historical regimes are hereditary monarchies, a system that produces a steady stream of biological glitches: child-kings, mad kings, mentally challenged kings and deranged, flighty queens.
In any situation in which any sovereign organ, individual or collective, is inherently incapable, from intellect or temperament, of exercising its legitimate responsibilities, those responsibilities will be raptured, covertly or overtly, by some other power. Scottish history is particularly notorious for the use of child-kings as mascots for coalitions of rapacious earls.
What happens under an incompetent sovereign is not incompetent government. What happens is that real power is taken from this un-king—temporarily or permanently—and some other person or persons rule in his name. Any organ incompetent to wield power is also incompetent to retain it.
This rapture is exactly what the System has done with the Republic—not temporarily. Children grow up. Decaying societies decay more. And an etiolated republic has a harder and harder time in holding any significant popular attention—a vicious cycle.
Why do politicians have no real power? Because the people who elect them have no real power. How can we expect the politicians in Congress to matter, when they are elected on party identification plus name recognition? Why do voters keep caring about who gets to be President, when they see almost no evidence that the President has any actual power over the real government?
The reason the next regime cannot be the Republic is that the next regime starts right away with the people it actually has. The next regime does not have the privilege, like early New England, of ruling a homogeneous society of staunch Puritan pilgrims. It is ruling a population without the culture, habit, or capacity to in any real way rule itself.
America, the birthplace of democracy, is no longer suited to democracy. It happens. Better to know it than to keep pretending. History can go on. It must and will go on. We realized this truth, in the shape of our institutions, four generations ago. It is long past time for us to admit it openly to each other.
There are communities and societies in America. To call America in 2020 a community or a society would be comical. There are broken fragments of these things around. There are a lot of atoms. There are even plenty of families and some extended families. In some places there are churches, which some people actually take seriously. There are even isolated traditional communities, like the Amish or the Hasidim.
But on a social graph, America today looks more like a refugee camp than a stable and thriving national community. And the men in this camp are Nietzsche’s last men, CS Lewis’s men without chests. If the Republic did not exist, no one would invent it.
It is not just that this refugee camp would operate the vehicle badly. It is that they are too weak to operate it at all—so it will be taken from them. As it has been. So any plan involving permanently returning power to the American people is not a practical plan.
Nature abhors a vacuum. The System will just recreate itself. Or something else will create itself. It could easily be something else much worse. Any plan for a revolution that leaves any kind of power vacuum is an incomplete plan. If the designers leave a vacuum, and their design is adopted, something fills it. There is always some crab for an empty shell. In this case it really is better to stick with the regime we have.
The virtue of the unusual plan
The unusual plan needs high energy. But the unusual plan does not need continuous energy. It only needs transient energy.
In the unusual plan, the people need to care very energetically about their government. But they only need to care once. Their energy curve is a spike, not a plateau. The top of this spike is still very high, but it might be reachable.
Voters are the human fuel for the rocket launch of any regime change. For now, they chill. When the rocket is ready to launch, they assemble and file into the fuel tank. When it is time, they burn. They burn together—at one time, in one engine, at one temperature, in one direction, once. They burn hotter than the sun; in a few minutes they are in space; then, they chill.
Organizing such an energy spike, while difficult, is a very different problem than restoring America’s lost Puritan virtues. Such an organization is inherently transient itself. Until there is actually a well-engineered rocket, with a functional satellite, sitting on the pad with everything ready to go, there is no need to even start accumulating political rocket fuel. Actual rocket scientists (who are certainly not needed in any large number) should not even know what power smells like.
A rocket launch has only one chance to work. If we use this chance to try to restore the Republic, we are trying to restore a form we know does not work, and we know was designed for a country more different from ours than any on earth today. It is possible to send a satellite into space; it is not possible to send a satellite into Heaven.
Our sentimental attachments to these old forms are noble and respectable. We owe it to our children to leave sentimentality behind in questions of national life and death. There is no other responsible reason to even consider a regime change. The only useful use of the Republic is to launch the rocket that escapes the Republic.
Back to the System
After ten thousand words of reminding ourselves of just how dead the Republic is, we cannot help but feel a little love for the System that replaced it.
I know how you feel. There is only one reason why anyone would have read this far. But we cannot criticize the System until we admit that the System is beautiful.
Anyone who dreams of political engineering must admire its massive concrete piers. It was not built by any one designer, or really built at all. It was needed; it evolved. But to appreciate evolution’s beauty we have to anthropomorphize it, empathizing with an architect beyond our imaginations.
It is certainly not true that the System killed the Republic. The System was born inside a dying Republic. Something had to be born. Something worse could have been born. The System established a new world order. Mankind made it into the nuclear age without any serious nuclear warfare. The System evolved because it was needed. It has more than earned your respect. Even if you loathe and want to erase it, respect it.
But the System remains a product of early 20th-century political engineering. It is no longer capable of significant change. It is by no means without flaw and it cannot be objectively considered immortal. (All regimes consider themselves immortal.)
If we want to do any kind of 21st-century political engineering, we must understand as clearly as possible why the System doesn’t work.
Why it doesn’t work
The System’s main design error: the Cathedral has authority without accountability.
The Cathedral holds everyone in the System responsible. It is responsible to no one. It has to be perfect. A helicopter has one nut, the “Jesus nut,” which holds the blades on and the bird in the air. The Cathedral is the Jesus nut of the System’s sanity, and ours.
Its architects had classical educations and understood the problem of quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will watch the watchmen? They tried to solve it by structuring the Cathedral as a decentralized network of prestigious institutions, each watching and being watched by all the others. They thought that this network would be permanently self-maintaining and even self-improving, with no single point of failure.
The Cathedral would be a marketplace of ideas—an infinitely self-renewing, self-improving garden of the mind. The Brain would be a marketplace of scholarship. The Voice would be a marketplace of stories.
In this marketplace the best scholarship and the truest stories would blossom, and shine out through high windows to enlighten the dull, dirty and ignorant masses below. Everything, at any time, might not be perfect. But it could only get better.
This dream was nothing less than the second coming of Bacon’s Great Instauration. Surely the technical pace of the 20th century, of Henry Adams’ Dynamo, justified this level of ambition. But a lot of big 20th-century ideas didn’t really work out, did they?
The irony of the Cathedral is that a decentralized prestige network can work very well. Indeed there are many ways in which the Cathedral still works very well. When the Cathedral does anything that has no political implications—defining “political” as broadly as possible—it often performs much as designed. Its theorems are still true. But most of the things it studies are not theorems—especially the important things.
A marketplace of ideas is an amazing device. It is not a regime. It is a tool for a regime. If it is put in charge, power will corrupt the marketplace, and ruin the ideas. When no one can overrule the astronomers, the astronomers turn into astrologers.
This is why a field without political implications, like math, can prosper intellectually even in a regime as power-soaked as the Soviet Union. But what has the post-Cold War academic consensus kept from, say, Soviet psychology?
Since this bug is so important—it is the main difference between utopia and here— let’s zoom in on the question of how power corrupts ideas.
Power, prestige, and the evolution of the Dream
The irony of the Brain is that its design would work quite well if it was not in power. But it has long since become a machine whose purpose is to wield power.
Suppose no one cared what the Brain thought. Suppose it was a network of vagrant, ragged scholar-monks, the academic equivalent of ‘70s rock-climbing bums. Losers. But beautiful losers. In such a crow, which does not matter, which has no impact, there is one way for a person, doctrine or institution to be prestigious: to be excellent.
Suppose this community of obsessive, brilliant intellectual bums is then lifted up and set in power. The Ring is put on its finger; the Brain is set at the head of the Cathedral; the Cathedral, at the head of the System; the System, at the head of the world.
But there is nothing above the head. The only real problem with the System is that the Cathedral is unaccountable. Someone once said that unaccountable power corrupts— or something like that. But how does that happen?
It happens because when the Brain didn’t matter, people in the Brain had only one way to be prestigious. Now they have another: by mattering. By making an impact. Even by changing the world. Being excellent still creates prestige. So does being relevant, and it may create even more. The Brain develops power bias.
A marketplace of ideas, like any Darwinian system, evolves for whatever it selects for. If it is selecting for power—for “impact,” for “changing the world"—it will evolve powerful doctrines: ethical justifications for wielding power. Over the decades, the Brain poisons its own mind with its own power. It literally becomes power-crazed.
Two examples of power bias
Without passing judgment on the ideas themselves, let’s look at two fundamental philosophical propositions that benefit from relevance bias: Rawls’ veil of ignorance and consequential ethics.
While both of these propositions are Humean oughts that anyone may accept or reject as a matter of aesthetic taste, they both reward power bias for the same reasons: they can serve as generalized ethical justifications of extralegal power and violence.
The Rawlsian veil of ignorance is an ethical exaltation of a utopian state of social equality which does not exist, and has never been observed to exist. By exalting this fair utopia above the unfair reality in which we live, Rawlsian ethics exalts the use of force to change the unfair reality into the fair utopia. This force is why it is so sexy. The actual human impact of Rawlsian force is almost always in some way grim.
Consequential ethics literally authorizes you, the sovereign individual, to act not according to your legal duty, but your own sense of the ethical consequences of tour actions. Every man is a judge above the law. Anyone with a two-digit IQ can see how this can justify killing your enemies. If not killed—they would do more enemy stuff.
Consequential ethics make you into a Nietzschean blond beast who knows no law but your own. Like James Bond, you can make the world a better place in whatever way befits your own best judgment. Bang! That was your best judgment. Consequential ethics are the ethics of Lucifer. This is why they are so sexy.
To you, both these ethical models may seem good. To me they seem criminal. This is an aesthetic choice: de gustibus non disputandum.
But we should be able to agree objectively that they are both exciting—because they suggest the use of power. Power, like alcohol, distorts our aesthetic judgment: it can make bad ideas look okay, okay ideas look good, and good ideas look amazing.
Power corrupts. This is how the Cathedral is corrupted: not by repulsive force, but attractive force; not pressure, but suction. Its power does not repress heretical ideas; its power rewards orthodox ideas. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The Brain is not menaced by power, but tempted by power. It is not coerced by the infliction of power; it is seduced by the addiction of power. Its decentralized structure does not save it, because all nodes in this structure are subject to the same suction. This is why they all converge on a single synoptic perspective.
(Today this is harder to see than it used to be. Threats, pressure and repulsive force are more common than they used to be. These “autocratic” methods are unworthy of the Cathedral. It has often used them, but never needed to. Persecution is usually evidence of poorly disciplined human cruelty—a job perk for sadists. It is almost never actually a cold Machiavellian necessity of practical statecraft.)
Everyone has to matter. Every person and every institution is fighting like a lion for relevance. If they fall behind they are devoured. It should not be surprising that this hunger grows so great that it competes with the field’s original concept of excellence.
The only exceptions are fields like pure mathematics, which cannot be made relevant. The Cathedral’s mathematicians may spout its praises; but their proofs are still true. The exception really does prove the rule.
Beyond these indigestible nuggets of rigor, everything is about power, all the time. Remember the doctrine of synoptic infallibility? Power bias, not infallibility, is the correct explanation for synopticism. The Dream is pure, distilled narcissistic vanity. It is not always wrong, of course.
Neurological correlates of political fantasy
The Brain is as big as ever. It may even be bigger. But when fields of the Brain—or any branch of the Cathedral—are poisoned by power, amyloid kills all the actual neurons.
The skull of the Cathedral, as far as actual thought goes, is often quite empty. Within the cranium of the terminal power addict, every neuron is connected to feeling big and important and powerful. There were other neurons, but they shriveled up, turned black and die. The addict is generally incapable of actual empathy—only political “empathy.”
And most of this lust for meaning goes not into power, but into the mere appearance of power: power porn. If there is any fighting style that prevails in mixed martial arts, it is Brazilian jujitsu. If there is any trope that prevails in the modern marketplace of ideas, it is the pornography of importance.
Understanding this force is the way we parse the Dream. What does every dream in the Dream have in common? It makes the dreamer feel important, often in an abstract way that just feels like being a good person.
It may seem amazing that in the early 21st century, reasonable people measure their own and each other’s moral worth by which political party or movement they admire. But this is historically normal. Why should our own period be above history?
When we drive down a quiet suburban street and see a row of Deputy slogans on lawn signs, we are to some extent looking at Havel’s greengrocer—”I am afraid and unquestioningly obedient”—but not so much, not yet.
As Havel says, the greengrocer did not really care if the workers of the world united—”or if they would prefer to remain separate.” He did not think about the actual words on his sign. This amused indifference was bad news for the Eastern System.
Here it is different, for now. Here what the sign says is: “I matter.” The System, like any regime, lives because its people support it. The lower class supports it because it supports them. The upper class feels important because they support it. The System is not Czechoslovakia in the ‘70s. The System is still psychologically quite strong.
The middle class is socially intimidated by the upper class, and if needed can be physically intimidated by the lower class. The upper class thinks collectively about others, because leadership is the natural dream of any aristocrat. The lower class thinks individually about themselves, so can be hired: loyalty is the cardinal value of the dependent. The middle class thinks collectively about themselves, because the middle class forms communities and patriotism is the essence of community spirit.
Obviously, leadership, patriotism and loyalty are all good things. Or they can be. They can also be corrupted by power. They can also be faked; they can become pornography of themselves. The Dream is political pornography for nobles and/or aspiring nobles.
Once you realize that dreaming the Dream makes you feel good because it makes you feel like some grand aristocrat—a Venetian doge, Roman proconsul, or White Sultan of Sarawak—no rapacious tyrant you, but a true benefactor of your people—you start to have to think clearly about what this intellectual powder is doing to your brain. At least everyone else is on it too.
The case for 21st-century nihilism
“Nihilism” is a beautiful word and no one is really using it today. I propose we loot it. No one will confuse any of us with Nechayev.
What is 21st-century nihilism? Nihilism means two things, which are both the same. First, nihilism is detachment: the opposite of mattering. Second, nihilism is starting from nothing. Perhaps we can call them “special” and “general” nihilism.
Suppose Mars had a parallel civilization. We could observe Mars with powerful telescopes; we could even follow their history; we could not talk to them, shoot at them, visit them, or affect them in any other way.
Then, when we studied the history of Mars, we might have no ulterior political motives—just as when we study mathematics or chemistry. Ideally, we could not even draw analogies from Mars history to Earth history. There would be no utility at all in studying Mars. A few nerds would only do it because it was cool—like train buffs.
Think about how different this path is from the path of the study of recent Earth history—which all too often seems composed almost entirely from ulterior motives, and whose prestige is deeply connected with its power and political utility. But it is much less different from the study of ancient Babylonian, Egyptian or Chinese history, which today’s historians study much more as if their subject was Mars.
What if we studied Earth this way—without any interest at all in affecting it, for better or worse? We would have to affect this disinterest; it would at some level be a pose; but people are good at posing. A pose becomes a ritual; a ritual becomes a habit; a habit becomes our nature.
The habit of nihilism is the habit of not mattering. This is special nihilism: a beautiful little habit. And this habit would generate much better history—for only one example. In fact, although this history was not designed as a weapon—because this history was not designed as a weapon—it will end up a much sharper and more dangerous weapon. This is the great paradox of special nihilism. But it only works if you respect its rules.
Special nihilism is just a special case of general nihilism. General nihilism tells us that it is okay to matter after all. It is just not okay to matter to the present.
When we try to matter to the future, we still have that same spirit of detachment. The future is as unreachable as Mars, or more. Our future is very ambitious, which helps us to emotionally separate from it. It’s quite likely that none of us will live to see it. Did Marx live to see the USSR?
Everything we observe about the present tells us that if there is any future that is categorically different from it, this future will not and cannot be built on top of the present. It must be built from scratch, on a clean slate: ex nihilo.
Getting to this clean slate involves destruction. It need not be violent destruction. It can and should be peaceful demolition. Moreover, there is nothing useful anyone can do to plan for destruction or demolition. Demolition may be exciting, but it is not a nihilist plan—just the first chapter of a nihilist plan.
But this prerequisite grants nihilists the right to think neither about how to fix unfixable institutions, or how to destroy them, but about what to replace them with. This field of absolute public policy is a completely open field of thought; it is not small; it is almost completely empty. A new life awaits you on the off-world colonies.
True: if the Modern System is as immortal as it believes, our work will never be used. Sad! But not unusual among early 21st-century scholarly endeavors.
True: every regime in history—every dynasty, every republic, even every church—has considered itself immortal. True: there’s a first time for everything. But…