#5: the land, its people and their dogs
An introductory manual in political economy for the nihilist prince of Columbia.
|Dec 2, 2020||87||109|
Who is the nihilist prince? You, of course.
(It might not be you. But why wouldn’t it be? Well, yes, the conviction, of course. So? Many founders of vast historic dynasties have boasted less than stellar driving records. It adds to the drama, the way girls like a bit of facial scarring. And if it isn’t you—well, whoever it is will read this anyway.)
It’s not important how you got the job. Probably you were elected not as prince, but as President. Again, so what? The Presidency always was a thinly disguised monarchy. Most of the time it’s mainly a costume monarchy, like Elizabeth II. But about every three-quarters of a century, regular as Halley’s comet or the San Andreas—it isn’t.
The White House remains cooler than the Crown, both because the job is awarded by vote in a nationwide game show, a method which is completely demented if you think about it (if plays were history’s first movies, elections were history’s first game shows)—and because the living remember a President who was a real monarch, like Elizabeth I—and because this same cycle is now ready to repeat for the fourth time in US history.
In the 1780s, the USG was founded by a prince. In the 1860s and again in the 1930s, it was refounded by a prince. Now its work is done, and it must be replaced by a prince. This prince, like the others, will be elected President. He might be the last, though.
“Prince” is in the sense of the Latin princeps, or of Machiavelli’s little book: a national CEO, who governs unilaterally and is responsible only to a board of directors. That CEO is you. Your board is the voters. Their next meeting is in four years. Good luck: for the next four years, you have the authority of Henry VIII, Augustus or Louis XIV.
In four years you will hold another election. You will ask your subjects whether they want the old staff and the old system back. If so, wherever on God’s green earth those people have wandered, you will find the previous personnel, reseat them in whatever remains of their swivel chairs, wish them all the best and hop on a plane to Paraguay. If you have much chance of losing this election, maybe you weren’t much of a prince.
Such was roughly the position of FDR, Lincoln and Washington. Now the gyre comes round again, with you behind that same old oak desk. Good thing you have this book! The United States seems to take its next prince once it has finished forgetting the last.
Also, FDR and Lincoln had to maintain symbolic regime continuity. This is probably not even an option for you. As President, you may have to be more of a Washington. Ever heard of the Articles of Confederation? What about the Constitution?
History is never predictable, yet every thread in it is finite. Each finite thread is never the last. It is always followed by another—always of some different, unexpected fiber. Maybe the next thread won’t even be into ancient and holy pieces of paper at all. Wow!
Is this scenario realistic? Depends on whether the American people want it to happen. If they do, it is. Type “alter or abolish” into your search bar.
Would Americans rather be Columbians? If so, they have the right to be Columbians. If so, I’m sure a prince will come along—whether or not that prince or princess is you.
I’m not proposing this, of course! I adore our holy and ancient Constitution. Rather, this design for a clean-slate regime change is just what Einstein called a gedankenexperiment. The philosophical point of the thought-experiment is to explore absolute public policy.
Regular public policy is relative public policy. It asks how our concrete government should change what it is doing—weighted by the difficulty of achieving that change. Absolute public policy is not weighted by political difficulty. Absolute policy asks what an arbitrary, abstract and optimal government should do—assuming zero difficulty.
As Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. A microscope and a telescope are not more different than relative and absolute policy. Indeed most of today’s public policy is only by academic convention within the realm of the possible. That realm is not the realm of academia—but lobbying and activism. None of the three even start to tell you what you would do if you held Stalin’s powers today, but wanted to use them for good.
And why would you want to know that? Well, why would you not want to know that? Politics is the art of the possible. So absolute policy is not directly relevant. However, the perspective it provides may help policymakers in forming relative public policy.
The easiest way to think about government absolutely and abstractly, yet realistically, is to define the most realistic possible path to the simplest possible absolute regime. This path is inherently unlikely, but it must be as possible as possible; yet it may be, and probably is, still impossible by all reasonable standards. Now, back in character!
Position of the nihilist prince
People focus on which faction the prince comes from. If it matters, you are no prince. The prince’s color is gray, not red or blue—transcending monkey politics.
Nor are you afraid of conflict—you laugh at it. Your views are ruthless, impartial, and utterly cynical. Your default opinion is that each side is normally right about the other, the normal basis for a sound peace is mutual humility and historical oblivion, and the normal line of a sound peace is the line of truce, status quo or uti possidetis. And while not everything is normal, you always start out expecting it to be normal.
Like George Washington himself, the powder-wigged ramrod with the wooden teeth, you are a general of no faction. You are a nihilist: you think ex nihilo, you see ex nihilo, you build ex nihilo—from nothing, from scratch, on a clean slate, from first principles. The old conflicts were structural consequences of the old regime and vanish with it.
Yet you inherit not just the land and the people, but the regime as is. By the metaphor of this text, that regime is instantly and utterly deposed from power—in favor of you. Of course in real life it will not be this easy, but it should be as close as possible. In any case the immense carcass is everywhere. In some cases, its organs can even be reused. But an ancien regime can neither remain alive by default, nor lie around to rot in peace.
Nihilism does not mean you have to liquidate every agency, company or nonprofit, or flatten every soulless, inhuman 20th-century skyscraper. Nihilism just means you can. And when in doubt, you should. But let the people out first! They are your people now.
Brand, territory and scope
Because the land, the people and the regime are so often metonymized, it seems only proper when rebooting the third to rebrand the first. One name is ancient, honorable, and known to all—despite mild confusion with a certain country to the south. Our pals down there have a solid brand but maybe they can be compensated for changing it.
Such is your post as the new nihilist prince of Columbia. You inherit from the USG its assets and liabilities, its continental territories and the people on them. To simplify the thought-experiment, and within it to provide interesting side tests, you release all lands acquired since the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, granting unilateral independence to the state and territorial governments, abandoning even foreign bases and embassies, and repatriating everyone abroad on USG papers whether tourists, expats or soldiers.
The USG was never famed for the quality of its paperwork. Any beast on Columbian soil that has two legs and is not a bird is a tourist or a Columbian. If it is a tourist, it goes home. If it is a Columbian, it is a subject of Columbia. If it has four legs and is a dog, it is some Columbian’s dog. At some point the border may open for some kinds of travel. For now—not even a dog will cross it.
Bright lines make simple, strong experiments. The absolute governance of contiguous, isolated Columbia, defined by pulling a Gorbachev and shrugging off a farflung global empire to chillax into its new historical role as a normal and normally-shaped country, while it may not be the exact problem that future America has called upon you to solve, makes the best and clearest lesson plan for me to write today.
Every day is day one
It isn’t really. But day one is actually day one. As a newborn prince, what do you need to focus on? You have all the problems in the world—but which is the most serious?
The most serious problem of any regime is in one of two areas: security, or economics. If your regime begins with a serious security problem, nothing is more important. If not, economics is more important.
Let’s quickly assess these two problems on an absolute scale by painting quick pictures of states under which they are solved, and unsolved.
The security of Columbia
When security is solved, every person’s person, property, and reputation are safe from all aggressions individual or collective. Abroad, the nation’s rights are respected, and it respects the rights of other nations.
No hostile armies menace its borders; no barbarian tribes camp and feast in its fields; bandits do not infest its mountains, nor beggars its streets, nor burglars its nights. A virgin with a sack of gold, bragged Genghis Khan, could stroll alone from one end of Asia to the other. Say what you want about Genghis Khan—security is an ethos. When you need it, there is nothing you need more. While our virgin might not even make it to the Caldecott Tunnel, is security really Columbia’s biggest problem?
Considering Columbia as if delivered today, we see few big security issues. From the USG, it inherits a complex and historical structure of foreign relationships for which it has no real need. No major power can molest it, or even shares a hemisphere with it. Domestically, there are areas of serious insecurity and informal organized violence, mostly in some parts of older cities, but they are localized and not difficult to avoid. Solving Columbia’s economic problems will resolve these domestic security issues. Externally, it can disband its empire in favor of a classically neutral foreign policy.
The economy of Columbia
Economic problems are all problems that aren’t security problems. Social problems, cultural problems, even intellectual problems, are all inseparable from commerce, production and even finance. Economics is about everything everyone does all day, and the reasons they do it.
When economics is solved, everyone has work that fits their talents and pays for a reasonably comfortable life. Most people feel secure. They find satisfying, stable professions. They fit well into a community that fits well into a civilization. They are taught and embrace values and ideas that guide them well for their whole lives.
In this reality, the streets of Columbia are full of happy, busy, and well-dressed people, working hard and living life fully. The business of Columbia is humming; her trade is in the black; her budget is balanced; her debt is not a sinkhole, her equity a bubble, her currency a juggle, her housing an ATM; her commerce is not devoured by monopolies, her farms by banks, her industries by imports… hm.
We see that things are not going well in the econ department. This makes sense, as a country without serious security or economic problems needs no regime change at all. If Columbia’s real problems are economic, its next prince will need a new economics.
Indeed these outcomes would seem adequate to justify a nihilist reconstruction of the field that is now macroeconomics and was once political economy. And if your redesign yields the same design, try it again. What you’re looking at is so gnarly that you need not ask whether the 20th century did anything wrong, but what it did wrong and why.
Most bad economic theories are not wrong per se. They are bounded. They are useful and valid within a certain envelope, like Newtonian physics. Outside this envelope, like Newtonian physics, they are wrong—and their results are just ridiculous.
We cannot disprove 20th-century economics, or 19th-century economics, or liberal economics as a whole. Given their own axioms, they are perfectly self-consistent. Our problem is to not to refute the logic of the old regime’s economists, but to extend it— as Einstein saw that a geometry in which parallel lines diverge, though an apparently nonsensical axiom, could help us make reality make sense.
The nonsensical axiom of any sensible 21st-century economics will be intentional disutility or artificial difficulty—in which power, intentionally and for good reasons, makes the production of goods and services more challenging. As Bastiat would put it, the government goes around breaking windows.
Liberal economics as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, which includes all commonly held Western economic theories today—from socialist to libertarian—is Anglo-American economics and cannot be separated from its social and political roots in the London gentry (of which even Karl Marx was an adopted member).
These roots are in all cases utilitarian. We can see this by the universal use of statistics that aggregate economic utility across the population, like GDP. Hardcore Austrian economists deny that utility can be measured and aggregated, but continue to believe that the satisfaction of consumer preferences is the sole purpose of economic activity. Capitalists and communists agree that the production of utility must be maximized; they differ only on its subsequent distribution.
Preliberal economics—political economy—frequently operated outside the utilitarian envelope, but without a single clear theory of why. For example, mercantilism works by making the service of importing goods more difficult. Mercantilist economies exist in the world today—and seem to do better at passing our success metrics. But why? Can we even imagine a unified theory of disutilitarian economics—diseconomics?
19th-century physicists realized that their equations predicted that any black object would instantly radiate away all energy at high frequency. Fortunately, this ultraviolet catastrophe did not actually seem to happen. But this was obviously unreasonable.
20th-century economists wrestled with the resource curse, in which positive resources such as oil (la mierda del diablo, as one Venezuelan put it) produce negative economic results—as if a sign flipped in the GDP formula. This too was obviously unreasonable.
In the 21st century the curse is more and more relevant, since technology is a resource. Oil lets six people stick a pipe in the ground and light up all of Venezuela. Tech lets six people write a messaging app and connect all of Venezuela. If there are still more than twelve people in Venezuela—now no one needs the rest of them. Good times!
Today’s resource curse is on track to turn into tomorrow’s resource catastrophe. The technical revolution and its consequences have perhaps only just begun. Your task is not to defeat technology, but to tame and harness it—so that it is humanity’s servant, not humanity’s master. Has any prince been offered such a test?
Accounting for people
In the last chapter we explained the difference between the liberal economic axiom of luxus populi suprema lex (public luxury is the supreme law), and the illiberal economic axiom of salus populi suprema lex (public well-being is the supreme law).
While the case for salus populi seems strong, one advantage of luxus populi is its fertility as a quantitative tool. Maximizing production of comfort and joy is highly measurable. It makes accounting sense. It is easy to think about. This makes utilitarian economics remarkably amenable to an oligarchical, process-driven form of government.
But even as a monarch, how can you think quantitatively about the human condition of a population? Can you even model that? Can you make it make any real accounting sense? As it turns out… you can. You might not like how.
Perhaps the most significant difference between liberal and illiberal economics is an accounting difference. To liberal economics, a government is a service provider. Its citizens are its customers. As customers they are kings. By definition, the purpose of customer service is to satisfy the customer’s desires—hence, luxus populi suprema lex.
To illiberal economics, a government is a sovereign enterprise. The tangible capital of this enterprise is the land and the people. Its subjects are its assets. Their proprietor’s purpose is to preserve and improve this human capital—hence, salus populi suprema lex.
To an illiberal, a liberal government is a mismanaged enterprise that treats its valuable human capital like a rental car. Ever change the oil in a rental car?
To a liberal, an illiberal government is a nationwide slave plantation that treats people as property. What else could “human capital” be a euphemism for?
To an illiberal, liberal economics, by governing to maximize GDP, commits the classic accounting error of managing the firm to maximize revenue. It is not revenue that the managers of the firm must maximize; it is not even profit; it is capital value plus profit. Many a bad CEO has produced bogus earnings reports funded by capital depreciation.
To a liberal, illiberal economics, by failing to maximize GDP, and by violating the NAP with arbitrary restrictions on commerce and technology, is stealing real value and thus money from the consumer. Illiberal economics is essentially a form of organized crime. The winners are politically connected and the losers are everyone—just like always.
It is impossible to reconcile these equally compelling perspectives abstractly. Nor is it worth doing so. You have to hold both in your head simultaneously, if only because the liberal perspective is totally ubiquitous and the illiberal perspective is utterly alien. You can assess any new economic idea both liberally and illiberally, and you should. Your monarchical regime is inherently illiberal and demands an illiberal accounting.
The disutilitarian variable
Under illiberal accounting, it’s easy to see the problem with luxus populi economics. Its math is just wrong. Its definition of productivity is missing a term: appreciation and depreciation of human capital. Since liberal economics cannot measure this variable and also refuses to believe in it, its value has become predictably abominable.
Once we add human capital back into the formula, we easily see the need for artificial difficulty. Perhaps if we think of humans as robots it is easier to explain the equation. Starting from the purest, driest autism, we can derive a moist and delicious humanism.
These humans are very unusual robots. A normal robot depreciates with use. A human robot appreciates with use—not equally for every use—and depreciates with disuse. If regular robots worked like this and you owned 300 million of them, you would invent weird, noisy ways to keep your robots busy: artificial difficulty.
Human robots are somewhat adaptable and can be reprogrammed, but updating their software is difficult and expensive. The best way to train these robots is by using them. Therefore, humans are as often labeled by labor specialty as by genetics or linguistics.
So managing a human population must mean managing the demand for human labor. While it can also mean managing the supply of human labor, or letting it self-manage, human retraining is anything but automatic or magical.
And humans are highly variable in their physiology and neurology. Different units are suitable for very different uses. A few units are even just lemons, useful for nothing—but you still have to maintain them for the lifetime of the unit. The others expect it.
To maximize the performance of your humans, therefore, you should train them for life against the useful tasks that suit them the best. This problem is obviously more important than producing goods and services that generate only pleasure, a mere robot reward function that has no reason to figure in any reasonable illiberal accounting.
You are amazing. Your operation is amazing. So your humans should be amazing. So the purpose of your economy is to challenge humans in ways that make them amazing. Different humans are amazing in different ways and must be challenged differently.
The shape of your economy is the shape of the challenges your subjects must face. This difficulty landscape is the sculptor that must shape them into the amazing humans they were all born to be. In a silicon century, some of these challenges will still be natural and inevitable; but others will have to be synthetic and intentional. Neruda said: “give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.” Man can make two of these…
These platitudes are not exciting. It is more exciting, though, to see them emerge from an autistic, ruthless and objective logic of sovereign accounting. It is easy to ask for a new human-centric economics. Catholic distributists were asking for it a century ago. It is harder to make the math work out—or even just the logic.
For example, one 20th-century college legend features an economist, usually Milton Friedman, who visits China and sees an underpass being dug with pick and shovel. Why not bulldozers, he asks? Because these people need work, his guide replies. In that case, responds our apocryphal economist—why not give them spoons?
The answer lies in the missing variable: appreciation of human capital. While manual earth-moving with proper hand tools is not the best use for most humans, it is the best use for some; and for most, it improves on disuse. But with such improper tools, it is a degrading punishment—literally, intentional damage and depreciation to your robot.
The land, the people and their dogs
The classic regime change of all time is of course the Norman Conquest. Some of us are so old that we learned about this event in school—and even about one of the coolest, or at least best-named, features of that Conquest: Domesday Book.
If Columbia is a firm and the challenges of this firm are economic, your first step as the new prince of this firm can only be a searching and fearless material inventory. What even do you own? And through the illiberal lens—whom even do you own?
No inventory was ever perfect. But inventory processes have improved since William I. It is hardly unreasonable for you to know to the last digit how many Columbians are in Columbia. Your subjects are hardly coming and going by canoe across uncharted lakes.
What you—or your regime—owns is everything: the land, the people and their dogs. Not only do you need a list of the people, you need a list of their dogs. (You don’t need a cat registry—cats don’t kill people. Also, they’re cats.) Your one job is to defend and nurture the land; defend and nurture the people; and defend and nurture their dogs. For happy indeed is the land in which all dogs are good dogs.
The land is the land. Drone and satellite have robbed it of its last virginities. Can we even still believe in the noble Sasquatch? In the indelible age of the camera-phone? The West is big—and even good dogs, after all, are only dogs. But the people—
The several different kinds of people
There is only one kind of people. Imagine writing that on the blackboard, over and over and over again. There is only one kind of people. Imagine writing that till you believed it. You were supposed to believe it! You can hardly do your new job if you still believe it.
Across human history we see four different ways of living. Let’s label these varieties of social existence cosmopolitan, traditional, deracinated, and ancestral. For variety, we’ll pair these adjectives with synonymous nouns which almost no one knows: armigers, yeomen, lazzari, and autochthons. To dodge yet more landmines, these groups are strata.
Columbia has no ancestral autochthons. It has quite a few cosmopolitan armigers, a vast continent of traditional yeomen, and more than enough deracinated lazzari. You are ready to amaze history and the world by the fine care you take of all these persons. As we’ll see, each of these strata is the best one.
But they are different kinds of people. You cannot govern them in the same way. Food for one stratum may be poison for another. If Columbia held only armigers, or only yeomen, or even only autochthons, or if clear geographic lines divided the strata, governing Columbia would be easier. If your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle.
With the exception of lazzari, who are just misgoverned yeomen and/or autochthons, all these strata exist, will always barring some demonic surgery on the human species exist, and deserve to be defended and nurtured by governance appropriate to each. This rather contrasts with the main thrust of 20th-century sociology, which sincerely believed that yeomen, lazzari and autochthons were all just misgoverned armigers.
These divisions are not exact. There are no straight lines in the crooked wood of man. But the blurred boundary cases are only between adjacent strata. Many are somewhat cosmopolitan and somewhat traditional; none are in between traditional and ancestral.
Governing every stratum as it deserves inherently involves classifying human strata. Classification forces you to nudge these boundary cases in one direction or another—ideally, just by asking them to choose. Dogs too can be classified; they get used to it. People have always had a lot to learn from dogs.
The cosmopolitan armiger
Cosmopolitan is not just a checkout-line mag, but also a derivation from the Greek: cosmopolis, from cosmos and polis, the universal city. Cosmopolitan culture is universal culture, so long as the universe is the present. Once cosmopolitans spoke French; now cosmopolitans speak English; a long long time ago, they spoke Greek. Plus ça change.
Cosmopolitanism, which contains the entire world, recruits from the entire world. Cosmopolitans attach no social meaning to their own genetic ancestry. Patterns of cosmopolitan ancestry are normal—most Jews in Columbia are cosmopolitans. But no cosmopolitan in Columbia, Jewish or not, cares whether or not his friends are Jews.
Instead, most cosmopolitans believe naturally in “interchangeable baby theory,” well expressed by this 1930 quote:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
They seldom actually shuffle their babies, though. Faith is hard.
An armiger (rhymes with “integer”) is anyone entitled to a coat of arms. A little leap of metaphor turns medieval heraldry into modern education. The world of the armiger is the world of legitimate credentials. The armigerate, as a social stratum, is defined as everyone who holds an academic degree or would be socially expected to.
The armiger’s token of personal status, whether collegiate sheepskin or hereditary coat of arms, is specific to the nature and doctrine of an era. But every era has its armigers. Across eras we can define the purpose of the armiger as “self-actualization,” or Bildung as the Germans say. The armiger’s life is meant to be a self-crafted work of human art.
While Bildung done right is the final boss of life, this purpose all too easily degenerates into the quest for what Hillary Clinton has called “meaning.” “Meaning” can still be a beautiful and unique thing, but it can also mean “importance,” or “status,” or “power,” which naturally decays into a sycophantic adoration of titles, degrees and pedigrees. If at one end of the spectrum we see Richard Francis Burton, at the other is Tracy Flick.
Columbia is gifted and cursed with a huge armigerate. Maybe a fifth of your subjects are fully cosmopolitan. Historically, a twentieth would be high. While armigers are wonderful people—in their own way the best people, though we can say that of every human stratum—an overpopulation of these lovely creatures can be a serious issue.
Because armigers so easily find meaning in status, a proliferation of armigers tends to create a proliferation of status—meaning a proliferation of offices and credentials—and a general social obsession with power, politics, and importance. Everything in the armiger’s world has to matter. And this toxin of factitious meaning poisons everything.
The old regime was an armigerous oligarchy. It aggravated the lazzari and repressed the yeomen. The new regime, your regime, is a universal monarchy of all strata. If there were autochthons in Columbia, you would be the high chief of the autochthon chiefs, haling them before you in your art department’s best barbaric splendor. As it is you must dazzle the armigers, win the hearts of the yeomen, and tussle with the lazzari. “Hae tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem, parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.” The formula has never changed and never will.
While it is only natural for the armigers to believe you are here to shatter and destroy them, it is only their institutions that must be ground to fine powder and scattered far and wide in the ocean’s deepest trenches. The humans themselves are lovely, of course. You are not here to ruin them, but to rescue them—from their awful power addictions. When you look at them you always, always, distinguish the condition from the person.
This is a three-step intervention. First, separate the armigerate unconditionally from power—especially power over the other strata, always a dysfunctional relationship. Since they express their power through their oligarchic institutions, vaporizing all these institutions will leave them atomized and powerless. Don’t miss one tentacle.
Second, you need to cook up something else for your armigers to do—and even care about. It can’t be digging ditches. You wouldn’t even want those ditches, anyway. Anything that cannot completely absorb their hearts and minds is—digging ditches.
And third, what should these people actually be? No regime can permanently abandon them, or alienate itself from them. You must make them your own, and mold them into who they should be—probably not one answer. But this is not a four-year project.
The good news is that armigers, so hard to rule spiritually, are easy to rule temporally. Even armigers, who should not be allowed to govern anyone else, can govern armigers.
The ideal model of armiger self-governance is an ecstatic libertarian communism, perhaps almost like a permanent Burning Man, in a high-trust armiger-only society. Armigers do not benefit from socializing with non-armigers; nor do the non-armigers.
The children of armigers are armigers. Since armigers never have enough children, and since some yeomen have children who are just born armigers and will never work out as yeomen, the armigers must accept applications. While native talent is always nice, being a natural armiger is as much about social fit. For instance, most gay people are natural armigers—if we knew why people are gay, we might know why this was.
The traditional yeoman
A yeoman is a human rooted in a cohesive community with an inherited tradition. While every armiger is charged with inventing his own life, the yeoman need not invent anything. He is not a work of art. He is not a unique human snowflake. The yeoman (say “YO-men”) is a normal civilized person.
A yeoman’s tradition shapes the course of his life, with ceremonies for every occasion. It can tell him what to think, what to say, what to read and watch and listen to, what to eat and drink, what to wear and whom to marry—even what technologies he may use. Since the yeoman does not design his life, someone else has to design it for him.
You may not like this. You would not like it. Sorry, but you are an armiger. A yeoman is a normal human being. This is the normal human way to live. Yes, you may be smarter than the average yeoman. No one has to be dumb to be a yeoman, and who’s counting anyway? That’s not how they taught you to think at that fancy school… Yeomen are actually the best people—generally the soundest, most sensible and most wise.
A yeoman is not a floating atom. A yeoman exists as part of a traditional community— let’s call it a village. A village is a committed human group, ideally close enough to see everyone every week and small enough to remember everyone’s name, all trying to live their lives according to a single shared doctrine or tradition.
Columbia, for better or worse, has no shortage of different traditions. Most of these are inherited traditions, which tend to have high genetic homogeneity (most of the people look mostly the same); some will be invented traditions, built by recruiting. In principle there is nothing wrong with new religions. But in practice there usually is.
Any village is inherently organized. It has a leader or government. Because modernity, most of Columbia’s existing villages are virtual—their church is some random place they drive to, not the heart of a district they inhabit exclusively. It would be neat to reverse this, but it’s very difficult and not particularly essential.
Some villages are independent cults; most are instances of a single historical tradition. If a tradition does not bring its own central government, a prince can help it make one. Let’s call the governing authority of any tradition its foundation. Let’s call a people, plus the tradition they believe in, plus the foundation that governs them, a sect or section. This approach to governing yeomen of various sects is the sectional system.
Armigers are as unique and atomized as children and must be governed accordingly. You govern your armigers in the modern way: as rows in a big flat database. Which may have a row for each yeoman as well; but you do not govern yeomen individually. You do not even govern their villages—you govern their sections. In practice this means your bureaucrats at the Culture Department oversee their foundations.
Empires as different as the British, Ottoman and Roman have used this same pattern, which the British called “indirect rule.” Everyone is best governed by those like them. Everyone still has to share one physical country. The national regime handles all the conflicts between sections, and all the exceptions that cross sectional boundaries.
Governance of yeomen under this version of indirect rule happens at three levels: the village, the section, and the regime.
At the village level, every tradition is different—but a village can govern its yeomen as tightly as its tradition and its judgment requires. The maximum level of social control is roughly the power of parent over child: the village controls the persons, minds and possessions of its yeomen, and in return has no job but to defend and nurture them all. This is the small-scale “full communism” of the early Israeli kibbutz.
The village can tax its yeomen, require their labor, and impose punishments on them. It can track their bodies, clothe their bodies, test their bodies, and treat their bodies. The village can tell its yeomen what content they may read, hear, browse and watch, and it has the exclusive authority to educate and discipline their children. It can even decide what tools and technologies its yeomen may and may not use. In short, the village has all the powers of the classic 20th-century dystopian totalitarian state.
But it is not a totalitarian state. The village is not a huge and faceless bureaucracy, but a little group of people who live together for their whole lives. Nor do its leaders do not have authority without responsibility. They are accountable to their foundation. Their foundation is accountable to your regime.
Nor is the maximum the norm. Most yeomen in Columbia are neither used to this level of intrusive governance, nor would dream of choosing it for their own communities. For the average Columbian evangelical, the sectarian system might just mean a tighter, more Mormonesque relationship with his current megachurch and Christian academy.
Which is fine—but the last century has left most Columbian traditions in an unusually armigerlike condition. Under your regime they can change that as much as they like. And their ancestors, who made and lived in those traditions, might well want them to. Which to an armiger is irrelevant; but less so to a yeoman.
The logic of indirect rule fits well with strong and insular traditions like the Amish and the Hasidim, and centrally organized ones like the Mormons. The section system is almost a dead ringer for urban American Catholicism before 1960. It unsurprising that the premodern traditions which have survived best in the modern world have been those which have most effectively retained premodern folkways and structures, and best divided themselves from modernity.
As the village governs its yeomen, the foundation governs its villages, again in every dimension of government: physical, economic, spiritual and intellectual.
The foundation is the intellectual center of the sect—its version of a university. Its best theological scholars construct and maintain the tradition itself, updating its timeless truths and paving them into an educational path from infant to professor. While the doctrine of a section need not even be completely standard, any doctrinal variations must be so small that no one feels the need to fight over them.
Nor can a foundation limit itself to its own theology. Keeping a section’s top minds within their own faith is a core concern—they can always drop out to be armigers. Which is generally bad for them, bad for their section, and bad for Columbia itself.
So the foundation must concentrate excellence in every scholarly and technical field, joining with doctrinal cousins where its section is too small to staff a department. A sect too small to have its own medical school is too small to have its own doctors, so why is it not too small to exist?
Of course a foundation maintains its own continuously updated historical narrative, or “news.” All the yeomen in a section see past and present as the foundation sees them. Yeomen have social media, the Web and Wikipedia, but online pals are within their own tradition; the foundation filters the Web, and filters and forks their Wikipedia. Their Internet is just a tool, not “the vehicle through which Satan enters the world.”
Should any intellectual contact between sects, or between yeomen and armigers, even exist? It should—but it should not be general and routine. Rather, it should exist only at the highest level of scholarship: works of science or learning of true objective value. Even art is properly private to the sect. While armigers cannot be harmed by yeoman art, the converse is not the case—nor should yeomen learn to cater to armiger tastes.
Economic independence is a critical attribute of a healthy sect. A section that spends more money that it earns becomes literally dependent on whatever power fills the gap. So a regime that subsidizes an insolvent sect is paying to ruin its own human asset. At most your regime should restructure economically weak sections with large one-time grants, giving them a limited and realistic runway to sustainable independence.
One way to both measure and enforce economic independence is a sectional currency. If the currency floats and its trade deficit has a zero floor set by import certificates, the market reacts to sectional weakness by making imports arbitrarily expensive, where an “import” means spending outside the section. A yeoman’s money just goes farther when he buys products made by a brother, from a store owned by a brother. This automatic mechanism makes a weak section stronger by increasing its cohesion.
Finally, no regime can tolerate a sect that cannot peacefully share physical space with the rest of society. Damages within a sect are policed by the sect. Damages against an individual of one sect, by an individual of another, do not create a grievance between the two individuals—but between the two sections. Your power must intervene if these damages go unredressed, and especially if they start to look like a pattern of predation.
As for your regime, the postmodern bureaucrats in the Culture Department, whose job it is to both establish and maintain this system, ideally in the same cynical yet humane Machiavellian spirit in which we have described it, will have nothing to do in theory and everything to do in practice. Their job is to keep this system working as specified. The machine is designed so that its operating incentives match its original intent. But nothing ever works perfectly forever and by itself. Exceptional power is always needed.
Finally: if this yeoman pattern of governance seems weird, it is because you are weird. Such a “religious dictatorship” is the normal pattern of government across the world and time, besides the last two centuries in the Western and Westernized world. Even in Shakespeare’s London, everyone was required to check in at church once a week—to say nothing of Scarlet Letter era New England!
That said, the distinction between armiger and yeoman is a subtle one that must be flexible. These are anything but two separate species. There are genetic patterns, but nothing anywhere near strong enough to be individually predictive. Plenty of people will inevitably be moving across this border—which is no reason to weaken the border.
Armigers become yeomen, typically in middle age, because they decide that living within the pattern of an old tradition is more pleasant, productive, and meaningful. Yeomen become armigers, typically as teenagers, because living within the pattern of an old tradition is utterly incompatible with being the people who they think they are.
In net human capital, your regime always gains when armigers convert to a tradition, and always loses when yeomen drop out of their tradition. But mandating the former or prohibiting the latter would of course defeat the whole purpose of the regulation. The Amish certainly do not need a law that requires their children to remain Amish.
The deracinated lazzari
But actually, armigers and yeomen are lame. The best Columbians are the lazzari—because they live their lives the most intensely. The lazzari are the realest people.
But they are still kind of a problem. There are places in the United States you wouldn’t go, because of the lazzari. This is just not a thing in any properly governed country.
Deracinated is from the French word for “uprooted” (“root” is racine). Lazzari is the old name for the Neapolitan underclass in the Bourbon era—Marx’s lumpenproletariat. To aristocratic observers this underworld seemed neither dead nor alive: hence, Lazarus. The lazzari are people whose only real social structures are informal or even illegal.
Most estimates suggest that there are between 1 and 2 million “gang members” in the US. Whatever this label means exactly (and that varies), just about all these people must be lazzari, and so are probably most of their families as well. As with armigers and yeomen, there are lazzari descended from every continental human population. Unlike the eponymous gang of The Warriors, their social structures are monoethnic.
The project of the new regime is rerooting the lazzari—turning them back into yeomen. The project of the old regime was turning them into armigers. The project of the old regime was turning everyone into armigers—yeomen by bullying, lazzari by coaxing, and both by recruiting.
The recruiting worked—as an asset-stripping program. If its intent was to remove the best talent from the community, it succeeded handsomely. The bullying and coaxing, not so much. We can judge the plausibility of ennobling lazzari en masse by the level of energy and engagement invested in this project across the last century and a half.
In contrast, the logic of indirect rule makes it straightforward to reroot the old lazzari. Though deracinated, all lazzari still have familial, cultural or at least ethnic ties to some intact community. Granting that community social control over these lazzari gives it the spiritual and temporal power to resocialize them as healthy yeomen.
You also inherit a prison system packed with lazzari. Some of these people are genuine psychos who should never again set eye on the unbarred sun. Most are psychologically normal humans whose real offense was just being lazzari.
For anyone in a criminal culture, criminal activity is normal behavior. Like, duh. So it should be easy to rescue these normal people from “mass incarceration”—they really are in a sense “prisoners of war.” And that war is of course over.
Given effective tools of social control, it is much cheaper, better, and fairer to control normal humans socially in their community, than physically in some giant POW camp. It is hard to be a gangbanger if your reverend tracks your location, assigns you a job, manages your piss and monitors your cashflow.
There are only two problems with this rerooting. The first and most important is that it is so easy that it could work too well—ruining the best things about the lazzari. Each stratum has a legitimate claim to human superiority which must be fully respected.
The Dionysian and Homeric nature of deracinated culture is not an inherent problem. It is a problem when human lives burn up in addiction and vice. It is a problem when stray bullets fly out into the night and murk random civilians. But ecstasy and violence are both essential elements of the human experience, and they exist at their fullest in the deracinated underclasses. No one reading this actually despises gangbangers for being gangbangers—if we didn’t admire professional outlaws, we wouldn’t consume so much content about them.
If lazzari are to become yeomen, these elements cannot be suppressed or ignored. It is enough to ask these people to live in a structured way. It is too much to ask them to live in a drab, boring or sterile way. There must be a place for well-controlled ecstasy and violence in every human stratum—armigers certainly need it too, and even boring yeomen know the biblical Jesus could party like a fiend and praised edged weapons.
The second problem is that yeomen are inherently sedentary, and human populations not deeply selected by the agricultural revolution may be poorly adapted to any kind of sedentary existence. These populations can only express their potential by existing as nomadic autochthons—hunter-gatherers, essentially. Otherwise they fail to thrive.
Columbia does not currently have any autochthonous tribes, but “down on the rez” it has a lot of humans of recent autochthonous descent, who are indeed failing to thrive. They seem to need more freedom and challenge than agriculture-adapted populations, probably because tending crops is boring as hell. This tedium became a test that your nerdy, manlet ancestors passed, which is why your teeth hardly fit in your puny jaws. But for those without the evolved Sitzfleisch to endure boredom, man has only alcohol.
The paradox is that while urbanized observers, from Tacitus to Fenimore Cooper, too often for accident portray a more ancestral population as an inherently superior race of lords, pre-agricultural populations are like Italian racecars: specialized. They do very poorly, except in their adaptive environment. Yes, this is probably a DNA thing. (For the skull-caliper buffs out there, domestication also decreases brain size in animals.)
Unfortunately, an authentic autochthonous lifestyle demands a lot of land per human. Then again, Columbia has a lot of land per human. The idea of a state-sized prairie or forest ecopark with humans as the apex predator, though fantastic, is not at all absurd. It is a small step in principle from leaving uncontacted autochthonous tribes alone, Sentinel Island style, to voluntarily restoring an authentic ancestral culture. It is not a cheap or practical step—but it’s the sort of thing a really magnificent prince might try.
Human rubble of the old regime
The old regime, as you may recall, was very big on human rights. Yet its city streets were full of people living on the sidewalk, like dogs. Sometimes these people had dogs. One felt for the people—and the dogs. Something never did compute.
One “human right” that you might extend to your subjects is one the old regime might even admire: the right to tap out. Tapping out is surrendering in the hellish Nietzschean battle of atomized hypercapitalist meritocratic postmodern survival—a comprehensive personal declaration of social, financial and/or professional bankruptcy.
Tapping out means telling the government that your current life is not working for you; you would like to be parachuted out of it; you will go somewhere else, where a new life will be built for you; and until this process is complete, since you need it to succeed, you will do exactly as you are told—having, of course, surrendered.
We can only guess at the number of Americans who would press this red button today, if it actually existed and worked. It is surely in eight figures. It might be in nine. And just as the sweet science knows both the knockout and the technical knockout, anyone who is living either in their car, or on the goddamn street, has technically surrendered.
And what do you do with these people? It depends who they are, of course. Some need indefinite care and/or confinement. Some need to replace bad habits with good habits; some need to be professionally retrained or even fully resocialized. To integrate them back into normal life, you need to actually understand what “normal life” is.
These simple Columbian strata of armigers and yeomen, though they do correspond roughly to the American realities of “blue” and “red,” “college” and “townie,” etc, etc, are Platonic ideals onto which the reality of a complex continent would have to be fit. But in these ideals we can start to imagine a picture of a “normal life” for everyone.
In some cases the reality is almost ideal. In other cases, a little Procrustean cutting and stretching seems unavoidable. And in many cases, the old regime has rotted the fabric of its old communities too much, leaving them solid in theory but rubble in practice. Most of today’s yeomen are not much like the Mormons or the Amish.
A new regime has to face the fact that in some ways it is less repairing an old society than recreating it. All its structures, new and old, must be reinforced and expanded to absorb and reintegrate all the human rubble of the old regime’s failed experiments—which will usually turn out to be even more failed than you expect. Anything which even looks intact is a treasure, but can still be expected to come apart in your hands. Every dog is a shelter dog.
The praxis of intentional disutility
Now that we have a rough sense of the different kinds of people in Columbia, we are ready to design an economy for them, using our new toolkit of artificial difficulty.
There are two constraints on any design. First, it must be self-sufficient—meaning, not needing an international trade deficit. Second, it must fulfill the basic material needs and ordinary human comforts of all Columbians.
Beyond these unavoidable constraints, the purpose of an economic design is to create a landscape of difficulty that shapes your subjects into the best people they can be. Once you are committed to this project, you must ask exactly who these people are. Once you know who the people are, you must ask what jobs they should be doing. Once you know what jobs they should be doing, you must ask how your state power can bend the laws of nature to make the free market demand exactly these jobs.
As the manager of a sovereign corporation, your job is to match labor demand and labor supply so that labor patterns maximize the value of your human capital. While your country is not a human farm and does not actually sell humans, any aesthetic sense of human worth, fulfillment, salus or eudaimonia will track this hypothetical valuation, meaning that good government and good business are roughly parallel. There are plenty of Columbians who are pretty good at running a good business, so a new regime will not be as hard to staff and manage from scratch as some may think.
Bending the laws of nature
Natural reality shapes all markets. Yet the power of free markets is great. So when a state sets out to distort the free market, it should emulate a state of nature. It is hard to conquer nature, but easy to surrender to her. Power finds it hard to make things easy, but easy to make things hard.
Technology restriction is the best way to distort labor markets, because “TR” emulates a state of nature in which the restricted technology mysteriously fails to work. The more broadly we define “technology,” the more easily we can appreciate the metaphor.
Mercantilism, for instance, works by disabling the “technology” of importing goods and services. As far as demand for your subjects’ labor is concerned, it matters not at all whether a product is imported or robot-made. Either way it was not directly worked for, which means you have lost the expected appreciation of human capital from labor—unless the import was paid for by a labor-demanding export product, or the robot took thousands of hours of demanding hand assembly by an army of watchmakers.
But of course the literal purpose of both imports and robots is to replace human labor. So smash the robots! Sink the container ships! Well, maybe.
To beat the technology resource curse and the human catastrophe of mass uselessness, you need to create demand for both armigerous labor and yeoman labor. Some of this labor supply overlaps, but most does not; so we’ll consider the two strata separately.
Exercising the yeomen
As we saw in the example of shovels vs. spoons, appreciation of human capital from labor is highly dependent on the quality of the labor. Every man is different, and his ideal job has to fit him the way the ideal boot fits his foot.
Any good grade of boots has to be broken in. Over time, the boot molds to the foot. And the very finest, some say, do the reverse: over time, the foot molds to the boot… whether or not this is true, a man’s ideal job molds him into the man he should be. Which means it may feel like a poor fit at first.
Bulk labor demand is easy to generate. Hire men to dig ditches and fill them in again. This is pure prison-camp work. And any palpably useless paperwork—David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs”—is even worse: it isn’t even good exercise.
What a man actually needs, if his work be for his own benefit, is meaningful labor that trains him to the highest level of skill in his strongest area of human potential, then stably and predictably rewards him for exercising that skill.
The backbone of artificial difficulty is the conversion of economies from industrial to artisanal production. This conversion (which, like anything, can be overdone) can generate an arbitrary level of stable market demand for high-quality artisanal labor.
While not every yeoman can be an artisan—not everyone is good with their hands—this kind of work can take care of a large percentage of the yeomanry. As for the capacity of artisanship to express human potential, the uber-aristocratic English actor Daniel Day-Lewis took a year off his career to apprentice with a master Italian cobbler. Maybe this was just a publicity stunt. If it wasn’t real, it should have been.
Everyone needs shoes and all shoes wear out. If the only way boots for Columbia’s feet can be made is by Columbian hands, with natural Columbian materials and approved Columbian tools (and since it will never stop being the future, your boots, which will be $450, come with a raw making-of video), Columbia will need a lot of cobblers.
What are we doing here? We are restricting technology: the technology of importing shoes from Vietnam, where shouting natives stamp them out of scrap leather and tire trimmings in giant, coal-fired, colonial-era steam presses. Or whatever. It is hard to be sure where the shoes at DSW come from, but it doesn’t involve Daniel Day-Lewis.
And in return, everyone’s shoe budget is taxed to support this new cobbler economy. Most of the yeomen in a section are not cobblers. By buying only traditional shoes, naturally from yeomen of their own sect, they have to spend more on shoes, or buy fewer shoes, or both. This is a tax. Instead of buying human decay, it buys nice shoes.
When we think of technology restriction, we usually think of regulations that prohibit new technologies. These regulations are mostly pernicious, which gives TR a bad name among the thoughtful. But actually, the technologies whose abolition can best restore these high-quality artisanal jobs are old technologies—like steam-pressed uppersoles.
The first professions cancelled by the industrial revolution will be the first to return. Use cases for artificial difficulty abound in unglamorous areas such as construction, textiles, furniture and agriculture. All these fields are full of restrictive potential for the generation of high-quality yeoman labor demand. All your regime needs to do is to prohibit certain industrial processes in certain fields, which is about as difficult or debatable as banning Harleys from the Tour de France. Essentially, you can create arbitrary high-quality labor demand by “Etsifying” arbitrary productive processes.
The truth about the old blue-collar industrial jobs is that they sucked. They largely amounted to serving as human robots, or human brains in steam-powered robots. While this kind of labor is not as dehumanizing as idleness, it is nowhere near as humanizing as turning out a sick pair of boots.
Remedievalizing economic production by restricting old technology can even solve two problems at once, both improving labor demand and reducing the productivity of an overefficient sector. For example, maybe intercontinental travel and trade is fine— but only on wooden sailing ships.
This classic example of absolute public policy both strikes a savage blow against globalism, and recreates the kind of human being once called a “sailor”—rescuing a whole way of life from history’s grave. Or is it too extreme? Maybe it’s too extreme. But that’ll be up to you, buddy.
Not everyone is handy or fit. Many of the others can be small businessmen. Another way to increase the quality and quantity of labor demand is to disrupt large, formula or franchise businesses. Perhaps no store can be too big. Perhaps no one can own more than one store or restaurant. Perhaps Internet shopping is a crime against humanity… You get the picture.
Technology actually makes the problem of creating high-quality labor demand easier, once you take that problem seriously. Automation takes care of the low-quality work. Automation is better at dumber jobs, anyway.
The problem of economic management is the design of an economy whose labor demand matches your country’s labor supply, at a high quality level for every worker. The more automated assistance this design has, the more interesting it can be, and the higher a quality of labor it should demand—as it produces a higher quality of product. Perhaps what will shock our great-grandchildren most about the present, when they look at grainy old 2D videos of us, is just how badly-dressed everyone is.
Exercising the armigers
Scientists agree: Columbia has too many armigers. What do you do with them? They are just standing there, dusted with the drywall of their institutes. They are in many ways excellent and useful people. But you cannot just use them—not as is.
Nor can you cull the armigers, like some surfeit of Kenyan elephants; nor reeducate them, a la Mao. You might barely get away with deporting them—but exiling any governing caste is always a weak move for a prince, and often returns to bite you.
And what does a prince have to fear from armigers? What are they, ninjas? There are more armigers than lazzari. The armigers are meaner; the lazzari are more physical. Both are all just good people on the inside, and the best way to deal with them is to let them know straight-up that you know that. Strap some extra confidence on your hip, and don’t lose track of the way to the door—you want to be Augustus, not Caesar.
Since they are all just good people on the inside, you can conquer them in the cruelest possible way: by governing them better than they imagined they could be governed. While the armigers are totally prepared to be persecuted, they are quite unprepared to be ignored—and even less prepared to be supported and cultivated, as they should be. As humans this is ideal for them, but as players it cuts them off savagely at the knees.
The armigers cannot continue in the new regime as a ruling class. The essence of the armigerous oligarchy is the validity of one’s credentials. While they worked hard for those credentials, any education or experience contaminated by the principles of the old regime is more than useless to any new regime. These are now negative credentials. Their fundamental worth was their legitimacy, now withdrawn by the law of Brennus.
This means you cannot use unreconstructed armigers in your civil or public service. Previous experience is not qualifying, but disqualifying. You have to make do with yeomen and a sprinkle of dissidents. This is more or less fine, but it leaves huge numbers of very talented people standing on the sidelines. And the regime was more than just its staff; it provided a sense of purpose for the whole cosmopolitan stratum.
Any plan for these people is a recovery plan. Yesterday, his armiger’s sense of purpose was fully engaged with the narrative of the old regime, fully committed to its “issues.” Today the whole story is unveiled as a sham, like the “workers and peasants.” He could care about a new set of “issues.” But now he knows no one cares what he cares about.
The effect of regime change on a governing stratum, as after the fall of the Eastern bloc, is a sort of hangover—a devastating, involuntary and irreversible political sobriety. Somehow you have to nurse these excellent neurotics back to personal, professional and even spiritual health—even without forcing them to believe in God.
Some may, of course. Many armigers are armigers because the old regime pressured them into that status. Some might be happier spiritually as traditionalists, personally as villagers, and/or professionally as artisans. (Again, there is nothing even slightly wrong with a cosmopolitan artisan.)
The armiger’s cosmopolitan doctrine even has a religious origin. It is Unitarianism, basically. It is not at all difficult to see the body of average armigers recommunalizing themselves as yeomen, without major changes in their perspectives, habits or beliefs, under some such very armigerlike brand. They are hardly opposed to community, and there is nothing wrong with their beliefs—so long as they do not hold or covet power.
What can make most ordinary armigers into yeomen is just the enormous social advantages of living in coherent, self-governing communities. It is true that most hippie communes did not really succeed. Most hippie communes did not have the government on their side, though. Many armigers remember college as the best time of their lives, because it is the only time they got to live in a structured community. Second best is often Burning Man—another armiger-only community.
Also, everything bad about armigers is the result of corrupting them with power. But of course, there is no community which knows more about living well. Separating this whole stratum from power leaves its whole job as living well—if that can pay the bills.
This is not a way to erase the armiger stratum. You do not want to erase this stratum. Not everyone should be an armiger. But once you have boiled off the ordinary armigers who should have been yeomen all along—not quickly, since it must be voluntarily—the extraordinary ones are left. These people are few but, unfortunately, quite important.
Up to a century ago, before they started guiding the regime, American colleges were no more than finishing schools for a tiny aristocracy. Like most aristocracies past and present, the old American aristocracy was very uneven. The next elite will hopefully be less uneven, but the hereditary principle can never be completely lost and will always serve up dunces—just as many geniuses are born to ordinary, nonaristocratic families. There is often a reason to promote the latter, but rarely a reason to demote the former. The skull-caliper scientists will just have to keep working on their applied eugenics.
We can be sure that in Columbia there will always be a class of people whose purpose in life is truly cosmopolitan, atomized, heroic self-actualization. And the fewer there are who feign this purpose as a pose, the more important it is to protect the reality.
You went to gifted school, didn’t you? Gosh, I hope so—you’ve read all these words. Where did all the gifted-talented kids end up? It is not for nothing that the armiger class, below a certain age, is sometimes called the “precariat.” Nor is that age constant. Even aside from all the people in “bullshit jobs,” plus all the people who think they are saving the world but really are just serving their own addictions to power and status, there is huge underemployment among Columbia’s armigers—even the best of them.
Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of gifted kids: artistic, scholarly, and technical. (Columbias’s armigers are a priestly caste, not a martial caste, so athletic or leadership ability is no more than a happy accident. At least it is not a very rare accident.) Let’s think about what work you should create for each of these kinds of people.
The difference between scholarship and technology is that technology is applied. Power rarely needs to create jobs for engineers. There is only one way for power to create jobs for scholars: fund them. Employing the right number of these kinds of people, in the right tasks, is a difficult problem in detail but not in principle.
This leaves only one class of armiger to support with our diseconomic toolkit: artists. Art is very important; art is the principal talent of enormous numbers of people; and art is very hard to fund and support.
Of course artists too can be subsidized—but subsidies are particularly awful for art. The best way to fund art is a durable and exclusive patron-client relationship. The second best way to fund art is to sell it. The worst way to fund art is to impress a grant commitee—you’ll get bad art, and worse artists.
The 21st-century art market—even core content types like writing, music and film—suffers from an enormous “tournament economy” problem, in which most of the returns accrue to a small number of global winners. While this may be optimal for art consumers, it is lousy for art producers—since it means that most artists have to end up losers, even if they are only slightly less lucky or talented than the winners.
In the old days, badly-shaped markets like this were just seen as fate’s hand. Hasn’t it always sucked to be an artist? Shouldn’t it suck? Everyone would want to do it. This is a strong argument, but it just doesn’t fit well with the ethos of your new regime.
One way to tackle the problem with artificial difficulty is to impose arbitrary controls on transportation of copyrighted content. For example, it might be very expensive and difficult to import films into Montana. So Montanans, unless they wanted to pay $200 to watch an out-of-state movie, would have to settle for “Montana film.” Over time, this restriction might even cause the development of a distinctive “Montana culture.”
But more important, at least from Montana’s perspective, it would ensure that people who grow up with the essential life purpose of making movies can stay in Montana. Canadians and Frenchmen are familiar with this model, not especially well done—because this sort of thing cannot be done both well and superficially.
To imagine “Montana culture” is to imagine that there is such a thing as a Montana armiger—a specifically Montanan path to human self-actualization. The yeomen of Montana, its cowboys and roughnecks, may even yet retain their provincial accents. The armigers of Montana are citizens of the world. They might as well be from Paris. What is Montana to them? A beautiful, low-tax AirBNB—a set of GPS coordinates.
Any prince who dreams of reversing this process even for Columbia, even for Canada or France—let alone Montana—had better be packing some big dreams. But how else can you do the armigers justice? How can you end tournament economics in culture? How can you divide a world culture into its old disconnected geographical pieces?
One of history’s clearest patterns is that the arts and sciences flourish in periods of divided and contested sovereignty, but stagnate under political peace and unity. At least half of civilization was invented in some Greek or Italian city-state; even China, unified for two millennia, owes most of its classics to the “Warring States” period. History has no stronger lesson than that humanity thrives best when well-divided.
In each of these little Greek city-states, there were actors and poets and musicians and playwrights. Who weren’t like: I may be big in Melos, but I’m not big till I’ve made it in Athens. Eventually that did change; but centralization spelled the death of the Greek cities, later of the Hellenistic world, and in the end all of antiquity. In some ways the Mediterranean has never recovered from the rise of the Roman Empire.
From whose barbarian-haunted ruin sprang another polycentric order: old Europe. Along came the printing press, the telegraph, the railroad, the jet and the Internet, hot war and cold war—and now, even the Continent’s old languages are beginning to fade.
If culturally and politically unifying the Mediterranean, once a thriving decentralized network of politically and culturally independent city-states, created a polymillennial continental disaster—what will unifying the planet do? What has it already done?
So imagining this process rolled back, recreating geographically parochial culture, is quite a different thing from “local grants for the arts”—though both, it’s true, employ more local artists. But we are not trying to imagine more bureaucratic ditch-digging.
Since it is technology that has globalized us, by making travel and communication fast and cheap, it is hard to imagine cultural deglobalization without artificial difficulty. Literally this means cutting the wires, grounding the planes and breaking the ships—all to replace one insipid and uniform global armiger culture with hundreds or even thousands of proud, pugnacious local elites, each gloriously different from the next.
These relocalized armigers might even identify more strongly with their local yeomen than with their former comrades in the global ruling class—who they can no longer text, anyway. The packets don’t go through. The wires have been cut. They would visit, but they can’t get a ticket…
All this for the arts? Well—not just for the arts… but are the arts this important? Some think so, don’t they? Armigers are certainly supposed to think so. In case you are one.
And when we think about absolute public policy, in which sovereignty is assumed and everything is possible, this is the scale on which we must think. Or at least, dream.
The return of the absolute
Well, that’s been an imaginative excursion into the impossible. But politics is the art of the possible, isn’t it?
We still have a lot to learn from dogs. But for dogs, the possible is known. There are some things you can get a dog to do, and some things you can’t. For humans, that line is never entirely clear.
Most people who envision political change see the motive force behind it as collective will and virtue (for some as in “signaling,” for some as in the Roman concept of virtus). These two very different virtue curves are trending up and down respectively, creating hope and despair respectively. But collective will is always trending down—so even the hope comes out tempered by realism. So this possible is not much of a possible.
But can we imagine a political change fueled neither by sturdy pioneer virtus, nor by healthy progressive consciousness? Both these visions share one ingredient: sincerity. They consist entirely of preironic, unimaginative 20th-century sentiments. Indeed much of their rhetoric is literally a hundred years old.
If there is anything the 21st century is historically terrible at, it is sincerity. If there is anything the 21st century is historically amazing at, it is irony and imagination. If there is a different politics of the possible, maybe it can play more to our strengths.
I was born in the Nixon administration and watched the Super Bowl every year as a kid. Sometimes there was an ironic commercial. Sometimes there were two. Now—is it three-fourths of them? I never saw a movie in 1960. I’ve seen movies made in 1960. Imagine showing a movie like Inception (2010) to a 1960 audience. They’d lose their minds—you’d have better luck with LSD.
There has never been a public more ready for a dark politics of imagination—fueled not by positive Norman Rockwell civic energy, but nihilistic and destructive whimsy. That positive energy is better than negative energy is a tautology. But politics is the art of the possible—so you have to design an engine that works on the energy you have. Somehow it has to turn frivolous modern anomie into a substantive historical order. This is not an easy engineering problem—but what other problem matters more?