A brief explanation of the cathedral
An oligarchy inherently converges on ideas that justify the use of power.
I notice more people using this label, which I coined a long long time ago, and have always had ambivalent aesthetic feelings about. I used a capital C, but I see more of the miniscule and I think it’s better.
“The cathedral” is just a short way to say “journalism plus academia”—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.
But the label is making a point. The Catholic Church is one institution—the cathedral is many institutions. Yet the label is singular. This transformation from many to one—literally, e pluribus unum—is the heart of the mystery at the heart of the modern world.
The mystery of the cathedral
The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.
Most notably, this pseudo-structure is synoptic: it has one clear doctrine or perspective. It always agrees with itself. Still more puzzlingly, its doctrine is not static; it evolves; this doctrine has a predictable direction of evolution, and the whole structure moves together.
For instance: in 2021, Harvard, Yale, the Times and the Post are on the same page. If there exists any doctrinal difference between any two of these prestigious American institutions, it is too ineffable for anyone but a Yale man to discern. (Though it may say something that Gray Mirror is not taught at Harvard.)
In 1951, Harvard, Yale, the Times and the Post were on the same page. But Yale in 1951 was on nowhere near the same page as Yale in 2021. If you could teleport either Yale into the other’s time zone, they would see each other as a den of intellectual criminals.
So it’s not just that everyone—at least, everyone cool—is on the same page. It’s more like: everyone is reading the same book—at the same speed. No wonder all the peasants are seeing conspiracies in their motherfucking soup. If you saw a group of bright red dots move across the evening sky this way, what would you think they were? Pigeons? Remote-controlled pigeons, illuminated by lasers? Sometimes even Occam is baffled.
Moreover, this mystery is critical to the nature, fate and epistemology of our society, because we regard the distributed nature of these prestigious and trusted institutions as an inviolable principle of of our intellectual security. We would never concede this level of axiomatic infallibility to a single organization, like the Catholic Church—that would be putting all our brains in one basket. No egghead would make that mistake.
While we are aware that individuals—even very smart individuals—can go extremely awry in their perception and analysis of reality, and while we have seen even groups do the same thing (hence “groupthink”), we are sure they cannot all go wrong together. To err is human—but eliminating error is just a function of sufficient statistical power.
But statistics only works if your samples are independent. If some mysterious force is coordinating them—you are not measuring reality, you are just measuring that force.
And indeed, our samples seem only nominally independent. While we can detect no obvious organizational connection between them, they are highly correlated. And they retain these correlations even as they move across long periods of time.
We can expect this form of coordinated progress in hard science and engineering. These fields are tightly constrained by two inexorable forces: physical reality and human ignorance. The latter relaxes its grip only by painfully-won millimeters.
But the physical and human situation of the arts and humanities—of philosophy, ethics, literature, religion and politics—has been largely unchanged for millennia. We see no evidence of any extrinsic and unidirectional force that should be coordinating these fields. Yet these are just the fields that seem to be moving the fastest.
Who are we? Where are we going? If we could understand the forces that are driving us, we could predict where we are going. Unfortunately, the answer may be: hell.
Darwin and the discourse
Harvard is not a black box. We know how these organizations work.
The institutions of the cathedral are not relevant as hierarchical command structures. They are not an army of ideas, like the Church. The dean of chemistry does not tell the chemistry professors what God thinks they should think about methylfluorocarbons.
Rather, the cathedral operates as a discourse—not an army of ideas, a market of ideas. The institutions are just brands—marks of prestige. Ideas in this market evolve; they reproduce by being taught, they mutate by being thought, and they are selected by—
By what? If we want to know what a Darwinian system will evolve, we have to look at the selective pressures on its organisms. What is our cathedral selecting for?
First, let’s look at the soundest part of the building: math. In math, the marketplace of ideas is straightforward. Error is not tolerated. Priority is rigidly respected. Even the importance and quality of mathematical results is generally agreed on. In fact, even in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, pure mathematics did pretty well as a field.
In math, the only selective advantage an idea can have is that it is good math. Good math beats bad math. Math is perfectly suited to the cathedral—and the Soviet Union. In fact, it is hard to imagine any form of government so dysfunctional and dystopian that it could not, given the raw autistic IQ talent, make progress in math.
The hard sciences are supposed to work like math. In certain places, certain fields, and certain ways, they do. In few places are they completely broken, though this of course depends on your definition of “hard.”
But in science already we sense that here are other forces; that the selective advantage of an idea may not be solely driven by the quality of that idea; that while some shared sense of quality does remain intact, it is starting to feel like an eroding legacy.
And to the east of science—well, de gustibus non disputandum. Obviously, in the debate between 1951 Yale and 2021 Yale—your mileage may vary. I feel that in general, while both score some points, the former is nowhere near harsh enough. But that’s just me.
Suppose this is so, and Yale has declined. Yale is made of people and ideas. It is quite implausible that psychometric tests would show a great difference in the intelligence of its students and professors between 1951 and 2021—and they might well come out in favor of the latter.
Which suggests that any problem is with the ideas—that bad ideas in the humanities have in some way flourished at Yale (and everywhere else)—like toxic green algae in a once-blue mountain lake. Now why would that happen?
It must be related to the pattern of selective advantage in this marketplace of ecology. Maybe a nearby pig farm has unleashed a flood of sewage into the lake. Pig manure is a nutrient which alters the pattern of selective advantage in the lake, making it easier to exist as a stinking algal bloom and harder to flourish as a happy rainbow trout.
On the continent of Mu, there are two nations, Mundana and Mutopia. Like Burundi and Rwanda, they have very similar populations and very different governments.
Mundana is a traditional absolute monarchy with an official state religion, like Tsarist Russia. Mutopia is a progressive liberal democracy, like here but more so. In Mundana you are beheaded for even acting gay; in Mutopia you are required to try it at least, like, once.
Mundana has erected its so-called Titanium Curtain between itself and this utter filth, preventing all social and intellectual contact. But in Mundana, too, there are liberal intellectuals—some people, it turns out, are born that way. These free-thinkers are of course hunted by the Tsar’s secret police and must use funky encrypted Internet stuff to live, breathe, think, shitpost and make gay bondage dates.
Whereas Mutopia, of course, is run by liberal intellectuals. To be precise: Mutopia is governed by a permanent administrative state which implements policies designed by liberal professors at prestigious institutions, and supervised by liberal journalists at prestigious institutions. These are hard gigs to get, and great gigs to have. And no one need supervise the professors and journalists—they are self-watching watchmen. Nice!
Now: which liberal intellectuals do you think will have better ideas, pound for pound? Remember that the Mundanan intellectuals can’t hear what the Mutopians are saying, or vice versa—these are two entirely separate marketplaces of ideas.
Your intuitive answer is that you’ll get better, more premium content from Mundanan dissidents than Mutopian professors. Let’s look at why you’re right.
Selective advantage of dominant ideas
The sewage that is polluting the lake is sovereignty. The dissidents have better ideas than the professors because the professors have sovereignty and the dissidents don’t.
The professors and journalists have sovereignty because final decisions are entrusted to them and there is no power above them. Only professors can formulate policy—that is, set government strategy; only journalists can hold government accountable—that is, manage government tactics. Strategy plus tactics equals control.
The dissidents do not have sovereignty because neither the Tsar nor the Church cares what they think. These powers do care that they think, and their only wish is for this thinking to cease—furthermore, they know just where to make the incision. Dissidents have no good reason to think at all—so it doesn’t matter at all what they’re thinking.
So in the furtive, candle-lit garrets of dissident Mundana, the ideas that win are just the best ideas; the intellectuals that win are just the best thinkers. In Mundana, the only selective advantage an idea can have is its mere truth and/or beauty. The life of a Mundanan dissident is terrible, but diamond-hard and extremely pure.
Whereas in the lecture halls and newsrooms of Mutopia, there is a market for dominant ideas. A dominant idea is an idea that validates the use of power. Such an idea will enjoy a selective tailwind in the Mutopian market.
And there is no market for recessive ideas. A recessive idea is an idea that invalidates power or its use. Such an idea will fight a selective headwind in the Mutopian market. Neither of these distorting evolutionary effects appears among Mundanan dissidents.
Consider the problem of climate change. There are two responses to this problem: action or inaction. Action requires power—and a lot of it, because it has to redirect about, like, 10^14 dollars worth of economic activity. Ain’t no thing!
The idea of climate alarmism corresponds to action. The idea of climate denialism corresponds to inaction. Without knowing which side is right, we can observe that alarmism is a dominant idea, whereas denialism is a recessive idea.
It is not hard to see why, in the lecture halls and newsrooms, dominant ideas tend to outcompete recessive ideas. A dominant idea is an idea that tends to benefit you and your friends. A dominant idea will be especially popular with your friends and former students in the civil service, because it gives them more work and more power.
And a recessive idea, of course, is the opposite of all these things. A climate scientist who holds the recessive idea of climate denialism is saying to his colleagues and the whole world: climate science is not important. Is it surprising—in the Bayesian sense— that a consensus of climate scientists would conclude that climate science matters?
None of this analysis tells us whether the dominant idea or the recessive idea is good. What it tells is that the Mutopian cathedral cannot tell us—because its marketplace of ideas will always select for the dominant idea.
When we remove pseudo-information that has obviously evolved in this way, we are not left with the opposite of the pseudo-information, but an absence of information. Whatever the signal reality is sending us, we cannot hear it. All we know is that our institutions cannot hear, think, learn, know, understand or teach any recessive ideas—that is, ideas that would damage or delegitimate the powers that be.
This mass brain-damage to the public mind is curiously replicated over in Mundana, whose Tsar is no less intolerant of seditious, heretical and subversive misinformation. Why would the Tsar let some gay, atheist newspaper editor curse God, the Church, and the whole Royal Family? What? Has Mundana somehow run short of prison cells? Are all the knout-makers on some, like, knout strike? By God, he will beat the man himself!
The Tsar—whose public mind is a canon, not a discourse—gets almost exactly the same results as the cathedral, by the exact opposite methods. The Tsar punishes deviation from canonical thought. The cathedral rewards conformity with dominant thought.
Of course, stick and carrot are two great tastes that taste great together—but they are both power. It is easy to think that reward and punishment are different things; they are not; they are different ways of getting to the same place, that is, human dominion.
The cathedral cannot be repaired
The cathedral can’t be repaired for two reasons. The first is that it can’t be repaired—just look at it. The second is that it isn’t the problem.
Go back to the lake and the sewage. How do you fix the lake? Not by skimming off the algae! Obviously, you need to stop the sewage leak and get rid of the pig farm. Then, you can either wait for the lake to purify itself naturally, or pump the polluted water out and let the clear blue mountain stream refill the basin. I recommend… the latter.
In this case the pig farm is a form of government that leaks power—that inherently wants to outsource responsibility to outside actors. Whenever the government relies on university research for a strategy or policy decision, or makes a decision which is influenced by media reporting, or selectively releases information to the media, this trust is leaking sovereignty into the cathedral. Which, being outside the government, is about as “democratic” as Genghis Khan.
Why does the government—or more precisely, the civil service—leak power? Because it is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies leak power. It’s like asking why a two-stroke engine burns oil—or at least why a diesel engine puffs out soot.
In a bureaucracy, decisions at every level are not taken by individuals; they are taken by processes. All work is according to process. Managers in a bureaucracy are not bosses; they are exception handlers.
The fundamental rule of success as a bureaucrat is that while it is important to get credit for things that go right (everyone in the process will get credit), it is essential to avoid blame for things that go wrong. Fortunately, decision by process spreads and multiplies the thrill of success, while it diffuses and dilutes the sorrow of failure.
But if he can export accountability and responsibility outside the government itself, the bureaucrat feels like he is dumping this toxic waste in the deep ocean. Or in a blue mountain lake. What pig farmer wants a lagoon full of manure on his farm? Even the pigs hate that smell… and that’s why the Mutopian bureaucracy leaks power. As does every other bureaucracy, perhaps unless it’s brand-new.
And this is why you can’t fix it. An organization which focuses responsibility toward the top, without leaking, is an organization structured like an army or a corporation. In this form of organization (used by almost everything that isn’t a government), your manager actually is your boss. Final authority and responsibility lands on one person.
This form of government—the form that doesn’t leak power—has a name. It is called a monarchy. The form of government currently used by Mutopia also has a name. It is a bureaucracy, which is one kind of oligarchy. (“Deep State,” if you absolutely must.)
So the difference between our government, and a government which is “power-tight,” is as basal as it could be—not like the difference between a goat and a gazelle, like the difference between a gazelle and a chanterelle. There isn’t really, like, a kind of surgery that will turn either of these things into the other.
The future of Mu
So Mutopia’s magic 8-ball is broken—and it can’t be fixed. Its government is making decisions that are not just random, but actively perverse and self-destructive, because its brain is the cathedral, which is structurally biased toward these dominant ideas, many but not all of which are just plain bad ideas.
No wonder Mutopia is such a hot mess. But then again, Mundana is a hot mess too. Its government, which is also totally unaccountable, is also making perverse, destructive decisions—because the Tsar is getting senile. His syphilis is starting to kick in, too…
Fortunately, just after the above parable was taken, things really turned around in Mu. In both countries, the peasants revolted. And as in (almost) no peasant rebellion ever, things miraculously turned out well.
What happened in Mundana
What happened in Mundana: the peasants revolted. With the collective rationality we often, or at least sometimes, see in peasants, they realized the following facts:
First: their government sucked. The Tsar was creepy, incompetent and sadistic. His son, the Tsarevich, was a junkie, a rumored pedophile and a known hemophiliac.
Second: there was a responsible elite which could staff a new form of government. This new form is a “constitutional” monarchy in which the monarch is actually a joke—a stuffed shirt with a crown on top. The real power now belongs to the intellectual underground which survived the Tsar’s persecutions.
Therefore, these rational peasants used the power of democracy—which is irresistible but unstable—to depose their old monarchy and install a new oligarchy. This is the right way to use democracy—one political force which is never an end, but always a means.
Real power in the new regime is held by the new civil service—staffed, of course, by the dissidents against the old regime. Any evidence of having been persecuted by the Tsarist secret police is now a badge of honor which entitles you to various distinctions, privileges and job opportunities. Save those hit-piece clippings, dissidents—one day, they may well become your receipts.
This new system of government works extremely well, because the new ruling class is extremely well-selected. It consists of people who were ready to sacrifice everything to preserve both their sanity and their dignity. Such types make the best statesmen—and the ideas of the Mundanan dissident, we know, are evolved for nothing but cold truth.
So the new, free Mundana is run by its unbiased liberal intellectuals. Things are looking up in Mundana! And they’ll keep getting better—for a while…
What happened in Mutopia
What happened in Mutopia: the peasants revolted. With the collective rationality we often, or at least sometimes, see in peasants, they realized the following facts:
First: their government sucked. Both the cathedral and the civil service were insanely obsessed with race—because race war is a dominant idea. Crime grew rampant— because tolerating crime is a dominant idea. And when the civil service actually had to solve a real, unanticipated, significant problem, it turned out to be almost useless. And there was an army, too—which could not win a war, not even an irrelevant war.
Moreover, as the cathedral’s worldview diverged from reality, Mutopia had more and more trouble in enforcing this worldview by carrots alone. Eventually it turned to the other kind of mind control—and started developing almost Mundanan techniques of stick-based intellectual punishment. There were censors, informers, the whole deal.
Second: there was a responsible elite which could staff a new form of government. In the so-called “private sector,” the art of monarchy had been perfected. Some of these monarchies had even assembled staffs as big as any government that Mutopia could need, with an average human quality (or at least IQ) perhaps never equalled, executing with relentless perfection to—
Executing with relentless perfection to bring you toys, conveniences, luxuries, games and entertainment, porn and drugs, and all the “service economy” money could buy. But—nothing that was actually important, of course. Lol.
Therefore, these rational peasants used the power of democracy—which is irresistible but unstable—to depose their old oligarchy and install a new monarchy. This is the right way to use democracy—one political force which is never an end, but always a means.
The new monarch—a man recognized by all as the outstanding visionary leader of the Mutopian “private sector,” a master of not one but two groundbreaking companies—staffed his new regime, a startup state, with veterans of Mutopia’s technology wars.
These hardcore West Coast thugs knew nothing at all of government—though they sometimes would hire some grizzled old front-line GS man, as a contractor, just for the transitional assistance—no Gordian knot ever stopped these hotshot punks.
As for the old oligarchy, the cathedral and civil service—they were simply liquidated—rounded up, shot, dumped in a ditch, soaked with gas and burned… No! What am I saying? That was a totally different timeline. Bad dream. Sorry. That would be a major bummer. Please definitely don’t do that.
The Mutopian bureaucrats were some of the best people in the country, of course. Some were even rehired in new, entry-level positions. The rest were paid a generous severance and helped to find new, fulfilling work that lived up to their real talents. If they were math or science professors—they might even wind up with the same jobs.
Obviously, by serving the old regime, none of them did anything even slightly wrong. Normal people would be Nazis in Nazi Germany and Stalinists in the USSR, too. It’s time to get over blaming citizens or even government officials for the crimes of their regimes. This is just one of those bad 20th-century ideas that needs to be forgotten.
Within months, or at least years, Mutopia was a clean, humming, gleaming paradise, where everyone had not only the toys and conveniences they deserved, but also the genuinely meaningful and fulfilling work they deserved. And no one—no one at all—was still obsessed with race.
The peasants’ gratitude toward their new monarch—also a highly progenitive man, with redundant budding heirs—is impossible to express. This new, functional Mutopia is run not by incompetent time-servers and eggheads with their heads in the clouds, but by its most capable and visionary doers—under the leadership not just of a new king, but of a new dynasty whose family mission is to make Mutopia great, not just on the scale of years, but on the scale of centuries—
So things are looking up in Mutopia! And they’ll keep getting better—for a while…
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