Persuasion and the Mensheviks
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot."
We live in the golden age of ad hominem. Today, even professional intellectuals find it normal to judge ideas by judging the human beings who think or have thought them.
This label, ad hominem, has an inherent poetic ambiguity. Once we judge ideas by the people who think them, it’s natural to punish ideas by punishing the people who think them. Coupled with a dominant-inferiority illusion in which the strong present as the weak, ad hominem is an ethical equation that can endorse an arbitrary level of tyranny.
All this through a fallacy so famous it has a Latin name. Which bothers us, the way littering bothers a Hell’s Angel. Who cares about Latin anymore, anyway? Seems like a textbook case of "you talk like a fag, and your shit is all retarded."
Or is it no longer okay to quote that movie? In 2020, we have to remind ourselves to think like time travelers—but never talk like time travelers. Ultimately the time traveler, as literary trope, is always a sort of time spy.
And in middle age we become time travelers. With our sag comes the power of parallax. The young see the present from the present. We see the present from the present, and also from the past. While old books can much enhance this stereoscopic superpower, it is alive already within anyone who was born in the '70s and not raised in a closet.
Moreover, the present has been in a hurry. As Lenin said: there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen. We are maybe more at years; but such weeks still give any alert observer a strong, if unrefined, parallax rush.
Power is normally invisible. It is taken for granted. It is inherently felt to be right. Changes in power, though, are hard to miss. Parallax highlights the first derivative.
And 2020’s increase in the energy, zeal, scope and authority of the Czar’s religious police, the Okhrana, and their youth militia of happy, hopeful teenage volunteers, has amazed anyone with eyes to parse the parallax.
And now, people are being busted all over the place for their long-past mindcrimes, which were not even crimes when they thought them, or which were misdemeanors but have become major felonies. Our Mensheviks are against this—as they should be.
And now, everyone is talking about the first derivative—or whatever threshold the Czar’s latest purity campaign has just blown through. But is the problem the first derivative? What only we Bolsheviks know is that the problem is the curve itself.
The fundamental difference between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is that Mensheviks think Czarism needs to be fixed; Bolsheviks know it needs to be replaced. Mensheviks are still at “if the Czar only knew.” What would Bolsheviks even say to the Czar?
In retrospect, Menshevism will seem inexplicable and Bolshevism will seem obvious. At present, Menshevism is universal among revolutionaries; Bolshevism is incredibly weird and rare. This is normal and shows how early in the transition process we are.
We can measure Menshevism only by comparing it to Bolshevism. To properly critique the 21st-century Mensheviks, we need a rock to stand on: a clear, frank exposition of 21st-century Bolshevism.
From this plinth we can copy Lenin’s favorite vice, and slay forests in denouncing the Mensheviks—not for their hearts, which are good—only for their ideas, which are terrible. We’ll focus in with a critique of a new Menshevik newsletter, Persuasion, and its very interesting “better remedy for cancel culture.”
(Of course, these labels are analogies, implying no continuity, connection, or parallel with the original Russian movements. In case there is any confusion between the two, prepend a “neo-” or attach a date. Now that it’s the ‘20s, you can start saying “1900s.”
And there is no Czar, of course—our old regime is anything but a monarchy. Let’s just say there was a Czar; and this Czar’s only power was absolute control over the press. This is not at all how it actually works. But in a way, it might as well be how it works.)
Principles of reaction
Obviously, the fallacy ad hominem is a pernicious enemy of reason. But as an enemy of reason, it has far more powerful and pervasive cousins. These bad boys, often too big to see, extend from individuals to sets of humans.
Hitler loved the fallacy ad gentem—as in “Jewish physics”—judging ideas by the groups that think them. Alas, we do see a bunch of ad gentem these days.
But the real poison of philosophy in the 1900s was the fallacy ad tempus: judging ideas by the point in time at which they were thought. Nothing could be more provincial. By analogy to ad gentem, historians sometimes talk about presentism.
If you need a definition of a “reactionary,” it is anyone who rejects presentism and ad tempus, and has taken his passport as a citizen of history. As the great historian Ranke said: every age stands equal before God. (Has anyone checked out Ranke’s social media?)
While our ancestors' lives cannot in any logical sense matter, we cannot dismiss ideas and perspectives simply because they are old. Otherwise, we are permanent children. Also, anyone who does not want to know what their ancestors would think of them is afraid of the answer. Which will not always be right; or wrong.
We immediately see that abandoning the fallacy ad tempus enormously expands the range of ideas which reasonable minds must consider: a daunting and dangerous project. This full range of philosophy is not just outside the Overton window. It is outside the Overton building. It may not even be restricted to municipal Overton.
To a reactionary, the ideal future neither continues the present nor recreates the past. A nation is neither a science project nor a theme park. In all soundly governed nations, the future is a conversation between present and past in which each judges the other. This judgment will often be severe. Such severity is usually symmetrical. And any period not quite ready for so tough a chat naturally fears and loathes its own past.
In the 1800s and 1900s, that conversation was more of a fight. The past got much the worst of the fight. In the ‘20s the present has nowhere left to go; and only the past to talk to. One day, probably nowhere near soon, the dialogue of history will resume.
Bolshevism for beginners
21st-century Bolshevism is a strategy, not an ideology. It explains how to change the government—not what the new government should do. We’ll start by opening a door now closed by ad hominem—and learning from Lenin.
We must distinguish Lenin the political theorist, Lenin the political strategist, and Lenin the person. Even before he seized power, Lenin’s crimes were abominable. His political theory adds little to Marx, also a heinous person, a terrible economist, but a literary genius (which Lenin was not).
But Lenin’s practical grasp of political strategy puts him on a level with Napoleon, Caesar, and Genghis Khan. Any student of statesmanship who refuses to to learn at Lenin’s feet is a maroon. Have we the luxury of ignorance? What age has that?
It is easy to learn from Lenin. Lenin was Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog: he had one big thought. That thought fits in one quote, which we may call Lenin’s rule:
The essence of revolution is not that a new class shall govern with the old government machinery, but that it shall smash up the existing machinery and govern with a new machine.
This rule was as unusual in Lenin’s time as in ours. It worked for Lenin. So did robbing banks, which doesn’t mean 21st-century dissidents should grab ski masks and Tec-9s. 1917 was a long time ago—and, in every way, a rougher time.
Yet we need not endorse the devices of the Cheka, or even the historical, political and economic ideas of Marx, to appreciate Lenin’s insight: it is easier to replace than reform an old government. (Certainly any programmer will recognize Lenin’s rule.)
The objective conditions of revolution
I believe in Lenin’s rule. I guess that makes me a techno-Bolshevik. But when it comes to “smashing up the existing machinery,” I am not at all into stuffing admirals, ministers, bankers or journalists into barrels full of nails and rolling them down the harbor steps (as the Cheka did in Odessa).
The rule remains correct. Its proper interpretation is relative. “Smash” has to mean something quite different in the 21st century. We must always consider the objective conditions of revolution, comrades. Rough tactics are for tough people in a rough time. We are weak people in a gentle time.
The October Revolution was a revolution of thorough, uncontrolled butchery. A proper 21st-century regime change will be no less thorough—but surgically precise, which means absolutely bloodless. Force and violence are opposites, not synonyms.
There are many ways of concentrating force. (The best and easiest starts with just winning an election.) Usually, the proximate cause of violence is action without adequate force. And since our era is unusually intolerant and incapable of violence, violence must be considered a failure mode in any 21st-century revolution.
Thoroughness is orthogonal to savagery. Thoroughness is always tactically and strategically essential. The late 1900s did see some peaceful, thorough revolutions—like the fall of East Germany—but our century can and must get all the way to… cozy. Without sacrificing any thoroughness or speed in the dissolution of the old regime.
The cozy revolution
Here is an easy test: in any truly cozy sovereign transition, even the officials of the old government machinery must wind up with better, happier, and more fulfilling lives.
Of course, everyone else should too. But men are chimps, and because of our universal chimp urge to maim any falling power on the way down, the treatment of the former apparatchiks is the perfect test to measure the competence and character of the new government machinery. (A close second best: treatment of groups and classes favored by the old regime.)
“Government machinery” is a mouthful. Let’s just say regime. If Lenin's rule is the first law of revolution—to replace the old regime with a new regime, not seek to direct the old regime — the second law is that the new regime must not punish anyone for good service to the old regime. (But having to change jobs or careers is not a punishment.)
Lenin didn't follow the second law. Napoleon and Caesar did. As a hot-brained young revolutionary, you may even think the second law is impossible. You're wrong. What did you think happened to Waffen-SS veterans in West Germany, or Stasi veterans in the unified Germany?
Answer: new careers and new lives. When they got old, they even got pensions for their years in the SS or Stasi. They never, ever went back to the office. Generally their new careers were not in governance or the military, of course. But an elite is an elite. Generally, if young enough for a second act, these talented people did just fine.
As atomized individuals, they were never a threat to the next regime. Despite various conspiracy fantasies, they did not set up secret networks for a counter-coup. The old regime was dead the day it fell.
The second law applies so long as it does not contradict the first. Only an ancient regime, safe as Smaug in stupendous age, wealth, weight, armor and arms, can afford the glorious, arrogant luxury of tolerating rivalrous action or capacity, overt or covert.
An infant regime needs a firm grip on the reins. American military government in West Germany probably overdid it at first, adopting many hard Stalinist techniques—including, but not limited to, ethnic cleansing, book shredding, and planned hunger.
But underbaking this cake might well have been more dangerous in the end—and it is hard to say denazification didn’t work. Unyielding repression of its predecessor did not leave the new German regime unpopular, but permanently popular. But even this level of repression did not sustain vindictiveness against the old regime’s old staff.
The legal singularity
Even a cozy revolution is a revolution—not a tea party. The revolution must smash the old regime. The old regime has made no law under which it may be smashed. The new regime is not a regime, and thus can make no law, until it has smashed the old regime.
This implies that regime change inherently must pass through a legal singularity, under which there is no law but power—because the singularity is not a state of law, but a state of war.
While we have long forgotten the difference, the Romans knew that inter arma silent leges: in time of war, the law is silent. And any time when sovereignty is not clear and stable is a time of war.
So a regime in a legal singularity is above written law. It is not above the law of war. The law of war is natural, not written. There is also a natural law of peace; and the law of war lets that peace be broken only for real military purposes. The soldier is to the peace, as the surgeon to the patient. Surgery, like war, is never done for fun. The singularity, while inherently above law, must be as quick and smooth as possible.
The third law of revolution: surgery is not butchery. The surgeon cuts to heal. The axe may be sharp; the scalpel is sharper. Let’s look at some examples of the difference.
Sharp instruments of the exception
Consider expropriation and sequestration: two sharp instruments of lawless power which often appear in legal singularities. Expropriation means: men with guns come and take your property. Sequestration means: men with guns come and take you. (The Roman Republic had a nasty combination called proscription, which meant: men with guns come, take your property, and kill you.)
Needless to say, no Americans want their government to have these arbitrary powers. Why, property rights and habeas corpus are at the core of our Constitutional liberties! Here are some funny questions, though.
Why, if habeas corpus is an unconditional and imperative ideal, does the Constitution grant the Congress the explicit power to suspend it? Also: which President, without the intervention of the Congress, suspended it anyway? Is this notorious tyrant generally considered our worst President, our best, or somewhere in between? Explain.
The answer is that together, full powers of expropriation and sequestration confer absolute sovereignty. These political genes must be turned off except during legal singularities. They are essential for any new regime to stabilize itself, by eliminating any remnants of the old regime or other competing successors.
These and other sovereign superpowers also may be needed in cases of war, alien invasion, zombie epidemics, etc. During normal operations, such exceptional genes should be off. And keeping them off prevents—well, some varieties of tyranny. In short: this power is in the Constitution because the Founders knew their job.
The analogy is deep: we all have literal genes like these. Such genes are active in three processes: embryos, regeneration, and cancer. An old body politic, such as ours, is both riddled with cancer, and deeply in need of healing and rebirth. The study of power above law, the prerogative, raison d’etat or state of exception, is the study of all three.
Of course, we could imagine a successful regime change that did not infringe property rights or suspend habeas corpus. The problem is: a successful regime change is already hard to imagine. Committing to a constraint that makes the transition almost certain to fail, by weakening the power of the new regime during the period of singularity, would be self-sabotage. Yet nor does anyone want a 21st-century Nero or Caligula.
Moreover, since legitimacy is a state of mind, when any regime acts under raison d’etat, it must act with total conviction that its actions are fair and justified. If it develops the bad habit of acting unscrupulously, it may suffer a dangerous loss of faith in itself.
Sovereignty’s safety razor
[I’ve redacted most of this section because, in 2021, fools might misunderstand it. However, it is accurately summarized in the original section below.]
Such is the sharp edge of 21st-century Bolshevism: a wealth tax on a few zillionaires, involuntary swank vacations for a few VIPs. Is this too much? Red Terror run wild? Must we refuse to countenance such naked violations of the non-aggression policy?
The libertarians aren’t returning my calls. But if this is too much—is is not ought. Is is up to you. Resign yourself to more of the same—more and more and more. You may be right. This may not be the way. What other way is there? I am certain of this prophecy, though I cannot prove it: until it all ends this way, none of it will end.
For comparison, let’s check in on how the Czarists feel. Are their arms sick of the ax? Do they have enough heads in the basket yet? That would be a no:
Chaos is not the same thing as evil. And although the Reign of Terror may have followed the French Revolution, the terrors wrought by the system that preceded it were far greater.
That’s why everyone who goes to Paris goes to see the skull piles in the catacombs, not the Louvre and Notre-Dame. Chaos is exactly the same thing as evil. Chaos is cancer.
Only one combination can cure cancer: good timing, good luck, and a good surgeon. There is still chaos in surgery—but only on the exact path of the cut. Which is as short, as quick, as fine and as exact as the surgeon can make it.
We are here to talk about Menshevism, not Bolshevism. But it seems a shame to state three laws but not all five. We’ll just assert the fourth and fifth, without justification. The fourth law is justified in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. The fifth is an Ottoman idea, and the Ottomans rocked.
The fourth law of revolution: any new regime must be an unconditional and accountable monarchy. The machinery of government must report unconditionally, with no parallel decision structure, to one leader or a small leadership team—more than three is too many. Yes, this is the same thing as an “absolute” monarchy.
This leader or leadership team must be accountable to some oversight body. But oversight is not management. Accountability is not part of the decision loop. It is not an operating structure but a safety feature—an airbag, not a steering wheel. Once the accountability mechanism becomes a management mechanism, it is already broken. Oversight does not change policies—only leaders.
The mission of sovereign accountability is to act as a responsible agent whose beneficiary is the whole population—making it fundamentally democratic. Lenin called this design, which in the USSR never worked until after Stalin’s death and hardly shone then, democratic centralism. After an even nastier rocky start, democratic centralism has worked much better—though by no means perfectly—in China.
We find the same principle in the original intent of our own Constitution, assuming the Presidency was meant to operate the way Hamilton and Washington operated it—as an American version of the UK’s cabinet government—with the Congress, like Parliament, as an oversight body. Lincoln and FDR both restored the Presidency as constitutional dictatorship—aka “unitary executive.” For better or worse, we hardly revile their names. Perhaps democratic centralism is the real Constitution, and the current legal-bureaucratic oligarchy is the illegitimate usurper? Asking for a friend.
At the sovereign level, accountable monarchy has never quite succeeded. But among the virtual governments we call “companies,” it has been more or less perfected. Democratic centralism is how all functional organizations in the world today work. The general secretary is a “CEO.” The Politburo is a “board of directors.”
The present has a vote too. If you drive a car, it was built by an accountable monarchy. If you eat a meal at a restaurant, it was cooked by an accountable monarchy. If you renew your license at the DMV, it was renewed by an unaccountable bureaucracy. The pattern is clear—why fight it? Democratic centralism works.
Of course, it is easy for corporations to be accountable monarchies, because the rule of law above them enforces their contracts. At the sovereign level, the achievements of democratic centralism, though real, are extremely inconsistent and often quite toxic.
We have to respect the engineering challenges of a sovereign accountable monarchy, which must somehow enforce its own constitution—an unsolved technical problem. But the future has a vote too.
The fifth law of revolution: any new regime must be universal. It cannot govern as the regime of a faction—cultural, ideological, religious, racial, linguistic, economic, or geographic. While the fifth law may be ethically pleasing, it is strategically essential.
Some nations are already completely homogeneous. This is government on easy mode. The problem, a fortiori, may be ignored. Iceland needs little more government than Black Rock City. Iceland has roughly the same demographics as Black Rock City.
America, like the late USSR, is an internal and external empire. There is a timeline in which, one day, she stops pretending this isn’t true, or is good. Her external empire will drop away naturally—but any new regime will inherit the same internal empire.
An empire can only be governed by governing its communities. In Britain’s empire, this principle was called “indirect rule.” It must do its best to govern every community as if only that community mattered. And it must draw its community lines along real social graphs, not sterile abstractions of class, genetics or geography.
The best people to govern a community are always its own people. But all communities must harmoniously share one geography. No empire can tolerate toxic relationships between communities—violence, incitement or threats; bullying, predation, domination or exploitation; even financial, commercial or cultural imbalances.
And the 20th-century dream of grinding all human communities into a single beige smoothie, as if the whole Reddit C-suite did too many shrooms at some Esalen offsite and decided subreddits are actually segregation, is especially weird, toxic, predatory and harmful. It is not okay for the government to be a giant blender.
The 21st-century pattern is the opposite—if anything we see active ethnogenesis. Even juggalos must be governed as though only juggalos mattered. Perhaps even Crips must be governed as if only Crips mattered. Every human community deserves a chance to govern itself and flourish, so long as it can do so in true harmony with every other.
While the beige global aristocracy is a fait accompli, we cosmopolitan aristocrats will never be the only human beings in the world. In fact, we are probably best understood as just another tribe of our own. Most of us, I’m sure, are good people. We are good at being in charge of people like us—in fact, we need very little governing at all. We have no intrinsic competence in governing people who are not like us.
General peace and universal amnesty
One tricky aspect of the fifth law is that regimes tend to perish in factional strife. Therefore, the next regime is most likely to arise out of one faction. For instance, Caesar emerges as the candidate of the populares; Napoleon, as a Jacobin general.
But both Napoleon and Caesar understood that their victories were not the victory of one faction over another, but of the whole public over the old regime. They swiftly moved to occupy a more stable position as a fair arbiter above all factions. Since only the desire for power created and divided these factions, they quickly dissolved.
The old conflict was an artifact of broken politics. It was sustained only by each side’s fear of the other. The new monarchy, by depriving both factions of all power to assault the other, leaves neither with a reason to exist—and no politics at all. Who will miss it? Did Virgil lament Rome’s loss of Milo and Clodius, Marius and Sulla, the Social Wars, Catiline and his dirty crew?
In both the France of Napoleon and the Rome of Augustus, the civic conflicts that brought the new regime to power—between Jacobins and aristocrats in France, optimates and populares in Rome—simply disappear, and never reappear. Rome’s conflict of the orders, always nasty, often violent, was old as the Republic itself.
To get super geeky: since this unifying strategy is optimal for all monarchs, any optimal monarch will deploy it. In theory, it does not matter which faction brings this optimal monarch to power—though in theory, a feather falls just as fast as a hammer.
In an empire like America, there will always be multiple communities—but only enmity turns a community into a faction. And only anarchy lets enmity fester. This divine surprise of general peace may be the finest dividend of the next regime change. Who can imagine living in an America where neither side of the “culture war” (let alone “race war”) hated the other? No one has any idea that this is even possible.
The essential core of any such peace is universal amnesty: no person or group can be punished or blamed for anything that happened before the settlement. The classic amnesty is the Indemnity and Oblivion Act 1660, which restored the Stuarts; this indemnity, perhaps too broadly, excluded “piracy, buggery, rape and witchcraft.”
A more modern example is the accession of the ANC regime in South Africa, with its excellent device of truth and reconciliation. But amnesty is incomplete without oblivion—which means all sides permanently abandon all historical grievances. Crazy talk! But why should any revolution have modest ambitions?
The paradox of 21st-century Bolshevism
Obviously, neo-Bolshevism as described above is extremely unrealistic. No one at all supports anything like these weird-ass measures!
This is not because they don’t see a serious problem. They often see lots and lots of serious problems. But for each and every one, they imagine some much easier solution.
For any malady of state, there are three possible solutions: do nothing; repair the government; or replace the government. Once they are fed up with a broken status quo, which given the power of systemic Stockholm syndrome takes a lot, people naturally start thinking about how to repair that very same status quo. Of course, their narrative of history tells them they have both the right, and the capacity, to repair it.
Any fix intuitively feels much more realistic than some kind of wild all-encompassing revolution. If their minds even brush past that third answer, they just bounce off. Their bias is to narrate a world in which the regime either can spontaneously fix itself, or can be fixed by good arguments, activism, or other concerted collective action.
Had you been a dissident in the USSR in 1979, you would have thought just this way. You would have been all about “socialism with a human face.” And ten years later you would have realized just how wrong you were. In retrospect it seems obvious that the Soviet regime could be replaced but not repaired. In 1979 this was obvious to no one.
Menshevism is always and everywhere the main obstacle to Bolshevism. Even when everyone sees the disease, everyone considers it insane and unendurable, and everyone can see that it is only growing, no one wants a Bolshevik revolution—not even because they think regime change would be impossible or ineffective—but because they know it is big, difficult and dangerous; and they think it is unnecessary.
They think it is is unnecessary because they think they see some small, safe solution. If this solution is an illusion, the would-be dissident is in an optimization dead end. Hill-climbing has trapped him on a hilltop. He wants the right thing. He will never find his mountain. This is why we must reach out a hand to the Mensheviks.
Meet the Mensheviks
What is a Menshevik? A Menshevik is a small and good person—an intellectual hobbit. This small and good person is naturally attracted to small and good ideas.
All hobbits are good. But hobbits are at their best when they know they’re hobbits. If we do poke some fun at them, it is only for the same reason Gandalf teased Bilbo. And since they do choose to speak to the public, the public too should know their stature.
The word Menshevik literally means minority, as in: the minority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. In reality there were almost always more Mensheviks than Bolsheviks. But not everything is counted by counting heads.
A Menshevik is a small man or woman, standing with all their small determination in very much the right direction. For the Menshevik, things have gone a small bit too far. The Menshevik offers small objections. The Menshevik may make small requests.
The irony of the eternal conflict between Menshevism and Bolshevism is that the Menshevik thinks: the Bolshevik is thinking too big, so his ideas are impractical. The Bolshevik thinks: the Menshevik is thinking too small, so his ideas are impractical.
The Bolshevik feels the Menshevik is a friend—a very misguided friend, who’s also going through a lot right now. The Menshevik will feel better, after converting to Bolshevism. The Menshevik feels the Bolshevik is a double agent in Satan’s service.
Sadly, this cannot be ruled out—no philosophy, however pure, can purify man— and precisely because Bolshevism can work, it must eventually attract the worst of men. Long before any party could possibly matter, it must figure out how to purify itself.
Whereas Menshevism is so useless, and being a Menshevik right now is so difficult, that the personal purity of this party is incredibly high. But purity is one thing; logic is another; courage a third, and determination a fourth. We speak to the Mensheviks because they are worth speaking to; we have hope for them; they may well grow.
The Mensheviks speak to power. The Bolsheviks speak to each other. A Bolshevik never speaks to power, in any language: he offers no objections, makes no requests, and takes no actions. His objections would be too big to understand. His requests would be too big to grant. His actions would be cringe and counterproductive.
The Bolshevik accepts that until safe and effective regime change is possible, which is not now and perhaps not for decades, no significant positive change is possible. Now and for the foreseeable future, nothing can happen and nothing can be done. This detachment leaves him super calm and keeps him out of trouble with the Okhrana.
But small feels big to the Menshevik. It would, since the Menshevik is small. A great current example of a Menshevik screed is the recent open letter in Harper’s. Another is a new Menshevik newsletter, Persuasion—dissected extensively below. These, to the Menshevik, are huge new intellectual earthquakes. But the Menshevik is small.
Both these small voices are concerned with a problem, real or supposed, that they call “cancel culture.” Let’s stipulate that the problem is real, and as described. How shall it be solved? Persuasion, in fact, has a specific policy proposal for us to analyze. Let us evaluate Menshevism and its proposals, against the frank and clear Bolshevik answer.
“Cancel culture” is regime-complete
Any techno-Bolshevik will tell you that “cancel culture” is one of many regime-complete problems—ones for which all practical paths to any real solution pass through regime change, “smashing up the government machinery and ruling with a new machine.” Let’s face it: Lenin was a startup guy.
Most of us have enough parallax to remember 2012. Suppose a Menshevik goal—a very ambitious goal!—was to roll back “cancel culture” to whatever seed or sprout it was in 2012. Sadly, the easiest path to even this modest goal is a total Bolshevik revolution. And why would a total (though cozy) revolution have modest goals?
The irony of the regime-complete problem is that “cancel culture” is hardly the only such problem. There are tens, hundreds, thousands—who can say? In how many ways is an old man’s body old? And for each of these maladies, there is some quack remedy. Each is different. Each is remarkably inexpensive. None is even slightly effective.
When we look at the energy required for a total Bolshevik revolution, we are daunted. But when we add up all the total energy that is spent on these futile quack medicines, each with its own modest little goal, all of which put together would be pathetic even if all the pills and syrups worked—we are to laugh.
Actually there is plenty of energy. The Mensheviks—all the many kinds of Menshevik—are just pissing it all away. And I say this with great love and affection. Let us make this diagnosis concrete, by studying a single brand of Menshevik quack medicine.
Persuasion: a study in Menshevism
At the risk of wearing out my Substack welcome, I'm going to snipe at a fellow newsletter—not, obviously, because their numbers are so much better than mine. They should be: behind Persuasion are about 20 of the world’s most famous "centrist" journalists and professors.
A Menshevik is anyone who sees something deeply wrong with the old machinery, but thinks it can be easily fixed—usually in a way that leaves them with a sweet gig. As Lenin often observed, such persons are the strongest allies of the old regime. They defend it not by weak lies, but strong half-truths. They praise it with faint damns.
It is difficult to convey just how many amazing writers, journalists, and think-tankers -- some young and some old, some relatively obscure and others very famous -- have privately told me that they can no longer write in their own voices; that they are counting the days until they get fired; and that they don't know where to turn if they do. (Astonishingly, a number of them are far enough to the left to have supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.)
“Astonishingly”—does not this one word not give the whole game away? What could it mean, but that the assailants were no strangers to their victims? Was this the first time you thought about the company you kept? Did you not even know they were strapped?
So Lenin, always a tough cop, would surely respond—so, gentlemen, the crocodile has finally come for you. As a Bolshevik—I hate to say it—my money is on the crocodile.
Here we see the division between Menshevik and Bolshevik, 20th-century liberal and 21st-century post-liberal. To the Menshevik, “cancel culture” is a new crocodile. To the Bolshevik, it is an old crocodile—and one which the Menshevik himself was feeding. Though apparently not feeding enough.
Over 200 years ago, Maistre, who will be still be read when all these “amazing writers, journalists and think-tankers” are footnotes in some unborn pedant's monograph, answered young Mounk in advance:
It is long since such an appalling punishment has been seen visited on so many sinners. No doubt there are innocent people among the unfortunates, but they are far fewer than is commonly imagined.
It is frightening to see distinguished intellectuals fall under Robespierre’s ax. From a humane standpoint they can never be too much mourned, but divine justice is no respecter of mathematicians or scientists.
Too many French intellectuals were instrumental in bringing about the Revolution; too many approved and encouraged it so long as, like Tarquin’s wand, it cut off only the ruling heads. Like so many others, they said, a great revolution cannot come about without some distress.
But when a thinker justifies such means by the end in view; when he says in his heart, a hundred thousand murders are as nothing, provided we are free; then, if Providence replies, I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims, where is the injustice?
To Maistre, grandmaster of theodicy, the French Revolution was God’s justice on the liberal French philosophers who had brought it about. We can agree or disagree on the theology. No historian can disagree that the "amazing writers, journalists and think-tankers" of Paris in the 1780s did plenty to prepare their own graves.
So when Mounk writes:
The primary threat to liberal democracy is posed by the populist right. From Brasilia to Warsaw and from Delhi to Washington, authoritarian populists are attacking free speech, stoking the ugliest passions of bigots and racists, and concentrating power in their own hands.
However, these institutions also suffered from two important shortcomings. First, the people they admitted into their gilded halls only represented a small slice of America’s population: sexism, racism and homophobia were far more prevalent in these institutions than they are today. The views they considered serious sometimes included the morally abhorrent.
We hear Maistre loud and clear. “The morally abhorrent.” The “views they considered serious.” “Sexism, racism and homophobia.” Why, young Yascha himself has a deft hand with that ax! The credo of the Menshevik:
This is a space for people who are open to changing their minds, but not their fundamental values.
Your mind should be open, but not too open. “We seek to persuade, rather than to mock or troll, those who disagree with us”—providing your views are “serious.” Otherwise, well—a great revolution cannot come about without some distress. Citizen Mounk will have your neck. Nor does he stand alone as a Menshevik headsman.
When he writes, “we believe in the importance of the social practice of persuasion, and are determined to defend free speech and free inquiry against all its enemies,” he omits a word. That word is our. It fits between “defend” and “free.” Himself and his chic and meritocratic friends excepted, Mounk, this second coming of Mme Roland, accepts the principle of the the intellectual guillotine in toto.
What example has he of himself defending anyone accused of “sexism, racism and homophobia”—three words which did not even exist just a century ago—until Sanson, the headsman, came for these “amazing writers, think-tankers and journalists?” Until Providence replied: I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims?
And now, halfway to the “national razor,” the dude makes a scene. So did some on the way to Sanson—never, though, the greatest. And it never once worked. It is good that Mounk has gathered all these Girondins in one space! How diverse is that space? Where is… the trans community in Persuasion? They’re just questions, Leon.
Alas, we are slipping back toward ad hominem—or worse. Leaving Mounk's head in the basket, let’s consider the actual ideas he's promoting. As a human being, he may be flawed. So am I. So is everyone. So was Lenin.
A better remedy
Let’s take a good look at Persuasion’s inaugural essay: Zaid Jilani's A Better Remedy For Cancel Culture. Mounk is "proud to run this as one of the first pieces,” so it seems fair to judge his publication by it—just as it seems fair to judge Menshevism by Persuasion. (There is certainly no shortage of talent here.)
The better remedy of this “amazing think-tanker” is... to "abolish at-will employment." Let’s go to the tape:
At the moment, most American workers are subject to “at-will” contracts. As long as their employers do not fire them on the basis of a narrow set of protected characteristics, such as gender, race, and sexual orientation, they can lose their jobs at any time, for any reason. Nor is there a due process requirement: Companies are under no legal obligation to investigate whether the ostensible reasons for axing an employee are grounded in reality.
The prevalence of at-will employment makes it easier for employers to engage in knee-jerk reactions to short-lived social media controversies. For instance, a Hispanic electrician working for the San Diego Gas and Electric company was fired for cracking his knuckles in a photograph because a social media mob believed that he was flashing a white power sign.
The man who took the picture has since admitted that he probably misinterpreted the interaction, and thousands of people have now signed a petition, asking the electrician’s former employer to reverse the mistake. But since the employee has already lost his job, it will be hard for him to obtain justice. As in many other cases, both parties would have been better off if the law had required the company to afford due process to an accused worker before deciding whether or not to fire him.
“To afford due process.” The logic of this amazing proposal is really quite sound, so long as we judge it as what it is: a clever move on the dream chessboard of public policy—a game anyone like Jilani mastered at whatever good schools he attended.
The Bolshevik, who refuses the game, must never make a move. He passes; resigns; or tips over the board. Let’s show that Jilani’s idea is a move in a figurative game, not a literal real-world proposal, by—interpreting it as a literal real-world proposal.
But we live in a world where the real is hidden and the visible is a dream. To think in the real world we must first penetrate the logic of this dream. Usually the best way to shake off a dream is to change words, and stop thinking in the language of the dream.
There are two kinds of legal codes: codes which recognize race, and codes that don’t. If you have a legal system that recognizes race, you have race laws. We do. No one likes to talk about the race laws, of course. But we have to.
Because Jilani’s proposal—interpreted literally—proposes to solve a problem rooted in the race laws—by extending the race laws. This is not just crazy in practice. It is also crazy in theory. Let’s start with the theory, then circle back to the practice.
Race laws are not crazy or even unusual. Regimes throughout history have decided that “race” is a thing. Indeed, the concept used to be applied still more narrowly. Maistre famously wrote:
The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian. But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.
Even the “white race” would have sounded odd to Maistre. He would have spoken of the “French race” or the “Russian race”—a usage that lived into the early 1900s. Of course our geneticists can now pinpoint this level of detail, though our language has lost it. But genes for baguettes, tracksuits or the “Slav squat” have not yet been found.
Our own system of race laws is a little more than 50 years old. Like many such codes present and past, it was first written to distinguish between humans of European and West African descent—a fork in our family’s genetic tree that scientists now know is among the deepest. As such, Maistre—with his customary savage wit—would have called it a code noir.
Our code noir has been repeatedly extended by analogy—first to other races, then to other biological sets. Women soon became a race. It turns out that the race laws were originally written to include gays. No one noticed for 50 years—maybe they thought “gay” meant “happy.” Now that error has been corrected, and gays are a race too.
What do you get if you’re an official race? It means you can’t be bullied. People aren’t allowed to be mean to you, individually or collectively. Like: if anyone is mean to you at work, you can sue. The purpose of the race laws is to grant extra legal protection to races, such as humans of West African descent, whom the other, raceless people are bullying, or were bullying, or would bully if they could get away with it.
The thumb of state power must counteract this malign, invisible force. Our race laws work by recognizing the existence of a shadowy counter-government, sovereign itself in silence and night, whose criminal exception must be countered by the exceptional and sovereign power of the state. The existence of a counter-government implies the situation of civil war: inter arma silent leges. Race law is raison d’etat. We were just now defending raison d’etat—how could we condemn it unconditionally?
It is an absolute historical fact that conspiracies of this kind have in real life existed, and an absolute political fact that race laws like ours are effective in repressing them. However, we should always be careful when granting our ethical consent to repression. Repression seldom automatically terminates itself, even once its work is done. It would rather make new work for itself. Repression, unfortunately, is kind of fun.
And repression works so well that often, its only way to stay employed is to adjust its standards. A good exercise in parallax is to find clear and undeniable historical cases of the problem being repressed, then compare these cases to present conditions.
Of course, this was an alien and externalized description of our present reality, using deliberately unfamiliar terminology to frustrate emotional associations. Within our alternate dimension, let’s describe Jilani’s proposal objectively.
In his own frame: Jilani’s idea would “end at-will employment” in the same way that at-will employment has already ended for race, gender and orientation—but now also, for “non-woke” politics.
In this frame: Jilani would extend the race laws yet again, to make Republicans a race. It's basically, like, something Ben Shapiro would come up with, if you bought him a lifetime subscription to acid and appointed him to the Supreme Court.
(The Mensheviks themselves could presumably tag along, but are not yet Republican. Give them a few years. They are beautifully positioned to capture the GOP, just like the mid-century Trotskyists who by the ‘70s had become the neocons. The purer you are, the better a grifter you can become—and these Mensheviks are very, very pure.)
We will look concretely at why “ending at-will employment [for politics]” is a bad idea. But more important, it’s just a weird idea. It is abstractly bizarre. It is a strange, ornate hack, on a system which is already strange and ornate. Let’s find some more parallax.
Miracles of 20th-century jurisprudence
Most Americans do not actually know how their race laws work. As it happens, how they work is so confusing that the less you know, the more you understand.
This is common in 20th-century Orwellian exploits. The way these hacks work is that the informal public understanding of the phenomenon conforms better to reality than the literal language in which it formally presents itself. So the more you know about the formalism, the farther away you get from reality—expertise is self-confusion.
Jilani obviously knows the formalism, because he uses it: “on the basis of a narrow set of protected characteristics,” such as “gender, race, and sexual orientation.” A set so “narrow” that everyone has all three! Let’s explore this interesting word, protected.
The public is certainly familiar with the term protected class. They interpret this term as follows: a protected class (which maps to the ironic use of race above) is some biologically immutable class of citizen, such as redheads or Uzbeks, which requires extra protection from the government.
America has many immutable human subsets. Some of these classes are protected, and some aren’t. If you are in any protected subset, you’re protected. So America has just two classes of citizen: protected citizens, and unprotected citizens. That is: first-class citizens and second-class citizens. For instance, second-class citizens are easy to fire and first-class citizens are hard to fire.
This is a completely incorrect interpretation of the law. It doesn’t work like this at all. As anyone who knows the first thing about the Constitution knows, any dual-class system of citizenship would be bad, illegal and unconstitutional. It would violate one of our most cherished constitutional rights as Americans: equal protection of law.
In fact the key word is “on the basis of.” The “classes” are not classes of citizen. They are classes of motivation. A redheaded Uzbek can be fired at will—so long as she is not discharged because of her hair color or Uzbek roots. It is these bad motives that the race laws are trying to ferret out and destroy.
Because of the widespread conspiracies against these classes, the only way to provide them with substantive equal protection is to give them extra protection against these bad motives. Napoleon, giving a lecture to Boxer and Clover, put it perfectly. “In order to treat some animals equally, we must treat them differently.” This is pure poetry.
Actually, the real quote says “persons” and it isn’t from Animal Farm. It’s from a 1978 Supreme Court opinion, by Harry Blackmun. (No relation to Mars Blackmon). Think about how much more sense this remarkable proposition made in 1978 than 2020—or even 1964 than 1978.
Jilani would just like to add politics—but not of course “morally abhorrent” politics— to this list of bad motives. Doesn’t it seem like a reasonable proposal when we put it this way? But in an unreasonable frame, reason is just a way to confuse yourself.
The problem is that the objective reality of our race laws correlates with their public understanding, not with their formal language. When you pass a law which can only be literally enforced by a court of law if the court is either (a) lucky or (b) telepathic, don’t expect the law to work literally.
In most of these cases, the only way a court can ferret out bad motives is “he said, she said.” Not that hardly any lawsuit ever gets to a court anyway. What all these protected classes of motive mean, in practice, is that protected classes of person find it easier to get legal settlements from previous employers—so they are harder to fire.
Any settlement is still a guess at what some judge might do. So these laws only work if the judges want them to work, and when the judges want them to work. The stern old Judges in that book of the Bible were both priest and warlord; Judge Dredd is a locus of unitary sovereignty; even in the early 1900s, a judge was some stalwart, responsible, apolitical pillar of the community; in 2020, a judge is a bureaucrat in a costume.
Only title, diploma and robe remain to remind us that this is somehow a sacred figure. Under these trappings, usually, is another small, good human. Ethically, this person believes whatever they were taught to believe. Practically, they want to look good in the newspaper. Pragmatically, they can tell the police what to do, and the police can tell anyone what to to do. And no one can tell them what to do.
Nominally, our race laws are symmetrical. Anyone of any race can display these bad motives toward any other race. No one can possibly say they are judged symmetrically. The motivation for this asymmetry is not racial animus. It is political desire (thymos): the desire to matter. Thymos always presents itself as the desire to do the right thing.
So if the bad motive was (like “cancel culture”) specifically political, the law would run even more directly into this same asymmetry. You can’t pass a law that prohibits bullying bad people. If you could pass it, the judges would not enforce it. We know this because in some places the law Jilani wants is already on the books, and judges do not enforce it (see below).
Here’s a much better proposal. What if we made everyone a protected class? What if no one could be unpleasant or unfair to anyone—for any motivation—skin, sex, politics, hair color? In fact: why is it even legal to be a bully or an asshole? Why not apply this same system to all personal or professional disputes, regardless of attributes? Why not just make everyone a first-class citizen?
The answer: if anyone could sue anyone else, for just being a dick, imagine the courts. Government is not a magical process. It is a mechanical process. If your design needs 100x the power of the actual part, don’t expect your product to work the way it says on the box. The Romans knew this issue well, and made a rule: de minimis non curat lex. This means what you think it means: the only path back to the rule of law is not to make everyone a first-class citizen, but to make everyone a second-class citizen—who, when the people around him are unpleasant or unfair, has no recourse to a lawsuit.
When our race-law machine breaks that ancient rule and fails, it fails in an interesting way. It does not actually do what it claims to do. It actually does what it claims not to do. This is common in Orwellian exploits—for obvious reasons.
Obviously, “protected classes” are, like, the exact opposite of “equal protection of law.” Making the public, especially the unprotected public, believe in, cherish and adore this straight-up WAR IS PEACE shit, is the kind of epic flex that tells you you’re looking at one of history’s great empires. It really is just a Jedi mind trick. But what a trick!
Seattle: free-speech bastion
We have seen three parallax views of Jilani’s proposal, and the race laws it is built on: one intentionally unfamiliar and strange, one literally false but substantively true, one literally true and substantively false.
In the formal narrative of the present, this idea is ingenious. But in the objective experience of the present, it is deranged. What happens when theory meets practice?
What happens: Jilani actually argues himself out of his own bad idea. Individually, this is to his credit. Collectively, it reminds us that Menshevism is a cloud of soap bubbles. These people do not even take themselves seriously:
Seattle has even more ambitious protections for workers’ political views. Its laws prohibit discrimination based on “political ideology,” which is defined as “any idea or belief… relating to the purpose, conduct, organization, function or basis of government institutions and activities, whether or not characteristic of any political party or group.”
Which is why Seattle is a national haven against "cancel culture." Or not:
But even this law mostly serves to protect people with relatively common political views. After the 2016 election, for example, local rental listings began to discourage Trump supporters from applying. “If you are a landlord,” city government spokesperson Elliot Bronstein, wrote in response, “you cannot discriminate on political status.”
And then I'm sure they all stopped -- because the law.
California has a similar law. It was passed for the same reason: to protect communists in the workplace, when it was necessary to protect communists in the workplace. For the same reason, it is now a dead-letter curiosity like Seattle’s law. (Opinions vary on whether this is because there are no communists, or communists need no protection.)
I do know of someone who benefited from it. Dude got fired for funding an election billboard. This was literally politics; and he had better lawyers than his employer. He was still fired; but he got a way better severance deal. The exception proves the rule.
Lycurgus is in the house
Jilani, pressing on despite his knowledge that Seattle is not any kind of cancel-culture haven, has gone so far that now, he develops real qualms—a sudden concern that his law, if too strict, might still let Trotskyists and other double dealers slip away:
Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting their staff from the hateful conduct of colleagues. Clearly, for example, no member of an ethnic minority should have to endure racist taunts at their place of work.
Like a “white-power sign?”
The Menshevik position is clear. Witch hunts are essential. Witchcraft is a serious concern for our society. Problem: only genuine witches must be burned. Solution: always bring a witch detector, and make sure it’s the best detector on the market.
The Mensheviks have a better, more sensitive witch detector. It does not give a false positive when scanning a Menshevik. The Okhrana should upgrade to this new fifth-generation witch-detection protocol. Yes, it is similar to the third-generation unit…
It is obvious that race laws and “cancel culture” are related. The former imposed the legal requirement to repress “abhorrent opinions,” ie, witchcraft and communism, in the workplace—a norm which then easily spread across blackboard, print and screen.
The feeling is that these “abhorrent opinions” are in some way holding certain races back. This is certainly not impossible, though it would probably be hard to prove. In any case, there has never been any regime without some concept of illegal speech or thought—blasphemy, sedition, heresy, even constructive treason.
(In the golden age of constructive treason, almost any criticism of government could be cleverly interpreted as inciting the assassination of the King. Our own Treason Clause is a response to the ingenious and elastic Tory use of this label.)
The Mensheviks remain 100% on board with the principle that these bad crimes and the bad criminals who do them must be banned from polite society for the good of all. Other than that, they’re like totally down with this whole Enlightenment thing lol.
Now the definition of “abhorrent” has grown again, as is power’s cancerous wont. And—Providence has selected them as its victims. They object. This is simply a mistake in logic. We should all return to the previous and correct definition of “abhorrent.”
Our Menshevik lawgivers will Lycurgus us back to a sane middle ground:
But this could also be addressed through carefully worded legislation. Seattle already offers exemptions for political conduct that would cause “substantial and material disruption of the property rights of the provider of a place of public accommodation.” Employers also have an affirmative obligation to protect employees from racist harassment.
Indeed. But all these contradictions are solvable, comrade:
Balancing competing goods is one of the core purposes of any legal system. There is no reason to think that our laws could not protect the speech of political minorities, without hampering the operation of overtly political organizations or burdening ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities with the fear of harassment.
“No reason to think.” I'm pretty sure that Jilani has never been an employer, or even a manager. Nor has he ever been involved in a legal dispute—I absolutely guarantee this. Does this bright and well-educated person know anything about the governance or history of his own country, which he so boldly offers to reform?
He is clearly unaware that any lawsuit in America is a shitshow by definition; that who wins depends mainly on financial stamina; that a civil case which even goes before a judge, much less a jury, is rarer than a diamond-farting unicorn; that everyone in a robe today is a graduate of a law school which teaches Critical Legal Studies, aka Woke Law; and that when any polarized case appears, all our laws mean is that the Czar—that is, the press—can do nothing wrong. And his enemies can do nothing right.
Of course—in the real America—if you have bad press, you can suffer any punishment for anything. If you have good press, you can get away with anything. While the rule of law is better than the rule of force, the rule of force is better than this gross mockery of the rule of law—which is all that rule of the press could possibly amount to.
And obviously, the press is who cancels you. Cancel culture is press culture. Good luck getting good press for your effort to cancel the press. Good luck asking the courts to protect people from the press. Doesn’t anyone here know how this country works?
Jilani doesn’t just know all about lawsuits. He also knows how a bill becomes a law:
New employment regulations always face an especially tough uphill battle in Congress. But, though it will not be easy to win legislative approval for such reforms, every major faction of American political life has its own reasons for supporting them.
The left should be sympathetic to the wish to expand job protections for American workers, which lag significantly behind those of other developed countries. While conservatives are usually hostile to such regulations, they should recognize that these reforms would help to protect them against the growing influence of cancel culture.
And philosophical liberals—those of us who believe in a pluralistic society that encourages ideological diversity—have the most principled reason to get on board.
The “Schoolhouse Rock” is strong in this one. Why do I sense that our pundits know, or care, as much about the Hill as it actually exists and functions, as employment law as it actually exists and functions?
The Congress, as it exists and functions, is not in any sense a parliamentary body. It is a bureaucratic body. The job of its members is not to debate statesmanship, as if they were Confederate senators. It is to raise money, gain influence, and get good press.
And certainly, if you want any number of Congresspersons to care about anything, you need one of three things: sustained positive press; a lot of money; or a lot of voters. Ideally you’d be showing up at the table with all three. For anyone else—
For everyone else, the Congress, only slightly less opaque than an Ottoman hareem, is just Owen Glendower’s vasty deep. Anyone can call on it to do anything. And they do.
Again and again we see that the Mensheviks, these purported realists, are not even serious. Here we see one proposing a law which could never be passed, and if passed could never be enforced in anything like the way he intends—which he knows, since by a quirk of history this exact law is already on the books from Seattle to Chula Vista.
Even Jesus isn’t having it
Jilani's ending is an absolute masterpiece of centrism:
Hatred of any form of wrongthink now threatens the foundations of our social fabric. Since the stakes of public policy debates are high, it is understandable—and even admirable—for citizens to subject each other’s views to vigorous criticism.
But, if ordinary people fear that a minor misunderstanding or a deeply held difference of opinion might cost them their jobs, freedom of speech—the cornerstone of any liberal order—is under serious threat.
Indeed. As Jesus put it: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot.” Click to find out what Jesus said next! (Jilani might enjoy going back through his own essay, and counting the incidence of “hatred of any form of wrongthink.”)
Like: Jesus! In the same breath! What is wrong with you people? “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ,” as Cromwell said, “think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
A robust Menshevik platform
Bolsheviks don’t do platforms. However, in the interest of revolutionary brotherhood, here is what the Mensheviks could propose as a solution to “cancel culture”—if they were serious. Feel free to copy any of this stuff, folks, and definitely don’t credit me.
First, end the race laws. In 2003, Justice O’Connor promised a 2028 end date to this fantastic “some animals are more equal than others” experiment in jurisprudence. She was assuming it would have worked by then. It’ll have to start working pretty fast, no?
Or we could just decide the drug is ineffective and its side effects are unacceptable, and restore freedom of association, freedom of speech, and equal protection of the law. Sounds like the liberal Enlightenment position to me. Right, Persuasion?
Second, override NYT v. Sullivan and restore the libel laws. Since the current judiciary is unfamiliar with the old common law of libel, it is best to follow the precedent taken with patent law and establish a specialized Federal court with national jurisdiction. Lawsuits against the press would be this new court’s entire docket, except for…
Third, enforce the common-law rule of tortious interference once used to shut down the Hollywood blacklist. The blacklist was enforced by small private groups which made lists of known or suspected witches. Believe it or not, interfering with someone’s right to earn a living is actually a tort. Read about how this works—or used to.
An agency that implements the second and third measures is a reputation court, which can protect reputations, restore reputations, and prevent and punish reputational attacks. Various countries around the world—for instance, Canada—enforce their race laws with a special-purpose parallel judicial system (“human rights commissions”). If a single body is inadequate to deal with the problem, it can certainly grow tentacles.
So: to end cancel culture, cancel race law and create reputation law. This remedy is a hundred times stronger than any of Persuasion’s herbal tablets. It remains inadequate, superficial and impossible—which is why Bolsheviks don’t do platforms.
Confucius and the ideology
What accounts for the superficial quality of Menshevik thought? Confucius knows. Confucius said: to reform the state, reform the language.
You can see that the Mensheviks understand this, in their small Menshevik way—since they are always inventing new labels for the problem. Is it “cancel culture”? “Wokism”? The “successor ideology”? Successor to what? Maybe we should just keep calling it “Czarism”—or drop the “successor,” and just say the ideology.
We intuitively sense that there’s something pathological about this labeling chaos—some kind of forcefield impeding our ability to think clearly. Our suspicions grow when we look backward. Fading out into historical obscurity, we see a long trail of failed labels which all clearly mean the same thing—bones outside the dragon’s cave.
Put on some 90s techno tracks and ask: is “cancel culture” the same thing as “political correctnes?” Spin some Skrillex and ask: what’s the difference between a “wokeist” and an “SJW?” But no cool person would say “PC” or “SJW” non-ironically in 2020.
While every case is different, the classic lifecycle of one of these labels is: first, it is used sincerely by the movement; second, it is noticed by the enemies of the movement, and used as a label for the movement; third, that label is noticed by the movement, which sheds it and instead stigmatizes the enemies who use it; fourth, the movement wins, and its pathetic, beaten enemies drop their now broken and useless weapon.
“PC” has passed through this whole cycle. Here is Walter Benjamin, in an address delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, in Paris in 1934, saying “politically correct” sincerely. He equates it with “conforming to the correct political tendency.”
What label would Walter Benjamin have used for “the correct political tendency”? What is this snake that keeps dropping its skin? Of course, power hates to be named. Having one name is next door to having one neck. Power really hates to have one neck.
Here is why Mensheviks keep renaming it: to cling to a happy illusion. The happy illusion is that this problem is a new phenomenon. And when we give it a new name, we imply—in a very clever Orwellian fashion—that it is a new thing. If it is not in fact a new thing, we give one thing two names—and step right in front of Occam’s razor.
If it is a new thing, it must be a small thing. A new tree is a small tree. A small tree can be removed with a penknife or small hatchet, which is why we keep seeing these small and superficial solutions from the Menshevik side of the house. But if it is an old tree? How can we trace the lifecycle of a tradition that might be two hundred years old? And—what would it take to cut it down? But I guess we already talked about that.
Here is another way to trace a tradition. Rather than its name, which it is always trying to wriggle out of, trace its jargon. Ideally an indicator term are both meaningless and narcissistic. If the term is meaningless, it is unlikely to be used in an unrelated way. If it is self-complimentary, its enemies are unlikely to pick it up and use it as a cudgel. So it will not go through the same gyrations as “PC.”
A brief history of social justice
A good indicator for the “successor ideology,” is good old social justice. As a phrase in English, social justice has no particular literal meaning. But it sounds really good, so it never goes out of style.
These qualities make it perfect for quantitative history—usually a marginal technique, but sometimes informative. Google has counted the frequency of words and phrases by publication date in all English-language books. Here are two indicator phrases, social justice and racism:
Anyone seeing this graph, knowing nothing about the labels, and applying Occam’s razor, would conclude that: both these curves represent one movement; since 1900, this movement has been increasing steadily in importance; and the blue curve is more fundamental than the red curve, since racism somehow did not even exist until 1935.
If you doubt this default, you must postulate that the red and/or blue curves are in fact sums of two or more separate movements, whose dromedary-shaped popularity curves intersect smoothly to produce these smooth and monotonic hills. I can’t even start to imagine what these camels might be, so you probably can’t either. In fact the meanings in context of these codewords have remained remarkably constant across their lives.
What makes “cancel culture” look like a new problem is simply that the movement driving these curves has reached new levels of dominance which can, like Caligula appointing his horse to the Senate, enable new levels of wild, brazen state sadism. It’s a natural error. Any observer can mistake a threshold for an invention.
Dominance always results in aggressive humiliation. Flexing feels so good that there is always someone who will fail to resist it. There is no point in arguing for dominance without aggression. It is like arguing away crime. The love of power is inherent in the human heart. The way to eliminate aggression is to strictly restrict dominance. Power itself is the disease—this sadistic flexing, which is “cancel culture,” is just a symptom.
“Cancel culture” comes with the blue curve. Which is not a few years old, as novelties like “cancel culture” or “successor ideology” imply—but at least a century old, as this graph shows. (Not that “cancelling” is itself a new phenomenon—ask John dos Passos, Robinson Jeffers, or Charles Beard.)
At least a century—because even in 1900, the blue is not at zero. Computer, enhance:
With some dromedary action around mid-century, the social justice curve starts its 20C climb during the Hayes administration—correlating its timeline to the ascendancy of the Liberal Republican or Mugwump faction from New England. If we lump in that hump in the 1860s, the most plausible correlation is the Radical Republicans, also from New England. Hm. (If Democrats are the real racists, Republicans are the real SJWs.)
So, for the last 150 years, this gnomic phrase has been used, by one single continuous culture and doctrine, to mean one single thing. Without trying to name the tradition—obviously an impossible feat, given all those heaps of bones outside the dragon’s cave—what is that thing? What does social justice actually mean?
Political ethics of the ideology
The word social cannot be superfluous—though in context the prefix can be implied. When we think simply of justice, we just think of efficient execution of the law: legal justice. Intuitively, these do not seem like the same sets. They are not.
It therefore seems that there are actions which are legally just but not socially just; and also actions which are socially just, but not legally just. The latter set is especially of interest: it is literally a definition of justified crimes.
We find ourselves all the way back to a subject we covered earlier: power above law. The idea of social justice is no more than a democratization of the Schmittian exception. If tracing it back to 1850 is tracing it far enough, let’s trace it to William H. Seward’s great “higher law” speech—which does not use the phrase, but does use the concept.
Seward (later known for buying Alaska; at the time, the North’s top radical statesman) tells the Senate that “there is a higher law than the Constitution.” This is the law of God—whose voice he, Senator Seward, has heard. The Constitution does say that the North is required to return fleeing slaves. But God tells the Senator that slavery is bad and should not be allowed, so they just, like, won’t.
The reader in 2020 may be with God and Senator Seward on this one. Not for nothing did one historian call the Civil War the war of the Prophets against the Law. However strongly you may side with the Prophets, though, helping slaves escape is one thing. Getting random strangers fired for their Twitter takes is another.
Here again we see the difference between surgery and butchery. For all their faults, both Lincoln and Lenin concur on the surgical interpretation of the exception. Power above law is war. It is a legal singularity. It is to be avoided assiduously until it can no longer be avoided. At that point it must be used decisively to establish a new peace, in which the pure rule of law can be restored.
This doctrine of social justice (Lenin’s “infantile disorder”) is quite different. It is not at all a doctrine of emergency prerogative—a single sharp blade above the law, wielded in a single operation, by a capable surgeon, with a real plan, to cure a real cancer. It is the opposite of surgery in every way—except that it is sharp and draws blood.
Social justice is a doctrine of universal prerogative. It lets everyone feel above the law, all the time. It points inexorably to the law of the prison-yard: anyone can have a shank, and shank you. Grab a shank and shank him first. This is the rule of Auden’s Shield of Achilles— in so many ways, the bleak political hellscape of the 1900s:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone….
The cause of “cancel culture” is that everyone feels they can do anything, if they are doing it for a good reason. Philosophers refer to this as “consequential” rather than “deontological” ethics. Deontology means doing your duty; consequentialism means deciding for yourself what is right or wrong.
Deontological ethics is the perspective of a law-abiding citizen. Consequential ethics is the perspective of a god, a king, or at least a superhero. It is also the perspective of a looter, a traitor, or a sociopath. It is the perspective of power above law. It converges on Aleister Crowley’s formula: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the the law. And of course it was the great ethical revelation of the 1900s, and even now reigns supreme.
When society adopts a consequential perspective, it asks everyone to see themselves as superheroes above the law. Why should we be surprised when these superheroes gang up to fight evil? No society ever believed in mob justice more thoroughly than ours. And what else could the meaning of social justice be? Where do the two differ? What is “cancel culture” but the breakdown of mere rules and the apotheosis of naked power?
Here is our final parallax view of the ideology. From one perspective, it is a recipe for giving everyone the power to matter, change the world and do good. From a a second perspective, it is a recipe for letting everyone feel like a god or a king. From a third, it is a recipe for making everyone into a criminal, a bully, a quisling or a snitch.
The last true Scotsmen
Obviously—we cannot forget Mounk’s “astonishingly”—the Mensheviks know they are taking blue-on-blue fire. These cancellers are their friends, or their former friends. Together they swore the tennis-court oath, they strolled the ruin of the Bastille. But—
Even on the steps of the guillotine, reality can bring no full repentance. They will not turn back from atheists into good Catholics, or democrats into good royalists. As the blade bites into their neckbones, philosophes and Girondins they remain. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
From a royalist perspective, this seems insane. To a revolutionary it makes total sense. The Girondin believes that his is the true revolution. The butcher-shop of Robespierre and company—this is an evil mutation. While that mutation certainly does not excuse the “thirty kings that made France,” to save the revolution, we must argue it to death— such is the last thought of the head in Sanson’s basket.
To an objective student of history, which is the real movement, which the deviation? This is not unlike asking some Jewish-Buddhist professor of comparative religion whether Sunnis or Shiites are the “real” Muslims. But here are three reasons why the Mensheviks must be considered a heresy outside the main current of the ideology.
Our first priority when evaluating any force is simply predicting it. Our theories of the present should explain the future. One way to decide which strain of the ideology is the major strain is just to ask which strain will outcompete the other—the Mensheviks, or the Okhrana? Man, or crocodile? To ask the question is to answer it. There won’t even be much splashing.
Second, whenever we see any phenomenon split into two categories, one of which is defined as good and the other as bad, we must remember the “No True Scotsman” fallacy—which does not have a Latin name, but should. Maybe this is why Rome fell. Understanding this fallacy is the key to dispelling many a lethal political illusion.
To check the validity of a categorical division: check that the category proceeds from some clear and external fact about reality, and is not derived ad hoc from the question being asked, or some other incentive or agenda.
This narrative trope thankfully seems to have lapsed, but in the mid-1900s, whenever our wise institutions of statesmanly guidance developed a prolonged and painful erection for some foreign terrorist acronym, from the IRA to the FLN (both of them) to the PLO, they would shamelessly divide it into "moderate" and "militant" wings.
This acronym’s notorious, undeniable crimes could be blamed on its “militants”—who often could be “countered” only by financing the “moderates.” Imagine saying: “the way to fight racist extremism is to support moderate racists.” Or maybe: “real fascism has never been tried.” Take a moment to let your forebrain recover from these grenades. Isn't propaganda fun and wonderful? No True Scotsman is dynamite.
All the Menshevik wants is the ideology of 2012 back. The Menshevik feels that, if his ideas have stayed the same and the Okhrana’s have changed, he still owns the brand. He didn’t leave the ideology—it left him. He is also wrong about this.
While the ideology has changed, it has not mutated randomly. It has moved forward. To be exact: it has advanced by revoking what Lawrence Auster called an “unprincipled exception”—a violation of its own deepest principles, which the ideology formerly had to tolerate for historical or practical reasons.
Now its power curve has passed a threshold, and the ideology is strong enough for an Edict of Fontainebleau: always a “brave” and “historic” move. Which no one has to follow, of course—but—why would anyone not want to move forward? I mean, huh? I mean, it does make you think. But they’re just questions, Leon.
Third, our post-Marxist semiotic deconstruction of social justice has shown that the historical essence of the ideology revolves around justifying the feeling of power above law. When we read the Mensheviks, we see a small and good resistance to this violent delight. We see lingering affection for the impersonal world of rules that our world is losing—in a civilizational decline which seems nowhere near its start or its finish.
The whole nature of Menshevik resistance is inconsistent with the general pattern of the ideology—except where it is consistent with an old disguise the ideology adopted when, too weak to thrive by bullying, it had to plead and cringe for lunch and life.
For the core of Menshevism is law above power—a clear betrayal. That betrayal is small. It is not even novel—it is just reflexive emotional attachment to a dying exception. But since chaos is the same thing as evil, betraying it is inherently good. And cannot the smallest spark grow? That was why Lenin named his newsletter Iskra, or The Spark.
Alas, Iskra is long since out of print. Who reads Russian, anyway? But Persuasion is taking off like a house on fire. Who can argue with success? You should subscribe. They may be hobbits, but hobbits are beautiful—and there are quite a few there. And for all their hairy toes, they really are brave and talented hobbits. And hard-working: in the time it’s taken me to review one of their posts, they’ve generated ten.
Gray Mirror is more sporadic; more esoteric; more aesthetic, and more disturbing. There is only one of me. I have not yet even paywalled anything. But you’ll still get your money’s worth from Gray Mirror, if you are brave enough to:
Hobbits, too, are welcome!