The frivolity of the pundit right
"One must ruthlessly write what one knows to be the truth, or else shut up."
There are three kinds of dissidents: (a) anons, (b) pundits who still care what people think, and (c) outsiders who DGAF. All these groups are great; real greatness can be achieved in any of them; and good friends I have in each. But each has its problems.
The problem with (c) is that it’s too hard. It takes a lot of luck to get there and stay there. It’s quite inconsistent with doing anything else with your life—and this under conditions of very mild repression, historically speaking. And the more you succeed, the more dangerous your position becomes. I would recommend the outside way to only one kind of young person: le trustafarian. And it has to really be your calling.
The problem with (a) is that it’s too easy—nothing binds you to reality. The dissident anons create the best art, yet never without some slight sense of playing tennis without the net. Yet this complete, even excessive, artistic freedom is balanced by challenges in opsec that compare only to general aviation. If you are not meticulous enough to fly a Cessna, you are not meticulous enough to shitpost.
The problem with (b) is that you are always policing yourself. Not only do your readers never really know what you really believe—you never really know yourself. In practice, it is much easier to police your own thoughts than your own words. When choosing between two ideas, the temptation to prefer the safer one is almost irresistible. This is a source of cognitive distortion which the anons and outsiders do not experience. (Though anons do suffer something of the opposite, a reflex to provoke.)
As a pundit, you sense this stress in every bone of your body; you can never show it to your readers. This creates a deep dishonesty in the parasocial relationship between writer and reader—like a marriage that can never escape some foolish first-date fib. The falsity, like the blue in blue cheese, flows through and flavors every particle of your content. Neither you nor your readers can ever be sure whether you are speaking the truth, lying to them, or lying to yourself—but you are constantly doing all three. You may still be very entertaining—enlightening, even. All your work is ephemeral, and once you die only your relatives will remember you. And it’s not even your fault.
Out here in group (c), I can tell you that Homo sapiens is not a neurologically uniform population (like golden retrievers), and also that the Holocaust happened (like you learned in Holocaust class). While I cannot imagine what evidence could change my mind on either of these points, if it does I will be the first to tell you. (Don’t bother sending me your favorite Holocaust revisionist essay—I have probably read it.) This clarity is no function of any special personal virtue—just my job of living in group (c).
From my perspective, both the anonymous and official dissidents exhibit a kind of unserious frivolity, but a very different kind. The frivolity of the anon is imaginative, surreal and playful at best, merely puerile at worst. The frivolity of the pundit has no upside; in every paragraph he is breaking Koestler’s rule, and he knows it; the best he can do is to shut up selectively about the things he cannot write about.
And his mens rea, too, is awful. He is selling hope. He is selling answers. Pity the man whose life has brought him to the position of selling answers in which he does not believe, or which he is forced to believe, or which he must force himself to believe. However sophisticated and erudite he may be, he is just a high-end grifter. His little magazine is a Macedonian troll-farm with a PhD. He is lucky if his eloquent essays about the common good don’t appear above a popup bar peddling penis pills—and in fact, I know more than one brilliant scholar in precisely this bathetic position. The frame defines the picture; the context sets the price of the text. Sad!
Worst still must be the reality that bad punditry is worse than useless—since useless strategies for escaping from a real problem are traps. When you lead your readers toward an attractive but ineffective solution, you lead them away from the opposite.
You got into this business to change the world for the better. You cannot avoid the realization that you are changing it for the worse—because your objective function is that of Chaim Rumkowski, the Lodz Ghetto’s “King of the Jews.”
You exist to convince your own followers that they neither can nor should do anything effective. The easiest way to do this is to convince them that ineffective strategies are effective. And this, as we’ll see, is exactly what you cannot avoid doing, dear pundit.
Moreover, from our present position of profound unreality, where the official narrative shared and studied by all normal intelligent people and all prestigious institutions can only be described as a state of venomous delirium, the opportunities to play Judas goat are almost unlimited. Cows, remember: there does not have to be only one Judas goat.
When the mainstream is four orders of magnitude away from reality, three orders of magnitude looks like a truth-teller, two orders of magnitude looks like a prophet, and one is practically Athanasius contra mundum. But reality is a bitch—in objective effect, one means exactly the same as four. When you are selling a ticket to orbit, it matters not at all whether your rocket peaks at ten feet off the ground, or ten miles. Only orbit is orbit. Anything short of orbit is just a slightly slower way to die.
A particular favorite of the pundit is the error that AI philosophers call the “first-step fallacy.” It turns out that the first monkey to climb to the top of a tree was taking the first step toward landing on the moon:
First-step thinking has the idea of a successful last step built in. Limited early success, however, is not a valid basis for predicting the ultimate success of one’s project. Climbing a hill should not give one any assurance that if he keeps going he will reach the sky.
When a vendor sells you the moon and ships you a rope-ladder, you’ve been defrauded. Time for that one-star review.
Three points of light
All this is very gloomy—yet there are some points of light. For the rocket passenger, orbit is binary; the launch succeeds or fails; he goes to space in a tin can, or hell in a ball of fire. Trump went to hell in a ball of fire. But for the rocket engineer, ten miles can be a sort of success.
Today we’ll chart the edges of the legitimate possible by looking at three recent pundit essays which have done a fine job of exploring those edges, and maybe even expanding them: Richard Hanania’s “Why is Everything Liberal?”, Scott Alexander’s “The New Sultan”, and Tanner Greer’s “The Problem of the New Right.”
(It’s worth pointing out that I’ve chatted virtually with two of these pundits and maybe even have some idea what they actually think. Hell will ice over before I tell you which two. None of the three even identifies publicly as “right-wing,” which means that their comments are a sinkhole of stentorian, bullying shills, but perhaps—in Bill Clinton’s immortal words—“preserves their viability within the system.” Such is the (b) lifestyle.)
After reading Hanania’s essay, a fourth pundit (who is out as a radical conservative) asked me: why does the right always lose? “Narcissistic delusions,” I replied.
Which was far from what he expected to hear, or what most readers will take from the essay. All three of these essays are good and true; but their inability to go far enough leaves them pointing their audience in precisely the wrong direction.
Most readers will emerge feeling that conservatives need more and better narcissistic delusions. Indeed, both pundit and politician are right there with just such a product. This meretricious frivolity, posing as seriousness, is too egregious to leave unmocked; yet the right reason to mock it is to challenge it to assume its final, truly-serious form.
Richard Hanania and the loser right
Hanania’s true point—backed up with a ream of unnecessary, PhD-worthy evidence—is that the libs always win because they just care more:
Yet while being the “care only enough to vote” party might be adequate for winning elections, the future belongs to those at the tail end of the distribution who really want to change the world. Perhaps political activism is often a sign of a less well-adjusted mind or the result of seeking to fill an empty void in one’s personal life. Conservatives may tell themselves that they are the normal people party, too satisfied and content to expend much time or energy on changing the world. But in the end, the world they live in will ultimately reflect the preferences and values of their enemies.
Poetry is better than data. Yeats said it a century ago:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Therefore, most reasonable readers would conclude, if the cons want to win, they need to care more. They need to put real time and energy into “changing the world.” They need more—much more—passionate intensity. Otherwise all their policies and values will be sterile, fruitless and ineffective:
The discussion here makes it hard to suggest reforms for conservatives. Do you want to give government more power over corporations? None of the regulators will be on your side. Leave corporations alone? Then you leave power to Woke Capital, though it must to a certain extent be disciplined and limited by the preferences of consumers. Start your own institutions? Good luck staffing them with competent people for normal NGO or media salaries, and if you’re not careful they’ll be captured by your enemies anyway, hence Conquest’s Second Law.
Since the rebirth of conservatism after the revolutionary monoculture of World War II, all conservative punditry has consisted of attempts to create more excitement around policies and values which effectively resist the power of the prestigious institutions—giving “normal people” as much to care about as their fanatical, aristocratic enemies.
Sensibly, this tends to involve raising “issues” which actually seem to affect their lives, but which also run counter to aristocratic power. Over decades, the substance of these issues changes and even reverses; the opposite stance becomes the useful stance; and “conservative values” have no choice but to change to reflect this. (If this seems like a liberal way to rag on conservatives—the cons learned it from the libs.)
When the corporate sector was independent of the institutions or even (as in the glory days of the old National Association of Manufacturers—which has not yet renamed itself the National Association of Dropshippers, but there’s still time) aligned against them, the natural conservative policies were libertarian and pro-corporate. Now they are illiberal and anti-corporate. Before economists realized that America could tax the world by minting the global reserve currency, tax cuts were a way to “starve the beast.” Now they only encourage it—so the new conservatives are fiscally profligate. Before the Soviet Union fell, fighting this globalist golem was a way to fight the American aristocrats who nurtured it. Now, the new conservatives are isolationist… and so on.
All this is very logical. It seems most reasonable to conclude that values and policies which match the needs of the present power dynamic will be much more exciting than the stale dust of the past power dynamic.
Then again, one might ask: when that stale dust was fresh, did it work then? Are the cons just updating their dry old way of losing, to find a juicy new way of losing? The change certainly can distract our poor conservative cattle, on their way up the ramp, into thinking the secret of victory has finally been discovered. Send money now.
Tanner Greer and the new right
“New Right” is not Greer’s term, but as a label I can barely imagine a worse self-own. It promises something ephemeral and irrelevant. So far as I can tell, this same cursed label has been used in every generation of conservatism to mean something different. When it inevitably fails and dies, people forget about it, and the next generation, stuck in the eternal present of a Korsakoff-syndrome movement, can reinvent it.
Who reads the conservative pundits of the ‘80s? Even those who remember them have to throw them under the bus. Every generation of National Review twinks, solemnly intoning what they conceive to be the immortal philosophy of our hallowed founders, is horrified by its predecessor, and horrifies its successor—a truly bathetic spectacle. And of course, each such generation would utterly horrify the actual founders.
But setting aside the name, Greer presents an accurate description of the scene:
In the world of conservative thought, the intellectual energy lies with the New Right.
There is no New Right catechism. Each man of the New Right has his unique obsessions. Yet there is a broad set of shared attitudes and policy prescriptions that draw New Righters in. The New Right likes to think of itself as a band of class warriors. Of tariffs and industrial policy, they are unequivocally in favor. Government economic intervention is to be lauded, if such intervention revitalizes the heartland and secures the dignity of the working-class man. Both tech companies and high finance are viewed with suspicion. New Right figures are the conservatives most likely to be calling for Section 230 reform and least likely to care about corporate tax rates. The New Right distrusts capital.
There is even deep historical thought—though not, as we will see, so deep as Greer’s:
I am reminded of a conversation I had with the editor of a New Right publication. He expressed regret over the role that the American Revolution plays in American political theology, a “ghost” he wished Americans could “exorcise.” As long as we associate revolution with foundation, he told me, it is difficult to have any kind of “pro-society worldview.” When I asked which founding mythology he would rather Americans celebrate, he pointed to the Puritan colonization.
Greer then goes deep into David Hackett Fischer territory to explain the obvious, yet important, fact that this “New Right” consists of upper-class intellectuals (inherently the heirs of the Puritans, since America’s upper-class tradition is the Puritan tradition) trying to lead middle-class yokels (the heirs of the Scotch-Irish crackers, and (though Greer does not mention this) Irish, Slavs, and other post-Albionic “white ethnic” trash, today even including many Hispanics. He even gives us a clever historical bon mot:
Pity the Whig who wishes to lead the Jackson masses!
Uh, yeah, dude, that would be called “Abraham Lincoln.”
But the point stands. Not just the “New Right” with its new statist ideology, but the whole postwar American Right, is a weird army with a general staff of philosophers and a fighting infantry of ignorant yokels. How can this stay together? How can the philosophers bring forth a mythology that creates passionate intensity in the yokels?
Well, Lincoln’s coalition of Boston Brahmins and Chicago yokels was pretty fragile, too. And what can hold a candle to the weirdness of the Harlem-Hamptons alliance?
Scott Alexander and the new kings
Yet there is another way.
Does not it seem curious that both Greer and his anonymous editor (I probably know this person too) are, in their quest to solve a real problem, reaching for a myth? Carlyle would like to weigh in:
For who that had, for this divine Universe, an eye which was human at all, could wish that Shams of any kind, especially that Sham-Kings should continue? No: at all costs, it is to be prayed by all men that Shams may cease.
Good Heavens, to what depths have we got, when this to many a man seems strange! Yet strange to many a man it does seem; and to many a solid Englishman, wholesomely digesting his pudding among what are called the cultivated classes, it seems strange exceedingly; a mad ignorant notion, quite heterodox, and big with mere ruin. He has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humor call shams, all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting on without them.
There is wisdom in this madness, of course—the problem is caused by aristocrats whose minds are wholly given over to narcissistic delusions. Doesn’t it take fire to fight fire? Doesn’t it take passionate intensity? Isn’t passionate intensity generated only by myths, dreams, poems and religions, not autistic formulas for tax policy? So the answer is clear: we need more and better narcissistic delusions. Ie, shams.
After all, any “founding mythology” is a narcissistic delusion. The flintlock farmers and mechanic mobs of the 1770s, and the Plymouth Puritans of the 1620s, have one thing in common: none of these people even remotely resembles the megachurch grill-and-minivan conservative of the 2020s. None of them even remotely resembles you.
They did live in the same places, and speak sort of the same language. Otherwise you probably have more in common with the average Indonesian housewife—at least she watches the same superhero movies.
To Narcissus, everything is a mirror; in everything and everyone, he sees himself. No field is riper for narcissism than history, since the dead past cannot even laugh at the present’s appropriations of a human reality it could not even start to comprehend.
And fighting fire with fire is one thing, but fighting the shark in the water is another. For the aristocrat, transcending reality is a core competence. The essence of leftism—always and everywhere an aristocratic trope, however vast its ignorant serf-armies—is James Spader in Pretty in Pink: “If I cared about money, would I treat my father’s house this way?” Mere peasants can never develop this kind of wild energy: that’s the point.
Yet Hanania remains right about the amount of energy that a rational, Kantian agenda for productive collective action motivated by collective self-interest, or even collective self-defense, can generate. The grill-American suburbicon is like Maistre’s Frenchman under the late Jacobins: he has defined deviancy down to rock-bottom. “He feels that he is well-governed, so long as he himself is not being killed.”
O, what to do? When you are solving an engineering problem and see the answer at last, it hits you like a thunderbolt. The conservatives, the normal people, the grill-Americans, must accept their own low energy. They must cease their futile reaching for passionate intensity, whether achieved through Kantian collective realism or Jaffaite founding mythology. They must fight the shark on land.
Conservatives don’t care—at least not enough. Yet they want to matter. Yet they live in a political system where mattering is a function of caring—not just voting. Therefore, there are two potential solutions: (a) make them care more; (b) make systems that let them matter more, without caring more.
Conservatives have low energy. They want high impact—at this point, they need high impact. After all, once you yourself are being killed, it’s kind of too late. Any engineer would tell you that there are two paths to high impact: more energy, or more efficiency.
Conservatives vote but don’t care. If we don’t have a viable way to make conservatives care more—meaning orders of magnitude more—effective strategies and structures must generate power by voting, not caring. They must maximize power per vote.
Interference and impedance
What are the causes of electoral inefficiency? Why doesn’t voting work? What turns light into heat and signal into noise? Simple: interference and impedance.
Interference means voters who are on the same team are working against each other. Impedance means voters resist delegating their complete consent to the team.
Interference is like a bunch of ants pulling the breadcrumb in different directions. To eliminate interference, point all your votes at one structurally cohesive entity which never works against itself.
Impedance is like getting married for a limited trial period, so long as your wife stays hot and keeps liking the stuff you like. As Burke pointed out in his famous speech to the electors of Bristol, the fundamental nature of electoral consent is unconditional:
To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of Constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a Representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider.
But authoritative Instructions; Mandates issued, which the Member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience; these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental Mistake of the whole order and tenor of our Constitution.
The cause of electoral impedance in the modern world is the conventional concept of “agendas” or “platforms” or “issues.” When you vote not for a cohesive entity, but for a list of instructions you are giving to that entity, you are not voting your full power. You are voting for Burke’s opponent, who felt “his Will ought to be subservient to yours.” In effect, you are voting for yourself. Narcissism once again rears its ugly head.
When you vote an agenda, you are granting limited consent to your representative. You say: I vote for you, for a limited time, so long as you stay fit and cook tasty dinners. I am actually not voting for you! I am voting for “reforms for conservatives” (Hanania). I am voting for “a broad set of shared attitudes and policy prescriptions” (Greer). Dear, I am not marrying you. I am marrying hot sex, regular cleaning and delicious meals—till ten extra pounds, or maybe at most fifteen, do us part.
You implicitly withhold your consent for anything not on your jejune list of bullet points. Then, you wonder why your representatives have no power and are constantly mocked, disobeyed, tricked and destroyed by people who are legally their employees. This is not political sex. This is political masturbation. You voted for yourself. And instead of a baby, all you got was a wad of tissues. Nice way to “drain the swamp.”
Your vote does not work because you are not voting, delegating, or granting consent. You are like an archer with one arrow who, afraid of losing it, refuses to let go of it. Without releasing his dart, all he can do is run up to the enemy and try to stab.
So if conservatives want to maximize the impact of their votes, all they have to do is the opposite of what they’re doing. Instead of voting for the okonomi a-la-carte stupid little political menus of hundreds of unconnected candidates and their staffs, they can all vote for the omakase prix-fixe chef’s-choice of a single cohesive governing entity.
Such a power, elected, has the voters’ mandate not just to “govern,” but to rule. When no other private or public force enjoys any such consent, no other force can resist. We are certainly well beyond “rule of law” at this point! On the inaugural podium, the new President announces a state of emergency. He declares himself the Living Constitution. In six months no one will even remember “the swamp.”
Wow! What a simple, clear idea! The engineer, when he comes across so compelling and obvious a design, knows there’s a catch: he won’t get the patent. Someone else must have invented it before. People may be stupid—but they’re not that stupid.
Indeed we have just reasoned our way to reinventing the oldest, most common, and most successful form of government: monarchy. And we are setting it against the second most common form, the institutional rule of power-obsessed elites: oligarchy. And to install our monarchy, we are using the collective action of a large number of people who each perform one small act: democracy.
The alliance of monarchy and democracy (king and people) against oligarchy (church and/or nobles) is the oldest political strategy in the book. The suburban conservative, who just wants to grill, either has no idea this ancient and trivial solution exists, or regards it as the worst thing in the world—even worse, possibly, than his sixth-grader’s mandatory sex change.
And why? Ask your friendly local Judas goat, the pundit. Even the “new right” pundit—who only differs in his policies and issues. Which are, true, slightly less useless. As the top of the tree is slightly closer to the moon.
The 20th century even came up with a handy pejorative for a newborn monarchy. We call it fascism. No word on whether Cromwell, Caesar, or Charlemagne, let alone Louis XIV, Frederick II and Elizabeth I, were fascists.
But, to borrow Scott Alexander’s charming term, also not his own invention, they were certainly strongmen. TLDR: if you want to be strong, elect one strongman. If you prefer to be weak, elect a whole bunch of weakmen. Do you prefer to be weak? “If the rule you followed brought you to this place—of what use was the rule?”
The pundit reassures you that you don’t need a strongman to be strong—you’ll do fine with weakmen—so long as those weakmen have the right “shared attitudes and policy prescriptions.” By the way, here are some attitudes I’m happy to share with you. Click now to accept cookies. Did I mention that I have policy prescriptions, too? Skip ad in 5 seconds. Congratulations, you’ve been automatically subscribed! Check the box to opt out of most emails—void where prohibited by law—terms and conditions may apply…
The deep virtue of all three of today’s essays is that they transcend this pundit trash. What these pundits actually believe is between God and their consciences. But while the prudent Greer confines himself to mocking the bullet-points of the “New Right,” Alexander writes a whole essay about the Turkish strongman Erdoğan, and Hanania quotes the sting in the tail of Alexander’s essay—then adds this unusual note:
To put it in a different way, to steelman the populist position, democracy does not reflect the will of the citizenry, it reflects the will of an activist class, which is not representative of the general population. Populists, in order to bring institutions more in line with what the majority of the people want, need to rely on a more centralized and heavy-handed government.
The strongman is liberation from elites, who aren’t the best citizens, but those with the most desire to control people’s lives, often to enforce their idiosyncratic belief system on the rest of the public, and also a liberation from having to become like elites in order to fight them, so conservatives don’t have to give up on things like hobbies and starting families and devote their lives to activism.
I’m not suggesting this is the path conservatives should take; they might feel that a stronger, more centralized and powerful government is too contrary to their own ideals. In that case, however, they’ll have to reconcile themselves to continue to lose the culture into the foreseeable future, at least until they are able to inspire a critical mass to do more than just vote its preferences.
At least until they are able to stop being weak. I feel this is about as close as a pundit—an essentially oligarchical career, after all—can come to endorsing monarchy. It may even be (shudder) closer. Hail to the brave! And bravery is always a relative assessment.
You’ll find it an interesting exercise to take this text and replace “populism” and “conservatism” with “democracy,” “activists” or “elites” with “priests” or “nobles,” and “strongman” with “king.” It turns out that everything old is new again. To the scholar, nothing is so cringe as pretending to invent an idea that someone already invented.
An odd sort of pundit, who remains only nominally anonymous but has always very much GAF, Scott Alexander does not have Hanania’s cagey diplomatic noncommittal. As a “rationalist,” he is deeply committed to his own class status, and to oligarchy itself—which, like most, he misidentifies as “democracy.”
While the whole raison d’etre of the rationalist is the irrationality of our oligarchy, as displayed in genius moves like refusing to cancel regularly-scheduled airline flights to stop a Holocaust-tier pandemic, the rationalist’s dream is a rational oligarchy—using Bayes’ rule, which given infinite computing power will become infinitely intelligent—in Carlyle’s immortal phrase, “a government carried out by steam.”
Obviously, this is not just logical—it immunizes the rationalists from the scurrilous charge of “fascism,” or worse. And they were right about stopping the flights. So was my 9-year-old. Sadly, in a world of universal delusional delirium, rationality can get quite pleased with itself by clearing quite a low bar.
My view is that no government can be or ever has been carried out by steam—only by human beings—a species the same today as in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, if possibly a little dumber on average—and this will remain the case until some computational or genetic singularity occurs. For neither of which events will I hold my breath. This is why I find it easy to picture 21st-century America under the phronetic monarchy of an experienced and capable President-CEO, and almost hilariously impossible to picture it under a Bayesian bureaucracy of polyamorous smart-contracts.
Alexander disagrees. Here is his analysis—the same text that Hanania quotes. Let’s go through it thought by thought, and see if we can’t turn it into some delicious carnitas.
The normal course of politics is various coalitions of elites and populace, each drawing from their own power bases.
The normal course of politics, across human time and space, is monarchy. Almost all governments, everywhere and everywhen, are monarchies.
Nothing is so infuriating about the rationalists as their routine, casual and oblivious presentism—this is like saying “normal people are white” based on who lives in a rationalist group house. Fisheye lens much?
A normal political party, like a normal anything else, has elite leaders, analysts, propagandists, and managers, plus populace foot soldiers. Then there’s an election, and sometimes our elites get in, and sometimes your elites get in, but getting a political party that’s against the elites is really hard and usually the sort of thing that gets claimed rather than accomplished, because elites naturally rise to the top of everything.
Alexander restates the iron law of oligarchy. Dollars to donuts he thinks he invented it, and even in a sad sense did—rationalists tend to throw out the baby of all other human scholarly achievements, with the bathwater of these last few dismal decades. (And it is worth nothing that the ILO precludes (large-scale) democracy, not monarchy.)
He is also using the word “elite” in a way that identifies only one kind of leadership class—the nobles and priests of our own oligarchy. It is quite unclear, and I know rationalists hate to be unclear, whether his “elite” could mean Tammany Hall, or the siloviki, or the RSS. Not all ruling cadres are based on IQ tests, though many are.
But sometimes political parties can run on an explicitly anti-elite platform. In theory this sounds good—nobody wants to be elitist. In practice, this gets really nasty quickly.
I’ll take “Dissolution of the Monasteries” for 500, Alex. Again, it is quite unclear whether Alexander would categorize Thomas Cromwell’s achievement as “nasty.” And what about the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Could we compromise on “epic?”
Let’s get back to those “elites.” Alexander conflates three quite orthogonal concepts in his use of the word “elite”: biology, institutions, and culture.
Elite biology is high IQ, which is genetic. Elite institutions are any centers of organized collective power—Harvard, the Komsomol, the Mafia, etc. Elite culture is whatever ideas flourish within elite institutions.
Destroying biology is genocide—specifically, aristocide. Destroying institutions is… paperwork. Who hasn’t worked for a company that went out of business? Same deal. And if the culture is the consequence of the institutions, different institutions (with the same human biology) will inevitably nurture different ideas.
The SS was anything but a low-IQ institution, yet it propagated a very different culture than Harvard. 21st-century Germany is anything but a low-IQ country, but the ideas of Kurt Eggers do not flourish in it. It seems that high-IQ institutions can be destroyed—and the new “elite culture” will be the culture of the institutions that replace them.
So the only target is the institutions. There is nothing “nasty” about closing an office. In the worst possible scenario, the police need to clear the building, lock the doors, and impound the servers. Such tasks are well within their core competence, and can be performed with calm professionalism. They will probably not even need their zip-ties.
Democracy is a pure numbers game, so it’s hard for the elites to control—the populace can genuinely seize the reins of a democracy if it really wants.
Yes, but they can’t hold those reins. They are not strong enough—at least, the modern populace is not strong enough, simply because it is not virtuous (in the old, Roman sense) enough. “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” as old John Adams said. “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
From a low-energy population without civic virtue, the energy to “seize the reins” comes only in a wild, Dionysian spike or surge—a “people power” moment. This chaotic event does not in any way translate into the capacity to collectively govern. While we can imagine Jack Cade winning, we cannot imagine him ruling.
For democracy to be effective in such a situation, it must know its own limitations. It can seize the reins—but only to hand them to some effective power. This power must have one of three forms: an existing oligarchy, a new monarchy, or a foreign power.
Also, there are three classes in an advanced society, not just two: nobles, commoners, and clients. Since clients support their patrons by definition, once nobles plus clients outnumber commoners, the commoners have permanently lost the numbers game. This is why importing client voters is a recipe for either civil war or eternal tyranny—if not both.
But if that happens, the government will be arrayed against every other institution in the nation. Elites naturally rise to the top of everything—media, academia, culture—so all of those institutions will hate the new government and be hated by it in turn. Since all natural organic processes favor elites, if the government wants to win, it will have to destroy everything natural and organic—for example, shut down the regular media and replace it with a government-controlled media run by its supporters.
Alex, I’ll take “Denazification” for 500. Let’s apply our clarity filter to this text, and see if it gets easier to read:
But if that happens, the monarchy will be arrayed against every oligarchical institution in the country. Elites naturally rise to the top of oligarchies, so all those institutions will hate the monarchy and be hated by it in turn. Since all oligarchical processes favor elites, if the monarchy wants to win, it will have to destroy everything oligarchical—for example, shut down the oligarchical media and replace it with a monarchical media run by its supporters.
Yes. This is what happened in denazification, except with monarchy and oligarchy reversed. For example, all German media firms today are descendants of institutions created, or at least certified, by AMGOT. Nothing “organic” about it.
The essential problem with Alexander’s picture of this process is that, since like most smart people today he inhabits Cicero’s great quote about history and children, he simply cannot imagine replacing one kind of elite institution with another. Nor can he imagine high-IQ elites—human beings as smart as him—which are as loyal to a new sane monarchy as today’s elites are loyal, slavishly loyal, to our old insane oligarchy. Does he think that Elizabeth’s London had no elites? Caesar’s Rome?
If Alexander was analyzing the Soviet Union in the same way, he would conclude that elites are inherently devoted to building socialism for the workers and peasants. Since the present world he lives in is all of history for him, he cannot see the general theory which predicts this special case: elites like to get ahead. To genuinely change the world, change what it takes for elites to get ahead.
If the elites are poets and their only way to get ahead is to write interminable reams of “race opera,” as my late wife liked to put it, the floodgates of race opera will open. If the elites are poets and their only way to get ahead is to write interminable reams of Stalin hagiography, Stalin will be praised to the skies in beautiful and clever rhymes.
While either an oligarchy or a monarchy can do better than this, and the oligarchy we have once did—it never will again. Entropy is an arrow. Monarchy, like every form of government, can be good or bad. The principle of charity requires you to assume that we monarchists are proposing a good monarchy—but it is still on us to explain how we get, and keep, a good one.
When elites use the government to promote elite culture, this usually looks like giving grants to the most promising up-and-coming artists recommended by the art schools themselves, and having the local art critics praise their taste and acumen. When the populace uses the government to promote popular culture against elite culture, this usually looks like some hamfisted attempt to designate some kind of “official” style based on what popular stereotypes think is “real art from back in the day when art was good,” which every art school and art critic attacks as clueless Philistinism. Every artist in the country will make groundbreaking exciting new art criticizing the government's poor judgment, while the government desperately looks for a few technicians willing to take their money and make, I don’t know, pretty landscape paintings or big neoclassical buildings.
No. There are two big strawmen here. Let’s turn them into steelmen.
First, “the populace uses the government” is non-Burkean. The populace (not all of it, just the middle class) installs the government. Then it goes back to grilling. So long as the commoners have to be in charge of the regime, and the commoners are weak, the regime will be weak. They need to “fire and forget.” Otherwise, they just lose.
What happens is this: every (oligarchic) art school and art critic no longer exists. Not that they are killed, of course. Just that their employers are liquidated (not with a bullet in the neck, just with a letter from the bank). They exist physically, not professionally. They were already bureaucrats—they had careers, not passions. Who gets fired, but keeps doing his job just for fun? Certainly not a bureaucrat.
And every (oligarchic) artist no longer exists—not that they are killed, of course. Just that the rich socialites who used to buy their stuff got letters from the bank, too. Libs sometimes talk about a wealth tax—a one-time wealth cap, perhaps at a modest level like $20 mil, will concentrate the rich man’s mind wonderfully on actual necessities.
Elites like to get ahead. The people who got ahead in the oligarchic art scene can no longer get ahead by doing shitty, bureaucratic, 20th-century conceptual art. Because there were so many of them, and because the demand for this product has dropped by at least one order of magnitude if not two, elite ambition is replaced by elite revulsion.
The enormous supply-and-demand imbalance for both art and artists in 20th-century styles leaves these styles about as fashionable as disco in 1996. “Paintings” that used to sell for eight figures will be stacked next to the dumpster. “Artists” once celebrated in the Times will be teaching kindergarten, tying trout flies, or cooking delicious dinners.
Inevitably, some of these people have real artistic talent. (The first modern artists had real talent—Picasso was an excellent draftsman.) They can go to an atelier and learn to draw. They will—because now, acquiring real artistic skill is a way to get ahead in art. And again, elites like to get ahead.
Not only does the new regime patronize and promote the ateliers, just as the old regime promoted its degenerate art, it creates a market for their products. Prizes and official commissions are great—but a real king can be even more creative. What if the photo on your driver’s license wasn’t a photo? What if it had to be… a portrait?
The important point is that elite government can govern with a light touch, because everything naturally tends towards what they want and they just need to shepherd it along. But popular/anti-elite government has a strong tendency toward dictatorship, because it won't get what it wants without crushing every normal organic process. Thus the stereotype of the “right-wing strongman”, who gets busy with the crushing.
So the idea of “right-wing populism” might invoke this general concept of somebody who, because they have made themselves the champion of the populace against the elites, will probably end up incentivized to crush all the organic processes of civil society, and yoke culture and academia to the will of government in a heavy-handed manner.
There is nothing “normal” or “natural” or “organic” about oligarchy. Does Alexander think “uncured” bacon is “organic” because, instead of evil chemical nitrates, it uses healthy, natural celery powder? He sure is easy to fool. But who isn’t?
Culture and academia is already yoked to the will of government in a “heavy-handed manner”—yoked not by the positive pressure of power, but the negative attraction of power. When the formal government defers to institutions that are formally outside the government, it leaks power into them and makes them de facto state agencies.
Power leakage, like a pig lagoon spilling into an alpine lake, poisons the marketplace of ideas with delicious nutrients. Ideas that make the institutions more powerful grow wildly. Eventually these ideas evolve carnivory and learn to positively repress their competitors, which is how our free press and our independent universities have turned our regime into Czechoslovakia in 1971, and our conversation into a Hutu Power after-school special. PS: Black lives matter.
The paradox of “authoritarianism” is that a regime strong enough to implement Frederick the Great’s idea of “free speech”—“they say what they want, I do what I want”—can actually create a free and unbiased marketplace of ideas, which neither represses seditious ideas nor rewards carnivorous ideas. But it takes a lot of power to reach this level of strength—and it requires liquidating all competing powers.
I have never been able to explain this simple idea to anyone, even rationalists with 150+ IQs who can grok quantum computing before breakfast, who didn’t want to understand it. Ultimately it reduces to the painful realization that sovereignty is conserved—that the power of man over man is a human universal. (Also, we all die.)
No surprise that nerds who think of power as Chad shoving them into a locker can’t handle the truth. PS: I went to a public high school as a 12-year-old sophomore, was bullied every day for three years, and graduated college as a virgin. Whoever you are, dear reader, you are not beyond hope. You can handle the truth.
But Alexander’s strawman is much more than a strawman. He thinks it’s a steelman (didn’t he invent the word “steelman?”). He is wrong, but the reason he thinks what he thinks is that he is clearly and accurately observing empirical reality.
The strongman who is a steelman is not “arrayed against” the powers of oligarchy. He does not even “crush” them. He vaporizes them—just as AMGOT vaporized the Third Reich. His hand is not heavy—it is light, for nothing remains to resist it.
While it is true that postwar Germany has used a heavy hand against any relics of Nazism, it is not true that it ever needed to. (The “Werewolves” were always a joke.) Yet the guilty flee where no man pursueth—the new “democratic” Germany was born knowing that sovereignty is conserved. Like all regimes, the bureaucratic oligarchy we call “democracy” rests at its base on implacable iron force—the stronger this force, the less violent it needs to be. So much for “organic.”
And yet: Alexander’s post is about Erdoğan—and his description of Erdoğan is spot on. It also is a perfect description of Orban in Hungary; it applies to Putin in Russia and Xi in China; and it is even pretty accurate for Hitler, Mussolini and friends.
What all these “strongmen” have in common is that they are provincial. Turkey is not exactly the center of the world. Even 20th-century Germany was nowhere near the center of the world, though it could at least imagine becoming that center. If Turkey just disappeared tomorrow, no one would have any reason to care except the Turks. Who needs Turkey for anything? What would collapse—the dried-apricot market?
Erdoğan’s problem is that he cannot vaporize the oligarchy, because the institutions that matter are not in Turkey. The provincial strongman has no choice but to follow the “populist” playbook that Alexander describes so well.
Orban can kick Soros’s university out of Hungary; he cannot do anything at all to Soros, let alone to the global institutions of which Soros is only a small part. He is indeed “arrayed against” these institutions, to which his Hungarian elites (who speak nearly-perfect English) will always be loyal. The contest is unequal and has only one possible winner, though it can last indefinitely long. Even Xi, whose country can quite easily imagine becoming the economic center of the world, is a provincial strongman—in fact, he sent his daughter to Harvard. Sad!
In a global century, the only way for these provincial strongmen to develop genuine local sovereignty is to go full juche. This is simply not possible for Hungary or Turkey, both of which are firmly attached to the cultural, economic, and military teat of the Global American Empire. Indeed it is barely possible for North Korea, a marsupial nation still in China’s pouch. So Alexander is right: these “strongmen” cannot win. Their regimes will all go the way of Franco’s. It’s impressive that they even survive.
Erdoğan simply has no way to attach his best citizens to his own regime. They are citizens of the world. Elites always like to get ahead. If you’re a world-class talent in anything, why would you try to get ahead in Istanbul? Suppose you want to make a name as the world’s greatest Turkish writer. Succeed in New York, then come home. Turkey is a province; provinces are provincial.
Yet I am not a Turk or a Hungarian, and neither is Scott Alexander. The greater any empire, the more essential that its fall begin at the center. The Soviet empire did not fall from the outside in; it was not brought down from Budapest or Prague; it fell from Moscow out.
And the American empire will fall from Washington out—though that may not happen in the lives of those now living. And although nature abhors a vacuum and no empire can be replaced by nothing—and oligarchy, in the modern world, can only be replaced by monarchy—the “strongman” of this monarchy will not look anything like these mere provincial dictators.
He will be much stronger. And because he is much stronger, his regime need not be “nasty” or “heavy-handed”—it will not exist in a state of perpetual civil war against the oligarchic empire of global American institutions. Or if it does, it has already lost.
Nastiness and even violence are consequences of weakness, not strength. There was little “heavy-handed” about Caesar or Cromwell or Napoleon. It was Robespierre and Sulla and Lenin and Hitler who were heavy-handed—because their victories were conditional and incomplete, not universal and absolute.
The result of Alexander’s perceptive calculations, which are only wrong because their only input data is the present, is simply that our present incompetent tyranny is and must be permanent. Of course, every sovereign regime defines itself as permanent. Yet when we look at the past and not just the present, we see that no empire is forever.
Some grim things are happening in America today. These grim things have a silver lining: they expose the gleaming steel jaws of the traps that the aristocracy sets for its commoners. They remind the cattle that a goat is not a cow and a baa is not a moo.
Every pundit is a Cicero. And amidst all the greatness of his rhetoric, Cicero could not imagine a world that had no use for Ciceros—a world governed by competence, not rhetoric. By the time Caesar crossed the Rubicon, nothing had failed more completely than the whole Roman idea of governance by rhetoric—an idea many centuries old, an idea whose execution had beaten all competitors to capture the whole civilized world, but an idea that was past its sell-by date. Rome herself was no longer suited to it. The republican aristocracy of Rome no longer meant Regulus and Scipio and Cincinnatus; it meant Milo and Clodius and Catiline. Its factional conflict was the choice between Hutu Power and Das Schwarze Korps. Caesar was not a disaster; Caesar was a miracle.
In the death of the American republic, every detail is different. The story is the same. The contrast in capacity between SpaceX and the Pentagon, Moderna and the CDC, Apple and Minneapolis—between our monarchical corporations, and our oligarchical institutions—is a dead ringer for the contrast between the legions and the Senate.
The sooner we stop pretending that this isn’t happening to us, the better results we can get. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to Caesar, Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, without passing through Sulla and Marius, Crassus and Spartacus? Alas, from here and now it seems unlikely. But I can’t see why every serious person wouldn’t want to try.