You are going to lose
"The ideology of the oligarchy is an epiphenomenon of its organic structure."
If you think you are going to win, generally, you are going to lose.
This is true in war, startups and politics. It may not be the meek who inherit the earth. It is always the humble. And no pattern at all in the postwar Western political mind is clearer than the pattern that the winners always think they are losing, and the losers always think they are winning.
This pattern makes perfect sense. The winners need to think they’re losing—because the winners are always the few, who always rule the many; they cannot rule the many unless they hate the many; they cannot hate the many unless they fear the many. Even this year we have seen that the guilty fear where none pursue—or clowns alone pursue.
The losers need to think they’re winning—because, if they knew how badly they were losing, they would be instantly gripped with a sense of depression, apathy, and futility otherwise found only in some of the oldest Precambrian rocks. And indeed their levels of political energy, already chilly enough to freeze the Oort Cloud, will fall all the way to interstellar cosmic-background absolute-zero.
And what good would that do? Better, therefore—to keep lying to ourselves. Never mind that no one in the past who ever had this attitude, ever won anything. Never mind that the devil is the father of lies and his favorite lie is the lie of accidie—the lie of thinking you don’t have to do anything. Which is obviously true if you’re winning. Whereas they who think they are losing are therefore full of desperate energy.
The losers cannot win until they can break this pattern. Instead, first Tanner Greer and next Micah Meadowcroft, talented conservatives (which side did you think the losers were?), step in the devil’s snare and catch their ankles in his burning wires.
We are going to what?
An optimal disinformation weapon works by convincing its enemy than an ineffective strategy is effective—ideally, by convincing them that they will win by doing nothing at all. Meadowcroft, in his pithy little essay We Are Going To Win, produces a prize:
So, if we agree [with Greer] that “Culture wars are long wars. Instilling new ideas and overthrowing existing orthodoxies takes time—usually two to three generations of time. It is a 35-50 year process,” then what should we conclude? I think I get to conclude I am going to win.
One hates to inform the young Mr. Meadowcroft, who apparently has never heard of “history” or any of that boring stuff, that his “35-50 year process” started in… we could use almost any date, really… but how about, say, 1958? With the founding of… the John Birch Society? I think I get to conclude that we have all already won.
Either that, or… modus tollens? But no—we can anticipate the easy response. The JBS is not real conservatism.
The real culture war started in, like, 2015. Or like, whenever the euphoniously-handled Micah Meadowcroft (perhaps the “trad” version of the stripper-name) graduated from, like, Yale, or whatever. Michael Malice calls this “Memento conservatism” and I forget what I was talking about. But it was important. Look! An eagle!
And what are young Meadowcroft’s action items? His tactics, his strategy? An optimal disinformation meme would recommend… nothing at all. We do a bit better than that:
Invest in the support of institutions and communities dedicated to preserving the means to receive answers to the questions implicit in those beliefs, e.g. churches, classical schools, great books, and the like. Light whatever little candles of culture you can in the face of an encroaching dark and keep them lit by any means necessary, conventionally political or otherwise. Then marry, have children, and add fuel to the fires till they become conflagrations big enough to burn away the chaff.
One can see why such a voice might be hired for his prose. Yes: marry, go to church, have kids and send them to good private schools.
I’m sure that’ll work. And if it doesn’t, can it hurt? QED.
No actual attempt to change the culture
We advance up the ramp to the final boss of this sad little outbreak of rabid optimism: Greer, by far the more portentous thinker, a man who really knows how to sound smart.
Greer starts his essay by explaining why he gets to start the clock now, and ignore all past datasets. You guessed it—real conservatism has never been tried—
We are told that conservatives “lost the culture war.” I dissent from this view: American conservatives never waged a culture war. Conservatives certainly fought, there is no denying that. They fought with every bit of obstruction and scandal their operatives could muster. But this was not a culture war.
Rather, America’s conservatives fought a political war over culture. Republicans used cultural issues to gain—or to try to gain—political power. Their brightest minds and greatest efforts went into securing control of the judiciary, developing a judicial philosophy for their appointees, securing control of the Capitol, and developing laws that could be implemented in multiple state houses across the nation.
No actual attempt to change the culture was attempted.
What is this Greer person (also a very prep name tbh—kind of lacrosse) even talking about? Imagine this sprout of the millennium telling, say, Revilo Oliver, or even just William F. Buckley, that “no actual attempt to change the culture was attempted.”
I am actually not sure what he means. But based on the one example of “success” that Greer gives, I do have a hypothesis.
I think he means that a true culture war cannot be contaminated with any such sordid groping for power. Rather, the ideas of good culture must succeed on their own—and any of this “securing control” or “developing laws” stuff contaminates the effort.
In short, Greer is a believer in magna est veritas et praevalebit: the truth is great, and will prevail. Somehow. Except if you actually do anything to help it prevail, it won’t. This is very beautiful and magical thinking—probably involving, in some way, unicorns.
But actually, there is a strange looking-glass way in which Greer is right. Behold his one successful example of the good guys winning a culture war:
If you care at all about this topic, Friedrich Hayek is a man to study closely. Consider his position in 1949, the year he penned the essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” He was an economic libertarian living in a world that had seemingly discredited everything he had stood for. Unfettered capitalism was endorsed by no one. Well, almost no one. It was still endorsed by one Friedrich Hayek.
You know what happens over the next three decades. The Soviet economy stalls, Bretton-Woods falls apart, stagflation rips through the American economy, Reagan and Thatcher have their respective revolutions, and with the end of the Cold War ‘neoliberal’ economic principles become the bedrock of the new global order. Hayek and his little band of economic libertarians begin this story as pariahs. They end it prophets. This is a remarkable transformation, a clear case of cultural insurgency triumphant. Hayek fought and won a war over American ideals.
What can one say about this Greerian prose? It is less purple than Meadowcroft’s. It still makes us think of TIME Magazine. It still has a mythic, even magical quality; and one quality of magical thinking is the complete absence of any rules of causality.
We can say Hayek fought and won a war. (Over “American ideals,” whatever those are lol—after all, Jim Jones was an American too, and a lot more American than Hayek!) Winning involves causing effects—not just being in the right place at the right time.
We cannot say Hayek caused the Soviet Union to collapse, Reagan to be elected, etc. In fact, we can say that there is almost no way that his actions could have had any effects on these events. (Moreover, in the case of the “culture war” as normal people use the term today, neither the collapse of the Soviet Union or the “Reagan Revolution” seem to have any lasting positive effects today—but let’s not mind that for now.)
But there is one exception. Hayek, as a professional economist, a “dealer in second-hand ideas” (actually everything good in Hayek is filched from Mises), can indeed be plausibly blamed for Greer’s last clause: “with the end of the Cold War, ‘neoliberal’ ideas become the bedrock of the new global order.”
Something is funny about Greer’s timing, because the Cold War ended in 1989—when, according to the data, ‘neoliberalism’ looks to just be getting started. But nonetheless, someone is winning something—because we see a stock-chart that only rises:
I can explain this and Greer himself probably even understands it: until quite recently, the so-called “neoliberals” never, ever said “neoliberal.”
It was exclusively an exonym—basically, a Marxist slur, meaning anyone who isn’t a Marxist. As Marxism becomes more dominant, more Marxists use Marxist exonyms more, suggesting a rise in this strange “neoliberalism.” Data interpretation is tricky! When more people start talking about witches, it does not always mean more witches. I don’t like using exonyms, though sometimes there is no choice.
Nonetheless there was a victory, of sorts, for free-market economics. It is rather odd to place Hayek in the midst of this victory, for though a fine writer he was a shaky and, second-rate member of the Austrian School (whose unchallenged maestro was never Hayek but always his teacher, Mises), and the actual bureaucratic victory does not even belong to the Austrian School—it belongs to the Chicago School.
Moreover, the period in which neoclassical, neo-capitalist Chicago economists develop real influence in US public policy is not after the Cold War or even during the Reagan Revolution. It is in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the golden age of Milton Friedman. Conservative political action, for instance, can hardly be blamed for the airline deregulation of 1978.
In fact it seems that “neoliberal” neo-capitalism can make the strongest advances in public policy in precisely the decades when conservatism is weakest—the ‘60s and ‘70s. When more political energy is on its side—as with the capitalist Birchers of the ‘50s, or the Reagan Revolution in the ‘80s—the response of socialism gathers strength.
But wait! This is exactly what Greer is saying. He seems to be right after all! Don’t you hate it when you realize your target is right, right in the middle of attacking him?
Greer is saying that when we add democratic force (or, to use the usual pejoratives, “political” or even “populist” force) to capitalist ideas, it actually retards the progress of capitalist ideas in the marketplace of ideas. The market which democracy tries to bend actually bends in the opposite direction. Therefore, democracy is bad and useless and should not be used.
I am far from disagreeing from this perspective! However, now that we have decoded this Hayek effect, we can understand it in a still larger context.
The mid-century American economic marketplace of ideas, the “second-hand dealers of ideas” now firmly in charge of public policy, tends to more easily promote capitalist and laissez-faire ideas when these ideas are linked to populist energy. This explains the counterproductive effect of populist politics—so the true culture war is apolitical.
At this point we feel we understand this Greer fellow perfectly—and he may even be right. But has he told us anything we didn’t already know?
For we already knew that laissez-faire (liberal or “neoliberal”) economics is not at all linked to political polarity. 19th-century “Manchester liberalism”—the exact same package of economic ideas—was a definitively left-wing policy. History of course offers many examples of economic statism as a right-wing policy—for instance, Hitler.
The polarity of laissez-faire economics seems to be contingent. And, as in the Carter administration, it can even be neutral. And if it be both neutral and good—
it can even be written into law, in 1975, by Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Now, that’s just some good old-fashioned American bipartisanship. I’m pretty sure this strange old Austrian fellow, Hayek, didn’t have all that much to do with it.
We are starting to get a sense of the shape of the marketplace of ideas. This market has a counter-democratic bias: it reacts against democratic pressure, delegitimizing ideas with strong popular support. So associating an idea with democratic force is actually detrimental to the idea—exactly Greer’s point, which seems to be correct.
When peasants with pitchforks rise up from Texas and stalk the land, Marxian ideas become de rigueur among Hayek’s “second-hand dealers.” The marketplace is not flat. Capitalism has no chance. Once the peons are back on their plots, philosophers can talk calmly and embrace spontaneous order, and the green shoots of free trade grow.
The problem is: is capitalism the exception that proves the rule? Can any other good idea find itself in favor, or bad idea out? For example, if we think “Critical Race Theory” is a bad idea, can we expect the marketplace of ideas to expel it, and Hayek’s “second-hand dealers” (a coinage uncomfortably close to the semiotics of period Judeophobia) write off the bad product and discard it from inventory? If so… when?
Some ideas are not and cannot be neutral. In the present state of society or any state easily reachable from it, they must be “left-wing” or “right-wing” ideas. In that case—just as Hayek describes in the essay Greer links, “The Intellectuals And Socialism,” the marketplace of ideas will be biased; ideas will face an unfair uphill or downhill battle, depending on their arbitrary political orientations.
Hayek, who could never see quite as clearly and brightly as his teacher Mises, even has an explanation of this bias in the “second-hand” marketplace of ideas, which made a sort of sense in his time but is hopelessly offbase in ours:
Nobody, for instance, who is familiar with large numbers of university faculties (and from this point of view the majority of university teachers probably have to be classed as intellectuals rather than as experts) can remain oblivious to the fact that the most brilliant and successful teachers are today more likely than not to be socialists, while those who hold more conservative political views are as frequently mediocrities. This is of course by itself an important factor leading the younger generation into the socialist camp.
The socialist will, of course, see in this merely a proof that the more intelligent person is today bound to become a socialist. But this is far from being the necessary or even the most likely explanation.
The main reason for this state of affairs is probably that, for the exceptionally able man who accepts the present order of society, a multitude of other avenues to influence and power are open, while to the disaffected and dissatisfied an intellectual career is the most promising path to both influence and the power to contribute to the achievement of his ideals.
Of course, Hayek’s observation is as true as it ever was—the left, especially the extreme left, has an enormous and disproportionate concentration of human talent. Yet the left now is the “present order of society,” and yet this trend continues.
(Indeed, the left was the “present order of society” in Hayek’s time as well, if more subtly so—he is just succumbing to the same leftist frame that Greer is getting trapped in now. The left, which is always an aristocratic movement, always rewrites reality to cast itself as the underdog.)
The phenomenon is simpler. After the marketplace of ideas was put in power, power slowly poisoned it. Once the marketplace is poisoned, it no longer selects for good ideas—only for powerful ideas. It will serve up a constant stream of ideas that seem to always make the strong stronger—though that is almost never their explicit goal. The ideology of the oligarchy is an epiphenomenon of its organic structure.
Hayek’s observation is true because the smartest people are the most ambitious. Since they are ambitious, they tend to choose radical ideas which are powerful and exciting. This excitement contrasts with boring ideas which are conservative but good, and thus appeal to more sensible, mediocre professors.
Capitalism looked like an exception to this effect because, when populist pressure was strong, populists adopted capitalism as their banner—so its name was mud at college. But capitalism worked—so when the townies weren’t around, it could be an asset. It is less immune to political bias than chemistry, and more immune than sociology.
Now that we understand the anomalous corner case of laissez-faire economics, we can see that the rule has no exceptions. Greer has just rediscovered the Patmore effect:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Taft style Midwestern anti-New Dealism having grown some gray hairs and no longer making a convincing enemy of the state, no one was still triggered by a decorous and philosophical case for spontaneous order. Like how with Trump out of the building, now we can actually talk about the Wuhan lab leak. Which is good—but not particularly good evidence of a healthy, functioning marketplace of ideas.
From psychiatry to neurology
Since the ideology of the oligarchy is an epiphenomenon of its organic structure, we can see what conservatism has been doing wrong. It’s not that conservatism has been prescribing the wrong ideas. It’s that conservatism thinks it can cure the patient with ideas. The entire basis of the discourse is false.
The patient’s thinking is disordered. When he lies on the couch and explains himself, he emits strange, illogical concepts and theories. This is not because his mother was distant or his father was violent. It is not because he needs a Freudian analysis or a Jungian deconstruction. It is because he has a glioma compressing his hypothalamus.
The Western mind is disordered. It has bad ideas—many bad ideas. If the Western brain was functioning properly, it would correct itself and un-think these ideas. If the Western brain was functioning properly, feeding it correct ideas which “opposed” the bad ideas would assist in this natural process of intellectual peristalsis.
But the problem is not the ideas. The problem is the institutions. The disease is not a disease of the mind. The disease is a disease of the brain.
¿Que sea hecho?
In Russian this sounds like an orc ordering you shot, but in Spanish it is quite nice. What is to be done?
Greer would probably respond that he sees the great conservative mistake as “securing control” and “developing laws”—the alternative to the rarefied, Hayekian promotion of abstract and apolitical ideas and ideals that he calls real “culture war.”
Again, he has a point—none of this practical politicking has gotten us anywhere, either. As a West Coast Pessimist, I have to say: it’s hard out there for an optimist. Look at all the optimism of the Reagan Revolution! And what is left of it?
The answer is simple: surgery is very useful. But surgery is not just surgery. You can cure an ingrown toe by toe surgery, and a brain tumor by brain surgery. You cannot cure a brain tumor by toe surgery—not even if the brain tumor is causing toe spasms.
Knowing that the problem is in the brain, not the mind, is not a good excuse to focus on the body, not the mind—especially when all the “control” and “laws,” objectively observed, are barely enough to register as a symbolic, homeopathic treatment. These superficial measures are supposed to feed back up the chain of being and cause real changes in mind and even brain—as if Trump’s “Muslim ban” could turn the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Columbia, perhaps, into a hotbed of neocon Zionism.
So definitely don’t expect that to work either. No—brain surgery is never popular—there is no constituency for brain surgery, no audience, no demand. But, when you need it, you need it.
Our next post here at Gray Mirror will talk a little more about this brain surgery. Which is really not as scary as it sounds! But, it’s sensitive stuff, so you’ll need to: