28 April 2013

Noah’s Castle

I suspect my impression of what a collapse of society looks like is heavily influenced by the 1970s TV series Noah’s Castle, which I saw when I was a child.
As I recall, the plot was that this chap saw that things were all going wrong, and moved out to the country and stocked his cellar up with food. The point of the story was the moral dilemma of whether he would keep his stores for his own whiny ungrateful kids or open them up to the hungry mob at his gates.
The purported dilemma seemed almost as inane to me thirty-odd years ago as it does today, but the image of the wild horde begging for the tinned spam in the basement stuck with me.
That’s my excuse, anyway, because looking at the idea now, it’s not all that convincing. Firstly, whether you feel like giving away your hoard is a minor question compared to whether you can hang onto it. Second, if it really did get to the stage where the existing food distribution mechanisms broke down, or food became too expensive for the masses, we would be looking at a minimum of hundreds of thousands starving. Third, drastic changes in government would happen before that, so reactionaries who waited for actual anarchy before acting as I recommended recently would be leaving it too late.
So the question is, what are the stages of the collapse of the state? At what point can a reactionary leader claim to be restoring order rather than opposing order?
I plan to write a few posts looking at the likeliest possibilities, but first there are a couple of other lines to rule out.
Simple state bankruptcy is not the answer. States can and do run out of money, without losing control. As we have seen in Cyprus, the state can simply confiscate what it needs taxation no longer suffices. Running out of money could very well contribute to a failure of the state, but in itself it does not constitute a failure.
A foreign invasion obviously is a failure, but that’s not a likely scenario for Britain, so that can be ruled out.
My current theory is that democracy probably goes first. Once the progressives have abandoned or bypassed democracy, even as a temporary expedient, it becomes possible for reactionaries to claim that since the rulers’ position is no longer justified democratically, there is no reason for the people who caused the crisis to remain in power.
I will expand on this later.

20 April 2013

Collapse

I think there may be a flaw in my previous post, in that I don’t have much of a feel for what the collapse of a Western liberal state looks like. It’s one thing to say that if something can’t go on, it won’t, but it’s another to say what actually happens when the government can no longer pay civil servants, or the banks don’t open, or  the police arrest the whole cabinet.

Such collapses do happen, but I’m in the dark about the details. I suspect the previous post assumes too much of a disintegration of existing institutional structures — they’re more likely to survive under different control, perhaps decentralised. Does anyone have any suggestions as to what I should be reading? Accounts from the end of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia would seem an obvious starting point.

Update @MikeAnissimov links to SHTF School , a blog about life in the Balkan region after Yugoslavia disintegrated. The emphasis is on personal preparedness (survivalism), but as raw material, it’s just the sort of thing I’m looking for.

Reactionary Unity


Spandrell talks of three groups among the reactionary movement: capitalist, religious/traditionalist, and ethnic/nationalists. He and Nick Land both consider the degree to which the three groups will be able to work together.

The answer, for me, depends entirely on what the work is that is to be done. That depends again on what the path is for getting to a reactionary state, which I am long overdue to pay more attention to.

It has to depend on local circumstances. For Britain, the path that looks most plausible to me is the restoration of the existing monarchy to power. America needs to take some other path: possibly a seccession, possibly a military takeover. The future reactionary ruler could get there by commanding an army or militia, by being stonkingly rich, or a TV personality, or even a prophet.

In any case, what I see as the future goal is not a ruling politburo of reactionary philosophers, whether neoreactionary, othodox, ethno-nationalist or any combination thereof. What seems more likely is someone who gets power by a more practical method, in a crisis, then points at all the reactionary theory and explains that he’s not going form a transitional administration with the goal of free elections in X months because that would be repeating the mistakes of the past. Rather, he is going to continue to govern according to these fine guiding principles which these clever people have worked out, and will rule in a reactionary manner.

The supporters of this regime will overwhelmingly not be neoreactionaries, they will not be ethnonationalists, they will be ordinary people whose reasoning is “Fuck it, maybe this will work, nothing else has”. That’s the key constituency.

For this to happen, some ideas will have to be widespread: that the solution to the problems of democracy is not more democracy, that the obsessions of the lefter-than-thou pharisees of progressivism are insane, that stable government is so much preferable to anarchy that unpleasant policies should be tolerated for the sake of peace.

However, though distrust of democracy and progressive purity are spreading and might easily become widespread over the next decade or so, true apathy — the belief that, like it or dislike it, government policy is not your responsibility — is a much tougher goal. Stirring up apathy, in Lord Whitelaw’s immortal words, is very difficult. That’s why I believe the wheel has to go full circle — we will have to experience anarchy before we can have the reaction. If we are lucky the anarchy may be brief and not too destructive.

Without anarchy, there will still be a progressive party. If a reactionary movement defeats it, it will remain as an opposition and have to be fought at every turn, and the process of fighting it will nullify most of the advantages that reaction brings. The government will have to actively court popularity in order to weaken the progressive opposition, and that dependence on public opinion politicises what should be the non-political aspects of government.

Progressivism needs to be so discredited that the population will view it with revulsion without the state needing to bargain with them to reject it.

Because I do not see a “reactionary party” as forming any part in the process, the question of cooperation between the wings of the reactionary movement does not really arise. The work we have to do is to get the theory done, and prepare the ground. We will do that between us, and whether in overt cooperation or in rivalrous competition doesn’t really matter. If the first ruler is there because he wins a race war, then the contribution to theory of the ethnonationalists will be important. If he has raised an army of religious crusaders, the orthodox will be more important. If he has carved a peaceful oasis out of the anarchy by hiring mercenaries with the profits from his data haven business, he’s going to be paying attention to the futurists. The initial political formula doesn’t matter too much, provided that it’s not demotist. The political formula that will stick is, “this is what gives us peace and order”.

You cannot claim that formula if you start out by attacking the peace and order that exists already. That is why reaction has to wait. It has to restore order from anarchy. The standard to initially rally around will not be reactionary theory per se. It will be something that can restore order — flag, crown, cross, or something else. I don’t think it is likely that there will be multiple reactionary choices at this stage. Whatever has the best chance of producing order will attract the support. The reason I emphasise royalty and call myself a royalist is because, in Britain, the Crown looks like the most likely candidate. Religion frankly isn’t at all plausible here — several football clubs have a better chance of concentrating sufficient power than any church does. Ethno-nationalists are also a possibility (the distinction between nationalist groups and football supporters’ groups is a blurry one anyway). Is Tesco in the running too? I doubt it, but who knows?

The old order will fall when parallel power structures start to form outside its control. This could happen first in some localities or it could happen all at once (if the state is no longer able to pay its employees, for example). When it is no longer a case of trying to take over the existing state, but rather to create a new one, it becomes possible for reactionaries to act.

The rivals will be the democrats, the hard left, and Islam. The old hard left has pretty much dissolved into the establishment, and does not look like much of an independent threat. Islam doesn’t have the numbers, even in Luton, though it will probably organise effectively earlier than anyone else. Assuming the actual state institutions are not functioning, the democrats will be fighting on equal terms with the others, but with the aim of restoring democracy. At that point, it becomes OK to fight them, though it would be preferable to ignore them. Immediate tactical necessity is likely to dominate strategy at this stage — that’s why the strategic propaganda work has to already have been done, the narrative that says that democracy and progressivism brought on the breakdown, that it was predictable and expected, and that only those who truly value order can now achieve it, has to already be in place. The failure has to be seen as the failure of the system, not of one party or faction. That will reduce the support that politicians get during the anarchy, compared to other authority figures. Even the authority figures who are gathering forces at that point will not be talking theory, they will be asking for support to create local, short-term order. If the ground has been prepared properly, the traditional conservatives, the Christians, the ethno-nationalists and the neoreactionaries will all support the same quasi-state.

That said, some political formulæ will cause more difficulties than others. The problem with religion is that people will disagree about it, and claim it justifies them in fighting the (new) state. For that reason, I don’t think a reactionary state that fundamentally justifies itself on religious grounds will be successful for long. However, a state that justifies itself on the grounds of protecting Christianity from outside enemies (progressivism, Islam, etc.) should be able to earn the loyalty of the faithful without getting tied up in the theological disputes among them. The arms-length relationship between church and state that we have in Britain seems about right* — the ruler is Defender of the Faith, but not Priest-King.

The facts that we have to spread among the public ahead of time are much less than full reaction. They are just the context in which reaction can take its place:

  • There is such a thing as progressivism, and there are non-progressive ideas, not just more and less progressive ideas
  • There are otherwise sane people who hold non-progressive ideas
  • That some aspects of government are the result of the democratic system, and not of the particular politicians who have been elected
  • That a more peaceful and ordered society is possible, and that even the peace and order we still have are at risk

If those ideas are widespread, then reality will do the rest when the time comes.



* bit of a fishy coincidence there, but I can’t see a hole in it. It   would make sense to back off a little from “Head of the Church”.

18 April 2013

Lady Thatcher

I was on the street yesterday to see Baroness Thatcher’s funeral procession go by. She was only a politician, but respect is important, ritual is important, and getting in the way of the left imposing their own narrative is satisfying.

 As for her real legacy, it can be confusing. On one hand, many have pointed out that Thatcher’s achievement is that the controversial positions she introduced are now completely mainstream across the political spectrum. In terms of the broad political positions on the role of the state in the economy, Ed Miliband is to the right of Thatcher.

I read that, and nod sagely.

At the same time, a few others are pointing out that she never really made a difference. The state is bigger now than it was in 1979, and controls more of the economy. The leftist singularity grows closer. The social conservatism she occasionally made small efforts towards has been steamrollered over.

I read that, and nod sagely.

What were the achievements of Thatcher as Prime Minister? She broke the power of the Unions, replaced a largely state-run economy with free enterprise and competition, opened up international trade and reduced taxation.

It looks now as if all those things would have happened anyway. They happened across the world, enacted by right-wing parties and left-wing parties. The main cause was the decline of the economic importance of mass manufacturing. When the economy depended on factories, mines and the like, with armies of semi-skilled workers, the unions had substantial real power, and running the economy effectively consisted in large part in managing those armies of workers. The wartime economies morphed easily into command economies, all across Europe.

In the 1970s, automation gradually ate away at the “armies of workers” model. Economic success came less from better handling of a mass workforce and more from the innovations of the highly-skilled and from better management of capital. However, the political institutions did not reflect reality — the unions had real power, high top tax rates were an impediment to getting the best out of the most skilled, and tariffs were an obstacle to employing capital effectively. This state of affairs existed through the 1970s, causing the economic devastation that Thatcher is now credited with “saving” us from.

Across Europe, the cost overhang of the industry which was no longer productive but survived because of its political power became prohibitive, and resulted in a political conflict. Thatcher did not start the conflict; it had been going on for a decade under both Labour and Conservative governments. She won it, as Wilson, Heath and Callaghan had tried to do unsuccessfully. To the extent that she deserves credit for it, it is not for taking on the miners, steelworkers, etc., but for winning. But it is not clear that any of the alternative politicians that might have held the office of Prime Minister for the early eighties would necessarily have failed.

(In the USA, the greater efficiency of industry meant the erosion of manufacturing happened a bit later, and the much weaker political power of the manufacturing unions meant that happened much more gradually, rather than being a catastrophic event as it was in Britain.)

The need to develop new industries to replace the mass manufacturing required the deregulation and tax reform that happened in the 1980s. In the old economy, the expertise and capital to build industry could most easily be assembled by governments. For the new economy, they just couldn’t and governments had to compete to bring high-skilled people and capital to their territory.

So what look like the massive, enduring achievements of Thatcherism were really just the spirit of the times. There were other achievements though. Argentina might have been allowed to take over the Falklands with only a little fuss. While I think the defence of sovereignty was justified and right, I can’t honestly say it makes a big difference to me, now. The sale of council houses was a policy that need not have happened. I’m not sure whether that was a good thing or not — if the state is going to house the poor, it could be argued that owning and managing the housing is a more sensible approach than the current Housing Benefit mess, though there are arguments on both sides.

The centralisation of power away from the already quite weak local government bodies also seems to have been a global phenomenon. It was possibly an inevitable effect of the breakdown of the postwar consensus, under which it didn’t matter which party controlled a council because they all did the same thing anyway.

Finally, we have the end of the Cold War. The strong support for Reagan may have enabled him to push the USSR over the edge faster than otherwise, but I think it was doomed anyway.

 So the real enduring achievements of Thatcher are much smaller than generally supposed by supporters and enemies. Her undoubted strength of conviction may have caused the inevitable to have happened a couple of years sooner than would otherwise have been the case. This might have given Britain a better economic position relative to other countries, due to a head start. On the other hand, the conflicts that happened might have been less violent and destructive if they had been left a bit longer.

What is striking, particularly in comparison with the last ten years, is how competent the Thatcher government was. After all, if the things that governments do are more or less out of the control of particular politicians, all they actually control is whether the things are done well or badly, and, when set against Brown or Cameron, Thatcher and her government did a lot of new, difficult things with surprisingly few missteps.

07 April 2013

Introduction to the Neoreaction


Generally, when I’m asked to explain “What is a neoreactionary?” (perhaps using alternative terms such as nu-reaction or the Dark Enlightenment), my response is to point elsewhere, at Moldbug or at Nick Land, or even at Scott Alexander’s outsider’s view.

However, good sources though they are, they’re not always appropriate. They’re all extremely verbose. Moldbug and Alexander are really writing for very politically aware progressives, and Land is even more abstruse. Moldbug is the Jeremy Clarkson of political philosophy: while I find his style of presentation highly enjoyable, there’s no doubt that many others find it unbearable.

So maybe we need a more concise introduction.

The Concise Introduction

For five hundred years, there have been attempt to reorder human society on the basis that hereditary privilege, and many other kinds of inequality between humans, are unjust. Reformers have attempted to alter systems of government and other institutions of society with the goal of reducing or eliminating these injustices.

These reformers have consistently underestimated the difficulty of getting people to cooperate in a society. The intellectual techniques of science and engineering that produced miracles in terms of manipulating the natural world, have, time after time, failed catastrophically to improve the lives of humans through changing government and society.

There are a number of reasons for this: For one thing, humans are much more complex than any of the parts and tools with which engineers have made machines. They will not fit in where they are put. Attempts to persuade or compel them to fit into the machine have to be built into the machine themselves, and end up changing the functioning of the machine so much that it no longer achieves its intended goal.

Most importantly, humans have evolved to compete for influence and power, by violence and by deceit. Any reform which attempts to limit or remove the power of the holders of power creates a competition for that power, which will lead to spectacular efforts by everybody else to win it. The innovations that will be produced by such high-stakes competition are impossible to predict or plan for.

Meanwhile, developments in technology have improved people’s lives so much that the calamitous decline in quality of government has been disguised. All mainstream political factions are intellectual descendants of the original reformers, and none have any interest in fairly comparing present-day government with traditional government. Those that are called “conservatives” are only reformers who oppose the most recently enacted or proposed reforms: none of them question the principle or the intellectual basis of progressivism.

Most neoreactionary writing consists of detailed criticism of particular progressive reforms, with particular emphasis on the flaws in one specific idea — democracy.

Ultimately, however, if after all these centuries of trying to improve society based on abstract ideas of justice have only made life worse than it would have been under pre-Enlightenment social systems, the time has come to simply give up the whole project and revert to traditional forms whose basis we might not be able to establish rationally, but which have the evidence of history to support them.

Neoreaction for Reactionaries

Some of the inquiries I spoke of at the beginning have come from old-fashioned reactionaries. The short answer for them is that it doesn’t matter. Neoreaction is not a new, better form of reaction that you should be upgrading to — rather, you’ve found a short-cut past what for us has generally been a long and laborious journey, one that has mostly passed through libertarianism or other forms of liberalism. A lot of our discussion will seem wrong-headed to you, and your theology is mostly irrelevant to us, but when the subject is more immediately practical, we are likely to be closer together.

06 April 2013

My moral approach

Eric Raymond writes a very good post on Natural Rights and morality. The general approach he takes is the same as mine: utilitarianism sounds alright, but actually predicting the consequences of particular actions at particular moments is so damned hard that the only sensible way to do it is to get to a set of rules that seem to produce mainly good outcomes, and then treat them as if they were moral absolutes. Deep down, I know they’re not moral absolutes, but, as in other fields, a convenient assumption is the only way to make the problem tractable.

Like Raymond, I followed those principles to a libertarian conclusion. Well, to be completely honest, it’s more that I used those principles to justify the “natural rights” that I’d previously considered naively to be self-evident.

It's still a big step. If you start from moral laws, you can always predict roughly where you’re going to end up. Using a consequentialist framework, even one moderated through a rules-system, there’s always a chance that you may change your mind about what set of proposed “moral absolutes” actually work best. That’s what happened to me.

I was particularly struck by a phenomenon where the more deeply and carefully I attacked a question rationally, the more my best answer resembled some traditional, non-rationalist, formulation. That led me to suspect that where my reasoning did not reach a traditionalist conclusion, I just wasn't reasoning far enough.

That’s not particularly surprising. Ideas evolve. Richard Dawkins made a big deal of the fact that evolutionary success for an idea isn't the same thing as success for the people who believe the ideas, and while that is a fair point in itself, I do not recall, at least from his writings back in the 80’s which I read avidly, him drawing a parallel with the well-known conclusion, made here by Matt Ridley via Brian Micklethwait, that in the very long run parasites do better by being less harmful to their hosts. By that principle, new religions (parasitic memeplexes) should be treated with fear and suspicion, while old ones are relatively trustworthy. Hmmm.

There are whole other layers to moral philosophy than this one of “selecting” rules. On one hand, utilitarianism is a slippery and problematic thing in the first place, and on the other side, moral rules, whether absolute laws or fake-absolute heuristics, have to be social to be meaningful, so the question of how they become socialised and accepted cannot be completely disentangled from what they should be. I am satisfied with my way of dealing with both these issues, but at the end of the day, I'm not that keen to write about it. When I think I’ve done moral philosophy well, I end up with something close to common sense. When I do it less well, I end up with things catastrophically worse than common sense. I therefore am inclined to rate common sense above philosophy when it comes to morality.

04 April 2013

Binary Decisions


Bryan Caplan makes a post (h/t @S8mB) defending anarcho-capitalism from the criticism that private security companies would end up fighting it out until there is a winner which can rule.

The essence is that a norm would become established that such an ambition would just be insane. He makes a comparison with parliamentary democracy, where losing parties peacefully relinquish power, because nobody doubts that that is what they are supposed to do.

I think his argument is invalid, and that is based on a fundamental difference between the positions of the outvoted democrat and the security company.

The difference is that the democrat has a binary choice. He either accepts the result of the election, publicly, in which case he must step down, or he rejects it, in which case he is making it clear he is breaching the established expectations.

Private security companies in the Rothbardian sense are not forced into the same “in or out” dilemma. If one wants to protect a piece of property for one client while another wants to protect the same piece of property for another, there are infinite gradations of conflict they can resort to. The lower levels are deniable (“accidents” for example), middling levels can be justified as peaceful bargaining — “sanctions” of various kinds, and the highest levels of conflict, while still consistent with a dispute over a particular legal question, are indistinguishable from a war of conquest. The ability to vary the level of conflict in small steps allows the kind of norms that apply to democracy to be eroded or made irrelevant.