Quibbles with Moldbug

To be a reactionary, minimally speaking, requires no more than a recognition that things are going to hell. As the source of decay is traced ever further back, and attributed to ever more deeply-rooted – and securely mainstream — sociopolitical assumptions, the reactionary attitude becomes increasingly extreme. If innovative elements are introduced into either the diagnosis or the proposed remedy, a neo-reactionary mentality is born.

As the United States, along with the world that it has built, careers into calamity, neo-reactionary extremism is embarrassingly close to becoming a vogue. If evidence is needed, consider the Vacate Movement, a rapidly growing dissident faction within the 0.0000001%. This is a development that would have been scarcely imaginable, were it not for the painstakingly crafted, yet rhetorically effervescent provocations of Mencius Moldbug.

From Moldbug, immoderate neo-reaction has learnt many essential and startling facts about the genealogy and tendency of history’s central affliction, newly baptized the Cathedral. It has been liberated from the mesmerism of ‘democratic universalism’ – or evangelical ultra-puritanism – and trained back towards honest (and thus forbidden) books. It has re-learnt class analysis, of unprecedented explanatory power. Much else could have been added, before arriving at our destination: the schematic outline for a ‘neocameral’ alternative to the manifestly perishing global political order. (On a trivial etiquette matter: Moldbug politely asks to be addressed as ‘Mencius’ — comparable requests by Plato Jiggabug and Siddhartha Moldbucket have been evaded too.)

Moldbug scrupulously distances his proposals from any hint of revolutionary agitation, or even the mildest varieties of civil disobedience. Neocameralism is not designed to antagonize, but rather to restore order to social bodies that have squandered it, by drafting a framework compatible with the long-lost art of effective government. (‘Long-lost’, that is, to the West – the Singapore example, among those of other city states and special economic zones, is never far removed.) Neocameralism would not overthrow anything, but rather arise amongst ruins. It is a solution awaiting the terminal configuration of a problem.

The neocameral program proceeds roughly as follows:

Phase-1: Constructively disciplined lamentation

Phase-2: Civilization collapses

Phase-3: Re-boot to a modernized form of absolute monarchy, in which citizens are comprehensively stripped of all historically-accumulated political rights

Despite its obvious attractions to partisans of liberty, this program is not without its dubious features, a few of which can be touched upon here whilst rehearsing the Moldbug case for Neocameral government in slightly greater detail. Stated succinctly and preliminarily, our reservations drift into focus when that guy on a white horse appears. Where exactly does he come from?

To answer ‘Carlyle’ would be easy, and not exactly inaccurate, but it would also miss the structural coherence of the issue. Moldbug refuses to call his neocameral dictator a ‘national CEO’ (which he is), preferring to describe him as a ‘monarch’ (which – as a non-dynastic executive appointee — he isn’t), for reasons both stylistic and substantial. Stylistically, royalism is a provocation, and a dramatization of reactionary allegiance. Substantially, it foregrounds the question of sovereignty.

Moldbug’s political philosophy is founded upon a revision to the conception of property, sufficient to support the assertion that sovereign power is properly understood as the owner of a country. It is only at this level of political organization that real property rights – i.e. protections – are sustained.

Property is any stable structure of monopoly control. You own something if you alone control it. Your control is stable if no one else will take it away from you. This control may be assured by your own powers of violence, or it may be delegated by a higher power. If the former, it is secondary property. If the latter, it is primary or sovereign property.

The sovereign power (sovereign corporation, or ‘sovcorp’), alone, is able to ensure its own property rights. Its might and rights are absolutely identical, and from this primary identity subordinate rights (to ‘secondary property’) cascade down through the social hierarchy. Neocameralism is nothing but the systematic, institutional recognition of this reality. (Whether it is, in fact, a ‘reality’ is a question we shall soon proceed to.)

Perhaps surprisingly, Moldbug’s conclusions can be presented in terms that recovering libertarians have found appealing:

Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today’s private sector – the joint-stock corporation.

One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State “goes public,” hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn’t it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway …

In order to take a step back from this vision, towards its foundations, it is useful to scrutinize its building blocks. When Moldbug defines property as “any stable structure of monopoly control” what is really meant by ‘control’? It might seem simple enough. To control something is to use, or make use of it — to put it to work, such that a desired outcome is in fact achieved. ‘Property’ would be glossed as exclusive right of use, or instrumental utilization, conceived with sufficient breadth to encompass consumption, and perhaps (we will come to this), donation or exchange.

Complications quickly arise. ‘Control’ in this case would involve technical competence, or the ability to make something work. If control requires that one can use something effectively, then it demands compliance with natural fact (through techno-scientific understanding and practical skills). Even consumption is a type of use. Is this historical variable – vastly distant from intuitive notions of sovereignty – actually suited to a definition of property?

It might be realistic to conceive property through control, and control through technical competence, but it would be hard to defend as an advance in formalism. Since this problem thoroughly infuses the topic of ‘might’, or operational sovereignty, it is also difficult to isolate, or parenthesize. Moldbug’s frequent, enthusiastic digressions into the practicalities of crypto-locked military apparatuses attest strongly to this. The impression begins to emerge that the very possibility of sovereign property is bound to an irreducibly fuzzy, historically dynamic, and empirically intricate investigation into the micro-mechanics of power, dissolving into an acid fog of Clauswitzean ‘friction’ (or ineliminable unpredictability).

More promising, by far – for the purposes of tractable argument — is a strictly formal or contractual usage of ‘control’ to designate the exclusive right to free disposal or commercial alienation. Defined this way, ownership is a legal category, co-original with the idea of contract, referring to those things which one has the right to trade (based on natural law). Property is essentially marketable. It cannot exist unless it can be alienated through negotiation. A prince who cannot trade away his territory does not ‘own’ it in any sense that matters.

Moldbug seems to acknowledge this, in at least three ways. Firstly, his formalization of sovereign power, through conversion into sovereign stock, commercializes it. Within the neocameral regime, power takes the form of revenue-yielding property, available for free disposal by those who wield it. That is the sole basis for the corporate analogy. If sovereign stock were not freely disposable, its ‘owners’ would be mere stewards, subject to obligations, non-alienable political responsibilities, or administrative duties that demonstrate with absolute clarity the subordination to a higher sovereignty. (That is, broadly speaking, the current situation, and inoffensively conventional political theory.)

Secondly, the neocameral state exists within a patchwork, or system of interactions, through which they compete for population, and in which peaceful (or commercial) redistributions — including takeovers and break-ups — are facilitated. Unless sovereign stock can be traded within the patchwork, it is not property at all. This in turn indicates that ‘internal’ positive legislation, as dictated by the domestic ‘sovereign’, is embedded within a far more expansive normative system, and the definition of ‘property’ cannot be exhausted by its local determination within the neocameral micro-polis. As Moldbug repeatedly notes, an introverted despotism that violated broader patchwork norms – such as those governing free exit — could be reliably expected to suffer a collapse of sovereign stock value (which implies that the substance of sovereign stock is systemically, rather than locally, determined). If the entire neocameral state is disciplined through the patchwork, how real can its local sovereignty be? This systemic disciplining or subversion of local sovereignty, it should be noted, is the sole attraction of the neocameral schema to supporters of dynamic geography (who want nothing more than for the national government to become the patchwork system’s bitch).

Thirdly (and relatedly), neocameralism is floated as a model for experimental government, driven cybernetically towards effectiveness by the same types of feedback mechanisms that control ‘secondary’ corporations. In particular, population traffic between neocameral states is conceived as a fundamental regulator, continuously measuring the functionality of government, and correcting it in the direction of attractiveness. The incentive structure of the neocameral regime – and thus its claim to practical rationality — rests entirely upon this. Once again, however, it is evidently the radical limitation of local sovereignty, rather than its unconstrained expression, which promises to make such governments work. Free exit – to take the single most important instance — is a rule imposed at a higher level than the national sovereign, operating as a natural law of the entire patchwork. Without free exit, a neocameral state is no more than a parochial despotism. The absolute sovereign of the state must choose to comply with a rule he did not legislate … something is coming unstuck here (it’s time to send that white horse to the biodiesel tanks).

Neocameralism necessarily commercializes sovereignty, and in doing so it accommodates power to natural law. Sovereign stock (‘primary property’) and ‘secondary property’ become commercially inter-changeable, dissolving the original distinction, whilst local sovereignty is rendered compliant with the wider commercial order, and thus becomes a form of constrained ‘secondary sovereignty’ relative to the primary or absolute sovereignty of the system itself. Final authority bleeds out into the catallactic ensemble, the agora, or commercium, where what can really happen is decided by natural law. It is this to which sovereign stockholders, if they are to be effective, and to prosper, must defer.

The fundamental point, and the reason why the pretender on the white horse is so misleading, is that sovereignty cannot, in principle, inhere in a particular social agent – whether individual, or group. This is best demonstrated in reference to the concept of natural law (which James Donald outlines with unsurpassed brilliance). When properly understood, or articulated, natural law cannot possibly be violated. Putting your hand into a fire, and being burnt, does not defy the natural law that temperatures beyond a certain range cause tissue damage and pain. Similarly, suppressing private property, and producing economic cataclysm, does not defy the natural law that human economic behavior is sensitive to incentives.

Positive law, as created by legislators, takes the form: do (or don’t do) this. Violations will be punished.

Natural law, as discovered by any rational being, takes the form: do what thou wilt and accept the consequences. Rewards and punishments are intrinsic to it. It cannot be defied, but only misunderstood. It is therefore absolutely sovereign (Deus sive Natura). Like any other being, governments, however powerful, can only comply with it, either through intelligent adaptation and flourishing, or through ignorance, incompetence, degeneration, and death. To God-or-Nature it matters not at all. Natural law is indistinguishable from the true sovereign power which really decides what can work, and what doesn’t, which can then – ‘secondarily’ — be learnt by rational beings, or not.

Moldbug knows this – really. He demonstrates it – to take just one highly informative example — through his insistence that a neocameral state would tend to tax at the Laffer optimum. That is to say, such a state would prove its effectiveness by maximizing the return on sovereign property in compliance with reality. It does not legislate the Laffer curve, or choose for it to exist, but instead recognizes that it has been discovered, and with it an aspect of natural law. Anything less, or other, would be inconsistent with its legitimacy as a competent protector of property. To survive, prosper, and even pretend to sovereignty, it can do nothing else. Its power is delegated by commercium.

It is surely no coincidence that Cnut the Great has been described by Norman Cantor as “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history.” As Wikipedia relates his story:

His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut held this power-base together by uniting Danes and Englishmen under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, rather than sheer brutality.

Most importantly:

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'”


End Games

Some time late on the 21st of December last year [2012], Terrestrial Omega Event 2012 streaked past relatively quietly, on a trajectory from the dread realm of ominous premonitions into the cobwebbed vault of defunct absurdities. (The fact that its glancing blow reduced Urban Future to a tangled wreck of smoking weakly radioactive debris need be of no concern to anybody except our five regular readers.) Another non-event was thus added to the long chain of ontological omissions that compose the Apocalyptic Tradition. Things continue, on their existing tracks, as common sense had confidently predicted.

For a world saturated in modernist irony, where even the most passionate beliefs are modulated by forms of mass-media entertainment, no ‘Great Disappointment’ is any longer possible, such as that afflicting the Millerites of the mid-1840s. A 2012 Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 10% of the world population (and no less than 20% of Chinese) had ‘sincerely’ expected the End to arrive on December 21st. When it didn’t, so what? There’s always something else on — or rather, the same thing, in different flavors.

Channel hopping is especially easy because it isn’t even necessary to switch genre. The collapse of the Occidental World Order is like Henry Ford’s Model T: “You can have it in any color you like, as long as it’s black.” What you can’t do is get it over with. It’s too big to fail, even after it has manifestly failed.

The December non-event was not the End, or even the end of the End, but rather the end of the end of the End. Dated Doomsday has been de-activated, leaving an indefinitely dilated Ending without conclusion. Now that the prospect of a finish has finished, finishing becomes interminable. Dates march onwards, without destination, into ever extended horizons of collapse. Apocalypse, stripped of Armageddon, is normalized. It can now demand undistracted recognition as ‘the system’, the way of the world, feeding upon the spectacle of permanent crisis through the Media-Apocalypse Complex. As (Fukuyama-final) Liberal Democratic politics adjusts to a chronic state of emergency, it is finally possible to ‘get things done’, in a time when nothing can be done. Disinhibited insanity delights in its ultimate mania.

Because it’s insanity, it can’t really last, but Apocalypse has outlasted Doomsday, and reality has lost its last signs. For purposes of polite conversation, therefore, it is best to grant the Keynesians / Postmodernists absolute triumph, and to concur that the consequences of irrealism can be indefinitely postponed. When in Bedlam, do as the bedlamites do. Anything else would be pointless irascibility, out of keeping with the spirit of the age. After all (except itself) Apocalypse Forever is the final Western religion.

Progressive Apocalypse, Apocalypse Forever, assumes the death of Doomsday, which provides the occasion for an obituary. For reactionaries of the ‘Throne and Altar’ variety, mourning will incline towards eschatology, as the moment of definitive judgment is interred. Here in the eschaton-blitzed wreckage of Urban Future, however, our remembrance is more concisely arithmetical. We recall dates gone forever, and with them the time inversions that are expressed through countdowns, intensive escalations, and compressions. When the end had a date, time could zero upon it, rather than dissipating into endlessly-extended fogbanks of blighted futurity.

December 21st, 2012, was the last Doomsday date, and thus the day Doomsday died. It might even have been the most popular, but it was very far from the greatest. Extracted predominantly from the calendar of the Mayans, it neatly concluded the 13th Baktun, but in doing so broke quite arbitrarily from the (already awkward and compromised) numerical organization of the dating system, with its preference for modulus-20 unit hierarchies. Whatever the attractions of exoticism, turning to pop Mayanology for a planetary Apocalypse schedule was also radically arbitrary, given the Abrahamic Hegemony that had structured the world order over the previous half millennium. Still, the Maya had conducted their own preliminary experiment in collapse, enabling Mel Gibson to excavate a striking movie from the ruins, introduced by a quote from Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

When estimated in terms of numerical elegance and metaphysical profundity, the truly great Doomsday was Y2K, the most beautiful weapon in history (despite its failure to detonate). Y2K was automatic and techno-compatible (actually, techno-dependent), chronometrically precise, perfectly counter-Abrahamic, and calendrically creative (re-setting AD 1900 to Year 00). It was staged from the absence of an integrated, malevolent subject, out of simple arithmetic, targeting an exactly scheduled, consummate fulfillment of millennial expectation through sheer coincidence. The world order was to have been softly terminated, by ‘chance’. Nothing that has ever actually happened in history made as much sense as this (which didn’t). The more closely it is examined, the more exquisite it appears. Among other missed Doomsdays, none comes close. But as Y2K said, insidiously: Never Mind.

Even the shoddiest of the Old Doomsdays satisfied intellectual appetites that will now hunger forever. First of all, and most basically, they catered to the transcendental impulse, understood as a search for ultimate or enveloping structures and principles of organization. As a metaphysical event, conclusive Apocalypse promises an escape from distracting detail and an apprehension of the frame. Biblical bases for such apprehension are found in Isaiah 34:4 — “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll.” This image is repeated in Revelation 6:14 — “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together.” Apocalyptic time does not add a new sentence, or even a new chapter, to the chronicle of events. It uncovers the limit of the scroll, by exceeding it. For that, however, it has to complete itself.

Secondly, a punctual Apocalypse fulfills a semiotic (and in particular numerical) realism, as expressed — most lucidly — in occultism and schizophrenia. The apocalyptic exposes a primal encryption of culture, coding the operations of super-human intelligence (God or gods, transcended masters, aliens, time-travelers, spontaneous social order, or bacteria … any will do). A true calendar is revealed, in which semiotic exhaustion, or roll-over, precisely coincides with the end of a real epoch. Hyper-traditionalism thus exoticizes itself in the formulation: travel inwards far enough and you arrive at the outside. It thus provides the most radical challenge to the fundamental mantra of the contemporary human sciences – the (Saussurean) arbitrary nature of the sign.

An additional and essentially modern contribution to the apocalyptic is made by the arithmetic of the intrinsically unsustainable, as defined by Thomas Malthus (1768-1834) in his An Essay on the Principle of Population. The empirical foundations for an inevitable crisis are found in trends to exponential growth and their projected collision with a limit. Variants of such apocalyptic projection are found in Marxism, environmentalism, and Technological Singularity (Karl Marx, M. King Hubbert, and Ray Kurzweil).

Even from this brief survey, it becomes possible to outline certain core features of a model apocalypse: comprehensive, punctual, and climactic. In other words, a transition that cannot be contained by the pre-existing nature of time, occurring at an exact, cryptically anticipated moment, bringing the central historical process to its culmination. All of that is gathered together in Doomsday, and Doomsday is dead.
Note: Thanks to Mathieu Borysevicz and Sophie Huang of the MAB Society, whose December 10th, 2012, Minsheng Museum event, Just What is it about the end of the world that makes it so appealing? provided the opportunity to discuss the schematics of apocalypse.


Left Singularity

Winter is coming

Leftists are not troubled by the fear that the masses might revolt against the left, but rather each leftist fears he might fail to keep up with the ever changing line, find himself a few years, or weeks, or days behind the current ever changing political correctness, and find himself deemed a rightist. // Which historically halts only in bloodshed. There is no equivalent right singularity, as repressive right wing regimes forbid interest in politics, while repressive left wing regimes command interest in politics. // The left singularity is the same each time in its approach to infinite leftism, but differs chaotically and surprisingly each time in its ending short of infinite leftism. — James A. Donald

What we worry about most is that we’ll see a vicious cycle develop: poor governance hurts the economy, which radicalizes and polarizes public opinion, which leads to worse governance and worse economic outcomes… and so on down the line. — Walter Russell Mead

21st Century politics sees no need for truth. When government believes itself to be responsible for the economy and convinces the people of that, it has put itself into a box. …When recessions occur … it causes government to pursue policies which reinforce its lies. It is these policies which created the current economic crisis in the first place.– ‘Monty Pelerin’ (via Zero Hedge)

Dark Enlightenment begins with the recognition that reality is unpopular, so that the ‘natural’ course of political development, under democratic conditions, is reliably based upon the promise of an alternative. Pandering to fantasy is the only platform that delivers electoral support. When the dreams turn bad it is politically obvious that they have not been held firmly or sincerely enough, their radicalism has been insufficient, and a more far-reaching solution is imperative. Since either deliberate or merely inertial rightist sabotage is clearly to blame, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

This syndrome, essentially indistinguishable from political modernity, calls for a cybernetic theory of accelerating social deterioration, or self-reinforcing economic repression. The trend that dark enlightenment recoils from demands explanation, which is found in the diagram of Left Singularity.

A singularity, of any kind, is the limit of a process dominated by positive feedback, and thus driven to an extreme. In its pure mathematical expression, the trend is not merely exponential, but parabolic, asymptotically closing upon infinity in finite time. The ‘logic of history’ converges upon an absolute limit, beyond which further prolongation is strictly impossible. From this ultimate, impassable barrier, dark enlightenment retrogresses into political history, prophetically inflamed by its certainty of the end. Unless democracy disintegrates before the wall, it will hit the wall.

“Increased repression brings increased leftism, increased leftism brings increased repression, in an ever tighter circle that turns ever faster. This is the left singularity,” Donald writes. The principal dark hypothesis is evident: on the left slope, failure is not self-corrective, but rather the opposite. Dysfunction deepens itself through the circuit of disappointment:

As society moves ever leftwards, ever faster, leftists get ever more discontented with the outcome, but of course, the only cure for their discontent that it is permissible to think, is faster and further movement left.

It is necessary, then, to accept the leftist inversion of Clausewitz, and the proposition that politics is war by other means, precisely because it retains the Clausewitzean tendency to the extreme (making it ‘prone to escalation’). This is the reason why modern political history has a characteristic shape, which combines a duration of escalating ‘progress’ with a terminal, quasi-punctual interruption, or catastrophe – a restoration or ‘reboot’. Like mould in a Petri dish, progressive polities ‘develop’ explosively until all available resources have been consumed, but unlike slime colonies they exhibit a dynamism that is further exaggerated (from the exponential to the hyperbolic) by the fact that resource depletion accelerates the development trend.

Economic decay erodes productive potential and increases dependency, binding populations ever more desperately to the promise of political remedy. The progressive slope steepens towards the precipice of supreme radicality, or total absorption into the state … and somewhere fractionally before then, either before or after it has stolen everything you own, taken your children, unleashed mass killing, and descended into cannibalism, it ends.

It can’t eat the Petri dish, or abolish reality (in reality). There is a limit. But humanity gets a chance to show what it’s capable of, on the downside. As Whiskey commented (on this Sailer thread): “This Enlightenment is ‘Dark’ because it tells us true things we’d rather not know or read or hear, because they paint a not-so-lovely picture of human nature at its rawest.” Progress takes us into the raw.

Gregory Bateson referred to cybernetic escalation as ‘schismogenesis’, which he identified in a number of social phenomena. Among these was substance abuse (specifically alcoholism), whose abstract dynamics, at the level of the individual, are difficult to distinguish from collective political radicalization. The alcoholic is captured by a schismogenetic circuit, and once inside, the only attractive solution is to head further in. At each step of life disintegration, one needs a drink more than ever. There goes the job, the savings, the wife and kids, and there’s nowhere to look for hope except the bar, the vodka bottle, and eventually that irresistible can of floor polish. Escape comes – if it comes before the morgue – in ‘hitting bottom’. Escalation to the extreme reaches the end of the road, or the story, where another might – possibly – begin. Schismogenesis predicts catastrophe.

Hitting bottom has to be horrible. A long history brought you to this, and if this isn’t obviously, indisputably, an intolerable state of ultimate degradation, it will carry on. It isn’t finished until it really can’t go on, and that has to be several notches worse than can be anticipated. Left Singularity is deep into the dregs of the floor polish, with everything gone. It’s worse than anything you can imagine, and there’s no point at all trying to persuade people they’ve arrived there before they know they have. ‘Things could be better than this’ won’t cut it. That’s what progress is for, and progress is the problem.

That which cannot continue, will stop. Trees do not grow to the sky. This does not, however, necessarily mean that freedom will be restored and everything will be lovely. The last time we had theocracy, we had stagnation for four hundred years.

The explosive expansion of spending and regulation represents a collapse of discipline within the ruling elite. The way the system is supposed to work, and the way it mostly did work several decades ago, is that the American Federal Government can only spend money on something if the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President agree to spend money on that thing, so no government employee can be employed, except all three agree he should be employed, so the government cannot do anything unless all three agree that it be done. A public servant, and indeed his entire department, was apt to be fired if he pissed off anyone. Conversely, the individual was free to do anything, unless all three agree that he be stopped from doing that thing. We are now approaching the reverse situation, where for an individual to do anything requires a pile of permissions from diverse governmental authorities, but any governmental authority can spend money on anything unless there is near unanimous opposition to them spending money.

Obviously this cannot continue. Eventually the money runs out, in that we shall have a hyperinflationary crisis, and revert to some other form of money, such as the gold standard. As that happens, the increasingly lawless behavior of the rulers against the ruled will become increasingly lawless behavior of the rulers against each other. Civil war, or something close to civil war, or the dire and immediate threat of civil war will ensue. At that point, we will have the political singularity, probably around 2025 or so. Beyond the singularity, no predictions can be made, other than that the results will be surprising …