Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Silence of the Lambs and the contemporary American elite


The Silence of the Lambs is almost 30 years old. But it is one of those classic films that has entered the general culture so that people who weren’t alive when the film came out can recognise classic lines or moments from the film.

Who does not get the resonance of “it rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”?

Members of the contemporary American elite, who are too settled and senior in some network or hierarchy to see themselves as Clarice, the plucky young FBI agent played by Jodie Foster, surely would identify with Jack Crawford. The wise, experienced and perceptive defeater of monsters; mentor to the Clarice’s who come into their orbit. Scott Glenn gave the character an engaged and engaging gravitas, who would not want to identify with him?

If the American elite, particularly the progressive elite, were made up of Jack Crawford’s, the US would be in much better shape.

But neither Clarice nor Jack Crawford is the character from the film classic who best describes the typical member of the contemporary American elite. That goes to Dr Frederick Chiltern, played with such wonderfully sleazy arrogance by Anthony Heald.

It is all there. The condescension. The arrogance. The overblown sense of understanding. The destructive careerism. The false sense of being in control, of being able to use the monster of the moment for their own benefit.

And what happens to him in the end? Having let the monster loose through this own self-serving careerism, the last we see of Frederick Chiltern is his frightened flight to a false sanctuary, the monster he let loose wandering, unhurried, after him, toward that fatal consumption that Lector’s line to Clarice (“I am having an old friend for dinner”) moments earlier foreshadows with such delicious menace.

As we have watched US cities burn in nightly riots, and new forms of the totalitarian urge rampage through US institutions, the statues expressing American heritage be torn down, the explicit wish to abolish the American, Western and Enlightenment projects be violently proclaimed, much of the US mainstream media turn itself into vehicles of cult activism, people be intimidated into going along with moral urgency of the moment, for fear they will get the hose of mobbing stigmatisation, the lesson of Frederick Chiltern is there for those with eyes to see. This has all got as far as it has because an army of Fredrick Chilterns thought that the monsters would be useful for their careers, that they would remain in control and so could prosper from letting moralised rage do its thing.

That is not how these patterns play out.

How many will find out that they were not noble Jack Crawford’s but Frederick Chiltern’s, destroyed by their own careerist arrogance? And will they have that moment of self-realisation before the monsters they let loose come for them?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Reasons to expect Trump to lose


The US is having a very strange election, at so many levels. By all the indicators of enthusiasm, President Trump is way ahead of Vice President Biden. Biden-the-candidate has none of the enthusiasm of Barack Obama in 2008. He seems to have even weaker levels of on-the-ground enthusiasm than did Hillary Clinton 2016. Yet the polls have been telling a consistent story for months: he is going to win the popular vote and the Electoral College handily.

While there are reasons to be sceptical of the polls, for them to be systematically wrong on the level required for President Trump to be re-elected would be truly remarkable. And would say very disturbing things about the state of US politics and institutions. So, what reasons do we have to think the polls might be fundamentally correct?

Peace and Bread: the Peace and Bread equation is a model of US presidential voting developed by economist Douglas Hibbs. It predicts the share of the total Democrat-Republican Presidential vote of the incumbent Party nominee based on the performance of the US economy in the lead up to the election and war casualties.

If we treat the 226,000 or so Coronavirus deaths (682 deaths per million) as war casualties and consider the depressive effect on the US economy of the lockdown measures, then we would predict the incumbent Party nominee (Donald Trump) to be defeated. President Trump is also very poor at the tribal-leader gravitas that US Presidents are expected to provide. Something, in their different ways, both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were skilled at. Which has a great deal to do with why they were the notably electorally successful nominees for their respective Parties.

So, if the US election is decided by relatively low-information voters, you add in economic effects, Coronavirus deaths and not fulfilling Presidential gravitas expectations, and even hope for quieter politics, and it is easy to see how the polls would be correct and President Trump would fail to get re-elected. A plausible reading, moreover, that does not require any hint of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Since the election of President Eisenhower in 1952, the US has had a pretty strong rhythm of two-term Administrations. Eisenhower (1953–61), Kennedy-Johnson (1961–1969), Nixon-Ford (1969–77), Reagan (1981–1989), Clinton (1993–2001), Bush II (2001–2009), Obama (2009–2017) all fulfilled this pattern. The exceptions are Bush I (1989–1993), who was going for the fourth successive term for the same Party: a big ask that economic recession and the third-Party candidacy of Ross Perot put paid to, and Carter (1977–1981).

If Donald Trump turns out to be a one-term President, in a single-term Party incumbency in the White House, that puts him in the same category as President Jimmy Carter and no other postwar President. We can see from the above, that there are reasons to think that he might be so. Though Joe Biden in 2020 seems a very different candidate, at so many levels, than Ronald Reagan in 1980. Then again, President Trump does not look much like President Carter either.

So, the short answer to why we might expect President Trump to lose is the Pandemic. This is ironic at so many levels. Clearly, the economy was going Trump’s way before the Pandemic. Moreover, President Trump has been the least militaristically adventurous President the US has had in decades. He patently would prefer the US to be less involved in overseas military actions. His most notable military action, the drone-strike killing of Iranian general Solemeini, seems to have had a stabilising, rather than de-stabilising, effect on the Middle East.

[ADDENDA: This discussion of results from focus groups accords with the above analysis.]

President Trump has been in office for almost four years. So, he has a record we can examine. What it is clear is the depiction of him as a would-be authoritarian dictator is nonsense. The Pandemic and the riots gave him any number of “Reichstag fire” moments, and he took none of them. Indeed, his response to both the Pandemic and the riots has been notably federalist. Possibly too federalist for his electoral prospects.

Part of what has been going on has been an advocacy economy that desperately needs to identify great social evils to keep the donations and hirings flowing. Between advocacy non-profits, and diversity and similar trainers, billions of dollars rest on characterising US society as pervaded by endless social evils. President Trump, as the Make-America-Great-Again President, has ostentatiously failed to go along with this political economy of moral catastrophising.

Ironically, the desire to have the moral authority of the civil rights movement, and of second-wave feminism, requires that the advocacy economy pretend that the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism were not effective. Which, of course, they were; to striking and startling degrees. But unless the participants in the advocacy economy are still fighting the moral equivalent of Jim Crow and Patriarchy, it is a bit hard to justify those enormous money flows. Having a incumbent President who fails to defer to this advocacy game — on the contrary, pokes at it continually — accounts for much of the animus towards Trump. He threatens both their cognitive identity, as fighters against great social evils, and their income flows. Especially with his Executive Order against critical race theory.

Trump’s defeat would be a great win for the advocacy economy. Even though, if he is defeated, they will probably have had very little to do with him losing.

On the other hand, if it turns out that the polls are systematically wrong, then the advocacy economy is precisely where we should look for the reasons why. The systematic stigmatising and sanctioning of dissenting opinion is a regime of censorship. A regime of censorship there is good reason to think is widely resented. Regimes of censorship create distrustful and dissembling societies. If people are lying to pollsters, systematically not responding to pollsters, or the pattern of voters is systematically different from who the pollsters have been sampling, that will be why.

In which case, Trump being re-elected would not only be a major defeat for the advocacy economy, it would also be a marker of its corrosive effect on American society and institutions. Having billions of dollars of income resting on denying the reality of genuine social progress, and systematically exaggerating or mischaracterising social problems, is not good for the health of any society, or its politics.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Why did we take up farming?


The Danish economist Ester Boserup (1910–1999) advanced a clever theory for the origins of farming. The theory was that farming began in fertile river valleys (and wetlands) because the available resources led to an increase in population, and the consequent pressure on food resources drove people to adopt farming to sustain the increased population. This was part of her larger analysis of the long-term effects of rising land/labour ratios on the intensification of land use.

It is a nice clear theory, that allows for the repeated adoption of farming in about a dozen separate places around the world. It is a lovely theory, slain by the proverbial ugly fact: there is no evidence of pressure on food resources. People did not take up farming because they had eaten out alternative resources. On the contrary, the pattern suggests a long period of a mixture of foraging with a little farming on the side, until a tipping point is reached, and we then get settlements committed to agriculture, with foraging on the side.

People move from foraging (taking food from the environment) to some low-level supplementary cultivation, but still mainly foraging, to high-level cultivation, supplemented by foraging. With domestication (selective breeding crop and animal species for human convenience) being a recurring element in the transition to full-scale farming. But the evidence that there was a lack of food resources in the wider environment sufficient to sustain the population, that the transition was driven by pressure on food resources, is just not there.

I want to suggest the Boserup was right about crowding, but wrong about the issue in the transition to farming being crowding putting pressure on food resources. The issue was crowding itself: crowding as a social phenomena. The pressure that drove the transition was the presence of other humans because the food resources were so plentiful. Indeed, sufficiently plentiful that it did not encourage measures to reduce population growth because parents kept judging there was enough to feed that extra child.

The foraging-to-farming sequence in the Fertile Crescent (extending up to Southern Anatolia) is relatively clear. First, we get foragers settling down (sedentism) but still being foragers (with a diet of mainly meat and animal fat, plus some nuts and fruits). This overlaps with foragers constructing ritual centres. Then we get evidence of some small-scale cultivation (grains and legumes) as a supplementary food source. Then we get settlements committed to agriculture as their primary food source, though there is still foraging (especially for meat: they seemed to have eaten anything that flew, walked or swam). Then we get domestication of herd animals (sheep, goats, pigs and cattle). Each stage in the process takes centuries, even millennia, with some overlap. What we don’t have is evidence for serious pressure on food resources.

Foragers generally dislike crowding

The evidence is fairly clear that foragers do not like being crowded by other humans. For instance, when Homo sapiens entered the Americas, they spread southwards at a rate of about 10km a year. That is quite a fast rate of spread.

The evidence also suggests that foragers are capable, if they have a run of good seasons, of quite high rates of population growth. So, we have humans arriving in the Americas and invading a space full of untapped-by-other-humans food resources. They breed like crazy and eat (and kill off) the megafauna. Spreading to chase those disappearing megafauna and because, by foraging standards, it’s getting a bit crowded. Hence that 10km a year rate of spread.

Why would foragers not like being crowded? Women and children: specifically, their women and children.

The general human foraging pattern is relatively straightforward. Women, who are regularly going to be pregnant or having nursing infants, look after the kids and engage in the low-risk gathering (nuts, fruits, other edible plants) and hunting (e.g. lizards, small animals, etc) that you can do while minding the kids. Adult men do the high-risk hunting (large animals) and gathering (raiding beehives for honey) that you can’t do while minding the kids.

So, the result of standard foraging patterns would be that the women and children would often be separate from the men, when the men are out hunting. Having other foraging groups nearby would be enough to make everyone nervous. Hence the tendency, if they can, to move on when the local foraging space starts “filling up”. That would produce a 10km rate of spread through a new landscape quite easily.

(As an aside, the foraging pattern of men building teams based on trust-under-pressure and women building intimate connections, a pattern that continues in many agropastoralist societies, has resulted in socio-cognitive patterns you can see in any school yard: boys form teams and girls form cliques. Both are ways of connecting, but one is centred around physical risk, and use of things, and the other on emotional risk and personal interactions. The more agreeable and neurotic boys join the cliques, including those interested in learning how to attract boys. The less agreeable and neurotic girls join the teams, including those interested in learning how to attract girls. In over 20 years of presenting to schools, I have seen a lot of schoolyards.)

But suppose you are in a relatively enclosed geographical area with lots of food resources. The population starts filling up (by foraging standards) and you get somewhat “hemmed in”.

If moving stops being an option, there is another alternative. Sedentism: having a home base the women and children stick to, and that the men can spiral around when hunting. This can only work in an environment rich enough in food resources to sustain that, typically with overlapping ecosystems that provide year-round food sources, and ideally with the capacity to smoke, dry or ferment food. But if the environment is that rich in food resources, then the physical space will start producing crowding and responses to deal with the crowding.

If there are lots of food resources, but not the range to sustain foraging sedentism, then either some other mechanism would need to evolve to police boundaries, or a rather grim pattern of pre-emptive and retaliatory violence is likely to emerge. Or a mixture of both. As, of course, later became a pattern in various horticultural societies. An elevated protection problem generating warrior elites could explain the very hierarchical nature of Mesopotamian urbanisation.

So, the first response to crowding is to adopt a home base. This is a strategy that is going to work for a while. Perhaps quite a long while. Especially as sedentism probably ups the disease vulnerability, so possibly takes some of the population growth pressure off. Starting to grow some supplementary crops becomes a practical option. Doing so also lessens the need for women and children to wander.

By adopting sedentism, you are also likely to begin to evolve social mechanisms to deal with crowding within the group. But the food resources are still good, so the crowding effect of population pressure continues, though it may take a long time to trigger the next level response.

The power and use of ritual

Ritual centres, probably organised by shamanic networks, can also play a role. (Prostitutes are not the oldest profession, shaman are: the development of shamanic networks could have been a step towards the development of priesthoods.) While ritual centres constructed by foragers are not unknown (they also occur, for instance, in Mesoamerica) Göbekli Tepe is impressive in its age, scale and elevation of human imagery.

To understand the power of ritual, consider the four modes of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival, participatory — knowledge that, knowledge how, knowledge of and knowledge in. (For those of a Classical Greek bent: episteme, techne, noesis, and gnosis.) Ritual engages all our modes of knowing: you ritually affirm doctrine, you perform ritual, you perceive ritual, you experience ritual. The more it engages all modes of knowing, especially from the reinforcing feedback effect of group participation, the more cognitively powerful the ritual is.

Now consider the uses of ritual. It is a shared experience of common action and participation. Ritual both signals a shared social alignment and expresses it. Moreover, regular attendance at ritual centres provides an opportunity for building connections and developing exchange networks. This would be true if one were still mobile foragers, but even more so if one has started to adopt sedentism.

Participating in common rituals is also a way to manage crowding. Indeed, constructing a ritual centre is itself a somewhat ritual-like experience, signalling and expressing common social alignment.


Fast forward a few thousand years, and we have riverine labour-service autocracies marshalling off-season farm labour to express, manifest and acknowledge the power of the ruler and control the use of “idle” labour through monumental construction. (Modern totalitarian societies are also fond of rituals of mass participation and submission, including ritual elections.) Ziggurats, pyramids, Angkor , Borobudur and similar monumental constructions are annual rituals of power expressed in stone. They are also, in a sense, ways to manage crowding: or, at least, the problems of social scale.

Sedentism to full farming

So, getting back to our crowded foragers, we have sedentism with supplementary farming. At some point, a tipping point is reached, and people shift from a few supplementary crops to a commitment to farming as their dominant plant food source, even dominant food source. Some mixture of the development of mechanisms to deal with crowding within the group, domestication increasing the productivity of crops, and the calorie-production advantage of farming, is reached, and you have become a farming culture.

People have moved, in millennia-long stages, from responding to crowding to finding ways to manage crowding. With the high level of food resources in the local area driving the crowding, and that crowding itself driving the transition to sedentism and agriculture, rather than pressure on food resources being the constraint that drives the transitions. (It is vaguely analogous to Homo becoming the apex predator via tool-using cooperation leading to an evolutionary surge in Homo cognitive development, or at least a shift in the evolutionary pressures, to cope with dealing with a cooperative, tool-using apex predator.)

Once farming is adopted, then crowding on resources is likely to become a factor, as human populations steadily increased. Hence the spread of farming and farmers out from the cradles of farming as those children the existing farm could not support then sought their own farmland.

Anatolian farmers seem to have spread across arable Europe at a rate of about 1km a year, though farming may have spread by cultural diffusion in much of Northern Europe, the Alps and west of the Black Sea. Not being urbanised, Anatolian farmers did not have the “demographic sinks” of Mesopotamian cities to absorb extra population and so they spread across much of arable Europe.

Once the arable land is filled up, Boserup’s processes for intensification of land use become a very plausible social mechanism.

Anyway, that’s my suggested mechanism for why farming developed again and again in fertile areas with lots of available food resources.

Comments welcome.

(A 15 October 2020 Monash University Archaeology Zoom seminar by Andy Fairbairn of the University of Queensland on Cultivating and foraging on Turkey’s Konya Plain from 9500–7,000 BC: insights from Pinarbasi, Boncuklu and Canhasan III was enormously helpful in providing a coherent picture of the foraging-farming transition. Prof. Fairbairn is not in any way responsible for the above hypothesising.)

Cross-posted from Medium.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Transgender authenicity as a case study of Theory destroying sense


We Homo sapiens are a much more dimorphic species than people may realise. Men are, on average, only 7% taller than women, and 13% heavier. Women’s bodies have a higher minimum level of fat content than men’s do. So women are generally smaller and have proportionately less muscle.

But women only have on average 66% of the lower body strength, and 52% of the upper body strength, of men. The difference in muscle mass does not account on its own for this striking disparity in strength. Male spines are more rigid than female spines. That makes male spines much better anchors for physical effort. So, it is the combination of more muscle tissue plus a more rigid frame to lever off that makes men so distinctly stronger, on average, than women.

It is also why there are barriers for who can play women’s sports. Men’s sports do not need those barriers. If women attempt to play in men’s sports at an elite or professional level they will lose and probably get hurt.

The point of the restrictions on who can play in women’s sports is to keep male spines out of women’s sports, because those with male spines will win and those with female spines will, if it is a contact support, be much more likely to get hurt.

There is no such thing as sex-change surgery. No surgical procedures give functioning testes to transmen or functioning ovaries to transwomen. There is gender reassignment surgery, which changes the outward physical characteristics to that of the other sex. But the surgery does not provide functioning gonads and certainly does not give transwomen female spines. Nor does any amount of hormone treatment significantly change the rigidity of the spine, though increased oestrogen will tend to effect the operations of muscles in ways that reduce strength.

At this point, it should be obvious that, generally, it is unwise for transmen to play serious men’s contact sports, for their own safety. and that usually (outliers occur) they will not be competitive at professional or elite levels in men’s sport.

It should also be obvious that is unreasonable for transwomen to play in women’s sport. Even after the full operation and hormone treatment, they still have male-pattern spines. The striking success of transwoman athletes in women’s competitions is not an accident and is, of course, what drives the controversy.

But that is not the approved prestige opinion. (A prestige opinion is an opinion, the public affirmation of which makes one a member of the morally worthy while denial of the same makes one a member of the morally unworthy. Prestige opinions become part of a social dominance strategy if those with contradictory opinions are therefore deemed to be subject to legitimate stigmatisation and attendant sanctions.)

In fact, suggesting there are enduring biological differences between women and transwomen, and that these matter, is deemed to be so morally outrageous that it is transphobic.

There are no contrary biological facts when it comes to the rights of the marginalised.

So, how do we get to such self-righteous, dissent-blocking, reality-denial?

Ideas having consequences

Blame Martin Heidegger.

No, seriously. The claims above can be straightforwardly expressed in Heideggerian language as that the Dasein of a transwoman encompasses all that there is in, and to, being a woman.

What is Dasein you may ask? Literally, it is being-there, though it is usually understood as being-in-the-world. Heidegger introduces the concept in the Introduction to his magnum opus Being and Time thus:

This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term “Dasein”.

Hope that is clear. Heidegger makes the centrality of Dasein to, well, everything, very clear. In the first chapter of Being and Time he tells us that:

The existential analytic of Dasein comes before any psychology or anthropology, and certainly before any biology.

When Philosophy first began, philosophers’ status-task (or symbolic boundary task) was to assert themselves against priests, the bearers of revelation and purveyors of other-worldly knowledge. Philosophers presented themselves as providing much surer paths to the knowledge of reality than anything priests could come up with. Indeed, they often made very large claims about the transformational nature of the knowledge they could impart.

Since Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein, the status-task (or symbolic boundary task) of philosophers has to been to assert themselves against scientists. Either in explaining why science is so successful, working out the limitations of science, working out the implications of science, some combination of the preceding, or in finding a more profound path of understanding than science can offer.

Heidegger is clearly in the last category. As are all those who have drunk of his well. Which includes Sartre, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard: the existentialists, postmodernists, post-structuralists and other purveyors of French theory.

Outside France, it also includes Richard Rorty, the postmodern Pragmatist, and Alexander Dugin, he of the fourth political theory. But we can leave them, and their particular complications, aside.

Heidegger also makes a great deal about the concept of authenticity and inauthenticity, noting that (also in Chapter One):

And because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic — that is, something of its own — can it have lost itself and not yet won itself. As modes of Being, authenticity and inauthenticity (these expressions have been chosen terminologically in a strict sense) are both grounded in the fact that any Dasein whatsoever is characterised by mineness.

Clear? If you are wondering where Derrida and co., and those derivative in various ways of them, derived their annoying prolix unclarity of language, that is another legacy of Heidegger.

So, if you intellectually front-and-centre Being and authenticity, and claim that your form of inquiry is much more basic in its delving into the nature of reality than biology, then it is not very many steps at all to transwomen being fully, and indubitably, women. That being a woman is the authentic expression of their Being.

Heidegger treats truth as uncovering. He divides logos into discourse (Rede: a fundamental existential phenomenon, the main purpose of which is to ensure a basic understanding of the world) and language (Sprache: a way in which discourse communicates or articulates itself). If discourse is collapsed into language, then it loses its ability to uncover, to reliably find or express the truth. (A useful discussion of Heidegger’s approach to language, from which I took the above two definitions, is here.)

There are some intermediate steps for derivations of what Heidegger published in 1927 popping up in biology-denying identity-affirmation nine decades later. I have gone through some of these steps before, but we will do a quick revisit for those not familiar. Various ideas have been adapted from French theorists into the constellation of ideas that are feeding into current prestige opinions. These French thinkers were themselves responding to Heidegger, in the context of the failure of political Marxism. Key adaptations are:

  • From Jean Baudrillard: we are trapped in our social bubble, the map is the territory, and you might not be able to get out of our social bubble.
  • From Jacques Derrida: words are only defined in terms of other words.
  • From Paul-Michel Foucault: arguments are about jockeying for power, which is the fundamental constituent dynamic of society.

The question is not whether the above are accurate and nuanced adoptions of the thought of these French thinkers, but rather that these adapted takeaways from these thinkers have emerged in the constellation of ideas that feed into the increasingly dominant prestige opinions.

Knowing, not so much

To understand the implications of these ideas, it helps to understand that there are four modes of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory — knowledge that, knowledge how, knowledge of and knowledge in. They each have their own marker of reality: truth, power, presence and something like attunement. (Psychologist John Vervaeke discusses these ideas in considerably more detail in various online lectures and discussions.)

If propositions are deemed to be entirely self-referential, they only refer to other propositions, then truth is thereby eliminated as a marker of reality. That makes power the dominant marker of reality. So speech becomes acts of power and expression of power struggles. Thus, stigmatising and sanctioning people over their speech becomes a righteous act when done in the service of the correct form of social validation.

Human society becomes a structure of power. Experience and participation become self-validating, as they cannot be interrogated by truth. Which makes power, acting in the world, the only social validation of perspective and experience. In the evolved system pushing out prestige opinions, that validation comes from the experience and perspective of oppression.

So, enquiry into Being is more fundamental than biology, biology does not provide us with reality markers and people can act in the world to achieve their authentic Being, grounded in their perspective and experience. For instance, as being “truly a woman”. Moreover, being of a marginalised group, trans perspective and experience has validation that no one who is less marginalised, less validated by oppression, can match.

See how easy it is? How easy to get to identification as being authentically-a-woman trumping any amount of mere biology. Biology, moreover, that if cited against their claims is thereby used in service of oppression by denying transwomen their authentic experience of themselves. The whole thing makes perfect sense.

Well, not really. It is a serviceable simulacra of making sense, but it doesn’t actually. Propositions are not entirely self-referential, propositional knowledge is knowledge, truth is a marker of reality and biology does tell us about reality and it is outrageous for people with male-pattern spines to compete in women’s sports.

So problematic

The notion of social validation of perspective and experience via the lens of oppression has so many problems it is hard to know where to start.

The first problem is this: except when the comparison is with all men, women always lose once this validation-by-oppression calculus is in play. They lose because women are half the population, so any other group (apart from all men) will always be more marginal. So, if it is Muslims versus women, women lose. If it is trans versus women, women lose.

The second problem is that a moment’s thought shows that this validation-by-oppression can easily be reversed. As, in Heidegger’s own politics, it notoriously was. One just claims that authenticity comes from acting more effectively in the world, so the more effectively one acts, the more authentic and validated one is. And who acts more effectively in the world than a master-race? Or indeed, a master-belief-system.

Martin Heidegger

The politics that flow from validation-by-marginalisation are not anti-Nazi politics or anti-Fascist politics, but reverse-Nazi politics and reverse-Fascist politics. Politics with the same obsessions (race, identity, gender, etc) but with reverse polarities. Instead of the problems of the world or society coming out of blackness or Jewishness, they come from whiteness.

It helps to understand the difference between reversal and opposites to remind ourselves that love and hate are just the reverse of each other. The genuine opposite of both is indifference. If you hate your ex, you are not over them. It is only when you can reach indifference, or some similar state of minimal emotion, that you are truly over them.

Thus, keeping with the social centrality of race talk but turning the threat from blackness to whiteness is classic reversing of the polarities while keeping the same obsessions.

Hence Antifa are not anti-Fascists, they are reverse fascists — using paramilitary violence to push racially obsessed politics, but racially obsessed politics with a reversed polarity (whiteness down rather than whiteness up).

The opposite of Nazism (or Fascism) is in not having the same obsessions while just reversing the moral and political polarities. The opposite of Nazism or Fascism is abandoning those obsessions altogether. Such as abandoning race talk.

The third problem comes directly from having a decapitated epistemology, a decapitated understanding of knowledge. Making propositional knowledge impotent by making propositions entirely self-referential, taking out truth as a marker of reality, also hugely increases the possibilities for self-deception. Restricting the capacity to interrogate one’s own experience and perspective, except in terms of whatever type of social-validation-through-the-perspective-of-power one accedes to, impoverishes one’s self-awareness. Worse, it makes it much easier to bullshit yourself through the manipulation of salience, particularly moral salience.

This is excellent for a social dominance strategy based on prestige opinions. It is truly awful for genuine understanding of yourself, the world and others.

As we look around, we can see huge amounts of self-deception. Such as all those folk thinking they are being morally brave and “subversive” in taking stances that are absolutely conventional in their social milieu. The entertainment industry has become rife with it, leading to lots of very annoyed fans as their treasured heroes and franchises are reworked according to the same narrow, increasingly predictable, range of cookie-cutter identity-politics based on the same narrow range of prestige opinions. The combination of smug condescension and relentless conventionality involved in these oh-so-conventional reworkings are exercises in pervasive self-deception. (Or, even worse, very self-aware status-play manipulations.)

Technological trans

Returning to the trans demand that folk with male-pattern spines continue to make a mockery of women’s sport in the cause of expressing their authentic Being, this systematic denial of the facts of the case is clearly not a way to run an advanced technological society.

Ironically, this trans politics of self-validated-authenticity is only possible in an advanced technological society. Plenty of societies have had trans identities. It is clearly a human thing. But in no previous society was it seen as other than a trans identity, a thing in itself.

Until the rise of mass prosperity societies form the 1820s onwards (with the development of steamships and railways), the overwhelming majority of people lived subsistence lives. Who could, or could not, get pregnant was a key, even foundational, social fact. Trans people were not members of the other sex, they had an identity across normal gender boundaries. An identity that was, indeed, trans. The notion that a transwoman was a woman made no sense, because they could not give birth.

It is only with the cushion of mass prosperity, separating actions from consequences, that the notion that transwomen are authentically women in every sense that counts can even pretend to make sense.

But it is a self-deceiving pretence of sense in the service of strategies of social dominance based on prestige opinions. It only gets anywhere because people either buy into the social dominance strategy or are too afraid of the stigmatisation costs to stand up to it. Trashing women’s sports is only a small part of the costs of this noxious combination.

A great writer has an answer to this social dilemma. Let an evolutionary biologist read to you words of genuine perception and understanding. Because what we get when we trash truth is not some higher understanding, but the multiplication of lies acquiescing in bullshit.

Cross-posted from Medium. My essays on Medium are often works in progress and are updated there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

How signalling consensus produces brainless decision-making: the problem with prestige opinions


Australia has done relatively well in coping with Covid-19. Our death rate, at the time of posting, of 35 per million puts us 111th out of 201 countries and territories listed on worldometers website. This is well below the world average of 138 deaths per million.

Australia has some obvious advantages. We are an island-continent with a long history of serious quarantine regulations. We pay attention to Asia. We have excellent state capacity. So, that we have done unusually well in coping with Covid-19 is not that surprising.

What is a bit more striking is that, out of 897 deaths from Covid-19, 809 have taken place in the State of Victoria. Victoria is the second-largest Australian State by population, with a population of 6.7m out of Australia’s 25.7m.

There is no mystery about why Victoria (or, more specifically, Melbourne, a metropolis of 5m people) has done so relatively badly. The quarantine of returning travellers in various hotels was screwed up. Very badly. Private security guards were hired to enforce the quarantine. They were not adequately trained or supervised, resulting in a failed quarantine and the spread of the virus.

There has since been a public enquiry into the hotel quarantine failure. The inquiry Judge has not yet released her findings, but the public testimonies by various public servants were, remarkable. A short summary is: no one remembers anything. The decision to use private security guards just sort of happened.

Speaking as an ex-public servant, the parade of not-me and I-don’t-remember testimony was startling. But is perhaps less surprising in the current social context than it might otherwise be.

In the Anglosphere particularly, people very much live in a social situation where social media is mobilised to sanction those who express anathematised opinions. Nervousness about expressing opinions has become widespread: a recent poll found that 62% of US residents had opinions they were afraid to express publicly, with a majority of all political groups except “strong liberals” having such opinions. This is congruent with the 2018 Hidden Tribes report which found an overwhelming majority of US residents (80%) thought that political correctness was a problem, with progressive activists (8% of the population) being the only group a majority of whom did not agree that PC was a problem. Progressive activists were generally highly educated, with high socio-economic status and well above average incomes. The sort of people who go into University administrations, non-profit advocacy groups, HR departments and government bureaucracies generally.


In a situation where divergent opinions are socially sanctioned, social safety resides in going along with the preferred opinions. There is a mixture of implicit and explicit social signalling that goes on to establish and maintain an emergent, and evolving, set of approved opinion.

This is not a deliberative process, in the conventional sense. While there are social milieus where future approved opinions are developed, in the wider society it is much more a matter of network processes of feedback and response. People who want to navigate these social risks (and opportunities) need to develop an awareness, not necessarily conscious, of the relevant social cues.

Now, take that process of social signalling and conformity and apply it in bureaucratic settings. It is not hard to see how decisions could end up being made implicitly through mutual signalling rather than explicitly. As an emergent process rather than as explicit decisions.

The trouble with such implicit decision making is that such implicit decisions are not interrogated. Indeed, much of the point is to not interrogate positions, as asking the “wrong” questions can be an adverse social signal. So there is much less thinking through of implications and requirements.

That is how one ends up with a situation where someone involved in the hotel quarantine gets diversity training, as that is an accepted ritual, but no training specific to running a quarantine.

This is brainless decision making, but one that makes perfect social-dynamic sense in a situation where there is systematic sanctioning of anathematised opinions and even asking the wrong questions is socially fraught.

Especially given (1) the dominant intellectual origins of the approved opinions and (2) how useful having a set of approved opinions is for a bureaucracy.

Bureaucratically convenient convergence

Having a set of approved opinions is useful for a bureaucracy, as it simplifies selection procedures, it simplifies coordination and it generates moral projects. A useful, extra and clear sorting device is established for selecting people — are they “one of us? Moreover, if everyone is operating off the same set of opinions, it becomes much easier to align actions and expectations within the bureaucracy. As a third bonus, given that the dominant (dare one say hegemonic?) set of opinions is highly moralised, and all about social action and transformation, it generates moral projects for bureaucracies to be getting along with.

There is also a lot of social science that such cognitive conformity is bad, even disastrous, for decision-making. But that only matters if there are direct consequences to those involved from such decision-making failures. Otherwise, the bureaucratic convenience will win out. Especially if status payoffs are added in, as they are.

The brainless versus the bodiless

The intellectual origins of the dominant approved opinions also reinforce these patterns of emergent, un-interrogated, decision-making. The hegemonic opinions come out of critical social theory (the evolution within the US of critical theory) with its associated constellation of ideas (critical race theory, anti-racism, intersectionality, queer theory, third-wave feminism, fourth-wave feminism).

These ideas have adapted aspects of various French theorists (notably Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard), who themselves were reacting, in the context of the failure of political Marxism, to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy. Three key adaptations into the critical social theory constellation were:

  1. discourse is self-referential (it only connects to itself),
  2. society is primarily to be understood as a set of power relations, and
  3. we live in social bubbles from which we may not be able to escape.

The first is adapted from Derrida, the second from Foucault and the third from Baudrillard.

The significance of these adaptations is clear if we realise that there are four modes of knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory. Knowledge that, knowledge how, knowledge of and knowledge in. Each has its own reality marker: truth, power, presence and (something like) attunement, respectively.

If language, if discourse, only connects to itself, then truth is taken out of consideration as a marker of reality. Propositional knowledge is no longer of knowledge of anything except other propositions. Power then becomes our most effective reality-marker. It thus make sense to conceive of society as a structure of power relations, with speech being acts of power, as critical social theory, and its associated ideas, typically do. With our perspectives and our experience being taken as self-validating and only subject to social validation in terms of power.

Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida and Baudrillard were all very much critics of Enlightenment thinking and leading figures in the development of Post-Enlightenment ideas. Enlightenment thinking concentrated so much on propositional knowledge (Cogito, ergo sum — ‘I think, therefore I am’ — is classic Enlightenment thinking) that it ended up with a thin and bodiless conception of knowledge. One that entirely abandoned wisdom traditions. (Useful discussions of wisdom traditions in the context of cognitive science are here and here.)

Post-Enlightenment abandoning of propositional knowledge as being entirely self-referential creates a situation where people’s speech and actions can only be analysed in terms of power relations, personal perspective and personal experience. If one wanted to be cruel, one would say the Enlightenment versus Post-Enlightenment clash becomes a dispute between the bodiless and the brainless.

The bodiless epistemology of the Enlightenment may have left no place for the wisdom traditions, but the decapitated epistemology of the Post-Enlightenment, deprived of the reality-testing interrogation of truth, has hugely expanded the possibilities for self-deception. Self-deception through accepting what is congenially salient, such as being socially acceptable or otherwise convenient, rather than what is the case, has always been a recurring human foible. Hence wisdom traditions have perennially put much emphasis on self-awareness, on seeking to eliminate self-deception. Denying interrogation of what is the case as a reality marker by treating discourse as an enclosed structure greatly increases the possibility for self-deception, such as through self-deceiving manipulation of moral salience. As we move from Enlightenment to Post-Enlightenment thinking, the retreat from wisdom becomes even more complete.

Decapitating competence

A view that decisions can only be interrogated in terms of power relations is not a view conducive to interrogating them in terms of their practical effectiveness. Practical effectiveness, aka competence, is all about the connection of statements to reality. In the decapitated epistemology of Post-Enlightenment critical social theory, competence gets trumped by caring. Well, by caring in accordance with approved power-relations of marginalisation.

Returning to the testimony to the Victorian hotel quarantine enquiry, the “don’t remember” and “wasn’t me” process of decisions just happening to be made, but not being interrogated, apparently revealed, fits right in. (Especially as the security guards were disproportionately from “marginalised groups”.)

A very powerful social dominance strategy, based on prestige opinions rather than more conventional patterns of prestige goods or prestige skills, has developed in contemporary societies. The status strategy comes in both assertive — look at me, I am so moral — and defensive — I agree, don’t sanction me — versions. The prestige opinions are based around a set of ideas that systematically undermine decision-making competence. The testimony in the hotel quarantine failure inquiry provides a preliminary case study of the effect on decision-making of this prestige-opinions status strategy. A strategy that has to suppress alternatives views and concerns. First, because the moral prestige the social dominance strategy is based around requires claiming that any contradicting ideas be immoral (in the case of these hegemonic opinions, are -ist or -phobe opinions: racist, xenophobic, etc.), so any proponents thereof must be be sanctioned. Second, because otherwise followers of the strategy will be outcompeted by explicit, interrogated, fact-grounded, competent decision-making.

If you want to know what’s in store as sanctioning of wrongthink by power-is-what-matters conformity-by-social-signalling, with its decapitated epistemology, spreads throughout society and its bureaucracies, the un-interrogated decisions that “just emerged” exposed by the testimony to the Victorian hotel quarantine enquiry, and the hundreds of avoidable deaths that conformity-by-social-signalling led to, are a harbinger of things to come. (Coming to a corporate, non-profit or government bureaucracy near you.)

Cross-posted from Medium.

Donald Trump remains an electorally weak candidate

The US political system provides an unusually clear measure of how strong or weak a major Party nominee for President is: compare their popular vote with the share of the vote their nominating Party got in the House of Representatives election.

On that measure, Hillary Clinton was a mediocre candidate: she received essentially the same share of the vote as the Democrats did in the House of Representatives (48.2% to 48.0%). Obama was a strong candidate: in 2012 he received a significantly higher vote than his nominating Party did in the House of Representatives (51.1% to 48.8%, +2.3%pts).

Donald Trump was an electorally weak candidate: he received significantly lower vote than his nominating Party did in the House of Representatives (46.1% compared to 49.1%, -3%pts). That he won the Electoral College anyway is the basis for my position that almost anyone the Republicans nominated in 2016 would have beaten Hillary.

When we compare an average of the polls in 2016 with the current pattern, we can see that Vice President Joe Biden has a generally larger, and much more persistent, lead in the polls than Hillary did. Not surprising, Hillary was, according to the polling, the most disliked major Party nominee in decades. Apart, of course, from the present incumbent.

For President Trump to be re-elected, he either needs a remarkable late surge in support or the polls have to be systematically wrong to a startling degree.

The polls could be systematically wrong. There are three ways in which they could be systematically wrong.

  1. Who ends up voting systematically diverges from the selected samples. The sampling patterns of the pollsters could be misreading the likely voters, skewing their results, if the error is disproportionately in a particular direction.
  2. Who ends up voting systematically diverges from who is being polled. If non-responders disproportionately support one candidate, that can skew the results.
  3. People responding to the polls misrepresent their voting intentions. If people intending to vote for one candidate disproportionately misrepresent their voting intentions, that can skew the results.

It is certainly possible to posit a scenario where one or more these factors are significant and operate to under-state support for President Trump. Especially in a society with rising concern about digital privacy. Nevertheless, that would have to be true, and true to a startling degree, for, on current trends, the polls to be as wrong as would be required for President Trump to be re-elected.

The US has become a society where people are hesitant to express various views, including support for President Trump. In a society where people are systematically sanctioned for expressing particular opinions, you end up with a pervasively dishonest society with broken feedbacks. Public spaces become dominated by preference-falsification.

If the polls do turn out to be wildly wrong on Election Day, that will likely say something rather unfortunate about the state of public discourse in the United States.

Cross-posted from Medium.

BOOK REVIEW Rulers, Religion, and Riches

Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not is a perceptive and informative attempt to answer the question of: why did Europe, particularly Northwest Europe, become so much richer than the Middle East? Especially given that Islam, in its early centuries, was comprehensively ahead of Latin Christendom in sophistication and level of commercial activity and in scientific enquiry.

As this shift was a case of a mutual reversal of fortunes — one started behind, but ended up ahead — the answer has to be an historical one. It has to be about unfolding processes over time, rather than some innate characteristic or difference operating in an undifferentiated away across the centuries.

Rubin states that the answer is not to be found in the doctrines of Islam, but in developing institutional dynamics, where one has to pay attention to what happened, and what did not happen. The latter points I strongly agree with, the first is less convincing. Rubin himself is advancing a set of propositions which he claims matter because they allow us to make sense of the world. Claiming that the doctrinal propositions of Islam do not matter, especially if they affect how institutions evolve, seems somewhat discordant.

Rubin’s basic argument is that rulers rely on propagating agents, agents in society who propagate their rule. Rule is propagated by some balance of coercion and legitimation. The more one can rely on legitimation to propagate one’s rule, the less coercion is required. Religious elites can potentially provide cheap (i.e., low cost to the ruler) legitimacy.

Rubin argues that Islamic religious elites provided cheaper and more effective legitimation to Islamic rulers than the Christian Church did to Christian rulers. Over time, that led Christian rulers to rely more on economic elites as propagating agents, so economic elites had more bargaining power, so they were able to push for more friendly-to-commerce rules, including more secure property rights, that promoted economic growth in Europe — particularly, post the Reformation, Protestant Europe. Conversely, the strength of religious elites, and the weakness of economic elites, in Spain and the Ottoman Empire led to commercial and economic stagnation.

Rubin has a nice definition of elites as: anyone who can influence how people whom they do not know act (p.29). I would add: who can recurrently influence, but I otherwise agree. More generally, I agree with his answer but not his analysis. Yes, I agree that the capacity for economic elites to bargain seriously with rulers was indeed crucial to the development of Northwestern Europe. This is a case that John Powellson makes powerfully in his 1994 Centuries of Economic Endeavour: Parallel Paths in Japan and Europe and Their Contrast with the Third World. Yes, the role of religious elites was very significant in Catholic Spain and the Muslim Middle East in explaining their commercial and economic stagnation. Yet, I disagree with Rubin’s structure of analysis.

Social bargaining

My disagreement centres on Rubin’s notion of propagating agents. Agents has a double meaning in economics. Economics is the study of purposeful action by agents in conditions of scarcity. Individuals and firms are all economic agents. But an agent can also be someone acting on behalf of an other, as in principal-agent problems.

Economic and religious elites are not really agents of the ruler, unless they hold some official position within the apparatus of the state. Dividing support for the rule of the ruler into coercive and legitimating agents (p.33) obliterates an important distinction between those outside the state apparatus that a ruler bargains with and those who, at least notionally, are under the ruler’s administrative direction.

As a medievalist, the striking absence from Rubin’s analysis is landholders. An analysis that covers priests (the Church), merchants (economic elite) and the king (ruler) but leaves out the landholding warlord class (knights and barons) is a little odd, to say the least. They are not economic elites, in the sense that merchants are, or religious elites and they are not accurately described as coercive agents, they had too much scope for independent action.

When one examines how merchants were typically incorporated in political deliberations (i.e., in overt political bargaining), it was by adding merchant representatives to the assemblies of nobles and Church hierarchy (bishops and abbots) that already existed. Analogous assemblies that did not exist in Islam. Which might be regarded as a bit of a clue.

Yes, there was a tradition of shura or consultation within Islam, but it was consultation with officials and dignitaries, who were included because of their personal standing, rather than their institutional connection. Occasionally, guild or trade representatives were included, but the entire process was far too occasional, limited and advisory to be comparable to the bargaining assemblies of Christendom.

It is easy to miss the continuity involved in the addition of merchant representatives to consultative assemblies within Christendom, as adding merchant representatives established the representative principle, which clearly would come to have great significance. But paying too much attention to the beginnings of the representative principle misses the continuity of bargaining assemblies.

Indeed, if one was looking for something that both Northwestern Europe and Japan had that Islam did not, it was a landholding warrior class with a clear corporate identity that regularly engaged in political bargaining with rulers. It is demonstrably much easier to add economic elites into political bargaining processes that already exist than to create such processes ex nihilo. Something that adversely affected China’s ability to cope with the challenge of the Eurosphere Powers. Japan which, unlike China, had a long and rich tradition of political bargaining did much better. The Japan-China comparison is a useful test of any general thesis about Islam/Middle East and Christendom/Europe.

As is comparison with Brahmin India, the other civilisation, apart from Islam, where law was dominated by a religious elite. (Hindu is a term I do not much like, as it covers a very eclectic set of religious traditions and obscures the remaking of the Vedic religion in the face of the challenge of Buddhism.)

Both Islam and Brahmin India generated fluid autocracies: autocratic states that came and went but generally left remarkably little enduring effect on the institutional landscape of their civilisations. The reason being that, in both cases, law was based on revelation and overwhelmingly in the hands of the religious elite. While this did not mean law was rigid, it did reduce its flexibility. One can make new precedents, or decree new rules. One cannot make new revelations with remotely the same facility.

Moreover, what can’t be entrenched in law is not likely to have enduring institutional power and it is very hard to entrench new things in law if it is based on revelation, on connection to the eternal. Especially new things that are to operate in one place but not another. The strength of local custom varied within Islam, but that was more about the circumstances of how Islam reached an area, and the strength of the local ulema, the religious scholars, rather than a more explicit process of legal adjustment.

Nor is political bargaining, certainly not explicit political bargaining, likely to be a prominent part of the political and institutional landscape, if political bargains cannot be entrenched in law. Political bargains that cannot be entrenched in law are not likely to be worth the effort and risks to engage in, or agitate for. In Christendom and Japan, political bargaining did not require any overturning or by-passing of the institutional structure of law. In Islam and in Brahmin India, it did.

States such as Wessex->England-> United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Japan have far longer institutional histories than any Islamic (or Brahmin) state. Apart from Denmark, they have longer institutional histories than Islam itself. The first historically attested tenno of Japan being Kinmei (r. 539–571, though he is counted the 29th Emperor), the first ruler of Wessex being Cedric (r.519–534) and of a united France being Clovis (r.509–511). Denmark only claims as far back as Gorm the Old (r.936–958).

It is important to note the difference between bargaining and resistance. The ability to resist the imposition of rules can generate a process of implicit bargaining. As economic historian Timur Kuran has so informatively laid out, there was plenty of implicit social bargaining involved in the evolution of Sharia. Notably in the evolution of the zakat, the Islamic charity tax. Chinese Emperors similarly engaged in implicit social bargaining with the gentry and merchant elites. Such implicit social bargaining has been a normal part of rulership down the ages.

Getting active agreement to new rules requires explicit bargaining. That has been less common. It was not a feature of Islam or of Brahmin India, due to religious elites dominating law, and the provision of mediating services, precisely because law was based on revelation. Nor was explicit social bargaining a feature of China, where the political model was autocracy administered by a meritocratic bureaucracy. The only explicitly hereditary element was the Emperor, the landed aristocracy having been euthanised out of existence during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Conversely, explicit social bargaining was a pervasive feature of samurai Japan and of medieval Latin Christendom.

This was due to two inter-related factors. The first was that law in Christendom and Japan was explicitly human made. Even the canon law of the Christian Church, though it took revelation as a key source, was explicitly a human thing and possessed no inherent primacy over secular law. Christianity, Buddhism and Shinto are not legislating religions in the way that Islam, Judaism and Brahminism are. This is a doctrinal difference that generates major institutional differences.

The second was that the military elite was a landholding elite. Yes, both Japan and medieval Christendom developed the notion of land as being held in return for service. Over time, however, the landholding became more entrenched, with other levers being used to create a quid pro quo for military service. A landholding elite is an elite worth bargaining with: both because they are in a strong position to resist rules and because their active endorsement has value. Moreover, a landholding elite that is interested in increasing its income from its estates has reason to support effective property rights.

Islam did not develop such a landholding military elite due to the Sharia inheritance laws, which required property to be shared among all a father’s legal children. Yes, sons got more than daughters and older siblings got more than younger siblings. But inheritances still had to be divided. This made creating a landholding warrior elite impractical, given how expensive supporting a mounted armoured warrior was, because a landholding large enough to support such a warrior would not last beyond a single generation. Instead, Islam developed tax fiefs (iqta, timar and similar). A mounted armoured warrior would collect taxes from their land grant as payment for military service.

You don’t bargain with your tax agents in remotely the same way that you might bargain with warrior landholders with castles and military retainers. Nor do tax agents, who might be moved at any time, have anywhere near the interest in property rights that landholders who want their estates to be productive, and to be inherited by their son, do. Which is why Islam did not have the assemblies of nobles and bishops that Latin Christendom had, and could then add representatives of the merchants to. The institutionalisation of the doctrines of Islam had powerful effects on the social evolution of Islamic societies.

It is notable that the most successful Islamic State, the Ottoman Empire, the longest lasting major Islamic state, was a revealingly partial exception from these patterns. That is because the Ottoman dynasty developed the practise of re-issuing the kanun, the decrees, of previous Sultans, at the start of the reign of each new Sultan. This created an enduring body of administrative law that gave the Ottoman state considerably more institutional resilience than other Islamic states.

Muslim rulers were able to issue decrees in the silences of Sharia: mainly matters of state administration. As Rubin and others have pointed out, Ottoman rulers were able to use their ability to appoint and dismiss judges, and otherwise provide favours to the religious elite, to push the boundaries of kanun rather further than other Islamic rulers. But this was a difference at the margin, it did not change the fundamental dynamics. At least, not until late in the history of the Empire, when there were some (largely abortive) experiments with Parliamentarianism.

As what states were expected to do expanded in the C19th, so did the role of administrative law. This gave Muslim rulers a wedge against religious law in the face of the widening, and increasingly obvious, gaps between the capacities of the Muslim world and those of the Eurosphere states.

Sharia inheritance laws not only blocked the development of a landholding warrior elite, they also undermined the development of any merchant elite capable of long-term political bargaining. The wealth of successful merchants also had to divided among all their children. And as successful Muslims tended to have multiple wives, that often meant lots of children. If wealth is constantly being divided, that strongly militates against the development of the merchant dynasties that were such a prominent feature of Latin Christendom. This generated coordination and time-horizon difficulties that reduced the potential value of merchant elites as political bargaining partners. Even if those bargains could have readily been entrenched in law, which they generally could not be.

Sharia has only narrow restrictions against incest — that Muhammad’s first cousin and first convert, Ali, had married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, rather militated against expansive incest rules, given that the life and example of Muhammad is a fundamental source of Sharia. The consequence of narrow conceptions of incest, and law being based on revelation, was that kin groups were very strong in Middle Eastern Islam, as alternative social cooperative mechanisms were weak or hard to construct. Once the Abbasid Revolution of 748–50 had overthrown the Arab tribal confederacy of the Umayyad and Rashidun caliphate, Islamic rulers faced the problem that locally-sourced troops would be colonised by local kin groups. They therefore turned to slave soldiers, as slaves are separated from any kin connection. This created military elites further separated from the local populace.

By contrast, the Christian Church, particularly the Latin Church, had extremely expansive bars on incest. That, along with other features of Christian doctrine, militated strongly against kin groups. The effect was particularly intense wherever manorialism was adopted, as holders of manors (the Church, princes and the landholding elite) had an interest in not having kin groups interfering with their management of their manors. Both Church and rulers also had a strong interest in not having their organisations colonised by kin groups. The result was that kin groups disappeared from Christendom, except in the Celtic and Balkan fringe. A rich structure of alternative mechanisms of social cooperation developed, mechanisms that could be readily entrenched in law.

This meant that a much richer variety of institutional arrangements developed in medieval Europe, given that bargaining is a path-dependent process, so produced varying institutional patterns in different places. So the selection processes of history had much more to work with in Latin Christendom than they did in Islam. (Or, indeed, any other civilisation.) Social and political bargaining was more entrenched in the society, there were more potential bargaining partners, and more reasons to bargain. With the difference between Christian and Islamic doctrine, and their institutional expression, being a key factor.

The circle of justice

The concept of the circle of justice that Islamic thought adopted from pre-Islamic civilisations — one well known form claimed to be from a letter by Aristotle to his pupil Alexander, another version claim to be a statement by shahanshah Khosrow Anushirvan (r.531–579) — expressed a notion of just order that implies protection and regularity by the ruler, but not political bargaining. In his Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History), pioneer historical sociologist ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) reports the alleged words of Aristotle as:

The world is a garden the fence of which is the dynasty,
The dynasty is an authority through which life is given to proper behaviour,
Proper behaviour is a policy directed by the ruler,
The ruler is an institution supported by the soldiers,
The soldiers are helpers who are maintained by money,
Money is sustenance brought together by the subjects,
The subjects are servants who are protected by justice,
Justice is something harmonious*, and by it the world persists,
The world is a garden . .

(*Franz Rosenthal translates this, ma’luf, as familiar, but notes it may mean harmonious, which works better in context.)

One does not bargain with servants. (Other renditions of Aristotle’s alleged words use the term slaves.) The version ibn Khaldun cites as coming from shahanshah Khosrow is even more direct:

Royal authority exists through the army, the army through money, money through taxes, taxes through cultivation, cultivation through justice, justice from the improvement of officials, the improvement of officials through the forthrightness of wazirs, and the whole thing in the first place through the ruler’s personal supervision of his subjects’ condition and his ability to educate them, so that he may rule them, and not they him.

Of ibn Khaldun’s three stated versions of the circle of justice, the first he quotes is the alleged words of a Mobedhan, a Zoroastrian priest, to Bahram b. Bahram (either shahanshah Bahram II, r.274–293, or Bahram III, r.293):

O King, the might of royal authority materializes only through the religious law, obedience towards God, and compliance with His commands and prohibitions. The religious law persists only through royal authority. Mighty royal authority is accomplished only through men. Men persist only with the help of property. The only way to property is through cultivation. The only way to cultivation is through justice. Justice is a balance set up among mankind. The Lord set it up and appointed an overseer for it, and that overseer is the ruler.

Unsurprisingly, the version put in the mouth of a priest explicitly endorses religious law, and God as the source of authority, but does not explicitly mention the military.

The notion that the ruler sustains his own authority by sustaining rightful order, while long predating Islam, received extra power in a civilisation where law was dominated by the religious elite and predominantly based on revelation.

Ibn Khaldun saw royal authority as the key force giving structure to society, including being the greatest source of demand for goods and services. He wrote that:

Mutual aggression of people in cities and towns is thus averted by the authorities and by the government, which hold back the masses under their control from attacks and aggression against each other. They are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself.

For ibn Khaldun, the creation, sustaining, and breakdown of social order was very much about the rise, persistence and decay of dynasties, of royal authority. The fluid autocracies of the Islamic world were very well captured by his analysis.

Islamic dynasties show, over the longer-term, very different patterns than do the dynasties of Christendom, who ruled over much more institutionally persistent states. From 800–1500, the reigns of Christian rulers in Western Europe generally tended to lengthen over time and, with some bumps, tended to have declining chances of being deposed. The duration of their reigns also show no particular pattern within dynasties. Over the same period, the reigns of Islamic rulers generally tended to decline, have a generally increasing chance of being deposed, with their reigns tending to shorten towards the end of dynasties. (The trends in reign length, chance of being deposed and patterns within dynasties is from here.) The difference between rulers whose bargaining could be entrenched in law (i.e., institutionalised), and rulers whose power was more salient (i.e. more apparently dominant), but with much less capacity to make, and institutionalise, supporting social bargains.


The other feature of having law not dominated by the religious elite, is that law can develop secular discourses of legitimacy. Indeed, as James Franklin points out in his excellent The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability before Pascal, legal reasoning can be the basis of a wide range of intellectual spin-offs. Especially if it is not constrained by constant referring back to revelation.

Rubin treats legitimacy as a support for rule. Legitimacy is, however, a somewhat fraught concept. As political scientist Xavier Marquez has pointed out, it can be a bit of a catch-all filler as a concept. How do we know X was legitimate? People supported X. How do we know X lost legitimacy? People stopped supporting X. Legitimacy becomes rather like phlogiston: a postulated theoretical entity without independent evidentiary support.

Legitimacy has two senses. The first is doctrinal legitimacy: follows the accepted rules, procedures and other precepts of some normative system. The second is public legitimacy: is within the political (or other) system’s operative rules of deference and authority, it’s public normative structure. Public rituals, public speech, public acts, private and public sanctions, are all means to establish those public norms of legitimacy. Rituals of submission, for example, publicly display that people submit. Failures to follow doctrinal legitimacy becomes socially significant if and when it affects people’s behaviour. That is, if it is an operative social norm, which normally includes effective sanctions. Being able to grant or withhold legitimacy, in a way that affects people’s behaviour, thus becomes a powerful social lever.

It is a social lever based on normative mechanisms. Norms are very much a social phenomena, as Cristina Bicchieri has carefully analysed; notably in The Grammar of Society and Norms in the Wild. Are economic elites purveyors of normative mechanisms? Not remotely in the sense that religious elites are. This is another distinction that the concept of propagating agents flattens.

The question of rival normative mechanisms to those of religious elites does, however, point back to the role of law in establishing norms of legitimacy. But also the processes of bargaining. Parliaments, Cortes, Estates-General, Diets, etc., could be legitimating mechanisms. One that religious elites were represented in, but were far from dominant in.

As previously noted, the incorporation of economic elites in political bargaining within Latin Christendom was not a self-contained dramatic institutional shift. It was an inclusion within, and extension of, bargaining structures that already existed.

If we go back to the break-up of kin groups and the Catholic marriage system (no concubines, no divorce, one wife, strong sanctions against bastardy), the full effect only came about where the secular elites went along with it. Which, anywhere manorialism extended to, they had a strong interest in doing. The Celtic fringe lacked manorialism, and so the Church was never strong enough to impose its marriage system on the Celtic fringe until the English-cum-British state smashed the power of the clan chiefs (Wales, Ireland) or bought them off (Scotland).

Which again takes us back to what the landholding warrior class was doing. The class that did not really exist in Islam, or in China, but did in Europe and Japan. A class that rulers definitely did bargain with, where it existed.

So, I agree with Rubin’s answer concerning the centrality of social bargaining and sources of legitimacy, but not his structure of analysis.

There is, however, much to recommend Rulers, Religion and Riches. Rubin is a very clear writer. He has intelligently and perceptively absorbed a great deal of material. He has thought seriously about the normative power of religious elites. Though incorporation of Cristina Biccheiri’s work on social norms, especially in The Grammar of Society and Norms in the Wild, would have been very beneficial to his analysis.

Rubin is also very good on the telling detail. His discussion of why the Ottoman rulers came to rely more on local notables I found particularly informative and insightful, for instance. Rulers, Religion, and Riches is a very worthy addition to the growing literature of comparative institutional analysis.

Cross-posted from Medium.