Saturday, September 26, 2020

Dark Triad politics attracts Dark Triad personalities

In my previous piece, I analysed how the Jacobin model of politics (politics unlimited in aims and unlimited in scope) was inherently a vehicle for Dark Triad politics. Moreover, that the moral or social grandeur of whatever project the Jacobin model was attached to was a vehicle for people to bullshit themselves into following politics that was narcissistic, Machiavellian and psychopathic.

Two recent studies in social psychology have highlighted the reverse problem: that particular forms of politics or social action attracts Dark Triad personalities. (I became aware of the studies through this podcast.)

Virtuous victim signalling

The first paper, ‘Signaling Virtuous Victimhood as Indicators of Dark Triad Personalities’, uses a series of studies to show that those possessing Dark Triad personality traits are particularly likely to engage in (pdf) virtuous victim signalling. The authors defined victim signalling as:
a public and intentional expression of one’s disadvantages, suffering, oppression, or personal limitations.
They defined virtue signalling as:
symbolic demonstrations that can lead observers to make favorable inferences about the signaler’s moral character.
The series of studies provide evidence that:
victim signals are effective tools of social influence and maximally effective when deployed with signals of virtue.
Which makes virtuous victim signalling a potentially successful social strategy, including for extracting resources. The authors conclude that:
our studies present converging evidence that the virtuous victimhood signal is an effective mechanism for persuading others to part with their resources in a way that benefits the signaler and that people who tend to engage in amoral social manipulation to achieve their goals are more likely to emit them.
As the authors note, the highly egalitarian norms of contemporary Western society, creating a presumption of social or moral failing by the wider society if people conspicuously do less well than others, combined with the high moral premium put on avoiding harm, makes the virtuous victim signal a potentially effective resource extraction strategy. Once an effective resource extraction strategy can be identified, those who are least inhibited are more likely to be attracted to the (deceptive) use of it. Which is what the studies suggest does indeed happen.

Extrapolating from the study, the more strongly the presumption of believe the victim is pushed, the greater the effective social licence is being provided for such behaviour. Any implied notion that some forms of social action are so pure than no bad actors will adopt them is an open invitation to exploitive behaviour. An open invitation that Dark Triad personalities can be predicted to seek to take up.

Political extremism and personality

That Dark Triad personalities may be prone to use the resource extraction opportunities that virtuous victimhood provides is not exactly a shock, though it is nice to have confirming evidence. The second paper, ‘The Dark Triad traits predict authoritarian political correctness and alt-right attitudes’, is somewhat more revelatory.

The paper makes a very useful distinction (pdf) between PC Authoritarians (PCA) and PC Liberals (PCL). The authors define Political Correctness (PC) as:
a set of related attitudes characterised by the desire to avoid offense and avoid disadvantaging certain groups in society.
PCL and PCA can be distinguished because:
Those holding PCL attitudes — or belonging to groups characterised by PCL attitudes — argue for the removable of ostensible social or emotional barriers of disadvantaged groups, whereas those holding PCA attitudes are primarily concerned with physical and psychological safety. A core aspect of PCA attitudes is the belief that aggression and force are appropriate methods to achieve ideological goals.
The third group studied were people who adopted White Identitarianism (WI), defined as:
a set of political attitudes characterised by strong feelings of white identity, solidarity and a belief in white victimisation.
What the paper finds is that PC authoritarians and White identitarians are both disproportionately likely to show Dark Triad characteristics, plus a sense of entitlement, and to do so to very similar degrees. Indeed, both groups are far more like each other on measures of Machievallianism, narcissism, psychopathy and entitlement than either group is like PC liberals, who score effectively no correlation with any of the four measures, apart from being mildly negatively correlated for psychopathy.

In my previous essay, I noted that the abandonment of the normative constraints of liberal politics make adoption of the Jacobin model of politics unlimited in means and scope that much easier. The quite stark contrasts found between PC Authoritarians and PC Liberals speaks to that.

Moreover, it points to a clear danger from reluctance among progressives to call out bad behaviour by people ostensibly pushing the same cause. It allows their moral decency to be used as cover by seriously bad actors.

The main contention of my previous essay was that the Jacobin model of politics itself fostered Dark Triad politics, regardless of whatever political project it was tied to. Though the scale of the political project did affect how much damage applying the Jacobin model did.

This PCA/PCL/WI paper points to the reverse problem, that the Jacobin model of politics attracts bad actors. A politics that denies limits is going to attract those who reject limits.

Jacobin model politics and Dark Triad personalities, especially if they have a strong sense of entitlement, are made for each other. They are made for each other regardless of where any particular political project may be placed on some political spectrum or what moral grandeur it may cloak itself in.

Indeed, the moral grandeur is much of the problem, as it justifies the abandonment of limits. It promotes self-deception by people, leading them to override the normative constraints that they would otherwise accept.

Politics that is unlimited in scope, politics that goes everywhere, is also politics that enables self-serving strategies to be pursued everywhere. The more politics is turned into the dominant pay-off strategy, the more it will attract manipulative, self-serving, personalities.

Virtuous victim signalling is a resource acquisition strategy open to manipulation by self-serving actors writ small. Politics unlimited in means and scope is a resource acquisition strategy open to manipulation by self-serving actors writ large. Potentially, an absolutely socially dominant resource acquisition strategy.

Those who argue in defence of looting, those who riot for ‘social justice’, those who seek to drive dissent out of the public sphere and various social arenas, may mask themselves under some grand moral project; but it is what they do, not why they say they are doing it, that is truly revelatory.

Physicist Steven Weinberg was far too specific when he said:
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.
Any moral or social project parading itself as absolute moral trumps is capable of having that effect.

Politics without limits is a profoundly destructive social force that naturally and inherently attracts destructive, manipulative, self-serving personalities. The grand moral claims that politics without limits are attached to provide the perfect cover for antisocial personalities to seek benefits for themselves, regardless of the costs to others. Adding in the capacity to allow otherwise decent people to justify to themselves doing, or acquiescing in, acts of social cruelty greatly magnifies the destructive effect.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Licenses to self deceive: How much of the Dark Triad can be packed into a single ideology?

Psychologists identify the Dark Triad as being made up of Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.

Psychologist John Vervaeke has a nice discussion of narcissism as being an inner emptiness that requires the light of attention to be shown towards the narcissist, otherwise they are left with the dark emptiness inside.

Machiavellianism is manipulative behaviour towards others displaying a high level of callousness and indifference to norms, particularly moral norms.

Psychopathy is a somewhat contested concept, but involves high social assertiveness (boldness), poor impulse control with a demand for instant gratification (disinhibition) and a lack of empathy, use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies, and defiance of authority (meanness).

About ideology

Ideology can be reasonably understood as a framing for understanding the world. Political ideologies often ask good questions, but their answers tend to be rather less valuable. Indeed, an inherent problem with an ideology is precisely that it tends to pre-commit to some particular sets of answers.

In providing a set of presumptive answers as a framing for understanding the world, an ideology can encourage emotional reactions towards things in the world and other people. In doing so, an ideology can definitely encourage a collective narcissism; creating or amplifying the demand for positive attention while its intellectual and emotional thinness generates an inner emptiness. An ideology can encourage a manipulative attitudes to others, especially if its normative structure encourages discounting the concerns, including the moral concerns, of others. An ideology can, especially via dramatic claims about social transformation and/or pervasive evil, encourage high assertiveness, undermine contrary impulses, justify use of cruelty to gain empowerment, be a vehicle for exploitation and for defiance of (contrary) authority.

So, the answer to how question of how much of the Dark Triad can be packed into an ideology is: close to all of it. Particularly any ideology that adopts the Jacobin model of political action. This a secular model of political action first developed by Robespierre (1758–1794) and his supporters during the French Revolution (1789–1799).

By the Jacobin model I mean politics unlimited in means and unlimited in scope. That, is, politics that does not rule out any means (including killing and repression) to achieve it ends, and is willing to expand into any and every aspect of society and social interaction. A model of politics that relies on its sense of profound moral purpose, of moral grandeur, to justify its refusal to accept limits in its means or its scope. The Jacobin model also tends to rely on a sense of profound social understanding to give the required confidence that what it does will lead where it intends.

The Jacobin model can be applied to a wide range of political projects. Lenin very self-consciously applied the Jacobin model to Marxism. So, Leninism (or Communism as it named itself) is Marx + Robespierre. Mussolini, the former revolutionary socialist, applied the Jacobin model to Italian nationalism. So, Fascism was Mazzini (1805–1872) + Robespierre. Hitler applied the Jacobin model to Aryan racism. So Nazism was Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927) + Robespierre.

As one can see by how they operated, and the human wreckage they left in their wake, these were all ideologies that incorporated a great deal of the Dark Triad into their workings. They mainly did so by adopting the Jacobin model of politics.

The scale of the project also matters. Italian Fascism created orders of magnitude less human wreckage than did Communism or Nazism because the project of Italian nationalism was far less in scale than either the elimination of capitalism to create a society without alienation or creating continental-scale Lebensraum for those designated to be Aryans.

Communism did far more damage than Nazism but in the service of a goal far more encompassing in its alleged beneficiaries. This helps account for why Nazism is more systematically reviled. That, and that without the example of Nazism, the “progressive” Communist regimes would be more starkly distinctive in their tyrannical murderousness. Hence “progressive” education tends to dwell on Nazi crimes far more than Communist ones. The adoption of the Jacobin model of politics, making their political projects more effective and more destructive, is the point of commonality between Nazism and Communism.

Rationality and self-deception

In order to understand the dynamics whereby moral grandeur leads to great human suffering and oppression, we need to understand the human capacity for self-deception. Psychologist John Vervaeke argues that you cannot lie to oneself, as it is impossible to make yourself believe what you don’t believe. But you can bullshit oneself, you can adopt beliefs without regard to their truth because they are in some other way congenial.

Often, these beliefs will be true but not accurate. That is, they will have some element of truth that it is congenial to focus on but not be an accurate description of social reality. In this way, particularly if motivated by a shared sense of moral grandeur, mountains of bullshit can be built out of molehills of truth.

The trumping (i.e. prescriptively dominant) nature of moral claims encourages persuasion and rhetoric to be cast in moral terms. Sublimation of self-interest behind a shield of morality, including as a shield from self-awareness, can make someone a more persuasive and effective advocate. Aggression and competition (such as over status and resources) can be sublimated by expressing moral concern; itself a play for higher status. (My ever-expanding essay on structural equilibria examines the wider dynamics of status and norms.)

We can differentiate between logic, the structure of inference; reason, the ability to purposefully infer; and rationality, the ability to coherently manage inference and action. Vervaeke argues that rationality increases as self-deception decreases.

A certain level of self-deception can be a successful strategy, as it allows the more complete and effective use of prescriptively dominant moral claims within a status-seeking and resource-acquiring strategy. Especially if it enables stigmatisation of contrary concerns. Thus, embracing a level of irrationality — for example, adopting standpoint epistemology, privileging particular experience over inconvenient facts or social nuance and complexity — can be an effective dominance strategy, if it is seen to invalidate contrary concerns or evidence. Of course, it will not look irrational from within, however much it may do so to outsiders. It is the licensing of self-deception, via moral grandeur, to discount contrary concerns and evidence that both expresses and hides the irrationality.

Dark Triad dynamics

The embrace of whatever morally urgent project the Jacobin model is applied to sets in train adoption of the Dark Triad characteristics. Validation by external social aim requires the light of outward moral purpose to be constantly shining to cover up inner emptiness, hence the collective narcissism.

The justifying moral purpose is so morally and socially grand, that it requires systematic strategic manipulation of people and events, without regard to contrary norms or concerns, hence the Machiavellianism.

The aim is so morally and socially grand, that it must reject any contrary authority. It also empowers through deemed moral intensity and purposiveness of action, thereby justifying cruelty. That it is a social dominance strategy, as any contrary concerns or limits have no legitimacy in the face of utterly morally urgent aim, creates great capacity for exploitation of others. That provides the psychopathy.

All aspects of the Dark Triad are thus achieved.

All of this generates politics unlimited in means (justifying any action that works towards the grand moral goal) and unlimited in scope (seeking to intrude into every aspect of social to achieve the grand moral goal). Or, to be put it another way, collectively narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic politics. Which, of course, entirely accords with the history of Communism and Nazism.

Self-deception is a crucial part of the dynamics. The movements became successful precisely because they used the prescriptively trumping rhetoric of grand moral urgency or common purpose to create a mirage of common moral grandeur that permit adherents to bullshit themselves into adopting Dark Triad politics.

In some ways, it is politics being unlimited in scope which shows the Dark Triad pattern most clearly. Having politics unlimited in scope means that it does not matter what sphere of social action is involved, whether football, knitting, young adult fiction or whatever, it will be subject to political action and political censure. This is fairly obviously a social dominance strategy. But the insistence that one’s political purpose is so grand that all must defer to it in every social space is narcissism. The expansive intrusion of political strategy everywhere, regardless of ancillary costs, is Machiavellian. The uninhibited imposition of your political concerns at often great costs to others is psychopathic. The Dark Triad in operation.

Status is at the heart of this; taking the prestige of moral grandeur and transmuting it into a social dominance strategy. Prestige is the currency of social cooperation. Add in the benefits and pleasures of dominance, and moral grandeur can become a deeply destructive social force.

If enough collective impetus can be generated, “everyone who disagrees is evil” is a powerful mechanism for social dominance, as it both stigmatises opposition and energises self-deceiving commitment. For instance, the destruction, actual or attempted, of reputations, careers and businesses is social cruelty justified by moral purpose.

All political action involves, or implies, explicit or implicit imposition on the will of others. Moral grandeur both justifies and expands this.

A principle that Nassim Nicholas Taleb identities — that it is easier to macro bullshit than to micro bullshit — has particular force. It is a problem of feedback. Precisely because one is making grand social claims about society as a whole, the elements of factual feedback are much weaker than if you are trying to do some practical bit of physical work.

Thus any highly status-driven environment with weak factual feedback is likely to be highly conducive to the social selection for ideas which promote Dark Triad status-and-resource strategies. Circumstance that can be found in the less scientific parts of academe and in administrative bureaucracies. Somewhat less intense version of such circumstance can also be found in highly abstract or imaginative occupational fields such as entertainment, online IT, media and education generally.

The abandonment of the normative constraints of liberal politics makes adoption of the Jacobin model that much easier.

So, does this seem to be describing anything we can see around us? Do see Dark Triad politics acting destructively while claiming great moral urgency? Do we see cruelty and destruction being justified or downplayed on grand moral grounds? Do we see resource grabs underway in the guise of morally urgent social transformation?

Of course we do. With great amounts of self-deception involved. Great amounts of producing bullshit while consuming it themselves.

Critical social theory, the latest oh-so-urgent grand moral project using the Jacobin model of politics, is a series of exercises in creating mountains of bullshit out of molehills of truth.

History tells us that the Dark Triad politics of self-deception, wrapped in suitable moral grandeur, can be both incredibly effective and incredibly destructive. Each time the claim goes out, this time is different. Again and again, it turns out that, no, the basic underlying dynamics are the same. Dark Triad politics never, ever leads to good social and human places. How can it?

We are in the middle of a struggle between social action and historical awareness. Highly motivated self-delusion could prove, once again, to be an effective social dominance strategy. Or the awareness that we can collectively learn from history may actually break through, and not generate a new form of recurring disaster.

It is fascinating to watch this struggle play out, scary to live through.

Cross-posted from Medium.

The PoMo Tango: Partial Adaptation Is Not Complete Adoption

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Rationality is a tool that you better have if you want to achieve anything. You may as well have some grasp of what the real world is like. If you give up on that you can be an easy victim for any outside force.
Noam Chomsky

Vox commentator Matt Yglesias came up with a great term for the profound shift in attitudes that has been sweeping through American cultural institutions and, to varying and generally decreasing degrees, cultural institutions in the Anglosphere and the Eurosphere more widely. He called it The Great Awokening, a play off the Great Awakenings, the various waves of religious revivals in US history.

The term Great Awokening is apt at many levels. First, is it clearly about intensification of beliefs reacting to a sinful society. Second, we are dealing with what can reasonably be called a faith system. Critics are fond of treating “wokeness”, and critical social theory which underpins it, as a cult and it does act somewhat as a religion-substitute, though without the supernatural claims we associate with religion. Third, like the previous religious revivals, it has been particularly intense in the Atlantic Northeast of the US: i.e. what we might call Greater New England or Greater Yankeedom. (Yes, the US West Coast is also an epicentre, but the West Coast, particularly the Pacific Northwest, is to a significant degree an outgrowth of the Greater New England.) Fourth, it is ultimately an American phenomenon, driven by American obsessions and coming out of American theorising. It also has a specifically US history. Both the Social Gospel movement, which is a clear precursor to modern social justice ideology, and what political scientist Eric Kaufmann calls Left Modernism, largely came out of the Atlantic/Great Lakes Northeast of the US.

So, why do folk who criticise wokeness and critical social theory tend to go on about Postmodernism and various French thinkers? Why bring up a bunch of French theorists?

Good question. The fact that we are dealing with an overwhelmingly US-centred phenomena — not only that, significantly regional-US phenomena — does surely raise questions about Blaming The French. Really, it is not hard to see a secularised Yankee Puritanism underlying a lot of wokeness. And if French theorists are such an issue, why has not wokeness and critical social theory swept France? Why do all the key figures in critical social theory itself appear to be US residents or citizens? Why do very American obsessions with race seem to loom so large?

There is a whole stream of commentary which argues that those folk pointing their fingers are Postmodernism and French Theory do not properly understand either Postmodernism or French theory. A good example of this line of commentary is found here.

If the argument is that wokeness and critical social theory do not represent accurate or complete adoptions of the ideas of various French theorists — notably Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007), Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) and Paul-Michel Foucault (1926–1984) — then surely the claim is correct. Neither wokeness nor critical social theory is remotely built on a sophisticated or accurate adoption of the corpus of these French thinkers. Apart from anything else, the principle enunciated by intellectual historian Etienne Gilson is in play: the conclusions of the master are the premises of the disciples. Nor is there any reason why what is adapted from those thinkers has to be accurate and fully nuanced adoptions thereof.

Have, however, various American theorists adapted ideas or themes they have taken from such thinkers into their own theorising? Yes. It is those adaptations that are in play, rather than nuanced, full-range, incorporations. To critique those adaptations is not going to be, or require, a full grappling with the thought of Baudrillard, Derrida or Foucault. It is generally much more to the point to criticise the key (US) contributors to critical social theory, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum did so memorably with queer theorist Judith Butler, than to tango with various French thinkers.

The discussion between YouTuber Benjamin Boyce and Twitter commentator Wokal Distance is a good entry point to those adaptations and what has been done with them. Key adaptations from these thinkers include:
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.
Jacques Derrida: words are only defined in terms of other words.
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 ideas of these French thinkers, but rather whether these are the adapted takeaways from these thinkers that operate within critical social theory.

Which is not to say there is no point in considering the thought of these thinkers. Something that strikes me, even when reading or listening to sympathetic renditions of the ideas of Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault, is that their thinking is very much pre-Darwinian.

Noam Chomsky has noted about French thinkers that the French Communist Party (which had an entire associated intellectual culture) was and remained Stalinist, with those who rejected Stalinism often adopting Maoism, while French biology had largely failed to adopt Darwinian evolutionary thinking. So, French thinkers tend to be pre-Darwinian in the sense of not incorporating the insights of evolutionary theory. But that is a more general failing.

Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault were all born in the period 1926–1930. They grew up in the 1930s Depression and in wartime France, during the most destructive war in history. They were in their late 20s when the East German uprising, the Hungarian Revolt and Khruschev’s secret speech occurred. The 1950s and 1960s were age of mass prosperity and low unemployment. Western empires were in retreat and Europe was dominated by an extra-European power (the US) and a peripheral European power (the Soviet Union). Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago hit the persistent Stalinism and Maoism of French intellectual life like a thunderbolt, made all the more resonant by the horrors of Cambodia’s Year Zero, which had been unleashed by folk who had had French educations.

History was not following the Marxist script. Scepticism about meta-narratives, and the claims they are based upon, is not surprising in such circumstances.

On the pre-Darwinian nature of their theorising, consider a simple question: why did we evolve the capacity for language? Yes, being able to persuade our fellow Homo sapiens was likely crucial, but persuade them to do what in what context? We had to evolve a voice box able to create a very wide range of fairly precisely controlled sounds. That took persistent, adaptive feedback from the world around us to successfully evolve such a capacity. Does that make either the idea that (1) language is self-contained or (2) our perceptual apparatus does not give high quality feedback about the world around us, in any way plausible?

Consider the notion that society is made up of power relations. Now, to be fair to Foucault, his concept of power seems to have been something more like human action. But society as being constituted by power relations is the notion that has been incorporated into critical social theory.

Well, power relations to do what? When foragers got together, were they forming hunting bands as exercises in power relations? Or was the point to successfully interact with the world so as to eat, live and raise children? Do we not consistently act in the world to do things? To be purposeful? Are those feedbacks from physical reality not real and significant?


It is rather conspicuous that the more people make a living from dealing with brute physical reality, the more their industry/occupation leans towards conservatism. Conversely, the more abstract and imaginative the profession, the more progressive (and now woke) they tend to be. Raising questions about feedback and functionality does not encourage embracing critical social theory.

One of my analytical principles is that political ideologies often ask very good questions. The answers they give are often much less useful, but the questions are typically good ones. The effective elimination of conservative voices from large parts of academe, education, IT and media means the conservative questions of how do we achieve social order?, what do we seek social order for?, what can we learn from past achievements and failures? what constraints did they face? do not get asked. The lack is increasingly obvious and pervades critical social theory.

Evolutionary theory forces one to consider the functionality of things, in a very broad sense, and what feedbacks are operating. Critical social theory rests on a whole host of narrowings that make no sense from an evolutionary perspective. But those perverse narrowings are things they did adopt from French theory, albeit without a full nuance transplant. French theory was a source for such, because Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault are, in a real sense, all pre-Darwinian thinkers.

Historians often make much of the impact of Charles Darwin and evolutionary thinking on modern thought and social history. But considering French Theory, and critical social theory, it is obvious that the myth or icon of Darwin has had much more impact than has evolutionary thinking itself. To a startling degree, human sciences (such as, for example, medicine, dentistry and nutrition) still do not incorporate the evolutionary lens. The further one gets away from the sciences, the more that is true.

The pre-Darwinian nature of such French theorising makes them rather unfortunate places from which to adopt the building blocks of a world view.

But to hold them, or even their ideas, responsible for the intersection between various partial takeaways of their thought with rather specifically American cultural and intellectual patterns is to misdiagnose what has been going on. Ideas have to resonate in order to replicate, and critical social theory, and wokeness, are very much ideas resonating, and replicating, first and foremost in American, and then Anglo, contexts.

Once the pre-Darwinian nature of the sources of critical social theory, and that critical social theory is also pre-Darwinian, has been spotted, there is not a lot of further benefit to be had in dancing with French theorists, or simulacra of them, in the Pomo Tango.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Structural equilibria: organisations, institutions and culture and why mainstream economics gets migration seriously wrong

(Also discussed are norms, prestige, dominance, duelling, civil war, the rise of Christianity, ibn Khaldun, the fall of the Soviet Union, stigmatisation …)

Society is not imposed on humans; rather, it provides the matrix in which we survive and mature and act on the environment.
Herbert Simon, “Organizations and Markets”, 1991.

What on the surface seem to be archaic, inefficient institutions created by people who just didn’t know any better, turn out to be ingenious solutions to the measurement problems of the day.
Douglas W. Allen, The Institutional Revolution, 2012.

The notion of an equilibrium, a stable resting point that events either tend towards or can be analysed as a departure from, is central to economic analysis. In physics, an equilibrium is a state that persists through time. But economics is the study of action by agents, so an equilibrium is a state of affairs where no agent has any incentive to act differently from what they are currently doing. More formally, an economic equilibrium is a set of mutually consistent, optimal plans of action arising from independently conceived, mutually consistent, optimal decisions. Such an equilibrium is an activity equilibrium if the underlying social structures are taken for granted and the question is whether economic activity, within those structures, has a stable resting point (in that no one has a reason, given the operating constraints, to choose differently).

Stable prices in markets provide an example of activity equilibria, the resting point expressing the balance of supply and demand. Exchange, buying and selling, especially monetised exchange (as money thereby provides a numerical measure) can typically be readily analysed in terms of activity equilibria.

The structures in which exchange or other activity takes place include organisations (groups of people operating within a structure created for a particular purpose, such as firms), institutions (complex social forms that reproduce themselves, such as legal systems), and culture (shared patterns of action and belief transferred by learning and imitation: i.e. not genetically). Organisations, institutions and cultures are all rule-based systems, though the rules may be formal or informal, explicit or implicit.

Rules tend to reflect the patterns of capacity to resist or enforce rules, so tend to evolve over time to reflect relative power in a society as well as changes in underlying constraints (such as environment or technology). Rules are, of course, normative phenomena. Whether we are dealing with organisations, institutions or culture, or the rules thereof, there are various schemata (patterns of belief), scripts (patterns of action), expectations, and norms (if-then behavioural rules) that people are typically operating within. Norms have an across-context generality, but have to applied in context, and it is context-appropriate application that shows mastery of the norm and so reassuring consistency and commitment.

Organisations and institutions can only exist, and culture can only be relatively stable, if those schemata, scripts, expectations and norms are themselves sufficiently stable to persistently structure people’s actions. Organisations, institutions and cultures, as well as norms, can therefore be seen as a series of structural equilibria: sets of beliefs, norms, expectations and incentives that produce recurring patterns of behaviour. Some sufficiently stable mixture of incentives, constraints and sanctions operating so that the patterns are continually reproduced. These stable, recurring patterns of behaviour constitute structures within which people undertake their everyday activity, including buying and selling.

Such structural equilibria are pervasive and often long lasting. Some can be relatively stable across centuries. While they provide the framework within which exchange and other human action takes place, they are generally strongly normative and involve considerable levels of pooling and connection.

Pooling is use of a common resource, such as foragers around a campfire or a backyard barbecue among friends or associates. Connection refers to repeated, mutually acknowledged, interactions that both parties presumptively intend to continue. The more frequent the interactions, and more numerous the lines of connection, the “thicker” is a relationship between two people. Pooling is typically managed through connections. Gifts are classic means to establish, express or strengthen connections. Connections can vary in intensity from recurring nodding acquaintance and other ‘weak ties’ to close friendships, immediate families and stable collaborations. Connections need not be personal: anonymous connections operate on the basis of social identity, impersonal connections operate regardless of identity. Connections can be, and typically are, embedded in larger networks.

Connections can be thought of as paths of (variably) lower transaction costs. Connection (or relational wealth) is the most important asset in mobile foraging societies, as was probably true for our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. Information tends to flow more along weak ties than strong ones, as there is less information overlap along weak ties.

What anthropologists call relational wealth economists label social capital. It is built on interaction and norm convergence. Such norm convergence need not be total, but norms, beliefs and scripts have to overlap sufficiently to generate shared expectations fostering cooperation. People can clearly invest in social capital. Indeed, one way to signal trustworthiness is to invest in “hostage” social capital that would be lost if one was expelled from the social milieu. Expensive country residences surrounded by unproductive display parks out in the middle of rural nowhere that would be very boring places to live if no-one visited are an example of investments in hostage social capital.

Firms can be reasonably analysed as collections of contracts to manage risk and minimise transaction costs. A firm typically involves some pooled goods (such as buildings) while labour contracts are a mixture of connections and exchange. In fact, contracts in general are mixtures of connection and exchange as they operate across time and it is impossible to completely spell out all the details of interactions in advance. If people will have to react to new information, then connection has to do the work of managing the contractual interaction. That is why contracts are generally facilitated the “thicker” the relationship between the contracting parties.

Compared to pooling and connection, exchange economises on information. It does so on an offer-and-accept basis; potentially even among people who may never interact again. Information imbalances between bargainers, as well as any later revealed information, can create bargaining difficulties. Hence, sellers offer warranties on complex products to compensate for such products’ information opaqueness, shifting risk to the party better placed to manage it.

The connection element in contracts seeks to cope with information that cannot be explicitly incorporated in the offer-and-accept bargaining for the exchange. If a firm is seeking to significantly reduce labour costs, it can make sense, on connection stability and resilience, as well as information, grounds for an employer to terminate a smaller number of employment contracts rather than attempt to re-negotiate (and so contravene) the contractual connections with a much larger number of their employees.

Organisations, institutions and culture are built around patterns of behaviour that both create, and respond to, incentives. People’s patterns of behaviour can be divided into:
customs (things you recurrently do simply because they work for you),
conventions (things you do because other people do them, such as fashion or language; what we can reasonably call descriptive norms),
social norms (things you do because other people expect you to and there are sanctions if you did not), and
moral norms (things you do regardless of the expectations of others because you hold them to be the right thing to do).

Social norms can be expressed in moral language, but their persistence is based on sanctions.

The test for moral commitment is relatively simple: what cost is being incurred? If no cost is being incurred, or if the behaviour is actually beneficial, then no significant moral commitment is involved, no matter how much the action may be presented to themselves and others as moral. Commitment to a social norm may involve significant costs in order to achieve some benefit.

If behaviour that deviates from a social norm is increasingly not sanctioned, then the social norm is likely to decay, possibly to the point of collapse. A social norm can become so well established that its enforcement by sanctioning decays (people, in effect, treat it as a moral norm), making the social norm itself vulnerable to collapse. Publicly revealed loss of support for a social norm, so that people neither expect to be sanctioned nor are willing to sanction deviance from the norm, can also lead to the decay of sanctioning and the collapse of the social norm.

An apparent shift in social morality can simply mean that social norms have changed, such that what is, or is not, sanctioned has shifted. It can also mean that moral norms have changed in a way that blocks certain sorts of sanctioning or permits others. As those who are defending or criticising particular social norms are likely to use the language of morality, the difference is not always obvious.

The trumping (i.e. prescriptively dominant) nature of moral claims encourages persuasion and rhetoric to be cast in moral terms. This process of justification and persuasion can also apply to the person taking the normative stance. Sublimation of self-interest behind a shield of morality, including as a shield from self-awareness, can make someone a more persuasive and effective advocate. Aggression and competition (such as over status and resources) can be sublimated by expressing moral concern; itself inherently a status move.

We can differentiate between logic, the structure of inference; reason, the ability to purposefully infer; and rationality, the ability to coherently manage inference and action. Thus, psychologist John Vervaeke argues, rationality increases as self-deception decreases and you cannot lie to oneself, as it is impossible to make yourself believe what you don’t believe. But you can bullshit oneself, you can adopt beliefs without regard to their truth value because they are in some other way congenial.

A certain level of self-deception can be a successful strategy, as it allows the more complete and effective use of prescriptively dominant moral claims within a status and resource strategy. Especially if it enables stigmatisation of contrary concerns. Thus, embracing a level of irrationality — for example, adopting standpoint epistemology, privileging experience over inconvenient facts or social complexity — can be an effective dominance strategy, if it is seen to invalidate contrary concerns or evidence.

A highly status-driven environment with weak factual feedback is likely to be highly conducive to the social selection for such strategies. Circumstance that can be found in the less scientific parts of academe and in administrative bureaucracies.

Adam Smith thought status the most powerful of human motivations. As he wrote in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, (1759), Part VI, Section 1:
Though it is in order to supply the necessities and conveniences of the body, that the advantages of external fortune are originally recommended to us, yet we cannot live long in the world without perceiving that the respect of our equals, our credit and rank in the society we live in, depend very much upon the degree in which we possess, or are supposed to possess, those advantages. The desire of becoming the proper objects of this respect, of deserving and obtaining this credit and rank among our equals, is, perhaps, the strongest of all our desires, and our anxiety to obtain the advantages of fortune is accordingly much more excited and irritated by this desire, than by that of supplying all the necessities and conveniencies of the body, which are always very easily supplied.
Smith’s observation has plenty of anthropology and evolutionary biology behind it. Status behaviour is more of a human universal than is (material) wealth-seeking behaviour. We evolved as a pair-bonding, group-living species where status significantly affected breeding and feeding prospects. Prestige (bottom-up status) developed as a basic currency of social cooperation while suppression of dominance (top-down status) is a persistent feature of foraging societies, a pattern that helps preserve cooperative behaviour. Evidence strongly suggests that people are also sensitive to differences in status between groups.

Cooperation is enhanced if status comes from pro-social activities and undermined if it comes from anti-social ones.

The internalising of norms enables both higher and more stable levels of cooperation. Norms express or create automatic, or near-automatic, presumptions in behaviour (both your behaviour and that of others). If norms are operating, then cooperation does not have to be constantly re-negotiated. Rather, cooperation can operate within a widely accepted behavioural framing promoting regularity in behaviour, including shared expectations.

Internalised norms economise on the cognitive and bargaining effort required to sustain cooperation. Emotions (i.e. caring, whether positively or negatively) cut through combinatorial possibilities, enabling us to reason and to act. Norms are socialised caring, cutting through bargaining possibilities, enabling us to cooperatively reason and act. Each level of norms — descriptive, social and moral — provide more effective stabilisers for social interaction as the complexity of social interactions, and the scale of social groups, gets larger.

Biology does not need a concept of rationality, because natural and social selection both deal with stimulus-and-response in a competitive environment yet have a clear metric for success — replication. Yes, there are matters of adaptive structures and adaptive strategies but there is no need of a theory of agent-rationality to underpin that. Agent search with feedback is enough. Indeed, successful replication can often involve actions which run counter to the interests of the biological agents: males offering their bodies to the female to consume in order to have a mating opportunity being an extreme example of this. It is only when one is dealing with a richer range of possible and intentional aims, and their consequences, that some analytical framework for intentional action is needed.

Economics, as the study of choice under scarcity, typically uses some concept of rationality. Unfortunately, rationality has frequently been understood in a way that presumes that there are no cognitive scarcities. Which, of course, there are: notably, scarcities of information, attention and capacity.

Given the reality of cognitive scarcities, that means there are cognitive trade-offs. Hence we have habits, routines, heuristics, etc. These can be understood as involving thresholds, tipping points, where we shift from a lower level of cognitive attention and effort to a higher one. For example, treating money as if its goods-and-services value has no systematic pattern of change through time economises on cognitive effort. Indeed, most of the features of money flow from it, magnifying the degree to which exchange economises on information. Thus, we do not need to know what specific goods and services someone wants, as we can offer them money, a good that can be exchanged for a wide range of goods and services. A monetised economy is an economy that has at least one transaction good (money), as well as goods and services for consumption and use in production, so as to greatly increase the economising on information and cognitive effort that exchange already represents over pooling and connection.

For a certain range of smallness of transactions and/or smallness of shifts in the goods-and-services value of money, it is not worth the cognitive effort to recalculate our use of money, we just go with the face value. As transactions get larger, and as the rate of change of the goods and services value of money increases, then a threshold is crossed and we begin to adjust our use of money for expected shift in its goods-and-services value. Calling declining to bother to so recalculate “money illusion” is not a very helpful terminology. Treating it as a threshold generated by cognitive trade-offs is more reasonable.

As previously noted, norms represent embedded economising on cooperative effort. They obviate the need to recalculate cooperative bargains and generate consistency in behaviour across time. Convergent expectations make cooperation easier.

When people are engaged in experiments of the behavioural laboratory variety, they bring their normative selves to the experiment; i.e., their presumptive social action expectations. It is an easily available framing for social action and one which generates the most positive self-image, so represents an easily available, and readily salient, psychic gain in circumstances with minimal external context. People in behavioural laboratories tend to diverge from game theory predictions precisely because of the operation of norms. Indeed, cross-cultural comparisons of behavioural experiments are informative about cultural variations in the patterns of norms precisely because we bring our normative selves to the behavioural laboratory.

Revealingly, it has been found that chimpanzees, pan troglodytes, conform to the predictions of game theory better than humans do in behavioural laboratory game experiments and consequently can perform in strategy games as well as, or better, than humans. It is not that chimpanzees never display any trace of normative behaviour, it is just that what they do display is at a much lower level than humans. Taking their normative selves to the behavioural laboratory produces behaviour of self-interested strategising, with minimal normative “pollution”.

Psychologists call self-interested strategising with minimal normative constraint “Machiavellianism”. It is part of the dark triad, along with narcissism and psychopathy. Economists call self-interested strategising with minimal normative constraint Homo economicus. We can categorically deny that it is a non-existent abstraction. Homo economicus has definitely been found in social science: it is pan troglodytes in a behavioural laboratory.

The combination of cooperative breeding, tool using, hunting and fire generated far more returns to cooperation among humans than our nearest primate cousins. Our cognitive and (especially) our normative capacity is how we evolved to utilise the returns to cooperation. Indeed, as we became the apex predator, cooperative action to deal with other cooperative humans also sped up the evolution of our cognitive and normative capacity.

We exchange far more frequently, across a far wide range of circumstances, with a far wider range of conspecifics, than any other species because we are the normative ape. Bargained exchange is a normative activity: not merely in the sense of fulfilling the exchange but also in the sense of accepting the category of yours.

We display as much proactive aggression as chimpanzees, which is to say far more than any other primates. Indeed, we are very skilled at cooperative aggression. We display far less reactive aggression than either chimpanzees or bonobos (pan paniscus), our nearest relatives, because we have substituted cooperation, and normative patterns, for such aggression. Any concept of rationality that finds normative behaviour an embarrassment, or some add-on, is literally inhuman and has completely missed a key element in why we are the dominant species on the planet. Even more tellingly, it has missed a key element in why we engage in so much exchange. It is also why we do much more exchange when there is more normative support for it.

Sacred signifiers, whether ancestors, spirits, gods, civic icons (such as the US Constitution) or ideological icons, can operate as framings for norms. Invoking the sacred object ties an action or pattern of behaviour into a pre-existing pattern of normative deference, including any associated sanctions, with transgression becoming an offence against the sacred value. Such sacralisation can have powerfully stabilising effects for cooperation within a group. Conversely, incompatible notions of the sacred, of what is inviolable, can have deeply divisive and anti-cooperative effects.

Sanctioning can also perform a signalling function, broadcasting your commitment to the group and/or to approved patterns of behaviour. This implies that you are a likely partner for cooperative endeavours.

Damage to reputation is damage to connections, to relational wealth. Hence stigmatisation can be a powerful sanction. The more unavoidable and irredeemable stigmatisation is, the more it blocks or destroys relational wealth. Many societies have used acts of restitution and/or rituals of redemption or restoration to permit the repair of cooperation and avoid spiralling conflict.

Shakespeare’s characters often show great concern for their reputation. Shakespeare was writing in the age of duelling. The willingness to engage in duels provided a way for people to signal their character and their norm commitment, establishing themselves as trustworthy recipients of office in a patronage society. As cognitive skills became more dominant, Classicism became a means of signalling norm commitment. As bureaucracies and the human-and-cultural capital class have continued to expand, an ostentatious commitment to designated moral goals that both morally and cognitively differentiates from the wider society has become the increasingly dominant norm commitment signal. The claim to own morality is, however, rather different in its social and status implications than the claim to own honour or to have a superior education of cultural commitment. When associated with transnational networks and identities, it encourages cultural polarisation presented as moral polarisation.

Bureaucracies have to select and coordinate people. Both these processes are assisted by selecting for norm convergence (which includes convergence in beliefs, scripts and expectations). Moreover, generating moral projects that flow from such norm convergence can be an excellent status and resource strategy. One pursued quite successively by Christians in the intensively bureaucratised Roman Empire of Constantine (r.306–337) and his successors. The Roman imperial bureaucracy had previously hugely expanded, from maybe 300 officials in the early Empire (the Principate) to 30–35,000 in the late Empire (the Dominate). Most of the growth in the imperial bureaucracy was under Diocletian (r.284–305), mainly due to a shift to taxing in-kind. That Constantine, the first powerful Emperor after Diocletian, proceeded to adopt a highly moralising religion (Christianity) that promoted normative convergence while presiding over this vastly increased imperial bureaucracy is perhaps not a coincidence.

Norms do not, in themselves, solve the problems of cooperative behaviour, they merely enable more of it. The work of mathematical biologist Martin Nowak suggests that there is a cycle of cooperation within processes of social selection, whereby cooperation can arise, build up to a peak, and then collapse.

Pioneer historical sociologist ibn Khaldun analysed the history of the interaction between pastoralist and urbanised societies as a cycle whereby the hardships of pastoralism created intense social bonding, that could lead to conquest of the river valley and coastal cities by the pastoralists. The pressures of sedentary rulership would then weaken those social bonds until the dynasty decays and is replaced by a new wave of hardened warriors with strong social bonds. This is a cycle of cooperation building and collapsing.

The pastoralist society/urban society dynamic is not the only pattern to which ibn Khaldun insights can be applied. A pithy version of ibn Khaldun’s cycle was coined by G. Michael Hopf in his 2016 novel Those Who Remain and has since gained a certain memetic currency: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”

The Soviet Union managed to go through the ibn Khaldun cycle within a single lifetime, with different Soviet leaders epitomising different stages of ibn Khaldun’s analysis:

(1) group bonded by strong asabiyya (group feeling) seizes control of an urbanised territory — Lenin,

(2) the ruler separates himself from the group and establishes his own dominance — Stalin,

(3) asabiyya fades as the pursuit of material gain and comfort dominates the ruling group — Khrushchev to Chernenko,

(4) asabiyya collapses among the ruling elite and the state fragments and is replaced — Gorbachev.

Demographer Peter Turchin, building on ibn Khaldun’s insights about the development, peaking and collapse of cooperation, has analysed demographic cycles, particularly elite demography, as showing a pattern of integrative (increasing cooperation) and disintegrative (collapsing cooperation) phases.

Organisations, institutions and cultures exist because people are, in some important sense, committed to their continuing existence. In each case, people are socialised into the organisation, institution or culture. That socialisation is crucial to the organisations, institutions and cultures being reproduced, to them continuing to operate.

Organisations, institutions and cultures evolve over time, they are subject to the processes of social selection. If the constraints people are dealing with do not shift significantly, then considerable stability in these patterns can be expected. Historically, environmental and technological constraints have been the most stable, while adverse environmental and technological shifts can have de-stabilising, even dramatically de-stabilising, effects on organisations, institutions and cultures. For instance, the development and legalisation of contraception that women could unilaterally control has dramatically reduced the risks of pregnancy from sex. This has had profound effects on norms and patterns of behaviour in societies of mass prosperity, where low physical risk jobs have proliferated, that are still resonating through developed societies, undermining presumptive sex roles to an extent unparalleled in human history.

Organisations tend to be considerably more ephemeral than institutions and cultures as they typically involve relatively small numbers of people, have much more specific and limited functions and generally recruit people as adults. The earlier people are socialised into patterns of behaviour and belief, the more resiliently imbued with them people tend to be. The more immersive patterns of behaviour and belief are — the more their interactions with others, in both scale and scope, reinforce the patterns of behaviour and belief — the more imbued with those patterns of behaviour and belief people tend to be.

Culture is pervasive, organisations are just part of one’s life, institutions are in between. Economist John Powellson’s definition of an institution as “an accepted mode of behaviour protected by the culture” captures their culturally embedded nature.

Cultures are not monolithic. Various sub-groups can experience a culture quite differently, or have divergent patterns.

To understand institutions, one has to understand the constraints and possibilities they are dealing with. Institutions in societies with artisanal production and limited measurement capacities, where individual goods can be separately identified and differentiating between the chances of nature or human action is difficult, face very different transaction cost problems than do societies of mass produced goods with accurate measurement. Hence the institutions of industrialised mass-measurement societies become profoundly different to what had worked previously, due to dealing with very different constraints and possibilities.

Institutions are not only embedded in cultures, they are embedded in a matrix of other institutions. Institutions do not operate independently of either other institutions or the culture around them. Attempts to simply copy an institution will not produce the expected effects, if they are transferred into a different culture and a different institutional matrix. One may copy the formal rules and intentions of an institution, but the surrounding schemata, scripts, expectations and norms will not be the same, so even if the formal rules and intentions are the same, they will generate different patterns of behaviour and so different outcomes.

Europe developed such unusually effective states in large part because there was enough cultural and institutional similarity among the competing polities within Christian Europe that they could seek to copy and adapt successful institutions from each other and have analogous outcomes. The intensity of the competition, operating within unusually high levels of institutional variety among states, selected for effective state institutions. The institutional variety meant that the processes of social selection, operating across time, had far more to work with. Though it was still true that, during the medieval period, Latin Church countries could copy each other more successfully than Greek Church countries could copy them and that, since the Reformation, Protestant countries have been able to copy each other with somewhat more facility than Catholic countries could copy Protestant ones or that Orthodox countries could copy either.


Patterns of migration will therefore affect organisations, institutions and culture as they introduce people socialised into different cultures and matrices of institutions into the same physical space. How much they are introduced into the same social space will depend on how immersive their social interactions are.

Thus, bringing relatively small numbers of people from a wide range of cultures will have different implications than will bringing large number of people from a small range of cultures. In the former case, the experience of the new society, its organisations, institutions and culture, will be far more immersive than in the latter. Hence, in the former case, the process of socialising people into the existing organisations, institutions and culture can be expected to be much smoother than in the latter.

Indeed, if people are brought in from different cultures in sufficiently large “lumps”, then an oppositional structure can be created whereby people express their cultural identity through a sense of distinction from the incumbent culture and its institutions. People are adept at drawing and enforcing symbolic boundaries around groups that they see themselves as belonging to. Symbolic boundaries can have pro-social effects within a group. The more convergent are beliefs, scripts, norms and expectations, the more cooperation within the group is facilitated.

Thus, academic disciplines are noted for drawing symbolic boundaries around themselves. They develop norms about what is, or is not, part of the discipline.

Symbolic boundaries are often delineated by use of in-group, out-group descriptors. Groups can develop dominance beliefs: beliefs that failure to conform to establishes various levels of out-group status. These are dominance beliefs both in the sense that adherence to them is dominant within the group but also in the sense that the ability to cast out on the basis of contravening them, perhaps to the extent of inducing shunning or other sanctions, can be an effective dominance strategy.

The more moralised dominance beliefs are, the more the out-group descriptors will imply not only intellectual, but moral failure. Witch, heretic, infidel, racist, etc are classic malice-labels signifying profound moral failure establishing excision from the group. The peak dominance belief strategy is to establish that any attempt to contest a dominance belief constitutes moral failure.

While all cultures draw symbolic boundaries to some extent, cultures can vary widely in how strongly they do so and in how they conceive of and enforce those boundaries. Food and touching taboos can be effective enforcers of social boundaries, though are hardly the only such means. The emphasis Islam puts on the umma, the Muslim community, is very much about drawing symbolic boundaries. Much of Sharia deals with relations with non-Muslims, usually to increase the intensity of the symbolic boundary. Mainstream Sunni Islam has a long history of drawing profound distinction between those who have accepted, i.e. submitted to, the primacy of the rules of Allah and those who have not. A distinction that includes a long history of sanctified aggression, going back to the preaching and actions of Muhammad, against those who have not so submitted (or are deemed to have not so submitted).

Given the greater persistence and strength of such symbolic boundaries within Islam compared to other religions in the contemporary world, it is not accidental that mainstream Sunni minorities stand out in the scale of their fraught interactions with non-Muslim majorities, nor that minorities in Muslim countries tend to have disproportionately fraught experiences with members of Muslim majorities. The history of Pakistan shows this dynamic quite clearly, with Sunni, Shia and Ahmadis combining against Hindus and Sikhs in the 1940s, Sunni and Shia combining against Ahmadis in the 1970s (when they were declared heretical and banned from teaching) and Sunni now combining against Shia (notably by changes in the blasphemy law that protects the Companions of the Prophet, thereby anathematising core Shia beliefs). How sharply to draw symbolic boundaries, around whom, and what follows from that, has been central to the Arab-Israeli disputes. Disputes that began with social stresses created (or, at the very least, aggravated) by migration. Though the recent increase in the salience of the Sunni/Shia distinction has seen some weakening of the symbolic boundary around Israel, as a non-Muslim, non-Arab state.

Attempts by economists to calculate how much economic activity (defined as production for exchange) would be increased if all countries had open borders presume that the social structures within which exchange takes place would not themselves be affected by the flow of people. We can see from the above that this is not remotely a reasonable assumption. Organisations, institutions and cultures are not independent of the people who participate in and interact with them. More to the point, they are not independent of patterns of belief, action, norms and expectations, patterns that vary highly non-randomly across human populations and are not automatically transferred due to change in residence.

People bring their cultures with them, and the larger the groups of people with a common culture, the less likely they are to shift away from them.

Calculating the effects of migration is not merely a matter of working out the new activity equilibrium because there is no reason to think that the structural equilibria that such activity equilibrium calculations presume will remain constant in the face of large-scale migration. Structural equilibria are not merely patterns of exchange, but rest on patterns of belief, action, norms, expectations and connection that are highly variant in content and not randomly distributed. Those structural equilibria are not going to be independent of who migrates and in what numbers.

Migration can also affect interactions among the existing residents of the countries they migrate to. Most people in developed countries are still born, live and die within a relatively small area. They live in a world of mostly local connections that affect their ability to manage their lives, adjust to difficulties and organise for common interests. Information and cooperation prospects are going to flow along connections: it is no accident that friends, relatives, and acquaintances is generally the most frequent labour market intermediary. Not only does information about job vacancies flow along such connections, being recommended by someone known provides extra information, even an implicit guarantee, about an applicant whose personal qualities are otherwise unknown.

If people of different cultural backgrounds move into a local area, they tend to disrupt those connections. This effect is greatly increased if newcomers belong to a specific culture, as that increases the likelihood that they will keep to their own patterns of connection, hence will replace rather than join the existing matrix of connection. Migration can act as a corrosive on the relational wealth of residents. The pattern and propinquity of migration can therefore affect its economic effects, particularly for suppliers of labour.

As people of different cultural backgrounds move into an area, folk of the original culture will increasingly tend to avoid it as a place of residence, as it will not be as friendly to their own connections. Given the normal process of urban churn as people move, this pattern of newcomers coming in and incumbents moving out, and not being replaced, can change the demographics of an area remarkably quickly.

While such flows can disrupt local connections, they do not tend to affect the networks of those higher up the socio-economic scale. Thus, one of the effects of migration on sufficient scale can be to disrupt local connections while not affecting elite networks. (Elites being anyone who can recurrently influence how people they do not know act.) During the age of empire, colonial authorities regularly imported people of very different culture than the locals to promote commercial activity. It also had the effect of dividing the resident populace into culturally distinct groups, making colonial domination somewhat easier: a divide-and-dominate strategy. It is a pattern that can operate just as effectively in a democracy as in a colonial possession.

One of the clearer findings of the economics of migration is that migration benefits the holders of capital much more than it does the providers of labour. If migration disrupts the local connections of working residents without affecting elite networks, the economic advantage is magnified by a political one. The combination of increasing elite advantage with increased separation into disconnected groups can undermine the political and social coherence of a society, intensifying internal conflict. Economic historian Robert Fogel identified the dramatically increased levels of migration to the US after the development railways and steamships in the 1820s as a major economic, social and political stressor that intensified the existing slave/non-slave, and urban-commercial versus rural estates, fracture lines in the American republic in the lead up to the American Civil War.

The use of shaming and shunning to impose norms on what may be expressed can be a very powerful tool to advantage the interests and concerns of those able to do so. As noted, it is one way of creating and enforcing symbolic boundaries. As local connections weaken, it becomes another advantage that elite networks can, and so do, use. Accusations of, for instance, racism and xenophobia can be very effective tools in blocking people reliant on local connections from speaking up in their own interests, or discounting them if they do.

Migration can also be used to justify critique of existing national culture, as part of both an owning-morality status strategy and an antagonistic identities divide-and-dominate strategy. In that case, attacks on the common heritage add a status-and-cultural cost to political organisation, economic inequality and relational wealth costs. Indeed, as the salience of cultural divisions increases, with ostentatious disrespect for the local heritage (and, of course, those who embrace the same) and ostentatious respect for other heritages is used as a cosmopolitan signalling strategy, this can shift political pressure from economic redistribution to issues of cultural identification and trade protection.

As it is hard to expropriate human capital (short of expropriating the holder of the human capital, and that has its own limitations), possessors of human capital have often been drawn to radical political activism. When the working class was excluded from politics, this created a natural political alliance. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, an effective response to rising income inequality and radical (even revolutionary) political agitation was to extend the franchise, creating a reasonable expectation of future income and services redistribution. While possessors of human-and-cultural capital remained a relatively small group, and income/class identity remained highly salient in politics, the alliance kept going. As, however, the human-and-cultural capital class has expanded, divergent interests have tended to drive the two groups apart.

In societies with universal adult suffrage, where human capital can attract high incomes, redistribution is likely to be less attractive option and franchise extension (except to new migrants) is not available as a response to rising inequality and increasing cultural differentiation in our new “gilded age”. An alternative strategy is to use the power to grant and deny legitimacy, based on some appropriate structure of sacredness and sin, to block effective expression of working class discontent; a strategy more likely to be successful the more disrupted and atomised the working class is. The effect is magnified if suppliers of labour can be further divided into competing groups. High level of migration can be a very useful adjunct to such a strategy, especially under a diversity, rather than an assimilation, migration policy.

With the shrinking of private sector unions, and the takeover of the union apparatus by holders of human-and-cultural capital, the last area where working class people have status and authority within modern developed societies is the police. (A consequence of being a significantly working class institution can include the aggressive tribalism that is a recurrent feature of working class cultures.) Defunding the police is a natural culmination of a social strategy of blocking or eliminating working class social and political influence. Moreover, when presented in an explicitly racialised way, it has the further advantage of intensifying divide-and-dominate strategies.

A polity is democracy if, and only if, the working class is included in the political process. Any social strategy that seeks to systematically block working class political action is at war with democracy, whether the adherents of the strategy admit that to themselves or not.

As citizenship, built around a common heritage, has been a key institutional and legitimacy support for working class political involvement (all the way back to the demos of Ancient Athens), devaluing citizenship, and undermining any sense of common heritage, can also be a very useful adjunct to such a strategy. This would also tend to undermine at least some structural equilibria. Not least because of the push to replace impersonal rules (treating people the same regardless of social identity) with a structure of anonymous rules (treat people according to social identity). This would involve undermining the open access social order of impersonal rules that has evolved in recent centuries. Blocking the ability to create new political organisations, or attempting to quarantine such off from access to power, by denying them legitimacy and organisational capacity, is a potentially workable strategy to forge an entrenched dominant interest group coalition replacing the existing open access social order.

To put the matter more directly. In a situation where politics has become mainly a struggle between groups of holders of capital (human-and-cultural capital on the “left”, business capital on the “right”); there is rising inequality, both income inequality and cultural/status inequality, given that ownership of morality is increasingly used as an elite signifier; where there is no significant capacity to extend the franchise, except to a limited degree at age and residency margins; and there is strong resistance to increased redistribution, as many holders of human-and-cultural capital have relatively high incomes and/or are already burdened with significant liabilities, there will be pressure to evolve a social strategy to block redistributive and cultural discontent. As the open access order of impersonal exchange tends to generate new organisational responses to channel such discontent — hence the rise of populist movements, particularly national populist movements — the open access order of impersonal exchange becomes the problem. Hence the rise of rejection of the American, Western and Enlightenment projects and attempts to replace impersonal exchange with anonymous exchange based on social identities and open access discussion with increasingly restrictive norms regarding speech and thought.

The phenomena is particularly intense in the United States partly due to the cultural legacy of Greater New England Yankee Puritanism — like the Great Awakenings, the Great Awokening is very much a product of that cultural legacy — and partly due to the US’s vexed history of construction of racial identities. A strategy of frustrating working class discontent by dividing working people into antagonistic identities has both more to work with and an already well-established history, extending back to the Antebellum South.

Moreover, the combination of burgeoning student debt and highly restrictive housing regulation that shut increasing numbers of young people out of metro housing markets (especially if they already have significant student debt) creates a strata of possessors of human-and-cultural capital with a burden of liabilities and little prospect of significant asset accumulation. That is a classic revolutionary group, as they have organisational and rhetorical capacity along with minimal commitment to the existing order.

The downside of human-and-cultural capital being hard to expropriate is that it is hard to undermine or attack someone’s human capital without attacking them. To establish the dominance of some set of human-and-cultural capital requires either getting divergent possessors of human-and-cultural capital to submit or convert, to block their use (and replication) of their human-and-cultural capital, or to kill them. There is a reason that totalitarian politics arises out of human-and-cultural capital politics. Typically, it arises from the politics of social transformation that establishes some urgent, and trumping, moral project justifying the social dominance of a particular set of holders of specific human-and-cultural capital. As the Soviet Union under the New Economic Policy and contemporary China demonstrate, a cultural command economy can be an effective vehicle for totalitarian politics. It is, perhaps, the natural vehicle for totalitarian politics in a digital age. The current attempts to impose very restrictive norms on the forms and use of human-and-cultural capital fit this pattern and have construction of a cultural command economy as their natural end point.

If extending the franchise is not a useful option (except as a mechanism to further reduce the social leverage of the resident working class), and commitment to redistribution of status and resource opportunities is rejected, then rejection of the open access order of impersonal exchange, and so of the American, Western and Enlightenment projects, is what is left.

To put it another way, there is an elite revolt against broad-based political bargaining underway. With migration, and associated what-is-or-is-not-legitimate normative plays, being a major weapon against such bargaining.

One of the fundamental problems of mainstream economics is that it takes exchange — buying and selling and its analogues — to be the basic, and generalisable, mode of social interaction. This is not how actual societies work. Another problem of mainstream economics, following on from exchange-as-basic, is thatoutside the realm of institutional economics, it tends to analyse institutions as if they are, or can be treated as, patterns of exchange. A third problem, also following on from exchange-as-basic, is that mainstream economics tends to treat people as if they were interchangeable, apart from differences specific to the operation of exchange. A fourth is that the concentration on positive-sum exchange encourages blindness about the importance of zero-sum, or even negative-sum, status games in human interactions.

Using the exchange-as-basic model, migrants can be analysed as not differentiated, except in features relevant to exchange, and as if there is no difference between migrants and residents that affects the operation of institutions. Adding in the presumption that culture transfers neatly from existing residents to new ones, a proposition needed to presume no effect on institutions, completes the misreading of the social dynamics of migration.

But migration is not a problem of just activity equilibria, where the structures within which activity takes place can be assumed to be unaffected. It is also a matter of local connections and of structural equilibria, which very much depend on the patterns of beliefs, action, norms and expectations among people; patterns that in turn depend on their socialisation and patterns of interaction. Both of which are potentially greatly affected by migration flows. Crucial structural equilibria were not able to be maintained, under the stress of mass migration, in the American republic after steamships and railways led to the advent of mass migration. In that case, the migrants were mostly coming from the British Isles and Northern Europe, so the main stress factor was not any cultural distance from the migrants but in how their arrival shifted the balance of territorial and social interests within the Antebellum US. Similarly, the varying experience of migration between the coastal-metro and the interior regions of the US has become a major stressor, encouraging contemporary political and territorial polarisation. A similar intensification of metro/provincial splits can be seen in the United Kingdom and in France.

The “large lump” migration into the US since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and into post-imperial Europe, have clearly generated significant social and political stress in those societies. By contrast, Australia and Canada, with proportionately considerably higher rates of migration, but with much more of a “small lumps” pattern, and in highly urbanised societies (so with much less of a metro/provincial split), have experienced significantly less signs of social and political stress.

People reliant on local connections have very good reasons to be concerned if there is large-scale migration of culturally distinct people into or near their local area. Especially as the social and political effects will tend to magnify their relative economic disadvantage, compared to the holders of capital and their relative political disadvantage, compared to people in elite networks. They therefore take a double status and resource-access hit. They also have good reason to prefer migration of people more culturally similar over those more culturally different. Nor can the wider structure of organisations, institutions and culture be presumed to be unaffected by the scale and source of migration. These effects are magnified if an own-morality elite status strategy engages in a systematic critique of the common heritage, adding a cultural-and-status hit to the aforementioned consequences.

Resilience and efficiency

Efficiency is about maximising output for a given level of input (or minimising inputs for a given level of output). Efficiency tends to encourage specialisation. Stable environments tend to select for efficiency.

Resilience is about being able to continue to operate in changing circumstances. Resilience tends to encourage generalised adaptability. Unstable environments tend to select for resilience.

Being anti-fragile, being able to become stronger in adverse circumstances, is an even stronger response to environmental instability.

Selection for efficiency can undermine resilience, if it selects for a pattern of inputs or outputs that reduces the ability to cope with changes in the environment. Being enormously efficient at extracting nourishment from a particular source is not resilient if the source disappears.

Conversely, resilience can be inefficient, as it tends to require diversity of resources and capacities. Having many small strip fields is inefficient, it reduces average productivity. But it is resilient, because it is less subject to variance in output due to variations in rainfall or soil quality. In a high-risk environment, it may be more important to stop output dropping below a certain level than to maximise average output. That is, the resilient strategy of managing risk by diversifying across space is preferred over the efficient strategy of maximising output across time. If risk levels fall, as indicated, for example, by falling interest rates, then strip fields are likely to be amalgamated into larger, more efficient, fields.

Connection is a resilience strategy. In certain circumstances, it can be an anti-fragile strategy, if bonds between people are strengthened. Of course, elites may not wish to have workers, residents or citizens display such connected resilience. This is especially true if elites regard themselves as living in a stable global environment in a situation where, due to technology, outsourcing and migration, resident labour has become replaceable across a much wider margin than was previously the case. Characterising resistance to migration as racism or xenophobia seeks to use granting and denying legitimacy as a social dominance lever so as to strip resident workers of the public space to defend their interests.

But the question of resilience also applies to institutions and culture, to structural equilibria. It is one thing to see that newcomers conform to the patterns of resident institutions. It is quite another to claim they have fully internalised the necessary beliefs, expectations and norms. If those beliefs, expectations and norms are only weakly adopted, then the structural equilibria sustaining institutions may prove to be quite fragile.

Assimilation is much more clearly a resilience strategy than is diversity. The rejection of assimilation likely reflects both movement away from the experience of world war and loss of working class political influence, especially in centre-left political parties. If migration increases the stress in a society, that can be another path to undermine the resilience of institutions.

The notion that we can calculate the economic gain to be had from open borders, or even large-scale migration, holding institutions and culture constant, is not a claim worthy of anyone’s intellectual respect. Nor is the claim that such fantasy calculations of economic gain remotely represent a complete analysis of the effects of large-scale migration.


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This essay is part of the intellectual scaffolding for a book to be published by Connor Court looking at the social dynamics of marriage. (There might also be some suggestion that economists and anthropologists should talk more.) As this essay is something of a work in progress, it is subject to ongoing fiddling.

Cross-posted from Medium, which has the updated version.