Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Trans activism and the feminist discounting of womanhood

Transactivism has taken establishment feminism setting up ovaries and mammaries as being incidental to being a woman and made it irrelevant to being a woman.

Current fertility rates (in children per woman, assuming average fertility rate for her age group without dying in childbirth before the end of her reproductive life).

It is rather startling how much of the public space is being driven by trans activism and trans issues. Trans folk are, after all, a very small proportion of the population whose individual cases are rife with various complexities.

Yet, we are being offered striking simplistic narratives that have to be adhered to if one is going to be of the morally meritorious.

In fact, trans issues in the public sphere provide an excellent example of the more general dynamics of narrative-driven sense of status based on prestige opinions.

Especially the attendant hostility to any discovery processes that might threaten said narratives and prestige opinions. This hostility to open enquiry so as to preserve the status value of the prestige opinions as unchallengeable means that comments or musings that do not conform have to be pathologised. Dissenting views even more so.

Hence the very strong tendency to misrepresent both. Having detected a failure to conform to prestige opinions and narratives, the material in question does not have to be seriously grappled with, it just has to be characterised in whatever conveniently pathologising way is at hand.

Misrepresentation becomes rife, with comments by the divergent being given implications that weren’t there, weren’t intended, or simply have minimal connection to what was actually said.

This is tied to catastrophising, whereby expressing divergent views is characterised in ways that invoke alleged catastrophe. The classic catastrophising in trans activism being “you are erasing my/our/their existence”.

This is, of course, a nonsense at so many levels. Words do not erase one’s existence. They can, however, damage a narrative and if one’s identity is tied to a particular narrative, then the “wrong” words can be very threatening.

Meanwhile, trans-activism seeks to separate the possession of a uterus, ovaries and functioning mammaries from the identity of being a woman.

Where establishment feminism went…

In this, they are pushing at a door that careerist feminism has already opened.

Lots of women do not identify as feminist. A 2015 poll by the UK’s most significant advocacy body for women, the Fawcett Society, found that only 9% of British women identified as feminist. Meanwhile, 81% of women supported equality of opportunity for women (and 86% of men did so).

Explaining the dramatic divergence between supporting equality for women and identifying as feminist is simple: feminism comes with a lot of baggage other than achieving equality. Especially as the most prominent and public version of feminism is dominated by highly-educated career women, who pursue the interests and concerns of highly-educated career women.

Such feminism has blown through seeking equality and is now after various forms of privilege. “Believe all women!” is not an equality claim, but one of privilege. That criticising men is feminism and fine, while criticising women is misogyny and not, is also not an equality claim, but one of privilege.

Careerist, establishment feminism has a clear set of concerns about motherhood. Which is (1) to maximise the ability to avoid motherhood, (2) to minimise the career costs of being a mother and otherwise (3) to mainly positively concern themselves with motherhood when it becomes a stick to beat fathers and fatherhood with.

In this view of women’s progress, the key markers of progress are all concerned to do with women’s participation in the workforce, particularly the professions. This means that women’s progress largely revolves around social markers that are explicitly separated from having a uterus and ovaries. Any attempt to make anything of this separation of women’s progress from having a uterus and ovaries is treated as an attempt to tie women to motherhood: to “force” them to be barefoot in the kitchen; to de-legitimise any other aspiration.

Trans-activism just takes this well-established pattern of separating key markers of being a woman from anything to do with having a uterus and ovaries one step further.

Uneven mobbing

Trans-activists have become notorious for their hostile mobbing of anyone who is seen to dissent or diverge from their preferred narratives. But this hostile mobbing is not evenly distributed. Women who publicly dissent are typically treated much more viciously by trans activists than men who do so. It is not hard to infer why: they envy women whose identity as a woman goes “all the way down” and so is inherent, without expensive hormones and surgery.

But this particular hostility to women who do not go along with the preferred narratives and prestige opinions also has its counterpart in establishment feminism.

It has been a regular finding of honest surveys (those that do not tie feminism to believing in equality for women) that many women do not identify as feminist. Once one realises that feminism comes with all sorts of baggage, overwhelmingly tied to it being dominated by highly-educated career women, this is not surprising.

Nevertheless, a standard feminist response to the mass failure by women to identify as feminist has been the condescending notion that such failure to so identify is a failure of cognitive understanding on the part of non-identifying women. That for a women not to see themselves as a feminist is a sign that they do not understand their own interests and are too weak-willed or ignorant to embrace their “proper” feminist identity.

So, only feminists are “cognitively complete” women, This systematically discounts women — except for those that are so blessed they have achieved the status of feminist.

The flattery of false consciousness

It is also a derivation of the concept of false consciousness in Marxism. (Similar notions to false consciousness have a long history in mystical and occult thought. It is very attractive to see oneself as a member of a knowing, enlightened elite.)

The problem with the concept of false consciousness is not the idea that social circumstances and experience can systematically mislead us. Though it is reasonable to query how much this is compatible with adaptive pressures of biological and social evolution. Patterns of cognitive error arising from evolutionary adaption are much more plausible than assuming systematic error that would get in the way of reproductive survival.

The problem comes when the corollary is added that some particular group is somehow gifted with a superior capacity to apprehend reality. This sets one off on a path that makes it so much easier to discount contrary views. Even if held by folk who one is notionally seeking to champion. Notions of false consciousness were, after all, quite enthusiastically adopted to explain how the working class was so cognitively incompetent that it could not accurately judge its own interests.

Taking other people’s views and concerns seriously is a corrective humility and requires an openness to the discovery processes involved in interrogating, without protective arrogance, why they might have those views. Conversely, adopting a process of systematically discounting divergent views and concerns is conducive to collective arrogance while blocking discovery processes.

This interacts with the notion that activism represents the highest moral good. Not only are activists cognitively superior, in that they see what others do not. They are also morally superior, in that they are working to a better future.

This gives even more grounds to systematically discount divergent views while generating a collective identity based on mutual admiration of what is in their heads. (That is, mimetic moralising — ardently copying each other’s moral views — based on mimetic arrogance — agreeing to mutually worship some common factor they have: in this case, the splendour of what’s in their heads.)

It is very easy for this mutual admiration based around convergent views to be tied to contempt and anathematisation of divergent views. Anathematisation that both recruits (to the self-identified moral elite) and intimidates (by stigmatising and punishing those who dissent).

Prestige opinions only provide prestige if divergent opinions generate negative prestige.

Needless to say, discovery processes that threaten any of the tenets of this process of convergent admiration, of mimetic moralising, are not welcome. Casting such efforts at discovery as representing hostility to the ostentatious good intentions that generate the shared identity based on prestige opinions (and thereby being of the morally meritorious), can provide an easy line of rhetorical attack on those using such discovery processes.

Fear of divergence makes those who seek to be identified as one of the morally meritorious remarkably easy to manipulate. Hence the non-player-character (or NPC) meme, as those who seek to embrace narrative and opinion convergence so as to see themselves, and be seen as, one of the morally meritorious, sign up to accept, or at least acquiescence in, all the prestige opinions and narratives that go with being of the morally meritorious.

In such circumstances, any inconsistency between various prestige opinions marking membership of the morally meritorious is a feature not a bug, as embracing inconsistency becomes a signal of one’s wish to be one of the morally meritorious. Such as the wild inconsistency between the age of sexual consent (usually 16) and the sought age of gender-transition consent.

Betraying women

Establishment feminism increasingly accepts various betrayals of women. Since, under social justice ideology dynamics, the more marginal the group, the higher their moral rating, women, being half the population, are thereby less marginal than any other group except men. So, if it is women versus Muslims, women lose. And it it is women versus trans, women lose.

It is not hard to work out why so few British women identity as feminist. For about half of British women, motherhood is their most important identity. Establishment feminist treats motherhood as an impediment on the road to matching men in all (positive) things. Establishment feminists are highly educated, often from elite institutions, and their class is obvious in their voices and language. Establishment feminists have been conspicuously missing in action when it comes to problems of predatory sexual behaviour from within Muslim communities. Establishment feminists are also conspicuously missing in action when it comes to defending women’s sports and women’s spaces from invasion by people who do not have, and will never have, ovaries and mammaries.

Motherhood, class, Muslim, trans: that’s four strikes and you’re out.

There is a wider cultural consequence. If you don’t have children, or turn them into a career embarrassment and distraction from what really matters, then passage down the generations loses its moral and social force. The connected-to-the-past future of continuing tradition is so much more easily rejected in favour of the imagined future built on worshiping the splendour of what’s in one’s head(s).

We have lots of experience of what happens to societies when they are taken over by people who worship the splendour of what’s in their heads and so claim everything will be wonderful if they control everything. The results of such mimetic zealotry are, uniformly, disastrous.

So, to recap. Establishment feminism treats women who do not identity as feminist as cognitive failures. Establishment feminism measures female progress by how few women concentrate on being mothers. That is, by how well people who happen to have ovaries and mammaries match the social patterns of those that do not. The discounting of womanhood in this has opened the door to people who have never had ovaries or mammaries being declared to be women.

Transactivism has simply taken the notion, that establishment feminism has spent decades establishing, that having ovaries and mammaries is incidental to being a woman and made having ovaries and mammaries irrelevant to being a woman.

The line about reaping as you sow comes to mind.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Capitol riot: the Reichstag Fire of our time?

A shocking attack on a legislative building can be very useful.

On the 27th of February 1933, the Reichstag, the building where the legislature of the Weimar Republic met, caught fire. At no stage was the government of the Republic in danger. There was no loss of life.

Yet it was a shocking thing, especially as it was immediately presented as an act of arson (which it was; though by a lone arsonist, conveniently both foreign — Dutch — and communist). Such a shocking symbolic affront to the political order was too politically useful. So the new Chancellor of the Republic, who had taken office less than a month earlier, the leader of a coalition government and head of the largest political Party in the Reichstag, used the sense of shock and outrage to have President Hindenburg sign the Reichstag Fire decrees that enabled the new government to ram through a raft of repressive measures through the Reichstag, particularly the infamous Enabling Act. These were deployed to end Germany’s democratic experiment and turn it into a one-Party state.

The Reichkanzler in question was, of course, Adolf Hitler and his Party was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). These actions did not take place in a political vacuum. Weimar politics had been wracked by intense political polarisation, street violence by paramilitary groups and much catastrophising rhetoric.

Germany’s economy had suffered greatly from the ravages of the Great Depression, with apparently entrenched mass unemployment. 10 years previously, the Great Inflation had wiped out the savings of the middle class.

As this thoughtful and disturbing essay points out, there are more than a few parallels with contemporary United States.

So, let us consider the Capitol riot. A shocking and disturbing attack on the building where Congress, the US legislature, meets that at no stage seriously threatened the government. One rioter was shot by police, a policeman was beaten to death with a fire hydrant, the other deaths seem to have been mostly misadventure. The deaths add to the sense of shock and outrage. Even though much of what happened seems to have been copied from the months of “black block” rioting that progressives have cheered, valorised or facilitated.

Just as some accused the Nazis of starting the fire themselves, so some have claimed Antifa activists were involved in the Capitol riot. The attitude to media rather contradicts that. While “black bloc” rioters tend to be fine with corporate media, as they tend to amenable to the narrative the “black bloc” wishes to present, but hostile to independents recording their activities, the Capitol rioters were precisely the opposite, attacking corporate media’s equipment but being much friendlier to individuals recording what was going on.

I refuse to call what happened at the Capitol an ‘insurrection’. Insurrections are not usually unarmed and they attempt to set up enduring control of territory. This was a riot happening in a place of great symbolic significance.

But, like the Reichstag Fire, the Capitol riot is being used to justify a raft of repressive measures. Shocking action from one side of politics being used to justify repressive action by the other side of politics.

If one wants to understand how Hitler was able to use a building being set alight to justify and mobilise support for his repressive measures, then the progressive cheering of the post-riot waves of censorship gives us excellent illustrative insight.

Of course, as we live in a time when Big Tech has attempted to swallow the public square, it is tech billionaires who are using the Capitol riot as their very own Reichstag Fire. To much “progressive” cheering. That the tech billionaires are clearly attempting to complete their swallowing of the public square for their own profit is apparently immaterial as long as they pander to progressive desires to control and censor.

(The natural endpoint of progressive worship of the splendour of what’s in their heads being the notion that everything will great if power is entirely in the hands of folk of such cognitive splendour. The more that is so, the more illegitimate disagreement will be held to be.)

History does not repeat. But we can watch it rhyme very, very strongly.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Human social dynamics and our (biologically) expensive children

From our helpless infants to the need to learn and be socialised, the years of effort required to raise human children has shaped our biological and social evolution.

The most important single biological fact in understanding human social dynamics is that we have the biosphere’s most expensive children.

A Homo sapien child does not complete the process of biological maturity until their early 20s. To get them to the stage where they can become parents is at least a 15-year investment, though longer is better.

It is not merely the length of Homo sapien childhood and adolescence that makes our children such orders of magnitude higher level of investment than the children of any other species. It is that our infants are incredibly helpless; that our toddlers need to be fed by their parents; that to be effective at being a Homo sapien, our offspring need years of learning and training. For we are the cultural species, who rely on learning to replace the instincts we mostly don’t have.

Expensive offspring to support expensive brains

All the above is both enabled and driven by us being a big-brained species. The scale of brain needed to be an effective Homo sapien means our brains have to do a lot of growing outside our mother’s womb. As it is, the size of a baby’s brain (and thus head) significantly raises the risks of childbirth for Homo sapien mothers.

Our infants are so helpless because their head is so large compared to their bodies. They need to feed voraciously to grow a body able to move our outsize brain around effectively while also continuing to develop our energy-hog brains.

Our babies have evolved for attention-grabbing cuteness to maximise the chance we will invest in them. We have the strikingly unusual pattern of maternal infanticide, as human mothers have to judge whether they have the social support to raise this child.

We are the longest-lived ape, because female Homo sapiens live for decades after menopause, so that they can switch from investing in their own children to helping invest in the children of their children. (This is known as the grandmother effect.) It allowed us to have longer childhoods.

While we are, along with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) the most proactively aggressive ape, we are the least reactively aggressive ape. This created sufficiently peaceful and cooperative social spaces within which to raise our expensive children.

We generally rely on prestige (bottom-up status) far more than dominance (top-down status) because our forager ancestors spent hundreds of millennia suppressing dominance behaviour. This enabled sufficiently peaceful and cooperative social spaces to raise our expensive children.

It is likely that our female forager ancestors experienced far fewer periods than modern women do, due to spending much more of their lives either pregnant or lactating. That the onset of puberty was probably later (than the more recent tendency for earlier-onset puberty) increased the effect.

As menstruation was a mark of fertility, yet was likely relatively rare, it is not surprising that it tended to be highly ritualised. For women and girls, menstruation and its ritualisation took the role that manhood initiation did for men and boys.

We are the only species whose females have breasts that are enlarged when not lactating. This is likely a signal of having the spare resources required for successfully bearing and raising our (expensive) children. Human males having relatively small testes but relatively large (but plain) penises are likely also connected to pair bonding due to having high investment offspring.

We have a history of presumptive sex roles that predates our emergence as a species because human children require constant attendance, so that human females did low-risk gathering and hunting (e.g. of lizards) that could be done while minding children. Meanwhile human males did the high-risk hunting and gathering (e.g. for honey) that needed to be done away from the kids.

We are a group-living, pair-bonding species — a very unusual combination. We pair bond so that each child presumptively had a mother and father to personally invest in their raising. (In the few societies that did not have marriage, that became mother and uncle(s).)

We are group-living species to better able to handle the risks of expensive children via expanded cooperation. Though it is probably more the case that we remained a group-living species, despite developing pair-bonding, to raise our expensive children, given that all our near-relative species are group-living species, hence our common ancestor probably was too.

None of our near relatives pair bond in the way we do, however. Gorillas are a harem species while among chimpanzees and bonobos, groups of males share groups of females.

So much of these evolutionary outcomes were likely interactive processes, for what enables also permits. Patterns that may have, at least in part, evolved for other reasons persisted because of how expensive human children became.

All these features of being a cooperative cultural species that relied on learning enabled us to become the technological species. We were tool users before our genus evolved, and tool makers before our species evolved.

All these things enabled us to become the cultural species, which required expensive brains which meant expensive offspring. For not only does what enables also permit, what permits can also enable.

Evolutionary novelty

As a consequence of the evolution of our technology, we now live in the first societies in human history without presumptive sex roles. This is an amazing evolutionary novelty for our species.

We also have people claiming that people who have never had, and will never have, a uterus and ovaries are nevertheless women. This is, of course, completely nuts.

This is in no way to deny trans identity. Many human societies have had trans identities. Such identities have thousands of years of history to them. Trans is clearly a human thing. But none of those societies thought a (male-to-female) trans person was a woman, because trans folk did not menstruate and could not get pregnant. Such identities were and are, very much, trans identities. They were crossing identities.

In societies where all or most people lived subsistence lives, who could and could not get pregnant was a desperately important issue. It had to be, given how expensive Homo sapien children were and how profoundly that affected the social dynamics of every human society.

How identity as a woman has come to be notionally separated from having ovaries, a uterus and functioning mammaries is a matter for separate examination. For now, let us simply take note of how important our amazingly expensive offspring are for human social dynamics and how important that has been for our evolution as the cultural species.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

Friday, January 15, 2021

Policing the narrative

And devaluing your citizenship

Controlling public markers of legitimacy can be a powerful source of social leverage. It is one that naturally rests on devaluing citizenship.

A crucial driver of this process in contemporary society comes from the shifts in social power in modern developed democracies as the so-called ‘professional and managerial class’ reaches a sufficient critical mass to aspire to social dominance.

I do not much like the term managerial and professional class. The term is too specifically modern and so gets in the way of connecting current dynamics to past social patterns.

History does not repeat, but it can rhyme pretty strongly.

I much prefer the term human-and-cultural-capital class. First, because it identifies the group as being possessors of (human) capital, so having distinct differences in interests than does labour. This is particularly strongly so with respect to migration, but that is hardly the only point at which their interests diverge.

Secondly, it connects the contemporary social grouping with past manifestations — notably, every priestly class that has ever existed.

Thirdly, because the phrase more directly identifies their main point of social leverage — controlling, or seeking to control, the public markers of legitimacy.

About elite media

This is particularly obvious with respect to elite (“quality”) media. Once upon a time, journalism was a path for working-class folk to make good. Journalists were overwhelmingly not elite folk, and reported on elite doings in a somewhat interrogative fashion to a mass audience.

Nowadays, the elite media is elite in all senses of the word. It is dominated by graduates of elite universities who very much see themselves as members of the cultural elite and as either talking to other such folk or explaining to the masses what they should think.

While journalism has always tended to be narrative-driven — we humans love stories and having a set of narratives simplifies the presentation of facts and events — contemporary media has become narrative-driven to an increasingly intense degree.

For instance, narratives about the happenings at the US Capitol were being spun by the elite media before anyone who was actually there could have reported back in any serious or informed way.

A media that sees itself as part of the elite, and as controlling or setting the public markers of legitimacy, is a very different beast than a media which sees itself as interrogating elite actions on behalf of the public.

The attacks on Parler, on Gab, on any social media platform which does not go along with the preferred narrative, is this elite-control-of-legitimacy dynamic playing out in front of us.

As Google, Facebook and Twitter (and other platforms such as Discord) have shown themselves to be completely on-board with policing legitimacy, any rivals that fail to “get with the program” have to de-legitimised and closed down.

There is a standard pattern to this de-legitimisation, which is to tie any such platform to anathematised views. So they automatically become “far right” and are persistently labelled as such. Then they are tied to any anathematised events.

Having established that they do not adhere to the required markers of legitimacy, attempts to close them down are therefore also legitimised. (A nice short example of consistent hostility towards the failure to converge is here.)

Networked social credit

Given that so many people have become committed to being seen as members of the morally meritorious, either through genuine belief or through fear of being mobbed and abused as part of the process of anathematising dissent (or a mixture of both), this de-legitimisation strategy generates both active support and passive acquiescence.

Without such willing foot soldiers of conformity and convergence, the strategy would have little hope of succeeding.

In China, the social credit system is being created from the top down, as one would expect in a state run by a Leninist Party. In the West, we can see the equivalent being built in a far more networked fashion. (The Nazis, who pioneered totalitarian control in a market economy, called the process Gleichshaltung, or coordination.)

The meme that popped up after the disappearance from public view of China tech billionaire Jack Ma and Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump touches on this (In China, the President disappears tech billionaires. In the US, tech billionaires disappear the President.)

The Capitol riot and the Twitter ban of Trump provided a field day for Chinese media to denounce US hypocrisy.

Both China’s top-down social credit system and the networked version being constructed in the West are built on the systematic reduction of citizenship to having little status beyond determining which elite gets to control your online life in the name of which legitimating ideology.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Migration: moving from a democratic model to an imperial one

The pervasive attack on citizenship is part of a divide-and-dominate strategy.

Citizens of contemporary developed democracies live within an imperial order, but not in the way folk often claim.

There is an historical fable about the history of Western states that goes like this: once upon a time, Western states colonised the rest of the world, but then they morally advanced and retreated from imperialism, becoming welfare states instead.

I would put it slightly differently. Western states colonised the rest of the world because they could. Imperialism is what states do when they can, as more power and revenue is always preferable to less. But territorial imperialism became increasingly costly and the normative support for it collapsed. So, now Western states colonise their own societies (as more power and revenue remains preferable to less): we call this self-colonisation the welfare state.

Within the welfare state, it is useful to distinguish between the income-transfer state and the government-services-and-regulation state. The existence of complex societies generate unearned — I would say emergent — benefits that are wildly unevenly distributed.

It is reasonable for governments to tax those emergent benefits and distribute them more evenly. There are obviously questions about what taxes to levy and what transfers to make, but the underlying reasonableness of some level of income transfer is clear. Universal basic income (UBI) proposals simply seek to do such re-distribution of society’s emergent benefits systematically and comprehensively.

Problems of accountability

The government-services-and-regulation state is a rather different matter to such income transfers. That governments are generally not efficient regulators is clear: they have a general tendency to over-regulate and to poorly regulate.

The bureaucratic imperative is for more authority and ambit of activity, because that justifies bigger budgets, expanded career paths and higher status. (More revenue and authority is preferable to less.) Added to this is the tendency for regulatory activity to favour organised interests over the general interest, as organised interests can target the regulatory process more effectively. Hence the general tendency towards over-regulation and skewed-regulation. (For an amusing analysis of perverse regulation politics, see Bootleggers and Baptists.)

Part of the problem is one of scale. The more government does, the more whatever effective accountability mechanisms are in play are stretched. It is clearly easy for the regulatory state to expand beyond the level of effective accountability. (And the weaker the accountability mechanisms, the more dysfunctional government’s regulatory efforts are likely to be — the history of Latin America in a nutshell.) There is, after all, no automatic feedback from the effects of the regulation back to the regulatory process. Indeed, the tendency to judge regulations by their stated intentions (as that is easy and rhetorically convenient) often impede enquiry into their actual effects.

The same points apply to government services. Clearly, they can also easily expand beyond the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms. The bureaucratic push for more authority and greater ambit of activity is the same as for regulation, with extra incentive to increase revenue (i.e. expenditure). It is important to remember that what is government expenditure to the general public is revenue to the spending organisation. Nevertheless, the tendency to favour organised interests over the general interest applies as it does for regulation.

There is also the general bureaucratic incentive to favour concern for process over concern for effectiveness or efficiency. Process is easy to follow and easy to measure. The ease and regularity involved in rendering social action via regularised processes is why bureaucracy tends to be so ubiquitous. Accountability for efficiency and effectiveness of bureaucratic action is much harder to institutionalise and to measure. Bureaucracies will always tend to favour the ease of process over the awkwardness of accurately and systematically ascertaining effect.

Accountability mechanisms also tend to be centralised, so subject to information bottle-necks. Chinese dynasties tried for centuries to develop procedural mechanisms to achieve systematic accountability for government bureaucrats. They failed.

As economist Douglas Allen explains in his splendid study The Institutional Revolution (his analysis of the incentive structure of the Royal Navy in particular is well worth reading), systematic accountability mechanisms were achieved in early modern England. They were primarily a mixture of feedback from Parliament, hostage social capital (expensive mansions in out-of-the-way places that were investments in wasteful loneliness if no one visited), and duelling (a way of testing for unobserved social capital). Mechanisms that made patronage appointments and purchase of position generally work in the wider interest of the political nation due to the pressure for normative commitment and tests of character operating on office-holders.

Duelling meant that people were prepared to defend their reputation at the risk of their life: it was a test of character and commitment. Building expensive mansions in out-of-the-way places surrounded by unproductive display parks was a sunk cost demonstrating commitment to the norms that generated a good reputation — if no one visited, those mansions and display parks were very expensive investments in loneliness and social isolation.

But these character-and-commitment mechanisms operated for relatively small bureaucracies embedded in extensive social networks with powerful reputation effects and a strong sense of common culture (so a strong framework of norms and expectations). This is not the situation that contemporary developed democracies find themselves in.

Mass production (so standardised products) and greatly expanded measurement capacity resulted in a shift to meritocracy. But, in the absence of pervasive mechanisms to test character and commitment, with serious problems of measuring effectiveness and efficiency, and the centralisation of accountability mechanisms (with resulting information bottle-necks problems), it is clear that the government-services-and-regulatory-state has expanded beyond the point where accountability mechanisms are reliably effective.

It is not good enough to wave the democratic wand and claim that of course government bureaucracies work in the public interest. There is no of course about and it is pure institutional romanticism to suggest that they automatically do so.(Though, very convenient institutional romanticism for the bureaucracies themselves and for favoured interest groups.)

Indeed, we live in the first period in Western history when there are no systematic tests for character and commitment involved in selecting officials, whether elected or unelected. Apart from the minimal test of having sufficient persistence to acquire credentials.

Selecting for the ability to gain credentials is selecting for a very narrow sense of merit that, apart from the aforementioned credential-scoring persistence, does not select for character or commitment. It is hardly surprising that we end up either with spineless officials who capitulate at the first hint they might be called bad words or conformist adherents to the dominant mode of mimetic moralising. Or both. Hence we are increasingly governed by an unfortunate mixture of mimetic zealots and spineless weathercocks, leavened by the odd bombastic demagogue.

Mimetic zealots being folk who copy moral positions off each other, converging on whatever prestige opinions are deemed to make one a member of the morally meritorious. Such mimetic zealotry is typically engaged in by people whose prime (sometimes only) achievement is to collectively worship the splendour of what is in their heads; the splendour of their ostentatious good intentions. A pattern of moralised status-seeking oneupmanship that naturally generates increasingly bizarre and toxic purity spirals.

So, disabusing ourselves of the presumption of government policy and services acting systematically in the public interest, let us take a more clear-eyed view of the way migration, and migration policy, operates. After a slight detour into the social dynamics of democracy and citizenship.

The social dynamics of democracy

Socially and historically, there is, outside frontier societies, only one reason to have a democratic political system: to give the working class a say in the political process. That was true back in Ancient Greece, when democracies were states that gave the demos, the free poor, the vote. (Typically, because they needed them to row the war galleys.) It is true today. There is no deep association between any ideological tendency and democracy that is more powerful than seeking working-class votes.

In the C19th, frontier societies tended to be more democratic because they wanted more settlers and because they needed to be able to mobilise willing upholders of the peace. Needing people to fight, to settle, to work, are all powerful reasons to give them the vote. (Not so much for indigenous folk, of course, as they were the ones being supplanted.)

Concerning citizenship

Deeply tied in with democracy as a vehicle for incorporating the working class into politics is the notion of the citizen. As a general (though not universal) rule, citizenship has generally been strongly associated with political participation: and often armed political participation.

Democracy tied the status of citizen to all adults (well, all adult males originally) and political participation to citizenship. Being a citizen was tied to the right to participate, to speak, to articulate one’s concerns, to vote. To participate in the full range of political bargaining. You were the citizen of a specific polity, tying yourself to its history, its heritage, its institutions, its conventions and social norms.

Bringing new people into a citizenship polity is a fraught business. They potentially dilute the votes of the existing citizens and they may have loyalties and normative attachments that are at cross-purposes with their new place of residence. (The newcomers in the settler societies of the Americas and the Antipodes had very different allegiances and normative attachments than did the indigenous inhabitants.) For instance, if migrants move to a country with a different religious majority, it has tended to increase, rather than decrease, their identification with their heritage religion, at least among pioneer migrants, though patterns can vary among later waves of migrants. The dramatic falls in transport and communication costs also make it easier for migrants to maintain connections back to their communities of origin.

Hence, some period of residence is usually required before one can become a citizen. It is also why public oaths of allegiance — a ritual of adopting a new identity and loyalty — are required of new citizens.

An extra complication is the issue of attachments within a polity. As migrants tend to concentrate in particular localities, notably large metropolises, significant levels of movement of people into a society can affect the political balance within that society. It is very obvious that mass migration into the US, France and the UK is sharpening (and partly creating) a metropolitan-provincial split in those societies, with seriously polarising effects. Not only does it mean people have very different experiences of migration, but it can set up a fear-and-arrogance dynamic where one part of a polity thinks it can ignore the concerns of another part because the numbers are increasingly on its side. Conversely, the side that is facing demographic eclipse may get increasingly desperate.

This is not a theoretical scenario, it is precisely the dynamic that led to the American Civil War, as economic historian (and Nobel Memorial Laureate) Paul Fogel explains in his very revealing Without Consent or Contract. However shameful and abhorrent slavery was, the reality was the American republic coped fine with being partly slave and partly free for decades. It was the flood of new migrants, after the development of steamships and railways enormously reduced transport costs, that set up political dynamic that led to the creation of the Republican Party and the secession of the Southern states. A secession due to the plantation elite staring demographic (and so political) eclipse in the face.

It was not merely that the Republican Party was anti-slavery. There had been anti-slavery Presidents prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election. It was the Republican Party platform of also offering land to landless citizens and improving labour income that was potentially highly attractive to poor Southern “whites”. This threatened a potential alliance between freed slaves and poor “whites”. An alliance that the divide-and-dominate strategies of the Southern plantation elite was structured to frustrate. Indeed, that the politics of Democrat-dominated US cities are still structured to frustrate. (The book that makes the dynamics of Southern secession very clear is Kerri Leigh Meritt’s Masterless Men.)

There is another social divide that overlays the metropolitan/provincial divide, one that is picked up nicely in social analyst David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. That is between networked elites (David Goodhart’s Anywheres: folk who are happy living anywhere there is a decent cafe culture) and those anchored in dense local connections (David Goodhart’s Somewheres). It is the difference between the transactional Gesellschaft world and the relational Gemeinschaft world.

One of the ongoing problems in social dynamics and political polarisation in contemporary developed democracies is that the highly transactional Anywheres include academics and social scientists. They use transactional techniques of social analysis that are often very bad at noticing dense local connections or their significance. The Anywhere academics in particular, often have very little sense of how Somewheres live, how they view the world and why. Anywhere academics often have startlingly little sense, despite their social science credentials. of what they do not know, do not see and do not ask about.

There really are only two mechanisms for working-class social power. One is unionism and the other is the vote. These mechanisms only have any chance of working in the interests of the working class if they rest on strong local patterns of connection. Without strong patterns of local connections, their unions and their political parties are likely to become dominated by university graduates; by members of the human-and-cultural capital class (aka professional and managerial class).

You can only vote according to choices offered to you, and without those strong local connections, working-class folk are likely to have very little say in what is offered. As political economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, democratic politics has become dominated by the division between human-and-cultural capital (who he labels the Brahmin Left) and commercial capital (the Merchant Right), with working class concerns and perspectives being largely shut out. “Defund the police” may represent a resurgence of the anarchist strain in radical politics but it also represents members of the human-and-cultural capital class attacking the last bastion of working class authority — police forces.

Networks of local connections also provide information and resilience mechanisms. Without such connections, genuinely local community action and control is next to impossible. (So-called community organisers are typically university graduates, working for purposes they find congenial: they are far more local servants of the human-and-cultural-capital class than anything resembling working-class action.)

In two classic studies, (‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, 1973, and ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited’, 1983) sociologist Mark Granvotteer outlined very clearly the importance of these local connections, particularly if locals are to have any effective say over their community. These patterns of local connections provide what economists call social capital and anthropologists call relational wealth. Any social processes that break up these local connections will very much work against the interests of the resident working class. Which brings us to the matter of migration.

Mass migration

Australia and Canada have had a very different experience of mass migration than the US, UK or France. That is because (1) Australia and Canada are highly urbanised societies, without much of a metropolitan/provincial split. (Or, more precisely, the major urban centres are so demographically dominant, that provincial discontent is swamped.) And (2), due to their geography, Australia and Canada can control their borders relatively easily and have no neighbouring source of migrants, so can (and do) very deliberately seek to have a very diverse range of migrants.

In the case of Australia, despite migrants being about 25% of the population (a much bigger share than the 13% or so of the US), the Anglo-Celtic core has remained by far the dominant group, with migrants divided among many groups of highly diverse origins. This means that Anglo-Celtic norms are much more readily picked up by incoming migrants, as none of them have achieved that critical mass that makes it easier to sustain a resistant mass identity. There are attempts to do so within the Muslim community, but as members of that community clearly keep alerting the security forces to would-be jihadis, it is only having limited success. (This is also true in the US and Canada.) Would-be jihadis have much greater success operating within the much larger Muslim communities of the UK and Europe, where resistant identities are clearly flourishing.

The original mass migration policy was one of assimilation. Assimilation as a social ideal is based on democracy, citizenship and attending to the interests of the working class. It prioritises encouraging attachment by migrants to their new home and their integration into a common political culture. It also implicitly promises the working class that there would be minimal threat to their local connections; to the connections that made their communities work as communities and provided them with effective political levers.

The rejection of assimilation and the switch to multiculturalism (now diversity) was a switch to a very different migration policy. It was a switch from a democracy-and-citizenship to a socially imperial migration policy. Any implicit or explicit promise that migration would attend to the interests of the working class was withdrawn. On the contrary, migration policy would now not only be happy to break up the grounded-in-locality social capital/relational wealth of working-class residents, it would also denigrate them for complaining about it. Any attempt to defend local communities, and the connections that sustain them, can expect to be castigated as xenophobic and racist.

Given that the resident working class was overwhelmingly of Northern and Western European origin, even in the Anglo-settler societies, ANY newcomers were likely to be of a different skin colour. Thus it was easy to shut down any attempt to defend working-class communities, and the social capital/relational wealth embedded in them, as “racist! xenophobic!”.

This is an imperial migration policy. Both in the sense of manifesting the social imperialism of the holders of capital and the state apparatus and in the sense of replicating policies of imperial powers. When European empires imported en masse new people into one of their colonies, due to their economic skills or commercial utility, scholars have had no problem analysing such policies as divide-and-dominate policies. Domestic multiculturalism (pursued in the interests of the scholars’ own class) does not get such critical examination. Yet importing people of a different culture or cultures en masse is a divide-and-dominate strategy, whether it is done in Fiji, East Africa, Sri Lanka, the West Indies or in London, Birmingham, Paris or New York. The colonial authorities would even use the same arguments as modern multiculturalists — the newcomers have initiative, they have skills, they work hard, they increase commerce. Often true, just as it was also true that the newcomers made and make excellent vehicles for divide-and-dominate strategies.

Locality-based identities are grounded in lifetime investments in local connections. Thus, importing lots of people who have no prior connection to a locality or its people, lack common experience, lack common norms and expectations and may well have language differences inevitably frays the dense networks of local connections working-class people typically rely on for effective social action. The newcomers are not part of their local pattern of connections: on the contrary, they will fray, undermine and replace them.

Swamping communities with a mass of incoming migrants who are actively encouraged to continue to identify with their existing cultures, with existing residents being expected to make whatever adjustments required for that, systematically undermines the social capital/relational wealth of the existing residents. It makes it easier for members of the human-and-cultural capital class, working through unions, NGOs, government bureaucracies and corporations, to ensure that their perspectives and networks become dominant.

What the shift from assimilation to multiculturalism-cum-diversity has done is to marry the social imperialism of the human-and-cultural-capital class to the bureaucratic imperialism of the government-services-and-regulation state. With a whole lot of knock-on effects.

For example, official support for the existing heritage and culture is increasingly withdrawn, on the grounds it is not the heritage and culture of the newcomers. Meanwhile, the newcomer’s heritages and cultures do get explicit official support, in what political scientist Eric Kaufmann nicely calls asymmetrical multiculturalism.

But the social imperialism of the human-and-cultural-capital class increasingly goes beyond that to, in true imperial style, condemning the heritage of the local working class as being a benighted one. So benighted that their cultural superiors will rescue us all from it and, again in true imperial style, sneer at the locals for being attached to their reactionary heritage. Thereby replicating recurring imperial attitudes to “native” cultures and heritages.

Every imperial order deems itself to be normatively superior to those it rules over. In this case, we can observe a social and cultural imperialism that is justified by the splendour of what’s in their heads: their prestige opinions and ostentatious good intentions that mark them off as the morally meritorious. An internal imperialism that manifests a sense of not only being a cognitive meritocracy, but being the morally meritorious as well. Of being profoundly justified, indeed morally entitled, due to the perfection of their shared visions of the future that, of course, is so much morally grander than the cultural inheritances of a benighted past.

Hence their collective, massive sense of moral entitlement, where everyone must respect and defer to their moral perspectives while they regularly display their contempt for the moral perspectives of anyone who thinks inconveniently differently for their prestige plays (though rather more conveniently so, because of said contempt, for their dominance plays).

The most vivid way one shows oneself to be a member of the morally meritorious is via contempt for those who think differently. Displaying such contempt is also the easiest way to show commitment. A pattern that encourages convergence to avoid censure but also profoundly devalues the status of citizen.

Claiming to speak for, or on the behalf of, designated marginalised groups is easily used to undermine the existing cultural and institutional order. This form of cultural politics has become very obvious in comic franchises and increasingly obvious in movie franchises.

Imperial orders love multiculturalism/diversity: it means more subjects, and more divided subjects, easier to dominate. A unified citizenry, with common norms and expectations activated through dense networks of local connections, is a much harder (and more demanding) to deal with than a populace divided into different identity groups that the imperial bureaucracy and imperial cultural class will arbitrate between.

This was the strategy of the plantation elite of the Antebellum South. It was the strategy of the Southern elite during Jim Crow. It is the strategy of urban elites in contemporary US cities. It is becoming the strategy in “cosmopolitan” London.

The various versions have used very different rhetorics, but the underlying patterns remain remarkably similar. Telling the Euro-American (“white”) working class that you will “defend” them from the violent “black barbarians” is every bit a divide-and-dominate strategy as telling migrants and those of African descent that you will defend them from “white racists” and “white supremacy”.

Race is very, very useful for divide-and-dominate strategies.

As an analytical category, race makes no sense, as it identifies neither breeding populations nor cultural groups. Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. is quite correct to tell his students “when you hear the word ‘race’ think unicorn, because it is the same thing”. But the physical markers of race are obvious, so it makes it an easy way to divide people.

The recent British Home Office report on group-based child sexual exploitation is a case in point. Sexual exploitation of minors has absolutely nothing to do with race, but by introducing race as a analytical category, inconvenient associations with valorised minorities can be buried, even though we have the testimony from victims of (overwhelmingly Muslim) gangs that their abusers cited religious justifications. But the report is not compiled by servants of the British citizenry, but by officials of the imperial state attempting to minimise discontent among the “natives”.

The Home Office would find identifying a specifically Muslim problem very awkward from a policy perspective and for officials’ membership of the morally meritorious. There is a very clear elite preference to deny any notion of their being a specifically Muslim problem. In such circumstances, as is so often the case nowadays, the analytically useless concept of race can be a very useful distractor.

As David Goodhart outlines in The British Dream, and Ben Cobley discusses in The Tribe, British administrators moved easily from the colonial model of administering multicultural societies to a domestic version of the same, where they do not identify with any group but arbitrate above and between them.

Divide-and-dominate strategies often actively prefer newcomers or minority groups, as they are more disruptive of the capacity to resist domination, and less threatening to the strategy of domination. In the past, that has often elevated the status of market-minorities, sometimes warrior-minorities. Nowadays, it is a range of welfare-, low-wage- and skilled-minorities that are so treated.

Islam is a very convenient weapon to undermine existing heritage, given that heritage is Christian in its origins. (The concerns of Christian migrants, for example, do not get anywhere near such tender attention from progressive possessors of human-and-cultural capital as do Muslim sensibilities.)

As part of the discounting of working-class concerns, it is sometimes claimed that there is nothing specific to migrants demand on welfare services, so complaints about migrants using welfare services are actually cover for complaining about migrants. The reality is rather more complex than that. The argument that migrants, in themselves, make no significant difference to demand presumes that there is no welfare or government services infrastructure, or that such infrastructure responds smoothly to population surges. This is incorrect. There is welfare and government services infrastructure and such infrastructure notoriously does not respond smoothly to population surges. Moreover, different language, norms and expectations increase transaction costs in using welfare systems, putting further stress on them.

The argument also relies on the notion that there are no positional goods in welfare provision and that is simply not so. Social capital/relational wealth is riddled with connections to positional goods.

So, there is a legitimate basis for complaining about migrant pressure on welfare and government services. Particularly in the case of public housing, where need-based criteria often result in family and other connections in a locality being broken up.

The lack of attention to, or concern for, locality or connection creates societies that easier to dominate, but are also less resilient as it frays social bonds and creates mass disaffection.

A pervasive attach on citizenship

In service of this divide-and-dominate strategy, a pervasive attack on citizenship has developed. Partly this is a product of the development of internet technology. As the major tech platforms have come to dominate access to information, a series of private platforms have largely swallowed the public space. One does not interact or use these platforms as citizens but as users. Being private platforms, they are largely outside the protections that have developed to protect the ability of citizens to express themselves in the public space.

In the online world, we are not citizens, we are all just internet users.

But the use of the status as private providers to attempt to “prune” online opinion would not have got anywhere near as far if there was not a much broader attack on the status of citizenship underway.

The imperial nature of this attack shows up in odd places. Such as contempt for the small (e.g. florists, bakers, etc. who fail to conform to the designated prestige opinions and whose services are easily replaced) and worship of the powerful (the tech giants “proper” management of online opinion and whose services are much less replaceable).

More broadly, the previous notion of civil liberties bodies — that even Nazis are citizens too — has been replaced by the pervasive attack on the status of citizenship based on valorised groups and stigmatised opinions. “Punch a Nazi” is a very different approach. One that normalises (political) violence against anyone deemed beyond the moral pale, regardless of their citizenship status. The attempt to drive declared racists, transphobes, etc out of workplaces, business and the public sphere says expressing the correct opinions is much more important than your status as a citizen.

The problem with the concept of citizenship is that has too much status and specific heritage to it, too much cultural depth. The prestige opinions that grant status as being of the morally meritorious are much thinner gruel. Especially given the religion-shaped-hole in contemporary developed democracies. Religion has historically provided a web of rituals, norms, expectations and social connections that tie societies together, ground common norms and expectations, provide frameworks of meaning and purpose. The retreat of religion provides space for something new to fill that space, as the convergent self-worship of a shared sense of moral merit is evolving to do so.

The consequence of the rejection of the cultural depth of our received heritage is that it easily leaves people with a thin, insecure, even paranoid, sense of self. A form of collective narcissism is natural to such a thin sense of self. Words become expressions of, and threats to, this thin, emotional, affirmative-display self. So threatening, that we get the concomitant demands for social purity in any social milieu that those participating in the new faith system of convergent self-worship are in or associate with.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me is a mantra of a robust citizenship culture with robust discovery mechanisms. The constant invoking of being offended, and (highly selectively) avoiding offence, has rather different implications.

From this convergent collective narcissism based on worship of the splendour of what’s in their heads develops mimetic zealotry and purity spirals. With the selective attention and self-serving narratives that are so much a part of narcissism. And the associated hostility to discovery processes. No narcissist wants to be constrained or wounded by the stings of truth.

Inconvenient science is rejected because science requires doubt and the risk of not supporting the narratives of moral merit, of moral purity. Inconvenient speech and intellectual inquiry is rejected for the same reason. As is inconvenient voting.

Protecting conformity to the markers of moral merit is the point. Hence the aforementioned hostility to discovery processes. The mimetic moralisers, in the apt comments of YouTuber Benjamin Boyce, have intentions that are so good that they cannot doubt themselves.

Migration fits in so well with all of this; if done “properly”, which is to say imperially.

To defend assimilation as a policy is to cast oneself outside the realm of moral merit. But imperial orders always hate the idea that the divided-and-dominated might cohere in ways that demand attention to their interests and concerns.

The logic of divide-and-dominate is not a democratic logic. Nor is a logic for good public policy or resilient societies. But it is excellent for those who so dominate the cultural commanding heights.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)

Monday, January 4, 2021

How meritocracies fail

Meritocracies decay, and are often over-rated.

A public test of character.

Meritocracy is not a new social form. It is not specific to Western modernity. On the contrary, one of the key markers of meritocracy — selection of public servants by examination — was pioneered by China centuries ago.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), examination became the dominant path to official appointment. With the partial exception of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the subsequent dynasties, the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1912), also selected their officials from those who had passed the imperial examination.

The Ottoman Empire (1299–1922) was also a substantially meritocratic polity. The basis of Ottoman meritocracy was the boy-tax levied on non-Muslim families, the devshirme. Each crop of boys was sorted according to their apparent aptitudes. They were trained and tested and set upon their various career paths within the state apparatus.

Yet, the Ottoman Empire became “the sick man of Europe” and the Qing Empire failed to deal with the European challenge and the Japanese one, becoming the “sick man” of Asia. Because meritocracy has a considerable history we can examine how meritocracies decay.

Meritocracy is frequently over-rated.

Incentives and feedbacks are rather more important in determining how social systems work than how meritocratic appointment processes are. Especially as there is often a rather narrow conception of merit involved.

Moreover, meritocracies decay. They decay into corruption, spinelessness and cultural arrogance (even zealotry). They decay in these ways precisely because (1) the notion of merit involved is relatively narrow and (2) the processes of meritocratic selection typically do not involve any serious test of character or commitment, apart from the very minimal one of sufficient persistence (and capacity) to acquire the relevant credentials.

Meritocracy became the dominant model of official appointment in Britain by around 1870 (notably with the Cardwell reforms of the British Army) and in the US with the passing of the Pendleton Act in 1883. So, 150–130 years ago, though the transition to meritocracy took place across the C19th. Around 150 years into Chinese dynasties is roughly when the process of regime decay typically begins to become evident.

The core of the Ottoman meritocracy was established in the 1380s and is in decay by around 1600. But the Ottoman Empire was a warlike, expansionary state, whose elite experienced constant tests in battle. The processes of decay did not really begin until after the reign of Suleiman Kanuni (aka Suleiman the Magnificent, r.1520–1566). So, around 190 years or so after the establishment of the core of the Ottoman meritocracy.

China’s switch to a more meritocratic form of Leninism is probably too recent for the decay processes specific to meritocracy to set in. The decay processes specific to bureaucracy have had decades to emerge, but were lessened by the network-disruptions of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and by the shift to a much more market-oriented economy.

Corruption: selling official discretions

Financial corruption is the selling of official discretion (i.e. decisions, both active and passive). Meritocracy can provide cover for corruption, as officials are presumed to be meritoriously selected. The more merit is relied upon, the more official discretion officials are likely to have, the greater the capacity to sell or use those discretions for personal advantage.

Financial corruption among officials can be functional for rulers. It can provide a way for rulers to exercise patronage by providing supporters with income opportunities. Moreover, corrupt officials lack normative reliability as cooperators, as their actions are for sale. This lack of normative reliability translates into a lack of normative standing, retarding the possibility of their participating in any active threat to the ruler. (The lack of normative reliability is why corruption tends to be networked, as failure to “stay bought” rebounds through the network.)

Corrupt officials lacking normative reliability is, however, very two-edged. Their lack of cooperative reliability makes them unreliable in situations of stress in general, not just as potential political conspirators. In a situation of social stress or crisis, rulers can find their instruments of power effectively melting away as the result of corruption making their notional agents unreliable cooperators.

Chinese dynasties experienced a recurring pattern of mounting official corruption as each dynastic regime aged.

We can see ibn Khaldun’s (1332–1406) model of dynastic (or regime) cycles operating here. In his model, a group with very strong normative bonds comes to power. Over time, and in an interactive process, corruption mounts and the normative bonds weaken. By the end, the system of rule is pervaded by unreliable cooperators, and collapses, to be replaced by a new group with strong normative bonds. Then, rinse and repeat.

Eurosphere polities largely avoided the patterns ibn Khaldun identified as they historically had countervailing tests of character and commitment operating on office-holders. Such as the culture of duelling. With the rise of meritocracy, there is a comparative lack of tests of character and commitment. Thus, ibn Khaldun’s analysis of the consequences of the loss of asabiyya or group feeling (what we might call normative commitment) is likely to have increasing bite.

There are other types of corruption than outright sale of official discretions. For example, advantaging those with connections to prominent officials or creating mutual support networks among officials. It was notably how unremarkable so many commentators in elite media found it that, for instance, Hunter Biden was able to score such high-paying company directorships without any obvious talent or capacity, apart from who his father is.

Modern Anglo societies are relatively good at minimising outright financial corruption. Self-serving networking is, however, rather more common.

Without significant tests of character or normative commitment being attached to holding official positions, the various processes of meritocratic decay can be expected to increase over time due to institutional selection favouring those who play such games.

(On the matter of narrow conceptions of merit, a recent study of the traits of CEOs found that non-cognitive traits — we might say marks of character — such as social maturity, intensity, psychological energy, emotional stability, willingness to assume responsibility, being independent, having an outgoing character, demonstrating persistence and emotional stability, displaying initiative, are collectively a stronger predictor of becoming a CEO than are cognitive traits.)

Official spinelessness …

Spinelessness is risk aversion coupled with a lack of normative commitment. Bureaucracies generally select for risk aversion.

Without significant tests of character and normative commitment being attached to holding official positions, the culture of risk aversion can also be expected to increase, as that is what is being selected for and there is no counter-acting selection for character and commitment. Hence, as meritocracies age, the level of spinelessness among officials tends to increase.

We can certainly see this in our own time. The problem with “wokeness” is far less the demands of activists than that officials and executives regularly give in to them. The complaint by commentator Douglas Murray in his online commentary, and his The Madness of Crowds, of the recurrent failure of the “adults in the room” to act against activist purity spirals, and online mobbing, has much to do with this expanding official spinelessness (i.e. risk aversion without normative commitment).

…and mimetic arrogance

The third feature of failing meritocracies is mimetic arrogance. It is, in part, a natural tendency of meritocracy, as the notion that one is appointed on merit has a certain ego-elevating effect. Especially for a shared notion of merit. Members of the meritocracy can furiously agree what splendid persons they all are for having acquired the relevant markers of merit.

Retreat into such mimetic arrogance becomes more attractive the more awkward or threatening the larger social context becomes. We can see this mimetic arrogance in Islamic elites resisting modernisation or liberalisation because the ideas and techniques come from infidels. We can see it in the Chinese mandarins and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) officials deeming their rich cultural heritage so outweighing anything the Frankish/European barbarians coming by sea may have come up with.

This sort of cultural mimetic arrogance was also on display in Japanese reactions to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships”. That Japan had a long history of adopting Chinese ideas, but adapting them to their circumstances, as well as a long history of competing power centres, and consequent overt political bargaining, meant that they (mostly) evaded the downsides of such mimetic arrogance. (I say mostly, because a re-worked form of mimetic cultural arrogance rather disastrously re-emerged in the 1930s and 1940s.)

What we see in contemporary developed Eurosphere democracies is not that sort of cultural heritage arrogance, at least not much among the meritocratic elite, except at the level of unexamined assumptions. On the contrary, a dismissive or contemptuous attitude to the cultural legacies of their own societies has become much more common within the meritocracy. Instead, we see a different form of mimetic arrogance arising. Indeed, one that has spawned mimetic zealotry.

This is an evolution from the development of prestige opinions, adherence to which displays one’s members of the morally meritorious. Apart from a certain attentiveness to shifts in linguistic taboos and “proper” opinion, very little is demanded of people in way of actions to display one’s moral merit via adherence to the relevant prestige opinions. Hence, the most effective way to display one’s adherence to the markers of moral merit is to display one’s contempt to anyone who thinks differently. In other words, to publicly invest in the status-differentiation that drives the prestige opinions=moral merit social strategy. Anyone who disagrees with a prestige opinion is, as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews said particularly clearly, a “bigot”.

Indeed, much of the service that elite (“quality”) media nowadays provides to its meritocratic readers is to indicate who it is proper to despise and why. Hence the endless proliferation of -ist and -phobe terms and other sins against moral merit (such as cultural appropriation). This recruits for public adherence (or at least acquiescence) to the prestige opinions that are markers of moral merit, as people do not wish to be subject to attacks on their reputation or hostile mobbing.

As no one wants to admit to themselves they are acquiescing out of cowardice, there is strong cognitive pressure to fully embrace the prestige opinions. This is part of the more general pattern, due to the wish to avoid cognitive dissonance, for social norms (which are maintained by social expectations with associated sanctions for divergence) to be seen to be moral norms (norms adopted in their own right).

A set of prestige opinions is also useful for bureaucracies (whether government, non-profit, or corporate). They provide simplifying selection criteria (adherence to the prestige opinions). They provide easier coordination within the bureaucracy (by aligning expectations). They provide moral projects to be getting along with (increasing the ambit of bureaucratic action). They provide networks and social dynamics that are coming to pervade institutions as completely as any totalitarian political party, though coordinated through mutual signalling rather than central direction.

What they do not provide is any genuine test of character or commitment. On the contrary, given their lack of serious (i.e. costly-to-the-person) signalling, their embrace of contempt and condescension to those who disagree and their value as social-dominance mechanisms, they actually provide a great deal of opportunity for bad actors. Especially those with Dark Triad characteristics.

So, the prestige opinions as markers of moral merit actually negatively select for character and for commitment to the wider society, This is perhaps most obvious in the widening contempt for the heritage of such societies; a cultural disdain that usefully signals membership of the morally meritorious and (even better) status-separation from the working class in particular.

But it is worse than that, as the prestige-opinions-moral-merit-social-dominance strategy is inherently hostile to discovery processes. The prestige opinions are selected for on the basis of what resonates with the target group. So, what is rhetorically effective, socially beneficial to the meritocrats and status convenient. None of these criteria have any strong connection to truth or accuracy and still less to the concerns of others. (Indeed, they are more selected for hostility for the concerns of others, as that increases their status-differentiation value: moral smugness is a feature, not a bug.)

Any set of prestige opinions operating as markers of moral merit must therefore be hostile to discovery processes; to processes that threaten the standing of the prestige opinions by threatening to throw up contradictory facts or inconvenient concerns.

Hence we can see the burgeoning hostility within the meritocracy to freedom, to democracy and to science, which are all discovery processes and so threaten the use of prestige opinions as markers of moral merit. With the hostility being driven by protection of the prestige-opinions (so evolutionary biology, sex research and psychology are far more under threat than, say, physics).

The threat to freedom has become blindingly obvious, with the development of cancel culture, withdrawal of books, films, blocking of authors, speakers etc. This hostility to intellectual freedom is reaching into mainstream academe, such as philosophy.

The threat to democracy is only a little less obvious with the systematic dismissal of voting for, for instance, Trump or Brexit as being morally (and intellectually) delinquent. As for the threat to science, if the 2+2=5 nonsense was not enough, the attempts to block research and publication of inconvenient papers is pretty clear, for those with eyes to see.

Of course, if you publicly notice any of this, you establish yourself as not being a member of the morally meritorious.

The pattern of establishing moral merit by adoption of prestige opinions (and then using that for various social dominance plays) is a process of social evolution. It has generated not merely a certain form of mimetic arrogance, but mimetic zealotry. One that not only gives folk a sense of meaning and purpose but also elevates and intensifies the attendant social dominance strategies.

The benefit of using cancel culture to sack people is that it generates promotion opportunities. The generation that has recently graduated from universities, courses (and even schools) increasingly pervaded by these patterns can use their greater facility with the techniques and taboos to one-up their seniors, getting them out of the way.

Which, of course, even further ramps up the selection for bad actors, the blocking of discovery processes and the processes of meritocratic decay.

So, expect more self-serving networking, official spinelessness, mimetic arrogance and zealotry selecting against good character, against commitment to the wider society and against openness to discovery processes.

Needless to say, this is no way to run an advanced technological society. Nor free ones. Nor democratic ones.

Welcome to 2021 and history happening.

History may not repeat, but it can rhyme, it can rhyme very strongly. And it is.

(Cross-posted from Medium.)