Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Feedback explains how occupations and industries align politically

Why those who struggle with the physical world lean conservative and those who deal with the abstract lean progressive.

In his book A Conflict of Visions, economist Thomas Sowell sets out two visions of human nature and social possibilities that drive much of politics: the unconstrained or utopian vision, whereby human society could achieve unparalleled harmony and felicity if people were freed from various social constraints, and the constrained or tragic vision, whereby human nature, the demands of creating and maintaining social order and of wresting wealth from nature, operate as fundamental constraints that any social order has to deal with.

What are indeed enduring constraints, and how amenable particular constraints are to human action, is not always obvious and can change over time. Western civilisation has gone through the emancipation sequence — abolishing the slave trade and slavery, Jewish emancipation, adult male suffrage, votes for women, women’s liberation, civil rights, gay liberation — largely because constraints changed, including increasing ability to contest claims about what are, or are not, enduring constraints and what trade-offs should be accepted.

The above chart summarising the pattern of political donations by industry and occupation, shows this conflict between the constrained and unconstrained visions playing out in contemporary US politics. Though there is no reason to think that the patterns are much different in other developed democracies.

Progressivism trumping liberalism

As contemporary progressivism has become increasingly, indeed, in its source writings, proudly, illiberal, I am going to mostly substitute progressive for the liberal label above, as it far better describes the dynamics of politics which derives from the unconstrained vision. In particular, how much such politics is directed to, or derived from, a notion of the transformative golden future (progressivism) rather than a commitment to general human freedom and autonomy (liberalism). Though inflated notions of harms from words, so that restrictions on speech and ideas are claimed to be needed to defend human autonomy (at the cost of restricting human autonomy, but only “bad” autonomy) can be a bridge from liberal to progressive politics.

The transformative golden future is not the mere wish that the future be better than the past, but that it be so profoundly better as to eliminate social ills entirely. To the extent that problems of creating and sustaining order that human societies have had to contend with can be largely or entirely superseded.

A fundamental concept of critical theory and derivatives, the various critical constructivist theories such as critical race theory, is that true social harmony and felicity can only be achieved if all oppressive ideas and structures are eliminated. With oppressive ideas being defined as anything that is taken to inhibit “progress”: that is, achievement of the transformative golden future. This explicitly includes any dissent from the precepts of, or derived from, critical theories. Hence, any politics derived from critical theory or its derivatives, as contemporary progressivism increasingly is, is thereby fundamentally opposed to freedom of speech and thought. This is very clear in writings such as Herbert Marcuse’s seminal, and increasingly influential, essay Repressive Tolerance. (The essay is available online here.)

Attempting to, and regularly succeeding, in getting people sacked or suspended for violating linguistic taboos, is a profoundly illiberal style of politics. But it fits perfectly in with the idea that a transformative golden future is possible if oppressive ideas and structures — that is any ideas or structures that are not directed to, or that fail to facilitate, achievement of said transformative golden future — are eliminated.

It is also a logical inference from Michel Foucault claiming that social dynamics are fundamentally matters of power. If arguments are not about trying to find the truth, or bargaining to achieve mutually compatible ends, but just expressions of power in a society dominated by oppressor-oppressed relations, then of course the “proper” thing to do is to suppress all those who express or “support” the “power relations” of oppression.

As I have previously discussed, the politics of the commitment to the transformative golden future has an enormous rhetorical advantage. For the transformative golden future, being a thing of the imagination, can be far more morally perfect than anything that is a result of the inevitable trade-offs trying to build something in the world must entail.

Indeed, there is a ready-made, and oft-applied, pattern of critique by progressives of anything that does, or has, existed. Take some such thing, ignore why it exists, what trade-offs and constraints it has had to deal with. Then compare it to some moral principle or principles without any serious consideration of its function or the constraints it has had to deal with. Prove that it fails to entirely conform to the nominated moral principles and condemn it as illegitimate for doing so. 

To someone committed to the transformative golden future, this is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed, as all such constraints can be superseded when the golden future is achieved. If you are more concerned with how and why things work (or don’t), it is less impressive.

Commitment to the transformative future has powerful motivation behind it. Not only does it have unbeatable moral grandeur because of its imagined lack of moral blemish, commitment to such moral grandeur reflects its splendour back on to those so committed. This further motivates dismissing as impermanent and dispensable all constraints that might dim said grandeur.

Pursuit of the transformative golden future is held to be inherently morally ennobling. (Above all, by those so committed.) Political activism, specifically progressive political activism, becomes the highest moral calling, as it is directed towards achieving the transformative golden future that is the ground of all morality and of all positive meaning.

Yes, this is a faith system.

There is no information from the future and so it can be imagined to be as perfect as one likes. The golden transformative future thus acts as God in monotheism — the source of meaning, the ground of morality and the ultimate authority. Indeed, it operates as a source of divine authority: the divine being the realm of ultimate authority from which there is no accuracy feedback.

Political activism to bring about the golden transformation future thus operates as a priesthood and key theorists as its prophets. We are absolutely dealing with a faith-system operating according to religious dynamics. With heretics, blasphemy, infidels and, if institutional circumstances permit, inquisitions.

Markers of being of the smart and the good

This energising motivation, grounded in an imagined future so much better than anything that has or does exist, reaches beyond those explicitly committed to the transformative golden future, or to any particular theory of the transformative golden future. For derivations of these theories emerge out of this highly motivated reasoning and activism and are re-packaged as being what the smart and the good believe.

Once such derivative beliefs are established as markers of being smart and being good, then anyone who aspires to being of the smart and good has profound status, cognitive identity and self-image reasons to buy into such marker-precepts. (And to be seen to so buy into.) In doing so, they also buy into the required-for-such-status consequence that those who fail to endorse what the smart and the good believe are morally and cognitively delinquent, as it must follow that they are either not smart, not good, or both.* This has become central to how prestige media functions — it sells narratives that tell you what the smart and good folk believe, and who (as being of the smart and the good) you therefore get to despise for not being of the smart and the good.

In order to protect the signal of being of the smart and the good, dissent has to be de-legitimised. Hence pile-ones against those who dissent, because if such dissent is accepted as legitimate, then the markers of being of the smart and good lose their value. Pile-ons and denigration of dissent and dissenters are ways to protect the strength of the signals of being of the smart and the good.

Having bought into these markers of being of the smart and the good, folk have then also bought into being motivated to block themselves from noticing anything that casts doubt on the precepts that define the smart and the good. This is bad for the general health of public and intellectual discourse, but excellent for the smart-and-good status strategy. A salient example of this pattern is that the more highly educated, “liberal” (i.e., progressive) one is, and the more trusting of the mainstream media, the worse informed one is of the patterns of police shootings in the US.

It is not only a problem of a general pattern of not-noticing. Much of the mainstream media is playing, and playing to, the same status strategy. A playing, and playing to, that is manifested in the huge increase in recent years in the use of racial terms in US mainstream media. This is a measure of the expanding influence of critical race theory, and its derivative status strategy of anti-racism as being a prime marker of being of the smart and the good.

Abstracting progressivism

If one works in an occupation or industry that deals with abstract ideas, or other products of the imagination, then faith in the transformative golden future, and its derivative markers to establish one is of the smart and good, is a very natural fit. Particularly if being of the smart is very much a matter of professional self-image. Who does not want to see themselves as being of the smart and the good?

Looking at the chart of political donations above, we can see that not only are the industries and occupations of abstraction and imagination strongly predominantly progressive in their politics, they are far more intensively progressive than any industry or occupation leans conservative. The industries and occupations of the cultural commanding heights are, in terms of active politics, overwhelmingly progressive. If politics is downstream of culture, then much of the patterns of contemporary institutional and public politics makes sense.

Those who buy into the unconstrained vision (or its derivatives) are very likely to be more motivated to care about, and be active in, politics. Their very sense of status and cognitive identity is strongly inclined to be activated by, and motivate, political action. Much more so than folk with different views of the world, of society, of human possibilities, of politics.

The social power of being more systematically motivated about politics is real, as this thoughtful piece on the institutional spread of “wokeness” (i.e., contemporary progressivism derived from critical constructivist theories) sets out. The piece is, however, marred by the silly claim that progressives care more about the future of their society than do conservatives. Being much more motivated to engage in political action, because it is tied up with one’s sense of status and cognitive identity, is not remotely the same as caring more about the future of your society. Indeed, a profound contempt for one’s own society, and its heritage, can be extremely politically motivating. Especially as part of rejecting present and past in the service of the transformative golden future.

There is a sense in which wanting to de-legitimise and overturn the American project is very much caring about the future of the society you are currently in, but not in the sense that of identifying with the society as it is, or has been. This is not about a continuing future for that society, but a radical break from what has come before, and all the achievements and strivings that embodies.

Caring more about politics is not the same as caring more about the future of one’s country. Politics is not the only way to care about, or invest in, the future of one’s society. Indeed, the more pervasive and intense competition over the positional goods of politics are in a society, the worse that society is likely to become.

Status games

The unconstrained vision is very well set up for status and power games. Precisely because the animating vision is so morally splendid, it is very easy to generate a sense of profound moral commitment, but also a sense of moral grandeur. This can then be parlayed into a sense of moral prestige and, in order to achieve the golden future, patterns of social dominance.

The grandeur of the moral claims can, however, also lead to a pervasive cheapening of moral discourse. For instance, the notion that, say, a lesbian of African descent with a tenured position in an elite university is “marginalised” and “oppressed” profoundly impoverishes moral language. If such a person is “marginalised” and “oppressed”, what are we to say about the situation of a slave, or the inhabitant of a labour camp, or the experience of a Russian serf?

The appropriation of the language of oppression by not merely inhabitants of the most prosperous, most technologically capable, socially free societies in human history but by particularly institutionally advantaged members of such societies is profoundly offensive and highly self-indulgent. It is self-indulgent self-aggrandisement (“look at me, I am so oppressed!” “look at me, I am speaking for the oppressed!” “look at me, I am fighting oppression!”) that hugely cheapens the public moral compass in the service of a performative collective narcissism, an ostentatious display of moral status. It also has a (likely not coincidentally) disorienting effect on anyone who might want to express different views and concerns.

Being very effective status strategies, very effective to harnessing prestige and wielding dominance, is at the core of how critical theory, and its derivatives, are also mechanisms of career advancement and social domination by holders of the “correct” sort of human capital. Ones that are particularly suited for, indeed likely to select for, toxic actors. Any powerful status strategy, particularly one with such minimal signalling costs, will attract, indeed select for, toxic actors.

There is a very strong element of self-deception involved, so that people see the moral splendour they commit to and don’t see the status plays they are engaged in. This self-deception is carried off by manipulating salience, especially moral salience, so as to hide what is going on from others and from themselves. As a Polish psychiatrist observed, having spent decades observing the putatively “progressive” politics of Stalinist and post-Stalinist Poland dominated by pathological personalities:
Unconscious psychological processes outstrip conscious reasoning, both in time and in scope, which makes many psychological phenomena possible… 
Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerolology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, p.163.
By being very consciously aware of the moral grandeur of the vision, and moral commitment involved, a lot of status games can be played without ever acknowledging to oneself or others that that is what is also going on. Indeed, that such status plays may be providing a great deal of the reinforcing feedback and incentives.

We can tell, however, that the status strategy is, at bottom, a much stronger motivator than moral concern because, in any clash between the two, the status strategy, with its very strong protection-from-conformity-effects, almost invariably wins. Indeed, one of the things that distinguishes dissenters on the “left” is their refusal to play the status strategy.

There are other consequences from this focus on the transformative future and expansive conceptions of oppression. If you define all constraints as oppression, so as being malign social constructs, that naturally leads to various levels of science denialism, as science explores the structures of things and constraints flow from the structure of things.

The notion that constraints are embedded in structure of things (as science demonstrates in various ways) is inherently opposed to the unconstrained vision. Lysenkoism is an inherent, pathological tendency of golden, transformative-future progressivism. As, for example, trans activism is currently demonstrating. Though the Lysenkoist implications of transformative-future progressivism are invading medicine much more widely.

Enduring constraints

Which brings us to the tragic or constrained vision. This cannot be simply labelled “right wing” or conservative, as some very liberal-minded or politically progressive (but not progressivist in the sense defined above) folk operate within this vision. Anyone who accepts that we are products of, and still subject to, evolutionary processes buys into a key element of the tragic or constrained vision, no matter how “left” their politics are.

Nevertheless, conservative thought is very much grounded in the tragic or constrained vision. But so is the liberal tradition.

The basis of the tragic or constrained vision is that constraints are real. That there are features of reality, and of us, that are not seriously plastic to human action and that we have to simply deal with, and act within, if we are to be effective. Particularly, if we are to be effective in promoting human flourishing or any achievable notion of the good.

Now what those constraints actually are, and how plastic or not they are to human action, is much debated. This is much of the ground of dispute between liberals, conservatives and various tragic-vision authoritarians. While they may argue over the constraints, and where the practical limits are, that there are such constraints and practical limits is a bedrock assumption all these traditions share.

Looking at the chart of patterns of political donations by industry above, we can see that the most politically conservative (so most constrained-vision) industries are mining and agriculture. They are immersed in the effort to wrest value from nature. They deal with the reality of physical constraints every day. Their daily feedback from their work tells them that constraints are real and pervasive. Of course they are much more inclined to conservative politics.

The higher the “social constraints” elements of the work of an industry, the more politically liberal it tends to be. Social constraints are, at least to some degree, amenable to human action. The stronger, therefore, is likely to be the appeal of supporting human autonomy. Especially a notion of human autonomy less grounded in the constraints of tradition. Hence the more liberal patterns of politics in such industries.

Liberalism, autonomy and discovery

But liberalism does not deny the reality of constraints. It is grounded in a view of human nature that both exalts human autonomy while also holding a certain, grounding suspicion about human nature and respect for the limitations of human action. Why do liberals push freedom? Because that respects human autonomy but also entails denying that there is some group out there who can be trusted with systematic power over others.

Liberalism famously sees public discourse as a vehicle for discovery. We are constrained by what we do not yet know, but might yet find out. Testing ideas in open discourse permits, given such constraints, discovery to take place. Liberalism has been comfortable with private property and markets because they support human autonomy, operate as far more effective discovery mechanisms and limit the power of some over others.

There is much truth in the liberal vision. For instance, markets and commerce are not good mechanisms to promote bigotry. It is why oppressive systems have always sought to impose limits on the market and commerce. Racial segregation, for example, required systematic state action because market processes will not deliver segregation. Indeed, various oppressed groups have often found the consensual patterns of commerce much kinder to them than the coercive structures of politics.

One of the great rhetorical advantages of the unconstrained vision, the politics of the golden transformative future, is that it de-legitimises all the grounds from which one might derive liberal or conservative politics. Pointing to any constraint that gets in the way of the golden future can so easily be portrayed as complicity in whatever ills the golden transformative future will dispense with, as being a sign of being an -ist or a -phobe.

Whether it is claiming that human nature limits what is possible, that wresting value from nature limits what is possible, or that the requirements of social order limit what is possible, any such argument can be charged as being complicity in oppression. If appeal to the constraints of human nature, the constraints of social order, the constraints of wresting value from nature, are all illegitimate due to being complicity in oppression, then there is no ground from which liberal or conservative arguments can be made. There is nothing for them to gain purchase from that upholders of the progressive faith need pay any attention to.

Of course, attempting to argue people out of a faith system is a notoriously unfruitful activity.

Unconstrained imagination

From mining and agriculture to law and pharmaceuticals, there is fairly clear more-conservative-to-more-liberal pattern of industries, directly connected to what sort of feedback their workplaces have to deal with, from the more physical to the more social.

Then we come to four industries clustered together that are much more intensely skewed in their politics than the 12 conservative-to-liberal industries: newspapers and print media, online computer services, academics and the entertainment industry. These are, in the contemporary world, the cultural commanding heights industries. They are also extremely social industries that do not directly have to deal much with wresting value from the physical world or (in any strong feedback way) problems of social order. That is done for them by other industries.

They are industries of the abstract and the imagined above all else. They are made for the politics of the unconstrained vision. Especially for belief in a golden transformative future. The combination of abstraction and lack of reality-feedback naturally encourages the idea that all constraints that in any way impede the golden transformative future are dispensable.

Their attenuated reality-feedback also means that they are also made for status-strategy politics based on markers of being of the smart and the good. Especially given their intensely social nature, and their focus on abstraction and imagination. There is much greater capacity to select for agreement over competence, as what is “good work” has a high “what other folk in this industry believe is good work” element to it.

Especially for claims that have no direct feedback-from-reality penalty for being wrong, but have a potentially high fail-to-conform-penalty.

For instance, in terms of how career advancement works, an academic is only wrong if other academics agree that they are wrong. But that also applies to a somewhat startling extent within media, as the years of the Russiagate nonsense taught those who were paying attention.

An extreme instance of lack of reality-feedback is provided within academe by education faculties, where pedagogical ideas repeatedly demonstrated not to work are nevertheless simply re-packaged and re-pushed. Mainly because they are too convenient for status strategies based on a sense of moral grandeur from transformative activism. Which have been imparted in ever more intense forms to generations of school teachers and university administrators.

One would think that box-office receipts might provide strong feedback in the Entertainment industry, but the flow of funds are so high that there is patently considerable cushioning effect from such box-office feedback. (If one is publicly funded, then that effect is almost entirely eliminated.)

The flow-of-funds cushioning effect is even more pronounced in Big Tech. The motivation-feedbacks of the combination of moral self-image and status strategy have turned out to be, again and again, far more powerful than market feedback.

Asking the question, what are the reality feedbacks in this industry? turns out to explain a lot about the patterns of politics in an industry.

* Applying the language of Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug), wielding the weapon of setting what it is the good and smart people believe is a key way what he calls the Cathedral operates.

[An earlier version was posted on Medium.]

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Why Americans are F***-ed in the head over race

The history of the US has generated persistent racial derangement. It has been far more of a case of structures generating racism than of racism generating structures.


People have a pretty good understanding of their own continental ancestry. People are also relatively accurate at picking out other people’s continental ancestry.

This is not surprising. There was not much mixing of lineages across continents until relatively recently, at least outside continental border regions. This was due to the limitations of technology: specifically very limited transport capacitie. Moreover, thousands of years of separate genetic lineages, with genetic bottlenecks creating relatively small founder populations for various continents, meant that there are fuzzy-boundary, but relatively clear, patterns of physical markers of continental ancestry.

So, a folk concept of race based on continental ancestry has some, relatively straightforward, patterns of physical-markers to work off. Hence the history of skin-tone descriptors of race. With race becoming to be understood as being continental, or some significant sub-continental region, ancestry. (Medieval Europeans had a rather different concept of race, one much more language based — so it made sense for a C14th commentator to talk of Scotland being one nation with two races: highlanders and lowlanders as thy spoke different languages.)

The US in particular has a long history of obsessing over race because continental origin coincided with fundamentally different roles in colonial society (the settlers, the dispossessed and the enslaved). Different roles that persisted into the country created by the American Revolution.

Slavery, settlement and racism

As continents produce neither single cultures per continent nor single breeding populations per continent, analytically, remarkably little follows from physical markers of continental ancestry being relatively clear. But as physical markers of continental ancestry are collectively visually relatively clear, they can, very easily, have social meanings attached to them. Which, of course, has happened repeatedly. Especially when one region has systematically enslaved people from region(s) with different general patterns of physical markers. Or when folk from one continent have populated another. We can call these the slavery effect and the settlement effect.

Both have proved to be powerful generators of racism: attaching normative ranking to continental (or region thereof) origin. That is, positive social meaning to one’s own group and (especially) pejorative social meaning to those with a different continental origin (and so a different social role).

A third generator of racism has been imperialism: domination of a state created by one continental origin group over folk with differing continental origins. This has been a rather stronger generator of elite or theoretical racism than more general racism, as imperialism is mostly an elite activity. (A 2018 study found that the UK and Portugal, the two surveyed countries with the longest histories of colonialism, had generally the lowest levels of racism among the surveyed European countries.) Though all racism, and race talk, starts off as an elite discourse.

The fourth generator of racism has been ethnicised religion. The classic version of this being racialised Jew-hatred.

None of these factors are sufficient in themselves to generate racism. The Romans were mass-enslaving imperialists who settled new areas and tended to dislike Jews. Racism was not a feature of their culture.

For the Romans were not a xenophobic culture regarding descent. Folk of any origin could become Roman citizens, including ex-slaves. Their slaves could be of any origin. Their society and their thought did not structurally differentiate by continental origin.

Moreover, Romans traditionally were not moral universalists. So, they did not have to generate some generalised story about why some folk were slaves. Slaves were simply losers and if they were freed, and became Roman citizens, then they became winners. Folk would put that they were freedmen (i.e., ex-slaves) on their tombstones, as that showed how much of a winner they had become.

Islam and racism

The first significant discourse grading people as cognitively deficient, based on physical markers of continental origin, came out of Islam. Islam being an imperial, evangelising monotheist (so morally universalist) religious civilisation that systematically enslaved people to their north (including Europeans, notably Slavs) and people to their south (Sub-Saharan Africans).

Folk of such origins were repeatedly characterised by Islamic writers as being cognitively deficient. Often either due to too little sun (Northern Europeans) or too much sun (Sub-Saharan Africans). So, in Chapter Three of his Tabaqāt al-ʼUmam (Categories of Nations), geographer Sa’id al-Andalusi (1029–1070) wrote:
The rest of this category, which showed no interest in science, resembles animals more than human beings. Those among them who live in the extreme North, between the last of the seven regions and the end of the populated world to the north, suffered from being too far from the sun; their air is cold and their skies are cloudy. As a result, their temperament is cool and their behaviour is rude. Consequently, their bodies become enormous, their colour turned white, and their hair drooped down. They have lost keenness of understanding and sharpness of perception. They were overcome by ignorance, and laziness, and infested by fatigue and stupidity. Such are the Slavonians, Bulgarians and neighbouring peoples.
(The English word slave likely derives from Slav.)

The patterns of castrating male slaves, and of incorporating the children of Muslim fathers into the umma, the Muslim community, meant that centuries of mass slavery failed to generate an ex-slave underclass within Islamic lands. But there are still linguistic traces of these centuries of mass slaving: abd in Arabic can both refer to slave (as in Abdullah, slave of Allah) and to Sub-Saharan African.

Christianity and racism

The Americas were subject to imperialism and mass settlement from Christian Europe. Added to this imperialism and settlement, millions of slaves were imported from Africa. This made continental origins socially salient in the Americas and did so from within a morally universalising religious perspective Christianity). This was a situation made for racism to develop. Which it duly did.

Hence the confused interaction between Christianity and racism. On one hand, the Gospel of Love applies to everyone. Indeed, from the earliest days of Christian European settlement of the Americas, there were devout Christians who spoke and agitated on behalf of the moral status of the inhabitants of the Americas as children of God.

An early, and important, manifestation of this was the 1537 Papal Encyclical Sublimus Dei declaring that the inhabitants of the discovered lands, even if they did not know Christ, were children of God with natural rights and could not be enslaved. In the words of Pope Paul III:
… the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
This did not bar owning slaves someone else had enslaved. As African rulers were more than happy to take care of that stage of the process, Sublimus Dei had little effect on the Atlantic slave trade. 

The moral claims and reasoning of the Papal Encyclical were, however, in rather direct contrast with Sharia, which is entirely fine with enslaving non-Muslims who have not submitted to rule by Sharia (i.e. by Muslims), including sexually exploiting captured women. The last being endorsed no less than 15 times in the Quran and by the example (sira) and the acts and sayings (hadith) of the Prophet. A principle of Sharia is that the marriage of any woman captured by a Muslim man is automatically annulled by the act of capture.

The Anglosphere abolitionist movement in the C18th and C19th had strong Christian roots. As did the US civil rights movement of the mid C20th.

On the other hand, Christianity is a morally universalist religion. Like Islam, it required some justifying story about why you were systematically enslaving the children of God from Africa. It required some justifying story about why you were dispossessing the children of God in the Americas. 

Christian moral universalism later also required some justifying story why you were systematically denying the descendants of slaves political and other civil rights. These were never going to be good stories about the dispossessed, the enslaved, and the excluded. There were plenty of people who were racist, not despite being Christian, but because they were Christian.

Enlightenment thought, which was also morally universalising, had much the same confused interaction with race and racism as Christianity. On one hand, the scientific impulse to categorise could be, and was, mobilised to propagate racist ideas. On the other hand, seeing the world as a shared globe inhabited by a single human species, along with a sense of expanding human capacities, made slavery morally problematic on a scale never seen before. Hence the rise of the abolitionist movements.

As for the settlement effect, so long as the Amerindians were being dispossessed (and feared) by the settlers from Europe, the structural reasons to be racist against them remained strong. After they were subjugated and shoved into reserves, the underlying structural motives to be racist against them lost strength. The effortless virtue, and pleasures of contempt, that bigotry provides may linger, but the general social retreat from, and anathematising, of racism has further weakened what was already a form of racism in structural retreat. As the eminent political career of Herbert Hoover’s Amerindian Vice President, Charles Curtis, demonstrated.

The intensities of slavery

Slavery and its aftermath proved to be a different matter to self-justifying antipathy to Amerindians, who always had a certain warrior vigour going for them. As sociologist Orlando Paterson has brilliantly analysed, slavery does much more then reduce people to property, it imposes on the slave a form of social death. They have no social standing, no family standing nor heritage to be acknowledged. Slavery is profoundly stigmatising and dishonouring, as it deprives the slave of the capacity to have honour or any status that casts doubt on being a slave.

The slave States of the US operated one of the most closed slave systems in history. It became legally hard to manumit a slave and the stigmatising dishonour of slavery was not excised by freedom. A process of stigmatisation greatly helped by the slaves being of a different continental origin than the settlers. The generalised theories that justified slavery could not allow space for some moral transformation from not being a slave anymore.

Roman slavery, not having that justificatory burden, and not being divided by continental ancestry, was far more open. Hence ex-slaves could become citizens and would even boast of how far they had come from their former slave status.

In much of the Americas, an intermediary mulatto or mixed race (i.e. mixed continental origins) identity grew up. Such folk served useful intermediary roles between a small settler elite and large slave or indigenous population. This did not happen in the slave South of the US, as the political importance of voting, and the scale of European settlement, worked against a mixed-race identity emerging.

There was no particularly useful social role that a mixed-race group could fulfil that was not already being filled by folk of European ancestry. Moreover, if ex-slaves and their descendants began voting in any numbers, they could begin to wield political power. Which was both politically threatening and an affront to the justifications for slavery. The result was the “one-drop” rule, whereby any African ancestry identified your slave origins, with all the associated stigmas and exclusions.

These structures served the divide-and-dominate politics of the plantation elite. Before the Civil War, the plantation elite used a range of mechanisms to repress poor “whites”, the masterless men, who had no stake in the slave system but who traded and socialised with the slaves. After the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction, the plantation elite used the same range of mechanisms to repress the ex-slaves and their descendants. They simply racialised the operation of exactly the same repressive mechanisms that had operated against the masterless men before the Civil War into what became known as Jim Crow. The former masterless men were now on the “right” side of the exclusions, and were thereby incorporated into the Southern system.

As African-Americans migrated to the industrialising cities, a version of such divide-and-dominate strategies turned out to be congenial to, and adaptable by, urban elites. Public policy was wielded to generate increasing residential segregation, as such segregation makes divide-and-dominate tactics far more effective.

A note in Richard Rothstein’s revelatory The Color of Law, sets out the path of residential segregation. Residential segregation that was driven by public policy. Including intensifying under FDR’s New Deal. In the ten largest US cities:
…in 1880, the neighborhood (block) on which the typical African-American lived was only 15 percent black; by 1910 it was 30 percent, and by 1930, even after the Great Migration, it was still only about 60 percent black. By 1940 the local neighborhood where the typical African-American lived was 75 percent black.
At all stages, such divide-and-dominate politics only worked because people bought into the political framings and discourses that legitimated them. Far more of our thinking and decision-making is unconscious than we realise. Social selection processes work on information and feedback: but not necessarily fully conscious, or sufficiently critically examined, information and feedback.

Weakening racism

The experience of the Second World War, both the mass mobilisation for a common purpose and the horrors of Nazi imperialism and racism, as well as the pressures of the Cold War, increased, both domestically and internationally, the embarrassment that American racism generated. At the same time, the continuing fail in transport and communication costs made it easier for marginal groups to organise, as did increased urbanisation and suburbanisation.

So, the structural supports for divide-and-dominate racism weakened. The civil rights movement, and particularly Martin Luther King, brilliantly played up the moral embarrassment of racial exclusion. Both the Christian moral embarrassment and the American-ideals moral embarrassment. With mass communications making it easier to reach people for persuasive effect.

Hence the successes of the civil rights movement and the retreat of racism from being pervasive within American society to being a moral shame. Though, as Glenn Loury makes clear in The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, complex patterns of stigma have been rather more stubbornly persistent.

From this history, we can see that structural racism (or analogues such as systemic racism) is generally not a useful term. For it has been far more the case that structures generate and mobilise racism than that racism generates structures. Nor are such structures a necessary part of the social system. They are more about bending the social system in a particular direction.

After the civil rights movement

Which brings us to the graph at the top of this post and its odd pattern whereby “white” (i.e. Euro-American) Democrats were very much more likely to say that they knew someone who was racist in 2015 than in 2006, but “black” (African-American) and Hispanic Democrats were apparently somewhat less likely to say they knew someone who was racist in 2015 than in 2006.

If someone knows more people they regard as racist than someone else, that can be because (1) they are more likely to meet racists; (2) they are better at identifying racism; (3) they are more expansive in their characterising of racism; or (4) some combination thereof.

So, taking the 2006 results in the graph above, it could be that Euro-American Democrats were more likely to meet racists than Hispanic Democrats or Euro-American Republicans. Or that they are better at identifying them than Hispanic Democrats and Euro-American Republicans. Or that they have a more expansive definition of racism than do Hispanic Democrats and Euro-American Republicans. Or some combination of the above.

If we move to the 2015 results, Euro-American Democrats were far more likely to believe they knew a racist than were African-American Democrats, Hispanic Democrats or Euro-American Republicans. They were also the only group who increased their likelihood of knowing a racist since 2006, and did so dramatically. By contrast, both African-American Democrats and Hispanic Democrats became, if anything, less likely to believe they knew a racist. (The shifts were not statistically significant but do accord with long term patterns of declining racism.)

The most plausible read of this data is that racism has declined somewhat in the US (in accordance with long-term trends) but Euro-American Democrats have acquired dramatically more expansive definition(s) of racism. (Unless they are registering dramatically increased anti-white racism — we can reasonably give that low probability.)

So, by 2015, Euro-American Democrats apparently lived in a US of significantly more racists among the people they interacted with, while African-American Democrats and Hispanic Democrats did not.

If fluctuations in racism are largely driven by changes in structural factors, as history strongly suggests, that suggests a change in structural factors that is particularly affecting Euro-American Democrats, but not other folk. Something that is making race much more salient to them.

An obvious factor is the massive increase, since around 2010, in the use of racial terms by US elite media. As Democrats have far more confidence in elite media than do Republicans (a long-term tendency that increased dramatically from 2015), the dramatic upsurge in the media’s use of racial terms could be accounting for much of the “more people know a racist” effect.

Especially as there clearly has been an expansion of what counts, within elite race talk, as racism. Partly because our concept of a phenomena tends to expand as the prevalence of that phenomena shrinks. There has been, for example, a creeping expansion of what is labelled as harm in Psychology. But there has also been an expansion of the concept of racism due to the expanding influence of intersectionality and critical race theory. Especially in the education of increasing numbers of younger journalists.

Is there a structural reason for this increased focus on race? One is fairly obvious: the value of anti-racism as a status play. The more intense one’s opposition to racism, the greater the moral prestige in being ostentatiously anti-racist and, conversely, the greater the moral shame from failing to appropriately oppose racism. So, a status-play purity spiral gets set up. One that can be used to lever folk out of jobs. The bottom-up (but still elite) prestige play then becomes a dominance play. In a situation of elite over-production, such status-plays are a very useful weapon in struggles over opportunities and resources.

Ostentatious anti-racism can make one reluctant to admit that racism has declined or to give credence to other factors in explaining social dynamics. One becomes invested in continuing to ascribe social meanings to race. The surge in hate crime hoaxes fits in with this.

Function does not require intent
Unconscious psychological processes outstrip conscious reasoning, both in time and in scope, which makes many psychological phenomena possible… 
Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerolology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, p.163.
The other reason for increased focus on race is less obvious, but has a longer historical pedigree. Overt racism might have become embarrassing, but the advantages to urban elites of divide-and-dominate politics has never gone away, so social selection pressures will continue to favour such politics. The more divided residents, workers and citizens are on racial grounds, the less elites have to deal with competing (against them) claims on resources. Symbolic race-identity politics are way cheaper for elites than politics that delivers good government. That is as true today in urban US as it was in the Antebellum or Jim Crow South. Hence racially-divided US cities are (by developed democracy standards) comparatively ill-governed, just as the Antebellum and Jim Crow South were in their time.

If anti-racism can be turned into a racialised divide-and-dominate strategy, as clearly it can, then all the better for opportunity-hoarding elites. Especially for elites facing intensified internal competition for resources and opportunities.

Intersectionality and critical race theory are very much elite products, coming out of places such as Harvard Law School. Nor do they have to be originally developed as divide-and-dominate mechanisms for social selection pressures to adapt them into divide-and-dominate mechanisms.

Moral concern easily becomes status plays. Status plays are naturally divisive. Moral dominion easily becomes social dominion. Such feedback loops provide much for social selection processes to work on.

Such outlooks and patterns of action do not have appear to their active proponents to be divide-and-dominate politics in order to function as such. Remembering that such framings and discourses work much better if folk can be convinced to go along with them, while social selection processes do not have to be entirely conscious. Especially as the prime mechanisms for self-deception are by manipulating salience. Particularly moral salience.

One cannot force oneself to believe what one doesn’t believe. We can, however, use focus on, for example, image-self-protection, to block paying attention to awkward facts or considerations. This is especially easy to do with highly moralised concerns and self-images. Both because of their emotional power and because it is inherent in moral claims that they be normative trumps. That one has an ostentatious image of oneself as being not-oppressive does not guarantee that one is not buying into politics that are, in fact, oppressive or self-serving.

Coverage by elite media of deaths in police custody, or at the hands of police, is particularly revealing. There is a general problem of police training and accountability in the US. One that varies far more by jurisdiction than it does by race (whether of police or civilian protagonist). If media had reported these things accurately, then a broad coalition could have been built up to improve police training and accountability.

Instead, by intensely and selectively racialising their coverage, the “racist cops” narrative was firmly established by elite media. Turning this into a specifically African-American-and-police problem rather than a general accountability-to-the-citizenry problem and allowing those propagating, and those accepting, the narrative to thereby parade their ostentatious anti-racism. A way easier, and more immediate, social and cognitive reward than doing the hard work of increasing police training and accountability. Hence “defund the police”: a simplistic but convenient symbolic politics that was way easier to pander to than improved police training and accountability.

Revitalising divide-and-dominate

Even better, one of the key mechanisms for divide-and-dominate has been to fail to provide effective policing in African-American urban communities (as measured by homicide clearance rates), thereby generating much higher homicide rates in those communities. (In rural US, Euro-Americans and African-Americans have identical homicide rates.) These differential levels of violence do more to racially divide US cities than any other factor.

The “racist cops” media narrative, and activism, so congenial to moralised self-image, and their associated status plays, has increased the level of violence in those localities and so increased the most racially divisive element in US cities. If one was seeking to revitalise divide-and-dominate politics, it would be hard to do better.

A recent study found that the more educated you were, the more politically progressive you were, and the more you trusted the media, the less well informed you were on police shootings. (But the more conveniently you believed, as far as divide-and-dominate politics went.)

Social intent does not entail social function. Social function does not entail social intent.

Elite race talk is always a divide-and-dominate mechanism. Elite race talk has, historically, been racist. Indeed, racist discourses have always started off as elite theories. But anti-racist race talk works just as well as a divide-and-dominate mechanism, provided one continues to ascribe social meanings to race and do so in pejorative ways. Which, of course, is what all the talk about whiteness, white supremacy, white racism, etc. does.

It is still a case of structures generating the assigning of divisive social meanings to race, far more than the reverse, seeking to bend the social system to their benefit. Even doing so within ostentatiously anti-racist rhetoric and moral framings.

What is that French saying? plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing …

(An earlier version was posted on Medium.)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The vulnerability gap and the collapse of courtship

Much of contemporary feminism is engaged in an unfortunate game of let’s pretend.

In any sufficiently complex and mobile species that uses conjunction of gametes to reproduce, the only evolutionary stable outcome is to have one type of gametes be small and motile (self-moving) and the other type to be large and sessile (not self-moving). Reproduction then requires the conjunction of a small gamete with a large gamete.

If there are no neuters in the species, and the species is divided into two sexes, one producing small gametes (males) and the other producing large gametes (females), then the only evolutionary stable outcome is for equal numbers of each sex, as shortage of one sex would lead to it having an evolutionary advantage, leading to production of more of that sex until the chances of being a vehicle for successful genetic replication equalise.

The existence of a small-gamete (male) sex and a large-gamete (female) sex is likely to lead to courtship behaviour, as the large gamete sex incurs more risks in reproduction. So members of the small-gamete sex have to demonstrate sufficient fitness to members of the large-gamete sex to be worth the risks of reproduction.

Courtship behaviour occurs in many species. The most extreme version being the male having to offer his body for the consumption by the female in order to mate. Courtship does not occur in every species: it is not a feature of herd/harem species, for example. But it is a common pattern among species.

Homo sapien children are, in terms of required parental investment to raise children able to also achieve successful reproduction, the most biologically expensive children in the biosphere. Among contemporary foraging populations, children do not reach calorie break-even point (providing as many calories as they consume) until around age 20. They have to be fed and taught across that time and are particularly helpless infants.

This means that Homo sapien women have particularly high risks in reproduction. This includes elevated risks of dying in childbirth due to the large heads of human babies. They also have to care for particularly helpless infants, supervising and feeding dependant children, and help socialise juveniles. (Humans have a particularly long juvenile period.)

So there are lots of risks in reproduction for Homo sapien women. It is therefore hardly surprising that human societies have tended to evolve elaborate and/or lengthy courtship practices. Given that Homo sapiens evolved grandmothers (i.e. women with particularly long post-reproduction lives, so they could invest in their children’s children, having stopped having their own children) this courtship could be also, or even mostly, directed towards the parents of the potential bride.

Lots of foraging societies required the prospective groom to provide one or two years of bride service to the parents of the prospective bride. This compensated the parents for losing services of the daughter but also demonstrated ability to provide; that the prospective groom was able to perform the food provision needed to support future children.


Courtship is therefore a product of the vulnerability gap. This vulnerability gap is not only the gap in the respective risks involved in reproduction, both child-bearing and child-rearing, it also pertains to men being about 7% taller and 13% larger, with women having on average 66% of the lower body strength of men and 52% of the upper body strength of men. (Despite the current trend towards fictional presentation of the contact-fighting capacity of men and women as equal.) In upper body lean body mass, Homo sapiens are almost as sexually dimorphic as gorillas.

Compared to other mammals and primates, Homo sapiens are relatively under-muscled for their size, with a relatively high fat content, even in healthy, lean Homo sapiens. We are the fat ape because our very expensive brains need a high base level of energy, and our higher fat stores buffer our energy-expensive brains against fluctuations in food intake. Women have higher body fat content than men at healthy weights as they also have to cope with pregnancy and lactation: i.e. feeding a second energy-hog brain while buffering both brains’s energy intake.

Compared to other primates, Homo sapiens have relatively low levels of differences between the sexes in size and strength (even if more than is often acknowledged nowadays). This suggests that human males have invested less in muscles for mating success and more in behaviour for parenting success. (A complicated interaction, if parenting effort can also aid mating success.) In contemporary foraging societies, on average, men dominate the provision of calories to the group and overwhelmingly dominate the provision of calories to children that have been weaned.

In farming and pastoralist societies, if women were not confined to women’s quarters, and otherwise largely kept out of public spaces, and the choices of women (rather than their parents and kin) had sufficient status, various mechanisms evolved for men to signal their respect for the vulnerability gap. This was particularly a feature of Christian societies, given that Church doctrine said that a woman had to consent for a marriage to be legitimate and strictly mandated only single-spouse marriages. In Western society, the socially evolved mechanisms to show respect for the vulnerability gap involved such things as opening doors for women, letting women go first, and so on.

Muslim observers in Christian Europe were often bemused by the way Christian men publicly deferred to women. For instance, in the C17th, famed traveller Evliya Çelebi reported of Vienna that:
I saw a most extraordinary thing in this country. If the emperor encounters a woman in the street, then if he is on horseback he halts his horse and lets the woman pass. If the emperor is on foot and meets a woman, then he remains standing, in a polite posture. Then the woman greets the emperor, and he takes off his hat and shows deference to the woman, and only when she has passed does he continue on his way. This is the most extraordinary spectacle. (Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Pp287–8.)
With (1) the legalisation of the Pill and abortion, giving women unilateral control over their own fertility, (2) advances in modern medicine massively reducing the risks of childbirth, and (3) expansion in low-risk employment opportunities outside the household available to women, the vulnerability gap has dramatically shrunk.

The result has been the collapse of courtship across developed Western societies into a pale shadow of its former self. Indeed, the very notion became suspect. So did the everyday chivalric courtesies towards women. They were re-read as implying the incapacity of women, their lack of equality (viewed in terms of comparative anthropology, a rather extraordinary claim, as such deference was a function of the status of women being higher than in many societies), and had to go.

The decline of male enforcement

As women essentially demanded control over the policing of treatment of them, previous mechanisms whereby men enforced proper behaviour by other men towards women have largely fallen into abeyance. This may have led to a paradoxical situation of more public deference to women (and public repression of male assertiveness) yet a range of predatory behaviour by a relatively small number of men becoming less socially policed. It has been suggested to me that one reason for women adopting “non-binary” gender identities is that they are saying “I will not be prey”. (The evidence suggests that rape has generally become significantly less common. But rape was always a criminal matter and there are other forms of predatory behaviour well short of rape.)

The previous normative dispensation of connecting sex strongly to marriage was a fairly easy set of norms to enforce. The enforcement was somewhat random, and was not particularly effective at stopping rape, but it did operate to inhibit a range of predatory behaviour by men within social networks.

It is, however, hard to enforce norms that are in flux. It is even harder to enforce norms if one is not told, if men are left out of the information loop. The previous normative dispensation of sex and marriage being closely connected, with people living in relatively dense social networks, was rather simpler to enforce than one where sex and marriage had become decoupled and social networks have frayed.

Enforcement also varied with social circumstances. Lower down the socio-economic scale, people are more vulnerable to things going wrong and are more likely to deal with men with little to lose. So, normative enforcement tended to be more physical: taking the transgressing male out the back and giving him a belting.

One of the consequences of decades of feminism is that men have, on average, become happier than women. Given that (1) the obligation to provide for one’s family is increasingly shared between the sexes and (2) there are more acceptable sexual outlets, it is not surprising that male happiness has risen compared to female happiness. But being functionally relieved of the burden of enforcing norms against other men has probably also had an increased-male-happiness effect.

The other element in play is the fraying of social connections. This can be understood in terms of what I call the Granovetter effect, the importance of the pattern of connections (i.e. social capital or what anthropologists call relational wealth) for life prospects. The Granovetter effect is:
the less of other types of capital one has command of, the more important social capital, and particularly local social capital, is for life prospects.
The Granovetter effect is derived from sociologist Mark Granovetter’s classic paper The Strength of Weak Ties (~61,000 citations) and, even more, his follow-up paper The Strength of Weak Ties: a network theory revisited(~12,600 citations). The Granovetter effect happens to be particularly important in understanding the dynamics of forager societies, as patterns of connection are one of the two dominant forms of capital in forager society (the other being human capital, i.e. learnt skills).

Part of what social capital provides is enforcement of norms. As people become less connected, there is less bottom-up enforcement of norms. That gives more power to public signalling of norms but likely leaves women more vulnerable to a range of predatory behaviour.

Admitting, yet not admitting

While the vulnerability gap had shrunk, it has not vanished. Indeed, over time, the vulnerability gap has come to be (without direct acknowledgement of its existence) subject to waves of intense focus, in terms of risks of sexual harassment and assault.

On one hand, to admit the vulnerability gap seemed to be an assault on equality between the sexes. On the other hand, its reality has been the subject of intense public discourse in terms of sexual harassment and other forms of predatory or transgressive behaviour. Much of feminism seems to be playing a dual game of let’s pretend: let’s pretend there is no vulnerability gap but let’s also really talk up its (real and alleged) consequences.

Maybe the chivalric courtesies were overdone. But they were a workable way of dealing with something real. Including having men enforce them on other men. A contradictory game of let’s-pretend-there-is-no-vulnerabilty-gap-yet-let’s-also-really-worry-about-its-consequences is not the path to evolving a new, workable, way of dealing with the (smaller but still real) vulnerability gap. Nor is having such dealing being something women decide the rules for, while men just passively go along with without being invested in their enforcement.

Part of the problem is much of feminism is committed to a notion that there are no basic biological constraints, so we can write any social script we want to, if we apply enough harmonising social power to the problem. This is simply not true. There are basic biological constraints, the trick is to deal with them intelligently.

Yet there are clearly feminists who regard admitting that reality as somehow to compromise the promise of equality between the sexes. Despite many folk pointing out that moral equality does not require identity in characteristics. One suspects, however, that the real objection is the threat to the vision of being able to remake human society in any way one wants.

Sex is a biological reality. It is not a social construct. Sex roles, the behavioural manifestation of sex, has an element that is socially constructed, but only an element. Gender, the cultural expression of sex (i.e. narratives, framings and expectations about sex and sex roles), is even more socially constructed. Sex is binary at its base, and bimodal in its physical manifestations, but gender is neither, though it riffs off that bimodality. Nevertheless, such social construction is still an interaction between biological reality and social and other circumstances (such as technology, local ecology and the transfer of risks away from the care of children).

The basic biological constraints do not invalidate moral equality between the sexes, however large a problem they may be for over-reaching social visions seeking to achieve some transformative notion of social equality. But we will not achieve stable and effective ways of dealing with the vulnerability gap unless we acknowledge that biological constraints are real: that’s why the vulnerability gap persists.

So, the trick is to find ways to deal with its reality. Not spin around and around playing a contradictory game of pretending the vulnerability gap does not exist while being so ostentatiously concerned (from MeToo to “rape culture”) by the consequences of it existing. Especially as any effective way to deal with the reality of the vulnerability gap is going to have to be one that works for, and is enforced by, both sexes.

(An earlier version was posted on Medium.)