A General Theory of Society

I’ve had in my head for some time a general theory of society, that I’ve been meaning to put down in writing. Here goes:

Society – any society – consists of three essential elements: a State, a Market and a Community. Let’s take each in turn.

The State is, in its essence, the monopoly on physical force. The weaker the State is in a given society, the more physical force is dispersed between different actors. The stronger the State, the more physical force is concentrated in the State itself. A hallmark of a strong State is, therefore, laws which prohibit any form of violence, up to and even including self-defense.

It follows from this definition of the State that everything it does in some way relates to its monopoly on violence. For example, the State spends money on infrastructure. But in order to do so, that money must come from taxes. These in turn are collected from taxpayers who, if they refuse to pay, will have the money taken from them. If they resist, the State will not hesitate to use physical force to compel them out of their possessions and into prison.

Next comes the Market. The Market is the free exchange of value between actors. It reposes on the assumption that exchange is mutually beneficial. In its purest form, the Market knows neither altruism nor compulsion. Each actor enters the Market to further his own self-interest, and finds that agreement with other actors is the best way of doing this.

The final pillar of society is Community. Community is all voluntary interactions of social actors that are neither transactional nor subject to compulsion under threat of physical force, So anything that is non-State or non-Market is by definition Community. Examples of Community are families, friendships, bowling clubs, religions and board game meetups.

A key feature of Community is that it has the power of banishment or exclusion, but no other power. Another key feature is that interactions within a Community tend to be highly altruistic. Community members ‘care’ about one another, and in fact are often willing to suspend their own self-interest in pursuit of Community-defined goals and in adherence to Community-defined values.

Now comes my core hypothesis about the ideal organisation of a society:

A society can be said to be well-organised when the Community, the Market and the State all have equal weight. This is because each of these three mechanisms represents an important check on the other two. The State provides order and peace, the Community provides values and morals, and the Market provides economic rationality and innovation.

A society that has a strong State, but a weak Market and a weak Community, will tend towards Communism. The lack of (Community) moral compass will allow the State’s leadership to abuse its monopoly on power, while the lack of (Market) pressure will lead to bad economic-decision making and undermining of democracy, because consumers and businesses exert a democratising influence.

A society with a strong Market, but a weak State and a weak Community, will tend towards Corporatism, a consolidation of economic power in the hands of wealthy oligarchy, who will lack morals and fly to space with Captain Kirk in a giant dick, while their workers have to pee in bottles. Likewise, enforcement of contracts will be impossible, because that requires either the compulsion of the State or the moral impetus of the Community. Ultimately, even basic transactions will be burdened with additional costs of self-enforcement, and entire markets will collapse under that cost.

It’s rather hard to find examples of a society characterised by strong Community, but weak State and a weak Market. However, tribal societies exactly fitted this description. And while they may be marked by a degree of stability, I would argue that this comes at a high price: investment is next to impossible, nothing is there to drive human progress and innovation.

In modern political discourse it is conventional to consider society along a ‘left-right’ axis, in which two of the three essential societal elements are considered as opposing poles of a spectrum. My hypothesis suggests that in fact there is no place along this spectrum that can deliver a healthy, well-functioning society, because the third element – Community – is not represented.

That is why it is best to illustrate politics not with a left-right spectrum, but with a Social Triangle

And in fact, much of the imbalance in modern society is related to a steady erosion of the influence of Community on our daily lives. Church attendance has plummeted, people have fewer meaningful friendships and participate in fewer activities. Families are smaller and more fragmented than ever before. Indeed, we have drifted down the Social Triangle, and landed somewhere along the axis between State and Market.

That is why when the Left and the Right complain about the other side, they are both right and both wrong. A good example is around Hate Speech. New laws are being rushed upon us by well-meaning, but wrong-headed Leftists to outlaw saying ‘mean things’. These laws are incredibly stupid – at best they won’t work, and at worst they will. But the question is, why is this happening? Simply put, the power of the Community to check the behaviour of society’s members is increasingly absent. We now find ourselves trying to criminalise the sort of behaviour that used to cost you friendships, club memberships and a place at your cousin’s dinner table.

Markets are also malfunctioning in ways that Right-wingers find hard to explain away. It turns out that excessive greed and amorality are themselves a form of market failure, because any asymmetry between market participants creates an opportunity for sharp practice – information is imperfect, bargaining power is lopsided. Absent Community, the only way to check those immoral excesses is ever-more costly regulation. That in turn creates opportunities for regulatory capture and barriers to entry for new market participants. We find ourselves in a social market economy that is neither very social nor very market.

What is the solution? Clearly, it is to restore some sense of Community – common values, a common purpose, a clear set of religious dogma and a shared moral code. Adam Smith understood the importance of this intuitively, (even if Karl Marx was less perspicacious in this regard).

Now, this is all well and good, but do I have any more practical suggestions or is this just another ‘everything is awful’ blogpost? Here’s my three step plan:

  1. Awareness. Stop pretending like our Community doesn’t matter. Restart a conversation about what our values are, what we can agree on, and how we can come together to pray and play – knowing that is every bit as important as who our State leaders are or how our economy is working.
  2. Subsidiarity. An interesting result that comes out of the social triangle is the question of scale. It turns out the Market works ever better at scale, and the State too seems pretty able to work at scale. But Communities don’t seem to work very well at scale at all. Insofar as altruism is a key ingredient, it’s really not possible to have empathy with a million other people, much less 8 billion. In other words, today’s society is too big for real Community to exist. Not only is globalism a terrible idea, in fact, we need to break nations down into pieces that are well proportioned for Community to prosper. This suggests devolving more of the Market and the State to smaller scales – local government and buy local goods.
  3. Stop uncontrolled immigration. Yes, there I said it. Immigration is very bad for Community, for the obvious reason that immigrants are least likely to share the common values that bind people together in voluntary ways. Immigration erodes Community and splinters society.
  4. God. That’s right. The big guy. Flowing white beard. Turns out, not only is He almighty, but He’s also quite good for creating the conditions under which Communities can flourish. He sort of works as a rallying point and an anchor for common values and beliefs.
  5. Get the hell offline. I don’t believe the internet is the cause of failing Community. After all, the excellent book Bowling Alone came out when the internet was still in diapers. But I also don’t think the internet can be part of the solution. If you want real Community, you should get off this damn computer, go outside and meet people. Join a choir. Or a rugby team. Or take a pottery class.

On the fall of Avdiivka (and Western political rationalism)

Can’t leave the news for even a weekend?

I spent a rather pleasant weekend with my family in Transylvania, among other things visiting the spectacular Salina Turda salt mine. I was less than 200 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, but well over a thousand from the beleaguered city of Avdiivka – and my mind was further still from the horrors its name evokes.

So it wasn’t until this Monday morning that I learned the city’s defenses had collapsed in a disorderly retreat; one which left the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to run along the only remaining road out; or to be killed; or to be captured by the storming Russians. The collapse of Avdiivka also punctured a gaping hole in Ukraine’s longstanding defensive line inside the Donetsk Oblast, through which Russian forces are storming as I type these words.

Asymmetric warfare: shovels against balcony flags

The Russian troops have at their backs an overwhelming superiority in shovels (i.e. airplanes, artillery, drones, missiles), in troop numbers (essential for troop rotation), in morale and in momentum. Their political leader enjoys unprecedented popularity, a mostly buoyant economy and newly forged alliances with the most powerful economy in the world, China, whose leader has just refused to even speak to the Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zellensky.

What does Ukraine have at its back? Despite the promises of support for ‘as long as it takes’, the US Congress has decisively denied a funding package of 60 billion dollars to rearm its proxy ally. America’s most popular journalist (by viewer numbers) just conducted a soft-ball interview of President Putin that was watched by over 100 million Americans; and the clear frontrunner for the presidency in November has vowed a policy of negotiation and disengagement.

Meanwhile the EU is out of military cadeaux (shells, F-16s, Leopard IIs) to send east, and is facing a run of elections likely to further erode the political appetite for any form of solidarity more painful than photo-ops and impassioned speeches. Its latest economic forecast, meanwhile, shows anemic growth and deteriorating public finances, while Polish farmers are blocking their Eastern border to stem the flow of cheap wheat, Ukraine’s only real remaining export.

A badly scripted TV president with a predictable ending

The worst part is, this was all so depressingly predictable. I’m no great military tactician, but it didn’t take me long to understand that this war was entirely unwinnable for Ukraine, at the very latest once the Russians had declared the territories in dispute to be an integral part of the Russian Federation itself. Absent direct military intervention from NATO leading to a catastrophic escalation, Ukraine’s battlefield valor could do no more than prolong the inevitable, and claim the lives of ever more young men. You only need to have played a few games of Risk to understand that when the troops stack sufficiently high on one side of a battle, the outcome is not seriously in question.

Likewise, one didn’t have to be a great statesman to see the dangers of driving Russia into China’s arms. Nor was a Nobel Prize in economics needed to understand that the rise of BRICS meant there was limited scope for Western sanctions to dissuade Putin from his course of action, or that the politicisation of the Bretton Woods financial system would backfire, undermining its credibility and hastening de-dollarisation.

Why, then, did the West persist? And persist it surely did – with months of declarations of unwavering support, with ever more risible packages of sanctions, with arsenals of last-generation military gear. Why did not a greater statesperson emerge, look three moves ahead and realise where this was all heading? Why did he not take Putin quietly by the elbow, smoke a cigar with him and hand over just enough territory to restore the peace and allow everyone to declare some sort of victory?

Did Big Gun bring out the big guns…?

The internet is full of conspiracies these days. When Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates and George Soros are not busy planning mass depopulation of the planet, it’s Taylor Swift and her devil cult rigging the Super Bowl so her (presumably Satanic) boyfriend’s team can win (they play in red! Coincidence? I think NOT).

According to the sages of this school, the powers that be knew full well Ukraine was a lost cause from day one. They nevertheless wanted to draw Putin into a messy conflict, stir up a heightened sense of threat and play on that in order to be able to fill the arsenals of Washington and Brussels with next-gen NATO weapons, all on the dime of the West’s generous taxpayers. They foresaw the fall of Avdiivka long before I or even Putin, but they frankly didn’t care, and will watch indifferently as every rick and croft east of the Dnieper gets burned. The shadowy cabal pulling the strings here is the military-industrial complex, and it’s all about the money.

…or is the truth even more depressing?

I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Honeywell, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin et al do not actively lobby to promote hawkish policies – this they have always done. Nikki Haley is just Dick Cheney in heels, and Dick Cheney was just Henry Kissinger with better glasses. But their influence is limited, their reach finite. They can tilt outcomes at the margins perhaps. They cannot, however, cause a Ukrainian flag to hang from every balcony from San Francisco to Helsinki. They cannot cause the West to lose its collective mind and throw all its political capital, hundreds of billions of dollars and its very economic hegemony into what is obviously a lost cause.

My theory is what we have witnessed with the fall of Avdiivka is the collapse of something much more central to Western civilisation. It is the loss of political rationalism in Western decision-making. The West no longer has the ability to apply reason to its political calculations. The carefully groomed tradition of considering consequences and working backwards from there to determine the best future course of action is out of fashion. Instead, decisions are made on impulse – mad gambles steered by the public mood, by passions and by the moment.

Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

Of course, when the gamble goes bad, there is an emotional reaction. A sort of heart leaping into the mouth, as the gambler sees that he somehow did not make the flush on the river card, even though he ‘had had that feeling’. That is what we see in the news today: multiple reports of ‘shock‘ at the news from Ukraine, a sense of ‘gloom‘.

This is precisely the moment when you should cash in your remaining chips, take stock of the experience and review the path that led you to such bad decision-making. Sadly, for most gamblers, this is not what actually happens. They make excuses, double down, and continue with the bad decisions. The reason Avdiivka fell is because Congress did not hastily enough approve the additional funding. We must send more to Ukraine, we must press Putin harder. Perhaps another round of sanctions (this time targeting the lucrative Russian canine toothpaste market)?

In my heart, I want to believe we can regain our ability to apply political rationalism. But if I were a betting man, I’d cash in my chips and go buy a 500 litre rainwater filter.

In defence of free speech (again)

Mal- mis- dis-, a neo-Marxist twist?

This is not the first time I’ve written about the importance of free speech on this blog. Since my last post on the subject, however, Western society’s commitment to the ideals that underpin free speech has waned further. We have endured not only sinister revisionist attacks on ‘problematic’ heritage statues; not only the mainstreaming of the censorious concept of ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crimes’; but also an entire, carefully orchestrated, campaign to eradicate free speech on the internet, including the mainstreaming of some outright ludicrous euphemisms like ‘malinformation’. At least, it would be ludicrous if the stakes weren’t so very high – the wholesale collusion of government in managing the flow of public information is beyond dangerous, as evidenced both by Laura Dodsworth’s excellent book and the Twitter Files.

Questioning the effectiveness of face masks and SARS-2 vaxxines has been the subject of official censorship

The diarrhea icing on this shit cake is the rise of the most revolting class of idiots in the Censorship-Industrial complex, the odious legions of ‘fact checkers’. Really, these are just self-appointed, highly-opinionated urbanites of the burgeoning Laptop Class – rebranded journalists with hutzpah – but it’s remarkable how easily everyone fell for their sham-show, and how effective they have been in fostering acceptance for the abolition of free speech online.

I find myself wondering whether the very act of advocating for free speech might soon be targeted by the censors – is it not, after all, the crime of ‘incitement to mal-, mis-, disinformation’?

I don’t agree with your cliched Voltaire quote, but I’ll defend to the death your right to use it as a section header.

It’s always good to hash over the core arguments for allowing even the most outrageous opinions to be voiced as ‘free speech’. First of all, if the goal of inhibiting free speech is to safeguard against falsehood, then censorship does an appalling job. This is because it presupposes not only that censors have pure motives, but also that they know what the truth is to begin with. As the Covid debacle showed clearly, this is not the case. In fact, it is precisely through the freest and most open exchange upon the marketplace of ideas that we begin to approach truth – an asymptote at which we never arrive.

Second, on a purely practical level, even when it’s well targeted at actual falsehood, censorship is mostly self-defeating. The ‘Streisand Effect’ takes hold, and people’s natural instincts draw them to the very pink elephant you are trying to get them to not think about.

Third, censorship is like pregnancy. You can’t really have a little bit of it. Because even when a case can be made, theoretically, for blocking speech at the extremes – for example shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre – it tends to slip, over time, towards more and more authoritarian restrictions on speech. Interestingly, even this censorship straw man doesn’t hold up very well. Try actually shouting fire in a theatre and see how many people stampede. Probably none. It may be that once upon a time, with lower fire standards, such a thing might have happened. But then the solution wasn’t censorship, it was better fire-resistant building materials and sprinklers.

The case for ‘free hearing’

And yet, the recent debate has caused me to realise that none of these classic arguments against censorship is the most compelling defence of free speech. What matters more than all of the above is the effect censorship has on the audience.

To understand why, consider what effect free and open debate has on those who listen to it and participate in it. Much of what is said will be false, or only partially true. When anyone is free to claim anything, it becomes more important to use one’s own sense of discernment in analysing those claims. At its worst, of course, censorship stifles inconvenient truth. But even when it is at its best, it diminishes the audience’s capacity to exercise the mental muscles of discretion. Like people who use Google Maps to get around, the minds of the audience under (even benevolent) censorship regimes become lazy and less able to navigate their way towards the shimmering city of Veritopolis.

This is an important point to consider. Because the right to ‘free speech’ is often defended as an individual right. Yet the right to ‘free hearing’ is a social right. It is the right we all enjoy to be tricked and fooled, the right to believe something stupid, to learn from that experience and to become more discerning. Especially for the malleable minds of young people, this is a right that must be exercised widely; all the way ‘from the river to the sea’.

The Oracle and the Glock

The worst lies are a mosaic made of a thousand truths

We live in a world of noise. Information, almost infinite, is streamed at us relentlessly, bombarding our minds and overwhelming our capacity to distill truth. In such a world, it is very easy for narrative weavers to create truth. After all, there are facts everywhere, enough that they can carefully select the ones that suit their message and create a story that is not only convincing, but is actually full of true facts. The lie is in the selection of facts, and the choice to omit ones that do not serve the narrative.

And yet… I believe with even a modest degree of focus, most of us would be capable of separating out the informational wheat from the chaff. I think we could know more truth with a bit more effort, if we really had to. The question is, how can that be done?

The Oracle and the Glock

This takes me to the ‘Oracle and the Glock’. One imagines an omniscient personage – for the sake of visualisation a faceless, spectral figure dressed in black body armour with empty, luminescent blue eyes, in the fires of which glows the flame of perfect knowledge. This is the Oracle. She is armed with a Glock 9mm pistol, black to match her general appearance.

Her M.O. is that she approaches you and places the barrel of the pistol against your temple. She then asks you a question; a question to which she, in her omniscience, already knows the correct answer. The game is quite simple. If you give her this correct answer, you live. If you fail to answer or you answer incorrectly, she will blow your brains out. But because the Oracle has some sense of justice, she will allow you enough time to scroll through the internet in search of whatever information you need to support your answer.

The question is this: In such a world, would more people come closer to the truth than is currently the case? In other words, how much is the plague of disinformation a result of willful ignorance, laziness and dishonest self-interest, and how much is a genuine artefact of the digital age, or the pernicious activities of Russian bots?

Who has Dominion over election results?

Perhaps it helps to consider a concrete example. Let’s take, for instance, the results of the 2020 US Presidential Election, in which Joe Biden is said to have defeated Donald Trump. Imagine the Oracle asked you this question, “If the 2020 election had been run entirely absent electoral fraud, mail-in ballot stuffing or manipulation of electronic voting machines, would Joe Biden still have been declared the winner?”

If you are a left-leaning, college educated Coastal American or a middle class European, you would casually answer this question with a ‘yes of course’ while sipping a £10 craft IPA with your friends on the sunny terrace of a trendy London bar. But imagine the question came while you were in the Oracle’s dark crucible, on your knees, transfixed by the piercing blue light of her spectral eyes?

I hope you would at least take the time to go through the evidence carefully – after all, the Oracle is patient. I hope the pressure of the Glock’s cold steel against your temple would make you just a little distrustful of the first few hits you got from Google. I hope you would dig a little deeper. You might think, ‘obviously the election wasn’t rigged. But, well, what if I’m wrong?’. Maybe you would dig out the footage of the vote count in Cook County or Philadelphia and look, really look, at what happened around 11 O’Clock that evening. Maybe you would listen, for the first time, to what Trump said that night and the next day and search for the lie in his eyes. What answer would he give to the Oracle? And if he really believed it was rigged, is he just a crazy, egotistical old man? Or did he know something I don’t? Maybe you would read the documents submitted by the Republicans in all the court cases that were dismissed for lack of standing.

You might even listen, for the first time in your life, to what intelligent people on the other side think is the right answer to this question. Not because you necessarily agree with them, but because there’s a chance you might be wrong. I certainly hope you would search for the truth, as if your life depended on it.

Because I know I would.

The pretense of knowledge, or ‘how to draw a very accurate map’

When I was a child, I liked to draw maps. Even at an early age, I understood there was something powerful about the ability to render graphic representations of spatial relationships on paper. From memory, I drew maps of the United States of America. It didn’t take me long to realise that if you memorised the big ticket contours (the point of Maine, the rough bulge of the mid-Atlantic, the curve and hook of Texas…) you could supplement this rough shape with random but detailed ‘squiggles’ that would approximate the twists and turns of the actual coastline.

To the casual eye, the map would look much more accurate that way. I recall some of my teachers’ reactions to these visually appealing, detailed maps of the US which decorated the blank pages of my phonics workbooks – they took me for some kind of prodigy. Of course, if you were to compare the detailed squiggles with the actual contours of the coast, there would be no more overlap than what chance might throw up – after all, I improvised the squiggles randomly. But it didn’t matter, the pretense of detailed knowledge was enough to convince most people that the map was far more accurate than it really was.

Would that this little deception remained in the workbooks of a 1980s schoolboy. Alas, this technique of pretending detailed knowledge has since gone mainstream. It defines ‘the Science’ behind a great many, drastic policy choices that are being implemented at this very moment.

Consider the Imperial College Model developed by Neil Ferguson, and which was adopted and copied to provide justification for draconian lockdown policies across the globe. The ‘model’ is very detailed and provides point estimates to a high degree of specification on how different policy choices would impact mortality as the pandemic progressed. The problem, of course, is that these estimates fell well outside the confidence intervals that should have been attached to them. If the fake squiggles had not been included in the model, the real answer would have been ‘we simply don’t know how many lives could be saved from locking down’.

Now, three years later, we can compare the fake Imperial College map with the actual evidence and we see how wrong they got it. Estimates for how many deaths would arise in the absence of lockdown were at least an order of magnitude wrong.

The same trick is being used to justify unprecedented changes in energy policy. Point estimates are being provided for the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and increases in surface air temperature, with a degree of precision that completely belies the actual level of confidence ‘the Science’ could have in these numbers. In fact, as I argued previously, it is not possible to know whether the changes in climate the Earth is currently experiencing are at all the result of an increased concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, because the two bigger causes of atmospheric heat – solar irradiation and albedo – cannot be measured with the requisite degree of accuracy, much less do scientists have any idea of the dynamic interaction between the three effects.

Of course, the really big problem with the pretense of detailed knowledge is that it acts as an obstacle to the pursuit of real knowledge. Once I became adept at faking coastal squiggles, I stopped looking carefully at the outline of the actual Atlantic / Pacific coasts, because to do so would jeopardise the professed accuracy of the maps I already drew. The same is true for climate science. No one is spending time and money to figure out whether the intensity or composition of solar energy is changing in a way that would impact the climate, because the question has already been answered, and the Science is not a very humble religious institution.

The question now facing us is whether we, as a civilisation, are prepared to do better than a bored 8-year old sitting at the back of the class.

The shift in geopolitics – why RRR matters

Empires do not fade in a day. If you asked a British citizen when exactly their empire collapsed, they might point to the 1947 announcement of withdrawal from India, the British Empire’s crown jewel, as the landmark moment. But in reality, this merely formalised a shift that had been underway since the 1919 Government of India Act, the granting of home rule to the Irish Free State a few years later, and a whole host of other concessions the island rulers were forced into making as their economic and military power declined. By the end of World War II, the Empire had ceased to exist in all but its name, and in the collective consciousness of those old colonels living in a run-down seaside hotels, telling tourists about the time they hunted the Bengali tiger.

A hundred years later, the same might be said of that Empire known by euphemisms like – ‘the Western World’, the ‘liberal world order’, or my personal favourite: ‘the International Community’ – but is, in reality, better called the American Empire.

Not without some irony, Lingchi, the Chinese death by a thousand cuts, best describes what has been happening to this Empire. Cultural narratives like critical race theory and transactivism are tearing apart the Empire’s collective sense of self. As counterculture movements they are divisive by design. On the economic front, the steady offshoring of manufacturing capacity and the overeducation of a whole generation of unproductive soy-infused urbanites has left the Empire economically reliant on its favourable global terms of trade in order to maintain high standards of living among its ruling classes in the Coastal USA and in Europe. The legacy financial architecture, in the form of the petrodollar and the Bretton Woods institutions, grows shakier with every passing bank bailout. The ill-advised choice to politicise the SWIFT global payment system further erodes those financial foundations. At the same time, the self-hating ideology of climate activisim not only undermines the Empire’s own energy supply, but also heralds a steady attack on its productive capacity. Europe is about to ban combustion engine cars, a technology in which it maintains a historic advantage, in favour of battery-powered ones where it is forced to compete with China on more level terms, and where it is completely dependent on imported raw materials.

What, then, remains of the Empire and its ability to enforce its system of goverance on its global dependents? There is still some measure of political and cultural good will. While not entirely guiltless, this Empire has been more benevolent that many that have come before it, and American cultural exports like McDonald’s and Hollywood have made the Empire’s mass culture seem both accessible and aspirational. But I would argue that this good will has largely dissipated. Since Covid at the latest, the Empire is no longer a good ambassador of its own liberal values, if indeed it ever was. Hollywood has eaten itself, and Wokeism is a singularly unattractive cultural export for those in the far reaches of the Empire who feel neither guilt for American slavery, nor a desire to blur the gender divide between men and women.

What the American Empire still has, of course, is the world’s mightiest military – effective control of international shipping lanes, satellite communication and a network of bases that neatly spans the globe. But the world is big, and as the map shows, there’s an important gap in the Empire’s coverage, right where it matters most. With the exception of volatile Pakistan, the withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the Empire with virtually no foothold on the biggest and most valuable continent: Asia.

In fact, on closer inspection the Empire’s military grip is tenuous. Sloth in the military industrial complex and avarice among the Empire’s European vassal states have hollowed out its real fighting capacity. For the most part, the Empire rests on its historical reputation and on the fact that its adversaries lack coordination. The fear of American power – rather than the reality of its execution – has, up until now, been enough to deter any meaningful resistance.

In this context, the breakthrough success of the Indian film RRR gains new significance. A smash commercial hit for Netflix, the three hour Tollywood blockbuster tale of friendship and revolution in 1920s occupied India enchanted audiences well outside of Hindustan. That the navel-gazing, ultra-woke Hollywood Insiders chose to shower Oscar recognition on it is less important than the fact that it was watched – and loved – by the Empire’s ordinary subjects, just as much as by the barbarians outside its borders.

Because RRR is not an Indian imitation of a Hollywood film. It is unwaveringly, unflinchingly and unashamedly not Western. With its cinematography, its over-the-top choreography and its Hindi-language in-jokes, this film makes no attempt to appeal to Western audiences. Its global success is the proof that today, that is not even a requirement.

Most shocking is the depiction of the Westerners. The British colonial occupiers in RRR are not just ‘bad guys’. They are depraved, morally bankrupt and palpably evil. The only redeeming Western character is Jenny (Olivia Morris), the white woman who falls in love with the dominant Indian protagonist, and who finishes as a happy bride, dancing in a sari and singing in Hindi, unphased by the brutal annihilation of her wicked family and loss of her Western way of life. The message is clear: we’ll take their women too.

Yet that is not the worst. Nor is it even exceptional – after all, unflattering depictions of the West have been common in Western media for decades. The truly shocking thing about the British villians in RRR is that they are weak. Physically, morally and intellectually weak. They recoil as cowards against the righteous outrage of the Hindi protagonists. They cannot shoot for beans and they lack the physical strength of Indian men.

Whether this is an historically accurate and fair depiction of the British Army during the Raj is entirely beside the point. What matters is that in a global blockbuster that out-eyeballed all but a handful of Western films last year, the Indian director feels empowered enough to depict the West as hopelessly weak. And barely anyone bats an eyelid. India’s foreign minister even used the representation as a barb, in conversation with the American Empire’s foremost disgraced lapdog, Tony Blair.

A few months later, the world witnessed the spectacle of Presidents Xi and Putin embracing each other during a state visit to Moscow with a display of friendship and complicity that left little doubt about their intentions with respect to the American Empire. Neutral spectators from Latin America to Africa, to the Indopacific are watching. And now, they are no longer sure the West can contain this new Asian Axis. With emergent Hindi nationalism as a tailwind, and given the subcontinent’s historic links to the USSR, there is no guarantee that India will heed the American Empire’s warnings not to slide too far into a Putin-Xi rebel alliance.

After all, as RRR has shown, the world may have less to fear from weak, evil Westerners than the US State Department would like them to believe.

Eye-catching, provocative headline, tangental to subject

Opening premise that is sweeping and, if you ponder it for any length of time, probably questionable. Next, a flurry of facts the reader already knows to be true which seem to support the premise, omitting the ones that refute it or provide nuance. An appeal to the reader’s desire to feel ‘included’ in the group by mocking someone outside the group, who is too stupid to get the point here.

Construction of false dichotomy, with one pole being the conclusion you want the reader to reach, and the other being a ridiculous straw man argument. Elaboration on this straw man in great detail, in order to make it clear how ridiculous it is. Shoved-in call-back reference to the idiots you already mocked in paragraph one, who of course would also make the straw man argument. Now steel man any real argument against your premise, before smacking these down with more hyperbole and carefully curated facts.

A paragraph’s worth of accepted and true statements that have little to do with your main point, but with which the reader and any reasonable person would agree. Implication that the outsider idiot from above would probably also disagree with all of this.

Concluding quote from a famous and long-dead person that fits the general direction of argumentation, adding to it the heft of history and tradition.

Subliminal messaging – a novel conspiracy theory

A plandemic or a spamdemic?

I am still recovering from Covid. I think most of us are. By this, I certainly do not mean the effects of the SARS-2 virus on my body. That is not what ‘Covid’ is. Covid was and is a social construct. A state of mind that has variously been described by fellow critical thinkers as the result of mass psychosis, religious zealotry or the nefarious actions of a highly organised conspiracy.

Indeed, there is a lively debate in the community as to the extent to which many of the terrible outcomes were centrally planned, or were the result of an organic, systemic failure of our society to cope with a stress factor. Eugyppius, the German critical thinker whose substack is something of an authority on all matters covidian, flies the flag for system failure – pinning the blame squarely on the ineptitude of the technocratic managerial class that holds the real power in Western countries. Others point to damning evidence of the involvement of globalist elites, aligned to the World Economic Forum, in planning a so-called Great Reset.

Conspiracy theorists have more time on their hands than conspiracists

Personally, I have always aired closer to Eugyppius’ scepticism regarding the utility of tin foil hats. My own experience in proximity to ‘power’ has taught me that those who are thought to hold its reigns spend most of their time chasing after their own manic agendas. They barely have time to read the briefings that are shoved at them as they board airplanes – much less to craft the narratives that inform those briefings, in service of some conspiratorial purpose.

And yet, it cannot be denied that certain actors within the technocracy are motivated to play a key role in steering outcomes. Laura Dodsworth’s excellent ‘A State of Fear’ details how the UK government did exactly that, (though it stops short of providing a smoking gun motive for their actions – leaving open the possibility that the fear-inducing psy-ops perpetrated against the civilian populations were motivated by a misplaced yet well-intentioned belief in their necessity). Likewise, the Fauci emails and the Twitter Files clearly show deep and hidden linkages between the scientific
establishment, government and Big Tech, all acting in a way that shores up their respective power positions and bottom lines – the very essence of a conspiracy.

A novel conspiracy hypothesis

In this post, I would like to veer a little further away from Eugyppius’ position and down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theorising, with what I believe is a novel contribution to the saturated market of tin foil headwear. As the great Sherlock Holmes once remarked, we can sometimes learn more from a dog that does not bark in the night, than from listening to the ones who do. I say this because when I was a boy in the early 1980s, the talk was all about the use of subliminal messaging in advertising, spurred on by a 1970s book called Subliminal Seduction. Advertisers had discovered that they could splice in a single still frame into the middle of a video image – say, a nice refreshing bottle of Coke. The result would be that the conscious eye and mind did not perceive the embedded image or the ‘Drink Coke’ slogan. However, tests showed that when this was done, it had a very strong impact on the subconscious desires of those subjects exposed to the subliminal image. Those who had ‘seen’ the spliced-up video expressed a much greater preference for Coke.

The subliminal messaging was found to be so effective precisely because it did not register a conscious response. The subject’s usual mental defences against the effects of overt advertising did not kick in.

Naturally, there was no small degree of uproar. Advertisers rushed to assure a worried public that they would never engage in such underhand tactics, the FCC intervened in the public interest, and soon the story faded from the public eye. It was understood that whatever short term gains a product could achieve in this way would be more than undermined by the reputational damage of getting caught doing it. And because the same subliminal image would be diffused millions of times to TV sets across the country, it was sure that they would in fact get caught doing it.

Mind tricks in the digital age

That was then. Now imagine the same technology being used on tech platforms. Imagine the ability to splice in a single message into a gif or video clip on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or TikTok. Now imagine that the efficacy of that message was powered not just by generic 1980s Madison Ave advertising trickery, but by custom-generated user data and algorithms that allowed the messenger to craft ‘the perfect’ subliminal message for each and every user. For example, imagine the cute cat video you just watched had, cut into it, a 1:24 frame image of a Covid virus and the words ‘Stay home or you will die the way your mother died last August’, when in fact your mother had died last
August. What chances would you have of not being scared to death of Covid?

Big Brother isn’t watching you, you’re watching him

There is absolutely no doubt that this technology exists and that it could be deployed. Since the release of the Twitter Files, there is also little doubt that the government – or at least that part of it Glenn Greenwald refers to as the US Security State – has infiltrated Big Tech platforms to a sufficient degree to be able to undertake such an operation.

Of course, I will take my tin foil hat off long enough to admit that I have not a shred of evidence for any of this. But given how effective we knew it to be even without customisation, what are the chances that subliminal messaging is not being used in the Tech Age? And to return to Holmes’ dictum, if it is being used, why have we not heard more night-time barking from this particular dog?

Is ‘woke’ really a thing and if so, where did it come from?

The woke awakening

Whenever I use the term ‘woke’ in the company of my significant other, it sparks a rather intense and sometimes unpleasant exchange. Her principle contention is that the term is in itself divisive; a poorly defined throw-away dysphemism from right-wing pundits too lazy to engage on substance. For her, the use of the term ‘woke’ is part of a wider problem of social meltdown. It is an example of the very stuff that is causing rational debate and discussion in the middle to be drowned out by angry shouts, hurled from the fringes.

I wish that were so. I wish we could just stop saying ‘woke’ and the problems it causes would simply melt away as the identitarians associated with that concept slide quietly towards the centre. I once believed this was the case. Back in 2016, it seemed to me that the garbage identity politics infecting mainstream liberalism was a fad – the power of liberal values would, over time, prevail. Those who clung to things like critical race theory or radical feminism would remain in the intellectual corner of the room where they belonged.

It took Covid for me to realise just how wrong I was. It took wasted hours of online battles with impassioned virus zealots to realise the fundamentals of our intellectual tradition had been eroded. So far eroded that, yes, they would lock us up in our houses, force our children out of school and into face masks, and all but force us to take an experimental vaccine-like treatment for a disease with a QALY-adjusted fatality rate that barely rose above the seasonal flu. In the end I came to understand that the reality of SARS-2 didn’t matter – all that mattered was the subjectively understood dangerosity of Covid.

Postmoderism was one hell of a crappy parent

Because what my wife still fails to appreciate is that woke is a real thing. The culture war is not simply an artefact of a social-media fuelled communications breakdown. Like most wars, there is something at stake – namely the basis on which truth in our society is properly understood. Transactivism, critical race theory, body positivity or Covid zealotry all share a common root: they depend on an ability to suspend objective truth in favour of ‘felt experience’.

Trans athlete competing in the Tokyo olympics. He/she ‘feels’ like a woman.

This is the essence of postmoderism – the intellectual root of woke. Postmoderism is a philosophy that arose in 1960s France. It held that only the subjective experience mattered. It saw objective truth as part of a system of oppression. As Adam Vicari succinctly puts it, woke is the bastard child of postmoderism. I think this is exactly right, and I won’t plagarise Adam or others by repeating the points they have already made in this regard.

But to truly understand how an intellectual idea held by some bored French kids could one day mutate into something as absurd as male weightlifters claiming Olympic medals because they ‘feel’ they are women, you have to reflect on how postmodernism arose and why.

You can’t split a log with feelings

This takes me to my wood pile. As I look out my window now, I can see a triple-row of firewood – cut, seasoned, carefully stacked and covered with a blue tarp, on which is currently resting a layer of slushy snow. Next to the wood, a wheel barrow, which I use to bring the wood to the door and transfer to the log basket next to the stove. The logs are then set alight, warming my house to a comfortable temperature.

As you can probably guess from how I wrote the above paragraph, I feel some measure of pride in providing locally sourced home heat for myself and my family. And while I’m not going to pretend that we absolutely depend on this wood to avoid hypothermia (we have a backup central heating system and electric heaters in case of need), there is something philosophical about burning your own wood, just like eating your own hen’s eggs or your own garden tomatoes. Frankly, it reminds you that there is a physical world, with physical properties. One which imposes absolute constraints on us, and which is utterly indifferent to our subjective feelings.

Postmoderism was born in the languishing coffee shops and bars of Paris, Europe’s most sophisticated city, at a time in history when an increasing number of young people had been freed by the surplus of capitalism from these constraints of nature. And what was true in 1960, is truer today. Most middle class people who inhabit urban areas in northern latitudes don’t think about where their heat comes from. They know little about the complex supply chains, pipes and precision fittings that keep them at a comfortable 21 degrees, even as the snow cascades from the milky heavens and onto their window panes – and they frankly find the subject rather boring. Ditto for the food they eat, the cotton threaded into the clothes they wear, etc. Prosperity creates a buffer between nature and the lived experience of the rich. And inside that comfort zone, you are free to live your own truth.

Me no throw spear at mammoth. Me identify as woman now.

This is why woke culture didn’t take off among our ancestors. If the men of a tribe of hunter-gatherers had taken it into their heads to ‘feel’ like women, and sit around the fire attaching the birthing people’s babies to their useless male nipples, the tribe would have quickly died. If a tribe allowed a foreign ethnic group to claim their hunting grounds on the basis that the foreigners represented a less toxic culture than their own, they too would have died. And if, in early winter, one member of the tribe decided to stuff her face from the stockpile of nuts, roots and smoked meat to the point of morbid obesity, and be ‘body positive’ about it, the winter food supply would be inadequate, again resulting in death. In such a world, starvation, predation and cold are objective truths you must accept, or you will perish.

It is also why, when in March Volodymyr Zelennsky barred all men from leaving Ukraine and conscripted them into the army, very few of the media wokesters openly questioned the plight of Kiev’s penis possessors who ‘felt’ like women. The shock of Putin’s invasion drove the subjectivity of postmoderism’s bastard kids from their minds faster than a confused teenage girl can unwrap her chest binding. War, like hunger and cold, is impervious to all the finer arguments of people’s feelings.

Post-woke, there’ll still be wood to cut

In a sense, this should give us on the ‘conservative’ side of the culture war hope. It will not take very much for the woke edifice to fall apart. A little hard work in the fields, a house too cold to sit around and watch TikTok videos in, or any kind of violence more dangerous than dead-naming or body shaming. The blue will grow out of their hair and all that will remain will be the silly tatooes, distorted and warped as their skin reforms around leaner, hungrier bodies. And when I look around at the state of the economy, I have little doubt that this will come to pass.

But the damage has been done. And it will outlast the silliness of woke ideology. Woke ideologies have done a poor job building their own cultural edifice, that is true. But like the statues Black Lives Matter tore down, it is far easier to destroy than to create. And at tearing things down, the wokesters been very effective. The real work will begin when the Church of Woke lies in ashes. That will be the time to construct a new world, based on objective truth and on values strong enough to survive SARS-3. Strong enough to survive even a pandemic of prosperity.

The ‘pandemic’ of overeducation

You can never been overdressed or overeducated’

It is a widely held tenet of modern liberal thinking that there is a strictly positive relationship between the amount of education in a society, and the health of its politics and economy. When I say ‘widely held’, I mean to include my former self in that particular bubble of groupthink. I have a couple of masters degrees and a BA – achievements of which I have always been proud – and so perhaps it was out of pure ego that I always imagined that with more education, would come better public accountability for our representative democracies, greater labour productivity and a more effiicent use of public resources for the benefit of all. I must have thought: if more people were like me, how much better a world we would have!

Houston, we have a problem

Then along came SARS-2, wafting out of a wet market and certainly not the virology lab across the road (pay no attention to that bat lady behind the curtain!). In a flash of media madness, decades of established wisdom on public health was thrown out the window – on the efficacy of community masking to prevent respiratory virus transmission, on pandemic planning, and on the correct way to approve and make available novel pharmaceutical products. Basic facts that were immediately and publicly available were ignored and labelled misinformation or conspiracy-think – such as the fact that SARS-2 had an infection fatality rate of 0.3% (lower in age-adjusted terms), and was therefore not that deadly. Bizarre doctrines like Zero Covid emerged in the teeth of common sense and all available evidence. ‘Long Covid’ became an article of faith, a gospel reading in the Church of ‘The Science’.

Was it simply panic? Perhaps in the early weeks. But as the hysteria wore on and the masks literally muffled any dissenting voices, I noticed a strange pattern among the Covid Zealots I knew – they were, with few exceptions, those who had the most higher education. Whereas the received wisdom on the benefits of higher education suggested they should be most able to critically dissect what was happening and make sense of it, they in fact proved to be least able to do so.

Saving grandma and a nasty commute, both at the same time

Many critical thinkers I know attributed this to simple self-interest. The laptop class was, after all, able to comfortably telework throughout the lockdowns. Many even relished the reprieve from painful commutes into crowded office buildings. They were certainly not the waiters, shopkeepers or small business owners most immediately impacted by closures. To borrow a phrase – it’s hard to make a soy-infused Guardianista understand something, when continued enjoyment of they/their home office depends on them/they/they’re/their not understanding it.

But this doesn’t explain the more extreme manifestations of Covid Zealotry, such as the willingness to subject oneself and one’s own children to an experimental treatment with no obvious benefits and unknown risks. Data shows that higher education levels are correlated with higher ‘vaccine’ uptake. Likewise: mask wearing was nowhere as ubiquitous as in the ivy-clad enclaves of New England’s educational elites. There can be no doubt – the well-educated actually believed this worm-infested horse crap.

Some readers might shrug this off as an obvious conclusion. The fact that college-smarties lack common sense is nothing new to the working classes who fix their leaky roofs, service their cars and install their ergonomic workspaces.

I think I thought I saw you try…to think

But perhaps there is a deeper point to be made about the nature of cognition and how it has changed in the age of mass higher education. In general, when we learn something new, we go through an inductive process of reasoning. A leads to B leads to C … which leads to a result. For example, if I want to learn how to fix the clogged drain in my bathroom sink, I need to understand how the u-bend works, what seals are there to stop leaks. Where the water will flow when I open the plumbing, etc. then I can figure out what to do first. I create a mindmap of understanding.

Now imagine I attempt to ‘learn’ something that is complex beyond my ability to construct the relevant mindmap. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot follow all the threads of thought that allow for a complete understanding of the quantitative theory of money. Of imagine I am unable to prove from first principles the power rule in differential calculus. What becomes of me?

In a world where these respective tenets of economics and mathematics are kept as the preserve of a true intellectual elite, the answer would be: I am told by my professor that I don’t grasp the thing, I am handed a failing note and I go back to unclogging u-bends under bathroom sinks.

The democatisation of education ensures we get the graduates we deserve

But in the age of mass higher education, this is very much not what happens. The greater the number of intellectually average people admitted into the halls of knowledge, the more fails a professor would have to hand out, and that isn’t good for business. And so instead, a short cut solution is provided. I might not ‘get’ monetary theory, but I can accept as dogma that M x V = P x T. I might not ‘get’ calculus, but I can accept as dogma that f'(x) = r*x^(r-1) and dumbly apply this rule to enough problems on my term exam to get a passing grade.

The problem isn’t just that I graduate with no real understanding of maths or economics. It’s that by trying to educate myself beyond the limits of my own cognitive capacity, my brain becomes trained to accept a dogmatic link between premise and conclusion. The only thing I have really learned from four (or nine!) years of this charade is that there exists this sacred black box in which intellectual ‘things’ happen, and that is not to be questioned. Forever after, because my status as an educated person depends on the sanctity of that black box, I become a militant defender of whatever it might output. In other words, I become a zealous believer in ‘The Science’. Follow it. Follow it right off a cliff.

I have also reduced my ability to create even those mindmaps that would otherwise be within my cognitive scope. University trains me not only to stupidly absorb the conclusions of others’ learning, but to deny myself the ability to engage in any of my own. I would be much better served by puzzling over how to put up fenceposts for free range chickens, at which I would succeed with my own two hands; rather than puzzling over, and ultimately failing, to understand fluid dynamics or molecular biology.

Then when a novel problem comes along, I am lost, for there is no equation for me to follow. Intellectually lost, I take to Twitter in a confused play for answers from the hashtags of authority I trust and identify with. How easy it becomes for they/them who wield these hashtags to guide me towards whatever dogma serves their/they’re interests. How stupidly will I cling to this dogma, with all the strength of my ‘education’. How heavily will I beat down dissent, with all the heft of my bourgeois status.

We need to stop educating people beyond their intellectual limits.