Mimes, in the form of God on high mutter and mumble low
And hither and thither fly – mere puppets, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things shifting scenery to and fro
- an excerpt out of Ligaea, by Edgar Allen Poe
There should be a post debating Reactionaries’ assumptions about the superiority of past cultures and methods. Eventually I hope to write that post. But this is not it. This is the post where I claim that, even granting all of those assumptions, Reaction is somewhere between wrong and impossible. Why?
To borrow Poe’s terminology, history as we learn it in school tends to concentrate on the puppets and ignore the vast formless things.
In a previous essay, I mentioned a pattern of refactored agency in which human beings lack agency and merely respond to incentives. I said they were “actors” reading from the “script their incentives wrote for them”, and anyone who deviated from the part would be outcompeted and replaced.
This seems to broadly describe most historical figures. If Christopher Columbus had decided not to explore America, Cabral or Cabot or someone would have. Caravels existed, people needed a new trade route to India, the only question was who was going to be first.
But the puppetry expands past individuals toward whole empires and movements. If God reached into the year 1900 and removed every single Communist, and every Communist book, and erased all memory of Communism, I think it would take about five minutes before someone reinvented something much like the movement, because there were a bunch of very poor people who felt desperate and cheated crammed up against a bunch of very rich people who weren’t afraid to flaunt their wealth. The new movement might have differed from Communism in minor details – maybe their color would have been blue instead of red – but it wouldn’t be hard to identify.
So much for the puppets. What are these Vast Formless Things giving them their orders? I mentioned liking Guns, Germs and Steel, and I think Diamond has done a good job of proving geography has important historical effects. But geography is fixed, not exactly the sort of thing that’s going to cause revolutions. So after that last post you probably won’t be surprised to hear I think the vastest and most formless Vast Formless Thing of all is technological progress.
Engines Alone Turn The Wheels of History
The largest and furthest-reaching political changes of all time have invariably been the effect of technological progress. The largest of these, the transition from egalitarian bands to the ultrahierarchical divine monarchies of the Bronze Age, seems to have been mostly the effect of the Agricultural Revolution and its corollaries. Without committing to what order these things happened in:
- Need for a guarantee that the crops you planted will still be yours at harvest time inspires idea of private property
- Sedentary lifestyle + concept of property allow accumulation of wealth
- Accumulation of wealth requires law enforcement to protect wealth
- Excess food allows specialization of labor
- Requirement for law enforcement + specialized labor leads to creation of warrior caste
- Powerful warrior caste + everyone else being farmers and losing the martial skills they enjoyed as hunters leads to warrior caste taking over.
- Need for large irrigation/flood control projects in many areas leads to very centralized government
And a lot of these late Neolithic/early Bronze Age cultures turned out the same way. If Ramesses II, Montezuma II, and Agamemmnon went to lunch together, they’d have a lot to talk about, despite being separated by continents and millennia. This suggests that the Generic Bronze Age Government – a god-king served by a bunch of warrior-nobles, plus massive militarism and slavery – probably just made sense given the circumstances.
I don’t want to sound too deterministic and spooky here, but I do think governments have a good way of kind of converging to a local optimum. Ramesses II may not have thought “You know, the Nile floods a lot, so I should institute a strong centralized government with lots of slavery”, but some people tried some things, other people tried other things, the things that worked won out, the things that didn’t passed into the dustbin of history, and we got Ancient Egypt. If God reached into history and tried to turn Ancient Egypt into modern day Sweden, it wouldn’t work any better than His attempt to remove Communism did a few paragraphs ago – within a few years they’d be back to worshipping Pharaohs and invading Canaanites
After the Neolithic, one of the most clear-cut examples of technology changing social structure was the fall of feudalism. Feudalism was based on a very simple calculation: one armored knight could defeat an arbitrary number of untrained peasants. To be an armored knight took your standard 10,000 hours of training; it wasn’t something you can do as a side job. So once again you have at least two castes – the warrior caste and the support-the-warriors caste; since the warrior caste is both smaller and stronger, you end up with an aristocratic system. If you want to govern large territories under an aristocratic system and you don’t have real-time communication, you come up with something like feudalism. And sure enough, we have pretty much the exact same social structure in medieval Europe and Sengoku Japan.
Then some new weapons were invented: pikes, longbows, crossbows, but especially firearms. Now you can get someone who hasn’t trained 10,000 hours, give them a few days of weapon training, hand them a gun or a crossbow or something, and they can kill an armored knight. Now the power doesn’t belong to the people with the best connections among the warrior nobility, it belongs to the people with enough money to hire soldiers and supply them with guns. It took a long time to realize this, especially since guns weren’t that good to begin with, but when people finally got it into their heads feudalism went caput.
The printing press was an even bigger deal. I don’t have my Big List O’ Unbelievable Printing Press Statistics handy here, but the Internet reminds me that there were 30,000 books – total! – in Europe before the invention of the printing press. Fifty years later, 300,000 copies just of Martin Luther’s religious tracts were printed in a single year alone. Among just the simpler and more direct effects:
- Protestant Reformation. Easy one. Lots of people had tried challenging the Catholic Church before, but not only could they not get their message out, but most people weren’t ready for it – only the richest of the rich could even own their own Bible. Basically as soon as the printing press was invented this took off.
- Newspapers. All of a sudden, people who aren’t the highest ranks of the nobility know what’s going on at court. Some people have opinions on this. Start of modern politics where the masses know what’s going on and might complain.
- The Renaissance. All these old Greek and Roman texts are spread. People realize that there are other ways to organize society beyond their own.
- Scientific Revolution. If a scientist discovers something, he can actually sent his work to other scientists in an efficient way, who can then build upon it. This was absolutely not the case for previous scientists, which is why not much happened during those periods.
- Rise of nationalism. Ability of common people to read books means more books printed in vernacular instead of Latin. This causes insular language-based communities which then feed upon themselves to become more delineated nation-states.
I was going to go into the same depth about the Industrial Revolution and the Sexual Revolution (by which I mean near-simultaneous discovery of birth control pills and antibiotics effective against syphilis), but this section is getting long, so if you promise to just agree they Changed Everything I’ll make life easier for both of us and move on.
Forget King James II, Try King Canute
So the biggest changes in history have been predetermined reactions to different technological conditions. This should worry Reactionaries for several reasons.
First, I previously claimed that if Communism disappeared it would be immediately reinvented. If Ancient Egypt had randomly switched to modern Sweden, the realities of life in the Nile flood plain and of Bronze Age technology would have caused it to switch back without even breaking its stride.
I think my claim here is that cultures and ideologies have a sort of homeostatic regulatory mechanism that fits them to their conditions. This is why all Bronze Age cultures converged upon divine monarchies, and all medieval empires converged upon feudalism, and proooobably why all modern cultures converge upon liberal democracy.
Countries that avoid liberal democracy usually regret it. China would be a good example. They tried being really Communist for a while and ended up becoming an economic basketcase. If they wanted to compete on the international stage they realized they needed a stronger economy, and so liberalized their market. A competitive market requires information access, so the Chinese got access to lots of foreign media; I recently learned that any business that wants to pay for it can even legally avoid the Great Firewall. The Internet meant the Chinese could coordinate protests on microblogging platforms, leading to a bunch of riots, leading to an attempt to liberalize the system and crack down on corruption which is still going on. I’m not going to claim that China is definitely going to end up as a democracy, but I think whatever it does end up as is going to be a whole lot more like 2013 USA than like 1963 China.
China didn’t plan to approach the Western model of government. It was just what happened to them automatically when they wanted their country to stop being a hellhole. The same is happening now in Burma, somewhat more slowly in Cuba, and in other places around the world. Even the countries skipping the “democracy” part have been aping the Industrial Revolution, womens’ rights, and so on.
This is probably because many features of liberal democracy are adaptations to our current technological climate. For example, women’s lib seems like an adaptation both to the Sexual Revolution and to the demographic transition where people are no longer having like twenty children all the time. Representative government seems like an adaptation to mass media that allows everyone to be aware of, and usually upset about, what the country’s leadership is doing.
If you like these things, you can call it cultural evolution and assume we’re approaching some great goal of perfection. If you don’t like them, you can call them patches, such that once the demographic transition screws up traditional gender roles, we need women’s lib as a patch to contain the damage. Either way, you better not take off that patch.
So this is my first beef with Reactionaries. They see someone identifying as Progressive saying something – Gloria Steinem pushing for women’s rights or something – and they say “Oh no, that awful Progressive Gloria Steinem is screwing up our traditional gender roles. If only she would be quiet, everything would go back to normal!”
Gloria Steinem is a puppet. If she’s part of some movement, even a large saecular movement calling itself Progressivism, they, too, are puppets. It is stupid to get upset at puppets. If you rip them up, the puppeteer will get new ones.
If you don’t like women’s lib, your enemy isn’t Gloria Steinem. Your enemy is the Vast Formless Thing controlling Gloria Steinem. In this case, that would be the demographic transition.
You might be able to beat Gloria Steinem in a fight, but you can’t beat the demographic transition. Or if you can, it’s going to be through something a lot more complicated than going on a soapbox and condemning it, more complicated even than becoming Czar and trying to pass laws to reverse it.
King Canute tried to order back the tide. It was a dumb idea, but in his defense, it was basically just a religious spectacle so he could wax poetic about the power of God. What’s your excuse?
Amid These Dark Satanic Mills
In the comments to the Enormous Planet-Sized Nutshell post, some people did a good – though not unassailable – job of picking apart some common Reactionary arguments for superior outcomes among past cultures. The crime data may be an artifact, and more believable homicide data suggests the modern era is safer. Modern students may learn different things than are tested on that Harvard exam which are equally valuable.
Whatever. Let’s assume the Reactionaries are totally right. Past was a thousand times better than the present in every way. So what?
The past contained things like “everyone living in close-knit mono-ethnic villages”. We could, perhaps, with great effort and not a little atrocity, restore the “mono-ethnic”. But the close-knit? The villages? Unless we’re going to roll back the Industrial Revolution, the main ingredient of that particular transition, the move to urbanization, is there to stay.
Any statistic in which the present differs from the past is much more likely to be a result of technology than of politics. Reactionaries correctly use this to excuse themselves of advantages like the present’s better health care or greater wealth.
But they have to acknowledge that the same manuever relieves the other side of a lot of their burdens as well. Progressives also have some uncomfortable statistics, usually those relating to social cohesion and trust and happiness. And I am totally willing to throw every one of these out. Of course the move to an urban society is going to do that! Of course having people work factory or office jobs instead of either on the land or in an skilled trade like blacksmithing is going to alienate them. Of course having the average person watch TV four hours a day because it’s a novel superstimulus is going to affect community ties!
I suspect that the most valuable features of past societies – the ones that we read fantasy books to recapture, the ones that make Renaissance Faires and Medieval Times so attractive – have nothing to do with politics and cannot be restored through politics. In order to regain them, you’re going to have to roll back the Industrial Revolution. Needless to say, that makes fighting against the demographic transition look easy.
Perfectly Prepared For A Situation That No Longer Exists
The third and last and most important point I want to bring up involves well-adaptedness.
I often hear Reactionaries make an argument like: the old ways are the result of thousands of years of trial-and-error. Those thousands of years created a remarkably stable culture that survived for centuries. When Progressives throw them out, they are abandoning something we know works for some sort of grand experiment that might end in complete failure.
And I wonder: have these people ever updated a computer program before?
I mean, take Windows 3.11. We know all about Windows 3.11. People had a long time to test it, discover its bugs, find its security holes. Windows 8, on the other hand, is totally new. Goodness only knows what sort of unpleasant surprises are lurking there.
But imagine I decided to uninstall Windows 8 from my computer and replace it with Windows 3.11. Most of my programs aren’t written for Windows 3.11 and they wouldn’t work. Windows 3.11 probably has no idea what to do with Wi-Fi. It probably can’t handle the dual cores of my laptop. Most likely it would ask me to insert floppy disks during the installation and my computer doesn’t have a floppy disk drive.
Even if Windows 3.11, with 1992 programs, on a 1992 machine, is more stable than Windows 8, with 2013 programs, on a 2013 machine – even so, Windows 3.11 with 2013 programs on a 2013 machine would be a total disaster.
I tend to agree with Reactionaries that cultures have a mechanism that gradually adapts them to their conditions. This may not be morally good – if the conditions are “cotton is very lucrative” then the “evolutionarily advantageous” adaptation for a society may be to institute slavery – but they are at least effective and stable.
But a 1600s culture with 2013 technology would be like Windows 3.11 on a 2013 computer: a complete mismatch and a complete disaster. No matter how well Bourbon France was adapted to the 1600s, it would have no idea what to do with 2013. If it tried, it would probably end up converging towards the same 2013-technology equilibrium – liberal democracy – as everyone else in 2013. Maybe Louis XIV could stick around as a figurehead or something.
The Reactionaries are correct that we live in a scary time, a time when changes in technology are way outpacing our ability to have any idea how to cope as a society. Maybe if you froze technology at 2013 levels for a hundred years, we would get a pretty good idea what to do with it and would build a culture as well-adapted to our technology level as the Bourbon French were to theirs.
But, uh, getting rid of our culture and replacing it with Bourbon France doesn’t shortcut that process. We have a four hundred year head start over Bourbon France in adapting to our conditions. If we suddenly became Louis XIV, we’d just be even further behind the adaptation curve, having to reach liberal democracy first before we could get to wherever we’re going.
I don’t think Bourbon France was more successful, as a society, than our society is. But if you convinced me otherwise, it wouldn’t make a shred of difference. Bourbon France + modern tech levels is a society that has never existed and which, I suspect, would be about as successful as Windows 3.11 trying to run Minecraft.
But Seriously, Why Did This Gaping Crack In The Earth Just Open Up? And Why Are You Yelling At The Kid With A Plastic Shovel Next To It?
Our goal was to show that, even granting Reactionaries all their assumptions about the superiority of past civilizations, trying to restore them is impossible.
We noted that the driving force of large-scale historical change was technological progress. That societies underwent cultural evolution into forms that were most adapted to the technological conditions of their age. That this evolution was convergent, and even unconnected civilizations like Ramesses’ Egypt and Montezuma’s Aztecs could come to resemble each other when they faced similar material problems.
Then we noted that what looks like political progress from the outside is just humans reacting to the shifting landscape of incentives. Although feminism appears as a movement spearheaded by particular feminists who got it into their head thats feminism was a good idea and so decided to push it, a causally useful etiology of feminism would trace the technological conditions that predestined it to arise and succeed.
We accused Reactionaries of condemning or excusing such movements as if they were contingent human creations, and of acting like pushing a few humans or institutions out of the way here or there would change them. Instead, we concluded that they were vast tides in the affairs of (wo)men, and that any attempt to order them around was hubris worthy of King Canute.
Then we accused Reactionaries of a bit of a double-standard, excusing traditional societies’ lesser wealth and health by placing the blame on technological progress, but being unwilling to let Progressives do the same in areas where technological progress has inevitably made us worse off, such as the production of feelings of social alienation.
Finally, we accused Reactionaries of arguing that past societies were well-adapted, without specifying well-adapted to what. We hypothesized that if forced to finish this statement, it would end up with “well-adapted to the technologies and conditions of the centuries they flourished”. The very fact that they stopped flourishing and were replaced by our society suggest they are less well-adapted to conditions today. Or, as G.K. Chesterton puts it in a different context:
There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other. Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals–even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again.
I do not think these problems completely disprove Reaction. They merely wall off several potential lines of argument in its support: the argument that ancient cultures empirically achieved better outcomes than our own, and the argument that they were more stable and better adapted.
To save Reaction, you would have to try one of the following paths.
First, you could claim that there’s no such thing as cultural evolution, that cultures don’t gradually become more adapted to their conditions via time. This seems plausible, but then the Reactionaries lose their own strongest argument; that older cultures were better adapted. Nevertheless, this is where I think a lot of the remaining probability of Reaction being true would be, and many of the arguments in my pro-Reaction post before continue to stand in this case.
Second, you could agree that cultures evolve, but that for some reason the cultural evolution mechanism has gone berserk over the past few hundred years. To make this stick, you’d have to give some reason this would happen. Then you’d have to prove that it was so berserk that the best we could do is reboot from a saved copy from before its breakdown, even knowing that this will be completely unsuited for modern life.
Third, you could posit that for some reason cultural evolution previously drove us in a Progressive direction, but now it is driving us back in a Reactionary direction, and that you are a legitimate priest of the Vast Formless Things just making their new and revised will known unto man. To make this work, you’d have to figure out exactly when and why the Vast Formless Things changed their minds.
For most of the rest of this sequence I’ll be concentrating on option 1, unless a horde of Reactionaries appear in the comments and tell me they have totally considered this problem before and 2 or 3 is the more commonly accepted view. In option 1, by sort of a coincidence past societies happened to be better than ours, and for coincidental reasons ours went off track. The onus then would be to determine which of our society’s policies are or aren’t bad, and what was the last stable copy of them to reboot from.