The always intellectually provocative, and ever so prolix, Mencius Moldbug returned recently, after several years, with further doses of Dark Enlightenment.
[W]hen we think of historical Nazism, Stalinism or Maoism, we think of wartime or warlike atrocities. When we look at Czechoslovakia in the â€™60s, Germany in the â€™30s, even China today, we see far fewer atrocities. Yet we still see the same structure of hierarchical control, with one person or a small team unilaterally directing the entire state.
This structure is clearly absent in the Western democracies.
Whatever our â€œregimeâ€ may be, it has nothing remotely like the Chinese Communist Party or Chairman Xi. It has no hierarchy. It has no center. It has neither leader, nor politburo, nor cadre. Maybe itâ€™s not real democracy; itâ€™s not a monarchy or a dictatorship.
Aâ€¦distributed despotism? Is a decentralized Orwellian regime possible? If we can say no, weâ€™re done. It seems impossible. Can we show that? We canâ€™t, so letâ€™s try to design one.
Maybe there are two kinds of Orwellian regimesâ€”like two-stroke and four-stroke engines. Neither cycle is inherently better. A four-stroke leafblower is excessive; a two-stroke car, primitive.
Maybe a four-stroke regime is decentralized; a two-stroke regime, centralized. One is a reptile; the other, a mammal. One is a fish; the other, a whale. Both rule by shaping public opinion. Two-stroke regimes design their stories. Four-stroke regimes have no dictator, so they have no designer; their stories must evolve.
Generally, the two-stroke regime relies more on hard repression; the four-stroke regime relies more on soft illusion. But both, as weâ€™ll see, can and do use both stabilization tools.
The two-stroke regime is a one-story state. Everyone has to believe one narrativeâ€”one official history of the present.
This worked as well for Amenhotep as Chairman Xi. The two-stroke is an especially good fit for centralized monarchical regimes. It also fits the canonical cliche of Orwellian totalitarianism.
The one-story state is efficient, but unstable. Its chronic problem is that people hate being told what to believe. They often cause trouble even when the story is true!
Anyone whoâ€™s been to China has seen how efficiently classic totalitarianism can executeâ€¦in both senses. Not only does the PRC make all consumer goods, itâ€™s also the top destination for transplant tourism. Maybe you donâ€™t really want that Chinese two-stroke SUV, even if it does pop like a dirtbike.
Without oil in its gas, a two-stroke engine overheats. In the end it catches fire. Without active practice in hard repression, without serious enemies at home or abroad, the classic one-party state weakens. It rots from excessive success. In the end it is overthrown by little girls with flowers.
The ideal state might be a one-story state where the story was 100% true. But this is a dangerous level of idealism. (Nor would it repeal these axioms of regime stabilization.)
The four-stroke regime is a two-story state. When people hear one story, they tend to ask: is this true? When they hear two stories, they tend to ask: which one of these is true? Isnâ€™t this a neat trick? Maybe our whole world is built on it. Any point on which both poles concur is shared story: â€œuncontroversial, bipartisan consensus.â€
Shared story has root privilege. It has no natural enemies and is automatically true. Injecting ideas into it is nontrivial and hence lucrative; this profession is called â€œPR.â€
There is no reason to assume that either pole of the spectrum of conflict, or the middle, or the shared story, is any closer to reality than the single pole of the one-story state.
Dividing the narrative has not answered the old question: is any of this true? Rather, it hasâ€¦ dodged it. Stagecraft!
This is even better than supposing that, since we fought Hitler and Hitler was bad, we must be good. These very basic fallacies, or psychological exploits, are deeply embedded in our political operating systems. Like bugs in code, they are invisible until you look straight at them. Then they are obvious.
The key feature of the two-story state is much less reliance on hard repression. As in the four-stroke engine, the cost of the feature is a pile of parts and a drop in performance. The fundamental engineering problem of the two-story state is to contain the active, but innocuous, political conflict which distracts its subjects out of any real democratic power.
The modern two-story democracy contains two power cores: a civic core and a political core. The trick is: in theory, the political core is stronger than the civic core. In practice, the civic core is stronger than the political core.
A stable regime must maintain this power inversion. If stability is lost, the political core takes control. For an instant, the engine becomes a real democracyâ€”then it turns into something else, or just catches fire and explodes. Think Germany in 1933.
Yet the â€œinversionâ€ is, at bottom, a lie. The political core is presented as the ruler. The civic core is presented as the tool. The real flow of power is the opposite of the apparent flow.
Public opinion does not direct the civic core; the civic core guides public opinion. The one-story state needs continuous repression; the two-story state needs continuous stagecraft. Of course, the former can still lie, the latter still repress.
In current language, the positive label â€œdemocracyâ€ signifies the civic core. We must all defend â€œdemocracyâ€ from â€œpolitics,â€ a negative label. People really believe this newspeak. Since it is dangerous to reverse the power flow, they may even be right. …
Itâ€™s interesting to compare Western civil society to an Eastern ruling party. Both are organs outside the civil service proper. The latter is truly centralized; the former, decentralized.
Civil society has no single point of failure. Thatâ€™s cool. Yet it is impossible not to notice three disturbing facts about it. Weâ€™ll have to leave these phenomena as mysteries for now.
One: it has no arbitrary center, but its reputation system seems arbitrary, or at least static. The prestige of prestigious universities, newspapers, etc., does not seem to change. These institutions must be either impeccable, or unaccountable.
Two: some mysterious force seems to ideologically coordinate this system. All these prestigious institutions, though organizationally quite separate, seem to magically agree with each other. When they change their minds, all change together, in the same direction. We cannot say that Harvard is on one side of Yale; we can say the Harvard of 2019 is on one side of the Harvard of 1989. This force is not centralized, but works like a center. It could just be a totally sick level of collective wisdom. But is it?
Three: one tendency of this mysterious force is reinforcement of effective political formulas. Somehow civil society prefers to think thoughts that make civil society stronger. It is still a marketplace of ideas; it also prefers to think thoughts that are true. These preferences are not always aligned.
If we can explain all these phenomena, we can explain how a decentralized civil society, effectively protected from democracy, can, does, and indeed must become a distributed Orwellian despotism.