Part 7 is actually the actual conclusion to this monstrous piece. Even better, next week I’ll try to answer some of the very cogent questions that have built up in the comments.
At the risk of sounding like Maya Angelou, the only way to end is to return to the beginning. Our beginning is of course Professor Dawkins, and that little blind spot in the back of his head which we’ve learned to call Universalism.
We should not call ourselves atheists. We should not call ourselves secularists. We should not call ourselves humanists, or secular humanists, or naturalists, or skeptics, or anti-theists, or rationalists, or freethinkers, or brights. We should not call ourselves anything.
In other words: the only pattern that describes our beliefs is reason, reality, or truth. Thus no additional label is necessary. There is no word for people who believe that a dropped stone accelerates at 9.8 meters per second squared. Why should there be?
If you’re right, of course, you’re right. However, it is not difficult to see the potential for arrogance and intolerance in any such reluctance to self-label. No 13th-century Frenchman would have labeled himself as “a Catholic.” He did not call himself anything, any more than Sam Harris. His beliefs were universal – that’s what catholic means. But were they true? Certainly not by Sam Harris’s light.
Admittedly, this “No Logo” approach – which I suspect Professor Dawkins is a little too sharp to fall for – is preferable to the appalling coinage bright, which suggests that anyone who disagrees is not only ignorant but also stupid. 21st-century fanaticism really knows no shame.
But even the term atheist defines a belief system as an absence of creed – and thus of credulity. (If you’re an atheist, as I am.) Thus it is essentially the same sort of evasion. The atheist label serves as a token of agreement between Professor Dawkins and his burgeoning legion of followers that the only pattern which describes their collective beliefs is that they have escaped from – or at least failed to succumb to – one particular barbaric, medieval superstition. While this may be correct, it’s hardly modest.
Let’s say there are two kinds of belief systems. A class A belief system propagates nothing but an accurate perception of reality. A class B belief system propagates fictions, distortions, contradictions, and/or other general nonsense. Since no one has any conscious desire to believe in nonsense, it’s hard to see how any class B belief system can survive unless it can disguise itself as a class A belief system. (I see no reason to think there has ever been any such beast in the wild as a class A belief system.)
The hack that has exploited Professor Dawkins is almost too simple to work. It’s truly elegant. When I was 17, I found a setgid violation on a SunOS kernel profiler and used it to find the address of my U area, which I could zero from the console debugger, giving my shell process root. I found this terribly cool. Then I showed it to an older hacker, who must have been all of 21 (Tom Lawrence? Is Tom Lawrence in the building? I think he worked at SGI for a while…) and he showed me how he’d used a link editor on the kernel objects to construct a version of SunOS (bootable from the console debugger) with a disabled setuid() function, on which all processes were unavoidably root. Trust me – this was much, much cooler. But it wasn’t as cool as “atheism.”
By sacrificing a single metaphysical construct – “God” – this new release of Christianity, Universalism, has constructed a convincing case (at least it seems to convince Professor Dawkins) that it has transitioned from a class B system to a class A system. And how has it done this? Simply by pointing to its predecessor, and noting that the former is class B. Well, duh.
Everyone knows that Western thought today, even in its most fashionable incarnations, has Christian roots. But somehow, most of us think it’s possible to escape the implications of this connection by simply denying the Christian label, and adopting a metaphysical doctrine – atheism – which is repugnant to the unwashed who have not made this great leap. The result is that we land in “No Logo” nirvana. We are the enlightened ones. Hail us!
Imagine if I tried the same with Nazism. I could march around in a brown leather uniform all day, waving a swastika banner and condemning the filthy Zionist-Bolshevik hordes. When questioned by the usual voices of decency, I could respond that:
- I’m not a Nazi. In fact, I oppose Nazism. So I’m not a Nazi.
- I’m half-Jewish. The Nazis would never have me. So I’m not a Nazi.
- Nazis believe in the leadership of Adolf Hitler. I don’t. So I’m not a Nazi.
- My inverted swastika is actually a Hindu fertility symbol. So I’m not a Nazi.
Etc, etc, etc. How much ice do you think this would cut with the diversity committee? But somehow, when the creed is Christianity rather than Nazism, it can be ditched as easily as a Muslim’s wife. Just say: “I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist.” And no one will ever be able to accuse you of being a religious fanatic, at least not without substantial preparatory explanation. What more perfect cover story for an actual religious fanatic?
Anyway. I apologize if I’m getting a little repetitive here. I don’t think this trick can be analyzed too many times. I grew up as a Universalist myself, and there’s nothing like finding one of those Brawndo moments in one’s own head, especially after 30-plus years of believing any such mental baggage was reserved for one’s lessers. “But Brawndo has electrolytes.” And so it does.
This poor little blog cannot possibly hope to topple or even shake the great Gibraltar that is the Universalist church. But what I love about exploring Universalism, what makes it so fun for me, is that there’s a genuine sense of newness to it. The anaesthetic that the Universalist brainworm secretes, euphoric though it is – who can deny the believer’s genuine joy? – conceals all kinds of fascinating adaptive structures. With the magic sunglasses, these pop right out in living color, and you can see them every day on the front page of the Times. It’s like going on a galactic mission to Planet Earth. America the home of the free and the brave, and Plainland the home of the Universalist corporate theocracy, are the same physical place. But you can be excused for wishing you hadn’t left your spacesuit back on the ship.
Anyway. To continue the discussion from part 6, we were talking about governments. Or as we say when we use the magic sunglasses, sovcorps.
The fundamental problem of modern history is to understand the great massacres of the 20th century. To at least the first approximation, any general theory of modern history must be a theory of democide.
I’ve expressed this before, but let me state it more bluntly: the cause of democide is democracy. The democides of the 20th century – plus one important adumbration, the War of Secession, the first modern total war – can only be understood as a consequence of the victory of democracy. And therefore of the defeat of the Concert of Europe and the Holy Alliance.
Needless to say, this belief is the polar opposite of Universalist doctrine. Of all Universalist cult words, there is perhaps none more holy than democracy. And these days the especially daring may make so bold as to praise Enoch Powell, but no significant political intellectual at least in my lifetime has tipped much hat to Wellington, Metternich or Castlereagh. I always liked Shelley’s verse:
I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him;
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
The latter stanza is doggerel, but the former with its cute anti-sightrhyme is really memorable. Which is a shame in a way. Because if anyone’s philosophy came flanked by murderous hounds, it was Shelley’s revolutionary democratic nationalism. Whereas all Castlereagh’s reactionary monarchism produced was European peace and prosperity for most of a century. But why should history be sane?
Of course, Universalists have their own theory of democide. In the Universalist narrative, the cause of democide is dictatorship, or more precisely autocracy.
I have been unable to determine the exact meaning of this word. However, it seems to be the case that a sovcorp is either a democracy, or an autocracy. I’ve certainly never heard of any regime that was both democratic and autocratic, or any that was neither. So presumably they are antonyms. However, a common synonym for the former is self-government. Since this is also the literal meaning of the latter, we can see that we’re on some tricky linguistic ground.
So we have two theories of democide to compare: the reservationist theory (mine), and the Universalist theory (everyone else’s). If popularity is your ruler, the answer is obvious. But in that case, surely there are other blogs you could be reading.
In questions of this appalling magnitude, I find the best way to “overcome bias” is often to find perspectives which seem to make each answer obvious. Once we recognize that both A and B are obviously true, and A is inconsistent with B, we are in the right mindset for actual thought.
From the reservationist perspective, democracy is obviously the cause of democide – because the Age of Democracy is also the Age of Democide. The last major outbreak of indiscriminate mass murder in Europe was the massacre of Beziers in the Albigensian Crusade, which is easy to explain as a breakdown in military discipline, and whose memory also has suspicious links to the anticlerical Black Legend.
This was in 1209. (Possibly some nasty things also happened in the Thirty Years War. But defenestration is not democide. Nor is famine or the pest. And even if we admit that the Sack of Magdeburg was no picnic, it was again a failure of discipline – the opposite of Eichmann.)
Then, 780 years later, the association between popular government and democide opens with the French Revolution (if not with Cromwell’s plantation of Ireland), and continues to pop up everywhere. Every sovcorp which has ever committed democide has claimed to be the one true representative of the People. Black Legend notwithstanding, significant cases of monarchist mass murder are hard to find. (For example, most of what you know about the so-called “Inquisition” isn’t true.)
Furthermore, before our great Age of Democracy, it was widely assumed that progress would simply continue and civilization would only get more civilized. The famous example is Gibbon, from his General Observations:
It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive interest and glory of his native country; but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation. The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or the neighbouring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies. The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society; and we may inquire with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome. Perhaps the same reflections will illustrate the fall of that mighty empire, and explain the probable causes of our actual security.
The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their danger, and the number of their enemies. Beyond the Rhine and Danube, the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry. The Barbarian world was agitated by the rapid impulse of war; and the peace of Gaul or Italy was shaken by the distant revolutions of China. The Huns, who fled before a victorious enemy, directed their march towards the West; and the torrent was swelled by the gradual accession of captives and allies. The flying tribes who yielded to the Huns assumed in their turn the spirit of conquest; the endless column of Barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with accumulated weight; and, if the foremost were destroyed, the vacant space was instantly replenished by new assailants. Such formidable emigrations can no longer issue from the North; and the long repose, which has been imputed to the decrease of population, is the happy consequence of the progress of arts and agriculture. Instead of some rude villages, thinly scattered among its woods and morasses, Germany now produces a list of two thousand three hundred walled towns; the Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Poland, have been successively established; and the Hanse merchants, with the Teutonic knights, have extended their colonies along the coast of the Baltic, as far as the Gulf of Finland. From the Gulf of Finland to the Eastern Ocean, Russia now assumes the form of a powerful and civilized empire. The plough, the loom, and the forge, are introduced on the banks of the Volga, the Oby, and the Lena; and the fiercest of the Tartar hordes have been taught to tremble and obey. The reign of independent Barbarism is now contracted to a narrow span; and the remnant of Calmucks or Uzbecks, whose forces may be almost numbered, cannot seriously excite the apprehensions of the great republic of Europe. Yet this apparent security should not tempt us to forget that new enemies, and unknown dangers, may possibly arise from some obscure people, scarcely visible in the map of the world. The Arabs or Saracens, who spread their conquests from India to Spain, had languished in poverty and contempt, till Mahomet breathed into those savage bodies the soul of enthusiasm.
[…] Europe is now divided into twelve powerful, though unequal, kingdoms, three respectable commonwealths, and a variety of smaller, though independent, states; the chances of royal and ministerial talents are multiplied, at least with the number of its rulers; and a Julian, or Semiramis, may reign in the North, while Arcadius and Honorius again slumber on the thrones of the South. The abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame; republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times. In peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals: in war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and undecisive contests. If a savage conqueror should issue from the deserts of Tartary, he must repeatedly vanquish the robust peasants of Russia, the numerous armies of Germany, the gallant nobles of France, and the intrepid freemen of Britain; who, perhaps, might confederate for their common defence. Should the victorious Barbarians carry slavery and desolation as far as the Atlantic Ocean, ten thousand vessels would transport beyond their pursuit the remains of civilized society; and Europe would revive and flourish in the American world which is already filled with her colonies and institutions.
Only a few years after Gibbon wrote these words, barbarism erupted in the heart of Europe – not among the Uzbecks and Calmucks, but in Paris herself. The City of Light became the City of Terror. Naturally, the tragedy is celebrated to this day.
Of course Gibbon agreed with Burke about this. (He also famously wrote that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus [ie, the Antonine period].”) Basically, everyone sensible agreed. However we may perceive it today, in its own wake the French Revolution was no more considered defensible than the Third Reich is today.
From the 1790s through the 1820s, the word revolution actually had negative connotations in the King’s English. If you had invented some new steam gizmo, you would be no more likely to describe it as revolutionary than a modern inventor would be to describe her work as fascist. (“My new fascist programming language – with really strong typechecking.”) Even if all you meant was that your gizmo went around in circles, you’d probably find some different word.
For example, note how Shelley denounces the Liverpool regime in Masque of Anarchy – he accuses it of being anarchy under a mask of law. Actually suggesting that law was bad and anarchy was good would have been too much even for Shelley. (Anything that was too much for Shelley was too much for anyone.)
I don’t find the links from Robespierre to Stalin and Mao particularly debatable. As for Hitler, the Jacobins and Nazis were both violent, charismatic street-gang movements with aggressive utopian ideals and a penchant for paranoid conspiracy theories, whose popular base was concentrated in the lower middle class. Ie: Hitler was practically Robespierre 2.0.
The influence of democracy served to increase the tension of a crisis because elected politicians felt it necessary to pander to the most irrational and crass motivations of the electorate in order to ensure future election, and did this by playing on hatred and fear of powerful neighbors or on such appealing issues as territorial expansion, nationalistic price, “a place in the sun,” “outlets to the sea,” and other real or imagined benefits. At the same time, the popular newspaper press, in order to sell papers, played on the same motives and issues, arousing their peoples, driving their own own politicians to extremes, and alarming neighboring states to the point where they hurried to adopt similar kinds of of action in the name of self-defense. Moreover, democracy made it impossible to examine international disputes on their merits, but instead transformed every petty argument into an affair of honor and national prestige so that no dispute could be examined on its merits or settled as a simple compromise because such a sensible approach would at once be hailed by one’s democratic opposition as a loss of face and an unseemly compromise of exalted moral principles.
Quigley is of course describing the phenomenon known as jingoism. Compared to its 1914 incarnation, jingoism is a pretty minor problem these days. My guess is that we have the decline of political democracy, and the rise of bureaucratic democracy, to thank for this.
One thing most people don’t know about the Great War is that all sides were democracies. There were no “absolute” governments in Europe in 1914. Recognizable democratic politics existed in every country. Calling Wilhelmine Germany in some way autocratic because Germans did not elect the Kaiser makes no more sense than calling the US autocratic because Americans do not elect the Supreme Court, or Europeans the European Commission.
(Which is not to say it makes no sense at all. But it makes the notion of a war for democracy risible. Much as 25 years later, the next war for democracy resulted in the enslavement of half Europe and most of Asia. Could I make this stuff up?)
In jingoism we see the Concert of Europe’s last gasp for political oxygen. Reactionary aristocrats toward the end of the Belle Époque found that jingoist nationalism was their only way to compete for public favor with the socialists, whose program of plunder had obvious democratic appeal. The three classical traditions of Continental reaction – Legitimism, Orléanism, and Bonapartism – wound up congealing into a single shrunken and unattractive mass, in the shape of the anti-Dreyfusards, which combined the worst features of Bonapartism and Orléanism. It’s hardly surprising that the defenders of Esterhazy have drifted out of historical respectability.
If we are looking for an objective definition of democracy rather than a moralistic one, there’s no way we can stick with the Western distinction between representative democracy and the more malignant 20th-century forms, people’s democracy and folkish democracy.
The idea of representation is implicit in the symbolic doxology of all these regimes, even to some extent in divine-right (as opposed to propertarian) monarchy – which is perhaps best seen as a sort of proto-democracy. Symbolically, the democratic State represents the General Will, the aspirations and needs of the entire community. The link between State and People is axiomatic in all democracies.
Like sausage, the rituals by which this submission is established and renewed rarely reward excessive inspection. Hitler loved his plebiscites, the Americans demand a two-party circus, the Europeans have parliaments and proportional representation, the Soviets got along fine with just one party, the East Germans had various toy oppositions, etc, etc, etc. Frankly, if there is a major categorical distinction here, I just ain’t seeing it.
The distinction between political and apolitical democracy does not strike me as terribly significant. In fact, the latter is probably preferable. Certainly all modern democracies have delegated most important tasks to apolitical bureaucrats. As James Burnham pointed out 65 years ago, the administrative relevance of elected officials in the Western democracies is steadily decreasing. The insane orgiastic elections of the American 19th century are gone.
The difference between liberal democracy and totalitarian democracy is much more relevant. But it is a matter of the State’s actions, not its management structure. I certainly favor liberal if not libertarian government, and I despise the tyrannical megastate. But I see no reason at all why the electoral structure of a democratic state should have much bearing on whether it is liberal or tyrannical.
The EU, for example, has little more in the way of electoral politics than the Soviet Union, but it is a much nicer place to live. I suspect the main difference is just that the former is in Western Europe and the latter was brought to us by Russia, a great and beautiful country, but never one noted for its appreciation of personal independence.
From a practical political perspective, the problem faced by all democracies is the same. The regime’s survival is dependent on its popularity. Its military is only a backup, and probably will not be willing to resist any serious popular protest. Therefore, to establish any stability, the democratic State must manage public opinion. This is also known as manufacturing consent, and it typically involves a substantial system of official or quasiofficial education and/or journalism.
So a good way to see which faction holds real power in a democratic state is to look at which can get its people into influential roles in education and/or journalism. For example, if anyone reading this still retains any doubt in the matter, this algorithm shows us that the Republicans are the real party of power in the US, and the Democrats are a toy or decoy opposition. Statistics show that the vast majority of political contributions from educators and journalists in the US go to Republicans. Obviously this is why political opinions in the US are constantly shifting to the right. An amoral young political entrepreneur will “lead” this shifting moral Zeitgeist, and adjust his positions to be mainstream at such time as he expects to contend for office. This may be why so many young American intellectuals support torturing terrorists who refuse to accept Jesus as their personal savior.
Once we understand jingoism as a symptom of democracy, and once we realize that the structure or even existence of a democratic political system is not terribly important, the inference from democracy to democide starts to approach the obvious level. It is the Eastern totalitarian democracies of the 20th century that seem more the rule, and the Western liberal democracies more the exception. And we begin to suspect that the West is liberal despite democracy, whereas the East was totalitarian because of it.
You will find people who don’t smoke and get lung cancer. And you may find non-democratic states which go off the rails and engage in mass murder. But generally, wherever you find the effect, it’s not hard to guess the cause. Smoking obviously causes lung cancer, and democracy obviously causes democide. Duh.
But then we look at the Universalist theory of democide – and we see an equally obvious answer, which strikes us as much simpler. It certainly demands no long essay to explain.
We all know this theory. It tells us that democide is the result of evil dictatorships. When we look at the Age of Democide – discounting occasional moments of military exuberance, such as the strategic bombing of Japan and Germany – what we see is very clear. We see that mass murder is practiced by dictators, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Pol Pot, etc, etc, etc. Meanwhile, under representative democracy, we see peace and prosperity. Ergo, democracy is the cure for democide, and absence of democracy is the cause. Duh.
Of course, my reservationist opinion is that this argument seems simple and obvious only because we know it so well. (“But Brawndo has electrolytes!”) But at least we have the contradiction, and it puts us in the right mood for actual analytic thought.
Our goal in this last part of the Dawkins essay is to understand Universalism, and to see it adaptively – to explain why it has outcompeted all the other crazy things people could believe, but don’t.
Explaining Universalism’s historical roots and sectarian pedigree is always interesting, but it always carries a slight hint of eau de McCarthy. The history of the thing (once again, I recommend McKenna’s Puritan Origins of American Patriotism) helps us sort up from down and get some idea of what questions to ask. But fundamentally – as some commenters have observed – the history of Universalism tells us no more than we learn by knowing that political party X is descended from Nazis, or Communists, or whatever. Like its biological counterpart, memetic evolution can cover an impressive distance in a short time. (Consider the Socreds.)
So the question is: why is Universalism so successful? Why are so many Americans and Europeans these days Universalists? Especially so many smart, well-informed, talented Americans and Europeans? And why does the intensity of Universalism seem to be growing?
(If you doubt the latter point, I have two words for you: Operation Wetback. If you need three, try Louise Day Hicks. Professor Dawkins’ shifting moral Zeitgeist may deserve some more prosaic name than the Spirit of Time, and its morality is arguable as morality is. But it’s pretty hard to say it ain’t shifting. And yes, that bit about torturing terrorists for Jesus was satire.)
The critical issue, I think, is the relationship between Universalism and the State.
As I said in a previous post, this is at least as close as the connection between malaria and the mosquito. You can imagine something like Universalism whose transmission vector was not the State. You can also imagine something like malaria whose transmission vector was, say, the tick. But it’s hard to imagine anyone calling it “malaria.”
Even closer is the relationship between Universalism and democracy. These phenomena have quite clearly evolved together. At this point we are talking about multiple features of the same organism – more like the relationship between malaria schizonts and trophozoites. (Okay, yuck. But remember, folks, this is just an analogy.)
Whatever the details of the lifecycle, it seems pretty clear that one of these beasties is the chicken and the other one is the egg. Thus, picking one at random, let’s start with democracy and explain why Universalism is so successful in a democratically managed sovcorp. (A fun exercise would be to take the opposite path, and explain why democracy is so successful in a sovcorp whose tenants are Universalists.)
Our goal is to understand Universalism from a historical perspective which is completely non-Universalist. While it was certainly not utterly free from democratic cant, the Burkean Europe that the Congress of Vienna tried to create, and did to some extent and for some time create, is certainly as close as we can come to such a perspective. It certainly beats the next competitor, the Antonine Rome of Marcus Aurelius.
(The nice thing about both these periods is that they were both relatively non-Universalist, yet relatively acceptable to Universalist taste. You simply can’t argue that Castlereagh had anything in common with Hitler. He would have had Hitler horsewhipped. The thought of Stalin in the presence of Aurelius is similarly comical and depressing.)
We can construct a complete non-Universalist narrative of the State, therefore, by pulling out the good old what-ifs, and imagining that instead of decaying into nationalist democracy the Concert of Europe had advanced into neocameralism.
Let’s review the neocameralist theory of the sovcorp for a moment.
A sovcorp is a corporation that owns a populated territory, and is not dependent on any other power to enforce its claim of property. A planet whose surface area is divided among multiple sovcorps is a stable property system if and only if no sovcorp can profit by attacking another. This can be assured by a variety of means – military deterrence or compellence, collective security, etc, etc. Tall fences make good neighbors, but a nuke or two doesn’t hurt neither. Rationally managed sovcorps are especially good at deterrence, because the game theory is much simpler if you assume rational actors.
(The basic difference between neocameralism and anarcho-capitalism is that I don’t think this sort of self-enforcing property model scales militarily, at least not anywhere near to the level where individuals are sovereign. I mean, someone is crazy here, and I don’t think it’s me. But then I wouldn’t, would I?)
Assuming military stability, the essential property of a stable neocameralist sovcorp is that its revenues are formalized and distributed equally among its shareholders, who own and manage it in proportion to their holdings. An immutable corporate charter sets the sovcorp’s rights and responsibilities, and prevents a majority of shareholders from abusing a minority, eg, by confiscating their shares.
And who ensures that the corporate definition is immutable? Again, there is no such thing as a self-enforcing law. The ultimate decision algorithm in every dispute is always military. Fortunately, obeying simple rules is what military men do best. If the Schelling point of simple, precise formal law fails, there’s always my favorite gimcrack technical solution – cryptographic weapon locks. In the 21st century, there’s no reason every rifle – even every bullet – can’t have one.
My belief is that, except for the minor matter of taxation, which will go to the Laffer maximum and stay there, a neocameralist sovcorp’s interests are perfectly aligned with the interests of its tenants. Specifically, a profitable, efficiently-run sovcorp – even in the degenerate and undesirable case of a single global monopoly – will operate a libertarian government which maintains Pareto optimality. My reasoning is that any Pareto inefficiency represents an uncaptured tax, which affects the Laffer curve but generates zero revenue. Basically, the territory and residents of a sovcorp are its capital, and a well-run corporation, sovereign or otherwise, treats its capital the way the way Mother Teresa holds a baby bird.
So we can imagine a coherent alternate history in which the States of the Concert of Europe converted themselves into neocameralist sovcorps, by formalizing their revenues, dividing them into shares, and ceding management to the shareholders. Essentially, from the perspective of a monarch, this is like converting a family business into a public corporation. History shows that it’s possible to run a sovcorp as a family business, but it doesn’t really demonstrate that it’s a good idea.
If I’m right that a shareholder-controlled sovcorp is stable, this would almost certainly have averted the democides of the 20th century. So why didn’t it happen?
The answer, unfortunately, is that I don’t think it was a realistic possibility.
The problem is that it’s one thing to suggest that an informal business be formalized, and another to do it. And it’s even harder in a sovcorp. Even if the idea is obvious and available, which in 1815 it clearly was not, there are many cases where it may be simply impossible.
No European monarchy was ever anything like “absolute.” The so-called Age of Absolutism is misnamed – as the book behind the link demonstrates elegantly.
First, “absolute” is in any case a pejorative slur. A better word would be coherent. A coherent enterprise can coordinate all of its actions through a single central decision process. (This does not mean that a coherent sovcorp needs to engage in economic central planning.)
Second, coherence was not a quality but an aspiration of the old European monarchies, and a distant aspiration at that. Probably the most coherent 18th-century sovcorp was the Prussia of Frederick the Great, but to call even Prussia absolutely coherent would be stretching the term. The weakness of the French monarchy is adequately demonstrated by the circumstances of its collapse. The same goes, although much later, for the Russians. And so on.
So the monarchies of old Europe were both informal (with no clear equity structure) and incoherent (with no clear management structure). Imagine the task of formalizing an informal, incoherent monarchy. Being a minister at the Bourbon court was not an easy job – especially when you realize that at the time, there was actually no such thing as bourbon. I think if I had Necker‘s job, I’d want to come home to a nice tall mint julep every night.
In the neocameralist scheme, we can distinguish four clear aspects of sovereign corporate governance. One is revenue: how is the sovcorp’s cash flow handled? Another is law: what promises has the sovcorp made to its tenants? A third is power: who controls the administrative apparatus of the sovcorp? A fourth is operations: who works for the sovcorp?
A well-managed sovcorp is a single accounting entity which collects and distributes all revenue centrally, and which treats all payments as formal obligations.
A well-managed sovcorp obeys all its own laws, and binds itself with new laws only when it is satisfied that it will not have to break them. It keeps a public list of these laws, and it does not bind itself to obey any unwritten rules that are not laws.
A well-managed sovcorp is managed by the holders of the equity tranche of its securities, like any normal corporation. These shareholders make the management decisions because they have the highest exposure to risk and reward. (Although it is not utterly ridiculous to give votes to debtholders as well.) The shareholders are precisely defined and publicly listed, their shares are fungible, and voting is by blocks of shares.
A well-managed sovcorp distinguishes between its shareholders and its employees. The latter work at the sovcorp’s administrative pleasure and can be dismissed at any time upon notice from the board. Any overlap between employees and creditors is coincidental and irrelevant. The same goes for any overlap between employees and customers.
Needless to say, no sovcorp in history has fit this profile. And France in 1788 was very, very far from it. In fact, it was a morass of venal offices, scheming factions, diverted revenues, etc, etc, etc. The Bourbon regime of 1788 may not have been doomed by the Zeitgeist to destruction, and it may not have been a nightmare of proto-Nazi tyranny. In fact, it wasn’t either. But to call it well-managed would be going way, way too far.
When a sovcorp has an informal creditor structure and an incoherent power base, the two tend to overlap and interact in a very ugly way. Factions are constantly scheming for money and power. Some may have more money than power, some more power than money. Historically, telling people to stop scheming is not an effective way to stop them from scheming.
The natural path of development for a malstructured corporation is to become more malstructured. The informal structures of money and power are no less real for their informality. Their complexity tends to increase over time.
The typical mechanism of complexity collapse for a sovcorp is for an incoherent power base to break down into incoherent management, which works at cross purposes to itself. Incoherently managed organizations tend to operate by process rather than initiative, using procedural orders instead of Aufragstaktik or “mission orders.” The resulting codes of procedure snowball into a giant mass of red tape, and the organization becomes paralyzed.
If the sovcorp does not have a central balance sheet, its revenues will be diverted not only by its power base, but also by its employees. The result is that employees effectively become creditors. Exactly the same can happen with customers, who will always take anything they are given. The result is that the whole elegant structure of the owner-controlled corporation devolves into a homogeneous, disorganized mass of so-called “stakeholders.”
So, even if my contention that the neocameralist sovcorp is stable is correct, it is not the sort of stability that acts as a strong attractor. A slightly malstructured sovcorp will not tend to fix itself. It will tend to become even more malstructured.
This perspective lets us see democracy from a neocameralist perspective.
A modern democracy is nothing more and nothing less than a very malstructured sovcorp. Its basic problems are that its power base – its voters, who are at least in theory the owners of this collective enterprise – is completely deformalized. Voters cannot sell their shares, nor does a share guarantee an equal percentage of government revenue. New shares are constantly being issued to children of citizens and immigrants, a process with no relationship to any sound governance practice. The confusion of customers and shareholders is complete.
As a consequence, the sovcorp develops an incoherent management structure marked by constant factional tensions, overgrowth of process, etc, etc. It also develops an overgrowth of employees, who are thinly disguised shareholders – aka, “jobs for the boys.”
Worst of all, this management structure often has very little local incentive to treat the sovcorp’s capital properly. Decisions that damage overall capital may generate revenue for a certain subset of shareholders, and not for anyone else.
The danger is especially acute when some shareholders are insecure. Violent conflict over the direction of sovcorp revenues is not at all impossible. Here we start to see the roots of democide. When management is incoherent, sovereignty itself becomes nebulous. Which parts of Washcorp wanted to invade Iraq, and which parts didn’t? The question is easy to answer: look at the changes in revenue flow as a result of the decision. While the decision to invade Iraq was a rare example of coherent (if not intelligent) management in Washcorp, it is not difficult to see which agencies supported it and which didn’t. They match the prediction.
In other words, we have left the simple world of corporate governance and entered into the hairy world of public choice theory. Neocameralist corporate governance has grave difficulty in explaining why a sovcorp would want to massacre its tenants. Public choice theory is only too glad to oblige.
Finally, when we see a democratic sovcorp as a profoundly mismanaged sovcorp, we start to be able to understand why Universalism is so darned successful.
Once again, Universalism is a mystery cult of power. And when we look at Universalism’s mysteries – equality, social justice, peace, and so on, we see something I find very interesting.
We note that all of these mysteries serve as excellent excuses for why an individual should (a) break the law, (b) revise the law, (c) revise the distribution of property, or (d) organize with others to achieve (a), (b), or (c).
In a formalist society, there is one rule of social good behavior: obey the law. In a Universalist society, there is an enormous panoply of political mysteries, all of which can be deployed in the service of power. Since gaining power is always advantageous to the individual who gains it, it is advantageous to just about anyone in a Universalist society to be as Universalist as possible.
The result is that, as in decadent cultures throughout history, the principal occupation of talented and energetic young people is not productive effort. It is scheming for power.
For example, consult this Washington Post article. I’m sure none of the individuals the reporter profiled, and precious few like them, think of themselves as scheming for power. However, they are all so eager to work for NGOs that they have driven salaries down to the bare minimum required to purchase Ramen noodles and happy-hour cocktails.
NGOs have the N in their acronym for one reason: because their general mission is to affect government policy, the beast being too paralyzed in process to make its own decisions. The term “paragovernmental” might be more appropriate. Essentially, these young people are all drones working for the State. They are certainly not producing goods or services.
Why are they so interested in this so-called work? Perhaps it’s because their country’s productive industries have been paralyzed in red tape to the point of complete Dilbert-Brezhnev Office-Space syndrome. But it may also be because they are paid not just in money but in power – the power to influence policy, to “change the world” – and this power translates to social status. Which, not to be too blunt, gets you laid.
Needless to say, a well-managed sovcorp has a minimal capacity to compensate its employees by paying them with power, not money. This is because it has a coherent decision process, which cannot indefinitely expand the supply of decisions. It also maintains Pareto optimality, so it does not intrude on its customers’ private decisions. Someone always has to be CEO, and his or her balls or ovaries will no doubt sink and become plump. But in the neocameralist world, there is a bounded supply of policy, and the bound is small.
The natural endpoint of compensation in power is pure camp-guard sadism. However, before this point is reached, an infinite number of regulations can be written. No doubt they will be.
It gets worse. Because the obvious question is: in a democracy, why do voters put up with this?
After all, at least until the democracy reaches its degenerate terminal state, there are always far more tenants who are not employees of the sovcorp than those who are. Surely the mere tenants can react, and use their democratic rights to keep their sovcorp from metastasizing endlessly in the fashion described above? But for some reason, they don’t. Even when they live in a country with a long tradition and an ironclad legal guarantee of “limited government.”
A simple answer is that this small problem can be solved with the easy approach of vote-buying. In other words, the democratic masses can be converted not into employees, but into creditors of the sovcorp. Of course, this creditor relationship should be kept informal – otherwise, the creditor may just sell her formal negotiable asset, and her vote will not stay bought. Ideally, the sovcorp should provide the creditor not even with money, but with services, which can be very easily withdrawn if votes are not forthcoming. This makes a mockery of Pareto optimality, but it’s great for maintaining continuity of government.
However, the question remains unanswered. Men vote not for bread alone. They also vote with their hearts. And the system of democratic government, as described above, is so utterly loathsome that I can’t imagine anyone being persuaded to vote for it.
Also, neohominids have collective social instincts that override their personal interests. Everyone in a modern democracy, while doing his or her little bit to go to the box and support the State, is confident that their fractional management decision is leading the sovcorp in a direction that will enhance peace, freedom and prosperity.
But if you can convince people that democracy is the cure for democide, rather than its cause, you can convince anyone of anything. Historically, democratic voters have made many decisions that they thought would lead to peace, freedom and prosperity, and instead led to war, slavery and poverty. Why should it be otherwise? I don’t have a magic oracle of truth in my head. Do you? Does anyone else?
The trouble is that, while war, slavery and poverty are in general bad things, they may well be profitable for some. Especially in small doses. And if you can create a feedback loop by which Universalism causes war, slavery or poverty, but does so in such a way as to reward those who practice and promote Universalism, you have a loop that can continue indefinitely.
Take, for example, the “peace process” in Israel and Palestine. Now 60 years old and counting. How confident are you that this “peace process” is not, in fact, the cause of this similarly unending conflict? It certainly generates a very comfortable living, full of meaning and importance and not a few frequent-flier miles, for all those involved. Why shut it down?
And this, in my opinion, is why we have Universalism. We have Universalism because it is adaptive in a democratic sovcorp. Similarly, Universalism (and its ancestors) create democracy, in much the same way that they create “peace processes.” The whole thing is an artifact of sovereign corporate governance gone horribly awry.
In short, the adaptive function of Universalism is to glorify and expand the modern democratic sovcorp. Of course, it has no purpose in any moral or metaphysical sense. It just exists.
Universalism is the latest, greatest incarnation of Bertrand de Jouvenel‘s Minotaur. It can also be seen as a perfectly distributed conspiracy, a la H.G. Wells, with no central structure at all. And finally, it provides a complete explanation of Robert Conquest‘s three laws of politics:
- Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
- Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
- The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
In short, the thing is a menace. It’s probably too late for Professor Dawkins. But perhaps it’s not too late for the rest of us.