Why rule by nerds leads to perpetual chaos
Fascinating to consider the appeal of a world in which symbols and their manipulation is the ultimate expression of the Fox’s will to power. I wonder how resentment fits into that scheme. The change drive advertises itself mostly (not exclusively) in positive language: “Look what we can create!” But my intuition tells me this drive has deep roots in the frustration which the Fox feels at the intractable and tragic underlying reality of the material world. I think the change merchants’ success has increased and amplified the sense of resentment modern people feel over so many things.
I read a lot on human psychology/behavior science and organizational theory. Also read a lot of history written from the perspective of the governing power contrasted with the people governed. My seek is to better understand why people think and behave the way they do, and to resolve related social-political-organizational trends that are fundamentally destructive. One book that was impactful to my thinking was Virginia Postrel’s “The Future and Its Enemies”. This piece from N.S. Lions just blew that away. It is perfectly written. Taking a fascinating new perspective of a current vexing, complex, and primary global phenomenon, a walking us through a well-designed theory of explanation. There is nothing to argue against here. Only gratitude for delivering something important that needs to go viral. Everyone should read this.
Our complex, global, economy of scale feeds all the lions, tigers and foxes extremely well. Politics is about this world - the material world; our physical wants, needs and desires. We should be happy, but man is an incorrigibly religious being. Only Truth alone can make man happy.
The great irony of this age is Anthropogenic Global Warming ideology. It's farcically untrue. There is nothing man can do, or not do, to consequentially effect earth's temperatures. But... There is a clear and present danger to the whole modern project. Massive Solar flares, aka, Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) happen with alarming frequency. Every 200 - 500 years trillions and trillions of tons of charged particles (plasma) are belched out of the Sun and head directly for Earth. In pre-modern times, ominous red auroras would appear for days or weeks in the tropics if a CME did a direct hit on Earth. And that was it.
If Earth takes a direct hit now, everything will be as it was before, except... All those trillions of tons of charged particles will be inducted as electric current by Earth’s magnetosphere into anything that conducts electricity.
All the transformers in our global electrical transmission and distribution network will get fried by surging rogue current. Nothing will work. No pumps to move water and fuel. The transformer factories will not be making replacement transformers. Our entire technological / industrial edifice will fall silent.
The 1859 Carrington Solar Flare Event burned down telegraph poles & sheds,. Electrocuted telegraph operators and blew up batteries. The Carrington event energized the conductor lines so the telegraph could operate without batteries. It was a global event.
I won't bore you with details. But just imagine our lives without electricity. Nobody works with their hands anymore. Everybody will after the Big One hits. The foxes will need to find digging sticks, lions too.
Ironically, we could harden the gird to protect grid assests. But nobody is doing that because it would be too expensive - or so we imagine.
So say your prayers and don't love this world too much. The world we know is passing way.
Fascinating. Thinking about your virtuals / physicals distinction, I’ve come to believe that a battleground where these two ways of being in the world meet is Change, in the sense of big organisational restructures. Virtual PowerPoint decks and theories of how the world should work vs the actual crooked timber of the real thing, with poor middle managers stuck in between. This article adds another layer, never mind academia, most of business management and consulting is utterly built around change. That’s another front in the virtual vs. physical conflict: the manager or consultant that requires change to justify their position vs the fact that, as Robert Conquest put it, everyone is a conservative about what they know best.
Brilliant piece, thank you.
I would still like my refrigerator to last longer.
Thank you for this, N.S.! Keen insight and details. What if the guiding spirit behind the “Machine / Technium / Virtuals / Change merchants / etc” is a lion using destabilization to introduce a fluidity it can fashion into a solid body — a community — after its own image?
Its image? The new archetypal human unrestrained by any reality other than that of its own making — in this case, such a one as to be worshipped, so great is its vision and power. Of course I am speaking of Antichrist, whose agenda is to have a community allied with it in hatred of that humanity made in the image of the true God, and to destroy it with diabolic force.
Seems to me there is a great deal of over-thinking here about your imagined change agents, the academics, the media and so on. The engine that creates change at a continually accelerating pace in the modern world is market capitalism. How much impact do academics have in the real world, outside of their committee meetings? Market capitalism continually needs new products, new markets, new technologies, new customers and new narratives that encourage the desire for new products. I worked in the television industry for fifty years, and I am sure you understand the technological changes that happened during that time, change that always came faster with each new innovation in production or distribution.
All of this was driven not by some kind of elite manipulative mind control, or whatever it is you are trying to describe with your animal metaphors, but by the marketing departments of ever larger and conglomerating corporations. Most people in the media are liberals, it is true, but these media worker bees take their orders from the corporations that pay them, and the marketing departments that direct them. It is this desire for profit that have given us body and soul destroying products like pornography, the opioid crisis, the fossil fuel industries destruction of the atmosphere, and all the rest of it. What church can compete with the internet, with its avalanche of fast paced news stories or fashion stories or action stories or whatever? Who can hold onto a framework of traditional values, when the saturating desire for the new obliterates any reverence for the old? The formula is really fairly simple, capitalism needs consumers who desire new stuff, new ways of seeing stuff, new technologies to make new stuff and lots of people with education and creativity to dream up new stuff, new vacations, new surgically enhanced bodies, new modes of transportation and so on and so on. You don’t have to look so hard to find the agents of change.
So, I take it that the rule of foxes comes at times of material security...where people can split action from consequence, at least for a bit.
I have thought that if you live in the US, the greatest privileged is not your sex or skin color, but your US citizenship, ability to speak English, and the fact that the US dollar is the world's reserve currency....and military might. PMC people are again and again oblivious to that because it's the water they swim, and others, swim in.
I'm sure you've read (or at least heard about) Iain McGilchrist's, The Matter With Things. He echoes the Lion / Fox problem in the terminology of left and right brained thinking and comes to a similar conclusion: the West has become almost schizophrenically left-brained (Foxey). We simply can no longer attend (his word) to anything that doesn't fit into a rationalist, nominalist box. (Anyone who doesn't know McGilchrist, here's 10 minutes on his earlier book: https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI )
Joseph Henrich's book, The WEIRDest People in the World, unintentionally backs up McGilchrist, pointing out the many ways that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich, Democratic) people think very differently than everyone else. In short we're not normal, either for our own time or for most of human history. That may be a good thing or a bad thing or both, but the reality of it is clear.
As to the question of where our wrong turn began, many people would say the 1960's and postmodernism. However I think it's more accurate to say that's when it became noticeable. Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed) believes the ingredients of our current conflict were baked in at the Enlightenment itself. Enlightenment liberalism desires to liberate people from unchosen constraints, which brings it into conflict with slavery, sex roles, family, church, male, female, human biology, and even reality itself. (Reality is, after all, the ultimate unchosen constraint.)
Brad Gregory wrote a book called The Unintended Reformation which argues that we came off the track at Martin Luther or even earlier at John Scotus and nominalism. I find this less convincing, but the Reformation did lead to the Enlightenment -- a individualist faith begat a individualist politics. It's worth noting that the Orthodox East has not experienced the highly individualist, left-brained thinking of the WEIRDs until very recently.
As a working theory, many centuries ago, a theological change (ala Gregory) brought about a gradual shift toward highly rationalist thinking (ala McGilchrist). That eventually produced a rationalist philosophy and politics in the Enlightenment, which stressed individual rights above the common good. Deneen is right, the seeds were planted in that philosophical change. This was supercharged by J.S. Mill's Harm Principle ("my rights only stop at your nose"), which asserts the supremacy of human desire, what I would call "maximal individual autonomy", over all other constraints. Once you deify human desire as your highest good, you've already dethroned "the common good", and it's only a matter of time before the battering ram of "my right to do what I want" will be used to demolish every institution that might stand in the way of that desire (which is all of them.) Unbeknownst to Locke, Jefferson, et al, the Enlightenment left a gaping philosophical hole left in the middle of Western Civilization. All the postmodernists did was drive a truck bomb into the hole and detonate it. We've been living with the philosophical and political carnage (what Zygmunt Bauman calls "liquid modernity") ever since.
When the deepest thinkers have been positing the same dichotomy for at least 500 years, they might be onto something basic about human nature. (Ignoring the postmodernists, who insist humans are infinitely malleable tabulae rasae and human nature is an illusion.)
Machiavelli certainly doesn't paint a promising picture of what happens next. Fortunately, as Adam Smith said, "there's a lot of ruin in a nation", which means we can likely coast on inertia for a while longer (maybe my kids whole lifetimes, but I doubt it). Eventually, the Foxes will cause a strategic defeat and we'll end up with a new crop of Lions in charge, if we're lucky by election, if we're not, by coup. But that may well be decades away. The Rome = America analogy is overused these days, but even those who use it get it wrong, I think. It's not 475 AD; it's BC 50. What's coming over the hill isn't barbarian hordes; it's Caesar's army. And Rome lasted another 500 years after that event.
I think this article, https://ponerology.substack.com/p/in-the-margins-the-rise-of-the-precariat ties in very well with what you are writing about here, as we get more and more "virtuals".
He argues, one significant faction of the precariat is essentially composed of educated surplus elites or “elite aspirants.” When the “wealth pump” directs more and more to the uber-rich (and away from everyone else), more and more people want to get in on that action. But there are only so many positions at the top. This is another key feature: elite overproduction.
Extreme competition does not lead to the selection of the best candidates, the candidates most suited for the positions. Rather, it corrodes the rules of the game, the social norms and institutions that govern how society works in a functional way. It destroys cooperation.
Very interesting observation about the mind-over-matter view of postmodernism: it reveals how it's the mirror image of the traditional viewpoint, which is also mind-over-matter, but taken in a diametrically opposite direction.
Yes, all this crap is destined to implode, but still, some useful things have been learned: the traditions were rejected for a reason. A traditional restoration will have to incorporate some of the viewpoint of Progress.
In the foxes world change is good and necessary. Some change is good, some change is bad. To be published and peer reviewed one must stay close to the current narrative or you are ostracized. Is there a Fox King who determines the direction of change? Or do the change merchants just throw crap on the wall and if something sticks they run with that?
This all makes my head hurt!
So "Lion-like men on horseback" will replace the managerial class. But a large proportion of the managerial class, the foxes are women, 70% in HR. I don't know how this effects Machiavelli's or Pareto's analysis. But I'm pretty sure it does.
The need for constant change, constant stimulation is the sign of a shallow intellect. Some verities are eternal.
I have no idea how AI works and how much it can be controlled/manipulated. But since it's certain to replace the change merchants and not the people who actually do things, perhaps it can just squash our predilection to change our labels and pronouns on a weekly basis.
Thanks for another interesting essay! Although it has already been pointed out by Brian Villanueva above, I will chime in with the observation that the fox/lion categories overlap more than a little with Iain McGilchrist’s left/right hemisphere modes of thinking.
In his magnum opus The Matter With Things McGilchrist meticulously argues that the left hemisphere has taken over the modern world in general and the western one in particular.
”Manipulating, categorizing, and interpreting symbolic information and narrative” is precisely the left hemisphere’s domain and while useful - indeed essential - should be subservient to the right hemisphere’s more grounded and holistic take on the universe. The emissary has become the master, in other words, and the terrible consequences are engraved all over our broken world.