a general theory of collaboration
In 2020, everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident.
Everything is about power. Everything has to have a side. Everyone knows what side they should pick. Pick it—and you’re a collaborator. Reject it—a dissident.
Nor are these labels chosen to mean that dissidents are always right, and collaborators always wrong. Far from it.
Sometimes power is right; sometimes power is wrong. Always and everywhere, power defines and is defined by what you should think, do and say if you wish to flourish. This is the only sure way to know whether you are a dissident or a collaborator.
Are you, or are you not, on the side of power? If your actions were completely selfish, if you were an utterly egocentric sociopath, if your only goal was to get ahead and make a good impression—what would you pretend to believe? What words, what ideas, would drip from your mouth? And to whose newsletter would you subscribe? This side is the side of power.
To take power’s side is to collaborate. To stand against it is to dissent. And this does not tell us who is right or wrong. Real life is not a movie—if there was some cheap and accurate formula for right and wrong, how would any wrong remain?
Both sides cannot be right. Both sides can certainly be wrong. Most people do just pick one side; probably neither is perfect. Every question can have a different answer. To get every answer right, you may have to be both a dissident and a collaborator. Also, most people have both a conscience and a career.
And while factional schisms between collaborators are superficial, there are genuinely infinite varieties of dissident. Most of them are extinct. Many have never existed. That they all disagree does not make them all wrong—just at least all but one.
You cannot just trust some absurd Internet grifter guru on everything—or anything. You may have to recover the truth from a long-dead tradition. You may even have to invent it. It is hard to be a dissident! But it can also be kind of fun.
You also have your own life. You have to care about that, too! It’s all very stressful. But also—it’s all very exciting. Hm.
This kind of stressful, exciting situation makes one sort of person ask: which side should I fight for? Or: how can the dissidents win? Or even: how can we crush the dissidents? These are certainly interesting questions.
Another sort of person asks: how did we get here? How can I get out? How can we get out? What would getting out even mean?
What else is there? What else could there be? Can we imagine any possible way in which all these increasingly strange and dangerous manias could turn themselves off, and everything could just be sensible, not scary, work and work well?
If you have found yourself asking this other type of question—perhaps you are not interested in spending the rest of your life as either a collaborator or a dissident—this text is for you.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any short, easy, right answers. My answers are long, hard, and very likely wrong. Maybe someone else can do better with the same questions. But the fundamental problem is simply the distance from here to sanity—which I believe is far greater than almost anyone imagines.
In this first chapter, we’ll explain the nature and condition of our current regime—with a special emphasis on why it’s broken, cannot be fixed, and merits neither your fealty nor your odium—and how to be neither a collaborator nor a dissident.
The crisis of universal relevance
In 2020, everyone is relevant. In 2020, anyone can be important. In 2020, anyone’s ideas can spread around the world in seconds.
In 1990, this was exactly what we wanted. In 1990, anyone with a Usenet account could see the future perfectly. In 1990, you didn’t even need to be John Perry Barlow.
In 2020, the network would be the government. For the first time, direct democracy would scale. In 2020, everyone would be their own representative in some planetary assembly. In 2020, we would have real democracy: routed over TCP/IP to everything on Planet Three with two legs that wasn’t a bird.
And in 2020, everyone would be relevant. A new dream? Not even slightly. In 1842, Tennyson had pretty much the same vision:
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range;
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change,
Till the war-drum throbs no longer, and the battle-flags are furled,
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapped in universal law.
In 2020, the results are in. It happened. In 2020, everyone is relevant. And in 2020, everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident.
In 1882, Tennyson wrote a sequel to his 40-year-old poem, which painted the outcome of his dream—more or less the dream of the European revolutions of 1848:
Pluck the mighty from their seats, but set no weak ones in their place;Pillory Wisdom in your markets; fling their offal in her face.Tumble Nature heel over head, and, yelling with the yelling street,Set the feet above the brain and swear the brain is in the feet.Bring the old dark ages back without the faith, without the hope;Break the State, the Church, the Throne, and roll their ruins down the slope.
It seems the dude had a change of heart. Maybe we have something to learn from him. Maybe we already learned it the hard way.
Even for its MPs, it turns out, the Parliament of Man (now aka “social media”) is a terrible experience—sometimes even a terrifying one. It does make universal laws. These are also terrible—and terribly executed.
It is superficial and lazy to blame this nasty surprise on the Internet, or Twitter, or whatever tech. Tennyson got much the same democratic shock from rail, broadsheet and telegraph.
New devices have brought old dreams new life. These dreams made flesh have whips and fangs we never dreamed. We never ordered any nightmares. We’re not dreaming these lashes, burns and stings.
Should we question the tech? The tech is here to stay. No—we must summon all the courage we have, and question our dreams. How do we actually know they weren’t nightmares all along?
Stop trying to change the world
There is nothing historically unusual about all this. We are just living in a total state. Nor is this new—it has been true our whole lives. It is just getting harder to hide.
In a total state, everyone and everything is infused with power. Everyone matters. Everything is important. Everyone has to care. Everyone wants to change the world. Everyone must be engaged. Everyone is pushing power forward, or pushing back against it. Everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident. Power has turned the whole country into a political cult.
Anyone who reads Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless will be struck by Havel’s portrait of Czechoslovakia forty years ago—with its voluntary window-slogans; its endless parade of crusades; its inexorable machinery of human cancellation.
Havel had the right strategy for the subjects of the total state. First, they must teach themselves to be powerless. They must fully inhabit their private irrelevance. Above all, they must stop trying to change the world.
Whatever power they think they now have, it is power in a fantasy. Until they check out of this fantasy, they are powerless in reality—and this is true even of the most successful people in the world today.
Engagement and detachment
This is a weird theory. Let’s define some jargon to make it more precise.
Engagement is any voluntary relationship with power—to assist or resist power, whether in action or just desire. If you are trying to change the world—even if you just want to change it—maybe even if you just want it to change—you are engaged.
The opposite of engagement is detachment. To be detached is to be consciously irrelevant—to inhabit the world as it is, to know that it is likely to continue on its current path, and to separate yourself from any action or desire to change it. No one can achieve perfect detachment—which is the point of trying.
Engagement is not compliance. Compliance is involuntary action. Engagement is voluntary action or desire for action. Compliance is paying your taxes. Engagement is putting a sign on your lawn. Detachment is weird; anything weird in your lifestyle will commend your attorneys to the most meticulous possible compliance.
Detachment is not dissidence. Detachment never resists. It does nothing against any person or institution, legal or illegal, violent or nonviolent. It does not even try to influence public policy or public opinion. It is never angry; it never cares; and it always obeys—both the formal laws, and the informal rules.
Detachment is a hard spiritual task in which no one can succeed perfectly. It is not a fact or even an idea. Detachment, like Zen, is a practice. And while serious Zen practice involves hours of painful sitting that can cause hemorrhoids and even nerve damage, how hard can it be to practice not giving a shit?
Achieving detachment has both individual and collective benefits. It is good for you, if you can do it. It is good for everyone, if everyone can do it.
We’ll see how that works as we move forward. But Havel, ten years later, was President of Czechoslovakia. The irony of detachment: it’s the first step on the one path to a different government. And while that path is long, this first step may be the hardest.
Evolution of the total state
But before the path to the future—the road from the past. How did things even get this way? Let’s start by looking at why everything in 2020 is so political.
If we go back to the early Pleistocene, we should have the root causes covered. We will have to indulge in some really sweeping, inaccurate generalizations.
Precivilized societies were total states: everyone was relevant. The unit of power was the tribe; everyone was a soldier or worker of the tribe; everything was about the tribe. So everything was political. Many human social instincts evolved in this period. Not all these instincts are assets today.
Premodern civilizations were partial states, in which power only concerned a small set of rulers, or regime. Everyone else was a subject: under the regime’s unconditional sovereignty. The invention of subjection was the invention of civilization. It let state and society scale beyond the size of a tribe.
A pure subject has no emotional relationship with power. Power demands nothing but physical compliance. Minimal compliance is nonaggression plus taxation: le libertarian paradise. While real history was never so pure, this abstraction is a normal civilized condition that we can call natural detachment.
Modern civilization, thanks to innovations in communication from Gutenberg to Pornhub, has returned to its beginning. In 2020, everyone is totally connected. So everyone can and must be engaged with power—just like when we were chimps.
The total state is no longer content with physical compliance. It demands emotional security. Power is not just obeyed. Power must be loved. And this reversion to the total state, our most ancient form of government, makes the modern regime, despite all its toys and transistors, seem somehow surprisingly barbaric.
The modern total state
We never love power directly as such. We love some good that only power can achieve—or that nothing can achieve, but only power can try to achieve. We feel that power as in some sense ours. Such is always and everywhere the mindset of the collaborator—who never understands that his enemies are enemies of power, not enemies of good.
When we collaborate, we are acting like normal humans: paying homage to power. When we pay homage to power, we think we are making the world a better place. Sometimes we even are—but we are always paying homage to power.
But when power has our emoluments and our compliance, why does it need our homage? Why must it pester us so, for the mere trinket of love?
Because it feels insecure. Power always feels insecure. Everyone wants power—so it should feel insecure. And the worse its performance, the more insecure power feels, because the more insecure it is; so the more homage it must demand. (Of course, there is no conspiracy; this is historical evolution, not intelligent design.)
This is why we should and do distrust Orwellian total states. It’s not because big lies are so bad in and of themselves—the problem is whatever makes the lies necessary.
Systematic mendacity and poor governance are common comorbidities. The closer a regime feels itself to death, the worse its behavior must become. The worse its behavior gets, the closer it comes to death—and the harder it must work to look good. And every regime, to almost everyone, looks absolutely immortal till the day it dies.
Psychological security and political formulas
“Orwellian” is a bit of a slur. A more objective way to describe our late modern regime is that it finds itself heavily invested in psychological security.
All regimes depend on the affection of their subjects. In some, this affection flows naturally from consistent performance and customer satisfaction; almost no security is needed. In others, it must be more engineered. This can never be done perfectly—so physical security is always necessary. But psychological security is always cheaper.
An aging regime has a face like a boot—a face only a mother could love. Power still needs everyone to love it—at least, everyone in the ruling class. Since no one will openly kiss a boot, power needs its Jedi mind tricks.
In the modern world, the general pattern of these tricks is to project some illusion which makes you yourself feel subjectively relevant. Objectively, you are delegating power to others. You do not literally love power—you love the good. When you collaborate, you generally win; your good can even win; but power always wins.
The 19th-century Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca named these tricks political formulas. An oligarchy is not a conspiracy; no one designs today’s political formulas. They evolve. The proper concern is neither the formulas nor those who follow them—it is the structural landscape that makes them inevitable and successful.
One aspect of that landscape will always be our power-seeking chimp psychology—as regretted by American statesmen as venerable as John Adams and Abraham Lincoln— which is unfortunately all too well adapted to the total state. Since the human brain is an invariant, the only variable aspect of the landscape is the structure of the state.
The home inspector’s diagnosis
Our structural problem is systematic power leakage. Everything is political because everything in the the government leaks power.
A power leak confers sovereign power on an individual or institution not formally entrusted with it. This is like leaking nutrients into a lake—its ecosystem becomes specialized for disgusting, nutrient-loving algae. Blame the leak, not the lake.
At the organizational level, power leakage grants many institutions outside the formal government substantial effective sovereignty over public policy. At the individual level, it lets everyone feel important—outside their formal powers, like the right to vote.
Systematic power leakage lets everyone feel important—even outside their legal political rights. And many institutions outside the government proper hold an enormous amount of power over it.
This seems completely normal to everyone. It is not; it is evil. Mere power leaks—just an engineering problem in the structure of our governments, if a quite unfixable one— cause most of the evil in the world today.
Most evil is done by unaccountable power. Most of most modern governments is already mostly unaccountable, but a state outside the state is profoundly, inherently, existentially and utterly unaccountable. Its job security makes Louis XIV look like a part-time dogcatcher.
And this is just about nongovernmental organizations, which often in practice combine sovereign authority with private immunity: the best of both worlds. Worse yet, unorganized forces, or those whose organization is not visible to the state, can practice direct statelike action.
A failure to suppress such extralegal action is itself a power leak. Only collaborators can operate this way—dissident forces in this vein are quickly crushed and punished severely. The force is once again operating as an arm of power—quite unconsciously. Its dependence on power can be concealed even from its own members, who feel they are cool rebels as they operate as the irregular auxiliaries of the imperial guard.
These kinds of power leaks let a lot of people feel like they matter. They mean that society is not formally divided into those with power and those with none. It remains actually divided. In fact, almost no one actually has any power, in the sense of affecting government policy—and those who do have little each. But since anyone could beimportant, anyone can feel important.
Still, most of the importance this system supplies is fake. It is certainly true that everyone instinctively wants to feel important. Also, everyone instinctively wants to eat donuts. Empty calories and delusions of grandeur are not healthy.
These motivations, amongst the ground-apes of the Pleistocene, did evolve for coldly rational biological reasons. Those ancient reasons are not compelling in our current nutritional and political contexts.
When we all eat donuts all the time, we all get fat. When we all feel important all the time, our government becomes dysfunctional and often actively vicious. And socially and even professionally, we all start behaving like Robespierre’s teenage girlfriend.
Is it the purpose of life and history to gratify our atavistic instincts? The long-term consequences of such gratifications are usually bad. Maybe they are bad here too?
The ultramodern partial state
A partial state is any state whose inhabitants are clearly divided into subjects and officials—and the latter hold unconditional sovereignty over the former.
There are two principal advantages of a well-designed partial state. First: it tends to work much better. Second: its subjects, since their opinions don’t matter at all, can think and say what they want. Ideally, the subjects are not even tempted to ambition—which leaves them free to dispassionately observe, analyze, imagine and discuss.
So not only is a well-designed partial regime more effective—but also more free. The partial state is the regime not of Tennyson, but of Pope—who wrote, in 1733:
For forms of government let fools contest:Whatever’s best administered is best.
But isn’t this “autocracy” dangerous? What if the officials oppress the subjects?
This is absolutely a great danger. It is so great a danger that it is happening right now—since every total state, as measured by emotional engagement with power, remains very much partial as measured by objective relevance to power.
Every time you ride in a car, your own body is surrounded by forces and energies that could crush you like a cricket. That risk is not low at all—we are just used to it. But also—that risk is carefully engineered to the lowest possible level by many generations of technical craftsmanship. Or at least it should be; and today is none too early to start. Does anyone believe polling the TV audience of 2020 is an effective safety measure?
Every state, whether it admits it or not, has its officials and its subjects. Every state has far fewer officials than subjects—creating an inherent security problem for the former.
A bad regime is insecure, with low or inconsistent performance; it must constantly engineer public opinion. A good regime is highly secure, with predictable high performance; at most it must now and then nudge its fickle subjects toward reality. War is not peace; hate is not love; but security, not anarchy, is freedom.
What does high performance in a regime mean? This is a whole chapter of its own. Most readers come in with a lot to unlearn here. It is better to start with an impressionistic, unscientific negative—just some examples of things that are bad. A bad grade in any of these fields, and many more, should disqualify any candidate.
Here are some random and randomly ordered indicators of poor regime performance: imperfect physical safety of property or person, day or night, in any public spaces; systematic conflict, resentment or dependence, violent, psychological or material, between any two groups; inability to secure the public health and safety against all biological threats; inability to utilize all its human capital at all or near its human capacity; inability to produce goods and services on which it systematically depends; inability to prevail in military conflicts… there are others. Is this not enough?
But the ultramodern partial state is not the premodern partial state. The subjects of the past were naturally detached—ignorant peasants, to put it crudely. Since the future cannot uneducate itself, it cannot resurrect this phenomenon. It needs some doctrine of conscious detachment—intentional and informed renunciation of power.
It is a long way from here to the end of the path. But here is an interesting symmetry: we need this strange feature, detachment, both for the first step and the last.
A unified theory of collaboration
Yeah okay sure. But how can we get from here to this nifty future ultramodern state? Slow down—we have to start by perfectly understanding where we are right now. No plan can succeed unless conceived and executed in the coldest, truest possible reality. (If you have to set your alarm now, set it for at least a couple of decades from now. Sorry.)
We promised a unified theory of collaboration and have delivered no such thing—because we’ve spent too long totally ignoring our friends, the dissidents. Obviously, any unified theory must be a theory of both collaborators and dissidents. (The former are also our friends, of course.)
We can solve this problem in a simple, painless way: by revising our vocabulary. Let’s just consider dissidents as a special kind of collaborator. We can call collaborators who aren’t dissidents volunteers. The difference becomes the collaborator’s polarity; volunteers are positive and dissidents are negative.
When they act, plan to act, or just fantasize about acting, volunteers and dissidents are devoted to the same type of action: either controlling the regime, or (which amounts to the same thing) exercising authority outside it. They are both trying to govern—to drive power’s car. Volunteers want to drive straight ahead, but faster or better; dissidents want to turn, brake, even reverse.
Assertions on the modern regime
While the above may have taught you a bit, it has two serious flaws.
First: the poetry is slightly tinkered with, just for 21st-century punch. Sorry, Tennyson. Second: while I normally try to be very concrete, I can’t help using the word power in a rather ethereal, even Continental way. Third: anyone who has read this far may have noticed polemical statements—catchy hypotheses, stated without evidence. All of this is slightly dirty pool and needs to be apologized for, and I apologize.
The next chapter will drown you like a fish in evidence—which is not the same as data. As for power, it is like the wind—easier to know which way it is blowing, than where it is blowing from. The next chapter will give you a picture of where power comes from.
But first, let me put these unsubstantiated claims in one place. Try agreeing with these. Hopefully you will anyway.
Since volunteers and dissidents are opposed, it’s easy for us to ignore what they have in common. One: both (obviously) are collectively engaged with power. Two: both (not at all obviously) collectively support power.
Volunteers generally intend to assist a cause—defined as a concrete public goal whose achievement will mean the world has become a better place.
While achieving a voluntary goal is by no means unheard of, success is unusual enough that many popular goals are rationally impossible or even undefined. The universal objective effect of volunteering is to support a party—the party of power. Goals which would benefit the public good, but cannot generate power, do not attract volunteers.
Dissidents generally intend either to resist some powerful cause or to oppose power in general. Being weaker than power, dissidents tend to lose to it. Their superior honor and intelligence can prevail in an ambush or even a battle, but almost never a war.
And obviously, losing to power is a way to advance power. And obviously, this is only the beginning of the many, many ways power can deploy the existence of dissidents—even the most talented and sincere of dissidents—to help tell a more convincing story.
All regimes are like fairies: they exist if people believe in them. They all specialize in processing faith into sovereignty. This factory can process more than one kind of belief—in more than one kind of way. Pound for pound, our regime probably draws more energy from its opponents than its supporters.
So everyone should disengage. Volunteers should disengage; they are probably just propping up a bad government. Dissidents should disengage; they are probably also just propping up a bad government.
And there really is only one kind of collaborator—just two different brands, each crafted lovingly by evolution’s inhuman hand for a different culture or personality. Both sides are objectively supporting power—which is why power is so strong.
A final intervention
I have by no means proven these hypotheses. But it is easy to demonstrate them; we will will do so in considerable detail. But if the case is so clear, why hasn’t it prevailed?
Because, whether you are a dissident or a collaborator (or a bit of both), engagement creates a sense of meaning, valid or bogus, which secretes a dopamine drip that leaves you scrabbling like a junkie for any rationalization, however tenuous, of your ridiculous, pathetic and onanistic addiction to importance in this absurd world.
You cannot bring this addiction to the future. You will feel better without it. You don’t need to matter at all—just to be “administered best.” It was always a monkey-brained status thing. Under a regime that doesn’t leak power, no one outside the government proper can be addicted to power. Or needs to be. Even a government job is just a job.
An ultramodern partial regime is possible because it can become popular—even before it exists. It can become popular because power addicts are junkies. Junkies don’t want to be on heroin. Junkies want to not need to be on heroin.
Never try to take anyone’s power away! Instead, understand why they feel they need that power. If you can give them a way to let go of it—they are often happy to do so.
Power is fun; power is a burden. Over time, fun decreases and burden increases. One day, the regime falls peacefully, even joyously—as soon as it has some next regime it can surrender to. And designing that regime is neither dissidence nor volunteering.