the action imperative
Political detachment might seem sociopathic. It isn’t.
Almost 250 years ago in a city that has vanished, the philosopher Immanuel Kant—a single shelf of whose work, to paraphrase Macaulay, is worth more than all of 21st-century literature—proposed an ethical standard for collective action.
The Kantian categorical imperative—an early cousin of game theory—tells us that everyone should act as if their actions formed a universal rule whose results are best for everyone. Lying, cheating and stealing might bring you good results. But if we all followed this universal rule of rampant dishonesty, life would suck for everyone.
Besides this kind of sound biblical advice, Kant’s simple rule generates a logical explanation of our ethical motivation to perform collective actions: any act which is individually useless but collectively helpful—like voting (in theory).
Your one little vote will almost never matter. But if that vote is right, and forms a universal rule, and everyone follows that rule and votes the same way as you, the government will do the right thing. And everyone will win. Solidarity, bro.
Humans are a collective and political species. Kant didn’t invent a way of thinking; he described it. Kantian logic comes naturally to us. Most people who vote, or otherwise engage with collective action, do so under something like the categorical imperative, even if they think Kant is a rapper.
Their own personal contributions may not matter. This does not bother them. They are doing what everyone should be doing. They will do it even if no one else is doing it. In that case, they get to be the first. This makes them feel good. It should. It probably always will. And it makes them collectively strong. And it seems to morally refute the idea of political abstinence. Any eight-year-old can be taught to engage their innate Kantian social instinct. Learning to turn it off is harder. Before you even start trying to learn this lesson, you need to hear a compelling case that Kant was wrong. Also, Kant was not wrong.
The detachment imperative
Kant was not wrong. For our purposes, he might as well have been. By default, you should still give up on politics, power, and even persuasion—because there is no obvious and realistic Kantian action.
The detachment hypothesis suggests that your Kantian imperative is to withdraw from collective action—to resign from voluntarily participating in, contributing to, or otherwise supporting any collective goal—including but not limited to voting.
Or to put it differently: Kant always recommends some action. But the only obvious Kantian action, here, now and for the indefinite future, is inaction.
Indefinite inaction is detachment or resignation. You are quitting your supposed job of exercising democratic power; you are not resisting the regime, you are breaking up with it; you never stop complying with power, just caring about it.
This is not a new idea; it is as old as politics itself; 19th-century Russians sometimes called it inner exile, the sense of being an expat in your own country—and relating to your own regime the way any expat relates to their local regime.
You’re done trying to change the world. You quit that job. It didn’t seem to be working, anyway. And was it even paying you?
You do not cease to care because you don’t believe in caring. You cease because the only reason to care is to help—and you see nothing you can do that actually helps—and you see that many, even most, people who are trying to help are actually doing harm.
Kant was not wrong. Kant is just in a bad place right now.
Navigating this text
Chapter 1 unashamedly marketed detachment; here in chapter 2 we argue it, tying up some loose ends asserted but not yet demonstrated; and chapter 3 will illustrate the objective form and structure of early 21st-century sovereignty.
Unfortunately, this structure puts the least fun and interesting part of the book first. And this part is unavoidably repetitive. But it has plenty of bacilli to treat. You really should take the whole 10 days of antibiotics, even if you feel better on Tuesday.
But since readers of our premium content are such serious and busy people, if at any point during chapters 2 or 3 you just feel sold on detachment, please feel free to skip to chapter 4—where that fun and interesting part starts.
If by the end of 3 you do not feel sold, try a sidequest to Appendix A—our premium selection of custom “clearpills.” Your prescription will vaccinate whatever virus you walked in the door with. Read yours; read them all; if you remain unconvinced, Gray Mirror might just not be the book for you.
Sure, you can plunge into chapter 4 while still feeling engaged with power. The experiment has failed, the Check Engine light is on, and the management takes no responsibility for your subsequent state of mind.
Also, to avoid stepping on chapter 3’s toes, chapter 2 will keep using the abstract words power and regime as if what they meant was clear. It is clear—but it has not yet been made clear. The management apologizes for any cognitive discomfort produced by this unavoidable circularity. These concepts are mercurial animals and must be approached with care.
As in chapter 1, our conversation will stay as abstract as possible—but a couple of concrete examples are necessary. These examples may inflame old attachments—always dangerous. They are illustrations of concepts in political science. They are not “proposing” anything. We kindly request that you not let them “trigger” you.
It’s a trap
So why exactly is there no imperative collective action? Chapter 1 explained the case; let’s restate and prove it.
Our general theory of collaboration boils down to: under the modern regime, all voluntary collective action promotes power. Anyone whose subjective intent is to act collectively, with power or against it, is objectively reinforcing power. Whichever side you’re on: it’s a trap.
If this theory of collaboration is correct, it is easy to see how the present situation is a Kantian special case. If whenever you subjectively try to change the world, you are objectively trying to support the regime—and the regime does not deserve your support—here and now, your best, most ethical, most altruistic, action is inaction.
The theory cannot be exactly right, and it isn’t. As anyone would expect from any generalization so broad, there are exceptions. There are no easy exceptions—so there is no obvious way to avoid the theory. The message is not that the traps cannot be avoided—but that if you lack some strategy to avoid them, you are in one.
Also: doesn’t it feel right? At least, in 2020? But in 2020 or any other year, logic is not about feels. To litigate the hypothesis that all voluntary collective action promotes power, we’re going to have to methodically inspect each and every one of these traps. But first: the theory of collaboration, from the top down.
All collective action reinforces the regime
As in the previous chapter, we divide collective action by subjective intent: action withpower; action against power—or positive and negative collaboration. Or we can just call them sides A and B. Abstraction is the anesthetic of philosophy.
Voluntary individual collaboration in collective action always involves supporting, subjectively and/or objectively, some cause. Such a cause must plan to either influence the regime, or work around it.
By definition, every sovereign regime holds a monopoly of collective action. A regime that tolerates or encourages unofficial collective action—action neither with power, nor against it—is just taking ownership of it. Therefore, all unofficial collective action is with power. Or at least, a healthy regime disrupts all collective action against it.
We start with the observation that both A and B feel they’re losing. It’s easy for both sides of a conflict to both feel they’re losing. They can even both be right—which is why they should both stop. Anyone should stop doing anything that keeps losing.
Briefly: side A keeps losing because it keeps not realizing its dreams. Side B keeps losing because side A keeps beating it to a pulp. And both sides of the conflict, as is almost always true, perceive themselves as defending themselves or others.
It is hard to tell side B that it is far too weak to ever beat side A—and even its feeble resistance is mostly counterproductive. It is hard to tell side A that most of its visions are fantasies—whose real obstacle is not side B, but reality. It is harder to tell both A and B… but let’s save that one, eh?
Side A: avoid unaccountable causes
If your cause involves making the world a better place (making you what we call a volunteer or positive collaborator), how can it not be a good cause? Isn’t it always good, by definition, to try to improve the world? No—it isn’t always good.
Your collective action is only intended to achieve this effect. You may not have checked for discrepancies between its subjectively intended and objectively predicted effects. Maybe you thought someone else did. Actually no one did.
If this is so, your cause is unaccountable—a loose cannon. When you load and fire a loose cannon, you have no idea what you’re shooting at. It might hit what you’re aiming at. It might hit anything else.
Suppose you’re sad that Trump keeps kids in cages. So you liberate a chimp from the Washington Zoo, hand him an AK-47, tell him in sign language that orange man bad, and drop him on the Metro at Farragut North. This would be pretty unaccountable. Could it reunite some niños with their abuelitas? Not impossible and not likely.
Something will happen. It could be anything. Your armed chimp is just random. But the market for causes is even worse than random: it evolves. Darwin is in the house.
Darwin is stochastic but not random. Darwin always works; he never works for you. Randomness is unaccountable. Randomness is neither perverse nor mysterious. Evolution is unaccountable, perverse, and mysterious.
Everyone ritually assumes that our intellectual markets are selected simply for truth and righteousness, which couldn’t be farther from so. Being true always helps! But many causes are competing for public attention. And there are infinite possible causes.
And causes mutate. And causes replicate—by teaching; by preaching; by parenting. And since nobody has infinite neurons, all causes must compete for your neurons. And replication plus mutation plus competition equals natural selection.
Whatever winners and losers the market selects, the winners will burgeon and the losers shrivel. If whatever judges pick these winners and losers are good and wise, Darwin will plant the perfect paradise. If nature in fact selects for vanity, folly and cruelty, Darwin is just as happy to dig the perfect hell.
And what we get is… neither. Still, it is always better to be good and wise. The market still prefers good, wise causes. Sadly, this is not its only preference.
There are two major issues with the selective constraints presently operating on the modern regime’s marketplace for ideas (a superset of its market for causes).
The first bug is a missing constraint: accountability. To be popular, ideas need not work or even make sense. Causes need not succeed, or even stand a real chance. The absence of this essential constraint gives bad ideas an advantage over good ones.
Evolution loves to discard any unenforced ideal. Darwin always wants to ditch the spandrel. Succeeding is always hard. For an unaccountable cause it is a luxury. If a cause doesn’t care, it has a selective advantage against one that does. Therefore the ineffective causes can be expected to outcompete the effective ones. Unfortunate!
The second bug is an spurious constraint: ambition. To prosper, a cause must express power. These ambitious causes or ideas are exciting. Dull causes rarely compete well with exciting ones. In the modern world, if all causes were dull, detachment might well be universal. No one cares about dull causes; so no one would care about anything. At least, many unambitious causes driven by sound collective Kantian logic, such as asteroid defense, seem to attract negligible public interest in today’s market for giving a shit. An ambitious cause is one that makes its supporters feel powerful. But not all power is real power. False importance has another name: vanity. There is a lot of that these days.
Objective impact is always more exciting. But objective impact need not align at allwith subjective intent. Impact may be totally unrelated to intent. Impact may be directly opposite intent. Impact may match intent, plus unintended consequences. Impact may even be perfect. But impact almost always objectively reinforces the regime—and almost never harms it.
Why must generating power always reinforce the regime? A regime is a monopoly of power. Anything that generates power must run that power either through or past it; and past implies tacit permission, so it means with; and with, as the boundary between the formal state and its informal auxiliaries grows indistinct and even irrelevant, evolves into through.
We like to speak of power in the passive voice; something must be done, etc. Actually nothing will be done until someone does it. And who does it is the regime. And power is always and everywhere a muscle: using it reinforces it. (And if the generated power opposes the regime, of course, it will fail. In fact it will be crushed. In fact, the certainty of being crushed renders it impotent and unexciting, no matter how awesome it could become if no one crushed it.)
So when you step forward as a newly-hatched volunteer to change the world—a goal every college-bound senior at least pretends to share—the set of available causes on your first page of search results is not selected for realism; but it is selected for vanity.
If you must volunteer, but do not wish to support the regime, and are too prudent to oppose it, you must work hard to find a collective cause that does not generate power. There are always exceptions. (Like: there are even good ways to help the homeless in San Francisco.)
If the regime is a good regime, or should for some other reason be reinforced, the cause may be good anyway—even despite some collateral damage—even despite some dalliance with the devil—even despite being not what it appears. There is at least a philosophical case for the Machiavellian deception, the Platonic noble lie.
If the regime is not a good regime—the cause is all bad. And its volunteers are just henchmen—Satan’s own suckers—the second coming of the Manson girls.
Side B: avoid impossible causes
But if your cause involves resisting an evil regime (making you what we call a dissidentor negative collaborator), how can it not be a good cause? Isn’t it always good, by definition, to try to resist evil? No—it isn’t always good.
Your collective action is only intended to achieve this effect. You may not have checked for discrepancies between its subjectively intended and objectively predicted effects. Maybe you thought someone else did. Actually no one did.
If this is so, your cause is impossible. To be objectively good, your cause almost always has to win. It almost never does. Even when it does, the victory is usually Pyrrhic: a loss in the long run and the big picture.
Obviously, the regime by definition is stronger than its enemies. Otherwise, they would be the regime. By definition, the regime is in power. The side in power is the side for any ruthless, selfish sociopath. So by definition, dissidents tend to lose.
How does this actually work out in practice? The regime, like any regime, is sovereign—which means it is accountable to no one. Since it is accountable to no one, there is no one who can force it to be fair to its enemies.
Dissidents under all regimes often come to grief by expecting power, their enemy, to be fair to them—or believing that some demonstration of unfairness will harm the regime’s legitimacy. Actually, successful illegitimate action confirms a regime’s legitimacy. Only the powers that be can break their own rules.
Since the power of exception is the ultimate power, observing that any agent acts unfairly, lawlessly or with impunity means observing that it holds some share of objective sovereignty—ie, it is an authentic and legitimate government agency. This does not even require it to be an official government agency.
True sovereignty is observed and not prescribed. It may be prescribed in old papers, deeds and pedigrees; it is observed in the usual and habitual process of government. An agent that makes and breaks its own rules is clearly sovereign in its own domain—and to be sovereign is to be unaccountable.
Anyone in a conflict with asymmetrical rules tends to lose. And if the dissidents lose, the regime wins. And if it is not a good regime, this is a bad result. So it is better not to play. Very difficult logic! As a dissident, you always knew this. The trouble is just that you let yourself stop thinking about it.
Pursuing a strategy you know you can’t work is what coders call thrashing. Thrashing is what you do with a bug when you have no strategy for solving it. You try anything and everything you know won’t work. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t.
Dissidents are thrashing for two reasons. One: they see a bug that needs to be fixed. Two: like volunteers, like everyone, power excites them. Trying to fix the world—or makes them feel relevant—which makes them feel big and good, like porn or blow.
Actually, once you feel yourself thrashing, the right thing to do is always to step away from the keyboard—then lift or surf or run or something. There’s at least half a chance you’ll solve the problem before you get back.
But at least, when thrashing at your keyboard, your worst-case scenario is that your work is useless. Or at least, it’s hard to delete the production database or the whole source tree. This is not the case in the game of power.
Not only is political defeat always and everywhere hazardous to your personal health and good fortune, dissidents too are vulnerable to impact inversion. Collectively, their impact is quite often the opposite of their intent—at least as often as for volunteers.
The primary impact of dissidents in the modern regime is as scapegoats and/or naive provocateurs. Power, which would otherwise have to explain its troubled relationship with reality, instead gets enemies it can blame for its failures—shoring it up nicely. While these enemies are perfectly sincere in their animosity, and can be irritating and even damaging, they are orders of magnitude too weak to be an existential threat.
And even if dissident energy is simply wasted, all energy is finite. Even dissipating the enemy’s energy is a victory. And this is how most dissidents, too, reinforce the regime. So completes the general theory.
Postulates of the general theory
This all sounds good, you think—but there is still too much marketing in it. Let’s go back through the hypothesis and look at what we’ve asserted, but have not proven.
On side A, we assert that positive causes are (a) unaccountable—not selected to be capable of achieving their ultimate goals; (b) vain—selected to maximize expression of power, real or apparent.
On side B, we assert that negative causes are (a) doomed—almost never capable of achieving even their proximate goals; (b) frivolous—selected to maximize their sense of excitement.
If these postulates are true, it makes sense that Kant would want you to avoid both unaccountable vanity and doomed frivolity—both for your own sake, and for the world’s. But are they true? Let’s work through them more closely.
Positive causes are vain and unaccountable
Kant doesn’t need you to support the regime.
In this fragment of chapter 2, we’ll explain why positive causes that become popular tend to be unaccountable (not selected for plausibility), vain (selected for creating a sense of power and importance), and sycophantic (reinforcing the regime). If all this is true, supporting an arbitrary popular cause is not a Kantian imperative—as a universal rule, it does not produce universal benefit.
Positive causes are selected for vanity
Positive causes do not need to express power. Evolution selects for power expression: for the sense of importance and relevance that a cause’s supporters feel. This usually means that popular causes must express power—but evolution permits exceptions. Power is rarely the conscious and explicit goal of the volunteer. In the mind of the early 20th-century Communist, “all power to the Soviets” is not an end but a means—the end is to uplift the workers and peasants.
Of course, real insiders quickly become power addicts—junkies. These sick and sad human beings grow supernaturally attuned to Orwell’s “subtle intoxication of power”—they can smell that shit three stories up across the street. And every other junkie is a dealer too. But the drug economy cannot exist except in the shade of the much larger army of casual, mostly-functional users; and so for the regime and its casual, quite sincere supporters. These customers actually count. They are not thinking explicitly of power; but they feel, are excited by, and learn to crave the energy that power creates. This is their very human, very natural, very forgivable vanity at work.
To be a universal rule ideal for all, it is by no means necessary for a Kantian collective cause to express power. Power is either a means or a side effect. So, when we observe that causes which express power are much more successful than causes which do not, we observe that the forces which make popular causes popular are not purely Kantian. To join the most popular powerful cause cannot be a universal rule. Its popularity may be more a function of power than righteousness. But all causes must become popular to succeed.
So if no cause that does not express power can become popular, no such cause will succeed; any effort invested in it cannot succeed; and a rule that cannot become universal cannot be a universal rule, so no one should be even the first to follow it. Once again, the Kantian action is inaction.
Comparable causes with different power profiles
This is turning into some gnarly philosophy. Let’s make it clearer and more concrete, by constructing a slightly contrived A-B test: two very real causes with the same objective goal, but different power profiles. The goal is mitigation of global warming. Cause A is global carbon emissions control. Cause B is geoengineering—like stratospheric aerosol injection or iron fertilization.
We see three general differences between A and B. (1): A is rather more elegant than any form of B. (2): A is perhaps three orders of magnitude more expensive than any form of B. (3): A is perhaps three orders of magnitude more popular than any form of B.
If the popularity of causes was determined by the rational, Kantian collective interests of the public, the relationship between (2) and (3) would seem peculiar. It seems not unlikely for every rational voter who wants to spend $50 trillion solving a problem elegantly to be outnumbered 1000 to 1 by voters who would rather spend $50 billion on an inelegant solution.
But it’s the other way around. Our rational model of public opinion is off by six orders of magnitude. Let’s allow one order of magnitude for the elegance of fixing the heat problem at its cause, not with a bandaid. We are still wrong by five. These estimates are not even democratic; the ratios are probably stronger among elites and experts.
Now, if you are operating some kind of particle accelerator, even one of the cheap Chinese models with brands like “Frork” or “Zingle” you can get for $300 on Amazon, and your numbers and your theory differ by five orders of magnitude, congratulations! You have detected what scientists refer to as an anomaly. Please shut off your Zingle and call 911, before you rend the fabric of the universe further asunder.
What is the cause of this anomaly? Either some factory in Xinfu got a shipment of cracked induction coils—or public opinion is not purely Kantian. Either way, the alpha particles are definitely bouncing off the tinfoil here. Can you explain the disparity?
One explanation might be economic: that spending $50 trillion (directly or implicitly) can hardly avoid creating a large amount of labor demand, ie, “green jobs.” Carbon control becomes a New Deal-style employment-creation policy—like digging holes and filling them in again, while also stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere.
There are arguments against artificial difficulty and employment creation. They are not super strong. You will hear more of them later. Our question, though, is not whether carbon control is a good cause—only what is objectively driving its popularity. Is it just the price tag? Is expensive just cool—is it a luxury policy, like a Coach bag?
But what if the Sun had cancer
Let’s turn our real experiment into a thought-experiment, with two unreal changes. First: we’ll change the cause of global warming. Instead of increasing carbon dioxide, some kind of huge tumor on the Sun will drive the same increases in Earth’s heat flux. Or so the best astronomers predict—and who are we to doubt them? Not many voters, not many journalists, moonlight as solar oncologists.
Second: instead of global carbon controls, we’ll compare $50B in stratospheric aerosol injection (basically an artificial Pinatubo) to a different $50T solution: a giant space umbrella between us and the sun. So rather than “green jobs,” which always sounds too much like landscaping, we get space jobs—not to mention a giant space umbrella. No one can claim it’s not cool to have a space job building the space umbrella.
So public opinion has three choices: (a) sweat more and/or learn to swim; (b) spend $50B on planetary AC; (c) spend $50T on a space umbrella. Given these choices, public opinion is much more likely to be rational; it will probably choose (a) or (b). Most cynical observers would put their money on (a). Mitigating solar fluctuations with a space umbrella is designed to economically mirror global carbon control—while expressing as little (political) power as possible. Some NASA prime contractor gets a giant contract—that’s about it. Try to imagine the Greta Thunberg of space umbrellas.
Mere cost is not what makes carbon control sexy. Power—dominance or coercion—is what makes carbon control sexy. Inflicting $50T of economic pain is a little sexy. Causing pain is always sexy. But carbon control only gets really hot when it becomes penance for a sin—and gives everyone the right to judge that sin, then order the entire world to correct it.
At this point we are well into roleplay. How could it not be exciting to issue planetary commands? At climate time, we tell first-graders they’re emperor of the world. We might as well feed them crack for morning snack.
All power expression supports the regime
It is easy to see who gets to harvest this power. Carbon control is not designed and implemented by first-graders. Everyone may feel that right to judge. Everyone who believes in the policy feels important. Only the actual regime executes the policy; so only the actual regime is important. Obviously, when you say we should emit less carbon, what you objectively mean is that you support power in forcing everyone to emit less carbon. When you ponder your action and find it good, you focus on the “emit less carbon” part.
While emitting less carbon might or might not be good, for various meanings of the word “good,” the other part of the sentence is “you support power.”
Power doesn’t really care why you support it. It’s always happy to find a compelling new reason. All the better if the reason is not just compelling, but also actually good. But that’s a rare combination and it’s not in infinite supply.
Submission is always beautiful. In this lovely act of dominion and homage, we see a power exchange: serving power makes you feel powerful. In serving, you rule. As the regime acts, you feel yourself act through it. Your vanity is stroked. You matter. For a moment you feel like anything but what you are: which is a suka.
But beautiful or not, not much here looks Kantian. By the comparable unpopularity of comparable solutions which express negligible power, we can guess that if carbon control expressed less power, this cause too would be less popular.
Perhaps most people would never know that our atmosphere has carbon buildup. Perhaps they would have heard of it only as a scientific curiosity. Perhaps it might have been marketed as a good thing—higher agricultural yields; better weather up north; insurance against the next ice age… No one likes to hear that their extended reality is contingent—that even if they knowthe sky is blue, and it is in fact blue, they could have as easily been raised and taught to believe the sky is green, gray or mauve. Of course, the sky sometimes looks blue; that’s a well-known optical illusion; or it’s caused by ozone pollution in the stratosphere; or it’s just a debunked conspiracy theory… this example is exaggerated… slightly…
But just as the swimmers who drown are often the strongest, the most intelligent and skeptical audience is often the easiest to own. We often see the mentality of the Mensa victim, who goes to a magic show knowing his eyes are too smart for some low-IQ yokel to fool—then spends the rest of his life believing in psychic powers. And please remember: this was a thought-experiment. The point of the experiment is to illustrate the selective forces that determine the popularity of a cause. Don’t get distracted by space umbrellas and solar flux. We have learned nothing about climate. We have learned something about why ideas succeed and fail in the modern world.
Positive causes are not selected for competence
Accountability is the sum of all forces which constrain the objective effects of collective action to match its subjective intent.
When you support a collective cause which is not accountable, you are not acting in a Kantian way—since you have no clue what you are actually doing. It is usually a bad idea, individually or collectively, to take actions with unpredictable results.
Subjective intent always comes with a subjective prediction. Without looking at the actual structure of the organizations making the prediction (in the next chapter), or their past track record (which would be history, not philosophy), how can we tell that a prediction is unreliable or unaccountable?
A symptom of systematic unaccountability is the presence of inherently unaccountable theories of collective action. No Kantian agent should bet on an unaccountable plan: one that has not been tested for competence in achieving its ultimate objective. If a strategy logically cannot be tested, we know it has not been tested.
Suppose our proximate action is X; our intended outcome is Y. If the theory that X causes Y is unfalsifiable, this theory of action is inherently unaccountable. We should stop thinking that we are doing a Y, just because we keep doing more and more X.
One way to construct an unfalsifiable theory of causality is to make the causal chain between X and Y unfalsifiably long. If you claim to be playing seven-dimensional chess, and the whole game goes awry, you can blame some accident in the fifth dimension. Your theory of action is so intricate that no outcome can disprove it—so it cannot be held accountable.
An imaginary unfalsifiable cause
This is a little abstract. Let’s construct a thought-experiment—a slightly more realistic chimp with an AK-47. Meet the Sweet Milk Party. The mission of the SMP is to bring back the sweet, grassy taste of spring milk. Unfortunately, for the last three years, the milk in our pleasant valley has been coming out of the cow sour.
While we are peaceful, simple, and patient country folks—our patience has its limits. Especially our patience with the lying press! They will never give you the truth about the sour-milk crisis. Only the Sweet Milk Party is brave enough to tell it like it is.
The problem: witchcraft. The solution: the river. The Sweet Milk Party has one simple platform. “Until those witches stop hexing our cows, we’ll drown a witch a week. They’ll get the message after a few. And if that’s not enough—we’ll figure something out.”
If you support this utterly psychopathic movement, the SMP, your ultimate intent (Y) is to make our milk sweet again. Your proximate action (X) is to drown old women.
Think about how hard reality has to work to disprove this sick delusion, and beat these peasant psychos by reasoning them to death with science. TLDR: too hard—because science (meaning the inductive scientific method) has no way to disprove a negative.
Because: until the SMP really crushes it in an election, actually wins power, brushes aside the judiciary and starts to actually drown “witches”—there is no scientific evidence at all that its interpretation of the sour-milk crisis is inaccurate. And when drowning a few witches doesn’t fix the milk—this is just evidence of how stubborn and dangerous the rest still are. The SMP will indeed figure something out. Indeed its hypothesis can be tested scientifically only by giving it absolute power until it has drowned everyone who could plausibly be identified as a witch.
And at this point, it may even evolve an ideology in which everyone, in some rarefied spiritual sense, is actually a witch. Perhaps we must all overcome our own inner witch. At this point, the river is working 24/7. And the milk is still sour—which actually makes a pretty sound logical case against the SMP. But does that even matter now?
This tale is a bit unrealistic. But these long chains of cause and consequence are not—even in the present marketplace of ideas. As I write, exuberant volunteers are trashing historical monuments (X) to help protect the underclass (Y). And we should be unsurprised, when we see these complex chains between X and Y, to find that X also has some more immediate effect Z—which expresses power. Z often involves punishing, humiliating, or otherwise chastising the enemies of the regime. And its chain of consequence is seldom so long or tenuous.
For example, ritually desecrating the temples, monuments, idols, or other sad fetishes of a weak, beaten people is a time-honored way to flex on them and keep them weak. Nine hundred years before Jesus, the Assyrians had already made themselves masters of this art. If you think you are something different from an Assyrian, you are wrong.
Here the subjective intent Y—protecting the lower class—actually comes out inverted. Statistically, the revolution seems to have more endangered the lower class. Many such cases! Oops! I hate it when that happens! And once again, we see the same side effect Z: reinforcing power (by punishing and/or humiliating its enemies). However you set out to change the world—you seem to end up reinforcing the regime. That doesn’t prove that the regime is bad. But it can’t not be, like, a little creepy. And it’s certainly nowhere near Kantian.
Negative causes are frivolous and doomed
Kant doesn’t need you to resist the regime.
In this fragment of chapter 2, we’ll explain why negative causes that become popular tend to be doomed (likely to be defeated), frivolous (selected for excitement), and perversely sycophantic (reinforcing the regime they purport to oppose). In the previous fragment, we learned that people who volunteer for positive causes tend to be signing up to stroke their own vanity by serving unaccountable power. Which is not very Kantian—it doesn’t make a good universal rule.
That’s okay—because you’re a dissident, aren’t you? And you knew all that already. As a dissident, you are trying to resist that power. Since the regime is bad, shouldn’t isn’t resisting it good by definition? But no—because you are only trying to resist. You should stop. Resistance is useless—at best. In fact, you probably do more for the regime as a dissident than a volunteer. It’s a trap.
To illustrate this point, let’s map the objective impact of any collective cause, positive or negative, compared to the subjective perspective of its typical supporter.
A glossary of impact and power analysis
On the dimension of impact accuracy, the collaborator is either a voyeur, a sucker, or a player; on the dimension of power expression, a consumer, a saboteur, or an operator. It’s just like D&D’s nine alignments.
What is the objective impact of your action on its target problem? If you have no objective impact on the target, you are a voyeur. If your objective impact is the oppositeof your intent, you are a sucker. If it actually works, you get to be a player.
Does your action produce any side effects? Unintended effects of collective action, like side effects of any medicine, have a harmful bias. They always express power—any harm does—anything that can harm becomes a weapon; any weapon is powerful.
If there is no such weapon, you are a harmless consumer; if there are side effects and they harm the enemy side, you are an operator; if they harm your side, a saboteur. The proper definition of harm is the military definition: an event harms you if it leaves you weaker than before the attack; it reinforces you if it makes you stronger.
(“Sabotage” in English implies malicious intent—but impact assessments ignore intent. We could speak of objective sabotage—in the same sense that Orwell called British pacifism “objectively pro-fascist.” There is no better word, unfortunately.)
Dissidents are more likely than volunteers to act collectively with power as an explicit (Y), not implicit (Z), intent—to act as competitors, not contributors.
Subjectively, contributors are just trying to get their way on some “issue.” Competitors are vying for sovereignty—formal or informal, partial or absolute. The contributor believes in the system; the competitor only accepts it. Thus the competitor is already halfway to detachment—a duality we shall revisit.
For the competitor, power is always the subjective goal. The competitor’s map has only one dimension; an operator is a player and a saboteur is a sucker. For the contributor, power is an unintended consequence—an operator can be a voyeur, or even a sucker. Most collaborators fall somewhere between these pure endpoints, of course.
Why dissidents fall into the trap
Like the vain and unaccountable nature of volunteering, the frivolous and doomed nature of dissidence is an evolutionary default, not a deductive fact. It’s a trap.
But a trap is a trap, not a dead end. The essential quality of a trap is that if you don’t know it’s there, you fall in. The reason to show dissidents that, by default, they are frivolous and doomed, is not to insult them; it is not to “blackpill” them; it is to explain how to stay out of the trap.
Even if you yourself are more of a volunteer, should any human being be in a trap? Better that dissidents should do nothing — and that they do that themselves, not by breaking an ankle in some snare, but by laying down their arms with honor.
With all this fancy vocabulary, we have a fancier way to explain why you shouldn’t be a dissident: there are no dissident operators. You shouldn’t be a dissident because the only purpose of dissidence is to express power. Dissidence does not express power. So it can’t possibly be Kantian.
The best way to understand that dissidence does not express power is to understand the whole nine-point impact map defined above. Let’s take an illustrated tour of that map, reduced to three stops by the one-dimensional perspective of a dissident competitor—though the nine-point map works for all collaborators.
A voyeur is anyone whose collective actions achieve nothing at all. If these actions have no side effects either, we see the pure and beautiful voyeur/consumer.
For this person, all collective engagement is recreational. Like watching football on TV, it does nothing and has no side effects.
Cheering or yelling at the TV does nothing at all to “support” your team. But that word comes easily anyway. If you support some policy or candidate in the same sense that you “support” the 49ers, you may be engaging in political voyeurism.
Whatever the motivation for political voyeurism, it cannot be an accurate application of the Kantian imperative. What is that motivation? It’s not too different from the motivation for watching football on TV.
Plato’s analogy between thymos, political desire, and eros, sexual desire, has not aged. Nor has the market for inherently infertile stimulation of these desires. If Plato was right, an unrecognized function of much current media is the stimulation of thymotic voyeurism. Such content is acting as political pornography.
“PP” is content that makes its readers feel artificially powerful or important. All such material is evanescent and will survive only for the hardened specialist: pornography, for any desire, is a craft but not an art. And from this craft you never cross over.
Look at the difference when a game is on but you don’t care about either team. This is the emotional difference between engagement and detachment. Aesthetically, you can still appreciate a great punt return. Aesthetically, you can still appreciate beauty in the wrong sex. But by definition, no one uses pornography made for the wrong sex.
Most collaborators, positive or negative, are just voyeur/consumers—with a slight edge of operator for volunteers, and an edge of saboteur for dissidents. Like gay and straight pornography users, they use different pictures for the same purpose.
As a consumer of political pornography, you are owned. You are and will always be political property. Try your hardest never to care when it doesn’t actually matter: it debases your spiritual attention. PP only distracts you from objectives that do matter, whether they are individual or genuinely Kantian.
A sucker is anyone whose collective actions achieve an impact which is the opposite of its ultimate intent. A saboteur is anyone whose collective actions have side effects which objectively harm their own side. Clearly, these logically orthogonal concepts are often but not always correlated. Clearly, neither is even slightly Kantian.
Voyeurs tend to be moderates; suckers, extremists. We do see true suckers among volunteers. But it is always the dissidents who really impress in the sucker event.
Throughout human history, the greatest traitors have been our brightest young stars—Alcibiades types. The sucker is an unconscious traitor; but unconsciousness is never quite complete. And the highest level of talent is not at all precluded; and the best suckers, pound for pound, are worth far more to power than her dearest friends.
How do people get suckered? Our regime, like all regimes, maintains the loyalty of its subjects by edifying them with a narrative in which the regime is ideal or nearly so. The closer the regime really is to ideal, the simpler this story gets.
The farther the regime gets from ideal, the more baroque its story of itself must grow. This story, like any story not the boring tale of an instant, unqualified success, cannot be told without enemies and villains. It’d be soup without salt. And the narrative must be a true story, at least in the banal factual sense—so its producers have a casting problem. Who wants to play an enemy? A villain? In real life? No, Colossal Pictures will not be able to get you out of jail.
Sadly, as with porn, the producers don’t have trouble finding actors. (In fact, a stint in porn looks better on your resume.) To be a sucker is to be a heel—to play your enemy’s enemy on TV, for that enemy’s purposes.
The classic heel goes all the way to full-on terrorism—not just a service to power, but a spectacular service. It is a mistake to focus too much on these sad and nasty endpoints. The general use of the sucker is uniform: to fit the story. Most heel roles are subtler and more common. They do less damage; sometimes, most insidiously, they actually do local good—creating the rare player/saboteur.
Of course power always has a story. Part of the story of all regimes is that the regime is a knight, defending its subjects against any and all dragons. True on all timelines, this story still seems like a dodge unless its audience can be made to believe in dragons.
When a dissident is a sucker, he invents a problem for the regime to solve. Crawling into his dragon suit, he inhabits a dragon for power to slay. The dragon is lifelike, because it is actually alive, because inside it our dissident is flapping his arms. He needn’t worry that he can’t breathe fire: for that, there’s Photoshop.
The better he is at being a dissident, the more convincing the dragon. If the dragon flaps his wings well, the heroic dragonslayer might even come across as an actual underdog. There are so many dragons that the world, it seems, is ruled by dragons. Join the human uprising against the dragon kingdom!
So this poor dissident, who like most dissidents is a small, shy herbivorous creature, has a rueful funny moment when he picks up the paper and sees his own little face, morphed onto this fire-breathing thunder-lizard now coming to eat everyone’s kids. Then he remembers that he has about the same chance of winning as the bull in the bullfight—and also, he doesn’t even like kids. Not as food, anyway.
At this point, he has three choices. Respectable voices, great voices, have taken each. He can flee the caricature; he can give up even vegetables, and eat only fruit. He can embrace it; after all this dragon, who is famous, is him; that means he’s not nothing. He can ignore it—and never even go near a dragon suit, much less flap his arms.
Of course, in a sense all the voyeurs are suckers too. Sucking your effort, or even just your attention, into nothing, is also a victory for your enemies. But once you inhabit a character in your adversary’s narrative—that adversary will own you forever. But why is it so easy for the regime to recruit heels for its storyline?
First, when you see someone being an unsubtle heel, it is easy to say: what a clown. This easily blinds you to the possibility that, though not obviously a heel, you remain subtly a heel. Second—who stitched that dragon suit? By definition, power shapes information. Anyone who grows up in a narrative, then learns to distrust it, will look for alternatives—and the first place to look is the villains in the narrative itself. If you land in this trap, you have failed to escape power’s frame. You’re still in the same movie—you have just switched characters.
As the story demands, all heel characters have fatal flaws. When you emulate them, you emulate these flaws. You are owned, as in the story—and at the same time, you reinforce the story. So your failure is both individual and collective. Always and everywhere, the worst way to resist a regime is to inhabit its stage villains. Like most bad choices, this choice is a bad default. It’s as you lived in 15th-century Paris and thought the Church was very corrupt and bad—but there was no alternative. You couldn’t be a cool Enlightenment philosophe or at least just a Protestant. Because it was the 15th century. And there weren’t even words for these things.
So you asked your priest: if not God, King and Church, in what would I believe? Who is against God and King and Church? And your priest said: Satan. And so, thinking logically, you became a Satanist. This probably actually happened to you, except it wasn’t a priest but a “guidance counselor.” The way the world works never changes.
If some party A asks how it should operate in opposing some opponent B, B’s vision of who its opponents are and how they operate is hardly the place to start! You could start with a clean slate. You could start with any other period in history. Instead you start by literally aping your enemy’s propaganda. The only possible cause of any such choice is laziness and/or immaturity: not promising qualities in an aspiring aristocrat.
So while in a way we can’t really blame you for falling into the default, which means falling into a trap, in a way it still is your fault. Not finding Voltaire or even Calvin on the menu, the right response is not to give up and settle for Satan—but to invent Calvin or Voltaire. On one side of the coin, this is an epic challenge; on the other, an epic opportunity.
Here we at last wriggle free from the department of losers, and get into real power. We will consider dissidents only in this section—the volunteer player/operator, who is just a straight-out winner, is truly part of the regime, and belongs to the next chapter. Again, under our present system of government or anything like it, there is no such thing as a dissident operator. There is no obvious and realistic plan to build power against the regime. The rare dissident player can resist or divert it—but this work is useful only for itself; these successes, which are rare, do not make other successes easier.
This is because like water flows downhill, power flows to the regime. But why? How? We could surely imagine collective actions, organizations or operations which built power for the enemies of power. Let’s imagine some more concrete options in more detail, to see why there is no obvious way to solve the problem.
The general problem: since assaulting the enemy expresses power, the dissident operator is operated on long before he could operate. People will feel good because they hit you. They will hit you in any way they can. Since they are bigger and stronger than you, they will win. So don’t even think about hitting people. Yes, that absolutely is a thoughtcrime—thoughtcrime is real and always has been. Don’t do the crime, kids.
In a centralized regime, the dissident operator is a target for the intelligence ministry. In a decentralized regime, he is a target for everyone. He will not be hired; his books will not be published, nor will books about him be; his real-estate deals will fall through; his dog will be denied a dog license. In fact he is not a person at all. People will get in trouble for just knowing him. And this is his best-case scenario—if he takes every precaution to not be a usable heel.
Not even the excuse that you are just trying to do some innocuous Y, but you actually produce some side effect Z—which just so happens to make your side powerful—will save you. If you are in fact expressing power against the regime, anyone can express much more power by crushing you for the regime. They will be able to make up some reason they are right.
Your two roads to damnation
Let’s take an even closer look at some examples. There are two ways to build power: extragovernmental (by building regimelike things outside the regime), and intragovernmental (by infiltrating the regime).
Operating extragovernmentally, we could build informal networks for informal protection and defense. Such networks are not unusual in our society, in which an enormous amount of government-like activity operates beneath the law. And of course, the line between protection, retaliation, and coercion is always a blurry one—and the power to coerce is the power of government.
So surely we are on the way. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Or if it is not good—perhaps we ganders can, by exercising our anserine rights and behaving as the geese, prove that we are just as good as geese? And if geese have “muscle”… Everyone who tries this discovers that the situation is not at all symmetric. Apparently water does not flow uphill, and ashes don’t turn back into trees. What’s good for the goose is actually terrible for the gander—who ends up on the news as a classic heel.
All power flows toward the regime because the first reflex of any regime is to crush all power outside it. Collective actions that would otherwise express power outside or against the regime are impotent at best once its thumb is on the scale. This goes double for your little black-shirted army of paintball wizards with road flares—which both physically challenges power, and does so by inhabiting power’s own stereotype.
The stereotype is the bacon of power’s story. Bacon goes in everything. It makes any dish taste great and feel real. The regime’s only problem is that it has a limited supply of bacon. Once the regime runs low on real enemies, its narrative has to resort to imaginary conspiracies, unstable teenagers, straight-out madmen, etc.
These low-grade heels work for most viewers; they do taste like bacon; but they lack a certain flavor. As a would-be dissident operator, you are the realest meat around. The more serious your plan, the more power your destruction will express, and the greater the forces that will assemble to participate in your destruction.
If your strategy is physical resistance, no law can protect you. You cannot even defend yourself—any self-defense will present as aggression—and whatever was good for the Minutemen, the Wide Awakes, or even the Weathermen, is certainly not good for you. Intragovernmental infiltration is an even more precarious path. You might think it had been done before—and it has—but only by volunteers. Only power can infiltrate itself. The problem is that heresy is not the inverse of fanaticism. Within the loop of actual power, fanaticism is always prosocial. Extreme fanaticism is misguided but still often charming. Heresy is always antisocial; excessive heresy is terrifying.
So while extreme fanatics can infiltrate a moderate organization, heretics cannot. When an institution is full of heretics, they usually have defected in place—or fanatics have built a new normal around them. A career in a profession that cannot accept you as you are is always a marginal idea; if you must pursue it, the profession should be as orthogonal as possible to politics.
The subversive strategy of pretending to be a moderate fanatic, while actually being an extreme fanatic, is so normal it’s banal. The inverted-subversive strategy of pretending to be a moderate heretic, while actually being an extreme heretic, is just nonviable. No one says that the best way to beat the extreme heretics is to support moderate heretics. Every moderate heretic is already suspected of being an extreme heretic. You might as well shoot a lion documentary while camouflaged as a goat.
If your strategy is dissident infiltration, success means you succeed so perfectly in pretending to be a true believer that, objectively, you are a true believer. There is never any use, individually or collectively in “uncloaking.” Hired in the closet, you retire in the closet. You’re essentially like a KGB agent infiltrating MI5, but without any support from the KGB. (At least you don’t have to write reports back to Moscow.)
And as you age, you may drop not the mask—but the soul under it. As Havel explains: “In any case, experience has taught us again and again that this automatism is far more powerful than the will of any individual; and should someone possess a more independent will, he must conceal it behind a ritually anonymous mask in order to have an opportunity to enter the power hierarchy at all. And when the individual finally gains a place there and tries to make his will felt within it, that automatism, with its enormous inertia, will triumph sooner or later, and either the individual will be ejected by the power structure like a foreign organism, or he will be compelled to resign his individuality gradually, once again blending with the automatism and becoming its servant, almost indistinguishable from those who preceded him and those who will follow.”
Power is heroin. Being an operator is heroin. There is nothing like it. But no one can both serve the devil and master him. And the only reason to do so is frivolous: like a heroin addict, your whole life is consumed by the stimulation of your own desire. And since you are not actually an operator—and likely a heel—this is not Kantian action. Your warning sign should have been that your collective actions were futile. But they were too fun for you to notice. Well—not all fun is bad, or even bad for you. The best thing about being a dissident really was the friends we made along the way.
Ceci n’est pas un blackpill
There is nothing wrong with defining detachment as a spiritual or emotional commitment. Its very practice demands this commitment.
But every esoteric doctrine has a layer beyond each layer: a higher doctrine which completes and perfects the work below. To the profane and uncircumcised, this new revelation may resemble an exception, a contradiction, even a hypocrisy—which just shows how little these fools know.
The careful reader (who would never join a cult) will note that nowhere have we disproved the existence of forms of collaboration whose expected outcome does matches their predicted outcome. We have not disproved Kantian collective action, positive or negative.
We have shown something different: that the set of popular collective actions of both polarities is weakly selected for Kantian traits (like actually succeeding), and strongly selected for non-Kantian traits (like expressing power). So picking a cause from one of these popular sets is not Kantian.
But all this means is that, if you want to act, you actually have to think. You can expect the defaults to be all bad—or mostly bad. There may be Kantian actions out there. They will be hard to find—and harder to promote.
If you are a positive person and you want to only do good in the world, without expressing any kind of social or political power, you can usually find a way to do that. If you are a negative person—well, you’re here, aren’t you?
Detachment is emotional renunciation of the desire for power. Renunciation of any form of desire can go in two directions: abstinence or mastery. Once free from the blindness of desire, we can simply relax in our newfound freedom and truth.
But upon regaining our sight, we also see that we could execute more effectively—even without compromising our abstinence from power. This seems like a paradox, and it is—stick around for it.
[watch this space]