Note: I am going to talk about inflation, and markets, and the Federal Reserve in the first part of this post – I am not making a “market call,” I am not going to talk about the rectitude or efficacy of the position of the Federal Reserve, I am not going to perform a statistical or economic analysis, I am going to talk about communications-style. If you take anything I say as some sort of financial advice (which I don’t know how you even could), well, you deserve what you get.
The cover-up is not just worse than the crime, it is now virtually impossible.
What do the Federal Reserve, Boris Johnson, Major League Baseball, and the former President of Liberty University all have in common? They’re all liars.
And more than that, they’re all representatives of important institutions: government bureaucracy, representative and executive government, entertainment, and religion and academia.
With the amount of analysis and commentary available and the amount of information that always leaks, or otherwise finds its way into the public sphere, all across the world, institutions still play a game where nobody actually quite comes out and tells the truth. The central bank of the United States (the Federal Reserve), an organization of decisive importance, has their pronouncements and policies analyzed with the depth normally reserved for the forensic investigations of plane crashes by the NTSB, and unlike those scrupulous investigators, the analysis is often conveyed to the broader public by hacks trying to frighten, enthrall, or generate ratings.
Public speeches and announcements by the Federal Reserve are therefore worded with precision, and, even if they don’t know what the Federal Reserve is or what it does (and even more likely, do not know that it exists at all), citizens are pushed and pulled by the weight of those announcements
Regarding the current inflation gripping the financial markets and the economy, here is Jerome Powell in his Jackson Hole speech on August 22nd, dashing the hopes of those investors who were hoping for an easing of monetary policy (highlights mine – anytime you see a bolded line in any quote, that was me):
Restoring price stability will take some time and requires using our tools forcefully to bring demand and supply into better balance. Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation. But a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain.
Imagine if, instead of using the euphemisms “below-trend growth,” and “softer labor market conditions” the Chairmanhad said, explicitly:
“We are going to try to cause a recession by hiking interest rates.”
It is fair to speculate if public opinion would “allow” the Fed to raise interest rates if he had spoken with such plainness. That openness would bring the policies outside of commentary and spin and analysis, the decisions that impact the entire global economy would be out in the open even if it constrained the Fed’s ability to act. A full public debate could be had about the whether this is an appropriate course of action, with a full understanding on either side of the issue of what the presumed consequences of those actions would be.
Speaking in euphemisms doesn’t work anymore with the information we all have available to us. Every time the head of an important institution or organization seeks to obscure, or speak in euphemisms, cover-up, or lie, they are no longer “getting away with it,” or “doing what needs to be done,” they are, in fact, eroding their position of authority. Good or bad, right or wrong, wise or foolish, short-sighted or over-broad – institutions must adapt to the new environment or continuously risk their power and prestige. Whether or not you think the public should be involved in the Fed’s decision, technocrats can no longer make policy out of the eye of public opinion without devastating the public’s trust in their decisions, which is intolerable to the continued functioning of those institutions over time.
There are, at least, two specific evils caused by not being explicit and open and honest.
The first is the fact that lack of candor is everywhere, almost immediately, exposed as hypocrisy and untruth.
The second is, as mentioned above, the institution loses control of their own message and gives it up to tabloid writers, doom-spammers, political hacks, and vain television hosts. Whatever is said or released is then filtered through a million viewpoints and there is enough ambiguity for actors with their own purposes to impose a meaning on these communications. Whether it is good or bad, the headline: Fed Determined to Cause a Recession to Stop Inflation, leaves no room for interpretation.
This specific speech lacks candor in a more subtle way as well. Jerome Powell endorses a specific view of the “Great Inflation” (the period of high inflation lasting from the mid-1960’s to the early 1980’s) that is not a fact, but rather an opinion (as far as I can tell, there is not much consensus at all as to the causes of the Great Inflation except that oil prices were high), through a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. More from his speech:
The first lesson is that central banks can and should take responsibility for delivering low and stable inflation. It may seem strange now that central bankers and others once needed convincing on these two fronts, but as former Chairman Ben Bernanke has shown, both propositions were widely questioned during the Great Inflation period.1 Today, we regard these questions as settled. Our responsibility to deliver price stability is unconditional. It is true that the current high inflation is a global phenomenon, and that many economies around the world face inflation as high or higher than seen here in the United States. It is also true, in my view, that the current high inflation in the United States is the product of strong demand and constrained supply, and that the Fed’s tools work principally on aggregate demand. None of this diminishes the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to carry out our assigned task of achieving price stability. There is clearly a job to do in moderating demand to better align with supply. We are committed to doing that job.
The second lesson is that the public’s expectations about future inflation can play an important role in setting the path of inflation over time. Today, by many measures, longer-term inflation expectations appear to remain well anchored. That is broadly true of surveys of households, businesses, and forecasters, and of market-based measures as well. But that is not grounds for complacency, with inflation having run well above our goal for some time.
That footnote which is sneaked into the first paragraph links to a speech by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke in 2004 titled The Great Moderation. Here are some relevant quotations from Bernanke’s speech:
Three types of explanations have been suggested for this dramatic change [in reduced macroeconomic volatility – including inflation]; for brevity, I will refer to these classes of explanations as structural change, improved macroeconomic policies, and good luck…
…My view is that improvements in monetary policy, though certainly not the only factor, have probably been an important source of the Great Moderation. In particular, I am not convinced that the decline in macroeconomic volatility of the past two decades was primarily the result of good luck, as some have argued, though I am sure good luck had its part to play as well…
…Monetary policymakers bemoaned the high rate of inflation in the 1970s but did not fully appreciate their own role in its creation. Ironically, their errors in estimating the natural rate [of unemployment] and in ascribing inflation to nonmonetary forces were mutually reinforcing…
I want to be careful in what I’m asserting, because I do not have the expertise to be critical of the policies indicated by Bernanke’s or Powell’s analysis. I do feel comfortable in criticizing their characterizations of policy, consensus, and history though. When citing Bernanke, Powell is again speaking in code, what I think he is really saying is that the Federal Reserve of the 1960’s and 1970’s thought that inflation was beyond their control and the Chairmen of the time were later despised and condemned for taking this view, and, critically, that this is not a mistake he intends to repeat.
I could wonder if he fears to repeat that “mistake” because of his determination to have correct monetary policy, or because his own pride and vanity are pushing him to be a “hero” like Paul Volcker (the Federal Reserve Chairman often credited with stopping the “Great Inflation” by forcing through rate hikes that may have helped cause a terrible recession). I don’t mean to pose a genuine question about Powell’s motivation here, I happen to think he is trying to do what he believes is the right thing in the right way, but there is room for interpretation. Without this citation, he is perhaps more trustworthy, rather than less, at least to an outside observer. “Fed watchers” are not the ones who may be confused about Powell’s meaning.
In the staid, stilted, and academic language of the Federal bureaucracy he is almost shouting: “the public be damned!” without telling the public why he is cursing them. It is the not telling the public “why” he does not care about their input which is problematic. An institution cannot (or, better to say: should not) always be constrained by public opinion, but, again, it can no longer seek to hide things from the public.
As to the substance of Bernanke’s speech, what I am comfortable saying is that, through the Global Financial Crisis and the COVID Crisis, it is not clear to me at all that “improved monetary policy” was, in fact, the primary contributor to the period of economic expansion with low inflation called “The Great Moderation.”
Powell, when citing Bernanke’s speech and endorsing the “expectation” view of inflation, is not providing actual evidence that hiking interest rates is a good policy, but is rather providing a justification with an appeal to history, one that is made to sound like it is backed by empirical research. Again, all of this justification and citation is just another way to avoid saying:
“We believe the only way we can stop inflation is by causing a recession.”
But how many people are going to go ahead and read the speech Powell is citing? And how many have a basic knowledge of the history of monetary policy? The problem is, of course, that we can read the speech Powell is citing (it’s not long, by the way, and you don’t need to understand too much about monetary policy to get it) – and what this does, for me at least, is expose the obfuscatory quality of Powell’s remarks. A critical government bureaucracy that is not accountable to the will of the public (as much as anything is immune from the will of the public anymore), must be open and transparent. Borders are dissolved, there is no longer a separation between the technocratic government bureaucracy and the lowliest of cashiers or medical payment processors or construction workers. But at least, in this instance, Powell is not modeling personal and public moral behavior for the entire country as a symbolic leader, like our elected government officials.
If you have read about Premiership of Boris Johnson, I feel like I barely need to say anything here. Our politics are full of hypocrisy, astounding hypocrisy, and again, there is nothing new here besides the exposure afforded by modern technologies. And the titanic volume of blatant, flagrant violations of laws by politicians during the Pandemic, policies which were enacted by the politicians themselves, is enough to make a Borgia Pope blush, and that is not particular to Johnson.
I could also talk about Trump here, but I don’t really want to talk about him anymore than we all already have, plus, I’m not sure it was hypocrisy that caused Trump to lose his election, so much as his egregious incompetence and the loathing he inspired. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, was deposed by his own consistent dissembling.
Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and former Prime Minister of the UK, was forced to resign as his ministry sank after being swamped by a number of scandals, occurring almost simultaneously, and all involving public dishonesty about personal immorality. He flouted his own lockdown rules, and, even dumber, he did not disclose their full extent, and instead let the incidents trickle into the public discussion one by one. Through this lack of candor, he ensured the continuous broadcast of scandal, which blended with the other scandals routinely appearing in the news media about his administration of the commonwealth. Amongst numerous other scandals which I won’t bother to mention, Johnson was accused of skirting conflict of interest rules when having a wealthy donor pay for a refurbishment of his residences, of attempting to keep a dubious political ally in office, of cronyism in public contracts for the Pandemic, and finally, of elevating a political ally whom he was warned (and then lied about being warned) had sexually assaulted men.
Being able to see, in pictures, the Prime Minister contradicting his own laws when so many in the United Kingdom were suffering under strict controls, as well as allowing his political opponents to control the image (correct, as it seems) of him as corrupt beyond redemption by the relentless leaks alleging wrongdoing, dismantled the barrier between the excusable hyperbolic rhetoric of a politician and the dishonesty of the private man. It is difficult now to be an “elite” and to remain exempted from the laws which constrain the humble and meek when every person can simply look at their phone and be filled with indignant rage at the injustice and hypocrisy manifest in such behavior.
I do not know if being honest about his own disregard for the law or basic tenets of public morals would have saved Johnson, but I’m sure his lying damned him. But behind the mismanagement of the crises and dissolution of the boundaries between private and public affairs by the unceasing flow of information lies another failure of public institutions in managing their communications environment. Instead of acting as soon as it became clear that Johnson’s personal failings would destroy their political standing (or, in an imagined Utopia, acting on principle as soon as they discovered the Prime Minister’s personal failings), Johnson’s Conservative Party, which enabled his maintenance in that powerful position, only reacted after public opinion had turned and Johnson’s unpopularity would cost them elections. If a public-facing institution is constantly reacting , it cannot lead, but only try and fix problems which have already arisen. This is the curse of a constant connection with the public, and the constant use of opinion polling. Parties proceed to follow the polls instead of trying to enact policies which will move the polls. In order to maintain this constant reactionary stance, rhetoric, even more than it always has, replaces policy.
Next up to the plate, another institution that is losing the trust (what little it retained) of its fanbase, Major League Baseball.
The last two or three years, baseball complacently allowed pitchers to cheat en masse by looking the other way while they applied so-called “sticky stuff” to their hands to give them a better grip on the ball. This superior grip allows pitchers to generate more spin (a higher spin rate as its known) on the ball as it leaves their hands, generating more movement, and making those pitches harder for hitters to hit. This cheating was noticed and rampant.
Applying a “foreign substance” to the ball is illegal according to the official MLB rules, but that did not trouble MLB until it was exposed by fans posting videos on Youtube, players complaining in the press, and most of all, by lower batting averages – and nothing frightens the MLB more than games with fewer hits and home runs. There was a “crackdown,” which apparently did not stick. Noting statistical oddities, Major League Baseball realized that the spin rates on pitches were still high, so in the middle of the 2021 season, they sent a memo out to the teams announcing the rigorous implementation of all sorts of checks to make sure pitchers could not cheat anymore.
Waiting until everyone knew about it, and until they were afraid it would hurt the league’s bottom line, MLB announced publicly that it would do what it should have done immediately. The delay is as bad as a cover-up. Instead of acting in a decisive manner, they opened themselves to criticism from fans, and from a 24/7 sports-commentary media ecosystem salivating at the prospect of chewing into a meaty scandal. Ubiquitous video and sophisticated statistical analysis makes cheating, in a public sport, difficult to hide.
Even worse, what Major League Baseball’s fecklessness has the potential to bring about the outcome they fear most, having fans stay away. Faith in the integrity of an institution is important, even when that institution is as (perhaps to some) trivial as professional sports. According to US Diplomatic Cables (leaked of course, like everything else now), when Bulgarians lost faith in the integrity of their soccer league because the teams were taken over my organized crime figures, they stopped going to matches. The owners of Major League Baseball teams are not quite mafiosi (well, not to most observers at least), but loss of integrity is loss of integrity, whether the cause is crime, incompetence, or deception.
Shameless hypocrisy is perhaps no more reviled than in matters of religion, where morality is often foundational to the creed. Evangelical Baptists are among the most declamatory spiritual moralists in United States, and such fervent faith is much abused by unscrupulous preachers to line their own pockets, as with so many televangelists, faith-healers, and other predators.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. is the son of noted conservative politician, umm, excuse me…noted pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, and was the President of Liberty University, a faith-based academic institution in Virginia, whose mission statement includes the following line:
Persons are spiritual, rational, moral, social, and physical, created in the image of God. They are, therefore, able to know and to value themselves and other persons, the universe, and God.
Falwell’s scandal involved both a breach of fiduciary duty and the perversion of good, Christian sexual morals. He was accused of recording and watching his wife have sex with a pool boy (yes, if you don’t remember, this is actually what happened) over the course of many years, several days after he posted a photo of himself on Instagram in a somewhat lascivious photo with a woman who was not his wife, in which he appeared to be drinking alcohol.
Repeatedly backtracking and switching his position, he failed to put out any coherent statement or argument about his scandals. He had the gall to say that he was being unfairly judged by “self-righteous people.” When forced to resign, he even sued the school for defamation.
Falwell should have known his exposure was inevitable. He should have resigned admitting that he failed to live up his agreement with the Lord, and that the Devil tempted him with liquor and lust. He could have saved a modicum of his reputation, and, perhaps, not have made Liberty University into a joke. By getting out in front of the situation, he also could have better controlled the conversation, instead he was prey to political enemies and religious ones.
As it happens, who can take such a moralizing institution so corrupted by its nominal leader seriously now? Again the academic and religious institution itself, the University, is partially to blame. Negative stories began leaking in 2019, and instead of acting, they let it fester until it rotted.
Shame the Devil
The hypocrisy and wrong-doing and stupidity and foolishness and dishonesty was always there, but now all of society has the ability to see the beliefs and actions professed and the actual actions taken in a type of informational split-screen. The current, and apparent, crisis of our institutions, characterized by loss of faith in them, is a byproduct of being able to see the difference between words and actions in real time, all of the time.
What our institutions now do, too often, is the equivalent of a husband texting his wife “I love you, see you after this baseball game I’m attending with my friends!” while simultaneously livestreaming his lap dance from the strip club on Instagram. It may have worked in the past, but no longer.
The implication of this is not for increased secrecy on the part of institutions or slicker talking points, because this is futile anyway, but rather for increased honesty and transparency. I think some of these people who run these organizations would be shocked at the power and trust they could wield by telling the whole truth, instead of having their messages clouded and hijacked by a ravenous commentariat and disregarded and distrusted by a cynical, overwhelmed, and fearful populace.
There are so many good and necessary things our institutions do, so many good things they represent, that we should not be quick to discard them. By their own failure to recognize that the future will not be like the past, they are condemning themselves to obsolescence even faster than they were heading to the Wikipedia pages of history anyway. The ideals of rule by laws and their equal and objective enforcement, of good sportsmanship and honest competition, of community and morality are by far preferable to rule by force, of cheating to win, and of atomization and selfishness – but that’s where we are headed if our institutions continue to fail to adapt to the demands of the new information environment.
Note on the title: The title is from a line in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I, where the hotheaded antagonist, Hotspur, makes fun of an ally for claiming he can conjure demons, and even the Devil himself. Hotspur is rather skeptical. Act III, Scene I, Lines 60-65
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Everybody knows the first part, but nobody finishes the paragraph. We are living in another such period of extremes, and importantly, perceived extremes (if, in fact, there was ever a time in which we did not live within and amongst the extremities of experience), one of profound promise for the future and of deep pessimism as our knowledge and social systems develop at a breakneck pace with changes in technology. This is overwhelming and forces us to decode and integrate all this new information into our value systems. Some things have not changed in 300,000 years, like the survival of our species always prodded into our conscious and unconscious minds by the promises and fears of pleasure and pain. Much of our group and individual behaviors derive from those two places, urging us to productive, procreative behavior. They are universals, and mutual experiences of pain and joy tie us together in communities, friendships, and families. The Covid-19 pandemic, while causing massive amounts of suffering throughout the world, has promoted political and social disunity in the United States – I offer no metrics, but I don’t believe this is a controversial statement. I don’t think people shared the same experiences regarding lockdowns, wealth accumulation, raising children, or personal grief. How could we when the nature of the shock, placing a tax on physical contact, necessarily impacted people of different economic statuses differently? During this most recent period of disruption and dislocation, technological innovations and the primacy of “social distancing” highlighted and enhanced our involvement and dependency on the internet. Communities of increasing sophistication developed by computer science experts and populated with regular citizens are prominent and a gateway to disintermediation and civic and economic democratization and decentralization. While over the last few decades, the physical state of the people of the world has improved in material ways – as it has almost continuously since the Renaissance – an ugly inequality the pandemic highlighted was the depressing increase in so-called “deaths of despair,” deaths caused by suicide, alcoholism, or drug use and addiction. One of the reasons why there was an increase in these deaths is that changing social circumstances and technological advances leave us unhappy in many ways, and I think this is almost always the paradox of progress.
Contradiction walks with humanity through any development, in any era. Our present age of contradictions is both personal and social. As technology becomes more specialized, intricate, and complex, the more the majority of people must rely on automated processes or expertise to harness the technologies. At the same time this is happening, trust in those processes and expertise is waning. We are: more free and more controlled, more educated and more ignorant, more contented and more unhappy. What is more, as these gulfs open up between us, and often within us, our sense of morality changes as well. Communities attached to moral changes fade and bloom, sometimes with stunning speed. With unlimited information decreasing centralized control and certainty about the future, these groups sometimes grow more certain in their beliefs. As former moral imperatives are rendered obsolete, the moral conviction of the new groups may grow. As apathy and ignorance grows, political and social conviction grows as well. As individual expression is unshackled, people seek familiar spaces in which to fit their views.
Online communication is intensely public, always curated, and responses can be thought about before they’re distributed. Social pressure is never far away from us, since we are in the digital panopticon when participating in the new public square. At the same time as our division seems to grow more heated even as the underlying principles lack depth, the punishment for deviation from the new principles is more severe, since deviations can rarely escape notice and social censure.
As new issues which are unaddressed by old moral commitments increase in salience, new patterns emerge. A rise in the spread of “misinformation” raises questions of the costs which the collective must pay to allow such openness. Increased understanding of the complexity of dynamic systems and psychology reveals formerly hidden inequalities tied to race, and other ethnic or social features which provoke bias. Globalization promotes prosperity in the world, but what of its economic harm at home? Many of these questions lead to fundamental political policy disagreements, but so much of our conflict skirts the edges of these issues. Both the word “moral” and “ethic” derive from concepts related to appropriate conduct in public society (a favorite pastime is looking up the etymology of words, it can be wonderfully revealing about the connotations of words, and how we think). This etymology provides us with an intuition that morals change when the mass of people shift their beliefs. Community morals are habitual, they are a learned behavior, not an innate one.
Over time we have come to expect an unrestrained freedom of speech, for example. This has caused a conflict involving the spread of so-called misinformation as I mentioned above. The term “free speech” is a kind of anachronism. We are using a term from the 1700’s to mean something entirely different than what “freedom of speech” meant to those who framed the idea in our Constitution. We are accustomed to a wild license the Founding Fathers never would have recognized. Freedom of speech, in the way we mean it now, means: being able to express almost any idea that is not specifically criminal without being subjected to public censure and “deplatforming,” much less legal sanction!
An ironic process occurred whereby the ability to debate the scope of regulation of speech for the good of the community was curtailed by formal legal sanction which made static our modern sense of free speech. Judges stifled debate, disallowing fundamental discussions about the nature of free speech. That is not to say our current definition of free speech is bad, just that even such deeply held values as this are changeable over time, and even those values are subject to larger frameworks of universal understanding.
All of these frameworks and their structures of value come from the organization of our communities. Our old tribal identities are failing, so we create new ones, especially ones that are mutually intelligible over the internet, where ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality are less important markers and where people can maintain multiple identities at once. Ambiguity, decentralization, and information-overload feeds common linkages by allowing people to pluck a sense of certainty out of “too much information” by finding evidence that conforms to almost any group view.
As all these traditional links of community are shorn away, people revert to more primitive expressions of group solidarity, namely: collective suffering. Much of this suffering forms from oppression, or a sense of victimhood, which can have social benefits.
I think we are going through a period of moral illegibility and changed communication patterns which compel the creation of new communities.
Our associations grow smaller and more local by the day, but the broader social groups that remain are the fumes evaporated from more substantial ideas. The Church’s creed of “Love Thy Neighbor and Thy Enemy” replaced by the creed of prosperity gospel and anti-abortion politics, the capitalist injunction to serve the greater good through individual prosperity and industry replaced by “number go up,” the principles of a restrained government which protects citizens from subjective reasons for imprisonment, dispossession of property, and execution reduced to the freedom to not wear a mask.
Emancipation from the ages-old oppressions of arbitrary government – government which obtains its authority on the principles of birth, force, or the supernatural – and poverty, vacates the vitality of our broad communal associations, and masses of information inhibit the growth of new, broader ideals. This social anarchy is anathema to our biology and to governments. As the chaos from the base of the social pyramid grows, the more force will be applied from the apex. I don’t think it is random that we’re seeing a rise in autocracy around the globe. This dual movement, one of simultaneous freeing and constricting social influences, accompanies improvements in communications technology.
The invention of moveable type in Europe helped enable the Reformation, as Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe – provoking rebellion, and in turn, enormous forces of repression. French Revolutionary ideals were distributed through innumerable pamphlets, newspapers, and even in letters from an increasingly literate populace to one another, while that same literary explosion contributed to the social uniformity and contagious fear that permitted the atrocious War in the Vendée and the Reign of Terror. Radio helped to create a society with flourishing national entertainments and an outlet for bold and imaginative artistry and dissemination of knowledge of current events, while allowing the development of monoculture and proving an invaluable aid to government propaganda. Social media helps oppressed citizens organize an Arab Spring, and enforces rigid social controls. With each successive, more immediate, more immersive, more personal advance in communications technology comes a stronger direct linkage to broad social and public affairs for each individual. Crime in San Francisco makes an emotional impact on a person in rural Vermont, or a law in Texas is reviled by a person in Los Angeles. Or the experience of a person in Australia is widely shared in the United States as evidence of dangerous COVID policy, and a racist incident in Wales gets a magazine story in the US. It makes sense that such a broadening of perspective would generalize emotional reactions.
Never have so many people been so free to invent and live in their own moral codes, or to live by the fruits of their own intellectual labor, but few people are able to stand entirely in their own view of the world. People will seek out community, even if it is not an apparent motivation to themselves at all. Our social interactions are always ambiguous and layered. The confident newcomer enters a group and boldly greets others, making conversation and telling people about themself. Everyone knows that this is both a genuine attempt to learn about and introduce oneself to others while simultaneously being an act, a method of securing social support from others. People exist on different levels: the person we see, the person we believe we are based on our own internal psychology, and the person we don’t know. We contain multitudes, the endless pathways of our mind unfurling into dark territory – virgin terrain even to ourselves.
And even as the world becomes connected in more complex ways, with identities not limited to one group or another, a paradox exists wherein our perception of there being fewer dominant ideologies increases.
Americans are now convinced that we are polarized (and of course, politically, we are), but this perception is more important than an actual fact, if it is indeed true. People may not even know themselves, let alone others, and most of us are far too complicated to be crammed into one of two social-political groupings, and far too uncaring or ignorant to have coherent political ideologies. Popular pundits and politicians reinforce this view by taking individual actions or beliefs of individual people and forcing them to be representative of a supposedly coherent whole – part of the cherry-picking process enabled by endless flows of information. Social media and the internet exacerbates some of these dynamics whereby hidden communities, with loosely held beliefs which are broadly applicable and do not preclude participation in other communities, are created and strengthened.
Seeking out “independent” centers of thought to combat mainstream orthodoxy hides the development of new communities with their own orthodoxy. For instance, in combating the groupthink of the “liberal mainstream media,” there is a covert community of “conservative” morality and analysis of climate change. There is a robust and widespread “contrarian consensus” about the harm caused by restricting the use of fossil fuels. Take the rising popularity of the “Doomberg” account on Twitter and Substack, who explains in clear, imaginative terms this contrarian consensus view of climate-change influenced fossil fuel policies. The same can be said of the intelligence and law-enforcement apparatuses of the United States’ government. When Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi focus their efforts on elevating conservative-grievance-politics talking-points (e.g. that the riot at the Capitol was not a big deal), they are feeding a view of the world which girds a community that often transcends our two political parties. Many of the arguments are true, or at least true in parts, but leave out reasonable counters. Commentators often grow upset about big tech censorship of conservatives, but almost every single day the top pages shared on Facebook are dominated by conservative pundits. This may not prove anything at all, but it is just as fit a data point as any made by an “independent.” These “independent” positions are nothing of the sort. They are not iconoclastic, they are, in fact, the stable views of a large community often based around grievances toward “elites” and crimping of personal freedoms.
New moral groupings can be found in almost any community touched by or reliant on the internet. Take a financial market-focused community on Reddit, whose popularity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, r/wallstreetbets. I would argue that it is bound together as much by posting screenshots of losses (they even have a term: “loss porn”) than by the huge gains. A perusal through other new financial subreddits (ones focused on meme-stocks AMC or GME for instance) reveals a lot about the not-immediately-apparent glue of these communities. Noticeable there, again, is the focus on group suffering and persecution. Reading or listening to more traditional financial groups, like value investors, also yields the same focus on suffering and group-wide value judgments.
People talk a lot about fear and greed, and behavioral errors, and the madness of crowds, but I see a lot of moral judgments in markets.
It is immoral for Tesla to get bid up (go to zero).
It is immoral for people to short (ape in to) AMC and GME.
It is immoral for people to claim that BTC is going to zero ($100K).
It is immoral for commodity prices to increase (decline) exponentially.
In the broad culture and political strife which we perceive manifesting in political polarization, morality and suffering are prominent. Though I submit that this strife is still not apparent as being more about community rather than policy issues.
What we are witnessing in the fear of critical race theory, or the conviction of white Americans that they’re being discriminated against, or anti-vaccine hyperbolics claiming there is a coming genocide is not idiocy or irrational fear, it is a set of intertwined signals of common persecution and suffering based on a specific moral code (one based around ideals of autonomy) which enhances group cohesion. On the “liberal” side we see a similar set of signals of group suffering, based around moral ideals of equality, wherein you see the conviction that racism is at all-time highs, that minorities and low-income workers are being especially economically oppressed, and that global warming is going to drive of us to the edge of extinction because of capitalist greed.
Again, these ideas of moral purity attained through suffering and bonding through persecution are not new, they are ancient, as old as human beings. The development of new moralities is a perilous endeavor, however. There is great danger in periods of such social anarchy. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, in 1940, offering a valuable and prescient insight (highlights mine):
Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
There is so much moral virtue and camaraderie in suffering, it is so powerful that it can be irresistible. The abstractions of the internet have created a possibly new way for suffering and persecution to be manufactured. We don’t have to look far to see the emotional and moral appeal of the new American conservatism of Donald Trump, from his inaugural address (highlights mine):
For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you…
…The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
We are one nation and their pain is our pain…
Of course, there is truth here just like there is truth in the critiques of the independent journalists and the financial communities. There are people who are struggling, who are deprived, who are robbed of their potential. But the basis of the group identity he is claiming as the base of his sovereignty is shared suffering on a massive scale, the group he’s speaking to, the MAGA crowd, is being singled out as being burdened especially by the persecution of “elites.” Despite Trump’s brutal ignorance and depraved vulgarity, he repeated this effective message over and over in his campaign rallies, the mere content of which was too often ignored in favor of his buffoonish and risible statements regarding his many personal enemies. The value of this in the era of information overload is that anyone can claim they are part of the oppressed grouping, MAGA could be accepted by anyone, anyone can be a victim in one of these areas if they choose to identify themselves as such. And then it can be backed with barrages of statistics, or infinite cherry-picked examples. It is impossible to pin down the suffering of the group exactly, it is a feeling, a perception. It is amorphous and non-dependent on any outward marker of group-affiliation, like age or race.
As for the group based around the morality of equality, here is a quote from antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi, in response to the question (paraphrased), what does a version of America look like where a person’s character matters more than their race? (again, highlights mine):
Well, what it looks like for me as a black American is that people do not view me as dangerous and thereby make my existence dangerous. It allows me to walk around this country and to not believe that people are going to fear me because of the color my skin. It allows me to believe, you know what, I didn’t get that job because I could have done better on my interview, not because of the color of my skin. It allows me to — a country where there’s racial equity, a country where there’s racial justice, you know, a country where there’s shared opportunity, a country where African American culture and Native American culture and the cultures of Mexican Americans and Korean Americans are all valued equally, that no one is being asked to assimilate into white American culture. There’s no such thing as standard professional wear. There’s no such thing as, well, you need to learn how to speak English in order to be an American. And we would truly not only have equity and justice for all but we would somehow have found a way to appreciate difference, to appreciate all of the human ethnic and cultural difference that exists in the United States. This is what could make this country great, in which we literally become a country where you could literally travel around this country and learn about cultures from all over the world and appreciate those cultures, and understand even your own culture from what other people are doing. There’s so much beauty here amid all this pain and I just want to peel away and remove away all of those scabs of racist policies so that people can heal and so that we can see true beauty.
This is a radical redefinition of what it means to be American (or perhaps, what it meant in the past), far away from dictates of the Constitution, or the primacy of democracy and capitalism. These new tribes, based primarily around suffering, are not anything like our old tribes, despite using such an ancient point of communalism. What is interesting about Kendi’s take here on his ideal community is that, even though it is centered around both the equality and autonomy of different racial groupings, it is an attitude that literally anyone can adopt: one of antiracism. So like MAGA’s tribe of persecution, antiracism’s tribe of equality is available to anyone who wishes to adopt it. Also, due to the appeals to structural and systemic racism, almost any policy or circumstance can be claimed to be racist, even if there is scant evidence. It is a completely inclusive group of choice, united solely by its conviction that the current government and policies of the country, and the beliefs of citizens, are inflicting pain and suffering on minority groups and the non-wealthy.
These new moralities competing with one another are both so broad and distant from more rigorous versions of their pure ideological ancestors and actual considerations of specific allocations of scarce resources that they promise complete inclusiveness. How easy is it to say online (or in a text, for that matter) “We have to stand up to the elites to prevent people from suffering?” That sentence could be used by both the autonomy and equality groupings to signal support of moral virtue, a commonality of suffering, and inclusion in an ideological tribe. What’s more, the generalities and distance of these communities from the actual, specific policy decisions that their moralities imply allows people to exist in other more focused or local groups, since there is no necessary exclusivity.
As seems to happen so often with large disruptive events, the unexpected tragedy of the pandemic hit our collective society at its most vulnerable points. It strained trust in governing institutions, projected wealth inequality in harsh relief, and disrupted the flow of goods and services in the global economy. There is no guarantee of quick relief from the pandemic, and there is no “normal” to which we can go back. And change is not going to decelerate. Every time communications technology improves, it becomes more intimate, it enables more individuality, setting us at opposition with our own selves and our innate, incontrovertible, inextinguishable yearning for a place in a community. There is opportunity here, as in so many other technological disruptions, for the creation of new morals and new morality which are precipitated by new social or political challenges. Reimagining our communities in new constructs of morality allowed for the destruction of slavery, the condemnation and curtailment of genocide, the alleviation of poverty, the right to education and so many wonderful innovations that were not innate in novel technology itself. New moralities also aided Totalitarianism, Imperialism, global conflict, and other evils of societies and government over the centuries.
I think, when political ideology and policy preference are understood, most often, as moral signaling centered around group suffering, our bitter cultural disputes become more rational. Instead of imputing irrationality to people, or stupidity, or malevolence, we can understand how our conflicts are often driven by the simple, persistent need to alleviate the anxiety and loneliness of social and moral homelessness in a time when mass amounts of communication is conducted in a virtual setting.
It is astonishing and poignant that, through all our advances, our unavoidable frailty and pain and willingness to sacrifice and suffer for one another remains such a powerful binding agent, giving purpose and meaning to our lives. As the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are famous, so are the closing ones, relating a character’s thoughts about his own impending sacrifice of his life for the betterment of others:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
 Not a bad metaphor for our contextless information society, eh?
Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.
The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.
The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.
In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.
Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.
So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.
Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.
Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.
I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.
So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.
Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).
And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.
Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.
A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.
One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.
The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.
Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.
Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.
The Conversion of St. Paul (second version), oil on canvas by Caravaggio, 1601 (Source: SCALA/Art Resource, New York)
Creating the World
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1, KJV
“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8, KJV
Creation myths all spring the universe into existence ex nihilo (even the Big Bang Theory, ultimately, after all, everything must have a beginning). From nothing comes something, thereby producing an orderly certainty in the unknowable and random. These myths present stories which serve as explanations for the existence of all things and mark the basic scope and confines of reality. In the first verse of the Book of John in the New Testament, Christ is associated with the omniscient force in the universe, one which spoke the world into existence. In the Book of Revelation God is associated with the creation and destruction if the Universe, using the beginning and ending letters of the Greek alphabet as a metaphor. These examples display the importance of telling stories to create the intellectual structures which support Belief.
As old myths and religions crumble in the face of ineffectiveness, and of new technologies and modes of communication, the whole world struggles to find new tribes to assuage their existential anxiety. Overwhelmed with complexity, with randomness, and with uncertainty, people need a fixed point around which a narrative of an orderly world can be created. The creation of these new narratives center in non-state-sanctioned social centers of belief: cults. A cult, as I am using the word, means an ideological system which includes moral and spiritual rules considered to be unerringly true, and constituting a minority of members of a general population who ascribe to those tenets. Further, all cults are tribes, but not all tribes are cults (but I will sometimes use the terms interchangeably). A tribal affiliation can grow to any size and may not have an object of veneration, while a cult is outside the mainstream of society and contains objects of Fetish-Worship. A cult can become a “religion” when it begins to imbed itself in society using coercive structures of organized force and attains legitimacy for its version of the Truth and becomes ubiquitous in ordering commerce and association in commonplace society.
The path of Christianity, from a small cult of Jews to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, is an example of the one of the most successful and impactful journeys on which any association of individuals embarked. An important feature of Christianity compared to Roman Paganism was that it offered equality and certainty in the future, even (and especially) beyond the bounds of our mortal lives. Ancient society was dominated by an elite aristocracy, and most people were slaves or otherwise shut-off from paths to self-determination by the social structures which permeated all Classical societies. The Ancient Roman Empire, in the first several centuries AD, may have had up to 15% of the total population as slaves (the numbers are understandably difficult to discern, but it is relatively certain that it was a significant amount of the population). Populist movements, through their nature of championing the prerogatives of average people, tend toward challenging hierarchies of all sorts. Justice and certainty are amply provided to new believers though new avenues – Christianity was once a tiny religion in an obscure part of the world, and it became Archimedes’ lever which moved the Earth. The early Apostles, prophets, saints, and missionaries of Christianity reveal much about its history and appeal in their extensive writings, where they both establish a story, the object of Truth, and codify the laws of the nascent religion.
Another dramatic and history-turning social upheaval is the French Revolution. It is plausible that the French Revolution marked the beginning of mass society (as much as any line of demarcation can be pinned to one event, or series of events). Medieval hierarchies and notions of privilege and fixed caste were directly challenged and overthrown by a revolt of a mass of people. The Catholic Church, as an adjacent feature of the state, was severely damaged by the Revolution, and the cult-turned-religion of Eternal Salvation was replaced by a new cult of Reason and Science.
“Observe, however, that of man’s whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming; under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Of which realised ideals, omitting the rest, consider only these two: his Church, or spiritual Guidance; his Kingship, or temporal one. The Church: what a word was there; richer than Golconda and the treasures of the world! In the heart of the remotest mountains rises the little Kirk; the Dead all slumbering round it, under their white memorial-stones, ‘in hope of a happy resurrection:’—dull wert thou, O Reader, if never in any hour (say of moaning midnight, when such Kirk hung spectral in the sky, and Being was as if swallowed up of Darkness) it spoke to thee—things unspeakable, that went into thy soul’s soul. Strong was he that had a Church, what we can call a Church: he stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew. Such virtue was in Belief; in these words, well spoken: I believe. Well might men prize their Credo, and raise stateliest Temples for it, and reverend Hierarchies, and give it the tithe of their substance; it was worth living for and dying for.” (Chapter 1.1.II, Realised Ideals)
The above quote is from an early chapter in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, a history of that seminal event. Carlyle (who lived in the mid-19th century) was a Scottish polymath and writer of beautiful prose-poetry, and translator of German transcendental literature. There are three notable things about this work: first, it is a rigorous history, carefully employing sources to back its recitation of events; second, it is written in an astonishing style, one that borders on poetry; third, it is a narrative told in the present tense, as if we were following the various principle characters as they lived day to day as if they were characters in a novel (for reference, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote comes to mind as a rough analogue – very rough). Carlyle is also well-known for positing “The Great Man Theory” of history, which determines that mythologized, dynamic men influence the outcomes of history by channeling the popular currents of society. Such a view of history places individuals as the inevitable catalysts for movements, providing a sense of certainty and justifying “cults of personality.”
Carlyle’s history is not the most rigorous or up-to-date work on the French Revolution and is generally forgotten except amongst historians of the period or fans of 19th century literature. But Carlyle knows things which many of us do not remember. And in an era of unrest, uneasiness, and uncertainty, what could be more valuable than remembering things forgotten?
Now, amid the Communications and Information Revolution, where we face the proliferation of voices and demands on humanity, expressed largely through digital means of communication, we have a profusion of new cults, not the least of them being Bitcoin, a new form of money (There is much debate about “what” Bitcoin actually is, some may dispute its function as a currency, but that is not my concern here). The pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, left his own thoughts on the technical and social aspects of Bitcoin in blog posts, on forums, and in emails. The impetus for its creation and founding beliefs can be derived directly from those posts and subsequent commentary.
Secular regimes lose credibility when they suffer through economic crises. Periods of economic recession often act as vectors for claims of moral decline and create targets for assaults on the legitimacy of social institutions. Economic decline features a prominent role in the fall of the French Monarchy. Unpayable debts piled-up as taxation and economic innovation lagged. And in Ancient Rome, a period of one hundred years of currency debasement and disruption of commerce coincided with the rise of Christianity. Bitcoin was invented after the GFC. Economics, once largely concerned with issues of starvation, is now associated with issues of access to employment and personal debt. But regardless of the scale, economic failures create doubt in the continuing benefit of maintaining the current social structures. All is relative, of course. The privation faced by the worst-off groups in Ancient Rome was unconscionable compared to those disenfranchised groups in Revolutionary France, and the hardships faced by the worst-off groups in Revolutionary France are appalling compared to those of oppressed communities in present-day Europe and America.
The narratives, the explanations, the causality, all follow from a fixed point which serves as the reference for all belief for those inducted into the mysteries of a cult. Whether your affiliation is Bitcoin, AOC’s Squad, or MAGA – the encompassing theme is present mystery, hope for the future, and rigid certainty. This certainty is fixed, and all other justifications for belief are formalities. There is no replacement of Fiat Currency, there is only King Price. There is no concern over Stolen Elections, there is only The Tribe of the Common Man. There is no Green New Deal, there is only Social Utopia. Those stated causes I just mentioned do exist, but they are mere justifications for membership, rather than the impetus for the formation of those groupings.
What we watch every day on social media is a new society being spoken into existence. QAnon started as posts on 4Chan and now has supporters marching in the streets. Incel terrorists started by being “blackpilled” on message boards, the world watched horrified (and, tellingly, titillated) as well-produced videos of people being murdered were posted by ISIS. Belief and faith will find new outlets if their old passages are blocked. We see it in young men’s shooting rampages who, in their deranged self-styled “manifestos,” proclaim their fears of economic collapse and immigration and “white replacement.” We see it in Bitcoin maximalists who trumpet “the end is nigh!” on their digital street-corners. We see it in Extinction Rebellion, who stop-up commerce to desperately prevent the imminent doom of all human life.
As a principle, the longer the time-period without reform, the more violent the upheaval. Traditionally, conservatism (in the sense of preserving existing social norms and institutions) is the general political condition of the world. It has often taken long periods of stagnation and ignoring problems to make new and disruptive ideas popular. Many of the so-called “Revolutions” are closer to regime change where the underlying social order is not significantly disturbed. A true Revolution overturns the bases of society.
An oft-forgotten idea in the time of the internet-eating-the-world is the effectiveness of violence in ordering behavior. This is still a key factor in political and social life. As much as the internet allows the creation of mobs, the organization of cults of choice, as much as online communities creep into reality, they cannot compete with violence and death in the moment of the imposition of that ultimate power of physical coercion. Risk is what ties us all to reality, regardless of any other beliefs we may hold. Violence and mortal fear are a refiner of perception. No matter how deeply our distortions of the world are held when they are egged-on by online communities, few can pass the test of withstanding violence. Christianity withstood the tests of violence and conquered the world.
Estates-General, by Charles-Emmanuel Patas
(Source: Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris)
Certainty and Corruption
Some cults have changed the world by growing into something massive and all-encompassing. Christianity is one such cult – and Christianity grew into such a formidable social force (and eventually a political and economic one) because of its ability to provide people with certainty and with a new community. What began as, perhaps, a movement against Roman occupation, or with more certainty, one of many Jewish sects in modern-day Israel, spread throughout the whole world and became the dominating social feature of all of Europe. Christianity was an innovation of thought. As an entirely new belief system it was invented and then spread by believers in order to gain adherents. The Conversion of Paul is a good place to begin the secular history of the Christianity. Paul’s conversion was the origin of the first great Christian missionary, and had the impact of reinforcing the divine nature of Christ to potential followers. The emphasis on the Truth of events and the exhortation to have Belief, to hold a non-falsifiable idea as being irrevocably true, was the beginning of the Cult of Christianity and a movement away from the contextual, secular history of the events in the life of the historical Jesus Christ. Christianity’s belief contained the object of eternal bliss at its center, containing the promise of justice, fairness, and equality for the mass of people – something sadly elusive on Earth. In the time it originated, in a deeply oppressive and unequal society and culture, it had broad appeal. A cult creates tomorrow’s history today in adherents by producing the craved certainties they lack and generating hope for justice and happiness in the future.
We derive much knowledge of early Christian theology through the letters of Paul, his epistles to satellite churches across the Mediterranean (some of which he himself founded). In these Epistles, Paul explains the basis of the beliefs of Christianity. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, for instance, he encourages belief in Christ as justified by faith alone and the current wickedness and decay of the moral and institutional world. Starting at Romans 1:18 Paul states that the people of Pagan religions have caused the world to be corrupted as punishment for not acknowledging the one, true God. Moral decline is a theme in these letters, as well as veneration of the Resurrection of Christ as the focus of worship. In another one of his letters, First Corinthians, Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection as the object of worship, the mystical font of certainty which promises justice at the end of life, and treats the spiritual nature of the death and resurrection of Christ as a literal fact (1 Corinthians 15). This creates a miracle, a mysterious myth, out of factual history. Making an event into a myth and then treating that myth as the Truth is a method whereby future hopes and certain outcomes can be attached to the mythologized object or event.
A series of political and economic crises gripped Rome in the 200’s AD. This background of turmoil gave Christianity an impetus to spread – as people lost their ability to believe in their institutions, the cult of Christianity filled the void. The standard recitation of the story is that the Roman Empire stopped expanding and thereby stopped receiving plunder from its conquests and was unable to tax efficiently enough to maintain its armies which fought in endless Civil and Frontier Wars. The Roman Empire therefore resorted to currency debasement. The Roman State went bankrupt, and famines and other evils attended this collapse. Coinciding with this was the rapid spread of Christian faith. After Paul’s seeding of Christian communities himself, it continued to spread in urban centers around the fringes of the Roman Empire.
Presently, almost all the most vital movements in the world are driven by cults and their cultist’s non-malleable beliefs. The implacability of faith and certainty attract potential members and build press and social media coverage. The internet has allowed people to communicate and congregate in any cult (or tribe) they choose, and those online identities are spilling into real life. Much the same thing happened in France on the eve of the Revolution: new ideas, new associations, salons, clubs, and pamphleteers stoked thoughts of change, of a complete rejection of the old world.
France had long had a centralized government that was increasingly oppressive in its laws and which created ever-swelling financial crises. Also observed in this was the perceived destruction of morals, where France was overrun with lying and cheating and fraud, perpetrated by a burgeoning middle class and the aristocracy. New ideas from philosophers and writers like Voltaire and Rousseau promised to create a fair and just world for the people of France. Rousseau wrote about populism and the non-divinity of Kings and about wealth inequality. He wrote about the lack of morality pervading France (in reference to past scientific and cultural advances which brought other societies the collapse of their virtues): “It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste.” Voltaire was particularly incensed by the Catholic Church and what he considered their corruption and argued against treating Christian miracles as reported fact (undoing Paul’s work in his Epistles). He was a fierce opponent of the Eucharist, the object that was to become the focus of Fetish-Worship in the matured Catholic Church:
“They say that as almost all popular opinions are built upon ambiguities and abuse of words, so the system of the Roman Catholics concerning the Eucharist and transubstantiation is founded solely on an ambiguity; that they have interpreted literally what could only have been meant figuratively; and that for the sake of mere verbal contests, for absolute misconceptions, the world has for six hundred years been drenched in blood.”
Taking literally what was meant figuratively was the flaw that undid the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christian Faith according to Voltaire. He argued that the construction of the tenets of Catholicism was the creation of a story, a fiction which led to repression and violence. Voltaire’s critique was one, along with other Enlightenment philosophers, which engendered hostility to the French Church and undermined belief in the story of Christianity. Decay of belief in Christianity in places which had resisted the spread of Protestantism during the Reformation was an ominous indication that the foundational institutions of the secular State were at risk.
These cultural and philosophical changes were important, and the Revolutionary movement needed leaders, apostles, martyrs, and missionaries to do its work. But truly, the old faith was crushed by the Ancien Régime’s (a term for France’s government before the Revolution) inability to change, its sclerotic body unable (or unwilling) to work on behalf of the will of the people. A succession of ministers tried to reform and fund the State, but found no traction, and argued and schemed amongst themselves to the neglect of their objectives. In the more “mundane” causes of the French Revolution, financial collapse figures prominently. Attempts by a series of ministers to stem State spending and to broaden the tax base were refuted when they attempted to tax the nobility. Attempts by at least four different Finance Ministers to reform taxation in the 1780’s (The French Revolution “began” in 1789 but an acute preceding crisis lasted for about five years before) did not work.
“Alas, yes! a whole world to remake, if she could see it; work for another than she! For all is wrong, and gone out of joint; the inward spiritual, and the outward economical; head or heart, there is no soundness in it. As indeed, evils of all sorts are more or less of kin, and do usually go together: especially it is an old truth, that wherever huge physical evil is, there, as the parent and origin of it, has moral evil to a proportionate extent been. Before those five-and-twenty labouring Millions, for instance, could get that haggardness of face, which old Mirabeau now looks on, in a Nation calling itself Christian, and calling man the brother of man,–what unspeakable, nigh infinite Dishonesty (of seeming and not being) in all manner of Rulers, and appointed Watchers, spiritual and temporal, must there not, through long ages, have gone on accumulating! It will accumulate: moreover, it will reach a head; for the first of all Gospels is this, that a Lie cannot endure for ever.” (Chapter 1.2.III, Questionable)
Carlyle frequently associates debt with corruption – the financial bankruptcy of France is tied directly to the moral bankruptcy of France. Here Carlyle is constructing a story, telling the reader what it is that led to the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Moral decay is an often-observed phenomenon by historians and political essayists, but it seems to be more of a feeling backed by cherry-picked examples. Subjective judgments such as this are easier to construct now with the exponential increase in decontextualized information.
Surrounding us on social media, and other modes of communication, are those constantly spreading their evangel and rooting-out heresy. Just as Paul reinforced specific narratives of Christianity in his letters chastising wayward Christians, we find MAGA-evangelists telling people who a “real” Republican is, or Bitcoiners telling us that “Altcoins” are false prophets, and there is no other way to salvation than through BTC.
At the moment of creation of the first “mined block” of Bitcoin, a message imbedded in it by the inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, noted that the British government was on the verge of a second bank bailout. As the bank failures of the Great Financial Crisis continued, the disappointments which increased to calls for regulation and sanction of the financial system grew. Bitcoin’s rise in popularity was directly connected to the Great Financial Crisis and the Euro crisis (and attending banking crises). The Great Financial Crisis spawned any number of political and social movements in the United States and around the world, as the financial crisis, stock market decline, and economic recession led people to remark and act on inequality, moral decline, and the illegitimacy of governments.
Again linking moral decline and financial decline, the online community of Bitcoiners revolves around a moral and political philosophy, particularly in attacking the banking system. Satoshi Nakamoto once wrote: “It’s very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it properly. I’m better with code than with words though.” The earliest mythology which grew around Bitcoin, promoted using the words of the half-mythic Satoshi, was that it appealed to a much larger group, a political group, than programmers. This is the beginning of creating a story which separates the historical Satoshi from the mythical one. Satoshi disappeared, he stopped posting or responding to emails in 2011. While speculative, he may have left because he was worried about criminal sanction from the government or a general desire for privacy. His reason for the disappearance being relatively unimportant, it allowed a mythology to be built around him without the person himself being there to refute any of it.
In our post-modern world, where spiritual belief is consumed and destroyed by science and replaced with ravenous consumption, the sins of excess are generalized. Grave sins of inequality were in a different context in the past, one where people owned other human beings as property as a matter of routine social convention. It is not the absolute but the relative that matters in most things, as it always has, but especially in the era of mass communications. It is the distance between oppressor and oppressed that is important for social cohesion. From a panoramic view of society, one that is cold and bloodless, it could be said that the object of social reform should be to break down the barriers created by class (or any other prominent social marker) as much as possible to maintain stability. This pinions the wings of the civilizational evils of war and revolution, which harm people as they initiate change.
La Liberté guidant le peuple, painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830
(Source: Louvre Museum, Paris)
The Paper Age
What broke the French social system (Carlyle posits) is the lack of belief in the efficacy and justice of that social system. Inching into the ideologies of France came a creeping nihilism that seems so familiar to us now. It was not really the starvation, the taxation, the uncaring brutality of the regime that radicalized the people of France, it was the destruction of hope for the future and the simultaneous emergence of faith in new forms of hope for the future. This is not as easy to measure as many things, it is something hard to quantify, but the basic cause of the Revolution was the sins of the Ancien Régime, the moral collapse that continued until people lost faith in the leadership of the government. Many may see these same themes now in our lives, pervasive. In any story involving the great movements of the world it is axiomatic that, in an era of uncertainty and hope for the future, frauds and conmen surround the scene, becoming heroes for one forlorn group or another. Repeatedly, the concerns and condition of the great mass of people (25 million dispossessed people in the case of France, as Carlyle reminds us) were utterly ignored. Met with contempt or hangings, protests leading up to the convulsion were not enough to change the foundations of the government.
That author called this “The Paper Age” in France, the era proceeding the Revolution which was full of fraud and perfidy. Corruption of philosophy, of finances, and Christianity pervaded the state:
“For indeed it is of apoplexy, so to speak, and a plethoric lazy habit of body, that Churches, Kingships, Social Institutions, oftenest die. Sad, when such Institution plethorically says to itself, Take thy ease, thou hast goods laid up;–like the fool of the Gospel, to whom it was answered, Fool, this night thy life shall be required of thee!
Is it the healthy peace, or the ominous unhealthy, that rests on France, for these next Ten Years? Over which the Historian can pass lightly, without call to linger: for as yet events are not, much less performances. Time of sunniest stillness;–shall we call it, what all men thought it, the new Age of God? Call it at least, of Paper; which in many ways is the succedaneum of Gold. Bank-paper, wherewith you can still buy when there is no gold left; Book-paper, splendent with Theories, Philosophies, Sensibilities,–beautiful art, not only of revealing Thought, but also of so beautifully hiding from us the want of Thought! Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper.–What wisest Philosophe, in this halcyon uneventful period, could prophesy that there was approaching, big with darkness and confusion, the event of events? Hope ushers in a Revolution,–as earthquakes are preceded by bright weather. On the Fifth of May, fifteen years hence, old Louis will not be sending for the Sacraments; but a new Louis, his grandson, with the whole pomp of astonished intoxicated France, will be opening the States-General.” (Chapter 1.2.I. The Paper Age)
As discontent increased, the clearly delineated objects of outrage disseminated by the pamphlet-writing evangelists fueled mob violence and the increasingly bold and public displays of antipathy toward the venerable institutions of the past. One of the prefiguring riots of the Revolution was an attack on a local factory-owner instigated by a mob’s misinterpretation of an essay he wrote about wages (Chapter 1.4.III. Grown Electric). A mob does not have an ideology, it cannot provide sustained belief, it burns out after it has expressed its rage, but the use of violence as a communal social act was an act foreshadowing the violence to come. What started as riots ended in Holy War. All of the organs of the state were ripped down one by one as false idols. In their place was founded a committee for the People, and a new national religion founded on science and rationality with the sovereign authority emanating from the “Will of the People” and not from God. An important figure in the early stages of the Revolution, Mirabeau, told a representative of the King at the meeting of the Estates General: “’Go, Monsieur, tell these who sent you that we are here by the will of the People, and that nothing shall send us hence but the force of bayonets!’” (Chapter 1.5.II, Mercury de Brézé).
The Storming of the Bastille (a fort and prison in Paris, a symbol of the oppressive Regime) marks the “official” beginning of the French Revolution on July 14, 1789. Direct, physical attacks would henceforth occur against the State, attacks that were not countered by important military and law enforcement arms of the State. Simultaneously attacked along with the symbols of the Monarchy was the Church in France. A church was attacked a few nights before the assault on the Bastille, the mob accused the Priests of hoarding food and destroyed and burned the building (Chapter 1.5.V, Give us Arms). Many such attacks occurred all over France from citizens inspired with Revolutionary fervor. A year to the day after that first attack on the Church (Saint-Lazare) the French National Assembly (the Revolutionary government that uneasily coexisted with the Monarchy before its destruction) promulgated the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” which stripped members of the Catholic Clergy of all their special and separate rights in France.
After the Fall of the Bastille, pamphleteer Claude Desmoulins (who personally incited mob-violence a few days before) wrote:
“The return of that liberty to the French people was reserved for our days. Yes, she has already been returned to us; she does not yet have a temple for the States General, like that of Delphos in Greece, for the assembly of the Amphictyons; or that of Concord in Rome, for the assembly of the Senate; but she is already adored in tones louder than a whisper, and the worship of her is public. For forty years philosophy has been undermining the foundations of despotism in all its parts; and, as Rome before Caesar was already enslaved by its vices, so France before Necker was already enfranchised by its intelligence.” (La France Libre, https://melkam.livejournal.com/693.html)
In this pamphlet the rot of the old regime and a search for an entirely new object of worship is stated plainly. All old things were dying, their deaths spurred by new ideologies and hopes which existed before the financial crises and calls for reform began under the French Finance Minister, Jacques Necker (his first term, his second term ending was the catalyst for violence of July 12, 1789). There was an attempt to sweep away all the vestigial limbs of past belief. Revolutionary government in France systematically dismantled the secular powers and wealth of the Catholic Church in France. The new French State created a calendar, the French Republican Calendar (with a “rational” ten-day week), to replace the Catholic one. Priests were placed under secular authority, the traditional role of the Church in maintaining records of births, deaths, and marriages was usurped, the wealth of the Church was seized, members of the clergy were executed and massacred, and aspects of public worship were banned. After several years, there were multiple attempts to establish a new state religion. Two of them were created and celebrated as official religions, the Cult of Reason, and Robespierre’s competing Cult of the Supreme Being. In a quite theatrical Revolution, the theatricality of the celebrations for the Revolutionary religious cults stands out. The Cult of Reason was a belief in the philosophical precepts of the Enlightenment, with an embrace of atheism. A Festival celebrating reason was conducted in none other than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, including symbolic representations of Liberty and Reason (Chapter 3.5.IV, Carmagnole complete). The famous Robespierre, leader of the political faction known as the Jacobins and the architect of the Reign of Terror, and for a time, the de facto dictator of Revolutionary France, thought the atheism of the Cult of Reason was destructive, and called for the veneration of a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. Quoting Carlyle (again): “Catholicism being burned out, and Reason-worship guillotined, was there not need of one? Incorruptible Robespierre, not unlike the Ancients, as Legislator of a free people will now also be Priest and Prophet” (Chapter 3.6.IV, Mumbo-Jumbo). In this manner Robespierre tried to combine both secular and spiritual authority, but these new religions failed to take hold, unable to replace Christianity’s monopoly on belief.
The various councils and written works of Christians, starting with the Pauline Epistles and stretching to, say, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, established the “rules” of Christian belief. That process of codification and creation of the distinction between “Truth” and “heresy” allowed the Cult of Christianity to exist with a uniformity of message and institutional cohesion. The firming of a set of rules and the consequent knowledge that others believe the same things you believe potentiates the viability of conversion to non-believers. Irenaeus, a Christian who wrote a refutation of heresies and affirmation of the power and faith of the both the Early Church and the Truth of Paul’s and the Gospel’s interpretation of the life of Christ, was an early example (in the mid-100’s AD) of the firming of rules against direct spiritual revelation (generally known as Gnosticism). The Ecumenical Councils decided the books which would be included in the Bible, and the order in which they would appear and they decreed which beliefs were heretical and which were not, creating a centralized form of governance and belief for the Christian religion. After long and trying wars, famines, and economic strife, Christianity became to be seen by secular powers as a method of instilling social unity in the people of the Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ending almost 300 years of persecution of the cult by the State. Becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire also gave the decisions of the Church’s councils the force of law. This phase of codification and consolidation of Christianity strengthened its path toward the social dominance of a religion.
Bitcoin’s technological innovation of creating a chain of trust, backed by mathematical verification, is a tool and tools are merely instruments of the will of those who wield them. New modes of trust, faith, and belief are being created and tested, the arguments about them now reverberating through to consensus. Some arguments will win, others will lose. There is a burgeoning codification, but there does not exist a uniform belief system yet. The orientation of Bitcoin-believers is toward freedom from the failed financial system of the State and cryptocurrencies and Bitcoin are in the social phase of codification. There is a struggle to define what the meaning and place of these digital innovations are or what they will be; there is a struggle to create a narrative that will place them in society as a new institution. Acknowledgement of Bitcoin’s existence and rudimentary forms of regulation hastened Bitcoin’s adoption. A Federal Judge declared Bitcoin a “form of money” which could be then regulated by the government in 2013 and the period from 2012-2014 saw a host of companies declare that they would accept Bitcoin for payment. Its first great battle, and one it is still fighting, is the war against the idea that Bitcoin is used only by criminals and for criminal activity. The adoption of BTC’s use by corporations and some regulation of exchange provided a counter to this argument. BTC won the narrative battle to become something seen as acceptable to society, but it is still a fractured community, with other prominent crypto-currencies and “forks” in the blockchain serving as opposition.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons from user – Onov3056)
Rise and Fall – from Cult to Religion
“It is thus everywhere that foolish Rumour babbles not of what was done, but of what was misdone or undone; and foolish History (ever, more or less, the written epitomised synopsis of Rumour) knows so little that were not as well unknown. Attila Invasions, Walter-the-Penniless Crusades, Sicilian Vespers, Thirty-Years Wars: mere sin and misery; not work, but hindrance of work! For the Earth, all this while, was yearly green and yellow with her kind harvests; the hand of the craftsman, the mind of the thinker rested not: and so, after all, and in spite of all, we have this so glorious high-domed blossoming World; concerning which, poor History may well ask, with wonder, Whence it came? She knows so little of it, knows so much of what obstructed it, what would have rendered it impossible. Such, nevertheless, by necessity or foolish choice, is her rule and practice; whereby that paradox, ‘Happy the people whose annals are vacant,’ is not without its true side.” (Chapter 1.2.I, Astræa Redux)
Examination of basic cause and effect, or the imposition of a facsimile of cause and effect (for events do not travel in orderly fashion) to give us a sense of order and understanding of events is a basic feature of history. A conclusion which can be safely drawn from approximately 500 years of the process of scientific inquiry is that causality is hard to establish with any degree of certainty. Every major event or turning point in human history follows a path-dependent route with an almost infinite chain of causality.
Creation of a narrative – especially the mirroring of nature with a “rise and fall” narrative – is the goal of Carlyle’s writing. Placing the reader in the middle of a story provides a structure where they can observe what the author thinks is important. This is ironic because we know these narratives are always untrue (if not useful); Carlyle is revealing the nature of faith and belief while advancing his own understanding of the world. Our lives are proscribed at inception, with no appeals accepted and no motions for relief granted. Of course, this is true of all things, every being, institution, and organization flashes into being and then slowly subsides. So when we tell stories about empires, or social movements, or wars, or lives there is an innate structure of rise and fall to which we are attracted and repelled. This narrative is a lie as the only certain things are beginnings and endings. Middles are messes. But, those beginnings and endings can be complex, too, often muffled and hazy – we cannot see them even though we know they exist. Birth and death, the points compassing our linear journey through life, are clouded and ineffable – inconceivable. And, like our lives, so are the beginning and endpoints of leaders and civilizations. One moment they existed and the next they did not, their forms never truly visible, but only existing in the collective minds of their participants. The seat of belief is not a trifling matter, if enough people believe the same thing, they will certainly exact change.
There is a pattern to the adoption of novel ideas. Believers swell their ranks with other believers, and collective action begins to impress an impact on the world outside of the confines of the cultists’ minds. There is no more powerful result of belief than the ascendancy of Bitcoin in terms of its price in United States Dollars.Price increase is a measurable sign of success, it is an idea around which one can build a story, any story – if it involves Bitcoin becoming the Reserve Currency, or a replacement for Gold, or a bet against hyper-inflation. The continuous rise in price recently spurred renewed interest from important financial institutions in Bitcoin – the narrative of price increases creating a direct line to adoption enabled by the secular State. Five reasons for Bitcoin’s surge in price are enumerated in this piece: (1) “For professional investors, there’s no longer career risk in buying bitcoin,” (2) which means “institutional money is starting to pour into bitcoin,” (3) “The U.S. government is flashing a green light [that Bitcoin will not be over-regulated], (4) “Bitcoin has a breakout new evangelist,” and (5) “A lot of people are nervous about the global monetary system — especially the dollar.” All five of those reasons are molded by sentiment based on price action and not by qualities inherent in Bitcoin, it’s part of another story being created at this instant.
As I noted, Carlyle’s history consciously attempts to tell the story of the French Revolution as if he were narrating an action in front us. Descending into the chamber of Louis XV to recite the actions of characters milling about as that King lay on his deathbed, as if the author were an omniscient, unseen observer, for example, brings to the reader an immediacy of emotion and feeling which is lacking in a dry recitation of facts. In this immediacy lies a truth about the French Revolution: the overthrow of the monarchy and Dechristianization were not enough to satisfy the mass of people, who were, first and foremost, hungry. Carlyle’s narration highlights the struggle of regular people (while ironically following the “Great Men” who turn belief into action), who were, for one of the first times in history, and only for a short time, the master of events. With nothing viable given to replace their former beliefs, the people, and therefore the national Revolutionary movement, descended into chaos with hundreds of factions and belief-systems vying for control of the nation (Chapter 3.3.I, Cause and Effect). It is secular power that was vital and disputed as a result of the absence of the unity of Belief, leading to the Reign of Terror and the ultimate collapse of the Revolutionary government in Napoleon’s coup. The horror of so many events in the Revolution given immediacy by Carlyle’s interpretation displays the powers unleashed (or kept in check) by Belief, especially when these Beliefs can harness violence which is used or condoned by the secular State.
Christianity was given a formal place in society by Constantine, but the Catholic Church did not have true secular power – it did not become the monumental edifice of the Middle Ages – until the “Donation of Pepin” in 756 AD. This was a grant of conquered territory by the secular French power to the Church, to control physically and rule over (what became known as the Papal States). After this point, the Catholic Church had the power to defend its own interests, beyond social and cultural impact. France became allied with the Catholic Church, intertwining their powers, though France was not yet what could be called a nation-state at this point. Give or take a hundred years, this time period marked the end of formation of Papal and spiritual authority in the cult of Christianity, and the beginning of the exercise of that authority as the Catholic Church. 700 years of increasing social, cultural, moral, and physical power ended in a catastrophe of corruption and conflict with incipient nation-states and the forces of populism unleashed by increased literacy and communications technology during the Reformation. The ability to impose law by physical force is the last marker of the transition from cult to religion. It was only through a grant of power by another regional force that finally secured the place of Christianity as a world power.
Creation of Adam, Fresco, by Michelangelo (Source: Sistine Chapel)
The Past is not the Future
The relationship between the present world and the examination and construction of history is as a person walking forward and looking backwards. The only thing you can learn from history is what types of obstacles may be in your path after you’ve already passed them, but it does not predict when and how those obstacles will be encountered.
If modern tools can reveal to us the hidden worlds and movements of the past, can their use also conceal obvious truths? The matchless abundance of computational power which defines our modern world is also its most disorienting feature. In gathering enormous amounts of data, we are easily drowned instead of buoyantly uplifted. History was once clouded by lack of information, by an inability to see an entire scene or sequence, by limited records and facts. Now even recent history is clouded by an abundance of these same features. We must make peace with the fact that history is not the Truth, it is a story, as all human institutions and ideas are. They are stories-in-motion or they are dead and hollow. We cannot make sense of the immensity that is “everything” – we must simplify if we are to act and to attempt to understand how we got to where we are standing now. Is it all random? At times, yes, at others, no. Careful examination of data may sometimes find things that are deeper than the incorrect assumptions we often make about the world, but we may also conceal obvious truths.The three stories I just outlined (of the rise of Christianity, the convulsion of the French Revolution, and the rise of Bitcoin) are all narratives, wherein we take events and imbue them with meaning based on what happened following each action.
All cults exist as a refutation of state power, as a well-spring from which discontent flows toward the dominant social institutions. But not all cults succeed in becoming the new social institutions. There is always a tension between our knowledge of events and our knowledge of their causes and the past is not a blueprint which can be used to construct the future. A series of beliefs, held and acted on by enough people, can construct the future, however. The Catholic Church’s dominant grip over Europe eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. Emperor Napoleon outlawed the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, restoring Catholicism as the official religion of France. Bitcoin may be co-opted by the State, outlawed, fail completely, or become the international reserve currency. The future is not predetermined by the past.
If one wanted to make a rule out of these stories, it could be: (1) cults arise in eras of perceived moral and financial decline, which (2) cause people to lose faith in the primary institutions of the day, (3) the downfall of old orders are mythologized through stories of decay and the founding of the cult is mythologized by modified interpretations of the founder – who often is the object of worship, cults then go through a phase of (4) strengthening their message of salvation and certainty for the future through codification and elimination of heresies and spread as faith in present institutions continues to decline, and finally, (5) successful cults become religions intertwined with, or possessing on their own accord, the secular powers of the State and become part of the ruling institutions.
No two stories are alike, however, but processing the general paths of cults as they are born and then spread can restore clarity to the mass-mobilization of ideas. Ideas become actions and the link between those two points are the forge of social change. Dissemination of ideas becoming ever-more ubiquitous and rapid accelerates and decentralizes this process and causes an eruption of cults, each a possible source of foundational change. Everything told between birth and death, and as obscured as those two encompassing moments might be by myths – they are indisputable, is pure fiction. The fiction of the “rise and fall” has a tight hold on the imagination of people, and ultimately of their opinion. These stories, themselves, create the momentum of change by bending people’s beliefs.
Belief itself is sovereign. Near the end of the Gospel of John, there is a line that sums the purpose of the book and highlights the power of constructed belief, the object of worship, and of certainty and hope in the future:
“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” – John 20:31, KJV
[NOTE] There exist the lesser cults of celebrity worship, a facet of mass media being that anyone in front of a camera enough times will become globally known, regardless of their achievements or merits. Insult Beyonce or Kanye West online and you will feel the wrath of their supporters. Celebrity worship lacks the all-encompassing simplicity of “One Big Idea” which successful cults provide, and therefore does not generate the strength of belief that the other cults do. Celebrity-worship may be intense, but there must be an object of faith and certainty beyond mere admiration and reason to create the types of cults which may yet become religions. Other modern cults that will never become religions include QAnon, belief in which can be falsified by the mere passage of time, and Scientology, which is too exposed by media to become more successful (it’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, supposedly once said “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” h/t @valuestockgeek via Twitter).
The classical liberal principle of freedom of speech, of course enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is supposed to protect the citizenry against state censorship. As with many Enlightenment principles and ideals, “free speech” is complicated by technology. We now live in a society where there are often more restrictions imposed on people from non-state actors than from the state itself. Consider the following examples:
Example 1: A mob silences a despicable person – someone who deserved it – it brings us all closer together in a mutually-shared opinion that the bad person committed a bad act, worthy of punishment.
Even in this circumstance, a fairly common one, many of us evince an unease of mob justice, even if we agree with the principles on which that rough justice was founded.
Example 2: A suspected child pornographer is caught with 5 terabytes of pornography on his computer (an almost unimaginable amount), but the warrant that allowed the search of his computer is flawed, and the case is thrown out after action by the ACLU – and a pedophile goes free.
In this circumstance, we are almost universally on the side of the authorities, because the guilt is obvious, the crime heinous, and the liberation of the suspect is on the basis of a technicality.
Now, a third example: a man expresses an opinion, which may be at the edge of commonly-accepted propriety or public opinion, but which is not heinous and not illegal. A social community, and not a court of law, attempts to get that man in “trouble” with his employer. He is not saved by a technicality, nor totally condemned by a mob.
The third example is the tricky place where many of our modern disputes over freedom of speech and mob justice inhabit. There is no clear legal principle which overrides the general condemnation of an overtly heinous act and there is no universal mob (that is, there are always dissenters and contrarians) which engages in a digital hanging.
Part of the question becomes: quantitatively and qualitatively, how free is our speech currently? And not just in the narrow constitutional sense, in the sense of having cultural and social constraints? How powerful are those cultural constraints, and is there anything “we” should do about it as a society? I don’t propose to have many answers here, certainly not any easy ones.
We may be easily seduced by the dull, Doric opinions stamped by the imprimatur of the enforcing mob of a habituated mass-culture – just as we may be titillated by the exotic contrarianism of a seemingly rebellious agitator, who may wring truth out of over-saturated public narratives.
Independence of thought is once again the difficult vigil of any discerning and intelligent individual. The problem with the mob is that the mob is often right, and the problem with the contrarian is that they are often wrong. Most often, the mob is turned against those on their “own side,” as a way to enforce rigid tribal identities. The liberal artist is the one in danger of being canceled for talking inappropriately about race, not the conservative. The conservative is likely to be publicly emasculated for their opposition to the public’s ownership of AR-15’s, not Taylor Swift.
“If you say the wrong thing these day’s you’ll be canceled!” – says the centimillionaire who has made a living off of being “politically incorrect” and has, at no point, been canceled.
So the battle against censorship is fought in different dimensions now: it is fought against the government in some cases, but more often, it is fought against the mass culture of society, conjured into existence, especially, by social media. And it has also become a thing-in-itself, like so much else. It is a tool used for national politics, to enforce tribal boundaries, it is used as boogie man to frighten one side or the other.
Tribal digital mobs are fluid, and many opinions shift on “cancellation” depending on which tribe one is in. A man decrying the fate of a “conservative” losing his job one day may in fact call for the destruction of another man’s livelihood on another. Examples of this abound, and I do not feel the need to post any particular exchange. If you open up Twitter and scroll for a few minutes, I’m confident you will find an example.
The problem we are faced with now is probably unique in modernity: the social restrictions enforced by the unofficial rules and powers of mass society are as effective as the restrictions imposed by governments. Things have changed, but it may be helpful to look at the wellspring for some of the original arguments against censorship and for freedom of speech in an attempt to inform our current response.
“Areopagitica” is a polemic by the poet John Milton, arguing against government censorship of books and pamphlets. It is cited often as a basis for the First Amendment, and more broadly as a classic defense of the principles of Freedom of Speech. As it has become a “classic” it is broadly defunct and dead – not a living document, but an afterthought and citation. What is forgotten about the polemic is that it is foremost an attempt at persuasion. This is fitting as there are no unassailable truths in this world, there is no scientific principle that was not overturned, and there is no basic argument about human ideals that is not, at its base, an opinion.
For those looking to the sage words of our intellectual forebears on the construction and nature of liberty, there is no succor to be found for a society where social norms are enforced by mobs:
“Nor is it Plato’s licensing of books will do this, which necessarily pulls along with it so many other kinds of licensing, as will make us all both ridiculous and weary, and yet frustrate; but those unwritten, or at least unconstraining, laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture, which Plato there mentions as the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute; these they be which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (pg 18, paragraph 1)*
Aside from this (an argument that leads to the thesis that censorship will be ineffective), the central argument of “Areopagitica” is that exposure of controversial ideas, through a free press, allows society to sift and refine ideas until only the specks of pure truth remain.
“For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”(pg. 12, paragraph 1)
In this argument, people are forever infantilized by censorship – our liberty of thought and action is restricted by a government paternalism. If we are to be fully-realized people we must have access to the various contrary arguments and temptations of the world.
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial by what is contrary.” (pg 13, paragraph 2)
Here is another possible fix to the intractable facts of disagreement, to try our best to channel outrage into productive debate. To use a “bad” opinion to sift our own.
The last thing that we CAN learn from Milton’s piece is the best remedy we have, perhaps the only remedy: to think independently. It is not an easy answer, or a quick social fix. It is not a principle which can be codified in law, and it will not stem the tide of accusations, harassment, unfairness, or rigidity from digital mobs. As in all matters which beset the modern mind, it speaks to personal responsibility, to recognize in one’s self the means whereby we may fix our feet to the ground and not be pulled along by those surging around us. I wish I had a better answer, but it seems the only way to fracture the mob is to not participate. It is doubly-hard because we should be most skeptical where we are most sympathetic and most engaged. Mobs inflame our sense of tribal identity and ignite the most passion where they find dry kindling.
*Areopagitica and Other Prose Works, by John Milton, from the Everyman’s Library, 1941 Edition