If You Listen to Fools…The Mob Rules

MobRules

We analyzed Ochlocracy (mob rule) here from 10/15/19 – 12/10/19 via Kevin Williamson’s book The Smallest Minority – Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics (2019).  Chapter 6 of our current project, Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society (2020), further examines this dangerous, dark and increasingly powerful force.

 

Douthat explains how and why our decadent culture has produced despotic government. But it’s a “kindly despotism”, as he puts it, because people don’t seem to mind, so it’s very much sustainable.  Western despotic power is not unitary (like the Chinese communist), it’s diffuse.  We have an interlocking directorate of institutions populated by like-minded people who use their power to keep the system stable and the elites in charge.  The mob ruthlessly enforces certain civil liberties (pleasure, consumption, the freedom to be “safe” broadly defined) and punishes other more noble liberties (freedom of religion and speech, the ability to engage in civic discourse without sacrificing privacy to a menacing mob).

 

We toured The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) here, which explains the noxious cultural trend that tries to prevent and eliminate perceived “harm” or “danger”.  Moral discrimination might wound someone’s sense of well-being and certain political speech might be harmful to a snowflake’s self-esteem.  It is therefore labeled as damaging and therefore unacceptable.  The internet has greatly exacerbated the mob’s ability to target what it perceives as wrong-think, thought crimes via online persecution and harassment.  And people do this without being hired or paid by any central authority, acting like self-appointed cops.

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice, and what will you find?  Endless surveillance.  Everybody is to be judged.  Everyone is under suspicion.  Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense.  Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7.  You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything.

 

Next week we get to the third of four chapters on why cultural and economic decadence is permanent. Douthat has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between meritocracy and class warfare at the end of the next chapter.

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Why Don’t They Listen?

ListenNot

This is a prelude post to Tuesday when we move to the second chapter in The Decadent Society (2020) on why our cultural problems [underclass fatherlessness, working class disarray, drug abuse, out of wedlock births, loneliness, childlessness, suicide, general anomie, terrorism and radicalization of all kinds] are permanent.  There is no solution to these problems and we’ve known it for decades.  Why don’t the elites in charge understand this?  Why don’t they listen to the many brilliant articulations of our societal situation?  Here’s why:

https://quillette.com/2020/05/17/return-to-the-unheavenly-city/

 

Banfield beautifully explained why academics, media elites and politicians cover their ears and ignore unpleasant facts. It’s because certain facts are “deeply subversive of opinions and beliefs to which many highly intelligent and well-informed people are wedded, and without which the world would perhaps be unendurable for them.”  The main point, which I’ve been making here for years*, is that there is a continuing cultural crisis in personal responsibility, a failure of moral agency among the underclass.  The poor do not have a proper psychological orientation toward the future like those of us with War Chest values do.  And politicians will never be able to change that grim fact.

 

Writers like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek taught us long ago, what Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision” of human affairs. The evils of the world are derived from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings. That’s reality whether or not a writer agrees with it.

 

There is “no arguing with a reader who is determined to mistake one’s meaning. All the author can do is repeat once more that there are lower-class people”.  If the elites were to uncover their ears and listen to what we know about permanent class structure “many a professional social helper, petty central planner, welfare administrator, and non-profit organization would find themselves redundant.  And as Upton Sinclair once remarked, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’”.

 

Happy Memorial Day! See y’all Tuesday.

 

*See for example posts here on Risk Literacy (3/22/16), Time Span of Discretion (3/29/16), Controlling Your Spotlight (4/5/16) and Moral Agency (11/1/16).

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Comfortably Numb

ComfortablyNumb

Civilization has become comfortably numb as we (those with a War Chest) strive mightily to resist the wall of mediocrity.  Chapter 5 of The Decadent Society (2020) is the first of 4 chapters in which Ross Douthat informs us that, after having established the reality of modern decadence, societal stagnation is likely to persist for a long time.  His first point is that internet porn, violence and anonymity leads to less sexual violence and other crime in the real world.  It appears that would be criminals now descend into dark virtual fantasy worlds to gratify their savage desires.

 

The internet makes moral and intellectual stagnation sustainable because life’s disappointments and failures don’t burn as hot. Rebellious urges are diverted into virtual violence – radical online ranting and raving.  Moreover, opioids, marijuana and mindless social media playacting combine to form the perfect mind numbing drug, like “Soma” from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the lotus plant eaters from Greek mythology.  The population is cognitively and emotionally sedated, which preserves peace and boring tranquility, making people unhappy, unfulfilled but well behaved in the real world.

 

The final section turns to how all of this impacts political discourse – “First As A Tragedy, Then As Playacting”.  The populist surge and madness of online mobs are not actually fomenting revolution, rather the internet encourages people to playact extremism – uninformed but fired up morons dredging up old moral disputes for sport, a grift, a hobby.  Legions of anonymous trolls compete with public grifters to exploit our aging society’s anxieties and voracious appetite for stimulation.

 

Douthat reasons that modern strife and discontent need not result in cultural collapse because our civilizational old age means that online ferocity is really just performative and empty; a safety valve, a steam-venting technology for a society that is misgoverned and stagnant, but very stable (despite the online rage). He concludes the chapter with a vivid observation:

Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.

 

Next week, on to the next chapter that continues to explain why all of this is sustainable and actually OK (for those of us cemented into the hereditary aristocracy… uhm…I mean hereditary meritocracy).

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The Fourth Horseman

FourHorseman

Ross Douthat uses a metaphor from Christian prophecy, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, to illustrate four facets of modern society’s decadence.  The biblical four horsemen are:  1) on the white horse, Pestilence (infectious disease – pandemic.…uh oh… is that him in the above image shooting COVID-19 arrows at humanity?) – “While his horse continued galloping, he was bending his bow in order to spread pestilence abroad. At his back swung the brass quiver filled with poisoned arrows, containing the germs of all diseases”; followed by 2) War on the red horse; 3) Famine on the black horse; and finally 4) Death on the green horse. Douthat’s decadence horsemen are 1) Stagnation (economic); 2) Sterility (social); 3) Sclerosis (political); and 4) Repetition (cultural).

 

The Fourth Horseman of Decadence, Repetition, like death, is the most disturbing.  It is meaninglessness, stagnant existence, zero creativity, no purpose. The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) comes to mind. Sisyphus defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When Death was eventually liberated and it came time for Sisyphus himself to die, he concocted a deceit. So the gods imposed an eternal punishment. He would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over again.   Sisyphus is the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death, and is condemned to a meaningless task.

 

Douthat begins chapter 4 with an entertaining discussion of the repetition and stagnation in American film, television and literature. What’s more striking is his account of intellectual repetition.  The unimpressive mediocrity of our times, the Sisyphean pointlessness and lack of original thinking, is paradoxically both disturbing and yet somehow comforting (as we’ll see in the next 4 weeks).  We are probably not experiencing the Apocalypse; just boring but safe anomie and torpor.

 

Almost all of the hard-to-resolve moral and intellectual disputes have played out already. They just keep getting rehashed at different moments and intensities on partisan/tribal battle lines of cynicism and self-interest.  Round and round we go in perpetual stalemate, rolling the stone up the hill.  The good news is that it’s a comfortable, albeit adventureless, decadence into which we’ve settled.  There is an “end of history” futility in the ideological responses to systemic shocks like 9/11, The Great Recession and even COVID-19.  Political writing has degraded into shallow, clueless and increasingly dishonest, agenda-driven tribal attacks.  Douthat documents the internet’s destruction of journalism and its facilitation of dysfunctional mob status seeking instead of reasoned discourse.

 

These are un-extraordinary times crawling with “Twitter cops and Facebook ranters, joining the conformist horde that now determines – with an assist from friendly algorithms – what exactly people read and share and hate-click. Just as online video mostly spreads smut rather than nurturing auteurs, in overthrowing the centrist staleness of the old media, the Internet has mostly given us a bumper crop of hackish crap, of political pornography for the partisan mind, of news coverage whose problem isn’t its fakeness so much as its crushing mediocrity.”

 

The next 4 chapters of The Decadent Society (2020) explain why and how this decadence will, in all likelihood, continue for many decades, even generations to come; and that might be OK for those with a War Chest stocked with knowledge and material resource power.

 

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Sclerosis

Gears

Chapter 3 of The Decadent Society (2020) presents the third of the Four Horsemen of Decadence – Sclerosis. Ross Douthat analyzes our unhealthy political order.  The once relatively smooth running gears of the political economy have seized up – become rusty, stuck, corroded and ineffectual.  We have sadly reached permanent stalemate, gridlock that has turned American government (and Europe’s) into a Kludgeocracy:

https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/kludgeocracy-in-america

 

Kludge is a term borrowed from computer science in which every solution is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward compatible. The pileup of Kludges creates a complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand and often crashes.  That’s what we have in Western government now – a dumb jerry-rigged political system that no one trusts and that cannot get much of anything accomplished.

 

Douthat blames both Democrats and Republicans; but we know big, bloated government is primarily the fault of the progressive Left. Political sclerosis leads to cynicism, even hatred, as the poisonous fruits of polarization paralyze politics.  The Left seeks to use government policy as a cudgel, attacking what it deems despicable or deplorable.  Kevin D. Williamson writes that the American Right has a philosophy, while the American Left has only an enemies list.  Progressives do not engage with conservative ideas or nonconforming political opinions.  They simply attempt to deem those as beneath them, outside the bounds of that which polite intellectual discourse is obliged to consider.  No wonder both sides have resorted to throwing sand into the gears of government.

 

The immorality and irrationality of Leftist thought grows increasingly clear to those with eyes to see and to those who are interested in this type of thing. It’s not discourse when an intellectual opponent talks passed the other side.  Refusing to engage is worse than sophistry, it’s a cowardly position of simply ignoring countervailing ideas.  There’s no room for compromise – just sclerotic impasse with screams of revolution (not reasoned reform) Williamson puts it this way:

There is much that is in need of reform in American life. But reform is not very much in fashion among populists, who are ensorcelled by the much more exciting prospect of revolution — and destruction.  Human progress and American greatness stand on a foundation of much less exciting work: amending a law to make it a little bit more just, improving crop yields a little bit year after year, the monotonous grind of fundraising and committee-sitting for worthwhile things, raising good children, doing jobs that are difficult, thankless, and obscure.

These are things done by grateful people. Revolutions are hatched by the other kind.

 

Be grateful, stay safe, happy and secure. Next week, the fourth and final Horsemen emerges.

 

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Fertility – Sterility

Sterility

I wrote here on 6/2/15:

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia.  It’s an imagined future worst case scenario of current trends and issues.  You can’t help but notice the sudden increase in books and movies like Hunger Games, Divergent, Elysium, etc. describing future horrible societies.  The writers of these fictional stories seek to generate societal fear and reflection, maybe even change to our economic system.

 

Chapter 2 of The Decadent Society (2020) presents the second of the four horsemen of decadence – Sterility. It begins with a discussion of two literary dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men.  Dystopias are designed to give us a big picture chronological perspective on what’s going on now and where it might lead in the future:

Dystopian_design_1_AditiRuiz

Douthat documents a stunningly shocking social trend in our modern world. The populations of the richest societies in human history are not reproducing enough.  Fertility rates are far below replacement levels around the globe.  This trend, like the other four, is overdetermined (accounted for in more than one way with more than one condition than is necessary for it).  Douthat explains that sterility is part of our society’s undeniable descent into decadence, as he defines it.  I disagree with who he blames economically (us, the moderately wealthy) and his solution (roll back our “privilege” and tax our wealth [pg. 32]) but I think his overall diagnosis is frighteningly accurate.

 

I won’t recount his sterility story here but our thinning family trees will obviously have world changing cultural and economic impacts. The dystopic tales he tells makes it clear that the future apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, our dying society, has become quiescent (in a state of inactivity or dormancy).  Douthat’s conclusion is depressing but screams to the fortunate few – count your blessings!  We should be grateful for our lucky position in the hereditary aristocracy, while the bottom 80% settles “into the senility of repetition, content to live despairingly but peaceably, paying down, for the last few decades, the accumulated capital of its vigorous and vanished past”.

 

Sad but true. Thank your lucky stars for where you are.  Next week, we ride up to the third horseman.

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Off With Our Heads!

Guilottine

If you want to understand why our intellectual enemies in the political economy seek our destruction, read the second subsection in chapter 1 of The Decadent Society (2020), The Limits of Neoliberalism, along with John Cochrane’s 5 part blog on wealth and taxes.

https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2020/01/wealth-and-taxes-part-i.html

 

Ross Douthat is careful with language; other authors – not so much, choosing to redefine words to make them deceptive weapons of rhetoric. The word Neoliberalism is an abused, hide-the-ball, weaponized term.  Read the Wiki page on it:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

 

But Douthat is forthright, defining Neoliberalism as the government policy mix of “lower taxes and deregulation, free trade and anti-inflationary monetary policy”.  He then explores theories that explain (and place blame for) the great stagnation.  And here is where it gets interesting, controversial and vital to us (my moderately wealthy clients).  Douthat does not like our wealth demographic, portraying us as evil enemy economic combatants.

 

He trains his cross hairs on us and fires 3 well known bullets; criticizing Neoliberalism and “patrimonial capitalism” – the system which keeps top wealth owners (the financial overclass or managerial elite) in place over time:

  1. The Captured Economy: (2017). Lindsey and Teles
  2. Capital in the 21st Century (2013). Thomas Piketty
  3. Dream Hoarders (2017). Richard Reeves

 

These books claim that the elite wealthy are just enriching themselves off rents rather than productivity and innovation at the expense of everyone else. Piketty’s work (discredited in my opinion) argues that capitalism has created a class of rentiers that gets rich passively via investment and inheritance, while everyone else falls further and further behind.  Pikkety targets billionaires.  Reeves accuses us (not the grand rentiers but we the petit rentiers (mass affluent)) of hogging advantages for ourselves and our children at the expense of others.

 

The debate is really whether we live in a meritocracy or a hereditary aristocracy. It’s both, of course, but some argue that it must be 100% one or the other.  Here’s a quote from Michael Lind’s The New Class War (2020) that illustrates my point (pg. 116):

The implicit theory of technocratic neoliberalism is that the U.S. and other Western societies at this point are essentially classless societies in which the only significant barriers involve race and gender. The people at the top got there purely as a result of their own efforts, on the basis of their superior intellectual or academic skills.  Many of these corporate managers, financiers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, foundation program officers, media elites… are members of a new creative class and digital elite, the thinkpreneurs and thought leaders of the knowledge economy who live in brain hubs (to use only a few of the flattering terms in the lexicon of overclass self-idolatry).

 

Douthat’s disdain for us is on pg. 32:

Meanwhile, the fact that this new elite is officially more meritocratic (however debatable the reality) than past ruling classes seems at times to justify its grab-what-you-can spirit, its fearful accumulation of advantage – lest a bad SAT score undo your children’s hard-won privilege.   If the old patrimonial capitalism at least featured some noblesse oblige…the new sort feels more justified in its self-dealing, more self-righteous in its selfishness.  And the cost of its privilege, it appears, is economic disappointment for everyone else.

 

The problem with all this high browed societal hatred and envy is that trying to “solve the problem” means attacking the wealthy, a disastrous public policy mistake that would be a danger (albeit a remote threat) to my clients. John Cochrane at his Grumpy Economist blog masterfully walks us through why a Bernie Sanders “billionaires should not exist” wealth tax would not raise much revenue or even effectively redistribute wealth but would rather implement an “off with their heads!” worldview – George Bernard Shaw’s “The more I see of the moneyed classes, the more I understand the guillotine”.

 

Well, not on my watch. Guillotining the mass affluent is never going to happen because of the knowledge placed here weekly in our Estate Planning War Chest.

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