Death by a Thousand Compromises

A message to "revolutionaries"

Yesterday, I discussed how LARPing is the performance of the impotent. But I also noted that much impotence is "all in your head."

There be Dragons. And they must be slain.

I've also discussed how Systems are incentive structures that agents may endorse or reject:

Being embedded in various contexts, agents exist within many different roles, and each of these roles provides distinct standards by which action can be judged and guided. Agents use their creative agency/subjectivity to decide which standards to follow in situations where the agent's different roles demand different actions.

Systems are our conceptualizations of causal mechanisms that explain socio-material phenomena and their apparent connections. We can understand this as being a conceptualization of the impact various roles/standards have on our actions and even our thought (and our Maps of the World). Systems emerge because large numbers of agents tend to pick the same standards in similar situations. Systems cannot be understood distinct from Agency. But Agency cannot be understood distinct from Systems: part of the contexts that agents are embedded in is the very set of Systems the agent interacts with.

Systems are reshaped via shifts in the attitudes of agents possessing a critical mass of power: when different standards to guide action are selected by either large numbers of average agents or a small number of elites, Systems are reshaped.

So what does this mean?

Ultimately, escaping the LARP is possible. But we must understand that even if individuals can save themselves, the institutions cannot be salvaged. They can only be defeated.

The System Can't be Saved

Collapsing State capacity is a choice. Our pathetically impotent bureaucracy is not constrained by resources. It is constrained by willpower. We chose to have an impotent bureaucracy. Because it's easier.

It is vastly easier to make performative appeals to values rather than actually governing. Governing is hard. Far easier to tweet out "I am calling on X to do Y" and bet on more people rewarding your signaling than punishing your lack of actual action:

Politicians are strategic actors. They respond to incentives. Their primary goal, at the end of the day, is to get re-elected.

One of the reasons politicians do not provide for us much anymore is they feel no need to. If you are going to vote for them anyways, why should they stick their neck out on any controversial issue? Much easier to just make performative appeals to grievance groups and toe the party line.

Patronage has collapsed because the patrons know their subjects will never abandon them.

And so we are faced with a deeply troublesome situation in which perverse incentive structures have hollowed out State capacity and the hollowed out State capacity only entrenches and intensifies the perverse incentive structures into a vicious cycle:

When an institution loses the capability to perform its mission, it may begin referring to the values that motivate its mission in order to maintain support and credibility. Rather than calls to solve some problem, the calls begin shifting to more emotive appeals to the values shared between the audience and the institution which motivated the desire to solve that problem. Rhetoric becomes the chief focus of the institution rather than action.

The State is the most obvious institution that partakes in this. Politicians appeal to vague policy stances while referring to "freedom" and "equality" far more often and with far greater desperation. It is only the shared values that maintain their credibility, as State Capacity continues to decline to the point concrete issues take forever to get resolved (if they get resolved at all). A State may be large, but that does not make it muscular or powerful. The American State can reasonably be understood as a representation of its population: chronically overweight, shoveling sludge into its mouth, requiring immense intervention to stay alive, and declining far faster than it has any right to.

But of course, going against the System is hard. And so, we have the Copes and the Challenge. Whichever you embrace defines whether you are an obedient subject or a Dragon-Slayer.

You will not witness institutions collapse from their "internal contradictions," you will not be able to inoculate or shield people from these hostile Systems. These are all copes. You can only destroy these Systems. There is no other alternative.

Understand something: You cannot reform these institutions. They're internally robust. You enter them with revolutionary dreams and you are gradually crushed. They will neuter you via a thousand tiny compromises until you have become the very thing you swore to destroy. The selection process within these institutions that determines who becomes an elite obliterates any chance for an Elite to arise capable of delivering substantive change. In fact, it is so rare for this to happen that the last American politician who can reasonably said to have done this on a national scale is FDR with his unilateral reshaping of the Democratic Party and his shifting of the locus of power in American government from the Party to the Administrative Bureaucracy. Banking on another Great Man to save you seems like a losing bet. No one is coming to save you. But there ARE ways to save yourself and those around you. Anyone who claims otherwise is a whiney, petulant child. Ignore them.

Institution's Don't Die. They get Outcompeted.

[Institutions]do not arise organically. They arise consciously. Institutions arise with a goal. Within the network, a group of people may wish to spread the word about some topic. They organize: they become a formally recognized network both internally and, hopefully for them, externally as well.

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Institutions become powerful generally by maximizing as much of their capital as they can, whether that be human, financial, physical, and/or social.

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Institutions rarely collapse. Instead, they are typically outcompeted.

Alternative institutions must emerge. There are three ways alternative institutions can shift society: 1) mass defection from one institution to a superior one, 2) elites shifting their patronage to new institutions, and 3) alternative institutions serving as bases to engage in hostile takeovers of old institutions.

The first is easy to understand (better product -> mass defection), so let's look at the second: Elites shifting patronage.

What I am referring to is a reinvention of Patron/Client relationships. For a Patron acting strategically to switch allegiances, they must believe that a robust base of support is awaiting them from the new Client. How do you provide proof of this this absent well-developed institutions? (hint: you don't). There won't be a physical Battle of Saratoga, but victory at a metaphorical one is necessary to prove to the world you are worthy of patronage.

The second, new institutions forming as bases to engage in hostile takeovers, demands proper institutional positioning as well as the correct mindset amongst the members of the institution:

Of course, an organized group of "new blood" may consciously engage in a hostile takeover of an existing institution as opposed to building a new one. The question of whether this "new blood" ends up actually being new or ends up being subsumed is answered by the cohesiveness of the organized group: are they more loyal to the group than the System? Are they willing to use the standards of the organized group in place of the standards of the System whenever and wherever it is necessary? If not, they will be subsumed. If yes, well, they stand a fighting chance.

Hostile takeovers are possible, but complicated. Too long of an exploration to add to this piece.

There are various institutions that need to be outcompeted, and new tech offers ways to support this:

  1. Education: Alternative Education (think: home/local schooling and bootcamps) needs support in terms of platforms for connecting between local groups, syllabi for curriculums, systems for credentialing, etc. Forums and new tech can serve as the basis for many of these connections.

  2. Finance: Alternative finance systems have been around for a long time (ex: mutual credit), but new technologies provide new opportunities for empowering this (relaxed restrictions on crowdfunding for companies, the entire DeFI world, etc)

The Dragons can be slain. The Dragons must be slain. There can be no despair. There is only the work that must be done. Godspeed to us all.


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