Politicians calling for "freedom" or "equality." Individuals dreaming about a world in which they're a billionaire. Social planners cherry-picking their favored statistics to support their mission. Baristas in small town America raising money for impoverished people in Africa.
Each of these individuals suffer from the same delusion: a worldview in which the abstract takes precedence over the concrete.
In each of their own ways, these people are responding to some aspect of their lives (external or internal) by retreating to abstraction as a way to cope with issues in their concrete experiences. Of course, the problem is that as more and more of society retreats into the abstract, the concrete world continues to deteriorate. Declining State capacity and social mobility, reductionist theories consistently failing to deal with the hyper-complex social world, and apparent hypocrisy between values and the lack of any real action to help those around you.
The only way to escape this is to re-privilege the concrete world. That will take different forms as the allure of abstraction also takes various forms. Let's examine the various forms of this allure before discussing how to resolve them.
The Allure of Abstraction
One of the most obvious and well-analyzed motives to retreat into abstraction is impotence. This can happen at either an institutional level (most prominently with the State) and an individual level.
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.
The American State is massive, and yet most of that size is flab. It gets in the way, demanding resources while providing nothing of value. In order to maintain its legitimacy, the actors that comprise the State and its various institutions must make appeals of ever-increasing desperation to the increasingly disillusioned populace they rule over. "I know our State can't accomplish anything, but we're a Free and Equal country!!!!" Abstractions upon abstractions to hide the fact that the State cannot do anything.
In fact, one could reasonably see the democratic process as the repeated surgeries needed to keep the legitimacy of the State alive. The entire voter fraud narrative, ironically, actually works to support the democratic process: it presumes the existence of some proper and pure democratic process that our concrete policy has corrupted and which we the people must recover. Far fewer question the nature of democracy itself, and whether or not such a system should be considered worthy of conferring legitimacy onto a regime.
If the American State was judged on its merits alone (how effective it is at governing), it would have ceased being legitimate a long time ago. It is only our ideological allegiance to democracy and our regular ritual of voting (plus the derivative media circus and individual “election talk” of modeling and betting on results) that reignites legitimacy. Between such ideological stances and the ongoing support of the Media-Megacorp-NGO-Academic apparatus granting the State legitimacy via "expertise," the constant interventions to maintain legitimacy should be expected to intensify as State capacity continues to decline into fragile, and even failed, state status. In the face of this, appeals to abstract-aesthetic principles like “freedom” and “opportunity” (and even “America” as a concept) become more and more prominent (and desperate).
When individuals are incapable of changing their context, when they have no opportunity or social mobility, they begin to retreat into imaginations of the future that are more and more detached from their present circumstances. The abstract, the idea of "freedom" or "empowerment," is primarily aesthetic and therapeutic: it generates positive emotions in a social and physical context where there is nothing but pain for the individual.
The unfortunate part is that these feelings cannot feed you. Both empty promises from the State and impossible dreams from stuck individuals will do nothing to ease the pangs of hunger you suffer from. The difference here is that most individuals are not capable of wielding institutional power, and there they tend to be not-that-powerful to reshape the situations they exist in. Certainly there are powerful individual actors, but most people are not very powerful, especially compared to the large forces in our lives. For the masses, the dream world offers an escape from the crushing realities of the waking world. I expect the ranks of maladaptive daydreamers to explode as society continues to crumble and opportunity/mobility vanishes.
2. Measurements, Reductionism, and Politics
"Lies, damn lies, and statistics." Measurements/Instruments are wielded as tools in service of political goals by "smoothing out" anything the measurer does not wish to deal with. Reductionist theories brought to fruition by simply ignoring the aspects of the world that challenge the theory, and using math to demonstrate how these aspects don't actually matter.
Of course, reductionist theories have a nasty tendency to fail spectacularly, normally because the aspects of the world the theorist did not want to deal with (for fear of having to reconsider their values/principles/priors) end up having significant impacts. Theorists tend to reach the level of abstraction necessary to prove their point without having to deal with troublesome complications. All of this, in service of political goals.
What are we "optimizing" for?
A pernicious tendency through the late 19th century and until today is the allure of optimization. The attitude is tied up with our Science-worship for an obvious reason: it promises a genuinely better world.
The appeal of Science sits, at its core, in its promise to be the chief means to make the world a better place.
Science is invoked so fervently because it is apromise.Science presents a covenant to the people: "practice my methods and I will give you a better world."
I'm not here to place blame on any historical figures for this (cough cough Francis Bacon cough cough), but we must understand how this mindset has grown alongside the emphasis on technocratic social and political planning from the late 19th century through today. Optimizable metrics are absolutely critical to have if social and political planning is to be at all possible. Can you imagine the following conversation:
"So, Bob, we're trying to increase the wellbeing of our people?"
"So how do we do that?"
It isn't feasible to implement different sets of policies and then go around and ask everyone how they feel about their lives and try to figure out which policies are ideal. Instead, a correlation between material prosperity and reported wellbeing is identified, easily measurable metrics of "material prosperity" are identified (like GDP, unemployment, inflation, etc), and the plan becomes optimizing for those metrics as a way to get to the goal (maximizing wellbeing).
Of course, these metrics tend to fail at achieving the supposed goal on various theoretical and empirical points. But that isn't relevant. Just as with Science, Optimization is invoked so fervently because it too is a promise. It promises its practitioners that if only they can identify some metrics that can be optimized, that optimization will bring forth a better world. When we see people hold so tightly to their belief in optimization, either via markets or social planning, either GDP or equality or any other metric, we must understand that these people belief that without optimizable metrics, the world will inevitably get worse. Optimization at least gives us a CHANCE!
Of course, as with notions of "progress," we must ask what exactly we are "optimizing" for. Here the theoretical and empirical problems with various technocratic claims appear. In so many cases, this optimization tends to remove living from life itself. Vulgar productivism generates ugliness in the name of efficiency. The tyranny of the metric has led us to be alienated from the many non-commodified connections and goods that truly make life worth living. All that can be measured is "The Line," so all that matters is “The Line," the consequences be damned.
"Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction— purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. . . .
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."
Abstract measurements hide the Concrete from view
This is the key problem. As we focus more and more on the abstract, on GDP rather than "how many hours of work does it take for a median or minimum wage worker to afford a basic but decent lifestyle," on "equality" rather than "how many children live in intact two-parent households in which they see (and spend quality time with) both of their parents every day," we lose sight of the concrete. Some of this is on purpose (see above), but much again is the unfortunate result of fervent attempts to build a better world.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And make no mistake: we are currently on the road to Hell.
This is a very real pattern, which makes it all the more maddening...and all the more demanding of analysis beyond knee-jerk political impulses. This is where abstraction is so important:
Signaling in the abstract allows you to demonstrate you're a Good Person without having to perform any concrete action that inconveniences you.
I've discussed before the allure of persecution:
The allure of persecution is that it gives an individual a sense of superiority and righteousness while simultaneously relieving the burden of responsibility or duty that comes with actual governing.
The same can be said about what I'll call Abstract Signaling. The kind of signaling in the above tweet. Where you demonstrate you care about some abstract Person or People, but don't have to actually do anything that you don't want to do in order to help them. It is entirely performative. Performative caring to alleviate the responsibility to take inconvenient action to help others.
This is how you reconcile the narcissistic tendencies of left-libs with their supposed generosity and out-group preference: They signal they're a Good Person via abstraction (demonstrating that they care about some abstract Person or People). This abstract Person or People must be an out-group, otherwise they would need to take concrete action to assist them. Hence "refugees welcome...but local homeless people aren't."
Signaling you're a good person by demonstrating care for an abstract Person or People gives an individual a sense of superiority and righteousness while simultaneously relieving the burden of responsibility or duty to improve the life/lives of that Person or People.
Return to the Concrete
It should be obvious at this point that a return to the Concrete is absolutely necessary.
Any institution that cares more about its values than its actual policies should be ignored. Any reductionist theories should be tossed in the dumpster. Any individual more focused on signaling than being a genuinely good person should be ridiculed.
To the extent that economics is embedded in politics and politics is embedded in ethics, our concrete policies should always be linked to an ethical "root." But this ethical root must be far more concrete than abstract claims wielding emotionally potent but substantively empty rhetoric. We know that "freedom," "equality," "empowerment," and the like are all nonsense claims - wholly empty of substance, they're "powerful" because they sound nice. They can be operationalized various ways, meaning that we get into debates over what these words actually mean. Such debates are, of course, worthless. Rather, we must demand people explain what they mean by these terms, why their stances are good, and how their proposed policies bring these values to fruition. Concrete policies must always be at the front. Enough with sloganeers: give me actual policies and defend them from a substantive moral ground, not abstract-aesthetic claims meant to hide your own self-interest.
Similarly, we must understand that the belief in optimization is a pseudo-religious statement of faith, not anything based on rigorous examination of the world. We need to begin asking more serious questions on what exactly we are optimizing for. Some basic correlations and abstracted metrics are not enough to make a healthy society (as the last 50 years in the West has very clearly demonstrated). The "Free Market", "technocratic expertise," etc.: all of these are nonsense. None work. In so far as optimization is to be wielded, we must understand that the economy is a tool at the disposal of socio-political actors who may structure it in such a way as to bring about Good outcomes, as defined by a substantive moral woldview. Economic optimization occurs for the purpose of ethical human flourishing, nothing else.
And on the basis of signaling, I think it should be obvious that narcissism is a core problem of society. I do not have clear solutions for this. Solving the societal crisis of abstraction will necessarily include improving social mobility and material conditions, but it will also require people being far more embedded within their local community, and being judged on their concrete actions, not their abstract claims. That would require a wholesale reorientation of society, which would at least in part require top-down intervention. This is where alternative institutions are so critical. Society can be shifted, but only if new power centers are generated.
It is only through a return to the concrete that we have any chance of salvaging this society. We are on the road to a very bad place. As I said yesterday about the emancipatory potential of ideas:
Understand: agency matters, but the importance of any particular person's agency scales with the amount of power they have. The whims of a king have vastly more impact than the eccentricities of your working class neighbor. Furthermore, emancipation can only occur if the ideas being presented are genuinely emancipatory. Various anti-capitalist politics, for instance, are incapable of providing any substantive moral grounding beyond Autonomy-worship, which inevitably leads back into commodification and through to capitalism once again. Crypto-capitalists abound on the Left. Most of our "rebellious" ideas are actually wholly aligned with the system, just slapping a new aesthetic onto the same form. Without actually escaping the foundations of a system, an idea can never truly have any emancipatory potential.
Emancipation requires us to wield ideas that genuinely escape the world we live in and allows us to build a new one. The reorientation of society towards the concrete is one such idea, if done well. True alternative institutions can be built, motivated by this. Godspeed to us all in this project.
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(Thumbnail image from: https://fineartdrawinglca.blogspot.com/2015/04/abstraction-and-non-figurative-drawing.html?m=1)