27 November 2019

Over on twitter

Nick Harkaway writes:
Why is it not enough to believe in the project? Why this desire that we all accept the virtue of the man?  It is freaking the shit out of me tonight. For the first time, really.

If you -- generic you -- stop using the rhetoric of individual salvation and the expectation of saviours and, really, when you get right down to it, the notion that morality is a useful response to a political problem, you're faced with two horrible prospects; it would work ever so much better to go all quantified and materialistic and co-operative, and it means everything you believe about yourself is wrong. All that constructed context of goodness and worth is just complete and utter froth without any material basis whatsoever.

Sometimes this happens in adolescence; sometimes it never happens. Authoritarians don't like the idea of it, never mind the actuality, because authoritarianisms do not withstand quantified analysis. Tories of various labels hate it because they don't want you to resist effectively.

What's actually happening in UK politics is that the machinery of capitalism requires a source of loot. Having exhausted many traditional sources, with a surprising variety of traditional sources now able to defend themselves, and with functional control of the Oil Empire passing into the hands of those with no traditional reverence for the Anglosphere, the UK gets viewed as a source of loot. The post-imperial hangover makes this too difficult to believe, providing both useful idiots and a sort of disbelieving paralysis preventing appropriate political responses, so the UK is effectively an undefended mass of loot.

It's far more about "is looting and piracy the right way to get rich?" than it is about Europe, and if you want to look at the whole thing as the judgements of the lord being righteous altogether it wouldn't be difficult. (It wouldn't be useful, but it wouldn't be difficult.)


Peter T said...

I don't understand the distinction you are making.

"is looting and piracy the right way to get rich?" is a moral question, isn't it? A great many people - probably most in history - would say yes. And many would not be wrong, as in it made them rich, and their descendants. Of course, it made other's poorer (or dead) but "all people have equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is equally a moral stance (and one which the looters and pirates do not agree with).

Moz in Oz said...

Peter, it could also be a factual question if you view "right" as synonymous with effective or correct rather than appropriate or moral (as in "might makes right"). In that sense the question is less about whether you *can* get rich by looting, but whether you can stay rich or be happily rich that way. Or even possibly right as in efficient, asking whether looting is the most effective way to get rich.

Admittedly I'm not entirely sure I understand the original argument, because a big part of my politics is based on moral suasion. That seems to be effective, if nothing else the core element of insults like "virtue signalling" and "politically correct" is a recognition of the effectiveness of the things being insulted and a desire to counter them, while recognising that there's no intellectually rigorous argument.

Which is possibly what Graydon is pointing at - that when politics is largely emotional wandering off into the wilderness of morality and rationality is largely ineffective. We see this most notably in Trump, where much his base seems to be people who are deeply morally offended at people who behave like he does, but support him because he promises to make the others who offend them go away. That kind of emotional manipulation is very effective (viz... Trump) but I hope like hell it's unsustainable in the short term, rather than only in the long term (no emotional politics without masses of people, and the climate catastrophe seems likely to fix the people side of that).

Peter T said...


Depends on the you. From a neutral standpoint, one is more likely to lose rather than win from war. But if you're good at it (Persians, Romans, Mongols, Brits, French etc), then you're more likely to win. If you arrange matters such that winning leads to more winning (something the Assyrians, Spartans and Germans were bad at), then you can be richer, happier etc for a long time - certainly well beyond the prediction horizon of any individual. In Rome's case, seven centuries or so. So the decision is ultimately moral. Philosophically, this aligns with Hume ("reason is slave to the passions") rather than Kant. Or, what is "rational" depends on your goals, and even Graydon's criterion of successful replication allows a lot of different means. Including, historically, looting.

Graydon said...

+Moz in Oz, +Peter T

Looting is destructive; you're doing forcible concentration of resources, and you make the accessible scope of the future smaller in the process.

It doesn't do anything for the primate status reflexes to note that, hey, I haven't gone and obliterated a culture and turned a whole huge heap of skill sets into slaves expended in brothels and mines, but, well, that's why Rome was a bad idea. Slave economy, slave culture, really kinda hell on earth for everybody except the teeny tiny fraction of senatorial men writing the histories. It made a smaller future.

Keep making a smaller future long enough, and there isn't one, which is where we are today.

Peter T said...


I basically agree with you. I have to point out, though, that absent force, resources do not get concentrated above some very basic level. Which means no roads, cities, writing...What we have is likely a bad idea for the species (and many other species) in the long run. In the short (8,000 years or so) run, it's a blast.

James C Scott makes the same point at length (in "Seeing Like a State" and "Against the Grain").

Graydon said...

+Peter T
Force and looting are absolutely not the same thing!

(Which is not to say you don't get a troublesome cascade problem from looting; local concentration of force getting worse and worse in the short term as more and more loot accumulates from conquest. That's Rome and the British Empire at a minimum.)

There's an intriguing bunch of evidence that there were about 30 kYears of cultivation down in the now-flooded continental shelf equatorial lowlands, quite stably so, during the peak glacial. Great cities? Probably not. But we really can't tell.

In the end, I don't want to be telling my neeves that, well, yeah, your generation is the last one, which kinda sucks, so I keep trying to understand the problem better.

Peter T said...

Environmental degradation has happened many many times. The usual human response has been to move. If that was not possible, societies learned to adapt to the new conditions and - eventually - settled into a sustainable pattern. Levels of cooperative production were very low (eg the up to 90 km long sets of eel-traps and ponds built and maintained by Australians along inland rivers were a long series of family/band concerns, not a single enterprise).

We have now, as a species, run out of room to move. The problem is how to maintain complex cooperative production (with its essentially arbitrary division of the product) with the attitudes of forager society (egalitarian, extensive taboos limiting exploitation of the environment).

Sergey Rybasov said...


"that's why Rome was a bad idea. Slave economy, slave culture"

But they was not. Even at the peak they have no more then 8%, most probably 3-4% of their population as slaves, most times aven less, and their economy was not based on slave labour at all. More so, at most cases percents of slaves at population seems to be _dropped_ after Roman conquest of the region.

Graydon said...

+Sergey Rybasov

8% is half the accepted figure for the whole empire, somewhere around 15%. The Italian peninsula itself was at least 30%. Rome the City was likely around 45%.

One of the great formative conflicts of the Roman Republic rests on whether or not Roman could enslave Roman; the end of expansion and thus the end of a continuous supply of slaves from wars of conquest had major economic consequences; the late, eastern, "Byzantine" Roman empire supported the massive Norse slave trading network.

And, really, having those laws at all -- we can turn people into things -- is the problem. I'm with Granny Weatherwax on this one; evil starts with treating people as things.

Sergey Rybasov said...

Not around - _under_; that is - 15% in an upmost sensible estimation, while more accurate (thogh no surely true) estimations are about 2 mln slaves with 50-70 mln empire poputation overall, so 3-8%. They was concentrated in Italy, yes, but _economy_ was not concentrated in Italy.

I agree with you competelely, that an idea of owning people is awfull, yet my point was that Romans was not especially awfull with this themselves, because they was not devisers of that idea, was not especially bound with it econimically (Carthagenians was bound - plantatory slavery as a base of their overall economy, but it was demolished after Roman conquest of Africa), so was not worse than their naighbours (I think they were better - practice of libertinitas was very common in Rome, while not very common outside).

Bysantine - I know; I'm of slavic ethnicity, it's hard to forget that "slav" is ethimologically "a slave". But it's a word; it's not especially good idea to bind our historical self-understanding to ethimology. Bysantine economy was not driven by slavs, nor by slaves at all, though there was more of slavery and piracy tradition in this region before Roman conquest.

Peter T said...

I'm with Granny Weatherwax too - but I think our problem lies not in just ceasing to treat people as things but in treating things as things. Somehow we have to make politically salient Darwin's view that we are just another species with a place in the tangled web of life, and it behooves us to know our place and behave accordingly.

How to get there? I don't know - other than evolution's selection out of the unfit.