Chapter 13: What’s Next?
All told, this is an audacious set of claims. To colorfully sum up, I believe that modern civilization is broken because the priests took over the world and then went mad. This madness is getting progressively worse, causing massive, increasing damage to fundamental civilizational functions, which have just barely been mitigated to date by heroic efforts on the part of modern technologists. And because they’re the very best priests that have ever lived, by the measure of their ability to imprint their beliefs on their countrymen, their madness is quite likely incurable from within the system. Barring a major course correction, the future is the abyss: Detroit.
However, there’s nothing that says that this theocracy need persist forever. After all, the theocrats took over from the plutocrats about a hundred years ago, and the plutocrats took over from the aristocrats a hundred years before that. If there were a similar caste upheaval on the horizon, how might it happen? And what might the new world look like?
The following is obviously speculation, but there are some intriguing hints to be gleaned in recent technological developments. For instance, the USA has rapidly conquered Iraq a couple of times in the past 20 years. And this was done largely on the strength of new military technologies; in particular, the integration of modern communications and information technology into the existing command structure and weapons systems to massively enhance their efficiency. The US armed forces know what’s going on during the chaos of battle and can apply firepower accurately to their enemies to a degree that was literally undreamed of as recently as the Vietnam War.
This could have massive repercussions, because it reverses the trend going all the way back to the levée en masse. Quantity of arms no longer trumps quality. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. Relatively small numbers of well-trained US troops, armed with modern weapons and assured of aerial superiority, have proven themselves capable of defeating forces many, many times their number.
And the trend going forward appears to be even further automation. As of this writing, unmanned aerial vehicles are replacing manned aircraft. New naval vessels require many fewer crewmen to keep running. And remote-controlled drones are being issued to army units to increase their effectiveness. There’s no reason to assume that this won’t continue forward into the next couple of generations of military hardware, at the very least.
The situation appears to be similar in the economic realm. In a modern economy, the most productive people, provided with sufficient physical capital, appear to produce vastly more value than the median worker. In contrast, given current conditions the below average appear to produce virtually no value. This trend has been dubbed the rise of the “Zero Marginal Product” (ZMP) worker, and it purports to explain why there’s been very tepid employment growth over the past decade or so, even when there’s been decent overall nominal economic growth. If this trend toward ZMP workers is related to the increasing automation of the economy (which seems quite plausible to me), then it would follow that going forward the “ZMP bar” above which a worker’s skills need to rise in order to be gainfully employed is likely to rise higher still.
Finally, it seems as if mob violence and riots are less likely to be effective political tactics. It’s a core tenet of modern theocratic belief (either Old or New Left) that justice demanded by the people at large cannot be long denied by force. Shooting, unleashing tear gas, or turning the firehoses on rioters is seen as counterproductive, as a matter of faith, since such repression will necessarily turn more people against the regime and thus hasten its collapse. This seems like common sense to people steeped in a theocracy with a revolutionary tradition, but it’s actually completely false. The Chinese suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 disproves this conclusively, as the Chinese government sent in the tanks and is still happily ruling 25 years later.
The real danger to a regime faced with mob violence is that the army won’t obey the order to open fire. In the mass army era, this danger is managed by trying to find or develop army units that are particularly loyal to the regime (e.g. Revolutionary Guards divisions) or hostile to the rioters. But if the order is even once disobeyed, it’s often curtains for the government. Note that the trend toward increasing automation blunts this power as well. If the regime can disperse riotous crowds with drone technology, they don’t need to worry about divisions filled with politically unreliable draftees failing to put down the crowd. They just need to control the keys on the drones and the few trusted warriors that man them.
Thus, in a world where the marginal person is increasingly irrelevant militarily, economically, and politically, the physical justification for democracy is very weak indeed. And the ruling theocracy is tied quite tightly to the democratic ideal for all sorts of good reasons. Whether it originates in high ideals, base motives, or anywhere in between, each of their impulses has evolved to point in the direction of more democracy. So the progressive technological undermining of democracy as a military, social, and political force makes it at least plausible that a competitor to a theocratic system could arise and successfully challenge the current system in a way that would have been simply impossible 50 years ago.
As an aside, it’s worth discussing here in some detail how badly overloaded the term “democracy” is. At least, it can mean any of the following, depending on who’s using the term and how:
- Democracy can mean performing the formal ritual of having elections to determine the membership of important bodies, whether they be governments or private institutions. From this perspective, publicly traded companies are democratic because their directors (where the ultimate formal power rests) are elected by shareholders, while privately traded companies aren’t.
- Democracy can mean the ideal of majority rule: that everybody’s voice should be taken into account, and the most popular person/idea/policy should be enacted. You hear this a lot when politicians argue that the results of opinion polls should count when drafting the content of legislation (e.g. 58% of the people favor a public option in healthcare!)
- Democracy can mean the ideal of popular legitimacy. A democratic regime takes its legitimacy from the support of the people as a whole (as opposed to divine right or what-have-you), and the formal system doesn’t matter overmuch. So-called “populist” regimes (like modern Venezuela) lean on this even as they have “irregularities” in their electoral process.
- Democracy can mean a direction in policy space. A vector, not a scalar. So policies can be “more democratic” or “less democratic”. It’s more democratic to expand the franchise and make it easier to vote (like women’s suffrage or the motor voter law) and less democratic to restrict it or make it more expensive (like poll taxes or voter ID laws).
- Democracy can mean flattening social hierarchies, so that the average person counts just as strongly as the exceptional person. So, in this sense, it’s more democratic when a CEO only makes 50 times as much as a janitor at his company rather than 500 times as much.
- Democracy can mean “inclusiveness”, in the New Left sense. So it’s democratic to have a forum (like, say, a university) where everyone can feel comfortable saying their piece regardless of their station in life. In particular, it’s democratic if people feel comfortable criticizing the racial or sexual groups that are historically dominant in the broader society.
Note that even though many of these definitions are contradictory, they’re all somewhat related. And to the degree that they are, they’re all weakened by the technological trends discussed above.
Moving on, there are three potential ruling castes. So let’s examine each of them in turn. What sort of challenge might they pose to the existing world order? And, if successful, what sort of world might they build?
Let’s begin with the priests. Our world is currently run by powerful theocracies, so a revolution of the priests would have to be centered on religious differences. And since we’re postulating the opening for the challenge stems from the relative weakness of democracy, this means the old-time religion. No mere Communists or Nazis for us. No, I’m talking guys who take their Calvin straight, no chaser. Or the arch-Catholics, the diehard Muslims, the Buddhists who’ll light themselves on fire, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews … basically, anybody who’s willing to reject modernity more-or-less wholesale in favor of their religion qualifies here.
Make no mistake. It requires a rejection of modern thinking at a fundamental level to prevent being co-opted by the existing theocratic order. Our ruling priests are very, very good at what they do. They’ve conquered the world largely on the strength of their ability to persuade their fellows. The reason why all of these religious examples seem laughably old-fashioned is because any believer who’s even the slightest bit hip has been long-since vacuumed up into the gaping maw of Diversity.
So, what reason do we have to believe that a revolution based upon such a thoroughgoing rejection of the modern world could work? After all, the modern world is modern precisely because it has triumphed over all of its competition to date. And since we’re fighting theocracy with theocracy in this example, the foundation of the challenge has to be found solely in the strength provided by an anti-democratic religion.
I see only one possible factor here: differential birth rates. It is common knowledge that something about modernity suppresses birth rates everywhere it takes hold. The negative correlates to fertility appear to be strongest with increasing female education, secularism, and wealth. Sects that reject all three of these have rapid pre-modern fertility, while subcultures that accept all three of these have fertility well below replacement. The differences between the two extremes are huge: between 1 and 7 lifetime children per woman, which is the difference between the population halving every generation and the population more than tripling each generation!
Right now, the effect of this differential is blunted due to the small size of the rapidly breeding sects, the high out-conversion rate from these sects to the broader populace, and the relative economic underperformance of the most extreme sects. But the raw fertility differential is so large that the selection pressure toward these sects is big. And even small decreases in the out-conversion rate could quite rapidly reconfigure the worlds’ demography.
It’s analogous to the effect of antibiotics on bacteria. Before antibiotics, the mix of bacteria is heavily weighted toward the ones that are best at competing on traditional bacterial measures (like eating and reproducing quickly). But once the antibiotics are introduced into the system, almost every bacterium is killed. Afterwards, the ones that thrive are the ones that have some resistance to the antibiotic effect, and they thrive precisely to the degree that they are immune. Every other consideration of fitness becomes secondary. Quite quickly, the entire population is made up of mutants that are laughably ineffective by traditional bacteria standards, but that have the sole virtue of not dying when swimming in a toxic stew.
If the old-time religion makes a big comeback, I imagine that this’ll be the reason. Modernity is breeding resistance to its effects by suppressing birth rates so sharply. All it’ll take is a technical or social advance that reduces the out-conversion rate for the numbers of the adherents of these religions to explode. Maybe a new Facebook-type social application or set of adaptable, smart Internet filters could be used to better police the community, enabling them to keep out the influences of modern thinking and media while still gaining many of the technical benefits. By the next century, the global demographics could be so radically different as to be unrecognizable to the present, undermining democratic states from within. After all, how can you run a democracy when 80% of the voting population considers democracy a Godless abomination?
What about the warriors? If the renegade priests will conquer the world with babies, presumably the warriors will do so by force of arms. That’s what they do. But any potential rise of the warriors is complicated by a couple of factors. First, the existence of nuclear weapons makes modern global war a dicey proposition. If any big-time state feels itself existentially threatened, the balloon could go up. And, second, the vast proportion of the world’s military power is firmly under the thumb of the US theocracy. The USA has repeatedly proven its willingness to apply pressure – up to and including full-on invasion – to change regimes not of its liking. Additionally, it has over 200 years of institutional experience at keeping its own warriors subservient to whoever’s actually running the country. So it serves as a massive roadblock on the path to founding a new aristocratic world order.
Given this, I see two possible ways that the warriors could arise triumphant. The first is in the aftermath of a serious failure of world-wide civilization. I’m thinking real apocalyptic scenarios here. Something like a massive depression, a super-plague, or a serious nuclear exchange. Something so big that it both discredits what came before and resets the balance of power. After this, the successor regimes must compete largely on the basis of their effectiveness in the new technological milieu, during which struggle the natural strengths of the warrior elite are able to come to the fore. This scenario is roughly analogous to the last two major caste shifts (aristocracy → plutocracy) and (plutocracy → theocracy), both of which took place during times of significant worldwide strife.
The other possibility is if the USA converted from a theocracy to an aristocracy in the aftermath of a coup d’état. At first glance, this seems outlandish. But there are some indications that this may not be entirely outside the realm of possibility. The most striking example of this that I’m aware of is the reaction to this article posted on a military-themed satire site: http://www.duffelblog.com/2013/12/general-mattis-crosses-potomac-100000-troops-president-senate-flee-city/. The article updates the story of Julius Caesar’s coup against the Roman Republic by replacing Rome with America and Julius Caesar with the outspoken Marine General Mattis.
The interesting thing isn’t the article itself, which is supposed to be a joke for military history buffs. It’s the comment section. Virtually everybody who comments – and there are a lot of comments – says something along the lines of “I wish!” or “I’d be marching on Washington with them, if this were real!” There are a few people who take the traditional line that coups are un-American and a violation of the oaths of military service (all true, strictly speaking), but these people are invariably challenged or shouted down. The sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of the military abolition of the present government.
The second piece of evidence I find compelling is the Gallup poll. Every so often, since 1973 (again with 1973!), Gallup has asked Americans how much confidence they have in various American institutions. The most recent results (as of June 4, 2013) are fascinating: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx
The most popular institution, by far, is the military. Over 75% of the country has confidence in the US military! The least popular institution is Congress, with 10% confidence. But, interestingly enough, the bottom of the list is almost entirely populated by core theocratic institutions. Along with Congress, the news media, organized labor, politically-connected big business and banks, novel health maintenance organizations, the criminal justice system, and the public school system are all under 33% approval.
The only organizations that have majority trust are the military, small business, and the police. Organized religion (which almost assuredly includes some warm sentiment for anti-regime elements, given the growing secularism of the New Left) almost makes the cut at 48%, with the Presidency and the Supreme Court (long the most prestigious and priestly branch of the government) lingering in the high 30s.
I don’t know how to describe how stunning this is. It’s a pre-revolutionary state of affairs. Popular trust has decayed badly since 1973 in every institution that’s associated with the ruling theocracy. At the same time, trust in the military has risen sharply, from 58% in the aftermath of the Vietnam War to 76% today. These numbers imply that if there was a constitutional crisis with the elected government on one side and the US military on the other, like in that satire article, a lot more people than you might think would side against the government.
What would the world look like if some ambitious general took over the USA and built it into an Empire? Formally, I imagine it’d look a lot like the transition the Romans took from Republic to Empire. Congress and the Supreme Court likely wouldn’t be abolished. They’d just be packed with supporters of the regime and given largely symbolic things to do.
The real action would be in the concentration of political power in the hands of the Emperor (legally, President-for-Life, following FDR’s precedent and requiring the repeal of the 22nd Amendment) and the Pentagon. In the name of ending corruption, most of the lobbyists and bureaucrats would be dismissed, with the military likely taking on direct provision of aid to the populace along the lines of post-disaster relief efforts until new aristocratic laws and institutions can be built.
I imagine that, since this is the USA, it would be impossible to completely abolish elections for a very long time, if ever. But I would suspect that there would be sharp franchise restrictions on any governance mechanism that’s actually plugged into policy making. For instance, I could see a Starship Troopers style stringent national service requirement (with the concomitant aristocratic indoctrination) for full citizenship, with those who do not qualify relegated to a second-class status.
I’d also suspect that an aristocratic America would rapidly institute a mercantilist trade policy and would be quite willing to restrict immigration. Both of these policies are widely popular everywhere except among the priest and merchant classes, so their adoption would be an excellent tactic by which the new regime could win approval and simultaneously gore the oxen of their rivals.
There would almost assuredly be large street demonstrations planned and executed to protest this shift, in classic democratic fashion. Think something on the scale of the ’60s Civil Rights movement: a combination of widespread protests and rioting. Even in the face of an affront of such magnitude, I don’t think that the modern theocracy is capable of drumming more people than that out to the streets.
The difference is that the new regime would suppress the rioters without mercy. They might use massive, overwhelming force with Predator drones and AC-130s to make a point. They might use super-smart counterinsurgency technology tied to social networking and face recognition software to detect and surgically kill the key rabble rousers during the demonstrations. Or they might just use lots of land-based drones and non-lethal riot suppression technologies to quietly and cheaply jail the entire mob.
However it goes, I don’t see a way that the fading theocrats could actually physically resist the army in a direct struggle. The increasingly strict rules of engagement that have made modern counterinsurgency so painful for the military are a theocratic imposition. And if the newly liberated aristocrats fight to win, their victory would be almost assured.
Finally, how could the merchants rise to rule? If this were to come about, my best guess is that it would begin with the would-be plutocratic elite extorting privileges and carve-outs from the ruling theocrats in exchange for continuing to support the regime. I don’t mean the pattern we have now, where the priests generally debate how much commerce they are willing to tolerate and the heads of major corporations fall all over themselves to prove how public-spirited they are (think corporate charity drives and diversity seminars), in exchange for SEC forbearance or slightly lower taxes.
No, I’m talking about real concessions to plutocratic values and preferences, in an incremental reversion to a legal regime that much more closely resembles the 19th Century than today: the suspension of anti-trust enforcement for vertically integrated megacorporations; the abandonment of any serious attempt to check industrial activity with environmental regulation and enforcement; or the massive curtailment of the welfare state. I’d expect the end-game fight to be over whether or not affirmative action and diversity policies need trump merit-based (read: profit-maximizing) hiring practices, since that’s the crown jewel of the diversity regime, but an attack on some of the remaining pillars of the Old Left settlement (like defunding government pensions) could prove to be a stronger redoubt for the defenders of the old regime.
The leverage the plutocrats would have in this intra-elite negotiation sounds like something out of an Ayn Rand novel. Say I’m right that pretty much the only thing that’s keeping the economy limping along is the astounding progress of the tech industry. If this is true, then it follows that the entire system would collapse in short order if the tech mavens stopped (or even slowed!) their efforts. From the perspective of the ruling theocrats, it is therefore of the utmost importance that the technology industry not only continue to exist, but continue to thrive.
I believe this dynamic explains the otherwise anomalous light regulation that has been applied to Internet-based businesses since the ’90s. Things like the sales tax loophole, by which Amazon has been able to undercut traditional retailers in most states because they don’t have a physical presence there, have been able to persist for a lot longer than you’d naively think would happen. After all, it’s not like traditional retailers were a weak, penniless political lobby when Amazon started taking off. But the opposite seems to be happening on net: Amazon has built a tight relationship with the U.S. Post Office and is using this angle in order to further undercut its retail competitors.
This also, I think, explains why the political makeup and relatively lax adherence of the tech industry to the ruling religion has been the cause of so many news stories of late. For instance, there was a brouhaha recently over whether or not open source code should contain gendered pronouns, with some particularly zealous hackers promising to scrub all open source repositories to make them more politically correct. Clearly, any time or effort spent on this endeavor is thrown on the pyre for the gods of Diversity, and the major source gatekeepers initially rejected these requests as trivial. The rejection became something of a political struggle.
The New Left considers the racial and sexual makeup of the top of pretty much any institution to be of critical concern. This goes double for corporations, which are suspect as potential breeding grounds of plutocratic dissension. So it’s strange that only very recently have top tech firms come under fire for having such a lack of diversity in their boards or among their top executives.
Similarly, campaigns to hound people who openly defy the dictates of political correctness have only recently reached into the tech sector. The publically and notoriously politically incorrect CTO of Business Insider (a website popular among the tech crowd) was forced to be fired recently, even though he’d been doing that sort of thing for a long time. I also remember a recent scandal, which made the national news, in which a woman overheard two male programmers making an off-color joke about a USB dongle during a tech conference and started a media firestorm.
In the universe where the merchants come out victorious, I think that these skirmishes end in a backlash wherein the tech industry largely abandons the state religion in favor of a self-consciously plutocratic ethos. Out of fear of entirely breaking the economy, the ruling theocrats back off. And then the openly plutocratic enclave starts wildly outcompeting the rest of the country, causing both a rise in the prestige of the plutocrats and a desire to copy their policies everywhere in order to share in the prosperity. A couple of laws repealed here and there, perhaps a friendly Supreme Court ruling or two, and the next thing you know the FDR-era legal edifice is completely defunct.
The important thing each of these alternative futures share is that they are all hopelessly, unimaginably right-wing by today’s standards. Of course, our priests have spent a hundred and fifty years carefully crafting what is thinkable. They’ve defined the idea of the future for so long (through the teleological concept of History) that grasping for a future that doesn’t evolve from them, along their lines, requires a significant dose of lateral thinking.
In fact, reactionary doesn’t even cover it, because reaction is their word. It implies inherently both that you want to go back (as opposed to forward) and that there’s a functioning model to go back to. According to what I’ve read in various dark corners of the Internet, these unauthorized futures I describe are therefore better described as “neoreactionary”. Which means that the choice that stands before us is stark: it’s either some wild flavor of neoreaction or a slide to Detroit.