The following is a completely unedited transcript, written from me to a good friend between 1am and 2am on December 5th, about a revalation I had reading the Wikipedia page for Michael Novak's 1982 book The spirit of Democratic Capitalism. This weaves together some thought trains about morality and economics that have lived mostly separately in my brain until now.
Epistemic status: Unwarrantedly high
Editorial status: Nonexistant
I just had a million good revelations.
Okay, so, I'm going to type out a bunch of stuff to you
Because I need to type it somewhere
Michael Novak wrote this in 1982.
In it, he posits that democratic capitalist societies have three centers of power: The market, the government, and the moral/cultural center.
Novak started out as a radical progressive liberal in the 1960s. Since the 1970s and beyond, he pivoted into a cultural conservative and became a leading thinker in blending Catholic theological ideas with pro-market ideology.
There's so many good quotes in this Wikipedia page, I want to share a sampling of them.
"The big idea in democratic capitalism is pluralism. A traditionalist or socialist society “imposes a collective sense of what is good and true... exercised by one set of authorities.”(p49) But can society work if no-one is in control? Many people, from Solzhenitsyn to popes, find such a society immoral and chaotic. Social scientists find it sickening, as producing anomie, alienation, etc."
Very clear statement against "totalitarian moral systems". Chiefly, it inhibits freedom, drains the vitality from the human spirit, and turns humans into obedient, one-ideology Party members.
The secret that makes democratic capitalism is pluralism. There's no one sense of moral authority / legitimacy in a society. Capitalism enables this, allowing people with different moral systems to coexist under one roof, glued itself together with political and financial institutions.
The founders of democratic capitalism “feared absolutism more than they feared pluralism.”(p52) In a plural society, people can question things. One can step out from under one’s “sacred canopy” and experiences “culture shock.” “In a genuinely pluralistic society, there is no one sacred canopy.”(p53) Society is renewed by crises of conscience, the “taproot of democratic capitalism.”(p55) Pluralism avoids the single “sacred canopy” by design.
The framers of the US constitution knew this. This was a big theme in the Federalist papers.
The authors of The Federalist Papers wanted to avoid the tyranny of the majority, so they constructed a political “system which would empower many factions and interests.”(p58) No single group would be trusted with the common good, but gathered together, the combination of interests should “strike not to far off the mark.”(p58) But this practical wisdom has been preempted by the utilitarians, and then accused by idealists of being merely utilitarian “interest-group liberalism.” Novak prefers to use his own Thomist tradition, recognizing the “dangers inherent in idealism, the uniqueness of the person, and the special advantages of the practical... order.”(p59)
There's a lot of great quotes here, but I'll move on.
So why does all of this matter?
- Silicon Valley technologists have no ethical center. Why? Because they were fed a strawman of ethical reasoning that they found, correctly, to be bullshit.
It's not an accident that the epicenter of progressive totalitarian ideology is also the very home of amoral, irresponsible, technocratic capitalism.
In fact, the two are extremely related in tight feedback-loop parasitic ways.
John Henry [1:37 AM]
We can argue about the chicken-and-egg question, but the parasitic feedback loop looks like:
A) Technology is created that allows shallow expressions of empathy, moral judgment, etc. It's very easy to put the face of a sad child on the internet and say "look how sad this is". The reader is admonished to partake in the sad-child-poster's value-judgment that the sad-child-situation is Bad. People like, comment, and share the status, it goes viral, and you've now created a community impression that there is a Correct opinion (stop the proximate thing causing sad-child-face -- or you're evil)
B) Deep-thinking technologists, being the first affected by this, say "hey, wait a minute". They argue that systems are inherently complex; doing ad-hoc comparative analysis of different moral systems is way more complicated than posting a shallow picture of one obvious harm, since the total morality of a system is calculated by total harms experienced by the whole population, some of which are not photographed or easily photographable, and they refuse to be swayed by individual instances of empathy-tugging and retain moral judgment until further data arrives.
B2) After some time, the technologists in (B) start to see the viral ethical value-judgments of (A) start to spread, become more prominent, and take over discussion. They start to see (A) as a false morality. They start to notice that shallow expression of partial ethics -- "virtue signalling" -- tend to benefit the sharer / holder of that ideology more than they benefit the sad-face-kids or even the "silent majority" of unphotographed harms. They start to get cynical. Time passes, and they grow more cynical. And -- this is the crucial part -- They are also still very successful technologists, and are tempted by the same vice/incentive spirals that profit-seeking humans have been tempted with throughout time. Capitalist impulses that -- in a healthy Novakian economy -- are tempered by real ethical concerns and actual reasoned views about morality, externalities, group selection, prisoner's dilemmas, preventable harm, self-sacrifice, et cetera.
B3) Without a base in actually healthy ethical reasoning, the sneaky profit motive instinct makes a very subtle conflation; it begins to consciously confuse the world of A-morality with the concept of morality itself. As the individuals surrounding the technologist mobilize themselves into increasingly shrill spirals of virtue signalling and self-righteousness, the technologist recoils more and more into the sneaky conflations of their own profit-motive. Eventually you arrive at a sort of familiar Randian bleakness, and you begin to think that morality itself is actually a misguided rung in human reasoning. This is when you start to become an actual sociopath.
A2) And what does a sociopath technologist do? They build -- and capture -- more technology! They become zealously "neutral", happy, capitalist worker drones. They just want to build cool new gadgets and toys. Gadgets and toys that -- and this is the crucial, insiduous, feedback loop-y part -- enable the moral prostletyzers in category A to have even greater voice, reach, power, and fidelity than ever before. Microblogging services that deliver outrage spirals at 400 neck veins per second. Video services that provide a forum for entire generations of youth culture wars, happily hosted and centralized on Youtube. Advertising models that edge out traditional news organizations in favor of the Huffington-Denton-Klein editorial death spiral of politics-fueled journalistic spitfests.
B4/A3) Over time, both sides -- the amoral technologists and the virtue-death-spiralists -- begin to formally recognize how useful to each other they've become. The technological captains of industry, moral sense long eroded and discarded, happily invite the Shanley Kane shriekers a welcome home on their platforms (and some, through years of decaying moral reflection, begin to wonder if the uncivil progressivists are actually right). The young progressives, oblivious to obvious corporate interests, nestle in to their new technological homes, throw up LGBT banners over the Google main offices, and spread the "learn to code" movement to their identitarian interest groups to provide flesh blood as the fuel for the next wave of technologists.
Here's another example.
I just watched the movie The Big Short, a 2015 movie about the 2008 financial crisis.
Basically a spot-on dramatization of what happened during the housing crisis and subsequent crash of the overspecialized financial services industry.
There's one obvious question I'm left with at the end of the movie:
What are Michael Lewis's views?
Michael Lewis wrote the original book in 2010 documenting the whole story of the people who shorted the financial crisis, about how they saw the crisis coming years before everyone else, by looking at now-very-obvious fundamental assessments of the shady underlying mortgages that were packaged up as mortgage-backed securities and CDOs (a practice still in quite heady circulation today, from what I understand)
Michael Lewis wrote another book about greedy private hedge fund types, published in 2000, called When Genius Fails
Which is about an extremely interesting group of other smart quantitative hedge fund types called Long Term Capital Management.
It's a fascinating story, actually. Some Harvard-grad investment whiz kids & even famous financial theorists (Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, nobel lauretes in economics) basically came up with a bulletproof way to beat the market called bond arbitrage. And it worked. And they made billions of dollars, and everyone thought they were completely insane.
It's a really crazy story. Eventually, LTCM essentially gets fucked over by the powers-that-be, and they end up losing all their money and then some.
(The technique they developed of course lived on and was employed by said powers-that-be for Great Healthy Long-Term Capitalism Prosperity. Actually a very shady and sad story.)
Okay, so back to my question.
What are Michael Lewis's views?
It seems to me, from reading these stories, and listening to the ~Borg~Discourse's framing of things, there are essentially two options to interpret Lewis's "position"
He is either:
- Anti-capitalism (edited)
This gets into my own personal theories about things. But one thing that I've noticed incredibly hard, especially since 2008 / Occupy Wall Street, is that it has become damn near impossible to express a third, nuanced view about capitalism that is not immediately strawmanned into either the "pro-capitalist" or "anti-capitalist" buckets.
There's an overwhelming sense of totality, of a kind of "you're either with us, or you're against us" when it comes to issues like, say, your opinions on "government regulation".
WHY THE FUCK DOES ANYBODY HAVE A SINGULAR OPINION ON "GOVERNMENT REGULATION" IN THE AGGREGATE?!
Why can't you simply be "pro the obviously good regulation, anti the obviously bad regulation"?
There is no room for that opinion in The Discourse. Everything comes down to signalling your affiliation among one hard tribal line or another.
Think about this recent discussion about Net Neutrality.
How many people do you know fully, predictably, sorted themselves into "anti-Net-Neutrality" or "pro-Net-Neutrality", based off of incredibly predictable and obvious ideological lines that match up perfectly with being "pro-regulation" or "anti-regulation", or being "anti-capitalist" or "pro-capitalist"?
The correlations for these things are sickeningly pronounced. And I think that our modern expression of two-party polarization is intimately linked with the first example regarding the technology-progressivism-feedback-death-spiral.
I'm not sure exactly how, but something in the technology mess is causing inherent drives to polarization to become pronounced in a chronic way. The people committed to unified progressive ideology have created this "you either believe everything you read on the Washington Post, or you're just another nihilistic 4chan troll" partisanship that has become impossible to escape.
I'm not yet sure exactly how the two are linked in a way that is crystal clear for me.
But I'll think about it more and I'll get back to you.