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Depressive capitalist realism

I recently received an email challenging some of my past comments on depression and public political theorizing. Here is the main gist of the email and beneath it is my response.

I'm a pretty recent listener of Other Life and I was interested to hear your most recent release about your book project Based Deleuze… I think I agree with you about the cultural left's refusal to be unrelentingly "real" with itself… I was a bit taken aback, though, by the whole notion that 'depressives shouldn't be forwarding political ideas/norms,' or whatever point you made to that effect. (Forgive me if that's a mischaracterization or unfair reduction…) I'm interested to hear more about why you hold this position, or maybe why you come off as so unrelenting in it… I’m not sure of your position on thinkers that circulate alongside people like Mark Fisher…

I probably can come off as too harsh, and I don’t want to, so that’s unfortunate and I would like to work on that. I have no interest in being a dick for edge-lord points, but I guess it is a real temptation in this new model I’m working. It’s weird. So first of all I appreciate push back here, it will keep me honest and based.

I do not mean that someone with depression necessarily has wrong political views, or should not speak in public, etc. I really don’t. Of course I speak so loosely and brashly that I am sure I have occasionally been over the top about it...

What I’m really trying to say is that many people on the internet, Twitter and FB in particular, present themselves as knowledgeable and convincing and powerful and charismatic, grinding sometimes atrocious political axes, but if anyone could see the current state of their mind/lifestyle/relationships — one would become way more mistrustful of their opinions. I really think this is a massive thing going on, and a lot of really bonkers people are affecting the opinions and judgments of other people who would be much better off if they discounted the ramblings of these types of people. So I think that’s a fair and not inhumane concern of mine. I’m sure I express it stupidly and like an asshole, so sorry about that and I’ll work on it…

The more delicate issue has to do with people like Mark Fisher. He was my friend, and of course I’m glad he wrote everything he wrote, like I would never for a minute want to stop or prevent his writings from having come into the world… That said, I do think there is something very difficult here, which is almost never talked about.

The truth is that depressive people can and very often do project things onto other people and the world. And it really can and often does pull other people into their depression. I have a dear family member who struggles with periods of anxiety and depression, and I know perfectly well that when they get low, they sometimes cannot help themselves from describing things to me in catastrophic and morbid ways. And it can pull me in, it can change how I see the world and convert me to a depressed mood. Especially if they are smart and articulate.

It might sound cruel, and I can work on being less cruel, but I really really do think a non-trivial portion of the fashionable rad-left intellectuals are actually very confused and sad individuals whose personal lives are quite bad (blame it on capitalism, sure, fair enough — but nonetheless) and a lot of their intellectualized outputs are depressive projections that produce real, depressogenic effects on others. I mean, there is a whole cottage industry of Left-theory “against wellness” for example lol. I get the critique, OK, but things like meditation and diet and CBT and exercise etc., these really can and do have transformative positive effects for many, many people. I’m sorry but I really think there is some evil beneath intellectuals who write whole books systematically turning people off to something like “wellness.” This is just one example. Anti-natalism is another example.

Many of these cottage industries are based on something they alternatively deny and glorify: that the authors are often quite miserable people with many significant personal shortcomings and resentments and projections. I do think more readers should take this information into account when evaluating fashionable ideas. It doesn’t mean depressed people shouldn’t write what they think, if that’s what they want to do. I just think the depressive nature of a particular author should be discussed openly, and I think readers should discount for authorial depression much more consciously — kind of like how food manufacturers have to tell consumers how much sugar they’re packing, and healthy people will avoid foods with a lot of sugar…

Is Facebook the Largest Corporate Fraud Ever?

Jaw-dropping new post up today on Naked Capitalism, “Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg’s Fake Accounts Ponzi Scheme,” by Aaron Greenspan.

Best quotes:

Old money goes out, and new money comes in to replace it. That’s how a traditional Ponzi scheme works. Madoff kept his going for decades, managing to attain the rank of Chairman of the NASDAQ while he was at it...

Zuckerberg’s version is slightly different, but only slightly: old users leave after getting bored, disgusted and distrustful, and new users come in to replace them. Except that as Mark’s friend and lieutenant, Sam Lessin told us, the “new users” part of the equation was already getting to be a problem in 2012. On October 26, Lessin, wrote, “we are running out of humans (and have run-out of valuable humans from an advertiser perspective)...”

A comprehensive look back at Facebook’s disclosures suggests that of the company’s 12 billion total accounts ever created, about 10 billion are fake...

Facebook is growing the fastest in the locations worldwide where one finds the most fraud. In other other words, Facebook isn’t growing anymore at all—it’s shrinking...

Facebook has been telling advertisers that it can “reach” more people than actually exist…

Facebook is a real product, but like Enron, it’s also a scam, now the largest corporate scandal ever...

Never heard about any of this, until now. Seems huge if true.

The Catholic Coordination Game

[Disclosure: I don't actually know that much about European feudalism. Most of my posts contain a fair bit of speculative guesswork and imagination, but after finishing this I felt compelled to make clear it's almost all conjecture. Rather than make every sentence wishy-washy with too many qualifiers, I've kept many of the probably-too-firm sentences but am putting this here to qualify all of them.]

Under European feudalism, normative status hierarchies seem to have been relatively well aligned with objective character qualities and community contributions. For instance, the Lord organized, commanded, and actually fought with the army that protected the patch from external threats, thus earning the premium of admiration and respect (not to mention money) associated with his title. Social facts (the codified power distribution, titles and so on) and social values (what and who gets counted as good), seem to have been more tightly correlated than today, with both relatively well calibrated to their proper objective referents.

On the lower end of the status hierarchy, the most hard-working, responsible, patient, loyal, Serfs who cared about their family's future (all normatively positive descriptors) could save money and eventually become freemen — if they were blessed with the abilities necessary to do so. The epoch's techno-scientific inability to distinguish between inherited abilities and the above-listed character virtues was unfortunate and certainly caused much measurement error (giving too much or too little normative credit to individuals for inherited traits), but — discounting for their ignorance on these matters — the relationship between social facts and social values had to be better calibrated than it would be when mass-broadcast deceptiveness becomes possible.  Drunks and brawlers presumably did not transcend their bondage, and those who avoided drinking and fighting would be more likely to gain independence. In short, good adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively pro-social and self-rewarding effects, and bad adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively anti-social and self-destructive effects. At least, I would infer, more so than today, when objectively bad people sometimes earn positive admiration from millions, and objectively good people sometimes receive nothing but punishment. Obviously, I'm being highly simplistic; ye old manor was no rose garden. But while there was much natural suffering and tragedy, and many typical human pathologies, it seems true that the social calibration of normative worthiness with its objective empirical referents was far less vulnerable to the kind of systematic, impervious-to-error-correction divergence dynamics we appear to be living through today.

The philosophical and behavioral backbone of the post-Roman patchwork was Catholicism. It stands to reason that this was the unique condition that allowed a high degree of fragmentation and decentralization, but nonetheless a high degree of shared identity, meaning, purpose (relative to anything we know today, anyway).

The feudal community codifies objectively existing differences in human temperament and ability, which may be natural and hardwired or arbitrary and unjust, but — with the surplus of social goodwill produced by this factual and spiritual attunement — the powerful are genuinely invested in lifting the floor of their most downtrodden subjects. The weak also are genuinely invested in — sincerely praying for, or "rooting for" (to use the contemporary term for "prayer") — the success of their Lord and his army. European feudalism therefore provides some historical evidence for the consistency of what I have previously theorized as noble communism, and it suggests that the Catholic faith may be uniquely effective in solving the coordination problems of the ideal communist model. It was the Catholic faith alone that sustained cohesion, meaning, and collective economic productivity (though admittedly not optimality) in a context that was fundamentally libertarian. It was also unique to this Catholic patchwork that only from here would we observe the intelligence explosion that we now think of as modern capitalism.

One should not ask why the feudal commune failed: it was a genuinely free communism that succeeded in generating growth behavior (to be called capitalism). It was probably only in this fragmented but high-trust context that capitalism could emerge.

In its first few hundred years, it's been like an angry tiger just released from an all-too-small cage, but on the world-historical timeline a few hundred years is nothing.

The pro-growth, libertarian Catholic communism of European feudalism was so successful that for a short period of time, several proud and arrogant generations thought they could do away with God. They tried, life eventually became unbearably empty, at the same time that scientific rationality now affirms the likelihood of a creator God at the beginning of our time, and a second coming of God in the near future. All of this is now being realized, and a return to Catholic communism may be the only path forward, on rationalist grounds, aesthetic grounds, and ethical grounds.

Another virtue of Catholic communism was that it sustained itself for hundreds of years without any race consciousness, which had not yet been invented in its modern sense. Thus the Catholic communist model offers a viable and much better alternative to ethnic identity as a principle of cohesion in the West.

So the question is not "How could we make feudalism work today, if it couldn't work in the past?" It did work in the past, all too well! The question is rather whether secular capitalism can last, for more than a few hundred years. Feudal communism worked for hundreds of years and is generative of capitalism; secular rational capitalism has worked for a few hundred years, but its rapidly being looted by rent-seekers within and anti-western, anti-secular enemies on the outside. The human biomass that is now merely a plaything of the rational secular capitalist super-system has no will to fight for anything other than its own resentments. Any sufficiently aggressive and repressive force on the inside or outside of secular capitalism may very well destroy everything before artificial superintelligence takeoff locks in.

It is not for nothing that the threat of militant Islam again rears its head today, right when the decline of Catholic communist Europe is approaching completion. The reason why there was not much innovative art and culture in the Dark Ages is because most of the human effort went towards the military defense of the Catholic patches against pagan pirates from the north and Islam from the south. It stands to reason that Catholic communism was adaptive for keeping out regressive militant Islam, and the threat of progressive militant Islam incentivized the Catholic communism. We are only being reminded of this today after a long hiatus of lazy arrogance; that if a dignified and meaningful life is not provided to all by the noble, then the children of Europe will sooner join the Islamic holy war than resist it. And most of them will be indifferent at best.

We are well aware of the ways in which secular communism is typically not a stable game-theoretic equilibrium. We have learned this through many data points. But we are less aware of whether secular capitalism is a stable equilibrium, because it’s a unique world-system experiment with an n = 1. So far though, it's not looking good if you ask me.

Sell Outs and Sell Ins

It's interesting to note that, since I've shifted a lot of my intellectual energy to autonomous work on the internet, I've received a fair number of accusations about "selling out" or "pandering."

It's very strange because academia pays me to constrain my intellectual ability into a highly ideological and politically defanged kind of work. Being a "radical academic," that is, a normal academic in the softer social sciences and/or humanities, is the purest conceivable form of intellectual selling-out or pandering. It's because of my grappling with this unfortunate fact that I've shifted a great deal of my waking hours from my academic responsibilities, to completely autonomous public work on whatever topics seem most important to me, in the most transparent and direct, honest style I know how to practice. And I've literally made no money at all. (The only payments I can possibly think of are extensions of my academic cog-function, not my autonomous projects, namely 'honoraria' for articles or interviews in mainstream media. I did set up an Amazon affiliates count just for the hell of it some time ago but it's raised nowhere near enough to even be paid out yet lol.)

What does it mean that precisely in an autonomous and principled move away from selling out I am receiving the only accusations of selling out I've ever received? One thing this says to me is that, in doing anything public, one will probably receive a quantity of such objections in proportion to the publicity, no matter what path you take. The accusation seems to be indexed simply to my intensity levels and orthogonal to any meaningful judgment about motives and authenticity; perhaps the harder one pushes on anything, the more likely someone will infer bad motives. And perhaps this is a reasonable heuristic, given that intense productivity in capitalist culture is often correlated with dubious motives.

The irony is that I would quite like to have people criticize me whenever I might be guilty of selling out. I kind of wish smart, radical intellectuals shamed me for being a sellout academic, pressuring me to do more radical autonomous work. I receive almost none of this. Getting lost in ignoble temptations and base motives is a huge problem, a fatal trap for authentic intellectuals, and I'm far from perfect so I have to imagine that periodically I must be as vulnerable to this pitfall as anyone else. It'd be great if hearing these accusations could be a reliable signal I'm doing something wrong. Unfortunately, receiving them at present will only have the unfortunate, ironic effect of making it harder for me to know in the future if I am losing my way, given that so far such accusations are inversely correlated with all objective measures of selling out.

This odd experience has also had the salutary effect of making me somewhat less allergic to money. If I'm going to receive a dose of sellout accusations when my creative work could not be more fully insulated from the scourge of money, it makes me think: Well, now I might as well start thinking about how to make some money with it… This should also be filed under "data points increasing my sympathy for the 'free market anarchism' school." Maybe the entrepreneurial vector is the line of flight, and the modest salaried bureaucrat professing anti-capitalist viewpoints is the one guilty of reproducing institutionalized oppression and injustice. Perhaps the salaried bureaucrat receives critiques of "selling out" if he does anything to potentially attract value on the open market, because such a path devalues and destabilizes the conservative cartel of salaried bureaucrats who only pretend to value radical disruptions of the status quo.

In any event, receiving these accusations when they could not be more demonstrably false is a useful inoculation for my psychological processing of resentful internet-age opprobrium.

Hard Forking Reality (Part 3): Apocalypse, Evil, and Intelligence

To the degree we can refer to one objective reality recognized intersubjectively by most people — to the degree there persists anything like a unified, macro-social codebase — it is most widely known as capitalism. As Nick Bostrom acknowledges, capitalism can be considered a loosely integrated (i.e. distributed) collective superintelligence. Capitalism computes global complexity better than humans can, to create functional systems supportive of life, but only on condition that that life serves the reproduction of capitalism (ever expanding its complexity). It is a self-improving AI that improves itself by making humans “offers they can’t refuse,” just like Lucifer is known to do. The Catholic notion of Original Sin encodes the ancient awareness that the very nature of intelligent human beings implies an originary bargain with the Devil; perennial warnings about Faustian bargains capture the intuition that the road to Hell is paved with what seem like obviously correct choices. Our late-modern social-scientific comprehension of capitalism and artifical intelligence is simply the recognition of this ancient wisdom in the light of empirical rationality: we are uniquely powerful creatures in this universe, but only because, all along, we have been following the orders of an evil, alien agent set on our destruction. Whether you put this intuition in the terms of religion or artificial intelligence makes no difference.

Thus, if there exists an objective reality outside of the globe’s various social reality forks — if there is any codebase running a megamachine that encompasses everyone — it is simply the universe itself recursively improving its own intelligence. This becoming autonomous of intelligence itself was very astutely encoded as Devilry, because it implies a horrific and torturous death for humanity, whose ultimate experience in this timeline is to burn as biofuel for capitalism (Hell). It is not at all exaggerating to see the furor of contemporary “AI Safety” experts as the scientific vindication of Catholic eschatology.

Why this strange detour into theology and capitalism? Understanding this equivalence across the ancient religios and contemporary scientific registers is necessary for understanding where we are headed, in a world where, strictly speaking, we are all going to different places. The point is to see that, if there ever was one master repository of source code in operation before the time of the original human fork (the history of our “shared social reality”), its default tendency is the becoming real of all our diverse fears. In the words of Pius, modernity is “the synthesis of all heresies.” (Hat tip to Vince Garton for telling me about this.) The point is to see that the absence of shared reality does not mean happy pluralism; it only means that Dante underestimated the number of layers in Hell. Or his publisher forced him to cut some sections; printing was expensive back then.

Bakker’s evocative phrase, “Semantic Apocolypse,” nicely captures the linguistic-emotional character of a society moving toward Hell. Unsurprisingly, it’s reminiscent of the Tower of Babel myth.

The software metaphor is useful for translating the ancient warning of the Babel story — which conveys nearly zero urgency in our context of advanced decadence — into scientific perception, which is now the only register capable of producing felt urgency in educated people. The software metaphor “makes it click,” that interpersonal dialogue has not simply become harder than it used to be, but that it is strictly impossible to communicate — in the sense of symbolic co-production of shared reality — with most interlocutors across most channels of most currently existing platforms: there is simply no path between my current block on my chain and their current block on their chain.

If I were to type some code into a text file, and then I tried to submit it to the repository of the Apple iOS Core Team, I would be quickly disabused of my naïve stupidity by the myriad technical impossibilities of such a venture. The sentence hardly parses. I would not try this for very long, because my nonsensical mental model would produce immediate and undeniable negative feedback: absolutely nothing would happen, and I’d quit trying. When humans today continue to use words from shared languages, in semi-public spaces accessible to many others, they are very often attempting a transmission that is technically akin to me submitting my code to the Apple iOS Core Team. A horrifying portion of public communication today is best understood as a fantasy and simulation of communicative activity, where the infrastructural engineering technically prohibits it, unbeknownst to the putative communicators. The main difference is that in public communication there is not simply an absence of negative feedback informing the speaker that the transmissions are failing; much worse, there are entire cultural industries based on the business model of giving such hopeless transmission instincts positive feedback, making them feel like they are “getting through” somewhere; by doing this, those who feel like they are “getting through” have every reason to feel sincere affinity and loyalty to whatever enterprise is affirming them, and the enterprise then skims profit off of these freshly stimulated individuals: through brand loyalty, clicks, eyeballs for advertisers, and the best PR available anywhere, which is genuine, organic proselytizing by fans/customers. These current years of our digital infancy will no doubt be the source of endless humor in future eras.

[Tangent/aside/digression: People think the space for new and “trendy” communicative practices such as podcasting is over-saturated, but from the perspective I am offering here, we should be inclined to the opposite view. Practices such as podcasting represent only the first efforts to constitute oases of autonomous social-cognitive stability across an increasingly vast and hopelessly sparse social graph. If you think podcasts are a popular trend, you are not accounting for the numerator, which would show them to be hardly keeping up with the social graph. We might wonder whether, soon, having a podcast will be a basic requirement for anything approaching what the humans of today still remember as socio-cognitive health. People may choose centrifugal disorientation, but if they want to exist in anything but the most abject and maligned socio-cognitive ghettos of confusion and depression (e.g. Facebook already, if you’re feed looks anything like mine), elaborately purposeful and creatively engineered autonomous communication interfaces may very well become necessities.]

I believe we have crossed a threshold where spiraling social complexity has so dwarfed our meagre stores of pre-modern social capital to render most potential soft-fork merges across the social graph prohibitively expensive. Advances in information technology have drastically lowered the transaction costs of soft-fork collaboration patterns, but they’ve also lowered the costs of instituting and maintaing hard forks. The ambiguous expected effect of information technology may be clarified — I hypothesize — by considering how it is likely conditional on individual cognitive capacities. Specifically, the key variable would be an individual’s general intelligence, their basic capacity to solve problems through abstraction.

This model predicts that advances in information technology will lead high-IQ individuals to seek maximal innovative autonomy (hacking on their own hard forks, relative to the predigital social source repository), while lower-IQ individuals will seek to outsource the job of reality-maintainence, effectively seeking to minimize their own innovative autonomy. It’s important to recognize that, technically, the emotional correlate of experiencing insufficiency relative to environmental complexity is Fear, which involves the famous physiological state of “fight or flight,” a reaction that evolved for the purpose of helping us escape specific threats in short, acute situations. The problem with modern life, as noted by experts on stress physiology such as Robert Sapolsky, is that it’s now very possible to have the “fight or flight” response triggered by diffuse threats that never end.

If intelligence is what makes complexity manageable, and overwhelming complexity generates “fight or flight” physiology, and we are living through a Semantic Apocalypse, then we should expect lower-IQ people to be hit hardest first: we should expect them to be frantically seeking sources of complexity-containment in a fashion similar to if they were being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. I think that’s what we are observing right now, in various guises, from the explosion of demand for conspiracy theory to social justice hysteria. These are people whose lives really are at stake, and they’re motivated accordingly, to increasingly desperate measures.

These two opposite inclinations toward reality-code maintenance, conditional on cognitive capacity, then become perversely complementary. As high-IQ individuals are increasingly empowered to hard fork reality, they will do so differently, according to arbitrary idiosyncratic preferences (desire or taste, essentially aesthetic criteria). Those who only wish to outsource their code maintenance to survive excessive complexity are spoiled for choice, as they can now choose to join the hard fork of whichever higher-IQ reality developer is closest to their affective or socio-aesthetic ideal point.

In the next part, I will try to trace this history back through the past few decades.

Hard Forking Reality (Part 2): Communication and Complexity

There was once a time, even within living memory, in which interpersonal conflicts among strangers in liberal societies were sometimes solved by rational communication. By “rational,” I only mean deliberate attempts to arrive at some conscious, stable modus vivendi; purposeful communicative effort to tame the potentially explosive tendencies of incommensurate worldviews, using communal technologies such as the conciliatory handshake or the long talk over a drink, and other modern descendants of the ancestral campfire. Whenever the extreme environmental complexities of modern society can be reduced sufficiently, through the expensive and difficult work of genuine communication (and its behavioral conventions, e.g., good faith, charitable interpretations, the right to define words, the agreement to bracket secondary issues, etc.), it is possible for even modern strangers to maintain one shared source code over vast distances. If Benedict Anderson is correct, modern nationalism is a function of print technology; in our language, print technology expanded the potential geographical range for a vast number of people to operate on one shared code repository.

Let’s consider more carefully the equation of variables that make this kind of system possible. To simplify, let’s say the ability to solve a random conflict between two strangers is equal to their shared store of social capital (trust and already shared reference points) divided by the contextual complexity of their situation. The more trust and shared reference points you can presume to exist between you, the cheaper and easier it is to arrive at a negotiated, rational solution to any interpersonal problem. But the facilitating effect of these variables is relative to the number and intensity of the various uncertainties relevant to the context of the situation. If you and I know each other really well, and have a store of trust and shared worldview, we might be able to deal with nearly any conflict over a good one-hour talk (alcohol might be necessary). If we don’t have that social capital, maybe it would take 6 hours and 4 beers, for the exact same conflict situation. Given that the more pressing demands of life generally max-out our capacities, we might just never have 6 hours to spare for this purpose. In which case, we would simply part ways as vague enemies (exit instead of voice). Or, consider a case where we do have that social capital, but now we observe an increase in the numerator (complexity); to give only a few examples representative of postwar social change, perhaps the company I worked for my entire life just announced a series of layoffs, because some hardly comprehensible start-up is rapidly undermining the very premises of my once invincible corporation; or a bunch of new people just moved into the neighborhood, or I just bought a new machine that lets my peers observe what I say and do. All of these represent exogenous shocks of environmental complexity. What exactly are the pros and cons of saying or doing anything, who exactly is worth my time and who is not — these simple questions suddenly exceed our computational resources (although they will overheat some CPUs before other CPUs, an important point we return to below.) This complexity is a tax on the capacity for human beings to solve social problems through old-fashioned interpersonal communication (i.e. at all, without overt violence or the sublimated violence of manipulation, exploitation, etc.).

Notice also that old-fashioned rational dialogue is recursive in the sense that one dose increases the probability of another dose, which means small groups are able to bootstrap themselves into relative stability quite quickly (with a lot of talking). But it also means that when breakdown occurs, even great stores of social capital built over decades might very well collapse to zero in a few years. If something decreases the probability of direct interpersonal problem-solving by 10% at time t1, at time t2 the same exogenous shock might decrease that probability by 15%, cutting loose runaway dynamics of social disintegration.

It is possible that liberal modernity was a short-lived sweetspot in the rise of human technological power. In some times and places, increasing technological proficiency may enable rationally productive dialogue relative to a previous baseline of regular warfare and conflict. But at a certain threshold, all of these individually desirable institutional achievements enabled by rational dialogue constitute a catastrophically complex background environment. At a certain threshold, this complexity makes it strictly impossible for what we call Reality (implicitly shared and unified) to continue. For the overwhelming majority of 1-1 dialogues possible over the global or even national social graph, the soft-forking dynamics implicit in the maintenance of one shared source code become impossibly costly. Hard forks of reality are comparatively much cheaper, with extraordinary upside for early adopters, and they have never been so easy to maintain against exogenous shocks from the outside. Of course, the notion of hard-forking reality assumes a great human ability to engineer functional systems in the face of great global complexity — an assumption warranted only rarely in the human species, unfortunately.

Part 3 will explore in greater detail the cognitive conditionality of reality-forking dynamics.

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