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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.

Free Hierarchy

Libertatem hierarchia. What we call European feudalism was the becoming–patchwork of the Roman Empire. As the control structures of the Roman Empire atrophied, and the de facto liberty of its subjects increased, those subjects sorted themselves according to their objective levels of political power. Slaves sorted into Serfdom, mid-tier Roman nobility sorted into Lordship, and Roman super nobility sorted into Overlordship, and so on. Feudalism was obviously hierarchical, but also free in the sense that each member of each level recognized themselves as rightful members of each level. Hilaire Belloc paints a succinct but colorful portrait of this hierarchy from below, summarizing European feudalism thusly:

the passing of actual government from the hands of the old Roman provincial centres of administration into the hands of each small local society and its lord. On such a basis there was a reconstruction of society from below: these local lords associating themselves under greater men, and these again holding together in great national groups under a national overlord.

In the violence of the struggle through which Christendom passed, town and village, valley and castle, had often to defend itself alone.

...

For the purposes of cohesion that family which possessed most estates in a district tended to become the leader of it. Whole provinces were thus formed and grouped, and the vaguer sentiments of a larger unity expressed themselves by the choice of some one family, one of the most powerful in every county, who would be the overlord of all the other lords, great and small.

Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith

One might raise many good questions about Belloc's historical narratives, which I admit are relatively light on primary sources and heavy on romantic nostalgia. But with respect to the idea that European feudalism was a free hierarchy, this must have been the case because if any member of any level possessed greater power than their assigned status reflected, they could have just taken their rightful status: that is what the decline of Roman authority implied. If a Serf thought they were incorrectly or unfairly lumped in with the Serfs, they were perfectly free to create and secure their own manor against raiding pirates and crusading Islamic armies. Of course, having recently been slaves, they had no such power. Having no such power themselves, and having no centralized authority to physically protect their survival, it seems fair to presume they genuinely wanted to ally with someone who could raise an army.

Catholicism as Nomad War Machine (Deleuze and Chesterton)

Chesterton:

Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life.

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.

Chesterton on smooth space:

Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…

Chesterton on the refrain:

If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything.

A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.

As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out.

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.

Socialism and Campus Politics with Sean Trainor

Sean Trainor (@ess_trainor) is an historian, educator, writer, and podcaster. Sean has written for The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, and many other venues popular and academic. He is a professor at the University of Florida, where he is currently writing a book about beards in the nineteenth century. Sean co-hosts his own podcast, Impolitic. You can find more about Sean's work at his website, seantrainor.org.

Sean is a socialist activist so we had some interesting debates about the prospects for activism today, and we covered just about all of the hot-button, culture-war topics of the moment: campus politics, trigger warnings, free speech, etc., including many observations from our personal experiences moving through left-wing circles and academia. We also talked about some more obscure topics such as Catholic anti-capitalism, the pleasures and pains of our respective podcasts, and why beards became so fashionable among men in the nineteenth century.

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