Tag Archives: Mencius Moldbug

What is Marxism?

When I pointed out that the Marxist tradition is still alive in American academia, the most common response I got was: “But the Marxist tradition isn’t Marxist!” For example:

Overall, I’d liken the place of Marx in academic sociology to that of a senior citizen who everybody publicly respects, but nobody really listens to. Even the remaining self-professed Marxists seem more interested in in things like ecology and identitarianism these days, even though (as I’ve fruitlessly tried pointing out to them) all that is at radical cross purposes with the Marxist enterprise in both its theoretical and political aspect alike.

Over a quarter of academic sociologists are self-professed Marxists, but if their self-profession is wrong

I’m not sure the quantitative surveys you quote do justice to the point Sandifer (may) have been making. The ‘old style’ Marxism where you do class analysis of a state, looking at what the interests of a class are, looking at how the material conditions of production affect ‘superstructures’ such as culture, ‘rights’, etc, is very rare in mainstream social science departments these days. I presume because such analysis might undermine some of the shibboleths of the ‘Cathedral’ – including ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘white privilege’, ‘patriarchy’, etc. Those who call themselves Marxists in the academy have mostly long since abandoned material conceptions of history for Judith Butler inspired charlatanry.

This charlatanry is better known as the New Left—or, if you prefer (and there’s no reason not to, since the term was used even before ’68), Cultural Marxism—or, if you’re Tom Wolfe, Rococo Marxism. “You proles aren’t down with us? It’s… it’s not like we ever thought you were the revolutionary agent of history anyway.” Or maybe the CIA made it, or maybe the CIA made Tom Wolfe. Whatever. But something is going on, and it’s been going on since 1931.

Marxism today isn’t a school of thought at all; it’s an idiom, a set of shibboleths. Imagined Communities decisively refuted Marxism—but it was written in the Marxist idiom, so nobody minded. Tom Whyman laments the loss of a grand unifying national myth and glorifies directionless, irrational mass violence, but he does it in the Marxist idiom, so he’s not a fascist (read: Sorelian), which he is. In fact, some ex-Communists tell me that their former circles were OK with anything, so long as it came from someone who’s very highly educated. Someone who knows words. Someone who has the best words.

Benedict Anderson’s decisive refutation of Marxism is that, to paraphrase, it served as an idiom for the expression of nationalism, or a strategic position for nationalists to adopt. Certainly this is true of Ho Chi Minh and Deng Xiaoping, but this could be generalized: it serves as an idiom for whatever the people who used it wanted to do anyway. In Vietnam, this was nationalism; in the USA, as we can see from true believers like Fredrik deBoer, it’s Menckenism.

Phil Sandifer complains in Neoreaction a Basilisk that Mencius Moldbug never engaged with Marxism, and writes that “there’s a confrontation that’s obviously waiting to happen that Moldbug endlessly deferred”. But, aside from deBoer, how many serious Marxists are there today? Moldbug may not engage with “the philosophical principles of Karl Marx”, but he does engage with the most popular use of the Marxist idiom today: the caste war.

Moldbug’s causal account of Conquest’s Second Law

People love power, and any movement with the power to destroy anything, or even just “change” it, has just that: power.

Antinomianism allows young aristocrats to engage in the activity that has been the favorite sport of young aristocrats since Alcibiades was a little boy: scheming for power. According to this article, for example, there are “over 7500 nonprofits” in the Bay Area, “3800 of which deal with sustainability issues.” These appear to employ approximately half of our fair city’s jeunesse doree, occupying the best years of their lives and paying them squat. Meanwhile, container ships full of empty boxes thunder out the Golden Gate, along with approximately two trillion dollars a year of little green pieces of paper. However, if you’re 23 and all you care about is getting laid, interning at a nonprofit is definitely the way to go. …

Pronom[ian]ism is the essential principle of the political right wing.

(source)

For Moldbug, anything that fractures and distributes power is leftist, and anything that centralizes power is rightist. This seems counterintuitive, but really it’s just post-libertarian: to libertarians, anything that expands government power is leftist, and anything that contracts government power is rightist. How did he get from there to here? Back to OLXI:

The simplicity and flexibility of the nomos creates, or should create, an endless stream of “diversity” in the best sense of the word. It’s almost impossible to imagine the variety of schools, for example, that would spring up if all parents could educate their children as they saw fit. Structures of voluntary agreement tend to rely heavily on mere personal decision, and the products and services they create tend to embody personal style. For example, one of the many reasons that Belle Epoque buildings tend to be so much more attractive than postwar buildings is, I think, that signoff on the design was much more likely to be in the hands of an individual than a committee.

Antinomianism, with its love for reaching into these structures of private agreement and breaking them to serve some nominally noble purpose, has the general effect of replacing individual decisions with committee decisions, personal responsibility with process, and personal taste with official aesthetics. The final stage is the worst form of bureaucracy – litigation, an invisible tyrant whose arms wrap tighter and tighter around us every year. This is sclerosis, scar tissue, Dilbert, Brezhnev, boredom and incompetence for everyone everywhere.

Most observers interpret bureaucratic sclerosis as a sign of a government which is too powerful. In fact it is a sign of a government which is too weak. If seventeen officials need to provide signoff for you to repaint the fence in your front yard, this is not because George W. Bush, El Maximo Jefe, was so concerned about the toxicity of red paint that he wants to make seventeen-times-sure that no wandering fruit flies are spattered with the nefarious chemical. It is because a lot of people have succeeded in making work for themselves, and that work has been spread wide and well. They are thriving off tiny pinhole leaks through which power leaks out of the State. A strong unauthority would plug the leaks, and retire the officials.

Conquest’s Second Law, for Moldbug, could apply to Naziward and Communistward drift as well as progward drift: for Moldbug, the three are all antinomian. Under this reading, what the Second Law means is that power will always be distributed further; power is always distributed further because people want power and can get it; and people can get it because…

A political party is a political party. It is a large group of people allied for the purpose of seizing and wielding power. If it does not choose to arm its followers, this is only because it finds unarmed followers more useful than armed ones. If it chooses less effective strategies out of moral compunction, it will be outcompeted by some less-principled party.

When one party gains full control over the state, it gains a massive revenue stream that it can divert entirely to its supporters. The result is a classic informal management structure, whose workings should be clear to anyone who watched a few episodes of “The Sopranos.” Without a formal ownership structure, in which the entire profit of the whole enterprise is collected and distributed centrally, money and other goodies leak from every pore.

Totalitarian states are gangster states, in other words, and they tend to corruption and mismanagement. The personality cult of dictatorship is quite misleading – a totalitarian dictator has little in common with a neocameralist CEO, or even a cameralist monarch.

The difference is the management structure. The CEO and the monarch owe their positions to a law which all can obey, and those who choose to obey the law are naturally a winning coalition against those who choose to break it. The dictator’s position is the result of his primacy in a pyramid of criminals. This structure is naturally unstable. There is always some other gangster who wants your job. Dictators, like Mafia chiefs, are not good at dying in bed.

Where Moldbug goes wrong

In a massarchy, expansive theories of the State tend to prevail over contractive theories, through the natural process of political entrepreneurship. If you are a leading supporter of an an expansive theory of government and your faction gains power, you are likely to get a job out of it. If your faction holds contractive theories and it wins, there are more likely to be layoffs. Thus, if the probability of victory is equal, you are always better off joining the expansive forces.

(source)

Cladistics: part 2

Continued from here.

The concept of the alphabeta writing system with letters for both consonants and vowelshas probably only been invented once: by the Greeks, who took the Phoenician writing system, which, like most writing systems for Semitic languages, only marked consonants, and used the letters that represented sounds absent in Greek to write vowels.

Most writing systems for Semitic languages are abjads: writing systems of the Phoenician type, marking only consonants, but sometimes reusing consonant letters for long vowels. This form of writing is uniquely suited to the Semitic languages, which base their grammar on triconsonantal roots: each root word consists of three consonants, to which vowels and consonantal affixes are added to decline nouns, inflect verbs, and derive more complex words from roots.

The triconsonantal root analysis is now taken by some as an oversimplification: the Semitic languages, the argument goes, do not really have consonantal templates, and the processes of vowel addition, deletion, and alternation are merely complicated forms of ablaut, or vowel alternation of the Indo-European type, as exemplified by the English verb paradigm singsangsung. Ablaut is reconstructed for the Proto-Afro-Asiatic languagethe Ursprache of most of the languages of northern Africa, including not only the Semitic languages but also the Berber, Cushitic, and Chadicas well as the proto-language of the Northwest Caucasian family, which is most known for containing Ubykh, a now-extinct language that holds the distinction of having the most consonants of any non-click language.

While this system worked well for the Semitic languages (and still does: Arabic and Hebrew are both written in abjads), it hindered the comprehension of Indo-European languages like Greek, which, due to its large consonant clusters and its reliance on vowels, was best suited to an alphabet. Greek had, in fact, been written in syllabaries long before its speakers invented the alphabet sometime in the eighth century BC: the well-known Linear B script and the Cypriot syllabary preceded that invention.

Thus we begin to see the utility of cladistic analysis: almost three thousand years later, we still write like the Greeks!and thus, with the rest of the West, distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world! Well, not quite: the Latin and Cyrillic scripts had the great adaptivity of being attached to empires, which proceeded to spread them throughout their sphere of influence, sometimes displacing native scripts where they existed. Mongolian today is written in Cyrillic everywhere outside China, and the click languages of the African Bushmen are written in Latin. Writing systems, however, spread more easily than patterns of thought or elements of culture, and are more resistant to influence from what was there before: no tribe but the Saxons added elements of their pre-Latin writing systems to Latin when it came to them, but Christianity rarely spreads without significant syncretism. (And the letters derived from runes have all disappeared, wiped out by the damned French everywhere but Iceland, where only one, the thorn, survives.)

Mencius Moldbug’s formulation of cladistic analysis, unlike the morphological or perhaps the genealogical, requires the investigation of conversion patterns. Greek is not Latin, and there must have been one first scribe to write down Latin in something recognizable as the Latin alphabet; so what script, what language, did he write in before that?

There were many alphabets in Italy at the time, each developed from the Greek, and each associated with a language that, with the exception of Latin, no longer survives. The particular form from which the Latin alphabet derives, a ‘red’ form, adapted some letters differently from the ‘blue’ form that led to the modern Greek alphabet: the letter H was used for the consonant /h/ that still survived in those dialects, and the letter X was used for the combination /ks/.

To answer the question: the alphabet spread to the Romans through the Etruscans, speakers of a language unrelated to anything else known today, and the Etruscans got it from the Greeks.

From the Romans and the Greeks came the English use of the digraph th. It, ph, and ch were originally used to write aspirated consonants, which sound like sequences of the plain stops and h, and were also written as such in the ‘green’ versions of the archaic Greek alphabet. Aspirated consonants appeared mostly in Greek loanwords, though they developed from plain stops in some positions in native Latin words; they disappeared from the language with the fall of the Roman Empire, but the pattern of equivalence remained: ph, th, and ch were the Roman equivalents of the Greek letters φ, θ, and χ. Later, the aspirated consonants in Greek fricated, becoming f (still written ph in Greek borrowings today), th, and the Scottish ch.

The other pecularities of the English alphabet, like all Latin alphabets and like all writing systems, are similar to the sequence th, in that they all have identifiable historical originsorigins unknown to most speakers of the language, origins which must be recovered through investigation of the history.

This is one thing to do for writing systems, but another entirely to do for patterns of thought: the latter are identified with, taken, unlike the former, as objective truth, or as indisputable moral fact which one must be evil to even think about questioning. Besides, they’re much more complicated: it’s hard not to suspect that Moldbug’s restriction of cladistics to the investigation of patterns of conversion was intended as a heuristic to simplify the process of coming to understand history.

Cladistics: part 1

Mencius Moldbug lists five ways to categorize belief-systems: nominalist, accepting each system’s name for and narrative of itself; typological, categorizing systems according to shared traits; morphological, constructing historical descent trees according to analysis of shared traits; cladistic, constructing historical descent trees of conversion patterns; and adaptive, ignoring traits and history and focusing solely on how the belief-system succeeds.

He prefers the last two of the five, leading to results that are often prima facie unintuitive. But if you’ve studied linguistics, the last two make sense.

Linguistic nominalism is unworkable: Sanskrit, Albanian, and Basque can’t all be the ancestors of all the world’s languages. Typology and morphology have their usesone can compile a list of tonal languages, or of languages that put the verb before the subject and the object in a sentence, and examine their other traitsbut they can’t do everything: Chinese and !Xóõ are both tonal, but they are unrelated and share few other features. Historical linguistics is typological by necessity: Old English resembles Classical Latin more than it does English, but, as the name implies, is more closely related to English than to Classical Latin. Similarly, French, like English and unlike Classical Latin, has definite articles and a case system eroded to almost nothing—but it is more closely related to Latin than to English.

Typology, however, has other uses in linguistics. Another Romance language, Romanian, is part of the Balkan Sprachbund; and the Sprachbund is a thoroughly typological concept. Over centuries of influence, and perhaps due to the shared influence of a now-lost substrate language, Romanian has converged with Albanian, Greek, and the Slavic languages of the region, now sharing many traits with them that are absent in the other Romance languages: a suffixed definite article, the loss of the infinitive form of the verb, and the superessive construction for the numerals between eleven and twenty, to name three. It can be difficult to distinguish between a Sprachbund and a language family: it is currently debated whether the Altaic languages of Asia, ranging from Turkish to Mongolian and perhaps including Korean and Japanese, descend from the same proto-language or have simply converged over time.

Languages are complicated: enough so that they cannot serve as useful illustrations here. Writing systems, however, can.

The concept of writing has only been independently invented three times: once by the Sumerians, creators of the first city; once by the Chinese; and once by the Mayans. Every writing system existing today can claim cladistic descent from one of these threeeven those that did not evolve organically from an older script, but were invented consciously, of which many examples exist. Perhaps it is a change to the concept of cladistics to include these; but if so, it is a change that proves useful in the philosophical realm, where so many have claimed originality despite influence, acknowledged or avoided, conscious or otherwise. Or perhaps it is not: the Tangut script, designed by a figure given the badass name of the Teacher, Iri by the Tangut (and known in Mandarin as Yělì Rènyóng), is one such invention, and its appearance betrays the influence of the Chinese logography. (As does its structure, but only to a limited extent: though The World’s Writing Systems points out that “all the main structures of the Chinese script” may be found in it, nobody knows quite what Iri was thinking.)

Even those scripts which were designed by illiterates familiar with only the concept of writing show signs of outside influence. Pahawh Hmong, which its otherwise illiterate creator, Shong Lue Yang, claimed he received in a series of divine revelations near the city of Nong Het in Laos, is similar in appearance to the Lao script; and the Cherokee syllabary, invented by Sequoyah in nineteenth-century America, contains a near-complete copy of the Latin alphabet, though with radically different sound values: Ꮓ, for example, represents the syllable no.

Next time: alphabets.