Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Explaining the Cultural Revolution: signalling arms races as bad fiat currency

This is going to be a long post.

The idea of Chinese people worshipping wax mangoes because some Pakistani minister didn’t have time to have a proper gift made for his visit to China is indeed quite startling. Of course some people will instantly run into the old stereotype of those perfid Orientals slaves, who have been forever worshipping their tyrants as Gods on Earth. But that’s bullshit. The Chinese have always been a fairly unruly bunch, and the Emperor was never worshipped as a God, unlike the Roman Emperors of our humanistic West.

And the Chinese aren’t stupid either, they’ve always been one of the major civilizations on Earth, often world leader in wealth, scholarship and technology. They have the longest unbroken literary tradition; not having undergone a dark age, it’s amazing how many ancient books are still extant in China.

So why did this intelligent, civilized people fall so low as to worship a rotten Pakistani mango? Politics, that’s why. They are humans and so are vulnerable to politics. And modern politics can get very, very ugly.

I’ll quote liberally from the original post by Marquez:

The idea of a “cult of personality” is in some ways a peculiarly modern one. Practices of “leader worship” were of course not unknown in the past; one might almost say that they were basically the default way in which peoples related to leaders in “pre-modern” state societies, from the recognition of Egyptian Pharaohs as god-kings to emperor worship in China, and from the cults of Hellenistic monarchs and Roman emperors to the sacralisation of monarchs in Medieval Europe. But such cults could only become a theoretical and political problem in the context of societies which claimed to be socially or politically egalitarian, as most societies do today; it is only against a background expectation of relative equality that the practice of leader worship appears as an aberration, in need of special justification or explanation. And this problem was especially acute in communist societies, where even formal terms of address had been consciously engineered to express the idea of equality (“comrade”), yet nevertheless appeared to be embarrassingly plagued by forms of leader worship.

And that’s exactly right. Personality cults don’t seem to be related to the general beliefs of a culture. Communism resulted in the most thorough degree of ruler deification, all while calling them “comrades”. Cognitive dissonance you say? Oxymoron? Oh yeah. Welcome to the human brain. You don’t know half of it.

the [Mao] cult first emerged during the later years of the Chinese civil war as a mobilizing device. It was consciously promoted by the top leadership of the CCP (not just Mao) in reaction to the growing cult of Chiang Kai-shek on the Guomindang side, and seen even by people who had doubts about overly personalizing Marxism as a way to unify the party against their enemies. (…) it was specifically nurtured within the party through the practice of “group study” of party history, which presented a mythical narrative of the Long March under Mao’s “correct” leadership. At this stage the cult thus served both to marginalize certain factions (e.g., the group of Soviet-trained cadres around Wang Ming, who had Stalin’s favour) and to motivate party and army members in the continuing struggle with KMT forces

This sounds easy, right. Chiang Kai-shek is hanging out with German guys, and he finds Fuhrer worship to be just the thing that China needs, so he starts a state-cult for himself. Fascism being popular with the common people, who like the idea of strong leaders who seem so awesome that you’d better be on their side, the Commies conclude that they gotta run their own cult to get the troops motivated. So starts the cult of Mao, who at that time didn’t have that much personal control over the party, but he was the leader, and he was pretty bad-ass, so cult of Mao it was.

With the victory of the CCP these mobilizing and unifying functions of the cult became less important, though the party of course continued to control the public display of Mao’s image, and the cult could still be used as one of the instruments of centralization employed by the CCP (e.g., against Gao Gang in 1953-54, who developed his own regional cult in China’s north-east and was eventually purged).

This is not to say that there was no demand “from below” for cult practices. Since the CCP was in part a huge hierarchical patronage machine with few formal mechanisms for promotion, signalling loyalty through praise – sending congratulatory telegrams to Mao, for example, even when these were discouraged by the CCP leadership – was a useful means of career maintenance and even advancement. (You want to be the one local committee that does not send congratulatory telegrams? How is that going to look?).

So the original motivation for starting the cult is winding down after victory (no need to rally the troops anymore), but the genie is out of the bottle. Once you’ve set up a bureaucracy, you find yourself with lots of bureaucrats. And bureaucrats have their own interests and dynamics. For once they want to keep their jobs. They also want promotions, or help from punishment when they’ve done something wrong. There’s a whole bureaucratic society that has a life of its own. Most importantly it has a hierarchy. If on top of the hierarchy you have some deified figure; well the bureaucratic society is going to adapt itself to the guy on top. He’s the one giving the promotions after all. So you better send him a damn telegram. What, your competitor for the promotion has sent two telegrams? Well you better send three then.

praise of the top leaders was tempered both by the fact that it was embedded in a larger discourse where Stalin, not Mao, was the pre-eminent leader of the communist world, and by the fact that the top leadership of the party seems to have consciously discouraged extreme praise, perhaps because it feared (not unreasonably, as it turns out) concentrating power in Mao’s hands. The cult thus appears here not only as a mobilization device pushed from the top, but as the unintended consequence of loyalty signalling by lower levels of the party, which tended to keep the overall level of flattery relatively high, and inflationary pressures steady; and it was clearly fuelled, though not fully explained, by the undoubtedly high popularity of the party and the prestige of Mao as its leader during the early 1950s.

The party wasn’t happy about this, but Mao surely was, and the bureaucracy is diffuse; it doesn’t have a will. It’s like a biological species, individuals cooperate, but they also compete, and if the environment is not set up properly the competition can spiral out of control against the interest of all individuals. But that’s how it works. Have you heard that these days everybody’s sending five telegrams and lyric poems about how Mao inspires you to wake up every morning? Your superior doesn’t like it, but fuck him, with a bit of luck Mao sacks him and puts me in his place. Just gotta write a very good poem.

The death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s speech, and other political developments disrupted this initial equilibrium, in which the expression of loyalty to Mao had not yet crowded out all other signals of loyalty to the party and the revolution, and had not yet colonized public space to the extent to which it did during the Cultural Revolution. For one thing, the death of Stalin had the effect of displacing foreign leaders from their pre-eminent position in public displays, leaving Mao to monopolize an ever larger and more central share of public space. Leese’s book describes for example the faintly comical difficulties experienced by local cadres when trying to organize parades and other festivities after 1953; the question of whose portraits and what slogans to display, and in what order, was evidently of great importance to them (a faux pas could be harmful to one’s career prospects, I suppose), and yet directives from the Centre became ever more confusing. Indeed, a directive of April 1956 essentially declared that no guidance would be provided to local party committees regarding whose portraits to display and in what order during public events. Eventually the confusion seems to have been resolved in the obvious way: portraits of foreign leaders were no longer handed out to marching crowds at official events.

So imagine what’s on the head of any random Politburo member. Say Liu Shaoqi. “Stalin’s dead, the Soviets have declared that cults of personality are evil. So can we stop this thing now? Please?

But wait. If I say this in the next Politburo meeting, Mao is gonna be pissed. I need everyone on my side before I can go against Mao. But who will agree with me? This guy is friends with me, and he hates Mao. But this other guy… I’ve seen him whine about Mao and call him a dumb asshole, but then he fawns on him everytime he’s around. So if I approach him he might sell me out, and Mao could get me sacked. Mmm can’t risk it. You know what, fuck this. If the fucking bureaucrats want to send telegrams and poems, and make Mao parties every weekend, well let them. Who gives a shit. We’ll just take care that Mao doesn’t grab too much real power in the Politburo.”

And so the cult went on, snowballing undeterred because nobody could form an alliance against Mao with the assurance that they wouldn’t get sent to a Gulag.

 The praise soon came into conflict with reality, however. The burst of flattery encouraged by Mao led to a flood of “completely fictive numbers of both agricultural statistics and cultural artifacts in order to signal adherence of the provincial cadres to the Party Centre” (p. 73). But the great famine of 1958-59 could not be hidden by mere propaganda; for those affected by the catastrophe, the evidence of the senses was of course in direct contradiction with the claims of Mao and his flatterers, which challenged Mao’s prestige and credibility and offered opportunities to disaffected people within the party. This challenge was the most serious yet to Mao’s position, in part because the famine fomented dissatisfaction within the People’s Liberation Army, whose soldiers could not be fully isolated from reports coming in from family members about the situation in the countryside.

After 10 years of Communist government and an ever escalating cult of personality, the bureaucrats had got used to what got the food on the table: fawning on Mao Zedong. So fawn they did, adapting their fawning to the circumstances. Anti-rightist campaign? Mao is great. War in Korea? Mao is awesome. Land reform? Mao is da man. Make everyone melt their kitchen tools, have food in collective kitchens, make Mao-is-great parties until there’s no food left and find out that the farming tools have also been melted? 30 million starved? Mao is amazing!

Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had enormous prestige within the PLA, became severely critical of Mao’s policies. This was an intolerable challenge to Mao’s position, who feared a coup; and though Peng was eventually purged (with dire consequences for the Chinese population, since Peng’s public criticism led Mao to stubbornly stick to policies that the party had been quietly about to correct, according to Leese), the need to regain control over the army was pressing. Lin Biao (the youngest PLA Marshal) proved the man for the job.

Peng was purged, because he bursted out by himself to blame Mao for the famine, but he hadn’t checked for supporters. The old man must have thought that this was so obviously insane that the Politburo would all back him up against the evil Mao. How wrong he was though. Mao had his loyal cronies behind him, and the rest were uncoordinated, so Peng was purged.

For one thing, Lin was not shy about praising Mao, and knew how to wield the charge of insufficient adherence to Mao Zedong thought against his enemies within the party and the military. In fact, he was able to shift the norms prevailing at the top of the CCP so that “adherence to Mao Zedong thought” became the sole criterion of loyalty. In practice, this meant that any statements critical of Mao – uttered at any time in the past – could be used as incriminating evidence of disloyalty, and used in factional disputes which nearly destroyed the party, and served to purge many people at the top.

There is a puzzle here, however: as Leese puts it, “[i]t seems difficult to explain why Liu Shaoqi and other CCP leaders watched and presided over the demise of the Beijing party leadership” since the criteria of loyalty promoted by Lin Biao “could be applied to nearly anyone” by those “wielding the power of interpretation” (p. 126). Why didn’t they resist this shift? Leese gestures vaguely towards Mao’s entrenched “legitimacy” as an explanation of the CCP leadership’s passivity in the face of what was, after all, a concerted attack on their position, but I don’t think this rickety Weberian catch-all termhelps us very much to understand what happened here. My sense is that under the conditions of pervasive distrust at the top of the CCP, contradicting Lin carried higher risks individually (though greater lowered collective risks) than supporting him or staying silent (which nevertheless increased collective risks); but this was not so much because Mao was especially legitimate among the top leadership (whatever that means) but because the party was too publicly committed to him for objectors to feel confident that they could count on the support of others if they went out of their way to argue against the cult. (By the same token, they could be pretty certain that others would use their words against them).

As I said above. Once the cult got out of hand, it became impossible to stop it. Dissenter just couldn’t coordinate without outing themselves as being against all that the party had been saying was proper and holy for 10 years. When Mao sent his goons to purge all the party and army of dissenters; the dissenters were perhaps the majority; but they didn’t know that. They had no way of knowing. And so one by one they fell, because a clenched fist, no matter how small, is always stronger than isolated fingers.

Interestingly, though Lin knew how to signal his unconditional loyalty (in costly, even humiliating ways sometimes) he seems to have had no special love for Mao himself. On the contrary, he seems not to have liked Mao much, and to have promoted the cult in part as a way of protecting himself from the treacherous shoals of politics at the apex of the CCP; he had seen (in Peng Dehuai’s case) how even the merest hint of criticism could be turned by Mao (and others) against the critic, with severe repercussions, and was determined to avoid a similar fate. Leese quotes a 1949 private note of Lin’s on Mao’s political tactics: “First he will fabricate “your” opinion for you; then he will change your opinion, negate it, and re-fabricate it – Old Mao’s favourite trick. From now on I should be wary of it” (p. 90). By 1959 Lin was adept at anticipating Mao’s position and changing his opinion as soon as he sensed that the old opinion was no longer operative.

Lin used the cult not only to protect himself from the vicious “court politics” of the CCP, but also to discipline the army and tamp down dissatisfaction among the soldiers. The main tool he used to accomplish this objective was similar to the original forms of “group study” that had been used at the very beginnings of the cult, except more narrowly focused on Mao’s writings and more ritualized. The “lively study and application of Mao Zedong thought” was in practice reduced to learning to recite and use quotations from Mao’s works as persuasive tools. But the particulars are fascinating; what Leese describes is in effect the conscious construction of what Randall Collins calls an “interaction ritual” (really, go read Collins – it’s enormously interesting stuff!) that shifted the “emotional energy” of the troops and the party and increased their cohesion (Leese speaks of “exegetical bonding,” which is quite a nice description too).

The personality cult became a weapon. Remember how it grew because the bureaucrats found it useful for their internal battles. Once everybody does it, you need to follow the cult if only to keep your job. And once the minimum amount of zeal keeps growing, by what Marquez calls “flattery inflation”, well everybody has to see the bet, or else you’re out of a job, and most likely dead. So no matter how high your rank, your best bet was to see the bet, and raise it as much as you can, if only to avoid someone else raising it and making you look bad in comparison. Lin Biao, the main goon of Mao’s purges, understood this perfectly.

Now you’d think that all this madness must have some natural limit. The problem with political ideology is that people have to believe it. Surely all the bureaucrats weren’t writing lyrical poems and making their children draw pictures of Mao as being bigger than the sun out of cold careeristic calculation? After the country started going to hell, with the economy collapsing, people starving, trading their children with the neighbors so they could eat them without feeling guilt; surely people’s faith on Mao must have dropped to the ground?

Well it most likely did, but what are you gonna do about it? The fact remains that going public with your doubts was likely to get you fired or killed, so you better keep up with the flattery and write some more poems. Because the guy right besides you has written three already, and rumor has it he’s getting a promotion, and he wants you fired.

It follows that there must have been a huge demand for any mechanism to increase morale, for whatever means necessary. And here comes the “group study” rituals that Lin popularized over the country. Get people together in a small room, make them read a book aloud in rhythmic extacy, make them sing some songs, denounce some scapegoat, lynch him together, and then get a communal drink while singing again. Wow, that was refreshing. Everybody likes partying, and communal high-pressure sessions are a staple of all religions, specially new sects. And that is because high-pressure rituals create belief. Some people can get themselves to belief with total sincerity just because they find it in their interest. But most people aren’t that evil, they need direct, concentrated social pressure to get themselves to believe in something. And that’s what rituals are for. Even if you had some doubts about the God-hood of Mao Zedong, after having a quick self-examination session with everybody shouting slogans for 2 hours straight, suddenly your brain has gone blank and all you know is that You Love Big Brother. Oh yeah.

Contacts between the troops and their families were monitored, but they were not necessarily directly censored. Instead, reports of distress in the countryside were turned into “teaching moments” that extolled the necessity of staying the course and blamed unfavourable weather or the deviations of local officials from the correct line. Elaborate performances making use of all kinds of media – big character posters, theatre, films, poetry, etc. – recalled the “bitterness” of the past (before the communist triumph) and extolled the “sweeteness” of the present (though, as one official noted, “most comparisons of the present sweetness referred back to the period of the land reform, whereas remarks about the Great Leap Forward were “inclined to be abstract and without substance”,” p. 102), while presenting examples of communist martyrs for emulation. The focus was on generating emotion by “remembering hardships” and then channelling that emotion against the enemies of the communist project to achieve bonding. The combination of peer pressure, genuine emotional experiences, and threats of discipline for recalcitrance was clearly powerful, yet the party was aware of the dangers of people merely “acting as if” they believed. Indeed, advice from high up indicated that “cadres were not to insist on formalities such as the weeping of participants as demonstration of their sincerity” (p. 100). But the very fact that such advice had to be given at all probably shows that lower-level cadres did insist on such performances just to be safe.

There were also campaigns to emulate “soldiers of Mao Zedong thought,” which essentially meant soldiers who displayed the sorts of self-sacrificing qualities that the party thought desirable. Here the cult served, it seems to me, as a means by which certain kinds of status competition were encouraged (the heroes of Mao Zedong thought, like Stakhanovite workers in the Soviet Union, received media attention and other rewards), and hence provided a positive incentive to adopt the “correct” sort of identity and behaviour, complementing the negative incentives provided by peer pressure in group study sessions or other collective interaction rituals. And as elsewhere, status competition that is made to depend on the credibility of loyalty signals appears to lead to inflationary pressures on flattery.

From the army, the more intense forms of the cult spread to the broader population over time, accelerating as the Cultural Revolution started. Other rituals were of course important to the spread of the more intense forms of the cult outside the army. The eight “mass receptions” of the Red Guards in 1966 were the most spectacular of these (…) the Red Guards became a sort of vanguard in the spread of the cult throughout Chinese society during the cultural revolution,(…)  most of them impressionable young students who took the advantage of free train travel to get involved in something bigger than themselves. Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that many of them reported ecstatic experiences on seeing Mao (who didn’t make any big speeches or direct them in any particular way), which in turn cemented their identities as Red Guards; this sort of “interaction ritual” seems likely to produce this sort of outcome fairly reliably, independently of any characteristics of the supposedly “charismatic” figure.

The Little Red Book was at first confined to the army, but demand for it outside its confines was soon enormous. For one thing, political study campaigns in the countryside (which increased in the 1960s) required a focal text to mobilize people properly, and the Quotations provided one. But, as Leese astutely observes, the main thing that the Quotations offered was the “possibility of empowerment for non-party members” (p. 121). Though Leese does not put it this way, the book seemed to provide access to the “code” that enabled people to act more or less safely within the highly unpredictable environment of the early cultural revolution; and the party enabled this demand by basically diverting the resources of the “entire publishing sector” to printing Mao’s writings, “at the expense of every other print item, including schoolbooks” (p. 122). Pace Leese, I think it is a bit misleading to speak of the work’s “popularity”; the work was popular, if that’s the word, because it was becoming essential for everyone to show some familiarity with (read: be able to recite quotations from) Mao’s writings. Indeed, as Leese documents later in the book, during the early cultural revolution Red Guards would set up “temporary inspection offices” on the streets and harass pedestrians about their knowledge of Mao’s works, like the “vice police” in some countries today; this sort of atmosphere helped the cult to grow.

And so the demand for sincere belief was met, through a massive supply of Maoist agitation. The whole country was paralized by the crazy religious fervor of the population, who could know dedicate themselves to flatter Mao with total sincerity. Now they actually believed Mao was the greatest man ever.

Which kinda made things worse. Previously, the cult of personality had grown by becoming the common currency with which bureaucrats could compare themselves with each other. Rivals were denounced for insufficient zeal, and promotions given to friends on the grounds of all those poems to Mao that they had written. But now the bureaucratic calculus had morphed into sincere religious zeal. Not that this actually changed the essence: people were still using loyalty to Mao as a tool to denounce their enemies and promote their friends: but now the hypocrisy had gone deeper into the unconscious, so people were doing it automatically. And it trickled down from the party apparatus: now everybody was doing it. The Cult of Mao was the common currency to value social interactions across all domains. You hate your boss at the factory? Say he doesn’t love Mao. Your brother is an asshole? Say he doesn’t love Mao. You like that girl but she has a boyfriend? Say he doesn’t love Mao! Never fails.

Thus the Red Book was soon in everybody’s home. Because it was currency. Humans use money to measure economic goods. And they use religion to measure their social life. The demand for money is so stupid that humans have spent untold amounts of work and treasure to extract shiny metals from far away mountains. And often the system breaks down and there is inflation, which can lead to the collapse of the whole society. Religion works the same way; people need something to measure their social value, to build a hierarchy upon. If there is no one, they will go to extreme lengths to acquire it; and sometimes the system collapses leading to social breakdown.

As the cult spread and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, however, the party lost control over its symbols. Leese refers to this as the period of “cult anarchy;” I would compare it to the point at which monetary authorities lose control of the money supply, leading to runaway hyperinflation. Different factions of Red Guards started using Mao’s image and words in incompatible ways, and new cult rituals emerged from the grass roots, sometimes from the enthusiasm of the genuinely committed, sometimes seemingly as protective talismans against the uncertainty and strife of the period. Everybody appealed to Mao to signal their revolutionary credentials, but there was no longer anyone capable of settling disputes over the credibility of these signals. Mao himself wasn’t much help; whenever he spoke at all, his messages were often cryptic and didn’t really settle any important disputes. The cult was now a “Red Queen” race of wasteful signalling, rather than a carefully calibrated tool of mobilization or discipline, driven by a complex combination of genuine desires to signal loyalty and identity and fears for one’s security. (Leese notes that failure to conform to the arbitrary protocols of the cult put people at risk of being sentenced as an “active counterrevolutionary” and documents many cases in which minimal symbolic transgressions resulted in incarceration or even death).

By 1967, for example, statues of Mao first started to be built, something that CCP leaders, and Mao himself, had discouraged in the past, and still officially frowned upon. The statues were typically built by local factions without approval from the central party, and they were all 7.1 meters high and placed on a pedestal that was 5.16 meters high, for a total height of 12.26 meters. (26 December = Mao’s birthday, 1 July = the Party’s founding date, 16 May = the beginning of the cultural revolution. People arrived at this precise convention for the statues without any centralized direction, merely through a signalling process).

My bolding. Note that Mao wasn’t just of no help; his passivity and silence was what fueled the whole arms race of signalling, where everybody tried to out-holy everybody else, either to promote themselves, or to avoid being framed by others. The leftist singularity was in full swing.

Later “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Though Halls” were built on a grand scale, again without approval from the central party. Billions of Chairman Mao badges were produced by individual work units competing with each other, which were themselves subject to size inflation (“[a]s the larger size of the badges came to be associated with greater loyalty to the CCP Chairman, … badges with a diameter of 30 centimetres and greater came to be produced,” p. 216); Zhou Enlai would grumble in 1969 about the enormous waste of resources this represented. Costly signalling demands kept escalating; some people took to pinning the badges directly on their skin, for example, and farmers sent “loyalty pigs” to Mao as gifts (pigs with a shaved “loyalty” character).

New rituals and performances emerged too: Leese discusses the “quotation gymnastics,” a series of gymnastics exercises with a storyline based on Mao’s thought and involving praise of the “reddest red sun in our hearts,” and more bizarrely perhaps, “loyalty dances,” (picture at the link) which, like the quotation gymnastics, was “a grassroots invention” designed to physically signal loyalty, and which spread “even to regions where public dancing was not part of the common culture and thus led to considerable public embarrassment” (p. 205). People wrote the character for “loyalty” everywhere and developed new conventions for answering the phone that started by wishing Mao eternal life. One of the most bizarre and interesting stories in the book concerns “Mao’s mangos”.

Now all of this, mangoes included, sounds crazy insane; but it’s all perfectly rational. The damn Mao isn’t saying a thing, while all the time people are getting sacked and killed for being insufficiently Maoist. People are scared, the only way to survive is to proof one’s zeal, and the whole high-powered, bloody, noisy atmosphere with daily parades, mass meetings, lynchings, executions and festivals of Maoist music overwhelms your brain. Humans adapt themselves to their environment, to what they must do to survive and reproduce. If you’re in the forest, you look for animals to hunt, and fruit to pick. If you’re in 1966 China, you proclaim your love of Mao, you put his portrait on your house, and you memorize the Red Book. Why wouldn’t you? Everybody else is doing so. You have to pay your taxes in Zimbabwean dollars; so you better go find yourself a couple trillion. And you better show your loyalty and social standing by loving Mao very much. So go yourself find a Red Book reading group to participate.

And thus, in less than 20 years since the Communist takeover,  the most ancient culture on earth was shattered, and replaced by a signalling spiral, all by sheer cognitive overload.

it would be a mistake to think that because these practices were not directed from the top, that they were therefore genuine expressions of love for the Chairman. Motivations were of course various, and one does not want to preclude positive affect by definition– those who adopted the identity of “Red Guards” probably thought of themselves as sincerely in love with Mao, for one thing – but whatever people’s motivations may have been they were clearly dominated by the need to signal loyalty against a background of others who were also furiously trying to signal loyalty for their own manifold reasons. The clearest evidence of signalling behaviour is in fact the uniformity of the language used to flatter Mao (“down to the level of single phrases” over thousands of texts p. 184: “boundless hot love,” “the reddest red sun in our hearts,” etc.); the language of flattery was a code to be mastered, not a way of expressing deeply held emotions, as Leese rightly sees.

This is not to say that flattery was never sincere or reflective of great love for Mao; but its escalation came from the Red Queen race aspect of the situation, not from some deep well of emotion or from awareness of Mao’s charismatic qualities. And this Red Queen race was reinforced by the presence of a small core activist group – the Red Guards at first – that was quite capable of inflicting punishment, directly or indirectly, on those who did not conform. At any rate, as Randall Collins says: “Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs [interaction rituals] make people into sincere believers.” But lose the rituals, and you easily lose the group identities and emotional energy that drive action; sincere belief is rarely an independent driver of action.

It is also unsurprising that such “grassroots” loyalty signalling would tend to draw on various traditional scripts for demonstrating reverence or support, including scripts connected with the veneration of relics in Buddhism (as in the case of the mangos) or other forms of religious worship; the signal has to be recognizable to arbitrary others, and only religious scripts have sufficient universality for this purpose. Similarly, some of the manifestations of the cult (painting loyalty characters all over one’s house) can only be understood in terms of what I would call “magical thinking” – the use of words and objects to ward off evil pre-emptively. (But, unlike other forms of magical thinking, this stuff worked!). There is, in short, little need to appeal to tradition, “feudal” remnants, collective backwardness, or superstition to explain any aspect of the cult, contrary to the standard accounts of the cult offered by communist party theoreticians (and many people today).

This post is already long enough, but it is worth noting that the party seems to have tried to regain control over cult symbols by ratcheting the ritual level up – making the cult protocols more arbitrary – to foster unity in the factionalized atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution. The degree of ritualization was astonishing; Mao quotations came to be used in the most banal exchanges (answering the phone, buying produce, etc.); work units were required to “ask for instructions in the morning” before a portrait of Mao; etc. But the disciplinary function was clear: “[d]eviations from the prescribed routines were regarded as disloyal behaviour and thus potentially engendered drastic consequences” (p. 199). Once direct control over the symbols of loyalty was re-established, the party could move to gradually control flattery inflation and even engage in some controlled disinflation.

See how there’s no need to talk about belief, or sincerity, or madness. When something happens so suddenly over such a large range, this is not about individual beliefs. Religion at this level is social behavior, spread by rational calculation of incentives and the political environment. People do what they are told, and believe what they must, and they follow the changes as they need to. The only sober people who can afford to make objective observations are those who are high enough, and have reliable allies so they are politically safe, and thus can afford to utter other words besides “Mao is awesome” without fear of reprisal. As it happens the government was run by Zhou Enlai, who for some reason had Mao’s protection, and the “Gang of Four”, who included Mao’s wife, obviously safer than most. Only after the Gang was in power long enough, and had little opposition, could the Mao cult start to wind down.

A few general lessons may perhaps be drawn from this story. First, cults of personality basically never emerge from the spontaneous expression of emotion by a population, despite what dictators may have you believe. They are primarily tools of political control within networks of patronage relationships, as Leese rightly sees (hence, in practice, much more likely to emerge in highly authoritarian contexts). I have compared them here to the tools of monetary policy in the economic realm, insofar as they affect the average level of effort invested in signalling loyalty to a ruling group or person (the “flattery level”); but, as with monetary policy, cults can miscarry – in which case uncontrolled flattery inflation may result. Second, their effects are not produced by mere propaganda; interaction rituals are required to produce genuine emotional energy within specific groups, increase cohesion, etc. But the cult does not depend on the genuineness of anybody’s sentiments to work; it depends on the possibility of producing certain kinds of emotional pressures through group rituals. (As an aside, we lack a good “high pressure” political science and psychology; too much of our political science and psychology assume “low pressure” environments. But cults are high pressure phenomena, and attempting to understand them by means of the stories and concepts we use in low pressure environments is apt to lead us astray). Finally, the rickety Weberian apparatus of “legitimacy” and “charisma” is basically irrelevant to the explanation of cults. Leese’s book is mercifully free of those terms, except for the occasional sentence claiming that so and so’s actions “legitimized” this or that; but most of these can be safely ignored (all the sentence can possibly mean is “increased support”).

And this is the story of the great Chinese Leftist Singularity. Now that we have a detailed account of how it started, how it accelerated and how it exploded into complete madness; let us go back to the present, and take a good look.

Progressivism has been accelerating of late, all with global warming melting the poles every day now, women being able to accuse ex-boyfriends of rape months after the fact and without evidence, and the right of 60 year old ex-athletes to use the women’s bathroom being state policy. Failure to signal your approval for any of these developments will get you fired. And the higher the pressure of people to approve of present progressive tenets, the faster that newer, more radical tenets appear, and the more this happens the more demand it creates of rituals to convince people of the holiness of progressive ideals.

The threat of losing one’s job is more than enough to get people motivated to toe the progressive line. You can create a very high-pressure environment, and thus a faster moving leftist singularity without having to kill anyone. Which is an improvement, I guess. It does seem that the demand for effective progressive rituals isn’t being properly addressed, though. Liberals understand the demand, and have come up with mandatory Sensitivity Training in all government agencies and private companies; but they aren’t intense enough yet, and they patently haven’t succeeded in creating sufficient amounts of sincere belief; which drives liberals to denounce all the lukewarm Maoists who still don’t love blacks and trannies from the bottom of their heart.

Perhaps it can’t be done. Cults of personality are, if crazy, still quite natural given man’s religious nature. Worshipping a powerful man as a god has been quite common through history, and eventually morphing the old man’s image into a lucky charm to be put as paperwall to repel bad spirits is fairly standard in a cognitive sense. But getting people to love black people, who they actively avoid in their daily lives, to hate their own ethnic group, to hate straight men, to love fags, trannies, sluts and fatties; well that’s too much shit to take even for homo hypocritus. You can get some people, mostly natural status-whores into the plan, and you can get most people to say they love progressivism, and to not actively oppose it. But getting people to pumped up in a high-pressure ritual to actually develop faith in the program; that can’t be very easy. At least for white men, who are the bad guys in the story. Which might account for the overrepresentation of Asians among SJWs these days; it’s less cognitively taxing for them to develop sincerity.

The sheer implausibility of progressive theology might account for the slow pace of the leftist singularity, compared to the Communist examples. But growing it is; and unless the government doesn’t stop the fear of reprisal; i.e. if people don’t stop getting fired for being insufficiently PC, progressivism will only get worse. Slowly, steadily worse.


31 responses to “Explaining the Cultural Revolution: signalling arms races as bad fiat currency

  1. Pingback: Explaining the Cultural Revolution: signalling arms races as bad fiat currency | Neoreactive

  2. Erebus February 19, 2015 at 19:07

    Brilliant post, Spandrell. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  3. Toddy Cat February 19, 2015 at 19:54

    Outstanding. And yes, Communism is plausible compared to what modern SJW’s want us to believe. Which is pretty scary.

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  5. Pingback: Runaway Signaling Inflation | Neoreactive

  6. Pingback: Explaining the Cultural Revolution: signalling arms races as bad fiat currency | Reaction Times

  7. Derfel February 20, 2015 at 20:12

    A understanding of Maoist terminology is important to understand modern SJW tactics. “Struggle session”, for example, is basically what they did to Matt Taylor

  8. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/02/20) | The Reactivity Place

  9. KK February 21, 2015 at 13:39

    “during the early cultural revolution Red Guards would set up “temporary inspection offices” on the streets and harass pedestrians about their knowledge of Mao’s works, like the “vice police” in some countries today; this sort of atmosphere helped the cult to grow.”

    Heh, Great Leap China had inspection offices, Saudis have the Muttawa beard patrols, and the postmodern West is going all-in on the “are you anti-semite ?? ?” Twitter inquisition. The eternally repeating history is truly a farce like no other.

    Thanks for digging this out. The signaling inflation model and the public countercoordination problem have enormous explanatory power.

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  12. Baker February 25, 2015 at 05:44

    The chinese didn’t really believe in the mangos, but they didn’t believe in truth or independence either. They were obsessed with security on one hand, and status on the other. Cult worship is a rational choice given their priority.

    • spandrell February 25, 2015 at 15:20

      Nobody forced them to make a mango soup and drink it communally.

      There’s a point in which terms like “believe” and “rational” stop being productive.

      • Baker February 25, 2015 at 18:40

        I am not disagreeing with you. “belief” and “rational” are words you used in your article. cf “rational irrationality”.

  13. Robertson March 26, 2015 at 07:39

    Terrific article, and an excellent parallel to progressivism today. As the daily Shoah guys said recently on their show, one of the best ways to combat dogmatic leftism is to deny them the moral authority by defending yourself against accusations of racism/sexism/homophobia or whatever. Don’t engage at all because there’s no meaningful compromise to be made.

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  17. dan December 18, 2015 at 01:38

    “But getting people to love black people, who they actively avoid in their daily lives, to hate their own ethnic group, to hate straight men, to love fags, trannies, sluts and fatties; well that’s too much shit to take even for homo hypocritus. You can get some people, mostly natural status-whores into the plan, and you can get most people to say they love progressivism, and to not actively oppose it. But getting people to pumped up in a high-pressure ritual to actually develop faith in the program; that can’t be very easy. ”

    ‘Homo hypocritus’ line made me laugh.

    I’m surprised in light of the topic you didn’t conclude with the obvious – namely, progressivism simply lacks your Personality. The perfect Progressive Tyrant. (obama jokes incoming)

    Human beings don’t form cults and create the perfect environment for an arms signalling race around an ‘idea’ or a ‘program’. ‘Communism’ doesn’t inspire people alone, anymore than ‘German Nationalism’
    was enough for the success of Nazism.

    We look for the human being that embodies the idea best so we have something to model our behaviour upon. As you often mention, modelling behavour is what social animals do first and foremost, both for competition and co-operation purposes. Hence the constant attempt to out-holy one another amoung leftists and the ‘purge’ effect – they are forever trying to clean any bit of fat and find the perfect representative. (If you could come back from the dead, I guarantee you plenty of white SJW’s would have killed themselves publicly to signal how sincerely they want to strip themsleves of privildge.)

    Think about sports heroes, military heroes, celebrities. Americans don’t love George Washington because he was such a great leader, but because he embodied the idea of ‘individual liberty’. Now that progressivism is on the scene, and ‘individual liberty’ is now subordinate to ‘the equal good of all’, he is being dumped as a priviliged aristocrat.

    Despite our need to ‘anthropomorphise’ the idea, so to speak, the individual human is irrelevant of course (I’m guessing no cared what Mao’s favourite colour was). He is not seen as an individual per se, but the perfect embodiment of the idea and someone to thus inspire.

    (Plato described the inevitable process of progessive democracy leading to the archetypical tyrant two millenia ago).

  18. Volksgenosse December 21, 2015 at 04:25

    The simple answer is that, while we still have some freedom to act, Leftist signalling must have real consequences for the signallers, all we need are volunteers to Really Wanna Do Something.

  19. Pingback: Men doing their own thing | Bloody shovel

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