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Leftism is just an easy excuse

To expand on the Maoism post. Marquez came up with the flattery inflation theory to explain how cults of personality evolve in mechanistic terms. But the same idea can be used to explain not only Red Queen spirals of sycophancy. Any ideological innovation, both in states and inside small cults or organizations, behaves under the same principles.

Any political system, any organization, even the smallest one, is going to have people in power, and people out of power who want to be in power. Or at least marginally increase their level of power.

Which means you need to challenge those who are in power. The powerful are powerful because they have organized themselves into a power coalition, bound by ties of loyalty. A solid power block where all members are strongly loyal is, for all purposes, indestructible. So the only way to challenge the powerful is to try to incite disloyalty among its members.

More likely than not, some members of the ruling coalition are not very loyal. They’d rather defect. But they can’t backstab the coalition just like that. You don’t do that; it looks bad. Your comrades will go against you. There are costs to defection.

Unless you’re not the only defector. You need a way to signal your intention to defect, so that other disloyal fucks such as yourself (and they’re bound to be others) can join up, thus reducing the likely costs of defection. The way to signal your intention to defect is to come up with a good excuse. A good excuse to be disloyal becomes a rallying point through which other defectors can coordinate and cover their asses so that the ruling coalition doesn’t punish them. What is a good excuse?

Leftism is a great excuse. Claiming that the ruling coalition isn’t leftist enough, isn’t holy enough, not inclusive enough of women, of blacks, of gays, or gorillas, of pedophiles, of murderous Salafists, is the perfect way of signalling your disloyalty towards the existing power coalition. By using the existing ideology and pushing its logic just a little bit, you ensure that the powerful can’t punish you. At least not openly. And if you’re lucky, the mass of disloyal fucks in the ruling coalition might join your banner, and use your exact leftist point to jump ship and outflank the powerful.

Note that this applies to any ideological system. In Islam, the best excuse to defect is to claim to be more fundamentalist. In Medieval Europe, is to love Christ more. In pre-WW2 Japan, it was to be a more fanatic militarist who fights for the glory of the empire.

The same dynamic fuels the flattery inflation one sees in monarchical or dictatorial systems. In Mao China, if you want to defect, you claim to love Mao more than your boss. In Nazi Germany, you proclaim your love for Hitler and the great insight of his plan to take Stalingrad. In the Roman Empire, you claimed that Caesar is a God, son of Hercules, and those who deny it are treacherous bastards. In Ancient Persia you loudly proclaimed your faith in the Shah being the brother of the Sun and the Moon and King of all Kings on Earth. In Reformation Europe you proclaimed that you have discovered something new in the Bible and everybody else is damned to hell. Predestined by God!

All of the above is bullshit. But it’s useful bullshit. And humans will believe from the bottom of the hearts any bullshit that is useful enough. There’s some individual variance in the ability to come up and sincerely believe any crap, but there’s always cathartic rituals to prove that the we’re in all in this together, this licensing you to become a true believer. At any rate, the whole point of the above is to signal your disaffection from the status quo. The precise content of your signal is irrelevant. It is completely dependent on the particular ideological ecology of your culture. But the underlying mechanism is the same. You want power, and you signal your intent in the optimal way to minimize the chances of official punishment, and make it easy for others to join your banner.

The degree to which this signals spiral into complete madness depend on how strong the ruling coalition is, and how vital it is to attain power. If the ruling coalition is solid, and has good mechanisms in place to ensure the loyalty of their members, potential defectors will be punished for signalling their intentions, no matter how embellished they are in the language of the state religion. If you are well fed and life is safe and good, there’s little incentive to defect.

However, if the ruling coalition is too large, and hence weak, dispersed, and has few mechanisms of appraising and ensuring the loyalty of its members; or if the only way of ensuring access to food, shelter and security is to have some access to political power; signalling your intention to defect by proclaiming that 5 year olds should be able to be castrated, or by proclaiming that Kim Jong Un can climb buildings like Spiderman, is suddenly a good proposition. And once you do, and succeed, everybody else will be forced to follow your banner, and the new ideological innovation will become an official article of faith. You don’t want to be the last guy that denies that Kim Jong Un is Spiderman.

And again: the precise content of the ideological point doesn’t matter. Your human brain doesn’t care about ideology. Humans didn’t evolve to care about Marxist theory of class struggle, or about LGBTQWERTY theories of social identity. You just don’t know what it means. It’s all abstract points you’ve been told in a classroom. It doesn’t actually compute. Nothing that anybody ever said in a political debate ever made any actual, concrete sense to a human being.

So why do we care so much about politics? What’s the point of ideology? Ideology is just the water you swim in. It is a structured database of excuses, to be used to signal your allegiance or defection to the existing ruling coalition. Ideology is just the feed of the rationalization Hamster that runs incessantly in that corner of your brain. But it is immaterial, and in most cases actually inaccessible to the logical modules in your brain.

Nobody ever acts on their overt ideological claims if they can get away with it. Liberals proclaim their faith in the potential of black children while clustering in all white suburbs. Communist party members loudly talk about the proletariat while being hedonistic spenders. Al Gore talks about Global Warming while living in a lavish mansion. Cognitive dissonance, you say? No; those cognitive systems are not connected in the first place.

And ideological sincerity doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why would anything like that ever evolve? Given how ideology actually behaves, a gene that made you be coherent with your ideology can’t possibly spread in the gene pool. A gene for being able to aptly manipulate nonsensical abstract points to signal your position and intention vs. the present power structure; now that’s useful.

Leftism evolved, step by step, backstab by backstab, as Christian Europeans signalled their dislike with the status quo by gently pushing the state religion just a little bit further, in the direction most likely to get people on your side, and prevent the powerful from punishing you. Surely nobody can disagree with extending the franchise to our hard working middle class? Surely nobody can disagree with abolishing the enslavement of our fellow humans? Surely nobody can disagree with giving citizenship rights to our women? Surely nobody can disagree with stopping the criminal prosecution of homosexuals?

And so, every little step in the way, power-seekers moved the consensus to the left. And open societies, democratic systems are by their decentralized nature, and by the size of their constituencies, much more vulnerable to this sort of signalling attacks. It is but impossible to appraise and enforce the loyalty of every single individual involved in a modern state. There’s too many of them. A Medieval King had a better chance of it; hence the slow movement of ideological innovation in those days. But the bigger the organization, the harder it is to gather accurate information of the loyalty of the whole coalition; and hence the ideological movement accelerates. And there is no stopping it.



49 responses to “Leftism is just an easy excuse

  1. Pingback: Leftism is just an easy excuse | The Libertarian Alliance Blog

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  4. Whyvert March 1, 2015 at 20:12

    You have nailed it: especially when there is civil strife, everyone is watching everyone else for signals of loyalty and disloyalty. Ideology (and religion) serves that signal. That’s why ideology can affect powerful men who would normally pay no attention to the ramblings of ideologues and religious nuts.

    This is one good reason for avoiding civil strife and political conflict.

    However, there’s a difference between post-revolutionary states and normal states. It is very common after a revolution to go through a series of phases: honeymoon, power struggle among the revolutionaries, consolidation, renewed radicalism, new consolidation. (Happened in France, Russia, China and more.) The “renewed radicalism” phase is distinctive to those regimes.

    • spandrell March 2, 2015 at 01:28

      In all human organizations, everyone is watching everyone else for signals of loyalty and disloyalty all the time.

      The particular ideological dynamics of revolutionary states are due to their particular inefficiency with appraising loyalty, given their numbers and lack of information. It takes a while to fix that.

  5. Hidden Author March 1, 2015 at 20:22

    OK insincerity makes sense up to a point but it seems that once the struggle for power heats up enough, insincerity would be a fatal disability because the rival faction could use that to kill you, sometimes literally depending on the circumstances.

    • spandrell March 2, 2015 at 01:12

      Which is why everybody is perfectly sincere. All the processing takes place in the background.

      • Hidden Author March 2, 2015 at 01:53

        There are varying degrees of sincerity. Some are insincere. Some are sincere under influence. And others will believe no matter what.

        For example, East Asians may be materialistic now but when Buddhism first arrived, apparently there were East Asian devotees willing to burn themselves alive (though this was motivated more by imitation of the Bodhisattva than by Tibetan nationalism as in the 21st Century). The thing about such things was that the sincerity of these believers seems to be orders of magnitude deeper than most believers such that popularity alone does not explain it. So while social pressure may explain the ideological and theological passions of the masses, a more complete picture would also address the most fanatical truest of true believers who really do internalize the ideology.

        • spandrell March 2, 2015 at 10:18

          Scott Atran has spent time studying suicide bombers, and he thinks its about the social incentives in their close circles. So fanaticism can be produced.

          Some people seem more amenable than others, of course.

          • Hidden Author March 3, 2015 at 07:22

            Yes but two things…

            1. We know fanaticism is contrived in the sense that the ideologies in which true believers are fanatical were not usually invented by them and that they adopted them under the influence of others. But is there anything leaders can do to produce a higher proportion of fanatical true believers as opposed to just shepherding a mass of conformist opportunists?

            2. Not all people are Leftists and not all Leftists are Leftists in the same way. There are ideologies whose believers factionalize under sub-ideologies. In addition the ideologies themselves rival other ideologies with only a Zeitgeist of sorts providing the direction in which results flow and in which one ideological camp beats another. Furthermore the Zeitgeist is not unfailingly in one direction. For most of the 20th Century, the Zeitgeist favored Communism until the late 80s-early 90s when suddenly Communism wilted like a head of old lettuce. Not that the Left disappeared; it definitely survived but changed its direction in favor of diversity and environmentalism. This was due to anti-Communist factions within the Left as well as the Right fighting off Communism until it lost all credibility. So while your explanation explains how an ideological camp could become more extreme about following its doctrines, the bigger picture must take into account which direction and which ideology is adopted by the Zeitgeist.

            • spandrell March 3, 2015 at 07:33

              Communist sympathizers withered because Communism collapsed. It stopped being a good excuse.

              Good excuses must be unfalsifiable; the less factual content the better. After Gorbachev, suddenly there was a flood of actual data on how Communism works; so claiming communism is good stopped being a good argument to use for status whoring. The Right “fought it off” because it was suddenly fairly easy to fight off. Funny how anti-Communism succeeded so rapidly after 80 years of struggle, huh.
              Note how the Right is completely unsuccessful in the fight against Global Warming. There’s no factual content, so it can’t be falsified.

              And fanaticism can and is produced quite reliably. Again, check Atran’s work on Palestinians. They are pretty good at producing suicidal jihadis.

              • Lina Inverse November 8, 2016 at 01:28

                Global warming can be falsified, and it has been by the temperature record, as the previous cycle of claimed human caused global cooling was. That’s why it’s now “climate change”, which is indeed absolutely unfalsifiable. And, you know, that it’s unfalsifiable is the only argument I can muster against it, which of course doesn’t work.

        • anon December 7, 2015 at 07:27

          This is all covered by elite power theory. It is both. They believe according to their self-interest and believe sincerely nonetheless.

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  7. Toddy Cat March 2, 2015 at 17:56

    I saw this happen right in front of me during the 1960’s, when the New Left overthrew the Old Moderate Left. The Old Lefties couldn’t really fight back, without having their liberal credentials questions, which was after all the basis of their power. The whole thing was masterfully handled, I have to say.

  8. SanguineEmpiricist March 2, 2015 at 21:46

    I am very glad to read this. I have a post on my site called “Leftward drift is the new means of production” and was afraid this would become some sort of mystic phenomenon glad to see thought along these lines.

    An important question is if there is ‘leftward drift’ what is a ‘rightward pivot’ and in what terms can this meaningfully be achieved in organizations? Perhaps some sort of index to keep an idea of where we are on the axis? A few vitality metrics minimally I would hope.

    • spandrell March 3, 2015 at 03:20

      That is an excellent question.

      A quick answer would be that rightward pivots happened when the power coalition is solid enough to punish defection; or the threat of defection is big enough that the power coalition is motivated enough to attack preemptively.

      But that state of affairs never lasts long, for structural reasons, and so leftward drift soon starts again, especially in large organizations. In smaller groups you can appraise loyalty better, so you can prevent drift more effectively.

    • Dan March 10, 2015 at 16:53

      Rightward movement is the hand of Gnon, generally. Obamacare steamrolled the right but it turned out to be a mess. Australia and Europe went whole hog with carbon credits, but the markets collapsed like one more dot com, turning everyone into cynics. Liberals everywhere fell overthemselves to love up radical Islam and then ISIS showed up. Venezuela is gracefully entering the Woodchipper of Gnon, as the USSR and China did before.

  9. Will vK March 2, 2015 at 22:39

    The suite, the module is deeply rooted and universal, so must be at least a neolithic legacy, when society consisted of small bands and tribes. Its a powerful delusion, so must have profound survival benefit. Population was limited by food, so it must involve avoidance of starvation. Its the famine survival module. If you haven’t enough to survive, and others in the band have more, you get together with others on the outs, stoke indignation, find a leader that you follow slavishly, who *compels* those with more to share.

  10. Alrenous March 3, 2015 at 00:37

    “Note that this applies to any ideological system”

    Except anarchism. Claim to love Exit more? Hard to do without actually exiting, thus no longer being capable of defecting.

    • spandrell March 3, 2015 at 03:17

      No exceptions. This Anarchism of yours doesn’t really exist. And now you know why.

      • Hidden Author March 4, 2015 at 19:34

        In theory, anarchism if implemented would add the signaling spirals by abolishing power coalitions. But since in practice anarchism would replace institutional leaders with mobs the same dynamic would apply except that power would be more of a collective attribute than an individual attribute–that is, if the powerful anarchist forces didn’t just create a para-state that unofficially mimics the state like a para-military unofficially mimics the military. I don’t know the details but it appears that Nestor Makhno’s Free Territory established a para-state through the Soviets and Assemblies and that the CNT-FAI’s initial push for revolution would have created a para-state if it hadn’t used the Popular Front as a reason (or excuse?) for joining the Spanish Republic in its war against the Falange.

  11. nickbsteves March 3, 2015 at 16:24

    And ideological sincerity doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why would anything like that ever evolve? Given how ideology actually behaves, a gene that made you be coherent with your ideology can’t possibly spread in the gene pool. A gene for being able to aptly manipulate nonsensical abstract points to signal your position and intention vs. the present power structure; now that’s useful.

    Probably the best paragraph I’ve read this week. And yet, some ideologies—tapestries of bullshit, if you will—seem to lead to far better, i.e., more stable, more prosperous, outcomes than others. How do we get an ideology that does that? Or an ideology that picks and ideology that does that…

    • spandrell March 3, 2015 at 18:09

      Is it ideology that leads to good outcomes?

      • Scharlach March 12, 2015 at 20:47

        Even if we were to attempt, just for fun, a logical comparison of Confucian or Buddhist ideologies with Protestant ideologies, there probably would not be much of a comparison between the two. And yet both have historically given rise to perfectly stable societies.

        And, of course, there’s a question of causality here. Do ideologies come before material stability, or are ideologies just post-hoc rationalizations?

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  14. cassander March 6, 2015 at 00:10

    Great post, but one quibble. Unless you intend to lump japanese emperor worship in with leftism, you aren’t talking about leftism at all, just politics in general. Everyone defects from the ruling coalition by trying to be “truer” than the center. In the US, Democrats do it by claiming to be better progressives, Republicans by claiming that they’re better Republicans (“real americans” being perhaps the purest expression of the concept) but everyone is doing the same thing. That might have been your point, but I felt it was worth pointing out.

    • Toddy Cat March 6, 2015 at 16:03

      That’s true, but since the Left is hyper-political, and tends to politicize everything, their spirals tend to be more hysterical and all inclusive. At least that’s what I’d say…

      • cassander March 6, 2015 at 18:36

        I’d say it’s the leveling instinct on the left that makes them more pernicious. The average lefty is more likely to defect, because defecting from authority is the basic left wing impulse. Sure, the right can pull the “we are the true servants of the emperor” stuff you see in Japan, but it seems almost tautological that a room full of people swearing up and down to support true authority is going to be more stable that one trying just as hard to pull it down. And since people are primates and thus hierarchy isn’t ever going to actually go away, the previous leftist generation can always be accused of betraying the cause for building whatever hierarchies they did.

        • rollo clevich March 7, 2015 at 18:58

          Cochran says that Japan in 1941 wasn’t very stable:

          There was no non-war party in Japan in 1941. Assassinating the prime minister (twice), attempted military coups where the plotters were all forgiven – nobody really ran Japan. Fanatical secret societies of mid-level Army officers had a veto power (by assassination), but no one was really running things. For example, the Kwantung Army decided to attack the Russians (Khalkhyn Gol) by itself, without authorization from the Japanese government or even the Army high command. How weird is that? T

          • cassander March 8, 2015 at 23:36

            the Japan situation is interesting because of how rare it is to see an army where the generals are afraid of their majors. And the Kwantung Army might have been nuts, but they never decided to, say, up and murder all the kulaks/nobles/etc. in Manchuria to prove how much they loved the emperor.

            • spandrell March 9, 2015 at 01:21

              That’s the funny thing though: the Emperor was a fairly Anglophile liberal man, and the whole militarism thing didn’t amuse him at all.

              None of which stopped the majors from deciding to go full retard in expansionist war, even to the extreme of attempting a coup to prevent the surrender even after the nuclear bombings and the Soviet declaration of war.

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  17. grey enlightenment March 9, 2015 at 23:54

    small typo.. should be power bloc. not power block

  18. Scharlach March 12, 2015 at 20:44

    This whole post is one of the most brilliant things you’ve ever written.

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  22. imnobody00 May 4, 2016 at 07:12

    Very good but I don’t see how things like gay marriage are defections. I think they are defended by power.

    I guess people get status and power by being “more Catholic than the Pope”. Sometimes it is only status in their circle of acquaintances. Sometimes it is only power, whether they are replacing the existing power or getting a position inside it.

    • spandrell May 13, 2016 at 15:38

      Defecting i.e. attacking the center of power, not leaving the group at large. The pope himself never tries to outpope himself, it’s always some ambitious junior member of the elite who tries.

      It wasn’t Clinton who pushed for gay marriage, but Andrew Sullivan, who nobody knew before that, and become famous through it. Plenty of old school leftists were purged after gaymarriage became a thing.

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