My post on the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Mao’s mangoes still gets a lot of traffic, which is nice. I do feel like the title wasn’t very elegant, but I wanted to make the point about ideology as “currency”. Unfortunately it didn’t get through. Let’s see if I can explain myself better.
An inspiration for that metaphor was a post by Nick Szabo (who apparently isn’t the inventor of Bitcoin. I hope at least he did become an early adopter and is now filthy rich), about the origins of currency. He talks about how humans have been collecting and making completely useless stuff such as shells or beads since way before agriculture. Money often was not only useless, it was completely harmful, like the Chinese toy swords and plows. Metal is useful. You make weapons and farming tools with them. You don’t fucking waste precious copper in making toy knives. But they did. Of course they did.
Szabo’s point is that the point of money is to be a cognitive aid for remembering favors. I did something for you, if I am not to be a sucker I’ll want to get something back from you eventually. So grab me that shiny shell you use as a wristband, so I can remember. David Graeber made a similar point on his famous book about Debt, which is pretty good if you get the fact that Graeber is a lame communist and adjust your skimming accordingly.
The problem is that this tech we use to remember favors leads us to spent huge amount of valuable labor in manufacturing shell accessories, beads, mining metal and wasting it in making coins. Whole empires were built, entire nations killed and enslaved in the process of looking for mines where perfectly good metal could be extracted to waste in making little coins with the face of a king to distribute so people can remember who made a favor to whom. That’s how it works though.
I am endlessly fascinated by this kind of evolutionary process where everybody runs around doing completely pointless stuff which nobody benefits from. Ideology is the same. See Mao’s mangoes. And see the last Republican debate. As a commenter said at Sailer’s:
Every single word thus far in the undercard debate has been about ISIS. Our obsession with this region of lunatics on the other side of the world is bizarre.
Indeed it is stupid. It beggars belief. But ISIS is not the point. The point is that you have a bunch of men in that room, and you’re supposed to make a judgment about them. You need to compare. And comparisons require a yardstick. What do we compare about them?
How tall and handsome they are? Well that works in some places. How well they dance or sing? That happens in many places too. How strong and brave they are in single combat? Lots of cultures did that too. But we don’t. We resent tall and handsome men are privileged enough in the sexual marketplace, so fuck that. Fuck dancers too, those get women also. And fuck single combat, the average voter isn’t a good fighter. We don’t want to give high status to tall, strong men with good dancing feet. That would make us feel inadequate. And with good reason, in Africa they give high status to all those men and it sucks.
Our culture gives high status to men with ideas. Everybody can claim to have good ideas. It doesn’t take good genes, nor dancing or fighting skills. Everybody can learn to parrot bullshit after a little practice. Bullshit is the most egalitarian arena, so all status contests are done in the realm of bullshit. Now bullshit requires a topic too. Remember in middle school, when a bunch of friends got together and stared asking: “What would you do if you were invisible?” Or “Batman or Spiderman?” What’s the point of those questions? Nobody’s gonna become invisible. But by asking stupid questions you get people to talk, and through their answers you get to know their character. The question doesn’t matter. The more outlandish the better. You can’t get to know people by asking them a factual question. It has to be bullshit.
And adults do the same thing. In the Cultural Revolution people liked to discuss materialist dialectics. The Republican party likes to talk National Security. Why? Did peasants in Jingzhou give a shit about Hegel? Of course not. Does anybody in the USA really care about Raqqa? No. So why won’t people shut up about it?
“You gotta talk about something!”. That’s what my mother tells me when I ask her why does she like discussing the news about stuff she absolutely has no clue about. And… that’s all there is to it. There’s a bunch of old dudes on TV, and you gotta choose one. Experience says they’re all lying their asses anyway. But you gotta choose one. And how do you choose one? You throw some bullshit topic at them and look at how they respond. Then you have something to make judgment about. How they talk. Tone of voice, body language. Logic. This guy sounds smart. Oh this guy’s a doofus. Hey this guys sounds like fun to have a beer with.
You then choose a guy who you like, or more accurately, you choose the guy because saying that you like that guy makes you look good with your friends. And you made that decision after seeing him speak about ISIS. What’s ISIS? I don’t know. Who gives a shit. I just kinda like the guy who said we should bomb them. So yeah, let’s bomb them. What, we just spent 2 trillion bombing some other guy? Who gives a shit, it’s not like I know the difference. They’re not gonna lower my taxes if I choose not to bomb someone, right? So anyway, yeah I like that bomb-ISIS guy. And that Palestinian-rights guy too. Where’s Palestine? I don’t know. Who gives a shit? But my girlfriends talks about it a lot, and I wanna look good to her.
I imagine some little nephew of Emperor Claudius asking him:
-Uncle Claudius, why in hell are we invading Britain?
=Oh, they have metal there.
-And what do we want the metal for?
=We gotta make little discs and give them to our soldiers.
-We are going to send a hundred thousand young men to their deaths in some god forsaken barbarian island because we need to make metal discs and give it to them?
Fast forward 2000 years:
-Uncle, why are we invading Syria?
=Oh, I promised in my electoral campaign.
-Why did you promise?
=People asked me my opinion on ISIS.
-But you don’t really care about ISIS. I know, you always change the TV channel when they come up on TV.
=Yeah, but people asked my opinion, and I needed to sound tough, so I said I’d invade Syria.
-So we are going to send a hundred thousand young men to get shot at in some god forsaken barbarian desert because you needed to sound tough on TV?
-At least you’re getting some money out of this.
=Not really, but I know my advisors are.