Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Making Virtue out of Necessity

Or, making virtue out of lack of lack of other paths for upward mobility.

The most important topic in social science, the humanities or however you want to call it, is what drives cultural change. Things change, that is obvious enough, and humans have been discussing it since they ever started doing abstract thinking. We understand a lot of change now. Physics tell us why the physical world changes: by obeying the laws of physics. Biology tells us why living things change: through evolution. What we still haven’t figured out is why societies change. Cultural change. You can define culture as behaviors inherited through non-genetic means. We still haven’t quite figured out the laws of cultural change. It happens they’re immensely complicated. We know it has a lot to do with politics. And it happens that the very act of trying to figure culture out is a political statement, so it’s hard to get honest inquiry running. The stakes are too high.

But still, I’ve always been fascinated (I’d say obsessed, but the word is quite abused these days by all sorts of posers) by why different societies do different things; and how people do different things across history. Even the same persons end up having different opinions over time. Of course you could buy the Christian-Enlightenment paradigm and think that they’ve just earned new information over time. You see, they suddenly realized that gaymarriage is a human right. Or you may take my Darkly Enlightened behaviorist idea that they changed their behavior because behavior follows status and they figured out that the means to earn status have changed. That would be a good subdiscipline to focus on: the study on what societies regard as high-status and how it changes.

The Melian dialogue, perhaps the first red pill ever, said it quite clearly. The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must. You could rephrase that to say: the high-status do what they want, the low-status do what they must -in order to raise in status. Which in humans, due to the way our behavior is imprinted through social pressure, tends to trump even the survival instinct. The Melians famously chose death before surrender. They had been raised to expect dishonor would result in extremely low status. And death is rather preferable to that. While fighting for their freedom they must have felt rather happy, doing what, if they had been able to survive, would have brought them high-status for a lifetime.

So, different societies allow for different pathways to high status. Of course societies aren’t exactly free to set a standard. Those standards have evolved over time. Gnon, you know. Evolution works through environmental constraints. Even in their absence there’s always genetic drift; weird practices evolve kinda randomly over time in the absence of selective pressure against them. But most of the time environmental constraints on social evolution are quite obvious.

A couple of things I read recently reminded me of a think I’ve always thought, and written in this blog from the very beginning. My most basic intellectual inquiry has been to understand why people have gone increasingly ideological over my lifetime. I remember people in the 80s being quite easygoing, then increasingly getting worked-up about quite absurd ideological points; which of course it’s getting worse. Over the years we have now developed a good conceptual framework to explain is: signaling spirals. Which indeed explains a lot: but we don’t write enough about what drives them. What makes them go slower or faster. My hunch has for a long time been that the economy is perhaps the biggest factor.

The Great Stagnation is here; the great era of worldwide economic growth is over. And it’s not coming back. We won’t invent another energy source that improves over oil as oil did over coal. We won’t invent another method of locomotion which is faster than a car or a jet airplane.All that is gone; forever. Even Moore’s Law is dead now. Some things are advancing: genetics, materials science. But that doesn’t fix the most important. Much of the economic boom since 1800 has been a population boom of productive populations. The population of Europe multiplied several times, filling Europe and its colonies, much of what was empty land. Well that’s not going to happen, ever again. And as it happens, we have state finances all over the world set up so that increased populations of productive people are necessary to keep the system going. Well that’s not happening. The system is not going. The sheer mass of rent-seeking rot is collapsing before our eyes. Even if technology were still advancing we’d still be in deep, deep shit. And it’s not, so you can imagine. For some time after WW2 it used to be very very easy to make money. Now it is very very hard.

If you live in a society undergoing an economic boom, well the easiest way to gain in status is likely to be to make a lot of money. Make money, drive a fancy car, buy expensive clothes, maybe some stupid overpriced Swiss watch, go on vacation to some fancy beach, that stuff. Watch some movies of the 60s in Europe or Japan. Go take a look at China today. The people there aren’t ideological. They don’t give a shit. They just want to make money. Tyler Cowen was in Nigeria recently, and he reports the Muslims and Christians get along well there. Because they’re too busy making money to care much about religion anyway.

So when do people care about religion? Or ideology, which is pretty much the same. Well when that happens to be the best way to get status. If it’s easy to earn status through money, you’ll get a fancy watch. If there’s no freaking way you’re making any money, well you need something else. What else? Well you can always be holier-than-thou.

I saw a Tweet by a Japanese guy who noted how these days, the temples are brimming with people for New Year’s. This is often toted as a Shinto Tradition. But he distinctly remembers how when he was a child the temples were always empty. Now they’re not only full in New Years; there’s people going all the time. And while back in the 70s and 80s people would just to there and bow randomly, now everybody comes and does a very elaborate ritual without fail. Two bows, one clap, one bow. Now it’s common for people to have strong opinions on the soul of the nation, our sacred traditions and all that. Good luck trying to find that in old movies. TV is a very good example. Now half of the programming is history and stories about how awesome our country is. It used to be girls in miniskirts and fast cars. What happened?

Well the Japanese economy went to hell, that happened. Well it didn’t quite go to hell. In nominal terms the Japanese have kept a pretty respectable GDP per capita. But economic growth has tanked, taxes are up, debt is up. It’s just very hard to make money. You can get a job, ok. But not a job that gets you high status. So what do you do? You go to the temple a lot. And you bow very carefully. See? Now you’re a Good Person. It’s the least you can do.

I’ve always thought that the ideological spirals we are seeing recently have much to do with that. Why are American journalists so insufferably leftist? Because they aren’t getting paid. The industry is in tatters, it’s awfully hard to get a decent job. So they gotta compete in holiness. Why is Europe full of regionalist movements, some of them even threatening independence? Because the rural economies have collapsed. There’s nothing out of the big cities anymore, except in Germany, and not for long. So what rural people do is make virtue out of necessity and ceaselessly brag about their rurality. Hey, we speak Scotts here. Yeah. Oh, and we eat Haggis. Yeah. With a bit of luck they can get a job in the Scottish Parliament. The public sector isn’t stagnating.

How was the world economy doing in the 1930s, when all ideological hell broke loose in the whole world? You get the point. Of course this isn’t the only factor affecting signaling spirals. But it’s an important factor in how they trickle down into society at large. Elites are always playing signaling games to compete with each other. Money doesn’t get you status when you have too much of it. Money does get you status when you don’t have it. Well now there’s not much money to be made by anyone: so signaling games it is. That’s not going to change unless we get an economic boom; but rent seeking bloat, bad demographics and technological stasis have made that impossible. So the signaling spiral will go on. The only question is to which side it will swim.

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37 responses to “Making Virtue out of Necessity

  1. Pingback: Making Virtue out of Necessity | @the_arv

  2. danielchieh January 7, 2017 at 02:42

    Definitely an interesting angle. I wonder if we can actually experiment for this somehow?

  3. Cavalier January 7, 2017 at 03:38

    I think you’re very close, but not quite there. I think people don’t really give a shit about material things. If they truly cared about material things, they wouldn’t try to “supplement” their Greatly Stagnant income with holiness spirals.

    Whatever road we travel, it always leads us back to Darwin, and Darwin always points us in the direction of sex. Who’s getting it, who isn’t, and with whom. It might be useful to think of the escalation in signaling as the effect of what a more crass man than I might call a “pussy desert”.

    Take another look and see what’s fallen through the floor since the ’80s: family formation. Hollywood is producing pure slop, hypergamy has ratcheted up enormously, marriageable women are basically golden unicorn ponies at this point, and they don’t really care about provisioning anymore. Jim talks about sweater-folders with UMC girls, and I speak from experience, though I’m not really shooting “up” so besides my IQ I probably have a cultural advantage over the modal sweater-folder.

    And you look at the profile pictures of journalists, and they all have the same “look”.

    So the economy doesn’t matter, no matter which direction it goes.

    I know why I’m here: I know the future when I see it.

    P.S. Did you get my email reply? HQ convo would be pretty excellent, but either way a clear answer would be nice.

  4. JC January 7, 2017 at 03:49

    I really liked this post, thanks Spandrell.

  5. Pingback: Making Virtue out of Necessity | Reaction Times

  6. Karl January 7, 2017 at 11:40

    I’m not quite convinced. Status is relative. If the economy is good, everyone can make money. So to get status, someone has to make (much) more money than his peers. Perhaps a good economy gives people the illusion of getting ahead in the status game. If everyone is better off than he was a year ago, everybody might believe he’s getting ahead in the status game and therefore continue as before.

    Moreover, if the economy is that important for how people seek status, poor countries should be more religious than rich countries. I don’t know whether that is generally true or not. But when I look at your table above, I note that Germany has been doing relatively well economically. Nonetheless, Germans have been much wore welcoming about the invasion from Africa than Greece or eastern Europeans, for example. This welcoming was and is a religious holier than thou signaling. How do you explain that?

    In my personal experience, the Germans who were/are welcoming the Invasion are those who had no other chance of gaining status. Post-menopausal, childless women with no financial worries, students (mostly female – an engineering student has better us for his time), men with a degree in social science who had no economic prospect outside the public sector, and Merkel’s party soldiers who were simply obeying orders. So maybe your theory has got that right.

    • spandrell January 7, 2017 at 15:06

      Well I’m not saying it’s the only explanation. But Germans had been electing Merkel and doing business as usual until this refugee thing was forced upon them. It’s not like it was a bottom-up movement that destabilized the country as in Greece or Italy. And the Great Stagnation is still there; Germans haven’t been getting poorer but they haven’t been getting richer either. Wait until refugee-induced poverty kicks in and Germans will start spiraling in their signaling in no time.

      • Karl January 7, 2017 at 19:52

        I hope so. Poverty will kick in sooner rather than later and I can’t imagine that Germans will then do their signaling by being even more welcoming to invaders than they are now. But then I can’t help noticing that poverty has already kicked in in Greece big time. Apparently, this didn’t affect signaling in Greece much. Or am I missing something? Does anybody here know about the situation in Greece?

        • spandrell January 7, 2017 at 21:06

          The communists won the election and obliterated the traditional left. How’s that for radicalization. Of course the communists know very well how to hold power.

      • F f F iiii f January 8, 2017 at 02:08

        Thilo Sarrazin has foreseen a very cloudy future for Germany.

        You say they are doing OK for “a little more”.

        I wonder how many Germans are aware of their prospects (5%? 15%?).

        I agree with your general point however (IT has turned signaling into a rewarding activity for the masses, too, that kind of masses that live to believe, and prove, they aren’t masses).

        • Karl January 11, 2017 at 19:13

          On second thought, your argument about increased signaling in economically bad times makes a lot of sense. My point that status is relative and so that a man merely has do better than his peers to gain status by economic activity is too simplistic. In order to impress a woman (show status) he has to out his peers and, usually, her father. If times are ecomically hard, the young are hardest hit as new hiring freezes. Doing better than his peers won’t do a young man much good, his performance will in bad times look poor relative to the older generation who even if the economoy is bad usually still have a job and also had a job when they were young.

          So the onyl viable way to out do both his peers and a girl’s father in the status game might indeed be “religious” signaling.

  7. Frank January 7, 2017 at 12:42

    Out of the ballpark again. The single most important metric to watch is white male unemployment. If the left can keep it low, whites will perish without resistance. If it rises significantly (e.g. if it doubles), there will be war.

  8. BaruchK January 7, 2017 at 18:03

    It’s impossible to discuss the cultural change of the last 100 years as though it were climate, driven by impersonal, purposeless forces.

    There is more and more data coming out which shows that the forces driving it have been quite purposeful and personal, starting with Carroll Quigley’s books (Tragedy and Hope and the Anglo-American Establishment).

    I’m linking a video interview with Norman Dodd who was the chief investigator for the Reece Committee, which investigated the role of the foundations in American education. Among other interesting things, Dodd says that the leadership of the big foundations (Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller) was quite clear that their purpose was to change American society in order to allow a smooth merger with the USSR. He says Rowan Gaither (head of the Ford Foundation) told him that everyone working there came from the OSS and similar shops, and was operating under directives from above. Also interesting is his description of what happened when he took the Carnegie foundation up on their invitation to read their minutes.

    Here’s another one with Charlotte Iserbyt, a Brahmin lady who started off in the Foreign Service and then moved into the educational establishment, then made a big scandal when she discovered that the purpose of the educational establishment had been to make its charges stupid Pavlovian automata.

    I think that the big picture is Fabian. If you want to ensure you keep your grasp on power unchallenged, a good way to do that is to enstupidate the people under you, so that they are too dumb to think about context. You can co-opt anything that is a potential challenge, and turn groups of people on each other so that they don’t think about turning on you. If you have control over their educational system, and they’re in there 40 hours per week from age three or five, by the time they grow up, you can have them alienated from each other, indoctrinated into a collectivist mode of thought and incapable of thinking for themselves.

    Of course, this is very detrimental to creativity and entrepreneurship, and thus economic growth.

    • Alrenous January 16, 2017 at 06:50

      Call the new leftist revolution complete in 1970. Colleges are now totally dominated by Sophism.

      1993, the first students raised to be pure Sophists are entering the economy at large.

  9. jamesd127 January 7, 2017 at 22:05

    I think you have cause and effect backwards. The intellectuals are terrorized. Most people react to terror with Stockholm syndrome. They are all very good leftists. So they support more terror.

    This fucks up the economy – for example affirmative actioning women into high status influential jobs.

    Implement the following rule: Some jobs and job descriptions are exclusively female, others exclusively male, at the employers discretion – similarly for every other currently protected category. No female may have supervisory or teaching authority over a male beyond puberty, other than his mother.. Not only would that fix fertility, it would also hugely improve the economy.

  10. jamesd127 January 7, 2017 at 22:10

    Thus when Greece was relatively prosperous (on borrowed money) it was just as pozzed. It is economy is more buggered, because more pozzed.

    • Etjon Basha January 8, 2017 at 00:56

      One can sh*t on the Greeks all day and for a myriad of reasons (I know I enjoy to, at least) but they probably were the least pozzed western country on earth, controlling for wealth. Heck, they still are, crisis and all.

  11. Etjon Basha January 8, 2017 at 00:25

    Great framework. If it does indeed hold, what can one expect from a theoretical future age in which labor (mental and physical) will have been completely replaced by automation, and folks will have little room (and little need?) for monetary status, free to waste all day on hobbies? The coming golden age of signaling and religion?

    • spandrell January 8, 2017 at 00:43

      I don’t think that’s gonna happen, but it would make a better book than Robin Hanson’s weird ems thing.

    • pgbh January 8, 2017 at 16:26

      Religion could easily make a comeback. The issue with our current religion (Christianity) is that nobody takes it seriously. Even the Pope doesn’t take it seriously. So you can’t get status for it. If there were a religion that people actually cared about, it could get popular very quickly.

      As for the future, I’ve observed that there are basically two ways people try to get as much status as they can. One is to be good at something that other people around aren’t good at. This normally means that you spend a lot of time doing marathons or learning Italian.

      The other is to be the most progressive person around. This means that you spend a lot of time learning the “correct” point of view on everything that happens in the world.

      It seems like as we get richer and more idle, people are getting more and more obsessed with both of these options. Now, I’d much rather have people compete on who can make the nicest painting than on who can be the most piously liberal. Ultimately, both are sort of a waste of time, but only one is actively destructive.

      I like the idea of a future where everyone competes to be excellent in their own area of endeavor. A garden of a million carefully-tended blooms. Much better than a future of progressivism being turned up to ever higher and higher notches.

      • spandrell January 8, 2017 at 16:50

        The problem is that being a great painter is nice and all; but being more progressive isn’t just about how to spend your time. It’s about politics, about coalition building. Being more progressive gets people together in activist groups who then terrorize others. Good painters just paint.

      • Etjon Basha January 8, 2017 at 23:20

        “I like the idea of a future where everyone competes to be excellent in their own area of endeavor.”

        As do I. Let us hope that, if infinite leisure is indeed what’s in store for us, we somehow manage to channel status competition into “hobbies” instead of endless signaling spirals.

  12. Vladimir January 8, 2017 at 03:56

    I don’t think this theory works at all.

    First, you’re conflating social mobility in relative status and the absolute level of prosperity. I don’t see any evidence that relative status mobility nowadays is any better or worse relative to any particular time in recent history.

    Second, I just don’t see the historical correlation between economic stagnation and crisis on the one side and crazy ideological spirals on the other. The nationalist-jingoist ideological spiral that resulted in WW1 occurred during a period of dazzling technological advances and increases in living standards, unprecedented in all of human history. Or just look at the American spiral that led to the Civil War — that one also happened in a society of hitherto unimaginable prosperity and opportunity. And not even to mention the lunacy the broke out in the sixties, the very historical pinnacle of mass prosperity and bright prospects for the common man.

    Explaining the ideological spirals of the 1930s by the Great Depression, as if it were something obvious, is also very misleading — the Depression was clearly bad, but its badness is vastly overstated because leftists (of both Western progressive and communist varieties) have ever since used it incessantly as one of their main anti-capitalist propaganda leitmotifs. In most ways, technology and living standards kept advancing rapidly throughout the decade, and the common people had been hit much harder by many previous crises.

    At the same time, there are many examples of technologically stagnant and politically static societies that lasted for centuries without any notable ideological spirals caused by lack of dynamism and opportunity.

    I would actually give more credence to the completely opposite theory — that it’s periods of technological stagnation and rigid and calcified political orders that tend to be more stable, and it’s the periods of advancing technology and increasing prosperity and opportunity that bring about all kinds of instability, including runaway ideological spirals. The reason seems twofold. First, rapid change means that the usual social mechanisms of control that would clamp down on ideological upstarts are weakened. Second, a richer society can afford much more craziness before it reaches the point of breakdown, so far more madness gets to accumulate before it blows up.

    • Karl January 8, 2017 at 06:27

      Spandrell’s point was about economic propspects for the average citizen. Technological stagnation is something else. You can have either one without the other.

      If you see WW1 as the result of a signaling spiral, it must have been a slow and rather old spiral. In which way did Europeans of 1870 differ from those of 1914? I’ll grant that in Russia there really might have been a difference with the upcoming revolution, but Russia didn’t start WW1.

      I agree to your point that rapid change means that the mechanisms for social control are weakened. But that just means that change makes more change more easy. It doesn’t explain why change starts. It doesn’t even explain a signaling spiral. If the is an Inquisition (really strong social control) people can still start a signalling spiral of being more holy.

      • Vladimir January 9, 2017 at 04:01

        “In which way did Europeans of 1870 differ from those of 1914?”

        In 1870, European states could fight limited wars, without escalating into an apocalyptic total war, and with winners extracting only limited and reasonable concessions from the losers. As a notable example, France was badly defeated by Germany in 1871, but there was no question that it would be allowed to continue existing as a great power, with only minor territorial losses.

        In 1914, this was clearly no longer possible, with cataclysmic consequences that hardly need to be mentioned. Clearly something changed in that period, if Europe went from the imperfect but reasonable state system that followed the Congress of Vienna to the extremes of gruesome suicidal madness that followed. And however we explain that change, it doesn’t seem that the concept of ideological spiral is even useful if it doesn’t encompass that case.

      • snorlaxwp January 21, 2017 at 09:29

        In which way did Europeans of 1870 differ from those of 1914?

        European states had greatly expanded the franchise and socialist parties had begun to enter national parliaments in force, for a couple.

        Russia didn’t start WW1.

        They kinda did. It was at very least well within their power to prevent.

    • spandrell January 8, 2017 at 13:36

      Not saying it’s the only factor; but a factor it is. Obviously pre-WW2 most economies were always quite stagnant in comparison. It wasn’t exactly easy for the average man in 1910 to buy a fancy watch and go to vacation in the beach. Living standards might have been improving steadily but it was hardly a world where you could increase in status with ease.

      You’re saying that dynamism and prosperity allowed Reformation Europe? The English Civil War? The insane spiral from absolutism to communism in 30 years in China 1900s China? Let alone the example I give of present Japan.

      Now you could say the variable is “social change”; and sure a bad economy after a good one does entail a lot of social change.

      • Vladimir January 9, 2017 at 04:35

        I’m not saying that dynamism and prosperity is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for crazy ideological spirals. I’m just saying that it seems to make them more probable.

        However, I see no evidence at all for the opposite thesis that you propose. In particular:

        (1) If we are to trust Gregory Clark’s findings, the ease of upward mobility has actually been remarkably similar across a wide range of human societies throughout history. His theories seem very plausible to me; certainly, whenever I read the history of any country and era, everything’s always full of successful upstarts. (And while there are outliers, i.e. long-lasting systems of extreme social rigidity, most notably the Indian caste system, they don’t confirm your thesis.)

        (2) As far as I can tell, among the available historical examples, there is definitely no tendency for ideological spirals to arise in times of stagnation and crisis. Yes, you can list some such examples, but I can counter with others that happened during periods of great prosperity, bright future prospects, and advances in technology and living standards. In the end, I just don’t see any clear argument you can make here.

        On a different note, another factor that commonly starts ideological spirals (but again, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient) is a wrong-headed desire for emulation of more successful foreign cultures. For example, the 18th century French observed the marvels of English liberty, but didn’t understand that this liberty rested on thoroughly ancient and reactionary English institutions that couldn’t be simply transplanted elsewhere. So they started competing on who would invent the best and greatest new and improved version of the British Constitution to be imposed by fiat on France, and off they went into a crazy and disastrous ideological spiral.

        I’m not at all an expert on Chinese history, but I strongly suspect that this was also a very significant element in the ideological madness of 20th century China.

        • Michael Rothblatt January 10, 2017 at 17:57

          Though Revolutionary France was far, far worse, Absolutist France was pretty awful (as were all absolute monarchies compared to their feudal predecessors)… but so was Joseon Korea, and it didn’t suffer revolution. On the other hand, unlike European absolute monarchs who patronaged the philosophes, and, elevating the Enlightenment thinkers made Enlightenment thought high-status, Joseon didn’t foment the movement that is to be their own doom. Of course, absolute monarchs were seldom ‘true believers’, rather Enlightenment allowed them to grab the power at the expense of church and nobility. So, I would say that what actually starts ideological spirals is neither technological advancement, increasing prosperity and plenty of opportunity, nor lack thereof, but some power center that wishes to use it for its own gain (though, of course, it can easily get out of control), e.g. War of the Northern Aggression – Massachusetts wished to conquer the South, lunacy of the sixties – fedgov wanted to extend its power over the states, etc.

  13. Peter A. Taylor January 8, 2017 at 04:29

    Scenario 1: Monogamy strictly enforced, no welfare state. Women marry men with jobs.
    Scenario 2: Hook-up culture, welfare state. Women hook up with bullshit artists.

  14. Pingback: Two anime heroes who are trustworthy because they were bikers (and a note on lower-class honor) | gaikokumaniakku

  15. CountGunther January 12, 2017 at 11:18

    Excellent!

  16. Anomaly UK January 18, 2017 at 21:31

    The question, “why a signalling-spiral now, not 30 or 40 years ago”, seems very well-posed.

    I don’t find the economic answer very persuasive. Here in Britain, the economy was far worse in the 70s and early 80s than it has been since, and that led not to a holiness spiral, but to a very practical reaction against the economic policies that had been in place.

    It is possible that Britain isn’t important enough; that because the US is the cultural capital, such changes have to originate there and not in a province. The 70s recession in the US was not nearly as bad as it was in Britain, and probably not as bad as today’s economic situation (in vague hand-wavy psychological terms). But I don’t buy that: media was much less global then, and Britain’s 1980s changes were actually imitated in the US and elsewhere.

    I would identify the end of the cold war as the significant change. While the Soviet Union endured, the left had support that depended on keeping somewhat concrete and realistic, it had a credible goal of actual revolution, and it faced an elite opposition that didn’t want that credible concrete revolution. That kept politics on a much more material basis than today’s ideological auction.

    A communist revolution might not have been plausible in the US itself, but appeared to be plausible in any European country, and the US hard left was much more focused on the possibilities of such revolutions than they are on European politics today.

    The status spiral path did exist in the US in the 70s and 80s, but without serious Soviet backing it was a fringe to the hard left’s main concerns, which were revolutionary parties in Europe and alternative revolutionaries in the US such as those that Hines discusses.

    • spandrell January 18, 2017 at 22:22

      Well sure, back when both Left and Right were about allegiance to a state actor, you couldn’t spiral much further than your next Soviet paycheck. Now though, we have a free market, so the possibilities are endless.

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