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.