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The Great Flaw in West Coast Thought

Otto Reith

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"...even there, where the rejection of the system is taken for granted and for that reason a lax and cunning conformism of its own has developed.” ―Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia

There is an increasingly obvious lacuna in the dominant West Coast perspectives right now.

There is a glaring ignorance about the body of knowledge, built up since the time of Marx, regarding the anti-human mechanisms intrinsic to capitalism.

Most of the intelligent West Coast thinkers and writers—ranging from Peter Thiel to Eliezer Yudkowsky and pretty much everyone else—typically reject, if they do not outright dismiss and ignore, the long-running and formidable, mostly European tradition of what we might call Kapitalkritik. (I'll just use this term as a pretentious but shorter way of saying twentieth-century European theorizing about capitalism in the shadow of Marx.)

And yet, if you listen to the current anxieties of someone like Yudkowksy right now, around the acceleration of AI, he is essentially just discovering that capitalism is characterized by deep, obscure, and highly anti-human mechanisms. His once cool, calculated confidence in the obvious correctness of maximizing rationality has suddenly collapsed in the face of AI's current inflection. I appreciate that he's been warning of malignant AI takeoff for a while now, what's new is that his faith in rationality has exhausted itself. And where does he land? He comes to the same conclusion as all the best twentieth-century post-Marxists:

"So this is what humanity will elect to do. We will not rise above. We will not have more grace, not even here at the very end... That is when I did my crying late at night and then picked myself up and fought and fought and fought until I had run out all the avenues... They require scaling my efforts in a way that I've never been able to make them scale and they're all pretty far-fetched at this point... I don't have concrete hopes here. You know, when everything is in ruins, you might as well speak the truth, right?" Transcript

This is the essential drift of the best twentieth-century post-Marxists—especially the Frankfurt School, plus other figures like Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Sloterdijk, just to name a few. Each in their way confronted the defeat of Marxism by a self-augmenting AI, and each in their way gave up on organized resistance to explore the truth in the ruins. The main difference between these thinkers and Yudkowsky is that they came to his conclusions much earlier, and they explored it in great detail, describing and modeling all of the various mechanisms through which human beings somehow come to elect their own subsumption by machines.

Yudkowsky's capitulation may turn out to be an important inflection point in contemporary intellectual history. It's a massive admission of defeat by West Coast rationalism and an equally significant vindication of East Coast scholasticism (East Coast universities being the primary domecile of Kapitalkritik in the US). The stock price of the latter has been at an all-time low in recent years, thanks to the infamous idiocy of only its worst, latest, and most disingenuous representatives ("Wokeism" is to the Frankfurt School what Alex Jones is to George Washington).

In light of this, I'd like to reflect on why West Coast thought failed so stubbornly to learn anything at all from the great European theorists of capitalism. Then I'll say a few words about what's going on right now, and how I think this plays out.

There are two perfectly good reasons why this body of work has been neglected by West Coast intellectuals. First, the overwhelming majority of material associated with this tradition coming out today is utter junk.

Second, West Coast thinkers have a sensible predisposition toward practicality, optimism, and investable alpha. Having spent the first half of my career firmly in the East Coast milieu, and the second half much closer to the West Coast milieu (a natural course as I moved from being a professor to an independent writer, and therefore implicitly an entrepreneur), it is with some confidence I can speak of the differences. In many ways, the West Coast bias toward practicality and optimism provides a better mental environment than the East Coast's aestheticized depressive scholasticism. But alas, "there's no free lunch" as the rationalist economists say.

It is with some relish that I must cite Freud here... The current acceleration of AI is for the overwhelmingly pro-capitalist West Coast intellectual milieu a "return of the repressed."

Capitalism is auto-escalating machine intelligence. It's not even contentious. Hayek showed the price system is technically an abstract intelligence, synthesizing the limited intelligence of individual humans at a higher level, over their heads, and then directing human action through price fluctuations. Even Nick Bostrom, one of the leading proponents of AI Safety theory next to Yudkowsky, says that capitalism is a form of superintelligence, but then he says it's "loosely organized" and moves on—as if, for that reason, it doesn't matter.

One of the reasons people like Bostrom and Yudkowsky have found it easy to ignore capitalism is that, since the 1990s, digital techno-capitalism has been very good to high-IQ, mathematically-inclined, and high-agency individuals. Such individuals have had no motivation to understand the finer points of what exactly it means to have systematic, planetary-scale rationalization of human behavior.

Generic libertarianism is the correct ideology if one grants the frame of asking about the best way to order society's scarce means. There's no doubt about this anymore, but the obvious correctness of capitalism's internal rationality has created an extraordinary complacency about its external rationality—about the ends towards which this planetary-scale rationality is ultimately directed—as a background system that conditions human thought and social life. Everyone thought those questions were obtuse, intractable, depressing, and infinitely deferrable. Until now.

Now that AI is coming for at least the bottom third of overpaid Silicon Valley code monkeys, things look and feel very different in the West Coast set. Now a whole new swath of people is in the emotional and social situation of your typical grad student in a Continental Philosophy program. Now, these two very different types of people are starting to sing the same tune.

It's a real "I told you so" moment for a lot of underemployed philosophy PhDs right now.

In the words of Sloterdijk:

"What was the Enlightenment in its deep structure if not an attempt to translate the ancient rhyme on learning and suffering—mathein pathein—into a collective and species-wide phenomenon? Was its aim not to persuade the many to expose themselves to transitional ordeals that would precede the great optimization of all things?" (You Must Change Your Life)

Modern rationalism has made its bed, and now it will be forced to sleep in it.

They should buck up, it's a small price to pay for the triumph of rationality and the final optimization of all things.

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