Money is a trap, but how? For many years I believed that radical intellectuals and political revolutionaries (interchangeable terms, I thought) should simply eschew instrumental calculations altogether. As my understanding of intelligence developed, I eventually realized that — though there is a crucial intuition there — this position makes no sense. For starters, I realized I was really tapping into a self-mystified kind of virtue signaling. Anti-conscientious non-instrumentalism is merely a 'fast life strategy,' with a variety of instrumental payoffs, if done correctly. Second, my encounter with Nick Land changed my reading of Deleuze, and that changed a bunch of other things. When I first saw Land's contention that, essentially, commerce is the liberatory vector in Deleuze and Guattari, I honestly thought it was outlandish. Surely these are anti-capitalists, who see money as an apparatus for capturing and oppressing human vitality — at least that's how I remembered it, after reading their books over the course of a few years, a few years back. But the more I revisited their texts, and read their joint biography Intersecting Lives, the more I had to admit that it made sense.
I have argued against Land's commercialist reading of D&G, so I must admit to finding this baffling anecdote in Deleuze's biography. @UF_blog#cavetwitter
A friend of Deleuze's once started a business called “Objectile Distribution“... at Deleuze’s suggestion. (Dosse 2011, 452) pic.twitter.com/CyRDvKHKQd
I realized that if I bit this bullet, it would solve a whole slew of other puzzles elsewhere in my personal Bayesian network. It would require the updating of many, many other nodes — something humans have good reason to avoid, given the significant computational and sociological costs — but my estimate of the long-term truth gains of such an update seemed increasingly worthwhile. The tricky confounder here is that what also increased over this period was my own personal need for money, as I knew that some kind of break with academia was increasingly likely. Was I updating because of increasing evidence that monied operations could be consistent with a revolutionary life, or was I "selling out" of the true path precisely because of the factors that make people sell out (getting older, wanting kids, needing more money, etc.)? I was on the fence about this for a while.
Incidentally, one realization that pushed me off the fence was how my communist comrades at the time thought about money. The more I told comrades about my belief that money is evil, the more I realized that almost all of them disagreed. Almost all of my comrades dreamed of big projects requiring money, which would also make money to sustain themselves. They weren't avoiding such projects for fear of money's capture, they just didn't know how to get or make the money required. Once it became clear to me that I could hardly find any other communists who shared my cultivated disdain for money — it really clicked that this principled disdain could never contribute to building communism.
It then dawned on me that this hyper-allergy to monied success I had cultivated since college must have been some kind of weird self-mutilating virtue signal, where I refused myself money-making activity to win friends and status with my pure distance from anything exploitative. I say "self-mutilating" because when I would listen to comrades talk about big monied projects they'd like to undertake, all I could think to myself is, I'm pretty sure we could do that if we put our minds to it — I mean, I am pretty sure I could do it if I put my mind to it, therefore we certainly could — so why are we not just doing this? The answer I ultimately got — implicitly, as far as I could tell, anyway — was that if some people can't do it, then nobody should, even if its one of our own and even if the results are communized. (Or if someone wants to make money then sure, they can, but if their ability to do this alone exceeds the average ability of the individuals in the group then it would have to remain a totally individual side-project; it could have nothing to do with a larger group project. Presumably because the able individual's superior abilities would be too visible, it would just be unbearably awkward.)
If communist activists oppose money out of principle, then I might very well continue to refuse monied projects in solidarity, in the construction of genuine anti-instrumental relations and a revolutionary counter-community. I am still partially convinced that something like this is necessary and desirable, and if I can find the right people then I would still lean toward this. But if activists oppose monied success because they lack the ability, and I believe I have the ability, then constraining my own money-making capacities would not be solidarity but useless self-mutilation at an altar of resentment. Obviously, I am not saying this of every single communist — there is a lot of variation and many solid people with real integrity in communist circles — I am only saying that, over time, this was the underlying reality that generally seemed to demonstrate itself in those circles.
All of these insights converged: I must submit to my fate of becoming filthy rich (should it please God). I would open myself to making money, but I promised myself that I would still need to make sense of and integrate my long-running anti-instrumental intuitions. If the path was not in militant univariate maximization of disinterestedness per se, then what was the best ethical principle for proceeding?
I am not sure, given I've only recently come around to making money on an open market, but I have been struck to find so quickly a candidate for a seemingly ideal principle. Somehow there is already in common parlance a commercial principle that seems to meet the highest ethical bar of a militantly communist or anti-capitalist commitment, namely that nobody should be denied anything, no matter what. The same principle can be uniquely effective in nonetheless extracting the most money from those who have the most money (as in "progressive taxation"). This principle can even be more profitable than naïvely capitalistic practice, at least under certain conditions. This ethically dense but simple principle is known as the pay what you want (PWYW) pricing model: one offers a good or service and allows anyone to take it, asking them to pay any amount of their choosing. For instance, I have used this model in my little experimental Book Assistant micro-service.
It is particularly fascinating and exciting to learn that the conditions under which PWYW is most profitable just happen to be the conditions that characterize the business model of the 21st century intellectual. Chao, Fernandez, and Nahata (2015) find that PWYW is most likely to be profitable when marginal cost is low, markets are small, and behavioral considerations loom large. By the pressure of increasingly unlivable bureaucratization, the radical intellectual (who naturally and sinfully prefers insulation from markets, if available) is forced to discover communist entrepreneurship as praxis — and destiny.
When I first laid out my idea for a neo-feudal technocommunistpatch, I only waved my hand at the coming technological pathways to my proposed polity. In that first talk, I just hypothesized that Rousseau's concept of the General Will could be engineered by Internet of Things + Smart Contracts.
But "Internet of Things" is really just a popular shorthand for the deepening integration of our physical and digital worlds. So it's easy to point at such a general class of coming technologies and say "something here is certainly going to solve [insert hitherto unsolvable problem]." One could very well have questioned my original talk on the grounds that what I was describing is not really feasible, or will not be feasible anytime soon.
The technology necessary to make communism game-theoretically stable seems closer than I thought.
One pathway on the sensor front is radar. Google has produced a new sensing device called Soli, which uses miniature radar to measure "touchless gestures." It's basically a tiny chip that holds a sensor as well as an antenna array, in one 8mm x 10mm rectangle:
Though Google's intended applications revolve around hand gestures, some people are already finding more general applications. (A flashy new prototype from a megacorp is one thing; but when some other entity starts tinkering with interesting results, that makes me pay more attention.)
A team of academics at the University of St. Andrews recently used Soli to explore the...
counting, ordering, identification of objects and tracking the orientation, movement and distance of these objects. We detail the design space and practical use-cases for such interaction which allows us to identify a series of design patterns, beyond static interaction, which are continuous and dynamic. With a focus on planar objects, we report on a series of studies which demonstrate the suitability of this approach. This exploration is grounded in both a characterization of the radar sensing and our rigorous experiments which show that such sensing is accurate with minimal training.
Take a minute to watch it in action, before we embark on a little thought experiment.
It's easy to imagine — without much extrapolation — how one could use this technology to enforce collective honesty and ethical performance optimization. Consider a large multi-family compound. One individual in one of the families is, by far, the most productive chopper of firewood. But he's a little dumb, and earns little money on the market. Then some other individual is by far the most productive software developer; he makes a lot of money on the market but he sucks at chopping firewood. Of course, rich software developers can already pay dumb manual laborers to produce their firewood, but currently no smart and rich person can enjoy the much more valuable and scarce luxury good of living in genuine harmony with a manual laborer.
So our wood-chopping expert hooks up some Soli chips to the pile of chopped wood he maintains for the community. Whenever a piece of wood is removed, he gets a ping on his phone, or maybe a digest at the end of each week. It tells him how many pieces of wood were taken, their weight, which person took them, and how many tokens were transferred to him by the associated Firewood Smart Subcontract (subcontracts are like clauses added to the original founding Smart Contract established at the founding of the polity; they can be constantly added and taken away by consensus, typically as new people enter or leave the group, or if/when individuals' skills/traits/needs change substantially). The richer the person taking firewood, the more they pay per piece of wood via the Smart Contract, according to a steeply progressive taxation rate agreed and programmed into law previously.
On the other hand, if Mr. Bunyan is not keeping the stock replenished, which leads to some individuals suffering very cold evenings, a certain number of tokens are transferred from him to whoever suffered a cold evening. This transfer can be automatically triggered whenever the data show the wood stock to be beneath some threshold, and the temperature data from a particular house to be beneath some threshold, on the same day. And again, these thresholds can be agreed consensually.
Aside: It might seem that this technocommunism sure does require a lot of group decisions — won't it fail like Occupy failed, because democracy is too much work?! Not quite. First, other than the basic preference thresholds defined in the contracts, there is no discussion or deliberation whatsoever. The code is sovereign, and removes the need for regular meetings and debates. My references to consensus only refer to periodic updates. Second, you know what requires a million decisions? The construction of a modern website. And yet it's easier than ever to make one, even with a group. Why? Because code evolves. With code, future people let the smartest and most successful past people make decisions for them. Over time, the larger global community of neo-feudal techno-communist polity hackers will converge on templates: kits containing a variety of sensor devices with a corresponding code repository, containing all the device+subcontract components found in almost all of the most successful previous patches to date. Groups will add new modules if they enjoy hacking, but many will just use the default settings. Or upon initiation, each person completes a short survey gauging basic traits and aptitudes, which plugs into the template optimal values for the various preference thresholds.
Depending on the use case, perhaps a video rig combined with image detection algorithms would work better than radar. Perhaps multiple, redundant methods leveraging different dimensions (video, radar, sound, etc.) might be used at once, in especially tricky and sensitive cases. Perhaps it turns out that 67% percent of the most destructive community offenses occur in kitchens, so the kitchen is loaded with every method and a heavyweight ensemble model. With some problems our tolerance for false positives might be greater/lesser than our tolerance for false negatives, so perhaps the statistical cutoff for inferring a violation would be set higher or lower accordingly.
Meanwhile, while the wood-chopper's system is managing itself, the rich computer programmer might leave a huge stock of old-fashioned USD greenbacks out in the open, available to all for immediate, interest-free, cash loans. Why? Because the risk approaches zero: Just as you can watch in the video above, all removals and returns are fully identified and recorded with radar, and if anyone fails to repay, the owner of the cash stock will be automatically credited from the taker's account after some agreed time (if the taker doesn't have it, a small portion will be taken from all of the others, all of whom have agreed to guarantee each other).
The only question right now is, what are currently the best technologies available for getting started? That and, who's game?
When I talk about aristocratic communism — the idea that a functional communism might be achieved by organizing and enforcing respect for the rich, on condition they distribute wealth — many people scoff and say "that's already the hell of neoliberal capitalism!"
But in fact, today, it's increasingly difficult for the wealthy to enjoy their nobless oblige, in part because it's so mediated by large sclerotic institutions. Wealthy nobles once upon a time redistributed their wealth as a kind of art form; they were like painters painting on the grandest canvas, and the enjoyment of this creative control, as well as the glory that came from being directly and visibly linked to it, were likely major incentives encouraging redistribution.
Today, the wealthy donate a lot of money through Big Philanthropy, but Big Philanthropy is better thought of as a huge bureaucratic blockage to the real social-psychological attractions of philanthropy.
…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities. Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances.
This supports my contention that perhaps the only thing the rich cannot get their hands on today is the invaluable experience of genuine nobility — which comes from generously and creatively supporting others and receiving respect and admiration in return. If we could engineer a way for some rich people to enjoy such true, disintermediated nobility, I think they'd become quite open to supporting a community of common folk in a fashion that approximates the classical communist ideal.
And now that I think about it, who is blocking the rich from exercising their noblessoblige? Most of the bureaucrats and meddlers working in philanthropic and humanitarian agencies and organizations generally see themselves, and present themselves, as morally progressive agents. If Bezos wants to give $2 billion to solving some big social ill, there will be dozens if not hundreds of groups who already claim to be the nobles "working on it." But these people basically own the poor and working people they seek to represent and "help." If Jane wants to give me 20 bucks but John insists that she must give it to him first, and then John gives me 10 bucks — John is not my helper. He is my owner, and he is using me to make money for himself. In short, modern society is overrun with fake nobles, who do not have resources to distribute but quite the opposite: they push the moral buttons of the populace and pull government levers to extract money from the wealthy, primarily for their own careers and identity, and only secondarily to help others. This ordering of priorities is clearly legible in the balance sheets of these organizations, which generally show most of the money going to staff and overhead. They claim to be promoting redistribution, but they happily place themselves in the way of rich people who would like to be morecommunist, if only they were allowed.
[Disclosure: I don't actually know that much about European feudalism. Most of my posts contain a fair bit of speculative guesswork and imagination, but after finishing this I felt compelled to make clear it's almost all conjecture. Rather than make every sentence wishy-washy with too many qualifiers, I've kept many of the probably-too-firm sentences but am putting this here to qualify all of them.]
Under European feudalism, normative status hierarchies seem to have been relatively well aligned with objective character qualities and community contributions. For instance, the Lord organized, commanded, and actually fought with the army that protected the patch from external threats, thus earning the premium of admiration and respect (not to mention money) associated with his title. Social facts (the codified power distribution, titles and so on) and social values (what and who gets counted as good), seem to have been more tightly correlated than today, with both relatively well calibrated to their proper objective referents.
On the lower end of the status hierarchy, the most hard-working, responsible, patient, loyal, Serfs who cared about their family's future (all normatively positive descriptors) could save money and eventually become freemen — if they were blessed with the abilities necessary to do so. The epoch's techno-scientific inability to distinguish between inherited abilities and the above-listed character virtues was unfortunate and certainly caused much measurement error (giving too much or too little normative credit to individuals for inherited traits), but — discounting for their ignorance on these matters — the relationship between social facts and social values had to be better calibrated than it would be when mass-broadcast deceptiveness becomes possible. Drunks and brawlers presumably did not transcend their bondage, and those who avoided drinking and fighting would be more likely to gain independence. In short, good adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively pro-social and self-rewarding effects, and bad adjectives were likely applied to those producing objectively anti-social and self-destructive effects. At least, I would infer, more so than today, when objectively bad people sometimes earn positive admiration from millions, and objectively good people sometimes receive nothing but punishment. Obviously, I'm being highly simplistic; ye old manor was no rose garden. But while there was much natural suffering and tragedy, and many typical human pathologies, it seems true that the social calibration of normative worthiness with its objective empirical referents was far less vulnerable to the kind of systematic, impervious-to-error-correction divergence dynamics we appear to be living through today.
The philosophical and behavioral backbone of the post-Roman patchwork was Catholicism. It stands to reason that this was the unique condition that allowed a high degree of fragmentation and decentralization, but nonetheless a high degree of shared identity, meaning, purpose (relative to anything we know today, anyway).
The feudal community codifies objectively existing differences in human temperament and ability, which may be natural and hardwired or arbitrary and unjust, but — with the surplus of social goodwill produced by this factual and spiritual attunement — the powerful are genuinely invested in lifting the floor of their most downtrodden subjects. The weak also are genuinely invested in — sincerely praying for, or "rooting for" (to use the contemporary term for "prayer") — the success of their Lord and his army. European feudalism therefore provides some historical evidence for the consistency of what I have previously theorized as noble communism, and it suggests that the Catholic faith may be uniquely effective in solving the coordination problems of the ideal communist model. It was the Catholic faith alone that sustained cohesion, meaning, and collective economic productivity (though admittedly not optimality) in a context that was fundamentally libertarian. It was also unique to this Catholic patchwork that only from here would we observe the intelligence explosion that we now think of as modern capitalism.
One should not ask why the feudal commune failed: it was a genuinely free communism that succeeded in generating growth behavior (to be called capitalism). It was probably only in this fragmented but high-trust context that capitalism could emerge.
In its first few hundred years, it's been like an angry tiger just released from an all-too-small cage, but on the world-historical timeline a few hundred years is nothing.
The pro-growth, libertarian Catholic communism of European feudalism was so successful that for a short period of time, several proud and arrogant generations thought they could do away with God. They tried, life eventually became unbearably empty, at the same time that scientific rationality now affirms the likelihood of a creator God at the beginning of our time, and a second coming of God in the near future. All of this is now being realized, and a return to Catholic communism may be the only path forward, on rationalist grounds, aesthetic grounds, and ethical grounds.
Another virtue of Catholic communism was that it sustained itself for hundreds of years without any race consciousness, which had not yet been invented in its modern sense. Thus the Catholic communist model offers a viable and much better alternative to ethnic identity as a principle of cohesion in the West.
So the question is not "How could we make feudalism work today, if it couldn't work in the past?" It did work in the past, all too well! The question is rather whether secular capitalism can last, for more than a few hundred years. Feudal communism worked for hundreds of years and is generative of capitalism; secular rational capitalism has worked for a few hundred years, but its rapidly being looted by rent-seekers within and anti-western, anti-secular enemies on the outside. The human biomass that is now merely a plaything of the rational secular capitalist super-system has no will to fight for anything other than its own resentments. Any sufficiently aggressive and repressive force on the inside or outside of secular capitalism may very well destroy everything before artificial superintelligence takeoff locks in.
It is not for nothing that the threat of militant Islam again rears its head today, right when the decline of Catholic communist Europe is approaching completion. The reason why there was not much innovative art and culture in the Dark Ages is because most of the human effort went towards the military defense of the Catholic patches against pagan pirates from the north and Islam from the south. It stands to reason that Catholic communism was adaptive for keeping out regressive militant Islam, and the threat of progressive militant Islam incentivized the Catholic communism. We are only being reminded of this today after a long hiatus of lazy arrogance; that if a dignified and meaningful life is not provided to all by the noble, then the children of Europe will sooner join the Islamic holy war than resist it. And most of them will be indifferent at best.
We are well aware of the ways in which secular communism is typically not a stable game-theoretic equilibrium. We have learned this through many data points. But we are less aware of whether secular capitalism is a stable equilibrium, because it’s a unique world-system experiment with an n = 1. So far though, it's not looking good if you ask me.
[This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Diffractions/Sbds event, "Wyrd Patchwork," in Prague on September 22, 2018. The video can be found here. My talk begins at around the 2-hour and 6-minute mark. I've added some links and an image.]
I want to talk about patchwork as an empirical model, but also a little bit as a normative model, because there's this idea that capitalism is increasingly collapsing the fact/value distinction. I tend to think that's true. And I think what that means is that, that which is empirically true increasingly looks to be normatively true also. Or if you're searching for a true model, you should be searching for models that are at once empirically well calibrated with reality and also one should be looking for normative or ethical consistency. And you can find the true model in any particular situation by kind of triangulating along the empirical and the normative. That's kind of how I think about patchwork.
I've been thinking about it in both of these dimensions and that has allowed me to converge on a certain vision of what I think patchwork involves or entails. And I've been writing a lot about that over the past couple months or so. So what I'm going to do in this talk specifically, is not just rehash some ideas that I've been thinking about and writing about and speaking about the past couple months, but I'm going to try to break a little bit of ground, at least in my own weird head, at the very least. And how these, some of these different ideas of mine connect, or can be integrated. In particular, I wrote a series of blog posts a few months ago on what I call reality forking (1, 2, 3). "Forking" is a term that comes from the world of software engineering. And so that's going to be one component of the talk.
You'll see it. It's very obvious how that connects to the idea of patchwork. And I'm also going to talk about this vision for a communist patch a lot of us have been interested in. And I've been talking with a lot of people about this idea of the communist patch and soliciting, you know, different people's impressions on it. And I also have written a few blog posts recently talking — kind of sketching, kind of hand-waving, if you will — at what a possibly communist patch might look like. A lot of people think, to this day, that patchwork has a very kind of right-wing connotation. People think primarily of Moldbug and Nick Land when they think of patchwork. But I think it's not at all obvious that patchwork necessarily has a right-wing flavor to it.
I think we can easily imagine left-wing patches that would be as competitive and as successful as more authoritarian patches. And so that's kind of what I've really been thinking a lot about recently. And even Nick Land himself told me that, you know, there's nothing wrong with trying to think about and even build a communist patch — it's all fair play. He's much less bullish on it than I am, but be that as it may. So those two ideas I'm going to discuss basically in turn and then try to connect them in a few novel ways. I have a few points or comments or extrapolations or connections between these two different ideas I've been working on, that I've never really written down or quite articulated yet. So that's what I'm going to try to do here.
So first of all, I was going to start this by talking a little bit about how patchwork I think is already happening in a lot of ways, but I deleted many of my bullet points because Dustin's presentation basically covered that better than I possibly could. So I'm not going to waste too much time talking about that. There's a lot of empirical data right now that looks a lot like fragmentation is the order of the day and there's a lot of exit dynamics and fragmentation dynamics that we're observing in many domains. And yeah, Dustin articulated a lot of them.
One thing I would say to kind of situate the talk, though, is that it's worth noting that not everyone agrees with this, you know... There's still a lot of integrative talk nowadays. There's a lot of discourse about the necessity of building larger and larger organizations. Especially when people are talking about global issues and major existential threats. Often in the educated discourse around preventing nuclear threats, for instance, or AI, things like runaway inhumane genetic testings, things like that. You could probably think of a few others. Climate change would be the obvious big one, right? A lot of these major global issues, the discourse around them, the expert opinions, tend to have a kind of integrative, centralized tendency to them. Actually just this morning I happened to be listening to a podcast that Sam Harris did with Yuval Harari. This guy who wrote the book, Sapiens, this mega global blockbuster of a book, and you know, he seemed like a nice guy, a smart guy of course, but everything he was saying was totally integrated. He was talking about how we need things like international organizations and more global international cooperation to solve all of these different problems and Sam Harris was just kind of nodding along happily. And that got me thinking actually, because even if you read people like Nick Bostrom and people who are kind of more hard-nosed and analytical about things like intelligence explosion, you find a lot of educated opinion is the opposite of a patchwork orientation, you find "We need to cooperate at a global level." Anyway, the reason I mentioned this is just to put in context that the ideas we're interested in and the empirical dynamics that were pinpointing are not at all obvious to everyone.
Even though, when you really look at all of the fragmentation dynamics now, I think it's increasingly hard to believe any idea, any proposal having to do with getting all of the nation states to cooperate on something. I just... I just don't see it. For instance, genetic engineering, you know China is off to the races and I just don't see any way in which somehow the US and China are going to negotiate some sort of pause to that. Anyway, so that's worth reflecting on. But one of the reasons I mention that is because I kind of have a meta-theory of precisely those discourses and that's what I'm going to talk about a little bit later in my talk when I talk about the ethical implications, because I think a lot of that is basically lying.
Okay. One of my theses is that when people are talking about how we have to organize some larger structure to prevent some moral problem — nine times out of ten, what they're actually doing is a kind of capitalist selling process. So that's actually just a kind of cultural capitalism in which they're pushing moral buttons to get a bunch of people to basically pay them. That is a very modern persona, that's a modern mold and that's precisely one of many things that I think is being melted down in the acceleration of capitalism. What's really happening is all that's really feasible in so many domains. All you can see for miles when you look in every possible direction is fragmentation, alienation, atomization, exits of all different kinds on all different kinds of levels.
And then you have people who are like, "Uh, we need to stop this, so give me your money and give me your votes." I think that's basically an unethical posture. I think it's a dishonest, disingenuous posture and it's ultimately about accruing power to the people who are promoting that — usually high-status, cultural elites in the "Cathedral" or whatever you want to call it. So that's why I think there are real ethical implications. I think if you want to not be a liar and not be a kind of cultural snake-oil salesman — which I think a lot of these people are — patchwork is not only what's happening but we're actually ethically obligated to hitch our wagon to patchwork dynamics. If only not to be a liar and a manipulator about the the nature of the real issues that we're going to have to try to navigate somehow.
I'll talk a little bit more about that, but I just wanted to kind of open up the talk with that reflection on the current debate around these issues. So, okay.
The one dimension of patchwork dynamics or exit dynamics that we're observing right now, that Dustin didn't talk about so much, is a patchwork dynamic that's taking place on the social-psychological level. To really drive this point home, I've had to borrow a term from the world of software engineering. I'll make this really quick and simple.
Basically, when you're developing software and you have a bunch of people contributing to this larger codebase, you need some sort of system or infrastructure for how a bunch of people can edit the code at the same time, right? You need to keep that orderly, right? So there's this simple term, it's called forking. So you have this codebase and if you want to make a change to the code base, you fork it. In a standard case, you might do what we call a soft fork. I'm butchering the technical language a little bit; if there are any hardcore programmers in the room, I'm aware I'm painting with broad strokes, but I'll get the point across effectively enough without being too nerdy about it.
A soft fork means that you pulled the codebase off for your own purposes, but it ultimately can merge back in — is the simple idea there. But a hard fork is when you pull the code base off to edit it, and there's no turning back. There's no reintegrating your edits to the shared master branch or whatever you want to call it. So I use this kind of technical distinction between a soft fork and a hard fork to think about what's actually going on with social, psychological reality and its distribution across Western societies today. The reason I do this is because I think you need this kind of language to really drive home how radical the social psychological problems are. I really think that we underestimate how much reality itself is being fragmented in different subpopulations.
I think we're talking about fundamental... We are now fundamentally entering into different worlds and it's not at all clear to me that there's any road back to having some sort of shared world. And so I sketched this out in greater detail. The traditional human society, you can think of it as a kind of system of constant soft forking, right? Individuals go off during the day or whatever, they go hunting and do whatever traditional societies do, and at the end of the night they integrate all of their experiences in a shared code base. Soft forks, which are then merged back to the master branch around the campfire or whatever you want to call it, however you want to think about that. But it's only now that, for the first time ever, we have the technological conditions in which individuals can edit the shared social codebase and then never really integrate back into the shared code base.
And so this is what I call the hard forking of reality. I think that is what we're living through right now. And I think that's why you see things like political polarization to a degree we've never seen before. That's why you see profound confusion and miscommunication, just deep inabilities to relate with each other across different groups, especially like the left vs. right divide, for instance. But you also see it with things like... Think about someone like Alex Jones, think these independent media platforms that are just on a vector towards outer space — such that it's hard to even relate it to anything empirical that you can recognize. You see more and more of these kinds of hard reality forks, or that's what I call them. I'm very serious.
I think educated opinion today underestimates how extreme that is and how much that's already taking place. It's not clear to me once this is underway, it's not clear to me how someone who is neck-deep in the world of Alex Jones — and that is their sense of what reality is — how that person is ever going to be able to sync back up with, you know, an educated person at Harvard University or something like that. It's not just that those people can't have dinner together — that happened several decades ago probably — but there's just no actual technical, infrastructural pathway through which these two different worlds could be negotiated or made to converge into something shared. The radicalism of that break is a defining feature of our current technological moment.
And that is an extraordinary patchwork dynamic. In other words, I think that patchwork is already here, especially strong in the socio-psychological dimension, and that's very invisible. So people underestimate it. People often think of patchwork as a territorial phenomenon and maybe one day it will be, but I think primarily for now it's social-psychological and that should not be underestimated because you can go into fundamentally different worlds even in the same territory. But that's what the digital plane opens up to us. So that's one half of what I'm bringing to the table in this talk.
There are a few antecedent conditions to explain, like why I think this is happening now. One is that there's been an extraordinary breakdown in trust towards all kinds of traditional, institutionalized, centralized systems. If you look at the public opinion data, for instance, on how people view Congress in the United States, or how people view Parliament or whatever, just trust in elected leaders... You look at the public opinion data since the fifties and it's really, really on the decline, a consistent and pretty rapid decline.
And this is true if you ask them about the mass media, politicians, a whole bunch of mainstream, traditional kinds of institutions that were the bedrock of modernized societies... People just don't take them seriously anymore at all. And I think that is because of technological acceleration, what's happened is that there is unprecedented complexity. There's just too much information. There's so much information that these modern institutions are really, really unwieldy. They're really unable to process the complexity that we now are trying to navigate and people are seeing very patently that all of these systems are just patently not able to manage. They're not able to do or give what they're supposed to be giving with this explosion of information that they were not designed to handle. So it's kind of like a bandwidth problem, really. But because of this, people are dropping their attention away from these institutions and they're looking outwards, they're looking elsewhere, they're looking for other forms of reality because that's ultimately what's at stake here.
These traditional institutions, they supplied the shared reality. Everyone referred back to these dominant institutions because — even if you didn't like those institutions in the 60s or 70s or whatever, even when people really didn't like those institutions, like the hippies or whatever — everyone recognized them as existing, as powerful. So even opposing them, you kind of referred back to them. We're now post- all of that, where people so mistrust these institutions that they're not even referring back to them anymore. And they're taking all their cues for what reality is from people like Alex Jones or people like Jordan Peterson or you name it, and you're going to see more and more fragmentation, more and more refinement of different types of realities for different types of subpopulations in an ever more refined way that aligns with their personalities and their preferences. These are basically like consumer preferences. People are going to get the realities that they most desire in a highly fragmented market. Anyway... So I think I've talked enough about that. That's my idea of reality forking and that's my model of a deep form of patchwork that I think is already underway in a way that people underestimate.
So now I want to talk a little bit more about the ethics of patchwork because I think the observations that I just prevent presented, they raise ethical questions. And so if I am right, that reality itself is already breaking up into multiple versions and multiple patches, well then that raises some interesting questions for us, not just in terms of what we want to do, but in terms of what should we do.
Ethics and Patchwork
What does it mean to seek the good life if this is in fact what's happening? It seems to me that, right now, you're either going to be investing your efforts into somehow creatively co-constituting a new reality or you're going to be just consuming someone else's reality. And a lot of us, I think, do a combination of this. Like all the podcasts I listen to, and all the Youtube videos I watch, that's me outsourcing reality-creation to other people, to some degree. But then the reason I've gotten on Youtube and the reason I've gotten really into all of these platforms and invested myself in creating my own sense of the world is because I don't just want to be a consumer of other people's realities. I want to be... I want to create a world. That would, that sounds awesome. That would be the ideal, right? But the problem is that people are differently equipped to do so, to either create or consume realities and I think that this is difficult and very fraught. This is a very politically fraught problem. The left and the right will have debates about, you know, "the blank slate" versus the heritability of traits and all of that. And I don't want to get into that now, but however you want to interpret it, it is an obvious fact that some people are better equipped to do things like create systems, than other people. To me, this is the ethical-political question space.
The default mode right now is the one that I already described at the top of my talk: it's the moralist. It's the traditional left-wing (more or less) posture. "Here's a program for how we're going to protect a bunch of people. All it requires is for you to sign up and give your votes and come to meetings and give your money and somehow we're going to all get together and we're going to take state power and protect people" or something like that. As I already said — I won't beat a dead horse — but I think that's increasingly revealing itself to be a completely impractical and not serious posture that plays with our... it suits our moral tastebuds a little bit, but it's increasingly and patently not able to keep up with accelerating capitalism.
That's not gonna work. Why I think patchwork is an ethical obligation is because, if you're not going to manipulate people by trying to build some sort of large centralized institution, by manipulating their heartstrings, then what remains for us to do is to create our own realities, basically. And I think that the most ethical way to do that is to do it honestly and transparently, to basically reveal this, to reveal the source code of reality and theorize that and model that and make those blueprints and share those blueprints and then get together with people that you want to get together with and literally make your own reality. I feel like that doesn't just sound cool and fun, but you kind of have to do that or else you're going to be participating in this really harmful, delusional trade. That's my view anyway.
Now I'll just finish by telling you what I think the ideal path looks like ethically and practically. I've called it many different things, I haven't really settled on a convenient phrase to summarize this vision, but I think of it as a neo-feudal techno-communism. I think the ideal patch that will be both most competitive, most functional, most desirable and successful as a functioning political unit, but also that is ethically most reflective and consistent with the true nature of human being is... It's going to look something a little bit like European feudalism and it's going to be basically communist, but with contemporary digital technology.
Let me unpack that for you a little bit. You probably have a lot of questions [laughing]. One thing is that patchwork always sounds a little bit like "intentional communities." And on the Left, the "intentional communities" kind of have a bad rap because they've never really worked. You know, people who want to start a little group somewhere off in the woods or whatever, and make the ideal society, and then somehow that's going to magically grow and take over. It usually doesn't end well. It doesn't have a good historical track record. It usually ends up in some kind of cult or else it just fizzles out and it's unproductive or whatever. I think that the conditions now are very different, but I think if you want to talk about building a patch, you have to kind of explain why your model is different than all the other intentional communities that have failed.
One reason is that the digital revolution has been a game changer, I think. Most of the examples of failed intentional communities come from a pre-digital context, so that's one obvious point. I think the search-space, the solution-space, has not all been exhausted. That's kind of just a simple point.
But another thing I've thought a lot about, and I've written some about, is that, in a lot of the earlier intentional communities, one of the reasons they fail is because of self-selection. That's just a fancy social science term for... There's a certain type of person who historically has chosen to do intentional communities and they tend to have certain traits and I think for many reasons — I don't want to spend too much time getting into it — but it's not hard to imagine why that causes problems, right? If all the people are really good at certain things but really bad at other things, you have very lopsided communities in terms of personality traits and tendencies. I think that that's one of the reasons why things have led to failure. So what's new now, I think, is that because the pressure towards patchwork is increasingly going to be forced through things like climate change and technological shocks of all different kinds, because these are fairly random kinds of systemic, exogenous shocks, what that means is it's going to be forcing a greater diversity of people into looking for patches or maybe even needing patches. And I think that is actually valuable for those who want to make new worlds and make better worlds, because it's actually nature kind of imposing greater diversity on the types of people that will have to make different patches.
So what exactly does neo-feudal techno-communism look like? Basically it would have a producer elite, and this is where a lot of my left-wing friends start rolling their eyes, because it basically is kind of like an aristocracy. Like, look, there's going to be a small number of people who are exceptionally skilled at things like engineering and who can do things that most other people can't. You need at least a few people like that to engineer really sophisticated systems. Kind of like Casey said before, "the mayor as sys-admin." That's kind of a similar idea. You'd have a small number of elite engineer types and basically they can do all of the programming for the system that I'm about to describe, but what they also do is they make money in the larger techno-commercium. They would run a small business, basically, that would trade with other patches and it would make money, in probably very automated ways. So it would be a sleek, agile kind of little corporation of producer elites at the top of this feudal pyramid of a patch society. Then there would be a diversity of individuals including many poor unskilled, disabled, etc., people who don't have to do anything basically. Or they can do little jobs around the patch or whatever, to help out.
The first thing you might be thinking — this is the first objection I get from people — is why would the rich, these highly productive, potentially very rich, engineer types want to support this patch of poor people who don't do anything? Isn't the whole problem today, Justin, that the rich don't want to pay for these things and they will just exit and evade?
Well, my kind of novel idea here is that there is one thing that the rich today cannot get their hands on, no matter where they look. And I submit that it's a highly desirable, highly valuable human resource that most people really, really, really want. And that is genuine respect and admiration, and deep social belonging. Most of the rich today, they know that people have a lot of resentment towards them. Presumably they don't like the psychological experience of being on the run from national governments and putting their money in Swiss bank accounts. They probably don't like feeling like criminals who everyone more or less kind of resents and wants to get the money of, or whatever. So my hypothesis here is that if we could engineer a little social system in which they actually felt valued and desired and admired and actually received some respect for their skills and talents that they do have and the work that they do put in... I would argue that if you could guarantee that, that they would get that respect, and the poor would not try to take everything from them. If you could guarantee those things, then the communist patch would actually be preferable to the current status quo for the rich people. My argument is that this would be preferable; it would be a voluntary, preferable choice for the rich, because of this kind of unique, new agreement that the poor and normal people won't hate them and we'll actually admire them for what they deserve to be admired for. So then the question becomes, well, how do you guarantee that that's going to happen? This is where technology comes in.
The poor and normal people can make commitments to a certain type of, let's call them "good behaviors" or whatever. Then we can basically enforce that through trustless, decentralized systems, namely, of course, blockchain. So what I'm imagining is... Imagine something like the Internet of Things — you know, all of these home devices that we see more and more nowadays that have sensors built in and can passively and easily monitor all types of measures in the environment. Imagine connecting that up to a blockchain, and specifically Smart Contracts, so that basically the patch is being constantly measured, your behavior in the patch is being constantly measured. You might have, say, skin conductance measures on your wrist; there might be audio speakers recording everyone's voice at all times. I know that sounds a little authoritarian, but stick with me. Stick with me.
Basically, by deep monitoring of everything using the Internet of Things, what we can do is basically as a group agree on what is a fair measure of, say, a satisfactory level of honesty, for instance. Let's say the rich people say, "I'll guarantee you a dignified life by giving you X amount of money each month. You don't have to do anything for it as long as you respect me, you know, you don't tell lies about me, you don't plot to take all of my money" or whatever. So then you would have an Alexa or whatever, it would be constantly recording what everyone says, and that would be hooked up to a Smart Contract. And so if you tell some lie about the producer aristocrat, "He totally punched me the other day, he was a real ignoble asshole," and that's actually not true. Well, all of the speech that people are speaking would be constantly compared to some database of truth. It could be Wikipedia or whatever. And every single statement would have some sort of probability of being true or false, or something like that. That could all be automated through the Internet of Things feeding this information the internet, and basically checking it for truth or falsity. And then you have some sort of model that says, if a statement has a probability of being false that is higher than — maybe set it really high to be careful, right? — 95 percent, so only lies that can be really strongly confirmed... Those are going to get reported to the community as a whole.
If you have X amount of bad behaviors, then you lose your entitlement from the aristocrat producers. It's noblesse oblige, the old kind of feudal term for basically an aristocratic communism, the [obligatory] generosity of the noble. So that's all very skittish. A little sketch of how Internet of Things and Smart Contracts could be used to create this idea of a Rousseauean General Will.
The reason why this has never worked in history is because of lying, basically. People can always defect. People can always manipulate and say they're going to do one thing but then not deliver. That's on the side of the rich and also on the side of the poor. But what's at least in sight now, is the possibility that we could define very rigorously the ideal expectations of everyone in a community and program that in transparent Smart Contracts, hook those up to sensors that are doing all of the work in the background, and in this way basically automate a radically guaranteed, egalitarian, communist system in which people do have different abilities, but everyone has an absolutely dignified lifestyle guaranteed for them as long as they're not total [expletive] who break the rules of the group. You can actually engineer this in a way that rich people would find it preferable to how they're currently living. So to me that's a viable way of building communism that hasn't really been tried before. And I think it really suits a patchwork model. I think that this would be something like an absolutely ideal patch, and not just in a productive, successful way. This is the ideal way to make a large group of people maximally productive and happy and feel connected and integrated. Like everyone has a place and everyone belongs, even if there's a little bit of difference in aptitudes. The system, the culture, will reflect that. But in a dignified, and fair, and reasonable kind way, a mutually supportive way. I could say more, but I haven't been keeping time, and I feel like I've been talking enough.
I found out recently that — hat tip to my friend the Jaymo — the town of Tombsboro, Georgia is right now for sale, for only $1.7 million. I think that's a pretty good deal. It comes with a railroad station, a sugar factory, all kinds of stuff and you could easily build a little prototype patch that I just described. If you have a bunch of people and it's a major publicized project, it wouldn't be that hard to raise enough for a mortgage on a $1.7 million property. Especially if you have a compelling white paper along the lines that I just sketched. I'm not quite there yet, but that's what I'm thinking about, that's my model or my vision of the communist patch. So I'm going to cut myself off there. Thank you very much.
Any serious theory of communism needs to have not only an account of how and why communism has always failed, but also an account of how and why it could work differently now. Ideally, a parsimonious theory would solve both of these puzzles at once: the specification of some key macro-systemic variable(s) that explain why communism has always failed in all of its previous instantiations — a variable which, it just so happens, recently changed in a direction unlocking the communist possibility.
Ever since the rise of the world wide web, we've seen a thriving cottage industry of thinkers who claim that the world wide web might be one of these magic variables. In a way, I suspect that the works of this industry might end up being vindicated to some degree, but they're mostly premonitions rather than blueprints. There's been a sense that this revolutionary event in the history of information-communication technology appears to take place on a vector toward something beyond capitalism, but the construction of its engineering diagram is always postponed.
I believe there are two broad sets of reasons why previous communist patches have failed in the past. It seems to me that the solution of each one is now in reach, but only time, and experimentation, will tell. Whether there exist human beings still desirous, able, and willing to take it — that's another question. It might be the case that human being as such has been pacified to such a degree that even a workable and immediately available blueprint for the achievement of the communist dream will not be taken up.
This post will focus on only one of the broad sets of reasons why communism has failed. I have a draft on the second one, but this took all of my free time for this evening. I'll either post it later or include it in some future, longer volume of some kind. If you're an editor at a major press, I will consider forwarding you a private draft, but if too many of you write me at once I might not be able to respond to all of you.
This first basket of reasons we might simply call "the rational-choice critique." Rational-choice theory and game-theory are roughly synonyms. For a few different reasons, typically communism is just not a game-theoretic equilibrium. The big kahuna of this class of problems is the basic prisoner's dilemma (any situation where cooperation would be better than mutual cheating, but cheating when others cooperate would be the best). For the most productive producers, it will always be in their rational self-interest to quit the commune and choose to profit on the open market—even though a society of generalized competitive brutality is least desirable. In the rational-choice literature, liberal rule of law with a little bit of welfare redistribution is generally seen as the best you can get, because a well-fed and stable populace is in the interests of Capital. Try to take more from Capital, and they'll leave you. The common view tends to see the Capitalists as the evil defectors from the common good, but it's not really this simple. In a recent but not-popularly-discussed book by political economist Carles Boix, we learn about another major problem, which is that the masses cannot credibly commit to not take everything from Capital. That is, if the masses could somehow tie their hands, to ensure that they will not absolutely fleece the Capitalists and leave them dead in a ditch, they could potentially get way more redistribution than they do today. It's this rational fear that always makes Capital want to escape greater social accountability.
Another sub-problem roughly in the rational-choice perspective is self-selection: modern people who are willing to embark on some crazy life experiment to alter the basic parameters of their existence are going to be disproportionately desperate people. This camp certainly includes people who are quite skilled and capable — but, almost by definition, they are never in the top, top percentiles of money makers. There are some in the top percentiles who profess communistic sympathies no doubt, but they rarely if ever risk their wealth on joint schemes with the larger bulk of desperate folks (they fall in the camp, discussed above, of Capitalists afraid of grabbing hands that cannot credibly limit themselves). This has always been one of the more magical aspects of capitalism, that it tends to pay people just enough that it would be irrational for them to play any game other than capitalism; it pays them according to a kind of weighted function of precisely those traits that would allow them to contribute to alternative ways of life, for the simple reason that real human powers are real human powers, whether they're given to capitalism, communism, or an idiosyncratic new-age death cult.
Today "communism" is championed almost exclusively by the desperate, those who — quite transparently — are barely able to participate in frank speech, call their mothers on a semi-regular basis, or keep their rooms clean, let alone engineer an alternative way of life.
(By the way, I'm not money- or status-desperate, and I don't really care about making or keeping bullshit friends, which is why I can help solve communism — I'm doing pretty well under capitalism to be honest, so you can trust I'm not reaching for any words that can get me some crumbs of money or status. For me, it's just a fun challenge that seems like a beautiful and noble goal that I would like to be the first person in history to achieve, for glory. I'm not going for crumbs, I'm going for the huge status reward, the one that only comes from being super real, from going hard and fast after what's real for a really long time. This is a motive that certainly has its pitfalls, and you should watch me vigilantly and judge me accordingly for my vulnerability to those pitfalls, but for the purpose of thinking honestly and seriously about communism, my incentives and motives are well aligned for you to take me very seriously.)
Today, class consciousness refers to members of the desperate horde selling each other goods and services that make them feel like they can engineer something. Typically, the implicit rationale is that the quantity of their ranks will make up for their lackluster skills and productivity relative to the evil capitalist overlords. How many mentally ill people with humanities degrees does it take to equal the political-engineering power of Elon Musk? My guess is that the reigning left-wing thought leaders really do believe that there exists an answer to this question — and the entire extent of their implicit engineering diagram, the one on which they operate behaviorally, is to merely corral this number of followers. One piece of evidence for this inference is that, generally, the concrete engineering questions are usually deferred until some critical popular mass is reached. This often doubles as an anti-authoritarian reassurance as well: "We can't engineer it until we have the participation of enough people. If I could give you the engineering diagram right now, that would make me like Stalin!" OK, so can you give me the engineering diagram showing how a certain critical mass of followers should trigger some reduction of the search space—or whatever it is you think it will unlock? Crickets. Thus, I must believe that "build the ranks" is the engineering diagram.
I've digressed, but the basic point up there is that communist movements are generally composed of those who can't make communism work, and capitalism wins the strongest loyalty from those who are the very best at making things work. This also explains why the major modern efforts to create communism have been led by extreme authoritarian personalities. People like Stalin almost certainly would have had the intelligence to get on at least as well as the median person without totalitarian revolution, but their psychopathic tendencies would be at odds with their self-advancement through peaceful trade. Their psychopathic traits put them in the 99th percentile of "leading huge desperate hordes in murderous personality cults," but maybe only in the 65th percentile of being a normal civilized person. (If it's not obvious, I'm pulling these numbers out of thin air just to sketch a hypothesis.) I am guessing that the only strong, smart, and powerful people who opt into communism tend to be somewhat evil, "Dark Triad" types. After the disgrace of modern Communism, the desperate horde-base for communism became so small and desperate that it's not even worth it to potential psychopathic leaders. Psychopaths are now free enough to thrive under globalized cybercapitalism; for anyone at all above average in intelligence and conscientiousness, even in the 65th percentiles with some Dark Triad traits, the gains from trade are now way larger than the gains from leading a small and factious horde of deplorables. Sorry, I meant to say desperates.
Although this class of problems is correctly placed under the label of rational-choice or game-theoretic problems, it's crucial to understand that there are very strong emotional stakes involved. As we've seen, for highly productive people, and people with very profitable skills in fields such as engineering or computer science, capitalism will pay you very well and at least leave you alone to work your 60-hour weeks in "peace." Because the whole point of communism is to pay for the life of the desperate horde (and this is good, indeed it is the definition of Nobility), you're obviously not going to be paid as much, but in modern Communism — adding insult to injury — you're also going to be positively denied the social status proportionate to your contributions. Often, you will have to submit to the disingenuous, confused, often bitterly resentful, and sometimes downright psychotic attitudes and behaviors of many damaged people, the kind that self-select into communism. But as communists will tell you themselves: to be systematically denied the recognition you deserve is to suffer literal violence. Whatever you want to call it, the pain is real and deep, and nobody will submit to it for long, including capitalists.
I think this constitutes a decently charitable and effective summary of why and how communism has always failed in the past, at least for one class of reasons. It just so happens that I've already sketched a positive solution, meeting the criteria I set out at the top: that the solution must be based on something new, that was not available in all previous implementations of communism. I admit I do some hand-waving of my own, in that I do think the digital revolution is a relevant game-changer for tying much of this together, without fully specifying how, although I have specified somewhat. In short, I believe this set of problems could be solved by an engineering blueprint that mimics the medieval arrangement known as nobless oblige, although the seeming absurdity and generally unfashionable nature of the idea helps to explain why uptake has not been widespread and immediate. Communists don't want communism badly enough to submit to the reality-disciplining it would require.