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A crusading clerisy: II
The status and social leverage strategies of a socially imperial class
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This article can be adumbrated thusly: Many people have noticed Western civilisation has a religion-shaped hole in it. Fewer have noticed Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“Wokery”) has excellent strategies for filling that hole.
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With the collapse of Christianity’s institutional power, lots of people think Western civilisation has a God-shaped hole in it.
This is over-specified. Monotheism is not the only way religion manifests in human societies. Western civilisation does have a religion-shaped hole, however. No complex society in human history has been without religion. Without:
… a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience …
The question becomes—with Christianity’s retreat—what moves into the vacuum? One answer is law and lawyers, with judicial decisions acting as normative guides, as arbiters of what is or is not proper in society.
The issue here is not merely a normative one. We are a normative species because we evolved highly cooperative subsistence and reproductive strategies.
Religion provides shared mechanisms for coping with being self-conscious beings. While such mechanisms have normative features and consequences, simply having mechanisms for adjudication does not fill the gap left by the collapse of religious order.
Because Christianity was Western civilisation’s dominant religion makes it hard to replace religion’s managing-our-mortality role in ways grounded in Western history and tradition. This problem is aggravated by the high and increasing levels of evolutionary novelty surrounding us. When so much is new and different, it’s harder to see how the past can guide us.
One possibility is to lean into this disorientation and claim that Western civilisation is itself the problem. Yet, the reality is that Western civilisation continues to provide opportunities greater than those offered by any other civilisation, past or present. Hence the border control problem Western societies face is stemming the flow of people who want in.
Western civilisation is not the problem. As the most dynamic civilisation in human history, it’s the one best placed to navigate the evolutionary novelties we are dealing with. This despite it having done so much to create those novelties.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that, as outlined in my previous essay, Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) is seeking to occupy our religion-shaped hole. Ironically, it’s manifesting most virulently in what were the most religious of the developed democracies: the US and Ireland.
As an ideology of the sacred victim, Post-Enlightenment Progressivism fits readily into the civilisational gap Christianity vacated—the religion of the sacralised victim. Many contemporary criticisms of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism’s histrionic victim culture echo pagan Roman critiques of Christianity.
Remember, the Christians won.
“Wokery” as a Christian (arguably specifically Protestant) heresy replicates an old pattern. Christianity is a Jewish heresy. As a religion of baptismal salvation,1 Christianity was better structured to propagate in an urban, settled society.
Islam is a Jewish and Christian heresy. As a law-generating religion of sanctified aggression, Islam was better structured to propagate anywhere pastoralists could reach and/or along trade routes.
Post-Enlightenment Progressivism, with its (readily updated) networked normative aggression, is well structured to propagate through institutions and social media.
The bitter horrors of the Wars of Religion let loose after the Reformation, itself a product of the new information technology of the printing press — analogous in its disruptiveness to social media — provides a grim warning against importing the religious mode into politics.
Confucian, Christian, Progressivist …
The self-propagating invasion of government machinery by a belief template is also not a new pattern. A fusion of Confucianism and Legalism provided a similar coordinating role in successive Chinese states.
Legalism justified the instrumental primacy of the state apparat. Confucianism provided a coordinating ethic for officials that was also compatible with economising on administrative effort: kin groups managed much of society.
As noted in my previous essay, a much stronger analogy to contemporary patterns in Western societies is provided by the Roman Empire’s Christianisation. As with the current “Wokification” of Anglo societies, Christianisation occurred after a period of massive bureaucratisation coupled with the collapse of an existing religious order.
What had been around 300 career officials under the Principate (27BC-284)—with its self-governing cities—became 30-35,000 officials under the Dominate (284-641), with most of the increase occurring under emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305).
A switch to in-kind taxation drove this bureaucratic expansion after the collapse of Roman silver production destabilised the silver-for-silk Eurasian trading system. The expansion reduced the capacity of the Roman state, as so much more state-extracted revenue was consumed by administration. The difficulty in coordinating this enormous bureaucracy led to the split into Western and Eastern Empires.
It is no coincidence that the first powerful emperor after Diocletian had enormously grown the Imperial bureaucracy was the first Christian emperor: Constantine (r.306-337). Every emperor after him—apart from the short-lived Julian the Apostate (r.361-363)—was Christian. Christianising simplified bureaucratic selection and coordination and generated moral projects that shielded officials from the demands of competence.
Just as the Post-Enlightenment Progressives (“the woke”) are around 8-15 per cent of citizens (but a highly motivated and effectively networked 8-15 percent), so the Christians seem to have been a similar proportion of the Roman population when Constantine adopted Christianity. They were also a highly motivated and effectively networked group.
Moreover, Post-Enlightenment Progressives repeat so many of the Christian patterns of the fourth and fifth centuries. They see demonic forces everywhere (all those -ists, -phobes and structural whatevers); they show absolute intolerance of alternative beliefs; they uphold sacred victims; they march through institutions.2 They also show similar levels of tireless activism.
Three big differences between then and now are that (1) Post-Enlightenment Progressives do not have the same willingness to be martyrs as did Christians. (2) They do not show anywhere near the same self-sacrificing practical compassion. (3) Post-Enlightenment Progressives are also much less organised around a definitive set of doctrines.
The last is less of a contrast than the first two. The codification of Christian belief did not occur until after Constantine had adopted Christianity. However often it’s updated, Post-Enlightenment Progressivism’s underlying oppressor-oppressed template manifests a set of core ideas and patterns.
The influence of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism’s activist core is greatly magnified by a constantly updated set of prestige opinions, luxury beliefs and linguistic taboos that reward the alert and the networked while further sorting folk into in-groups and out-groups. This is particularly advantageous for conflict between different cohorts within the university-educated human-and-cultural capital class. Those more au fait with the current dominant linguistic taboos and opinion-markers push out those less so, allowing younger folk to displace older incumbents.
Any faith based on the transformational future is going to favour the young: they are less contaminated by the moral hell of the past than the old, who are more stained by its sins.
The clerisy class
The welfare state’s internal social-colonising process has become more explicitly a class colonising of society, a social-imperial enterprise, serving the human-and-cultural-capital-class’s status claims and career prospects. This is a class that denies the significance of—or respect for—citizenship. Citizenship gives too much standing to the to-be-colonised, and particularly to their heritage.
Activist scholarship leads the way in expanding this class and motivating and organising its social imperialism. This includes the classic imperial process of denigrating and de-legitimating the culture of the colonised and seeking to replace it with something “finer”: the politics of the transformational future’s equivalent of Russification.
The notion that the “uninitiated”—those who have not awakened to the realities of pervasive oppression—are human clay to be moulded by their betters, is pervasive in activist scholarship. Pravda-model journalism uses similar perspectives to legitimate and propagate status- and social-leverage strategies.
An imperial strategy is a domination strategy. The social imperialism of contemporary progressivism seeks normative dominance. Dissent is illegitimate because the social-imperial status-markers must be embraced so one can be of the smart and good. If affirming X makes you of the good and the smart, denying X becomes the mark of the wicked and ignorant. Hence the pervasiveness of the Bigotry Accusation.
The politics of the transformational future, precisely because it seeks social transformation, displays an unrelenting drive to colonise all social life (language, film, TV, humour, sport). Its endless social ambition thoroughly conforms to imperialism, defined as that which:
refuses to accept or define limitations or boundaries to its spheres of sovereignty.
Hence its adoption of the Jacobin model of politics—politics unlimited in scope, seeking to mould all aspects of society—and unlimited in means.
Class arrogance—people who think like us can’t be a problem—is a pervasive feature of the contemporary progressive mindset. When highly educated Americans, for instance, make comments about the US being a deeply racist country (it’s not, not even comparatively), they are broadcasting their superiority over “morally vulgar” social lessers. This is an elite—particularly a tech elite—which is grotesquely ignorant about its own society
Contra Faith, Reason …
We see very clearly in “wokery” a hostility to both faith and reason. The hostility to traditional Christianity is relentless and obvious. The hostility to reason is manifested in the delegitimising of debate, recurrent gaslighting (spurious anti-misinformation campaigns); required affirmations and not noticings; the denigration of science (as white, patriarchal, cis-heteronormative, essentialist, etc.); fetishising of whatever is narratively convenient as The Science, and the elevation of lived experience and correct feelings.
This hostility to faith and reason arises because the underlying belief-template is gnostic.3 That is, it sees society as dominated by evil oppressive forces that socially imprison people, frustrating them from being their true selves. It also comes from being Hermetic: that correct knowledge (e.g. achieving critical consciousness) is transformative.
A belief in demiurgic oppressive power shows up in the language. People are not homeless, they are unhoused: someone unhoused them. Folk are not illegal immigrants, they are undocumented: someone failed to provide them with documents. People are not of a marginal or minority group, they are marginalised or minoritised: someone marginalised or minoritised them.
A key work—such as Horkheimer’s essay on Traditional and Critical Theory—makes fundamental claims about human history that have no empirical basis whatsoever. They are instead claims to special knowledge whose real “grounding” is precisely a profound sense of having special knowledge, of having an understanding denied others, of being instruments in the grand moral project of transforming the human condition to realise a lost wholeness.
A belief system that provides a sense of trumping grandeur—that generates conversion, motivation and coordination patterns—is well-suited for generating dominion capital: human and social capital organised for institutional infiltration and control. Belief in it creates its own reward: it can easily do without supporting evidence, and does.
The underlying template is so easily updated precisely because it is so weakly evidenced: any pattern of social disparity is enough. A blank-slate view of human nature turns human variability into spurious morality plays.
Critical Theory (in all its forms) is at the heart of contemporary progressivist activism. With the noble savage nonsense of “indigenous ways of knowing”, we now have Steven Pinker’s progressives who don’t believe in progress. Or that there was no progress until they and their grand knowing intentions came along. It is the Past-is-hell, the Present-is-purgatory and the Future-is-heaven of transformational politics.
The approach to information and discourse is fundamentally hostile to learning, because only that which supports moralised identities is permitted. Hence the pervasive hostility to educating students in ways that undermine such trumping moral and intellectual authority and its operational strategies.
This is how Critical Pedagogy has come to dominate so many university education departments and faculties. It imparts a sense of trumping moral grandeur without imposing anything resembling awkward reality tests.
It is also unstable. There are always new grounds of marginalisation to find and new annoying constraints to revolt against, as gender-critical feminists have found. They want to make a stand on the reality of the structures of sex. But such “biological essentialism” constrains (and thus oppresses) those who want to be a different sex from their body’s sex
So gender-critical feminists become TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists): bigoted oppressors whose error strips them of rights, of any authority to have those views, and who so need to be driven from the public square. To accept that biological structure constrains is to be an oppressor.
The sanctification of activism
Activists are the new priesthood for this cluster of quasi-religious ideologies, with activist scholarship providing the secular theology. The sanctification of activism, which is at the heart of the social strategy of dominion capital, is both toxic and ridiculous.
Activist organisations and networks have an interest in encouraging folk to feel as fearful, as threatened, as possible. Jewish advocacy organisations have an interest in Jews feeling threatened and fearful, so they will donate to said organisations. Feminist activist organisations and networks have an interest in women being as unhappy and resentful as possible, so they will donate to, and otherwise support, feminism, and so on.
Worse, activism attracts the morally disordered. It grants power without responsibility and licenses bad behaviour. Activism thus tends to select for bad character. The sanctification of activism is not merely ridiculous, it is toxic.
Faith in the transformative future is catnip to members of human-and-cultural classes, especially in the epistemic industries. It elevates intention—a thing of imagination—over the management of reality. The more one works in a field that lacks reality tests, the more the purity of one’s intentions can be elevated.
The more such people set and police the boundaries of what is legitimate—to elevate their standing to the point where they can suppress the views of those who do not conform—the more social leverage they gain. It has become a natural belief system for many tech nerds, as the elevation of belief as marker of morality is perfect for online existence.
As others have noticed, progressive censoriousness follows the pattern of Herbert Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance. How many of the current practitioners of said vindictive censoriousness have read his essay is moot. It’s the template of belief and action, the schemas (patterns of believing) and scripts (patterns of action), that are resonant and effective, and so are transmitted.
The dominant cultural elite social-leverage-and-status-strategy that is sweeping through the epistemic industries—through universities, elite media, non-profits, government bureaucracies, corporate HR departments, in technologically advanced democracies—relies on the propagation of sets of mutually-reinforcing not noticings.
If you are not terrified by that, you have not thought it through.
Two recent studies pointed out that the US is falling behind the life expectancy of other developed democracies, in spite of the US often enjoying per-capita income. Maybe the US’s high GDP per capita is part of the problem. Because it’s such a large and politically-sorted country, it means more decision-makers insulated from the consequences of their decisions.
Systematically selecting against merit, as the US has been doing for decades, does not help. But that is also a manifestation of decision-makers insulated from the consequences of their decisions.
Progressive politics is based on an imagined future from which there is no information, its moral and political benchmark has no reality test. Progressives also gravitate to occupations and sectors (public service, non-profits) with weak reality-tests, just as conservatives gravitate to occupations with strong reality-tests (farming, mining, etc). Network effects then intensify these patterns.
The weaker the reality-tests, the less the cost of error, the higher the efficient rate of self-deception.
Progressives have a long tradition of producing toxic bullshit—pushed for persuasive effect without regard to its truth. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez are great men doing great things, for example. The hormonal and surgical mutilation and sterilisation of minors is cutting-edge kindness. Defunding the police will make us safer.
The more a society has social niches insulated from reality tests, the more it becomes dominated by progressive politics and the higher the level of toxic bullshit in its public discourse.
The welfare state—including its warfare arm—does not select for victory or solutions, it selects for activity. This provides the basis for self-reinforcing feedbacks of social dysfunction, where entrenching, or expanding, social pathologies expands the resource base of the welfare state, provides rhetorical support for activism and expands opportunities to colonise the apparatus (government, non-profit, corporate) of the welfare state.
The next essay explores why the Transcult—with its war against the constraints of biology—is so useful for our clerisy crusaders.
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Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, , 2004.
Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, State University of New York Press, 1997.
Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press,  2014.
Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University Press, 1997.
Stephen Smith, Pagans & Christian in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
Edward J. Watts, The Final Pagan Generation, University of California Press, 2015.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, Richard Davis, ‘Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution,’ Science, Vol. 317, 24 August 2007, 1039-1040.
Ben Clements, ‘Defining Religion in the First Amendment: A Functional Approach,’ Cornell Law Review, Volume 74, Issue 3, March 1989, Article 4, 532-558.
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Ryan Grim, ‘The Elephant in the Zoom,’ The Intercept, June 14 2022.
Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, ‘Planet of the Durkheimians, Where Community, Authority, and Sacredness are Foundations of Morality,’ December 11, 2006. https://ssrn.com/abstract=980844.
Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘A Dynamic Typological Approach to the Problem of "Post-Gnostic" Gnosticism,’ Aries (old series), number 16 (1992), pp. 5-43.
Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ‘On the Construction of “Esoteric Traditions”,’ Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff (eds.), Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, Peeters, 1998, 11-61.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
Ann Krispenz, Alex Bertrams, ‘Understanding left-wing authoritarianism: Relations to the dark personality traits, altruism, and social justice commitment,’ Current Psychology, 20 March 2023.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Tuan-Hwee Sng, ‘Size and dynastic decline: The principal-agent problem in late imperial China, 1700–1850,’ Explorations in Economic History, Volume 54, 2014, 107-127.
One is born Jewish (if one has a Jewish mother), one is born Muslim (if one has a Muslim father). Who your parents are has no theological significance in Christianity; one becomes Christian by baptism. That conversion is hard in Judaism, but easy in Islam and Christianity, has much to do with why over half the planet is, at least nominally, Christian (32%) or Muslim (25%).
The politics of immanent (social) salvation replace transcendental salvation, due to pouring the spiritual into the social.
(1) The very general existential feeling (or: awareness, intuition, even conviction) that there is 'more' to existence than meets the eye …
(2) A more or less strongly developed fascination with the depths of the human mind, which is experienced as a numinous mystery.
(3) A feeling that the ultimate purpose of human existence must lie in some kind of 'self-realization'. One experiences oneself as an 'unfinished animal' whose final goal must consist in 'becoming what you are'.
(4) A fundamentally holistic basic feeling, which in some way or another is directed at 'restoration of (lost) wholeness'.
One moves from the disposition to gnosticism proper by turning the above into a claim of knowledge.
The implication from his analysis is that the sense of being trapped in a hostile and constraining reality that is blocking the realisation of wholeness—escape from which comes via knowing action (praxis)—is central to the gnostic conception of reality. The Hegel—>Marx—>onward tradition is highly gnostic, with standpoint epistemology intensifying the gnostic trajectory. It construes history as having a dialectical culmination and adds a millenarian dimension.