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A New Convergence
Normative flux and the end of a civilisational cycle
This is the twenty-ninth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule and essays are available here.
On Monday, interviewed Lorenzo on the series thus far. Their conversation includes some of Lorenzo’s biography and is a useful primer on the thinking that went into his essays.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Christianity is on the way out; its replacement is not yet fully formed, and may yet break down. It is, however, rhetorically effective thanks to its Christian roots.
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The emergence of “Woke Inc” is a striking contemporary development.
It’s a convergence between corporations and an increasingly feminised human-and-cultural-capital class. And much of it is beholden to status and social-leverages strategies that seek to take over the norm-propagation-and-legitimation social role Christianity previously held.
This new convergence represents the completion of a civilisational cycle that began with the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth century. The cycle ended with a de-Christianisation of sexual mores in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
The Christian convergence
The Christian civilisational cycle depended on social convergence between the Church and women. This convergence arose in part from Christianity feminising sexuality.
Chastity for women is a common expectation across human societies. In the absence of DNA tests, it generated confidence in paternity by controlling women’s bodies.
The overwhelming majority of human societies have suppressed short-term mating to support long-term mating (marriage). This elevated and protected the social relationship of fatherhood so as to get men to accept the transfer of risks away from— and of resources to—child-rearing that human reproduction requires.
The most common way to suppress short-term mating has been an ethic and expectation of chastity for women. Christianity came along and said “and men too”.
By insisting that marriage, and marriage alone, was the licit forum for sex, the Church thereby insisted that sex was all about commitment. To a remarkable degree, it succeeded in elevating an ideal of chastity for men.
The convergence between women and the Church was also based on Christianity’s sanctification of elements already present in Roman law. Pagan Romans thought law was human, enshrined single-spouse marriage, replaced kin-groups with civil society, barred cousin (or other consanguineous) marriage, and mandated female consent for marriage while devoting much of their impressive legal drafting skills to personal wills. Christianity also bolted on extras of its own: no adoption, stigmatising having children outside wedlock, and expanding incest taboos to cover godparents (and their kin) as well as the kin of anyone you’d ever shagged.
Single-spouse marriage elevates the status of women. It turns even elite marriages into partnership marriages based on shared interest in their joint children.
No kin-groups meant women’s wombs were not their kin groups’s property: an outlook that generates (dis)honour killings. It also made female consent for marriage far more practicable. Part of the appeal of Christianity in Africa is that it allows individuals, particularly women, to escape the demands of their kin group.
Personal wills undermine kin groups by ending their control over property’s intergenerational transfer. So does banning adoption, because it means lineages can’t be revived through adoption.
While Christianity weakened women’s control over their wombs by taking away divorce, contraception, and abortion (all present in pagan Roman law), it did insist on female consent for marriage and women’s testamentary rights.
This is why women getting unilateral control over their fertility—through the Pill and legal abortion—was a fatal blow to the longstanding convergence between women and the Church.
If women abandoned Church strictures, they could control their own fertility. This opened up many social possibilities that had not previously existed. They could—and did—invest far more in their own education, thereby entering professions and other credentialed employment en masse.
The result was a collapse in the previously dominant (though fraying) Christian language of social propriety. Virginity, chastity: these things stopped being valued as social strategies and the normative language underpinning them collapsed.
The irony was that the Sexual Revolution masculinised sexuality. Sex-as-commitment was normatively dethroned by sex-as-independent-acts-of-cathartic-release. This aided the acceptance of homosexuality, but also had other unforeseen effects.
In the longer term, masculinising sexuality has proved—especially with an emergence of dating apps—productive of a great deal of sexual unhappiness. Both among women—especially as they age out of peak sexual attractiveness—but also among many men. Dating apps encourage a reductive, consumerist, pick-the-features-you-like, approach to partner search.
Yet the heady sense of new possibilities—which were very real—and the dominance of “blank slate” views of human nature (which said it was all just social conditioning and so human sexuality could be remade), swept away dissenting voices. Mind you, when you sweep nature out the door, it comes back in through the window.
The previous social dispensation had largely been that men ran public affairs, politics and most of commerce while—in single-spouse-marriage Christendom—women ran households and society. This followed the longstanding pattern of status-through-prestige being disproportionately male while status-through-propriety is more female.1
Ironically, the technological breakthroughs that changed female possibilities themselves arose because (largely male) prestige-through-discovery was able to break up propriety restrictions grounded in a Church-women convergence.
Filling the vacuum
Meanwhile—and readers will see the irony—the march of highly-educated women through professions, organisations, and institutions led to the evolution of new forms of restrictive propriety. Women disproportionately support increased restrictions on freedom of speech and thought (to protect their feelings and sensibilities).
The collapse of the Church-woman convergence left Western civilisation with a institutional and normative vacuum at its heart. Congregations shrank or vanished. Their social role has not been replaced. Conversely, the power of congregations has much to do with the contemporary spread of Christianity in Africa and Asia, and of Pentecostalism in South America.
There also wasn’t a stable, normative structure and language within the West to replace Christianity’s role. This left only a thin ethic of consent and personal autonomy, which was brought across from the legal profession and common legal rules.
This normative gap matters: both the lack of a robust normative structure and of robust socialising-norms for social structures.
Why are we such a normative species? We must support our highly cooperative subsistence and reproduction strategies by making our cooperation and coordination more robust with stable and convergent expectations.
As I’ve discussed in previous essays, religion made normative structures more robust via the invocation of divine authority. This creates more reliable—so more resilient—coordination mechanisms.
Religion also manages the problem of being self-conscious beings, which is why it has such an intimate relationship with ritual. Ritual—something we do, recite, perceive, experience—aids social coordination through shared action and knowledge: propositional, procedural, perspectival and participatory—episteme, techne, noesis and gnosis: knowledge that, how, of and in.2
The politics of the imagined, transformational future’s essentially religious structure was primed to fill into the gap left by the collapse of the convergence between women and Christianity.
First—despite grotesque failures discrediting Communism, and of conventional Marxism by the global working class’s patent failure to act according to the role set out for it—there remained like-minded networks committed to the politics of the transformational future.
Secondly, valorising both marginal groups (who became sacred victims) and the transformational future’s divine authority provided a much deeper sense of meaning and purpose than did the law’s thin ethic of consent and bodily autonomy.
Religion’s coordinating and managing-self-consciousness advantages have not gone away. There was always likely to be selection for something to fill the post-Christian gap.
Thirdly, ongoing technological shocks generate normative flux, which creates circumstances likely to select for something to stabilise norms and mutual expectations. Social norms abhor a vacuum. Selection for faith in the transformative future is a means to stabilise norms.
There are disadvantages of course—including a predilection for purity spirals. Its anti-natalism is also a problem for ongoing persistence. The one thing you must do to dominate the future is show up (in organised numbers).
Even so, a faith in the transformational future—rendered as the social justice status-and-social-leverage strategy—has proven highly adaptive. These may not be disabling features.
Fourthly, faith in a transformational future could evolve into the sort of structures able to move into the social space left by a retreating Christianity. Its politics adapts and updates Christian patterns that already have cultural resonance.
It’s easy for faith in a transformational future to replicate the previous march of Christianity through the Roman Empire’s institutions: it’s a Christian heresy. Through a secular theology of becoming—rather than a transcendental theology of being—rightfully-acting humans transform the future and so create a dialectical arc of history. This replaces God-the-Creator.
The motivating faith in the transformational future—operationalised via dominion capital3 and generating an evangelising periphery of prestige-opinions and luxury-beliefs—isn’t really a set of doctrines. This isn’t the codified Christianity of the Council of Nicaea (325) and after.
It is closer to early Christianity, however. There are doctrinal positions and basic claims, but with even more adaptive fluidity. This makes it more able to evolve in response to changed circumstances.
One feature of 16 centuries of Christian civilisation has been periodic surges in re-engagement with the Classical heritage. From the Carolingian Renaissance, the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, the fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance, to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there have been waves of re-engagement.
An indication we’re at the end of a civilisational cycle is that Post-Enlightenment Progressivism refuses to so engage. Knowledge of—and engagement with—Classical heritage is no longer expected of educated people.
The Christianisation of the Roman Empire had three interlocking causes:
(2) The collapse of the previous religious order under pressure from the Antonine (165-180) and Cyprian (250-266) plagues coupled with local notables’ withdrawal of support for religious festivals because a hugely expanded imperial bureaucracy undermined city self-government.
(3) The Christian feminisation of sexuality.
A transcendental religion holding this world to be a veil of tears while offering salvation in the next was better able to cope with mass death in horrifying pandemics than immanent religions which sought to encourage fertility, worldly success and social order in nature. Christian congregations also provided conspicuous mutual aid.
Feminisation of sexuality had strong appeal to women and provided a signal of commitment to men. It facilitated social cohesion among those who embraced it.
Massive increases in bureaucratisation created problems of selection and coordination, for which Christianity provided solutions. Adherence to Christianity provided a robust set of shared norms and expectations aiding coordination.
The massive increase in bureaucratisation—apart from consuming resources—also created a problem of midwit bureaucrats struggling with required levels of competence. The moral projects of Christianity provided a protection against competence demands. You can’t measure salvation.
Similar factors operate in contemporary societies. There’s been a pervasive expansion of bureaucracy. Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) simplifies selection and coordination while providing moral projects that shield midwit bureaucrats (and academics) from the complexities of competence.
To the extent that DIE can be measured, not much effort or competence is required. Indeed, playing language games, offering training courses, and engaging in diversity hiring requires much less competence than does delivering effective services. Decolonising the curriculum takes less skill and effort than does competent scholarship.
But, like salvation, all are justified by their own intentions. If one is against salvation, clearly one is of the demonic. If one is against DIE, clearly one is full of hateful bigotry.4
The separation of action from intention in structural racism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and white supremacy turns them into something like polytheistic deities and animist spirits: capricious Powers in the world.
The concepts of micro-aggressions and unconscious bias—which give the notion of false consciousness a patina of social science—provide hidden causes to be divined by those trained to have the proper perceptions, creating experts in social faith healing and exorcism.
Instead of the the traumatic social shocks from Roman pandemics, accelerating levels of evolutionary novelty from continuing technological change provide on-going disorientation. Remember, the recent lab-leak pandemic was orders of magnitude lower in its mortality rates than the Roman pandemics.
This disorientation—coupled with an explosion of information sources and a slide in confidence in mainstream media—makes conspiracy theories a comforting narrative prop across contemporary societies. Russiagate was QAnon for the college-educated while much Theory is conspiracism overlaid with a thin patina of sophistication.
One of religion’s virtues is its provision of resonant meta-narratives that give meaningful frameworks for events. An ongoing rush of technological change, the collapse of the existing religious order, a flood of information, and disorienting evolutionary novelty, makes the gnostic disposition—a claim to special knowledge—more attractive. Hence the bundle of secular gnosticisms that make up Post-Enlightenment Progressivism and their success.
Institutions and norms evolve to deal with particular constraints, risks, and opportunities. If institutions are well adapted to existing constraint patterns, then feedback from the strategies people pursue will support those institutions. If, however, the constraints change, then so will any successful strategies. Changes in feedback lead to behavioural changes. These either undermine increasingly less functional institutions or generate adaptations in institutions and norms.
What we see with Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) is a socially-evolved structure of ideas, beliefs, taboos, status and social-leverage strategies structured to target bureaucratic pathologies. That is, the bureaucratic tendency to hoard authority, spend resources on itself, and evade the complexities of competence. The progressivism then makes these pathologies worse.
For instance, while there is considerable evidence that cognitive diversity is good for decision-making, DIE imposes a viciously enforced groupthink—or at least intense preference falsification. The notion that such groupthink is good for any firm, organisation, institution, or society is bizarre.
Given the lack of evidence that encouraging groupthink while dividing people into crude categories—with which moral hierarchies are constructed—provides any functional benefit, diversity “training” is closer to an exorcising of bigoted demons. Apart from direct extraction of resources—amounting to billions of dollars—for such ritual services, it feeds mechanisms for creating social and corporate cartels.
Just as the Christian feminising of sexuality and its sanctification (and adjustment) of the Roman synthesis had profound institutional consequences, so also does Post-Enlightenment Progressivism.
ESG (Environmental, Social, and corporate Governance) involves the direction of billions, even trillions, of dollars. As one would expect, it’s being gamed: but gamed in educational, media, and social milieus pervaded by Post-Enlightenment Progressivism.
ESG is a process of cartelisation. Civil rights lawfare and activist mobbing provides enforcement mechanisms that any successful process of cartelisation needs. It’s the modern version of Gleichschaltung (“coordination”), or—using Chinese terminology—a social credit system. Institutions conform to required patterns. Those who dissent are excluded from basic social services.5
Mechanisms like the Corporate Equality Index—which feed into Diversity-Inclusion-Equity—include elements such as recommended company directors, recommended brand ambassadors, and covering activists’ travel costs.
There are also penalties for non-compliance. A firm can be downgraded on various indices, which effects the cost and availability of capital. There is also civil rights lawfare and activist mobbing. All this raises an interesting question as to how close ESG sails to the legal definition of racketeering.
Precisely because there are no accountability mechanisms—with stakeholders elevating the organised over the genuinely representative and legally accountable, while “good” is defined by what is currently fashionable within malleable Theory—it is possible for such systems to “turn on a dime”. This provides another sorting mechanism, one which favours those able to keep up with shifts.
One of these (pathological) processes is expertification. That is, a demand for deference to experts in Theory to tell you what a woman is—or who is authentically black—to navigate categories. James Lindsay is correct when he suggests this is the creation of commissars and inquisitors who strip folk of the ability to decide for themselves.
It’s a normative-dominance strategy to force deference to “correct consciousness”. That is, deference to theoretical expertise that means they detect the real and the authentic. They adjudicate whose lived experience counts—or not—and when.
A particularly corrosive effect is pollution—even pathologisation—of the reputational effects that keep institutions functional. Forced association—especially when combined with hypersensitivity about criticism of favoured identities—undermines an age-old mechanism for dealing with bad behaviour: changing who one deals with.
Conversely, shaming and shunning on the basis of hyperbolic language taboos— unconnected to actual character or capacity—enforces groupthink. This facilitates selection for favoured forms of bad behaviour.
When allied to selection on the basis of favoured categories rather than competence, the combined effect is corrosive to institutional functioning. People are demoralised by all the ways trust in competence is undermined.6 It degrades state capacity and promotes dysfunctional policy—something San Francisco is currently evincing.
It should not be surprising that Theory based on the celebration of subversion and deviance turns out to be disastrous for making things work. The elevation of transformation and equality undermines functionality and quality.
The politics of the transformational future engages in systematic disruption of embedded learning and rejection of wisdom from past experience. There is a very specific denial of there being any male wisdom, including male wisdom about making things work.
The next essay explores the flattening of achievement—and of any sense of what it is to achieve—and how that corrodes our ability to tell stories.
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In the honour dynamics of Middle Eastern lineages, men can gain honour (sharaf), while women can only lose it (‘ird). This difference in dynamics between prestige and propriety can be seen operating in the intense, even vicious, pressures for conformity documented by Joreen Freeman in her 1976 essay ‘Trashing: the Dark Side of Sisterhood’ and by Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge in their 1994 study of Women’s Studies Professing feminism: Cautionary tales from the strange world of women's studies.
Ritual support for coordination and integration can be prosocial (such as large public or congregational rituals) or predatory (as in secret societies extracting/extorting resources).
Dominion capital is the conjunction of human capital (verbal skills and analytical framings) and social capital (connections and networking). These together incorporate skills, knowledge, motivation and networking necessary to coordinate entry into organisations and institutions. Those organisations then shift towards the status and social-leverage strategies of possessors of said capital.
Both are greatly assisted by invoking the Activist’s Fallacy:
We are doing X to achieve Y.
You are critiquing doing X.
You are against Y.
We are doing Diversity-Inclusion-Equity to fight bigotry and disadvantage.
You are critiquing Diversity-Inclusion-Equity.
You are a bigot who defends privilege.
People in disfavoured categories lose motivation. Those in favoured categories doubt whether their capacities are genuinely valued (or have been properly developed). Trust in managers suspected (increasingly correctly) of being diversity hires is undermined.