The Bureaucratisation of Dysfunction
A civilisation of broken feedbacks generates expanding social dysfunction: V
On Saturday January 13th, a piece of mine was featured in “Substack Reads”, the weekly roundup of good writing across the platform. This is the second time Not On Your Team, But Always Fair has drawn Substack’s attention: last year, Lorenzo Warby’s essays got a guernsey.
One effect of something like this is many new subscribers. Welcome!
I’m maintaining our usual writing schedule, which means (for newbies) today’s publication is the forty-first piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: We live in societies where accurate feedback both within and outwith bureaucracies is at a level far below what we need to ensure the survival of technological civilisation.
The publication schedule and links to all Lorenzo’s essays are available here. I do recommend taking some time to explore further: what you see below is a chapter from a forthcoming book.
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My series-within-a-series on broken feedbacks within our civilisation began by looking at prospering by social dysfunction. Urbanisation, technology, prosperity and bureaucratisation all enable the degrading of feedbacks and the generation of networks—coordinated via toxic ideas—that further undermine feedbacks.
The second piece identified incentives to create who-whom? dynamics while further analysing the ability to prosper from social dysfunction. I also discussed progressivism’s pathological relationship with information. The third entry considered weaponising of emotions and the emotional logic of a pathological relationship with information. My fourth essay examined the use of narratives to create insular information bubbles.
Dysfunctional or perverse feedbacks are another type of broken feedback: they work to block or distort information flows. The long-term pattern of bureaucratisation undermining the resilience of polities by preventing or retarding alternative ways of getting things done is a problem. Effective information and feedback structures matter more for long run social functioning than does meritocracy.1 The administrative state’s contemporary expansion has undermined feedback from voters.2
How non-autocratic states fail
Mesoamerica (e.g. the Tlahtōlōyān Tlaxcallan, the Confederacy of Tlaxcala), the Classical Mediterranean, and classical Northern India (the gana-sangha or gana-rajya states) all developed non-autocratic—which is to say open political bargaining—states with deliberative assemblies.3
What killed such polities, or foreclosed their development, were:
(1) problems of scale,
(2) bureaucratisation, and
(3) (revelatory) authority that was held to trump human choice.
In all three civilisations, failure to develop the representative principle blocked their ability to grow. Autocratic states were not limited in the same way, which is why autocracies came to overwhelm non-autocracies.
Bureaucratisation under the Roman Dominate (284-641) atrophied city self-government within the Roman Empire, while the development of bureaucratised autocracy foreclosed the politics of open bargaining in China, hence the lack of self-governing cities and deliberative assemblies. By contrast—while Japan never went beyond ad hoc deliberative assemblies—various levels of open political bargaining remained very much part of its politics. This institutional flexibility had a great deal to do with why Japan was the non-European society that coped best with the Western challenge.
The development of revelation-based law4 ensured that non-autocratic politics did not re-emerge after the Mauryan conquest in India and largely foreclosed such polities in Islam,5 as revelation-based law prevents entrenching political bargains in legislation. Later development of non-autocratic states in both civilisations was a result of Western influence.
Contemporary Western polities are medieval Europe’s heirs. Via the development of the representative principle, aided by the creation of common law and the revival of Roman law—the two great legal traditions that have spread across the planet6—they developed Parliamentarianism as a way to entrench the politics of open political bargaining.
Such politics both enabled—and was extended by—the Emancipation Sequence: abolishing the slave trade; abolishing slavery; Catholic Emancipation; Jewish Emancipation; working-class male suffrage; adult female suffrage; civil rights; equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Western societies are now burdened by institutional overhang from the Emancipation Sequence. This takes in non-profits who need ever more causes to keep donations flowing as well as government, human resources, and other bureaucracies. All have social-imperial ambitions and feed themselves with constant searches for moral projects to be getting on with. The use of the Trans agenda to de-legitimise parental authority—e.g., by hiding a child’s choices from parents—is a manifestation of this, as are the ever-expanding Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (“DIE”) bureaucracies.
The sorting of activists—as those who simply wanted a “seat at the table” get on with their lives when legal equality is achieved while those committed to more radical views remain—is part of this process. Equal rights also failed to generate equal outcomes, which has given motivating appeal—and coordinating power—to Hermetic claims7 of special knowledge about “invisible systems” of oppression.
This marches hand-in-hand with a gnostic disposition8 that sees malign, demiurgic forces at play—the bourgeois, the patriarchy, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity, etc—preventing the emergence of equal outcomes.9
While it’s true that neither past nor future exists, the past is informationally superior: we have no information from the future.10 The Hegelian claim to authority-from-the-future via “knowing” the correct direction of history is spurious. Hegel couldn’t predict the future any more than the Bank of England or Mystic Meg can.11
In a striking historical irony, the Emancipation Sequence institutional overhang supercharges the bureaucratisation and choice-trumping authority claims within developed democracies. These undermine the representative principle and open political bargaining, especially by deploying Theory that delegitimises dissent, justifies inquisitors and commissars—aka diversity officers—and trashes the heritage of open political bargaining. Non-initiates are seen as little more than human clay to be moulded by their betters.
Hence the non-electoral politics of institutional capture that we can see happening around us—mostly obviously with Trans but most comprehensively with Diversity-Equity-Inclusion. The representative principle has not kept up with the evolution of mechanisms that frustrate accountability to the wider citizenry.
Thomas Piketty and his associates document a postwar shift in political conflict from Labour vs. Capital to Human Capital (Brahmin Left) vs. Commercial Capital (Merchant Right). A more direct way to capture what is going on is to note the division between the epistemic industries of academe and education, IT, entertainment, media—among whom the politics of unconstrained vision, of an imagined future, resonates—and the making-stuff industries. Among the latter, a politics of constrained vision, of life as negotiating trade-offs, resonates.
Most of the public sector lines up with the Brahmin Left, not least because progressive politics is typically keen on expanding the state. One of the problems for centre-right politics is how much state apparats—now addicted to expansive moral projects—have become hostile to centre-right politics.
Migration generates one such inherent policy conundrum. Public servants have a fourfold interest in high migration. Increased migration drives up the value of their houses; it drives up the value of their human capital; it drives up the welfare demand for their services; and it undermines the ability of local communities to stick up for themselves because it destroys locality-based social capital. It also generates cheap service labour.
These advantages also accrue to a supporting coterie of non-profits, commentators, and business interests. Characterising critics of migration as racist or xenophobic provides useful binding motivation and in-group/out-group enforcement for what amounts to a social cartel.
Tech mogul Peter Thiel’s point that dysfunctional housing markets drive social and political patterns is a powerful one. The inherent benefit to public servants of high immigration—and the systematic decoupling of policy from voter choice—means, for instance, British voters have had a dysfunctional migration policy foisted on them, one they never voted for and have never supported.
Achieving voter control over British migration policy is almost certainly going to require the creation of a separate Department of Immigration, one with an interest in being seen to be competent at border control. As long as migration remains a Home Office matter, the general interest of public servants in a dysfunctional migration policy—one that generates more social pathologies for the welfare state to colonise—is going to continue to win out.
Ironically—despite present events—the US has something of a corrective mechanism. The Zoned Zone cities restrict housing supply to drive up the value of existing housing stock, including property tax assessments. This causes spiralling housing costs that drive voters from Democratic Blue States to Republican Red States.
Like all social phenomena, bureaucracies are subject to evolutionary processes. SciFi writer Jerry Pournelle picked up an evolutionary pattern:
Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
Ameliorating social ills is the original purpose of the welfare state. Colonising social pathologies maintains and expands the welfare state. Without powerful countervailing pressures, the welfare state evolves from a mechanism to address social ills into a mechanism for colonising social pathologies. In Australia, we can see this process happening particularly virulently in indigenous policy, where billions have been spent for remarkably little benefit.
Powerful self-policing norms and external accountability are the only ways to have income-and-authority incentives not dominate how bureaucracies operate. We can see in the the US West Coast’s “homelessness industrial complex” a particularly grotesque swamping of the former by the latter.
An important feature of all this runaway managerialism, is that almost none of it is about the core institutional mission itself. It is not about teaching students, or making tea or running an online encyclopedia. It is instead perversely recursive, addressed to the internal management of the institution. This is why so much of it seems to be, well, bullshit.
Simple corruption would be vastly preferable to this cancer.
Managerialism is an ever-advancing process of decay masquerading as an administrative system, and it has become a defining pathology of Western civilisation. Our lives are run by massive institutions in thrall to complex forces beyond all human understanding, which every day become more convoluted, unpredictable and self-serving. This parasitic, tumorous growth now commands the resources of a great part of the economy, and it uses these resources to grow itself still further. Worst of all, nobody has any idea about how to stop it, let alone reverse its terrible progress.
The addition of diversity officers—inquisitors and commissars—worsens the pattern. This is not only because it adds to managerialist moral pretension but also because it further entrenches selecting for category over capacity: affirmative action, in other words. It also selects against good character. As noted in my previous essay, any such organisation will come to be dominated by the sort of manipulative Stalinist apparatchiks who rise to the top in societies with inquisitors and commissars.
The rest of the Diversity-Inclusion-Equity push further aggravates bureaucratic dysfunction. This takes place through the diversion of resources; through increasing internal friction and distrust via emphasising difference; various struggle sessions parading as diversity training, and through elevating conformity over competence—including use of diversity statements as conformity-enhancing selection filters.12
Appointment, selection, and credentialing by category systematically degrades competence signals, which are key feedbacks for the functioning of a complex, technologically advanced society.
DIE shifts an organisation’s original function from outcome-based teamwork to internal focussing by adding DEI goals.13 Workplace solidarity often replaced with a cliquey, no-bad-feels, one-upping propriety that has a paralysing effect on institutions.
Language is a social technology to which we are physiologically and cognitively adapted. Where eusocial insects—ants, termites, bees, wasps—use pheromones, touch, movement, even dance, to convey coordinating information, we Homo sapiens rely on language, augmented by gestures, posture, and facial expressions.
A living organism uses resources and information to maintain itself. Living organisms use a series of Maxwell’s Demon-like algorithms that select-in what maintains the organism and selects-out (including expel) what is hostile, thereby creating entropy-resisting stability. Ageing is a decline in capacity to resist entropy. Death represents a dramatic increase in entropy through massive loss of information. We call the cessation of resistance to entropy “decay and putrefaction”.
Organism complexity has an entropy problem. I’ve argued elsewhere that sexual reproduction is a filtering mechanism that increases the chance of an offspring representing a resilient investment in complexity. It also generates genetic variety that makes it easier to search for, and exploit, viable ecological niches. The former tests the viability of complexity, the latter maximises its advantages (within the limits of genetic inheritance).
Social complexity also has an entropy problem: hence collapses of complex societies.14 Anything that degrades feedbacks undermines social ordering, increasing dysfunction and entropy. Entropic bankruptcy proceeds like the more familiar sort—gradually, then suddenly.
One of the ironic features of command economies—and authoritarian systems more generally—is that they appear to be highly ordered. However, those living under them experience a “crushed” order that actually generates a high level of dysfunction, of hidden (or not so hidden) chaos. Hence a propensity for cascading collapse when their ordering of public discourse fractures. Such politics degrades the social technology of language and represent an explicit commitment to blocking feedback.
Another degradation of language is to use words that mean one thing to the general public and another to the in-group—using the same vocabulary but a different dictionary—to coordinate among believers. Such use of language for in-group coordination comes at serious social cost. It degrades decision-making mechanisms and enforces a feedback-blocking conformity that, when allied to self-curating information-siloing, creates insular information bubbles.
Bureaucracies and strongly tribal networks insulate people from bad decisions, another feedback loss (or distortion). The overwhelmingly dominant cultural hegemony of progressives also means that failure does not get in the way of continued employment. The way Paula Vennells floated from plum job to plum job over a period of decades until finally brought down by the worst miscarriage of justice in British legal history is illustrative.
The pervasive bureaucratisation encourages gated institutional narratives: things you have to adhere to, to be “kosher”—so as to get the goodies the institution hands out. Legitimating, motivating “truth” frames everything, including use of evidence.
Any time the asking of inconvenient questions, citing of inconvenient facts, or belonging to the “wrong” group, is treated as morally delinquent, feedbacks will be broken or distorted. Accountability will be degraded and dysfunctional social entropy will increase. See the surge in homicides after US anti-police activism and the waves of crime from refusal to prosecute members of designated oppressed groups in particular jurisdictions. Then there’s the refusal to consider the downsides of migration and of particular migrant groups, particularly for vulnerable groups, or the negative aspects of feminisation, and so on.
How many young graduates—including from elite universities—who go into media and other epistemic industries have the analytical tools to examine public policy questions that are not usefully amenable to a (Critical) Social Justice framing? This is especially as they’ve been trained not to even consider information tagged with various boo-words.
A civilisation of broken feedbacks
We live in societies where information feedbacks operate well below what is resilient for our societies, or the survival of technological civilisation. Whether it is from epistemic industries actively sabotaging the ability of our societies to talk to themselves; division into siloed information cultures; social complexity separating people from the consequences of their actions, even, along with technology, from physical realities; or addictive food cultures gaming our taste buds while degrading our metabolisms and our mental health.
This is an environment ripe for the evolution of self-replicating, networked status games that target those areas most insulated from effective feedbacks, moralising the use of emotions to create social leverage and further degrade effective feedbacks.
One of the major themes of our times is that those who utterly dominate the cultural commanding heights take no responsibility for social dysfunction. Not least because so much of our media and education systems have become about what falsehoods and distortions one has to accept to be of the Good and Smart.
Narrative-driven journalism popularises narrative-driven scholarship: decayed journalism arising from decayed scholarship. Self-regulation by the universities— interacting with perverse funding incentives, particularly from grants—has been a grotesque failure.
Catastrophism—climate catastrophe, race catastrophe, trans catastrophe, Covid catastrophe, Trump catastrophe15—all are peddled so as to enable moral grandstanding. All de-legitimise institutional memory and justify accountability-degrading measures to grab resources.16
Critical Theory and all that proceeds from it is social alchemy theory: burn away the exploiting and alienating social dross and the transformative future will emerge, like gold from base metal. The explicit purpose is to increase social entropy, to bring down the existing social order without any idea of how to construct any new society.17
The embracing by academics and students of the Hamazi body-cam pogrom as “decolonisation” resisting “settler colonialism” against oppressor Jews exposed how far universities—particularly elite universities—manifest Voltaire’s claim that:
Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnoient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste.
There have been people who once said, you believe incomprehensible, contradictory, impossible things, because we have ordered you to do so; therefore do unjust things because we order you to do so. These people reasoned wonderfully. Certainly, whoever has the right to make you absurd has the right to make you unjust.
It is utterly unsurprising that policies derived from ideas intended to create and increase social entropy do what they say on the tin. Our universities—by pumping a systemic and intended increase in social entropy into our societies—allow useful idiots to protect themselves with moral-status narratives that depict them as of the Good and Smart.18
Performative empathy as maximiser of social entropy. This is the sort of thing that does not end well.
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Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, State University of New York Press, 1997.
Arnold Kling, Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides, Cato Institute,  2017.
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Richard Trudgen, Why Warriors Lay Down And Die: towards an understanding of why the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land face the greatest crisis in health and education since European contact : djambatj mala, Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.
Robert P. Abelson, ‘Beliefs Are Like Possessions,’ Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16, 3 October 1986, 223-250.
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M.B, Petersen, M. Osmundsen, & J. Tooby, ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood,’ in (David C. Barker and Elizabeth Suhay eds.) The Politics of Truth in Polarized America: Concepts, Causes and Correctives, Oxford University Press, 2020.
Harold Robertson, ‘Complex Systems Won’t Survive the Competence Crisis,’ Palladium: Governance Futurism, June 1, 2023. https://www.palladiummag.com/2023/06/01/complex-systems-wont-survive-the-competence-crisis/
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No amount of meritocratic selection can rescue command economies from their information and incentive problems. The economic calculation problem is real, even if it results in degraded outcomes rather than making comprehensive planning impossible. People simply adjust to it in various (very sub-optimal) ways: black markets, barter networks, and using pricing data from mercantile economies.
The growth of the administrative state has a great deal to do with how neoliberalism has increasingly turned into corporations seeking—in James Lindsay’s brutal phrasing—to purchase their preferred regulatory environment.
All societies have various levels of implicit social bargaining.
A key element in the Brahmin response to Buddhism—and the other Sramana movements such as Jainism—whereby the Vedic religion evolved into “Hinduism”. Imagine, for example, if Neoplatonism had successfully revitalised paganism and held off the Christian challenge.
The tradition of the kurultai was retained in Muslim steppe polities, but they were largely restricted to selecting the next khan and other matters not covered by Sharia. The corsair Republic of Sale (1627-1668) was fairly clearly a copy of Christian self-governing cities, being founded by Moriscos. It was overwhelmed by a dynasty able to scale up.
Sharia is the other legal tradition, and even it adapts a lot of Roman commercial law.
Hegel was explicitly a Hermetic thinker. From Hegel, via Marx, a secularised Hermeticism of “special knowledge” about alienation, exploitation and the direction of history—interwoven with the gnosticism of seeing society as riddled with malign forces—has been the basis for the politics of the transformational future. It looks religious because it is.
(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 a gnostic disposition to gnosticism proper when the above becomes a claim to knowledge.
Given the differences in genetic distributions of traits and differences in life strategies (i.e. cultures) between human populations, equal outcomes are never going to happen. “Wokery” is Hermetic gnosticism—i.e., special knowledge of malign forces—that mobilises and justifies a refusal to acknowledge this reality.
Except when they fail to adapt to sufficiently high levels of social stress, conservatives do not create the social disasters that progressives do, as the past is informationally superior to the future. Conservatives are thus dealing in more reality-tested ideas than are progressives. Hence, the more institutionally dominant progressives are, the more dysfunctional policies there will be. This explains San Fransisco and its Homelessness Industrial Complex.
This is equivalent to the claims of revelatory authority that underpin Sharia and Brahmin law.
As James Lindsay notes, it is part of a general pattern of entryism where folk with the correct opinions are pushed into institutions and those without are pushed out.
James Lindsay notes that the purpose of Theory is to spread Theory (or kill the organisation if it resists Theory). Such Theory generates a particularly intense set of identity-creating cognitive commitments. Spreading adherence spreads “being moral” and increases the local concentration of those playing—and so supporting—the same status and social leverage games.
That we have been a technological species from at least the beginning of the genus Homo makes even forager societies vulnerable to falling below the level needed to sustain relevant survival skills. The complete replacement of forager populations is a recurring pattern in human prehistory.
If you speak against such narratives, you lose standing within the in-group. Harm done to folk outside the in-group does not resonate: transferring attention away from considerable suffering can be moralised. Hence, referring to “Asian grooming gangs” as Muslim, or Pakistani, is a more salient transgression than is the systematic rape and prostitution of thousands of (mostly underage) girls while extraordinary rates of father-daughter incest become unmentionable.
Herbert Marcuse tells us he has no clue:
What kind of life? We are still confronted with the demand to state the “concrete alternative.” The demand is meaningless if it asks for a blueprint of the specific institutions and relationships which would be those of the new society: they cannot be determined a priori; they will develop, in trial and error, as the new society develops. If we could form a concrete concept of the alternative today, it would not be that of an alternative; the possibilities of the new society are sufficiently “abstract,” i.e., removed from and incongruous with the established universe to defy any attempt to identify them in terms of this universe.
Max Horkheimer says essentially the same thing:
The Critical Theory which I conceived later is based on the idea that one cannot determine, what is good, what a good, a free society would look like from within the society which we live in. We lack the means. But in our work we can bring up the negative aspects of this society, which we want to change.
What we might call the Brad DeLong effect: admitting that there is a problem would require some level of agreeing with conservatives, so is foreclosed.