A civilisation of broken feedbacks generates expanded social dysfunction: III
This is the thirty-ninth piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: The no-bad-feels defence of cognitive identity is why wound collecting—“you are denying my right to exist”—has become a substitute for debate.
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My previous essay discussed how things that progressives get hold of go to crap because progressives have a pathological relationship with information. That pathology has an underlying emotional logic.
The imagined future progressives use as benchmark isn’t real. This gives them a huge rhetorical advantage: a future from which there’s no information is free from complicating sins and trade-offs. It can be imagined to be as perfect as one wishes.
That rhetorical advantage comes at huge cost for human flourishing. The problem is not the wish to do better. It is using one’s vision of the future as the benchmark for judgement rather than testing it against the accumulated experience of human action. This is especially so when mechanisms are adopted to block any testing.
Using the imagined future as one’s benchmark naturally inclines one to adopt a perfectionist outlook as perfectionism shines most brightly. However, perfectionist standards devalue human achievement, because all achievement is imperfect. Any failing can readily be construed as a de-legitimising failure.
Filtering out imperfection also means filtering out inconvenient complexities and nuance. The sinfulness of the (untransformed) past and present become grounds for not testing one’s vision against the accumulated wisdom of human experience. Instead, past and present are construed in ways that serve the vision, thereby filtering and discounting the only sources of information we have.
Meanwhile, any disagreement from those not committed to perfection lacks legitimacy, so is both discounted and denigrated. Even “lived experience” only operates properly if it supports that commitment to a transformational future. Only properly conceived experience—that which comports with the imagined future and its associated Theory—is legitimate.
This explains the creation of Kafka traps, where disagreement becomes a sign of moral failure, of epistemic inadequacy, so of moral and cognitive guilt. To deny one’s racism, for example, demonstrates complicity in racism. Only commitment to the transformational future represents genuine anti-racism.
If constraint is defined as oppression1—in line with underlying perfectionism — then, because disagreement is a constraint, disagreement becomes oppression. If you build your moral and cognitive identity as being of the Smart and Good because of your beliefs—so your cognitive identity—then disagreement threatens that identity, so must be malignant and illegitimate.
To disagree with folk who are emotionally invested in political beliefs—who use beliefs, protected behind a mask of morality, as social leverage and status plays—gets very unpleasant. They lash out at, or otherwise punish, those whose disagreement undermines their identity, their sense of status. If believing X shows one to be of the Smart and the Good, then believing not-X becomes a mark of malice, ignorance, stupidity.
This is why Wokery’s entirely instrumental name-calling—based on what is operationally effective, not what is accurate—has way more resonance than it should. People are terrified that the various taboo labels (racist!, bigot!, transphobe!, etc.), if wielded against them, means that they’ll be denied connections they value. Cancel culture—where people lose jobs and have careers destroyed by falling afoul of the no-bad-feels discourse taboos—is the extreme end of this threat of shunning and isolation.
There is a persistent pattern of progressives demanding respect for their moral judgements while clearly feeling entitled to treat others’ moral judgements with contempt. Part of the reason they resist labels—not only “woke” but also Yascha Mounk and Andrew Doyle’s more descriptive terms—is because they are “simply being moral”. Their sense of owning morality is palpable.
In organisations where a dissent-intolerant progressive minority hits critical mass, continuous and systematic antipathy to disagreement drives people who disagree to be silent or to leave. This leads to cognitive conformity that’s bad for decision-making. It generates ever higher rates of preference falsification.
The politics of imagined-future-as-benchmark are very different from those of the Emancipation Sequence. That involved abolition of the slave trade; abolishing slavery; Catholic Emancipation; Jewish Emancipation; adult male suffrage; female suffrage, civil rights; equal rights for women, and equal rights for gays and lesbians. This sequence was where successive groups made a case to become full institutional participants in existing society, thereby having “a seat at the table”.
Such politics does not reject, but builds on, and extends, what is already working.2
Imagined-future-as-benchmark progressivism, by contrast, regularly promotes untested ideas based on a template systematically insulated from reality testing. With grim irony—given that there are limited options for doing things at scale—its oh-so-progressive ideas can turn out to be a reversion to past patterns, dressed up in contemporary clothing.3
Marxism has proven particularly prone to such atavistic reversion. North Korea— where a ruling dynasty presides over a bureaucratic command economy and the state owns the land—represents a pattern that dates back to pharaonic Egypt (with its nascent statistical service), Qin China, and the Inca Empire.4 The Soviet Union re-introduced state slavery with its labour camp system and—from June 1940 to April 1956—operated as an agro-industrial serfdom: workers had to get their workplace’s permission to change jobs.5
None of this grim history counts as a warning. If good things did not happen, obviously such attempts were not done right: there was some failure to apply correct Theory. Give the new set of progressives power and they will get it right, for they have achieved the necessary advance in Theory. Hence we have diversity officers operating as latter day commissars and inquisitors, but it is all completely different from past commissars and inquisitors, honest. Except that is exactly how they operate.6
Moral perfectionism also requires a refusal to accept the reality—especially the constraining reality—of trade-offs. Pervasive rejection and delegitimisation of the reality that trade-offs are how things work leads to a profoundly truncated understanding of how, and what is needed, to make things work. In particular, it leads to a systematic downplaying of the problems of order, which are all about managing trade-offs.
Perfectionist systems greatly understate the problems of order. You see this not only in Marxism and other forms of transformational politics, but also in libertarianism. As Professor of Humanities Costica Bradatan observes:
Karl Marx’s bon mot, in Theses on Feuerbach (1845), that “Hitherto philosophers have sought to understand the world; henceforth they must seek to change it”, was not the beginning of a political liberation, then, but that of a great intellectual confusion. How can one change a world one does not understand?
If, however, you cut off enough sources of information, if you have a sufficiently pathological attitude to information—particularly if you de-legitimise substantive disagreement and contradicting experience in advance—you can wildly overstate your own level of understanding.
The information pathologies keep building. To be socially successful is to be of the oppressors, while to be of the socially unsuccessful is to be of the oppressed. This further corrodes an understanding of what works, of what makes for human achievement. If you elevate success as sin and failure as virtue, you’ll generate a lot of failure.
The more emotionally childish one is, the easier it is to sell the line that constraint is oppression, indeed, to experience constraint as oppression. Simplifying perfectionism appeals to a childish hatred of inconvenient complexity. It appeals to, and invigorates, individual or collective narcissism. Those with strong narcissistic tendencies are naturally inclined to demand performative perfectionism: nothing else is good enough.
It is to this sort of ultimately narcissistic mindset that social alchemy theory appeals. The notion—expressed in Critical Theory but also present in Marxism—that if the structures of oppression are burnt away, the transformational future will emerge, is close to the alchemical belief that, if base metal is burnt away, gold will be revealed. All forms of Critical Constructivism operate on this basis. If oppressive past constraints are burnt away, a golden future will emerge.
The notion is utterly mad, and institutionally destructive—indeed, openly so—yet it provides for a highly motivating senses of transcendence and meaning.
The Israel-Hamas war—triggered by a body-cam pogrom—shows this morally inflated narcissistic childishness on full toxic display. Israel = settler colonialism. Hamas = decolonisation. That is all the framing needed. The sort of civilised commentary that, say, Josh Szeps provides is drowned out by performative moral perfectionists demanding that their simplicities trump any inconvenient complexity.
The Confucian, Classical and medieval idea that immersion in the deeds of the past was a buttress for moral order turns out to have something to it. While the technological dynamism of our societies generates genuinely new dilemmas, the politics of the imagined future as benchmark for judgement provides no solutions to any of them.
The ideas that flowed into Postcolonial Theory had a long history of elevating emotion, and sensibility, over reason. There is a direct line from Rousseau—he of Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains—elevating the free emotions of the noble savage, of a natural sensibility unfettered by the oppressive constraints of civilisation—to the Hegel—>Marx—>Critical Theory—>Fanon—>Postcolonial Theory sequence. The mad rhetoric tying White Supremacy to logic and punctuality, or attacking Patriarchal Reason, has a history. There is much elevation of correct, unfettered sensibility over reason—and the complexities of reality—in Marcuse, for instance.7
But not any emotions, not any sensibility: only correct emotions and correct sensibility. Hate speech—a Soviet coining designed to undermine freedom of thought and speech—and that’s offensive—explicitly de-legitimises incorrect feelings and strips people of the authority to speak to protect feelings.
This insistence on correct feeling (“critical consciousness”)—no matter how much Theory is erected to generate a pseudo-sophisticate facade for what is ultimately a simplistic, emotionally satisfying, perfectionism—is a recurring pattern. Hence, for instance, the collective narcissism of Feminism, where to criticise men is feminism, but to criticise women is misogyny; where women are a superior form of Homo sapien (“believe all women”); where criticising problems with female-typical management styles and work practices is verboten; and which resists—to put it mildly—holding adult conversations about the deep evolutionary novelty of abandoning presumptive sex roles.
The possibility that cliquey emotionality—with a weak concept of teamwork but with strong tendencies to shame and shun—might be a touch problematic is definitely not something to be raised. Women in overwhelmingly male work spaces can find their dynamics emotionally bruising. Men in overwhelmingly female work spaces can find their dynamics emotionally smothering. Being able to discuss and criticise poor male behaviour has clearly led to better behaviour on net. Not being able to discuss and criticise poor female behaviour hasn’t.
Patriarchy becomes an identity-protection term, used to blame any problem on men. This enables the evasion of any inconvenient responsibilities entailed by the expanded social roles feminists demand.
Meanwhile, critical examination—especially of the downsides of feminisation—threatens feminist identification of women as a superior class of human beings. This prejudice has been on display in recent offerings from Western film and TV—especially with the deliberate trashing and/or replacement of iconic male characters—to shrinking audiences. Systematically denigrating half your potential audience tends to be bad for the box office.
What is the archetypal maternal role? Managing emotionally intimate connections within the family. What is the archetypal paternal role? Managing the risks and realities of the outside world. The shift from the resilient dignity of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” to the bad-feels-not-allowed of “that’s offensive!” is a shift from a masculinised to a feminised moral culture.
The elevation of correct feeling—and a weaponising of emotion intensified by social media—is all the easier in societies with feminised child care, feminised primary schools, feminised secondary schools, and, increasingly feminised universities. No wonder we end up with young folk who dissolve in floods of tears—or engage in other tantrums—when someone disagrees with them about the beliefs they use to build cognitive identities.
Social media corrosively intensifies cliquey emotionality—through mobbing—while narrowing feedbacks. As Matt Taibbi notes with internet culture, “a lot of people are captured by their neuroses”. This is exacerbated by lack of face-to-face contact, which means people interact with online slivers of each other.
The no-bad-feels defence of cognitive identity based on intensely moralised politics is why wound collecting—“you are denying my identity”—becomes a substitute for debate, a way of delegitimising dissent and boosting authority. Ironically, the most extreme version of this comes not from feminists but from trans activists using the classic Cluster B personality tactic of threatening suicide if they do not get what they want.
As taking biological sex seriously is a constraint, the endless fluidity of constraint-is-oppression, imagined-future politics is currently working away to trash women’s rights. The status quo—any status quo, as, to exist, it must involve trade-offs and constraints—is inadequate if judged by the benchmark of the imagined, so perfect, future.
In the politics of the transformational future, being is always trumped by becoming. Hence becoming “female” trumps being female. The becoming trumps being pattern goes all the way back to Hegel.
Science merely studies what is: of course it must be subordinated to rightful becoming. Hegel said that his system represented a higher form of knowing than mere science. This is claim is pervasive among the various derivatives from Hegel that constitute “wokery”.
One way the past can be invoked is as a litany of sin. Being from a historically marginalised or oppressed group elevates one’s moral status, just as being of a historically dominant or oppressing group lowers it. As the past cannot be changed, a permanent moral hierarchy is thereby set up to justify a set of mobilisable emotional responses to different identities. But, as we’ve discovered with the recent surge in “decolonising” Jew-hatred, the racialisation of identity is, indeed, the racialisation of identity.
Strangely, balkanising the demos in this way turns out to have a lot of appeal in elite circles. Always remember, this toxic nonsense comes out of elite universities. After a brief interlude where they argued for a colour blind society, the Democratic Party in the US has reverted to its historically dominant pattern: racialising politics. It’s just reversed the hierarchies.8 That this behaviour tends to advantage local elites has not changed, however.
Making things worse
The politics of the transformational future is both informationally and emotionally pathological. Emotionally pathological in generating angry, intolerant, self-righteous moral entitlement; informationally pathological in treating past and present as realms of sin. The combination of emotional and informational pathology means that anything that transformational progressivism gets hold of turns to various levels of crap.
In US cities where the social justice politics of the transformational future have become most entrenched, one sees the middle class squeezed, past successes against crime reversed, and elementary public services decaying—to the extent of not being able to keep human faeces off the streets. There’s skyrocketing homelessness, open-air drug markets, and disastrous school outcomes. This mass of bad outcomes arises from a politics of moral perfectionism at war with feedback and trade-offs.
Marxism entrenched within Western intellectual and academic life the notion that the most successful, free and prosperous societies in human history were inherently oppressive. Moreover, it did this on the basis of a theory that was not only false—the theory of surplus value—but a theory that is inherently murderous in its implications.9
The Theories formalising this pathological attitude to information have evolved in an academe ever more insulated from reality tests. As praxis, the combining of Theory with activism—a combination basic to Critical Theory in all its derivations10—it has infected, via toxic networks of recent graduates who have accepted the moral imperative to be “change agents”—the institutions of ever more bureaucratised, urbanised and productive societies.11
International or supranational bureaucracies—with their weak accountability—have become strong vectors for such Theory and practice. That our societies have more and more decision-makers insulated from the consequences of their decisions has created massive institutional vulnerability.
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Joyce F. Benenson with Henry Markovits, Warriors and Worriers: the Survival of the Sexes, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, State University of New York Press, 1997.
Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (eds), The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, Hoover Institution Press, 2003.
Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lives: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Harvard University Press,  1997.
Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, Red Pill Press,  2012.
Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Daphne Patai & Noretta Koertge, Professing feminism: Cautionary tales from the strange world of women's studies, Basic Books/Hachette Book Group, 1994.
George Soros, The Alchemy of Finance, John Wiley & Sons, [1987, 1994] 2003.
Thomas Sowell. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, William Morrow, 1987.
Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent, Harvard University Press, 2003.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Jo Freeman, ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,’ Ms magazine, April 1976, pp. 49-51, 92-98.
Dan M. Kahan, ‘The Expressive Rationality of Inaccurate Perceptions,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2017, 40, E6.
Tim Kaiser, Marco Del Giudice, Tom Booth, ‘Global sex differences in personality: Replication with an open online dataset,’ Journal of Personality, 2020, 88, 415–429.
Jacob Mchangama, ‘The Sordid Origin of Hate-Speech Laws: A tenacious Soviet legacy,’ Hoover Institute, December 1, 2011. https://www.hoover.org/research/sordid-origin-hate-speech-laws.
Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino, ‘Signaling Virtuous Victimhood as Indicators of Dark Triad Personalities,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, 2020, Vol. 2, No. 999.
Harold Robertson, ‘Complex Systems Won’t Survive the Competence Crisis,’ Palladium Magazine, June 1, 2023. https://www.palladiummag.com/2023/06/01/complex-systems-wont-survive-the-competence-crisis/
Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen, ‘The rise and fall of rationality in language,’ PNAS, 2021, Vol. 118, No. 51, e2107848118.
David P. Schmitt, Martin Voracek, Anu Realo, Ju¨ri Allik, ‘Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 1, 168–182.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Adam Waytz, Liane L. Young, and Jeremy Ginges, ‘Motive attribution asymmetry for love vs. hate drives intractable conflict,’ PNAS, November 4, 2014, vol. 111, no. 44, 15687–15692.
Robb Willer, Ko Kuwabara, Michael W. Macy, ‘The False Enforcement of Unpopular Norms,’ American Journal of Sociology, Volume 115, Number 2 (September 2009), 451–90.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.
Marcuse’s grandiose rhetoric about liberation (for instance, in his Essay on Liberation) regularly takes constraint to be oppression.
A standard argument against such inclusion is “if you let them in, it will stop working”.
Command or commerce are the only options for economic organisation at scale. Manorial systems, going back to the palace and temple economies of Mesopotamia, are a dispersed command system—especially if tied to the warrior franchises we call feudalism— hough they can go with quite a high level of commerce.
Andrei Sokolov, ‘Forced Labor in Soviet Industry: The End of the 1930s to the Mid-1950s, An Overview’, Pp 23-45, in Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (eds), The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, Hoover Institution Press, 2003, Pp25, 38.
No institution that generates inquisitors and commissars should be funded in any way by taxpayers.
Queer Black Feminism, notably the Combahee River Collective, is the birthplace of much of what has become known as “wokery”. Nonetheless, those CRC ideas have evolved to suit what is effective for motivating and coordinating networks of activists. This process of evolution means that referring to original theorists—such as various French intellectuals—to understand what is going on should be limited to what makes sense when explaining the things activists say and do.
Market minorities get targeted in part because the way they earn their income can seem mysterious to outsiders. The theory of surplus value turns that mystery into parasitism by a pseudo-sophisticated failure to analyse commerce accurately. Marxism does not solve the superficial mystery, it weaponises it.
What later became Jim Crow—under-policing localities, under-providing education, using social order laws and taxes to disenfranchise, periodic lynchings—was the system originally developed in the Antebellum South to repress the “poor white trash”, or “masterless men”. It was then racialised and re-directed to ex-slaves and their descendants while the Lost Cause myth sought to incorporate those previously excluded and repressed. This shuffling back and forth who is excluded or included—especially rhetorically—has a long history in Democratic politics.
An astonishing increase in the incomes of the top 1% plus expanding bureaucratisation has bled off much of that increased production. Meanwhile, mass low-skill migration has suppressed wages, broken up local social capital, increased congestion and shelter costs, and transferred the benefits of increased production to migrants and holders of capital.