Winning through social dysfunction
A civilisation of broken feedbacks generates expanding social dysfunction: I
This is the thirty-seventh piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Meritocracy, managerialism, and high Theory are combining in toxic ways to remove reality tests and undermine accurate feedback throughout the developed world.
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A living organism uses information1 and resources to maintain itself. Everything social is emergent from the biological. A key component of any social system is its feedback effects—how information and incentives interact.
There is, for example, a tendency to overestimate the value of meritocracy compared with the importance of information flows, incentives, and feedback effects. Meritocracy was not a feature of Western European polities until the c19th. It explains little of Europe’s global dominance.
Artillery corps pioneered meritocratic selection, due to the technical expertise required. The Royal Navy—which was something of a floating artillery park—operated on the basis of meritocracy and seniority. But it was only with the adoption—copied from China—of selection-by-examination in the c19th that meritocracy began to spread throughout Western institutions. Before then, patronage2 and purchase3 — leavened by duelling and sunk cost investment in grand rural residences4 —created an effective governing elite.
The transition to mass armies did increase selection—noble participation in warfare shifted to appointment as officers, rather than mobilisation of their military entourages. Selection was nonetheless still by patronage and purchase rather than examination.
The Ottoman and Qing Empires were both much more systematically meritocratic than their European rivals. The disaster of the Battle of Vienna and after, and then the Opium Wars, demonstrated how functional feedback—effective information and incentive structures—mattered more than meritocracy on its own. Such feedback—including from political bargaining—led to states with much greater capacity to tax and borrow. European states, notably Britain, also had better mechanisms for selecting on the basis of character.
Innovation and social rot
Cities are a creation of civilisation. They emerge out of humans creating social order once a certain population density and related capacity to transport and store food develops.
As places constructed to arrange—even control—nature for human convenience, cities are also inherently socially liberalising. That is, unlike rural existence—which seeks to wrest resources and survive in a potentially hostile natural environment—cities tend to be dominated by interactions with other humans in human-created environments. They make human choices more dominant.
As economist Jane Jacobs pointed out, cities dominate innovation, including commercial innovation. Much of what we celebrate about human civilisation comes out of dense interactions within cities. Such dense interactions generate technology, which also has a liberalising effect. Technology undermines natural constraints and further increases the importance of human interaction and choice.
Yet, to a large degree, social collapse also comes out of cities, as Muslim polymath ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) famously argued. Precisely because they are human-created environments where human interactions are dominant, cities can also become places where broken—or otherwise dysfunctional—feedbacks generate corrosive ideas and patterns of behaviour. Prosperity—which surrounds folk with material convenience—produces further insulation from adverse or unwelcome feedbacks. Ibn Khaldun argued that the pleasures of city living tended to undermine what he called asabiyya, social solidarity.
These effects are stronger when urbanisation is married to bureaucratisation. Cities and bureaucracies are both social arrangements prone to generating insular feedbacks. That is, they produce structures whose connection to wider reality is either inhibited or broken, so that internal feedback structures come to dominate. This effect is increased when bureaucratisation increases the number of people who do not bear the costs of their decisions, which increases the salience of self-referential status and social-leverage plays.
Another area prone to insular feedback is intellectual life, particularly in an academic setting. There, reality tests are often thin or absent. Sometimes, selection based on insular status dynamics and approval replaces them. So, if you want to generate maximum un-reality, have ideas developed in academic environments—without reality tests—invade expanding bureaucracies in highly urbanised, technologically advanced societies.
Who knows, you might end up deciding a person with a penis is a woman. Or that the freest, most liberal, most democratic, most prosperous societies in human history are fundamentally structures of oppression, thereby vitiating any serious notion of human achievement. Or various other ways of engaging in un-reality while worshipping the splendour in your head.
A civilisation of broken feedbacks
We Westerners live in the most urbanised, most human-interaction dominated, most-technologically capable, mass-prosperity civilisation in human history.
Unsurprisingly, we also live in the most socially liberal civilisation in human history.
In recent decades, Western civilisation has also become a civilisation of broken feedbacks, infested with ideas of astonishing unreality. While—in the light of dynamics outlined above—this is not surprising, there are discreet factors affecting which ideas of toxic unreality have spread, and why, and what specific patterns of corrosively broken feedbacks have arisen.
One is the standard way meritocracy decays: selecting for capacity (intelligence and executive function) but not for character. Over time, more-and-more manipulative personalities are selected for, undermining norm-coherence, and making institutions and organisations less pro-social in their operation.5 This process is intensified in periods of elite overproduction, as more people compete for proportionately fewer elite social niches.6 This intensified competition favours manipulative personalities.
Various forms of affirmative action—nowadays re-categorised as Diversity—that select for neither capacity nor character are also corrosive. In the US—which has had affirmative longest among developed democracies—this is creating a spreading competency crisis that threatens the collapse of complex systems.
Across state, non-profit, and corporate sectors, we see expanding bureaucratisation, resulting in bureaucratic pathologies. These pathologies include the tendency to hoard authority, to spend resources on the bureaucracy itself, and to evade the complexities of competence. All are led by decision-makers who do not bear the costs of their decisions.
This has been aggravated by managerialism—which elevates the moral and organisational pretensions of managers. Along with the moralisation of capacity-as-merit, managerialism undermines any notion of custodianship in favour of expanding moral projects to colonise institutions. This has been aggravated thanks to Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”), which evolved to target bureaucratic pathologies with distinctive anti-custodial moral projects.
Diversity-Equity-Inclusion (DEI) gives bureaucracy the moral standing of “fighting bigotry” and pursuing “social justice”. It also enables the deployment of the Activist’s Fallacy7 in its defence. It consumes resources via DEI training—which can extend to “struggle session” psychological torture—and DEI officers.
DEI is a substitute—with its easy-but-spurious metrics for “success”—for the complexities of competence. The UK’s recent debanking controversy provides a particularly blatant example of substitutes for competence. Bureaucratisation feeds on itself, creating what has been nicely characterised as a doom-loop:
…the larger and more complex an organization grows, the exponentially more managers are needed; managers therefore have a strong incentive to ensure their organization continues to grow larger and more complex, resulting in greater relative power for the managers; more growth means more managers must be hired, who then push for more expansion, including by rationalizing a need for their cancerous bureaucracy to take over ever more functions of the broader economy and society; as more and more territory is surrendered to bureaucratic management, more managers must be educated, which requires more managers…
Over time, bureaucratisation undermines the resilience of polities. This isn’t merely from bureaucratic pathologies and consumption of resources—the huge increase in administrative costs under the Roman Dominate (284-641)8 led to the decay of the Roman road network and the Roman state becoming systematically less capable than it had been during the Principate (27BC-284)—but also because it undermines alternative forms of social action.
This can be due to direct “crowding out” effects—the bureaucracy replaces or blocks alternative social action—or from bureaucratisation enabling more regulation, which also impedes social action. Think how certification and increased legal liabilities make volunteering more onerous.
The expansion of the non-profit advocacy economy also adds to the undermining of effective feedback. Resources flow into bodies that are judged on intent and not outcomes: a poor feedback structure. This grows the number of people who are insulated from consequences and so the costs of their decisions.
Activism licenses anti-social behaviour and—if it is dressed up with the correct intentions and belief structure—even extolls it. Due to judgement by intent, advocacy non-profits actively attract (and reward) manipulative personalities. The pathologies of the US West Coast (think, for example, of its “homelessness industrial complex”) are a particularly dysfunctional case in point.
A media culture that adopts the Pravda media model of “approved” narratives that flatter both journalists and their audience also undermines accountability. Anything that casts doubt on approved narratives must be excluded or discredited. This became particularly obvious during the lab-leak controversy, but was well-established before then. The removal of feedback so as to serve narrative enforcement extends to, for example, Wikipedia.
Increasingly, “quality” media provides information curated so as to invite its audience to think of themselves as morally and epistemically superior because they hold correct opinions. The concern over misinformation and disinformation comes from a desire to enforce narratives and protect social leverage, following the increasingly standard pattern of a molehill of truth being used to erect a mountain of bullshit.
This works via prestige-opinions buttressed with talking points—complete with thought-terminating cliches—supported by “fact-checkers” that operate as narrative enforcers. They assure consumers that they are consumers of quality information—it’s “fact-checked”—as well as, if necessary, by simple misrepresentation. People can actively curate their own information flows, so as to reinforce and protect this comforting sense of moral and cognitive superiority.
All this is antipathetic to accountability and encourages broken feedbacks. As writer and critic Walter Kirn says of current US media:
This is a world-concealing layer of diversionary and illogical and internally inconsistent noise, under which the world exists somewhere.
Supporting this is an online Tech-nerd culture that seeks to suppress “wrong information” and so effective feedback. Tech nerds can “create realities” by coding. Of course they are drawn to the politics of changing social reality by controlling discourse.9
As noted above, sanctification of activism selects for bad character. Given our capacity for self-deception, the mask of morality can hide a multitude of sins, especially if feedback effects are suppressed by isolating decision-makers from the consequences of their decisions. Social media aggregates bad character by empowering online mobbing. It also encourages judging people by that sliver of themselves that is a visible opinion on some issue.
All this works to create an expanding gossip-trap, where thought and speech that fails to conform to approved narratives is anathematised is shamed and shunned out of wrong-thinkers. As what is defined as wrong-think is driven by the dynamics of status-plays and social-leverage, not truth, a pattern of expanding unreality in elite discourse—based on broken feedbacks—is created.
Academe lacks character tests and, across many disciplines, effective reality tests. Even disciplines such as Medicine can and do teach their students things that do not reflect current evidence.
The infamous refusal of c19th surgeons to wash their hands is now being replicated by medical schools’ failure to take the role of nutrition in human metabolic health seriously, despite mountains of evidence—going back decades—for its centrality. The academic and bureaucratic pathologies outlined above have created nutrition guidelines that are not merely unevidenced, but actively harmful to human health.
We are creating a metabolic disaster (including a mental health disaster)10 from our industrial food transition, just as humanity’s farming transition was a metabolic disaster. For those who are transitioning from foraging to farmed and processed food—such as Australia’s Aborigines—this double metabolic disaster creates health outcomes systematically worse than those for people currently only going through the latter transition.
The blindness to the metabolic disaster of the processed food transition was nowhere more obvious than during the pandemic. Covid vulnerability was driven by how metabolically compromised folk were. Health authorities systematically ignored grappling with this reality. Instead, they hoarded authority. For instance, they prevented clinicians from reporting what they saw because it contradicted their allegedly authoritative narrative.
Many of our modern woes are the result of universities employing—and graduating—toxic zealots who claim spurious expertise based on Theory. These Theories, moreover, actively seek to disrupt fundamental aspects of human social organisation.
The most dramatic example of Theory undermining understanding is Critical Race Theory’s claim that racism is always operating: the question is to find out how. Though the grand-daddy of such understanding-blocking Theory is the Marxist theory of surplus value, which is both false and (demonstrably) a licence for mass murder.
The central falsehood of bullshit Theories is the way they characterise contemporary liberal democracies as structures of oppression. Apart from isolated pockets among illegal migrants—and the victims of predatory gangs whose composition and motivations we are not supposed to notice—no one in developed liberal democracies is oppressed.
Contemporary corporations and organisations thus find themselves caught between (1) internal pressure thanks to hiring the toxic zealots turned out by contemporary universities and (2) external pressure from toxic zealots employed in the advocacy economy, in media, or simply acting as freelance online mobbers. All of these—especially when their motivating identities are based on bullshit Theories—are active saboteurs of effective feedback.
We live in an age of toxic networks precisely because we live in societies of insular, broken, feedbacks. Moralised mobbing can, however, provide corporate bodies with the sort of enforcers that make cartels work more effectively. This is the organisational basis for using ESG (Environmental, Social and corporate Governance) to cartelise corporate finance.
Substituting for competence and capacity
What we are now seeing—through Post-Enlightenment Progressivist (“woke”) networking—is systematic attacks on both capacity and feedback coupled with selection for bad character. This is not merely a civilisation-ending threat. It’s potentially a species-ending threat.
Perhaps one of the most deranging aspects of the prestige-opinion and luxury-beliefs —i.e., prestige opinions with entry costs—status-and-social-leverage strategy is that, not only does it actively pollute the signals of competence, it’s a substitute for competence. Prestige-opinions and luxury-beliefs require no competence, apart from a certain level of verbal facility and attention to relevant social cues. Yet they are anchored in, and encourage, a sense of moral entitlement and grandiosity.
Research indicates that attributing hate to the out-group and love to the in-group is a fundamental driver of polarisation. Post-Enlightenment Progressivism generates an entire theoretical, social-leverage and status structure to do that.
The politics of the transformational future attracts angry people, frustrated that they do not have things to which they believe themselves entitled. When given any institutional leverage, they then work to actively break feedbacks through delegitimising dissent, setting up a series of required affirmations and not noticings.
This inflated sense of moral grandeur unanchored to any serious competence reinforces patterns of anger and rage. The narcissistic rage of under-accomplished look-at-mes, achieve-littles, or achieve-nothings is what has made social media so toxic. It creates toxic networks that infiltrate institutions and make us more and more a civilisation of broken feedbacks.
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Douglas Allen, The Institutional Revolution: Measurement and the Economic Emergence of the Modern World, University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Ronald Coase & Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Jane Jacobs, The Economy of Cities, Vintage Books,  1970.
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal, ed. N J Dawood, Princeton University Press, ,1967.
Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, Red Pill Press,  2012.
Peter McLoughlin, Easy Meat: Inside Britain’s Grooming Gang Scandal, New English Review Press, 2016.
Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Yale University Press, 1997.
George Soros, The Alchemy of Finance, John Wiley & Sons, [1987, 1994] 2003.
Yuhua Wang, The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development, Princeton University Press, 2022.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit,’ Raritan Quarterly Review, Fall 1986, Vol.6, No.2.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
David C. Lahtia, Bret S. Weinstein, ‘The better angels of our nature: group stability and the evolution of moral tension,’ Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 2005, 47–63.
Debin Ma & Jared Rubin, ‘The Paradox of Power: Principal-agent problems and administrative capacity in Imperial China (and other absolutist regimes),’ Journal of Comparative Economics, (2019), 47(2), 277-294.
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/
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.
Information is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
Recommending people to one’s superiors (e.g. the King) worked rather better as a mechanism for strengthening one’s standing and connections if one gave good recommendations.
Purchase of positions seems obviously dysfunctional to us, but was a relatively information-efficient way of matching capacity to perform an office via willingness to purchase it (Allen, 2012).
Grand rural residences surrounded by unproductive landscaped grounds were investments in very expensive loneliness unless one showed oneself to be of acceptable character. Allen (2012) explains the functionality of such sunk cost displays, as well as the purchase of offices, duelling, and other early modern governance practices. (Though it helps if one translates his awkward econ-speak of “unobservable social capital” into character.) As he points out, the English elite went from ruling a small island kingdom off the coast of Western Europe to ruling a quarter of the planet: they must have been doing something effective.
A pattern noticed (although he uses different language) by ibn Khaldun and which forms the basis of his theory of dynastic rise and decline: something that also applies to the Soviet Union. It also is very much part of Chinese dynastic cycles. Across the C19th, the West copied the Chinese examination system, creating meritocratic bureaucracies whose regularised effectiveness meant more and more responsibilities. This created a 150 years or so of an equivalent to the “good dynasty” period in Chinese history, before peasant revolts get underway in earnest. We are now into a “dynastic decay” period (what one might call late stage bureaucracy) as the expanding pathologies of bureaucracy—and the ways that meritocracy fails—begin to take effect.
This seems to have been particularly so in late dynastic periods in China. Population growth increased the number of people competing for a static number of official positions.
The Activist’s Fallacy is:
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.
“…the roughly three hundred career civil servants in the reign of Caracella (r. 211-217) had become thirty to thirty-five thousand at any given time in the later empire, a change attributable in the greater part to Diocletian.”
(Ramsay MacMullen, 1997, p.83)
What we might call social alchemy politics, the politics of changing society by activism. It may not be entirely coincidental that a big funder of such politics is the author of The Alchemy of Finance.