What’s the other option to Individualism?

An interesting article going around Rationalist-Sphere this week is Sarah Constantin’s In Defense of Individuality. Constantin is a great writer and she makes a very thorough argument. I have a number of objections to it, but one in particular strikes a chord, since Scott Alexander also reiterated this concern.

4. It’s perfectly fine to have a generally individualistic society where people are allowed to voluntarily form communities that they like.
5. And realistically we should expect most people to eventually exit from them.
6. If those are good nice communities, people will exit peacefully.
7. If they’re bad communities, they’ll use a lot of abuse and shaming to keep people from exiting, but eventually people will still exit.

Constantin was more visceral in her criticism of how communities keep themselves alive.

The first antidote to flaking that most people think of — building people up into a frenzy of unanimous enthusiasm so that it doesn’t occur to them to quit — will probably result in short-lived and harmful projects.

Techniques designed to enhance group cohesion at the expense of rational deliberation — call-and-response, internal jargon and rituals, cults of personality, suppression of dissent  — will feel satisfying to many who feel the call of the premodern, but aren’t actually that effective at retaining people in the long term.  Remember, brainwashing isn’t that strong.

And we live in a complicated, unstable world.  When things break, as they will, you’d like the people in your project to avoid breaking.  That points in the direction of  valuing independence. If people need a leader’s charisma to function, what are they going to do if something happens to the leader?

It’s a defense of individualism that relies on “well the only other option is tribalism, and they just keep each other in with force and coercive dumbening, so why would we consider them?”

On the other side of Rationalist Tumblr, Skye at funereal-disease is describing the camp she just went to.

We’re basically siblings for one week a year. Which is the sweet spot for intimacy: we have over a decade of history, but we haven’t spent enough time together to really start resenting one another. Familiarity breeds contempt, right?

Instead of any external factors, it is sheer love for the camp that brings us together. The loyalty this institution inspires is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been people here I wasn’t a huge personal fan of. We’re human. But like…you don’t ban your aunt from the family reunion because she’s kind of annoying. You are bound by more than that. We are here because it really does take all kinds to make something like this work. Everything we are is going to be meaningful to at least one of the kids here. There is space for all of it.

And because we’ve known each other so long, we’ve reached that rumored place of just…knowing one another’s weirdnesses, rolling our eyes, and making room. One of our number has a Master’s in critical theory and loves to discourse. In the outside world, being around people like that kind of scares me, but here it’s just “oh, this is how Chris is”.

Which is exactly what I am talking about here. Healthy communities aren’t kept together by “the charisma of the leader” or “brain-washing back and forth chants” but just by, everyone being really glad to be there and trusting each other, treating each other like human beings they care about instead of representations of the most annoying facets of society.

It’s just like, have these individualist partisans ever been in a group where people like each other?

Obviously there’s a problem if you’re trying to force everyone into these tribes. Some people won’t like that and you’ll get resentment and distrust. But as an option they are there, and they’re pretty good. People enjoy them, and they get stuff done. I’d put their value to society right up there with individualism.

When social scientists talk about anomie,  they’re talking about the loss of this. When people critical of a culture that exalts individualism as the only morality, they are trying to find the words that defend this. It’s not that this “tribal magic” needs to be enforced, but we have to at least have room for it. We should let people who are doing that keep doing it, instead of being hyper-critical because it follows a different morality than liberal individualism.

I’m not exactly full of concrete ideas here, but the original posts weren’t too concrete either. Just stop thinking of the face of communitarianism as Stalin in front of a chanting crowd, and think more about a summer camp in Vermont.


Seeing Like a State Reviews

Slatestarcodex and now Samzdat have made James Scott’s Seeing Like a State popular now, and obviously this blog is going to find a lot of agreement with it’s concept of metis, over rationally organized systems.

In the [cool kids scene] of the 2000’s, opposition to Christianity was a given. No subject was more likely to unite than a good old bashing of fundamentalists. Marxists, Anarchists, Libertarians, Liberals, Randians – it crossed political borders. (I’m from California, if that helps.)

It was hard not to – it’s not like the fundies had any coherent reasons they could articulate. Every other day some [class indicator] pastor would announce opposition to “the gay agenda” or seek to return to “a Christian nation” as though that were a desirable thing that had ever existed (like, deism duh, etc.). If that wasn’t bad enough, when pressed for an explanation, they’d just read some passage from John or Corinthians. “And? Was that all?” Readers take note: if someone is busy mocking you for your holy book, justifying your actions based on your holy book is a terrible rhetorical strategy.

Standard interpretation: “The olds are lamenting the loss of an oppressive institution that has no objective value, right?” Right?

So this is what churches do in our language: they’re probably the single most important economic institution in rural America. Period.

Here are some obvious economic effects: Nearly every church functions as a community safety net, where tithes collected are distributed to poor members or members experiencing sudden economic shock (disemployment, medical issues, etc.). Depending on the church, this is actually a lot more immediate and a lot larger than government distributions that approximate the same thing. They also function as labor banks, wherein members help one another with projects that they could otherwise not afford (think of home improvement projects coordinated through the church, wherein one can afford to repaint their house or call on the labor expertise of a fellow congregation members [say a plumber] to perform a simple  but otherwise costly repair). Hell, one of the biggest things they do is something almost no one seems to think about: most churches provide free after school programs for poor congregation members, which is a humongous cost for parents. “Big deal.” Yeah, but the cost of childcare is actually fucking enormous.

Note that most of those are vastly more important for the old and the retired (“it’s just the olds complaining!”), both in terms of cost (local members helping for free) and autonomy (one is less likely to have to enter the anonymity of a retirement home, etc. if community members are there to help).

Churches have many more nebulous effects that are even larger: they improve social trust, which has a stupidly powerful economic effect. They provide local networking effects, allowing members to find new jobs and move up using church connections. Many studies relate churches to decreased violence and drug problem in communities (although I suspect this is confounded by social trust and the kinds of people who tend toward religiosity).

So count that in “95% agree with, but 5% have some problems with that I may get around to writing up more fully.”

Temporary Autonomous Zones

Hakim Bey wrote a famous essay about the concept of TAX and ontological anarchy. It waxes fairly poetic:

AMOUR FOU IS NOT a Social Democracy, it is not a Parliament of Two. The minutes of its secret meetings deal with meanings too enormous but too precise for prose. Not this, not that–its Book of Emblems trembles in your hand.

Naturally it shits on schoolmasters & police, but it sneers at liberationists & ideologues as well–it is not a clean well-lit room. A topological charlatan laid out its corridors & abandoned parks, its ambush-decor of luminous black & membranous maniacal red.

Each of us owns half the map–like two renaissance potentates we define a new culture with our anathematized mingling of bodies, merging of liquids–the Imaginal seams of our City-state blur in our sweat.

Ontological anarchism never came back from its last fishing trip. So long as no one squeals to the FBI, CHAOS cares nothing for the future of civilization. Amour fou breeds only by accident–its primary goal is ingestion of the Galaxy. A conspiracy of transmutation.

Words belong to those who use them only till someone else steals them back.

It’s basically about the undefinableness of community. He hates the State so much he doesn’t want a revolution that just becomes the State again, but rather celebrates the groups that live within the cracks the State cannot stamp out.

Those groups have all the magic in this world. They are rebels at the barricades, or startups, outcast poets.

Those groups themselves, if they live long enough and become strong enough, will just ossify and become another State.

So he’s okay with knowing that any flourishing community will eventually die (or become something dead and bureaucratic).

So, Temporary Autonomous Zones.

It’s a good, in depth essay, and good to keep in mind when thinking about making new life as you flee the collapse of the old order (see previous post.)


Scott Alexander repeats a point of his that he’s held for a while, about the difficulty of forming new communities as old ones collapse:

I wrote before (1, 2) about the sort of dynamics this situation produces. A couple of years ago, Reddit decided to ban various undesirables and restrict discussion of offensive topics. A lot of users were really angry about this, and some of them set up a Reddit clone called Voat which promised that everyone was welcome regardless of their opinion.

What happened was – a small percent of average Reddit users went over, lured by curiosity or a principled commitment to free speech. And also, approximately 100% of Reddit’s offensive undesirables went there, lured by the promise of being able to be terrible and get away with it.

Even though Voat’s rules were similar to Reddit’s rules before the latter tightened its moderation policies, Voat itself was nothing like pre-tightening Reddit. I checked to see whether it had gotten any better in the last year, and I found the top three stories were:

The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

The example Scott gives is accurate, and it looks like the dynamic he fears took place here.

And yet, this is fatalistic to the extreme, and does not match my own experience of transplanted communities.

The difference is Scott isn’t really talking about founding “your own little utopian community”, he’s talking about winning. This conception of Voat isn’t “a place where I can have rational discussion” but a desire to burn Reddit to the ground so it knows it made a mistake. What more, because Reddit is one of the largest and most influential communities on the internet, it means supplanting them and becoming your own extremely influential online presence. And since it’s the internet, it means doing that in a matter of days.

You can not build the bonds of a world spanning community of millions in a few days. What you can do, if you want dramatic growth, is get the attention of thousands of ideological trolls who follow the most sensationalist, polarizing clickbait. They do not see themselves as friends with a special chemistry who share links each other will like… they see themselves as a vanguard of a cultural revolution that will save the world.

If you genuinely want a new community, then you must drop this fixation on hypergrowth. Your aim is not “millions of users who can help change the world.” If you genuinely value community, your aim should be “like six people who I enjoy talking with.”

If Reddit becomes terrible, you can just… PM the people you like, ask them to come to this other website, have some fun discussions there, and see what happens. It’s not splashy and dramatic. Wired and Polygon won’t write articles about how you are changing the scene. But you will get the people you actually like, and not the hordes of degenerates Scott worries about.

It’s not super hard. Yes, it requires some work, and putting yourself out there, and belief in the community you want to form. These things are even harder without ideological editorials supporting your migration. But it’s humanly possible. Small groups of people do it all the time.

And then you don’t hear from them again, because why would you? So the news stories you read are about Voat and other high-profile cases. But the lesson you should take away is you don’t need to be a high profile case to be happy.

Rod Dreher

The New Yorker does a deep dive of the populizer of Crunchy Conservatism:

It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.

Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.

Addiction and Virtue

Interesting long form book review.

Consequently, if detoxed addicts cannot replace addiction with something that is as equally compelling and consuming they will remain vulnerable to addiction’s allures.

And yet, as we’ve seen, modernity, because it lacks a Story, cannot give us anything as compelling or consuming. Thus we remain ever vulnerable to addictive habits and lifestyles.

Beyond filling the existential void, addiction also reduces the feeling of loneliness in modernity. As Dunnington says, “Lonely people make good addicts.”

Again, loneliness is a uniquely modern problem. We are, as Robert Putnam has so ably documented, “bowling alone.”

Addiction thrives in this social vacuum. Addiction often starts in social contexts, is sustained by circles of friends, and is often maintained by a webs of connection between fellow users and suppliers. And even when addiction isolates us from others it does so by becoming a surrogate “friend.” Addicts often refer to the chemical they are addicted to as their “best friend.” Addiction is a companion.

On the Measures of Meaning

Well written, but heavy emphasis on the Cat Disclaimer for this one.


This post was inspired primarily by a liberal acquaintance–we’ll call her Juliet.

picture-6Since the election, Juliet has been suicidal. I don’t mean she’s actually tried to commit suicide; (suicidal women very rarely actually commit suicide, unlike suicidal men.) I just mean she’s posted a lot of angst-ridden things on the internet about how she wants to die because Trump is going to destroy everything in a giant fireball, and literally the only thing she has left to live for are her 3 dogs and 10 cats.

Juliet is one of those people who thinks that we are one heavy bootstep away from Holocaust 2.0 (despite such a thing never having happened in all of American history,) and that the US was an oppressive, horrible, quasi-genocidal place up until 4-8 years ago. (She’s the same age as me, so she has no youth excuse for not knowing what life was like…

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