Three Types of Civilized Societies

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Mencius Moldbug divides civilized societies into three types.

Type 3 is Karl Popper’s open society, where thoughts and ideas compete on the basis of their resemblance to reality. It’s the society we want to live in.

Type 1 is the opposite of type 3. It’s the loyal society, where thoughts are coordinated by the government, because public opinion is a matter of state security:

In other words, the information organs of a type 1 society are synoptic. They see the world through one eye, one set of doctrines, one official story. Call it the synopsis.

How does a type 1 state maintain the coherence of its synopsis? One easy way is to have a single leader, who exercises unified executive supervision. Ideally the same leader manages both physical and intellectual security. If the type 1 state doesn’t have a single leader, it should at least have a single authoritative institution. Since security depends on synoptic coherence, any divergence can quite literally lead to civil war.

There is no mystery around the historical identity of type 1 societies. This is an unambiguously right-wing pattern. It is also the default structure of human government: the god-king. The Greeks called it “oriental despotism.” In Christian history it is known as caesaropapism. In Anglo-American history, it is the throne-and-altar state, as represented by the high-church Anglican or Catholic tradition. When Americans express an affection for separation of Church and State, they are expressing an antipathy to the type 1 design.

And, of course, in 20th-century history we see the type 1 state most clearly in National Socialism and Italian Fascism. The fascisms discarded most of the trappings of Christian theism, but reused the basic caesaropapist design. Under Hitler’s supervision, of course, Goebbels was more or less the pope of Nazi Germany. His executive authority over all intellectual content in the Third Reich, from films to schools to universities, was easily the equal of any medieval pontiff’s. (I highly recommend this movie.)

The Nazi term Gleichschaltung, generally translated as “coordination,” is more or less the modern epitome of the type 1 design. The Nazis also used the word Aufklärung, meaning “enlightenment” or literally “clearing-up,” for the inculcation of useful thoughts in the German people. I think of this term every time I see a “public service message.”

We also see the type 1 pattern, if not quite as distinctly, in the Communist states. It tends to be more institutional and less personal. It is easy to identify Communist Hitlers, but there is no clear Communist equivalent of Goebbels. Communist states over time experienced a decay of personal authority, which passed instead to institutions. But the Party in a modern one-party state is more or less equivalent to the Church in the old Christian dispensation, and an established church is an established church whether governed by pope or synod.

The type 1 state is certainly the most common form in history. It is not the end of the world. China today is a type 1 society. It also has the world’s most successful economy, and not such a bad place to live at all. Elizabethan England, which experienced perhaps the greatest artistic explosion in human history, was a type 1 society, with secret police galore. On the other hand, North Korea is a type 1 society, and it’s awful in almost every possible way. I can say generally that I would rather live in a type 3 society than in a type 1 society, but the details matter.

Here’s where it gets interesting though:

In a type 3 society, for example, we should see intellectual inhomogeneities between competing institutions. Harvard and Yale should mostly agree, because reality is one thing. So should the New York Times and the Washington Post. But there will always be sclerosis, stagnation, drift. Competition, not just among ideas but among institutions, is essential to the Popperian ideal. We should see these institutions drift away from reality. And we should see the marketplace of ideas punish them when they do, and reward those which do not.

Do you see this? Because I sure don’t. What I see is a synopsis.

From my perspective, not just Harvard and Yale, but in fact all major American universities in the Western world, offer exactly the same intellectual product. Which institution is more to the left, for example? Harvard, or Yale? You can pick any two mainstream universities, and you will not be able to answer this question. It’s a sort of intellectual peloton.

And it’s not that we don’t see drift. There is plenty of drift. If you ask which is more to the left, Harvard today or Harvard in 1958, the answer is easy. Yet somehow, the entire peloton is drifting in the same direction at the same speed. Does this scream “type 3″ to you? And yet, if there is some Goebbels telling Harvard and Yale professors what to profess, the secret is awfully well-kept.

The same is true of newspapers. The so-called “mainstream media” is certainly a synopsis. Just as there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream universities, there is a bright line between mainstream and non-mainstream media. The latter may be all over the map. The former constitute a synopsis. And the journalistic and academic synopses are clearly identical — mainstream journalists do not, as a rule, challenge mainstream academic authority.

These “mainstream” institutions look very, very like the set of information organs that we’d expect to see in a type 1 society. And their product is clearly a synopsis. Yet they are clearly not subject to any kind of central coordination.

I think the post-1945 mainstream synopsis is important enough to be a proper noun. Let’s call it the Synopsis. Let’s also give the set of institutions that produce and propagate the Synopsis — mainstream academia, journalism and education — a name. Let’s call them the Cathedral. What explains these phenomena?

What explains these phenomena is that we live in a type 2 society. Type 2 is the consensus society:

The type 2 society is the consensus society. Its hallmark is the phenomenon of spontaneous coordination. You might call it Gleichschaltung without Goebbels. Spontaneous coordination can produce an official information system which in all other respects resembles that of a type 1 society, but which is not responsible to any central authority or institution.

Basically, a type 1 society is a government in which the State controls the press and the universities. A type 2 society is one in which the press and the universities control the State. It is easy to tell the two forms apart, but the customer experience is pretty much the same.
What happens in a type 1 society when the center fails? When censorship no longer operates, journalists no longer take orders, heretics are no longer burned at the stake, professors are no longer hired or fired for their political beliefs? You might think that the natural outcome would be a type 3 society, a marketplace of ideas in which only freedom rules and thoughts compete on their value alone.

But the connection between public opinion and political power still holds. Therefore, the information organs are still acting as power centers. If their views diverge, as without type 1 supervision they will, they can compete in two ways: on the basis of intellectual righteousness, or on the basis of political power. If they choose the former and abjure the latter, they will be at a disadvantage against those to whom all weapons are friends. Moreover, since political power is a deadlier weapon, successful competitors are likely to resolve any tradeoffs between power and righteousness in favor of the former.

We can describe the type 1 pathology as coercive power distortion. Political power distorts the landscape of ideas, rendering the playing field non-flat. Ideas that the State favors are artificially popularized. Ideas that it disfavors are artificially discouraged.

The type 2 equivalent is attractive power distortion. The coercive State does not exist, or at least does not coerce. But the connection between power and public opinion remains. Ideas, therefore, are selectively favored on the basis of their capacity to serve as standards around which to organize coalitions, which can struggle for power by whatever means are effective.
For example, in many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army. We saw this effect earlier in the cohesive type 1 state, but it works just as well for competing type 2 factions.

This does not explain, however, how the chaotic post-type-1 society congeals into the mature, spontaneously coordinated type 2 society. Why do we have one Synopsis and one Cathedral, rather than a whole host of competing synopses and cathedrals?

The answer, I think, is that even the type 2 society has only one government. It is impossible for two competing information system to capture a single government. And capturing a government gives an information system a considerable advantage over any competitors. It can subsidize itself. It can penalize its competitors. It can indulge in the entire sordid range of type 1 pathologies.

Without acquiring a central coordinator, the Cathedral can capture the resources and powers of the State. It can devise theories of government which it can incorporate into the Synopsis, and which the State must follow. These theories naturally involve lavish support for the Cathedral, which becomes responsible for the production of “public policy,” ie, government decisions. Ie, real power is held by the professors and journalists, ie the Cathedral, not through their purity and righteousness but through their self-sustaining control of public opinion. Lenin’s great question, “Who? Whom?”, is answered.

But why does the Cathedral not break into factions? What keeps Harvard aligned with Yale? Why doesn’t one of the two realize that there is no need for a thousand synoptic progressive universities, and a vast unfilled demand for a single top-notch conservative university? Why, in short, is the Synopsis stable?

I think the answer is that the Synopsis includes only political propositions whose adoption tends to strengthen the Cathedral, and weaken its enemies. It rejects and opposes all other propositions. Inasmuch as these sets shift over time, the Synopsis will shift as well. It follows a sort of hill-climbing strategy — not in the landscape of truth, but that of power. Thus, by definition, it cannot be opposed from within.

To be progressive is simply to support the Cathedral and the Synopsis. Today’s Synopsis is the lineal descendant of the first type 2 movement in modern history, the Reformation. Through the Reformation we reach the Enlightenment, whose link to the Synopsis is obvious. The post-1945 Western regime, whose victory over all pre-Reformation or anti-Enlightenment forces appears final and irreversible, is the Whig millennium.

This is where things get near and dear to libertarians’ hearts:

Libertarians often call themselves “classical liberals,” and indeed the word “libertarian” today means about what John Stuart Mill meant when he called himself a “liberal.” In fact, in Europe today, “liberal” still means more or less “libertarian.”

Why (in the US) did the term stay the same, and the meaning change? Because, in fact, the real meaning has not changed. In 1858 as in 2008, a “liberal” is a supporter of the Cathedral: ie, a Whig, a progressive, a Radical, etc. It is the Synopsis that shifted, and it is today’s libertarians who are not with the program.

19th-century liberal Whigs and Radicals supported economic freedom because economic freedom meant the destruction of Tory privileges, such as the Corn Laws (whose beneficiaries were landed aristocrats), which harmed their supporters and benefited their enemies. This position may have been explained on the basis of principle. But if it had not been politically advantageous, spontaneous coordination would have produced other principles. Either Mill would have embraced these other principles, in which case you still would know his name, or he would have been genuinely committed to economic freedom, in which case you wouldn’t.

By the start of the 20th century, the old British aristocracy was in full flight, only scraps remained of the Throne-and-Altar system, and by the standard of a half-century earlier, basically everyone was a Radical. Therefore, the progressive movement could become socialist, and stand for economic centralization and official charity. These aims were not attainable in the era of Mill, because the Radicals were too weak and the Tories too strong. These tactical changes did not emerge from any secret cabal — spontaneous coordination is entirely to blame.

Libertarianism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has gained little political traction. Why? One, it opposes the Cathedral, which controls most real power and does not deal kindly with its enemies. Two, by definition it has no mechanism for using any power it does gain to create jobs for its followers, because it does not believe in the expansion of government. Three, it either appeals to the anti-Cathedral Townies or “conservatives,” making itself unfashionable, thus unpopular, and thus ineffective as an opposition, or it tries to ingratiate itself with the Cathedral, making itself thus ineffective as an opposition. It has nowhere to go. It cannot recreate the world of John Stuart Mill, with its target-rich environment of Tory landlordism.

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