Both Pills Claim To Be Red

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Mencius Moldbug summarizes the problem of bad government — and progress:

The leading cause of violent death and misery galore in the modern era is bad government. Most of us grew up thinking we live in a time and place in which Science and Democracy, which put a man on the moon and brought him back with Tang, have either cured this ill or reduced it to a manageable and improving condition. That is, most of us grew up believing — and most Americans, whatever their party registration, still believe — in progress.

Both these statements are facts. But there are two ways to interpret the second. Either (a), blue pill, the belief in progress is an accurate assessment of reality, or (b), red pill, it isn’t. Our pills correspond to visions of the future, and neither is my invention. The blue pill is marked millennium. The red pill is marked anakyklosis.

To choose (b), we have to believe that hundreds of millions of people living in a more or less free society, many of whom are literate and even reasonably knowledgeable, completely misunderstand reality — and more specifically, history. A hard pill to swallow? Not at all, because the blue pill tastes just as big going down. To believe in progress, you have to believe that similar numbers of our ancestors were just as misguided — enthralled by racism, classism, and other nefarious “ideologies,” from which humanity is in the progress of cleansing itself.

Both pills, in other words, claim to be red. But when we note that progressive ideas flow freely through the most influential circles in our society, whereas reactionary ideas are scorned, marginalized and often even criminalized, we can tell the difference.

In case you’re not familiar with his red- and blue-pill explanations, I’ve discussed them before.

Anyway, here’s a thought experiment on progress:

Imagine that there had been no scientific or technical progress at all during the 20th century. That the government of 2008 had to function with the technical base of 1908. Surely, if the quality of government has increased or even just remained constant, its performance with the same tools should be just as good. And with better technology, it should do even better.

But without computers, cell phones or even motor vehicles, 19th-century America could rebuild destroyed cities instantly — at least, instantly by today’s standards. Imagine what this vanished society, which if we could see it with our own eyes would strike us as no less foreign than any country in the world today, could accomplish if it got its hands on 21st-century gadgets — without any of the intervening social and political progress.

When we think of progress we tend to think of two curves summed. X, the change in our understanding and control of nature, slopes upward except in the most dire circumstances — the fall of Rome, for example. But X is a confounding variable. Y, the change in our quality of government, is the matter at hand. Extracting Y from X+Y is not a trivial exercise.

But broad thought-experiments — like imagining what would become of 1908 America, if said continent magically popped up in the mid-Atlantic in 2008, and had to modernize and compete in the global economy — tell a different story. I am very confident that Old America would be the world’s leading industrial power within the decade, and I suspect it would attract a lot of immigration from New America. The seeds of decay were there, certainly, but they had hardly begun to sprout. At least by today’s standards.

Surely a healthy, stable society should be able to thrive in a steady state without any technical improvements at all. But if we imagine the 20th century without technical progress, we see an almost pure century of disaster. Even when we restrict our imagination to the second half of the twentieth century, to imagine the America of 2008 reduced to the technology of 1950 is a bleak, bleak thought. If you are still taking the blue pills, to what force do you ascribe this anomalous decay?

Whereas the red pill gives us an easy explanation: a decaying system of government has been camouflaged and ameliorated by the advance of technology. Of course, X may overcome Y and lead us to the Singularity, in which misgovernment is no more troublesome than acne. Or Y may overcome X, and produce the Antisingularity — a new fall of Rome. It’s a little difficult to invent self-inventing AI when you’re eating cold beans behind the perimeter of a refugee camp in Redwood Shores, and Palo Alto is RPG squeals, mortar whumps and puffs of black smoke on the horizon, as the Norteños and the Zetas finally have it out over the charred remains of your old office park. Unlikely, sure, but do you understand the X-Y interaction well enough to preclude this outcome? Because I don’t.

Swallowing the red pill leads us, like Neo, into a completely different reality. In reality (b), bad government has not been defeated at all. History is not over. Oh, no. We are still living it. Perhaps we are in the positions of the French of 1780 or the Russians of 1914, who had no idea that the worlds they lived in could degenerate so rapidly into misery and terror.

Is the abyss this close? I don’t think so, but surely the materials are present.

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