Comments on “The new politics of meaning”

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Metaincoherence

The links in this paragraph are broken:

In America, both Trump and Sanders practice the politics of incoherence. They are unapologetic about ignoring facts, and feel no obligation to offer realistic policy proposals. That stuff is ancient history. Politics isn’t about sense, facts, or policy anymore.

I suspect the thought might be broken too, but I need to see the supporting evidence. I really don't like facile comparisons between Sanders, who has five decades of political experience and has perfectly coherent ideas (they may have problems but they are quite understandable and consistent), with Trump, who has no relevant experience and has totally ridiculous ideas to the extent he has any at all. The sources and nature of their appeal are entirely different. They do have in common their movements are fueled by a disgust at the System, to be sure.

Hm, to avoid political flaming and focus on your thesis, consider the education level of Trump supporters and Sanders supporters. Can't find very good stats for this, but check here: http://politicsthatwork.com/graphs/trump-sanders-education-level

Multiple forms of incoherence

Thanks for pointing out the link problem! I recently switched to a different Markdown processor, and it's screwed up. All Markdown processors are screwed up. Markdown is trivial, so I can't understand this. Anyway, fixed now—in this post, at least!

This post runs together various anti-systematic strands whose dynamics are rather different. I plan to identify and analyze them separately later.

For example, although in some ways the Tea Party and Occupy were similar, in others they were quite different. The mostly-old Tea Party supporters were probably mainly "pre-systematic"—people who never got assimilated into the systematic way of relating to meaning. The mostly-young Occupiers were probably mainly "post-systematic"—people who were blocked from reaching systematicity by pomo and its derivatives.

It's certainly true that the appeal of Trump and Sanders is also not altogether the same, although your two sentences here seem to contradict each other somewhat:

The sources and nature of their appeal are entirely different. They do have in common their movements are fueled by a disgust at the System, to be sure.

You are probably right to say that Sanders is not "incoherent," at least not in the same way Trump is. Stuff Trump says makes no sense locally (at the scale of a sentence), whereas Sanders conforms to the outdated convention of stringing thoughts together into what sounds like an argument. Much of what he says fails the "and how would that part work?" test, which might be described as "incoherence" at a larger scale. But probably it's misleading to use that word.

(To be explicit, in pointing out issues with Trump and Sanders I am not advocating for Clinton, or even advocating against them. I'm trying to understand changing political dynamics at the level of "is" before saying anything about "ought.")

My impression is that Trump appeals to two quite different anti-systematic groups: the older rural white working class, who are generally "choiceless" and "pre-systematic," and the younger, internet-inhabiting "alt-right," who are "atomized" and "post-systematic." His ability to appeal to both may be the reason he took the primaries (to most people's surprise).

Following that line of analysis, Clinton took the pre-systematic left (the urban working class), and Sanders took the post-systematic left ("Tumblr SJW"). Clinton's got The System, too, so she's effectively won.

All Markdown processors are

Dan's picture

All Markdown processors are screwed up. Markdown is trivial, so I can't understand this.

What I've heard is that Markdown looks trivial until you try to implement it; then you realize with growing horror that the spec is actually ambiguous and self-contradictory. As such, all Markdown processors have to be at least slightly screwed up for compatibility reasons!

Both were highly upset about something, and wanted immediate change, but—it was much noted at the time—neither could say what they wanted, why they should get it, or how anyone could give it to them.

As I remember it, while this "was much noted at the time", both Occupy and the Tea Party did produce lists of specific laws they wanted passed, and the reasons behind each. Supporters claimed that the {neoliberal,liberal} media elite was burying that fact to make them look stupid. However, I can't seem to find these platforms now? I notice that I am confused...

Platforms technical and political

What I've heard is that Markdown looks trivial until you try to implement it; then you realize with growing horror that the spec is actually ambiguous and self-contradictory. As such, all Markdown processors have to be at least slightly screwed up for compatibility reasons!

Yes, that's true... but they are much more screwed up than they need to be. The ones I have looked at are huge piles of complex, ad hoc regexes. Reading the code, it's amazing they work at all. The right way to do this is to define a grammar and apply a general-purpose parser. Grump grump grump.

Occupy and the Tea Party did produce lists of specific laws they wanted passed

My memory is hazy, but yes, Occupy at least did. But only at the very end, after the movement was essentially over. And the list was deeply uninteresting, just generic leftist stuff.

For many people, the exciting thing about Occupy was that it didn't have any program. That was the whole point: that it was a wholesale rejection of politics-as-usual. Producing a list of demands would turn it into a generic leftist agitprop group. Which (in the end, if I remember correctly) was what happened.

I don't remember about the Tea Party at all!

Yeah I'm not trying to argue

Yeah I'm not trying to argue for any particular politics here either.

Don't know about pre- or -post- systematicity (systematic thought is pretty thin on the ground in politics in general), but Trump strikes me as post-realist. That is, his appeal seems to be similar to that of pro wrestling, in that everyone knows it's fake but that is part of the attraction for some reason. This is what drives the mainstream media out of their minds, they simply can't process it.

Sanders' appeal (and this just occurred to me and I don't have a lot of support for it) is partly rooted in nostalgia for a time when things made more sense. His ideas aren't new, they are bog-standard New Deal mid 20-th century. If they seem slightly old-fashioned to me, maybe to the youngsters who support him they seem like true antiques from a better time, and they go for him the way they go for heirloom tomatoes or old-timey accoutrements like suspenders and beard oil.

IOW, epistemologically Trump is a cutting-edge radical and Sanders is something of a reactionary.

Post-realism and nostalgia for making sense

his appeal seems to be similar to that of pro wrestling, in that everyone knows it's fake but that is part of the attraction for some reason

Yes, that seems insightful and right!

Sanders' appeal is partly rooted in nostalgia for a time when things made more sense... heirloom tomatoes or old-timey accoutrements like suspenders and beard oil

This also seems insightful and right!

IOW, epistemologically Trump is a cutting-edge radical and Sanders is something of a reactionary.

:-)

I'd note, though, that Sanders support is also post-realism, albeit a more sophisticated version. Presumably many Sanders supporters understand that his policy proposals are unrealistic. This makes supporting him a game of "let's pretend to believe in an attractive fantasy fiction because pretending is fun and strengthens our emotional ties to each other, plus anything is better than facing the awful reality of Hillary"—just as much as supporting Trump is. More so, probably, because Sanders supporters are more self-aware.

the new politics of meaning

Hi David,

I suspect the fault line in the new politics reflects the communal versus systematic modes of relating to meaning. This realignment offers both fearful risks and hopeful opportunities—because both modes are partly right and partly wrong. Although a communal/systematic split could be catastrophic, it may also point the way to a new mode that heals the fundamental crisis of meaningness that has plagued the West for a hundred years.

This is a really good insight. No doubt there are many ways of articulating it, t each with its own vocabulary and each structured in different ways and enabled by different social histories and philosophical traditions.

As you say the communal feels intuitively right , mainly because, as you explain elsewhere, it is , in its traditional form, a choiceless mode—one almost impossible to maintain in a modern setting.

I think Marx was probably on to something similar when in his Thesis on Feuerbach he used the term sensuous human practice to distinguished the lived relation between thinking and practice, in contrast to the systematisation of thought , materialist, idealist etc-- what he called scholasticism.

The essential point he tried to answer was why systematisation of thinking and the social structures it enabled destroyed community, even against the wishes of the individual members of the community. His answer was , of course, partial, as any answer will inevitably be.

What you call the “fluid” mode seems to bring us another bit along:

Stage 5 sees society as an assemblage of transient, contingent systems, which have relative functional value but no ultimate justification. It sees conflicts between groups with different values as inevitable and as ultimately non-problematic, even if sometimes harmful in the short run. Since it sees all values as negotiable—although some are more important than others—it has the capacity to build bridges between competing groups and to help resolve their conflicts. It sees changes in values and structures over time as an inherent feature of all systems, and so seeks to steer them toward positive innovations, rather than insisting on preserving a system’s current self-definition.

The interesting question would be how such a mode can be actualised as a political programme. My feeling is that it will happen as the “sensious human practice” Marx talked about--- that is in the nitty-gritty of real situations and only afterwards as the explication of a new mode beloved of philosophers. For me the most hopeful sign that this can happen exists not at the (so called) centre but at the periphery (as is usual). The most courageous being the social experiment the people of Rojava are currently involved in, and in the face of die-hard opposition from the murder gangs of Isis.

How such a mode can be actualized

Hi Patrick, thanks for the comment!

This is a really good insight. No doubt there are many ways of articulating it, each with its own vocabulary and each structured in different ways and enabled by different social histories and philosophical traditions.

Yes... for example, it's probably the same as the Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft distinction. Apparently that goes back to Hobbes ("concord" vs. "union").

I read a bunch of "What Brexit really means is..." essays over the weekend. Most invoked either economic or social class resentment (which is surely part of what is going on), but some did also seem to be saying something similar to what I did; maybe not quite explicitly.

If there's any use in my post, it's in suggesting the possibility of a way forward beyond systematicity, that brings some of the benefit of the communal mode as well. But, I don't have a worked-out account of that, much less a practical program.

My feeling is that it will happen as the “sensious human practice” Marx talked about--- that is in the nitty-gritty of real situations and only afterwards as the explication of a new mode beloved of philosophers.

Yes... as I said somewhere else, philosophers mostly only articulate things that many people have already understood tacitly in the structure of everyday experience.

In attempting to articulate "the fluid mode," I start from concrete examples in my personal and second-hand experiences of self, society, and culture. For example, analyses of the new impossibility of reading books and metaness of gender identity (self), "Unaffiliated Smartypants Twitter" and tech startup management (society), and lolcats and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (culture).

(All this is in note form currently. It's going to take forEVER to turn it into publicly-useful text.)

For me the most hopeful sign that this can happen exists not at the (so called) centre but at the periphery (as is usual).

Yes.

One of the key parts of "The history of meaningness" is supposed to be an analysis of why the subcultural mode necessarily failed, despite its great promise. ("Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths" is a small part of that.) A future "fluid mode" has to support creative subcultures somehow—but on some other basis, since the social/cultural experiment with them in the 80s-90s failed.

The most courageous being the social experiment the people of Rojava are currently involved in, and in the face of die-hard opposition from the murder gangs of Isis.

I've had a great affection for the Kurds, ever since the 1991 war. Remarkable people. I don't know a lot about the Rojava model, but it's intriguing and hopeful.

Democracy is not self-justifying.

Lawrence D'Anna's picture

I've got to disagree with you that because the anti-systematic revolt is democratic and gives voice to the voiceless, that it is good and fair.

Systematic life may be psychologically "intolerable", but it's worth it. Any one of: antibiotics, global trade, reduced levels of violence, food security, etc are worth the ennui on their own. And I could keep that list going longer than you'd want to read it. People who are denied access to civilization immediately develop an entirely different notion of what they can and can't tolerate.

Anti-systematics think that stuff is mana from heaven. They think they can tear down the systems without tearing down their security and livelihood with it. They're wrong. The more they get the destruction they yearn for, the more unhappy they will be. Denying them a voice is right and proper. To the extent democracy gives them a voice, democracy is wrong. It is a tragedy that they have gained that voice.

There are only two goods in politics, liberalism and civilization. Everything else is evil.

(Of course the above statement is wrong, but I do believe that it's correct everywhere it intersects with the Overton window, and has been for most of human history.)

Democracy, despite its faults

Well, part of me wants to agree with you. I don't see any serious alternative to democracy, despite its faults, though.

Anti-systematics think that stuff is mana from heaven. They think they can tear down the systems without tearing down their security and livelihood with it.

Yes; I've pointed to this problem in this post and in "A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse." It does worry me a lot.

I'm optimistic that there's a way forward that is democratic and that also avoids an anti-systematic catastrophe. But this is far from certain.

Stage 4.5ers, also, the fluid mode project

One small addition to your points:

you stated Tea Party might be older communal (stage 3) types and that Occupy was younger types, blocked by pomo from reaching systematicity/stage 4.

I think there is another (smaller group) also involved in both of these plus Brexit. You have mentioned them before which is the stage 4.5 types who can clearly see how the current systems function but can also see how the current systems are exploited/corrupted by other post-stage 4 people who happen to have acquired the power to do so. Of course, they don't have a stage 5/fluid vision for a good alternative so their voices also currently amount to : "grr, The System".

I saw many of my PhD Cambridge friends engage critically with Leave/Remain for Britain in the EU. They could have gone either way and their Remain decision was only based on humanitarian and future stage 5/fluid reasons, but I could see that easily going the other way too.

Future fluid mode: I have recently read the whole book and much of the metablog, find myself very engaged by the framework, feel very similar in experience/philosophical position to yourself and have the time to be of use. My summer project is to blog Thoughts About Things in dialogue with you and Scott(slatestar) and one of the things that is engaging me and my friends right now is imagining features of a fluid mode society / what stage 5 could be or look like, also how to get there.

I hope you will find that useful / inspiring!

Who gets to be in the tribe?

Abel Molina's picture

I think when explaining the Brexit result, it's also important to consider who do people consider as part of their 'tribe' when operating within the communal mode. When trying to explain the age dependency of the voting patterns, I think this helps as much as considering the education level/ways of thinking variable.

Indeed, 18-30 year olds in Western Europe don't seem to me particularly fond of systematic thinking - on average, certainly less so than people with a similar education background and 30-40 years older...But having grown up in the EU in the 90s/00s, some neighborhoods of the UK are more familiar that some parts of my small hometown, and I have spent much less time in the UK than many of my friends/acquaintances - including both highly educated people and not. It seems surreal to consider the fact that these are places where suddenly I can't legally just move to, and the uncertainty that my friends there are going through. And this is not an accident - beyond mere freedom of movement, there are EU programs targeted at the youth (mostly the Erasmus exchange program, but also all kinds of summer camps, workshops, etc.) that explicitly try to build this feeling. I suspect they were reasonably successful with a lot of the British youth, but it seems clear that it was a mistake not to have similar incentives for building connections with citizens of other EU states targeted towards people in other stages of life.

I also think the cultural war story hypothesis applies a lot more to begin with to US politics than to UK politics - what happened in UK politics in the last few decades seems a bit more like the left moving towards the center in the interest of electability as the number of blue collar workers declines, rather than replacing the class war/economics axis of politics by the 'culture war' one.

Another related story that seems somewhat appropriate to share here - the 15M movement within Spain that influenced Occupy Wall Street has largely ended up getting its aspirations and demands channeled and more clearly defined through a new political party (Podemos). And most of the people leading the party are highly analytical and academical (I'm far from a poli-sci expert, but Laclau's frameworks seem to be some of their favorite ones - it's all a bit postmodern, but it involves far far more "if this then that" that anything I remember coming from Occupy Wall Street).

Their appreciation for "axiomatic" organization of ideas and groups is likely related to the fact that many of these leaders have a history of belonging in their youth to long-living disciplined communist organizations (though now they are allegedly not aspiring to build a communist system anymore). They are aware though that they need to keep the communal aspect of the 15M movement somewhat alive - maybe not out of a genuine appreciation, but just out of the need to attract the corresponding voters. It's been entertaining so far to watch their somewhat successful attempts to keep some balance there.

I wonder why Occupy Wall Street didn't go in this direction...the lack of an appropriate stable and disciplined organization to recruit leaders from in the US left comes to mind...the main ones could be unions, and they are not very relatable for new economy workers. Also, the electoral system makes it a lot harder to start building a small political party, get a decent number of elected representatives, and progressively grow it up. You can try to grow within one of the main two parties, but to get elected for a district, in the end you'd usually need a majority within the party there. This seems harder than what the Podemos guys achieved in their first try (8% of votes, and not close to being the first party of the left in any geographical area ).

On a bit of a more conspiratorial note, I also remember the story of Justine Tunney, leaving Wall St because of not being able to afford medical treatment for her cancer, and some people on Twitter complaining that other Wall St leaders ended up in similar situations. These are much less feasible stories in the context I am talking about - people going full time into activism would still need to pay for housing and food, but unlike healthcare that's a stable and predictable cost, and due to stronger family ties and old age pensions still being somewhat decent, there's almost always a relative able and willing to cover it for them...anyway, all of this is more an exercise in comparative politics than in philosophy - but hopefully related enough it might be worth sharing : )

Culture war(s) outside the US

Thanks, all interesting!

I am working on several posts/pages on the American culture war. I'm definitely aware that it's somewhat unique to the US (although some aspects seem to be similar elsewhere). I've been reading a lot about the 1980s Religious Right, which is fascinating in a history-of-ideas way.

Extremely insightful

Kenny's picture

This feels like it crystalizes a lot of things I've been thinking lately – and a lot of those thoughts were inspired in whole or part by your earlier writing. I was just discussing the stages (modes) of moral development with my wife last night, in context of her conflicted feelings about being a homemaker. She mentioned a blog post where lots of women expressed feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness about staying at home to raise children (and not being otherwise formally employed). Those expressions reminded me of your notion of stage 4.5 and its attendant nihilism.

With respect to politics, I've noticed myself saying, writing, or thinking that I "am of many minds" about various topics or ideas or conflicts. I am of many minds about whether that indicates I'm at or still transitioning to the fluid mode.

I am intensely curious as to what greater numbers of people reaching fluid mode portends for politics. Certainly most people will continue to remain at earlier levels. Perhaps those operating in fluid mode will be able to broker more-or-less peaceful resolutions to conflicts between coalitions, most of which will consist of people operating in communal or systematic modes.

Related to my 'many minds' feeling about a lot of conflicts, I often reach for ideas like what Scott Alexander describes as Archipelago. I think we have too few political solutions that involve different groups of people to 'divorce' each other and live differently as they both desire.

Another nebulous cluster of ideas that continually pop into my head are related to what Daniel Quinn, who initially exposed me to the idea, refers to as new tribalism, a (vague and ambiguous; at least in my memory) program for re-introducing tribes into modern civilization. It seems like something like that might be able to (better) reconcile the tensions between communal and systematic modes.

I was thinking about the movie Up in the Air and how it portrayed the systematic layoffs that the main characters facilitate as cold and soulless. Partly the soullessness is portrayed as caused by a mismatch in loyalty between the companies making layoffs and their employees being laid-off. Maybe things like layoffs would be easier if they involved tribes or if people could rely on a tribe supporting them in the even they're laid off.

The biggest problem with tribes is that almost no one wants to join one! Some people are already a member of a 'tribe', e.g. a gang, a close-knit extended family. But no one I've mentioned the idea to has ever reacted positively. All of them have valued their privacy, autonomy, and other forms of independence too much to seriously consider joining a 'tribe'.

As for the ongoing horrors that are Markdown, it seems largely due to its creator, John Gruber, actively resisting attempts to formalize it:

So there is a potential for Markdown processors to someday be not-totally-screwed-up but it remains to be seen how much support the spec garners:

And even CommonMark is, as you wrote, a "huge pile of complex ad hoc regexes". I think they rightly decided to be as backwards-compatible as possible with existing Markdown content but, of course, that means they've had to forego opportunities to simplify the spec (to the consternation of many). I personally side with backwards-compatibility almost always because, practically, it's often a killer feature that's necessary (if not sufficient) to achieve actual widespread adoption.

Neo-tribalism

Thanks, Kenny, really glad you've found the book useful!

Perhaps those operating in fluid mode will be able to broker more-or-less peaceful resolutions to conflicts between coalitions, most of which will consist of people operating in communal or systematic modes.

I hope so!

The biggest problem with tribes is that almost no one wants to join one!

I'm not sure of your background... this was popular with hip urban people in the '90s. It didn't work.

Regarding both neo-tribalism and Scott's brilliant Archipelago essay, I posted the chapter introduction page on subcultures a couple days ago. The chapter will include a page entitled "Archipelago" that expands on Scott's work a little. Relatedly, the chapter tries to explain why neo-tribalism didn't work in the 1990s, when we did try it (in San Francisco at least!). There's a highly condensed summary of that explanation in the introductory page.

I do think something like this is the most promising way forward; so we need to better understand the obstacles, and figure out how to address them.

a mismatch in loyalty between the companies making layoffs and their employees being laid-off

Yes... the implicit social contract that worked reasonably well in America, starting from WWII, broke down in the '90s (roughly). It was "the system will take care of you if you conform." There isn't really a replacement yet. It's probably not possible to go back (despite nostalgia from much of the left); nor is the new status quo sustainable (despite celebration from some of the right).

have you read anything by

bnr's picture

have you read anything by moishe postone? or robert kurz? their theories seems to have a lot of similarities to your anti-dualism. except they're mainly theorizing about how capitalism works. they're using a lot of concepts from marxs capital, but their theories are based on the ideas of "commodity fetishism" and the "labor theory of value", rather than "capitalist exploitation" or the stupid half religous engelsist/leninist(perhaps communist-manifesto-marxist) idea of the "working class as the subject of history". i guess their point is sort of that the dualities of modernity are products of capitalism. postone also talked about the present political state as a (false) dichotomy between technocracy and populism in a recent interview, where he also used sanders and trump as examples of the latter:

"If, with Trump’s racist and xenophobic explanation, it is the Mexicans and the Muslims etc., for the populist Left it is the banks and trade. If it were not for “them” we would have jobs in America. Well, jobs are not going to come back to America.The reasons have much more to do with the logic of capital, than they do with trade policies. But instead of thinking about how we are going to deal with a society where manufacturing jobs are disappearing, about what the responsibility of the government is in a new situation the populist Left avoids such questions. /…/ So we have elite technocrats on the one hand, and populist anger on the other."

from: http://crisiscritique.org/political11/Agon%20Hamza%20&%20Frank%20Ruda%20...

he has also written an article on antisemitism, in which he characterizes it as an ideology that ties the abstract results of capitalism ("abstraction, invisibility, automation, impersonal domination [finance, money]" ) to a specific group or subject (jews), instead promoting (psuedo-)"concrete" notions of the "socially "natural" sound, true, [industry, kinship] etc". This critique of abstract/concrete-dualism also reminded me of this blog.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated June 26, 2016.

The next metablog post is A first lesson in meta-rationality.

The previous metablog post was Judging whether a system applies.

This page’s topics are Politics, Rationalism, and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.