Comments on “A gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything”

fluid food

Jack 2015-01-15

Hi, for that one, I would go with local food. The smaller the farm is, the better. See: Michael Pollan.


Jayarava 2015-02-02

I think it would be useful to show the changes in political economics because they counterbalance changes in society - my view is the trends go in the other direction. Something like this.

1450-1914. Short range trade gradually replaced by long range; exploration leads to exploitation of the new world; Decline of India and China as economic world powers. Britain emerges as economic super-power espousing a form of Protestant influenced Libertarianism called “Merchantilism”. Frequent wars over trade and territory. In France and then US revolution changes ideas about governance. Rise of US TANSTAAFL libertarianism.

1914-1980. The last major nation state wars over territory. Economics becomes more abstract, trading in futures and derivatives follow emergence of superpowers. Rise of America as an economic power. Stalinism in Europe. Great Depression caused by unlimited credit and irrational exuberance (Minsky). Reform of finances, Keynesian economics leads to period of post-WWII economic stability (feeding baby boomers and counter-culture). European Common Market formed with view to preventing global wars. Saudi Arabia becomes major ally of West; imports weapons, exports oil & Wahhabism.

1963-1989. Decline of Keynesian economics and emergence of Free-Market Economics and Neoliberalism (balance of power shifts from Europe to USA). Conservative US business interests coalesce to counteract counterculture (Neoconservatism). Conservative politicians coopt previous apolitical fundamentalist Christians who begin to have major role in framing policy debates. IMF/World bank become ideologically driven Free Market evangelists. Globalisation empowers corporations, which move offshore to avoid government regulation and taxation. Oil shocks help shift balance of power, corporations and govt begin to seek control of Middle-East (again). Controls removed from finance, credit expands. Economic collapse in Africa, South America due to imposition of IMF/World Bank policies. Growth of Saudi inspired freedom fighters (aka Terrorists).

1975-2000. Conversion of all mainstream politicians worldwide to Neoliberal/Free-market Economic thinking, with Alan Greenspan as prophet. US economic advisors drawn from pool of Goldman Sachs senior staff, and vice versa. Capture of govt by corporations. Massive transfer of wealth upwards due to “trickle down economics”. Private sector debt expands exponentially causing economic boom in US/Europe aka “The Long Boom”; Japan ahead of the curve begins ongoing “balance sheet recession” in 1990. European economic union becomes monetary, but not fiscal union. Collapse of Soviet bloc under pressure from booming Western economies and an arms race they can no longer afford. Wahhabhism becomes a major force in the Middle East and (ironically) identify Saudi allies, the USA as enemy no.1. 9/11 attacks on World Trade Centre.

2000-. Corporations consolidate and capture majority of wealth, meanwhile national interests continue to fragment. Korean & Indonesia major economic meltdown caused by IMF/World Bank policies. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 2007 economic meltdown caused by sub-prime and massive over-indebtedness. 2008 worst recession since 1930. Banks, at the heart of the crisis as in 1929, are bailed out this time. Massive malfeasance shown in banks, but laws (drawn up by former Goldman employees) inadequate to prosecute them. Rise in terrorist threats used to erode privacy and civil liberties, widespread abuse of police powers. Many small scale wars, rather than few large scale wars (called progress by Pinker). Neoliberals continue to foist “choice” onto the public, swamping decision making capability. “Arab Spring” leads to civil war across North Africa and Middle-East.

Future? Corporations and the 1% continue to accumulate wealth at the expense of the 99%. Income inequality increases, but population is too fragmented and confused to effectively oppose. European Union threatened by continuing economic instability; probably Euro fails as Greece defaults & triggers another global economic crisis. Repeated recessions and economic crises weaken governments, but Neoliberal ideology maintains its grip preventing effective responses. Corporations resist any moves to limit profit taking, continue to stymie responses to climate change, major health concerns (e.g. tobacco). Climate change speeds up, destroyed remaining wealth of the world’s poor. Technology becomes the only means to survival and it is all owned by transnational corporations that do not pay taxes. Corporate feudalism dominant form of government, with token democracy. Return of generational indentured servitude. World is dominated by about half-a-dozen corporations who portray themselves as benevolent and the slaves as liberated.

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My sense is that you’ve accurately outlined the trends for individuals and nation states, but that the countertrend in corporations is the background against which this gestalt is occurring. The two feed each other in a vicious circle. As the people atomise, the corporations consolidate: with consequent transfer of wealth and power to the corporations from the people. The only question is whether they can ride out the inevitable economic crises that will follow. Experience of 2008-present suggests they will.


David Chapman 2015-02-04

Thank you very much for the comment; sorry to be slow to follow up!

I plan to say a little about economics later, but currently my thinking about that doesn’t much fit the scheme of the chart, so I’m not sure…

20th century history and Buddhism

DBDodd 2016-02-16

I don’t know how strongly you want to set your argument against history – the formation of the modern world is complex, and the period from 1450 to 1915 includes the appearance of everything from free-love anarchists to slave plantations. What is inarguable is that this all takes place in relation to the Christian God.

The shift that begins at the end of the 18th century, becomes irreversible after WW1, and makes WW2 inevitable, is the replacement of God as the ideological foundation with the People or the Nation. There are various reasons for this, but the Lebenswelt that makes the People real is mass conscription, supported by mass media at home.

The term that makes clear how important the Nation was for the WW2 generation is “un-American”, which serves to create an internal exile for anyone found guilty of it in the ’50s, while the counter-culture is happy to indulge it. All anyone of the WW2 generation wants is to be All-American. The counter-culture can conceive of non-American identities for themselves as well.

This provides a better background for situating Consensus Buddhism as well, since what you’re concerned with is what Westerners actually want Buddhism to be. In the period 1450-1915, Buddhism is simply idolatry. It’s only of interest to radical eccentrics like Theosophists, who don’t care what people think of them.

In the 20th century, Buddhism is what certain other nations do, what you see in Thailand or Japan. It’s part of what makes a person Japanese, just like being Christian helps make a person more American.

Consensus Buddhism, like listening to black music, or wearing jeans everywhere, is a way of trying to undermine an American identity that is held to be constraining or even corrupt. It is viewed as an expression of natural human virtue that the All-American identity has corrupted.

In this sense, Buddhist modernism is particularly useful, because it is anti-colonial. It provides a ready made language addressed to European Christian thought, saying that we Buddhists are more ethical than you Christians, because you Christians have come here and destroyed our natural paradise. This attempt to return to a fallen paradise is an explicit ideal of the non-Marxist left, and a problematic one.


Donna Brown 2016-09-08

Just a comment on a possible variation in the timing if Asia is part of this (are you mixing up Asian and European history here?) - the great Buddhist monasteric universities in India, which were inhabited by tens of thousands of monks, likely had a modernist, systematic culture (at least given their modernist, systematic philosophy), even though they existed within a sea of pre-modern culture, from at Nagarjuna or so to their destruction by invading Muslims 800-1400 AD - a modernist sub-culture destroyed by a pre-modern invader…

Pre-modern modernism?

jayarava 2016-09-08

My interest in Buddhist doctrine largely ceases with Nagarajuna, the most overrated philosopher in Indian history. But it seems to me that any claim to the existence of modernism in Pre-modern India requires substantiation. It’s an extraordinary claim for medieval India that strikes me as extremely implausible. Medieval Indian looks decidedly medieval to me. It doesn’t look anything like modernism! There is nothing modern about, for example, Shantideva, an archetypal Nalanda alumnus of the 8th Century.

modernity of Nagarjuna

DBDodd 2016-09-08

I don’t think systematic philosophical thought is actually indicative of modernity. Nagarjuna (like Thomas Aquinas) writes for an audience that has a shared education in logic – you simply wouldn’t get to the point of studying philosophy, law, medicine, etc. without being schooled in some basic system that explains whether a statement is true or not. Nagarjuna only makes sense from this perspective. He doesn’t give you any direct way to observe the emptiness of phenomena, he addresses a particular category of phenomena, and uses logic to demonstrate that the phenomena have no truth value.

A big part of modernity involves the replacement of scholastic logic with mathematics. In the medieval period, both in India and Europe, mathematics is either a practical skill, used by merchants, or a marginal part of advanced scientific study. It’s not something that gets studied at universities for the most part. For instance, both Leibniz and Newton, the inventors of calculus, taught themselves mathematics during time away from university.

Contrast this with the modern day, where numbers and many mathematical functions are a basic part of daily life. Think of how hard it would be to express yourself without percentages or the concept of zero, even in non-technical discussions. The use of that kind of mathematics in normal conversation and writing strikes me as a fairly basic symbol of modernity. By contrast, Nagarjuna and Aquinas incorporated express syllogisms in their work, with the expectation that their readers would recognize them as such.


Matthew 2016-09-10

Your optimism about the imagined next phase is sweet. It seems that pessimism or optimism can’t help but shape the vision we’re delivered by those willing to guess at what comes next. That said, some of what you predict seems to be the inevitable outcome of forward movement away from the evident limitations and inherent failings of what passes as contemporary western culture. Either that, or we go backwards and keep producing further atomized elements of the prior phases?

... especially about the future

David Chapman 2016-09-10

pessimism or optimism can’t help but shape the vision

Yes, that’s very true, I think. I mostly try to avoid both, though. Actually, I mostly try to avoid prediction. It’s hard, and not obviously useful.

As you suggest, my description of “the fluid mode” is mainly an extrapolation of “the inevitable outcome of forward movement away from” what doesn’t work currently. One could equally well extrapolate atomization going much further than it has. That looks like a potential disaster—but maybe somehow it wouldn’t be.

Anyway, “the fluid mode” is something I’m trying to help bring into existence, more than a prediction. I hope that by describing it, I will inspire others to live it.

The countercultures are interesting as a model, in that they were created entirely deliberately by small groups of innovators. So were many individual subcultures, although subculturalism as a movement/phenomenon wasn’t theorized until much later (so far as I know). Atomization just happened, without anyone advocating it at all (so far as I know).

Anyway, the point of that is that massive changes in a whole country’s relationship to meaning can be pioneered by a small group and then taken up by everyone—if it is right for the times.

Community, meaning, Buddhism

Matthew 2016-09-11

Glenn Wallis referred to the need for utopian thinking in his recent interview with us at the Imperfect Buddha used in order to bring about change. Your hope seems to fit into that category of thought.
I think one of the obvious issues with the atomised masses is their lack of attention span and the tendency to fold all incoming data/info/knowledge into the ongoing flow of meaningful/meaningless stimulus that quickly leads to the next thing and then the next and so on. Depth becomes important in disrupting the addiction to stimulus but seems to lead in both directions; retreat backwards down the scale, or forwards to some form of fluidity, as you describe it. I wonder to what degree consensus Buddhism has been co-opted in the pursuit of happy fragmented folks who retreat from the world, or ameliorate the consequences of fragmentation, rather than challenge it and creatively explore forward movement into fluidity. This doubt obviously echoes past concerns about co-option of Buddhism and its off-shoot mindfulness in service to neo-liberalism and so on.

I quite like making predictions. I made one 3/4 years back after a long Skype chat that’s relevant here. Although the Skype call was fantastic as the other person was in the States and we had a good conversation and I could ‘see’ them, I couldn’t ‘feel’ the person and was left dissatisfied by the quality of connection. It got me to thinking about felt connection and the inevitable backlash that follows all major change. I thought that the internet would have to lead to the creation of new communities of meaning which would be in reaction to the fragmented, dispersive nature of the internet and its unfulfilling networks of connections. My curiosity about such likelihood was then whether such groups would attempt to re-create the past (the easy option) or attempt to imagine new group forms (preferably as consciously informed by the past but in alignment with change and curious about potentials). This reaction could resonate with your idea of counter-cultures as a potentially disruptive force. The shape and form of such communities is perhaps where your desire comes in. I would argue that we currently have an imagination deficit in this area at present.

One of the reasons we started the podcast was to disrupt what Stuart and I see as the failings of Buddhist groups to evolve beyond their role as new subjectification machines, as well as their general failing to create groups of forward thinking communities. I am likely channelling some of the utopian new-age spiritual myths we both once held as teens that hold that we can change the world if we’re daring enough. I strongly hold that there is a need for the liberating technologies of Buddhism to open practitioners out into the world rather than in the opposite direction, which is one reason I have always been so much more attracted to the Tantric vision of practice and the world as vibrant, violent and dynamic. I think that Buddhism has much more to offer in this regard but it may mean forms of practices evolving that are unrecognizable to Buddhists, as Mr Wallis has stated in his work. Obviously, in your case, the community of meaning is the Aro-ter but as you well know, it’s not for everyone. In my case, the post-traditional Buddhism stuff I write and that feeds into the podcast is an attempt to liberate more aspects of Buddhism from itself whilst bringing it into relationship with leading contemporary thought. Part of that process is bridging the gap between the nihilist/post-modern world of thought, practice and imagining of humans and community, and the world of creative-critical thinking supported by non-thought (a la Laruelle) which is capable of encompassing multiplicity, participation as practice and choice as a constructive and destructive necessity. As an example, I’ve been recently playing with the idea and practice of non-dual style meditation techniques, stemming from Buddhism rather than the neo-Advaita lot, as a form of exposure whilst ridding it of the fantasy that everything is basically good. There are a number of reasons why uncoupling the practice from the idea of basic goodness or innate benevolence can be powerfully disruptive and, dare I say, liberating. It may seem banal to repeat it, but much more experimentation of this sort is needed if Buddhism is to evolve into a resource for the wider world beyond its current status as maintenance, well-being and retreat.

The Aro-ter model of a confederacy is a positive one that perhaps those working on Buddhism could emulate in an informal manner so as to build momentum and move beyond fragmentation. I was originally hoping the Buddhist Geeks project might lead to such an outcome but that hasn’t happened to the degree I’d have liked to have seen. Perhaps we need another conference that can bring intelligent, creative-critical folks together to push the next jump forward and seed excitement about more radical action?

Anyway, those are my Sunday morning ramblings. Thanks as always for your work and its clarity.

A vibrant, violent, and dynamic scene

David Chapman 2016-09-12

Thank you for many interesting points!

I strongly hold that there is a need for the liberating technologies of Buddhism to open practitioners out into the world rather than in the opposite direction, which is one reason I have always been so much more attracted to the Tantric vision of practice and the world as vibrant, violent and dynamic. I think that Buddhism has much more to offer in this regard but it may mean forms of practices evolving that are unrecognizable to Buddhists

Yes, I agree strongly with all of that.

the Aro-ter but as you well know, it’s not for everyone.

Quite so. My “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” project was supposed to point toward a modern Vajrayana that has broader appeal. I have back-burnered that indefinitely, because I don’t see how to make it happen. Conceptually, it’s straightforward. In fact, there’s a dozen unpublished posts in the series, in nearly complete form, which outline what it would look like. The obstacles are social and cultural, and I don’t see a way past them, currently.

In my case, the post-traditional Buddhism stuff I write and that feeds into the podcast is an attempt to liberate more aspects of Buddhism from itself whilst bringing it into relationship with leading contemporary thought.

Right. That has been my aim too.

Perhaps we need another conference that can bring intelligent, creative-critical folks together to push the next jump forward and seed excitement about more radical action?

I think this is well worth considering. I fantasized about running a one-day workshop that would occur immediately before or after the Buddhist Geeks conference, along these lines. Maybe 6-12 people with a strong background in Vajrayana and a shared goal of bringing it into the 21st century.

As Hokai Sobol pointed out to me, movements grow out of “scenes” of intensely-driven, smart, creative people. If “modern Buddhist Tantra” is to be something more than an isolated, idiosyncratic cult, founded by one brilliant individual, it probably needs to grow out of a “scene.”

I doubt we have a critical mass of the sorts of people we’d need to create a modern Vajrayana scene. But I’m not sure we don’t! So it may be worth trying.

The Revolution

Jayarava 2016-09-13

I think Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a useful exploration of what it takes to start and sustain a revolution. It’s not very succinct and could do with being summarised, but the elements are all there.

More on Choicelessness

Jayarava 2016-09-13

Hmm. Thinking more about choicelessness and the idea of leading edge cultures.

The choiceless mode addresses the problem of survival. It creates tightly knit societies that are stable and long lasting and provide optimal conditions for low tech continuation at sub-Dunbar limit (150) sized groups. I think Jared Diamond brings this out in his descriptions of the societies in Papua New Guinea. As does Robin Dunbar himself in his book Human Evolution.

Although we might not describe it as an “attempted solution”, systems become necessary when the group gets too big. Systems are required to deal with complexity and novelty arising out of social groups that are larger than our ability to manage them mentally. Dunbar again, but the larger numbers like 1500, 4500 etc. Functions like surveillance and policing of norms become necessary for example. They are not specialised functions in choiceless societies because everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

I’m not sure I agree with your dates - even with the hedges you provide.

Let’s take Greater India, which I know best.

The Choiceless mode first disappeared in the Indus Valley ca. 3500 BCE. A large network of cities and trading routes created a sophisticated civilisation, to judge by their architecture and material culture. Climate change killed The IV civilisation ca. 1700 BCE (just before Vedic speakers crossed the Hindu Kush) and the survivors migrated north into the Punjab and back to choicelessness in small village communities where they eventually merged with the Vedic speaking incomers.

They clearly had successful systems for some centuries because they sustained large cities and there is no other way to do this.

By 700 BCE the choiceless mode once again gave way to systems as city states arose in the central Ganges Valley (the first time locally). The Pāḷi suttas, which we can tentatively sat describe a culture dating to between ca. 600 and ca. 300 BCE (post urbanisation - pre-Asoka), clearly describe a culture made up of a counter-culture in the form of samaṇa groups. who abandon social norms. Choice was obviously denied to some serfs, but other people had loads of it. Wealth and power was accumulating in a few hands. Trade networks spanned the sub-continent and beyond by land and sea. But meanwhile Persian culture and Greek culture were both well ahead on just about every measure.

Buddhism, as portrayed in its own early texts, is a counter-culture, responding to the crisis in the systemic urban culture of the Ganges Valley wrought by the advent of the Iron age, the growth of wealth, expansion of trade routes, and particularly the collision of cultures: indigenic, Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic, first and second wave Indic speakers, and probably a handful of influential Iranian migrants. It was a melting pot.

Asoka, the first and probably most incompetent emperor of India, instituted widespread reforms of systems in the mid-3rd Century BCE.

Parallels to this pattern are easily found in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Europe. What did the Romans ever do for us? Etc.

On the other hand my father’s ancestors lived in a choiceless mode well into the 1800s because they were landless peasants in the south of England and were basically serfs to the local landowners. They escaped with a government subsidy to New Zealand where they finally found the modern world.

I suppose in the end all these kinds of generalisation are going to be flawed. There is no scheme that will accurately encompass history in a single chart, no matter how gigantic. Where the chart works best, seems to be in terms of modernity and the crisis of modernity. It works least well in terms of the “earlier” phases.

Earlier history

David Chapman 2016-09-13

Yes, these points are all well-taken. In the page on the systematic mode, I wrote in a footnote:

Systematicity is a matter of degree, not all-or-nothing. The earliest urban societies were already somewhat systematic five thousand years ago. Ancient India, China, Greece, and Rome were quite systematic at their peaks. Rome, especially, was astonishingly modern; it wasn’t until the 1600s, or perhaps even 1700s, that Europe caught up to where it had been a millennium and a half earlier. Rome’s modernity, and its success, was due to its cosmopolitanism: its willingness to adopt and adapt the life-ways of other cultures.

Relatedly, in the countercultures page, a footnote cautions that:

I concentrate on the 1960s-80s because my goal is to understand the most direct influences on our current mode of meaningness, rather than developing a general theory of history.

So the goal here is to understand contemporary Western (and especially American) culture via its recent history. The driving feature of that history is the breakdown of Victorian-era systematicity. Analogies with other cultures are very interesting, but beyond the scope of what I’m attempting.

The joy of hypertext

Jayarava 2016-09-14

I’m seeing the disadvantages of a hypertext “book” published in piecemeal fashion.

Idealist, not Realist, History

DBDodd 2016-09-14

It’s important to remember that we’re talking here about history from an idealist, not a realist, perspective. The subject of discussion isn’t a single individual, it’s a whole civilization (a term which needs to be more clearly defined).

If we use a computer as an analogy, we can talk about the hardware made up of the actual human beings who learn the software of languages and skills (“ideal technology”?) that allow them to function in their community. In contrast to a computer, in a civilization, the hardware is constantly changing, and the software is relatively stable.

The civilization is intelligent, in that it adapts to changing material circumstances, but its highest priority is preserving its idea technology, since without that, it can’t function at all. So it will adapt slowly, and as much as possible by borrowing idea tech from other civilizations.

If material circumstances limit its ability to conserve its idea tech (e.g. it lacks the wealth to feed and clothe a population of scribes), the civilization will rebuild itself from what it has at hand. This includes idea tech that it can borrow from its neighbors.

Since about 600 BC, any civilization on the Eurasian continent has been able to borrow idea tech from a functioning empire. This creates a recognizable continuity that Karl Jaspers invented the term “Axial Age” to describe.

In relation to the history of India, this is the difference between the Mohenjo-Daro civilization and the civilization that produced the Upanishads. The civilization that produced the Upanishads is an Axial civilization. Even in times of crisis, it preserved the idea of a Sanskrit-speaking community of ascetics, who talked about the nature of Brahman and Atman.

You can even see this difference between the Vedas and the Upanishads. The poets of the Vedas were drinking soma and having visions of the gods, not withdrawing from their senses to confront an inner Atman.

There’s an argument to be made that the horse-stealing civilization that produced the Vedas was the same civilization that Zoroaster is rebelling against in the Gathas. There is a very close similarity in the language and the values, although we can’t be sure, because the Zoroastrians rejected the poetry of that civilization, in contrast to the Brahmins of India, who preserved the poetry, while rejecting much of the ethos.

The development and interaction of these Axial civilizations is something I spend a lot of time obsessing about, but the chart we’re looking at is addressing a secondary consolidation of idea technology. Whereas Axial civilizations reflect the relatively slow spread of idea technology across the Eurasian continent, the chart is looking at the fallout from the globalization of idea technology from the 16th through the 19th centuries. We can call this “Modernity”, but it might be helpful to have a more esoteric term to match up with Axial.

I’m still trying to determine if it describes historical periods as much as responses to the crisis of confronting the global economy and political order. For instance Buddhist Modernism remains a powerful mass movement in Thailand, where it looks like this:

However, if we consider the analogous mass phenomenon of Christian megachurches, this kind of modernism is clearly a conservative, rear-guard, response to modern life. And in its political form of totalitarianism, it’s plainly on its way out, only surviving in backwaters like North Korea.

To bring this back to my original point, we are not talking about whether everyone in any given nation is living in a state of abundance where they are voluntarily subscribing to ideologies that they now have the time and energy to contribute to. We are talking about the social roles that the idea technology makes available at a given moment.

At any given time, a large number of people are going to be focused entirely on meeting their own physical needs. However, all around them, and available for their use, they will be surrounded by idea technology that expresses a system in crisis, or a collection of subcultures, etc. If they have time available, they will make use of that idea tech. And I suspect that, unless they are subsistence farmers, much of their economic activity will serve the interests of those more voluntary forms of culture.

This last point raises an interesting question for a philosophy of meaningness: Is it possible for a society to become so fluid that it offers deep resources of meaning regardless of the economic or political status of the individual? If so, does the richness of meaning in such a situation render irrelevant any demands for economic or political equality?

It may be that economic and political status are secondary phenomena with respect to the fundamental issue of meaningness, in which case, social fluidity will bring about economic and political fluidity. But in any case, it seems like a question that will regularly come up.

Equality after scarcity

David Chapman 2016-09-14

Is it possible for a society to become so fluid that it offers deep resources of meaning regardless of the economic or political status of the individual? If so, does the richness of meaning in such a situation render irrelevant any demands for economic or political equality?

Yes, these are important questions, and ones Meaningness and Time does address.

Many of the scholarly histories of the countercultures I read say they were brought about in part by unprecedented material prosperity, resulting in a shift to greater concern about meaning and less about economics. That, in turn, led to a “90-degree rotation of politics,” and to social class status competition based on “values” replacing economic class competition. So, to a significant extent, the shift you suggest has already happened, half a century ago!

That said, one of the best features of the subcultural mode was that its diversity and richness of meaning allowed participants to find small, comfortable communities, in which status competition of all sorts was less brutal than in the previous modes.

Unfortunately, politics during the countercultural era, and even more during our current atomized era, has switched from substantive issues (including economics) to conflicts over meaningness itself. This has been extremely harmful, I think, and a major goal of this writing arc is to suggest ways to reverse that.

More positively, at risk of unrealistic techno-utopianism, I think that in the next few decades we could bring about sufficient affluence globally that economic issues would be completely meaningless except to the handful of geeks who are charged with keeping the machines running. [Whether, as societies, we choose to do that remains uncertain. I take most economic policy-making since the 2008 crisis as mainly having the effect of preventing positive change, partly because that risks negative change.] This might well intensify social-status/social-group politics even further; so it’s important to find ways to reduce such conflicts.

meaningness and power

DBDodd 2016-09-16

I apologize that I don’t have time to review what you’ve already written about the relationship between meaningness and economics/politics, but I thought I would expand briefly on my suggestion that economics and politics can be viewed as phenomena that are dependent on issues of meaningness.

What’s significant about both politics and economics is that they are modes of social interaction driven by the desires of individuals within the market or political entity described. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m eliding the difference between wants and needs, and calling them both desires.) Economics and political science are reluctant to analyze things in terms of desires, but there’s no question that market transactions and political institutions exist because individuals and groups of individuals have conflicting desires over the various types of resources that are available to satisfy those desires. And those desires have varying degrees of specificity, which specificity is more or less equivalent to meaning.

The liberal democratic mechanisms for resolving these conflicts has been to find mechanisms (money in the case of liberal markets, votes in the case of democracies) that minimize the meaning of the mechanism. Because cash and votes have little specific meaning in themselves, it is much easier to come to agreements about how to portion them out. This eliminates points of dispute, but creates powerful institutions that are characterized by being extremely boring. If you are reasonably intelligent and immensely power-hungry, you will go to the trouble of mastering some field of finance or law, but if you are concerned with having a meaningful life, you will avoid finance and law like the plague, because they are really boring.

Your observation about subcultures is the relevant point to look at, because it is possible for larger groups of individuals to come to agreements about meaning in very specific terms. As larger groups, they are in a position to negotiate with other groups from a position of power, and without giving up their obsession with specific meaning. What’s important then is having the mechanisms for resolving disputes between the larger groups, in ways that minimize the sacrifices of meaning that any given resolution will entail.

I would argue that an informal mechanism of this type is characteristic of the US, in that the policy of religious freedom here provides opportunities for groups to articulate very involved commitments to specific meanings, while still participating in the larger market, and in political activities. Churches and other religious organizations provide opportunities for groups to articulate very specific visions, while allowing them to throw their weight around in economic and political matters.

The shift I think you’re interested in is whether it is possible to have social entities that, like traditional religion, articulate very specific meanings, but instead of deriving these meanings from tradition and interpretation, derive these meanings from adaptation and improvisation. I certainly try to live my life as if such social entities exist, but I still find that most people want to focus on what came from the past, not what’s possible for the future, even people who call themselves progressives.


David Chapman 2016-09-16

Thanks! You may find my unfinished page about “Archipelago,” as subcultural politics, relevant.

The table

Nate Graham 2016-12-19

I’d like to make a technical suggestion: rotate the table 90 degrees so that the modes are on the Y axis, not the X axis. That makes it possible to read all about each mode in the right-to-left manner rather than up-to-down, which necessitates a lot of scrolling given how tall the table it.

Reading the table both ways

David Chapman 2016-12-19

Thanks! The table is big enough in both dimensions that scrolling is inevitable either way. It’s hard to know whether people are more likely to want to read the development of a particular aspect of meaning over time, or to want to read about the different aspects of a particular mode. So I’m not sure which scrolling direction is more annoying!

The table can be made to behave better using some javascript, which I may add at some point. (But how many people read with javascript turned on/off?)

The table

Nate Graham 2016-12-19

Actually on my 1080p screen, if I maximize my web browser I can clearly read all the columns of the table without scrolling, even bumping up the zoom level to 150%.

Future Economics

neovictorian23 2017-05-01

More positively, at risk of unrealistic techno-utopianism, I think that in the next few decades we could bring about sufficient affluence globally that economic issues would be completely meaningless except to the handful of geeks who are charged with keeping the machines running.

This was explored in a most interesting way in Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon which is all the more brilliant in that it was written 75 years ago.

I’ve been reading many different pages here in the last week and several times have found issues/problems/challenges/transformations that were worked through (sometimes just lightly) by the science fiction authors of the 1940-70s period.

Science fiction authors of the 1940-70s

David Chapman 2017-05-01

I grew up reading that stuff (in the 1970s), so it’s possible this is not a coincidence!

Idealist, not Realist, History

Bad Horse 2017-07-26

@DBDodd: AFAIK, Idealist and Realist are synonyms. “Realist” is just what Idealists call themselves, because they think the Ideal is the Real.

Very Insightful Table

Demon Rawr 2023-06-29

Hello. As a newcomer, I found your blog from Twitter. This table along with the prediction is such an excellent piece of thinking. I just want to express that I’m changing my own habit trying to discover better information from the whole internet, and I’ll try to stay as a constant visitor to your blog.

Very Insightful Table

Demon Rawr 2023-06-29

Hello. As a newcomer, I found your blog from Twitter. This table along with the prediction is such an excellent piece of thinking. I just want to express that I’m changing my own habit trying to discover better information from the whole internet, and I’ll try to stay as a constant visitor to your blog.