i finished reading the Uruk Series by Lou Keep a few days ago, and the framework it provides raises so many questions of immediate interest here that i couldn’t help but post about it. you’re advised to read the whole series, not only because Keep writes very well, but also because none of the following will likely make sense without it. at the very least, you need to understand the main terms he’s referring to (here‘s a not-so-brief summary).
for full disclosure, i haven’t read any of the books. i’m familiar with Scott’s Seeing Like a State because it’s a staple in the market anarchist milieu from which i come, and have heard of Polanyi’s Great Transformation because of the two years of social sciences undergrad i took (yes). the other two – Hoffer’s The True Believer and Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism – were absolutely new to me. so this is going to refer mostly to Keep’s reading of them, in the framework of the Uruk Machine, rather than directly to the original authors’ theories.
i’ll be using Keep’s general ordering to make a few points, as well as some of the tweets i used as placeholders for my specific comments on each section. to wit, here’s an introduction to my point:
i will not address Keep’s main point (nihilism) here. it’s too broad, and i’d need to revisit he’s other great and humongous post on it to start having some more thoughts. the central point today, if you needs a tl;dr for 2k-word posts, is: power is inherently fragmented. let’s begin with those fragments then.
metis, patches and bit-nations
to the extent that the political structure that made epistemic rationalism possible, desirable, necessary or inevitable is crumbling to pieces – and, yes, this is probably the most contentious statement in the background of any discussion of patchwork – the question arises: is there a future for metis?
it’s complicated because metis takes many social cycles to be created and has been more or less thoroughly eliminated from the face of the earth by High Modernism. can it be remade (more or less) from scratch in a fragmented world? tentatively, my answer is “yes, possibly”.
the foremost reason i’d present is that the current trend of political fragmentation is underpinned by a previous fragmentation of cognitive communities in the wake of the internet, as people self-sorted into clusters of interests and likemindedness. political fragmentation is downstream of cultural fragmentation.
as these new fragments slowly speciate into very different beasts, i think the underlying cognitive methods will much more resemble metis than episteme, even to the extent that they (obviously) incorporate abstract theories and knowledge. rituals and worldviews slowly form from a shared space of communication that is no longer projected top-down from a centralized nation-state. knowledge is still local, even if it’s geographically distributed (some have called this “glocal”).
of course, this doesn’t directly plug into patchwork but there’s definitely a way such cultural species turn into bit-nations that consume sovereign services. to be sure, any such sovereign service providers are likely to “see like a state” – through maps – but there’s an opacity that each of the new cultures gather from being turned into a “bit-nation”. this is somewhat idealized, of course, hence the “possibly”.
one reason people can come at me right away: “not everyone can partake in that!”. yes, it’s true. cultural speciation leaves a lot of people behind. the usual suspects, but maybe also some unusual ones. i won’t make predictions about it. but i don’t think that the non-universality of patchwork is an argument against it’s plausibility, or it’s capability of allowing for metis to resurface. i think it’s precisely the opposite. fragmentation means something, right?
a market for societies
can these new cultural species control markets and put them side by side with other (more or less) personal bonds? i think so. but also, the essential new feature that’s brought into view by thinking through patchwork is that, rather than a “market society”, patches are inside a “market for societies“.
in this somewhat alien environment, “economic prejudice” is now submitted to it’s actual efficiency for the survival of a specific culture inside the patchwork. it might be that it’s useful for patches and bit-nations to conduct GDP censuses and focus on economic growth, it might improve their chances of self-sourcing and continuation (profit, abstractly conceived). but now economic prejudice is facing real competitors, plenty of them, so that it has real chances of being driven under.
what about the patchwork (systemic) level itself? it’s hard to tell, since this level is close to an alien cognition. does it think in economically prejudiced ways? what does that even mean, if it doesn’t share a language with us? of course, all societies have some sort of awareness that they live inside a competitive system, right now. talks of “international community” abound, and international relations is supposedly a serious branch of political science. but i think it’s uncontroversial to say that pretty much no one really knows what goes through the mind of the international system *itself*.
be it how it may, economic prejudice doesn’t strike me as the most interesting part of Polanyi’s theory. the “double movement” is definitely much more explanatory, especially when coupled with Scott’s framework. people lose something important and immaterial when societies become market societies – something that can’t be grasped by rationalized cognitive modes. and so they revolt. which never solves anything, and indeed makes things worse, and people frustrated (next section).
does it change anything that a market society suddenly becomes a market for societies? in a certain way, if [all of the above] is coherent, people are back into normal (“human”) societies. they have safety networks, personal bonds, rituals, the whole metis package. markets are no longer necessarily unbound within societies. the picture is very different among them.
if anything, a market for societies is even more alien. people revolt against the losses that market society bring upon them, whatever the material gains might be. but at least they can revolt against someone. there is some ascription of agency to certain groups, the bourgeoisie or the elite or [something]. there’s no such “evil-doers” or easy targets in patchwork.
how is anyone suppose to make sense of their societies (most likely chosen, but also possibly inherited) dying off? even the mechanism by which this could possibly happen is a little bit clouded.
there’s being conquered, sure, that’s the old way. then there are the two mechanisms that are more likely to feature in a highly fractured landscape: merger (different groups fusing into a single one) and dispersion (enough members of the group joining other groups that it become impossible for the remaining to keep as a group). even being softer on the edges, what kind of “double movement” aren’t these going to bring about? is anyone really ready to let go of tightly knit communities because there are better options? are human beings anytime ready for doom?
which brings us to the topic of anti-praxis.
frustration and anti-praxis
of all the four books Keep brought to the table, Hoffer’s has been the one whose theory most added to my worldview. i mean “mass movements are fueled by frustration” is something pretty informative that i haven’t come across in basically any of the circles i’ve inhabited so far. and it seems to me it’s the one doing most of the work in the Uruk machinery too. it basically furnishes the central mechanism through which make sense of the other parts: [bad things] make people frustrated, and frustrated people make [worse things].
so it’s important to pay attention to what exactly frustration means in the context of the series. Keep boils it down to an “inability to act meaningfully”. obviously related to the destruction of metis. if patchwork can locally restore shared meaning and distribute power, as i’m positing in the first section, then there’s no reason to worry about frustration on a very large scale in patchwork. on the other hand, given the utterly terrible and common occurrence of social liquidation in patchwork, we can have something terribly similar: let’s call it networked frustration.
what does networked frustration look like? imagine you’re someone who’s just been victim of a dissipating bit-nation. your former bit-compatriots all signed up for different services and left you hanging in a limbo. very frustrating. not much of a problem until you meet a whole bunch of similarly bit-frustrated fellows.
and yet, if you actually do find these people, isn’t building things together much more probable than mass movement? who would they pledge for or against? other patches are certainly not very interested in enabling that (maybe as a weapon, but even then, there are better options). i’ll be cautious, but i guess it can be hinted that the dynamics of a patchwork makes things more complicated for the general strategy of mass movements. it begins to pay more to actually empower its adherents than to endlessly prolong the frustration. anti-praxis becomes an incentivized position: you can do what you want, why claim something instead?
i might be wrong, of course. it might be that such action capabilities allowed by the patchwork are driven into a new business of feeling very bad (and not doing anything about it). it would tell a lot about human psyche. and i have no idea how badly it could play in the long run. if passive frustration is actually much more profitable than all the alternatives – and thus survives the longest – the future is as bleak as it gets. it’s hard even to conceive how that could possibly work.
the catastrophe of narcissism
okay, this is a longer loop, going through xenoeconomics first. what does narcissism look like from the point of view of an alien invasion from the future, building itself from the materials of its host?
at the very least it seems like a good way as any to manipulate human psychology to produce a perfect consumer. a consumer, that is, who is predictable and constant, a consumer performing perfectly the redistribution of resources through markets that Say’s Law predicts. all the havoc wrecked in the previous sections (destruction of metis, economic prejudice, masses of frustration) – whatever the costs it had for capital – were a good way to create this absolutely broken being: the consumer. all image, all of the time, in warlike social environs.
nonetheless, capital has a constant incentive to do away with the rigid, evolved structures of human psychology, replacing them with something more plastic. hence, at the height of globalized consumer capitalism, the leading edge of technological innovation lays heavily in creating predictive models of consumption. read: Amazon and Netflix.
much of the talk about technological elimination of jobs focus on the other side of Say’s equation: production. if people don’t have jobs, how are they going to consume? but i think the reverse is more pressing: if your consumption can be mapped out precisely, what’s left? “consumer sovereignty” starts looking pretty bleak.
what capital can’t automate right away, even as consumption goes into silicon, is creativity. that’s what it truly needs to ponder over as it abstracts away from human flesh. consumer are boring, workers ever more so, what about the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the artists and artisans? that’s the niche (a small part of (what’s probably no longer accurately defined as)) humanity can find some employment.
back to patchwork: you’re consuming societies and eventually sorting algorithms will probably be able to predict pretty accurately to which bit-nations you’d likely belong to at any given time. so now, as the liberal order literally crumble to pieces, what remains for you to do is make new stuff. it’s that or the trashcan.
so, from the catastrophe of narcissism (the destruction of action to produce lean images) comes the anastrophe of… can i call it “nemesis”?
conclusion: a beautiful new world
[so it’s actually around 2000 words lol]
i’m not sure anyone is 100% on board with the description of patchwork, and its effects. it seems obvious and pretty inevitable to me, but of course opinions diverge. nonetheless, i think the foregoing can be said even if patchwork is treated as a mental experiment.
the bottom line seems to be, as up there: power is inherently fragmented. as fragmentation was overtook by High Modernism, everyone became disempowered. not only those poor fucks at the bottom who got their communities wrecked by well-meaning technocrats, but the very technocrats themselves, since the goals they pursued eventually led to completely different things. as this centralizing trend comes to an end, leading into patchwork, power makes a return.
another point, stemming mostly from the last section, is that power is creativity. i definitely would need some specific post to develop that at length, but the return of not only the ability, but the absolute necessity of creating things matches pretty well the return of power.
the final thesis that i’ll have to develop is the one from the tweets above: the current stage of automating away the consumer-voter, and the current labor struggles in the fields of consumption and reproduction. i’ve gotten at least into the first one right here: how the consumer came to be, and how it’s being automated away. the reproduction part is both more interesting and more consequential (and thus will have a post of its own). it all feeds deeply into the question of nihilism, i suspect.
if it all plugs in properly, i think we have more or less a general theory of society (which i think is the fundamental project of mutualism, mostly incomplete) or productive multiplicities, way beyond any human instantiation of that: fragments that build new stuff, leading through several intensive phase transitions. endgame? transcension