u/acc, patchwork and the Uruk Machine

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

Advertisements

on patchwork

given the recent interest in patchwork (1, 2, 3, 4), i think it’s important to complement a few things – especially to the extent that, from all the cited, i’m probably the one who sticks the closest to Moldbug’s original formulation.

i do so to the extent that Moldbug’s formulation – contrary to panarchy, atomic communitarianism and (this i’m less sure) D+G’s views – emphasizes what i deem to be the most definitive feature of patchwork: independence or sovereignty, the ability to act without permission or interference on a given space.

yes, this last word is what complicates things a little from Moldbug’s somewhat idealized territorial city-states. nonetheless, patchwork depends inherently on skins, i.e., distinctions among organisms inside a system, and on the persistence of such distinctions.

thus, Patchwork is also inherently competitive. the “Business Ontology” Moldbug uses to define neocameralism (which is a theory of how to govern, and possibly a theory on how to think about government, but not a theory of competitive systems) is not necessarily all that any given patchwork includes, but it’s a useful language because entrepreneurial competition is the closest we have to a competitive social system. trade “profit” for “self-sufficiency” and you still have the same basic dynamics.

of course, any given patch might choose differing governance schemes (and to a large extent i think networked groups are likely to be separated from most sovereign services), but some will work, and others won’t. which are which is something that can only be decided inside the playing out of the system itself.

another question that stood out for me is “how we’re going to get to patchwork”. as i’ve argued here, i think divided sovereignty is the perennial state of the world, and so patchwork is as old as any “membrane” (very old). what makes the patchwork imagined by Puydt, Alexander and Moldbug any different from the current system of sovereign nation-states? the technological trends driving fragmentation (just like the previous technological trend driving centralization from the more fragmented feudal patchwork produced the current system, etc). so, “here to there” depends largely on communicational, energetic and military technologies.

finally, and possibly supremely, the question of guarantees of exit always arise. people want to know if the Wizard will save the poor children from oppressive parent-environs. this question has been also answered repeatedly, so i’ll just quote it:

As a prefatory note: Like the Misesian praxeology from which it is cladistically descended, the Moldbuggian System is a transcendental political philosophy, which is to say that it deals with ultimate or unsurpassable conditions. You have reached the transcendental when there is no higher tribunal, or court of appeal. This is the socio-cosmic buffers. If you don’t like what you’re seeing here, there’s still no point looking anywhere else, because this is all you’re going to get:

(…)

Suppose a realm unilaterally abrogates this right of emigration? It has just converted its residents into what are, in a sense, slaves. It is no longer Disneyland. It is a plantation. If it’s any good with cinderblocks, barbed-wire and minefields, there is no escape. What do you say if you’re stuck on this farm? You say: “yes, Massa.” A slave you are and a slave you will be forever.

This is terrible, of course. But again, the mechanism we rely on to prevent it is no implausible deus ex machina, no Indian rope-trick from the age of Voltaire, but the sound engineering principle of the profit motive. A realm that pulls this kind of crap cannot be trusted by anyone ever again. It is not even safe to visit. Tourism disappears. The potential real-estate bid from immigrants disappears. And, while your residents are indeed stuck, they are also remarkably sullen and display no great interest in slaving for you. Which is a more valuable patch of real estate, today: South Korea, or North Korea? Yet before the war, the North was more industrialized and the South was more rural. Such are the profits of converting an entire country into a giant Gulag.

there is no Wizard.

Quibbles with Moldbug

[This post was retrieved from the InternetArchive website snapshot of That’s Magazine Shangai (now unfortunately offline). Uploading here for the preservation of a great piece.]

by Nick Land

To be a reactionary, minimally speaking, requires no more than a recognition that things are going to hell. As the source of decay is traced ever further back, and attributed to ever more deeply-rooted – and securely mainstream — sociopolitical assumptions, the reactionary attitude becomes increasingly extreme. If innovative elements are introduced into either the diagnosis or the proposed remedy, a neo-reactionary mentality is born.

As the United States, along with the world that it has built, careers into calamity, neo-reactionary extremism is embarrassingly close to becoming a vogue. If evidence is needed, consider the Vacate Movement, a rapidly growing dissident faction within the 0.0000001%. This is a development that would have been scarcely imaginable, were it not for the painstakingly crafted, yet rhetorically effervescent provocations of Mencius Moldbug.

From Moldbug, immoderate neo-reaction has learnt many essential and startling facts about the genealogy and tendency of history’s central affliction, newly baptized the Cathedral. It has been liberated from the mesmerism of ‘democratic universalism’ – or evangelical ultra-puritanism – and trained back towards honest (and thus forbidden) books. It has re-learnt class analysis, of unprecedented explanatory power. Much else could have been added, before arriving at our destination: the schematic outline for a ‘neocameral’ alternative to the manifestly perishing global political order. (On a trivial etiquette matter: Moldbug politely asks to be addressed as ‘Mencius’ — comparable requests by Plato Jiggabug and Siddhartha Moldbucket have been evaded too.)

Moldbug scrupulously distances his proposals from any hint of revolutionary agitation, or even the mildest varieties of civil disobedience. Neocameralism is not designed to antagonize, but rather to restore order to social bodies that have squandered it, by drafting a framework compatible with the long-lost art of effective government. (‘Long-lost’, that is, to the West – the Singapore example, among those of other city states and special economic zones, is never far removed.) Neocameralism would not overthrow anything, but rather arise amongst ruins. It is a solution awaiting the terminal configuration of a problem.

The neocameral program proceeds roughly as follows:

Phase-1: Constructively disciplined lamentation

Phase-2: Civilization collapses

Phase-3: Re-boot to a modernized form of absolute monarchy, in which citizens are comprehensively stripped of all historically-accumulated political rights

Despite its obvious attractions to partisans of liberty, this program is not without its dubious features, a few of which can be touched upon here whilst rehearsing the Moldbug case for Neocameral government in slightly greater detail. Stated succinctly and preliminarily, our reservations drift into focus when that guy on a white horse appears. Where exactly does he come from?

To answer ‘Carlyle’ would be easy, and not exactly inaccurate, but it would also miss the structural coherence of the issue. Moldbug refuses to call his neocameral dictator a ‘national CEO’ (which he is), preferring to describe him as a ‘monarch’ (which – as a non-dynastic executive appointee — he isn’t), for reasons both stylistic and substantial. Stylistically, royalism is a provocation, and a dramatization of reactionary allegiance. Substantially, it foregrounds the question of sovereignty.

Moldbug’s political philosophy is founded upon a revision to the conception of property, sufficient to support the assertion that sovereign power is properly understood as the owner of a country. It is only at this level of political organization that real property rights – i.e. protections – are sustained.

Property is any stable structure of monopoly control. You own something if you alone control it. Your control is stable if no one else will take it away from you. This control may be assured by your own powers of violence, or it may be delegated by a higher power. If the former, it is secondary property. If the latter, it is primary or sovereign property.

The sovereign power (sovereign corporation, or ‘sovcorp’), alone, is able to ensure its own property rights. Its might and rights are absolutely identical, and from this primary identity subordinate rights (to ‘secondary property’) cascade down through the social hierarchy. Neocameralism is nothing but the systematic, institutional recognition of this reality. (Whether it is, in fact, a ‘reality’ is a question we shall soon proceed to.)

Perhaps surprisingly, Moldbug’s conclusions can be presented in terms that recovering libertarians have found appealing:

Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today’s private sector – the joint-stock corporation.

One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State “goes public,” hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn’t it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway …

In order to take a step back from this vision, towards its foundations, it is useful to scrutinize its building blocks. When Moldbug defines property as “any stable structure of monopoly control” what is really meant by ‘control’? It might seem simple enough. To control something is to use, or make use of it — to put it to work, such that a desired outcome is in fact achieved. ‘Property’ would be glossed as exclusive right of use, or instrumental utilization, conceived with sufficient breadth to encompass consumption, and perhaps (we will come to this), donation or exchange.

Complications quickly arise. ‘Control’ in this case would involve technical competence, or the ability to make something work. If control requires that one can use something effectively, then it demands compliance with natural fact (through techno-scientific understanding and practical skills). Even consumption is a type of use. Is this historical variable – vastly distant from intuitive notions of sovereignty – actually suited to a definition of property?

It might be realistic to conceive property through control, and control through technical competence, but it would be hard to defend as an advance in formalism. Since this problem thoroughly infuses the topic of ‘might’, or operational sovereignty, it is also difficult to isolate, or parenthesize. Moldbug’s frequent, enthusiastic digressions into the practicalities of crypto-locked military apparatuses attest strongly to this. The impression begins to emerge that the very possibility of sovereign property is bound to an irreducibly fuzzy, historically dynamic, and empirically intricate investigation into the micro-mechanics of power, dissolving into an acid fog of Clauswitzean ‘friction’ (or ineliminable unpredictability).

More promising, by far – for the purposes of tractable argument — is a strictly formal or contractual usage of ‘control’ to designate the exclusive right to free disposal or commercial alienation. Defined this way, ownership is a legal category, co-original with the idea of contract, referring to those things which one has the right to trade (based on natural law). Property is essentially marketable. It cannot exist unless it can be alienated through negotiation. A prince who cannot trade away his territory does not ‘own’ it in any sense that matters.

Moldbug seems to acknowledge this, in at least three ways. Firstly, his formalization of sovereign power, through conversion into sovereign stock, commercializes it. Within the neocameral regime, power takes the form of revenue-yielding property, available for free disposal by those who wield it. That is the sole basis for the corporate analogy. If sovereign stock were not freely disposable, its ‘owners’ would be mere stewards, subject to obligations, non-alienable political responsibilities, or administrative duties that demonstrate with absolute clarity the subordination to a higher sovereignty. (That is, broadly speaking, the current situation, and inoffensively conventional political theory.)

Secondly, the neocameral state exists within a patchwork, or system of interactions, through which they compete for population, and in which peaceful (or commercial) redistributions — including takeovers and break-ups — are facilitated. Unless sovereign stock can be traded within the patchwork, it is not property at all. This in turn indicates that ‘internal’ positive legislation, as dictated by the domestic ‘sovereign’, is embedded within a far more expansive normative system, and the definition of ‘property’ cannot be exhausted by its local determination within the neocameral micro-polis. As Moldbug repeatedly notes, an introverted despotism that violated broader patchwork norms – such as those governing free exit — could be reliably expected to suffer a collapse of sovereign stock value (which implies that the substance of sovereign stock is systemically, rather than locally, determined). If the entire neocameral state is disciplined through the patchwork, how real can its local sovereignty be? This systemic disciplining or subversion of local sovereignty, it should be noted, is the sole attraction of the neocameral schema to supporters of dynamic geography (who want nothing more than for the national government to become the patchwork system’s bitch).

Thirdly (and relatedly), neocameralism is floated as a model for experimental government, driven cybernetically towards effectiveness by the same types of feedback mechanisms that control ‘secondary’ corporations. In particular, population traffic between neocameral states is conceived as a fundamental regulator, continuously measuring the functionality of government, and correcting it in the direction of attractiveness. The incentive structure of the neocameral regime – and thus its claim to practical rationality — rests entirely upon this. Once again, however, it is evidently the radical limitation of local sovereignty, rather than its unconstrained expression, which promises to make such governments work. Free exit – to take the single most important instance — is a rule imposed at a higher level than the national sovereign, operating as a natural law of the entire patchwork. Without free exit, a neocameral state is no more than a parochial despotism. The absolute sovereign of the state must choose to comply with a rule he did not legislate … something is coming unstuck here (it’s time to send that white horse to the biodiesel tanks).

Neocameralism necessarily commercializes sovereignty, and in doing so it accommodates power to natural law. Sovereign stock (‘primary property’) and ‘secondary property’ become commercially inter-changeable, dissolving the original distinction, whilst local sovereignty is rendered compliant with the wider commercial order, and thus becomes a form of constrained ‘secondary sovereignty’ relative to the primary or absolute sovereignty of the system itself. Final authority bleeds out into the catallactic ensemble, the agora, or commercium, where what can really happen is decided by natural law. It is this to which sovereign stockholders, if they are to be effective, and to prosper, must defer.

The fundamental point, and the reason why the pretender on the white horse is so misleading, is that sovereignty cannot, in principle, inhere in a particular social agent – whether individual, or group. This is best demonstrated in reference to the concept of natural law (which James Donald outlines with unsurpassed brilliance). When properly understood, or articulated, natural law cannot possibly be violated. Putting your hand into a fire, and being burnt, does not defy the natural law that temperatures beyond a certain range cause tissue damage and pain. Similarly, suppressing private property, and producing economic cataclysm, does not defy the natural law that human economic behavior is sensitive to incentives.

Positive law, as created by legislators, takes the form: do (or don’t do) this. Violations will be punished.

Natural law, as discovered by any rational being, takes the form: do what thou wilt and accept the consequences. Rewards and punishments are intrinsic to it. It cannot be defied, but only misunderstood. It is therefore absolutely sovereign (Deus sive Natura). Like any other being, governments, however powerful, can only comply with it, either through intelligent adaptation and flourishing, or through ignorance, incompetence, degeneration, and death. To God-or-Nature it matters not at all. Natural law is indistinguishable from the true sovereign power which really decides what can work, and what doesn’t, which can then – ‘secondarily’ — be learnt by rational beings, or not.

Moldbug knows this – really. He demonstrates it – to take just one highly informative example — through his insistence that a neocameral state would tend to tax at the Laffer optimum. That is to say, such a state would prove its effectiveness by maximizing the return on sovereign property in compliance with reality. It does not legislate the Laffer curve, or choose for it to exist, but instead recognizes that it has been discovered, and with it an aspect of natural law. Anything less, or other, would be inconsistent with its legitimacy as a competent protector of property. To survive, prosper, and even pretend to sovereignty, it can do nothing else. Its power is delegated by commercium.

It is surely no coincidence that Cnut the Great has been described by Norman Cantor as “the most effective king in Anglo-Saxon history.” As Wikipedia relates his story:

His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut held this power-base together by uniting Danes and Englishmen under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, rather than sheer brutality.

Most importantly:

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’