Welcome to the final nodes in the Late Stage Democracy mesh. Soon you will either work for a big corporation or live in the tent cities. You will not experience the wealth and prosperity that previous generations enjoyed, and you will be taxed more in order to fund the ever-expanding anti-racism and anti-poverty programs.
You will get a chance, however, to witness the close of the Symbolic Era. That era, kicked off by the transition of societies from naturalistic to control-oriented structures, replaced the era of idols, superstitions, and talismans, but this is cyclic. That era forgot what was once learned like our present era has.
When we say that history runs in cycles, it means that people achieve stability, then forget how they did it, and go through a period of pursuing illusions and attempting to repeat past methods without understanding them. At some point, the civilization dies and someone must start a new one somewhere else.
To date, no civilization for which we have records has managed to pull itself out of this terminal decline. They forget their purpose, settle on authority as the source of their unity, then rebel against that authority so that individuals can exploit the wealth accumulated, and promptly lose the ability to generate that wealth.
When a civilization enters decline, citizens have a binary choice: face reality and be miserable, or go into denial and at least be able to function. This provides the roots of transition to standardization and centralization:
What is mass formation actually? It’s a specific kind of group formation that makes people radically blind to everything that goes against what the group believes in. In this way, they take the most absurd beliefs for granted.
Before the Enlightenment, society was led by noblemen and clergy (the “ancien régime”). This elite imposed its will on the masses in an overt way through its authority. This authority was granted by the religious Grand Narratives that held a firm grip on people’s minds. As the religious narratives lost their grip and modern democratic ideology emerged, this changed. The leaders now had to be elected by the masses. And in order to be elected by the masses, they had to find out what the masses wanted and more or less give it to them. Hence, the leaders actually became followers.
This problem was met in a rather predictable but pernicious way. If the masses cannot be commanded, they have to be manipulated. That’s where modern indoctrination and propaganda was born, as it is described in the works of people such as Lippman, Trotter, and Bernays.
Do people become blind to everything that goes against what the group believes in, or do they filter it out simply so that they on a personal level can function? Societies based on manipulation are inherently authoritarian; by the nature of having to manipulate others, they combine altruistic symbols with lowest common denominators.
This means that societies of this nature resemble outbreaks of religious fervor in cults dedicated simultaneously to the individual and the group. The individual feels good for being part of the group, and the group grows through the dedication of individuals, much like any gang, mafia, clique, sect, or mob.
It shows us not the loss of individuality, but having transferred belief from reality itself to symbols for reality which are managed by others in order to control the mental state of the individual and keep it pleasant. It is social engineering that like gambling, promiscuity, and addiction trades success for a boost in immediate mental state.
A society led by aristocrats (“noblemen”) does not have this problem because the goal does not have to be shared by all. Instead, those in power choose the goal, but even more importantly, shepherd and nurture the meta-goal or purpose of that civilization.
In doing so, they are remnants of a time when the society was new and the goal and purpose were shared by all. When you find yourself carving a society out of the wilderness, you have no doubt about what you strive and sacrifice for. You are building civilization.
Once that civilization is built and has enough extra wealth to take a breather, problems occur because simultaneously it loses a sense of universal goal, and by making life easier, starts allowing those who would in nature die to survive. Since the frail breed faster as an insurance policy against their frailty, they quickly outnumber the others.
The symbolic era pushed aside an earlier time of idol-worship and superstition, but retained some of each. We no longer worship physical idols, but written ones; we no longer base our superstition on rain-gods and sun-gods, but on cherry-picked carefully slotted “studies” and meritocracies based on memorization.
Before that was an era of naturalism. As a poet once wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
The ancient pagans had inverted idol-worship. That is, nature was their idol, and in it they saw manifestations of forces which were more metaphor than symbolism. Proteus the god was like the sea he represented: alternatingly angry and calm, often inclined to seemingly pointless storms and lengthy, becalmed silences.
As a society ages, its marginal costs rise through things like government, unions, taxes, laws, management, and standardization. It is not complexity, nor scale, nor even as Marx argues a rise in economic efficiency that does it in, but this rise in marginal costs.
The original one of these is the loss of purpose and with it the loss of homogeneity of goal, which allowed people to work together without having too many people cracking the whip, filing TPS reports, and enforcing traffic laws. Other costs like interaction with foreign nations, invading Mongols and Muslims, or religious wars also add costs.
Over time these marginal costs — the “details” in contrast to the “main topic” of an economy — bring down the society and spur people to act in chaotic ways contrary to the interests of the civilization as a whole, including continuity between its past and an ongoing, infinite future.
Following Marxian analysis with a twist, this society first is agrarian, then mercantile, and as the middle class rises becomes capitalist in order to both accommodate and defend against the bourgeois surge, then finally moves into corporatism and through that, as it centralizes, inevitably into socialism.
From afar its collapse might resemble a forest dying from overgrowth, a red tide, or the collapsing of a star onto itself, crushed by its own gravity until it becomes a black hole strangling light. It gains power, then whittles it away with marginal costs, and finally implodes because it has prevented itself from adopting effective methods.
You might consider a company in this way. At first it makes widgets; then there is an accident. Rules accumulate. As errors in leadership are made, people panic and furiously write down more rules. Eventually there are too many rules for it to do anything but what it has been doing, so it slowly becomes irrelevant to its market.
The first admissions of our transition are already enroute as we transition from a mixed-economy toward a centralized and standardized economic system as occurs in socialist states:
When Congress passed the CHIPS Act, a bill seeking to boost U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, the Washington Post trumpeted it as “a new era of industrial policy.” One might also call it a version of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” — a foray into state-directed market policy.
This is what Marx left out: societies tend toward socialism after capitalism because they become hyper-efficient but at the same time produce higher marginalized costs, at which point society becomes a vehicle to fuel those marginalized costs until the point where it takes from its productive core to feed them.
That parallels what we know of equality, which since the weaker cannot be made stronger, takes from the producers to give to the consumers in order to achieve the momentary appearance of equality, therefore pacifying the fears of revolution and class conflict which plague the bourgeois mind.
Many things drive marginal costs. Government is a key contributor, as are courts, since each court decision produces new no-nos and therefore new obligations — and jobs to match — much like each law does. Quality of population reduces marginal costs, as does culture, since then we orient toward a goal instead of away from exceptions to the rule.
Eventually in any society facing erosion through marginal costs, it reaches a point of diminishing returns. No action it can take will improve anything; it has already done all it can, and any action brings more marginal costs, to the point where it must not change anything it is doing for fear of further destabilizing the unstable.
People in societies being eaten by marginal costs face the duality mentioned above: deny reality and accept the false reality, or reject the false reality and suffer suppression like the rest of the real. Almost everyone on this Earth is simply trying to survive for a natural lifespan and hopes someone else will fix The Problem.
If they accept the false reality, they start to live in symbols. Things are “good” or “evil” in a universal sense, meaning that they advance or reject the symbolic reality. Some methods are seen as universal good, and others as bad, so one must signal hard for the former in order to advance in the symbolist system.
The symbolic era relies on categories and linear thought, projected into an absolute space where all people see the same thing, basically narcissism made into a social order through altruism. We can see the effects of this in how people evaluate their futures based on on deductive precedential categorization like industry trends:
In 1997 Intel was the king of the hill; in that year it first announced the Itanium or IA-64 processor. That same year, research company IDC predicted that the Itanium would take over the world, racking up $38 billion in sales in 2001. Wow! Everybody paid attention.
At the time of the announcement, Intel stock was around $20 (adjusted for numerous splits); it began to climb fast, approaching $100 a share by 2001. When the chip finally shipped in , it wasn’t about to generate $38 billion in sales, and the whole Itanium idea began to fall apart. IDC adjusted its prediction downwards, saying the chip would generate $12 billion by the end of 2004. In 2004 the chip actually generated $1.4 billion, far less than the cost of development.
What we heard was that HP, IBM, Dell, and even Sun Microsystems would use these chips and discontinue anything else they were developing. This included Sun making noise about dropping the SPARC chip for this thing—sight unseen. I say “sight unseen” because it would be years before the chip was even prototyped. The entire industry just took Intel at its word that Itanium would work as advertised in a PowerPoint presentation.
In this symbolic world, it was assumed that the PowerPoint and industry magazine articles were a substitute for reality, meaning that they had great predictive power (superstition) because of their popularity than any kind of realistic prediction could be.
It was assumed that a space of united human minds, like cyberspace but more of a psychic control entity, existed such that a company could project its hopes into the space as reality and others would act on them. They did, and then reality caught up with them and punished them. The same is now happening across our societies.
The symbolic era is ending because it has crashed hard. COVID-19 panic just pulled the sheet off from what had been a rotting waste for some time, busily spending all of its money on free stuff for citizens to buy votes while ignoring longstanding structural, moral, and social problems.
Our fellow citizens live the false reality of social life, manipulation, and symbol. They enforce it on each other out of fear. They promote it out of a hope based in denial. This forms the core of the Regime, and as the mechanisms of society fail, so fades the Regime, giving us a chance to replace it.
Tags: capitalism, centralization, crowdism, efficiency, karl marx, symbolism