While our modern neoreactionaries didn’t originate their line of thought, and anti-enlightenment thought is approximately five minutes younger than the enlightenment, I think that ultimately, most of the problems they see in modern society stem don’t come from democracy or ‘demotism’; they came about because Germany built the Autobahn.
Naturally, there are a couple steps in this chain of logic. And it’s possible I’m misunderstanding NRX thought. But if you’ll bear with me for a moment:
It’s a common claim in NRX circles that we have lost social technology that was making our lives far better for a very long time, and that if we could replace them, we could get ‘more good stuff and less bad stuff’, generally accompanied by some variation on this graph:
To be fair, this version of the graph raises some questions about the usual explanation, and looks more like prison-unresponsive long-cycle variation in the crime rate than a breakdown of social technology. There are a lot of confounders, so I’m willing to basically accept the premise (somewhat for the sake of argument): we have a very high imprisonment rate now, just to get almost as good lack-of-crime as we used to get with much lower punishment, and the reason we had it then was better social tools for discouraging crime.
When did that break down? Well, roughly the 60s. In the wake of the pill? True, but also in the wake of the Interstate Highway System. We had very long experience iterating on social systems that worked to punish defectors and encourage good behavior on the scale of a town, and despite the changing nature of the city, on the neighborhood level they worked pretty well, too. What the critical parts were, I’m not sure. Perhaps religion, perhaps sexist social roles; the only confident claim I’ll make is that the system of public shame and reputation were important. What’s critical here is that they broke down in the face of easy cross-country transportation. You could outrun your bad reputation – Kerouac’s On The Road is a description of this outrunning process at work. (Scott Alexander drew attention to this aspect of the story, h/t Scott.)
And the Interstate was basically inevitable, once Eisenhower saw the Autobahn at work. And Eisenhower may have been an unusually good wartime logistician (tangent: why isn’t there a word for that profession?), but not an extraordinary one; what he saw soon, someone else would have seen soon enough. Which gets to my point: the Autobahn was built for war, but by existing and being used, it ensured the mobility that would break down the assumptions underlying our effective social technology.
“AH HAH!” says my hypothetical interlocutor, “But you have tracked this back to another dangerous demotist society, the Nazis!”. This is of course true. But was the Autobahn a fascist idea? Would the Prussian monarchy that united Germany under Bismarck’s hand, or much earlier encouraged the development of the post roads along with the House of Thurn Und Taxis, really have turned down the possibility of massive strategic mobility it offered? No, this was a pure power move; if the military moved faster on well-paved roads, it was going to be built.
So who is to blame for that, then? The inventor of the tank? Henry Ford, for making the car mass-produced enough to be a mass weapon of war? The inventor of the diesel engine? In my view, it’s inseparable; the timing could have been different, but from the moment the steam engine was invented, the car, the transportation network, and the breakdown of the locality-based social system were just a matter of time.
Now, one of the traditional NRX reactions is to say that yes, this is all terrible, and we should therefore go back to monarchy. But short of destroying all the products of the Industrial Revolution, we can’t actually reverse the trends. We do need better social systems, but the old ones could at best be a short-term patch that broke down as quickly as The New Republic when it met The Festival.
Which still presents a problem: How can we recover the social benefits of robust localized reputation and societal expectations without sacrificing the economic, health, and non-bigotry benefits our development has given us or setting ourselves up in a perpetual war against the free flow of information? Here are a couple ideas:
- Futarchy-like reputation markets. Make influencing reputation anonymous but costly; if they defy your predictions, you lose significant reputation yourself, as well as the numeric currency that would be credibility. (Naturally this will draw some comparisons to Whuffie.)
- Enclaves a la Scott Alexander’s Archipelago, where different local-scale societies lower the physical cost of movement but increase the social cost of adjusting to a new framework; presumably the Jackson’s Wholes would be outcompeted, but perhaps we’d end up living in some variant of neo-Hong Kong. (Which could be Buck Godot’s New Hong Kong.or Hiro Protagonist’s Greater Hong Kong.. Hong Kong is probably over-emphasized here but hey, maybe it was actually that great.)
- Narrow-outward approach to enclaves: Build one culture that works and try to make it good enough to be worth keeping social credit in. I call my personal attempt at this project “The Bardic Conspiracy”. Presumably if this works others will try the same, and in the meantime us in our silo have gotten some of the benefits back.
- Federalism with social teeth: the USA has lots of subunits and many of them have real regional identities, which are not trivial to leave. Can we find a way to amplify that? Maybe split them up even smaller? (Certainly, e.g., California has several subunits with separate regional identities: SoCal, NorCal, and inland. Even New York has ‘NYC’ and ‘Upstate’.)