It’s a cliche nowadays to point out that society is fractured. The Culture Wars are no longer a side-show for the politically obsessed, instead they are front-and center in the spectacle, aggressively inciting the wider public to participate. Hate your family? Hate your community? Hate your country? Even worse, do you hate yourself? There is no shortage of (often quite valid) reasons to keep you in a prison of rage and despair.
They want you to hate
It’s quite alluring bait. The trap is so well executed that people’s ability to truly humanize each other is effectively cut off by their own anger. This was no accident. It is quite a mistake to entirely dismiss the Culture Wars as a mere distraction. Many people have lost much just trying to make sense of the chaos and suffered a lot in the crossfire. The terrifying truth is that we have the most influential powers in society actively working to undermine people’s ability to peacefully resolve conflict.
This has disarmed us from being able to correct or prevent institutional abuses. By fracturing people into isolated pits of fury and sadness people are unable to build even enough trust to communicate. Think of those people you’re entirely unable to reason with, who benefits from your collective isolation? It’s hard to escape when everyone is either too worn out or too hurt to meaningfully reciprocate.
Surely you’ve heard “The only winning move is not to play”.
That leads one to ask “What game is being played, exactly?”.
In this piece, I’m going to try to lay out the game in it’s entirety as best as I can.
Life itself is a series of contests. Some are trivial like friendly competitive sports, others are all-encompassing horrors like wars. You don’t always get to choose what competitions you’re in, some even operate outside a person’s natural lifespan. A great variety of circumstances of your birth have profound impact on what games you’re a part of and which ones you can join or leave. No two people are entirely alike, (as a twin I would know) different people will very often play the same cards differently.
Many games make many prizes, some for the good, others for ill. Depending on your goals, some prizes may be hugely significant others may be outright disastrous. Ignorance is not bliss in many cases, others will often leverage it to their benefit. With only so much time to think, choose, and act, things can really start to look rigged from various points of view.
Very few people have the means, power, or influence to make massive changes on their own, but the sum total capabilities of many people can’t be overstated. Being able to influence a great many connected, talented, and driven people is a phenomenal power for one to have. This is the real power that rulers wield. Whether taken by force, or voluntarily given, there is a hard limit on how much cooperation can be effectively leveraged towards goals. This is the raw basis for the social contract. Eventually, the ruler or institution loses enough will to cooperate that people move to defect.
Keeping score: Currency
It’s ironic to talk about the raw power of money these days. Odds are if you’re reading this you’re used to using a fiat currency which is to say a currency backed by “faith and credit” of your government. This is not the same as saying it’s backed by nothing. Far from it, any currency is a de-facto measurement of the amount of raw power wielded by it’s participants. That power can be used for good or evil. Every person proportional to the currency they wield makes a real tangible impact on the use of that currency.
Currency in a peaceful and productive civilization will be highly valuable, but there are other variables. The currency of a despotic and cruel system is blood money. This is what makes the love of money the root of all evil: prioritizing currency above all else is an open and active endorsement of the naturally imperfect dominance hierarchy. The more vicious the society, the more cruelty required to maintain the currency.
One of the vital aspects of currencies is that they act as a means of communication. Prices send powerful signals to people in all stations of life. For some prices represent options, for others they represent permission. This is why nearly all discussion of the Culture Wars misses vital context. The Culture Wars are merely offshoots of an all-encompassing global class war that we were all born into.
“Money makes the world go round” as many say, but it’s far from the only factor. For many people once their basic needs are met they often consider different pursuits such as pleasure, knowledge, or power.
The rule of power
Since currency is information, consider that money is the code that programs society. But what is the machine doing? Money communicates and coordinates power, but every civilization that uses money uses it for various purposes. Those purposes can be things like maintaining order, researching and building technologies, or fighting off competing civilizations. This is not merely done with money, but often with hard violence.
Anarchists correctly point out that governments are inherently violent entities. This is because every government is a formalization of a very real and harsh power structure. This power structure effectively operates as a protection racket, requiring some of your wealth or labor in exchange for keeping competitive systems at bay. Every idealist hopes that we can live without the need for brutal and violent governments, if any at all. The challenge is that any person or group powerful enough to compete with other states is nearly already one themselves.
Rulers offer people a choice, exist within the established order or at least don’t interfere with it. Those choosing to negotiate with the existing order are reformers and those who actively seek it’s demise are radicals.
Reformers will always have to make compromises with the society as it is. They generally have a great deal to lose if the game changes too much. A good reformer will work to make the system more flexible and robust. All reforms come at a real price however, they cost those in power making serious concessions potentially at the expense of their own station. This means that whatever power spent, they are almost always insufficient to address the primary grievances that drive them.
This is why every society will have a significant amount of varied radicals who focus on a kaleidoscope of interests. Radicals that are isolated and alone are fruitless. Societies over time have come up with many ways to either placate or contain radicals of all persuasions. Radicals can never and never will be united on consensus. Everyone can be fractured along lines of culture, religion, social class, among other things. This doesn’t mean things can’t change however, the moment radicals start to unite along widely shared red lines, they have a real chance to upset the balance of power.
A healthy society actually needs radicals. Every society will gradually assimilate reformers into being wholly ineffectual. In an advanced state, there will be no reformers at all, merely puppets instead. Eventually things become so apparent that radicals are able to build coalitions that together represent enough power to either fundamentally change the hierarchy. This is one of the reasons it’s nearly impossible for societies to merely “turn back time” and go back to how things were, the conditions have been changed entirely.
When a large coalition of radicals is in danger of truly flipping the table, society has a stabilizing mechanism: an open bid for reformers. It’s in the interests of those in power to provide the smallest concession that dismantles the coalition. This is why radicals have no use for a complicated consensus, it can be fractured far too easily. Only when an overwhelming amount of people get together and decide which few changes are non-negotiable is when a fruitful coalition can form. That said, it is much easier said than done.
Power corrupts, absolutely
There have been many times throughout history where one despotic order was replaced with another one that was every bit as cruel. This is because as people accrue power, be it through influence, currency, or force it begets a terrible cost on one’s soul. The desire to rule over others to achieve one’s goals is a very powerful temptation.
Very often ‘victory’ can come at too high a toll. When the price of more change is more power, power often comes at the cost of real priorities. This creates a horrific spiral of needless destruction. Surely none of us want that right? How can we avoid the corruption of power while still advancing peace, liberty and prosperity?
Is it even possible at all?
Becoming a saint is certainly no small task. Thankfully, you don’t need to succeed to make a meaningful impact. While it’s impossible to get by with no power, your goal is to fundamentally maximize your efficiency with power. Being able to do more with less direct power gives you phenomenal options. By reducing your reliance on corrupt or tyrannical systems you will gradually become less beholden to their machinations. Eventually, you could get to the point where you’re able to support others to act in better ways. The less power you need yourself, the more you can share with others. Power efficiency isn’t a zero-sum game. Often helping others will significantly help you as well. This inevitably helps you form positive and healthy relations with others.
Setting small tangible goals and working towards them can help you better understand your limits and faults. The only way to turn down the allure of vast power is to come to terms with what is ’enough’ for you. Coming clean to yourself about what your real goals can help you understand what you are, and are not willing to do to achieve them. Once enough people work towards making incremental changes to shift away from systems working against us, and make small movements towards better areas, we will all benefit in innumerable ways.
If not already, you are now on Team Humanity. Your goal is to find ways to support others or otherwise decentralize power away from corrupt systems and people. Almost always you don’t need to take anything or anyone head on, instead focus your energy on building people up and other productive outlets like making things. Learning, Creating and Sharing are the three pillars of the decentralized revolution. Instead of working to rally behind another despot in the waiting, you can help everyone get to a point where tyrants have no power at all.
Teaching others, providing for their needs, or comforting them is what will truly make an impact. It sounds too good to be true, but every ruler needs an army. Odds are you don’t have a bigger army, so your only hope is that people together have the means and motivation to resist abuse of power. The more powerful the people are in every way, the less power individuals can accrue over others. This applies to all aspects of life; necessities like food and water, tools like technology and machines, as well as social needs like belonging and companionship. Team humanity needs to be where the cool and happy people are.
Anything that you can do to provide for yourself and others is vitally important, but stop short of working to gain power over others. Leadership is about setting an example and proving that things truly can be different. No state or laws can withstand the collective might of the people. You don’t need to be on the same page as them to trust them to act in their own interests, which is why leveling the playing field helps reduce defectors.
Be the change you want to see
With the powerful tools at our disposal today, we have not just the opportunity but the obligation to try to use them for the most noble uses we can muster. The device you’re reading this on is much more powerful than the systems that put a flag on the moon. Don’t underestimate what a couple of creative individuals can achieve if they truly dare to imagine a better future. Don’t give up on people, we all have our flaws and have made many mistakes. Take the time to reflect and collect yourself before engaging in petty fights. There is so much more to others than you think. The only thing worth fighting for is genuine love for yourself and others. Genuine self-respect is the bedrock to building a solid foundation of compassion and genuine joy with others.
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