A Series of Reflections on Power
End of year reflections on power.
Originally published on December 24, 2020.
What follows are a series of short reflections on some of the concepts I have been thinking about this year. Through discussions and my reading (some of which I have shared with you through my newsletter), I have begun to draw threads across several themes. How has technology tampered with our sense of time? Why are traditions and tribes important for longevity? What is the relationship between capital, power, and institutions? Can there ever be a "blockchain" civilisation? I write on this and more themes below.
On Capital, Time, & Technology
Where we choose to allocate capital can accelerate, slow, or fold time over itself to a certain degree. Our culture’s obsession with efficiency leads us to invest heavily in technologies to produce more goods and services at cheaper costs and in less time. This efficiency mindset is not restricted to factories and office spaces as its webs spread out and determine the general rhythm of life across techno-industrial society (a theme I echo in this essay on the loss of keyif). Our pursuit of the bottom line becomes not just a matter of business but also of how we approach any mundane task.
Take, for example, isochrone maps. These maps show the length of time it used to take to travel from area A to area B in late 19th century France. The replacement of foot and horse with motor vehicles sped up economic activity and increased load capacity but also compressed our very sense of time and space. Lands that were considered distant in an almost mythological fashion have, within a generation, become accessible for short holidays in under a days’ length of travel. The world has since become a very small place. But even the development of transport technologies has not waged war on the human mind in the same way that the software technologies of the 21st century have done.
Society’s capital allocators have become its timekeepers.
Their capital allocation to certain technologies shapes what our culture finds valuable: is it open-air exercise or Peloton? Is it nourishing, home-made meals or is it app-delivered takeout? Is it family time or Netflix? We are alienated from the production of the fundamental aspects of life; corporations take care of the “back-end” production and we only see the front-end. The supply chain on which hundreds of millions of individuals now depend on is completely obscure and alien to us.
Our software-powered subscription lifestyle puts us on the same conveyor belt as our food delivery service. We meander from meaningless labour into mindless leisure, using ever meagre pay checks from longer working hours to facilitate this circular theft of time and ownership of assets. Under this onslaught, the condition of modern man has become apathetic. Religion was called the opium of the masses and a holdover of agrarian tyranny on the modern world, but modern, secular life has seemingly given way to its equivalent through technology.
This is techno-feudalism, where the algorithm (attempts to) play God with your life.
So how do we survive the storm we are in? In a time where the final bonds of society are disintegrating in warp speed, those of us who want to resist the apathetic state of modern man need to find each other and begin building together. Only through strong asabiya can we develop the resilience to ignore the noise around us and build for the future. This goes beyond technology and politics; our arks of salvation are our communities and tribes – bound by blood, faith, creed, or otherwise.
Start building your ark of salvation.
On Cultures & Networks
Why are tribes and their cultures important in achieving antifragility?
Think of a culture as mycelial-like networks; organic webs of life that cut across space-time and bind people together through some common civic or religious creed, blood, or even professional occupation. These networks carry with them physical assets (heirlooms and property), capital (inherited wealth and businesses), and information (traditions of knowledge). This information may include knowledge relevant to the maintenance of technological systems, weather patterns and ecologies, social relationships and power, and so on. The maintenance of knowledge is not a passive affair because over the millennia thousands of tribes and states have created innumerable systems of jurisprudence and education to actively facilitate their respective peoples’ transfer of knowledge.
We believe our cultures are worth preserving because we believe in civilisation.
The role of community is to play a division of labour in the maintenance of knowledge. This is crucial in helping us bear the load of knowledge related both to building civilisation, and more crucially, in avoiding its collapse. When communities start to break down in an atomising society, it’s either a forewarning or a symptom of wider civilisational decay. Civilisation exists because we don’t have to go through the learning process of trial and error that previous generations did for us. Resources – capital, time, and people – are scarce and if we waste them through failed endeavours we set our civilisation back considerably. If capital allocation affects the way we process time, then the health of our community also affects our rate of ‘progress’.
The network spreads risk like a web dissipates force.
We used to play with lattice models of atomic structures in Chemistry class. Some had an interesting ‘reflexive’ property whereby the more you pushed the stronger the model became, and when the pressure relented the structure would bounce back into place. This to me represents the inherent antifragility of the community. An individual suffering harm is usually fatal without help. However, a community can dissipate the impact and help you to regenerate; your experience is passed around the network so they can learn to deal with it in the future. We only know what food is poisonous through trial and error. In this way, the community as a network is constantly learning, healing, and regenerating, just as a mycelial network acts. The nature of all species is fractal, and the nature of the human tribal structure is antifragile.
The network spreads signals like a spider feels vibrations across its web.
Now, if you’re someone who is interested in a legacy, there’s no way to achieve this by yourself. However, we can actively plan for and use community networks to transfer our memory and resources across space-time. This is why dynastic thinking is important; all men die, but what lives on is our legacy through the ideas, beliefs, and institutions that we bequeath to our successors. This is why strong reproduction mechanisms are important. If we build for ourselves, it dies with us. If we build for our people, they carry it with them across space-time until they are extinguished as a whole – and even then, as Will Durant notes in The Lessons of History, some parts of a culture never die; more people today read Plato than did Greeks in his own time.
The network carries your legacy through the ages.
On Blockchain Civilisations
An example of an antifragile community that acts as the ultimate complex network across space-time is Islam. Oftentimes, Islam is treated as a 20th century Leninist party-ideology or a bronze age sword-first empire of faith. Actually, Islamic civilisation was more of a hyper-active, organic, complex web of networks crossing ethnic, religious, and professional classes, all creating and circulating knowledge in a self-perpetuating motion. Islam was not spread by peace or by sword, but by networks of institutions and individuals engaged in trade and jurisprudence.
The proto-network that came to spawn what we know as Islamic civilisation today were the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. At its heart, this network was maintained through the asabiya bound by faith that the Companions formed together in the early years of their struggle, a period where they endured trial by fire so that their personal constitution came to be made of iron will and indomitable faith, and the weak and hypocritical were weeded from their ranks.
Hard men make good times.
All of this was in preparation for the grandest civilisational expansion in the history of humanity. As the Rashidun Caliphate came into form, huge amounts of civilisational energy that had been compressed in Arabia in the early formations of the Islamic faith burst out of Arabia and tore through Rome and Persia in a frenzy of empire-building; many other Companions also undertook personal missions to travel as far as India and China for trade, settlement, and proselytisation.
Trade was an integral part of this process as it gave an impetus to Arab and later Muslim traders to sail the seas, settle distant lands, and establish entire political, legal, and economic structures from the Maghreb to Gujarat to Nusantara. Their innovations were instrumental in the development of financial instruments that birthed the modern world’s economic system. They bound this civilisation in dense networks of cultural, scientific, and intellectual knowledge stretching across what was then the world’s greatest free trade zone.
Jurisprudence developed in tandem with trade. Scholars, traders, and adventurers were individuals with the personal constitution to carry two particular institutions with them. The first was the mosque as a physical institution built by their hands. The second was the sharia personified in their individual character and in the systems of law implemented through the legal courts that dealt with matters of family and trade (inheritance, marriage, contracts, charitable endowments, etc). These are the fundamental building blocks that define the Islamic impulsion to pursue trade and erect laws.
Islamic civilisation was an entropy-defying, self-perpetuating organism.
There was a clear problem: such wide and rapid expansion mean that the scholarly vanguard and ruling powers of the Islamic faith had to find some way to encourage expansion but also prevent the destruction of the core body of the faith. What Islamic civilisation developed to deal with the rapid pace of expansion and then the inclusion of so many tribes, races, religions, and bodies of knowledge was a system that one could analogise to blockchain. The system of verification built by the scholarly bodies of Islam was dependant not through computational technologies but through social ties, human minds, and faith.
Multiple people came to possess the same qualifications and knowledge and were able to form a globe-spanning, distributed peer review system and keep each other in check. This at once extinguished heresies but permitted an openness for innovation. This system persisted with remarkable endurance and respected authority across history and became one of the most rigorous fact-checking systems (isnad) ever created by humanity. All of this was done without ever severing the connection to the core Companion network. Every Muslim can trace their body of knowledge and civilisational heritage to them.
Islamic civilisation was the proto-blockchain civilisation.
The lesson here is quite simple. Maintain your traditions to honour the past. Build for durability to honour the future. And in seeking the knowledge and personal cultivation necessary to do this, you honour the present by using your limited time to leave a legacy.
On Capital as Power & Social Engineering
Capital is not just a measurement of value or currency for exchange. It is the currency of power that communicates intent and purpose. Numbers on an accounting spreadsheet in a very abstract way represent the structure of a society, a sort of numeric-form visualisation of the distribution of power and information via ‘assets’, ‘liabilities’, and ‘equity’. Why do we consider certain things, e.g. housing, to be ‘investments’ on the asset side when they functionally act as economic liabilities? Whose interests does this serve, and how did such obfuscation aid in the 2008 financial crisis? What relevance does this have to our socio-political order and the ramifications for political stability and social inequality since that time?
If you start to trace the thread, you start to untangle the web.
The rise of the Sovereign State's ability to tax its people was fundamentally about creating the new order of power through legibility, i.e. the ability of the State to really know what’s going on in its territory through detailed records (as discussed in Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott). The rise of the Central Bank in early modernity is treated as a story of greed for money, but really is hunger for information and the power it confers. The State would come to monopolise the minting and taxation of currency which, once distributed, created a circulation of information. Such information may include the amount of assets and liabilities in a society, the records of taxpayers, and so on, improving the State’s legibility and ability to intervene where it wishes. To see capital as a tool for exchange tends to ignore the wider purpose it plays in maintaining and building political order.
In the web of capital flows, the spider is the Sovereign and the web is the network communicating information back to the Sovereign.
Capital is also a way of disciplining power on a people. One can wield something as simple as controlling payroll as a way to align others incentives with their own agenda, and begin the process of fashioning them in one's own image. Disciplining power is often used with pernicious effect to oppress people, but this can often act contrary to the interests of capitalist power. We observe that the wealthiest capitalist societies also tend to have the strongest rule of law and democratic institutions (though China’s rise may force us to reconsider this position).
Capital as the currency of power is a supreme principle that has been understood by great builders across history; technologists like Elon Musk, businessmen like John D. Rockefeller or Jeff Bezos, investors like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, bankers like the de Medicis or the Morgans, and Logistician-Generals like Napoleon Bonaparte. They are ‘the men who manage money [who] manage all’ sitting at the tables of power in every society in every generation (a quote from The Lessons of History, by Will Durant). What is the best way to determine which nation wins a war? Explore who is financing them. The de Medici’s, Rothschilds and Morgans of our world never backed a losing horse, and thereby determined the fates of nations from Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo to Germany’s defeat in WWI.
The ability to build empires rests on possessing a certain genius to see money as a form of power to reshape one’s respective socio-political landscape.
I want to apply Samo Burja’s Great Founder Theory here. Great Founders embed social technologies in functional institutions to discipline and fashion a people, i.e. social engineering. In this case, institutions may allocate capital, issue and tax currency, and acquire or withhold information to undertake this process of social engineering. It's a very simple equation with deep ramifications for the way one can assess institutions in any given community. It shines a scrutinising light on the very foundations of all institutions. All functional institutions, to some degree, are attempting to engineer society toward a given purpose.
Capital can be used to communicate information and to shape society. This goes against the orthodox analyses in economics and finance that treat money as a ‘secular’ phenomenon to be analysed separately from power and politics; on the contrary, just as the corporation and the state share a genus, so does capital and power.
They dance an intricate dance together.
On The Twin-headed Hydra of Corporation & State
If capital is a form of currency then so is power, and their conduits are two institutions: the Corporation and the State.
These two institutions share the same origins as opposed to the common belief that it is the State that birthed the Corporation. Both of these institutions can be called ‘bureaucracies’ as they are mechanisms for collective human action towards a particular purpose, though for now I use this term tentatively. The State is a publicly-owned entity while the Corporation is a privately-owned entity; the former found its origins in power, and the latter first in social organisation before its transformation into commercial endeavours.
However, these are not mutually exclusive territories. The State and Corporation exist in tension with each other, dancing an intricate dance across the centuries as they constantly negotiate and renegotiate roles, rights, and duties in power, law, commerce, and legitimacy. Furious debates over the future of the State and the rise of the 21st century ‘mega-corporation’ miss one vital fact: they are bodies acting as conduits for capital and power. Neither will overcome the other; both will only be overcome by superior organisational forms that better serve capital and power.
Early modern corporations such as the British East India Company, the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay company all commanded thousands of troops, governed territory and established laws, all the while pursuing the ultimate aim of profit. They acted as a wayhouse between the medieval kingdom and the modern nationstate-cum-empire. Kingdoms could not afford to extend their rule to distant colonies, and much of the early imperial expansion of these various Sovereigns was undertaken by the private initiative of adventurers and traders with royal charter to claim land and trade for the Crown. As the fiscal and technological power of the kingdom grew, it eventually followed the megacorps across the seas and enforced direct imperial rule and absorbed their infrastructure (government, laws, and security).
This isn’t the end of the story.
As States fail to provide services, Corporations will move into the fray. The open market, often treated as an exchange of goods and services, also functions as a tense negotiation of power between the State and Corporation which the market attempts to mediate without physical conflict. Powerful corporations such as Amazon are already showing signs of private state expansion beyond mere profit maximisation and into non-profit ventures for their workers-cum-citizens such as: healthcare and education for members.
Key elements of the State are being outsourced in a process not dissimilar to the initial rise of Corporations in the early modern period when empire-building was mainly conducted by joint-stock companies and enigmatic adventurers. It’s a matter of time before real estate and urban governance are on the agenda - and, perhaps, acting as a tax collector for the State whose capacity is in such decline that this key source of sovereignty (as discussed earlier - link ref here) once again passes to Corporations like in Colonial America or India.
This is the story in America. Elsewhere, the relationship between State and Corporation can only be described as a state of hybridity. States with significant assets held in Corporations and Sovereign Wealth Funds include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, China, Singapore and Norway, Russia. Countries like Germany, South Korea, and Japan also enjoy close state-business relations through their respective cartel systems. America is not necessarily excluded from this list if we argue loosely that the FAAMG corporations play a similar role. The opportunity that America is missing out on by refusing to capitalise on its Corporate dominance of the world through State investment and SWF’s is an unspoken tragedy.
The battle for the 21st century will be a battle between these two competing beliefs; either the State stays out of business, or the State makes it its Business. It is no longer about centrally-planned economies versus free markets but about the degree of State-Corporation hybridisation.