Post Apathy Digest - April 2022
Elon Musk and managerialism, the Taliban as a project of modernisation, faulty epistemology and its consequences, and more in the latest Digest
One of the major themes of this month’s Digest is the compounding flaws of the West’s epistemological structure. Ideas go through various authentication processes to become knowledge: this could be the scientific process, voting, or localised rules of thumb. Once verified, knowledge is applied via decision-making mechanisms. The consequence is that individuals and institutions make decisions and shape society based on how and where they get their knowledge.
What if your authentication process is wrong?
From geopolitics to the COVID-era biomedical superstructure, it’s clear that there is something very wrong with the West’s understanding of the world. The knowledge that informs decision-makers is leading to failure after failure and there is no corrective course in sight.
The West’s flawed anthropology of Afghanistan led to the failure of the nation-building project in Afghanistan and the American and Afghan national armies’ defeat to the Taliban. Contrary to western perceptions, it was not America and her Afghan allies who were the modernisers but the Taliban themselves. This was a self-imposed fog of war, a refusal to analyse one’s enemies as they are and not as you want to caricature them. As a consequence, an entire era of American military hegemony may have come to a close.
The West’s flawed economic thinking saw many policymakers dismiss Russia’s poor economy, relying on metrics like GDP to minimise the threat that Russia posed to western interests. The belief that sanctions could deter or even break Russia for the invasion of Ukraine has not borne fruit. The Russian Ruble is stabilising around its pre-sanctions rate, Russian gas continues to be guzzled in Berlin at the cost of billions of euros per week, and wild spikes in the cost of commodities, food, and energy are making life harder for citizens across Europe. The EU itself seems to be more at risk of collapse than Russia, with the rift widening between eastern Europe and Germany owing to the former’s distrust of the latter’s interests in maintaining ties with Russia at the cost of Ukrainian blood.
Finally, increasing hubris in our capability to engineer man and nature is leading to increasing distrust in the healthcare system and the degradation of our natural environments. The failures of human intervention are because of our poor understanding of complexity. Our epistemic siloes, already suffocating, continue to narrow and very few people can operate successfully outside of their domains.
The reading list for April 2022 touches on these themes, and more.
The Latest from Post Apathy
This essay explores the history of the post-war managerial coup against the founder-capitalist class through the case of Henry Ford, and the source of Elon Musk’s popularity in the culture. My conclusions from this essay are that there is a deep social and political yearning for ownership and agency in the West. These have both been denied by a managerial class whose existence is predicated upon rent extraction. However, channelling that yearning through founder-capitalist avatars like Musk is counterproductive; founder capitalism was decisively defeated by managerialism and so cannot be the path to remove the yoke of the managerial class.
Wolf Tivy has touched on the flaws of startup culture and why it isn’t the path to building revitalised institutions and a culture of ownership and agency. The solution is an altogether different set of socio-economic niches and legal and political strategies. What that looks like is beyond my ability to articulate.
An interesting perspective on China’s failure to export its culture - even as it exports pretty much everything else. This failure isn’t simply due to political repression but because Chinese culture lives behind a walled garden and can’t share information and culture with the West. On the other hand, South Korea has achieved stunning success in exporting native cultural products because key entertainment agencies purposely re-engineered western entertainment and used streaming and social media to reach western audiences.
Culture & Society
This essay looks at the remarkable endurance of daily life and political orders in the midst of the Black Death, making an argument against the doomer belief in collapse as an escape from oppressive or dysfunctional systems. These systems may even strengthen their hand during cataclysmic crises.
A provocative essay making the case for the Taliban as the real modernisers of Afghanistan. Islam was used by the Taliban to enforce allegiance to a universal belief over ethnic and tribal ties, whereas their opponents (the Afghan National Government and assorted allies) were largely reliant on a patchwork of local and regional allegiances. This inverts the standard assumptions in the West of the Taliban as a traditional if not regressive force. The transcendent allegiance to Islam meant that even though the Taliban were smaller in number, their belief gave them a unity that their enemies did not possess: “More Afghans liked the government than the Taliban, but more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed on behalf of the Taliban.”
The rise of GDP as a metric to size economies massively skews what we understand of economic growth and production in favour of western economies and their allies. GDP overvalues the ‘services’ sector and undervalues things like manufacturing, energies, and commodities. Therefore, GDP has systematically undervalued economies like Russia and China. To illustrate this problem, the speaker uses PPP, which gives us a very different picture of the global economy: Russia’s economy is much larger and more important and China has already passed the US in sheer size. What would happen to decision-making at the highest levels in the West if PPP replaced GDP as the primary measure of a country's economic size?
Science & Technology
A critical essay on the religion of ‘New Science’ and its hubris in believing that men can control and engineer our biology and environment without non-linear and lasting consequences. The theme of this essay overlaps with Seeing Like A State, a book charting the centuries-long drive of the state for ‘legibility’. This high modernist approach flattens the complexity of culture and civilisation, often leading to disastrous consequences. You should also read ‘Tradition is Smarter Than You Are’ which makes the case for tradition and heuristics as a superior approach to high modernism, and the ‘New Science’ religion as a whole.
Threads of the Month
These threads feature book excerpts on Ottoman activities in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, the grand strategy of the Habsburg empire, post-war Japanese economic policies, and the limits of statistics argued as far back as 1839.
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