Ratchets and Catastrophes
— Greg (@FoolishReporter) August 23, 2014
Perhaps all significant ideological distinctions — at the level of philosophical abstraction — can be derived from this proposition. For the progressive, it represents the purest expression of history’s “moral arc“. For the Conservative (or, more desperately, the Reactionary), it describes an unfolding historical catastrophe. For the Neoreactionary, it indicates a problem in need of theorization. Moldbug lays out the problem in this (now classic) formulation:
Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left. Isn’t that interesting?
In the history of American democracy, if you take the mainstream political position (Overton Window, if you care) at time T1, and place it on the map at a later time T2, T1 is always way to the right, near the fringe or outside it. So, for instance, if you take the average segregationist voter of 1963 and let him vote in the 2008 election, he will be way out on the wacky right wing. Cthulhu has passed him by.
Where is the John Birch Society, now? What about the NAACP? Cthulhu swims left, and left, and left. There are a few brief periods of true reaction in American history — the post-Reconstruction era or Redemption, the Return to Normalcy of Harding, and a couple of others. But they are unusual and feeble compared to the great leftward shift.
The specific Moldbuggian solution to this problem, whether approached historically through the Ultra-Calvinism Thesis, or systemically through the analysis of the Cathedral, invokes a dynamic model of Occidental religious modernization. The irreversible bifurcations, symmetry breaks, or schisms that lock Western modernity into its “great leftward shift” correspond to successive episodes of cladistic fission within Protestant Christianity (abstractly understood). The religious history of modernity is constituted by a degenerative ratchet (as touched upon here, 1, 2, 3).
As a longtime euroskeptic, who has frequently flirted with the idea that the euro must eventually destroy itself, I am sympathetic to Humphreys’ point. But let me attempt to offer a partial defense of the hapless eurocrats: However stupid the creation of the euro was, undoing it will not be easy. […] Yes, we’re back to our old friend path dependence. As I noted the other day, the fact that you can avoid some sort of terrible fate by stopping something before it starts does not mean that you can later achieve the same salutary effects by ceasing whatever stupid thing you have done. It would have been painless just to not have the euro. But it will be painful indeed to get rid of it.
She encounters the signature nonlinearities of such lock-in phenomena in noting: “No wonder that no one wants even to discuss it. Especially since even discussing a dissolution of the euro area makes a crisis more likely …”
Progressivism as a process, rather than a mere attitude, is always and everywhere a matter of degenerative ratchets. Consider, very briefly, some of the most prominent examples:
(1) Democratization. Every extension of the franchise is effectively irreversible. This is why the promotion of democratic reform in Hong Kong, in a complete rupture from its local traditions, is so breathtakingly irresponsible. (No link, because I have yet to encounter an article on the subject worthy of recommendation.)
(2) Welfare systems (and positive rights in general). The irreversibility of these socio-economic innovations is widely recognized. Once implemented, they cannot be rolled back without the infliction of massive suffering. Obamacare is a more-or-less cynical attempt to exploit this lock-in dynamic.
(3) Immigration. Welcoming newcomers is effortless, removing them all-but impossible (or at least entirely unprecedented in the modern West). Immigration policy, by its nature, can only “swim left”. It consists of freezes and floods (but never reversals) — epitomizing the ratchet pattern.
(4) Macroeconomic politicized money (central banking, fiat currency, inflationary normalization, and debt financing). Easing is easy, tightening is terrifying, roll back unattempted (since Jackson in the mid-19th century).
My contention: There is no substantial topic of Neoreactionary concern that does not conform to this basic pattern. The degenerative ratchet is the problem, abstractly conceived.
This is why NRx is dark. The only way out of a degenerative ratchet is catastrophe. Such processes are essentially unreformable, and this conclusion captures the critique of political conservatism from which NRx has been born. The only non-disastrous solution to a DR, or progressive lock-in dynamic, is to avoid entering into it. Once it has begun, normal politics can only modulate the speed of deterioration, and then only to a relatively limited degree. It will reach its end, which will be seriously horrible. NRx forecasting begins and ends with this thesis.
Our doomsterism is not a psychological tic, but a rigorous theoretical obligation. It follows, ineluctably, from iron historical law. Looking on the dark side is the only way to see.