Here is a summary, commentary, and notes on Moldbug’s second Clear Pill essay for Claremont’s American Mind.
Part 1: The Evolutionary Architecture of Distributed Despotism
“A Pervasive error is any systematic and significant distortion of thought that impacts the whole discourse of a civilization.”
To say that thought is distorted is to say that it cannot properly articulate reality; or it is to say that thought is unwittingly confused, meaning that it confidently states what it merely holds to be the truth without seeing that it continually and unwaveringly states falsehoods. One question that Moldbug seeks to answer in the essay is: how or in what way could an entire civilization shift, unbeknownst to itself, away from a healthy or relatively true orientation and toward a pervasive error? How could it happen under the watchful gaze of intelligent and concerned observers and citizens?
We might say that a core concern of the essay is to offer an account of how a large political community comes to a shared re-orientation in how it describes reality. Reality or nature stays the same, it is a gigantic group of observers who have all changed. The Clear Pill is designed to innoculate us against the distorting influences of our ideological orientations.
Part 2: The wrong way to think about pervasive error
The WRONG way to go is to go backward working from observed reality. To put this another way, Moldbug suspects that we will find it very tempting to “stop at some contradiction, some rip in the good blue canvas of the sky, and seek no cause at all–or worse, seek cheap, flashy causes of little or no veracity.” That is, we see some kind of contradiction or discrepancy in an explanation of something we think is important, and we try to call someone on it; if we are really ambitious we will offer some knee jerk armchair suggestion about the cause. We attempt to draw much more from one example than is warranted about the state of our civilization.
The extreme example he gives is: what if we knew that Bigfoot killed JFK? The discrepancy between accounts of events that day leaves room for us to investigate. If we somehow discovered evidence that Bigfoot did the deed, we would not yet be in a position to appreciate why Bigfoot did it. And, if we somehow discovered his motive, we still might be led backward again to some other peculiar or idiosyncratic circumstance. We might try to say: “Bigfoot killing JFK is a sign that our culture is X [insert favored term of decline or panic]”–but, we would just be waving our hands. We wouldn’t be sufficiently in possession of knowledge that tells us if we are in the grip of a pervasive error or not.
Part 3: The right way to think about pervasive error Moldbug intentionally avoids the question of whether or not the US or the West is gripped by pervasive error–and instead asks a theoretical question: “if pervasive error did exist, what would it look like? How would it work? What would we expect its effects to be?”
He insists that rather than using inductive reasoning (i.e., what does the particular phenomenon of JFK’s assassination by Bigfoot say about the ultimate cause or principle underlying our civilization) we must use deductive reasoning (i.e., positing a ultimate cause or principle, and testing to see if it successfully explains why Bigfoot killed JFK).
Part 4: Dissecting the platypus
Why does he use a platypus metaphor here? I think it is because he is trying to inhabit the headspace of a progressive; from the progressive perspective, Nazis and Soviets look like aberrations that do not belong in nature–therefore, we don’t have to examine them closely because they are not at all like us. Part of what Moldbug accomplishes in the essay is showing the underlying similarities of how all or most political communities achieve order or cohesion.
In order to prepare the reader for diagnosing potential pervasive errors in his own time, Moldbug points to Nazi Germany and the USSR as examples of former pervasive errors. In both cases, “the public mind was under the administrative control of the regime. Every idea that opposed the state was opposed by the state.” The systematic annihilation of such ideas is the simplest form of pervasive error.
Moldbug slyly tips his hand as to what will be coming later in the argument concerning progressivism, when he points out that Stalin couldn’t be more right when he said, “ideas are more dangerous than guns. We do not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?” Moldbug points out that ANY argument about idea control, even or especially those we have seen lately in the US, is a soft-lipped statement of Stalin’s more forthright claim.
Part of Moldbug’s concern is with the means by which a state coordinates the displacement of the truth with lies–something he expands on in the next section.
Part 5: A puzzle in authoritarian track-aligning
Moldbug puzzles over the “wide variance” of morbidity and mortality within total states undergoing pervasive error.
A pervasive error can run deep enough to make apparently intelligent human ignore biological claims–such as when Lysenko caused millions to die of famine because he thought he could change rye into wheat. One can believe so deeply in such an error that they avert their gaze from deaths occurring right in front of one’s eyes.
On the other hand, Singapore and Tudor England cause little brain damage and have “atrocity numbers way below mid-century standards.”
Perhaps the most important point in this section is that in 1935, many Germans did not know they were going to war, but “[b]y 1935, Victor Klemperer’s cat magazine is already all about the “German Cat”. Everything in German society that can be Nazi has to be Nazi.” That is to say, the “absence of mass murder does not prove the absence of mass madness.” A political community does not have to have performed an atrocity in order for it to be in the grip of a pervasive error–madness is necessary but not sufficient for atrocities. In other words, the madness that attends pervasive error can seem benign, normal, and ubiquitous, which is precisely why it occurs so often.
Part 6: Yet our hips shall grow no poison spurs
Moldbug finally turns his attention directly to American liberal democracy. Citizens of liberal democracies confidently think that a President Hitler, even if elected, would not have the proper tools to coordinate a re-alignment in viewpoint or Gleichschaltung. If someone wanted to quietly coordinate public opinion in a massive way they couldn’t!–or could they?
Part 7: The Jesus nut
Is liberal democracy immune from systematically viewing reality incorrectly? They “have no dictator, no center, and no point of coordination.”–so if pervasive error is possible, through what mechanism would it be accomplished?
Elite consensus is set by a market for ideas and this consensus narrative drives public policy. If the marketplace of ideas within which we assume the best ideas will emerge fails…
Moldbug calls this idea market “the Jesus nut” in relation to the steel ring on helicopters that holds the rotor to the driveshaft. The market of ideas is all that stands between us and Orwellian mass delusion.
Part 8: Debugging your truth market
What might have caused a bug to get into the system?
The first problem Moldbug deals with–as many inquirers into and critics of democracy have done–is the potential for a failure in crowd quality or the quality of the People. 20th-century democracies, facing this problem squarely, have separated public opinion into informed and instructed. The informed tier consists of generalists (presumably journalists/academics) who disseminate the information to the lower tier “instructed” class who receive this information at school and from the news.
Moldbug directs our attention, not to breakdowns in communication between the informed and the instructed, but rather, to what might cause elite informed opinion itself to err.
Part 9: Other failures in narrative markets
“Ideas in a marketplace reproduce, mutate, and are selected. They’re Darwinian systems: designed to evolve truth…they don’t evolve what you want. They evolve what they select for.” We want the market to select for that is, but what if it is selecting for something else?
Moldbug claims that an idea market is an aesthetic device–selecting for the most beautiful ideas. Thankfully or rather hopefully, the truth is beautiful. Unfortunately, other kinds of ideas are also beautiful–and just as unfortunately they may be entirely coherent. An idea market can only measure truth by measuring beauty–beauty understood as the taste of the audience. Beautiful alternatives to truth are competing aesthetic signals that are attacks on the truth market.
Part 10: How pretty lies work A healthy market is a skeptical market that loves nothing more than exposing lies by expounding truths. Skepticism is also an aesthetic process and pretty lies succeed by disabling our skeptical defenses. If an ugly truth is not attractive to us, then, a beautiful lie finds itself on a level playing field.
Part 11: Other beautiful qualities
“An aesthetic tilt is always and everywhere an emotion. Even the most erudite of experts are no Vulcans…experience and intelligence are at most peers of emotion, never its masters.”
This an important idea. On one hand, our emotional convictions allow us not to be dragged toward every new fangled or popular idea. Our convictions give us to time to think over whether or not we should abandon our present commitments in favor of new ones. However, on the other hand, it also our emotional convictions which prevent us from a fair minded consideration of genuine alternatives to our present views. Discovering the proper modulation between thought and emotion is a task for a lifetime.
Moldbug suggests that thymos (spiritedness–he relates this to ambition/honor) and pistos (trust–he relates this to loyalty/servility) underly the anthems and formulas that tend to clog the output tray of a truth market.
Part 12: Thymos: the desire to matter
We want to feel like we are important. Moldbug does not go as to say the following, but he could have added that we often want to feel cosmically important. Our stories, though they are parts of the world, often feel to us as if they are the whole world. We want to be at the center of the cosmos and to alter it in tangible ways that will be seen and remembered–preferably, forever.
Part 13: Four anthemic themes
Moldbug offers a non-exhaustive list of thymotic anthem themes:
1) Victory–taking power 2) Punishment–enforcement of power and excuse for cruelty 3) Rebellion–disrupting power 4) Largesse–building power (power can be made of social obligations)
Part 14: A tapestry of anthemic themes
Many stories feature the mixing of themes listed above. We may willingly forgo the gains following from one or more themes in order to really cash in on the power reverberating in another theme.
Our wish to feel important is a potent obstacle standing in the way of truth that tempts us into tamping down our skepticism.
Part 15: Vanity, empathy, and mimesis
An extremely important dimension of Moldbug’s thymotic typology is that the actor does not (usually) consciously calculate his power gains when he acts. “This intention is the farthest possible thing from their minds, which are not operating on a Machiavellian level at all. If normal people, they are quite sincere in their literal voices.”
You can see, then, how easily our thymotic desires can potentially lead us away from the truth. If I am not important in a given story, why would I want to hear more of it.
Part 16: Agape contra thymos
“The power of thymos to mimic agape makes it easy to see how both sides think they’re about to fight the zombie war.
Moldbug casts agape as a kind of devotional self-less love. Above, we saw that the thymotic person is not usually self-consciously interested in power–he can easily fool himself into thinking his thymotic deed was motivated by agape. And precisely because he thinks that he and his friends are moved by a purer or higher motivation, all enemies are seen as idiotic power seeking neanderthals. (this will probably remind many of you of Haidt’s Righteous Mind book/talks, etc).
It is difficult to depend on the people to be moved by agape–saints are rare. It makes more sense to design a constitution a machine for sinful customers.
If you want to test some purported agape to see if it has any thymos in it, check to see if it continually fails–agape is the love that really cares if it accomplishes its goal; thymos is satisfied if the task sufficiently raises one’s status.
Part 17: Pistos: the desire to follow power
“A political formula is a story that serves the regime. The more people think it, the stronger the regime.”
You can probably already see the way in which thymos and pistos can be in tension with each and also combined. I might think that I will matter more if I assist a rebellion against my political community–thymos gets in the way of pistos. Conversely, I might think I will matter more if I cruelly punish those who rebel against my regime–here, thymos and pistos are easily woven together.
Part 18: How loyalty really works
Imagine that you saw an article in a reputable newspaper that said that climate change is good, and that the scientists who conducted the study are from Harvard. Now imagine that the study is funded by Exxon. It is not quite a business transaction. Rather, the largesse of Exxon will partially tilt the aesthetic judgment of the scientists; their work will be partially conditioned by the emotional tug of loyalty that they feel.
We might, then, reasonably discard Exxon funded research–but what if other apparently “objective” research surfaces from similar loyalty problems?
Part 19: How sovereign loyalty really works
What if we saw climate change research funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)? This is funded by the US government! We can trust what they find, right?
Wrong. Remember, NOAA has a budget process. Isn’t it the case that this institution “will grow larger and stronger if the public worries more about climate change?” Don’t we have a serious conflict of interest here, just like we did with Exxon? Are there any scientists who not loyal to a large professional organization with at least partially compromised incentives?
What are we supposed to do?
Part 20: Assessment of compromised fields and methods
“A field of expert discourse is vulnerable to these aesthetic tilts if propositions in that field have implications in the real, political world. It is easier to list the invulnerable fields–there are fewer.”
Even in badly compromised regimes, we usually find that science is science. The more riddled with pervasive error a regime is, the more likely you will find harder and harder sciences corrupted.
“While all the details are different, we now see in principle how this entirely decentralized and spontaneous order–an invisible hand not benign but malignant: an invisible fist–cant distort the public perception of reality no less effectively than the visible fist of a classic centralized despotism.”
To put it in a way that Moldbug doesn’t here, we might say that our loyal attachment to a particular organization (even or especially to noble organizations) might give rise to a thymotic desire to expand the importance and grasp of that organization in order to increase our own importance–to make ourselves matter more. Our thymotic and pistotic desires can combine in such a way as to make spontaneous and decentralized system turn away from the truth, almost as systematically and completely as an Information Bureau or Goebbels ever could.
“One regime bans newspapers it doesn’t like; another subsidizes newspapers it does like.” Both regimes take care that you think the right thoughts.
Part 21: Assessment of compromised markets and minds
“Power is muscle. Rest softens it; action hardens it. Power is only as strong as its last act. Power loves to act! Therefore it loves any reason to act.”
Climate change provides a helpful test case. It provides reasons on a grand scale with which to act. Here we see thymos and pistos combine into formulaic anthems to aid the elite in feeling important by supporting the government.
Part 22: Political instinct, from biology to history
Moldbug asks the critical question: Why are we emotionally attracted to to ambition and loyalty if they can confuse our sense of truth? He somewhat flippantly replies: for reproductive success. He suggests that these ancient inborn tribal instincts did not develop in a way that would necessarily fit in perfectly with the modern world. “Evolution just hasn’t had enough time yet to tune our biology.”
Part 23: From individual emotion to collective intent
All intentions point to a real world goal. There are three classes of intention:
1) Machiavellian–impact matches purpose (no necessary connection to morality) 2) Para-Machiavellian–impact does NOT match its purpose. 3) Pseudo-Machiavellian–has no impact (thymotic pornography).
Part 24: Collective impacts of political formulas
Three kinds of loyalty: 1) Intentional loyalty (trying to help the Party) 2) Emotional loyalty (believing in the Party) 3) Objective loyalty (being useful to the Party)
“Strengthening the regime is an unintended consequence of [Para-Machiavellian] intention’s popularity.”
That is to say, one can rebel against a regime in such a way as to be useful. For example: imagine a Conservative harping against Progressive excesses. Even though Progressives have won almost every major cultural battle they have fought in the US, they still hold themselves to somehow be struggling against the system, or the status quo, or “the man.” Conservatives serve the useful purpose of exciting Progressive thymos. It is much more satisfying to defeat enemies than to get from point A to point B unimpeded–it makes for a better story. So, the typical Conservative is JUST AS useful to a Progressive regime as a loyal Progressive citizens.
Part 25: Pervasive error and distributed despotism “So we should admit that distributed despotism is caused by the way power poisons truth markets. Putting a truth market in power is unsound political engineering. A previously reliable machine will start to evolve pretty lies. This is a slow and degenerative process which cannot be reversed.”
This is a crucial paragraph in the essay that helpfully summarizes much of it up. Relying on a truth market is a mistake, and is a perfect recipe for winding up where we are today. Power has a corrosive effect on elite opinion, tilting its motivation away from the truth. The paragraph quoted above might amount to Moldbug’s biggest salvo against liberal democracy. How on earth would we expect consistently true ideas to be selected out of a market for ideas when it is competing against so many pretty lies? Especially when almost everyone believes that the lies they tell and believe in are beautiful and true?
Liberal democracy turns into distributed despotism–“repressing thoughts that challenge the regime, promoting ones that flatter it.”
In other words, we find ourselves with a system that has evolved to “track-aligns” its dominant viewpoint just as effectively as centralized despotism, but that is also harder to remove with bullets or votes because it is so decentralized. Indeed, the most impressive part of this trick is that NONE of the messages and slogans (think of “Believe all Women,” or “Love wins, not hate,” or rainbow flags, etc) are formally produced by the government in the way that “workers of the world unite” signs were made and enforced by the Czech secret police.
Part 26: A theory of wokeness
Moldbug’s essay is an attempt at a non-thymotic critique of progressivism. He stresses that we are wrong to think of progressives as evil zombies–they are just normal people. Critiques of progressives as intentionally evil enfeeble themselves. “Progressivism is a way for the ruling class to feel important by supporting the government.”
Part 27: A microhistory of media evolution
Social media harnessed the power of wokeness and amplified it–“the evolution of ideas, once a lazy ripple of views and reviews, had become an instant viral loop. Darwin started grinding up his Adderall.”
Part 28: The long cycle of truth, power and error
Here Moldbug offers a cycle for the long term horizon.
1) A dogmatic intellectual command economy rules 2) An unofficial free market for truth arises 3) A new epistemic elite arises from this market because of its potent aesthetic product 4) The vibrant new elite becomes corrupted and ossifies in dogmatism again
The key question, then, is: how soon on the horizon is the transition away from our present state of ossified dogmatism? Is there a new aesthetic tilt brewing? Based on Moldbug’s response to Bronze Age Mindset, it would seem that we are not yet very close to such a shift. We are only at the beginning of opening an unofficial market for truth; we are very far yet from implementing it’s ideas–or for that matter, there is not yet even a clear aesthetic vision powerful enough to topple the present dogmatism.