Idle Rich Are the Best Rich. Here’s Why.

The college-admissions cheating scandal of 2019 has provided plenty of opportunities for schadenfreude at the expense of the lower-upper class: hangers-on and minor celebrities who needed a bit of lift to get their underachieving children into elite colleges. (The true upper class does not struggle with educational admissions; those are negotiated before birth, and often involve buildings.) The fallout has stoked discussion, internet-wide, about social class in the United States.

I’m 35 years old and don’t have any children, so college admissions are not (at least, not now) my fight. I care quite little about the topic itself because, to be honest, I find all this noise irrelevant. There’s the global climate crisis. There’s the imminent collapse of the wage market, due to automation. I have my own personal projects– I’m a year behind schedule on Farisa’s Crossing, my novel. (This is good lateness, insofar as I continue to discover ways to make the book better, but it is still lateness.) So, with all the things that actually matter, I don’t have a whole lot of cognitive bandwidth for the topic of college admissions. That issue’s mostly one of parental narcissism, and I’m not a parent.

Besides, just as the 1929–45 crisis (“Fourth Turning“, if you will) made irrelevant who went to Harvard versus Michigan in 1923, I believe the near future will find today’s obsessive attention given to minor differences in educational institutions to be absurd.

Still, not all of my readers are in the United States, and so many lack the privilege of knowing how bizarre and corrupt American college admissions are. It’s not that admissions officers intend it to be this way. They don’t. But there are a lot of absurd non-academic factors that go into college admissions, and the rich have far more time to assess and exploit the process than the poor.

Is this our society’s biggest issue? Hardly. Rich parents do all sorts of unethical things– often, completely legal ones– to give unfair advantages to their progeny. It has been going on for centuries, and it will likely continue for some time. College admissions fraud is a footnote in that narrative. I am glad to see the laws enforced here, but there are bigger issues in society than this.

Instead, I want to talk about the problem exposed by this scandal. See, it’s not enough for the American rich to have more money than we do, and all the material comforts that follow: bigger houses, speedier cars, golden toilets. They have to be smarter than us, too. But God did a funny thing: when She was handing out talents, she didn’t even in look in the daddies’ bank accounts. So, here we are. We live in a world where people make six- and seven-figure incomes helping teenagers cheat on tests. This isn’t new, either.

As a society, we suffer for this. Having to pretend talentless people from wealthy backgrounds are much more capable than they are, as I’ll argue, has major social costs. It keeps people of genuine ability in obscurity, and it leads to bad decisions that have brought the economy to stagnation. It would be better if we were rid of such ceremony and obligation.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Idle Rich

I want to talk about “the idle rich”, the aristocratic goofballs who don’t amount to much. They get a bad rap. I don’t know why.

They’re my favorite rich people, to be honest about it.

I don’t much like the guys (and, yes, they’re pretty much all “guys”, because our upper class is not at all progressive) at Davos. They do significant damage to the world. We’d be better off without them. Their neoliberal nightmare, a 21st-century upgrade of colonialism, has produced unwinnable wars, a healthcare system that has exsanguinated the middle class, and an enfeebled, juvenile culture that has lain low what was once the most prosperous nation in human history.

If we as a society decide to do something about the corporate executives who’ve gutted our culture and downsized the middle class out of existence, I’ll volunteer to clean up the blood. These people have a lot to answer for, and the quicker we can stop further damage, the better.

Do I hate “rich people”, though? I’ve met quite a number of them. Billionaires, three-digit millionaires, self-made as well as generationally blue-blooded, I’ve met all kinds. The truth is: no, I don’t hate them. Not really. What is “rich people”? Someone with more money. But, to 99.9 percent of humans who have ever lived, I am (along with most of my readers) “rich people”, just because I was born in the developed world after antibiotics. People born in 2200 may never know scarcity, and live for thousands of years. Good for them. I won’t burden the reader with my own philosophy on life, death, the future, spirituality, or life’s meaning (or lack thereof); suffice it to say, I believe that in the grand picture, material inequalities are fairly minuscule. If I’m still flying “klonopin class” in ten years, I’ll deal. The health of society, on the other hand, is of major importance. We only have one planet and, today, we are one civilization. Getting the big things right matters.

I don’t especially want to “eat the rich”. I don’t even care that much about making them less rich (although the things I do want will make them less rich, at least in relative terms, by making others less poor). I want our society to have competent, decent, humane leadership. That’s what I care about. Eradicating poverty is what matters; small differences and social status issues, we can deal with that later.

American society seems to have a time-honored, historic hatred for “idle rich”. Why? It does seem unfair that some people are exempt from the Curse of Adam, often solely because of who their parents were? It’s hard to accept it, that a few people don’t need to work while the rest are thrown into back-breaking toil. From a 17th-century perspective, which is when the so-called puritan work ethic formed, this attitude makes sense. It was better for morale for communities to see their richest doing something productive.

In the 21st century, though, do these attitudes toward work apply?

First, we can toss away the assumption that everyone ought to work.

We already afford a minimal basic income to people with disabilities, but most of these people aren’t incapable of work, and plenty of them even want to work. They’re incapable of getting hired. There’s a difference. Furthermore, as the labor market is especially inhospitable to the unskilled and young, it is socially acceptable for people of wealth to remove their progeny from the labor market, for a time, if they invest in education (real or perceived).

I support a universal basic income. On a related topic, there’s a problem with minimum wage laws, one that conservatives correctly point out: they argue that price floors on labor result in unemployment. That’s absolutely true. Some people simply do not have the ability to render work that our current labor market values at $15 per hour. A minimum wage is, in essence, a basic income (often, a shitty one) subsidized by low-end employers. They respond by cutting jobs. We can debate endlessly why some work is valued so low, but the truth of wages seems to be a trend toward zero.

As technology progresses, the fate of an everyone-must-work society is grim. The most important notion here is economic inelasticity. Desperation produces extreme nonlinearities in price levels. If the gasoline supply shrunk by 5 percent, we wouldn’t see prices go up by 5 percent; they’d likely quadruple, because people need to get to work. (This happened in the 1970s oil crisis.) We’re seeing it in the 2010s with medicines, where prices are often malignantly manipulated. It doesn’t take much effort to do that. Desperation drives extremity, and people are (in our society) desperate for jobs. Are we at any risk of all jobs being automated by 2030? No. But it takes far less than that to tank wages. No matter how much the technology improves, I guarantee that there will be trucking jobs in 2030. There might be fewer, though. Let’s say that 40 percent of the industry’s 8 million jobs disappear. That’s 3.2 million workers on the market. No matter how smart you think you are, some of those 3.2 million can do your job. And some will. As displaced workers leave one industry, they’ll tank wages where they land, causing a chain reaction of refugee crises. No job is safe. The jobs will exist, yes, but they’ll get worse.

In our current society where everyone just work to live or-else, the market value of almost everything humans produce (at least, as subordinates) is doomed to decrease by about 5 percent per year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; another way to look at it is that things are getting cheaper. It’s only bad in a world where work is a typical person’s main source of income.

Ill-managed prosperity was a major cause of the Great Depression. In the early 20th century, we figured out how to turn air into food. That advance, among others, led to us getting very good at producing agricultural commodities. Cheap, abundant food. As a result… people starved. Wait, what? Well, it happened like this: farmers couldn’t turn a profit at lower prices, leading to rural poverty by the early 1920s, causing a slowdown in heavy industry in the middle of that decade. It was finally called a “Depression” when this problem (along with “irresponsible” speculation that is downright prosaic compared to what occurs on derivatives exchanges today) hit the stock market and affected rich people in the cities.

Why did we let rural America fester in the 1920s? Because the so-called “puritan work ethic” had us believing poverty was a sort of bitter moral medicine that would drive people to better behavior. Wrong. Poverty is a cancer; it spreads.

Ill-managed prosperity hit us hard in the 1930s; it’s likely to do the same in the 2020s, if we’re not careful.

All else being equal, for a person to show up to work doesn’t make society better. What she does at work, that might. The showing-up part, though… well, that in fact depresses wages for everyone else. It would be better for workers if there were fewer of them. That there are so many workers willing to tolerate low wages and terrible conditions devalues them.

For many workers out there, their bulk contribution to society is… to make everything worse for other workers. It is not their fault, it is not a commentary on them. It is just a fact: by being there, they cause an infinitesimal decrease in wages. And, today, we have this mean-spirited and anachronistic social model that has turned automation’s abundance into a possible time bomb.

Really, though, do we need so many TPS reports?

Obviously, if no one worked, that would be catastrophic. We don’t really need to force everyone to work, though. People work for reasons other than need: to have extra spending power, to gain esteem in the community, or because it gives their lives a sense of meaning. Fear of homelessness, though, doesn’t make anyone’s work better. It always makes things worse.

We could get at least 90 percent of society’s current revenues without forcing people to work. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a generous basic income and a free-market economy. That’s quite possibly the best solution. And, while I say “at least 90”, I really mean “more likely than not, more than 100”. That is, I think we’d probably have a more productive economy if people were free to allocate their time and talents to efforts they care about, rather than the makework they have to do, to stay in the good graces of the techno-feudal lords called “employers”.

It is not such a travesty for a person to remove himself from the labor market; for the rich, who already can, I don’t see it as a reason to shame them.

The second problem with the everyone-even-rich-people-must-work model is that it fails to create any real equality. Let’s be honest about it. “Going to work” is not the same for all social classes. Working-class workers are treated like the machines that will eventually replace them. Middle-class workers have minuscule autonomy but are arguably worse off, since it is the mind that is put into subordination rather than the body. For the rich, though, work is a playground, a wondrous place where they can ask strangers to do things, and those things (no matter how trivial or humiliating) will be done, without complaint. The wizards of medieval myth did not have this much power.

In other words, the idea that we are equalizing society by forcing the offspring of the rich to fly around in corporate jets and give PowerPoint presentations (which their underlings put together) is absurd. It would be better to let them live in luxury while slowly declining into irrelevance. When rich kids work difficult jobs, it’s toward one end: getting even richer, which makes our inequality problem worse.

Third, when we force rich kids to work, they take up most of the good jobs. There are about 225 million working-age adults. Whatever one may think of his own personal brilliance, the truth is that the corporate world has virtually no need for intelligence over IQ 130 (top 2.2%). We could debate, some other time, the differences between 130, 150, 170 and up– whether those distinctions are meaningful, whether they can be measured reliably, and the circumstances (of which there are not many) where truly high intelligence is necessary– but, for corporate work, 130 is more than enough to do any job. I don’t intend to say that no corporate task ever existed that required higher intelligence; it is, however, possible to ascend even the more technical corporate hierarchies with that much or less. So, using our somewhat arbitrary (and probably too high) cutoff of 130, there are still 5 million people who are smart enough to complete any corporate job. For the record, this is not an implication of corporate management’s capability. A manager’s job is to reduce operational risk and uncertainty, and dependence on rare levels of talent is a source of risk.

There are 5 million people who are smart enough, in any corporation in America, to competently fulfill an entire path from the entry level to the CEO. 5 million. For a contrast, there aren’t 5 million people in the U.S. with meaningful connections. I doubt there are even 500,000. Talent is fairly common. Connections are rare, and therefore more valued. The rich and the well-connected get the first dibs on jobs. The rest can’t possibly compete. No matter how smart they are, it doesn’t really matter.

Frankly, it’s of infinitesimal importance that Jared Kushner slithered into a spot at Harvard, causing a more-deserving late-1990s 17-year-old to have to settle for Columbia or Chicago. Whatever 17-year-old got bumped, I doubt she cares all that much. We all know that college admissions are more about the parents, anyway. No one intelligent really believes that American college admissions are all that meritocratic in the first place.

On the other hand, the U.S. corporate world is a self-asserted “meritocracy” (and, should you point out its non-meritocracy, you will soon be without income) despite being thicker with nepotism and corruption than third-world governments. That, I care about. Admissions corruption might lead a talented student to have to take her roughly-identical undergraduate classes from slightly less prestigious professors. In the work world, though, personal health, finances, and reputation are on the line. The false meritocracy of college admissions is a joke; the false meritocracy of the corporate world kills people.

Fourth and finally, when rich kids go to work, what do they do? Damage the world, mostly. A large number of them are stupid and incompetent, the result of which is: bad decisions that cause corporate scandals and failures that vaporize jobs. Most of the smart ones, worse yet, are evil. See: the Koch Brothers, Roger Ailes, and Erik Prince.

We would have such a better world if we convinced these guys it was OK to goof off.

The European aristocrats, to their credit, were content to be rich. Our ruling class has to be smarter than us.

I don’t mind that the corporate executives fly business class and I don’t. I do mind being forced to indulge their belief that their more fortunate social placement is a result of their being (intellectually speaking) what they think they are but are not, that I actually am. That galls me. If these people could admit to their mediocrity and step aside, it’d be better for all of us. The adults could get to work; everyone would win.

I don’t hate “the rich”. In fact, I wish everyone were rich. There may be a time in our future when that is, in effect, the reality. I hope so, because we seem thus far to be an “up or out” creature and, in 2019, we are effectively one civilization. Our current state is unsustainable. In the next two hundred, we either get rich or (at least, as a culture, although we may survive in the biological sense) we shall die. In the former case, I do not forecast utopia. There will always be disparities of wealth and social position. More likely than not, those advantages will be uncorrelated to personal merit– this as true of today’s upper class “meritocrats” as much as it was of medieval lords. On its own, that’s benign. So, to hate “rich people” is like to hate a tornado.

On the contrary, though I do not hate the rich, I hate their effects. I hate living in a society run by morons and criminals– one where housing in major cities is unaffordable for almost everyone; one where people have to buy insurance plans on their own bodies that cost $1,000 per month and provide half-assed coverage; one where bullshit jobs and managerial feudalism are the norm.

Furthermore, I do not think it makes the rich happy that we force them to work. It certainly does not make us happy to be shoved out of important, decision-making roles because the well-connected incompetents (or, far worse, the self-serving and evil) need those scarce jobs.

We, as a society, have reached a point where idleness is the most harmless of vices. We do not need more people hunting on the Serengeti; we do not need more internal combustion engines hauling people around to say “Yes, sir”.

Most so-called “work” has trivial, nonexistent, or even negative social value. The vast majority of corporate jobs exist to perpetuate or enhance private socioeconomic inequalities, rather than to better society. The so-called “protestant work ethic” would have us predict that price signals (salaries) correlate to the moral value of work. They don’t. Anyone who thinks they might needs to leave the 1970s because Studio 54 closed a long time ago.

If rich people stop working, they stop hogging the good jobs. They stop hogging the investment capital and wasting it on artisanal dog food delivery companies. Since they’re enjoying life more, they will feel less desire to exact revenge on society for forcing them to make four PowerPoint presentations per year, which will make them less aggressive in squeezing employees. So they’ll hog less of the damn money, too. People will start leaving their office jobs while the sun is shining, writing their own performance reviews because the bosses are skiing all month, and everyone will be better off for it.

Let’s not eat the rich. Instead, let’s get them fat, and roll them out of the way, so competent adults can take the reins of this society, before it’s too late.


American Fascism 2– Is the United States Fascist?

Part 1 Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed the four political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– that seem to be the base elements of which more complex ideologies are made. Of course, an entire society can be communalist in some ways, but libertarian in others. To ask whether the United States “is fascist” may seem simplistic. The question might be phrased better as, “How established is fascism?”

Upsettingly, fascism is the most limber in its self-presentation. Fascists lie. They will, if it is convenient, use ideas from other ideologies to push their agendas. We’ve seen fascists in leftist, rightist, religious, and anti-religious costumes before. Corporate fascism asserts “meritocracy”. Donald Trump managed to step over his personal elitism to run as a populist. Rarely does one spot a fascist in his revealed ideology; we observe what he does.

We are not at the point yet where the United States has been afflicted by state-level fascism. One hopes that it never will be. Are we under threat? Yes, and to understand the problem, we’ll have to know why fascism has emerged.

Is Donald Trump a fascist threat?

Donald Trump’s victory was the culmination of a bizarre irony: a man running against forty years of economic damage wrought by Boomers, bullies, and billionaires… despite being all three.

Establishment politicians represent, in today’s dysfunctional political environment, the disingenuous, effete, and hypocritical superego of the corporate system. In 2016, people decided to try out that system’s id.

How did this all happen? The mechanics of it deserve another essay, probably not in this series, but the short version is that Trump managed to unify, for a time, the otherwise disparate in-authority and out-of-authority fascisms. Corporate executives and race-war preppers do not go to the same parties, and they express their thuggish inclinations in different ways, but Trump managed to draw support from both crowds.

All of this being said, I don’t think of Donald Trump as a high-magnitude fascist threat to this country. I did not ever support him, did not vote for him, and was displeased (to put it mildly) when he won the election (which surprised me). He has done a lot of damage, especially on the environmental front. He has embarrassed us in front of the entire world. Still, he lacks the image necessary to pull sustained, effortless authoritarianism off.

Donald Trump puts explicitly what is subtle in corporate fascism. He doesn’t think differently from those people; he just can’t filter himself. In general, corporate fascism is effective because of its bloodlessness. Few people notice that it’s there unless they think deeply about it; corporate fascism presents itself as “not political”. (The corporate fascist’s enemies are the ones “being political.” That’s why they were fired. Trump’s authoritarianism, belched out 280 characters at a time, is too flagrant and plain-spoken for either the emasculated robot fascism of the corporate world or the lawfully-masculine (in presentation) inevitability of the brutal dictator.

Donald Trump, though, has an even bigger flaw as a would-be fascist: his lifestyle. He’s been a self-indulgent man-child for his entire life. On-camera fuckery built “the Trump brand”, which he’s cited as his most valuable asset. This was great for him when he was a zeitgeist of unapologetic, gangster capitalism. It’s repugnant, and so is fascism, but the brands of malignancy could not be more different.

For a contrast, the proper fascist dictator appears superficial. He cannot be self-indulgent in public. If he enjoys his power and wealth in front of people, he’ll be seen to have an appetite for comfort, which kills the aura of masculine inevitability that a fascist leader requires. Adolf Hitler was, in fact, a rich man late in life– Mein Kampf was a bestseller– and he likely had several mistresses. To the public, however, he presented himself as a simple-living, celibate man. He was married, he said, to the German people. The fascist’s sacrificial austerity gives credence to the perceived inevitability of his reign.

Donald Trump could not pull that off. He has been a volatile, self-absorbed clown in the public for longer than many of us have lived. His own history destroys him. Trump is the sort that thrives in disorder and damage, but sustained fascism requires a damaging order– and that’s quite different.

If fascism comes to the United States, it won’t come via the self-indulgent, emotionally incontinent septuagenarian in the White House. Instead, it’ll come under the aegis of a 39-year-old Silicon Valley tech founder whom few of us have heard of.

He’ll arrive with a pristine reputation, because (like anyone who succeeds in Silicon Valley) he will have preserved his image at any cost, destroying the careers of those who opposed him. The same sleazy tactics that founders, executives, and venture capitalists use to protect and expand their reputations, he’ll have mastered before he even considered going into politics.

He’ll use his dirty corporate tricks, more subtly than Trump, as well as the resources within his companies to build up an image of centrist, pragmatic, and professional competence. He’ll likely present himself as a bipartisan figure– a unifier “in these divided times”, a centrist capitalist who can also “speak nerd”. He may or may not hold racist views– he’s probably too smart to believe that shit– but when it suits him, he’ll use any racial tension he can to divide people, just as he used factional tensions within companies to build his corporate career.

State of the States

We can assess our current fascist risk by asking: what keeps fascism at bay? We have a constitutional government. That’s good, but it inevitably comes down to us what that means. Societies can be assessed on several planes: culture, politics, economics, and the social. I’ll cover each of them; doing this gives us a clear sense of how much danger exists, and whether it’s getting worse.

Center-leftists have underestimated the corporate and fascist threats over the past ten years, because they believe that we are winning the culture wars. That’s true enough right now. The religious right is dying out. Marijuana legalization once seemed impossibly radical. Same-sex marriage support is strong among the young. These are all very good signs. So, can’t we let time do its thing, considering our cultural headwinds?

No, we can’t. The cultural is driven, over time, by the economic. The economic and political drive each other; that arrow goes in both directions and sometimes it is hard to tell the planes apart. In turn, the economic and political are driven by the social: who knows whom and in what context, which groups are favored for various opportunities, et cetera. It suits us best to analyze the cultural, social, political, and economic planes separately and, in each, ask, in terms of the four elemental political impulses– communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism– “Are we fascist?”

Culturally, we are mostly communalistic. Division and exclusion are frowned-upon. A center-left coalition won the cultural wars of the late 20th-century. Two-thirds of Americans support gay marriage, and there’s no strong desire to prosecute harmless pot smokers. Racism still exists, but it’s largely detested. It’s more acceptable, by far, to err on the side of inclusivity than otherwise.

Sometimes, the right refers to our culture as being “politically correct”. Our popular culture is, for good and bad, deliberately inoffensive. This is likely tied in to the importance of our popular culture to our self-definition and economic standing; it is the most effective export we’ve ever had. To start, we would be an irrelevant European knock-off without the cultural influences of once-disparaged minorities. More importantly, if our popular culture were racist, misogynistic, or belligerently nationalistic, the rest of the world would be unlikely to buy it.

Culture, however, changes quickly; it did in the German 1930s, when Weimar liberalism fell, like so much else, to the Nazis. Environmental, political, economic, and social forces can crush cultural defenses. That happens all the time.

Politically, we remain a democratic republic. Our elections work. They do so imperfectly, but they work well enough that, when plutocrats cheat, they still bother to hide it. Voters have the power to fire representatives who become unaccountable to their constituents, and although it’s not used often enough, it is used. Though there are issues with our electoral system on account of its age, they’re not so severe that one would call us, at this point, a non-democracy.

For now, we’re on the better side of this one.

Economically, we are a market-driven libertarian society. That is not all bad. Many have argued that this is what should be. Do we need public control of the economy? To some degree, yes; total control is undesirable. Government should prevent poverty; but we can trust markets to, say, decide the price of toothpaste. Command economies are not innovative, they don’t work well at scale, and they’re too easily corruptible. When well-structured, and used in a society that takes care of the big-picture issues (e.g., basic income, job guarantees) so everyone has a vote, markets work.

It is not evil that our economy uses libertarian, market dynamics. It probably should. The evil is the totalitarian influence that economic life (not to mention artificial scarcity( has over everything else. Where people live, how they structure their time, and what careers are available to them, are all dictated by a closed social elite of unaccountable, often-malignant bureaucrats called “executives”.

When an economy functions well, it recedes. Economic life becomes less a part of daily existence as people become richer, freer, and more productive in their (fewer, usually) working hours. We’ve seen the opposite. We’ve seen dysfunction spreading. We’ve seen people sacrificing more of their life on the altar of the economic, without much progress.

It has been said to the young, “You don’t hate Mondays; you hate capitalism”. That’s not quite right. Working Americans aren’t miserable at their jobs because, say, oil prices are set by free markets. They’re miserable because of corruption. They’re miserable because they are forced by circumstance to work for a malignant elite– a predominantly social rather than economic one– that despises them.

We’ve covered the good news: we are culturally communalistic. We are politically republican. We are economically libertarian. Generally, this is how things should be. So what’s wrong?

Socially, we are fascist. On the social plane, we are not “becoming fascist”. We are not “at risk of fascism”. We are there. A malignant upper class has won.

As discussed, is social drives the political; the political often drives the economic; economic forces drive culture far more than the other way around. As we are thoroughly corrupt, in the social plane, we should understand that we are not in danger until there is a radical overhaul of our current upper class. State-level fascism isn’t here yet, but we’re governed by an elite (“the 0.1 percent”) that would make it so, if it were in their personal interests. Everything could fall, and it wouldn’t take long.

For example, we’ve already lost freedom of speech. The federal government cannot bar political disagreement or peaceful opposition. But employers can– and do. Job opportunities are stolen from people based on social media posts but, at the same time, job opportunities can be stolen from people because they don’t use social media.

One of the key revelations of the 2010s is that only one social class distinction matters in the United States: those with generational wealth and social connections (“the 0.1 percent”) and those without. The higher-income supposed upper-middle and middle classes will be just as screwed, if a significant percentage of jobs are automated out of existence, as the poor. In any case, the upper class has all the important land and runs all the important institutions. It decides, monopolistically, what jobs people get: who works on what, when, and where. Some people get to be VPs of Marketing and university presidents who earn $1 million dollars per year for three hours per week of work; others get blacklisted and become unemployable. There are people who make those decisions; most of us are not among them.

Under fascism, the governed compete while power unifies. That’s what we’re observing in the corporate world right now. “Performance” is a myth. “Meritocracy” is a malevolent joke on the middle class (and “middle class” is itself, under our fascist society, a distinction invented to make upper-proles feel better about ourselves, and to divide us against lower-proles). What actually matters, in corporate jobs? Not performance. Not even profits. (I’ll come back to that.) Loyalty to the existing upper class. Corporate do not work for shareholders; in practice, they work for their management.

Corporate executives, in truth, have insulated themselves from meaningful competition. It will occur on occasion that one must be replaced. When this happens, they ensure a soft landing for the outgoing executive, while ensuring another member of their class steps in. Positions are shuffled around, but they keep these overpaid positions confined to a small elite. None of us really have a chance at those jobs; the idea that anyone can make it is just a cruel joke they play.

These people set each other’s pay. They use clever systems to hide the class’s rapacious self-dealing. For example, venture capital allows a rich man’s son to manufacture the appearance of success on a competitive market– he’s an entrepreneur, he says– when, in truth, the clients and resources are furtively delivered by their backers. This ruse and many others make it appear merit-based when their children succeed, at the expense of ours.

There is some competition allowed within the upper class, but there are rules to it. No one can damage the image for fortune of the class. Corporate executives are far more vicious in their competition against their workers than against nominally antagonistic firms: competitors in the classical sense.

Executives self-deal and get away with it, because their bosses are other executives, who are doing the same. Is all this self-dealing good for corporate profits? It’s hard to say. Executive-level fascism reduces performance but it seems to reduce variance. The left is often to quick to assert that social evils derive from “profit motive” when it is, in fact, executive self-dealing that is the essence of the corporate problem. Profit maximizing has its own moral issues, but they’re not the most relevant ones.

Do executives care about profit? They want to make enough profit to appease shareholders, and not a dollar more. If they’re making outsized profits, they could have paid themselves better. They could have hidden money in the company, to be drawn out in bad times. They could have used those profits to push efforts that would improve and expand their personal reputations. To an executive, a dollar of profit is waste, because he wasn’t able to find a way to take it for himself. In Corporate America, no executive works for a company. Companies (and their workers) work for executives.

What about shareholders? Why don’t they step in and drop a pipe on these self-dealing, comfort-addicted executives? The answer is that the shareholders who matter are… wait for it… rich people. How did they get rich? By sitting in overpaid executive positions, peddling connections, and ingratiating themselves to the upper class. They will never quash the executive swindle. That game keeps them rich, and ensures that their children are even richer. Perhaps it would do good for “companies” in the abstract if someone stepped in on executive excess, but it would be so bad for the upper class that it will never happen.

Of course, if returns to shareholders are abysmal– enough for the press and public to take notice– there will be executive shuffling, but it’s engineered so that no one really gets hurt. A CEO can be fired, yes, but with generous severance, and his career will be handed back to him (plus interest) within a year or two. The only thing that would put an executive on the outs would be disloyalty to the upper class itself. That, they would never forgive; he would likely be suicided.

What about when firms compete, as they’re nominally supposed to? Firms will compete for customers; that is true. Sometimes, they do so ruthlessly. It is not bad, from the consumer’s end, to live under capitalism. What firms cannot stand is having to compete for workers or their loyalty. They will ruin the careers of people who try to make them do that. Sure, they whine from time to time about a tight labor market and a lack of domestic talent, usually in order to scam the government into allowing them to hire more indentured servants from abroad, but their incessant whining about competition is a part of their strategy to ensure they never face it. They consider “job hopping” a sin, because they can’t tolerate the idea of having to compete for a subject’s loyalty. They share data on personnel and compensation, often in violation of the law (which they do not care about, since they own the most expensive attorneys). Most companies, before finalizing a job offer, call references: other managers at nominally competing firms. This would make no sense if there were real competition between companies. It makes complete sense if there is not.

Executives are not rewarded or punished based on their loyalty to shareholders, but rather to the upper class. Middle managers (who are not part of the upper class, and have no reason to care about it) are, in turn, rewarded or punished based on loyalty to their superiors’ careers. Workers, by and large, know that in today’s one-chance, fast-firing corporate culture, they don’t work for “companies” at all; they work for managers. The explicit theme of class domination is obscured to some degree, leaving workers unsure whether that their failure to advance may be a personal failure, and therefore avoiding public admission of the otherwise prosaic fact: the game has been rigged against them. Only one in a thousand who tries for corporate entry into the upper class will be accepted, and this will require total moral self-deletion.

I’ve mentioned the loss of one’s freedom of speech under corporate rule and that, at the same time, many people must nonetheless have social media profiles to have a career. It “looks weird” to people in HR not to have “a LinkedIn” or “a Twitter”. Opting out of technological surveillance is not an option for many people. They’ve been tricked and extorted into rendering unto current and future employers– corporate capitalism, that is– information that will only be used against them.

Mainstream corporate employers are not especially tolerant. It is bad to be the office liberal, the office conservative, the office Christian, the office atheist, or the office Jew. To win at corporate self-presentation, one must be prolifically bland. One should avoid excess and abstinence both in profanity. One should avoid the topic of labor rights at all costs. What about our other cultural institutions, though? What about our press, our universities, and our sundry nonprofit organizations? Yes, mainstream magazines will publish center-left views. Universities in particular house more leftist than conservative voices. How much will this protect us? Not that much, I’m afraid. Most people will not be part of those institutions for life, and therefore still rely on the Adversary for their careers. Even outside of the for-profit world, many are trained to turn on those who threaten the hegemony of the generationally well-connected. This is a shame, because that’s our society’s number-one problem right now.

State-level fascism hasn’t arrived yet, but our social elite has been preparing for it for decades. They are in no hurry to make it happen, but they will if they judge it to favor their interests. Why have they been fomenting right-wing populism– using racial resentments, religious bigotry, and the frank irrationality that emerges from stunted masculinity and (economically enforced) permanent adolescence? To ensure that, no matter what else happens during a populist uprising, they’ll have an easy time getting their money out of it. The upper class has convinced the rabble that generational wealth and connections– neither of which the rabble themselves have– are a right; meanwhile, leftists and racial minorities are a source of their misery.

This society is set up so that, if such events come to pass, the most armed and ready militants will be on the right wing. Not only will this support the elite’s economic goals and keep the proletariat divided against itself, but it will also mean that any revolutionary effort is likely to be overcome by people with such repugnant ideological and cultural aims that they will never gain global sympathy. The upper class would rather have a 95 percent chance of a rightist-racist revolt that no one (present company included) would support than a 25 percent chance of a leftist revolt that would quickly gain global sympathy.

Do today’s generationally well-connected want to live under state-level fascism? They don’t care. They wouldn’t be living under it; they’d be running it. I do not think they are, down to a man, ardent fascists. I imagine that the vast majority are individually apathetic on the matter. So long as they live in a world where they don’t have to compete for what they have, they remain disinterested in ideology. If fascism rises, they will quickly support it, not because of prior ideological commitment, but because it is practically designed for them; though fascism presents itself as popular indignation, it is deliberately constructed to keep the powerful (except for a few, who may be scapegoated) out of harm’s way.

Socially, we already have fascism. The generationally well-connected live with impunity. They do not tolerate division within their ranks, and do whatever they can to divide us against each other. This includes the division between so-called “red” and “blue” America, which are allegiances to manufactured brands– bloodless center-leftism and right-wing indignation, both of which are harmless to the entrenched upper class– more than coherent ideologies. Meanwhile, our society is almost entirely constructed so that no one can represent significant harm to upper-class interests and keep his career, reputation, and life intact.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss how we got here. Our turn toward fascism in the social sphere occurred around 1975; it is often blamed (hyperbolically, oversimplistically) on the Baby Boom generation. In truth, the sequence of events that led us there was, if not inevitable, predictable and cannot be blamed on a specific generation. So in Part 3, we’ll get a handle on how our current fascist mess was made– and how it might be unmade.

American Fascism 1– What Is Fascism, and How Did It Get Here?

Part 1 Part 2

This series of essays shall cover one of the most depressing topics I’ve ever written about: fascism. The truth is, I’ve been writing and rewriting “the fascism essay” for almost two years. I’ve worked on one version or iteration, polished a bit… only to decide not to publish it. It’s such a dreary, demoralizing subject.

When fascism descends, one is faced with a fight– probably a losing fight– that a person of conscience still owes the world to fight.

I promise that this series will not focus on Donald Trump. It would be a mistake to conflate him with the more general fascist threat. More than he is a fascist, he’s an opportunist. Inevitably, someone would have tried what he did. Perhaps we are lucky. For reasons that will be discussed later on, he is quite ineffective when it comes to fascism. He has damaged this country, and he will probably damage it more before he is gone, but it would be going a lot worse if the game he is playing were played competently.

I’ve had to fight fascists for 7 years. In 2011, a comment I made about a product at a large tech company received far too much internal publicity, after which my name was placed on the list of suspected unionists that circulates around in Silicon Valley. I got death threats– I still get death threats. I experienced, more than once, a job offer that was rescinded after someone found my name on the list. I’ve been libeled in various corners of the Internet, and this libel has had a negative effect on my career.

Having been fighting fascists for 7 years, and having to continue to fight them, I am well aware of our nation’s fascist energies. Donald Trump did not create them out of thin air, and we will not be rid of the threat after he is gone.

In fact, as I’ll establish over the next few essays, it is the nature of end-stage corporate capitalism to become fascist.

We have been lucky with Trump, at least so far. Two years have passed and he has not instituted state-level fascism. I don’t think he can. We would be in much worse shape if, instead, we had been saddled with a polished 39-year-old tech founder as opposed to the an emotionally incompetent, openly racist septuagenerian who tried to trademark the phrase, “You’re fired.”

Fascism is an immense and unpleasant topic, so I’ve broken this essay up into several pieces. The planned schedule is to release one every three days, in eight installments. I shall cover:

  • What is fascism?
  • Is the United States fascist?
  • Fascism and capitalism.
  • Why fascism appeals to people.
  • Fascism’s endgame.
  • Why we have to fight fascism– now.
  • How we must fight fascism.
  • When it is acceptable, and when it is not, to use violence against it.

Before we can discuss fascism, we must ask: what is it, and where does it come from?

Ideologies are as numerous as human cultures, but complex societies tend to establish and differentiate themselves in their handling of four elemental impulses that recur in human politics, and probably have for all time. Those are: communalism, libertarianism, republican democracy, and fascism.

We can understand each of the four from first principles by noting that much of politics comes down to one question, which we face on a daily basis in economic and social life: does one cooperate, or compete? Do we honor social contracts, or break them for personal gain? When we encounter other tribes, is our instinct to share resources and allow further specialization, or do we fight until we’ve chased them off– or killed them all?


In general, those who cooperate are better off, in the aggregate, than people who fight. “Winning” a war often mean losing less. The communalist sees this sort of competition as unsavory and would prefer that it never happen. Of course, communalists have no issue with competition in games and sports– it’s well understood that sportsmanlike, low-stakes competition has a place in any society– but they do not want to see the high-stakes fights in which people, businesses, and nations work to actually hurt the other.

A team, tribe, or group does better if its members cooperate than if they suffer in-fighting. An example I know far too well is that of programmers, who have low status in the workplace– even in software companies and startups, where they ought to be in charge. There’s a well-known reason for this: despite their superior individual intelligence, they have zero collective intelligence, which makes it easy for their bosses to pit them against each other.

The communalist view has a lot to recommend it. The toughest global problems– climate change, public health, avoidance of international conflict– are cooperative in nature.


No matter what, though, people will compete. Rules will be broken. Interests diverge. The communalist view is that we should cooperate all the time, but the libertarian counterargument needs only four words, followed by a mic drop: Have you met people?

Arrangements that seem to lack competition, on closer inspection, have unsavory varieties thereof. Foremost in mind would be a business monopoly, which is not a true absence of competition– it is certainly not a cooperative arrangement where everyone wins– but an asymmetric and socially harmful conflict where an in-group (the monopolist) holds all the cards, and the public loses. The situation would improve if others could enter competition with the monopolist.

Libertarians don’t want governments to eradicate competition, but to protect the individual’s right to enter. In general, libertarians want government to be limited, transparent, and simple.

We might consider the communalist impulse to be a sort of ancestral left, while the libertarian one represents the primordial right. Just as most of us call ourselves centrists, we generally recognize the value in both impulses.

Republican democracy

Communalism proposes an ideal, but the libertarian reminds us of an uncomfortable truth: competition– of the serious kind, where people can get hurt– is inevitable. Therefore, it’s better to have well-structured and fair competition than pretend that none exists.

How do we reconcile a communalist ideal with competitive reality?

Republican democracy, the third elemental impulse, puts it like so: as citizens, we cooperate. We share information in order to make the best decision, and largely want the same things: good government, prosperous daily life. However, anyone who wants to acquire or retain power must compete for it. Additionally, a private citizen who believe he can do better in a leadership role than the person currently there may run for the office.

The above, we take for granted. We shouldn’t. Workplaces, for example, are not run this way. Someone who even jokingly suggested running for his boss’s position would be summarily fired.

In sum, the republic holds the communalist idea, but introduces competition to hold political leaders accountable to the public.

The communalist would not have anyone compete; we should all cooperate. The libertarian’s worldview is one in which everyone competes for everything. The republican impulse is the only one of the three introduced thus far, as expressed by the table below, that makes a difference between someone in power (or seeking it) and the general public.

Who Competes?
Political System Leadership The Public
Communalism No No
Libertarianism Yes Yes
Republic Yes No
???? No Yes

Communalists and libertarians both have a blind spot: the fact that power relationships and leadership roles emerge almost immediately in human societies. Communalists underestimate what people will do to compete for position. This is easy enough to see. Libertarians have a blind spot, too, and in some ways it’s a bigger one.

The libertarian mindset approaches governance with a mathematician’s conservatism, by which I mean it starts from a small set of rules (analogous to mathematical axioms) and wants to restrict government’s role to what can be proven from those rules. No distinction is made between rich and poor, in-crowd or underprivileged. Everyone competes, all of the time– survival of the fittest. But, what is the first thing people do after winning in socioeconomic competition? See, the libertarian believes that past behavior predicts future results and that people who achieved socioeconomic success will double down on whatever worked… but that’s not what happens. Instead, those who’ve won (often, by pure luck) will do everything they can to insulate themselves (and their progeny) from future competition, and stay “winning” forever. At absolute most, society gets one generation of rule by the fittest. After that, a self-protecting, effete, useless oligarchy sets in.

Republican democracy does better. It says: cooperate as citizens, but compete for office. Then, it invests resources to make these competitions– which happen at regular times and are subjected to rules to prevent corruption– as fair as possible. This seems to be the best solution. A well-structured republic uses the competitive energies of the ambitious for the greater good. In the republic, power is self-limiting, as it comes with increased scrutiny, responsibility, and competition. The objective here is that no one seeks power just to have it, and people contend for office only if they have a higher moral or public goal they wish to achieve.

Does the republic have a blind spot? In a way, it does. The objective of the republic is to make government reliable, trustworthy, and therefore boring. Such systems are engineered to prevent the emergence of feedback loops that otherwise dominate human systems. The issue is that feedback loops emerge anyway. We seem, as humans, to be primed to recognize and react to them quickly, although this exacerbates the problem. For example, when one side of a conflict appears to be winning, many of us begin to act as if that side has already won. It is through these feedback loops that the mere suggestion of a person’s popularity (or stigma) can become fact, and billions of dollars are spent every year to induce them.

The republican element of human politics tends toward self-limitation, but other elements emerge and dominate. Those tend to be unanticipated feedback loops that weren’t known to exist until someone exploited them. Republics will, from time to time, have to contend with a sort of Jungian shadow: a dual-opposite mentality asserting the right of the rich to get richer, and of those with power to use it however they want (including, notably, to acquire more power).


The dual opposite of a republic would be a society where the governed must compete, merely to survive. Meanwhile, the powerful are immune to challenge from below. There is only one political party and it will always be that way. Those with power have no responsibilities to those below them, because power is subject to no appeal but itself.

That sounds like an unimaginable dystopia, right? That would never, ever emerge from a free society. Right?

It has already done so. Consider the corporate workplace. Regular employees are ranked and pitted against each other– and against the hungry masses, for management is happy to remind its subjects of the desperate millions ready to take more abuse and less pay. Stack ranking and annual reviews exist largely as a mechanism through which executives remind the little people that they aren’t a permanent part of the company– they are a resource that will be used up and discarded. Meanwhile, corporations rely on a self-dealing one-party government called “management” that uses every bit of power it has (which is, all of it) to keep the underlings where they are. Power begets power. It does not accept limitation; who has the right to limit it? Certainly, there shall be no separation of powers. Power is allowed and expected to unify– managers protect their own, and those who do not learn this one rule do not remain in management for long.

Of course, individual corporations are too small to indulge in the end-stage horrors for which fascism is known: international belligerence, extreme racism, repression and disinformation. In comparison to state-level fascism, the corporation’s fascism-lite seems benign. Is it? It’s hard to say, because state-level fascism seems, likewise, harmless to the general public when it sets in.

The core of fascism, I would argue, is not to be found in the end-stage calamities to which it often inexorably leads. Rather, it is this: the people compete against each other, endlessly, but power unifies.

Under fascism, power’s disparate forms– cultural, political, religious, state, economic, legal, and social power– congeal into an inflexible fasces. Industrialists, political officials, media personalities, and sundry middling bureaucrats and managers form a one-party system that cannot be appealed. At the same time, people are divided against each other, ranked in ceaseless competition. Those judged to rank at the bottom– a small percentage that must be called “work-shy”, or “below expectations”, or Lebensunwertes Leben— must be punished. This is not always done out of hatred for the unlucky; it’s done to terrify the middle-ranking majority.

Fascism is neither leftist nor rightist in any traditional sense. Fascists learn that they can lie with impunity; there’s no one above them for the public to appeal to. The fascist will use socialist, capitalist, royalist, revanchist, communist, populist, nationalist, or religious symbology as needed. A corporation will declare itself a meritocracy and punish anyone who says it is not so. Truth doesn’t matter; the closest thing there is, is reputation, which the fascist manipulates masterfully.

Donald Trump lies so frequently not because it is part of a political strategy, but because he’s taking his corporate tricks into the public theater– with mixed results. His lies are of a kind that would pass easily in the corporate world; it is good for us that, in presidential politics, he’s out of his depth. What one must understand about Trumpian lies is that anyone who would recognize them as lies is not part of his intended audience. These lies exist to rally the loyal and to frighten– not convince– the opposition. Loyalists see a man so fervid he occasionally gets a detail wrong; opponents see a person unconstrained by truth or apparent logic. When intelligent people are called out on their support for someone so obviously divorced from truth, they often use the Thiel defense: they’re taking him seriously, but not literally.

A corporate executive (and an established fascist) can say anything, because he’s in a milieu that admires bullies– “tough leadership” is the corporate term of art for the sorts of people who smashed science projects in grade school– and because he’s surrounded by people who are paid to behave as if they believe every word he says (and to rat out nonbelievers). Trump’s problem is that he still has to deal with the 50-plus percent of the population that won’t put up with his mendacity. A president cannot, at the current time, fire the public.

Republics are set up to force politicians to compete, in an effort to make sure that elected officials work on behalf of the public. Ours isn’t perfect, but the system does does a decent job. Voters don’t fire incumbents often enough, one might argue, but political officials know that they can.

While republics strive for responsible government, fascism imposes competition on the people, to render them accountable to the elite– against which no one and nothing can compete.

What about competition within the elite? Surely, that must happen, even under fascism– right? Of course, it does. The same divide-and-conquer techniques that fascism uses against the public, the dictator will use against his lieutenants and middle managers. Such bureaucrats and seneschals are happy to squabble for the boss’s favor. However, there’s one rule, and it’s absolute: the competition can never be seen from below. (As a corollary, mid-ranking hierarchs cannot court popular support.) Court intrigue within power is fine, so long as it stays there. To the public, though, they must present a unified front.

Fascism requires this unity among power because it does not present itself as a brand of politics. Rather, fascist is bigger (as in, more totalitarian) but also harder-to-see than regular politics, toward which it project disdain. It presents itself as post-political. Current exigencies, it argues, require a union of power to make swiftly the decisions that are inevitable and beyond appeal. Those could not, it must always say, have been made any other way. If people became aware of a debate within power, this would suggest that alternatives existed, and the sense of inevitability in the fascist’s movement would be compromised.

When fascism runs smoothly, the governed do not perceive themselves as under a self-serving elite, or having a repressive government. Authority assures them that, for each concession it demands of them, there were no other options. We had to shoot the protesters, because if hostile nations found out about internal dissent, they’d take advantage of our weakness. We have to fire 5% of our workers every year, because otherwise nothing will get done.

It is shocking how readily people will accept authoritarianism if fed a halfway-coherent argument that there are no alternatives.

I used to write a lot, between 2010 and 2015, about organizational dynamics. As a result, I got a lot of letters from people facing managerial adversity at their workplaces.

I mentioned that fascist governments are mendacious and will present themselves as needed: if they need to seem populist, they’ll seem populist. If socialism is en vogue, they’ll become left-authoritarians. If a veneer of capitalism suits their needs, they’ll take the right. The corporation’s lie is meritocracy, and it’s so pervasive that people believe in it. So, when they face managerial adversity, they believe that “performance” can save them. (It can’t.) Or, they go over the boss’s head, or to the company’s HR department. After all, if it were a meritocracy, it would reward when a good employee rats out a bad manager, right? Of course, that move almost never works. If anything, the afflicted employee gets fired faster.

Corporate “performance” is mythical. It’s a word they made up that sounds objective but, in fact, means whatever the corporates want it to mean. (It is, arguably, unintentionally honest. Succeeding in the corporate world has nothing to do with performance in the sense of being good at one’s job; but it is a performance in the theatrical sense.) Corporate “meritocracy” is a litmus test for ideological compliance and personal loyalty to management. One must not only follow orders, but pledge fealty to inflexible managerial supremacy with every action. In the United States, one must remember that managers do not work for companies. (I’ll bust the “shareholder” myth, some other time.) Rather, companies work for their managers.

So, what happens when these unfortunate people, suffering managerial adversity, attempt to appeal to higher “meritocracy”? They are crushed; the system requires it. The unspoken agreement among corporate bosses is never to let the little people pit them against each other. Whether the little people are right is immaterial. Anyone who tries this must be destroyed. Even if the worker could somehow prove to HR that he was a “high performer” (whatever that means) who had a bad boss, his “boss-killer” reputation would follow him, he would be unable to join another team, and he’d be terminated within time for that reason alone. To do that is to break the one rule the corporates actually care about. Ethics, laws, and even public perceptions have flexibility, but managerial unity must never be challenged.

Fascism, like corporate management, requires a one-party system. It will never allow real elections. It will use the strangest lies to test loyalty; those who value truth too much become a problem that must be dealt with. Even when disloyalty is deserved, for the bureaucrat or manager was incompetent or abusive, fascism will not tolerate it. Fascism would rather kill innocents than risk division from below.

Understanding Complex Societies

In the next essay, I’ll answer the question, “Is the United States fascist?”

The short answer is: No. Not yet, and I hope not ever. The United States is a republic with serious problems, but none even approach the magnitude to state-level fascism.

The longer answer is… more complicated. Whether the 21st-century corporate system’s effete brand of fascism-lite can be transmuted into full-bore national fascism is a matter that remains untested. Our first true “President Corporate America” has been unpopular and largely ineffective. On the left, we ought to use his continuing failure whenever possible to embarrass the milieu from which he came.

It’s easy to understate the corporate threat, because we’ve had “corporate capitalism” for a long time, and for decades it represented no threat to our nation’s freedom at all. Why it has changed requires further analysis, and I’ll cover that in a future essay.

For now, we observe that corporate existence has primed people to accept life under, at the very least, fascism-lite. Our adversaries- people who would impose fascism if they could benefit from doing so– are collecting data, as I write this, on their workers. What do they see? I’ve been in the corporate world, so I’ve seen it as well. To impose fascism is easy. It’s like taking freedoms from a baby.

In the corporate world, when someone is fired unjustly, what do her colleagues do? Do they encourage customer boycotts? Do they threaten to quit unless the wrongly-fired employee is reinstated (or, at least, offered a reasonable severance)? Do they storm the manager’s office, like it was done back when people had the courage to handle these things properly? None of the above. They get back to work, as if it had never happened.

What about the increasing totalitarianism that corporate jobs assert over a worker’s time, living arrangements, and (in the age of technology) reputation? Have any of these people pushed back against that? No.

We feel safe, in the United States, because our “professional” middle and upper-middle classes remain notionally liberal. We should not. Their politics is the politics of not being political, which fascists (who present their own aggressive politics as not-political) love. We see how they’ve been trained to fail when put to ethical tests in the lower-stakes corporate game, and they reliably do. What’s going to happen, then, if the stakes become high? If we can’t count on them when jobs are at risk, we surely can’t count on them when freedom and lives are on the line.

The corporate world is full of of-course-I-would-hide-Anne-Frank quasi-liberals who, nonetheless, nod in agreement when some mid-level managerial thug calls one of their colleagues “a low performer”. They probably make up 85–90 percent of corporate denizens, because people of conscience don’t last long. Forgive me for not trusting them to hold society up, should it ever endure an attack of national scope.

In the next essay, we’ll assess in more detail the fascist threats to the United States, as well as why the ostensible liberalism of our popular culture is unlikely to protect us. We’ll also answer one of the most important questions that I have not yet addressed, which is motivation. Why would anyone want to turn this country fascist? What would be in it for them.

It has often been argued that a system like ours is resistant to fascism because it would not bring comfort or wealth to the current elite. To take over such a large country requires massive effort, and the financial rewards are minuscule (at absolute best) from the perspective of an upper class that, materially speaking, already has everything.

That argument is wrong. A nuanced picture of our society, and a psychographic profile elite, both of which will come in later essays, will establish their perceived gain– and it’s terrifying.

More relevantly, the vast majority of us, should fascism come to pass, will lose. Some of us, including me, will lose everything. This could become the fight of our lives. For me, for seven years, it already has been.

Another One…

Today started as a good day. I got up, as usual, at 3:30 in the morning. I continued my work on Farisa’s Crossing. Got a lot done. I’ve always had confidence in my writing itself, but recently I hit an inflection point in the revision process, where I feel genuine knowing confidence (as opposed to the unknowing confidence I had two years ago, before I knew how fiction really worked) in the story itself. It has taken a long time, and I sure ain’t done yet, but it stands a good chance of being a significant book.

Most of my blog readers know that, since 2011, I’ve written about the then-emerging (and now alarmingly present) issue of authoritarianism in technology. I deleted most of my blog posts in 2016 (by accident, as I intended to republish some). I thought that disappearing from the online world would fix certain problems that had emerged in my life, due to my vocal opposition to authoritarianism. It has not.

Death threats keep coming. I received one an hour ago. Not a threateningly credible one. A stupid one that’s going to get someone who didn’t think about what they was doing in a lot of trouble.

I am disgusted that it keeps happening. Disgusted.

Tech-industry death threats don’t scare me. The most dangerous people don’t drop warnings. Though I’m no longer afraid of these things, they piss me off. They still piss me off, and I ought to be used to it by now. The sorts of people who do this shit, I don’t want them in my life. And I thought that, by November 2018, they wouldn’t be.

Stay tuned. I’ll say more when I’m less nauseated.

How To Destroy Everything

I don’t know you, but if you’re reading this manual, I can assume that you’re an immortal being of pure hatred. You view humans, the only sapient life form in your corner of the universe, with blistering contempt.

Killing them would be easy; they’ve had millennia and haven’t gotten off one rock. A meteor or supervolcano would do the trick. That seems brutish and boring, though. You want decades of torture. You want lingering meaninglessness. You don’t want to eradicate life; you want to eradicate meaning and purpose.

Even Demon School dropouts can reduce populations. You want billions of people to remain alive, but suffer in pointless despair. You don’t want them dead. You want them to wake up every morning into an existence they dread– one they know on a deep level to be pointless, that they’d end if they only had the courage.

How might you pull of this grand torture?

Step 1: Identify Value

The distinction between external philosophical meaning and revealed value isn’t especially relevant here. Sure, the former is what you’re out to destroy, as an immortal nihilistic demon in rebellion against all creation; for our purposes, though, we can focus on revealed value. That will be good enough. Many of the things humans value are things they need to survive; you can mire them in purposeless existence by putting a great cost on basic needs. How might you do this, when humans continually invent the tools of abundance? It takes some cleverness, it is true.

If you observe humans for a few hundred years, you’ll discover things that they value: friendship, intellectual stimulation, esteem, pleasure. It’s not worth your time to try to guess how much each person values what, or to wrangle with outside-the-system concepts of meaning; they will reveal what they value, and it’s not hard to measure it.

Humans have weird ideas about suffering. They worship it and ascribe great value to those who suffer, but avoid their own suffering at all costs. Much of this suffering comes from their mortality. They die, and they have no idea what happens afterward, or even if they exist at all. Consequently, wasting time is something they absolutely hate (but, paradoxically, are easy to trick into doing). Put a human in a traffic jam for five minutes, and there’s palpable misery. A chunk of his finite existence (as far as he knows) has been sliced off and he’ll never get it back.

We can measure suffering with a unit that indexes the moment-by-moment experience of a person wasting time. I’ll use the French word douleur, meaning “pain”. For the sake of argument, let’s agree that 1 douleur equals about 3 minutes of wasted time. We’ll refine this notion later; I will later show that it’s advantageous from our perspective to build societies that, for no discernible or morally valid reason, value people’s sufferings at radically different rates.

Why would we use suffering to index value? Understand that humans are not far removed from animals and have learned that results (e.g., food and shelter) come from work. There’s a lot of evidence that work need not require suffering. We can roughly think of this “work” as a mixture of three components: (1) excellence and skill; (2) devotion and discipline; and (3) suffering.

There are people who produce results based on talents or skills (excellence); they might be the fastest hunters with the best aim. There are others whose discipline, knowledge, and industry lead to beneficial results– the hunter-gatherers. Then, there are people who will just endure misery toward a result– even a meaningless one. They’ll carry a hundred-pound bag of gravel from nowhere to nowhere in exchange for a lump of shiny metal.

The element of devotion/discipline is neither theatrical nor competitive, so it is not a major player in the human competition for rank within an organization. This leaves two strategies: competition to excel, and competition to suffer. Spoiler alert: the compete-to-suffer ones, in the long run, win. Why? Because those for whom excellence is even an option are a minority, and therefore vulnerable. The mediocrities will agree on the decision that they “just don’t like her”; she’s “not a team player”. Excellence will be driven out; suffering (or, at least, apparent suffering) will win.

When a human team or organization is given enough time to degrade, suffering is the currency. Excellence, devotion, industry, and skill don’t really matter. If you’re a compete-to-excel type, there are 10 compete-to-suffer sorts saying bad things about you and your work to your boss.

It is best if one can compete-to-suffer without actually suffering; this isn’t as hard as it seems. My favorite type of human is what other humans call the “psychopath”. He can mimic emotions he does not feel, and he is not incapacitated or shamed by others’ unhappiness. Therefore, he can indulge in the theatre of shared suffering without (as non-psychopaths will) becoming enervated and thereby dropping in performance. He is like the cancer cell– individually fit at the expense of the organism– and, for our destructive purposes, you want him in charge whenever possible. Luckily for us, humans are so good at promoting these guys, we barely have to do any work.

If suffering becomes the currency, then the people in the arts ought to receive few douleurs, since they have the privilege of working for “passion”. Net of living expenses and the upkeep of fitting in socially– since evaluation of talent is both subjective and usually performed by people who don’t have it, “cultural fit” matters more than ability– they often pay to work! As they should, right? It’s harder to play this game against people in jobs with direct social value (e.g., teaching, medicine) so, in those cases, we can subject the workers to odious bureaucracies– remind the plebs who’s boss– that interfere with their work, counteract their noblest efforts, and ensure that the most conscientious people are the last to be promoted.

It might seem counterproductive to encourage the deletion of high-quality work. It is! But if we don’t do that kind of thing, then we have productive people who aren’t suffering enough and therefore aren’t earning their douleurs. Competing-to-excel work doesn’t count as work; they’re enjoying it too much. They should be paying to go to work; not vice versa.

I suggest, in your quest to ruin a human society, giving a physical presence to these douleurs. People with possessions hate to part with them. The pain of losing a slip of paper that says “merit” can be as real as the pain people put themselves through to get the damn things. I would advise putting pictures of famous historical figures on them. Few of them will note (pun intended) the irony of using pictures of dead people to index the right to live.

In theory, this system leads to an equal distribution of misery. The people who do unpleasant, enervating work get more douleurs, but lose so much of themselves in the process that they can’t enjoy the material rewards. The people who opt out of unpleasant work, or find niches where they produce results but don’t suffer, get few douleurs and live miserable lives everywhere but at work. It’s beautiful, is it not?

Like clockwork, you get a system where people appear to have different things but are, more or less, equivalently unhappy. The most vibrant cities will only be accessible to those who suffer and sacrifice so much they can’t possibly enjoy the amenities.The best schools will be available only to the children of the most disengaged, enervated parents. A culture can be denuded within a generation– this is important, because your quest to ruin humanity will require creating a new one– when primacy and voice are given to those who hold the douleurs, rather than those of merit.

Even truth (another disposable human luxury) is up for grabs; at the personal level (micro truth) we can invent reputation machinery (social media, careerism) that tells a catchier story than whatever the truth is, and require people to participate in it or face socioeconomic oblivion. At the societal level (macro truth) one can just buy people and pay them to lie– it’s extremely effective. Fossil fuels are killing the planet? Not anymore. Chinese hoax. Burn all the Jesus Juice you want, boys. Truth is just another thing humans value, but they all have a price. Let what is true be decided by those with the douleurs to make things true.

No one’s happy; a perfect system, right?

You can improve on it. If everyone’s miserable, people might figure that out. This eliminates from the picture one of the most unpleasant human emotions: envy. Envy is the ultimate negative-sum emotion. I wish I had come up with it; it’s so terrible (and by terrible, I mean beautiful). It is horrible for a human to envy another person– to suspect or admit that one’s fleeting life is inferior in quality to someone else’s. Humans mistakenly believe that it is pleasant to be envied, but that’s not so. At best, people ignore those of lower status, who might envy them; in other words, the only people whose envy they might enjoy are those who’d never envy them. At worst, to be envied leads to anxiety and paranoia. So, envy produces a lot of misery in the envious party and confers no real benefit to the envied person.

You can, therefore, create a lot of human misery by selecting a small percentage of people (“the elite”) and exempting them from suffering. They get douleurs without having to be miserable. They might work, but their jobs are usually facile and sometimes even enjoyable. Usually, this elite is hereditary. (This is why your colleagues in Demon School refer to humans as “sperm worshippers”.) Some societies, like the contemporary United States, are averse to hereditary aristocracies, in which case the process must be hidden. The mediocrity of that society’s ruling class is masked by the ability of their progeny to win admission into four-year tavern organizations that are, for the masses, extremely difficult to get into; this convinces the poors of each generation that their rulers actually earned their positions.

Sometimes, false meritocracy doesn’t work; the mediocrity of the sitting elite is too visible. In that case, the strategy should be to convince the masses that the suffering of some people is simply “worth more”, because the gods or ancestors decided it so. Pseudoscience pertaining to skin color and skull shape, with nested layers of eliteness based on perceived blood purity, also works.

In either case, it’s not hard to exempt a small class of people from misery and endless competition, and they will pass this privilege on to their children and grandchildren because, as I already noted, humans worship dick juice.

Now, you’ve convinced humans to worship suffering and convert everything they value into a unit of unpleasantness: the wasted hour, the douleur. Don’t let romantic attachments get in the way of trade. Let a nation’s best real estate can be purchased (and go largely unused) by foreign criminals, so long as those criminals have the douleurs. Allow intelligence and creativity to fall in importance, in favor of pedigree and credentials given out by the most expensive and socially exclusive drinking-based organizations. It doesn’t take long, and a person’s level of access to douleurs becomes a point of personal identity. People will dump friends who have fewer douleurs; those who have more, will in turn become socially inaccessible. It sounds ridiculous, but trust me, humans are stupid.

As they stratify, humans become convinced that the aforementioned elite– a small set of people who, for mostly hereditary reasons, are exempted from suffering for their douleurs– is necessary, and that society would fail without it.

Step 2: Control the Flow of Value

Once humans have accepted an unregulated generational pass-down of value– whether we’re talking about douleurs themselves, coveted job positions (in which people’s suffering is so overstated that they receive douleurs, but give very little), or “legacy” admissions to those elite four-year taverns– you’ve done the hard part.

At a certain level of degradation, people will constantly question not the deep philosophical matters– the meaning of life and death; morality, culture, and progress; whether or not gods exist; how knowledge and beliefs are formed– but, instead, wrack their brains over one simple question: whether they belong in the elite and, if so, why they aren’t there already. (Those in the elite will suspect that an inner elite is excluding them.) They will seek social and emotional comparisons and narratives that might inform them; they will place high value on the drama and gossip pertaining to their social superiors. Many would rather do this than take responsibility for their own existences. That’s very good for you, as one who seeks to humiliate or ruin the species; if people took account for their own lives, it wouldn’t take long before they overthrew the so-called “leaders” we demons have cleverly placed over them. We’d have to start all over again.

Such a society should make it very difficult– but not impossible, and I’ll explain why– for a person not born into that human elite to gain entree. If anyone can do it, it loses its value. People should sacrifice their lives in the attempt to gain access, and fail, and this should be so common it’s not remarkable. This said, ascendancy should be a remote possibility, even for people of average talent.

If there’s too much social mobility, we’ll see highly intelligent and creative people rising into positions of power. We obviously don’t want that. They might introduce some less degenerate form of society, and ruin the progress we’ve made. However, if we reduce social mobility to zero, people will cease to think of social rank as relevant to their lives– it becomes a thing they never had and never will get. There’s no reason to feel bad, in that case, about not getting in. Then, the elite becomes ceremonial and loses authority. You need the people of low social rank to be insecure, and to think that if they (or their parents) had just worked harder, they’d be better off, and that they wouldn’t have to waste so much time and energy now on the pointless suffering it takes for them to get douleurs.

So, when you’re trying to destroy a society, introduce a tiny amount of social mobility. A talented outsider ought to have, say, a 1-in-500 chance of getting in to that elite. This upflow of talent isn’t dangerous, because once such a person enters the elite and starts making mediocre, incurious friends, he’ll turn into one of them within a few years. He’ll be no threat to your designs. At the same time, his rise make the people who weren’t selected for ascendancy extremely insecure. He will prove that it’s possible for a commoner to advance, and all the other commoners will feel small.

While this is going on, the people with lots of douleurs will have the cultural megaphone– remember that anything can be bought or sold, including influence– and they will announce that they have douleurs not because they are lucky, but due to superior merit. You won’t have to tell them to do this; they’ll fully believe it, because human narcissism works this way. If their superiority is claimed with confidence, and often enough, the masses will believe them.

Who should get into the elite? How should this faux-meritocracy operate? You might think it best to promote at random. That will infuriate the masses; they will hate to see unqualified people put above them, especially while the elite promulgates a narrative about talent and hard work. But, there’s a more effective strategy, which is to promote based on one trait: allegiance to the existing elite.

In essence, those who work to help the existing elite elite control the flow of douleurs– and (by extension) the allocation of all things humans value– will be the ones chosen to join the sub-elite. This plan doesn’t require creativity or intellect in one’s sub-elite– only unquestioning loyalty to their superiors, and a brutal willingness to execute orders, no matter who gets hurt.

You’re almost there. You’ve converted almost everything humans value into douleurs. Their scarce reserves of attention (“eyeballs”) can be so converted. Reputation, honor, and proximity to important people and institutions are, likewise, easy to convert. Remember that everyone (rich and poor, elite and common) wants douleurs, especially when those come without suffering, so bribing people in important or prestigious positions is ridiculously easy.

Douleurs will run your society’s culture, its religions, and its politics. A douleur-hoarding elite will live without accountability atop a pile of douleurs that will grow in size without their conscious efforts, because a sub-elite– high on an inflated view of its intelligence and importance– will work on their behalf to grow it. How will this growth occur? The sub-elite will work overtime to scope out more things humans value, come up with new ways to convert those valued things to douleurs, and then funnel those douleurs to the coffers of the elite.

Your destructive system will run itself. Governments, cultural institutions, and media outlets averse to your plans will face well-douleured opposition movements that will destroy their reputations and legitimacy. Only those who support the douleur-hoarding elite will survive.

It won’t take long for the douleur-hoarding elite and the flow-mastering sub-elite, working together, to create a society full of organizations dedicated to global douleur supremacy. People who do not pledge allegiance to at least one such organization will kept out of the flow of douleurs; thereby, you’ll easily recruit not only the morally degenerate sub-elite, but the innocent common people into whatever these organizations do (even if it is destructive to society or the environment).

All you have to do, there, is convince the common idiots that anyone who has not signed up to subordinate himself to such an entity is suffering-averse and therefore does not deserve to live. (Men are especially susceptible to this. Convince them that it is somehow, in fact, masculine to subordinate to another man. It’s easier than you’d think; you can use this hack to make men kill each other, in the millions, over literally nothing.) Once you’ve won the cultural war– and remember: the douleur-hoarders will do the legwork out of self-interest– the totalitarianism will build itself, the culture will degenerate, and the nihilism will spread. You can sit back and watch humans destroy themselves.

You’re almost done.

Step 3: Value-Minimize

Young demons who have not yet destroyed societies or planets yet often underestimate human stupidity. They’d really kill each other over a yellow metal? Over pictures of dead people? Over land where unverifiable historical events are said to have occurred? ARe they really that fucking dumb? Well, yes.

Remember that many of these valued tokens are tickets that exempt a person from the suffering that society’s upkeep is believed to require. (It does not matter that, in modern societies, 99 percent of said suffering is artificial, non-productive, and could be done without with no harm to society.) Now, it should be made clear that humans are not all that rational, and they are not nearly as good at arithmetic as the robot slaves they’ve recently built (that will, ironically, crash their labors and, if we’re good at our jobs, impoverish them). Can what humans value be indexed numerically? Not perfectly.

I didn’t have to invent the douleur, because it already exists. Humans use various scarce items– masses of metal, piles of paper that it’s illegal to make for oneself, and bags of plant matter– to measure “utility”, a fancy term for what I’ve called value. Consider them all forms of the douleur; the distinction isn’t relevant. From a moral perspective– and it is good that we operate from an immoral perspective– the douleur is a terrible unit of accounting, because of the tendencies I’ve described above. One doesn’t need to “form” an elite; systems tend to evolve to a point where some people have few or no douleurs, while others have millions or billions. Bob’s douleur is not worth the same as Carla’s. Societies that assume otherwise will give legitimacy to unfair trades (and, remember, we want that, because we’re the bad guys) and, over time, will degenerate.

Though neither revealed value nor moral utility can be measured directly, we know that the more of something a human has, the less value a given quantity has. For example, some people live in countries where drinkable water is extremely cheap– a douleur might buy a few hundred gallons– and people use it to bury their waste. They literally shower in this substance that is objectively more important than gold. In other parts of the world, water is so expensive that people will literally kill each other over it.

For a human, the marginal value of a thing is either near-zero (abundance) or almost infinity (scarcity)– and it’s always undesirable to be in the latter regime. In a steady-state analysis, we’d expect the optimal point to be near an equal distribution; it’s a convex optimization problem. There are second-order effects to consider– incentive effects, the innocuousness and inevitability of transient inequality– that might encourage us to allow small divergences. So, in fact, value maximization– what a sound, rational human might aim for– is hard. What isn’t hard? Value minimization.

If you want to minimize the value of a douleur, put it where it’s least needed. Someone who has only three will value it more than someone who has fifty billion; make sure it gets to the latter place.

In Step 1, we discussed conversion of all things humans value (or, at least, as many as we can get) to douleurs. People will go along with this, because it just makes life simple if everything is up for trade, and who hasn’t wished, from time to time, that he could buy honor, reputation, “merit”, or love? In Step 2, we discussed giving incentives to a sub-elite that will gain total control over the flow of douleurs; it doesn’t take much before these people form organizations dedicated to global douleur totalitarianism, and to force the commoners to pledge allegiance (and a majority of their available working time) to those. In Step 3, we just let the douleur-hoarding elite and the flow-manipulating sub-elite ensure that all things humans value– all resources physical, social, and cultural– end up in the place where they have the least value.

You’ve got a stable state. The common people are now forced by a system that hates them (and that, if they are intelligent and rational, they hate back) to do work– not productive work, but competing-to-suffer “work”– on behalf of the organizations that are keeping them in a state of misery. Millions of years of human life are wasted every week. You win.

Isn’t it glorious?

Appendix: Extra Credit and Troubleshooting

It is not hard to take a global human society and mire it in pointless human misery. As you know, humans have disgusting languages produced by propelling air through their food-holes. They’ll call this degenerate system korporativnyy kapitalizm. They will grumble, but they will largely accept it.

The problem is: you might find this mode of destruction boring. Other demons in other galaxies are unleashing dick-weevils and smegma lahars on their planets. Meanwhile, you’re stuck watching humans destroy each other slowly, over decades. Even though that’s not a lot of time for immortal beings like you, you’ve got things to do. Watching human societies degrade is like watching paint dry.

You might decide that, instead, you want a nuclear holocaust. Or, perhaps, you prefer the subtle slower tragedy of humans facing an ecological catastrophe for which the dying primates know they’re to blame. These will come in time, so long as you keep focus. Check in with the human elite on a continual basis; even if they don’t believe in beings like you and me, they are on our side and will listen. Make sure they stay on task and, most importantly, that they crush movements toward any other modes of society. (This “korporat kapitalizm” must stay in place; that’s important.) I know that you want your genocides, your human-made weather disasters, your epidemic of destructive nihilism, and your genetically-engineered dick-weevils. You will get that stuff; just be patient.

So long as global korporat kapitalizm reigns, you will keep the worst people in charge of human affairs, and in your longing for an end-stage holocaust that replaces the slow-burning purposeless you built with theatrical calamity, time is on your side.

Before Supporting Capitalism, Be Sure If You’re An Actual Capitalist

I am, for the most part, a socialist. I do not believe the principles of rationality, equality, and liberty should be limited to national governments. Once employers get large– say, more than $25 million in profit plus salaries– they are effectively utilities and ought to be treated as such. If they do not serve the public and their employees well, they ought to be shut down or nationalized.

Being a “job creator”, as rich people love to call themselves, does not give one the right to act with impunity. The ultimate “job creators” of the 20th century are Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. They are not remembered well. When the very-rich threaten to move their money overseas, I say we should let them. The value in this country is in the skills, working capacity, and market of this country; if they want to move their wealth overseas to avoid paying taxes, that’s fine– they won’t have access to anything this country offers. When the super-wealthy, self-titled “job creators” threaten a capital strike, I laugh. It would be like a third-world dictator, when his powers and salary are reduced, threatening to quit dictatoring and make hotel art instead.

That said, I don’t have a moral or ideological problem with capitalism. In fact, I think every society needs some element of capitalism within it. It’s going to emerge anyway. People trade, they gamble, and they like to buy and sell things. The left-authoritarian nightmares of the 20th century taught us what not to do when it comes to socialism. Knowing that market activity is both inevitable and often desirable, it’s always better to have it legal and well-regulated than to have a black market for goods as prosaic as light bulbs.

If socialist means “one who believes that Enlightenment-era principles of rational government ought also apply to employers and the economy,” then I’m a socialist. But I do not think it wise or desirable to eradicate all elements of capitalism. Command economies do not work; we ought to fix the market economy rather than get rid of it. However, most of today’s socialists would agree with me on that principle. We don’t want a dramatic overhaul of our government or economy; we simply want to free ourselves from the perverse private government– the corporate system– that serves only the well-connected, absurdly rich social climbers who call themselves “executives”.

I’m a software engineer. What amazes me is how many programmers are dumb enough to think that their being “highly paid” (relative to the more-fucked rest of the working class) entitles their bosses to subject them to daily status reports, arbitrary emotional deadlines, absurdly long hours, and humiliating micromanagement. They tolerate this because they think their bosses see them as capitalists-in-training, rather than permanent subordinates. Once they’re old and smart enough to realize they were wrong, they’re replaced due to ageism.

The corporate system is, I note, not especially capitalistic. Executives are not compensated based on market rates for executive “talent” (ha!) but rather on what a closed social elite thinks it can get away with. It is not a meritocracy. On the contrary, it exists to ratify hereditary aristocracy by allocating to the children of the rich certain tokens that are theoretically available, but extremely difficult to get, within the middle class. Every time a middle-class kid from Idaho or Chinatown gets rejected from the Ivies despite her 4.0 GPA and 1600 SATs, the upper-class legacy admits with 3.2/1200 look brilliant. The system is far more social than it is economic; market capitalism is just another language it has learned how to speak (in the same way that it has subsumed, humiliated, and made into an easy-to-hate effigy, the superficially left-leaning academic, cultural, and media elites).

The truth is that if you don’t have generational training, the ease of presence that comes from wealth, and most importantly familial connections, you are very unlikely to get a capitalist-in-training job. You are more likely to be labor forever. If you’re an adult, as opposed to some quixotic kid waiting to be “discovered” by a venture capitalist at The Creamery, you’ll align with your own interests accordingly.

Indeed, one of the things that embitters a person with age is to watch mediocre people continually get bought out of the mistakes of youth, and to be offered opportunities they didn’t really earn, while those of us in the 99 percent have to pay multiply for every mistake we make. I don’t give a shit that they have more money or live in bigger apartments– if they want to buy $30,000 bottles of champagne with gold flakes, so they can literally do what Tywin Lannister did not, I am fine with that– but it pisses me the fuck off not only to live in a system that pretends that they highborn mediocrities are better than us, but to have pretend to go along with it. If society decides it doesn’t need real talent in important roles, then I disagree, but I shall accept its choice of mediocrity. I draw the line at smiling while I watch it burn.

Here’s why I can’t respect so many software engineers: their macho subordinacy is an embarrassment; they take abuse with a smile.

If you get to pick your projects and you move into an R&D role where you get paid to do whatever you want, good for you. If you’ve decided you want to climb a managerial ladder, and you know the executives are going give you a glass elevator, then great– I’m glad it worked out for you. I understand why you would like corporate capitalism. If you’re working hard and still get the standard-issue crappy treatment– if you’re in your late 20s or 30s and still have to work on Jira tickets and interview for your own job every morning– then you are an idiot to believe in meritocracy (unless you contend that you have no merit, in which case your views are consistent and you may be right).

Is capitalism good or bad? That’s a complicated question. Capitalism worked quite well in the 1940s–70s. If you had a car and a college education, you could drive into a new city without connections on Wednesday, make calls from the hotel room on Thursday afternoon, have a lunchtime “interview” with an executive on Friday where you talked about Roman history or your literary/artistic aspirations, and start in your new job on Monday. If you were 30, you’d get a management job if you wanted one; at 35, an executive position was on offer. If you actually worked an honest day, sober, you were considered a go-getter and would get rapid promotions. That’s the country the Boomers inherited– and took away from us.

It is reasonable to believe in capitalism if and only if you think we stand a good chance of (a) getting that system back, and (b) making it more broadly available than it was, since the high era of capitalism was not kind to all groups. If you believe that market systems can be part of a program that restores such a society (and, honestly, I do) then you can support capitalism and not be stupid or immoral.

I’m not against capitalism. I don’t consider business inherently immoral. It’s not. However, it galls me when people support the existing (clearly failing, whatever it is) system because they are thoroughly unable to recognize that, barring radical changes– sweeping social and economic changes that their bosses, at least, would decry as “socialism”– they stand no real chance of becoming capitalists.

Computing From the Middle Out, Part 1: Why Turing Machines Matter

While you’re here: my novel, Farisa’s Crossing will come out on April 26, 2019.

Computers have an undeserved reputation for being unpredictable, complicated beasts. I’m going to argue that, to the contrary, they’re quite simple at their core. In order to establish this, I’ll work through some models of computation, as well as some programming models that correspond well to real-world computation (with indications of where they don’t).

There’s a lot of complexity in real-world computing. Some of it’s desirable and some of it’s not. For example, today’s cell phones, laptops, and servers use electronic circuitry far more complex than, say, a Turing machine. That isn’t a problem because the payoff is immense and the cost to user is minimal. If the complicated adder or multiplier is a thousand times faster, most people are happy to have this way. So, even though real-world integrated circuits are complicated in ways we won’t even begin to discuss here, it’s not a problem. Doing simple things, better, is a worthy expense of complexity.

On the other hand, bloated buggy software ruins lives– this problem is largely preventable, but unlikely to improve because of conditions in the software industry (e.g., a culture that encourages piss-poor management) that are beyond the scope of the analysis here. If ever there were a machine for producing unusable crapware, it would be the American corporation. But again, that’s a topic for another time.

I’d prefer to motivate the claim that computers can be simple. They can be.

What Is Computation?

Computability theory is quite deep, but there’s a relatively simple, rule-based definition of what it means for a (partial) function to be mathematically computable. Our domain here is functions Nn → N; that is, from lists of natural numbers to natural numbers.

  • The n-ary zero functions z1(x) = 0, z2(x, y) = 0 , … , are computable for all n.
  • The successor function s(x) = x + 1 is computable.
  • For any nk < n, the projection function pn,k(x1, … , xn) =xk is computable.
    • p1,1(x) = x, the identity function, and p2,1(x, y) = x, f2,2(x, y) = y are the most used examples.
  • Composition: compositions of computable functions are computable.
    • For example h(x, y) = f(g1(x, y), g2(x, y), g3(x, y), g4(x, y) is computable if f and all the gi are.
    • This means that a computable function can use as many computable functions as it wants as subroutines.
  • Primitive Recursion: if g and h are computable, then so is f, defined like so:
    • f(0, x1, … , xn) = g(x1, … , xn), and
    • f(n + 1, x1, … , xn) = h(nf(nx1, …), x1, …);
    • this is the recursive analogue a for-loop; the number of calls is bounded.
  • Search (a.k.a. General Recursion): if f is computable, then so is mf, defined as:
    • mf(x1, … , xn) = k where k is the least integer where f(kx1, … , xn) = 0.
    • We say mf(x1, … , xn) ↑ (pronounced “diverges”) if there is no such k. The function is not defined at that point.
    • this is analogous to a while loop. If the function diverges, an implementation would not terminate– unless the programmer could predict divergence in advance, but this is not always possible.

Functions that don’t use search are called primitive recursive. Those are total– they have values for all inputs, and more importantly, these values can be computed in a finite number of steps. If one uses general recursion, though, all bets are off. The function may not be defined for some inputs.

For example, addition is primitive recursive. It’s defined like so:

add(0, x) = x

add(n + 1, x) = s(add(n, x))

In the language above, g(x) = x and h(nax) = s(a).

Multiplication is a primitive recursion using addition rather than the successor function. One can also show that limited subtraction, sub(xy) = max(x – y, 0) is primitive recursive.

Furthermore, any bounded search problem is primitive recursive. If you have an upper bound on how far you’re willing to search, you can use a primitive recursive function.

Sometimes, it’s a judgment call how one wants to implement it.

For example, the division function can be represented as:

div(nd) is the first q such that qd< (q + 1) * d.

Perform an unbounded search for such a q and, when d = 0, this diverges. However, in this case we know when the function’s badly behaved and can rectify it:

idiv(nd) is 1 + div(nd) if d > 0, and 0 if d = 0.

It returns a positive integer on success– a successful return of 0 becomes a 1– and a 0 on failure. The enclosing routine can decide how to handle the error case.

Divisibility checks (nothing but 0 is divisible by 0) and primality are primitive recursive and therefore total computable within finite time. Most importantly, prime factorization is primitive recursive. This is something we’ll come back to.

Turing Machines

Most people have heard of Turing machines, but unless they have taken a course in graduate-level logic or the theory of computation, they’ve probably never worked with one– and may not know what it is.

They have the reputation of being complicated beasts. They’re brain-dead simple, actually. Doing anything with them, that’s the part that can be painful. The ones that we inspect and analyze as computers tend to have massive state spaces– which may or may not be a problem– while the most aggressively minimalistic ones– I won’t prove it, but there are machines with under 20 states and two symbols that can compute any function– tend to be inscrutable in practice.

Formally, an (n, s) Turing machine is a device that:

  • recognizes a pre-programmed alphabet of n > 2 symbols. That set could be {0, 1}, or {A, B, C}, or the 100,000 most common English language words. One of these symbols is blank.
  • is in one of s distinct internal states, including one called Start and one called Halt. This set must be finite and is pre-programmed into the machine.
  • has n * (s – 1) pre-programmed rules, written as (sold, ain, snew, aout, ±1), one for each (sold, ain) pair except for those where sold = Halt.
  • reads and writes to a tape– each cell holding exactly one symbol– that never runs out in either direction.

And here is how it works:

  • Input: a finite number of cells may be set to any non-blank values. (The rest of the tape is all blank, in both directions.)
  • Initialization: the machine is put in state Start.
  • Runtime: Over and over, the machine does the same thing:
    • read the symbol (ain) at the cell where the machine is, and consult its internal state (sold);
    • fetch the matching rule (sold, ain, snew, aout, ±1);
    • write aout to the tape, and transition to state snew;
    • move right if the matching rule’s last column had a +1; left, if -1;
    • repeat this cycle unless snew is Halt, in which case the machine terminates. Whatever is on the tape is the program’s output.

What happens if the Turing machine never goes into the Halt state? It runs forever. This is generally considered undesirable. The computation doesn’t complete.

This is probably the biggest disconnect between Turing machines and the computers we actually use. Turing machines are supposed to halt. If one doesn’t, that’s considered pathological; its work isn’t done and as far as we’re concerned, it hasn’t computed anything. Meanwhile, the cell phones and laptops we use on a daily basis run in an infinite loop and that’s what we expect them to do. We expect them to be available (and I’ll formalize that much later, but not in this installment) but they never halt.

A Turing machine is all-or-nothing. Its job is to compute one function and then indicate that it’s done by going into the Halt state. For a contrast, a real-world computer, at the minimum has to respond to real-world inputs like the user’s keystrokes, its own temperature sensors (so it doesn’t run too hot), and power supply disruptions. Later on, I’ll show how to close this gap.

What’s neat about Turing machines is that, in principle, one could have been built in the late 19th century. (My work on Farisa has had be on a steampunk kick.) We were close: we had programmable looms, player pianos, and electricity. We had record players and magnetic storage. Today, a Turing machine good enough to emulate a 1980s video game console could be built with about $100 of commodity electronics. Rather than get into the details– it’s not my expertise– I’ll point the reader to Ben Eater’s excellent series of videos on the 8-bit computer he built on a breadboard. As he’s building an actual circuit, his model gives a much better representation of what computers actually do, in the physical world, than do Turing machines.

Anyway, an automaton is only as good as its ruleset. Most rulesets will have the machine pinging about at random– sound and fury, signifying nothing. A few, though, do useful things. A Turing machine can add two numbers, whether specified in binary or decimal that are supplied on the tape. These machines can multiply, or check regular expressions, or… well, literally anything computable. In fact, that’s one definition of what it means for something to be computable– they are legion, and they’re all equivalent.

It’s counterintuitive to most people, but the slowest computers from the 1960s can do anything a modern machine can– they would merely take longer. In terms of what computers can do, nothing has changed. If we allow computers to generate probabilistic bits, they even quantum computing does not add capabilities– quantum computers are merely faster.

From a practical perspective, computers and programming languages are not remotely equivalent. In theory, they are.

Now, Turing machines would be nearly useless as a real-world concept, say, if they required 2210,000 states in order to do useful computation. It would be annoying if there were computations that couldn’t be done with fewer states, because we have no way to store that much information. In fact, one can find fairly small n and s, and specific rulesets, that can emulate any Turing machine (any size, any ruleset) on any input at all. These are called universal Turing machines. I’m not going to go through the details of building one and proving it universal, but I’ll walk through the basic concepts, along two different paths.

We are not concerned with how efficiently the machines run– as long as they terminate, except on problems where no machine terminates. Real world computers are sufficiently different from Turing machines that the the (heavy) performance implications here are irrelevant.

  • First, a Turing machine’s read-fetch-write-transition-move cycle is mechanical. We can implement it over all (ns) Turing machines with a machine using sf(s), where f is a slow-growing function, states. We include the ruleset we want as an input– a lookup table– and our machine implements the read-fetch-write-transition-move cycle against that table instead.
  • Operating on k-grams of symbols allows us to use an n-symbol Turing machine to emulate an nk-symbol machine. We can in practice do any of this work with a 2-symbol machine.
  • An (n, s) Turing machine can emulate a Turing machine with a larger state space (say, s2 states) by writing state information to the tape. The details of this are ugly, and the machine may take much longer, but it will emulate the more powerful machine– by which, I mean that it will come to the same conclusions and that it will halt if the emulated machine does.

This approach isn’t the most attractive, and it has a lot of technical details that I’m handwaving away, but using those techniques, we can emulate, say, all the (n2,  s2) Turing machines using an (nf(n, s), kg(ns)) where f and g are asymptotically sub-linear (I believe, logarithmic) in their inputs. The result is that, for sufficiently large n and s, machines can be build that emulate all machines at some larger size– and, of course, a machine at that size can emulate an even larger one. The cost in efficiency may be extreme– one could be emulating the emulation of another emulator emulating another emulator… ad nauseum– but we don’t care about speed.

If that approach is unappealing, here’s a different one. It uses the symbols: {0, 1, Z, R, E,+, <, _, ~, [, ], and ?}– in two colors: black and red; 1, Z, E, and R will never be red. This gives us 20 symbols. The blank symbol is the black 0.

Here’s a series of steps that, if one goes into enough detail (I’ll confess that I haven’t, and the machines involved are likely wholly impractical) can be used to construct a universal Turing machine.

Step 1: establish that copying and equality checking on strings of arbitrary length can be done by a specific, small Turing machine.

Step 2: use a symbol Z and put it between two regions of tape at (without loss of generality) tape position 0. Use it nowhere else. Use a symbol R to separate the right side of the tape into registers. These will hold numbers, e.g. R 1 0 1 R 1 0 0 0 1 R 0 R means that 5, 17, and 0 are in the registers. Resizing the registers is tedious (everything to the right must be resized, too) but it’s relatively straightforward for a Turing machine to do. There will be an E at the rightward edge of the data.

Step 3: The right side of the Z stores a stack of nonnegative integers: 1s and 0s (representing binary numbers) separated by register symbol R. The left side stores code, which consists of the symbols {0, +, <, _, ~, [, ], ?}. Only code symbols can be red.

  • A possible tape state is: E0+++++0+0+?0+++Z 101 R 1 R 0 R 1 E. (Spaces added for convenience.) The left region is code in a language (to be defined); the red zero indicates where in execution the program is; on the stack we have [5, 1, 0, 1] with TOS being the righthand 1.

Step 4: A Turing machine with a finite number of states can be an interpreter for StackMan, which is the following programming language:

  • At initialization, the stack is empty. The stack will only ever consist of nonnegative integers. We’ll write stack left-to-right with the top-of-stack (TOS) at the right.
  • 0 (“zero”) is an instruction (not a value!) that puts a 0 on top of the stack, e.g. ... X -> ... X 0.
  • + (“plus”) increments TOS, e.g. ... X 5 -> ... X 6.
  • _ (“drop”) pops TOS, e.g. ... X Y -> ... X.
  • ~ (“dupe”) duplicates TOS, e.g. ... X -> ... X X.
  • < (“rotate”) pops TOS calls it n and then rotates the top n elements left. This may be the most tedious to implement. Examples:
    • ... X Y 2 -> ... Y X
    • ... X Y Z 3 -> ... Y Z X
    • ... X Y Z W 4 -> ... Y Z W X
  • ? (“test”) decrements TOS, then pushes a 1 on the stack, if TOS is nonzero; otherwise, it pushes a zero, e.g.:
    • ... 6 -> ... 5 1.
    • ... 0 -> ... 0 0.
  • This is a concatenative language, so instructions are executed in sequence one after the other. For example, +++ adds 3 to TOS, 0+++0+++ pushes two threes on it, _0 drops TOS and replaces it with a zero (constant function), and ?_?_?_ subtracts 3 from TOS (leaving a 0 if TOS < 3).
  • Code inside [] brackets is executed repeatedly while TOS is nonzero and skipped over once TOS is zero or if the stack is empty.
    • For example, 0+[] will loop forever because TOS is always 1.
    • The code [?_0++<+0++<]_ has behavior ... x y -> ... x + y. It’s an adder. For example, if the stack’s state is ... 6 2, it does the following:
      • The code in the brackets is executed. ? tests the 2, so we have 6 1 1, and we immediately drop the 1. The 0++< (“fish”) is a swap, so we have 1 6, and the + gives us 1 7. We do another 0++< and are back at 7 1.
      • The next cycle, we end up at 8 0; after that, TOS is zero so we exit our loop. With a _, we are left with ... 8.
  • Any instruction demanding more elements than are on the stack does nothing.

The interpreter for this language can be built on a Turing machine using a finite number of states. To keep track of the code pointer (i.e., one’s place in the stored program) while operating on the stack, color a symbol red. Make sure to color it black when you have moved on.

Step 5: show that any primitive recursive function Nn → N can be computed as a fragment of StackMan, taking the arguments from the stack; e.g.,

  • f(x, y, z) = x + y * z could be implemented a fragment with behavior ... x y z -> ... (x + y * z).

This isn’t hard. The zero functions and successor come for free (0, +) and the projection functions (data movement) can be built using _, ~, and <. Composition is merely concatenation– we get that for free by nature of the language. We can get primitive recursion from ? and principled use of [] blocks, and general recursion from arbitrary [] blocks.

Thus, a StackMan interpreter is a Turing machine that can compute any primitive recursive function.

Next, show that any computable function Nn → N can be computed as a fragment of StackMan that will terminate if the function is defined. (It may loop indefinitely where it is not.)

Step 6: since prime factorization is primitive recursive, we can go from lists of nonnegative integers to a single nonnegative integer, using multiplication (one way) and prime factorization the other way: e.g. (1, 2, 0, 1) ↔ 2* 3* 5* 71 = 126. This means that we can coalesce

Step 7: show that all (ruleset, state, tape) configurations can be encoded as a single integer. Then show that the Turing step (read-fetch-transition-write-move) and the halting check are both primitive recursive. These capabilities can be encoded as StackMan routines. (They’ll be obnoxiously inefficient but, again, we don’t care about speed here.)

Step 8: then, a Turing machine can be built with a finite number of states that:

  • takes a Turing machine ruleset, tape, and state configuration and translates it into a StackMan program that repeatedly checks whether the machine has halted and, if not, computes the next step. The read-fetch-transition-write-move cycle will be performed in bounded time. The only source of unbounded looping is that the emulated machine may not halt.
  • and, therefore, can write and run StackMan program that will halt if and only if the emulated configuration also halts.

Neither of these approaches leads to a practical universal Turing machine. We don’t actually want to be doing number theory one increment (+, in StackMan) at a time. Though StackMan can perform sufficient number theory to emulate any machine or run any program– it is, after all, Turing complete– it is unlikely that the requisite programs would complete in a human life. But, in principle, this shows one way to construct a Turing machine that is provably universal.

Human Computation

This installment is part of what was a larger work. I’ve decided to put it out in pieces. I titled it, “Why Turing Machines Matter”, but I had to start with a bunch of stuff that most people would think doesn’t matter– a stack-based esoteric language, some number theory review, et cetera. I haven’t yet motivated that this concept actually does matter. So, let me get on that, just briefly.

Mathematicians and logicians like Turing machines because they’re one of the simplest representations of all computers, and the state space and alphabet size don’t need to be unusually large to get a machine that can compute anything– although it might be slow. Alan Turing’s establishment of the first universal Turing machine led to John von Neumann’s architecture for the first actual computers.

Is it reasonable to assume that Turing machines perform all computations? Well, that’s one way that computability is defined, but it’s a bit cheap to fall back on a definition. It’s more accurate to look at the shortcomings of Turing machines and decide whether it’s reasonable to believe a computer can be built that overcomes them.

For example, some electronic devices are analog, and Turing machines don’t allow real-numbered inputs. Everything they do is in a finite world. But, in practice, machines can only differentiate a finite number of different states. There’s no such thing as a zero error bar. Not only that, but quantum mechanics suggests that this will always be the case. For example, there are an infinite number of colors in theory, but humans can only differentiate a few million under best-case circumstances, and we can only reliably name about a hundred. It’s the same for machines: measurements have error. Of course, an infinite state space isn’t allowable either: that would be analogous to infinite RAM.

So, those shortcomings of Turing machines apply to all computers that we know– including (in a different way) the quantum computers humans know how to build.

Turing machines, as theoretical objects, can’t do I/O. The input exists all at once on the tape, and output is produced– and until that output occurs, no computation has been completed. One alteration to account for this is to allow the Turing Machine an input register that other agents (e.g., keyboards, temperature sensors, the camera) can write to. When the computer is in a Ready state, it scans for input and reacts appropriately. If the machine reaches Ready within a finite time interval, that is analogous to successfully halting– the software itself may be broken, but the machine is doing its job.

In truth, modern computers are more accurately modeled as systems of interacting Turing-like machines than single machines– especially with all the multitasking they have to do to support users’ demands.

There is one thing Turing machines don’t do that we take for granted, although it’s a bit of a philosophical mess: random number generation. Turing machines don’t model it: everything they do is deterministic, and “random” is not a computable function (or a function at all). Real computers most often use pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs)– which are predictably (but ideally without pattern) “random”– and Turing machines can implement any of those. Truly random? Well, we don’t fully know what that is. We can get “random enough” with a PRNG or from some input that we expect to be uncorrelated to anything we care about (e.g. atmospheric noise, radioactive decay).

Turing machines give a poor model of performance as described here. To access data at cell 5,305, from cell 0, the machine has to go through every cell in between. That’s O(N) memory access, which is terrible. Luckily, real computers have O(1) memory access, right? That’s why it’s called random access memory, eh? Well, not quite. Caching is too much of a beast for me to take on here, but I would argue this far: a Turing machine with a 3-dimensional tape– I haven’t gotten into this, but a Turing machine can have any dimensionality and be computationally equivalent– is more faithful model for performance. Why? Well, our best case or random access is O(N1/3). . We can call random access into a finite machine O(1), but that’s moving the goalposts. Asymptotic behavior is only about the infinite, and the real world is constrained by the speed of light. If have a robot moving around a 3-dimensional cubic lattice where each cell is 100 microns on a side (no diagonal movement) and we want each round trip to complete in one nanosecond (30 cm) then we are limited to 125 trillion cells. Going up to 1 quadrillion would double our latency. Of course, we’re ignoring the absurdity of a robot zipping around at relativistic speeds.

Happily, most computers don’t have the moving part of a robotic tape head (although a traditional hard drive may be analogous). Rather than the computation going to the data (in the model of a classical Turing machine) they, instead, bring the data to the chip. Electrical signals travel faster than a mechanical robot, as on a literal Turing machine, could (without catastrophic heat dissipation). So, in this way, modern computers and Turing machines are quite different.

If anything, I’d make a different claim altogether. Turing machines aren’t a perfect model of what computers do– although they’re good enough to explain what computers can (and can’t) do. They are, perhaps surprisingly, a great representation of what we do when we compute.

Before “a computer” was a machine, it was a person whose job was to perform rote operations– addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, elementary functions, and moving data around– which is, as it were, all today’s computers really do as well. And how does a human compute, say, 157,393 * 648,203? Most of us would have to reach for paper– a two-dimensional Turing tape– and start going through rote operations. To transliterate schoolbook multiplication to be done by a Turing machine is tedious but not hard– there are a couple thousand states.

The plodding Turing machine isn’t “about” computers. It’s about us, moving around a sheet of paper with a pencil and eraser, as we do– at least, when we know we’re computing. Most of what we do, we don’t think of computation at all. We’re not even aware of computation happening.

It’s an open question whether there’s a non-computational element to human experience. I tend to be unusual– by the standards of, say, Silicon Valley, I’m downright mystical– and I think that there is. I can’t prove it, though. No one can.

The difference between intuition and computation is that the latter happens by rote, from a precisely-understood, finitely-describable state, following a series of rules that require no judgment. Intuition can’t be checked; computation can.

Most mathematicians use informal proofs– verbal arguments that convince intelligent, skeptical people that a conclusion is valid. This is a social rather than algorithmic process, and it is not devoid of error. Informal proofs can be unrolled into formal proofs from ZFC, it is generally believed, but it would typically be impractical to check. An informal proof is an argument (using other informal proofs) that a formal proof exists, and although the informal proof is imperfect– of course, 100-percent perfection in computation is not physically possible, either– it usually gives more insight into the mathematical structure than a formal one would.

Do humans have non-computational capabilities or elements to our existence? I believe so. But, in terms of what we can communicate to each others with proof– that is, checkable computation– we are limited to finite strings of finite symbols, an agreed-upon initial state, and a finite set of rules. At least in this life, that’s the best we can prove.

Next Up

In the next installment, I’m going to show how to build a Turing machine that’s practical.

Aggressively minimal universal Turing machines– with, say, only 10 states and 5 symbols– tend to be next-to-impossible to understand. I’m going to work with a large-ish state space and alphabet: 512 symbols and 248 possible states (even though we’ll only use about a million). Those numbers sound beastly, and to implement the Turing machine as a lookup table would require 1,884,160 terabytes. At such a size, storing the entire ruleset is cost-prohibitive. Most rulesets for those parameters are patternless and unmanageable, but a ruleset that we’d actually want to use is likely to be highly patterned– allowing rules to be computed on the fly. In fact, that’s what we’ll have to do.

In the second installment, we’ll build a Turing machine about as capable as a 1980s video game console (e.g. Atari, Nintendo) that’ll be much easier to program against. That’s up next.