Post Apathy Newsletter: July 2020
Post Apathy's newsletter for the month of July, featuring curated content on China, society, governance, technology and more.
The latest from Post Apathy
In the month of July, I published four essays:
Archeofuturism: a metapolitical theory developed by the French far-right intellectual Guilliaume Faye, attempting to harmonise tradition and technology.
What’s up with Hagia Sophia?: looking at the historical context of the long-running battle to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
The Origins of English Law: the first essay in a series of essay looking at the Anglo-American system and Islam in a comparative perspective. This essay looks at the significant cross-cultural legal exchange between England and the Islamic world in the medieval period.
Muhammadan Spacefarers when?: looking at the Emirati mission to Mars, governance futurism in this peculiar city-state federation, and the role of women in their society.
The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping
By Tanner Greer
This month’s China article is by Tanner Greer, continuing his streak as one of the most interesting writers on China this year. He has been regularly featured in the Post Apathy newsletter, and with good reason. Few writers take seriously the Chinese Communist Party’s self-perception and its mission in the world as does Greer, and that has made him consistently right about how and why the CCP operates the way it does, and where it’s going.
In this article, Greer lays out the “laws of history” that Xi Xinping believes in, and how he has worked to ensure that the CCP cadres are aware of these laws. Xinping has done this through numerous speeches, coordinating bodies and offices, and through the foreign policy apparatus. This is very interesting because the predominant understanding of Xinping and the CCP relies on short-term materialist incentives as the dominant driving force for them. However, the CCP is thinking far beyond the boundaries of mere economic incentives, if Xinping’s propagation of his worldview is anything to go by.
Xinping sees a world that is rapidly hurtling towards multipolarity, globalisation and “peaceful development” (under Chinese auspices, of course). If this is the case, we need to centre our understanding on the CCP’s mission as riding and even accelerating this trend, which they clearly believe will not only help to knock America off its perch as the world’s hegemonic superpower, but also create the space in which China can come to dominate its own region, and those lands further beyond in Eurasia and Africa. China may very well never intend to go to war; they will, however, seek the economic integration of the world into its orbit.
Culture & Society
The Ikea Humans: The Social Base of Contemporary Liberalism
By David Biagetti
Who forms the dominant stratum of power in society today? What are their characteristics and how can we identify them? This is one of the running themes of Post Apathy. Biagetti offers us a brutal dissection of the college-educated, upper-middle-class elite in America (and, by extension, the global capitalist empire). Like IKEA chairs, they merely inhabit a thin, crumbly veneer of respectability. Millennials do not enjoy the stable employment of their parents, and this also means that they must regularly move to stay on the employment ladder, an ephemeral class with no particular roots.
This goes beyond their material position, however. Biagetti notes that the liberal values that this class espouses are very rarely followed through in the industries that they dominate as white-collar managers and professionals in the corporate world. They are “unintentional Nietzscheans having no core commitments or beliefs, they fall back on the will to power as their motivating principle.” Politics, as a result, has become a mere expression of the IKEA personality, whose ambassadors are the Clintons. This technocratic elitism, ruthlesslessness and deceit are all cultivated in the prestigious universities which serve as the formative institutions for this class.
This essay constructs an eerily-familiar profile of the strivers we may have interacted with; Oxford and Harvard-educated lawyers and McKinsey consultants with their squeaky-clean image, faux revolutionary yet very status quo opinions, and their constant drive to achieve success by betraying their own. Much of the social dysfunction in the American empire is due to the inner dysfunctions of this elite class that dominate academia, corporate and politics. Peter Turchin makes a convincing argument that what we are witnessing is intra-elite competition, and if so, we need to understand more about this class of people and what is spurring their civil war. More on that in the next newsletter!
Power Exists: How Shall We Use It?
By Wolf Tivy
This is political philosophy at its best, releasing itself from minor policy considerations and looking at the ontology of politics. Wolf’s central thesis is that power exists, be it for good or for bad. Any attempt to deal with politics that doesn't attempt to answer the question, "what do we do with power?" is doomed to fail from the outset. Power should be embraced, with the will and vision to do good. But how can we adopt the right mindset for this? Wolf develops a five-stage hypothetical train of thought on how to approach – and wield – power most effectively.
Wolf notes that our current instincts are primed to criticise everyone else's actions and ideas, or even bonding with others over shared values and troubles, but we aren't able to put ourselves in the shoes of someone with power and then implement a positive vision. So the first and obvious step is to put yourself a first-person perspective; what would I do if I were emperor? All of a sudden, you must adopt a holistic perspective which renders ideological considerations obsolete. If I make this change, how will it affect this interest or that sector? You can no longer approach issues myopically. And you will begin to realise that your first job, balancing the various interests of society, is the hardest thing to do.
You also need to have a healthy, collective mindset, lest you come to use your power for your own crony interests. This is what Wolf calls ‘the leadership of a collective enterprise in pursuit of first subsistence, and then higher goods.’ This is especially important as the political elites of many countries, not least those in the Anglosphere, are increasingly self-serving or operate like a mafia. The WE charity scandal in Canada is one example of this.
In a time where the realities of statecraft have become obscured by showmanship and ideology, we lack clarity on what the essence of politics is, and how best to play this game to achieve good outcomes for our people. Wolf offers one way to restore our focus. Additionally, Angelo Codevilla’s ‘Advice to War Presidents’ is one of my favourite books that looks at how to cut past the rhetoric and speak in plain, practical terms. I’ll be talking more about him in the next newsletter.
Ideas & Thinking
The Information: How the Internet gets inside us
By Adam Gopnik
This is an incredibly prescient essay published back in 2011, looking at how the internet is changing how we think. Gopnik separates the three categories of thinkers on the internet as: The never-betters, the better-nevers, and the ever-wasers. The never-betters extoll the virtues of the internet, heralding a new era of information freedom that will benefit humanity. The author takes this claim to task, noting that what happened in previous “information revolutions” led to extremely bloody and oppressive periods of history, not enlightenment and liberty.
One example was the Counter-Reformation that ended in the Thirty Years war, one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In a way, we can already see the beginnings of this in the Chinese firewall, the EU pondering a firewall, and India and the USA could potentially follow, ensuring that half of humanity can no longer communicate with each other.
Gopnik sees the better-nevers, who argue the internet is destroying society as we know it, as hardly better. They are nostalgic, pining for a memory of a world that never was. Every new invention is said to herald the beginning of the end, according to this category of people.
The ever-wasers are a byproduct of the better-nevers, believing that what we are experiencing today is the same sort of discord every age experiences. However, Gopnik notes that something must have certainly changed; what was once in the deepest recesses of our mind – sexual obsessions, conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes – are now all on display. These things were previously kept hidden by social norms and the all-important feeling of shame, and losing this is causing one of the major changes in the way we think, and as a byproduct, the way society is being shaped by the internet.
Great Problems: An Epidemic of Rent-seeking
By David Helton
The resurgence of political economy comes after decades of the dominance of the neoliberal myth that economics was separate, or, even, upstream from politics. Part of this enterprise was to encourage the phenomenon of rent seeking. I use this phrase a lot, so for the July newsletter, I decided to include this this article that lays out the seven types of rent seeking currently tearing America apart.
Essentially, rent seeking is the extraction of value without creating any additional value. As such, it is a parasitic, zero-sum phenomenon that seriously threatens the sustainability of a civilization. Rent seeking takes many forms, such as: exploiting political dysfunction (see: Wall Street), corporate monopolies, the ‘Seville disease’ (offsourcing of manufacturing), software company bubbles and more.
In my post on rent seeking, the example of two families are given, one of whom employs the rent seeking mindset and the other who employs the productive power mindset. The latter creates positive, compounding effects over generations which creates a healthy society. The former sees diminishing returns every generation until the many are fighting over little scraps.
So, it’s clear that rent seeking doesn’t just affect the economy; there are major social ramifications once the logic of rent seeking takes hold. When we think about our career ambitions, the health of our communities and of our society, we have to seriously consider whether the actions we take are creating value or merely extracting it. It is very hard to create things, and very easy to consume and destroy them.
Science & Technology
Stealing Western Secrets
By Anirudh Pai
Ani looks at Chinese IP theft and surveillance activities in America. Something that stood out to me was the fact that 20% of FBI counterintelligence IP cases are in the Bay Area. Dozens of (often Chinese-heritage) professors have been arrested across the states for stealing research from academia and selling it to China. While bearish on the prospects of the threat that Russia poses to America, Ani thinks differently about China, and with good reason. They're hellbent on never enduring another century of humiliation again - and they believe that they can only guarantee this by knocking America off its perch as the world's hegemonic superpower and technology incubator. The first step in achieving this is stealing American tech and using it against the American empire.
Ani also takes the idea of free trade to task, noting its negative externalities, such as the fact that inequality levels are exploding, an ever-squeezed middle class that hasn’t really seen many gains from globalisation, and the rent seeking classes, such as the financiers, strip mining of physical assets (like the Thatcherite policy of closing down the coal mines of England) for pennies on the dollar. Widespread misery ensued after this, and it’s one of the most damning examples of the failure of neoliberalism’s various promises of prosperity.
Last but not least, it is China alone that has reaped the lion’s share of gains made during the period of globalisation. When we look at statistics about global poverty’s decline, for example, most of that has been in China, not in Latin America, Africa or the other parts of Asia. So one really has to ask: has globalisation been a net good for humanity? In the future, we may well look back on it and give a definitive “no”.
Charter Cities Podcast Episode 8: Building a New Hong Kong with Ivan Ko
I am enjoying the renaissance in city-state thinking and believe that they will be integral to future development of any large, non-centralised polity. This podcast looks at the possibility of building a New Hong Kong via the charter-city model, as opposed to resettling the people of Hong Kong in an already-established metropolis. I question the feasibility of such a project, but nonetheless, the creative thinking spurred by thinking about titanic projects like this is in itself a positive thing to engage in.