Discover more from Stoic Observations
The Empire of Luxury
Is modern life truly multipolar?
Two songs are in my head this morning. The first by Billy Joel reminds me:
I can always find someone
To say they sympathize
If I wear my heart out on my sleeve
But I don't want some pretty face
To tell me pretty lies
All I want is someone to believe
The question that captures me on this occasion has to do with the reason we learn things that we know and expect to cause consternation and friction no matter how we decide to discuss it. We have a hunger for information that’s poison, that is politically weighted no matter what. Is this what we’re supposed to be doing with our minds? Supertramp warns us:
I said, watch what you say or they'll be calling you a radical
A liberal, oh, fanatical, criminal
Oh, won't you sign up your name? We'd like to feel you're acceptable
Respectable, oh, presentable, a vegetable
“I apologize for the insensitive and inappropriate comments that led to my suspension, which I regret deeply and which brought shame on the department and disrepute on me personally,” Fryer wrote. “I didn’t appreciate the inherent power dynamics in my interactions, which led me to act in ways that I now realize were deeply inappropriate for someone in my position.”
It must be all about position, or so it seems to me. If you deign to be ambitious, you must prove yourself by words and deeds. Ambition cannot be raw, it must conform to the rewards and punishments of the institution within which you are committed to rise. There is thus placed upon one a debt of gratitude whose terms of payment may be arbitrary. A black swan in your futures market. What is the weight of such a margin call?
In front of my hungry eyes is the world of ease and convenience. Some of it is supposed to be irresistible, how much is?
The Empire distributes goods and services. The finest, the most plentiful, the most convenient. In return, you get to be a citizen of the Empire and are subject to its laws. The Empire is the only civilization on the planet. Everywhere else is... well, Nobarland. The Empire is The Grid. You live on it. It lives in you. Escape at your own peril.
I've written before about this phenomenon when I realized (but still can't manage to get it through my thick skull) that there very well may be a practically infinite upside to computing. That is to say whether or not we are accelerated by Moore's Law, we are going to keep building more and more huge systems, and keep expanding the economy of the digital revolution.
I asked if it makes sense to consider that everybody wants to be loyal to democracy. The difference between global democracy and global empire is significant, but I don't think that we in America recognize or care about that difference. In that regard we are all Wilsonian Neocons. We all want Doctors Without Borders, we all want Google Without Borders and we all want our cellphones to work everywhere and never drop a call. We want everyone in every country to stop polluting and stop greenhouse gas emissions. We want people everywhere to survive AIDS and breast cancer and floods and famine. And as our friendly neighborhood billionaire reminds us, we want to live on Mars, not because Mars is all that great but because it takes greatness to achieve that particular desire. Not because it’s easy, because it’s hard. We appreciate the Empire because it delivers what is hard and we like to believe it works for all of us. Therein lies the tradeoff.
None of that comes for free, despite the fact that if you live in America, you're already halfway there. Our chunk of the Empire has taken our spoils of WW1 & WW2 and built with a global supply chain, the infrastructure that is the envy of everybody right up through the Reagan Era. If you don't live in America, we already know what you want because we are living in the future your leaders must promise you.
If they don't promise it to you, you can still run across the border and get it here or tap into that global supply chain paid for by our surpluses. You can do that, you know. With our doctors, and our Google, and our JP Morgan Chase and our AT&T. And you might call your cellphone provider Vodaphone or your Google Baidu, but underneath it's the same protocol. There's only a few ways to survive breast cancer and the protocols belong to the Empire. You must attend our Universities to learn it. There's no way you can do it on your own. I’m not saying that America is the Empire in the same way that history does not exactly repeat itself, but it rhymes. The Empire looks and feels like that theoretical America we Americans pretend to be, and might be again. Sorta. It doesn’t change the fact that The Grid is strong here and if it weren’t, the actual America might revert to its wild west ways.
In fact the things you can do on your own off The Grid are dwindling in number and social significance. If you don't want Luxury, we already know where you're going to be. We call it Nobarland aka the Hobbsian Hell on Earth, where life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Yeah that Hobbes. He knew it in 1651.
I just wanted to remind you of all that. You see, there is this rather annoying presumption by our friends to the left that America shouldn't be an Empire. But in fact it already is. It is the Empire of Western Civilization, and we're all Western now. All of those things we in and of the Grid thought the Third World would never have is coming to them by container. They may be on slow boats from China but the goods are the same.
There are several unstated implications of this desire for civilization and its various manifest destinies that have to do with law and military force that our big hearted friends are loathe to admit. Which is why they would like to believe that there is nothing but seduction involved. Seduction is just marketing. You will be branded all the same. The direction, it seems to me, hasn’t changed.
If you have some reason at this point to beg to differ, then you are part of what I call the functional class of Genius. It’s your job to correct the errors of the Empire and insure our faith in it bears up to reality. Even when the Rulers make great foolish miscalculations in their orders and funding, you are the Genius minds that are supposed to make the course corrections for the benefit of all us Peasants. You might even be postmodern in your rationales, suggesting that there are infinite rabbits you can produce from your mental hats. So long as you’re funded.
I’m somewhat frightened of all this, except for one thing. My parents were born at home.
One of the tentpoles of my Stoic skepticism of the modern and postmodern worlds has everything to do with that woman in the still for the video about Nigeria. I presume that she birthed her child somewhere other than a modern antiseptic hospital. Somewhere in the Astral Codex archives, I seem to recall reference to research that shows some forms of bacteria babies born into relatively septic environments make them more robust. Comedians talk about peanut allergies which suddenly appeared, and we all know someone who made a sophisticated and discriminating choice towards limiting the infinite variety of their diets, that itself being something of an infinite choice given a certain liberty and privilege. What if no Empire promised us antiseptic lives. How human could we possibly be? The answer is probably not forthcoming from any Liberal Arts university whose budget has expanded over the past several decades, given their blessings of Empire.
Still. I don’t want to be captured by ethnocentric culture. Perhaps there is some souk with answers. Some place where everything is expected and nothing taken for granted. I’m not slicing this finely enough surely. It can’t be so starkly dichotomous. But I’ve been thinking about the way the Charles Stross writes about demonology, and it occurs to me that I am not even in any close proximity to someone who owns a castle. I have no clue as to how the other half lives, well that other half of a fraction of the 1%. We all live in the margins. Maybe our only strength is to be suspicious of help.
We all want to conform our ambitions to something that works. Everything else feels like a caper. Are we doing it right? Do we even have a choice?