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The Cathedral or the Bizarre

America’s experiments with democracy and oligarchy have both failed, leaving only one option

by
Curtis Yarvin
March 31, 2022
Wikipedia
Wikipedia
Wikipedia
Wikipedia

In 1999, the year of the Linux desktop, Eric S. Raymond wrote an influential essay called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”

Raymond, a stereotypical programmer-libertarian, saw two architectural archetypes of software-development organization: the cathedral, a closed, corporate, centralized project planned for profit, and the bazaar, an open, volunteer, centerless organic community of patches crafted from love.

Nothing binds these labels to the land of Linux. Any centralized organization is a cathedral. Any decentralized movement is a bazaar. The cathedral is a single coherent building with a single purpose; the bazaar is a chaotic covered souk of alleys and stalls.

Close your eyes; the cathedral is one soaring, enclosed hymn with one clear message; the bazaar is a medley of hot, buzzing auctions for silk, opium, and broiled kid-goat.

The bazaar: Linux. The cathedral: Microsoft. We know which feels better to the modern, sophisticated soul. Yet SpaceX, too, is a cathedral. Yet SpaceX runs tons of Linux.

Cathedrals and bazaars are different tools. They solve different problems. Neither replaces the other (or has, in software development, replaced it). Either may prove itself fair or foul, useless or essential, elegant or messy.

In 1899, the final year of the century of yesterday, Gaetano Mosca wrote a much-forgotten book called Elements of Political Science.

Mosca, founder of the "Italian elitist" school, arguably the Darwin of his field, today known only even to specialists as a precursor of fascism, saw that within every governed society, all human beings can be divided into three clear sets.

One is the officials, people “in the loop” who have the power to control or affect government decisions. Anyone who isn’t an official is a subject. The set of all officials is the regime. The set of all nonofficials is the public.

Subjects are divided into two sets by a simple accounting: clients, who are economically dependent on the regime; commoners, on whom the regime is economically dependent. Clients naturally admire the regime; commoners naturally resent it.

Individual human opinion is never deterministic. But these three human perspectives—regime, commons, and clientele—nourish three kinds of political cultures, classes, or traditions. And while there may be many distinct common and client cultures, there is almost never more than one official culture: the people who govern, plus the people who think like them. Every objective political theory is a theory of this official class.

Sovereignty, the absolute power of all officials over all subjects, is conserved. All government is unconditional. All “freedoms” are conditional privileges granted by the regime—what are “judges” but officials?

While functional democracy—in which the subjects are the ruling officials, and even the permanent full-time employees of the government are their obedient public servants—is possible, functional democracy is historically rare. Most so-called democracies are only ceremonially so—and the few historical exceptions actually worked quite badly. One test for this condition is whether the so-called masters could replace their so-called servants. If this is unthinkable, the servants may be in charge of the masters.

While there is no limited government, there is incomplete government; incomplete government means a vacuum made of anarchy; true anarchy is not even nothing, it is the billion tiny bubbles of local power we call crime; you don’t want to be anywhere near it; so, counting anarchy as governance, government power is absolute. A regime that tolerates crime has just chosen to share its absolute power with crime.

Who wanted to hear this message? Dear reader: Do you want to hear it?

It followed, saw Mosca, that sovereignty is not just physical but also psychological. Every regime is an autocracy. Every regime, outnumbered by its public, must obtain its psychological consent. While in theory the best way to obtain consent is to do a good job and tell the truth, in practice this strategy is not always available—or even optimal.

Organic consent is never guaranteed, even if genuinely deserved. And as regime quality declines, organic consent disappears. Therefore every regime, good or bad, must engineer its own consent. Every regime controls its subjects’ minds by managing the stories told to those minds.

An incomplete regime that neglected this task would be ceding sovereignty to any power that picked it up. Regardless of the truth, this power could paint the rest of the regime as despicable, and dominate or destroy it to become the next regime. So even the best regimes must arm themselves with psychological weapons.

In the long run, saw Mosca, there is not even any such thing as freedom of speech. Nobody believes this. I don’t even want to hear it. Dear reader: Was Mosca wrong? When was the last time you read a prestigious editorial telling you—in effect—that Mosca was right? Was it yesterday, or just last week? Some editorials are right, too.

The psychological sword of the state is the political formula. A political formula is any thought—good or bad, true or false, crazy or sane—that convinces the subject to love, serve, and obey the officials.

For instance, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is a political formula. It exhorts us to support those forces, persons, and institutions that promote, or are purported to promote, “Black Lives.”

Since such forces have power (otherwise, how could they promote anything?), they must be official. Indeed, we wake up every day with these good messages buzzing in every dental filling—a weird condition, especially if purely spontaneous.

The slogan asks you to support a power—which need not be good or bad, true or false, crazy or sane. It does not ask you to think about how well this regime works for you; indeed, it asks you not to think about that—unless, of course, you are “Black.”

The ideal formula has a message for each culture. For the regime, the best formula is self-affirming; it convinces the official class that it is doing the right thing. For the clientele, the best formula is self-interested; it convinces the clients that the regime is working for them. For the commons, the best formula is self-deprecating; it convinces the commoners to stay humble and pay their taxes.

It is easy to see how “Black Lives Matter” solves all three problems at once—a kind of sinister masterpiece. But not an unprecedented masterpiece.

Most people know that the 20th century was characterized by universal psychological warfare—a slightly dramatic label, worth using only because it is our team’s term and we won the war.

But most people expect only one kind of psychological warfare. They expect Orwell’s stereotypical 20th-century dictatorship: centralized, cynical, and coercive. The evil Ministry of Truth knows the truth, but publishes only sinister and mendacious political formulas, punishing or censoring anyone who contradicts authorized Ministry personnel.

They expect a literal cathedral. They see no such regimented organization. They can buy all the ideas they want at any stall in the bazaar. Therefore—despite the evidence of their eyes—they conclude that their minds are free.

Some do believe their eyes—which show them a new climate of coercive repression. While these observers are right, they are wrong. The repression is the icing on the cake—the latest stage of a pathology older than anyone alive. (Also, by any historical standard, it remains quite mild.)

Wikipedia

The fundamental historical problem of the current period is why, though we can buy our ideas from any stall in a huge open-air bazaar, they all seem to come from the same manufacturer—exactly as if made in some cathedral. Yet there is no such conspiracy—and certainly no such agency. No person or institution is coordinating the party line.

What is the source of this anomalous unanimity? What makes a nominal bazaar behave like a functional cathedral? It must be some type of what economists call spontaneous coordination: a Darwinian arrow. Like genes, the formulas themselves become in a sense the power.

In 1940, the year on the edge of the waterfall, James Burnham wrote a brilliant book called The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, which summarized and extended Mosca and three other Italian School writers.

Burnham, an ex-Trotskyite who would later help found the National Review—an organization whose name is still being used—saw that political formulas can infect all public narratives, disguising the meaning of every word and concept, and rendering the structure of the regime effectively unrecognizable—and practically invulnerable.

Because of political formulas, saw Burnham, in all public narratives we should expect not one meaning but two: the functional meaning and the formal meaning.

The functional, objective, actual, or real meaning is the perspective of some disinterested historian centuries in the future. The formal, nominal, ceremonial, or official meaning is the current public narrative of the official class, optimized as a political formula.

Sometimes the two match—sometimes the truth is the best propaganda. Otherwise, we are looking at a political illusion. Whenever we think about our world by taking a political illusion at its face value, we might as well not be thinking at all.

Elizabeth II is ceremonially Queen of England, as was Elizabeth I. If we thought about U.K. politics as if Elizabeth II functionally controlled the government, like Elizabeth I—the Queen did this, the Queen decided that—any possible analysis would be useless.

No one today falls for this charade. But England has had a more or less ceremonial monarchy since 1688: old for an illusion. Arguably, functional monarchy in England has been declining monotonically since Henry VII.

Yet for half a millennium, the royal ceremony has not decayed at all. For most of that period, the monarch has been treated ceremonially as an autocrat, but functionally as a mere celebrity—a hereditary Kardashian, with a unique airline honorific.

And for most of that period, Englishmen have taken their mostly ceremonial monarchy with almost complete seriousness. Most seem convinced by the illusion. In 1914 they died in droves for their show-pony King—in a war set up by their invisible Foreign Office.

Perhaps a comparable reality-appearance disparity is affecting our marketplace of ideas, a nominal bazaar, which appears more and more to function as a cathedral? Burnham would want us to ask. And is anything else what it seems to be?

In 2022, the current year, let’s try these abstract theories out on a concrete problem. What is—wokeness? Where did it come from? Where is it going? What does it mean?

Start with the label itself. “Wokeness” is less than 10 years old, and if the idea is the age of the word, Occam’s razor is dead—since I heard all this stuff 30 years ago at Brown. We called it “PC” then.

Power hates to be named. Power has to stay ahead of its enemies. These labels evolve as private, informal codewords among cool insiders; are discovered by their enemies; and are abandoned by the insiders, who change their codes—then start to insist that they never used those codes in the first place. Power does not exist.

But its memory can be hard to delete. In 1934, the critic Walter Benjamin wrote an important essay called “The Author as Producer” (emphases added):

... you are all more or less familiar with it as the question of the poet’s autonomy: his freedom to write whatever he may please. You are not inclined to accord him this autonomy. You believe that the current social situation forces the poet to choose whom his activity will serve. The bourgeois writer of popular stories does not acknowledge this alternative. So you show him that even without admitting it, he works in the interests of a particular class. ...
An advanced type of writer acknowledges this alternative. His decision is determined on the basis of the class struggle when he places himself on the side of the proletariat. But then his autonomy is done for. He directs his energies toward what is useful for the proletariat in the class struggle. We say that he espouses a tendency.
... On the one hand we should demand that the poet’s work conform to the correct political tendency, on the other hand, we have the right to expect that his work be of high quality. ... I want to show you that the political tendency of a work can only be politically correct if it is also literarily correct. That means that the correct political tendency includes a literary tendency.

So art can’t be truly woke unless it’s actually good. A laudable sentiment!

Or just a coincidence? It would be quite a coincidence—not only does the label match, so does the idea. Many still insist that “politically correct” was never used seriously.

Google has the receipts: Until the ’80s, “politically correct” meant what it meant in 1934—“conforming to the correct political tendency.” Campus conservatives cracked the code; “advanced” critics abandoned it; and the graph needed a new scale: While “SJW” has gone the same way and “woke” is not far behind, some labels are so perfect that no enemy’s mud can stick to them.

This is a new phenomenon? Or multiple things, sharing one label, and adding up to a single, rising, centurylong curve? If we are not looking at one structural attribute of the American political system and its official class, Occam’s razor is a butter knife.

One objective historical event that fits this timeline is a transition in the nature of the American official class, an event Vilfredo Pareto called a circulation of the elites. There is always an official class, but not always the same official class.

At the start of the 20th century, the official class combined wealth, status, and politics. At its end, the official class combined wealth, status, and intellect. Perhaps the reversal in the relative authority of politicians and intellectuals has caused a change in the types of ideas that succeed among intellectuals.

This cathedral hypothesis suggests that the marketplace of ideas becomes a monoculture when it becomes official. Power itself poisons the bazaar—selecting not for true ideas, but for important ideas—for political formulas.

The hypothesis asks three questions. First: How can a bazaar be official? Second: How does the introduction of power distort the market for ideas? Third: Once a bazaar has turned into a cathedral, how can it be fixed?

Sovereignty equals unaccountability, and our Reality Department is accountable to no one.

We first ask whether our marketplace of ideas—journalism plus academia—is official. Not as activities, but as institutions—mainstream journalism and prestigious academia.

Nominally, the answer is clear. Harvard is a weird 17th-century nonprofit. The New York Times is a private, Nasdaq-listed company. There is no difference in formal status between a Times reporter, a Harvard professor, and a Subway prep cook. Nominally, all three have a job, like you—not a rank, like the Queen.

But if a regime can hide one of its agencies in the private sector, that agency can act with public authority but private immunity—especially if the agency comes with its own super-private immunity written into law.

Objectively, an agency is official if it controls government decisions, or the government controls its decisions. A classic Orwellian state-controlled press is easy to recognize, even if the control path is informal—such as a financial subsidy. What about the other direction: a press-controlled state?

In the modern regime, government literally leaks power into journalism, by tolerating leaks: nominally unauthorized, but objectively permitted, disclosures of confidential information to the legitimate press. Leaking is both subsidy and control.

An objectively private newspaper, without objective permission to steal government secrets and sell them, could not compete with the legitimate press. On Wall Street, selective disclosure of material nonpublic information is a crime: A public company must release all information to the whole world at the same time. If the government enforced this standard on its own employees, journalism as we know it could not exist.

Yet leaking gives the press power over government as well. The source of a leak has a bureaucratic objective; the journalist who is the conduit must share that objective. Any journalist today will admit that their personal satisfaction and their professional success is a function of “impact”—a track record of “changing the world.” These are not even subtle euphemisms for power.

Once we rename legitimate journalism as a government agency, turning all its outlets into branches of the Department of Information, all these informal anomalies start to make formal sense. Of course an Information Officer has free access to official secrets. Indeed it is obvious that the Information Department is the most powerful agency in the government.

The exercise is even easier with our prestigious universities. Not only do they receive copious subsidies, they receive a direct flow of power. Since the official government employs no experts of its own to make technical decisions, these decisions must be based on “the science.” Objectively, “the science” is whatever the Truth Officers say. This Truth Department might even be stronger than the Information Department.

Putting these camouflaged agencies together, we see a Department of Reality which is unquestionably the center of power in our regime. No other agency can withstand it—certainly, no elected politician can withstand it. Sovereignty equals unaccountability, and our Reality Department is accountable to no one.

Yet it is completely decentralized—not at all like a classic Orwellian Ministry of Truth. Our Truth Department is not just a bazaar of independent institutions—it is a bazaar of bazaars, for each institution is made up of academically free professors. There is no central nervous system anywhere—no bishop and no pulpit.

Yet all the stalls in all these souks all sell the same product. Without any organization to coordinate it, the Truth Department is synoptic. It sees everything through the same eyes. Not a single animal breaks from the herd; as Harvard becomes more “woke,” Yale does not become more “based.”

Once we know we are looking for a spontaneous order, the answer is easy. Consider an alternate Reality Department that is completely unofficial and powerless—whose narratives and conclusions have no effect on the world. The writers and scholars in this alternate reality could only be attracted by truth and beauty, not relevance and impact. No political formula could offer any power; none would have any selective advantage. How could anyone convince its poets that “poetic autonomy” is dangerous and bad?

This unpoisoned marketplace of ideas was the agency that our great-grandparents, fed up with their corrupt plutocrats and uncouth politicians, made into a new regime. Yet putting the bazaar in power destroyed the decentralized wisdom of crowds that made it worthy of power. The independent crowd of writers and scholars coordinated itself into a baying herd. The bazaar evolved into a cathedral.

Our cathedral looks nothing like an Orwellian dystopia. Instead of being centralized, cynical, and coercive, it is decentralized, sincere, and seductive. Yet its power to weave a narrative of universal illusion may be no less—and the illusion, not the coercion, is the heart of the dystopia. What would be wrong with a Ministry of Truth that always told the truth? Error has no rights.

The cathedral hypothesis tells us something important: Our disease of ideas cannot be cured by ideas. The problem is structural. Truth will never beat power on this tilted playing field. The winning ideas will always be the most potent and exciting political formulas, just as vitamin C will never outsell cocaine. So how do we get out of this?

Around 350 BCE, the year of the twilight of Athens, Aristotle wrote a timeless book called Politics.

Aristotle saw three forms of government: rule of one, rule of the few, rule of the many. He called them monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Our Reality Department calls them: dictatorship, democracy, and populism.

The form of government in which intellectual institutions make the final decisions is not new. It was practiced in ancient Egypt by the scribes of Amun, in ancient China by the Confucian mandarins, in ancient Massachusetts by the Puritan preachers. Whether its doctrine teaches one god, many, or none, it is best described as theocracy—a branch of the broader form which is oligarchy, rule by an organized minority.

Since we have neither any alternate oligarchy to replace these institutions, nor any legitimate procedure by which it could do so, our only possible cure for “wokeness” is a change in the structural form of government—to one of Aristotle’s two other forms, democracy or monarchy.

Or as you know them, dear reader: populism or dictatorship. Both choices seem bizarre. These are our only objective options from here: the cathedral or the bizarre.

Populism and dictatorship can be hard to distinguish. Since no monarch is a superhero, no monarchy can invent itself. Since our republic is representative, no democracy can govern itself. So both paths involve electing politicians who take functional control of the government—electing Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II.

The difference is in the voter’s mind. The populist voter elects the politician as a servant: the follower of the popular will. The monarchist voter elects the politician as a master: the replacement for the popular will. The democratic voter takes power. The monarchist voter gives power.

The populares of Rome chose both Marius and Caesar: Marius as a democrat, Caesar as a monarch. Which worked better? As one scholar writes:

The modern desire to look to Athens for lessons or encouragement for modern thought, government, or society must confront this strange paradox: the people that gave rise to and practiced ancient democracy left us almost nothing but criticism of this form of regime (on a philosophical or theoretical level). ... And what is more, the actual history of Athens in the period of its democratic government is marked by numerous failures, mistakes, and misdeeds—most infamously, the execution of Socrates—that would seem to discredit the ubiquitous modern idea that democracy leads to good government.

2020 tested both oligarchy and democracy—or if we prefer euphemisms, liberalism and populism. Did either work well? The definition of insanity is repeating a mistake. Bizarre as it seems, human history’s most common form of government by far is still out there—waiting for us to get tired of living the way we live now.

Curtis Yarvin, previously known as Mencius Moldbug, writes at Gray Mirror, where he presents a detailed ex nihilo vision of governance in the 21st century.

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