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Meta-Contrariness (dialectics), liberal contradictions, and mere anti-capitalism

Two posts on the interwebs came together to produce this:  Less Wrong, which while being meta-analytic rationalists to a point of almost obsession is still one of the best websites on logic out there, posted a piece on signaling, counter-signaling, and intelligence and the triadic moves of logic: 

A person who is somewhat upper-class will conspicuously signal eir wealth by buying difficult-to-obtain goods. A person who is very upper-class will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir wealth, by deliberately not buying difficult-to-obtain goods.

A person who is somewhat intelligent will conspicuously signal eir intelligence by holding difficult-to-understand opinions. A person who is very intelligent will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir intelligence, by deliberately not holding difficult-to-understand opinions.

According to the survey, the average IQ on this site is around 1452. People on this site differ from the mainstream in that they are more willing to say death is bad, more willing to say that science, capitalism, and the like are good, and less willing to say that there’s some deep philosophical sense in which 1+1 = 3. That suggests people around that level of intelligence have reached the point where they no longer feel it necessary to differentiate themselves from the sort of people who aren’t smart enough to understand that there might be side benefits to death. Instead, they are at the level where they want to differentiate themselves from the somewhat smarter people who think the side benefits to death are great. They are, basically, meta-contrarians, who counter-signal by holding opinions contrary to those of the contrarians’ signals. And in the case of death, this cannot but be a good thing.

But just as contrarians risk becoming too contrary, moving from “actually, death has a few side benefits” to “DEATH IS GREAT!”, meta-contrarians are at risk of becoming too meta-contrary.

All the possible examples here are controversial, so I will just take the least controversial one I can think of and beg forgiveness. A naive person might think that industrial production is an absolute good thing. Someone smarter than that naive person might realize that global warming is a strong negative to industrial production and desperately needs to be stopped. Someone even smarter than that, to differentiate emself from the second person, might decide global warming wasn’t such a big deal after all, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t man-made.

In this case, the contrarian position happened to be right (well, maybe), and the third person’s meta-contrariness took em further from the truth. I do feel like there are more global warming skeptics among what Eliezer called “the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer empirical cluster in personspace” than among, say, college professors.

In fact, very often, the uneducated position of the five year old child may be deeply flawed and the contrarian position a necessary correction to those flaws. This makes meta-contrarianism a very dangerous business.

Remember, most everyone hates hipsters.

Without meaning to imply anything about whether or not any of these positions are correct or not3, the following triads come to mind as connected to an uneducated/contrarian/meta-contrarian divide:

- KKK-style racist / politically correct liberal / “but there are scientifically proven genetic differences”
– misogyny / women’s rights movement / men’s rights movement
– conservative / liberal / libertarian4
– herbal-spiritual-alternative medicine / conventional medicine / Robin Hanson
– don’t care about Africa / give aid to Africa / don’t give aid to Africa
– Obama is Muslim / Obama is obviously not Muslim, you idiot / PatriFriedman5

Now, anyone half-versed in Hegel will notice this looks like a dialectical sublation move, albeit a move that is based more on social signaling than logic.  As the author states in a footnote, often a person can be on different points in the triadic structure at different times, and no point generally has a hard frame of being right. Although the assumptions of the logic are interesting in another way, they out of hand discount a lot of socialist, communist, and anarchist politics as being anticapitalism, but between the move between conservative and liberal, the author sees the sublation as libertarian (or the meta-contrary position).   This is interesting because in the dialectical position in America this does seem to be case:  Libertarians take freedom/equality tension and favor freedom even do conservative ends.

Furthermore, it points out that there is often a lot of signaling going on in left positions that are complicated.  For example, many would accuse our author of be meta-contrary even in his title of the blog (the loyal opposition to modernity), but it important to notice that the signaling here is different.  I am indicating a opposition to the dominant zeitgeists (or if you prefer paradigms) for failing to meet up to any possible potential not on the basis that they are simply wrong and the old way is better, but they for structural reasons that these will fail to live up to their promises.

This is the critique of capitalism that I hold: It is not just that capitalism is unfair or exploitative, and therefore we should go back to some pre-capitalist social formation: it is just that the contradictions in the capitalist production will lead to depletion of resources, an inability to steady-state in growth, and to massive impoverishments of the majority that it had enriched prior as their are no new markets for which capitalism to expand.   Globalism delivers the promise of markets to relative enrichment of prior social formations, but generally through the accumulation of resources into the hands of a few and thus leading to extractive economies.  Even conservatives are beginning to see this trend.

When libertarians and conservative talk about the knowledge problems markets fix, they are not wrong.  This lead to a logic of defending the early liberal revolutions from Marx and later Marxists are necessary steps.  This is also what justifies and justified  Chinese and Soviet State capitalism as necessary development since no liberal society produced a revolution that was not betrayed by liberal/social democratic forces.  Red Rosa was killed by shock troops–proto-fascists–who were invited into the briefly existing revolutionary states by Social Democrats.

So this means that while a leftists like myself must be careful of mere anti-capitalism, she must also be careful of mere meta-contrariness trying ideological decisions.  This is both actionism of the mind (in Adorno’s sense) and selfish social signaling of the Velbenian capricious consumption variety. But the last point led me  that leads me to look at is that while “liberalism” as an orientation opposed to conservatism does seem to rely both on abstract reason and orientation, but in power, liberalism almost immediately becomes illiberal. Ben at Marmalade blog has been discussing this:

This is where the real problems begin for liberals, beyond the basic challenges of organizing. Liberals are so flexible and so willing to change that they end up being prone to undermine their own liberal nature. On the opposite end, conservatives are so much less flexible and less willing to change that they are more effective in resisting what liberalism offers. This liberal weakness and conservative strength makes liberalism an easy target of anti-liberal tactics such as emotional manipulation and propaganda, especially in terms of fear and disgust which are the foundations of the conservative predisposition and moralistic ideology. Basically, when liberals are overly stressed to the point of feeling overwhelmed, they turn into conservatives.

This particular bias and typical move is interesting: the power of maintaining a moderate liberal vision and an openness to ideas actually leads to a conservatism that undermines itself. I have called liberalism the “current traditionalism” from a phrase we used in composition pedagogy about the beliefs of “standard grammar” that people believe are transhistorical but aren’t actually traditional.  Liberalism, even more than conservatism, has had massive influence on European and American society since the 1800s, and the orientation here is interesting:  liberalism as a ideology and liberalism as an orientation would have a tendency to shift into conservative modes of thinking to maintain itself, and thus would be hostile more to the left pushing it forward “too fast” and “risking everything” and thus would tend right overtime.   This would also go far to explaining how  things more.

Indeed, the liberal capitalism as the dominant intellectual category is the default position in almost every “average intelligent” contrary opinion to which meta-contrariness arises.  Hegel seems to be vindicated on structure more and more analytically, no?  This could be my own confirmation bias, but the social signaling mirroring Hegelian dialectics IS telling.  Then the way liberal position represents the “Current traditionalism” of the educated is also pretty clear.

What is clear is something is going to give because the stress of liberal positions will lead to profoundly illiberal politics.  Some of my friends who are Hegelian Marxists would call this regression in history, but I think this is regression to the mean and a conservatism to maintain it, which of course, actually undoes the attitude that enabled it.


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