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An analysis of the formalist account of power relations in democratic societies [Jan. 31st, 2013|07:12 am]
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[Epistemic Status | Sooooorta re-inventing the wheel here. Nevertheless, I feel I deserve tenure at a major university for managing to write an essay with this title. Somebody please make this happen.]

If Donald Trump and Rebecca Black got in a bar fight, who would win?

(Don't just answer "society". This is a serious question which will illuminate structures of dominance in modern culture.)

In the short-term, Donald Trump would easily beat up Rebecca Black. He's bigger, manlier, and it should be pretty easy for him to overpower a teenage girl.

In the medium-term, the ensuing media circus would be entirely in Rebecca's favor. No matter who started the fight or how justified their casus belli, the media would portray it as "Donald Trump beats up a little girl". The media optimizes for outrage, and "arrogant billionaire beats up poor sympathetic teenage girl" is more outrageous than "Poor sympathetic teenage girl rabidly attacks arrogant billionaire". Besides, Trump is a confirmed Person Whom It Is Fun To Dislike, and it seems very unlikely that a media mogul would receive angry self-righteous letters to the editor for picking on him. Rebecca could basically walk into a bar where Donald is drinking quietly, smash a chair over his head for no reason, and the media would still find a way to make sure it ended with him coming under irresistable pressure to apologize to her on national TV.

In the long-term, the media circus would die down. Trump would still live in a gigantic mansion from which he controls large parts of the world economy, and Rebecca Black would still be a B- or C- list celebrity desperately trying to avoid having everyone forget her.

So which of the two of them has more power?

If I correctly understand Mencius Moldbug, which is always a big 'if', I think he is arguing that the title goes uncontroversially to Ms. Black. From Unqualified Reservations:
"The truth is that the weapons of 'activism' are not weapons which the weak can use against the strong. They are weapons the strong can use against the weak. When the weak try to use them against the strong, the outcome is... well... suicidal.

Who was stronger - Dr. King, or Bull Connor? Well, we have a pretty good test for who was stronger. Who won? In the real story, overdogs win. Who had the full force of the world's strongest government on his side? Who had a small-town police force staffed with backward hicks? In the real story, overdogs win.

'Civil disobedience' is no more than a way for the overdog to say to the underdog: I am so strong that you cannot enforce your 'laws' upon me. I am strong and might makes right - I give you the law, not you me. Don't think the losing party in this conflict didn't try its own 'civil disobedience.' And even its own 'active measures.' Which availed them - what? Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.

In the real world in which we live, the weak had better know their own weakness. If they would gather their strength, do it! But without fighting, even 'civil disobedience.' To break a law is to fight. Those who fight had better be strong. Those who are not strong, had better not fight.

And this is how Chomskyism killed Aaron Swartz and may yet get its hands on a similar figure, Julian Assange. You know, when I read that Assange had his hands on a huge dump of DoD and State documents, I figured we would never see those cables. Sure enough, the first thing he released was some DoD material.

Why? Well, obviously, Assange knew the score. He knew that Arlington is weak and Georgetown is strong. He knew that he could tweak Arlington's nose all day long and party on it, making big friends in high society, and no one would even think about reaching out and touching him. Or so I thought.

In fact, my cynicism was unjustified. In fact, Assange turned out to be a true believer, not a canny schemer. He was not content to wield his sword against the usual devils of the Chomsky narrative. Oh no, the poor fscker believed that he was actually there to take on the actual powers that be. Who are actually, of course, unlike the cartoon villains... strong. If he didn't know that... he knows it now!

Better to be a live dog than a dead hero. But had Aaron Swartz plugged his laptop into the Exxon internal network and downloaded everything Beelzebub knows about fracking, he would be a live hero to this day. Why? Because no ambitious Federal prosecutor in the 21st century would see a route to career success through hounding some activist at Exxon's behest. Your prosecutor would have to actually believe he was living in the Chomsky world. Which he can't, because that narrative is completely inconsistent with the real world he goes to work in every day."

I can think of at least two different problems with this passage.

The first is that it's outright false. Moldbug later uses the example of pro-lifers protesting abortion as an example of an unsympathetic and genuinely powerless cause. Yet as far as I can tell abortion protesters and Exxon Mobile protesters are treated more or less the same. In both cases, polite protesters who stick to the law are allowed to keep doing their thing, or occasionally get arrested and then immediately released, but those who actually hurt people or damage property are punished.

The second is that, even if it were true, it would be taking an overly simplistic view of "real power". Moldbug says we can determine the real power based on who wins. But what kind of winning? There are kinds of winning where you beat someone in a bar fight. There's the kind of winning where you get such overwhelming support of public opinion you can force them to apologize to you on TV. And there's the kind of winning where you go home to Trump Tower at night.

Suppose Rebecca Black starts a barfight with Donald Trump, the media spins it as sympathetic to Black and excuses her actions, and Trump ends up with egg on his face. Does that make Black more powerful than Trump?

Or to put it another way, suppose I throw my shoe at the President, and everyone is sympathetic to me, and the President suggests not pressing charges in order to look merciful, and the government is under lots of political pressure to pardon me. Does this make me more powerful than the President?

Or to put it another way, suppose I am a liberal activist lobbyist who says lots of mean things about ExxonMobil is and is a constant thorn in their side. I spend my entire life harassing them through bringing legal cases against them and convincing Congress to pass laws against them. I win all my legal cases, blocking some of their drilling, and Congress passes all the laws I want, raising their tax rate a little. Whenever ExxonMobil tries to condemn me in any way, there is a huge political outcry and they back off. Does this make me more powerful than ExxonMobil?

No. What I described would be pretty successful for a life of activism. But in the end, ExxonMobil is going to just drill somewhere else, and figure out some tax shelter policy that completely avoids whatever law I got Congress to pass against them. In the end, they will still be very rich and control the world economy, and I will probably get some award and feel good about myself but make zero difference. In the end, I'm the one winning the media circus, and they're the one going home to Trump Tower.

There are kinds of power where you lose every single fight you get into, maybe on purpose, and still end out more powerful than before, because the direction your power is growing is orthogonal to the direction people are fighting you in, or because the actual power structure is buried much too deeply for the theater of public relations to even notice. Indeed, this is the only kind of power worth having.

We will call this sort of gather-your-power-bit-by-bit-and-hide-it-places-no-one-knows sort of advantage that ExxonMobil and Donald Trump have structural power, and the sort of win-at-media-circuses-and-maybe-trials advantage that environmental activists and Rebecca Black have social power. An equally good term would be unconscious power and conscious power, because wherever anyone makes a conscious decision they will happily decide in favor of the environmentalists and Ms. Black, and it is only the unconscious non-decisions that skew the real world in favor of ExxonMobil and Mr. Trump.

Both Moldbug and liberal activists seem to understand this distinction sometimes, although other times they can be bizarrely pigheaded about conflating the two types of power. Moldbug's shtick as I interpret it claims that social power should be more in line with structural power. Liberal activists seem to think that structural power needs to change and social power can change it.

Taking Silver In The Oppression Olympics

Here is another of my favorite graphs

The solid gray line is white people rating how much discrimination they think there was against black people at different periods. The dashed gray line is white people rating how much discrimination they think there was against white people at different periods. We see that the average white believes that around the year 2000 there started to be more discrimination in America against white people than against black people.

If we extrapolate - which would be kind of irresponsible from this study as it is retrospective, but humor me - it looks like quite soon, and maybe even today since the graph is several years old, that the average white person will actually feel more discriminated against than the average black person does.

The people on the Reddit thread pretty much used this to conclude that white people are dumb and should never be allowed to talk about race.

I think that might be part of it but also that there is a more subtle problem. Social power is much easier to notice than structural power, especially if you're not the one on the wrong end of the structural power.

To give a very timely example, every February there's this boring low-level repetitive argument about "Why is there a Black History Month but not a White History Month?" "No, every month is White History Month, that's the whole reason a Black History Month is necessary." Even if the latter statement is true, it's a lot easier to notice that black people get an Officially Endorsed Month (social/conscious power) than that white people tend to come off better during the eleven theoretically neutral months (structural/unconscious power).

Or to give another example, there are Official Laws saying that women should be privileged over men in some sorts of employment and college admission determinations; anyone who claimed that men should be officially privileged over women by law in any field would be ostracized (social/conscious power). On the other hand, actual hiring decisions tend to favor men over women, and this is mediated by subconscious assessments of competence (structural/unconscious power).

As I said before, I bet I'm reinventing the wheel here and somebody else has come up with this idea long ago and given it a different name that I just don't recognize (it seems possible that "privilege" might just be a really horrible failed attempt at raising awareness of unconscious/structural power)

The Obvious Liberal and Conservative Responses

But even if this is well-trodden ground, I have yet to hear anyone on either side give their respective obvious responses.

The Obvious Liberal Response is this: We like claiming that activists and minorities are powerless and oppressed. And we can see why the fact that they really have all the social/conscious power could be jarring, and even upsetting to very literal-type people with unrealistically high expectations for how honest discourse is supposed to be.

But this doesn't make us wrong. Social/conscious power, in and of itself, is kind of a booby prize. Having a History Month dedicated to your race is not a terminal goal.

The things people actually care about, like money, success, influence, and psychological health, come entirely from structural/unconscious power. A city may spend your tax money on colorful "We Love Minorities And Want More Of Them" posters, but if the mayor and all five city councillors are straight white men, then not only are the straight white men not oppressed on net, but they're not even suffering in any discernible way at all.

The only point of having social/conscious power is to try to influence the distribution of structural/unconscious power. Social/conscious power is a lever that can be used to move structural/unconscious power.

So the goal in distributing social/conscious power isn't to give everyone an exactly equal amount, the way a nice but naive person might expect. The goal in distributing social/conscious power is to distribute it in whatever way causes everyone to end up with an equal amount of structural/unconscious power. Since straight white men continue to be winning the structural/unconscious power game, no matter how unfairly biased the social/conscious power is toward genderqueer minority women, it's obviously not biased enough.

If someone had told me this was the liberal argument ten years ago, it would have saved me a crazy amount of hand-wringing. But there's a missing conservative argument too, and that would be this:

Okay, we've been trying for let's say fifty years to use social/conscious power as a lever to move structural/unconscious power.

Just to use race as an example, fifty years ago, there were explicit laws keeping black people down, and scientific racists in universities were blithely speculating on the cranial capacity of "Negroids" without a second thought. Today, an impressive amount of the Western world's academic output by weight is now devoted to yelling about how much we hate racism and homophobia. We have successfully reached the point where a single ambiguously racist comment can bring down pretty much any politician in the country, and where people who use the word "fuck" like it's going out of style are terrified even to quote, let alone use, ethnic slurs. In terms of progress in deploying social power against racism, we have come pretty darned far.

Yet the black/white income gap, which is probably the best objective measure we have of structural/unconscious power, worse today than forty years ago when good records first started being kept. Fifty years of feminists telling people to rape less has resulted in a trend line for rape that looks exactly like that for every other violent crime. The biggest success of the anti-inequality movement, higher incomes for women, seems to be an economic transition that had only a little to do with any kind of a social justice movement (citation admittedly needed, but that'd be a whole post in itself).

So what if social/conscious power just isn't that good a lever? We know that in at least in a business environment,
promoting diversity has zero positive impact and in fact may just make people more racist. If this is true on a social level, it would fit nicely with the stagnant/disimproving structural/unconscious power situation despite the vastly improved social/conscious power situation.

This makes the last sentence of the liberal argument above sound suddenly terrifying. "Since straight white men continue to be winning the structural/unconscious power game, no matter how unfairly biased the social/conscious power is toward genderqueer minority women, it's obviously not biased enough." Although biasing the social/conscious power situation toward minority groups is not nearly as big a disaster as my conservative friends seem to think, I don't think it's completely effect-less either, especially if the results from the business case continue to apply and the more people talk about racism the more racist people become.

Combining the conservative contention "Giving more social/conscious power doesn't increase structural/unconscious power" with the liberal contention "We need to keep giving more social/conscious power until the structural/unconscious power increases to the right level" means that we will just end up giving infinite amounts of social/conscious power, to no positive effect. This, the conservative might argue, would at the very least be an inefficient use of resources, not to mention such an easy and attractive solution that it would prevent us from looking for things that do have an effect.

And Back To The Original Question

So I think the Moldbuggian paradigm of "groups with social/conscious power who appear to achieve easy victories in obvious social contexts are the overdog" is flawed. Activists and universities have lots of social/conscious power, but social/conscious power is the booby prize and even in cases where it looks like it has had an effect, it has very likely just happened to fortuitously coincide with social/technological forces that changed things at the same time [again, citation needed]. If correct this observation would make a lot of reactionary thought, which focuses on activists and universities and their ilk having too much power, kind of misguided.

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From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-31 10:20 pm (UTC)

Social Power and Psychological Wellbeing

"The things people actually care about, like money, success, influence, and psychological health, come entirely from structural/unconscious power."

No. Social Power is very much tied closely to Psychological Health. That people with lots of "structural power" are on average Psychologically healthier is *mostly* not the result of structural power. Higher IQ, conscientiousness, low time preference and other things that correlate with functionality and thus our social construct of "health" psychological and otherwise are what enables one to accrue "structural power" in the first place.

Is there any reason at all to think social animals such as ourselves would derive more pleasure from "structural" than "social" power? In a terminal sense I mean. We have strong evidence people care about social power a lot, we all crave because humans are social animals. "Structural power" is something that in itself excites only non-neurotypicals. Top earners may get excited about earning even more money much like gamers getting excited about a high score, it only matters to them either because of their private fixation or their social circle.

Having structural power is neat but I say only as much as one can leverage it into other things the monkey brain cares about like a candy bar or a top escort. In conversation on IRC Athrelon noted how this relates to the "diminishing marginal utility of money".

The standard "liberal" position is precisely "structural power doesn't matter for happiness and well being after a certain level so we should redistribute it directly via means such as progressive taxation". Pause and think about this for a minute.

Wouldn't Donalnd Trump get depressed about being being a laughing stock and buffoon who teenage girls can beat with impunity? Perhaps not Donald Trump personally for this exact example but to give examples someone like Howard Hughes certainly could become very miserable while having all the "structural" power in the world. People kill hemselves or completely cut contact with the outside world because of a lack of "social power". Suicide for anyone above direst material poverty is usually about trying to escape this kind of suffering. Worse, the utility of those with social but not "structural" power over this individual would fundamentally derive from his misery.

Isn't there something fundamentally ugly about that? Maybe it is worth in a utilitarian sense but it is a form of Omelas and carries all the burdens of proof real implementations of such scenarios do.

If social power is not a good way to redistribute "structural" power and structural power while correlating with merit and mental health does not in itself buy *that* much happiness the scenario very much does come down to this.

And even if it was an *excellent way* to do so, note how structural power is fundamentally tied to the wealth creating mechanisms of society! To be controversial maybe white married middle class men are rather good at stewarding their material resources and wealth compared to some other demographics. Redistributing it results in less wealth creation. Social power today does *not* nor has it ever accurately matched contributions to wealth creation. Now of course neither does "institutional" power perfectly match this but it can today at least leverage the neat information properties of markets.

We want the sum of structural power over *nature*, the amount of wealth a society has available to be ceteris paribus as high as possible, Pareto Optimality is one of the most reliably benign goals that is systematically neglected in pursuit of the misfiring heuristics of our minds which do not understand institutional power.

Note what the currently popular hypothesis for the evolution of the part of the brain that deals with optimizing for social power is.

"This makes the last sentence of the liberal argument above sound suddenly terrifying. "

It is I hope I have shown to me far more terrifying than your virtual Conservative feels it is.

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From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-31 10:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Social Power and Psychological Wellbeing

Link to final version:
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-01-31 10:50 pm (UTC)

I've had a kind of a sorta-point about this for a long time, which is that there is a very aggressively odd form of social justice activist who treats her (it is usually her) very oddness as a weapon against the powers that be. I fail to think that the powers that be are harmed or even scared that much by oddness, although I think the aggressively religious group are affected.

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[User Picture]From: houseboatonstyx
2013-01-31 11:44 pm (UTC)
social/conscious power just isn't that good a lever

It's also a lever that is easily spiked or twisted, by structural power.

The sexual offense charge against Assange is a good example. It split Assange's support base, by actions which need not have even been deliberately coordinated by the several parties with structural power. In Sweden, ambitious prosecutors; in the media, scandal mongers; in the background in UK, US government influence; in finance, PayPal and others freezing Assange's donation lines and even his legal defense fund (not when he embarrassed the US State Dept, but when he announced that he was about to embarrass Bank of America).
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From: michaelvassar
2013-02-01 12:59 am (UTC)
I think that reasonable people can disagree with the liberal claim tha straight white men have more structural power (per capita of course) than gays or women (such an argument is much less reasonable WRT blacks).

More interestingly, I think that it's important to point out that the people who wield social power are not the people on who's behalf it is nominally wielded. If feminist activism doesn't reduce rape, might a rational skeptic simply ignore the part of the story (a story it is promoting, of course) about its purpose being the reduction of rape, especially if activists aren't moved to change their methods by data about its effectiveness? A more cynical person than Scott might suggest that while feminist activism may not boost the structural power of women, the social power wielded in the name of rape prevention massively boosts the structural power of the people who actually wield it. They might conclude that this is the general case with social power.

The other obvious question is how much harm is done, to anyone, by the wielding of social power. Reasonable opinions might again differ, I think, but I haven't thought very hard about this.
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[User Picture]From: cousin_it
2013-02-01 09:59 am (UTC)
It seems easier (though losing a few details along the way) to replace "structural power" and "social power" with "money" and "reputation". Should we put more trust in our society's mechanisms for allocating money, or in its mechanisms for allocating reputation? Both seem to be exploitable, but in different ways.
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[User Picture]From: cousin_it
2013-02-01 10:02 am (UTC)
Or even better to replace "reputation" with "public opinion".
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[User Picture]From: Chris Hallquist
2013-02-01 12:09 pm (UTC)
Late to the game question about the Moldbug article: he writes that, "I'm quite convinced that Glenn Greenwald really has no idea at all why liberal public opinion stopped giving a damn about torture in 2008." Is he just not aware of stuff Greenwald has written like this, (http://www.salon.com/2012/02/08/repulsive_progressive_hypocrisy/) or does he have some esoteric theory of why liberals stopped giving a damn about torture? (I suppose it's probably the first, but I'm hoping it's the second because that would be more entertaining to learn about.)

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[User Picture]From: multiheaded
2013-02-01 03:54 pm (UTC)
I understand your puzzlement, as I too was fascinated by Moldbug's brilliance and heterodoxy when I started reading him. I couldn't understand why he kept making so many absurd, skewed or factually untrue little assertions - about real-world history, real-world politics, etc, etc.

He talked of socialism without examining many sides of life under concrete, historically existing state-socialist or social-democratic regimes; of the relations between capital and labour without ever mentioning the bloody and dramatic history of labour movement; of the Cold War while just throwing its realities out the window...

Eventually I accepted that, although many of his ideas might be cool and novel and interesting, he has been ever willing to ignore or distort the bits of reality that don't fit his far-right/technocratic picture. What's worse, I think that he's more inflexible and selectively oblivious about reality than many of the "hypocritical" leftists he rails against - and he's cut off his line of retreat.
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dk - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2013-02-01 05:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think anyone is actually in control of much of anything. 'Power' is just another way of anthropomorphizing terrifyingly alien processes. Moldbug is as much as a delusional-teleological rationalist as the progressives he despises.
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-02-01 07:26 pm (UTC)
Nobody is in control all that much, as far as I can tell, but this power is still relevant and not very anthropomorphic. It's almost more like power in the physical sense, a source of energy that is needed for both active and passive activities. Power is *not* nothing without control. Plus a significant part of both social and institutional power is defensive and non zero sum.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2013-02-02 01:42 am (UTC)
I think you may underestimate the nuisance effect of all the laws. George McGovern tried to run a B&B in his retirement, and discovered that with the level of regulation they had even back then, he couldn't do it -- and this was a man who not only thought he could run the US, but convinced a fair chunk of votes to agree with him.

OTOH, there is the other issue that Exxon's smaller competitioners are less able to cope, so it may mean that your activist leaves Exxon better off.
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From: captainbooshi
2013-02-02 06:58 pm (UTC)
I've been thinking about the last part of this comment, and I think this is a significant part of why social power does not usually affect structural power much.

To use your example of regulations, activists may successfully leverage social power to force government to pass regulations. The affected corporations, however, will use their structural power to ensure that the bill written in Congress affects them as little as possible, and maybe even will burden smaller competitors who don't have the resources they do.
In the end, no progress has really been made, and the corporations might even be better off.
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From: captainbooshi
2013-02-02 07:15 pm (UTC)
Just thought I'd confirm for you that, to my knowledge, this is the basic idea behind the theory of 'privilege.' As far as I understand it, privilege refers to all the ways that culture will work in your favor without you having to do anything for it, which I believe maps pretty well to your idea of structural/unconscious power.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2013-02-04 01:52 pm (UTC)
If that were "privilege" they would admit that a black woman college professor has privilege in contrast to some white male Skid Row bum. Since I have actually seen people argue that it's other way 'round, that the white maleness accords him some mystical privilege -- which does him no good at all -- I suspect it's not.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2013-02-06 05:49 pm (UTC)
On reflection, one grave problem with Moldbug's criterion is that it's useless. You will know whether you have power when you triumph, and not if you don't. Prior to then, you have to use some other rule.

(Leaving aside his deeper problem of defining Right as Success.)
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[User Picture]From: themusicgod1
2013-05-21 04:51 pm (UTC)


Ripple is a bridge between structural and social power.

( squid314 -> gustavolacerda -> natowelch -> themusicgod1 -> 2_gryphon -> roq -> squid314 )

Edited at 2013-05-21 04:52 pm (UTC)
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From: it_sme
2017-01-05 06:05 am (UTC)

I love how close you repeatedly come to socialism

you really did reinvent the wheel with 'privilege' there

I agree "privilege" is a an abysmal and misleading word to label the underlying concept with.

Yes, social/conscious power/pinkwashing is indeed a liberal sop that fails to address underlying structural issues.
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