”What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. ”They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two. ”They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; ”they’d have been ill.” ”So they were,” said the Dormouse; ”very ill.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Chapter VII
“Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme to return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements [of civilization]. Only birth can conquer death―the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.”
A certain american heterodox intellectual by the name of John Michael Greer very recently put out a piece on his blog by the title of The Negative-Sum Economy. The piece is not too long, and well worth a read, so I won’t summarize it in detail here. Rather, I’d like to offer a sort of addendum to the main thrust of Michael Greer’s argument, and more specifically the fantastically important historical observation that economic growth (or at least, economic growth as we know it today) is actually the exception rather than the rule up until the latter part of the second millenium. Given that something tolerably close to human beings have existed for about a quarter of a million years, and that we’ve practiced sedentary agriculture for over ten thousand years, four or five hundred years of sustained growth is actually a fairly short moment in historical time.
Before the early modern era, growth through technology was very limited. Land and agriculture was the primary source of useable energy, and there’s only so much land to go around, and only so much one can do to maximize the production of calories from it. As such, the primary – and indeed for most intents and purposes, the only – way for a nation or an empire to really ”get rich quick” was to find a way to source their wealth from someone else. The roman empire grew rich and mighty in precisely this manner: they used their military machine to conquer new territories, experiencing a temporary influx of wealth and slaves as a result, at which point they then reinvested a part of their surplus in their military machine, so that they could invade even more territory, repeating the process. (If you have the time, I recommend reading comrade Marty’s post laying this process out in some more detail) If you live in a world where it takes hundreds of years for the real economy to grow by any appreciable amount, you can either conquer others, or accept the reality of stasis.
Now, Greer’s argument of course goes a fair bit farther than this. The problem for the industrial economy of today is not necessarily even lack of growth (which would leave us in this zero-sum world the romans lived in), but rather, negative growth of real wealth, one where the total amount of wealth is actually shrinking over time. This is of course an incredibly heretical thing to say even in the rather bleak year of 2021. Economists and others can find nearly unlimited ways to display the numbers in support of the conclusion that humans today are richer, happier, and more content than at any point prior in history, but the sad truth of the manner is that they are increasingly doing so in a world where the lived experiences of most people in the west simply do not line up with those rosy narratives. Put another way: if people today are so much richer than at any time before, why can’t they afford a house? Why can’t they pay their medical bills? Why can’t they afford having children?
Whether people are ”really” getting poorer, or the pie is ”really” shrinking in some abstract, platonic sense, is however fairly irrelevant to the point that needs to be made here. Honest people can use today’s statistics to show either one to be true, depending on what they choose to look at. However, the way our politics now work is in fact increasingly in line with how politics play out in a negative-sum economy, and without understanding this, one cannot really get a good grasp of why today’s political, social, and *ideological* conflicts behave the way they do. To wit: if you live in a zero-sum world, like the romans did, you can either expand or remain in social and economic stasis. To not expand is risky, because it can lead to you being gobbled up by the neighboring empire without your scruples, but if you somehow avoid that, nothing in particular really happens. You go on as you’ve always gone on, for as long as you’re able, which can be quite a long time.
In a negative-sum world, however, the imperative to conquer is not one of choice, but of stark necessity. You need to dispossess others, you need to extract their wealth, because not doing so means losing your own way of life. For such a society, belligerence is not a choice, and peace is never an option for very long. To illustrate this dynamic in a modern context, we ought to leave the world of history and theory behind for a second and talk briefly about… video game development. Specifically, about the fate of an old and very emblematic studio by the name of Blizzard Entertainment.
Blizzard Entertainment started out as a small operation by a few nerdy university graduates, which is pretty par for the course for how things worked back in the early nineties. They tool around for a couple of years, making ports and assisting other companies, before they eventually end up branching out into their own games. Their first games, like Lost Vikings and Blackthorne, are all but forgotten today, but they end up striking gold with the Warcraft series, establishing themselves as one of the biggest household names in the – still somewhat niche – world of video gaming.
Thirty years is a long time in business. In that time, Blizzard has gone from a small studio to a gigantic one, and has been incorporated into an even larger holding company, Activision-Blizzard. The studio has also peaked in terms of creative output, and its games have become increasingly costly to produce, while receiving less positive attention and less robust sales. Today, the studio is clearly in crisis; most of its founders have left, quite a few of its games in development have been cancelled, and those that haven’t don’t seem anywhere close to release. Its various development teams are experiencing very rapid turnover, which is aggravated by the now famously terrible pay and benefits the studio offers nowadays, with some employees supposedly living in their cars due to being unable to make the rent in expensive California.
Had the story stopped here, it might make for a boring and utterly played-out morality tale about the evils of corporate capitalism. In point of fact, however, the decay of Blizzard as a studio only brings us to the start of the real story: rather than go gently into that good night filled with defunct but once-beloved game developers, Blizzard is currently being torn apart by a civil war. This civil war raging inside the studio was in fact recently launched by its own employees, and then assisted by the media as well as the state of California itself. And this process has a lot more to say about the state of our politics than one might assume at first glance.
Blizzard’s parent company is currently staring down the barrel of a huge public relations crisis as I type this, one that started with something similar to a #metoo rebellion. Employees at the studio started writing open letters decrying what they claimed to be an environment of sexism and harassment toward female employees at Blizzard, and their efforts were then joined by a lawsuit against the studio by the state of California itself, alleging sex discrimination in hiring and promotion of women, non-binary and trans folx, and other protected classes. At the surface level, this might seem like a fairly non-controversial fight for principles that are already widely accepted (who, in 2021, goes on the record as being for sexual harassment in the workplace?), but if one actually pauses to read the suggested remedies for what is wrong at Blizzard, they actually have very little to do harassment. Or, to put it in another way: though harassment is claimed to be a problem, the solution is not for men to stop harassing women, it is for Blizzard to do a whole other slew of things, such as instituting quotas for female promotion, to adopt race and gender-based hiring quotas, to increasingly ”center the voices” of women and trans people in the narratives of the games they develop, and so on.
Put another way, Blizzard is being asked – at the point of a loaded gun – to subsidize the employment and career advancement of certain classes of employees, at the direct expense of other employees. Harassment, insofar as it is a problem, is to be solved through the creation of new alternate HR structures, with the people employed therein having wages paid by Activision-Blizzard, but who will then have some sort of semi-independent existence as a cadre of office commissars who exist to serve the revolutionary tenets of Equity and Inclusion, rather than something as pedestrian as the company’s bottom line.
One should here add that the dynamic of this struggle over a dying video game studio pretty closely resembles a piranha swarm devouring an unlucky cow. Once the smell of blood was in the water, it didn’t take long for many other, fairly unrelated actors to join in on the feeding frenzy. Journalists, activist investors, NGOs, even the federal SEC, now all seem to want a piece of the action, bringing their own lawsuits and demanding their own remedies. For the bewildered suits at Activision-Blizzard’s corporate HQ, what looked in the beginning like a fairly minor issue to do with a small number of employees who stepped over the line, has now ballooned massively into a sort of cultural revolution or an attempt at a hostile takeover. Firing the offending employees, they are told, is not a solution. In fact, the only ”real” way forward is for them to simply hire more people, perhaps even many more people, most of which will have skillsets completely orthogonal to the development of video games.
When people on the Right talk about ”wokeness”, they often diagnose it as the political or ideological equivalent to miasma; an unseen, ever-present force of contagion that can just make you sick, often for almost no discernable reason at all. The result is a circular form of reasoning where people are simply mad because they’re angry, and they’re angry because they’re mad. Ideas float around in the ether, infecting people through some inscrutable logic, and sometimes a great deal of people get infected at the same time. In this telling, today the miasma has spread to all the important institutions in American society, and so there is nothing one can do about it other than wring one’s hands and curse fate itself.
In reality, however, the civil war inside Blizzard is probably not very ideological at all. Or, putting it differently: behind what is likely genuinely held idealistic commitments, the actual demands being levied against the corporation all have an incredibly obvious, cynical material bent to them. Activision-Blizzard has committed many great sins, and now the only way they can atone is to hire – on a permanent basis – more and more people to serve as commissars, while also reserving the well-paying non-ideological jobs for certain protected classes. Beyond all the flowery language, beyond all the philosophical and ideological commitments, this is nothing more than a fairly run of the mill protection racket. Hire us, pay us, give us and our clients sinecures at your expense, or we will make life difficult for you.
If this dynamic was somehow limited to Blizzard, or to the video game industry as such, that would be one thing. But it is not; these sorts of woke employee rebellions are simply the leading edge of a widespread economic dynamic where wealth ”creation” by conquest and dispossession has become the American norm.
There are today so many examples of this that it would be impossible to go through them all. But consider for a second the massive expansion of the ”gig economy”, which is often cynically hailed as the result of some sort of breakthrough in information technology. In reality it is anything but; to take the ”ride-share” company of Uber as an example, it is merely a taxi company with a phone app, in a world where nearly every taxi company in the developed world has a similar phone app. The real ”innovation” of Uber lies in simply defining its taxi drivers as contractors rather than employees, shuffling over a lot of costs onto the drivers that other taxi companies have to pay for out of their own pockets. Uber as a company has certainly made a few individuals at the top incredibly rich, but this is through directly making other people poor, rather than the ”power of innovation” or some such nonsense.
Again, the takeaway lesson is not some sappy morality tale about the evils of late capitalism; in fact, the people – like congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who are lining up to sell you that sad story are today just as dependent on wealth accumulation through highway robbery as the digital robber barons they unconvincingly purport to fight. In area after area, the progressive political line has become one of wealth transfer through open discrimination (by having companies and institutions hire certain groups at the expense of others), or wealth transfer through forced subsidies of a constantly growing cadre of managers and commissars. When Donald Trump tried to forbid companies that received federal money from paying for ”diversity training”, he didn’t just upset people’s moral sensibilities; he threatened an increasing number of rice bowls reserved for the young scions of elite America. What makes the Blizzard example particularly interesting here is that it shows an increased blurring of the line between the public and private sectors; today, even a private company can be inundated with demands to purchase increasingly costly forms of ideological ”fire insurance”, or else.
In a negative-sum economy, you either grow at the expense of other people, or you die. Given the increasingly decrepit American bureaucracy and imperial war machine, and its longstanding policy of destroying its own manufacturing base, the actual chances of the US being able to turn the business end of the imperial wealth pump outwards – toward the working poor in various hapless foreign countries – becomes slimmer by the day. Whether ordinary americans would experience a better living standard if the US was strong enough to really extract the wealth it needed from the rest of the world in a time of shrinking pies is probably pretty doubtful, but what ordinary americans think or need is not a factor anyone with power today considers important. It is the needs of the american elite and their servile layer of credentialed managers, bureaucrats and experts that really matter, and to protect them, the only real option left on the table – especially after the disaster in Afghanistan and the rapidly accelerating loss of faith in American power – is to embark on a war of conquest and dispossession against other americans. The empire, now increasingly failing abroad, has to come home.
As a result, any casual observer of American politics today can not only see the incredible levels of polarization currently rippling through all layers of society, but also the alarming growth of openly eliminationist rhetoric against ”red tribe” americans. The stated reason for hating this slice of the country barely matters, even to the hate-mongers themselves; first, ”red tribe” americans are evil and dangerous and need to be eliminated because they think Covid-19 is real and so wear masks in public places (which is obviously merely a case of them sublimating their racist animus towards chinese people), a year later they are evil and dangerous and should be eliminated for their crime of not wearing masks.
None of this is about covid, or January 6th, or the Steele dossier, or the philosophical conflict between the disciples of Burke and the followers of Rosseau. Having failed in its imperial wars abroad, the US elite and professional classes today prepare themselves mentally and politically for their next big struggle, and their increasingly bellicose rhetoric is part and parcel to formulating a workable casus belli against the hated masses of american kulaks, people who have grown too fat and lazy and undeserving of the increasingly meager wealth they can still lay claim to. For the temerity of working for higher wages than illegal immigrants, or demanding political power through their votes, they will have to be destroyed in order to save the people that really matter.
When talking about the ”american kulak”, one should resist the impulse to make it a cheap ideological or rhetorical device, or to fall into the right’s unfortunate habit of considering America in 2021 to somehow be some sort of natural outgrowth of Russia in 1919. In Russia, the ”kulak” was seen as a peasant who owned enough wealth to have different class interests from the poor peasants and landless agricultural day laborers, who were assumed to have political interests more in line with the urban proletariat. But today there are no Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, or SRs left in the world anymore; though the original kulaks were certainly persecuted, suppressed or killed in very brutal ways during the 1920s, the economic and political logic driving the Soviet state to do so was in many ways very different from the economic and political logic now driving the elite of the United States to frantically try to unperson a majority of their own population.
The upshot of history not repeating itself is that in the US, far more people can – and probably will – become ”kulaks” in the days ahead than were ever tarred with that label in the USSR. To wit: if you are a truck driver, you are a potential kulak, because your dispossession could possibly lead to cheaper prices for the professional elite, who live their lives as consumers, not producers, of physical goods. If you are a college educated white male, you are definitely a kulak, because your dispossession means that the job you would have had can go to someone else. If you own a video equipment store, you are also certainly a kulak, because as a member of the ”petty bourgeoisie”, you do not have the kinds of profit margins that would make it possible for you to hire diversity consultants. If people buy their video equipment from Amazon or Walmart, that is more wealth freed from the hands of the inefficient and put in the hands of people who know how to give urban professionals a slice of the take.
We can go on. If you are a parent protesting Critical Race Theory at the local school board, you are in fact also a kulak, because you simply fail to understand that this entire industry is a jobs program for your social and economic betters, a jobs program that you and your kids are simply supposed to shut up and keep underwriting. Moreover, the fact that you’d try to use outmoded, inefficient methods of local democracy to make your voice heard is in itself a grave sin, as those institutions sap political power from credentialed elites in a particular area in favor of people who simply happen to live there.
As the Blizzard example illustrates, not even being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company insulates you from being a kulak. In fact, you probably are a kulak, until you prove otherwise by ”doing your part”, subsidizing this elite strata of American society and protecting them from the consequences of economic decline. Far from being some principled opponent to this war against middle America, the top strata of the American business world is likely to join in on it; those companies that don’t will increasingly find themselves under siege from the nexus of NGOs, government, and corporate power that has matured over the last few decades. When Blackrock and the NASDAQ Stock Exchange team up to strong-arm private companies to fall in line with the new progressive mandates, the potted ideologues of the legacy Right can only provide them with moral and rhetorical cover; indeed, their very own survival and class position hinges upon the bribes they are paid in exchange for loyally putting lipstick on all manner of increasingly rancid pigs.
Whether all of this can potentially lead to real civil disorder and possibly even actual civil war is an interesting question. If one believes that the average American is incredibly stupid, lazy, immoral, rotten and feckless, so uniquely cowardly and without honor (indeed, this position of absolute loathing and hatred toward the American people is a position many self-described american nationalists fall into) – then the answer is probably something along the lines of ”lol, no, because people are just too fat and stupid!!”. If one however believes that Americans are in fact fairly average human beings – neither history’s chosen villains, nor unique paragons of virtue – the answer is more open. The coming war against the american kulak likely cannot be avoided, no matter what anyone does or does not do today, because it is not a war over ideology or culture, but a war of survival for the elites. They have no choice but to do what they do.
The reasons for why many so-called political dissidents on the Right seem to harbor an equally strong hatred for their own countrymen as the Left they supposedly oppose, is an interesting topic that would require an essay all on its own. But if you put that fairly self-serving fear and loathing of ordinary Americans aside, the future of the American republic looks both chaotic and uncertain. Going to war against your own population without having that population fight back is, to understate things just a tad, a very delicate process. It is an ancient political lesson that one should give gifts and bestow privileges sparingly, because once given, it becomes nearly impossible to safely take those things away. In a country like the US, with its very real federated political structure, with each state having its own citizen militia that takes orders from the state governor, with huge regional and cultural differences and more registered guns than people, a great many things once granted, will now have to be taken away. It would, putting it mildly, take some incredibly skilled politicians and gifted statesmen to pull such a feat of political and economic sleight-of-hand off without the marks getting awfully restive, or having critical parts of the bureaucracy shatter due to the system’s growing contradictions.
Thus, perhaps I should simply end this essay by leaving the reader to ponder a very basic question: do you see any of those incredibly skilled politicians and gifted statesmen anywhere around you today?