An authoritarian state has no need to tell its subjects what to think, because it has no reason to care what they think. In a truly authoritarian government, the ruling authority relies on force, not popularity. It cares what its subjects do, not what they think. It may encourage a healthy, optimistic attitude and temperate lifestyle proclivities, but only because this is good for business. Therefore, any authoritarian state that needs an official religion must have something wrong with it. (Perhaps, for example, its military authority is not as absolute as it thinks.)
There are two types of power being discussed here: Force, and Persuasion. Persuasion can of course verge into Orwellian levels of mind control.
The claim in the passage is that if a regime has absolute force available to it, it will not need to use persuasion. In a trivial sense, this is true. A militarily invincible regime cannot be overturned, and thus does not need to use persuasion to prevent itself from being overturned.
But the regime itself is composed of men who are motivated and coordinated by their beliefs, and can be demoralized or turned against the regime by a persuasive adversary. The regime can shoot any men who don’t carry out orders, and crypto-lock the weapons, but at some point, an unopposed sufficiently persuasive adversary can make a mess of the warrior class and overturn the regime. The levels of perfection of force control required to totally disregard mind control are staggeringly unrealistic.
Even given perfected force-based control sufficient to make the regime invincible, there is still a use for persuasion. Moldbug acknowledges this: “It may encourage a healthy, optimistic attitude and temperate lifestyle proclivities, but only because this is good for business.”
In other words, even given political security using force, there are problems of the proper organization of society that are best solved with persuasion. Moldbug minimizes these, but they are actually quite extensive. You want people to be internally lawful. Most lawfulness comes from belief in the law, not fear of force. You want people to live good traditional lives, you want people to be virtuous, you want people to think particular fields of work are high status, you want people to socially enforce the desirable behaviours in a distributed way, you want people’s worldviews and cultures to be locally compatible, you want people to know which movements and subcultures and fashions are good or bad for the community, etc. These “business needs” are all better served by persuasion than force.
A possible objection to my framing is that these things are not “telling the people what to think”, because the subject is not the political legitimacy of the regime and related ideas. To be clear, we can further divide applications of power by their purpose:
- Security of Power. We have discussed how an infinitely forceful regime would not need persuasion. The underlying problem is how to secure political dominance of society.
- Organization of Society. The above discussion of the “business needs” for persuasion is about the organization of society. The problem is, given secure political dominance, how do you (re)organize society to achieve the best results for your ultimate purpose (presumably something like the glorification of God through the excellence and flourishing of your society).
So 2009 Moldbug seems to think that the application of persuasion in pursuit of the security of power is some combination of unnecessary, because an “infinitely” forceful regime doesn’t need persuasion, and bad, because political persuasion is often harmful. But he also seems to think that some level of persuasion that’s “good for business” is OK.
Let’s look closer at the structure of the problem. We can cross the types of power presented at the beginning of the post with the purposes of power listed above, to make a 2×2 matrix of ways and ends to apply power:
||Security of Power
||Organization of Society
||Firing into a destructive mob, putting down rebellions, arresting people who criticize replacement immigration on facebook.
||Forcing economic reorganization, punishing immorality, putting natural slaves to work.
||Legitimacy propaganda, divine right, democracy education, fake news.
||Behavioral propaganda, astroturf or supported activist campaigns, moral education.
Moldbug objects to the third quadrant, the use of persuasion for the end of political security. Or at least he criticizes the way our current regime abuses that quadrant. But we see that there are both legitimate and destructive things in each quadrant. None is bad or good in itself. When we critique an application of power, there are two things we might be taking issue with:
- Desirability of the ends. We may dislike regime propaganda or force applied against rebellions because we don’t support the regime. It is an axiom that everything the enemy does is bad, because they are the enemy. We may dislike some moral enforcement or propaganda campaign because we think the targeted reorganization is stupid or harmful. For example, many modern liberal fads backed up by both force and persuasion are actively harmful to the social fabric.
- Appropriateness of the means. We may think that the means applied to achieve the result are the wrong thing, or that it’s not worth the cost. For example, some regimes corrupt the scientific and epistemological processes of society to shut down dissenting ideas, which is an enormous cost. Likewise, forcing people to live a certain way against their will is usually quite harmful and not worth it. In these cases, there may be other ways to accomplish the same end which are less objectionable: simply arresting active traitors is usually better than trashing society’s ability to think to shut them down, and persuading people to live a socially better way is usually much less harmful than force.
The point Moldbug is making here is about the second objection: appropriateness of the means. In his argument, the reason Orwellian regimes do abusive things to the societal capacity for thought is because they have to, because they don’t have enough force, or can’t use force for some reason. The use of persuasion as a means is often inappropriate, but if a regime doesn’t have enough force, they have to do it anyways. The argument is relatively simple:
- There are two classes of power: force and persuasion.
- Sometimes force is the best way to achieve an end, and sometimes persuasion is the best way.
- The optimal strategy is to use each where it is appropriate. Force when it is the best way, and persuasion when it is the best way.
- If a regime has insufficient capacity for force, or is constrained to not use force, it will sometimes not be able to use force even though it is the best way. Instead it will have to use persuasion.
- Inappropriate use of persuasion can be more destructive than necessary, and is a departure from optimal.
- The more force power available to a regime, the less it has to rely on persuasion in circumstances where persuasion is inappropriate.
- The more force available to a regime, the closer it is able to get to the optimal governance strategy.
- An authoritarian regime is unconstrained in its use of force. It can arrest the opposition for example. A democratic regime cannot.
- Thus a democratic regime is less able to achieve the optimal strategy than an authoritarian regime, and more reliant on Orwellian levels of “persuasion”.
- (Unargued hidden premise). A democratic regime is not likely to have a stronger tendency to optimal governance than an authoritarian regime that is sufficient to outweigh its lower capability.
So Moldbug concludes that democracy is bad, and more capacity for force is good. Great. We agree. However, he also writes off persuasion and state churches and all that. But note that the argument is symmetrical: it works just as well to show that more persuasion is good, and an authoritarian regime that is ideologically or structurally constrained in its use of persuasion will be forcefully abusive and not as good as one that is strong in each capability, and able to use each where it is appropriate.
In other words, assuming all else is equal with respect to the desirability of the ends of the state, we want a regime that is both very good at using force, and very good at using persuasion. The scholarly consensus is somewhat confused here, but I think the technical term for this is “totalitarian“, that is, an authoritarian state that additionally has high charisma, an emphasis on a public conception of the good, official ideology, low corruption, and high legitimacy. Totalitarianism has of course been tarnished by the 20th century regimes that were brutal by necessity as a result of their growth out of internal and external total war.
So I think Moldbug is wrong about authoritarian regimes not telling people what to think. The smart ones will definitely develop political and social persuasion to the highest economical level, even if they do have very high force capability.
So that leaves two more problems with Moldbug’s claim:
- Real regimes don’t and won’t have an absolute force monopoly that is immune to all challenge. As you approach infinite force, the persuasion needed goes down. Likewise as we break the assumption of infinite force, we realize that practical regimes need a lot of persuasive capability to help make up the power budget, not just for when persuasion is ideally the best approach.
- An official religion, or equivalent centralized persuasive apparatus, is useful, even necessary. It is not just a hack to deal with insufficient force authority, but an efficient solution to real problems in its own right.
But as usual, Moldbug’s rhetoric is a bit more over the top than what he is actually saying with his underlying model. In this case, the underlying model is the above considerations about the destructive Orwellian trade-offs you have to make if your regime is not forceful enough, or alternately trade-offs you don’t have to make if you can just arrest the opposition. About this core point he is right.