#44 On the struggle

Dear Jamie,

I’m sitting at my house in my spare room with that cool Canberra breeze invigorating my fasted frame. It’s a cold snap that feels like a reprieve from the extreme heat of previous weeks, but in reality it’s likely to be two violent swings of a unpredictable climate growing more extreme. Still, feels good.

I admit I didn’t know about COINTELPRO. But I was aware of other, more purely racist things like Nixon and his advisors recorded on tape actively working to increase racial tensions, and of course Jim Crow. But I do see a very uncomfortable reality that all* these “conspiracies” you mentioned were government-instituted. And government instituted because the people were either: undermining the government (COINTELPRO), weren’t trusting the government enough (Nixon) or not segregating themselves enough (Jim Crow). Who knows what the world might be like if the government wasn’t trying to fix our social lives over the last hundred years.

Now moving to systemic problems more generally. Some of the intentional systemic social interventions of the past had negative intentions, most had positive intentions. The vast majority failed and all had negative outcomes. I say all because even a success is at least very expensive, and it’s tempting to think that the money could have been better spent. We’re now in a time at least where governments (or more accurately those that agitate for the government to make social changes) are saying that they’re trying to “do good” or at least “undo bad”. It won’t help. It’s obvious from this and other letters that I think intelligently engineering systemic change to achieve specific outcomes is impossible. Actual improvements are more likely to come from positive unintentional effects smartly exploited. It’s not a property of government, but a property of complex systems themselves. The optimal strategy for fickle complex systems is: Are things unbearable? Then fix it, you have nothing to lose. Are things actually unprecedently good in the scheme of things and getting better? Then for Christ’s sake don’t meddle.

I am very keen to read your book because I’ve not read anything yet that dissuades me from the idea of individual struggle as superior to systemic change as a remedy for social ills. I don’t think people believe in the struggle remedy to make them feel better. Surely a narrative that didn’t demand so much work of its adherents would be even more self congratulatory and attractive. Instead I’d invite you to think of the theory of an eternal struggle as a good explanation, in Deutschian terms, for how to achieve the best life personally, socially, and as a species. The explanation might be: “When one accepts that life is an unfair struggle and shoulders the responsibility to work to solve whatever problems are within one’s means to solve, then the civilisation makes progress.” It’s a local rule of integrity.

I think it’s fair to say it’s the least refuted explanation for progress. There are no countries more advanced than those that have strong individual rights. And all those that give governments too much power to solve their individual problems progress slower or even regress. The struggle explanation is certainly superior to the systemic intervention explanation: “When the people just start trusting smart people to institute their ideologically-driven but compassionate policy utilising the state’s monopoly on violence, then the civilisation makes progress”.

Jordan Peterson doesn’t stray down the struggle path, he’s full-pelt pushing millions of people down it while referencing your “young men with an intellectual bent”. Peterson doesn’t believe that all struggles are the same, I don’t know about Neitzsche. We are all facing the same cosmic struggle in sense that we all live the human life. And it’s just as well because people find value in life based on the problems they solve (this is an observation rather than a belief). But some struggles are obviously way easier and more meaningful than others and the replacement of problems like “How do I cure my Malaria with no access to medicine” to “what should I do with my life” constitute objective progress in which the beneficiaries should indeed celebrate. Or even better live up to.

One bitter problem of the struggle conjecture is that it supresses justice. Which is a problem for the left being so sensitive to that sliver of experience. The most virtuous adherent of the struggle would face pure, cruel injustice with a stoic, positive forbearance. Would insist it was his or her fault, press on anyway, would then be made an example of, humiliated, and then be murdered (a famous guy with a beard did it. What’s his name?). That protagonist is either a pitiful cowardly victim fooled into being exploited and destroyed by selfish malevolent power, or an immortal antivictim. Perfect integrity. The struggle narrative is one of those explanations (like Darwinism or Universality of computation) that is self-sustaining. Without victimhood there is no victim and so any action is by definition progress by a free person. It pulls itself up from its own bootstraps, and potentially reaches for infinity. Is it delusional? Perhaps but demanding progress be non-delusional is an additional cruel artificial hoop to jump through that just holds people back.

If you still don’t believe in the struggle, can we agree to just not mess things up by meddling in systems we don’t understand? According to the intervention rule in the third paragraph we can meddle where, proportionally, the injustice is truly staggering – let’s kill the last damn guinea worm, we’re almost there.**


* Except slavery, that’s probably more fair to put at the feet of ancient unfettered free markets.

** 26 cases of Guinea worm globally in 2017, down from 3.5 million.

Also published on Medium.