One of the most difficult, but necessary things to write about during this whole COVID fiasco is “where are we going? And why are we in this hand basket?” Why is this challenging? It requires, first off, a belief in societal evolution, and devolution, and an appreciation that we are actually going somewhere — somewhere knowable.
And whether you’re suffering or not, it’s tough to argue that in the last millennium, things have gotten better and better for the human species. There’s some crazy multiplier of us, population-wise- more than there was 1000 years ago (2500x or so) and our lives are longer, cleaner, and potentially happier.
Let’s reframe this from an information perspective. Whenever you have 7 billion or so people on the planet, or 100 million people in a given country/nation state, you need a certain information quantity, as well as an information density of how interactions will go so that people don’t, well, kill each other. How you get and distribute that information will determine the characteristics of your society — whether you’re run by some Old God in the back of everyone’s head, or the extent that one manages to develop independent agency of people in that society, built on some level of decentralized decision making.
One with a more distributed decisionmaking structure will be far more robust, agile and able to optimize resources locally, than one that is centrally controlled. History has shown this over and over — not just a dismissal of the need for laws and such — but when it comes to overall performance and robustness, you can’t beat distributed, independent-minded systems programmed to coordinate with each other. As far as a technological example, consider the Internet. Where can you go in the world with the expectation that the Internet won’t work? And this is exactly because it is a decentralized, distributed system. All your messages don’t just run through a big box at the center of the world.
But decentralized, distributed, relatively autonomous systems aren’t the only way that things have shaken out with high populations of humans. Nations at various apogees have a tendency to lock in behavior that works, with little mind toward how the future might play out. A great example of this ‘locking in’ phenomenon might be to look at the Song Dynasty in China, established in 960 CE. The Song dynasty was known for many single improvements — the magnetic compass being one. But more importantly, it also saw the proliferation of Confucianism, and the attached civil service exams, which then led to an Authority-driven system (the emperor was still a de facto god) buttressed by Legalistic methodologies for extremely modest class mobility, encapsulated in an increasingly rigid caste structure.
The Song dynasty collapsed in the face of the Mongol invasion, another memetic triumph — Genghis Khan was a Performance-based leader and allotted top positions in his government based on merit — but as outsiders, they could not have the cultural persistence that the mainline Han Chinese population had. And so things went back to lower empathy, Legalistic “normal” after their collapse. The Song folks had left their mark. Legalistic thinking allows for diversity through proliferation of categories — we’re certainly seeing that today in the various “woke” movements. But they don’t move empathy forward, which inherently allows for agency and folks determining how they are supposed to think of the people they interact with.
But anyone says they don’t work at all – you’d be wrong. China shows that it can work, even if you convert a huge proportion of your people into “one step up” from total slaves. It’s obviously far easier to make endless categorization work in societies with one overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group — I’ve seen estimates of racial homogeneity in China at 90%+. The problem is that when you program your people’s brains through a seeming infinity of titles, you basically kill breakthrough innovation. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” becomes the hallmark. And then you’ve also created a fragile society.
And when you base it on kings and queens, and dynasties, you’re really screwed. Genes go sideways. There’s such a popular affectation in modern culture with this whole thing, it really makes my head reel. I just watched the Dune movie on HBO, and it’s reasonably fun. But one of the thought exercises I go through is, knowing what I know about evolution and devolution of societies, could such a planetary rigid hierarchy even exist? The answer — maybe thousands of years into the future, AFTER space flight had been invented, and perfected to the level where it was just a no-brainer. No society such as portrayed could ever actually INVENT space travel. But maybe, after aggregation and integration of knowledge over millennia (for example, you don’t know the metals inside your car’s engine, now, do you?) you could see deterioration of the empathetic human condition back to something like Dune.
It’s just not very likely.
So what happens when we lock in rigid hierarchies, with lots of categories and titles? You give the Sophistication folks a big leg up. You actually need them at the start, to compartmentalize and such. But if you lock all this stuff in, you freeze your society in time. Well, until the next big disturbance comes along, and you kick everyone back down into the Survival v-Meme. And they you reap the chaos from information corruption (it actually takes lots of folks to keep track of all those pronouns!) you’ve sown.
There are shorter timescales that are dominant, that might favor one group or another (including oppressed minorities) and there can be a case made for facilitation of such groups. But long-term, if you base your entire society on this kind of thinking, you’re screwed. Rigid hierarchies fundamentally live through the suppression of independent thought. And that makes people depressed, which opens them up to capture by more memetically evolved forces than themselves. There is no better example than Britain and China during the Opium Wars. The Chinese had, with only a few hiccups, developed a society based on a 1000 year stasis. And so it was trivial for the British to come in and give everyone drugs. Fragmented, authoritarian societies have bet everything on over-rewarding people’s dopamine loops. So it’s easy enough to step into that egocentric, hormonal cycle and give them a replacement that REALLY puts them to sleep.
This brings me to the term in the title of the piece. Such social systems have an incredibly stable Societal Attractor — in this case, some stable, generated culture based on Externally Defined, low empathy relationships. I was asked this question by one of the most insightful young philosophers out there — Daniel Goetz, whom I’ve written about here, along with his partner-in-crime, Emil Ejner Fries. “Why is Authoritarianism so stable?” The answer is actually a relatively simple tautology — when nothing changes, then nothing changes. Or rather, nothing good changes. You still see entropic deterioration – the universe is still the universe. And after long periods of prosperity (as we have in the U.S.) a consolidation of information on the good life, and that gets further and further captured in a list of superficial outcomes. A house, two cars, a dog, and so on.
But the world doesn’t stop changing. Such Societal Attractors are built on filling in the bottom of the v-Meme stack — Survival, Tribal/Deep Origination myths, Authority, and a Legal system. But because the models of how the society supposedly works DON’T change, though, they open themselves up to manipulation by the empathy-disordered. Game-playing becomes more important than actual outcomes. And since everyone has accepted, at some level, that the game is “fair” (since it’s always been that way) the winners are the deserved winners, and the losers are, well, the losers. There’s no metacognitive stretch in any of this (“what if we gave the losers a different hand of cards?”) because stasis — in this case, the Rigid Hierarchy Societal Attractor, is the goal. And over time, even if you start out at the more egalitarian, higher evolved attractor, phase transitions are still possible down to lower states.
Where does that term Societal Attractor come from? The deep explanation is from Nonlinear Systems Theory. Our brains are far more naturally wired to think in terms of Linear System theory — we have a society, and it has morphed and changed incrementally for as long as we have been humans. But here’s the Linear Systems theory punchline (which is wrong) — there’s just one society, and give or take, one particular way to live as humans. Anyone that knows much about history (and has grokked it) realizes this is total bullshit. There are lots of different ways that humans have adapted to different life conditions on the planet. It’s a function of the fact that our brains are programmed with software, as opposed to hardware. And that software is largely a function of how we interact as humans. That should be a no-brainer, but, well, if you look at the anthropological or sociological literature, it’s rarely discussed outside the messy concept of culture.
What this has to do with Societal Attractors is that there is a series of Separate, large scale patterns that create nested, potential societies. These societies have stable patterns as we move up in evolutionary complexity. Spiral Dynamics (the original version) does a great job of describing this, and I’ve written a bunch of about this in various locations on this blog, so I’m not going to write about it here.
But here’s the big point for this piece. Societal Attractors instantiate and capture a certain amount of information, of given sophistication, at any given time. These societies and their structures are more or less stable/persistent based on how rapidly changing world conditions are around them, and what their underlying information dynamics are that allow for adaptation and change. Lower v-Meme societies work on the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” principle. You don’t need to do much people/personal agency development in order to have a small one. But if your population grows, you do need a class of people to continuously generate larger and larger fixed schemas as your population changes and diversifies. That’s the centralized Societal Attractor for you.
Or you could develop people to think for themselves (think distributed decentralized systems) and then let them figure it out as they go along. It really boils down to two larger meta-strategies, if we are aware of the system dynamics (that whole self-awareness thing that lets us move up into Second Tier thinking…)
- Do we create a system that tells people what the right thing to do is?
2. Do we create a system that develops people so they can figure out what the right thing to do on their own?
And these two meta-types of Societal Attractors are what are confronting us in the COVID/Post-COVID world today.
With respect to COVID, there really was only one country that bet, more or less, on #2. That was Sweden — they made some mistakes re: care homes up front, that their leadership (Anders Tegnell) owned up to. But otherwise, they counted on their own people (and for good reason) to figure out what the right thing to do was, and educated toward that end. Sweden is likely done with COVID as anything other than an endemic disease, and as of this writing, the other Scandinavian nations have all followed suit, even down to air travel — no more idiotic masking on planes.
But while they were pursuing their high agency, independently generated relational strategy, they were excoriated by the press corps around the world. I’ve written about this here — the mainstream press corps does nothing except serve as a loudspeaker for the Authoritarians in the world, regardless of stripe — so it should come as no surprise that they did what they did. That’s what memetic warfare looks like, and it should come as no surprise that the primary mouthpiece would be the voice from The Top.
It should also come as no surprise, from a memetic conflict point of view, that such a press corps would constantly attack the unofficial news, and social media, with everything from the ostensible disinformation spread on all the things the Authorities would like to hold onto, as well as other false flag operations, like social media is destroying teen girls. This is NOT to say that there aren’t some elements of truth to both of these positions. But the constant drumbeat on the most extreme examples — well, that’s the way psychopathic memetic war operates. And the Societal Attractor for the Authority-driven world is still very powerful, and very much in control.
Societal Attractors are also heavily dependent on energetics of the system in play. Lower v-Meme attractors require less energy to run than higher empathy v-Meme attractors. They sit in the larger dimensional phase space in some potential well of attraction, and to greater or lesser extent, societies bounce around inside that given well. What that means is that an Authoritarian system can deviate from some perfect orbit. Different perturbations come in from the outside, as well as individuals generating ideas inside a given system and the level of Authority ebbs and flows.
I’ve written about this earlier with China — if you want to have a long-term stable Authoritarian system, you must indeed be rigid. But if you’re too rigid, then if something that is expected in the master-slave relationship is disturbed, you risk peasant revolt. Empathy is basically like a free energy principle inside any stable well, and lets things bounce around a bit. When China realized that people might actually organize around, for example, environmental pollution as a driving concern, they established GONGOs (Government-Organized NGOs) that destabilized protest movements, and drove people back into the mainline authoritarian participatory camp.
What does this mean in the context of Western (modestly) participatory democracies, in the time of COVID? For the last 50 years, we’ve been seeing disequilibrium in the energetic portion (think wage gap) of the societal attractor phase space. What this means is that we’ve had systems that have provided some modest agency in the context of a raft of institutions providing various governmental support services. But in order to operate in such a space, you have to have TIME and ENERGY to be a citizen. And as declining wages/energetic failure has increased, that destabilizes the potential well that a more egalitarian system sits in. That societal attractor moves closer to a cusp/bifurcation point.
And where does that take us energetically, from that point in our little societal attractor phase space? Authoritarianism. It literally is all downhill from there.
There’s no question that there are a variety of factors in play here, especially once we open up from a more closed, nation-state system to a global economy. Take the U.S. for example. We’ve coasted on immigrant labor from the south, having Latin-Americans pick our vegetables and raise our food, living often in wretched conditions and doing backbreaking labor so we don’t have to. What that enabled was a pseudo-democracy, similar to ancient Athens, where there were citizens, as well as slaves. At some level, we’ve also done this in H1-B visa-land. Instead of working to fix our own pipeline into tech through renovation of our own educational systems, we’ve turned to immigration to solve that problem. And yes — it’s not black-and-white. We’ve once again, gotten the better part of the deal.
But sooner or later, this kind of shit catches up with you. The downslide in living circumstances hits the mainstream. That causes economic dislocation, of course. But it also fuels personal depression — which is then attenuated through substances like Oxycontin. And you start that slide toward that lower energy societal attractor. This recent documentary on Netflix, American Factory, about the resurrection of a glass manufacturing factory outside of Dayton Ohio, really highlights this reality. The message the documentarians attempted to deliver is scrambled bullshit. But the deep truth is that former American workers, not used to being slaves, were really in the squeezer by the Chinese ownership to accept a far more slave-like existence, or else face external shame for not being hard-working.
And it’s not like the U.S. is the worst, by a long shot. That modern master/slave Societal Attractor is in high relief in countries like the United Arab Emirates, which is literally a slave society. Importing their slaves from places like Bangladesh, and the lesser servants from expedited boarding gates in the Manila airport, these people have their master/slave attractor game down.
The real peril in the modern world is that such societies will lock in educational and developmental differentials that may be almost impossible to dismantle once the flywheel of such attractor effects gets going. Already, during COVID times, poor kids didn’t get to go to schools, while the upper-middle class pulled their kids out of hamstrung public schools, and sent them to unmasked, far-more-favorable to empathetic development schools. There are the fundamentals of school time lost that will affect poor children. But even worse is the likely damage done by isolation to psyches and overall health. Obesity is up. Depression is up. And all these drive migration out of a more egalitarian state, with shared benefits and responsibilities. Because now the poor will DESERVE their maltreatment.
How has majoritarian COVID policy worked in all of this? Through the chronic drumbeat of relational disruption, it has hampered our global society’s ability to recenter itself. I think it’s useful to consider Michael Lind’s work on the Double Horseshoe model in the context.
The managerial elite has been affected the least of all. From private jet travel, to Gavin Newsom and his French Laundry dinner dates, life has pretty much gone on as normal. Their kids attend private institutions, and the help wears viral-ineffectual, but status-important masks in all interactions. The professional bourgeoisie has won in spades, accruing new titles along the way (pajama class, laptop class.) The small business bourgeoisie has taken it in the shorts — the tons of small businesses that used to provide both food and entertainment are kept alive only through government programs, and many have gone bankrupt.
And then there is the working class. The hub city working class needn’t look far to see that they better fall in line with whatever the various institutional edicts are. And the Heartland working class and the underclass have turned to drugs, suicide, or acceptance that their fate will be as slaves. No capture on chains required.
How exactly that happened is instructive. At the beginning of the COVID crisis, I do believe that most of the individuals involved in commenting and societal decisions did so in good faith. I certainly did, unaware of my own historical ignorance of public health. So I did contribute as well to the fear, and driving down of the society to that lower Societal Attractor. But I changed my mind relatively quickly. As I can now see, my conversion came too late to make an immediate difference. Those in control had already recruited enough of the low empathy institutional class, as well as the various and sundry sufferers of supplementary pathologies, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, to create the Survival v-Meme based models of control to use by the Authorities. A disordered low- and anti-empathetic Praetorian Guard formed around these issues that still remains today. Survival thinking is key to not just inflicting trauma and compliance on the target. It is also important for inducing both neural plasticity, and its incumbent amnesia and reordering necessary for that profound shift from a more egalitarian society to the master/slave Societal Attractor.
It is important to realize that we were on the cusp of all this Societal Attractor shifting before COVID started. The idea that the lower classes should deal with an increasingly negative reality, while the upper classes ate cake, really goes back to Bill Clinton and welfare reform — which was really a shift in response to the lack of labor in the slave economy. But it carried through in both Republican and Democratic regimes — pointless wars to dispatch our young people off to, to protect interests of the entrenched. And Obama, aside from some health care reform, did little to prevent it.
Just look at COVID policies and their relationally disruptive outcomes.
- Mask wearing — an inability to read faces and normally interact with others.
- Social distancing — the idea that interaction with others, especially unknown others, was hazardous to your health.
- Closing of social hubs for indeterminate amounts of time — gyms, outdoor venues and bars, restaurants.
- Identification of lower-class workers through indeterminate masking protocols.
- Vaccination conformance or fire policies.
- Vaccination passports.
What’s the point in understanding the current situation in terms of Societal Attractors? The biggest is to advance the idea that we get the society we deserve when we create incentives for dysfunction relational dynamics. Once a society does this, disruptive behavior becomes part of the attractor dynamics — and emergent — no need to create a new police force (though that has also occurred) to cause your society to come apart.
The other mostly undiscussed dynamic created is that it literally makes your population crazy. Or rather, creates the mental state necessary for larger psychosocial homeostasis. I’ve talked about this here. And once you’ve undermined that, you actually make it frighteningly difficult for a society to recover. Other, as yet unanticipated pathologies pop up, bringing a positive feedback loop to forcing a more permanent version of the master/slave Societal Attractor.
I wish I had a more hopeful note to end on — maybe it’s this. We CAN understand this social phenomenon. But we really have to realize that we’re in The Matrix. And The Matrix has principles that drives emergence, whether we believe it or not.
And the only way out, long-term, is to build empathy. In everyone.
PS — I did the best I could here, but I do acknowledge that some knowledge of complex systems would sure help out. Hot take if you’re in the field: societies sit in stable wells of attraction, and can be incredibly persistent in the face of perturbation. Lower v-Meme societies sit in deeper, more accessible wells of attraction than higher v-Meme, more complex systems. We are at the cusp of a phase transition that we have been proceeding toward for quite a while — from a more egalitarian to a master/slave society. COVID is not the only cause of this, but is driving the change, and the change has been championed by the institutionalists.