Social Currents

People have proposed various methods for understanding society and how people interact with each other, from dialectical materialism, to memetics, to analysis of incentive structures, even to viewing social groups as a kind of superorganism. And I thought- what if you were to take all those models and jam them together into some kind of big social theory Frankenstein? We might start by looking at the operant conditioning chamber- a simple device used in behavioral research, consisting of a box that administers rewards or punishment in response to certain actions- pushing a lever, or moving to a particular part of the box, etc. Experimental subjects placed into the operant conditioning chamber soon changed their behavior in response to these incentives, generally increasing rewarded behavior and decreasing penalized behavior. Even fruit flies, in a simple operant conditioning chamber that heated up when they moved to one side of the box, soon changed their behavior in response to these incentives, avoiding that side of the box. Our social interactions can be a bit like an operant conditioning chamber- our actions are either rewarded or penalized by those around us, through everything from subtle expressions of approval or disapproval to more overt forms of reward and penalty, and soon our actions shift in response to this. How our actions are incentivized or disincentivized is affected by the memes the people around us carry- memes not in the lolcat or SpongeBob sense, but in the older sense of the term: an element of a culture or a system of behavior passed from one individual to another. How the people around us will respond to our actions is shaped by their moral beliefs, political beliefs, religious beliefs, etc.- these collections of memes, or memeplexes, often contain a list of dos and don’ts, and people carrying these memes will incentivize or disincentivize our actions according to these scripts. Sometimes people create their own value systems, but usually people just pick up the value systems they’re immersed in by their community through osmosis, or join the communities because they find their value system appealing- but all value system memeplexes were created by someone at some point, to serve someone’s material interests. A group of people sharing a value system act in tandem as a massive incentive system, affecting the behavior of everyone they contact, in ways from subtle to extreme- to graph out what that looks like, let’s draw a rough diagram loosely inspired by a real life example, let’s say the culture war between the right and left and the new age scene in 1970’s California. Let’s represent these worldviews- left wing, right wing, and new age- with color dots, and say the blue dots indicate right-wingers, and the pink dots indicate left-wingers, and the orange/yellow ones indicate new-agers. And then from there, draw arrows to indicate the influence that people have over each other- with the size of the arrow indicating the degree of influence one person has on the other, and the color of the arrow representing which value system is guiding how they incentivize or disincentivize behavior- whether they’re following the values of right-wing politics, left-wing politics, or the new-age scene in how they reward or penalize the actions of the actions of that person. With some of these relations, we can see same-sized arrows pointing back and forth, indicating roughly equal mutual influence while in some cases, one arrow is much larger, or there’s only one arrow pointing in one direction- this indicates cases where the power is more imbalanced, for example your boss significant power to reward or punish your actions, while your own power to reward or punish your bosses actions on your own is negligible, and remains so unless you act in tandem with your fellow workers, thus changing the dynamic. The social incentives which an individual receives- the social reality that they experience, in other words- is determined by their relations to the people around them, and the set of social incentives one person receives will be radically different from that of another. Within right-wing social clusters, they would be rewarded for praising then-governor Ronald Reagan, in left-wing social clusters they would be rewarded for opposing the Vietnam war, in new-agey social clusters they would be socially penalized for expressing disbelief in crystal healing, and so on. These rewards likely taking the form of things like praise and increased social clout, and the social penalties likely including being mocked, scorned, or even shunned. And of course, within each of these clusters, we could hypothetically break them down into sub-clusters to indicate different factions within them- but while this is very simplified diagram, this works as a lose rendition of how communities interact- People with shared beliefs cluster together, and influence each other, and the people they’re socially adjacent to, according to those shared values, and in doing so they coalesce into collective incentive systems which shape the behavior of everyone they come into contact with. Now, the relation between incentives and behavior is not always straightforward- for example an intended penalty might act as a reward for a person who enjoys negative attention- but behavior is always inevitably affected by and contextualized by these incentives. From this angle, social groups which coalesce around memplexes like this appear as almost a kind of collective organism, with each person being a cell in the body of some kind of massive behemoth- the memeplex serving as it’s genetic code, and the incentives serving as it’s nervous system. Let’s call these collective organisms “social currents,” building off of the sense of the word current meaning “particular ideas, opinions or feelings being present in a group of people.” But also referencing it’s more common usage as referring to a current of water, or an electrical current, coursing through conduits. Most social phenomenon can be described in these terms- groups of people acting in tandem to incentivize and disincentivize behavior according to a memetic script- from political movements, to religions, to cults, to ethical philosophies, to governments, to corporations and even artistic movements- all of these can essentially be thought of as different varieties of social current. And there can also be social currents within social currents- for example all corporations are sub-currents of the super-current of capitalism, which is the prevailing hegemonic economic current at this time. The incentives used by social currents include everything from material incentives like money, to expressions of approval or disapproval from peers, to legal punitive measures like imprisonment- even our internal feelings of guilt and pride are ultimately based on the value systems we’ve picked up through social interaction, and thus are just another form of incentive that currents use. We could also roughly sort social currents according to the categories of Economic and Ideological- or in Marxist terms, Base and Superstructure. These both overlap and have a reciprocal relationship, of course, but there is a definite divide between social currents which incentivize mostly through material economic means, like corporations- let’s call these Economic, or Base Currents- and social currents which incentivize behavior through more subtle ideological and personal means, such as political ideologies and religions- let’s call these Ideological, or Superstructure Currents Often there will be a superstructure current which emerges out of a base current, or a base current which emerges out of a superstructure current- consider the mission statement of the ethos of a company as a superstructure current emerging out of a base current, or a boycott organized by a political group as a base current emerging out of a superstructure current- or, for a more complex example, the food program run by the Black Panthers- a base current emanating from a superstructure current, which, had there been a successful revolution, might have evolved into a more larger and more complex base current- a socialist economy. Morality, rather than being some unchanging concrete law set in stone and handed down from on high, is a function of this social phenomenon- people generate memetic scripts about which actions to incentivize and which to dis-incentivize, and the effect of this incentive structure will be to varying degrees beneficial, or detrimental, to society- or possibly beneficial to one group at the expense of another.
Morality isn’t like the laws of physics as much as it’s like a form of technology, which must always be continually updated and improved to be more beneficial to more people. While usually social currents operate simply through people following the incentive structure while acting in their own self-interest, once an individual has fully absorbed the value system of a current, they will act according to that value system even beyond the point of self interest- whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the merit of the value system of that social current- on how beneficial it is as a piece of moral social technology. To give a few examples to illustrate this: Example A: Two people in the desert come across water. Instead of splitting it evenly, the stronger of the two simply kills the other, and takes all the water for themselves. In the absence of external or internal incentive systems, self-interest plays out in horrific ways. Example B: Someone donates money, but the primary reason they did so was because they knew they would receive social approval for doing so, and benefit in the form of social approval outweighed the cost to themselves. Example C: Someone knowingly gives their life to save the lives of several other people- perhaps a civilian in a war-zone throwing themselves on a grenade. In this case there isn’t even the hypothetical chance they did it purely for selfish approval-seeking reasons, since the cost was their own life, and whatever social approval they may gain, they will never experience it. This is, nonetheless, still a function of social currents- it’s just that they have internalized the value system to the point where they adhere to it not just as a means to the end of gaining social approval (or avoiding social disapproval and punishment), but as an ends unto itself, and will adhere to it even at extreme personal cost. Example D: Some incel creep, stewing in toxic forums where people heap praise on monsters like Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian, goes on his own similar killing spree, ending the spree by taking his own life. This person will also never receive any social reward from their cohorts for their actions, but they had internalized the value system of the incel ideology to the point where they, similar to example C, will act on it even at extreme personal cost- the difference being that in this case the social current they’re adhering to is malignant. So you can see that while example C and example D are both acting nominally “selflessly”, example C is morally commendable, while example D is morally repugnant- and while both example A and example B are acting selfishly, and while example A is just as morally repugnant as example D, example B is only slightly less commendable than example C. acting selflessly does not inherently make you better than someone acting selfishly if the social current that you are selflessly adhering to is itself a malignant framework. (And this isn’t a static thing either, as a current that was once benign can become malignant over time). So selfishness is, overall, Not Great, but the picture is slightly more nuanced than “selfishness=bad, selflessness=good” In practice, social currents tend to have a certain anatomy- already in this diagram here we can see the different currents portrayed have clusters within them, as well as a noticeable edge- let’s outline those to bring them into clearer focus. When we do this, we can see an amoeba-like shape taking form- inner nuclei, and an outer membrane. Now, the amoeba metaphor clashes slightly with our cells-in-a-body metaphor- obviously it can’t be both a single celled amoeba and a multi-celled organism- but these are just metaphors to help explain the concepts and shouldn’t be taken too literally. When the two memeplexes are more compatible, the superorganisms will overlap as they absorb into each other, and when they memeplexes are less compatible, they’ll form more distinct boundaries, and attempt to siphon away people from each other, acting more directly in competition. The compatibility-or lack thereof- between two memeplexes, is contingent on whether the contradiction between them is antagonistic- but this is always changing. Some contradictions which were originally non-antagonistic, develop into antagonistic ones, and others, which were originally antagonistic, develop into non-antagonistic ones. Here we can see both the left-wing current and the right-wing current overlapping with the current of the new-age scene, making it a flashpoint for political sparring- this kind of scenario, where one social current will become the arena in which two other currents battle each other, is fairly common, and in fact the culture war between the right and the left within the new age scene in the 70’s is mirrored today by culture war skirmishes between the right and left within the Norse neopagan scene. Social currents have a tendency to try to place parts of the memeplex which are more appealing to outsiders on the external membrane, and to place parts which are more alienating to outsiders closer to the nuclei, Scientologists don’t exactly tell people about all that Xenu stuff right off the bat, you feel me? The Mormons actually have a term to describe this strategy- Milk Before Meat- the idea being that you must first expose potential converts to the spiritual “milk”- the more appealing parts of the memeplex- before exposing them to the spiritual “meat”- the more alienating parts of the memeplex. In addition, incentive structures are usually more severe, and the rules more strict, the deeper you go- this similarly helps to ease the process by which someone is absorbed into a social current. In addition to parallels in social structure, there are also parallels in terms of memetic structure- for example, the memeplexes of most social currents have as their foundation an analytical framework for understanding the world, which acts as the reasoning behind why certain acts should be incentivized or dis-incentivized. This analytical framework will often include parsing people into descriptive categories. People within the current will not only parse others in these terms, they will parse themselves in these terms as well, and thus the analytical framework will become closely tied to their own conception of self. Since the analytical framework becomes the lens through which people within the current perceive both the world around them and themselves, in addition to being currents of incentives, social currents are also currents of perception. Generally, there’s a strong correlation between the efficacy of a social current, and the degree to which it’s analytical framework accurately reflects material reality. In some of those nuclei clusters we can see noticeable power imbalances, particularly the two on the right hand side of the diagram, which are clearly centered around specific individuals or groups who the rest of the cluster is subordinate to. To tie this more firmly into the real world, if the pink and the blue represent the political left and the right in this model, then the nuclei-like clusters would be both informal and formal groups of political activists, with some of the more formally organized political groups having overt hierarchies and chains of command. These kinds of power imbalances within a social current can have a detrimental effect upon it, resulting in a kind of social distortion. To illustrate an example, consider the reverend of a right-wing church gradually making their church more cult-like, consolidating their own power at the expense of their followers. What happens is a person who already has disproportionate power within the social current- in this case the aforementioned reverend- shifts their value system in their own favor, re-writing the rules to their own benefit- here I’m representing that shift with the shift from blue to teal-ish in the upper right corner, representing a shift from the background ideology they emerged from to the more specific ideology of a tightly controlled cult- and this has a ripple effect on the cluster surrounding them, shifting it so that the other people in the group better serves the interests of the leader, often at the expense of everyone else within the cluster. The subtle shift from preacher to cult leader, and the attendant shift in the social mores of the church, doesn’t in any way benefit the followers, only the leader- but given the leader’s disproportionate ability to reward or punish their followers, they fall in line out of fear of punishment, adopting the new value system, and enforcing it on each other horizontally in addition to the pressure the cult leader is exerting from above. So while the popular narrative holds that we need hierarchy to maintain social order, in actuality hierarchy is in many ways harmful to the social order- the powerful have every motivation to shift the rules in their favor, to change the current’s incentive structures such that it acts to their benefit and exploits the people lower in the hierarchy. Not to mention when there is a clear divide between the people who make or enforce social rules, and the people subject to them, the people who make or enforce social rules have little reason to follow them. And of course, a lot of the times the social rules were already in their favor to begin with- hence why they had more influence in the first place. In either case, whether baked in from the beginning or a function of societal distortion as the powerful further entrench their power, the end result of memeplexes being twisted by hierarchy is the same: the prevailing ideas and values are the values of the ruling class, and the interests of the ruling class disguised as the universal interest of all. Luckily, hegemonic power attempting to entrench itself isn’t the only way a social current’s value system can shift, and there are other forces which act to counteract the entrenchment of the ruling class- put a pin in that, because we’re going to come back to that in a minute. There’s also another type of cluster within the social currents in this chart, and that’s clusters of people who have become dissatisfied with the status quo of the social norms of the current they’re within – lets highlight those in grey. These pockets of dissatisfaction generally emerge in response to legitimate grievances with real problems in the value system of the status quo (though they can also occasionally be founded on illegitimate grievances, like that of a formerly ruling class losing their power.) Often these problems in the value system are tied into the kind of exploitative hierarchies I mentioned earlier. Lets say that this pocket of dissatisfaction is women who are critical of harmful and misogynistic social norms around sex within the left, particularly relating to the Free Love movement which was popular at the time, while the pocket of dissatisfaction within the right wing current is people dissatisfied with the excesses of the ascendant evangelical right, perhaps specifically unhappy with the excesses of the preacher turned cult leader that they’re socially adjacent to. On one hand, these pockets of dissatisfaction can act as a weakness for a competing social current to siphon away individuals, in the form of people from the competing current reaching out to the people in the pocket and making the case that they would be happier if they were to leave their current for the competitor, in this example someone reaching out to people alienated by the church-turned-cult, and making the case to them that the social values within the left prevent this kind of reactionary religious excess- in this framework it can almost be represented as one current extending a pseudopod into the other current to draw away people from it. This is a relatively simple example- one person reaching out to another- but a current can generate extremely complex social mechanisms to draw people from other currents into itself. For example consider a group like redneck revolt, which reaches out to people in right-wing leaning rural areas and recruits them into the left, or, conversely, for another example from the 1970’s time frame of our diagram, the Jesus movement, a movement which recruited hippies into reactionary evangelical Christianity- unlike Redneck Revolt, which is pretty overt in what it’s goals are, the Jesus movement was more deceptive, framing itself as a left-leaning progressive brand of Christianity when in actuality it’s most prominent figures were staunchly reactionary- just look at the Jesus movement associated cult the Children of God, which marketed itself to hippies and presented itself as progressive to outsiders, while it’s leader, David Berg, was preaching antisemitic, racist, and homophobic screeds to the people in the cult. An especially deceptive version of the milk before meat strategy comes into play here, in this case being used as a strategy to siphon people away from the left while concealing that intention, presenting a progressive face to suck in hippies and then indoctrinating them with far-right ideology once they’ve been ensnared. In addition to being used to conceal the reactionary neo-nazi ideology of the Children Of God, these tactics were also used to conceal the horrific child trafficking and sexual abuse which occurred within the cult. So while the strategy of one social current extending a pseudopod into another to siphon away members from it may be pretty universal, it can either be done in ways which are more honest about that intention, like Redneck Revolt, or it can be done in underhanded and dishonest ways, like the Jesus Movement, and relying on deceptive “milk before meat” tactics. And of course, milk before meat tactics can sometimes fail- sometimes the more alienating parts of the memeplex end up alienating people, in spite of attempts made to mitigate this- and whether this results in those people simply returning to the current they were being absorbed from, or forming a new pocket of dissatisfaction, depends on the scenario- specifically on the degree to which they had absorbed from one current to another. While these pockets of dissatisfaction can act as a weakness for another current to leech off of, on the other hand they can also act to generate a corrective force, as people in these pockets who have been harmed by the existing social norms of the current they’re in, create a new value system, in response to their material needs- so for example, as mentioned earlier, this pocket of dissatisfaction in the diagram represents women who had been harmed by the dysfunctional social norms around sex in the 60’s and 70’s radical scene, and this spurs them to create critiques of the “free love” ideology which was prevalent at the time, these critiques later forming into what would be described as “sex negative” feminism. In this diagram this is represented by the grey pocket of dissatisfaction becoming a new internal social current, which acts in opposition to the current surrounding it on the point of contradiction- in this case the social norms around sex on the left- while still acting in tandem with it on the larger scale. Here the red current within the pink current represents sex negative feminism within the larger context of the “free love” ideology which prevailed in much of the left. This internal current spreads within the social current surrounding it, absorbing people who resonate with their critiques of the social status quo, eventually dispersing and incorporating itself into the larger surrounding current. In the classic dialectical materialist model, the first current is the thesis, then the new current growing out of the pocket of dissatisfaction is the antithesis, then they synthesize into a new social status quo, and this will inevitably will have it’s own flaws which will create new pockets of dissatisfaction, and the process repeats. For example, as portrayed in this diagram, the problems inherent in the 1960’s radical scene’s social norms around sex was the flashpoint for the development of feminist critiques of sex and porn, and then the flaws inherent within the sex negative framework spurred sex positive feminist critiques, and then the flaws within the sex positive framework spurred a new wave of sex critical feminism, and so forth, this back-and forth dialectic working to shape the social norms around sex within social spaces on the left. Now, I’m sure some would argue that in the back and forth between sex negativity and sex positivity, one of the two was reactionary, and emerged to retain the privilege of an oppressive class and undo progress. However I think both sex positivity and sex negativity- and the back and forth dialectic between them- all played a progressive role in improving the social norms around sex within the left. This pattern, in which people disenfranchised by the current value system create a new value system, which spurs action which shifts social norms to better accommodate peoples needs, is visible everywhere- revolutionary action by the oppressed against the status quo is not only a force in driving social and moral advancement- it’s the primary force, the process by which one morality supplants another, repeating over and over throughout history. This is where we come back to that pin from earlier- this is the social process which acts to counteract the entrenchment of the ruling class. Another example where we can see this pattern playing out is in the field of LGBT rights, where homophobic and transphobic laws and social mores- which are a harmful incentive system which unnecessarily punishes benign behavior- spurs the emergence of the lgbt rights movement, as the people harmed by homophobic and transphobic social mores and laws joined together in radical action to change them- by forming new social incentive systems which act to counteract harmful homophobic social systems by penalizing homophobia. History is class struggle, and class struggle plays out in the struggle of clashing incentive systems. Or for an example on a larger scale, consider the way feudalism was supplanted by liberalism and capitalism, particularly around such flashpoints as the French Revolution- so we can see that this dialectical pattern can take many different forms, and while sex critical feminism and sex positive feminism both acted internally within the left, the contradiction which spurred the decline of feudalism was more severe. Similarly, at this point it’s necessary for capitalism to be supplanted by an entirely new economic current- the contradictions at play here are too severe to be resolved through a more subtle internal dialectical process. The prevailing system of morality will need to be supplanted by a new, proletarian morality. As noted earlier, a formerly ruling class losing it’s power due to social progress creates it’s own pocket of dissatisfaction, and this can create a harmful reactionary social current which aims to undo that progress. These reactionary currents can have a significant memetic ripple effect, outlasting the actual people who lost their power in the first place. For example, the reactionary current which emanated from the aristocracy and monarchy losing their power after feudalism declined, was so significant that it continues to this day. The central narrative of monarchist reactionaries in the wake of the decline of feudalism was that progressivism and democracy were an evil sinister force, and that Jewish people, Freemasons, and the Illuminati were behind them (especially in relation to the French revolution). Reactionaries resort to these kinds of absurd narratives precisely because they fail to understand exactly the kinds of social processes I’m explaining here- if they did, they would realize that the end of monarchism and feudalism was an inevitable result of the cruel abuses of power by monarchs and the inherent flaws within feudalism as a system. As you’ve probably already noted, this antisemitic and anti-masonic narrative continues to play a central role in reactionary movements to this day, from Fascism to NeoReaction- though some original-flavor Moldbug-style NeoReactionaries attempted to swap out the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theorism for a sinister Calvinist conspiracy. The Illuminati in reality was a short-lived enlightenment-era discussion group founded by Adam Weishaupt, but then some deranged pro-monarchist priest named Augustin Barruel accuses them of having caused the French revolution, and from there the telephone game of the memetic ripple effect exaggerates the Illuminati into the ultimate shadowy boogeyman in the reactionary narrative. Interestingly, as this memeplex mutated, it took on the character of a kind of false class consciousness, with the mythologized illuminati serving as a decoy to distract from the actual capitalist ruling class. This modern interpretation of the conspiracy theory is very much at odds with Augustin Barruel’s original writing- the main crimes Augustin accused the Illuminati of were disobedience to the Crown and the Church, and of spreading populist democratic values- not “ruling the world” or anything of that sort. In this way we can see that memeplexes which were at one point created explicitly to defend the power of the ruling class- like Augustin Barruel’s original writing in defense of monarchy- might later be disguised with a phony “anti-elite” posture, as we can see in contemporary reactionary conspiracy theorism. But by tracing that social current back to it’s origin, it’s actual purpose becomes clear. The fact that the whole right-wing conspiracy theory about the Illuminati is directly traceable back to the reactionary response to the French Revolution, shows just how severe the memetic ripple from that reactionary social current was, and how firmly caught up in it’s wake a lot of modern reactionaries are. Both fascism and neoreaction can be understood as essentially mutations and cross-pollinations of the reactionary current that emerged in response to the French Revolution. However, while reactionary currents can undo progress, nonetheless the general overall trend of history is toward improvement- the long moral arc of the universe, bending, if only ever so slightly, toward justice. How do you create an incentive system without that incentive system creating a power imbalance between those it rewards and those it penalizes? It’s a difficult question, with no easy answer But it exposes the reality of what the connection between social order and hierarchy actually is- rather than hierarchy being the foundation upon which social order rests, hierarchy is more accurately a toxic byproduct of social order, which, if not minimized and corrected through revolutionary upheaval, will eventually corrupt and twist the mechanisms of social order until they exist only to serve the needs of the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Of course, this may drive some to say that social currents and incentive structures are inherently evil- They might say “We must cast off all binds that might shape our behavior, destroy all authoritarian social mores, reject all coercive social systems, and embrace individualism fully! etc” They might also tell you that you’re “spooked” and tell you to read Stirner. Here’s the thing though- any time you have people in a group where some of them have shared beliefs about right or wrong, these kinds of social incentive systems are going to emerge- the only way to prevent these social structures from forming would be to somehow stop people from having or sharing ideas about right and wrong, or to prevent them from doing anything which might in some way encourage or discourage the actions of another- but how would you do this without in some way dis-incentivizing those behaviors, and thus acting as an incentive system yourself? It’s the inescapable problem which any philosophy which treats absolute total freedom as it’s terminal value inevitably runs into- it always culminates in the same absurd culmination: the creation of restrictive set of rules- to prevent anyone from imposing any rules. And more importantly, even if it were somehow possible to meaningfully abolish all incentive systems, this would not in actuality be a desirable outcome- as demonstrated in part 3, the absence of any incentive system is just as horrible as even the worst social current. It is, of course, important to fight against excessive punishments or unnecessary or overly strict laws and social codes, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming the very concept of having social codes is inherently negative. The goal shouldn’t be to utterly abolish all social incentive structures entirely, but rather to correct what is broken, to replace harmful incentive structures with beneficial ones, and to improve upon the social technology of ethics- in short, to drive the great revolutionary dialectical engine at the heart of history and morality always forward, toward apotheosis.

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