Thought & Action

A Survival Manual for Dangerous Times

Intellectuals vs. Pragmatists


Should you focus more on theory or practice? The logical answer is that you need them both, and that you can’t separate the two. But we see constant opposition between people who focus on theory and people who focus on practice — between intellectuals and pragmatists.

Intellectuals resent pragmatists; they see them as amoral, greedy, and undeserving of their success. Pragmatists despise intellectuals; they see them as useless, ungrounded and annoying.

When pragmatists talk, intellectuals dismiss them. When intellectuals talk, pragmatists ignore them.



The archetypical intellectuals are professors living the life of the mind in academia. The archetypical pragmatists are career strivers in the corporate world.

That college professors are impractical intellectuals is a common viewpoint. But are corporate strivers really anti-intellectual? Investment bankers and management consultants certainly aren’t dumb: their work is, in fact, extremely mentally taxing. But, when journalists (another breed of intellectual) write about evil capitalists, they’re sure to mention their ignorance and lack of culture. It’s as though they go to special lengths to exclude certain undesirable people from the intellectual club.

The tech startup world contains a mixture of both tribes. At one extreme are the “idea guys”: people with a long list of elaborate and half-baked ideas and a short track record of actual success. At the other extreme are the guys running sketchy-sounding online businesses in areas like affiliate marketing or black-hat SEO. No-one would call the idea guys pragmatists, nor would you describe the online marketing hustlers as intellectuals.


People tend to follow a mixture of these two impulses. But it’s assumed that pragmatism and intellectualism pull in opposite directions: that the more intellectual someone is, the less practical they are, and vice versa. The absent-minded professor is a well-known trope, as is the street-smart, uneducated wheeler-dealer. Over-thinkers are advised to get their heads out of the clouds and to come down to earth.

These examples also imply that pragmatists are more respected. But compare the common perception of people in intellectual professions — academics, journalists, artists — to those in pragmatic professions — businessmen, military officers, policemen. Intellectuals are commonly seen as more morally pure, more detached from worldly concerns; whereas pragmatists are seen as vaguely dubious, assumed to be involved in questionable activities.


So we have a seeming contradiction. The more removed someone is from reality, the less real-world success we expect them to have — which makes sense. But the closer someone is to reality, the more ethically dubious they seem. And, as noted earlier, intellectuals are assumed to be more intelligent — though, on closer inspection, this doesn’t actually hold up.

Maybe not all pragmatists are anti-intellectual, and not all intellectuals are impractical? In point of fact, we do see people who combine the best traits of the two groups. So why do people tend to fall on one side? Why is there a split between the two?

I think the split arises from the tendency of intellectuals to create elaborate, ungrounded theories, and from the tendency of pragmatists to over-react to this by abandoning theory altogether. This creates the notion that theory and practice are opposed: that theory is impractical, and that practice refutes theory. Let’s look at this in more detail.


Theorising is fun for intellectuals. Academics and idea guys all enjoy building abstractions on top of abstractions, and combining ideas in clever and elaborate ways. Theorising tends to depart from reality because the mind prefers to work with things which are clean, precise and predictable, yet the real world is messy, unclear and volatile. Think of chess; it’s warfare, simulated for intellectuals.

Amongst academic intellectuals, this tendency appears when thinkers attempt to shunt reality into some abstract framework — words on a page, symbols on a blackboard — and then proceed to build further abstractions on top of the framework, while ignoring reality. Sometimes they take this a step further, and declare that reality is invalid if it doesn’t fit their abstract theories. [1]

Amongst more enterprising intellectuals, the tendency manifests as the belief that problems should be solved in the cleverest way possible. [2] In the for-profit world, people try to combine multiple buzzword trends into one “disruptive” product. In the non-profit world, people try to solve multiple issues with one TED-worthy big idea. [3]

Notice that in all these cases, intellectuals succeed or fail based on convincing some third party funders of how clever they are; not on whether their ideas are actually effective in the real world.


Pragmatists adopt anti-intellectualism as a defence against unrealistic theorising. If you can’t refute the intellectuals, but don’t want to follow their wonky recommendations, one obvious move is to avoid abstract theories as much as possible, and to keep your focus on the concrete and tangible.

Pragmatists tend to ignore or dismiss any information which doesn’t relate to their current goals. If the prime directive is to hit the quarterly revenue targets, that’s simply a fact of reality, like the Sun — and any whittering that chasing short-term sales will hurt long-term profits is perceived as distracting noise.

Short-termism is therefore a common trap for pragmatists. Enron, Zynga and Groupon kept working until they didn’t, but, while they were working, the fact they they were built on shaky foundations wouldn’t have been obvious from their sales figures. You would have had to examine their fundamentals to have seen the cracks. [4]

The other trap is assuming that practicality implies chasing certain goals: e.g. sex, money or power. Reality never tells you what to do. In some situations you’re essentially fighting for survival, and it’s easy to prioritise (think of Israeli or Singaporean foreign policy). But, at other times, you find yourself faced with excess capacity and many possible routes forward, and deciding which to take requires thought. If you only chase short-term, “pragmatic” goals, you flop around, get in trouble and squander your initial advantage (think of American foreign policy). [5]


So, we have one group who excessively focus on theory, and another group who abandon theory altogether. Both lead to pitfalls. What about the people who successfully integrate theory with practice?

In the 19th century, Prussia rose to become one of the Great Powers of Europe. The ideal Prussian military officers was half thinker, half man of action. They would analyse past campaigns and form theories of military strategy — and then put their theories to the test in real-life combat. They certainly saw no split between theory and practice, and their new concepts of military organisation and strategy helped the Prussians dominate Europe militarily.

We see a less hardcore version of the same mindset amongst the genuinely innovative entrepreneurs who first develop a solid understanding of their target markets and their industry, and then use this knowledge to launch products which are both novel and valuable. Poker players, traders and engineers (especially those with experience managing large projects) also seem to naturally develop this mindset.

I call the people who combine theory and practice — who are both smart and get things done —executives.

The executive approach is to begin pragmatically, but to then slowly build up a theory as you proceed. You spot similarities between different events, identify the common patterns, and form new concepts based on your own analysis of the underlying causes. As you form new ideas, you constantly put them into practice, scrapping them if they prove unrealistic.

As with the Prussian officers, you keep yourself in a position where reality will punch you in the face if you start believing bullshit. Ultimately, you aim to build a rock-solid theory that’s been hit hard from every angle, but which has managed to remain standing.

Executives beat pragmatists by thinking long-term. They don’t simply act on the range of the moment; they notice when the fundamentals of a situation tell a different story to the surface details.

Executives beat intellectuals by understanding that abstract ideas are just tools for dealing with reality. Experience doesn’t have to be shoe-horned into existing concepts; concepts can be revised to fit experience.

But not all executives think the same way. Next week, I’ll analyse the fundamental beliefs of three very different executive minds.

Picture credit: Chetan Menaria


[1] This basic tendency is Platonism — the belief in an abstract world of truth more real than the real world — and it has sprung up constantly amongst intellectuals throughout history.

[2] The mistake here is confusing cleverness with intelligence. Intelligence is identifying the fundamental reality of a situation and a sensible plan of action; cleverness is building the most elaborate theory for a situation and a complicated, fragile plan of action.

[3] One example of this was the idea of building water pumps in African villages, powered by children’s roundabouts. When the children played on the roundabout, water was pumped up — a classic “two-birds-with-one-stone” idea. But when the roundabout-pumps were installed, it transpired that they had to be used constantly to produce sufficient water, and adult women ended up having to spin the roundabouts manually. In effect, the charity had built a very expensive, very inefficient pump.

[4] Yes, these companies did have models — smart pragmatists do use abstract frameworks, but they exclude certain pieces of data from their analysis, and ignore slippery issues of interpretation. (This is how pragmatists can end up flopping over and becoming pseudo-intellectuals. Zynga, for example, followed pure behaviourism — the idea that humans can be modelled as pure stimulus/response machines).

[5] Specifically, to make decisions when faced with open-ended possibilities, you need a concept of value. Some people assume the Darwinian drives (survival, sex, money, power) are the only source of values, but this assumption is also questionable. More on this is a future post.

An Ideological History Of Early Christianity [Full Text]

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I’m interested in ideologies. How do ideologies grow, how do they organise, and how do they suppress competing ideologies?

The story of Christianity is an epic of ideological warfare: a tiny religious cult that grew to dominate a continent-spanning empire, and then, after the empire’s collapse, built a thousand-year organisation amidst the ruins.

One core assumption I make is that people’s actions are moral and rational within the framework of their own ideology. Given Christian beliefs, it was rational for Christians to try to take over the world; given Roman beliefs about religion, it was rational for the Romans to persecute Christians.

As a conservative atheist, I was struck by the intellectual rigour and integrity of early Christians. Early Christianity was not a collection of vague platitudes formed by feel-good consensus: early Christians lived every premise of their creed, fought over a single word in their doctrine, and died defending their ideas.

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An Ideological History Of Early Christianity

I wrote an epically-long (6000+ words) post on Social Matter on Christianity in Ancient Rome. It was very interesting to research and to write about — I love mentally vacationing in the ancient world, and the story turned out to have many twists I wasn’t previously aware of.

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Spengler On Technology

Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“Decline of the West”) is one of the most fascinating books I’ve come across. To modern ears he sounds both extremely mystical and extremely right-wing. This is a weird combination for most, and an intriguing one for capitalist hippies like me.

In a recent post I dissed the current obsession for simplicity and digestibility in online writing (i.e., 800-word Medium posts containing 150 words worth of ideas). Spengler is the opposite — not only is every paragraph of his a jewel reflecting a whole galaxy of novel thinking, the book is also extremely fucking long. (I haven’t yet read it cover to cover — maybe some time in the next two decades.)

Let’s just dive right in, and I’ll explain Spengler’s worldview and thought processes as we go. The following is all drawn from the last chapter in the book:

Very different is the Faustian technics, which with all its passion of the third dimension, and from earliest Gothic days, thrusts itself upon Nature, with the firm resolve to be its master. Here, and only here, is the connexion of insight and utilization a matter of course. Theory is working hypothesis from the outset. The Classical investigator “contemplated” like Aristotle’s deity, the Arabian sought as alchemist for magical means (such as the Philosophers’ Stone) whereby to possess himself of Nature’s treasures without effort,’ but the Western strives to direct the world according to his will.

‘Faustian’ is Spengler’s term for contemporary Western civilisation. He’s contrasting its approach to technology to the Classical (i.e., Greek and Roman) and Arabian (i.e., anything in the Middle East from about 500 AD) civilisations. Unlike other writers, Spengler does not see modern Western civilisation as a continuation of Classical civilisation — although the former originated in the ruins of the latter, it’s a distinct creature with a distinct soul.

The reference to the “third dimension” is Spengler’s idea that a key part of the soul of every culture is a unique conception of space — for Western culture, this is infinite three-dimensional space. The Classical spatial motif is the perfect circle, whereas the Arabian one is an enclosed sphere (or dome, or cave), with light shining in.

The Faustian inventor and discoverer is a unique type. The primitive force of his will, the brilliance of his visions, the steely energy of his practical ponderings, must appear queer and incomprehensible to anyone at the standpoint of another Culture, but for us they are in the blood. Our whole Culture has a discoverer’s soul. To dis-cover that which is not seen, to draw it into the light-world of the inner eye so as to master it — that was its stubborn passion from the first days on. All its great inventions slowly ripened in the deeps, to emerge at last with the necessity of a Destiny. All of them were very nearly approached by the high-hearted, happy research of the early Gothic monks. Here, if anywhere, the religious origins of all technical thought are manifested. These meditative discoverers in their cells, who with prayers and fastings wrung God’s secret out of him, felt that they were serving God thereby. Here is the Faust-figure, the grand symbol of a true discovering Culture. The Scientia ixperimenfalis, as Roger Bacon was the first to call nature-research, the insistent questioning of Nature with levers and screws, began that of which the issue lies under our eyes as a countryside sprouting factory-chimneys and conveyor- towers. But for all of them, too, there was the truly Faustian danger of the Devil’s having a hand in the game, the risk that he was leading them in spirit to that mountain on which he promises all the power of the earth. This is the significance of the perpetuum mobile dreamed of by those strange Dominicans like Petrus Peregrinus, which would wrest the almightiness from God. Again and again they succumbed to this ambition; they forced this secret out of God in order themselves to be God. They listened for the laws of the cosmic impulse in order to overpower it. And so they created the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone. But with that they overpassed the slender border-line whereat the reverent piety of others saw the beginning of sin, and on it, from Roger Bacon to Giordano Bruno, they came to grief. Ever and ever again, true belief has regarded the machine as of the Devil.

The “early Gothic monks” are mentioned here because, in Spengler’s model, they belong in the early springtime of Western civilisation, and he discerns in their thoughts and actions the same impulse as that of later Western scientists and inventors. All the “slowly ripened in the deeps” and “necessity of a Destiny” relate to Spengler’s idea that civilisations are essentially organic entities, which grow and unfold according to their cosmic destiny.

(If I’ve lost you here, you can appreciate Spengler’s insights while discarding most of his metaphysical ponderings. He’s basically looking for common patterns in the development, rise, and fall of civilisations. These commonalities indeed exist, and for similar reasons to those which cause dolphins to look a lot like sharks — although unrelated, they are shaped by the same environmental pressures. Both also have unique characteristics, which lead to further unique developments — warm-blooded dolphins need to consume more food but also can support larger brains, and so on.

The idea of reading someone like Spengler is not to accept or reject their views wholesale, but to translate their thoughts into your own conceptual terms and see if that generates insights.)

I should also mention that Spengler refers to the organic phase of a civilisation as a Culture, and sees civilisations as the frozen end product of a Culture: the winter-time period after which no fundamental changes occur. (Germans of Spengler’s time often saw themselves representing a romantic young Kultur against decadent Anglo-French civilisation). I’m using the two terms interchangeably.

The passion of discovery declares itself as early as the Gothic architecture — compare with this the deliberate form-poverty of the Doric ! — and is manifest throughout our music. Book-printing appeared, and the long-range weapon. On the heels of Columbus and Copernicus come the telescope, the microscope, the chemical elements, and lastly the immense technological corpus of the early Baroque.

Then followed, however, simultaneously with Rationalism, the discovery of the steam-engine, which upset everything and transformed economic life from the foundations up. Till then nature had rendered services, but now she was tied to the yoke as a slave, and her work was as though in contempt measured by a standard of horse-power. We advanced from the muscle-force of the Negro, which was set to work in organized routines, to the organic reserves of the Earth’s crust, where the life-forces of millennia lay stored as coal; and to-day we cast our eyes on inorganic nature, where water-forces are already being brought in to supplement coal. As the horse-powers run to millions and milliards, the numbers of the population increase and increase, on a scale that no other Culture ever thought possible. This growth is a product of the Machine, which insists on being used and directed, and to that end centuples the forces of each individual. For the sake of the machine, human life becomes precious. Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate. The entire Culture reaches a degree of activity such that the earth trembles under it.

This section’s pretty straightforward, but I wanted to highlight the following: “Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate.”

And what now develops, in the space of hardly a century, is a drama of such greatness that the men of a future Culture, with other soul and other passions, will hardly be able to resist the conviction that “in those days” nature herself was tottering. The politics stride over cities and peoples; even the economics, deeply as they bite into the destinies of the plant and animal worlds, merely touch the fringe of life and efface themselves. But this technique will leave traces of its heyday behind it when all else is lost and forgotten. For this Faustian passion has altered the Face of the Earth.

This is the outward- and upward-straining life-feeling — true descendant, therefore, of the Gothic — as expressed in Goethe’s Faust monologue when the steam-engine was yet young. The intoxicated soul wills to fly above space and Time. An ineffable longing tempts him to indefinable horizons. Man would free himself from the earth, rise into the infinite, leave the bonds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars. That which the glowing and soaring inwardness of St. Bernard sought at the beginning, that which Griinewald and Rembrandt conceived in their backgrounds, and Beethoven in the trans-earthly tones of his last quartets, comes back now in the intellectual intoxication of the inventions that crowd one upon another. Hence the fantastic traffic that crosses the continents in a few days, that puts itself across oceans in floating cities, that bores through mountains, rushes about in subterranean labyrinths, uses the steam-engine till its last possibilities have been exhausted, and then passes on to the gas-engine, and finally raises itself above the roads and railways and flies in the air; hence it is that the spoken word is sent in one moment over all the oceans; hence comes the ambition to break all records and beat all dimensions, to build giant halls for giant machines, vast ships and bridge-spans, buildings that deliriously scrape the clouds, fabulous forces pressed together to a focus to obey the hand of a child, stamping and quivering and droning works of steel and glass in which tiny man moves as , unlimited monarch and, at the last, feels nature as beneath him.

And these machines become in their forms less and ever less human, more ascetic, mystic, esoteric. They weave the earth over with an infinite web of subtle forces, currents, and tensions. Their bodies become ever more and more immaterial, ever less noisy. The wheels, rollers, and levers arc vocal no more. All that matters withdraws itself into the interior. Man has felt the machine to be devilish, and rightly. It signifies in the eyes of the believer the depo- sition of God. It delivers sacred Causality over to man and by him, with a sort of foreseeing omniscience is set in motion, silent and irresistible.

Machines becoming “ever more and more immaterial”, “ever less noisy” might seem prescient, since Spengler had no idea of the post-industrial age with its electronic devices, fibre-optic cables, satellites and so on. Actually, in his time electricity and radio waves were beginning to be harnessed, so that particular trend was already apparent. Spengler isn’t in the business of making precise technological predictions: instead, he sees the emerging technological world as reflecting the spirit of Western culture, and makes forecasts based on that.

Never save here has a microcosm felt itself superior to its macrocosm, but here the little life-units have by the sheer force of their intellect made the un-living dependent upon themselves. It is a triumph, so far as we can see, un-paralleled. Only this our Culture has achieved it, and perhaps only for a few centuries.

He mentions the “machine as microcosm” idea again — machines as precise little worlds, obeying the rule of their (human) creators.

What follows is an extremely interesting section:

But for that very reason Faustian man has become the slave of his creation. His number, and the arrangement of life as he lives it, have been driven by the machine on to a path where there is no standing still and no turning back. The peasant, the hand-worker, even the merchant, appear suddenly as inessential in comparison with the three great figures that the Machine has bred and trained up in the cause of its development: the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker.

Out of a quite small branch of manual work — namely, the preparation-economy — there has grown up (jn this one Culture alone) a mighty tree that casts its shadow over all the other vocations — namely, the economy of the machine-industry. It forces the entrepreneur not less than the workman to obedience. Both become slaves, and not masters, of the machine, that now for the first time develops its devilish and occult power. But although the Socialistic theory of the present day has insisted upon looking only at the latter’s contribution and has claimed the word “work” for him alone, it has all become possible only through the sovereign and decisive achievement of the former. The famous phrase concerning the “strong arm” that bids every wheel cease from running is a piece of wrong-headedness. To stop them — yes ! but it does not need a worker to do that. To keep them running — no ! The centre of this artificial and complicated realm of the Machine is the organizer and manager. The mind, not the hand, holds it together.

But, for that very reason, to preserve the ever endangered structure, one figure is even more important than all the energy of enterprising master-men that make cities to grow out of the ground and alter the picture of the landscape; it is a figure that is apt to be forgotten in this conflict of politics — the engineer, the priest of the machine, the man who knows it. Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward. The quiet engineer it is who is the machine’s master and destiny. His thought is as possibility what the machine is as actuality.

There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do. Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world; suppose that, under the influence of the metaphysic and mysticism that is taking the place of rationalism to-day, the very elite of intellect that is now concerned with the machine comes to be overpowered by a growing sense of its Satanism (it is the step from Roger Bacon to Bernard of Clairvaux) — then nothing can hinder the end of this grand drama that has been a play of intellects, with hands as mere auxiliaries.

Spengler’s identification of the “three great figures” of the industrial age is truly prescient. Of the three, he sees the factory worker as of lesser importance, whereas the remaining two figures should be familiar to anyone in 2015 — the entrepreneur and the engineer. And this was written 97 years ago!

Spengler is mainly concerned with fundamental changes in the ideas and philosophies that drive a culture (which in this case, proves a very effective way of identifying what will become crucial and what will ultimately become irrelevant). Socialism was historically important because the working class became so numerous, but it’s not so important to Spengler, who sees it as merely a squabble over the output of the machine. Anticipating Ayn Rand, he states that “the mind, not the hand” is key to operating the industrial world, and that therefore the entrepreneur will become the more important figure.

But an even more crucial figure is the engineer. This section is worth repeating. “Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward.” He continues, anticipating future fears of energy shortages and also identifying the real threat: “There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do.” (Spengler’s point applies equally to oil fields as to coal fields. Oil reserves are calculated based on what can be economically extracted with current technology — improved technology has kept pushing those limits further and further out). “Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world” — yes, suppose so.

The Western industry has diverted the ancient traditions of the other Cultures. The streams of economic life move towards the seats of King Coal and the great regions of raw material. Nature becomes exhausted, the globe sacrificed to Faustian thinking in energies. The working earth is the Faustian aspect of her, the aspect contemplated by the Faust of Part II, the supreme transfiguration of enterprising work — and contemplating, he dies. Nothing is so utterly antipodal to the motionless satiate being of the Classical Empire. It is the engineer who is remotest from the Classical law-thought, and he will see to it that his economy has its own law, wherein forces and efficiencies will take the place of Person and Thing.

In the next sub-chapter he anticipates another very contemporary struggle:

But titanic, too, is the onslaught of money upon this intellectual force. Industry, too, is earth-bound like the yeoman. It has its station, and its materials stream up out of the earth. Only high finance is wholly free, wholly intangible. Since 1789 the banks, and with them the bourses, have developed themselves on the credit-needs of an industry growing ever more enormous, as a power on their own account, and they will (as money wills in every Civilization) to be the only power. The ancient wrestle between the productive and the ac- quisitive economies intensifies now into a silent gigantomachy of intellects, fought out in the lists of the world-cities. This battle is the despairing struggle of technical thought to maintain its liberty against money-thought.

“The ancient wrestle between the productive and the acquisitive economies” AKA finance vs commerce. Many called the financial crisis a failure of “capitalism” — it wasn’t, it was a failure of finance.

The dictature of money marches on, tending to its material peak, in the Faustian Civilization as in every other. And now something happens that is intelligible only to one who has penetrated to the essence of money. If it were anything tangible, then its existence would be for ever — but, as it is a form of thought, fades out as soon as it has thought its economic world to finality, and has no more material upon which to feed. It thrust into the life of the yeoman’s countryside and set the earth a-moving; its thought transformed every sort of handicraft; to-day it presses victoriously upon industry to make the productive work of entrepreneur and engineer and labourer alike its spoil. The machine with its human retinue, the real queen of this century, is in danger of succumbing to a stronger power. But with this, money, too, is at the end of its success, and the last conflict is at hand in which the Civilization receives its conclusive form — the conflict between money and blood.

For the record, I think Spengler is wrong about money here.

Anyway, money and blood represent one more round in what, for Spengler, is the fundamental conflict. Money vs blood; intellect vs the body; cities vs villages; animals vs plants — Spengler sees all these as manifestions of the conflict between two modes of consciousness, translated in English as “waking-being” vs “Being”, essentially an active animal existence vs a cyclic plant-like existence.

The coming of Caesarism breaks the dictature of money and its political weapon democracy. After a long triumph of world-city economy and its interests over political creative force, the political side of life manifests itself after all as the stronger of the two.

By Caesarism, Spengler is referring to the tendency for late stage civilisations to become ruled by strong, charismatic demagogues, who come to power simply by the force of their personality. (As opposed to early cultures, which tend to be ruled by hereditary kings and aristocrats, and mid-stage cultures which are ruled by enlightened men of principle. Caesars and neither and in Spengler’s world, this means they cannot effect real change).

The sword is victorious over the money, the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will. If we call these money-powers “Capitalism,” then we may designate as Socialism the will to call into life a mighty politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty-sense that keeps the whole in fine condition for the decisive battle of its history, and this battle is also the battle of money and law. The private powers of the economy want free paths for their acquisition of great resources. No legislation must stand in their way. They want to make the laws themselves, in their interests, and to that end they make use of the tool they have made for themselves, democracy, the subsidized party. Law needs, in order to resist this onslaught, a high tradition and an ambition of strong families that finds its satisfaction not in the heaping-up of riches, but in the tasks of true rulership, above and beyond all money-advantage.

Spengler concludes with a restatement of his philosophy and worldview:

A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and no power that can confront money is left but this one. Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood. Life is alpha and omega, the cosmic onflow in microcosmic form. It is the fact of facts within the world-as-history. Before the irresistible rhythm of the generation-sequence, everything built up by the waking-consciousness in its intellectual world vanishes at the last. Ever in History it is life and life only — race-quality, the triumph of the will-to-power — and not the victory of truths, discoveries, or money that signifies. World-history is the world courts and it has ever decided in favour of the stronger, fuller, and more self-assured life — decreed to it, namely, the right to exist, regardless of whether its right would hold before a tribunal of waking-consciousness. Always it has sacrificed truth and justice to might and race, and passed doom of death upon men and peoples in whom truth was more than deeds, and justice than power. And so the drama of a high Culture — that wondrous world of deities, arts, thoughts, battles, cities — closes with the return of the pristine facts of the blood eternal that is one and the same as the ever-circling cosmic flow. The bright imaginative Waking-Being submerges itself into the silent service of Being, as the Chinese and Roman empires tell us. Time triumphs over Space, and it is Time whose inexorable movement embeds the ephemeral incident of the Culture, on this planet, in the incident of Man — a form wherein the incident life flows on for a time, while behind it all the streaming horizons of geological and stellar histories pile up in the light- world of our eyes.

The reference to the “Chinese and Roman empires” is meant to suggest that the end state of a civilisation is an organic, cyclic existence, where empires rise and fall without fundamental changes. For Spengler, if the Roman empire had not been overrun by barbarians, it could have lasted for millenia, with multiple imperial dynasties rising and falling, as happened in China.

Spengler concludes the book on a fatalistic note (one that I don’t share):

For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development — the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step — our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.

Ducunt Fata volentem nolentem trahunt.

Roughly, “Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling”.

My Life And Work, by Henry Ford: Against Reformers & Reactionaries

Henry Ford’s autobiography (online version) is good stuff. The need for firm principles in launching ambitious ventures; the role of stochastic tinkering and personal experimentation in innovation; the dangers of finance — it’s all in there.

It’s hard for me to select highlights without wanting to quote the whole thing. Do read it all if you have time. But I thought the following is a good elaboration of a fundamental false dichotomy between “idealism” and “pragmatism”. (False idealism considers what should be without reference to what is; false pragmatism considers what is but is blind to what could be).

Bolding is mine:

I am not a reformer. I think there is entirely too much attempt at reforming in the world and that we pay too much attention to reformers. We have two kinds of reformers. Both are nuisances. The man who calls himself a reformer wants to smash things. He is the sort of man who would tear up a whole shirt because the collar button did not fit the buttonhole. It would never occur to him to enlarge the buttonhole. This sort of reformer never under any circumstances knows what he is doing. Experience and reform do not go together. A reformer cannot keep his zeal at white heat in the presence of a fact. He must discard all facts.

Since 1914 a great many persons have received brand-new intellectual outfits. Many are beginning to think for the first time. They opened their eyes and realized that they were in the world. Then, with a thrill of independence, they realized that they could look at the world critically. They did so and found it faulty. The intoxication of assuming the masterful position of a critic of the social system—which it is every man’s right to assume—is unbalancing at first. The very young critic is very much unbalanced. He is strongly in favor of wiping out the old order and starting a new one. They actually managed to start a new world in Russia. It is there that the work of the world makers can best be studied. We learn from Russia that it is the minority and not the majority who determine destructive action. We learn also that while men may decree social laws in conflict with natural laws, Nature vetoes those laws more ruthlessly than did the Czars. Nature has vetoed the whole Soviet Republic. For it sought to deny nature. It denied above all else the right to the fruits of labour. Some people say, “Russia will have to go to work,” but that does not describe the case. The fact is that poor Russia is at work, but her work counts for nothing. It is not free work. In the United States a workman works eight hours a day; in Russia, he works twelve to fourteen. In the United States, if a workman wishes to lay off a day or a week, and is able to afford it, there is nothing to prevent him. In Russia, under Sovietism, the workman goes to work whether he wants to or not. The freedom of the citizen has disappeared in the discipline of a prison-like monotony in which all are treated alike. That is slavery. Freedom is the right to work a decent length of time and to get a decent living for doing so; to be able to arrange the little personal details of one’s own life. It is the aggregate of these and many other items of freedom which makes up the great idealistic Freedom. The minor forms of Freedom lubricate the everyday life of all of us.

Russia could not get along without intelligence and experience. As soon as she began to run her factories by committees, they went to rack and ruin; there was more debate than production. As soon as they threw out the skilled man, thousands of tons of precious materials were spoiled. The fanatics talked the people into starvation. The Soviets are now offering the engineers, the administrators, the foremen and superintendents, whom at first they drove out, large sums of money if only they will come back. Bolshevism is now crying for the brains and experience which it yesterday treated so ruthlessly. All that “reform” did to Russia was to block production.

There is in this country a sinister element that desires to creep in between the men who work with their hands and the men who think and plan for the men who work with their hands. The same influence that drove the brains, experience, and ability out of Russia is busily engaged in raising prejudice here. We must not suffer the stranger, the destroyer, the hater of happy humanity, to divide our people. In unity is American strength—and freedom. On the other hand, we have a different kind of reformer who never calls himself one. He is singularly like the radical reformer. The radical has had no experience and does not want it. The other class of reformer has had plenty of experience but it does him no good. I refer to the reactionary—who will be surprised to find himself put in exactly the same class as the Bolshevist. He wants to go back to some previous condition, not because it was the best condition, but because he thinks he knows about that condition.

The one crowd wants to smash up the whole world in order to make a better one. The other holds the world as so good that it might well be let stand as it is—and decay. The second notion arises as does the first—out of not using the eyes to see with. It is perfectly possible to smash this world, but it is not possible to build a new one. It is possible to prevent the world from going forward, but it is not possible then to prevent it from going back—from decaying. It is foolish to expect that, if everything be overturned, everyone will thereby get three meals a day. Or, should everything be petrified, that thereby six per cent, interest may be paid. The trouble is that reformers and reactionaries alike get away from the realities—from the primary functions.

One of the counsels of caution is to be very certain that we do not mistake a reactionary turn for a return of common sense. We have passed through a period of fireworks of every description, and the making of a great many idealistic maps of progress. We did not get anywhere. It was a convention, not a march. Lovely things were said, but when we got home we found the furnace out. Reactionaries have frequently taken advantage of the recoil from such a period, and they have promised “the good old times”—which usually means the bad old abuses—and because they are perfectly void of vision they are sometimes regarded as “practical men.” Their return to power is often hailed as the return of common sense.

Homesteading the Blogosphere, or, Why I Keep Annoying Friends By Insisting they Read 10,000-Word Online Essays

I spend a lot of my free time reading epically long blog posts online. I still haven’t decided if this is a wholesome and self-improving hobby, or if it really fills the same role in my life as TV or Facebook or whiskey fills in the lives of others.

I don’t read Buzzfeed, nor “Elite Daily”, nor any of the other spammy listicle crap which people on my Facebook feed seem to like. The “destination” sites in the startup blogosphere, the TechCrunches and PandoDailys, invariably make me feel stupider after reading them. As for “upper-middlebrow” sites with “clean” designs and giant-ass fonts (Medium is the worst offender) — I have a special hatred for you; you’re pretentious and you don’t realise you’re not smart enough to justify it. (The most succinct review I can give for this particular genre is that it’s the written equivalent of TED talks — much as TED talks fit 5 minutes of content into 18 minute presentations, these blogs fit 150 words of writing into 800-word mini-essays. So simple! So insightful!)

For UK news, I still visit the Guardian out of habit, but these days I appreciate it more as an entertainment destination. (There’s a subtle pleasure in seeing what refined forms of retardation appear in the “opinion” pieces linked on the Guardian front page — I mean, the Guardian is essentially now the newspaper of the UK establishment, it booted out the Times long ago, having your writing appear on the front page is a big fucking deal for the kind of people who would care about that kind of thing — and for me I can’t even process these articles as actual arguments, the worldview and thinking processes of the writers are so different to mine, even when we’re of the same nationality, age and social class).

Hacker News I also visit out of habit, but I like it less and less. It’s definitely gone downhill since they started “improving” moderation and booting out anyone interesting. There was an interesting thread with a millionaire living in Moscow, throwing parties with his model girlfriend and networking into Russian high society (the guy was originally a humble SV programmer who’d made consistently good career and investment decisions), but this got super-moderator ‘dang’ all in a tizzy and I think the guy got booted. Don’t get me started on Quora.

I’m also not a huge fan of self-aware “longreads”, the kind of stuff you find on Aeon, for example. A lot of this is actually pretty good, but for my purposes, it has two drawbacks. One, they’re intentionally trying to be like magazines, with many disparate topics, covered lightly. Two, far too many of the writers are those grubby little creatures called “academics”. Fuck the children, my own brain feels abused just reading people like this guy.

Nah, my taste is for self-hosted WordPress blogs, ideally those written by cranky geniuses who have concocted their own elaborate theories of reality. Blogs are the ideal medium to convey cranky idiosyncratic theories of reality — structuring such thoughts so that they can work as a book is really a lot of work to do and so becomes a lot of work to read.

No, the objective of consuming this stuff is not to completely reformat your brain (which would require a book and also would be crazy) but simply to explore the worldview of someone intelligent who sees things rather differently. And figure out why they believe what they do, and maybe tweak and refine your own worldview accordingly. In practice, 9 out of 10 cranky geniuses have a large collection of unique observations which are related but don’t fully fit together into an integrated system of thought. Hence, collections of regular medium-length posts, i.e., blogs.

I’ll link to some of these people in future posts, but they range from Romanian bitcoin barons to professional druids to acid-dropping Californian programmers (these are all real bloggers, and they all have readerships figures in the hundreds of thousands) to many others.

Another interesting blog-related trend is the ease and propensity for communities to form around particular blogs — whether single blogs with large readerships, or ‘spheres’ of related blogs partaking in a link-sharing, reader-sharing orgy.

Put simply, the internet has become a breeding ground for novel ideas ranging from the batshit insane to the legitimately thought-provoking. It’s very tempting to compare the nascent collective intelligence of the blogosphere to academia; at the very least, the whole thing is starting to resemble a rather weird university, but one that actually provides a better-rounded education that any mainstream alternative. Provided you can add your own salt.

I even see some signs that the latter is beginning to pay attention to the former. For example, Brian Caplan — an economics professor and reasonably public intellectual — described the blog of Scott Alexander as “packed with more random highlights than most professors’ life work”. And Scott Alexander isn’t even that great! He’s good, but definitely sub-genius level.

Heck, it’s becoming more obvious that going into academia is no longer the default path for top minds. Two Oxford PhD friends told me of the brightest student on their programme, who decided the academy held no attraction and who took a job at (where else?) McKinsey. But McKinsey people then all leave to do startups, and people doing startups realise the retardation in that area and decide the optimal life strategy given the state of the world in 2015 is to derp around on a motorbike in Thailand and read random blog posts. Hence, Thought & Action.

“I’m only in town one night! You gotta show me Geneva!”

Shafqat Islam’s phone was ringing. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the number on the screen. It said unknown, but he took the call anyway.

“Hi, this is Travis,” a voice said. “I know Lukas Biewald, and he said you were the only guy he knew in Switzerland.”

Islam, part of the tech team at Merrill Lynch Bank Suisse, sat up and wracked his brain.

Biewald? He had met the man once or twice, but he certainly didn’t know this Travis character.

“Let’s go out!” prodded the restless out-of-towner.

Islam resisted. It was getting late and he was tired. He wasn’t in the mood to give his night to a stranger.

“Come on, I’m only in town one night!” Travis persisted. “You gotta show me Geneva!”

Islam finally gave in. He hopped in his second-hand BMW, picked up Travis and took him to a favorite bar, where Islam learned a bit more about the mystery man. A tech founder named Travis Kalanick, he’d sold a startup for millions to Akamai. He was now an investor in a couple of companies, including CrowdFlower, which was run by their mutual friend. After a night of drinking and swapping tech war stories, the pair parted ways.

Source. Travis Kalanick is of course best known as the CEO of Uber.

Another Kalanick story:

A few years back, before Uber was anything more than an app used by a group of our friends, Travis was staying at my house in the mountains over the holidays. One morning before snowshoeing, my dad challenged Travis to a friendly Wii Tennis match. My dad is a competitive guy and used to enjoy playing in local, real-life tennis tournaments when I was a kid. He also had a Wii at home and considered himself versed in the virtual game. So, he thought it could be a good opportunity to dish out a little good-natured pain to Travis.

As the match kicked off, there was my dad in an athletic stance and confidently giving it his all. He might have even been sweating a bit. Yet, Travis was barely moving his arm or breaking his wrist. Though my dad hung in there and kept it close, Travis won every game.

That was when TK, with full Princess Bride panache, announced that he had been playing with his opposite hand, and promptly switched. Uh-oh. For the next 20 minutes, my dad didn’t manage to score a single point. He was completely skunked. Yet, looking over at Travis, it was clear he was still waking up.

The punchline?

Travis could tell my dad was feeling dejected. I mean, the poor guy was getting aced at least every other serve. A slight smirk came over TK’s face and he reached out to shake my dad’s hand, offering him a touch of consolation.

“I have a confession to make, Mr. Sacca. I’ve played a fair amount of Wii Tennis before.” While talking, he used his controller to navigate through the settings pages on the Wii to a list of high scores. “In fact,” he continued, “on the Wii Tennis global leaderboard, I am currently tied for 2nd in the world.”

I was reminded of the following:

Dagny and Eddie spent their winters trying to master some new skill, in order to astonish Francisco and beat him, for once. They never succeeded. When they showed him how to hit a ball with a bat, a game he had never played before, he watched them for a few minutes, then said, “I think I get the idea. Let me try.” He took the bat and sent the ball flying over a line of oak trees far at the end of the field.

When Jim was given a motorboat for his birthday, they all stood on the river landing, watching the lesson, while an instructor showed Jim how to run it. None of them had ever driven a motorboat before. The sparkling white craft, shaped like a bullet, kept staggering clumsily across the water, its wake a long record of shivering, its motor choking with hiccoughs, while the instructor, seated beside him, kept seizing the wheel out of Jim’s hands. For no apparent reason, Jim raised his head suddenly and yelled at Francisco, “Do you think you can do it any better?”

“I can do it.”

“Try it!”

When the boat came back and its two occupants stepped out, Francisco slipped behind the wheel. “Wait a moment,” he said to the instructor, who remained on the landing. “Let me take a look at this.” Then, before the instructor had time to move, the boat shot out to the middle of the river, as if fired from a gun. It was streaking away before they grasped what they were seeing. As it went shrinking into the distance and sunlight, Dagny’s picture of it was three straight lines: its wake, the long shriek of its motor, and the aim of the driver at its wheel.

Source: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Paul Carr explains how Rand’s “creepy, dangerous ideology” is responsible for very many bad things, including the Tea Party, Paul Ryan, the Koch Brothers, mean people, and annoying startup types who overuse the word ‘disruption’. Could it be responsible for Travis Kalanick, too? Carr thinks so.

Interestingly, Atlas Shrugged also features a progressive journalist character who runs a smear campaign against a successful businessman:

He saw the article, “The Octopus,” by Bertram Scudder, which was not an expression of ideas, but a bucket of slime emptied in public—an article that did not contain a single fact, not even an invented one, but poured a stream of sneers and adjectives in which nothing was clear except the filthy malice of denouncing without considering proof necessary.