People of God, People of the State, People of the Network
We’ve talked about the history of power, of God, State, and Network. Now let’s talk about the recent history of power struggles, between people of God, people of the State, and people of the Network.
Stereotypically, the people of God offer50 thoughts and prayers, the people of the State say “there oughta be a law!”, and the people of the Network write some code.
The differences go very deep. It’s a difference in first steps and in ultimate loyalties. Once you understand whether someone prioritizes the God, State, or Network Leviathan you understand what tactics they’ll prefer, what values they hold, and where they’re coming from.
To illustrate this, let’s apply the lens of Leviathans to analyze (a) the internal divisions within America’s conservative reds and progressive blues, (b) the conflict between global technology and the US establishment, and (c) the mental model of the base-raters loyal to the US establishment.
As we’ll see, the introduction of the Network Leviathan clarifies some conflicts and splits some factions.
The whole world tunes in daily to watch the endless American digital civil war on Twitter. (“I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.”) Countless words have been written about this topic. But the lens of the Leviathans offers a new perspective on these warring tribes, on the conservative reds, progressive blues, and libertarianish grays named by Scott Alexander.
The gray tribe is the easiest to analyze. It is fair to say that they are primarily people of the Network Leviathan. These technological progressives are not just atheists, they are also astatists, as they do not typically believe in either God or the State. They are genuinely internationalists in a way neither red nationalists nor blue faux51 internationalists are, as they don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism, and interact with people from other countries through the Network as equals.
The blues and the reds are more complex, however. It’s not as simple as “Blue equals State” and “Red equals non-State.” Not at all. A significant fraction of blues has now gone to the Network; these are the left-libertarians, the web3 socialists. And a good chunk of reds will remain loyal to the State; let’s call them secular nationalists.
So if and when things line up as Network vs State, if there’s a highly inflationary event that pits the orange Bitcoin against the green Dollar, we may see an acceleration of the ongoing realignment. Many blues will line up with grays and reds on the side of the international Network, and many reds will side with blues to defend the centralized American State.
Each member of blue tribe will have to make a choice in the years to come: are they loyal to neutral decentralized networks that treat both Americans and non-Americans equally, or are they actually just loyal to the US establishment — essentially nationalists in disguise? Is their definition of “democracy” commensurate with a world where the 4% (namely the Americans) rule the 96% (namely the non-Americans), inflating away the globe’s savings, destroying local cultures, and surveilling the world at all times? Or do they believe the rest of the world deserves digital self-determination? In short, will the internationally-minded liberal choose the decentralized Network or the centralized State?
To understand this choice, let’s orient ourselves. The blue tribe is the most powerful in Western society today, and has two52 main internal factions: the left-authoritarians who worship the State, and the left-libertarians who are (unconsciously) people of the Network.53
Wokeness is a Doctrine, not a Religion
Before we begin, we need to understand that the blue belief system of “Wokeness” isn’t exactly a religion. It’s a doctrine, and it includes both people of the State and the Network.
That is, while it’s become popular to talk about Wokeness as a religion, and while there is something to this, it’s more precise to talk about it as a doctrine: namely, “a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group.” The concept of a doctrine encompasses religious and political beliefs, both God- and State-worship. And nowadays the “other group” could be a Network entity of some kind, like a social network or cryptocurrency.
So now we have an umbrella term: doctrine. God-worshippers have religions (religious doctrines), State-loyalists have political parties (with political doctrines), and Network-centrists have social networks or cryptocurrencies (with tightly enforced content moderation or crypto tribalism respectively, which are network doctrines). Each doctrine has a Leviathan, a most powerful force. And a religion is then just a type of doctrine.
With this definition, we can return to the question: is capital-W Wokeness, like Communism and Nazism before it, a religion that evolved to jump over the formal principle of church/state separation by posing as a non-religion? Well, as several have now observed, Wokeness does have cognates to many aspects of Christianity — we all have the Calvinist original sin of bigotry, we’re going to the warm hell of climate change unless we repent, unbelievers must “recant,” heresy must be suppressed, the West’s beliefs must be evangelized at gunpoint, and so on. See Curtis Yarvin’s How Dawkins Got Pwned, John McWhorter’s Woke Racism, Andrew Sullivan on America’s New Religions, Noah Smith on Wokeness as Old-Time Religion, Tom Holland’s concluding chapter in Dominion, Paul Graham on Heresy, and Michael Shellenberger and Peter Boghossian’s detailed infographic for perspectives on this topic.
But while it’s directionally accurate, calling wokeness a religion doesn’t quite fit because the wokes have a different theory of the prime mover. Wokeness is better termed a doctrine, because it’s actually crucial to note that wokes do not worship God; instead, one faction of wokes worships the State and the other is, less consciously, people of the Network. These internal denominational splits are defined by choice of Leviathan. And they’ll be important in the escalating conflict between State and Network, between Dollar and Bitcoin, between establishment journalists and decentralized media, between the American government and the global internet, as these divisions promise to split blue team in two.
Blue State: Left-Authoritarians
For the left-authoritarians among the blues, their primary Leviathan is the State, which is very real and can do violence against its/their enemies, as opposed to what they think of as an imaginary God. This is why State-worshippers mock the concept of “thoughts and prayers” in favor of “passing a law.” The State exists, after all, and can organize people to apply coercive force. But God’s vehicle, the church, no longer has enough belief behind it (in the West at least) to do the same.
This is also why left-authoritarians tend to take for granted that all ills can be solved by “praying for relief” to the State, by forming some agency, by appropriating ever more money. Taxes are secular tithes, and the Gov-fearing man is like the God-fearing man — you simply cannot pay enough money and respect to the state, because as the DNC video says outright, “government is the one thing we all belong to.” It’s not about results, it’s about fealty.
Even though they culturally love the State and hate the Network, it’s important to note that the left-authoritarians in the US have managed to recently take control of big chunks of the Network, through placing sympathizers in key positions at Big Tech companies during the techlash and Great Awokening of the 2010s. (There are incipient signs of pushback here, though, at places like Netflix and even Google, where the very wokest are being terminated.)
What do left-authoritarians generally look like from an occupational standpoint? The body of left-authoritarians are the NPCs paying the NYT monthly subscriptions for the official “truth,” slavishly turning their heads with every new software update, insisting that masks don’t work before they do, reliably surging behind the current thing. These are just foot soldiers, but interestingly the most important left-authoritarians aren’t the elected officials.
As Yarvin in particular has documented at length, the most important left-authoritarians are not formally part of the elected State at all. They are the professors, activists, bureaucrats, and journalists.
The key concept is that much of America’s control circuitry has evolved to live outside the formal state, thereby making it resistant to displacement by democratic election. They laud “democracy” but avoid it in practice, through dual class stock, tenure for their bureaucrats and professors, tax-exempt compounding for their foundations, and ideological purification of their organizations. As with the communists who endlessly burbled about their “democratic people’s republics” while eschewing elections, the left-authoritarians don’t actually subject their control of key institutions to a vote.54
There are different names for this left-authoritarian network that controls the state from outside by “holding it accountable.” We can call it the Paper Belt (which emphasizes their Rust-Belt-like technological backwardness), we can call it the Cathedral (which emphasizes their holiness), we can call it the regime (which emphasizes their illegitimacy), or we can call it simply the American establishment (which emphasizes their enduring power). Later we will call it NYT/USD, to emphasize their source of truth and digital economy relative to BTC/web3 and CCP/RMB.
It’s important to understand that the power of the left-authoritarians comes from getting the officials of the centralized American State and (more recently) the executives of the centralized Big Tech Network to crush their enemies.
The main technique is to “manipulate procedural outcomes”, often by getting something true to be officially deemed disinformation (as in the example of the pre-2020 election laptop story), or conversely getting something false to be deemed official truth (as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica story). The left-authoritarians are the main proponents of the political power theory of truth, as “truth” is whatever they find helpful to move political power into action.
When an employee of a media corporation talks about an article having “impact,” for example, they mean impact in the sense of a government truncheon impacting your head, via a new rule or regulation. Go read the descriptions of the prizes they award to each other, and you’ll see them celebrate themselves for making something that was previously volitional newly mandatory or forbidden. “Our report led to government action!” Whether that action was the bombing of Libya or the banning of plastic straws makes no nevermind; impact is impact.
Laws aren’t the only form of impact. Getting someone fired is too. We talk of hit pieces and cancel culture as if they’re aberrations, but they’re actually the core of left-authoritarian culture. Recall that the most prestigious thing any establishment journalist ever did was Watergate: namely, getting a president fired while selling millions of copies of their newspaper.
This episode has been endlessly romanticized, but here’s a different perspective on it: the corporate takeover of America we’re supposed to be constantly vigilant for actually already occured 50 years ago, just from the left, when a few privately-owned media corporations cooperated to get Nixon fired and the Pentagon Papers leaked, proving that the control circuitry outside the State was upstream of the mere elected government and US military.
Now, was Watergate a crime? Sure, but worse than the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution? Worse than the Nasiriyah testimony? Worse than WMD? Worse than the lies used to drive America’s many wars? And, relevantly, worse than what JFK did to get elected? After all, contra his protestations, Nixon may well have been a crook, but as Seymour Hersh has convincingly reported, so was John F. Kennedy — yet the exposure of his Watergate-level election shenanigans somehow waited till thirty years after he ascended to the presidency over one Richard Milhous Nixon.
Anyway, the problem isn’t just the asymmetry of the “accountability” — that’s not really about hypocrisy, but hierarchy. The problem with America’s left-authoritarians is also that they’ve built a terrible culture. A society that puts Watergate on a pedestal is just fundamentally different from one that puts NASA (or SpaceX) on a pedestal. Because if what’s applauded is putting a man out of work, rather than putting a man on the moon, there will be a lot of cancellation and not a lot of creation. Firing someone should be a necessary evil, not the highest good.
We linger on Watergate because it was the moment when the left-authoritarian American Network outside the State became unambiguously ascendant. It was the public demonstration of a very different model from the left-authoritarian Soviets. The Soviets had a state-controlled press, but America now had a press-controlled state.
After Watergate, the left-authoritarians knew that they were the boss of the boss, that they could get the president fired, that they could “hold someone accountable” — and, conversely, that no one could really hold them accountable in any way. For example, what was the punishment for printing the “disinformation” that led to, say, the Iraq War, or the Holodomor? Suspension from social media? Reparations for the dead? Or nothing? Much easier to pin it all on a single Nixon, or even a Stalin for that matter, than a decentralized mass of nameless left-authoritarians.55
Two additional points before we move on from our God/State/Network-informed analysis of the left-authoritarians. First, more recently, as American state capacity has declined, the left-authoritarians have shifted their targets to the new authorities: the CEOs of tech companies in particular. They realize on some level that (a) Network > State in many contexts and furthermore that (b) the Network-aided global ascent of tech founders and populist leaders could reduce their control over the State, so they have chosen to (c) strike first by gaining control of those tech companies that have achieved state-like scale.
Their modus operandi was much the same as it is for influencing the State: use reporting to harass tech executives into firing people that left-authoritarians don’t like, then push them to enact policies that left-authoritarians do like — such as “content moderation” over any message other than that emanating from approved establishment outlets. The left-authoritarians have even admitted to this in unguarded moments; see for example this character talking about how “journalism is about raw power” or this admission that the media’s explicit goal was to use the State as a billy club against the Network for fun and profit.
Second, an important insight is that behind many of these left-authoritarian journalists (and activists and nonprofits) is an old-money zillionaire, a nepotistic heir of some kind. You won’t find someone at The Atlantic criticizing Laurene Powell Jobs, you won’t find someone at NPR going after Soros, and you won’t find someone at The New York Times Company that even publicly admits that their boss, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, is a rich white male nepotist. This puts their behavior into stark relief: the left-authoritarian wants to get you fired, or get your boss to fire you, but won’t even mention their boss. They are fundamentally just dogs on a leash, hit men for old money, assassins for the establishment.
Blue Network: Left-Libertarians
There is a split among blue Americans. Some of them, the left-libertarians, are actually best modeled as people of the Network — meaning, the social network. They truly aren’t primarily loyal to the Democrat party or even the institutions that are upstream of it, but to their community online — which increasingly diverges from the party line. These are the deplatformed sex workers, the ones engaging in risky public activism rather than the ones merely funding it, the anarchists, the journalists so consistent in their beliefs that they’re actually striking against their nepotistic owners, and the ethical anti-imperialists. They really don’t identify with the US establishment that much, even if they sometimes wish it would execute the redistribution strategy of their dreams. Their primary people are the others in their social network. And that Network is becoming their new Leviathan.
For the professional protester, for example, they can use the offline tactics from Beautiful Trouble or Roots to Power to laboriously organize an in-person procession outside a government office…or they can do the same thing online by simply posting a hashtag and materializing a digital crowd, then going direct with their cause rather than negotiating with an establishment journalist for exposure. So what’s giving them more leverage these days: the institutions that surround the legacy State, or the features of the decentralized Network?
Another factor pushing left-libertarians away from the US establishment is the strong left-authoritarian shift towards holiness over coolness. Fredrik DeBoer actually discussed this shift while it was underway, while society was still transitioning from the old-time religion of Judeo-Christianity to the new doctrine of wokeness:
Silicon Valley types, by contrast, believe in things…Tangible values about progress and culture. The Californian ideology plus the blockchain or whatever. There’s content there…
The media has none of that. The old school media values of truth telling and muckraking have long since been abandoned by the media itself, as real values require sincerity and media culture abhors sincerity. You can’t sit on Twitter all day telling shitty jokes about how nothing matters and then turn around and say “but also we’re the guardians of truth and democracy.”
If Silicon Valley has captured the value of media for shareholders and is slowly strangling the industry to death, righting the course will require people within media who are willing to stand up and say, “Here are my values. They are what they are. I embody them without irony and thus I am vulnerable. If you value these things too you have to fight to save our industry.” Such a position would require a willingness to leave blank sarcasm aside and to start writing again for the world instead of only writing to appear clever to other writers. Can the media make this kind of move? I don’t see how they can; the social capture of the entire industry is just far too acute.
As smart as this post was, things didn’t work out quite as DeBoer expected. The push toward sincerity — towards filling that God-shaped hole — ended up cleaving the blues in two.
That is, contra DeBoer’s forecast (“I don’t see how they can”), some of the earnest blues actually did declare themselves champions of “moral clarity”, and have now gone over purely to unironic State-worship, to applauding multi-day prayer vigils with Liz Cheney for the wrongs visited upon their sacred Capitol. As Glenn Greenwald has written about at length, there’s no daylight anymore between the Democrats and the Department of Defense, no criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency by CNN.
This fusion wasn’t the full communism that DeBoer sometimes claims to prefer, but it was a fulsome declaration of values by the media56 nevertheless. It’s the culmination of the trend towards devout wokeness that Scott Alexander identified years ago in “Gay Rites are Civil Rites.” The left-authoritarians have done to wokeness in a few years what Nietzsche noted had been done to Christianity over the span of eons: namely, they’ve transformed it from a revolutionary ideology into a ruling-class ideology.
But every action has a reaction, every activity spawns a Soros-like reflexivity, and Scott Alexander was actually ahead of the curve again here as well. Before “Gay Rites are Civil Rites”, he also identified a second dynamic of relevance, the trend away from devout wokeness that he described in “Right is the new Left.” And this brings us to back to the left-libertarians.
The kind of blue that listens to Gray Zone, Red Scare, or Jimmy Dore is repelled by State worship. They don’t want to choose something as down the middle as pledging allegiance to the American flag and the national security state for which it stands. They actually believed the things they said against the establishment, and don’t endorse it simply because it’s ostensibly “their” team now wearing the NSA headsets.
Blue State vs Blue Network
The left-libertarian subgroup of blues has begun to flirt with decentralized media and web3, because they’re realizing the Network could be more interesting than the declining American State. Could Substack be more remunerative than Sulzberger? Could Satoshi’s community deliver more for them than Bernie’s? If they need to redefine all that as “socialism,” so be it! And if their funding stream is changing, their ideology is slowly shifting too. Yes, they may have started as mere pawns of America’s left-authoritarian establishment, but what they value is increasingly coming from the decentralized global Network rather than the centralized American State. So they are beginning to uncouple. And that’s the emerging Network-vs-State division within blue tribe.
Each member of red tribe, the conservatives, will also have to make a choice in the years to come: do they believe in the founding principles encoded in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or will they simply enforce whatever edicts emanate from an increasingly malign US establishment — supporting statists in practice? Is their definition of “America” commensurate with a world where the US federal government is itself the most determined opponent of liberty, inflating away their savings, deconstructing conservative America’s culture, and surveilling them at all times? Or do they believe American cities and states deserve digital self-determination? In short, will the American nation choose the decentralized Network or the centralized State?
This will eventually be a conscious choice. Right now, it’s an unconscious three-way split. The three-legged stool of Reaganism — the religious conservatives, the secular nationalists, and the internationalist capitalists — side with the God, State, and Network Leviathans respectively.
These are their primary identities, because they correspond to that thing which they think of as the most powerful force in the world: almighty God, the US military, or (implicitly) the global network of trade and communication that will soon simply be identified with cryptocurrency.
Red God: Religious Conservatives
During the Cold War, religious conservatives believed in an almighty God, unlike the “godless communists” they fought against. Today, the people of God among the reds have sharply reduced numbers, but their moral compass remains the man on high. Insofar as there is a religious revival, it may be driven by the One Commandment-based startup societies we describe later on. See Rod Dreher on the Protestants, Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari on the Catholics, and Tablet’s Big Tent to get a sense of their views.
Red State: Secular Nationalists
The people of the State among the reds are more prominent. These are the secular nationalists, the national security hawks, the people who may not like the left-authoritarians but who will nevertheless reflexively support the US in every foreign intervention. They may agree that the US is trending in a bad direction, but they think China is far worse. As such, they’re still building drones, coding surveillance, and cheering videos like this one where the US admits to fomenting the color revolutions that are often otherwise denied.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to this group — after all, they aren’t burning their own country down! — but unfortunately, on foreign policy they are helping to burn down other people’s countries, and often for no good reason.
The issue is that in the absence of a compelling alternative, or an undeniable collapse, you’re simply not going to convince a secular nationalist that America and China are both becoming digital totalitarian states, or that a US establishment that has pushed half a dozen countries into murderous chaos isn’t quite the moral exemplar that they think it is.
The reason is because the red statist is a secular nationalist: they don’t have a God, but they do believe in the State, the good vision of America as a shining city on a hill. It really doesn’t matter if this doesn’t exist — it’s the USA from their youth and from their movies. It’s Top Gun America, and they’ll keep paying to watch the inspiring remakes, not the depressing footage of what the US military actually did in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria.
There’s both a laudable aspect to this kind of loyalty, and a frustrating one. These folks are like the Soviet soldiers that dutifully served in Afghanistan. You might argue they’re fighting for a cause that is at best pointless and at worst evil, and that they’ll only come home to find their shelves empty and their culture crushed…but you have to acknowledge they’re risking their lives regardless.
Fundamentally, the red secular nationalist often understands how bad the US establishment is at home, but doesn’t want to hear about the needless destruction wreaked by the US military abroad. In this they have the opposite set of blind spots from the blue left-libertarian, who can clearly see the ruin of countries unfortunate enough to experience a 21st century US “intervention,” yet imagines the same government that’s a chaotic destroyer abroad can become a benevolent redistributor at home.
In other words, while the red secular nationalist maintains an implicit Hollywood-movie-style belief in a US military that can beat up anyone, the blue left-libertarian persists in their belief that the State’s civilian government could fix anything at home if only enough people willed it. Using the lens of the Leviathans, these are both clearly ways the State becomes a stand-in for God, in its terrible Father and benevolent Mother forms respectively.
What about China, huh?
Let’s digress and engage the China point for a second, as it’s the go-to argument of the red secular nationalist. To paraphrase, the red nationalist often concedes that US military intervention abroad has been regrettable, but CCP dominance would be so much worse that we need the US military to not just stick around but to expand and grow stronger.
The short counterargument is that it may instead be best for countries to rearm, and take on their own defense – rather than having an increasingly chaotic US try to fight a Second Cold War on others’ behalf in the middle of an internal Cold Civil War and what might become a Second Great Depression.
That is, we get there by a different route, but we arrive at much the same conclusion as an isolationist rightist or an anti-imperialist leftist. Whether you think America is too good for the world, or whether you think it’s an ill effect on countries abroad, or some complex combination of both, we may want (and observe) US military withdrawal and regional rearmament rather than a Second Cold War.
What’s the long-form version of the argument? Start with the observation that the CCP is more oppressive at home than the US establishment, but it’s also empirically less destructive abroad.
Why? Not because of benevolence, but because the CCP is checked by the US military abroad. Thus China is focused on building up Africa while America is blowing up the Middle East. Yes, you can argue the Chinese are building colonies in Africa…but they’re functional colonies, with new roads and ports to carry raw materials, unlike the blasted hellscapes left by US military intervention in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the like. With that said, we should have no illusions: China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia know the dragon would throw its weight around without a US military presence. Right now it can’t, because China is boxed in by the US military. Conversely, at home the CCP has no organized domestic political opposition, so it can be absolutely ruthless.
The US establishment has the opposite set of constraints: unlike China, it doesn’t face organized military opposition abroad, so it’s highly incautious in its foreign policy. But also unlike the CCP it does face organized domestic political opposition at home, so it can’t be as ruthless domestically as it wants to be.
Let’s drill into the domestic point first, and then the military point.
It’s really crucial to understand that the US establishment is not more ethical than the CCP when it comes to civil liberties. It’s just less competent! After all, the US establishment also does warrantless surveillance via the NSA, unconstitutional search and seizure via the TSA, arbitrary confiscation of property via civil forfeiture, and so on. And that’s just what’s already been rolled out — the ambitions of the US establishment are just as totalitarian as the Chinese state’s, as we can see from its partially failed attempts at disinformation agencies, civilian disarmament, digital censorship, and the like. Up to this point, these pushes have not been thwarted by the “ethics” of the US establishment, but by some combination of political opposition, Constitutional constraint, and bureaucratic incompetence.
They keep trying, though. The US establishment isn’t organized enough to coordinate all the pieces, but unfortunately the recently captured Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are capable of that level of coordination, as we saw during the Parler deplatforming, and the Tiananmen-like censorship of the “whistleblower.” So we’ll see what happens.
Now on the military point.
During the Cold War, the Soviet constraint meant the US was more cautious in its interventions, and actually generally achieved far better results. South Korea was better off than North Korea, West Germany was better off than East Germany, and Taiwan was better off than Maoist China. Even given all the lies on all sides around Vietnam, had the US won in South Vietnam, it’s quite possible that would have been a South Korea too; but because it lost, countless people had to flee and communism claimed many lives in Southeast Asia.
After the Cold War ended, however, the US military became a hyperpower - and gradually evolved into a global fomenter of chaos rather than the generally conservative guardian of stability it was before 1991. The Iraq War can be seen as a transition point, as can Samantha Power’s R2P doctrine that left Syria in ruins. By 2022, the question of whether America produces chaos with its military interventions can hardly be gainsaid — even the most committed American nationalist is hard pressed to name a country that’s better off after a recent US military intervention, something that wasn’t that hard to do from 1945-1991.57
OK, so let’s put it all together.
There is truth to the idea that the US military is checking China, and that China would act more aggressively in the absence of the US military…but it’s true in the same way the Soviet military was once checking the US, and then the US military acted more aggressively in the absence of the Soviet military. That is, it’s true that the Soviet military was on balance not a force for good during 1945-1991, but it’s also true that the US military has on balance not been a force for good during 1991-2021.
It’s complicated. Even if their military did in some sense restrain the US from randomly blowing up the Middle East, it’s tough to argue that you’d still want the Soviet Union to still be around to limit US military intervention. Similarly, it’s hard to contend that the price of constraining China’s lawful evil ambitions in East Asia should be tolerance for America’s chaotic evil interventions in the Middle East, that defending against a potential Chinese drone armada should mean acceptance of endless destabilization by the US military.
Ideally there’s a third way, a better choice - and that third way may simply be decentralized defense, where countries like Japan and Germany re-arm, rather than outsourcing everything to the US or folding to China. This has its own issues, of course — but if we’re moving back into the 1800s and 1700s, as per the Future is Our Past thesis, limited wars between gold-limited great powers are arguably preferable to gigantic global conflicts between unlimited superpowers.
In short: the secular American nationalist has an option that doesn’t involve either capitulating to China or pretending the US military is currently achieving fruitful things abroad. That third way is to support regional rearmament rather than fighting everyone else’s wars on their behalf.
Red Network: Internationalist Capitalists
Getting back to our original topic, the third group within red tribe are the internationalist capitalists. We identify them as people of the Network. This is arguably something of a retcon, because the internet as we currently know it was barely a factor during the Cold War.58 However, this subgroup involved the folks in favor of commerce and trade networks, both within and across borders — the capitalists.
Today, that kind of capitalism is almost synonymous with internet startups and technology. The most valuable companies in the world were born on the Network. And the future of network capitalism is crypto-capitalism, because it’s not just transactions that can be represented on-chain — it’s entire financial statements, and companies themselves, and eventually the entire economy.
The rise of Bitcoin means red people of the Network have a very specific way to think about their Leviathan, something distinct from both God and the State. Because BTC cannot be seized with one click by either the US or Chinese governments, it’s a symbol of international freedom and prosperity that is more powerful than any State.
On balance, I’m sympathetic to this group as well, but it has its own internal issues. For one thing, Bitcoin Maximalism in particular is similar to Woke Capital in its fundamentalism. The main difference is that maximalism is zealous mononumism (devotion to a single coin) rather than monotheism (a single god) or monostatism (a single state). The Network doesn’t make the fanatical aspect of humanity vanish; it just moves it from God or the State to the Network.
Red State vs Red Network
We now see that the God, State, and Network Leviathans all have their supporters within the conservative movement.
An interesting point is that secular nationalists, being dispositionally conservative, can often stick with a symbol long after its substance has changed. Think about the many “Russian nationalists” who stuck with the Soviet Union even when it was a complete inversion of what had existed prior to 1917. Then compare this US Army ad from 2008 with this recent ad from 2021.
So, in the event of any conflict between the Network and the State, such as a possible struggle between the inflating dollar and the deflationary Bitcoin, the right-statists could take the side of the national flag while the right-capitalists take the side of the digital currency. That is, if and when it’s clear that the continuation of American empire depends on the ability to continually inflate, the people of the State may side with the legacy state, and the people of the Network will side with the decentralized network.59 So, that’s the Network-vs-State division within red tribe.
If we add up all these pieces, we get a possible future where the left- and right-libertarians from both parties line up against the left- and right-authoritarians.
We’re already starting to see this if we look at Substack vs establishment journalists, Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald vs Fox News/NYT, BTC vs USD, web3 vs Big Tech, the migration of ethnic minorities to the Republicans and the migration of neoconservatives to the Democrats.
People have talked about zombie Reaganism, but in this scenario a new coalition would be finally popping into view. And it’s a totally different carving of the political spectrum than the Reagan era. Rather than nationalists and capitalists (the right) against internationalists and socialists (the left), it’s internationalists and capitalists (left- and right-libertarians) against socialists and nationalists (left- and right-authoritarians).60
That Realignment would be the Network against the State. The authoritarians would outnumber the libertarians domestically, and have the institutions on their side. But the libertarians would have stronger individual talent, as they’d draw the iconoclasts, and they’d also draw support from the rest of the world.
Let’s switch gears here and apply the lens of the Leviathans to a different conflict. Why are global technology and the US establishment at odds?
Economics. You can say it’s because technology disrupted everything from Madison Avenue to Hollywood, as argued here. Looking at just the 80% drop in US media revenue alone from 2008 to 2012, it’s hard to believe that wasn’t a factor.
Geography. You could note that the pre-2020 center of technology was Silicon Valley, which is 3000 miles away from the Bos-Wash corridor that houses the US establishment.
Demographics. You can claim it’s because tech is largely immigrant and the US establishment is 20-30 points whiter. Certainly by the high evidentiary standards of America’s leading disparate impact analysts and critical race theorists, this fact alone is prima facie evidence that the US establishment is institutionally racist towards their tech disruptors.
Psychology. You can contend it’s due to a psychological difference between technical/financial types vs social/political elites, between people who focus on what is true versus those who care about what is popular. This relates to the distinction between technical and political truths.
Metabolism. You might observe that the rivalry is particularly pronounced between US tech and media. The other arms of the US establishment, like academia, Hollywood, and government all needed multi-year cycles to ship anything, while only the news media had the 24/7 metabolism to match tech’s DNA. So they became the point of the spear for the US establishment’s counterattack. This is also why tech favors newsletters, podcasts, slide decks, and other types of fast-turnaround content that the establishment doesn’t natively specialize in.
Bifurcation. You can remark that there’s a deep structural similarity between a socialist professor and technologist founder: both feel like they should be in charge. That’s why tech is a cultural fork of the US establishment, just as the US itself was a fork of the British Empire. It’s the same root, different branches. The ambitious intellectual who would in a previous life have become an academic theorist, jurist, or journalist is now a founder, engineer, or investor.61 Because there’s a common thread between media and tech, which is the handling and presentation of information. Computer science took it one step further: it collapsed the distinction between the word and the deed, and turned a generation of intellectuals into software CEOs. Many people who previously thought they’d just advocate for a law to be passed and not worry about the details found out how hard it was to build things, to manage people, to turn a profit, to be the one in the arena. They became people of the Network. And then they came into conflict with those who remained people of the State.
All of these are factors. But the last one probably gets to the root of the issue, because fundamentally, tech-vs-media is a clash of Leviathans.
After all, the immigrant technologist moves between countries while keeping their technical skills and network connections. For them, the Network provides their primary community, while the State is secondary. Conversely, the American establishmentarian gains their power from the State. It is all about passing a law or influencing a policymaker. And if the Network interferes with this process, perhaps by giving people access to information that undermines the State? Then so much for the Network.
Tech-vs-media is then best understood as a collision of fundamental values, between the people of the Network and the people of the State.
You can think of the “people of the Network” as technological progressives, and the “people of the State” as political progressives (charitably) or technological conservatives (perhaps more realistically).
Both are seemingly aligned at a high level on the goal of solving problems like controlling COVID-19, building housing, or reducing car crashes. But the people of the Network usually start by writing code and thinking about individual volition, whereas for the people of the State the first recourse is passing laws and collective coercion.
Put another way, the people of the Network start by thinking about getting a piece of the network to call their own. A domain name, something they can build up from scratch, starting with a bare website like reddit.com and ending up with a massive online destination that everyone voluntarily seeks out. The primary goal of the technological progressive, the tech founder is to build — and for no one to have power over them.
By contrast the people of the State start by thinking about capturing a piece of the state. To win an election, to influence legislation via a nonprofit, to write an article that has “impact” in the sense of impacting policy, to be appointed Undersecretary of something or other…this is their mindset. The goal is to get a piece of this gigantic baton that is the government, to get a club to coerce people (for their own good of course), to maybe get a little budget along the way, and to finally “change the world” by changing the policy. To make something that was previously discretionary either mandatory or forbidden, to redirect the flow of printed money, to exert force through the law. The primary goal of the political progressive is thus the opposite of the technological progressive: their goal, verbalized or not, conscious or not, is to exert power over others.
Now, this is a caricature. Of course there are good people of the State, just like there are bad people of the Network. It is possible to use a minimal amount of coercion for good against genuinely bad actors; this truth is the difference between minarchism and anarchism.
But obviously, these worldviews collide. One group wants no one to have power over them, while the other seeks to exert power over others.
As a possible future scenario, one way this could be resolved is if the people of the State use the law to smash American tech over the 2020s, thereby gaining more power domestically. But tech has already gone global thanks to remote work, and most technologists are immigrants already…so the people of the Network may simply shift their attention overseas — or not come in the first place. So the federal action would merely drives away immigrant founders, and the American State would lose power on a global scale. (Local and state governments in the US may respond differently, which is an intriguing twist).
The same thing is also happening in China, by the way, where many of the most able technologists are now alighting for new countries — and no longer coming to the US, where they aren’t welcome anyway.
As a bit of a sidebar, a frequent argument that American people of the State make is that the people of the Network owe their very existence to the State. After all, was it not their god, the US government, that funded the internet? Do we not need public monies to back basic research? And shouldn’t the people of the Network therefore dutifully bow their heads and submit, joyfully paying ever more in tribute to the sacred Uncle Sam?
There are a few responses to this. One is that the antecedent of the people of the Network were the pre-internet industrialists, who certainly were not well treated by the State in the early 1900s. Another is that while the UK similarly gave rise to the US in some sense, Americans do not genuflect in the direction of the British Isles five times per day.
But the deepest response starts by acknowledging a kernel of truth: there was a period from roughly 1933-1970 when the centralized US government did the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, and Apollo. The transistor and early internet came out of this era as well. And there were some later innovations also catalyzed by the State (albeit often by non-bureaucrats who managed to commandeer bureaucrat funds) like the Human Genome Project and the self-driving car.
However, both before and after this period, the centralized State was not the locus of technical and scientific innovation. That should be obvious today for anything in digital technology; academia has been raided by tech companies and venture capitalists. But it’s also true for the period before the (well-intentioned) Vannevar Bush memo that kicked off the government centralization of science. After all, most of physics — from Newton to Maxwell to Einstein — was discovered before the National Science Foundation (NSF) was even created.
That said, let’s talk about the 1933-1970 period itself. This period of “peak state” was real, but in overstated form it has become the basis for books like Mazzucato’s Entrepreneurial State — which I disagree with, and which Mingardi and McCloskey have rebutted at length in the Myth of the Entrepreneurial State.
Here’s why I disagree with the thesis of the Entrepreneurial State:
- The name itself is oxymoronic. As macroeconomists never tire of telling us, governments aren’t households, because unlike actual entrepreneurs the state can seize funds and print money. So there is no financial risk, and hence nothing of “entrepreneurship” in the entrepreneurial state.
- The book doesn’t consider the fact that most math/physics/etc was invented prior to the founding of NSF, and therefore doesn’t need NSF to exist.
- It further doesn’t acknowledge that it was possible to do science and technology before the massive centralized state, through the distributed model of the “gentleman scientist,” and that this model is returning in the form of open source and (now) decentralized science.
- It doesn’t take into account the waxing and waning of centralized state capacity due to technology.
- It doesn’t contend with the state-caused slowdown in physical world innovation that happened during the post-1970 period, which Thiel, Cowen, and J Storrs Hall have all documented.
- It doesn’t look at how difficult VC or angel investing actually is, so it doesn’t really ask whether those “investments” by the state had real returns.
- Most importantly, it doesn’t engage with the counterfactual of what would happen if we had many independent funding sources, rather than a single centralized state.
So, it’s true that there was a period mid-century where all other actors besides the US and USSR were squashed down and centralized states dominated innovation. But it’s not because they were necessarily better at innovating, it’s because they were better at dominating, due to the centralized tech of that time. It was more about the Enormous State than the Entrepreneurial State. And that’s why the technological progressives of the Network don’t reflexively genuflect before the political progressives of the State.
Someone who worships an almighty God won’t readily change their beliefs. Neither will someone who worships an almighty State.
Once in a while, a religious millenarian’s belief is put to the test when there’s a concrete prediction made by the faith that doesn’t pan out. That’s also what happened for the “secular” believers in communism when the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union fell. These events are always fascinating for the non-believer - whether it’s Heaven’s Gate, QAnon, “Mueller Day,” or the “withering of the state”, it’s interesting to see what happens when a prophecy doesn’t work out.62
Indeed, that’s why people wrote books like The God that Failed when they turned away from communism. A Leviathan had given up the ghost. Whether that Leviathan was God itself or the State, it was a crushing collapse of faith. As per the book of the same title, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.
This offers a useful way of thinking about the blue and red statists alike, the left-authoritarians and the secular nationalists we discussed earlier. The American State is their God replacement, and they truly can’t envision a world without it. Whether they think of it in terms of “the Constitution” (the conservative framing) or “our democracy” (the progressive framing), the civic religion of the US is their religion, especially when faith in God has fallen off a cliff.
So, they may not be dispassionately rational when forecasting whether their God, the State, might fail. There are three ideas that are helpful here.
- The first idea is Flatland. The premise of Flatland is that it’s a 2D plane, and entities within Flatland can’t really understand 3D things. They encounter spheres as circles that start as points, expand to their maximum radus, and then contract back down.
- The second idea is the premise that historical time is far longer than human time. We live on a tiny piece of a grand historical curve, a trajectory that looks flat to us over months and years, because historical time (usually) moves slowly.
- The third idea is what Tyler Cowen diplomatically calls a “base-rater”, the establishment type who essentially thinks everything remains constant. This is the kind of person who’ll sardonically remarks “Oh, this time is different, huh?”, not realizing that (a) they’re quoting that statement out of context, and (b) the obviously fallacious opposite of that saying is the assertion that “things will never change.”
Put these ideas together and you start to get a mental model of the base-raters, the blue and red statists. They think everything will always stay the same, that it’ll stick at a base rate.
The only cycles they’re familiar with are short ones: the cycle of breath over a few seconds, the cycle of sleep over one day, and the cycle of seasons over one year. But they aren’t familiar with any cycle that extends beyond one human life, because they usually don’t know much history beyond what the establishment has pointed them towards.
Because they don’t think about cycles, they don’t think about curves. They live on a kind of Flatland, except rather than being flat as in the sense of two-dimensional, it’s flat as in the sense of a curve with zero-derivative. But as Ray Dalio has noted, things may not stay flat in historical terms for long. As such, the blue and red statists may be in for a rude shock. Using the lens of the Leviathans, they really think their God, the State, can never fail.