Diagnosing Our Decay | An interview with N.S. Lyons
The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence.
N.S. Lyons is a popular Substacker. He describes himself as existing in the U.S. foreign policy blob, surfing the zeitgeist, and chronicling our shared unreality. He writes The Upheaval, a wide-ranging newsletter exploring the nature, causes, and consequences of the chaos increasingly engulfing our lives as the world is forcibly reconfigured by at least three simultaneous revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former.
I hope you enjoy our interview/conversation.
The article of yours that I recommend everybody starts with is "No, the Revolution Isn't Over". You examine this phenomenon emerging (circa November 2021) of a centrist consensus that wokeness is dying. Your brilliant piece provides twenty reasons for why that's likely nonsense. If anything, it seems your prognosis is that things will get worse before they better. Indeed, you write that we should be braced for "Wokelash 2.0" if Trump is reelected. So I have to start by asking: what do you think are the best arguments for why wokeness could vanish before the end of the decade? Steelman the other side for me.
Well, I have to be honest, I don’t think there is any chance at all that wokeness will vanish by the end of the decade; I think even in the best case scenario it will long persist as a cult movement – a bit like Scientology, or, probably more aptly, like Jihadism. But let me reframe the question a bit to be an argument for why wokeness could have its institutional power and vice-like grip over society broadly smashed within a decade.
I think that would essentially require two things to happen at once, one bottom up and the other top down. From the bottom there would need to arise a distinct counter-culture that is explicitly anti-woke, and which – just as importantly – offers an alternative, manifestly superior, happier, and more meaningful way of life to that of the woke cult. This counter-culture would have to succeed in becoming the cool and attractive new “transgressive” mode of rebellion among younger generations. And, critically, this counter-culture would have to strongly appeal to the educated elite, not just function as an outgrowth of populism. Because what this counter-culture would have the greatest potential to accomplish is to essentially foster the growth of a new counter-elite within the woke’s own class base. I actually think this is already happening, which I consider rare cause for a little hope.
This would have to be combined, however, with exceptionally smart, focused, and determined political action from the top down aimed at fundamentally breaking the structural, legal, and institutional incentives that are primarily driving the wokeification of everything in American society (which America then exports around the world as a cultural product). That would necessarily have to begin with uprooting the explosive growth of the civil rights bureaucracy, including by repealing or amending the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which together functionally made surrender to wokeness a legal requirement for any organization of even moderate size. Sweeping executive orders mandating disparate impact assessment and other equity agendas through the federal government would also have to be replaced. Without doing so the stranglehold that HR departments – which are the key pipeline pumping cultural pollution from the academy into every corner of society – will not be broken, and wokeness will continue to proliferate. Some other top down actions by the federal government might also be necessary, namely cutting off the vast funding American tax payers provide for wokeness through subsidies to the universities and non-profit foundations. Taxing endowments, making universities directly liable for student loans, and other creative measures such as banning employers from asking about or receiving any details on where applicants received a degree (breaking elite schools’ cartel) could also have a real impact on circumscribing the power of the over-produced woke managerial elite.
There are of course many other causes of wokeness that I discussed in that piece, such as the crisis of meaning in the West. But tackling these key drivers would have the most immediate and practical impact, given that it is material incentives, not true belief, that lead most people to convert to wokeism. The phenomenon is unlikely to slow down in the slightest until those incentives have been upended. Unfortunately, I think the chances of the political opposition in the United States having the competence, focus, discipline, and fortitude to actually accomplish this are currently close to zero.
Okay, well I think we all need a little hope right now, so let's focus on that. Can you talk more about the counter-cultural movements you see, the ones that have the most promise? Give me the data.
I actually recently wrote an essay on this in City-Journal, which readers can find here if they’re interested. I don’t have hard data on this, only a sense of the zeitgeist shifting – and what you could call one of the laws of physics: young people rebel against stifling, humorless, joyless authority. The stifling authority of today is the woke liberal-left. Moreover, what we do have data on is that young people today are rather profoundly miserable, with what, if I recall correctly, are the highest rates of depression, anxiety, and unhappiness ever recorded. I suspect they are beginning to realize that the current dominant paradigm is simply not working, and are increasingly open to heretical alternatives. What direction they’ll go from there, we will see – but I’m willing to bet it will be a pendulum swing in a more conservative and traditionalist direction. We’ve actually already seen that occur in several countries in Europe, such as France and Sweden, where younger voters have become significantly more right-wing than their parents.
Anyway, as I get at in the City-Journal piece, what I’d say is the most significant potential impact of a conservative counter-culture is not a mass movement, but the prospect of a cultural break within the young and educated elite. This would be far more threatening to the institutional hegemony of the woke left than any mass populist movement – short of a revolution – even if the number of elite class dissidents remained a minority overall.
It's interesting that just before I read your reply, Matt Goodwin's latest Substack came through the intertubes -- "Meet the Zoomers". Goodwin is a British university professor and he talks about his new students who were born in 2004. I'm sure you'll agree that the demography of wokedom is fascinating. Some of the stats that stood out from Goodwin's piece:
About 75 per cent of 18-35 year old Zoomer graduates in Britain plan to vote for liberal left parties at the next election.
Only 11 per cent of Boomers know somebody who uses gender neutral pronouns, 46 per cent of Zoomers do.
In some universities, 70 per cent of students are female.
I want to focus on the final stat. Goodwin writes:
While this points to a generation of Zoomer women who will be more highly educated and socially liberal than their predecessors, it also points to a generation of much less qualified and more culturally conservative men who are falling behind their female counterparts and may, over time, become much less attractive to them. How this impacts on Western societies and politics remains an open question —and one that I suspect we will spend more time debating in the years and decades ahead.
In the US, you don't even have to look at Zoomers, you can see the chasm with millenials. The number of millenial women identifying as Democrat is 70%, compared to millenial men at 49%.
What do you make of this growing moral chasm between male and female moral intuitions?
I think it’s probably quite significant, to an underappreciated degree. Mary Harrington helped clue me into this during an interview with her: that if you combine Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction (that if you produce too many over-educated elites society becomes unstable as they begin to fight each other for limited prestigious positions) with what scientists like evolutionary biologist Joyce Benenson have identified as “female-typical aggression” (such as passive-aggressive strategies of “reputation destruction”), then as Harrington puts it, “much of what looks like ideological conflict within institutions can plausibly be read as a conflict for increasingly scarce resources conducted in the female key.” I.e. wokeness is just young women with social science degrees finding ways to eliminate their career competition.
Richard Hanania has also astutely pointed out that, for example, whenever some professor is cornered and harassed by what is described as an angry Gen-Z/Millennial “student mob,” that mob invariably actually consists almost entirely of young women. And his broader argument is that traditionally male institutions simply have no idea yet how to handle female claims for the need to be emotionally protected (i.e. feminine-style power claims), and so far simply roll over without regard to any of their former principles – or as he put it more provocatively, “Women's Tears Win in the Marketplace of Ideas.”
But I actually think this could be taken one step further, to say that our culture seems to fundamentally have no conceptual defense against any claims made as calls for empathy and compassion, no matter how extreme, pathological, and indeed harmful. You can point to feminization as the root of this and may be right, but this also seems to point back to very deep (and twisted) Christian roots of wokeness.
You mention our increasing inability to deal with claims grounded in pathological empathy. The obvious example that comes to my mind is the "trans" kids issue, an especially thorny debate that has ensnared otherwise sound thinking clinicians, policy makers, and parents. (I use inverted commas to signal that we're actually talking about gender dysphoric children -- assuming their conclusion is seeding vitally important linguistic territory). Many interesting thinkers from a variety of backgrounds have attempted to analyse different elements that explain our lack of conceptual defence against claims of empathy. We've heard about the role played by a rights-based culture, material abundance, individualism, catastrophising, the narcissism of small differences, and much more. However, I haven't seen anybody make a connection to our age of instant gratification. I mention the trans kids debate as an example because one of the arguments used by those in favour of giving children and teenagers more rights is that the decision is time pressured. Failure to "act now" is framed as "if this child kills themselves in the future, it's your fault". Regardless of the general truth of that claim (and I'm sure there are examples where it probably is true, which is why it's so persuasive), that's a very powerful rhetorical move. Conservative or more moderate morality is based on delaying spiritual gratification, but as soon as that delay is equated with harm or, to be more precise, the slippery slope to possible harm, you're fighting an uphill battle.
Take another somewhat related issue: bullying. If you ask the leading researchers on this topic, you'll find that bullying is probably impossible to eliminate and very hard to reduce, because it serves important adaptive purposes. Here's an interesting section from a recent academic review article:
Bullying has proven to be a difficult behavior to reduce, let alone eliminate. Despite decades of research and millions of dollars spent on interventions, current anti-bullying interventions typically reduce bullying by only around 20% (Gaffney et al., 2019). An evolutionary view offers a strong explanation for this low level of success, as bullying is partly rooted in genetic predispositions and affords adaptive outcomes (Volk et al., 2012). A recent natural experiment was conducted in Norway where an anti-bullying program was initiated in 2002 that reduced the levels of bullying by 20% within 4 years (victimization dropped by 60%; Roland, 2011). Once this success was achieved funds were reallocated to other programs, reducing the focus on (and thus sanctions associated with) bullying. Under these laxer ecological conditions, a less intense second intervention resulted in a return to pre-intervention levels of bullying (Roland, 2011). This research offers the important lesson that bullying is difficult to change without persistent and consistent efforts to reduce favorable contexts for bullying, but on a more positive note, they also demonstrate that bullying responds to changing ecologies.
Of course, conservatives like to think that a strict teacher-led classroom or silent corridors are a panacea. This is evolutionarily naive, as the above passage makes clear. The bullying just shifts to a more surreptious style, either outside of school or perhaps it becomes less intense -- all of which is still a win in my book when you consider the counter-factual. However, because the majority of teachers are liberal (partly because they're women, which goes back to the women's tears win point), I think you see a deep reluctance in the teaching profession to acknowledge a harsh truth like this. Specifically: most boys should experience minor bullying and also learn how to deal with it themselves or with some guidance. This wouldn't have needed stating that long ago. Nowadays, to not immediately intervene in bullying (and thus delay spiritual gratification) is assumed to be tantamount to child abuse. Instead, teachers focus on "modelling restorative justice", by bringing the children together and forcing them to confront the consequences of their actions. I'm not an absolutist; a plurality of tools and techniques are probably useful. But when you combine that type of thing with the concept creep over what actually constitutes bullying, it's a recipe for coddling, as Haidt and Lukianoff write about.
I've also noticed that a certain type of person -- usually a woman -- gets a kick out of playing the mediator role. That leads me to question who precisely the restorative justice is for. Sociologists write about the "hidden curriculum", the lessons which are learned but not openly intended, such as you will be surveilled. The hidden curriculum here might be: your problems will be instantly addressed and remedied if only you make people aware of the immense harm presently or potentially being caused. Well, we know how that can be both consciously and subconsciously manipulated by dark triad types. At the very least, pathological extensions of liberal morality costs us billions through policies that have no grounding in a scientific understanding of human nature.
Is there anything you'd add to that diagnosis?
Well, one thing I would point out is that, as far as I see it, the “rights-based culture, material abundance, individualism, catrastophising, the narcissism of small differences” explanations you mention are all connected to your “instant gratification” hypothesis. All of these things are different facets of modernity’s same dominant cultural drive to retreat into an artificial reality of our own creation as we try desperately to excise all those aspects of reality that cause us existential anxiety by existing beyond the control of our individual will. I feel like I’ve just barely started to get at this in two essays, “The Reality War” and “Reality Honks Back.”
But the philosopher Matthew Crawford illustrates this especially well in his wonderful book The World Beyond Your Head in a passage where he compares old episodes of Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons – in which characters engaged in a sort of exaggerated, slapstick struggle with messy physical reality as the core theme of every episode, facing mechanical traps, projectiles, confrontation with each other, etc. – with Disney’s new programming today. What he finds, watching with his own children, is that:
The current episodes are all oriented not around frustration but around solving a problem. One does this by saying, “Oh Tootles!” This makes the Handy Highlight Dandy machine appear, a computerlike thing that condenses out of the Cloud and presents a menu of four “Mouseke-tools” on a screen, by the use of which the viewer is encouraged to be a “Mouseke-doer.”
There are four problems per episode, and each can be solved using one of the four tools. This assurance is baked into the initial setup of the episode; no moment of helplessness is allowed to arise. There is never an insoluble problem, that is, a deep conflict between the will and the world. I suspect that is one reason these episodes are not just unfunny, but somehow the opposite of funny. Like most children’s television these days, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is doggedly devoted not to capturing experience, that is, to psychological truth, but to psychological adjustment. It is not a depiction so much as an intervention—on behalf of parents, teachers, and others who must manage children.
The well-adjusted child doesn’t give in to frustration; he asks for help (“Oh Tootles!”) and avails himself of the ready-made solutions that are presented to him. To be a Mouseke-doer is to abstract from material reality as depicted in those early Disney cartoons, where we see the flip side of affordances. Perhaps we should call unwanted projectiles, demonic springs, and all such hazards “negative affordances.” The thing is, you can’t have the positive without the negative; they are two sides of the same coin. The world in which we acquire skill as embodied agents is precisely that world in which we are subject to the heteronomy of things; the hazards of material reality. To pursue the fantasy of escaping heteronomy through abstraction is to give up on skill, and therefore to substitute technology-as-magic for the possibility of real agency.
His argument is that this “technology-as-magic” fantasy has dovetailed perfectly with the dream of perfect individual autonomy, free of any and all constraints, that is the gospel of liberal modernity:
Autonomy talk is a flattering mode of speech. It suggests that freedom is something we are entitled to, and it consists in liberation from constraints imposed by one’s circumstances. For several hundred years now, the ideal self of the West has been striving to secure its freedom by rendering the external world fully pliable to its will. For the originators of modern thought, this was to be accomplished by treating objects as projections of the mind; we make contact with them only through our representations of them…
But when dumb nature is understood to be threatening to our freedom as rational beings, it becomes attractive to construct a virtual reality that will be less so, a benignly nice Mickey Mouse Clubhouse where there is no conflict between self and world; no contingency that hasn’t been anticipated by the Handy Dandy machine… The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence. With this comes fragility—that of a self that can’t tolerate conflict and frustration. And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever can present the most enthralling representations that save us from a direct confrontation with the world.
In other words we live in a cultural civilization that is fundamentally terrified of the messiness of reality, and which does whatever it takes to try to free ourselves from its limits – even, now, from fundamentals like biology. But as Crawford warns, in this state of presumed limitlessness, “Our mental lives become shapeless, and more susceptible to whatever presents itself out of the ether... these presentations are highly orchestrated; commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.” In our quest for perfect freedom, we lose our freedom, becoming slaves to the artificial reality offered by others.
Turning to a totally different cultural civilisation now, I very much enjoyed your post on Chinese food security. I'm wondering what your broad scale picture of China is at the moment? On a slightly more granular level, what do you make of their attempt to combat demographic decline. For those who don't know, China appear to be facing a population collapse. Peter Zeihan is one of the biggest names suggesting that China could descend into all kinds of hell in just a few decades. They tried to promote motherhood last year, but were met with public backlash. I now wonder whether they'll be forced to embrace embryo selection on a hitherto unseen scale. If so, it seems they'd have to fight a deeply embedded cultural blank slatism. What are your thoughts?
China faces very serious challenges, both in the short and long term. In the short term, they are facing the collapse of a gigantic real estate bubble. This is quite the problem, as the country is buried in mountains of debt (around 300% of GDP, that we know of), and some 70% of household wealth is tied up in property. But the real issue is what the real estate crisis itself represents, which is the end of the Chinese growth model that has been so powerful over the past decades – and which was basically just debt-driven, investment led growth. The real estate sector still represents up to something like 30% of GDP. Now they are stuck, with the only politically acceptable road being to increase state intervention and infrastructure stimulus to keep up growth and employment; this of course only makes the problem worse. So they are facing a reckoning now.
Still, they will get through the current crisis one way or another. It won’t be “the end” of China. The demographic decline is a much more serious problem. (And there is reason to believe the problem is much worse than the already very bad official data suggests.) I don’t see any reason to think they will be able to turn this population decline around anytime soon through any “conventional” means, though they are trying with growing urgency. China isn’t alone here though, of course. Developed countries all around the world are facing the same demographic problem and have been trying all kinds of state incentives to try to reverse falling birth rates, but by and large none of them have worked. Where they have worked, such as in Hungary, the improvement has only been very marginal despite significant effort and expense, and they still aren’t over the replacement rate.
This is because, in my view, demographic collapse is fundamentally an inevitable consequence of the society produced by liberal modernity, not a strictly economic problem. Hence why we see it all around the world. The irony of course is that (like most in the West do) China sees itself as both as non-Western (indeed anti-Western) and certainly not liberal. This isn't really true; China today is deeply Western, its culture thoroughly the product of the Western import of Marxism and all the dominant assumptions of materialism and progress that came with it. Traditional Chinese civilization and its values have almost all been thoroughly uprooted and remain only in vestigial traces. This is why, as I have written on at length, Xi Jinping’s China is not only completely paranoid about stopping the spread of liberalism, but scrambling to try to “create core values” by mixing traditional values back into Chinese socialism. I doubt this is going to work very well. Still, if anyone is going to brute force their way out of demographic decline, I think it will be China. Already China is the world’s fastest adopter of robotic automation. If soon they embrace biotech and mass artificial conception as a national imperative, I would not be at all surprised. After all, what could be a more Marxist-Leninist solution than that?
Your thoughts on China allow me to segue seamlessly onto our final topic, one you've also written about: Central Bank Digital Currencies, or CBDCs. I'm going to quote your final paragraph back to you:
[...] the implementation of a CBDC could represent the single greatest expansion of totalitarian power in human history. Never has there been any regime with such omnipotent insight into and control over its people’s every transaction as what CBDCs may soon make possible. No Xerxes, no Caligula, no Stalin, no Kim Jong Un has ever held such power. And yet this is what will soon be smuggled into use in our societies in the name of convenience, social justice, and patriotism.
What scares me about this is that one can easily imagine very captivating arguments being made from the left about tax collection becoming more efficient. Perhaps it'll be a long journey to win over the public, but I have come to believe that CBDCs, in some form, are all but inevitable. It looks like the digital yuan is coming in hot and fast at least. Assuming I'm correct, I have two questions: (1) what are the most obvious implications of China launching a successful CBDC? (I note several US senators have already proposed a ban on the digital yuan). (2) Do you think the West can erect any suitable firewalls to prevent the obvious governmental and corporate overreach that people like Snowden and Assange have long highlighted?
China’s objectives with the digital yuan are primarily domestic: it’s all about control. That includes social and political control, by integrating CBDC into the existing structure of the Chinese social credit system. But also, importantly, a new level of control over financial flows into and especially out of China. The fact that Chinese citizens are constantly finding loopholes to get their money out of China whenever they can (beyond the official $50,000 annual limit) is very troubling for Beijing. Transitioning to a digital yuan could help them retain much greater control over capital flows, as well as provide significantly greater ability to monitor and suppress crime, routine corruption, and tax evasion (as you allude to).
There is also a foreign policy element, however, in that Beijing hopes being at the forefront of CBDC technology can help promote the internationalization of the yuan and, critically, facilitate the creation of a financial payments network beyond the U.S. dollar system and therefore beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions. Washington and its allies are also clearly very worried about this (or at least making noises as if they are), as they’ve cited such a possibility as a key reason to accelerate Western development of CBDCs. I think the chances the digital yuan could really disrupt the supremacy of the U.S. dollar (any more than the ordinary yuan) are actually quite low, however, as digitizing the currency doesn’t solve the real problems: everyone still has to use the U.S. dollar to trade anything anyone else wants; and people simply don’t trust China with their money anyway.
So I don’t think encroachment by China’s currency is the real reason for the newfound passion for CBDCs in the West. The real reason comes down to the same goal as Beijing: control. Which is why while the West could erect legal and technical firewalls to prevent the abuse of CBDCs by governments, I rather doubt any will be, except in the form of rhetorical guarantees that authorities only have the public’s safety, security, and sustainable prosperity at heart.
Thank you for such an engaging conversation. I think you've persauded me to do more of these email based interviews! Final question: can you recommend any books and thinkers to help readers gain similar insight to yourself? And if there's also a critic of your worldview that you fundamentally disagree with but respect, that's always good to know, too.
There are far too many to name, but in terms of people writing online today I guess I’d really recommend Paul Kingsnorth and Mary Harrington in particular. Richard Hanania is also especially interesting because we seem to be in strong agreement with each other half the time, and in fundamental disagreement the other half of the time. This seems to be the case with some other libertarian and more classical liberal thinkers, and is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. In terms of books, I’d really recommend Christopher Lasch and James Burnham. They seem to have managed to get most things about today right decades ago, as far as I can tell.
Let me thank you for your great questions, as they’ve all been really thought provoking! I hope your readers find the discussion as interesting as I have.