Caesarism in Australia

As Faustian culture moves further along the path of civilisation, Spengler predicted that we should start to see a dynamic he called Caesarism in politics. By this he meant the rise of populist demagogues representing the interests of the public against the capitalists and their allies in the public bureaucracy. In the last post, I noted the ascendancy of law over honour in modern society. One of the drivers for this is the benefit that capitalists derive from excessive laws which both further their interests directly if the law is written in their favour and indirectly by creating a large administrative (and therefore financial) barrier to entry which prevents competition in the marketplace. An excess of laws is to the advantage of the capitalist class and the mandarins who administer the laws. This alliance between capitalists and the public bureaucracy is called the “elites” in modern parlance. Thus, the WEF meeting taking place in Davos at the moment includes billionaires, politicians and bureaucrats from various countries.

Caesarism breaks this dynamic. It sees the rise of charismatic rulers who win support from the public by counteracting the power of the elites. The Caesar achieves this by appealing to something higher than law and financial interest. It’s the promise of a return to an honour-based system but not one that has grown up organically in the culture phase of the cycle. Rather, it’s a facsimile of real culture. Trump and his Make America Great Again is a paradigm example of Caesarism. So, in its own way, was the Brexit vote in Britain.

For all kinds of reasons, the appearance of Caesarism in Australia seemed incredibly unlikely prior to corona. And yet corona, probably quite by accident, ended up looking an awful lot like Caesarism. One of the weirder things that I heard right at the start of corona was the phrase “the virus is real but the economy is not.” Setting aside the truth of this statement, it reveals something that is a cornerstone of the drive to Caesarism; namely the denigration of the bourgeois status quo. The economy is not real. This represents a desire: I want society to stand for something more than money. That is what the Caesar promises and he doesn’t mind how he goes about getting it. In Australia during corona, we saw police brutality, radical government intervention in civil society and a complete disregard of the financial ramifications of the measures. This was arguably a textbook example of Caesarism with Victoria’s “Dictator” Dan Andrews leading the way.

It’s one of those ironies of history that corona was a blow to Trump’s populism in the US while in Australia it manifested as exactly the kind of authoritarianism that Trump’s opponents had warned the orange man would enact on the US public. Prior to corona, Australia seemed like the last place you’d expect Caesarism to manifest. Australian politics had been a snoozefest for decades. The only interesting things to happen have been Prime Ministers getting stabbed in the back by their party. Australians are cynical of politicians and this is part of an overall cultural aversion to high achievers known as Tall Poppies Syndrome. The Australian economy also lacks the dynamism of the US which means that the capitalists here have little internal competition and therefore less need to pursue political agendas against each other. The last time we saw the capitalists directly intervene in democracy was when the Gillard government attempted to levy a mining tax. Meanwhile, Australia’s place in the inner circle of the US empire has given a stability to our foreign affairs with just the occasional need to send a small number of soldiers to futile wars overseas. All of these factors mitigate against the need for Caesarism and made the corona response such a surprise.

Now that Caesarism seems back on the agenda in Australia, especially with the prospect of economic upheavels ahead, it’s worth looking at other examples of Caesarism within Australian political history to see if these might give us some clue of how it might manifest here in the years and decades ahead.

The Great Depression was obviously a time of stress on the political system. Australia was still working out its new federal arrangements internally while also being tied to the British Empire financially and politically. Thus, when Britain dropped the gold standard this had a huge deflationary effect on the Australian currency and politicians here had to also drop the gold standard to depreciate the Australian dollar and get exports to rise. Meanwhile, the individual states held significant power which reduced the ability of the federal government to mount a coordinated strategy to deal with the economic problems. To give an idea of how little coordination there was, different states still used different railway gauges at the time meaning trains had to stop at the borders and everybody would get off and walk across to get on a different train to continue the journey.

The then Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, set out to deal with these issues and one of the outcomes of The Great Depression was greater centralisation of power in the federal government. This process of centralisation has continued ever since and is part of the reason why corona came as such a shock. Australians woke to realise that, not only did state governments still exist, but they could do things like shut the border and prevent you from seeing your family or stop you from travelling more than 5kms from your house. Who knew?

Back in The Depression, states had far more power than they do now and that power meant the ability to challenge the federal government. That’s exactly what New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang, was happy to do and this culminated in a constitutional crisis that saw him eventually removed by the Governor of the State in 1932. In terms of Caesarism, it should be noted that Lang was not challenging the capitalist system. Far from it. In fact, he was advocating for Keynesianism at a time when that was not the dominant economic ideology. Although he would lose the battle at the time, his kind of economic policies would later become the standard way of dealing with economic downturns. We saw this most recently with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s helicopter money during the GFC. Corona represents another example. Although we are nearing the end of the Keynesian paradigm now that debt is at levels that are clearly never going to be repaid.

What was relevant about Lang was the extent to which he was prepared to go to achieve his aims. This included using the machinery of state government to defy the federal. At one point, he even withdraw all state money from government bank accounts and stored the cash at the Trades Hall, thereby ensuring the federal government could not get access to it (this is a strategy individuals would do well to consider in the time ahead). After his removal from power, it was noted by government insiders that Lang had even considered placing the Governor under arrest. This could likely have resulted in the Australian army being sent in to take over the state of New South Wales.

It’s this transition from law to brute force, or at least the threat of force, that is a hallmark of Caesarism because the Caesar represents a return of The Warrior archetype against the capitalist. The use of force brings to mind another episode from state politics, one which is relevant to recent global events.

Joh Bjelke-Peterson, aka The Hillbilly Dictator, was certainly a proto-Caesar. In 1971, the South African rugby team was touring Australia at the height of the anti-apartheid protests here. Bjelke-Peterson decided to declare a month-long state of emergency for the sole purpose of quelling the expected protests. That’s right. Justin Trudeau is not the first to think of that tactic. Of course, Bjelke-Peterson’s politics were the opposite of Trudeau’s. The point is not the ends but the means that are available to a potential Caesar and one of them is declaring states of emergency where none exists (of course, there are far more famous and historically important examples of this idea).

Bjelke-Peterson also practiced a tactic of Caesarism that was adopted by the Victorian State Premier during corona i.e. the daily press conference. Bjelke-Peterson referred to it as “feeding the chooks”. The media needs stories and a politician is in a position to give them something easy to write about. Trump did something similar during his presidential run by hijacking the media to ensure that he was the main focus of the daily news, although that was less like feeding the chooks and more like feeding the spawn of Satan.

Bjelke-Peterson was the opponent of another charismatic leader who pushed the boundaries of what the constitution would allow, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam won an election and then convinced the Governor-General to break with convention and swear him and his deputy leader in before the full count of the election had been completed. There followed a two week period called the “duumvirate” where the government consisted of just two men. During this time, Whitlam put into action a host of measures that didn’t require parliamentary approval, thereby acting in a quasi-authoritarian fashion. This was just the beginning of the troubles and he would later join Jack Lang as the only two leaders to be removed by Governors-General in the short history of Australian politics.

The Bjelke-Peterson/Whitlam rivalry was another round in the ongoing battle between the states and the federal government. Whitlam was in favour of radical constitutional reform that would concentrate more power at the federal level while Bjelke-Peterson explicitly campaigned for state rights against the “communism” of federal Labor. Other examples of this were the fact that Western Australia actually voted to secede from the federation in 1933. The only reason the secession didn’t go ahead was because the British government refused to push the matter stating it did not have the legal right to do so. Meanwhile, the issue of secession has arisen several times in Tasmanian politics too.

Mostly the feds have won such battles and usurped power at the hands of the states and yet that trend was reversed during the Scott Morrison Prime Ministership in a fashion that is still very strange and might be Morrison’s most lasting legacy. For both the bushfire emergency and corona, Morrison let the states run the show. On the one hand, this makes sense as the states have responsibility for most of the emergency services response. Yet, during corona, Morrison gave states responsibility for quarantine which was legally a federal duty as well as letting the state Premiers walk all over him at the national cabinet. Morrison could have used those crises in the same way past federal leaders had to increase the powers of the federal government and yet he refused to do so. This cost him politically while also allowing the rise of mini-Caesars at the state level. All of a sudden, state politics is relevant again when for decades it had been the B-grade movie of Australian political life.

This very brief survey gives us an outline of how Caesarism could manifest in the Australian context. It might occur at the state or federal level and, in fact, one may lead to the other. At one point, Bjelke-Peterson was considering a run for Prime Minister. Until now, the constitution has held any would-be Ceasars in check. But it’s not hard to imagine it faltering under more extreme circumstances. There is also the question of constitutional change which is back on the agenda now with a new government. That could open up the system to new vulnerabilities. In short, there is nothing about the Australian system of government that is likely to inhibit Caesarism any more than other countries.

The big question for Caesarism in the Australian context is what values a would-be populist demagogue can invoke to garner support. Trump and Brexit both ran on anti-globalist nationalism which makes sense in both of those countries. It makes far less sense in Australia for a number of reasons. Firstly, we have been among the most eager proponents of globalisation and, unlike the middle classes of Britain and the US, our middle class has benefitted from globalisation (or at least didn’t go backward). Secondly, our geographic position does not lend itself to national rivalries with other countries in the way that Britain has with other European nations, for example. Thirdly, nationalism is problematic in Australia due to its historical roots in the White Australia policy. It’s worth pointing out that the White Australia policy was supported mostly by the Labor Party as a way to guarantee the earnings and conditions of the working class. The abandonment of the working class by Labor in the 90s was partly a capitulation to the multi-national corporations and institutions who run globalist capitalism. For these reasons and more, neither major political party in Australia is the natural breeding ground of a Caesar in the sense of fighting back against global capital.

In Spenglerian terms, Australia was founded during the civilisational period of the Faustian culture. Thus, the Langs, the Bjelke-Petersons and the Whitlams were all working on variations of the bourgeois project. The age of Caesarism is when that project gets torn up and replaced by an appeal to “higher” values. One way this might play out in Europe is a resumption of military conflict. But this is highly unlikely to be relevant to Australia unless China turns belligerent.

So, it’s still very difficult to see how Caesarism could come to Australia. Much depends on how fast the bottom falls out of the US empire and what the ramifications are for global trade. If things turn out well and trade with Asia continues, it may very well be that Australia’s mineral and agricultural wealth enables the continuation of a bourgeois society here long after Europe and the US have moved into the phase of Caesarism. Australia might remain a relic of times past; a weird little European outpost in the south pacific upholding a tradition that has gone extinct. If things go less well, it could be that Australia will have an existential crisis to go alongside an economic one.

Honour vs Law

In the recent Australian election campaign, one of the issues run by the left-leaning parties (whatever “left” means nowadays) was the establishment of a corruption commission for federal government. In recent years, corruption commissions at the state level have been in the headlines numerous times, even claiming the scalp of the former NSW Premier but not her Victorian counterpart even though he’s been hauled in front of our state’s commission three times and counting. I suppose this could be seen as evidence that the commissions are doing their job. But much like the legal system doesn’t create justice and the health system doesn’t create health, a corruption commission doesn’t create honesty and decency in politics. In fact, it may just lead to the opposite outcome.

As it happens, the Westminster system of government used to have a perfectly good mechanism for dealing with corruption and it’s only in the last few decades that this system has disappeared. As far as I can tell, it’s the absence of that mechanism that’s at least partly driving the perceived increase in corruption, so it’s worth describing what changed.

The way the system used to work in Australia was that it was not enough for a politician to be above board, they had to be seen to be above board and if they were not seen to be above board, they had to resign irrespective of whether they were actually innocent or guilty. In those times, there was a functioning news media acting as the fourth estate. Journalists would delight in claiming a big scalp by finding a politician doing something they shouldn’t be doing. For example, the Minister for Defence might be caught having lunch with the CEO of a company that had tendered for a government defence project. The lunch might be completely innocent and the Minister might have a perfectly good excuse why he or she was there. Doesn’t matter. They had not fulfilled their responsibility to be seen to be above board and they had to resign.

The usual rhythm of such matters was that there would be a front page news article on day one: Defence Minister Caught in Dodgy Dinner Date. The Minister would give a short statement denying any impropriety which bought some time to consult with the party. On day two or three at the latest, a press conference would be called where the Minister would vehemently maintain their innocence but announce their resignation on the basis that thems the rules.

This was an honour system. There was nothing codified in law. It was just the way things were done. No doubt the system saw a number of promising and completely innocent politicians have to resign from their positions over a trifling mistake. But the beauty of it was that it allowed the politician a gracious exit. They got to maintain their innocence while also upholding their honour. Meanwhile, they also re-affirmed the integrity of the system in the eyes of the public. Because the bar was set so high, it meant there was a substantial cost on any actual corruption and any actual corruption was nipped in the bud easily. It even made capitalist media owners happy by increasing sales of newspapers giving them an incentive to fund real investigative journalism.  

I don’t remember a specific case where the old honour system stopped working. I guess it was some time in the late 90s when standards began to slip. Politicians still maintained their innocence just as they always had. But now they dug their heels in and demanded that evidence be shown why they were actually guilty. Investigations would need to be held. But investigations are time consuming and costly. There are a hundred and one excuses available to a politician who wants to hold on to their job and just as it take ten times more energy to refute bullshit than to create it, it’s far harder to prove an excuse wrong than to make it up in the first place. It doesn’t help that politicians are experts at lying, prevaricating and obfuscating. Even a highly skilled lawyer has their work cut out for them.

Investigations also air all kinds of dirty laundry that would be better not to make public and this has the side effect of reducing overall trust in the system. The recent investigation into the New South Wales Premier was a particularly grubby business and it would have been better for all concerned to have avoided it. Meanwhile in Victoria in late 2020, we had the ridiculous spectacle of the entire government insisting that nobody could “recall” who made a crucial decision that led to Melbourne’s corona lockdown. In essence, the government tried to save its skin by arguing that it was incompetent rather than corrupt. This brings the whole system of government into disrepute. All of this could have been avoided if the old honour system was adhered to. Somebody would have resigned immediately and the matter would have been over.

If we stand back and compare the old honour system against the law-based system of corruption commissions, one of the main things that stands out is the collateral damage caused by the latter. In the honour based system, a politician might lose their job unfairly but they retain their honour and, unless the matter was really serious, they stay in parliament and can rise through the ranks again later if they play their cards right. All in all, it’s a minor inconvenience. But the collateral damage of the law-based system is huge. It tends to bring the whole system into disrepute while also embarrassing and ruining the reputations of individual politicians.

I have mentioned in previous posts our culture’s peculiar blind faith in the law and the amounts of money (collateral damage) that get wasted pursuing matters through courts that really should be resolved informally. This enthusiasm for law takes other, more bizarre, forms too.

Once upon a time, I used to cycle to work in inner city Melbourne. On one particularly memorable morning bike ride, I found myself fourth in line of a group of cyclists waiting at a red traffic light. We were in the bike lane and there were two lanes on either side of the road with another four lane road running perpendicular creating a large intersection. The light in front of us turned green while a car, which must have run the red light, was about halfway through the intersection driving from our right to left. The cyclist at the head of the queue had seen the car. In fact, he was looking straight at it. Nevertheless, he decided to ride directly in front of it causing the driver of the car to break heavily and come to screeching stop only metres from the cyclist who proceeded to scream at the driver about running a red light. In the meantime, the car was blocking two lanes of traffic and the other car drivers began beeping their horns.

The cyclist could have waited two seconds for the car to pass and everything would have proceeded fine. Instead, he decided to quite literally risk his own life in order to make a point about the law being broken. If you get run over by a car while riding a bicycle, the fact that the driver was breaking the law at the time is going to be little consolation to you and your loved ones. You’ll be dead and the driver will probably go to jail for killing you. Everybody loses. To willingly risk such an outcome just to prove a point about the law being broken is, to put it mildly, rather strange. But this is our attitude to law in modern western culture. I have cycled in India and China. In the former there are no road rules and in the latter the rules are nothing more than guidelines. There is no road rage in those countries. At least, none that I saw.

Trying to solve problems via law is often a cover for the real problem. Why was the driver running the red light? Because traffic in Melbourne had become severely congested due to infrastructure not keeping pace with population growth. That led to frustration on the road and more red lights being run. Changing a law or enforcing the laws more diligently does not solve that underlying problem. Similarly, here in Victoria, the government recently announced they were building a “mental health system from the ground up” and it was going to be the best damn mental health system money could buy. Why are there so many people struggling with mental health in the state of Victoria? Could it have something to do with us having had the longest lockdowns in the world? Maybe we shouldn’t have done that. Similarly, why were almost all the people dying “with corona” those who had co-morbidities? Did anybody bother to investigate the cause of those co-morbidities? Maybe if we reduced the number of people with co-morbidities, we’d reduce the number of deaths.

All of this requires a systems-based approach to tackling problems and not a law-based approach. But our blind faith in law, and by extension reason, has always been predicated on a massive overestimation of its powers while discounting all the subconscious, automatic and tacit functions that happen in the background which keep systems healthy and in balance. Interventions in systems often have the side effect of weakening or even destroying those tacit and unseen factors. It’s for that reason that large-scale interventions should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. The trouble is that it takes time, patience and care to build up our knowledge of systems and tinker around to find what really works. The temptation is always to go for the big bang approach of initiatives that involve billions of dollars to hire a team of experts to roll the dice on the latest technological whizz bang solutions.

Such interventions always have side effects and the bigger the intervention the bigger the side effect until eventually the interventions become so huge that the collateral damage they cause is more dangerous than the underlying problem. That’s exactly where we are in many different domains of modern society.

Winston Churchill once said you can rely on Americans to do the right thing once they had tried every other option. But that seems to be an accurate description for all of the West these days. It’s not until we’ve tried every “rational” option and had them all fail that we will reset. In the process we might come to realise how many things work in spite of, and not because of, the law and perhaps we’ll re-learn the limits of reason.

Quick thoughts on the Australian election

Oswald Spengler noted that as a society moves further down the track of civilisation the traditional two parties in a democracy become indistinguishable from each other and all that is left is just a single party representing the bourgeois. Nowhere is that dynamic more obvious than here in the most bourgeois country in the world, Australia. As we come to the end of an election campaign that seems to have been going for an eternity, the difference between the two majors parties, Liberal and Labor, is smaller than ever. In fact, they really should change their branding colours. The upcoming election is a choice between beige and off-white rather than red and blue.

I saw an unintentionally amusing post online during the week where somebody was speculating that our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has Bell’s Palsy as a result of getting the vaccine. Sorry to disappoint, folks, but that really is what his face looks like, the default configuration of which is a look of smugness that in any other institution in the country would be a liability but in the Liberal Party with its private school educated, born-to-rule pretentions, is part of the job description.

Morrison has been a party man his whole life. So has his opponent, Anthony Albanese. Like the Prime Minster, Albanese appears to have failed upwards and somehow ended up as opposition leader through the occult inner workings and factional machinations of the Labor Party. Did nobody else want the job? The question must be asked. It certainly isn’t a good election to win but there might not be any better ones for a long time.

One of the main issues of this election was that core element of the bourgeois dream: home ownership. This has been steadily slipping out of reach for more than two decades now thanks partly to the reforms ushered in by ex-Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard. Albanese has a collection of investment properties which makes him somewhat of a hypocrite on the issue but hypocrisy is no hindrance to the highest office these days. It might even be a necessary quality.

Albanese’s solution to the problem is to have the government become co-owner in property purchases while Morrison’s is to let people draw down their superannuation (this is not a new policy but an old pig that the coalition slapped some lipstick on for the final week of the election). Neither is a real solution because the cause of the problem, the real cause, is that which cannot be spoken i.e. the fact that the US Federal Reserve has been spinning the printing presses so fast they’re damn near falling off. But that’s been the election in a nutshell. Six weeks of systematically avoiding any real issue.

Of far more interest in the election campaign has been the influence of the billionaires, forerunners if Spengler is correct, to the age of Caesarism. On the right, we had Clive Palmer reprising his role as a c-grade Trump wannabe. Unfortunately for him, Palmer simply doesn’t have the cachet for media manipulation that Trump has. Although, to be fair, it’s also the case that the media landscape in Australia is far more controlled than the US meaning that the bourgeois uniparty that governs the country has the discipline and wherewithal to systematically exclude alternative voices from the conversation.

It’s here that the arrival of a second billionaire on the scene has been of interest because this billionaire has received plenty of attention from the establishment and that is because he is, in fact, a political insider having previously been aligned with fundraising efforts for none other than the current treasurer Frydenberg. I’m talking here of Simon Holmes a Court, whose father was Australia’s most famous corporate raider back in the 80s where he built his fortune from scratch buying and selling companies. Like Palmer, Holmes a Court is not running for office directly but rather has funded a group of Karens….errr, I mean….candidates to run in blue ribbon inner city seats currently held by the Liberal Party including, amusingly, the treasurer’s seat of Kooyong. Holmes a Court had previously been kicked out of the Kooyong 200 association where he had been raising money for the treasurer.

If all this sounds like an internal spat between the blue bloods that’s certainly true but that spat has wider significance in the electoral landscape. The Liberal Party has adopted a “net zero 2050” position largely because of this internal pressure. In doing so, it has been trying to defend the inner city seats where the average voter’s idea of helping the environment is to trade in the Porsche for a Tesla.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this election will be whether the Liberals lose those seats. Meanwhile, both the United Australia Party and One Nation look to do well in the outer suburban seats currently held by Labor. It’s one of unspoken facts of Australian politics that these supposedly right-leaning parties actually owe a great deal of their vote to what you might call old-Labor voters. The Labor Party sold its economic soul back in the 90s in the same way as Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US. So, there’s a lot of old-Labor voters looking for a home. UAP and One Nation probably won’t do well enough to win any of those seats but they might flip a few to the Liberals on preferences.

All this implies a realignment of Australian politics which mirrors exactly what has already happened in the US and the UK. The right leaning parties could capture the old Labor vote in the outer suburbs. In order to do so, however, they would need to abandon the inner city blue ribbon seats such as the one the Treasurer currently holds. They won’t do that voluntarily. But if those seats get lost, they might figure it out the hard way.

That to me is the most interesting part of this election. I don’t expect it to happen yet. Australia doesn’t seem ready for our Brexit/Trump moment. As a resource rich nation, we actually benefit from some of the turmoil in the world which drives up the price of our food crops and energy exports. That might pay for quite a few electric cars for wealthy inner city denizens in the years ahead. The petrol price hikes and inflation, however, will hit home most squarely in the outer suburbs and it is there that the future of Australian politics lies.

I’ll be watching with interest one of those seats which is the electorate of Fowler in Sydney’s west. Australia’s answer to Hillary Clinton, Kristina Keneally, has been parachuted in by the Labor Party machine. Keneally, who even has an American accent, shares with Clinton the strange combination of being spectacularly unpopular with the general public and incredibly popular with the party machine men (I suppose we should call them machine persons nowadays). Her main opponent in the seat is a Vietnamese refugee who had previously left the Liberal Party to became deputy mayor to a man who had left the Labor Party. Together they formed an independent local council. In that local story there is a lot about a potential future direction for Australian politics. Fowler might be a bellwether for a more general trend in future years.

Why modern science sucks

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

Hanlon’s Razor

Those looking for an explanation for the absurdly dysfunctional state of modern western society usually turn to one of two explanations. Either the problems are caused by individual leaders and their failings e.g. a senile Biden, a narcissistic Trudeau or a clownish Boris Johnson, or they are the deliberate attempt on the part of some group of masterminds to bring about a new world order; in other words, a conspiracy theory.

Part of the reason why these explanations are preferred is because they allow the possibility of redress. You can vote out an idiot leader and get a better one. And a conspiracy theory can be unearthed and held to justice.

The large-scale conspiracy theory is also quite flattering to the human ego. It implies a team of evil super geniuses who are so intelligent they that they are able to pull the strings of all nation states simultaneously turning the leaders of countries into puppets while hiding their nefarious intent from the general public. It’s pleasing to think that we are capable of that level of intelligence and competence. It’s also a comforting thought because the bad guys can be brought to justice. All we have to do is uncover their dastardly plot and bring them before the courts. The German lawyer, Reiner Füllmich, has been playing on this idea right from the start of corona with promises of convictions against those who pushed the “public health” measures. Unless I missed the news, none of his attempts have succeeded.

In this post we’ll sketch out an alternative explanation which is that the system itself is the problem. When the system is the problem it becomes really hard, maybe even impossible, for individuals to make a difference. I have seen such a dynamic with my own eyes in the form of dysfunctional organisations where new management was brought in to fix things. These were intelligent people who knew what was wrong and had a plan to make it right. But organisations are systems and systems have their own dynamic that is independent of any of the individuals involved. A system also has an external context that affects it. An organisation in a dying industry cannot be saved no matter how smart the people who are trying to save it. For these reasons and others, the system-based explanation is less gratifying and therefore less popular. But that doesn’t make it less truthful.

We’ll use the example of modern science to explore this concept because the question of whether science is corrupt or incompetent has become quite urgent in the last two years as we have watched the corona debacle unfold.

There are at least two underlying assumptions in our general culture when it comes to science. Firstly is the idea that anybody can do science as long as they have access to education. We can represent this graphically as follows:

That is, everybody has the same amount of innate ability to do science and the only thing preventing them from realising that ability is a proper education.

The second assumption is that all science problems are equally solvable which we can represent as follows:

Another way of saying this is that all science problems are equally complex. If you assign equal resources (time, money, people) you will get equal results.

Let’s look at a different model for both of these using the “Zipf curve” which has been shown to hold across numerous domains. Note that the Zipf curve matches the Marginal Benefit curve used in economics to capture the concept of diminishing returns.

What this graph aims to capture is the idea that the more people you train in “science” the less quality of scientist you get. This can be for reasons of nature or nurture (or a combination of both). The innate talents required to become a high quality scientist are not shared equally in the population and we would expect something like a Zipf curve to represent the distribution of those talents in the same way that not everybody has the collection of talents required to become a professional athlete.

When it comes to intellectual matters, you might argue that we could make up the difference in talent through education. But even if that were true, it would be more costly to educate the less talented people as they will need more time to develop their skills and knowledge. Once again you would run into a Zipf curve where the Marginal Benefit from education falls because the Marginal Cost rises. If we further assume that the talent pool of science educators is also a Zipf curve, then the quality of education would fall the more people get educated because there aren’t enough good teachers to teach them. Either way, you still end up with a curve of diminishing returns.

But what happens if the domain of “science problems” is also a Zipf curve? This would look as follows.

What this curve describes is the “low hanging fruit” dynamic. The problem domain of science is not equally distributed. There are a set of problems which are more simple and therefore more easily solved while the majority of problems are more complex.

If we combine these two concepts we get a story about the evolution of science. In a time of resource constraint such as in the 1800s, only the most talented people become scientists (assuming a relatively merit-based system of resource allocation). Those scientists will be working on the relatively simple problems in the field and therefore they produce the most valuable results. Everybody gets excited by the results and as wealth accumulates we throw more resources into the field expecting even more impressive results.

The extra resources would produce more results if the curves for ability and simplicity were flat. But they are not. They are Zipf curves. What happens, therefore, is that less capable scientists are put to work on more complex problems i.e. the intersection of the two diminishing Marginal Benefit curves. We spend more money to get fewer, less valuable results. But even though the Marginal Benefit falls, the overall cost-benefit equation might still be positive.

The problem of diminishing returns is exacerbated by a third consideration. More resources means more people are working on “science” and adding more people reduces the quality of communication. The following diagram is often used to summarise this problem.

Communication becomes more difficult as the number of people involved increases even if the quality of the information remains static. But if less talented people are working on more complex problems, we would expect the information quality to degrade leading to a situation where there is more communication of lower quality information. In short, the signal-to-noise ratio goes to hell.

You can see this dynamic even in small groups. Take a musical band, for example. If there are five people in the band, it only takes one person to be “out” for the whole band to be “out”. Similarly, on a small engineering team if one person doesn’t understand, this effects the overall communication flow because erroneous messaging is introduced and more time needs to be spent correcting the errors. If the person is a line level worker, it’s usually possible to work around them and try and exclude them from communication. But I have been on teams where the person who didn’t understand was the senior manager on the team. It’s a lot harder to move a senior manager out of the way so that things can get done.

A key thing to bear in mind is that a low signal-to-noise ratio won’t appear to be obviously “wrong”. This is true both for the people on the inside doing the work and also to external participants. Noisy communication is worse than the case where communication is “wrong”. Wrong communication is almost as useful as right communication. If you know somebody is always wrong, you just invert whatever they say and now you have truth. You can’t do that with noisy communication. Noisy communication is ambivalent, unclear and confusing. Again, the musical group example is a useful here. A somewhat incompetent band doesn’t sound “wrong” but rather “blah” or “meh”. You shrug your shoulders and say something like “it’s not bad but it’s not good either”. This is in contrast to a band like Nickelback who are technically proficient musicians that happen to make bad music.

When the signal-to-noise ratio is low, it becomes far more difficult to show that something is wrong because there are no clear and obvious errors. There is no smoking gun that will set the record straight and restore order. Rather, there is an accumulation of numerous small errors which are much harder and more time consuming to identify and correct. In a small group such as a band, it’s possible to find the weak link (usually the drummer) and get rid of them. In larger groups it becomes far more difficult and in really large organisations like corporations and government departments it’s as good as impossible.

It’s important to understand that this dynamic of noise accumulation occurs before politics, commercial money and the enormous egos of billionaires and celebrities gets involved to make things even more confusing. Corona provides a useful case study. There was never any reason to believe that the mRNA vaccines would work to end a pandemic. The science had not proven the matter one way or another. To put it in terms we have been using, the science had a low signal-to-noise ratio. This meant it was possible to believe that the vaccines “might” work. After all, anything “might” happen. Once upon a time, science was about “laws” and was founded upon hard-nosed cause and effect relationships that had been empirically proven. That’s the kind of science you see at the “simple” end of the Zipf curve. But as complexity increases, the clarity of understanding diminishes and you no longer have “laws” but “guidelines”.

Once the vaccine question became political, the political imperatives took over and politicians had to gloss over the inherent ambiguity in the science. Thus, we were assured the vaccines were “safe and effective”. Meanwhile, corporations which exist to maximise shareholder value were happy to sell a product when governments indemnified them against legal liability.

It’s not a coincidence that the corona event took place in the domain of viral disease as this is arguably one of the more complex scientific domains. I would place it somewhere about here on the graph. In other words, highly complex.

Note that viral disease as an object of study also has a built-in communication problem because it runs over three separate scientific disciplines: virology, epidemiology and medicine and that’s before you consider the mathematical epidemiologists, the immunologists and other sub-sub-disciplines. Viral disease is firmly in the category of study that the systems thinkers of the 20th century posited was not amenable to reductionist science which means it cannot be simplified to the point where calculation can be done. The best we can do is assemble cross-disciplinary teams to undertake research aimed at obtaining general principles of action. Those general principles were exactly what constituted the public health guidelines that were the accepted wisdom of how to deal with a pandemic prior to March 2020.

The post war period has seen huge amounts of resources pumped into science and yet we have ended up with the “reproducibility crisis”. The reproducibility crisis is just another word for the noise generated by the intersection of multiple diminishing returns. No amount of extra education and training and money will solve the problem. The result is not error but noise and when the noise gets raised to a high enough degree you have a situation where anybody can read into it whatever they like. At that point, science becomes a giant Rorschach Test.

The problem of a low signal-to-noise ratio is not limited to science. Most things in the modern world suffer from it. Everything is “blah” and “meh”. It’s the paradox of success. We have huge resources to apply to problems and we invest those resources into new ventures.  It works for a little while but the law of diminishing returns means that everything quickly turns to mud and the quality of everything falls sharply. This is true in the consumer economy, in the political sphere, in the media, in the arts and in science and technology. Rather than accept this as a fact of life, we pump more resources in until the returns turn negative and that leads to inflation and the debasement not just of the currency but of political, social and cultural capital. We’re pretty far into that dynamic right now and it’ll probably get worse before it gets better.

It’s partly for this reason that societies and cultures seem to peak when strict resource limits are in place. Without limits, the signal-to-noise ratio falls and everything becomes saturated and over-exposed. The noise floor steadily rises until and only those who can shout the loudest get heard. To quote the New Zealand Prime Minister during corona, “we (the government) will be your single source of truth.” The words that usher in the age Caesarism.

Your attention, please

Here’s a strange fact: I can remember every flu I’ve had in my adult life (where “flu” means I was in bed with a fever).

Partly, this is because I can count the number of flus I’ve had on one hand and partly it’s because I’ve always found fever dreams to be interesting. Who needs LSD when you can catch a flu and hallucinate for free? In one particularly memorable flu I had, I remember visualising geometrical shapes for hours and hours. It was like my own personal Pink Floyd lightshow. But it went on so long that it got annoying and I wished I could make it stop. Some years later, I learned how to make fever dreams stop. I’ll tell the story of that shortly.

Down here in Australia, we have been slowly catching up to the rest of the world in covid infections after our initial covid-zero “victory”. I’d say about half of my acquaintances have now had the virus. I know this because everybody who gets the virus loves to tell others about it. Last week an acquaintance of mine was relating their experience. They were explaining how unusual covid was because they had been hallucinating geometric shapes while in bed with a fever, something that had never happened to them before. Based on this fact, they concluded that the sars-cov-2 virus must really have been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan because it “felt unnatural”.

The story resonated with me because their experience of hallucinating geometric shapes sounded identical to the flu I’d had many years ago. Their conclusion about the origins of the virus was also invalid. Specifically, it is based on an error of reasoning sometimes called attentional bias where a person gives undue weight to something just because they are paying attention to it. Learning how to direct your attention is an important skill, especially in the modern world where literally all the institutions in society are fighting to get your attention. It was through directed attention that I was able to make my own fever dreams stop when I had a flu a few years ago.

At the time, I had been working through the exercises in the book “Concentration” by Mouni Sadhu. Sadhu, whose real name was Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski, was born in Poland, spent WW2 as a prisoner of war and afterwards travelled to India where he undertook Vedanta study in an ashram. He later migrated to Australia where he lived in my home town of Melbourne working a day job as an engineer while practising esoteric spirituality on the side; surely a lonely practice among the rampant bourgeois materialism of the post war years in Australia.

The book “Concentration” is about achieving mastery of your mind. It’s light on theory and heavy on practical work. The core exercise of the book is extremely simple. You take out a pin and hold it in front of your face at a comfortable distance. You must focus your sight on the head of the pin, seeing it as clearly as possible. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you cannot allow a single other thought to enter your mind while you are staring at the pin. If ones does, you must restart the exercise. You go through this process trying to focus on the pin without interruption from other thoughts. First you aim for 15 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, then 30 seconds, then one minute and then two minutes.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much but it takes months of daily practice to get there. In the process you learn about the contents of your mind and specifically that you have a whole stream of noise running through it. Some of the noise comes from external sources like television, radio, internet and some from internal sources. Maybe you were listening to a catchy pop song in the morning. The melody will suddenly pop into your head while you’re staring at the pin and you have to start the exercise again. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you need to buy at the supermarket later or that thing you have planned on the weekend. You have to start again.  Getting to two minutes of uninterrupted concentration is a significant achievement.

I had just reached that goal and had moved on to the next exercise in the book when I came down with the flu. As I was lying in bed with a fever, the usual fever dreams began. I had the idea of trying to apply the concentration method I had learned to make the fever dream go away. I set out to deliberately change the focus of my concentration away from the fever dreams and onto an empty black space. Voila! It worked first time. I was able to turn my mind away from the fever dreams just like I had learned to turn my mind away from random thoughts and focus on the pin. As soon as my concentration slipped, the fever dreams returned.

The ability to do this is of philosophical relevance. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, made the argument a couple of millennia ago that the fact that disease affected the mind was evidence that the mind would expire at death just like the body.

“Since the mind is thus invaded by the contagion of disease, you must acknowledge that it is destructible.”

Lucretius assumed that fever dreams are inevitable. There’s nothing to be done about them except wait until they pass much like the physical disease itself. But if you can control fever dreams and stop your mind being “invaded” by them, then his argument falls apart. This doesn’t prove that the mind exists after death, but it does show that there is a “substance” outside of the mind that can govern the focus of the mind and force it to concentrate on a pin or not concentrate on fever dreams. This substance is the Will.

In the 1800s, exercises that developed the will became very popular in Europe following the publication of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”. Many of these exercises involved the deliberate use of the senses. For example, you might set out to notice everything that is coloured red in your neighbourhood. You might go for a walk and deliberately try to smell all the different smells that are present. You might sit down and try to hear every sound including things far off in the distance. These exercises are very similar to Mouni Sadhu’s pin concentration exercise and part of the reason why Europeans became interested in the Veda and other eastern philosophies is precisely because they realised that those philosophies had already discovered the will, something that was new to Europe (Schopenhauer was also influenced by the Eastern philosophies).

Note that the ability to concentrate is implied in the scientific method. This was given the name “will to knowledge” in the 1800s because you were using your will in order to learn something. Western science has been primarily concerned with learning something about the material world while Eastern science (like the Veda) was far more concerned with learning something about the spiritual. This all ties in with a longstanding bias against the material world which also exists in the western tradition (Plato especially). The reason philosophers and sages didn’t turn their attention to the material world wasn’t because they couldn’t but because the material world was considered the “lowest” sphere of existence and you wouldn’t waste your time on it.

The upshot of all these will and attention exercises is that you learn to be highly sceptical of things you have not paid active attention to. As you have not paid active attention to most things in the world, you learn to become sceptical of pretty much everything. This is the basis of true science and is captured in Feynman’s first rule of science: thou shalt not fool thyself. The easiest way to fool yourself is to unquestioningly believe something you have not paid active attention to.

This brings us back to my acquaintance and his covid fever dreams. Most people have never actively paid attention to colds and flus because colds and flu are an everyday part of life and we are taught from a young age not to worry about them i.e. not to pay attention to them. You go to bed for a few days and then get on with your life. In modern times, you might not even go to bed. You’ll pop some pills to keep you going and plow through the illness. Prior to 2020, nobody cared about your respiratory infection and if you tried to tell them about it they wouldn’t have wanted to know.

What happens when we create a new name for a respiratory infection and then overturn all the existing rules of society over it? One of the things that happens is that everybody starts paying attention. Those who have done will/attention exercises know what’s that like. You go out and decide to look for everything red in your neighbourhood. Suddenly, red things seem to be everywhere and you’re amazed by all the red things you never noticed before. It feels “new”. But the red things were always there. The only thing that changed was your mental state. So it is with covid.

Of course, the whole point of the giant propaganda machine we have created in the modern world is to direct your attention. When you set out to direct your own attention, such as by staring at a pin, you realise how many of the random thoughts running through your mind are somebody else’s thoughts and that it was somebody else’s will which put them there.

The self-improvement ethic (which later became known by the less useful name of self-help) of the 1800s did have this going for it: it was about learning to direct your own attention and use your own will. Most people at that time were trying to break through the propaganda of the Church but our modern propaganda machine is far more pervasive than the Church could ever have dreamed. Now more than ever, winning back control of your attention and your will is a valuable thing to do.