Philosopher Kings vs Networks

One of the things I’ve always found amusing about our modern atheists is their penchant for trying to discredit the entire Bible by quoting something, inevitably one of the many laws written in Leviticus, that seems silliest to us today or jars against modern sensibilities. That morality and law has changed over thousands of years is not surprising. Trying to discredit the whole book on that basis is also just plain dumb because the Bible presents us with numerous universal themes that are just as relevant today as they were back then, even for secular readers. One of them is organisational form and that’s what I want to talk about in this post as we track the changes that occurred from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus and beyond.

The Bible marks one of the primary documents of the beginning of what Jean Gebser called the Mental Consciousness. One of the key elements of the Mental is the concept of law and we see this is two forms in the Old Testament; firstly, in the person of Moses as lawgiver and ruler and, secondly, in the lineage of his brother Aaron whose sons are initiated into the priesthood by Moses as described in the aforementioned Book of Leviticus.

Moses if he was a Street Fighter 2 character

In the establishment of the priesthood and the laws listed in Leviticus we see a development that occurred in many other civilisations around the same time, for example, the Law Book of Manu (Manusmriti) and the Arthashastra in India or the legalist tradition in China. The formulation of laws was no doubt a big step forward in the project of civilisation. But laws come with drawbacks and the weaknesses of the legal approach led to a subsequent revolt or critique not just among the Jewish people but also in India and China too.

The Old Testament story of Moses provides us with one of the clearest case studies of the problems with the legalist development especially when it revolves around a single ruler. Moses is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest lawgivers as can be seen in the simple fact that, about three millennia after his time, millions, if not billions, of people around the world could cite at least a couple of the ten commandments. Despite the memorability of the commandments, what we see in the Old Testament is the repeated failure on the part of the Israelites to follow the laws. Moses has but to turn his back for 5 minutes and the people will stray.

“Sure, Moses parted the Red Sea. But what’s he done for us lately?”

The most famous example is the story of the golden calf. Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert performing countless miracles along the way. You might think that he had earned the people’s trust, attention and fidelity. Nevertheless, when he goes up the mountain for a time, the people start to wonder “whatever happened to Moses. We haven’t seen him in a while.”

Seemingly through boredom, the people approach Aaron and demand that he help them to make some idols, a clear violation of the second commandment. Aaron is Moses’ brother and has been his right-hand-man through the whole journey out of Egypt. Aaron and his sons have been inducted by Moses into the priesthood. If anybody should know that this is a bad idea, it should be Aaron. And yet, apparently without giving it a second thought, he acquiesces and gets to work helping the people melt down the gold to make the golden calf.

Moses comes back down to see what is happening. He goes up to Aaron and, translating into modern English, says something like “bro, what the hell are you doing?” Aaron shrugs and says, “it’s not my fault, dude. It’s the people. They forced me into it.”

In fairness to Aaron, he was probably right. In this story and the larger story of Moses, we see the whole problem of the Lawgiver and Ruler. Even a genius like Moses, who has formulated the most memorable set of laws ever written, is trapped in a system which is reliant on his own leadership. The people might remember the laws, but they only follow them to the extent that they expect punishment. Moses provides that punishment multiple times throughout the Old Testament. But, when Moses is gone, the threat of the punishment goes with him and the people stray. We see the pattern repeated after the golden calf incident where Moses instructs the Levites to put the people to the sword and we are told that three thousand were killed as punishment for the transgression.

The tragedy of Moses is that he knows the problem with this system. Just before his death, as he is re-iterating the laws and appointing his successor, he tells the Israelites that they will inevitably stray from the path for they are a stiff-necked and rebellious people. His prediction turns out to be true. Moses was unable to create a system that was self-sustaining. It is a poetic note that God allows him to view the promised land from the mountain top before he dies. What he is viewing is the future, a future in which there will be more rebellion and straying from the laws but also the emergence of something that transcends the laws.

The arrival of Jesus represents that new movement but it’s worth noting that a similar progression happened in India with Buddha and in China with Confucius. In fact, this quote by Confucius perfectly summarises the problem with the law-based system.

“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good.”

Jesus’ critique in the New Testament is similar to this but the social context among the Jewish people had changed from the time of Moses. There were no philosopher kings on the scene when Jesus arrives. Rather, it was the priests – the scribes and Pharisees – who lead the various communities in the Jewish diaspora. Jesus rails against them and calls them hypocrites.

Nothing says you’re taking emissions seriously like flying a really heavy car around the world

The main type of hypocrisy we are familiar with today is the do as a I say, not as I do variety e.g. world leaders who fly in private jets to climate conferences and chow down on prime cuts of steak over lunch only to blab on about reducing carbon emissions and cracking down on cow farts (literally a thing in New Zealand although apparently now withdrawn).   

Jesus mentions this kind of hypocrisy in the New Testament but he is more concerned with another type of hypocrisy; that which comes from following the rules too well. He criticises the scribes and Pharisees for making a big song and dance when giving alms to the poor or loudly complaining about how hungry they are while fasting in order to draw attention to themselves. He is accusing them of following the laws not because they really believe in them but simply in order to gain social benefits. If this sounds familiar, it’s exactly what we see today in the concept of virtue signalling. Jesus was way ahead of the curve on that one.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. Matthew 23:1-7

Although the context between Jesus and Confucius (and also Buddha) is very different, the underlying idea is roughly the same: individual people must internalise the law. In Confucius, this is done through shame and striving for virtue. In the Christian tradition, it is about faith and spirit.

What is involved here is the distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric. The exoteric is the public structure that includes the laws and the rules. In its most extreme form, the exoteric involves nothing more than mechanical obedience devoid of any internal feeling. You show up to the ceremony on time, you wear the right clothes and you say the right things. It is irrelevant whether you believe what you say, only that you do what is required.

Jesus represents the esoteric in arguably its most extreme form: the man who is prepared to die rather than even acknowledge the exoteric. In the New Testament, we see that Pontius Pilate really does not want to have Jesus killed. Even Pilate’s wife asks him to let Jesus go. Pilate gives Jesus every chance to save himself but Jesus remains mute. He will not recognise the exoteric even when it means his own death.

Pilate’s wife looking disappointed while Pilate tries to placate the mob one more time

It was not without irony that the subsequent Christian church built by the apostles had to formulate its own (exoteric) rules. Thus, we see the disputes between Paul and the others over whether Gentiles may be part of the faith and whether or not they must be made to follow the Mosaic code (Moses’ laws) including the most controversial requirement of circumcision. Nevertheless, the early Christian church was very informal and for a couple of centuries the Roman authorities didn’t even consider it a religion but, rather, a superstitio.

In any case, Paul won the argument and the Gentiles were allowed to become Christians. This was revolutionary because it unlocked the network effects that were already present in the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean and Middle East. In the early days, the Christians were mostly converting Jewish people via baptisms, which were an existing practice in Judaism at the time. Once Paul won the argument about allowing Gentiles into the faith, anybody and everybody could be converted and the network could grow and expand indefinitely. Apostles (messengers) were sent out to new geographic areas where they established new nodes in the network. With each new node, the network became stronger. It was possibly the world’s first viral marketing campaign.

All this was happening from within the political structure of the Roman empire. The empire had a very tolerant attitude to religion. As new areas were conquered, the local religions, rites and customs were allowed to be practiced as long as the people followed the Roman exoteric rites required of them which signalled allegiance to Rome.

Herein lay the problem because, even in Rome itself, the exoteric rites had been hollowed out. They no longer had esoteric resonance. What is esoteric resonance? In a word: energy. It’s the extent to which people actually believe in what they are doing from their own conviction and their own belief (spirit) rather than just going through the motions. Jesus’ argument against the scribes and Pharisees could just as well have been levelled against the average Roman citizen.

Thus, we see a stark contrast between the Roman civic religion which becomes more and more exoteric and devoid of esoteric energy as the empire grows and the insurgent Christian religion which is filled with esoteric energy spreading as a decentralised network. One advantage of such a network is that you can lose some nodes and the network survives. The network of the early Christian church survived even the loss of its two biggest names, Peter and Paul, both put to death by Roman authorities.

The Roman authorities sensed that the esoteric religious practices taking place, of which Christianity was just one, were a threat to the established order and there were various crackdowns mostly by local governors and eventually from Rome itself. As everybody knows, the Christians ultimately won the day and Christianity became the official religion of Rome some centuries later. But if you’d asked a Roman in, say, 50 A.D. whether the Christians were a threat, they would have said “what Christians?”

Esoteric networks are less visible than exoteric structures, which makes sense since the power of the network is in the number of nodes and the relationships between them while the power of exoteric structures is precisely in their visibility and authority. A giant billboard advertisement is exoteric. It signifies the power and stability of the company which can afford to pay the high price for such marketing. Word of mouth is esoteric. It takes place node to node. It is, by definition, not visible to the general public. Networks can grow and change without drawing attention to themselves; making the governance of such networks far more difficult and costly.

Moses is the ultimate visible lawgiver. Yet I doubt even practicing Christians could name all 12 apostles. We can only remember so much exoteric content before we hit cognitive limitations. On the other hand, Moses’ rule ceased to work the moment he was not visible to his people. The Christian Church’s power and scope continued to grow despite losing Peter and Paul in the early days. It had energy behind it.

I’m not sure if this is absolutely true, but I would hypothesise that esoteric “energy” can only scale through networks. It cannot scale through hierarchical organisational forms. Hierarchical organisation forms are exoteric and hollowed out. They can still exist for a long time even though devoid of esoteric energy. A network runs on esoteric energy but, if the energy goes, the network ceases to exist. Thus, esoteric networks are more transient, something which would also reduce their visibility, especially in a context when many networks are springing up and disappearing.

The archetypes of the authoritarian lawgiver and the esoteric network are still with us today. For example, the Moses archetype can be seen in small businesses which revolve around a single owner. A primary difficulty that such owners have is to find and train people to take over the business. Training people (esoterically) requires a different set of skills than actually carrying out the work of managing a business. Moses was unable to esoterically train somebody to replace him and most small business owners fall into the same trap.

Corona provided us with a prime example of authoritarian leadership as political leaders around the world did their best impersonation of Moses, only instead of claiming God as their source of authority they claimed “science” instead. Who can forget New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s, quip, “we will be your single source of truth“; reminiscent of the 1st commandment: I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt not have strange Gods before me. Part of what made Ardern’s statement so ridiculous was the fact that we live in a world with an essentially infinite numbers of sources of truth. If government wants to compete, it must show itself more trustworthy and accurate, something which governments failed to do throughout corona (at least on a logical/rational analysis).

Or government can just lock everybody in their houses and assert their “truth” by force. What we saw in practice during corona was a more or less arbitrary set of rules imposed on the public as if they were written in stone tablets. Thou shalt take this safe and effective vaccine. Clearly, we are not ruled by philosopher kings, but they did their best to pretend.

In fairness to the politicians, I think corona revealed another important difference between networks and authoritarian hierarchies which is that only networks can deal with complexity. An authoritarian hierarchy is able to scale and it can impose its will on its environment through its size. What it does in practice is to simplify its environment down so that it can deal with it. Whatever else can be said about lockdowns, they do simplify society. But the whole point of modern society is that it is complex. Decentralised networks allow scale without simplification. A network can handle complexity. The price you pay is that there can no longer be a leader who can be a single source of truth. Networks are kryptonite to Philosopher Kings.

We have built modern society on networks and they facilitate the enormous complexity of the modern world. But that complexity is a source of anxiety and uncertainty. Networks change and adapt quickly but also with far less visibility than exoteric structures. Think of the pomp and ceremony of the Queen’s funeral vs the collapse of FTX. One is out there in public for all the see and to comprehend. The other is supremely murky and requires extensive investigation to be able to understand because one needs to tease out the network of connections that were at play. The reason why white collar criminals get away with it so often is not just because of entrenched class favouritism but because their crimes are more complex and harder to prove.

FTX was a node in multiple networks. It was part of the WEF network. It must have been a part of some financial networks to get its initial capital. It had network connections with major MSM outlets and with famous politicians and celebrities. We even heard how FTX had financial connections related to corona propaganda.

The globalism of the last 30 years has been built on networks. Unlike the network of the early Christians, these are networks of the elites. It’s actually an inverse of the story of Jesus and the Apostles. Rather than the public disrupting the elite power structures from the bottom up, the networked global elites have disrupted the exoteric power structures of the nation states. They have done so using the relative invisibility that networks provide. Just like the early Christians, the network holds together based on ideology. Although, unlike the early Christians, there is a big dose of greed thrown in for good measure.

There is no rule that says the esoteric energy flowing through a network has to be “good” energy. I wonder if what we are seeing in the modern world is a saturation of networks. We have learned how to unleash the power of networks to facilitate complexity. But these networks cause destruction to the existing exoteric structure of society. That was true in biblical times and it’s still true. The corona hysteria was caused by network effects and so are the economic dislocations of globalisation. What we are left with is a society that has very little in the way of exoteric structure while the esoteric energy is dissipated through a variety of networks in a way that becomes increasingly meaningless and random.

The cry for philosopher kings to take charge during corona was partly the desire for some structure, any structure, to hold onto in a world of too rapid change. The fact that the philosophers didn’t deliver the goods has not negated the underlying desire and has arguably only strengthened it.

Perhaps the lesson is that neither the exoteric or the esoteric is good enough on its own. We need a balance of both; perhaps some philosopher kings ruling over networks. Sounds a bit like what Elon Musk is doing with twitter.

All posts in this series:-

Philosopher Kings vs Networks
The Unconscious Empire
The Unconscious Empire Pt 2: The Hitler Complex
The Unconscious Empire Pt 3: A Prison for your Mind
The Unconscious Empire Pt 4: Becoming the Other
The Unconscious Empire Final: Benevolent Totalitarianism

Some Thoughts on Twitter

Like some people, I’ve been left scratching my head over Elon Musk’s decision to take over Twitter, although I have been enjoying the show so far. As somebody who works in IT, it’s been highly amusing to watch the internal business of Twitter’s IT department spill over into the public sphere over the past few weeks.

Musk has become pretty good at meme-ing and trolling

The thing that confuses me about Musk’s Twitter acquisition is that I don’t see any way for him to “win” but I see a whole lot of ways for him to lose. It looks to me like a lot of downside risk for very little potential upside gain. Aside from the money, the main loss he would suffer would be reputational damage. Given the value of his reputation and the very public nature of his Twitter takeover, I’m surprised he would gamble it in such an open fashion. If this were a poker game, Musk seems to have gone all in but it’s not clear what is in the pot or even what the rules are by which Musk can win.

Twitter seems to me a useful microcosm for the whole internet. Can Twitter actually be profitable? Can the internet be profitable? Is the internet profitable? Most people would assume the answer is ‘yes’, but it’s not at all clear that it is and the reason is because the arrival of the internet in the form we know it coincided with increasing manipulation of the financial markets. Almost all countries have been printing money in recent years including and especially the USA.

The way the system works is that newly printed money is given to financiers who invest it in the “real economy”. In the normal course of events, they would only invest in things that will actually generate a return. However, once financiers came to understand that the government was going to keep the money tap open indefinitely, they no longer needed to care about long-term returns. They started looking for short term pump-and-dump vehicles where they cash out and move onto the next thing.  The IT industry is one of the main outlets for this kind of manoeuvre in the form of start-ups, which is how Twitter started its life.

From the point of view of investors, a start-up is like a pig that you’re fattening up for market. Ideally, this would involve building an actual viable business that has things like positive cash flow and maybe even, heaven forbid, runs a profit. But if the system can find a way to simply create the illusion of a viable business and sell it to a bunch of suckers (institutional investors like pension and superannuation funds) then nobody really cares and, as long as the central bank money tap stays turned on, the market always goes up even if the companies that constitute the market are not really viable businesses.

We can see how dependent the IT industry has become on the central bank money tap because right now there’s a bloodbath going on with layoffs galore, especially in the start-up space. This is due to the tightening of credit market conditions and the rising of interest rates. We may be entering the end game of the current status quo because the money printing of the last decade and more is finally showing up as real-world inflation rather than asset price inflation (of course, asset price inflation is very real if you’re trying to buy a house).

What people think a start-up looks like

Most people would assume that start-ups are plucky young up-and-comers, lurking in garages or dingy rental properties, working 14 hour days and living on 2-minute noodles and instant coffee. There are still some like that. But start-ups that get financing up-front are usually run like mini-corporations. They rent office space, pay payroll tax, have a HR manager and, perhaps more importantly, they use the products of the IT giants.

Every start-up will have a commercial account with Google or Microsoft to handle internal requirements like email and video-conference. They will also host their website with one of those companies or, more likely, with Amazon (AWS). You can think of modern start-ups as digital serfs paying a tithe to their feudal overlords. What this means in practice is that if there is, for example, $1tn of new capital pumped into the start-up market each year, a significant portion of that will end up flowing into the coffers of Amazon, Google and Microsoft as well as an array of second-tier corporations.

What a start-up really looks like

The internet as we know it has become fundamentally tied to overarching political and economic conditions in which endless money printing has become the norm. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this money printing is now the cause of geopolitical conflict. A big part of the reason for the war in Ukraine was Russia saying enough is enough. Putin has openly stated that one of his goals is to bring an end to US dollar hegemony because he is sick of having revenue earned in US dollars inflated away. It’s fair to say that many other countries agree with him and will willingly move to an alternative once they think the time is right. When that happens, all bets are off and it’s not at all clear how much of the internet will be left in the aftermath.

Whether Twitter will be a viable company in that new world is anybody’s guess. The entire calculus of the poker game we call the modern economy is set to change drastically in the years ahead but it’s impossible to know when and how that will play out. Within the current calculus, Musk has shown himself to be a highly competent player; the best, if you go by net worth. So, the question then becomes: within the parameters of the game as it currently stands, what would success look like for Musk in relation to Twitter?

Difficult to achieve but easy to see

The first thing to note here is that Musk’s main other companies, SpaceX and Tesla, deal with domains that we might call pure engineering. The technical problems in such domains are very difficult but the results are easy to understand. An electric car either runs or it doesn’t. A rocket launch (and re-landing) either happens or it doesn’t. If you buy a Tesla and it breaks down, you’re unhappy. If it doesn’t, you’re happy. There’s no ambiguity there.

With Twitter, it’s the other way around: the technical problems are easy but the success criteria are obscure.

The original Twitter platform ran on a technology called Ruby-on-Rails and, within that technology, Twitter was dead easy to build. In fact, it was a standard training exercise you would give to an intermediate programmer to write their own version of Twitter. Of course, Twitter is a global website with enormous amounts of traffic. But, the technology to handle that traffic comes almost out of the box these days. If I was to guess, I’d say building and maintaining Twitter is an order of magnitude easier as an engineering challenge than building and maintaining a Tesla car or a SpaceX re-usable rocket. Therefore, I’d expect Musk to have no problem handling the engineering side of the Twitter equation.

It’s on the “customer experience” side of things that Twitter gets weird. If you buy a Tesla, you will be happy if the product performs as expected. And everybody is happy when a SpaceX rocket does something cool like land on a platform in the middle of the ocean.

With Twitter, being unhappy is the product. In recent years, Twitter has become a bottomless pit of misery; the digital equivalent of the biblical gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. A sizable portion of the users on Twitter, or at least the most vocal ones, use the platform in exactly the same way that George Orwell described as the two minutes of hate in 1984.

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

A better description of Twitter could scarcely be written. But it was not always so.

I was a relatively early user of Twitter and in the early days it was almost devoid of animosity and trolling. Many of the early users of Twitter were scientists, artists, writers and thinkers including quite a lot of famous names. It was not uncommon to be able to read an interesting, real-time conversation on some subject and then have a very well-known expert in the field join in spontaneously. In those days, I used Twitter almost like an RSS feed with the links to blog posts or other interesting material being the main drawcard.

The tide turned once the politicians and propagandists got involved. But it was Trump who really turned Twitter into the 2 minutes hate with his presidential campaign. I remember that time well. I was following a couple of hundred people including a handful of friends, a larger handful of colleagues, some well-known names in my profession and a variety of other interesting individuals. It was extraordinary to watch people I personally knew turn instantly into frothy-mouthed loons who became so obsessed with Trump that their entire Twitter output became an endless diatribe of hatred. It was like watching somebody get sucked up into a vortex. Years later I saw the same dynamic, only worse, kick into action at the start of corona and I called it quits and I closed my account.

Why Twitter and social media in general suffers from this phenomenon is an interesting question. I suspect that it’s related to the basic dynamics of herd psychology. History matches Orwell’s 1984 description and shows how easily a mob can be roused to anger. You just need to provide a scapegoat. Twitter has an endless supply of scapegoats in the form of other users, some of whom are anonymous and some of whom are famous. Those scapegoats, like in 1984, are projected onto a screen (a computer/mobile phone screen) with the inherent de-humanisation entailed by that fact. Thus, social media combines the psychology of the 2 minutes of hate with the psychology of the old-fashioned public square hangings with the mob as judge, jury and executioner. Twitter accidentally provided political actors and propagandists with a tool to effortlessly form and manipulate mobs.

Musk seems to understand this on some level. One of his first tweets after buying the company was something like “let’s make Twitter maximum fun.” It’s a nice idea. But it seems to me that many of his users are very happy being miserable. Misery loves company and Twitter provides a global network of people to be miserable with. Amusingly, one of the leading hashtags over the last few days is about how people are leaving Twitter or Twitter is “dead”. People are using Twitter to dance on the presumptive imaginary grave that would be caused by them not using Twitter. That might just be Peak Internet.

It’s fitting that one of the big questions right now is whether Musk will let Trump back onto the platform. This one decision is symptomatic of the whole tangled mess that Musk has gotten himself into. Musk has now taken personal and public responsibility for a decision that is going to piss off a large group of his users whatever he does. He has all but guaranteed that he will become the scapegoat for a two minutes of hate that will last at least up until the next presidential election with either pro-Trump accounts bleating that it’s unfair that he’s banned or anti-Trump accounts bleating that it’s unfair that he’s back.

This doesn’t even get into the financial problems facing Twitter. How can Musk balance the demands of advertisers for a level of certainty in relation to ad placement against the demands of users not to have their user experience excessively manipulated. His experiment with charging users a fee for a premium version of Twitter speaks to this tension. Twitter might be viable if everybody paid a small fee for the service but in the internet world where people expect everything for free and have already been using the site for free for years, there’s no way such a move is possible. That should mean Musk will have to cave to the demands of the advertisers in order to generate revenue which is exactly what the previous management had already done. (Although note that, due to the financial conditions mentioned at the top of the post, it’s not clear that Musk needs to make Twitter turn a profit).

It’s noteworthy that Musk is on record as saying that he is on the autism spectrum. Autistic people are really good at solving engineering problems like car and rocket design. Those problems require discipline and focused attention over long periods of time. Modern Twitter is the exact opposite. It’s a steaming dung heap of emotional-ideological waste products swirling around a fetid cesspool of political doublespeak. Musk needed industrial-strength gumboots to wade into that mess. It looks to me like he only brought sneakers.

Whether Musk will drain the swamp, get dragged into it or somehow cut his losses and run is going to be fascinating to watch. I give him full respect for saying upfront that he’s going to try a heap of different things and see what works. He’s clearly not afraid to fail, even in public view, which is the true entrepreneur’s spirit.

Update: Trump’s back. Let the 2 minutes hate begin! –

Kentucky Fried Bankman

My life feels like one synchronicity after another these days. Just last week I wrote a post making the claim that works of fiction can and do say something about the real world. At that time, the collapse of the FTX crypto exchange was just hitting the news. It took me a couple of days to look into it but immediately my synchronicity meter started going off because it turns out that the shenanigans of Mr Bankman-Fried and his comrades is awfully similar to the plotline of my very first novel, Once Upon a Time in Tittybong.

The inspiration for that novel came from my love of names which match the properties of the thing they refer to.  For example, I once worked in a lawyer’s office and we received a letter from a debt collector in relation to one of our clients. The debt collector’s name was Mr Quick – as in, you better pay quick or I’ll send some boys around for a visit. These kind of names always make me chuckle.

So, when I first heard the name Tittybong (a real place name here in Australia), the first thought that came into my head was that it would be a great location for a stoner comedy. I’ll spare you the boring details of how the plot came about, but the super short version is that Australia was going through a banking scandal at the time. There was a Royal Commission that was uncovering some very shady practices. So, I combined this with the Tittybong concept to give me the basic antagonism “small town stoners vs dodgy local banker”. A comedic novel was born.

The main antagonist is the local bank manager in Tittybong. I called him Mr Gier (gier means greed in German). I pitted Mr Gier against a group of stoner high school students with the motivation that one of their parents had been screwed over by the banker in just the same way that some Australians had been screwed over by the banking industry (or for that matter in the GFC which wasn’t that long past when I was writing the story).

For the character of Mr Gier, I used the template of a Mafia boss. Mafia bosses are criminals and I suppose you could call them greedy. But it’s also true that Mafia bosses need to be smart. If you’re running a neighbourhood protection racket and you set the price too high, all the businesses will go broke. Successful Mafia bosses need to know something about their “customers” in order to make sure they don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. They have a vested interest in understanding and maintaining “the system”.

Idealists look at systems in a different way. They see corruption, any corruption, and think that it needs to be stamped out. Of course, it would be nice to have no corruption. But in real world systems there is a price to getting rid of corruption and that price becomes higher the more you try to achieve no corruption. In systems talk, this is called optimising for one variable. But real world systems need to be resilient and resilience is only achieved when there is redundancy across all variables. For this reason, all real world systems that have been around a long time have some amount of corruption built in. It’s not that people want the corruption. It’s that if you try to get rid of it, you either fail or you destroy the system in the process.

The heroes of my story are idealists. They know Mr Gier is corrupt and they want to get him. They have a crazy idea to take him out by competing against his bank with a local currency. The comedy unfolds as they manage to get their crazy idea funded by the local Mayor. They go into battle against Mr Gier who, like any good Mafia boss, doesn’t mind playing dirty when necessary.

Which brings us to FTX. Now, recall that the bad guy in my novel is a banker with a German surname. The FTX story features a guy whose actual surname is Bankman followed by a German surname (Fried). That’s weird coincidence one. Weird coincidence two is that Bankman-Fried was portrayed by the media in the exact same role as the good guys in my story. He was supposed to be a young idealist fighting corruption in the finance sector. Except it turned out he was the corrupt one, exactly like the banker with the German name in my story. So, the FTX story is almost identical to my novel with FTX and Bankman-Fried playing the role of both the good guys and the bad guys simultaneously. Weird.

The media tried to pass Bankman-Fried off as a heroic crypto bro. I know a thing or two about crypto bros because I based the main character in my novel on exactly that archetype. But I also know several crypto bros in real life; mostly people who I’ve worked with in the past. I even know a couple that have the ultimate crypto bro story of woe: they bought Bitcoin right at the start but sold too soon. They could be millionaires now but they cashed out too early in the game. That’s life in the cryptocurrency casino.

The first thing that struck me about Bankman-Fried was his name. A crypto bro named Bankman? It’s too perfect. I may just use that in a future novel. But then there’s the second part of his surname. Fried is a German name but has a literal meaning in English. I originally read it as Bankman Fryed as in let’s deep fry some bankers. Sounds like a George Carlin skit.

When I started to look into the story of Bankman-Fried, it seemed very clear that this was an almost identical set up to the backstory of Greta Thunberg. Like Thunberg, Bankman-Fried is presented as a young, idealistic insurgent coming up from the streets with purely altruistic intentions. Also like Thunberg, the real story is that he is a child of elites who used his connections in the media, government and other elite circles to catapult to fame. Thunberg and Bankman-Fried are both manufactured.

Some others who have seen through the FTX story have concluded that the whole thing is a false flag designed to give government an excuse to regulate cryptocurrency or even destroy it to make way for a central bank digital currency. This is the same argument that was made for the corona lockdowns i.e. they benefitted the elites by transferring wealth to the 1% while also giving governments an authoritarian precedent to implement unpopular policies in the years ahead.

In the case of FTX, this explanation seems to me obviously wrong. Enormous amounts of money have been lost and people’s lives ruined. If there is any justice left in the US court system, the people involved should see jail time. Big names such a Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and others all put their names and faces to what is clearly a scam. To suppose that they all did so in service of some larger conspiracy is drawing a very long bow.

There is a more simple explanation and one that makes sense to me as somebody who has seen the inside of the IT startup world, the dodgy way things get financed, the suckers who get fleeced, the people who milk the system for personal gain etc. I’ve also seen how easily even intelligent, technically capable people get caught up in the hype of ideology and propaganda from within the IT industry. It looks to me like everybody involved in FTX was a True Believer.

The old-school crypto bros do not come from the establishment. Many of them are tied up with anarchist and libertarian ideas that are popular among hardcore IT geeks. They see crypto in exactly the way I portrayed them in my novel: a way to stick it to the man and to overcome the obvious corruption of the US financial and political systems.

Bankman-Fried and his comrades are not genuine crypto bros. In fact, they couldn’t be more establishment if they tried. Check out this long twitter thread which simply lists all the people related to Bankman-Fried or FTX. It’s a who’s who of the US “elites”. They went to the best universities. They’ve worked for establishment companies. They know people at hedge funds and major banks. They have deep connections with the Democratic Party.

What we have in FTX is the establishment pretending to be the insurgents. It’s the same scam they pulled with Greta Thunberg. It’s a way to win political support from clueless young people by promising to Save The Planet. Note that Bankman-Fried was going to “give all his money away” and he was all about effective altruism. He was saying that all while stealing the money of real people to try and prop up his scam. It’s hard to think of a more perfect example of the current state of modern western society; propaganda as a cover for criminal stupidity and negligence.

In a broader sense, FTX looks to me like a concerted effort on the part of left-leaning “elites” in the US to take over the crypto space. The fact that it involves ties with government is not surprising at all since all major corporations in the United States spend enormous money lobbying government to rig the system in their favour. That’s just business as usual these days. FTX was trying to create a leading crypto exchange using fraudulent money to create the illusion of a genuine market while simultaneously trying to attain regulatory capture in the background. The whole thing is completely nuts, which is why many can’t believe it is real. I disagree. It looks to me like an idea that simply got out of control.

It got out of control in the same way that corona got out of control or the sub-prime loan scam got out of control; social contagion. What’s fascinating in that twitter list of relations to Bankman-Fried is how often connections to pandemic or climate emergency NGOs pop up. Bankman-Fried’s own brother is the founder of something called “Guarding Against Pandemics”.

What a coincidence then that FTX looks of a hell of lot like the corona vaccine debacle: a bunch of idiots running around like chooks with their heads chopped off implementing something that could never work; the same thing we see with renewable energy. The level of cluelessness on display here is truly extraordinary. It’s world historical.

And this brings us back to the idea of the Mafia boss. Mafia bosses who are clueless do not stay in business very long. A good Mafia boss must know how to run a proper conspiracy, one that delivers the goods. They know when something needs to be handled quietly in the background to keep the system up and running. Bankman-Fried was spilling his guts on social media about everything, including his amphetamine use!

This is yet another weird correspondence with my story. In the novel, I made the young rebels dope smokers who are fighting against the uptight bank manager. In the crazy real world story of FTX, Bankman-Fried and his fellow “elites” were openly tweeting about taking amphetamines. Check out the videos with Bankman-Fried and you can see that he taps his foot incessantly and he’s shaking all the time. Excitement? Nerves? Maybe. But if somebody tells you they’re on amphetamines, why not believe them. (Another coincidence: the word fried is slang for being wasted on drugs).

Why did Trump get elected? Because he is a Mafia boss. He said something like this: “I am not a nice guy. I am a gangster. I know how the system works. I will keep the system going.” Note also that Trump is a teetotaller. That’s the price that the true Mafia boss must pay. Keeping systems afloat takes extraordinary discipline. You can’t be drunk at the wheel. (At the risk of violating Godwin’s Law, I might add that there was another famous world leader who failed miserably and was a heavy amphetamine user).

Financial systems are some of the most complex systems in existence. Thinking that you can capture the market by building one from scratch if you just hire a bunch of eggheads with university degrees is the same as thinking you can eliminate a respiratory virus with an untested pharmaceutical product. It’s completely mad. But it’s the prototypical insanity of our modern “elites”. I think FTX is probably the perfect story to show just how dumb these people are.

Just as corona was a massive own goal that has probably shortened the period of western hegemony by decades, FTX was a massive own goal for everybody involved, some of whom should end up in jail. There is no grand conspiracy theory here. No geniuses. Klaus Schwab is not a Mafia boss. He’s just one of the bigger nodes in a giant network of utter stupidity.

Our modern “elites” no longer even have an instinct of self-interest or self-preservation. It would actually be preferable to be ruled by Mafia gangsters because at least they would keep the system going. Our current elites will not keep the system going. They are too arrogant and ignorant not to kill the goose which is laying golden eggs for them.

The best way to think about the modern “elites” is that they are members of a religious cult. They really do think they are Saving The Planet. Just like members of a cult, they will self-destruct rather than change their ideology.

How many more of these kinds of stories will we have to experience before some kind of sanity prevails? That’s very hard to know but the time between stupid decisions being made and their consequences being felt seems to be getting shorter. Even a Mafia boss like Trump can’t really do much because the entire establishment is filled with True Believers and even the best mob boss needs trustworthy associates who can actually get things done. If somebody can’t come in and steady the wheel, the US might eventually end up with somebody far more gangster than Trump, and not in a good way.

If all that sounds depressing, don’t worry. It’ll work itself out one way or another. Best to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. And, hey, I’ve got a great comedy novel that is guaranteed to cheer you up in the meantime!

I might add that the novel is also an exploration of the concept of local currencies. When I wrote it, I had no idea about central bank digital currencies or any of the other loony ideas our elites have cooked up over the last few years. So, I think the plotline of the novel is even more relevant now.

If you’re interested, Once Upon a Time in Tittybong is available at Book Depository, Bookshop (US/UK), Amazon and most other online retailers.

Barbarism in Plain Sight

During the week I had a mini eureka moment. The little spark of insight was in relation to the book I reviewed in last week’s post, Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot. I said at the end of that post that Patrick White would not have been surprised at what has happened over the last three years during the corona event. My realisation was that it was more than that. Patrick White had actually predicted what happened in the last three years. Not predicted the lockdowns or any of the specific details but the underlying form which gave rise to them. Riders in the Chariot was a warning that just such a thing would happen.

Now, admittedly, I am biased here because it turns out that White’s symbolic claim in Riders in the Chariot matches mine in that we both assert that the Devouring Mother is the dominant archetype of modern society. But, as long time readers of the blog would know, I arrived at my position before I had read White. So, all this is yet another of the many synchronicities I’ve been experiencing over the last few years. What are the chances that after arriving at such a hypothesis I would then happen to read an Australian author’s book written 60 years ago and realise he was saying the same thing?

Once upon a time I would have chalked this up to chance but I now believe that such synchronicities are meaningful. They reveal something about the world. Of course, all this goes against the whole tide of modern western culture. So, perhaps as a starting point, let me summarise the assumptions which form the background to this post:

  1. The Devouring Mother / Orphan archetype is the governing archetype of the hysteria of the last three years. That was my initial position which I then expanded to say that they are the governing archetype of the whole of the post-war period. Riders in the Chariot is one more piece of evidence for that assertion because White quite clearly identifies the Devouring Mother as the antagonist in the story and, by implication, as the driving force of post-war culture.
  2. Archetypal thinking is acausal. The way to think about archetypes is like an electrical circuit. The archetype is the components in the circuit; its structure. Just as an electrical circuit is activated by electricity, an archetype is activated by psychic energy. The Devouring Mother archetype has been dominant for decades in the West but this was mostly at the microcosmic level. The thing that changed at the start of corona was an enormous amount of psychic energy was channeled into the archetype leading to a macrocosmic event.
  3. True works of art can say just as much about “reality” as science because they invoke archetypes and the assumption here is that archetypes underlie reality. As the archetypes live in the subconscious, arts is a way of bringing to consciousness what would otherwise be unconscious. Thus, great works of fiction such as a Patrick White novel are not just “make believe”. They can and do say something about the real world. When I say that Patrick White anticipated the corona event, I mean that literally (Note: this assumption is at odds with our dominant materialist cultural script which sees art either as entertainment or epiphenomena).
  4. All of the above entails a different way of thinking than the dominant paradigm of the modern west which relies on creating models that are assumed to identify cause and effect relationships. Due to our obsession with binary thinking, we assume such models give binary, true/false answers. However, in any model of medium number systems, the best we can say is that the model gives some probability that the cause and effect relationship will be true while never ruling out that the model is completely wrong. In other words, such models should never be thought of as giving binary answers.
  5. In my opinion, which I will need to explain properly in a separate post, acausal archetypal thinking is not just an alternative way of thinking, it is the correct way of thinking about medium number system because it is holistic. I would make the claim that a Patrick White novel gives us a more accurate view of the everyday world than “science” because the way of thinking implied is the correct one for dealing with medium number systems. Reductionist science, by definition, is not holistic. To understand the world holistically, we must bring our whole being to bear. That’s what true art does.

The supreme advantage of the novel as a form of art is that it is holistic. The novel can communicate things that, I would argue, cannot be communicated in any other way because, as I have said in the past, the archetypal structure of the novel – the hero’s journey – is an information technology that facilitates an incredible density of meaning that cannot be matched by other forms. That’s true even in relation to a humble blog post such as this one. Think of it like the difference between a solo violin and a full orchestra. The novel can resonate in a way that the single violin can not.

So, we return to Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and we assume that this is not just a story. I made a similar point about White’s Voss in my review of that book. I said that I thought it was a kind of religious text; a spiritual document. I now put Riders in the Chariot in the same category. White did not just write an incredible story that we can appreciate as the work of art, he was sounding a warning. I said in the last post that he wanted Riders in the Chariot to be like a literary bomb. But I hadn’t fully comprehended to what extent he was right and how Riders in the Chariot was warning that exactly something like corona could happen.

What White was saying in Riders in the Chariot was this: post-war Australian culture, and by extension the post-war culture of the West in general, suffered from the same underlying problems that led to Nazi Germany. Contrary to what we tell ourselves, WW2 did not solve any of those underlying problems even though “we won”.

That’s what is implied by the mock crucifixion episode in Riders in the Chariot. Himmelfarb had escaped the horrors of the holocaust. He escaped Nazi Germany. He travelled to the other side of the world to start new life in a country that was supposed to be better than that. What happens? He gets crucified as a Jew. The power in the story is that it is absolutely believable. It may not have happened in such dramatic fashion, but episodes of casual racism, including against Jews, were an everyday experience in post-war Australia. But the problem goes deeper than racism.

We have to learn to think symbolically and to take the symbolism of Riders in the Chariot seriously in order to understand this idea. By our default morality of utilitarianism, the comparison of a fictional episode of workplace bullying to the holocaust seems outrageous or even morally repugnant.  That’s because utilitarianism cares only about material consequences and, by definition, a work of fiction has no material consequences. Millions of people died in the holocaust. Himmelfarb did not die. In fact, he only had a couple of scratches. And, in any case, he’s not even real. He’s a fictional character in a book. Therefore, there is no comparison.

But there is a comparison.

Structurally, formally, archetypally, the episode with Himmelfarb is identical to what occurred in Nazi Germany. It is, in fact, a replica of what happened during the Kristallnacht pogrom; a seemingly random outburst of barbarism. That was the point White was implying. The holocaust was barbarism. Everybody would agree with that. The mock crucifixion of Himmelfarb in Riders in the Chariot is also barbarism. But here we must be very clear about what sort of barbarism we are talking about because barbarism itself operates on multiples levels of being. It has its manifestation in the material domain but it also has its spiritual manifestation and that is the barbarism that we must learn to see and to take seriously. A novel can teach us to do so.

We would all agree that the holocaust was barbaric and yet part of what makes the holocaust so horrific and so different from more obvious forms of barbarism was that it was carried out with all the accoutrements we normally associate with civilisation. The transportation of the Jews was done with modern mass transit. As anybody who’s visited a concentration camp knows, the camps were orderly places. Clean. Organised. The people who worked there earned a wage. To this day, you can still view the meticulous bureaucratic records that were kept by camp officials. Medical experiments were carried out with all the cleanliness, discipline and attention to detail we associate with modern science. The whole thing was sickeningly clinical.

When we think of barbarism, we think of disorder, chaos, destruction. When we think of civilisation, we think of order, rules, law, architecture. Viewed from the outside, the concentration camps looked for all the world like artefacts of civilisation. If you had walked past one and didn’t know what was going on inside, you might have assumed they were a barracks or some kind of industrial facility. The Jews who went into them were processed. It’s a sickening word but that’s really what happened. There were orderly queues. There were official announcements over loudspeakers. There were clear instructions and rules to follow. Camp officials pointed the way to the shower block and eventually to the gas chamber itself.

Barbarism is supposed to be one thing and civilisation its opposite. You are supposed to be able to see the difference with your own eyes. But the holocaust broke that distinction. It was barbarism in the guise of civilisation. The wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It’s telling, and symbolically crucial, that the Kristallnacht pogrom precipitated the holocaust. The pogrom itself was triggered when a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, was assassinated by a German Jew in Paris. It was this event that got the Nazi leadership thinking about the final solution.

The Kristallnacht was an example of real, old-fashioned barbarism. But it’s crucial to understand that most Germans were appalled by it and, furthermore, that the pogrom was not a spontaneous eruption of violence on behalf of the public. It was initiated by the authorities and carried out by the SA and the SS. Even then, some leaders and members of the SS refused to take part.

The Nazi leadership understood that the persecution of the Jews did not have public support and this is why the holocaust was not carried out as an act of overt barbarism but was hidden away behind the cloak of civility. It’s for this reason that many Germans at the time were unaware of the holocaust, and even refused to believe it had happened later on when the war was over.

Even the German Jews fell into this trap. This is what White shows us in his novel. It forms the core of Himmelfarb’s backstory. By the time of the Kristallnacht, many German Jews had realised what the Nazis were about and had left the country. Many more would leave after the pogrom. The ones who didn’t, including Himmelfarb, were in denial. They still couldn’t believe it was actually happening.

White shows us this psychology via Himmelfarb’s journey to the concentration camp in Poland. The transportation happens on a normal commuter train. This simple fact alone lifts the spirits of the passengers. We’re not in a cattle cart, they note. Something must have happened. Some kind of deal must have been done. International pressure had been brought to bear on the Nazis. We must be being taken to a neutral country. Maybe to Palestine.

Like the Kristallnacht, the cattle carts were outward expressions of barbarism. The commuter train, on the other hand, represents civilisation. The passengers on the train see civilisation around them and assume that they are still living in a civilised country. The horrific tragedy was that many still believed that all the way up until the gassing because things were orderly, civilised. Queues were formed. There was a place to hang your clothes. You were about to take a shower. Surely nobody would bother to give you a shower before killing you?

All these things are symbols. They are symbols of civilisation. But symbols are just pointers. These symbols had pointed to civilisation all the way up until the time when they didn’t. They were no longer pointing to civilisation for the passengers on that train.

In order to understand that, you needed to reorder your conception of the world. You needed to be able to see beyond surface appearance and activate your higher mental faculties. It required you to no longer trust your own eyes when they tell you that what you see is civilisation. This was no small task. It meant understanding that the very society you lived in was not what you thought it was. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we faced exactly the same thing in the last three years. Structurally, formally, archetypally, the corona event was barbarism. But most people did not see it because it was presented with the facade of civilisation.

When the corona hysteria was in full swing, there were videos of actual holocaust survivors speaking at protests comparing the lockdowns and other measures to Nazi Germany. While writing this post, I spent a good 5 minutes trying to find one of those videos but the first several pages of search results are filled with, you guessed it, news articles denouncing the comparison to the holocaust. How strange and how sad that the internet has now devolved to the state where you can find the denunciation of an event but not the event being denounced. Even the internet is now an upside-down world where the truth is the opposite of what you are told. Even the internet is becoming barbaric.

The denunciation of the holocaust comparison does make sense from the utilitarian point of view, of course. Millions of people died in the holocaust. The lockdowns might have caused some deaths, but nowhere near that number. Ergo, the holocaust was morally worse.

Even if you accept this as true, the fact is that the structure is still there. The underlying form has not altered. Therefore, there is nothing to stop it all happening again. That was White’s point. We must address the underlying barbarism. But the challenge is that the barbarism does not primarily manifest in the material world (yet). It is, for want of a better word, spiritual barbarism.

The barbarism we are talking about is not violence or cruelty. In fact, in the world of the Devouring Mother, it takes the opposite form of excessive care. The barbarism we are concerned with is ignorance, obliviousness. This is the barbarism that White was referring to and is the opposite of what I have previously called Sophia, wisdom.

The characters who mock crucify Himmelfarb are genuinely oblivious. In their ignorance, they hang a Jewish man who escaped from the holocaust from a tree on Passover. They hang a man who has come to Australia looking to start a new life. They do so out of ignorance. It’s that ignorance that is the barbarism. It’s the same barbarism that was present in Nazi Germany with people who were just “doing their job” or just “following orders”.

When this ignorance manifests in some large scale social event, it’s easy to feel powerless or to feel that only some heroic effort can stop such things from happening. So, we look around for some leader who can take care of it for us. White’s point is the same point made by Dostoevsky. These problems might seem large and abstract, but they grow out of the soil of everyday life. Therefore, they can and should be addressed at the everyday level.

I mentioned last week that the artist, Dubbo, is the only one who understands what was happening to Himmelfarb but he fails to intervene. Actually, there is one other character who fails to act and that is the other Jewish immigrant in the story, Rosetree. It is their failure to act that allows the mock crucifixion to happen. To paraphrase the saying, all that is required for barbarism to occur is for people who know better to do nothing.

It doesn’t matter that this is some seemingly random thing that happens one day in a small nowhere town in Australia. Large atrocities grow out of the small. Several hundred people died in the Kristallnacht. Several millions died in the holocaust. The one led to the other. That is another problem with utilitarianism. It extrapolates to the future linearly. To extrapolate to the future properly, you must understand the underlying structure and that requires an understanding of symbolism.

But, again, all this can seem too detached and abstract. The beauty of the novel is that it brings all these considerations together in one. It connects the abstract, symbolic meanings back to everyday life. The key point that both White and Dostoevsky make is that the power to change this is within everyone’s grasp. It starts from everyday life. To do what is right every day is what is needed.

If any of the characters in Riders in the Chariot had simply gotten to know Himmelfarb as a real person, the mock crucifixion could never have happened because you don’t do that to somebody you know and have some basic level of care for. The base level of empathy needed to prevent such things from happening is shared by (almost) all of us. It’s when that empathy goes missing that we become disconnected from each other. And just like a lack of empathy at the everyday level can give rise to large scale outbreaks of barbarism, so the re-discovery of empathy at the everyday level leads to the higher forms of empathy implied by the concept of Sophia.

It’s for this reason that the Jews had to be segregated away in ghettoes before being physically removed to remote concentration camps. They had to be physically separated from those who could empathise with them. Is it a coincidence that we were physically separated from each other during corona? When people come together they interact as human beings and natural empathy works like it should. That is the starting point. That’s how simple the answer is (although, simple is not the same as easy).

The same message was conveyed in what is surely one of the most moving scenes ever shown on television and proof that television has not always been vacuous nonsense. The mathematician Jacob Bronowski, himself a Polish Jew whose parents had moved to England before the Nazis took power, walks into a pond at Auschwitz. He was presenting a set piece for the TV series The Ascent of Man, but his final address to the camera was apparently completely improvised and off script. His words speak for themselves. 50 years later “science” was once again used as a cover for barbarism; for ignorance. We still face these same problems.

Here is the full scene.

Patrick White’s “Riders in the Chariot”

Spoiler Alert: I give away some of the plot details of Riders in the Chariot in this review. I do go into more detail than I would normally consider appropriate but this is almost all to do with the scene in the book which is already famous (and which I also knew about before reading the novel). Therefore, I don’t think this will spoil anybody’s enjoyment of the book, but those planning to read it should be aware.

It might seem strange to start a review of Riders in the Chariot with a discussion about the philosophical doctrine of Utilitarianism. There is nothing explicit about the subject in the novel. But what Riders in the Chariot is about is post-war Australia, the country I have previously called the most bourgeois on the planet. Utilitarianism is the morality of the bourgeois. It is the largely unspoken and therefore unchallenged dogma of materialism and if there was one thing Patrick White despised and hoped to change about Australia, it was our materialism and, by implication, our utilitarianism.

Many people could recite the most basic formula of Utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is a form of what is sometimes called consequentialism which just means that the ethical value of actions should be judged by their consequences. If you, purely by accident, blundered your way into creating the greatest good for the greatest number, your action is deemed of higher value than if, with the best of intentions, you failed to create anything good.

Now, of course, Utilitarianism is a big topic and there are numerous sub-variants which are attempts to answer the objections made to the doctrine. Probably the main objection has always been that Utilitarianism implies that killing an innocent is justified if it saves the lives of others. This is one of those classic arguments that always seems confined to university faculties at universities and can usually be counted on to draw the cynical response that it’s “just semantics” and “nobody would ever have to make that decision in real life.”

Well, during the last three years, exactly these kinds of decisions were made. To take just one of the more egregious examples, here in Australia two infants in South Australia needed to be flown interstate for life saving surgery but were denied because the borders were closed due to covid. They died. The justification given, not just by politicians but by everyday people on social media, was the utilitarian one: we couldn’t risk the lives of multiple other people who might get infected with a virus. The greatest good for the greatest number.

(This raises the other main objection to Utilitarianism which is that it must rely on speculative reasoning. We can only predict more people will die based on some model. But we can never know for sure because, despite what many people apparently believe, we are not God and we do not control the future).

The death of those children was a low point even for the corona hysteria and is, in my opinion, one of the lowest points in this nation’s history. Combined with the countless other episodes of people being denied urgent medical care, the elderly residents of nursing homes left without care for days because one of the staff tested positive and all the staff were placed in quarantine, the people unable to be at the side of loved ones who were on their death bed, the daily cases of police brutality, or any of the other innumerable indignities and absurdities, for the first time ever I found myself being ashamed to call myself an Australian.  

Now that the insanity is over, there are people who want to apply the utilitarian framework to criticise the lockdowns on the basis that “they did more harm than good”. I suspect that’s true. But this is also just a model that is, ultimately, unprovable. And within that model, the deaths of two children are nothing more than a statistic; just a number in the “deaths that didn’t need to happen” column. When innocents have died, it seems self-evidently wrong to be bickering over whose model is more accurate.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Utilitarianism is what we can generically call Judeo-Christian ethics but particularly that espoused by the philosopher I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Soren Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, the consequences of an action are irrelevant. Every individual stands before God in sin. The judgement of an action is its accordance with the individual conscience; a person’s relationship to God.

It is this idea, usually presented in less extreme form, which grounds the Christian concept of the inherent dignity of the individual or, as it is stated in the US constitution, every person is endowed by their creator with inalienable rights and no earthly government gets to take them away.  

Australians do not have rights enshrined in a constitution. The best we have is that we are a signatory to the UN charter of human rights; a charter which we violated in numerous ways over the last three years. Our former Prime Minister had the audacity to stand before the UN last year and remind the world that not only did Australia help write the human rights charter but we put our words into action.

Has Morrison ever read the charter? The second paragraph begins: “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” A more concise summary of the last three years in Australia could scarcely be written. In the same week that Morrison spoke, police were firing rubber bullets on unarmed Australian citizens on the streets of Melbourne, just one of the countless barbarous acts committed during corona that should have, but apparently mostly have not, outraged our national conscience.

Why would the Prime Minister choose just this time to make reference to a charter his government contravened? Surely his speechwriter could find something else to talk about which was not so blatantly and obviously and shamefully hypocritical. In the normal course of politics, we would just assume Morrison was lying or obfuscating or gaslighting for some ulterior reasons. But a speech to the UN is purely symbolic.

So, I think the most likely answer is simply that Morrison and his speechwriter were oblivious. And they were oblivious in exactly the way that Patrick White shows in Riders in the Chariot. The problem lies in Australian culture. White intended his novel to be a wake-up call, or maybe a wake up club over the head with a cricket bat, to Australia and Australian culture. Clearly we haven’t got the message yet. So, what better time to reiterate that message than after the last 3 years of mindlessness and madness.

All the great authors and all the great artists of the modern western tradition are individualists in the sense that they are concerned with the individual and how the everyday life of a single person links symbolically to the life of the nation or even to the life of the entire world, universe or whatever you want to call it. I read Riders in the Chariot immediately after The Brothers Karamazov. Both books are concerned with the average person; in fact, the less-than-average person; the losers, the criminals, the shunned and the neglected.

I think it’s quite accurate to say that Dostoevsky is a masculine writer while White is a feminine one. This plays out in numerous ways. Dostoevsky’s heroes are men. White’s heroes are women. Dostoevsky’s main tools as a storyteller are dialogue and action. White’s main tools are introspection and metaphorical/symbolic perception. The crescendo in The Brothers Karamazov is driven by the dramatic events that preceded it. The crescendo in Riders in the Chariot is driven by the depth of our understanding of each character’s internal state based on the lives they have led i.e. empathy.

In comparison to the other of White’s works that I have reviewed, Voss, Riders in the Chariot is a much smoother read. In Voss, White continually overturns our understanding of what is going on. He forces us to re-evaluate everything at each major turning point in the story. This gives the plot of the novel a roughed-edged, jagged feel which is mirrored in the prose style which seems excessively verbose and florid. In Riders in the Chariot, the first three quarters of the book are devoted to presenting wonderfully intricate character studies. We learn in great detail about the biographies of four people who have all ended up, by the vicissitudes of fate, in the fictional nowhere town of Sarsaparilla located (I think) near Sydney.

First is Mary Hare. She is an old woman living in an old-fashioned country estate built by her dead father. The estate, called Xanadu (yes, it’s a stately pleasure dome), sits on the edge of Sarsaparilla; the post war suburban Australia encroaching ever so slowly on the pretensions of the old Victorian aristocracy.

Mary, although now an old woman, is mentally still a child. She talks to the trees and the animals. She can barely keep herself clothed and fed and lives on money sent from a relative in Europe. In archetypal terms, she is the Innocent or perhaps even the pre-Innocent. As she herself says, she “has no mind” but lives directly in experience. We see a parallel here with The Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha is the eternal Innocent.

The second rider in the chariot is Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish refugee. White takes us back through Himmelfarb’s life as a German Jew. We see the tensions between his religious faith represented by his mother and the enticements of modern rationalism represented by his father. The latter wins out. Himmelfarb becomes a professor and finds himself in a comfortable bourgeois existence with the high status accorded to the role of scholar in pre-war Germany.

Himmelfarb serves in the first world war then returns to his comfortable life. But it doesn’t stay comfortable for very long. Despite the warning signs and even direct pleas from friends and colleagues, Himmelfarb remains in Germany as the Nazis take over and even as he is gradually stripped of his job, his wealth and eventually (almost) his life. Having lost his wife in the Kristallnacht, Himmelfarb ends up in a concentration camp in Poland but escapes the gas chamber at the last minute through blind luck (or is it divine intervention). He manages to flee to Palestine from where he decides to travel to Australia to live, still racked with guilt over his failure to save his wife and broken by the horrors of the holocaust.

Alf Dubbo is the third rider. A half-caste aboriginal born to a prostitute in a park on the edge of a country town, Dubbo is adopted by a pastor and his sister who give him a classical education, including Latin lessons. Dubbo is a natural artist but his talents are stifled by the pastor’s sister until the pastor himself intervenes to briefly allow Dubbo the chance to exercise his gift. Painting becomes the one certainty in Dubbo’s life as he floats around the country taking odd jobs, eventually winding up in Sarsaparilla working in the same sweatshop as Himmelfarb.

Finally, there is Mrs Godbold, who immigrated from Britain as a youth and became a servant in an aristocratic household. She ends up marrying a wife-beater, a situation she puts up with due to her deep Christian faith and her desire to redeem her husband. But he is beyond redemption and she ends up alone raising their numerous children in a tin shed on the outskirts of Sarsaparilla where she renders assistance to each of the other main characters, at different times nursing them through various illness and injury.

There is very little real-time plot action for the first three quarters of the book. With breathtaking virtuosity, White paints us intimate character portraits of each the four main characters; the riders of the chariot theme being a reference to the biblical passage were God approaches Ezekiel in a chariot.

What separates Patrick White from literary modernism and its grandchild, literary fiction, is this: his characters are real human beings and he makes us care about them. So much of modern literature and modern art, by contrast, is anti-human. To the extent that characters are even presented to us at all by modern writers, we get the distinct impression that the author hates or at least couldn’t care less about them. They are caricatures in the service of ideology. But all great art is about individuals and art is the opposite of ideology.

With such precision, delicacy and tenderness does White present the biographies of each of the four riders in the chariot that we almost forget that these people are what would, by the standards of bourgeois society, be called losers. We know their life histories, but to an objective observer in the post-war world of Sarsaparilla, Mary Hare is now a crazy old woman, the kind who wanders around in tattered clothing muttering incoherently. Himmelfarb is a late middle-aged recluse living in a ramshackle house. His very face is repulsive to those who accidentally catch sight of it. Dubbo is a sickly alcoholic who hangs around the local whorehouse getting drunk. Mrs Godbold is a single mother who lives in a tin shed while her young children run around screaming and getting into mischief.

If we lived in a big city, these are the kinds of people we would barely notice on our way from one appointment to the next. In a country town, where geography and demographics demand that we cannot avoid them, such people become outcasts and the subject of gossip and innuendo. The Brothers Karamazov takes place in a small town too. Both Dostoevsky and White knew that the big cities were for the worship of mammon. It’s the big cities where utilitarianism and materialism belong. Big cities facilitate forgetfulness. In a small town, there’s too much space and too much time. The objects of conscience have a nasty habit of crawling out of the shadows of consciousness and interrupting your holiday preparations or putting you off your dinner.

The main themes of Riders in the Chariot are almost identical to the other works of White that I’ve read. We have the male “hero” who represents European civilisation transplanted into Australia. He is either already dead, as in the case of Mary Hare’s father, or will die during the course of the novel as in Voss or Mr Roxburgh in Fringe of Leaves. The death symbolises, among other things, the death of reason and law seen in two world wars (and, I might add, in the last three years). But another way to look at that is the challenge to re-discover reason by re-integrating Necessity and Possibility as was the case with Alyosha dealing with Zosima’s death in Karamazov.

Until that is done, you are without a “father”. Without the father, the society of post-war Australia is the extension of the mindless materialism that was already there in the Victorian era. In Voss, we had Mr Bonner, the curtain retailer. In Riders in the Chariot, we have the local sweatshop factory, amusingly titled Brighta Bicycle Lamps, run by another Jewish immigrant but one who is desperately trying to forget the horrors he has escaped, Mr Rosetree (a clumsy attempt at assimilation because Rosetree, translated from the German Rosenbaum, is not a native surname in English).

Because of the similarity of the themes, almost all of the points I made about Voss in my post on that book are valid for Riders in the Chariot. But whereas Voss is cryptic, jagged and subtle, Riders in the Chariot is a giant hammer blow. The smoothness of writing in the first three quarters of the book seems purposely designed to prepare us for the scene that the book is famous for. White sets it up so intricately that, when it begins to unwind, the sense of sheer inevitability makes us sick in our stomach.

In order to understand the scene, there are two more characters to introduce and this is where the book took on added personal meaning for myself because the antagonists, the “bad guys”, to our four riders in the chariot are none other than two Devouring Mothers in the form of Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley, both of whom also live in Sarsaparilla.  

It’s probably only because once you notice something you start to see it everywhere, but I feel as though I’ve been bumping into Devouring Mothers everywhere in the last year or so; not so much in person, but through other people’s stories. It seems that every second person has a story about a Devouring Mother, whether it be their own mother or somebody they know.

If Devouring Mothers are so widespread, why do we almost never hear about them in the general culture? Part of the reason is because, at least prior to the age of the Karen, the Devouring Mother was restricted to the home and the home is private. Unless you get access to the home directly through kinship or friendship, you wouldn’t have any reason to find out whether or not a Devouring Mother is hiding there. And even if you did, you’d have to know what signs to look for. Thinking back, I realise a couple of good friends of mine from high school had Devouring Mothers. At the time, I knew something was weird but I couldn’t have explained it any further than that. And, even if I could, what am I gonna say? “Dude, I think your mum’s got narcissistic personality disorder.”

So, it’s symbolically and literally accurate that in Riders in the Chariot the two Devouring Mothers, Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack, are almost never seen outside of the home. It is from the home of Mrs Flack that they devise and strategise and gossip and plot. It is the Jew, Himmelfarb, who has caught Mrs Flack’s attention in particular for she is a Church Lady and a racist (open racism was still common in the immediate post-war years in Australia as in many other countries).  Mrs Flack has a young nephew, Blue, who works at Brighta Bicycle Lamps with Himmelfarb. He is her eyes and ears as she milks her unwitting informant via a weekly steak dinner. But Blue will become much more than an informant as the scene for which Riders in the Chariot is famous unfolds.

The understated precision with which White sets up that scene is a thing of beauty. I wonder how many people reading the book nowadays, including Australians who have been raised in big cities, would be able to see it coming. You probably have to have lived in small town Australia and you probably have to have worked in what would now be considered an old-fashioned blue collar job to have the requisite background understanding.

The blue collar factory jobs at the time were the domain of men. What sort of men? Mostly, men who had never matured beyond the schoolyard and were proud not to have done so. This was the era of the cultural cringe in Australia and its corresponding anti-intellectual ethic. To pretend to learning and knowledge of any kind was to draw the mockery of your workmates and that mockery could very easily turn to physical violence especially after a few beers at the pub after work.

And so the dramatic scene unfolds like one of those huge and intricate domino runs, as inevitable as any law of nature. Himmelfarb is a Jew and a German. In his earlier life, he was a distinguished professor. He does not socialise with the other workers in the factory. Therefore, he has no mates; nobody who will stick up for him when the time comes. He is The Other.

In a big city, he would simply be invisible. But not in a small town and especially not when the Devouring Mothers are at work. Mrs Flack has been priming her brainless nephew, Blue, with some nonsense about how the Jews killed Jesus (it is kind of true, giving her plausible deniability later on). “And there’s a Jew working in your factory, isn’t there?” You can just hear her saying it and you can just hear the gears of Blue’s mind turning as he realises the possibility to have a little fun (“blue” is Australian slang for “fight” as in “they’re having a blue”).

The dominos are all in place and it just needs a trigger. The trigger is that it’s the day before Good Friday. Things can get extra rowdy on such a day as people’s spirits rise in anticipation of a long weekend. But then Blue and several of his workmates win the lottery. Instead of working, they decide to spend some of their winnings at the local pub across the road from the factory. By mid-morning, they’re full as a goog (sorry, couldn’t help another bit of Australian slang. This one means “drunk as a skunk”) and Blue decides it’s time to have that bit of fun.

The bit of fun involves some improvised workplace bullying. Again, it’s the sort of thing that would happen all the time in that era. Himmelfarb is cornered. It’s the first time he and Blue have ever spoken. But Blue doesn’t really have anything say. He mumbles something about Jews and Jesus and that’s enough of a justification.

How does a mob decide what to do? Instinct. That’s what Mrs Flack has already told us earlier in the book. By definition, a mob must reduce the individuality of its members down to the lowest common denominator. The greatest good for the greatest number is the morality of the mob. If an innocent must be sacrificed along the way, so be it.

It’s the day before Good Friday. We’ve got a mob, we’ve got a Jew and we’ve got the concept of Jesus. How else could it go but a mock crucifixion? Himmelfarb is dragged outside to the nearest thing approximating a cross, a large tree, where he is strung up, thankfully not with nails.

It’s the part that comes next that is the real hammer blow. Everybody has stood around and watched the spectacle unfold with varying degrees of relish or uneasiness as suits their character. But nobody has lifted a finger to intervene. The artist, Dubbo, is the only one who is genuinely horrified but he cannot bring himself to do anything. Why is he horrified? Because, as an artist, he is the only one among the blue collar workers who takes symbolism seriously and who can see the horrific meaning before his eyes. As a human, he is also the only one at the factory who has interacted with Himmelfarb at a personal level.

When, finally, the factory foreman, who has allowed the boys to have their fun, comes out to put an end to the show, it’s with a smile and a laugh. Boys will be boys (note that it’s not men will be men. A man is whatever he is. A boy is whatever the other boys are). He helps Himmelfarb down from the tree with a couple of others and explains to the Jew that it’s all been a joke, just a bit of fun before the holidays. Himmelfarb’s lunch box is retrieved and he’s given the rest of the day off. Everybody else just goes back to work telling themselves that it really was a joke. And, anyway, no harm’s been done. Himmelfarb walks away by himself with a scratch or two, but nothing that won’t heal. From a Utilitarian point of view, there is no moral problem.

I mentioned in a past review that the story of Voss quite explicitly featured the Jungian concepts of the anima and the animus. One of the useful things about the anima/animus concept is that it gives us a way to talk about the masculine and the feminine and the gradations of development that exist. Himmelfarb equates to the second highest form of the masculine animus. He is the professor; the sage. But only in shadow form because he is a broken man. He makes no effort to impart his knowledge but takes up a job in a factory where he gets reduced down to the level of Blue who is the lowest form of the masculine, little more than a body, and just a puppet for his Devouring Mother aunt who need only whisper in his ear and he dances on her strings.

Like Voss, Riders in the Chariot is primarily about the feminine. In Voss, White had shown us the feminine in the highest form of Sophia, Laura Trevelyan. But Laura Trevelyan is absent from the town of Sarsaparilla. Sophia is wisdom. It is about the understanding of symbols. More importantly, Sophia is about understanding people as individuals. Mock crucifying a Jew on Passover, on the day before Good Friday, is symbolically about as horrific as it gets in a nominally Christian country. Mock crucifying a man who has just escaped the holocaust take it to a whole different level. Like I said, White clearly intended this as a hammer blow rather than the subtle intricacy of Voss.

The key point is that none of the people involved know any of this. They are oblivious, mindless. They might call themselves Christians, but they have never been taught how to interpret Christian symbolism. And they know nothing about Himmelfarb as a person either. He is “just that Jew”, nothing more. For them it really is just a joke and Jesus’ words “forgive them, father, for they know not what they do” are directly applicable. In order for it to be something more than a joke, they would need to have activated their conscience. Some have and it gives them an uneasy feeling that they can’t define. Most haven’t. They simply don’t know. The two who do know are Mary Hare and Mrs Godbold. They will tend to Himmelfarb as the modern Mary Magdalene and Salome.

Riders in the Chariot is about what happens in a culture when Sophia is missing. Nothing matters. Nothing means anything. Everything becomes a joke. Anything is allowed to happen and is then judged by its materialist consequences rather than its symbolic/psychological/spiritual meaning. Winning the lottery is just as worthwhile as getting rich through hard work and endeavour because the result is the same. Therefore, the moral worth is the same.

In Jungian terms, when the positive form of the archetype is absent, the shadow form takes its place. Sophia is absent in Sarsaparilla. The Devouring Mother is not. Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley are there to fill the void. After the incident with Himmelfarb, they finally show their faces in the street to see the results of their handiwork. White has Mary Hare, the Innocent, who had befriended Himmelfarb earlier in the book, run up to them and scream in their faces “you are the devils!”

Given the subtlety of the novel leading up to that moment, this scene felt to me unnecessarily explicit. But, actually, the whole remainder of the book is spent with White spelling out the meanings of the text in far more overt terms than than he did in Voss. I would have preferred him not to do so. But I think by the time he wrote Riders in the Chariot, White was already frustrated that his earlier novels had not been understood. So, he spells it out as clearly as he can. Riders in the Chariot can be seen as his literary version of a bomb and he wanted the explosion to be as big as possible. He wanted to scream at Australia “this is what you are!”

He was right. And we still are.

There is a lot less racism now in Australia. Workplace bullying has been all but gotten rid of. But, archetypally, very little has changed. The higher forms of the masculine are absent and we still completely lack Sophia. For that reason, if he were alive, I don’t think White would have found anything surprising in what happened the last three years. The Devouring Mothers still run Australia; Mrs Flack and Mrs Jolley. And they will continue to do so until we reconnect with Sophia and rediscover wisdom and true meaning.