Thursday, March 2, 2017

Virtue Signaling and Cultural Collapse

Is it déjà vu all over again? Are we yet again witnessing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Charles Hugh Smith in his Of Two Minds blog (via Zero Hedge) suggests that we are suffering from two factors that caused the decline and fall of Rome. The first is extreme income inequality. The second is “virtue signaling.” 

Put it all together and you have “a self-serving elite desperate to cloak reality” by feeding people virtue. The elite includes the media, tech oligarchs, financiers, lawyers and  government officials. The top ten percent of the people earn over $127,000 and control the largest amount of wealth. They want to retain their money and their power, and they must persuade the bottom 90% not to take it away from them.

To define extreme inequality Smith points out that in the early days of the Roman Republic the wealthy were worth between ten and twenty times what the rest of the people were worth. In its last days the rich were worth 200 times what the rest were.

The rich want to keep their money and power by using virtue signaling. Thereby, they allow everyone to feel that he or she has the right feelings about the right moral issues, while not really solving any of society’s problems. You may not have very much money but you are on the side of the angels. One suspects the virtue signalling represents a modern secular version of a theology that teaches everyone that earthly existence is merely a way to prepare for the joys of eternal life. 

Smith writes:

Virtue signaling is defined as "the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person's standing within a social group," "the practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue" and "Saying you love or hate something to show off what a virtuous person you are, instead of actually trying to fix the problem."

Since the Roman elites functioned in the same way, the idea is not new. One feels constrained to note that the therapy culture is also hard at work inculcating these same values. Therapists want to teach people to have the right feelings about the right issues.

Much therapy is about adjusting your feelings, not fixing problems. Therapists pretend to be men and women of science, but more often than not they are indoctrinating their patients in the dogmas of political correctness.

Smith seems to suggest that Donald Trump has the right approach, that is, he wants to fix the problems. Smith does not say whether he accepts of rejects Trump’s solutions, but he sees Trump’s opponents as indulging in virtue signaling, while ignoring problems. Identity politics has eaten their policies.

In his words:

What are those "resisting Trump" proposing as solutions to the profound structural ills afflicting the empire? Gender-neutral bathrooms? A continuation of a dysfunctional immigration policy? Blaming Russia to mask the catastrophic failure of the past 25 years of neocon imperial over-reach? Cost-free "virtue-signaling" proclamations in support of diversity? "Safe places" on college campuses paid for by student loans crushing a vast indentured class of debt-serfs?

These status quo policies and cost-free diversions are the acme of a profound complacency and intellectual sclerosis that serve to defend a self-serving, morally corrupt political and financial elite.

Virtue-signaling pronouncements lack any recognition of the moral, political, social and financial crises facing the American empire, and are devoid of any practical, politically/financially painful first-aid measures to staunch the decline.

Surely, it is interesting to consider that students who go to college on loans are “an indentured class of debt-serfs.” It is even more interesting to consider that these colleges are teaching students the joys of virtue signaling, the better to let them align themselves with the technocratic  and financial elites. The statistics show that very few of them will ever make it to that level.

Smith continues that the elites are becoming complacent and that they are developing a sense of hybris that will “soon” choke their false status and false sense of confidence. By that he means that the elites believe that they really are that much better than the rest of the nation. 

Those who possess the greatest wealth tend to avoid military service and taxes:

What we have now is a self-serving "virtue-signaling" technocrat class that works for a self-serving political/financial elite that avoids the imperial burdens of military service and taxes while imposing what amounts to an economic military conscription on the working class. This Imperial elite sends these military conscripts around the globe to defend their Imperial interests.

Virtue-signaling doesn't signal virtue--it signals decline and collapse. Just as in 5th century Rome--an empire careening toward collapse--those reaping the gains are complacently confident in their moral superiority while their hubris-soaked intellectual sclerosis blinds them to the systemic banquet of consequences that will soon choke their precious self-serving status quo.

We do not know whether a nation suffering from these two ills can reform itself or whether the problem of extreme inequality can only be remedied by a great catastrophe.

The latter thesis was offered by Stanford professor Walter Scheidel in The Atlantic:

Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.

Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.

The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward.

He continues, on a discouraging note:

Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.


sestamibi said...

Since I retired I've started vice-signaling everywhere. It feels great.

Sam L. said...

I see virtue signalling as a way to say "I'm with you folks", in order to not be purged from what they think/believe is the "in crowd". "In crowds" need purges to maintain their "in-ness". Your standard issue truly-vicious Vicious Circle.

JP said...

The earliest analogous date that I've seen for the transition from "culture" (ancient Greece/Roman Republic) to "civilization" (Roman Empire) is 1914 if your interest is in comparing Faustian culture/civilization (our civilization) to Greco-Roman culture/civilization. I can't even remember what Oswald Spengler called Greco-Roman culture.

CHS generally keeps hitting the same pessimistic themes over and over again, which is not particularly helpful. I would give him a 3-4 out of 10 for blog posting discussion purposes. Kind of like junk food compared to actual food.

I think that Sam L's explanation of virtue signaling is right on target.

Ares Olympus said...

CHS is one of the other daily bloggers I've read in the last few years, and he's more of an economic pessimist than me, but perhaps the mostly honest sort. He looks at the bigger problems with concern, and keeps a fair focus on individual action that is good whatever happens in the bigger picture, including living below your means, and staying out of debt.

The whole problem with looking for signs of corruption and decline is those signs are always there at every stage of things, so the signs themselves don't tell you what's going to happen in the immediate future.

The wildcard for me is always technology, and I'd even consider it a bigger "symbol" that "virtue signalling", and there's the problem of "Why should I keep working so hard?" and if you see signs of decline, you're likely to get depressed, and stop caring to buy the latest and greatest. But as long as the newest iPhone has one new feature, it can convince us to ignore the other signs of decline, and focus on where things are getting better.

And connectivity obviously still hasn't reached its peak, and if things can hold together another 5-10 years, you have to think virtual reality will become the norm, and although we won't have wall-sized interactive television screens of Fahrenheit 451, surely google will perfect their virtual glasses that meld visible reality and virtual reality (like Pokemon go) so you'll be able to interact with distant people as avatars right in front of you. Perhaps in 2027 every big corporation will have their virtual meeting rooms with offices across the world where you can see facial expressions of virtual people, and even be able to draw on virtual white boards.

I mean all those sorts of advancement are already cooked into our future, at least for the wealthy corporate cultures, but perhaps they will also give wider access to jobs. And perhaps the crazy costs of rent and housing in the coastal cities as corporations relocate to cheaper locales, and allow employees with $3000 VR systems to fully interact with all their coworkers in a common virtual office space. And perhaps this revolution will even revitalize the small towns where the cost of living is lower, and people don't have to relocate for their jobs.

And perhaps technology will even allow doctors to examine patients remotely by controlling avatar robots by purely mental interfaces that can be learned in 3 months, and the avatar robots will be equipped with extrahuman senses so you won't even need specialized equipment.

And all those advanced and more are likely already within current technology, and actually will only be stopped by economic collapse itself, but probably will happen even under a "collapse" scenario, if things like Trump's walls can help keep up the boundaries between civilization and the wildlands divided.

Or it could be places like the U.S. will fall into irreversible decline regardless of our prudent or imprudent walls or military spending, while China's militant social order and raw manpower yet surpass our technological progress, and they continue were we left off.

Its all a mystery to me, and it certainly seems unlikely to me that we've made it this far. Really it seems unlikely that technology saves us in any redemptive or practical sense. We're going to need many other sorts of saving I'm sure.

Change is scary, and we've made change or "progress" our God, and we can't got back to the people we pretend we once were. But at least we're not stuck on Mars when things fall apart. We can fall, and not all die.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Virtue signaling is the self-congratulatory secret handshake of the morally magnificent. I am growing tired of seeing the yellow equal sign everywhere. It's not advertising, because it's not accessible. It's a signaling device. And it feels sooooo goooood because you get to be better than all the MEAN people who disagree with you.

Anonymous said...

Culture ("Kultur" to be scary) is an important part of Civ.

WCiv has existed for ~2500 years. Ask the Athenians.

It coalesced during the Dark Ages, based on 3 traditions.

1. Greco-Roman 2. Judeo-Christian 3. Teutonic Tribal ways & mores.

Good book: "From Plato to Nato".

Others here will doubtless disagree. Fine & dandy. Makes sense to me. -- Rich Lara