Anthropology of Woke Capital

Rembrandt; Syndics of the Draper’s Guild, 1662

What is Woke Capital?

oke Capital is the participation in and enforcement of non-capitalist memes by capitalist companies. It is inexplicable in simple rational choice terms, as there is no explicit rationale for a company focused on generating a profit to engage in memes so far afield of their core interest. It’s rational on our part to ask an anthropological question, no different than a grad student would upon stumbling on the strange practices of some exotic tribe practicing initiation rites that would seem to negatively affect the tribe’s survival.

Memes and Teams

I’ve written previously about Dumezil’s trifunctional hypothesis, the observation that most societies seem to have three core subsystems that evolved to take care of humans’ need for security, meaning, and economic livelihood. These are symbiotic systems that are passed down as memes, and while they compete for influence over individuals and don’t necessarily understand each other, they do mutually reinforce this thing we call civilization, and they map to different classes on the traditional model of social hierarchy.

Dumezil is criminally under-taught, in part because he was a structuralist and maintained a partial affiliation with the right wing of the political spectrum, as opposed to his student Foucault, whose work is synonymous with the thinking of the post-war left.

Like I mentioned in my last article, the most popular English language video on YouTube that discusses Dumezil has roughly 500 views and is conducted by identarian neopagans. By comparison, the top video discussing Foucault in English has upwards of 2.7 million views.This may be in part that Dumezil failed to brand himself and did not seek fame, where poststructuralists like Foucault were very successful in the mimetic playing field. While Dumezil wasn’t himself a political ideologue, he was courted by those who saw his theory as legitimizing the ancient regime in France and elsewhere. You won’t find Dumezil in any but the most obscure academic bookshops — maybe Powell’s in Portland or somewhere next to the Ark of the Covenant in an Amazon warehouse — but Foucault is on every Barnes & Noble shelf, including translations on his more obscure works, and he is a canonical saint in Moldbug’s progressive Cathedral, taught in every university and a cornerstone of so-called social science disciplines like sociology, racial and queer studies, and most notably critical race theory.

Beyond just being tactically different the disjunct between conservative structuralists and progressive poststructuralists caters to very different social energies. Both are obviously mimetic systems, which fellow French thinker Rene Girard recognized and wrote prolifically on. These systems are carried down in hierarchical societies, where people at different levels of dominance hierarchies receive different benefits from participating in mimetic systems.

Classical Social Hierarchy

It’s helpful to keep just a scintilla of strangeness when we talk about these things, and for that reason I’ll use the Norse terms for hierarchies of class, because why not, they sound cool and they’re no different than the categories outlined in Plato and other Western sources.

Konungr (Kings): At the topmost level are kings, lawgivers, those with the capacity and responsibility to lay down ultimate law. This maps to Dumezil’s concept of sovereignty, where a deity embodies an idealized version of the state. Extremely notable is the king’s capacity to bestow and retract titles, especially titles for land. Kings, in tandem with traditions of law, are referred to as land-givers in some traditions, and that is continuous with the present, where the state is the ultimate authority over land and retains the right to grant and seize land from those below him or her on the dominance hierarchy. If you don’t pay your property taxes, the state will seize your house, even in 2020.

This pre-modern characteristic of sovereignty is also part of Texas history: in 1842, Sam Houston lobbied for the strategic relocation of the capital of the Republic of Texas to Houston, Texas, partially due to his personal rivalry with Mirabeau Lamar, a proponent of expansion who had chosen Austin as a central location. Upon being pressed by Houston during his second term as president, the Government refused to transfer property records from Austin to Houston on the explicit grounds that property records were the grounding of government legitimacy. Without being able to obtain and transfer property records, Sam Houston was unable to shift the the seat of government.

Following Dumezil, the role of the king maps to the sovereignty axis of the trifunctional hypothesis, which makes the role of ultimate ruler a partially metaphysical one. The king has final say on earthly affairs, but answers to God (or Gods) in the great chain of being.

Jarl (Anglo-Saxon: Earl): The equivalent of provincial governors, responsible for state-level governance. An Jarl’s primary responsibility is to mediate between high nobility and free subjects, to marshal forces in times of war, and steward resources locally and to keep the peace. Jarls, both in ancient and modern times, exemplify the administrative state. They maintain order and are responsible for enforcing laws, not writing them. In Dumezil and Plato’s terms, they are the guards, the gods of war, that human societies need to maintain safety from enemies at home and abroad.

Carl (Freemen): Free men are those who have control of their livelihood and are defined by their economic productivity –farmers, fishermen, millers, and other primarily economic activities. They are beholden to kings and earls, but generally free to conduct their lives as they see fit within the bounds of the law. Plato would call the motivating spirit of class epithumos — which translates to the “gut” (literally “below the heart”) where warriors are motivated by thumos (spirit) and rulers by logos (truth).

Plato and Dumezil’s account is missing one class critical to ancient society: that of the unfree.

Thralls (Slaves): Slavery is synonymous with ancient society and continues to this day. While many moderns see slavery only in the context of chattel slavery in North America between 1619–1864, it is a practice as old as agricultural society and describes the state of being where a person is not free, and is held captive to the desires or needs of another. In ancient times this was frequently war hostages, but it also applies to people who have been sold into servitude or took on indentured servitude, as many Irish did to get to the new world. To borrow from the recently-departed David Graeber, thralls are any people who live in serious debt to another and have their freedom impinged as a result.

This is consistent with present use of the word. Someone is a thrall to a cult when they trust the cult’s leader and abandon their own agency or thinking. This should be familiar to anyone whose friends and family are wrapped up in cults like QAnon’s Gnosticism, or an irational devotion to a specific cryptocurrency or company, where reason is abandoned for a sense of belonging, purpose, and insight into the universe by being part of community.

Thralls are effectively people who have been robbed of or have surrendered their agency. Even if they voluntarily sold their agency to achieve an end, it is not a happy place to be. Konungr and Jarls cannot govern without the consent of freemen and thralls, and there will always be people of diminished agency in a hierarchical system. It may be an imposed condition, but it is not achieved solely through force. At an existential level many of us lead lives of diminished personal agency, often because we lack the financial, spiritual, or political resources to be free in an absolute sense, and a thrall is anyone whose life depends on the whims of others.

There are reflections of this in marketing. When people find their identity in consumption to the exclusion of other forms of identity they are thralls. Imagine having no political or spiritual agency, but spending your time on this planet obsessing over having a Rolex and a Tesla. To be a thrall to religion or government is similarly reductive and unfulfilling. It’s an unhappy life, and all three classical hierarchies have the capacity to make thralls.

The Basic Challenge of Hierarchy

Hierarchies may be mimetically passed down from generation to generation, but they are not immortal. Especially in stagnant and decadent times, the impetus for rulers is to optimize their own comfort and safety by embracing rent-seeking behaviors, stifling innovation, and effectively robbing their subjects of agency. This was true in Roman times — when the empire stopped expanding, there were not spoils sufficient to enfranchise free men, and the empire turned inward and became more decadent. This led to an increase in enthrallment, robbing lower-class people of their agency and increasing the number of people who lived as slaves and thralls.

Beta Uprising

The Alpha/Beta typology, originally hailing from ethology and anthropology, is a common and frequently used reduction of social status to ranks. The origin of this term comes from Frans De Waal’s 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, which applies the dominance hierarchies among primates with those of humans. The alpha male gets his pick of females, is the first recipient of resources, and often reinforces his position by redistributing goods and balancing disputes among primates lower on the dominance scale. The alpha can’t do it alone, and in more complex societies beta males serve as the king’s lieutenants, with diminished access to females and resources but access nonetheless, all in a recognizable Pareto distribution of power and resources. Below alphas and betas are omegas — the incels of the chimpanzee world, who are too weak in physical and social status to mate.

Talking in these terms tends to be triggering to people — in part because it’s uncomfortable to openly talk about social hierarchies, in part because diminishing people to an assigned social status is both unethical and crass, in part because anyone who refers to himself as an “alpha male” is more likely than not projecting and attempting to signal in a weak and unconvincing way that undermines the claim itself. But we’d be foolish to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Social hierarchies are real, biology has an influence on how we conduct our lives, and understanding is not the enemy of happiness or success. We need a way to talk about social hierarchies that is pragmatic and descriptive without being reductive or counterproductive. What separates human from chimpanzee societies is the complexity of our own social hierarchy and the mimetic nature of the systems that maintain it, something that I’ll expand upon in the next section.

Most politically notable in the alpha/beta typology is the concept of beta revolt, a situation where a lower echelon of a dominance hierarchy unifies in revolt against a class above them. At some point, those lower on the dominance hierarchy will conclude that they are better risking their lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing to overthrow those above them and take their resources and peak status by force.

Another word for this is revolution. Every revolution in history has by definition been a matter of beta revolt, of those lower in a dominance hierarchy rejecting those who rule them. Insurgents may not be competent to govern once they get there or defend themselves from other insurgents, but that’s not disincentive to try.

In order to stay in power there are basically only two strategies a hierarchical system can embrace. It can either disempower its constituent members, making thralls of them, maximizing profit but creating instability, or it can integrate with other systems in a symbiotic way, devolving some of its power in exchange for greater balance.

“Class consciousness” — awareness of one’s status in the great chain of being — it is the central theme in Marxian thought, and the grounds for many of the most convincing “Marx was right” accounts. The elite class can be and often is exploitative, and that this exploitation can lead to political instability, of which Marx was more exponent than observer. This is a central fact of human history, well beyond Marx, Marx merely repurposed human nature to his own ends, explaining his thought’s mimetic success.

Lateral vs. Vertical Hierarchies

Notable in Western metaphysics, especially after the reformation and enlightenment, is the fact that our internal hierarchy is varied, rather than strictly vertical. In Islam, ancient Rome, and many Asian systems of governance the Caliph or the Emperor is God’s appointee on earth and is sometimes himself divine, emergent in the Judeo-Christian tradition (as well as Greek philosophy) God and ultimate reality are independent of the present king. Plato’s idealized version of the republic has the philosopher king seeking truth and enlightened, though the Republic’s hypothetical existence is itself an acknowledgement that this ideal republic is not possible or “real” in some embodied form.

Aristotle’s commentary in Politics is a commentary to this, where he points out that the different classes in The Republic can each lead to forms of government. Rule by one can be either benevolent or malevolent; a benevolent dictatorship is theoretically best but obviously impossible to maintain, where an oligarchy or democracy maps to the wills of the thumotic or epithomotic segment of society (warriors or merchants) and has similar negative ends.

In a developed society, there are governmental, religious, and commercial networks that all overlap. By being part of civilization you and I are — advertently or inadvertently — members of all three domains. Even if we are anarchist atheists who live off the land, we are still addressing those categories in respect to civilization (if you’re the last living specimen of homo habilis, please disregard this point). We participate in all of these domains, which each have their own independent hierarchies and canonical sources of authority.

In the United States that’s the constitution, various religious organizations, and the body of law and practice surrounding business. In Western civilization these subdomains compete with each other for authority over the individual. Religious extremists would have you live in a theocracy, politicians in a dictatorship, and commercialists in some sort of corporate revenue farm. In most cases these independent hierarchies would make thralls of individuals, robbing their agency and making them live by dictate. The beauty of Western civilization is that these domains compete for the individual’s fealty and check each other, at least in theory, instead of being part of a cohesive dictatorial stack. That doesn’t eliminate the risk of thralldom entirely, but it creates a system with checks and balances and more room for human flourishing and agency.

The Postmodern Thrall

I personally fear this is true now in the United States and Western Europe, and has been for the majority of my lifetime. Student loans have metastasized to become a $1.7 trillion dollar millstone on the American economy, with many delaying or forgoing or missing traditional life events entirely, such as getting married, purchasing a home, or engaging in wealth retention generally. This is compounded by consumer debt — as of this writing Americans owe an estimated to total just short of $14 trillion dollars.

At 30 — now the cultural benchmark for true adulthood — present day millennials own just 3.2% of the nation’s wealth, where members of the boomer generation owned roughly 20% of the nation’s wealth at the same age. Millennials are renting longer, lacking the assets to muster a large down payment for a home.

The Postmodern Thrall

Let’s assume a professionally established millennial earning $80,000 a year, working for the federal government and living in the state of Virginia with $80,000 of student loan debt from undergrad and grad school at the 6.8% interest rate offered for federal student loans issued during the last decade.

With federal, state and local taxation (~50% of which supports entitlement programs primarily for older generations) as well as health insurance and a 5% deduction for retirement, that 30-year old worker’s take-home pay is roughly $50,000 a year.

At the prevailing interest rate our hypothetical worker is paying roughly $850 a month in student loans, or $10,000 a year in student loan costs. We’re down to less than $40,000 in take-home pay.

Now add the problem of rent. The median rent in Fairfax county, Virginia’s largest and most populous, is $1,965 a month for a one bedroom apartment. That totals $23,500 spent on rent per year — greater than 50% of our hypothetical person’s take-home pay after student loans. Let’s assume they go down-market and split a 2-bedroom place with a roommate in a similar situation, that’s still roughly $12,000 a year that is going up in smoke, leaving the worker with $28,000 a year to live on.

Now for life expenses, let’s assume a car is needed to get to work — a depreciating asset. A basic late-model Toyota Camry, used, with insurance will run around $450 a month — or $5,500 a year, not counting maintenance and fuel. With biweekly fuel stops and 3 oil changes, that’s roughly another $1000, bringing our discretionary income down to around $21k across 12 months.

Assuming a cup of coffee, a sandwich for lunch, and maybe something Chipotle-adjacent for dinner, daily food costs total around $25 — over $9,000 a year. Add clothing - a suit and tie are required for work in most white-collar jobs, so let’s subtract $3000 for two suits a year, plus shirt, shoes, and the occasional pair of jeans and athleisure wear.

Our hypothetical white-collar worker is now operating with $9500 in annual discretionary income, all without having the opportunity to invest in an appreciating discretionary asset. This rounds out to just less than $800 a month — 10% of their alleged income. If this person is single and seeking a life partner, and let’s assume they are incurring the cost of dating, which increases their discretionary burn, especially in a status-conscious setting like northern Virginia, so another $3–4000 a year (3x $100 dates a month, or more frugal and frequent, you decide). They could run up credit card debt, as many do and assuming they aren’t carrying the national average of $9000 already, compounding their problem, but at the end of the day this is a professional and creditworthy person, working long hours, who has little but a few hundred dollars per month to spend on investing in appreciating assets or saving generally.

This person has extremely limited capacity to participate in the asset price inflation created by our modern monetary system. In purchasing a home, they will have little assets to show for a down payment, especially when the median home price in the same neighborhood is $600,000 — a 10% down payment would constitute $60,000, or 16 years of saving, living frugally and without any other debts or financial responsibilities, and not counting property tax, home maintenance, HOA fees, et cetera. By the time our hypothetical millennial has the opportunity to buy a home, the price of the asset has increased beyond what they can afford, and in cases with “cheap” money, that price may have increased at a rate of 3.5% per year, as it has in Fairfax County for the last 20 years.

These economics are rigged against a generation. Those with property, predominantly boomers who have been directing financial policy for the last 30 years, it’s difficult not to make money on asset price inflation. For those on the underside of the curve, it’s destroying lives and eroding the American polity.

In this example, our postmodern thrall is earning $80,000 in a year, only to retain about 10% of his productivity. The rest goes to the system he lives in and the people who run the dominance hierarchies he is part of. The state, landlords, and the financial complex. It might be luxury serfdom, but it is serfdom nonetheless. These forces are especially painful for people serving the spiritual and civic needs of a community; teachers, police, firefighters, spiritual leaders, all have limited means to thrive and reproduce, mimetically and personally. Few people want to be a cop or a teacher if they can’t afford to sustain themselves in that profession.

The Problem

This increase of thralldom in the present is an obvious ethical problem. It’s morally suboptimal to diminish someone’s liberty, especially if that person is trying to serve a common moral good, but it’s also economically, governmentally, and spiritually suboptimal, since thralls have diminished freedom to create value, retain value, and contribute to society generally.

Beyond being an ethical problem, an increase in thralldom creates massive political risk and increases the potential for human suffering, chaos, and destruction of value along these three axis. To use our example above, the person in question is having his or her spiritual and political wellbeing undermined by their economic situation. In circumstances like these there is a natural human impulse to blame others, as well as a natural human capacity to misdiagnose the problem and the culprit. In moments of frustration it’s an easy solution to project blame upon forces beyond our circumstances — as Girard points out, its in our nature to find a scapegoat in order to resolve conflict arising for our mutual desire for good things. Blame is part of our resolution loop for conflict, and unless we can a third party to blame, we tend to fall into direct conflict with each other.

Like I wrote about last time, in our post-Cold War Neoliberal order the economic pole of the trinitarian society has emerged triumphant. People’s lives are primarily economic, a neoliberal order caters to the most common denominator and does and excellent job of satisfying basic needs. Not everyone is politically or spiritually engaged, but everyone needs to eat and find shelter. This is not a perfect system; the principle of hierarchy and rent-seeking incentives militate against the possibility of purely market-driven solutions, especially when it si more profitable to restrict supply than produce to meet the market equilibrium. Witness real estate prices in economically vibrant cities, where local city councils represent the incentives of the oldest residents, who prefer to see their assets appreciate and not face market competition.

Woke Capital as the Perfect Anti-Solution

“Woke capital” is a term for the participation by economic institutions in a discourse defined by the current political zeitgeist, especially one defined by ideas that are essentially Marxian, such as critical race theory. It is effectively a commercial attempt to misdirect beta revolt while maintaining the thralldom of its subjects, with all the alacrity of merchants pretending to be priests and statesmen. There is absolutely zero reason for Lululemon to be holding seminars on smashing capitalism, or for Starbucks and The Gap to donate to a group dedicated to defunding the police and abolishing the nuclear family. It’s utterly strange on the face of it that a corporate executive can be fired for not consenting to what is basically a Marxist struggle session, but can also be fired for not hitting her quarterly revenue numbers.

At its heart, woke capital is classic mimetic misdirection, not much different in human nature terms than blaming an internal ethnic group for the Treaty of Versailles. You’re not suffering because the economic systems sees you as a convenient revenue syphon whose political and spiritual agency are threats, you’re suffering because of systemic racism and patriarchal transphobia, or other “spooks” — metaphysical presumptions that cannot be grounded in concrete reality, but are believed with fervor and faith.

Commercial participation in the distinctly anti-Western narrative promoted by a Marxian organization, scapegoating people groups instead of addressing the problem — economic rent-seeking and regulatory capture— is the heart of the problem. Woke capital is a brilliant but predictable hack of the problem of beta revolt, but it also has deep roots in human nature that go back millennia. It will break us if we don’t break it.

The Trinitarian Society as a Solution

The trinitarian civilization, which I wrote about last is an arrangement where people by default participate in governance, economic productivity, and spirituality and have systems to call upon to address all three basic human needs. These domains are natural and grounded in human mimetic history, going back further than any of our existing expressions of them. Civilization has evolved institutions to provide for all three, and there are a sufficient number of systems that we can pick and choose the most effective tech stack as demonstrated by historical examples. That’s obviously a prudential choice determined by inherited mimetic systems, not a matter of absolute truth, however working systems would seem to embody metaphysical truth. Catholic natural law scholarship is probably the most advanced in this field, because it preserves the triune system and leaves room for sovereignty to exist outside of the existing hierarchy, making it easier to judge the present order against a body of standards. It is also compatible with secular evolutionary thought, given the assumption that these systems created a reproductive benefit for those that embraced them, wittingly or otherwise.

This isn’t do demand specific solutions or enforced identity, but we need to ensure that the three pillars of civilization have working systems that gel with each other. I like Christianity, Capitalism, and Constitutional Republics because it would seem that system created the greatest magnitude of human thriving in history with the United States. Not perfect obviously, not necessarily “scientifically true”, but that would be applying a heuristic that destabilizes the whole problem set. If we “govern according to science” we’re not too far from enforcing one hierarchy’s “scientific” conclusions on everyone, which is familiar in the context of present-day Communist China.

The Ownership Society as a Solution

In this protracted peace of deracinated, unipolar economic activity, economic and monetary actors are pursuing very natural human ends — to maximize power within their network of authority, which in this case is seeking rents from a stagnating system, to the point that the functions of Western society are beginning to break down. Woke capital is a mimetic blame game to distract from this, and many innocents participate in it thinking it will protect them the angst and chaos the system is generating.

If we continue making thralls of those who keep our cities running, the system will break. This is the heart of the problem is visible in in cities like San Francisco. Where civic pride has eroded, homelessness, drug abuse, and crime have resurged. This decay in turn impacts city’s abilities to draw economic talent and develop new solutions. It is also generationally corrosive and could lead to a decline in power and prosperity at the national level, vis a vis other systems such as authoritarian Communism.

Closing

I could expand on this at length, but suffice to say it’s an intuitive and rational goal to reject woke capital as an evolutionary error and work to solve the issues it is creating. There is a massive market need to smooth out the on-ram to acquiring assets and freedom, and there is a massive civilizational need to rebalance commerical power with governance and spiritual meaning. We need to replace Woke Capital with a better mimetic system — ideally a trinitarian one that embraces the broader institutions of civilization, rather than clumsily promote a system that is actually at odds with human flourishing and creative destruction.

I think there’s a market solution for this problem, and I’m working on building the technical and administrative system to begin to address it. More news on that later.

American counterterrorism professional, entrepreneur, author; not necessarily in that order. Write mostly philosophy, politics, & economics. @adavidknapp