As a someone who enjoys the topic of grand strategy, I’ve been slowly putting a book together — a cookbook for counterrevolutionaries, so to speak, for people who think our present approach to politics and life together is in danger of breaking and want to adopt a new and cohesive worldview.
This book is one part philosophy, one part anthropology, and one part strategy. At its heart is the observation that historical trends support a certain kind of fluid, hierarchical order where people have their material, political, and spiritual needs met, and that this order pre-dates all systems of order in Western history. Second is the observation that our present system has become overleveraged and fragile because one of those poles (commerce) has grossly overpowered non-financial institutions within our civilization, and has made serfs out of much of my generation. Third is an attempted construction of what grand strategy could look like if we reimagined our present-day governing principles.
Post Mortem Lex Trumpium
I’m writing this the day after one of the most contentious elections in United States — at least in my lifetime. By all accounts it appears Joe Biden will win a narrow electoral college victory over Donald Trump — both shocking in terms of how close the election was, and how far off the official polls were. This could [theoretically] be overturned later, say if there are demonstrated irregularities that wash out in a recount in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, or Wisconsin, but dollars to donuts the election is going to go to the Democrat candidate even after the procedural dust has settled.
This is concerning to me for a few reasons. One, Biden is the oldest man elected to the presidency and appears to be suffering meanignful cognitive decline. Two, Biden would appear to be credibly compromised by the Chinese Communist Party — the United States’ premier international rival, by way of a multi-billion dollar investment by the CCP in Biden’s son’s financial firm, not to mention other questionable deals in the Ukraine and beyond. That isn’t to say I don’t wish Biden and Kamala Harris success: the fate of the country depends on it while they are in office, and to be honest I’ll be psychologically relieved to not have the cadence of our national discourse stay as impetuous as it has been the last four years.
While I am not and was not a die-hard fan of Trump, I am inclined to agree with several of his policies, especially with regards to the CCP. The US should be nationally competitive, self-interested at the world stage, and should not allow offshoring of our critical industries or unchecked immigration that compromises our social safety net, our domestic security, or depresses the price of labor for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Trump was the only candidate willing to go toe-to-toe with the CCP on trade, the only candidate to ban critical race theory, and arguably the only candidate who appealed to the “forgotten man” in American politics. For his efforts, he was roundly lambasted for racism, called a xenophobe, and voting for him was considered a firable offense in many social circles. The country’s unelected institutions, chiefly our media, roundly resisted his presidency for the full four years. Many supporters saw and still see Trump as a last bastion of resistance against the “Professional Managerial Class” — a group of predominantly left-of-center cultural elites who support open borders, an universal safety net, higher taxation, and are cozy with elements of “woke” culture, to include the mythos around the 1619 Project. I don’t think he was the last bastion, but I also don’t want to live in a world where LuluLemon is unironically signalling about smashing capitalism.
Beyond these media characterizations, Trump was held responsible for a Chinese-origin once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 240,000 Americans as of this writing and destroyed the nation’s economy, especially among lower-middle class voters and smallholders. In order to keep the economy alive, the Fed provided easy capital to large (i.e. publicaly traded) businesses while more or less ignoring the needs of everyday people. As a result, stock prices soared while main street businesses closed and unemployment soared to 10%. This was exacerbated by lockdowns and selective restrictions on gatherings, which have closed neighborhood bars and restaurants while pushing more and more customers to now-invincible online retailers.
Politics is the opposite of fair, and Trump clearly misplayed his hand on top of having headwinds and other valid criticisms, such as his bedside manor, self promotion of his business while in office, and so on. He may have been “the best president ever” in his own mind and the minds of some of his followers (looking at you Qanon), but he was far from the most competent.
Additionally — and this has yet to resolve — it appears that the pre-2020 political polls were grossly off (often by a margin greater than 10%) and that the actual vote count and process of counting early votes was broken and has significantly undermined the credibility of our democratic process. No matter what, both sides will likely feel as though the election failed them because of the introduction of mail-in voting, which has had the effect of adding “international waters” to a game of chess. Our domestic political contest effectively has both candidates declaring they had a “wizard shield” to defray the bolts emitted by their opponents’ finger guns.
If both sides feel they won and were cheated, then our electoral system is genuinely in dire straits. Whoever comes out ahead will govern with barely a patina of legitimacy, if any at all, and insofar as rival parties control wings of the legislature and judiciary one should expect either president to be impeached in varying degrees until we either say ‘fuck it’ and give up on the democratic process, or have new candidates that are more representative of the country and whose election isn’t tainted with the allegation of endemic fraud.
I’m not crazy for thinking there has to be another way. I also think Trump’s term in office is enlightening for who can win and what there is market demand for. The problem is that the system is actively opposed to insurgents, the reward is that insurgents can clearly win if they marshal the forces around them to achieve a more sustainable end.
Achieving a New Consensus
What made Trump viable was that he tapped into an ethos where his Republican and Democratic rivals did not. There is arguably a default left-right consensus in the neoliberal establishment, where Republicans and Democrats both legislated in ways that were financially beneficial to elites while giving way to an untenable imbalance in the American polity. Student loans, which are preventing family and capital formation among Millenials and Gen Z, are an excellent example of this. There was bipartisan support (including from now President-Elect Biden) for the Orwellian 2005 measure that ensured student loans could not be discharged in bankruptcy. It’s really not a matter of left-versus-right, it’s a matter of the existing consensus of Post-Cold War American politics breaking down and needing a new consensus.
Populism: Trump’s populist appeal was also the appeal for Bernie. An estimated 12% of Bernie Democrats voted for Trump in 2016, not for the Democrat candidate. With the substantial slowdown of economic growth and consolidation by “big tech” — where much of the stock market represents Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Tesla, and a handful of entertainment streaming companies — there is a significant political trend towards populism, driven by those who feel economically disenfranchised by the neoliberal establishment.
Populism has its pitfalls, and its anti-expert bias creates significant risk, especially with regards to foreign policy and public health. The U.S. would have sat out both world wars, and the world would look very different if populism won the day in 1914 an 1941. But neither of those scenarios are analagous to the present, where the institutions of the country are being unduly influenced by a foreign power: Communist China. Where disengagement was a poor strategic choice then, it is a critical strategic choice now.
On the other hand, most of our experts turned out not to be experts at all, and no nation should subject itself to the tyranny of people who don’t have to bear the consequences. My sentiment is in line with Taleb here — populism is a response to the “experts” playing both sides of the coin, gaining credit for success while bearing no consequence for their cockups, the living embodiment of iatrogenic harm. The medicinal analog expands when we talk about healthcare, where incentives align to treat and maintain chronic illness at maximum revenue, rather than cure it.
Where some see populism as inherently wrong at the knee-jerk level, we lack a word or emotional response for rent-seeking elitism that solves no problems while diminishing the lives of its vassals. There are of course valid criticisms of populism from an economic standpoint. People will vote themselves benefits until there is no one left to bill, and then they will still vote for them. Populism has to be tempered with other forces to be viable, and the bread and circuses-heavy platform has never shown itself sustainable on its own.
Nationalism: a fellow dirty word associated with jingoistic generals bearing saber scars and Prussian facial hair, nationalism has also made a comeback. This is rooted again in geoeconomics pressures; everyday people know most of the goods they consume are made in the People’s Republic of China, and they also know free trade deals have more or less emaciated the American industrial base. While these same voters are pro-military, they also don’t see a 40-year occupation and subsidization of Afghanistan as part of the nation’s vital national interest. They reject the military-industrial complex’s path-dependent addiction to playing favorites in far-flung civil wars while the nation remains entwined in business with our primary geopolitical rivals, as if a codependant peace has ever lasted between Thucydides time and the present.
The basic premise of the Westphalian nation-state that abolished devistating holy wars in Europe in the 1600’s was that nations should be governed according to internal political sovereignty and should pursue their interests rather than the transcendant goals of Christendom. The neoliberal system replaced christendom with markets, but still subverted the basic premise that nations had a responsibility to their citizens to govern in their interests. This makes strategic sense when a country has an absolute or relative advantage, as the U.S. did in the mid-20th century, but this peace is prone to erosion as the industrial stack moves to cheaper and cheaper developing markets and exports finished products back into consumer economies whose only hope of growth is in asset price inflation and government subsidy.
Regardless of personal feelings on the merits of the neoliberal order, no government can persist indefinitely if its middle and lower classes are dependent on government programs, nor can they maintain their edge on the world stage if they are no longer competent at producing their own guns, butter, and vaccines. Especially in a democracy, there is an immense market demand for some combination of populism and nationalism, especially when the nation’s capacity for economic growth is diminishing rapidly as a result of the debts incurred to subsidize this process. The essential Trump voter rejected a system where the country was taken advantage of by powers pursuing their own interests, while the U.S., her soldiers, and her people footed the bill.
Some strategic initiatives
The following is a list of policies that I think most of us can agree on. None are controversial, yet they are generally not in effect, which prompts the question of why they are not in place already.
(1) Legalize cannabis and psychedelics
The majority of the population agrees on cannabis legalization, and has been extremely taken advantage of by the pharmaceutical industry, whose products — especially opiods — have resulted in untold death and destruction, especially among the lower class. Further, milions have unjustly been jailed and fined for consuming plants for recreational purposes, whose health and social effects are mild compared to the impact of alchohol and tobacco. Additionally, cannabinoids are a powerful tool in addressing a myriad of health issues — a fact that has been suppressed by the industry selling opioids.
The same goes for psychedelics. While there are rational dangers to avoid, there is no reason to treat psychedelics as worse than pharmaceutical options, whose side effects are as bad or worse than those of psilocybin.
Access to low-harm recreational drugs improves the tax base, is widely supported, and helps defund the large black market for especially marijuana, which has undermined state stability in Central America and elsewhere.
Legalization is important in both pragmatic and symbolic domains. Pragmatically, organic solutions are far less physically deleterious and far more easy to produce than synthetic ones. Purdue Pharmaceuticals killed more americans than Al Qaeda ever did. Second, organic solutions diminish the price as well as the risk of rent-seeking behavior among pharmeceutical manufacturers. Symbolically, hemp and psilocybin producers also employ America’s agricultural core, and have applications in material sciences beyond the merely pharmaceutical. WWII GIs, including my grandfather, had hemp-fiber boots, and mushroom cultivation has positive effects including organic waste disposal, additional sources of phytoangrogen-rich protien, and other health effects.
(2) Embrace blockchain voting and voter ID
Imagine being opposed to voter ID. Many of the political machines in the United States are. Witnissing the 2020 electoral chaos play out, none of this would be an issue if the country could reliably and immedialy count and attribute votes within the constitutional framework. These two measures would restore electoral legitimacy and undermine the political machines that benefit from them.
This is critical for the survival of any democratic system. If you want to get real deep, the writings of Curtis Yarvin (AKA Mencius Moldbug) provide a detailed framework of what Walter Lippmann termed “managed democracy” — the presence of authoritarianism with the democratic process merely acting as performative, validating the existing state without changing its policies. Popular sovereignty depends on faith in the electoral process. Having secure elections preserves the credibility of the process, and undermining it threatens undoing the credibility of the American project entirely.
(3) Defund the universities and resolve student debt
This is a complicated topic, but as a baseline observation colleges and universities have broadly failed to improve the economic viability of their graduates, especially in the humanities, and instead have politicized them while enslaving them with debt. To simply forgive student debt is not enough, because it lets the very colleges who created the problem off the hook. These colleges have massive endowments that have been able to invest tax-free while charging a sticker price unaffordable to most Americans, while channeling these gains back into administration rather than teaching. They should bear the at least half the cost of their graduates student loans, as Senator Paul has suggested. The federal government is not without fault, either. Endless and unquestioned streams of capital chasing college students has increased the price of addending colleges, no different than low interest rates increasing the cost of housing. More money is chasing fewer goods, the price equilibrium has moved to the right, and colleges have created administrative bloat and endowments to absorb the revenues and benefit entrenched stakeholders without regard to student outcomes.
This is also important because student loans are a millstone on the country’s economic growth and political stability. If young people are disuaded from having families or starting businesses, the growth will not exist to support the system. We’ve spent 4x the cost of forgiving student loans on stimulus in 2020, and the economic benefits from forgiving student loans far outweigh the costs, but we need to solve the long-term problem or risk repeating the mistake.
(4) Reclaim housing policy and development
As some of you know I am working on an affordable housing startup, which is gaining traction as I write this, and has immense potential to scale within the current system. Most Americans’ wealth is tied up in their home, and as of last year, 70% of Americans could not afford to get on the property ladder. This is an effect of limited development and asset price inflation, which benefits existing stakeholders at the detriment of new ones, and there is effectively no affordable option for workers in our most economically productive cities to get a foot on the first rung.
More on this later, but if we don’t fix the property ladder a lot of these other civic initiatives are in deep, deep trouble.
(5) Embrace state-level organization
States are laboratories of democracy, and should be treated as such. There is a reason Texas and California are achieving different outcomes, and it stands to reason that best practices should be emulated by blocks of states who seek to compete with each other for talent, industrial growth, and revenue. Instead of global neoliberalism, it is far better for a country if it has internal neoliberalism.
This also means embracing state-level sovereign wealth funds. States should set aside incentives to compete, just as the People’s Republic of China does. Merely cutting taxes and revenues isn’t enough, states should redirect their wealth towards greater and more equitable wealth creation.
(6) No future without tradition
No country can meaningfully survive that does not teach its own history. The 1619 project and others are an explicit attempt to subvert the American project for political gain, where we as a country have plenty of excellent examples to address racial and economic challenges.
Further, the constitutional order is a top layer on more fundamental forms of order. There is no polity without families and traditions; they are the reproductive means for both memes and people. The neoliberal order has an antinatalist demon on its shoulder, and many in my generation especially have given up on having kids, and where access to abortion is substituted for economic freedom. This is untenable for several reasons, and it’s important to recognize it for what it is. When you destroy the incentives for family formation, you destroy the means of reproduction into the future, as well as the foundation for human dignity and the incentives for people to stay engaged in society and seek sustainable outcomes that outlive them. Even if personhood comes with birth, it’s impossible to deny the deleterious effects of preventing family formation, because family formation is the cornerstone of social capital and community. If you’re just an economic syphon devoid of agency and a shared future your behavior will not be compatible with long-term stability or prosperity.
(7) Diverse Consensus is our Strength
A misnomer in the current neoliberal order is that “diversity is our strength”. While actual diversity is awesome and something to strive for, especially in a republic such as ours, diversity for its own sake risks dozens of atomized, unintegrated communities who have to bargain as identitarian vassals rather than members of a common nation. Identitarian politics is immensely corrosive and bears no regard for shared civic institutions, or social capital. Furthermore, it invites identitarian extremism. “White nationalism” wouldn’t be raising its ugly head if the narrative weren’t encouraging all other groups to embrace their own ethnic nationalism.
Think about the identities of two people in two periods in time. An Italian-American man (likely played by Ray Liotta) in 1950’s Queens, and young man living in the same neighborhood in the 2010’s. 1950’s Ray might be Sicilian, Catholic, a mechanic, part of a labor union, a WWII vet, a Democrat, a family man, and a proud Mets fan, on top of being an American (as opposed to being a fan of Mussolini or Stalin). 2015 Ray’s identity isn’t nearly as rich — it’s derived from his diet, his job, sexual preferences, Apple products, clothes, his watch, the quality of his apartment rather than the character of his neighborhood, and so on — mostly derived from consumption, where his faith and ethnic background are taboo and can only be related to ironically. He may care passionately about politics, but these passions are more one-dimensional because his other identities are not as rich.
Rich identity is a better check on extremism and political angst than consumerism because it allows for concensus on principles that transcend subjectivity. Consumerism is naturally subjective and competitive, and our mimetic desire for status and consensus corrodes our ability to agree on civic principles. Beyond consumerism, out-of-order identitarianism means that if 2015's Ray gets serious about his subjective identity he becomes opposed to other people in the same mimetic field.
Trump’s numbers in the 2020 election are notable, with minorities shifting away from the other party in record numbers. Bush-era republicans would be shocked to see Trump’s numbers among African Americans, hispanics, LGBT people, and other demographics thought to be in the terminal orbit of the Democratic party. This is a good sign for the country, and shows the appeal of a “rich identity” campaign that keeps politics in its place and doesn’t attempt to vasalize the other important aspects of our identities.
(8) Recognize the Challenge
At its heart the demon of the present order is an anti-natalist consumerism that assumes an end-of-history, where humankind is characterized by production and consumption at the expense of their subjective identity, and their ability to create social capital and cohesion is undercut by assertive symbolic identitarianism.
The present order’s antinatalism is in part due to its focus on consumption and production. People with families are not married to their work, nor are they apt to spend the whole of their income on consumption and retail investment. To coin a phrase, corporatism is the satanic inversion of family; your place is determined by your productivity, which transfers back to the company, which will be done with you when your use expires. The emotional appeal of marxism is strong here, and many flirt with the most destructive ideology in human history because it speaks to their subconscious sense that they are exploited and disposable.
Further, the rent-seeking behavior of the current system has made it incredibly difficult for young people to retain wealth and begin families — it is undermining our national means of reproduction, both physically and mimetically. The symbolic fervor for abortion and apathy towards Millennials’ opportunities and ability to build wealth as the next generation are part and parcel of this sentiment.
As Peter Thiel has pointed out repeatedly, the End of History narrative is deeply flawed, lacks direction, and provides no long-term competitive advantage against other systems, such as that of Communist China. Personally, I think you could compare 2010’s America to 15th century Venice, where the political elite was dominated by commercial elites who used their power to squelch new economic activity and led to the late-rennaissance decline of the Venetian Republic.
I’ve written elsewhere that “woke capital” is a transparent misdirect, where we seek to address the natural human needs for identity and belonging with consumption. This is exemplified by the “you will own nothing and be happy” narrative promulgated by the World Economic Forum and other neoliberal institutions. Mark me down for not wanting to live in a cyberpunk dystopia characterized by high-tech vassalage and rent-seeking, without an opportunity for a future or identity beyond consumption and entertainment.
Even if you lean towards supporting the neoliberal order, you have to acknowledge that Trump’s presidency was an indication that most of the country does not want to live in that world.
Some are pessimistic about the country. I’m optimistic. I think we have what it takes to redeem our shared project and make it work. Yeah, there are challenges, but they are not undiagnosable, and we have what it takes to fix them if we can diagnose them. Maybe it’s my inner Entrepeneur, or my inner Calvinist, or my unnaturally sunny disposition, but no one has ever solved a problem with muddled pessemism. We can figure this out.