An Invitation to Nobility
The Moral Virtue of Freedom and the Purpose of these Pitchfork Papers
Apparently, in the approximately 500 years of the Roman Empire stretching from 44 BC (Julius Caesar’s assassination) to AD 476 when the last emperor Romulus Augustulus was effectively pensioned off by the barbarian invader Odoacer, there had been 90 individuals tasked with ruling the slowly disintegrating structure. Of those 90 only one in four, so around 22 of them died of natural causes. The rest were either popped off by their relatives, rivals, or even by their own security services as the Praetorian Guards gradually came to realise that irrespective of who was the titular head of the empire, the real power lay with them or committed suicide, presumably to preempt Option A or because running the whole odious apparatus was beyond the capacity of anyone other than a narcissist, psychopath or lunatic. The average tenure was 5 years and 9 months, roughly the same as the median tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO . Just saying.
The reason I mention this is to illustrate the fact that once entropy sets into any organisation, especially one with a history of hegemonic dominance, once the business model stops working, it goes into reverse. Slowly at first and then at an accelerating pace towards its inevitable dissolution. In capitalist, free-market organisations this is a feature and not a bug and explains why organisations at least have the option and ability to adapt to changes in circumstance, advance and make it to an age measured in centuries, something few states or nations can actually claim for themselves, as this wonderful little video of the 1,000 years of European border changes dramatically illustrates:
Thanks for reading Pitchfork Papers! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Countries rarely re-organise themselves voluntarily and their dissolution happens initially at the fringes of empire, in those areas able to reject the imposition of levies, taxes, and tributes without fear of reprisal because they know that the power centre can no longer afford to police and enforce its system of extraction. Understanding the “business model” of an entity - nation State or for-profit organisation is the key to determining where on the “growth-entropy” scale it lies and what the pre-occupations of leadership are likely to be. Reading Paul Rosenberg’s excellent “Production versus Plunder”, I came across this
“One thing that doomed the Romans was their fetish for stability and permanence. To the Romans change implied failure. This left them psychologically unable to adapt and to choose another method of economy once their agricultural, slave and plunder economy reached its limits.” ~ Paul Rosenberg “Production versus Plunder”
Once this state of stasis and decline sets in, then the pre-occupation of leadership is the maintenance of power and through increasing acts of barbary and fearmongering to keep the internal and external populations from correctly forming an opinion as to the fragility of the power structure keeping them obedient. The short tenures of the latter Roman emperors and their unnatural endings bear witness to the ugly truth that decaying societies are miserable places to be. As Tacitus, the premier Roman historian keenly observed “The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.” And with the tax codes, statutes, norms and compliance standards running to millions of pages in every single “advanced” society today, requiring ever larger bureaucratic fiefdoms and agencies to oversee and perpetuate their adherence by an increasingly exhausted productive citizenry, it does beg the question of how far along the path of entropy we currently find ourselves and what the next decade, let alone the next half century is likely to bring us.
I started writing Pitchfork Papers some 30 months ago with the sole purpose of establishing a discipline to excavate my own belief system about what I was and what I was definitely not OK with, having allowed myself the luxury of weakly holding a few strong beliefs about free-markets and business and the role of the state, but generally accepting of the general order of things. This was especially true after witnessing first-hand the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all the outpourings of elation that “the End of History” and the triumph of the Liberal Order (whatever that meant) brought with it - “we” had won the argument and there was no doubt that our way was best and that in this new best of all possible worlds, we could all just get on with generating prosperity and patting ourselves on our collective backs. (Please read the “About” section of the Substack page for my background to the letter’s raison d’etre.)
“Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad” or perhaps just complacent. Our complacency has brought us to…, well, where are we exactly? And what exactly are those who are no longer OK with any of the policies and personalities running our societies to do both to maintain their sanity and to hold onto the little slice of prosperity they may have carved out for themselves in a life of risk-taking, service, and diligence seasoned with the usual spices of good and bad fortune along the way. What are the Millenial and Gen-Z generations (15 -40), who currently make up a fractionally larger portion of the US working-age population (140 million) than the Gen-X and Boomer (40 -75) cohorts (135 million) to make of the world they have been handed and in which they are expected to thrive and make lives for themselves? Where are they being taught the principles of liberty and freedom and the responsibilities attenuating to them? Who is modelling that behaviour for them and what indeed does that well-modelled behaviour look like?
I started writing this series of weekly letters with no clearer objective in mind than to explore in prose and using all the tools and resources that a life in business and finance and a heart deeply embedded in literature, poetry and language afforded me the landscape in which I now found myself and which I perceived to be evolving in a way that was antithetical to the things I suspected I believed in energetically, but which I had not had to defend too strongly until now.
We can see that things are not as they were, that normative standards of behaviour are being bent out of shape and all recognition. We can see that an ever larger class of people whose pensions are indexed and guaranteed, working for the State and its agencies issue an ever absurder burden of diktats with mounting levels of complexity to an increasingly exhausted and shrinking section of the citizenry on whose productive effort they depend but whose effort they never acknowledge. We are told that life has become too complex for simple solutions, that state interference and management of every aspect of our lives is the natural and unavoidable consequence of modern civilisation, but are forced to watch as one disastrous policy follows another, from medical, to educational, to climatic, to agricultural, to monetary and fiscal. From defence and energy to health and nutrition, there is not one area of our societal structure that has not declined in efficacy, productivity, quality or reliability at the hands of those who purport to know better. The results of any one of their “projects” would have been enough to ensure swift removal from any position of budgetary responsibility and possible legal prosecution for willful neglect and/or gross negligence in a business setting, but cumulatively the outcomes from our “ruling classes” evidenced by levels of debt, energy prices, supply chains, levels of mental health, physical health, criminality, suicide, insolvencies, affordability of housing, standards of literacy and numeracy, the list is endless and beggars belief with the only consequence being…crickets for those involved and possibly a better position at the next cabinet reshuffle or a cushy job at the UN or some other quango ladled from the alphabet soup of sinecures and postlets in the gift of the alpha predators.
I can see this and others can as well. And we ask ourselves what we can do about it. I write Pitchfork Papers in an attempt to answer that question for myself and in the act of asking better questions and seeking better answers through examples, wisdom ancient and modern, and inspiration from lives or excerpts of lives of others who have made a difference, from literature, history and art, hopefully, to encourage others to share their stories or adjust their perspectives and know that they are not alone.
Last week a correspondent, a new subscriber to Pitchfork Papers voiced his frustration at the fact although he could see precisely what was unfolding before his eyes and was obviously well-versed in history and political economy, such that he trusted his own observations and could place them in their societal context, nonetheless felt helpless and unable actually to make a difference. I thought I would share my spontaneous response to that cri de coeur:
In a society of rapidly decaying moral normative behaviours by those in power - often the result not just of malfeasance - although there is always plenty of that - but also the product of bureaurcratic size and institutionalised incompetence and inability to adapt, the concerned citizen has three choices in the face of eroding liberty and constraints on their “pursuit of happiness”:
2. Active resistance
3. Withdrawal and non-compliance.
Often 3. leads ineluctably to 2. but it doesn’t have to. You have already made a choice to prioritize your family and your children’s education and nurturing their spirit. This is the heart of where your efforts should properly lie, especially given the State in which you have chosen to live. Aggressively collectivist or even tendentially authoritarian regimes always go for the children first, so bringing them up to think for themselves and to be educated rather than schooled in dogma is the beginning of non-compliance.
You may be called upon to perform a higher service or - more likely - you may not. If you are to be called, well, the cause will find you, as it found Elisha, and I wouldn’t spend any time either fantasizing about it or regretting it. You will eventually become unbearable to yourself and others if you do that.
Formulating a personal response in the small territory you can control and practicing civil courage and civil non-compliance takes just as much courage, perhaps more, within the confines of your immediate community. To my mind, modelling that behaviour for your children, family and friends is the highest service we mere mortals can bring in the cause of liberty. Learning how to articulate principled stands against the idiotic illogic of zealots and their progressive dogma and doing it calmly, politely and unspectacularly is such a high standard to aim for and so impressive when it is done well.
Also being prepared, learning to thrive with less and finding joy in that is a life skill that is definitely worth cultivating. If you are correct that we are in for difficult times - and it is certainly a non-trivial probability - then things we have taken for granted in our technologically intense lives, will become luxuries, if they are available at all. Finding joy and prosperity in survival is a noble fight in which to engage.
All of which is to encourage you fully to be where you are and do what you can within your small sphere of influence. As Mises put it, our entire economy is but the sum of millions of individual choices.
I keep harping back to that scourge of all government, Alfred Jay Nock, who wrote admiringly of those “who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles [of a humane life], and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them” and to whom in his marvellous essay “Isaiah’s Job” penned in 1937 when things were looking pretty miserable all around he referred as “the Remnant”. Force of intellect or the ability to understand and force of character, the ability to apply principled behaviour as consistently as possible to one’s own life is THE overriding task of the free citizen. My friend Hildegard Schooß Founder of the German “MutterZentren eV” social enterprise once told me that as a rebellious, activist young woman who wanted to make her dent in the universe but didn’t know where to start, her father had told her “Leiste, wo Du stehst.” or in English “Act where you find yourself.” I have found that to be powerful and outstanding advice which I have often had cause to repeat to myself when I have been stuck or wishing that I could start somewhere other than where I happened to be.
Sticking to those principles is particularly difficult when everyone around you seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid and despises you for your singularity of opinion. Prof. Mattias Desmet the author of The Psychology of Totalitarianism writes of the phenomenon of mass psychosis that
“no more than 30% of the population will fanatically start to believe in a certain ideology; then there are the 60-65% who do not speak out against the totalitarian narrative and finally there will always be around 5% who don’t go along with it and tries to speak out and they are extremely important.
There are two other aspects of mass psychosis you need to understand. Firstly when people are in the grip of mass formation they seem to lose all awareness of their individual interests. They are prepared to radically self-sacrifice, it is extremely strange. Secondly people in a mass-formation become radically intolerant for dissonant voices and in the advanced stages of mass formation will start to destroy anyone who doesn’t go along with the masses and they will do so as if it is their ethical duty to do so.”
I come across examples from that 5% who don’t go along with it every day and I suspect I am finding them because I am looking for them. They are everywhere, sometimes vocal, mostly quiet, always with a good sense of irony and a solid foundation of self-knowledge on which they stand. I write for them: in support of them, to learn from them, to model them, to draw strength from them and encourage them. I like to think that the subscribership of Pitchfork Papers is a subset of the 5% and hopefully a small slither of the fringe of the 65% who are looking for a helping hand across the divide.
I am indebted to long-time reader and supporter Thomas Henwood @Klutzes who shared this gem from Paul Johnson’s “The Moral Virtue of Freedom”
In case it hasn’t been stated clearly enough: I am enthusiastically optimistic about our future. I believe strongly that we are experiencing the high water mark of big government in these days. Demographics and the cumulative pressure from years of incompetence, fiscal incontinence and overreach are already starting to weaken the middle and encourage the fringes to emancipate. Will it be messy? Yes. Will it be painful? Probably. Will it be encouraging of freedom and human flourishing? Definitely.
A final word from Chris Smither, one of my top three singer-songwriters, having just returned from a visit to his home town of New Orleans. This is one of his best.
“It’s just like gravity I said
It’s not a product of my head
It doesn’t speak but
nonetheless commands attention.
And I don’t care what it means
Or who decorates the scene,
The problem is more with my sense of pride
Because it keeps me thinking “me”
Instead of what it means to be.
I’m not a passenger - I am the ride.”
~ Chris Smither “I am the Ride” Live as I’ll Ever Be (2000)
Thanks for reading Pitchfork Papers! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Recently painted on bridge across a major motorway in England:
MASS FORMATION PSYCHOSIS
A five percenter?
Extremely thoughtful. We’ve lost the human touch and are becoming cogs in the machine - those of us lucky enough to find a place. Identity politics stymieing our ability to think for ourselves.
This idea of compulsory morality rings true in the gender debate. Dare to pushback on the oppressiveness of this issue, one is branded ‘phobic’ and a ‘hater’ and risks losing his/her job so we keep the head down. As a woman and a human being, I object to the term ‘birthing person’ - to me this change in our language is (ironically as it’s intended to be inclusive) representative of the loss of our collective humanity. We are defined by what we do rather than who we are. When our young people (and worse their parents) think their (child’s) happiness is tied to whether they are a boy or girl, we’ve broken something. Is this mass psychosis?
This seems the kind of extreme cultural selfishness and dysfunction that marks the top.