He Was Not At All Afraid To Be Killed In Nasty Ways

I ‪was at a family-age party the other night (I know: does my corona-privilege know no bounds?) where pre-teens were running around in knight dress-up gear and throwing out lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.‬ It occurred to me that The Holy Grail may be the only Python thing to really last as a cultural artifact – to be a recognizable reference in say, a century’s time. There’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to its deep silliness and texture. The sex jokes are giggly rather than deep blue, the violence is silly red paint rather than grotesquerie, and the religion comedy is mainly surface level‬ jibes at self-serious authority figures. ‪

Consider the coconut running joke. Its a visual joke, an auditory “hook”, an “infinity times” meta-joke, and a very English class commentary on the upper class literally riding on the backs of the peasantry‬.

Though it isn’t the work of Monty Python alone, I’d argue the depiction in The Holy Grail sits at a locus of our current common sense understanding of Medieval Europe. The Victorian images of romance and chivalry are not without their appeal, but also hard to take straight. The idea that the king has power for absurd and hard to justify reasons is much more accessible. It makes sense to us for peasants to be muddy and diseased, for everyone to be pretty anti-scientific and stupid, and Arthur a somewhat overwhelmed duffer. The Holy Grail can’t help including visions of full chivalric romance within it, though. Consider the beautiful passage of Arthur across the misty lake to the castle Aargh. You can tell it was directed by one medievalist and one animator. The moments of vision are setups for jokes, but it doesn’t matter. They are in there all the same.

‪Everyone, Pythons included, name Life of Brian as their masterpiece, and it’s a more coherent work of art. But the institutional Christianity it mocks is much rarer in the UK and other places now than when the film was made. The leftwing political jokes have an eternal quality, though they could go out of fashion quick, and the gender jokes are now weirdly off-colour. Likewise The Meaning of Life is more offensive, more sexually and violently grotesque, but without much “high art” aspiration to justify the investment of time for someone who didn’t grow up somewhere in that cultural milieu.

I find all the movies and most of the sketches very funny. I just don’t expect them to last. At most one might sneak through as a piece for older children, an anarchic discovery where you don’t need to understand all the words at first, because another song, or a silly joke about a killer rabbit, will be along in ten seconds. The other sketches and films then might pulled along in the wake, like A Tale of a Tub trails Gulliver’s Travels.

‪Time is always brutal to comedy. It depends so often on momentary references and sensibilities. To stay around it needs to be attached to some broader body of work, as in Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩. Or it needs to be both surreally funny and deeply textured, like Alice … or The Holy Grail.‬

The Platform Biostate

Quarantine – perhaps we should say the first quarantine – has lifted here, and children have gone back to school. This is of course a matter of tremendous individual good fortune, which I am grateful for, while also wanting to snapshot the alien mindset of this moment into text before new consensus realities congeal and solidify. Perhaps the moment has already gone; the text is here nevertheless.

Governments did act during the crisis according to a different idea of the state. The nascent ideology was only partially realized, but does stand in contrast to what we might call financial neoliberalism. They acted as if the state was an extension of its hospital system, that the health of their people was the most precious asset to defend, and they used networked computing infrastructure as means to that end. They acted as Platform Biostates.

Declaring the death of neoliberalism has of course been a recurring hobby of many political professionals and dilettantes. Declaring COVID-19 the end of capitalism or even just liberalism seems very wishful thinking. But the specific financial neoliberalism that defined public policy from 1970 to 2020 seems intellectually over. This saw the state providing gardeners to cultivate and harvest taxes from markets that were desirable and pervasive. Nowadays even a lively True Neoliberalism Has Never Been Tried book like Radical Markets isn’t much about using money any more, but introducing tokens to voting or immigration to create markets which do not trade in everyday currency.

The basic causal model of financial neoliberalism was that the health of the state was downstream of the free market, free trading economy, and that the health and prosperity of people is downstream of the state and the market economy. Of course there is some truth to this, or neoliberals wouldn’t have been as effective as they were in creating wealth and gaining power for their nations, from China, to Germany, to Chile, to New Zealand. Financial neoliberalism was also so successful because it is a partial ideology. It dictates how to organize markets and where the state should switch from mover to referee, but it also mixes with Chinese Communism, army juntas, social democracy, or corporate liberalism.

Chinese Navy Hospital Ship Peace Ark
Peace Ark 和平方舟/ Daishan Dao 岱山岛



The Platform Biostate is also a partial ideology, but the causal model is different. The power of the state is downstream of the health of its citizens. Money and employment are a means for optimizing that dependency.

Presentation

Sketching some features of the platform biostate, more descriptively than normatively:

Baseline medical welfare. The state looks after the base health of all of its residents. This is both an ideological commitment to care and a herd management technique. Keeping a persistently unhealthy group roaming around the community makes everyone much more vulnerable to communicable disease, so people in the community have to be fed well and have basic medical needs attended to.

Prestige Epidemiology. The science of disease management is the premier technical field. Other fields don’t go away, or stop providing insight, but they are politically secondary. John Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard is more urgently read than the New York Times, and the money-conscious watch an infection curve for signs of flattening, not (just) a zigzagging stock chart. Health is the lead department, rather than the Treasury or a Ministry of the Interior. The flawed WHO is more important than the flawed WTO. Oxbridge changes its major to Politics, Philosophy and Epidemiology. Economists already recognize this shift, and have been stunned at attempts to fix a virus with monetary and fiscal policy (consider Paul Romer‘s calls for massively expanded state-funded testing in the US). Economists also expect epidemiologists to be part of a public policy conversation they are not yet used to. 

[Distracted Man/Economists]

[Shocked Face/Explaining Sociology to Sociologists]

[Red Dress/Explaining Epidemiology to Epidemiologists]

External biosecurity. The platform biostate is a hospital system with a navy attached. It knows which people, animals, and plants cross its borders, and it imposes controls on those it wants to exclude. The Platform Biostate wears a mask. This doesn’t make it a hermit kingdom, necessarily, but one with good information about what is near its borders, able to open or close the borders quickly and effectively, and practised at filtering according to current health criteria. And yes, one prone to overgeneralizing the idea to memes, race, or other criteria less biologically grounded.

Internal biosecurity. Threats to community health inside the border can be detected and acted upon quickly. Isolation, testing and tracking are deployed specifically to maintain community health. Alcohol breath testing, mobile health apps, and the prison system state anticipate this. The tracking may be very explicitly individual tracking by a central system, or it may be distributed, but responsive to emerging threats. The social obligation to isolate when sick is a widely held value and backed by law and the police.

Asynchronous delivery / Remote synchrony. Logistics networks end at the house and the office again. Meeting is online by default, remote by default, virtualized by default, a routine piece of greenscreen theatre. Offices themselves fragment and partition. Automated supply chains are bioshock buffers.

Ecosystem complicity. Food, water and air – how casually we let them flow through us; how futile our pretence of the mind’s separation from them. So many more now know what it is like to be breathing death on people, and not able to see the effects until a fortnight later. Without doubting the human capacity for doublethink, everyone did just get an intuition crash course on the diseased exhalations of fossil fuel power.

Causes

Why now? What changed?

Well, meandering failure of the old thing, certainly. Epidemiology was an obviously relevant alternative idea lying around, and with some existing institutional forms, which is always important in a crisis. The platform elements of this form of governance – dashboards, rapid publication, gene-based tests, big data, smartphones – are also relatively new in institutional time. So in one sense we may care about COVID-19 because it is now cheaper to care about it and states may act as platform biostates because there are now technological platforms to use. Another common explanation is a shift of political consciousness – a sudden surge of social-mindedness. Perhaps. I doubt the wellspring of human sentiment has grown so very quickly without some other structural attractor.

Take a world with a wide difference in wealth and income between elites and most people, particularly the 0.1% and the remainder, but also where a top 10% of technically skilled managers and technocrats do quite well: our world of the elephant and Loch Ness monster graphs. This is also an era of dynastic capital, as Piketty has shown. Merit paths are important but so too is ensuring boomer-accumulated capital is stewarded in an orderly way to maintain the next generation’s place in society. As a purely instrumental matter, if you are a member of this 10 or 0.1%, crime, poverty, schooling, clean food, water and air can be protected against in a fairly individualized or family-level fashion. You can get bodyguards, you can live in a compound, you can have air-conditioning and an armoured limousine. It’s not a marvelous way to live, in my opinion, but it’s livable enough. Pandemic, though, is particularly hard to deal with this way; there are essentially three solutions if you’re trying to preserve dynastic capital.

  • Hygienic fortress. The normal compound solution isn’t enough for a contagious pandemic, especially one with an asymptomatic period. You need very strict lockdowns with all your servants and a biosecure epidermis. This is affordable for the 0.1% but not the 10%. For both classes it is in tension with the need to maintain a professional and social network to stay rich. You can’t go to restaurants or fly across the ocean. This era of capitalism works by assembling profit constructs from globally separated opportunities; people need to socially work a cosmopolitan network to navigate and construct that. You can do this online, and reach opportunities you previously couldn’t, but you can’t exploit all the senses for social advantage online; you can’t read body language as well, or catch people in the break of a three day conference. How do you decide when to let people into the fortress? – do they spend two weeks in the citadel hotel? It’s also inaccessible, in our current urban infrastructure, to the technocrats that actually manage the world, rather than owning it.
  • High fertility backup kin. The traditional farmer and landed aristocrat insurance against catastrophe is diversification through redundancy. Have plenty of kids, over multiple generations, and so have plenty of aunts and cousins as well, so that when war or disease does sweep through some of you survive. This is in tension with the multi-decade trend of urbanization and drops in fertility rates. The tendency is to have only a few kids, then hothouse-parent them into a career that will keep dynastic fortunes alive for the next generation (and your geriatric care). Perhaps it will flip the trend and people will start popping out more kids again, but even if it does, it will take decades, and there will have to be some default political worldview in the meantime.
  • Rawlsian contract. If you still want to leave the house and be near strangers, you are faced with a veil of disease ignorance. Especially with contagious diseases with asymptomatic periods, you don’t know whether you will be in the diseased or the healthy role after twelve days, when the veil is lifted. Rawls’ solution of distributive justice then applies – make sure that no-one is ever too sick or uncared for, and you reduce the risk of your own misery or death when the outcome is finally revealed.

Essentially the third solution, familiar in shape due to the historical welfare state, is what rich governments tried to implement in the first half of 2020. Some did it quite well, due to fortunate timing, advantages of population size and geography, or previous experience in biosecurity. For others – like the US or UK – it seemed like the levers of administrative government were no longer connected to any wires underneath. Those states (and sub-national states, like California) that did function, and treated population health as causing wealth, are already in a more powerful position than six months ago. They kept capable people able to work, protected their families, and limited their distress.

John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard screenshot

Prognosis

Optimizing for overall population and ecosystem health as a generator of power will still create losers (like all state power). A hospital is very good at treating sickness. It is also a bureaucracy that can be indifferent to people in need and make stupid mistakes. Medicine remains very fixated on treatment and on big centralized buildings of sickness control, all put under tension by the needs of keeping a population healthy rather than reacting only to sick people queuing for doctors. The epidemiological view of people as a population – a herd – also leans a manager towards the idea that a herd might be culled for the greater good. 

The platform biostate is a partial ideology: it can be combined with luxury airport quarantine stratification by passport and frequent disease flyer status, or drone-delivered Universal Basic Mask provision, or ideological hygiene death squads, if you try hard enough. It could have a neoliberal variant too: it’s pretty technocratic. Still, I am sympathetic to centreing the state on health, and think it’s perfectly compatible with liberal democracy, which I remain fond of. Financial neoliberalism was pretty good at creating wealth, markets and inequality. The platform biostate could be pretty good at cleaning up industrial toxins, governing by health dashboard and nagging like a harridan when individuals choose fun today over health a decade from now. Some Leviathans may rot; others may send the corpses to pathology for some bloodwork and an updated infection model.


((This piece owes something to Benjamin Bratton’s 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism, which has a wider scope.))

Pokémon Blood and Iron

It’s not widely appreciated that the popular nineties computer game was actually inspired by Pokémon Blood and Iron (ポケモン铁血), an 1869 recruiting and training pamphlet for boys being drafted into the beleaguered army of the shortlived Republic of Ezo.

In the pamphlet, different “monsters” and attacks are harnessed for different parts of infantry drill, in a metaphor familiar from East Asian martial arts – mantis style, great white ape leaps backwards, and so on. “Thunderbolt” practiced the firing action of a muzzle-loaded rifle.

Also notable is the exhortation to report spies and sympathizers for the Meiji restoration government – “Diligence and loyalty! All must be caught!”.

Little material is available online, although some of the few extant pamphlets can be seen at the Hakodate City Museum. Signage is, unfortunately, exclusively in Japanese.

Flag of the Republic of Ezo

Timescales and Ideology

Attitudes to time seem both a handy rule of thumb and a hint at deeper conceptual fissures. This is true for accelerationism and for other things.

Right accelerationists are obsessed with both immediate speed and deep time. Population genetics, rise and fall of empires, eternal cold darkness, Arthurian sovcorp CEOs, AI basilisks at the end of time. Aligning oneself with the waves of deep history. “Geology, go faster!”

Consider the conceptual timeframes of Bitcoin, from different points of observation. Epochal alternative to state money (thousand year), mathematical number theory results (timeless), solving the philosophical problem of constructing consensus time, yearning for seconds of transaction latency and getting hours.

Left accelerationists (or Fully Automated Luxury Communists given the decline of the L#A brand) work on an economic scale of time. It’s the decadal or century scale of Marx, multi-election political strategy, or the sub-millisecond latency of technological platforms.

Project Cybersyn, or a socialized amazon.gov, are illustrative. They are about steering, using rich computational sources of general intelligence. Communism emerging in immanent processes, and radically expanded scale limits.

Unconditional Accelerationism is/was as much a fracture event as a movement. It works in spirals and fragmented patchwork time. Survival and observation are key: scientific, poetic sniper-time.

Consider the DIY pancreas and its algorithmic loop-time rituals. Consider that every separate device has multiple clocks. Consider that every animal body has multiple internal clocks. The quantified, technologically constructed network of the federated self.

Mabo, Patchwork and The City

I’ve been reading Mabo vs Queensland (No 2), the 1992 High Court ruling that established native title in Australia. It ranges all over. It would make a good non-fiction comic book, like the titles about Rosa Luxembourg or North Korea you get these days. I have none of the skills or personal background to make it, but I would love to read one. If anyone makes such a thing, please tell me.

Prior to Mabo, Australian land without explicit title was considered terra nullius, zero land, deserted land without ownership, even though obviously there were inhabitants of the continent before white settlement. Within the Mabo decision, at least in Justice Brennan’s judgement, once the idea that terra nullius should apply to any Aboriginal land is questioned, much precedent also disappears. So he needs to consider two threads of history.

The first thread is older precedent for maintenance of title when a land is invaded. Reading it, we travel the world from seventeenth century Ireland, to pre- and post-independence India, to colonial Africa, to nineteenth century America, and Marshall’s Supreme Court judgement in favour of the Cherokee. Brennan considers tanistry and usufructuary rights, a wordy tour of property and sovereignty. This may say more about me than the culture at large, but such depth of attention to the history of property is something I’m more used to seeing on obscure rightwing blogs. It gives the peculiar impression that Mencius Moldbug wrote a very long Christmas Card to indigenous people, with presents at the end.

The other thread of history is the very local one of the Murray islands. From the first moment of written history for the region, the reports are of a settled people with not just defined hunting rights, but gardens laid out with clearly maintained family plots. Even when things are distorted somewhat by contact with colonial authorities, missionaries, and the invention of a headman, there is continuous occupation and use in a form easily legible to those familiar with European legal ownership. It’s families with inherited houses and backyards. Things change, but that basic arrangement does not. By the time the Queensland government got around to explicitly extinguishing existing title for the island in the 1980s, the ham-fisted way they did it violated the 1970s federal Race Discrimination Act, and was overturned (that’s Mabo vs Qld (No 1)).

Native title snuck through the gaps in existing legislation and case law, overlooked … it escaped overcoded nullity. Codes of law are obviously state-entwined artifacts, and hardly smooth spaces of nomadic movement. But common law in particular does have an immanent quality of bottom-up reasoning from examples. It has a patchwork inconsistency sensitive to weird traditions, particularities and local exceptions. It also has aspects of the general intellect. It’s an externalized memory, far bigger than one person, capturing social rules; a game of asking for and giving reasons, as Negarestani describes the more general rational project.

English common law propagates both vertically and laterally: it was spread by colonialism, but countries who have long since gained independence refer to and expand upon judgements in peer states. That cooy-paste spread also means there is precedent to inspect from every continent, intersecting with many traditions. English common law, or parliamentary law for that matter, also seems fairly compatible with overlays of other constitutions from other legal commitments – be they national constitutions or EU treaty obligations. Just add another axiom.

Crazy Quilt Statecraft

This all intersected at an odd angle with the latest updates from the seasteading crowd around Patri Friedman, and comments by xenogothic. Seasteading is apparently on land now, and focused on trading colony-style charter cities instead of nomadic fleets of sea vessels. English common law is the favoured choice of legal system.

xenogothic writes:

Friedman’s fatal flaw — and he apparently says himself in Chapman’s article that he’s been trying these things out for twenty years so he really should have realised it by now — is that he is trying to replicate the end of the frontier. Every time, he’s trying to replicate a fleeting moment within the American West’s territorialisation, between the anarchic freedom and the recoding of English capitalism.

Reproducing the American West – particularly the Wild West – is a recurring failure condition of American libertarianism (and there really is little other kind). Replicating the end of the frontier is exactly the right diagnosis of libertarian gun politics, for example. The tech has moved, but the thought has not.

This charter city turn seems something else. The point of reference is usually not the OK Corral, but something more like (gunless) Hong Kong, the earliest English colonies on the American eastern seaboard, or the free ports of European history. As the anti-democratic brutality of the last year in Hong Kong has shown, free cities are a negotiated space between the crushing military and bureaucratic power of large states, and the tax rents and positive spillovers of a city open to trade and cultural exchange.

Critics also forget that laissez-faire in Hong Kong or Singapore never stopped the government co-ordinating the building of a lot of houses, hospitals, metro systems, and so on.

I’m not advocating starting new Opium Wars just so we can get new Hong Kongs, but neither is Friedman. He’s describing it as a kind of tax break office park, it’s true, but that is in Bloomberg (speak capitalism when selling to capitalists, I guess). It would be good to see more agora and less duty-free shop, of course. There’s a lurking failure mode of frappe mall-cop arcology, low regulation for the corporate owners, rigorously surveilled and regulated for normal residents, everyone citizens of elsewhere, extradition always the first resort.

Opening frontiers are not always Cortez and smallpox. They are far more ambiguous: they are also Marco Polo, Peter Minuit trade-stealing Manhattan, the Lanfang Kongsi, or the German trading colony outside Saint Petersburg. Charter cities could be less of a replay than a spiral-back.

((Crazy quilt – cento der metaphysik – patchwork – is also a name Kant uses to deride metaphysics in the Prologomena.))

Firebomb Burbclave

We are not yet through summer and this climatethrashed Australian weather may have horrors to come. This post was written in dribs and drabs, and one of the minor political curiosities to flicker past was an AFR op-ed proposing some part of the destroyed region be made an export processing zone (ie a low-tax regional cousin to the charter city).

My first reaction was revulsion at the opportunism, and a sense that the proposal wasn’t much of a solution; that probably more funding for forestry management, adaptation and firefighting infrastructure was more relevant. This does seem in hypocritical tension with my support for patchworks and city-states. Presumably disaster capitalism always seems better when you’re not on the receiving end.

On the other hand, isn’t regulatory patchwork without civic autonomy rather missing the point? The location is weird, because the fires ravaged mainly the country towns that co-exist with the broad metropolitan footprint of Sydney and Melbourne. They aren’t natural ports, or airports. A hinterland without an extra-connected urban centre is a tax farm, not a polity. A new city there would be an inland exurb for the existing metropole.

Once, as in Greg Egan novels, the futurist location for New Hong Kong was Arnhem Land. It seemed it might arise from decades of failures to reach a political settlement without a treaty, and state-like autonomy for the First Nations. It might have been a decent way to give up the attempt to police people from Canberra. In the event, things have gone the other way, with ever more paternalistic interventions. Mabo, and the legislation that followed, are parallel tracks to that, recognizing title within the Australian state, re-stitching the communities into the liberal and legal fabric of the Commonwealth.

Current military and surveillance tech – drones, cameras and satellites – is just not conducive to the emergence of peers to the current club of nation states. Countries even pretend Taiwan doesn’t exist, despite seventy years of modern history, a geographic border, a flag, a currency, and more firepower than Prussia. If Taiwan hasn’t got a chance, how is your floating burbclave off the coast of Thailand going to join the club? (Also, it takes a spectacular ignorance of Thai history to imagine they wouldn’t be prickly about sovereignty.)

So why contest that ground? Make your genuflections to a local Westphalian dragon throne and then construct a different civic space within its nominal territory. Enact the Urban Intelligence Box Problem. Escape through the gaps, copy-pasting whatever common law is useful.

Nation-states – perhaps a few nice exceptions aside – are not going to welcome climate refugees with open arms. But as the refugee cities group point out, they might be convinced a charter city is better than a camp.