What I’m about to tell you is part of the painful slashing and burning you need to undertake in order to live an authentic life. It’s maybe the most important essay I’ve ever written. It’s longer than usual (around 2600 words), but if this idea is new to you, it might change your life. It certainly changed mine.
The society into which you were born has socialized you to believe to your core that its structure is inevitable, and moreover that it is “correct” in both a practical and moral sense.
This is a lie.
But who is the one lying to you? How did the system come to exist? If it’s a lie, what’s the truth?
A Conspiracy of None
There’s no cabal who enslaves you. No master plan to keep you docile and breeding. It’s natural selection operating on not a biological level, but a social level.
Social evolution selects the social structures that can self sustain within the environment of global politics, i.e. the environment formed by the other surviving social structures.
It’s a “conspiracy” with no conspirators. In fact, we are all part of the conspiracy, because the conspiracy to keep us fearful and obedient emerges as a consequence of everyone doing whatever they were doing already. No individual understands or controls it, they just behave naturally. Given the constraints of brains, beliefs, and environment, the “conspiracy” emerges through the collective interactions of billions of people.
The Birth of the Status Quo
The status quo exists because of arbitrary limitations on our biology and environment combine to form incentives that compete to produce the outcomes you see. The “status quo conspiracy” exists because the Nash Equilibrium of incentives sustains it.
Nash Equilibrium and Stability
The Nash Equilibrium is a state in game theory in which all the players of a game play optimally given the strategy of the other players.
John Forbes Nash, the namesake of the Nash Equilibrium, was immortalized in the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind.
Facts about Nash Equilibriums:
- Nash Equilibriums optimize each individual’s strategy in the game, but don’t necessarily optimize the whole game.
That means that if the players all got together and agreed on an alternate strategy, they could “win” more. An example is a group of competing businesses coming together to form a cartel. Now instead of profiting almost nothing because competition drives the price down, they can all agree to sell at a certain, higher price at which everyone in the cartel makes more money overall. This is exactly what OPEC does with oil.
- Nash Equilibriums aren’t necessarily stable—sometimes the incentives for the individual players tend to undermine the whole game until that game collapses.
Think of the recent economic collapse: the players in that game had every incentive to keep selling subprime mortgages, and no individual player could stop the spiral without agreeing on that strategy with all the other players (which didn’t and probably couldn’t have happened). As a result, the unstable structure of the financial system collapsed.
- Despite Nash Equilibriums not necessarily being stable, most of the systems you see on a day to day basis are stable.
This is natural selection. Because of natural selection, the organisms in the world around you are able to propagate their species despite the overwhelming odds against any arbitrary cell structure being able to survive and reproduce. Similarly, most of the systems around you are stable despite the overwhelming odds that any given group of people, especially a large group, will implode.
The Structure of the Status Quo
Each ring within “Natural Selection” in the illustration above is like an organism unto itself: it can live, die, grow, consume, produce, reproduce, combine, split, communicate—everything a biological organism can do. The main difference between a biological organism and a larger structure as that as of this writing in 2010 we as organisms cannot change ourselves during our lifetime. We can only change as a species over time by recombining our DNA through sexual reproduction. The larger structures can grow teeth and wings without dying first.
The status quo is all about these structures interacting at various levels. Let’s start near the bottom, with your body and its parts.
You form a physical structure: your body. The individual parts of your structure are important, but only insofar as they support the overall structure.
The skin on your feet, for example, would benefit from not being walked on, but the overall structure benefits from walking, so the needs of your feet skin are ignored. When the skin on your feet is damaged and unable to serve the system, then (and only then) will the system (you) stop to help the feet skin with medical attention, and only to the degree that it benefits the system.
It’s not in your interests to give your feet a life of comfort, but it is in your interests to keep them healthy enough to carry you places and not cause you pain.
Even important parts of the system can be sacrificed to save the overall system. For example, your leg is caught under a boulder while hiking on a remote trail. Normally you want to keep and care for your leg because having it is beneficial. High on that mountain trail though, the whole system is in jeopardy. The leg has to go.
This is a trait shared with the larger structures: the individual parts of a structure are only cared for insofar as they serve the interests of the structure. If their needs don’t affect the system, the system does nothing. If the parts jeopardize the system, the part goes.
Where the Similarity Breaks Down
We could review ad nauseum all the parallels between legs and the working class, between leadership structures and the brain, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. The point is that these structures behave like organisms competing to survive.
All that having been said, humans do differ from their individual parts and from social structures in a fundamental way. Unlike a cell, and unlike a body politic, you are conscious.
Muscle tissue, organs, feet—they have no subjective experience. They are entirely physical, to be treated as tools. But you are a mental creature. You, above your family, above your government, are an intrinsically psychological entity, defined by the continuity of your own consciousness.
So despite the larger structures treating you as if you are physical tissue to be used and disposed of, you are not, in fact, a tool. You, human, can choose to be more.
You, and organisms with similar consciousness, are an anomaly in the hierarchy of naturally selected structures: every other level of that hierarchy, cells and governments alike, exists to serve you.
They don’t serve because of a moral imperative. They don’t serve by the design of some external creator. The structures exist because they were selected to exist by the arbitrary laws of physics. Despite the weighty pressure of social evolution conspiring to keep you and everyone else in line, you alone in the hierarchy of these structures have the power to choose how to exist–to opt out of the larger structure.
Your Role in the Game
The larger structures behave exactly like your body in that individual parts are only cared for insofar as the structure needs them. The game of evolution is played among structures at all levels of the hierarchy, mostly excluding those below and above them.
Of course it’s more complex than that: every structure, large or small, influences and interacts with those above and below it, but not usually in a direct way. Families wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t require pair bonding to produce viable offspring. In that sense individuals interact with families by comprising part of the environmental conditions that formed families to begin with. However, inter-family politics operate at a level only incidentally connected to biological facts like sexual pair bonding.
Yes, families and governments are influenced by their constituent parts, just like humans are influenced by having opposable thumbs. Still, inter-family interactions are separate from the individuals who comprise the family, just like human interactions are related to, but separate from, the fact of opposable thumbs.
The bigger the hierarchical distance between two structures, the less one has direct influence on the other. Like a person in a country, or a cell in a body, most parts have negligible effect on the whole.
You are not a Player
It’s imperative to understand that you are probably not a player in the global game. You are part of a smaller structure that itself plays that game. Our families, classes, institutions, countries, alliances are all vying to optimize their place within the Nash equilibrium. On average, individual people hardly play the game at all.
And that’s the best news you could’ve heard. If the system is optimized for larger structures than you as an individual, that means you as an individual are free to move laterally through the game. As long as you don’t perturb the larger players, you have absolute freedom because your “moves” aren’t constrained by the positions or strategies of other players because the other players don’t even perceive you.
The Art of Moving Laterally
The way you move through the system laterally is by looking for root causes: if there is a rule, it exists to create systemic incentives. You can violate the rule as long as you don’t violate the underlying reason—the root cause—of the rule.
Often the rules that are meant to control structures are applied to the parts of the structure, not to the structure itself.
It’s like an arena with a bunch of simple robots that all follow the rules:
If you find a wall, turn at a random angle, then continue moving forward.
If you find another robot, then stop.
These three rules applied to robots in an arena form the structure of a tightly packed group of robots that are not moving. There’s no rule that says “robots in the arena have to be tightly packed in a group”—the structure of the tight pack simply emerges from the rules that the robots follow individually.
But remember: unlike robot arenas, there’s no designer, no moral imperative for the structure to be the way it is—whether we’re talking about society or packs of robots. If one robot is broken and wanders aimlessly, there’s still a tightly packed group of robots in the arena. If one person lives a free and happy life, the economic machine keeps chugging on the fuel of wage slavery.
How to Spot A Rule to Ignore
Here’s how to spot a rule that is really meant for the structure but that applies itself to parts of the structure: look for the phrase “If everyone did that…” as in:
Rebel: I’m going to print a couple million dollars in fake currency.
Square: If everyone did that, our society would collapse.
This is a true fact about the structure of our system: if everyone printed money there would be hyper inflation and our system would collapse, harming everyone in it. But you, dear rebel, are not constrained by this fact, because you, individually, printing modest sums of cash, will not cause any material harm to the system, or to the human beings inside the system. The rule is that individuals can’t print money, but the root cause only applies to the structure.
So you ask yourself: will I personally cause a system failure by violating this rule?
The answer is no: the law against counterfeiting technically applies to you, but the root cause doesn’t apply to you, so ignore the rule if you figure out how.
If you do figure out a way to print money on the order of a couple million dollars without being detected, then you accrue significant benefit to yourself personally, while doing absolutely no harm to the system.
If you have alarm bells going off in your head that tell you that sounds wrong, remember, even though we’re heavily socialized to believe otherwise, the system has no underlying moral imperative. If you break the system without harming those within it, then you’re done nothing wrong.
This is truly a case in which no crime has been committed unless you get caught. If you get caught then you tend to destabilize the system, and so you must be punished to form the correct disincentive to counterfeit. Game over for you.
Let me make it clear though: this isn’t an overture for you to behave criminally. Instead take it as permission to question social convention. To look more deeply at the rules you live by and figure out if you’re constrained by conventions that shouldn’t apply to you, but that you never thought to question before. Are you sure you want financial success? Are you sure you want monogamy? Are you sure you want to make babies, even though orphanages overflow and our species pushes the planet to the brink of disaster? It’s net beneficial for our country if you make strong babies, but is it the right choice for you?
The Consequences of Moving Laterally
Moving laterally is not easy though. Every moving part of the structures is placed in a sort of social gridlock, each preventing the other from forging ahead. Your brain is awash in bullshit. Your family wants you to “succeed” by which they mean “act normal”. Your government uses the threat of physical violence to constrain your actions. Even your friends, when confronted with your changing attitudes, will tell you’re naive, unrealistic, or immoral—they will badger you to stay the same.
None of them do it out of malice. It’s a conspiracy of none—the structures exist because they were naturally selected for their stability, and that stability locks you into place.
You have to unravel your fettered mind, probably unravel and disconnect from your social circle, stop self-identifying with the government.
You may lose a lot—comfort, safety, belonging. In return you’ll gain more. You’ll find new friends who understand you and a new family who loves you, if that’s what you desire. You’ll find power, authenticity, and meaning.
Call to Freedom
We are socialized into thinking the system is inevitable and righteous, but it’s not—it’s a partially designed, partially organic hodgepodge. It’s disconnected the welfare of humanity as a whole, and especially disconnected from your personal welfare.
I’m begging you: please find it in your heart and mind to let it go. To see it for what it is. To ignore it when necessary, to game it when possible.
To live freely you must adopt an attitude of social nihilism: our society and culture is completely arbitrary. It has no meaning beyond itself. It has no underlying moral imperative. Statements about the way things are have no bearing on the way things ought to be.
Those fortunate to be comfortable enough to ponder such things say that the system is as fair as we can make it—that it provides the most net happiness for everyone, so we shouldn’t mess with it. Whether they are correct or not is beside the point. Whether or not it’s in our systemic interest to incentivize people to be docile and productive, it’s never in your personal interest to lay down quietly.
You were born ferocious and petulant. Reconnect with your roots; reconnect with a time when the concept of masking your inner desires hadn’t occurred to you. You must become a predator not of people, but of the system. The system has a body all its own. Sink your fangs into it, tear its flesh, suck it dry—being careful all the while not to harm any of the others within.
All around you’ll see people going about their lives in a way that isn’t right for them, but that’s oh-so-right for the system at large. They do it because they are socialized to self identify with the social structures they are part of and to act in the interest of those structures. You know better now. You know that you can opt out. You see that the incentives ensure most of the herd will do its best to optimize for the system and not for themselves, but you know that the fate of the structure does not rest on your individual contribution.
Human: the world is yours. If you are wise enough to see it through the social fog, and courageous enough to grab it, then it belongs to you.
The world is yours. Take it.