e. j. wang

On decadence

Continued from part 2.

3a. Somebody else’s problem

Что делать?

Marc Andreessen has an essay up with the rather aggressive title “IT’S TIME TO BUILD.” The essay is a reasonably well-executed jeremiad about the stagnation of Western institutions across the board. None of the points in it are especially new. But as a panoptic account of the various institutional failures brought to light by the coronavirus, it is exceedingly timely.

As a venture capitalist, Andreessen has a front-row seat to the creeping mold in even America’s most productive sector. And through his experience he has grasped America’s problem: that it is sclerotic, complacent. It does not do enough, does not create enough. We are all stuck in comfortable megacorporations and government bureaucracies, producing two or three bits a day.

We have heard similar critiques along the same lines from Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, and Peter Thiel. Insofar as the tech industry has a distinct intellectual center, it consists of a ragtag alliance of techno-utopian national conservatives who have believed for a relatively long time now that stagnation and rot are the order of the day. But the rank and file, the Google APMs and the Tsinghua grads, have never been particularly close to this center. Perhaps it takes a global crisis and a rousing call to action from a central, (relatively) acceptable figure like Marc Andreessen to do the trick.

But probably not.

Because it was circulated primarily on Twitter, most people’s impression of Andreessen’s piece was conditioned to an equal extent by its metadata preview image (shown above) as by its actual content. This hideous picture is demoralizing at best and horrific at worst. It is enough to pull back the veil over an ostensibly inspirational vision and reveal the ultimately disappointing nature of its critique.

We already know we are fucked. We all know that something must be done. But we have no clue what. This has been the case for longer than any of us could have expected. The past decade (to say nothing of those preceding) is full of situations where everyone has been aware that something must be done, but nobody has taken action. In some cases — “ethics in tech” comes to mind — many people have made an entire living talking about the importance of solutions without ever attempting to produce one.

It is not an inclination to grift that produces such people. It is the simple fact that our society’s broken kingmaking mechanism produces elites quickly, while its low-entropy production mechanism produces original thoughts slowly. Everyone is starved for ideas. In Silicon Valley, they are positively desperate. Proclaim with a straight face in a Menlo Park café that “great ideas are a dime a dozen” and see how many dirty looks you get from the clientele.

We want to build. We want to become a nation of builders. The air is charged, the thunderbolt ready. But what path shall it take? What are we to build, exactly? That horrific abomination of a city?

Andreessen presents his essay as a positive vision. It is framed as an exhortation to the left and right to embrace a new political agenda of action. He issues a challenge to the right —

It’s time for full-throated, unapologetic, uncompromised political support from the right for aggressive investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.

— and to the left.

Show that new models of public sector healthcare can be inexpensive and effective — how about starting with the VA? When the next coronavirus comes along, blow us away! Even private universities like Harvard are lavished with public funding; why can’t 100,000 or 1 million students a year attend Harvard? Why shouldn’t regulators and taxpayers demand that Harvard build? Solve the climate crisis by building — energy experts say that all carbon-based electrical power generation on the planet could be replaced by a few thousand new zero-emission nuclear reactors, so let’s build those. Maybe we can start with 10 new reactors? Then 100? Then the rest?

Insofar as his ideas hold more content than “doing more things,” he is more than accomodating of disagreement, provided that the disagreement comes with things to build:

I expect this essay to be the target of criticism. Here’s a modest proposal to my critics. Instead of attacking my ideas of what to build, conceive your own! What do you think we should build? There’s an excellent chance I’ll agree with you.

This gives the lie to the essay’s conceit. It reveals that its core is its negative critique and that its positive content is negotiable (hence undetermined). Now, I love reading negative critiques. This one in particular was quite well executed; I can see how this might be the one that finally shakes Silicon Valley out of its ideological slumber. But I have seen too many other calls for action to seriously expect anything more to come of it.

It is not enough that we be called to action. We must be called to war.

3b. War and the Determinative State

The essence of the modern state is the union of the universal with the full freedom of the particular, and with the welfare of individuals.1

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.2

War reorganizes the determinative capacities of a constitutional state. In peacetime, the bulk of our capacity for determination is captured by the corporations we work for. The state, through which we are allegedly able to control our own destiny, asks of us only for a single bit (Republican or Democrat?) every two years. But in a war, particularly a war in which the economy is mobilized, the determinative capacities of corporations are subordinated to the interests of the state, and by proxy the interests of the political community.

In wartime and immediately after, a constitutional authority is capable of exerting its sovereignty in ways that it cannot in peacetime. In particular, it is capable of directing civilian effort towards activities that are not obviously profitable. In doing so, the state accomplishes two things: first, it provides the majority of the determination required to specify an endeavor; second, it completely absorbs the risk of failure in this endeavor. For a scientist or a technologist, attaching oneself to the “market inefficiency” of the wartime sovereign can be a very profitable endeavor.

The most obvious example of this is the Manhattan Project. The project which was initially instigated by a 1939 letter to FDR from Leo Szilard, who clearly perceived the scientific opportunity inherent in the war. Once the project was underway, the director of the project undertook several spending decisions that the public would have seen as excessive even in wartime. First, the government bet that a sustained fission chain reaction was possible. Based on this bet, it funded the design of two different types of bombs, U-235 and plutonium, as well as a number of reactor sites meant to test and implment each of the most promising candidate methods for manufacturing either U-235 or plutonium. The enormous amount of scientific uncertainty, which typically had to be overcome by gradual experimentation, was simply bulldozed by the sovereign will, which spent billions to remove as much of this uncertainty as possible.

World War II made America a technological superpower. It made nuclear technology. It made Silicon Valley. It made enough new materials and technologies to bring us out of a depression and into the peacetime prosperity of the three following decades. It accomplished this by supplying determination — by using government intervention to concentrate the national will within a narrow search space within which action and even exhaustive searching was possible. War makes a lightning rod of the sovereign; it makes every “somebody else’s problem” the sovereign’s problem. Hegel writes3:

War is the state of affairs which deals in earnest with the vanity of temporal goods and concerns — a vanity at other times a common theme of edifying sermonising. This is what makes it the moment in which the ideality of the particular attains its right and is actualised. War has the higher significance that by its agency, as I have remarked elsewhere, ‘the ethical health of peoples is preserved in their indifference to the stabilisation of finite institutions; just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm, so also corruption in nations would be the product of prolonged, let alone ‘perpetual’, peace.’ This, however, is said to be only a philosophic idea, or, to use another common expression, a ‘justification of Providence’, and it is maintained that actual wars require some other justification.

[…]

In peace civil life continually expands; all its departments wall themselves in, and in the long run men stagnate. Their idiosyncrasies become continually more fixed and ossified. But for health the unity of the body is required, and if its parts harden themselves into exclusiveness, that is death.

In peace we grow undetermined; we wallow in our freedom, never actualizing it outside ourselves. Our friend pmarca certainly knows this. Many people — far more than would admit — have been awaiting a great crisis, “praying to Yellowstone’s magma chamber,” so to speak, in the hope of beating sluggish flesh to life. Pmarca’s gamble is that the coronavirus pandemic is that crisis.

That may be the case; it’s too soon to tell. But there is reason to believe that it won’t be the case. War, as Hegel observes, has a third function that the pandemic does not: it reminds us who we are.

3c. The Dicethrow

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.4

I have confronted theoretical positions whose protagonists claim that what I take to be historically produced characteristics of what is specifically modern are in fact the timelessly necessary characteristics of all and any moral judgment, of all and any selfhood.5

In this piece we have covered a lot of ground. We began — again — by examining choice in the abstract with an eye toward the problem of starting a company. With the tools of information theory, we formalized this task in the equation D = R + C + W. Using this equation, we arrived at the fundamental dilemma of Zero to One—that none of the components seemed powerful enough to complete the circuit and discharge its potential.

So we stepped back from this problem in the individual case and looked at how this problem has been surmounted historically. We examined the determinative assembly-line of the modern corporation and the slow havoc it has wreaked on our capacity for independent action. We saw a world beset by decadence, where ideas and solutions are few and far between. And we have arrived at the conclusion that war is the mechanism by which this decadence had historically been purged. What on earth are we to do now?

It would be unconscionable to start a war today for the pure sake of determination. But we may aim to replicate the effect of war on an individual scale. War causes the individual to understand himself not as an individual in the abstract but as an element of a nation. It causes him to rally around his sovereign, but this sovereign represents something about the individual of which he may only have been dimly aware. Confronted with a foreign will that would destroy it, the individual comes to determine itself through this confrontation, overcoming his initial undetermination.

We may call Sartre’s existentialism the ultimate expression of undetermination — or “radical freedom,” as he would call it. Against Sartre we must array all the things that bind and differentiate us: our origins, our beliefs, our culture, our quirks, our strengths and weaknesses — in short, our narrative. In understanding ourselves we must discard our abstract understanding of ourselves as “individuals” and affirm everything that makes us different — everything for which we might go to war.

Lightning will strike when you can marshal the preexisting facts of your life — the dicethrow — into a unified narrative that constrains the space of possibility. It will strike when you understand yourself as distinct from others, to the point where you know which options you can realistically take, and hence which other options you can discard. When you affirm the randomness that has created you and reject the randomness of the lottery, you transmute randomness into will, and you arrive invariably at determination.


  1. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 260, trans. Dyde 

  2. Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. Schwab 

  3. Hegel § 324 

  4. Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. Mairet 

  5. MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 35