Hierarchy, McCloskey, and Moldbug

I was on vacation last week, and as usual on vacation the thought struck- what am I really paying for? Undoubtedly, the beach or the city, the ski slope or The Thing You Came to See, figure into it somewhere, but somewhere also, more often or not, is that you are paying for other people to do the things you would normally do for yourself- do the dishes or make the beds, drive the car or fix the drink. They may do it better or worse than you would yourself, but you are paying for service, for a sort of hierarchy.

This doesn’t mean that you are actually in any way deserving of deference because you are shelling out the dough; it is a role you take on as part of the exchange- the magnanimous purchaser whose expectations and aesthetics the cab ride or cocktail or hotel room must meet. A vacationer might adopt a contrarian aesthetic, seeking out the gritty and the “authentic” rather than the polished or obsequious, but that too is part of the exchange. “I went to Paris last August and everyone was so rude,” since Parisians in August know they too have a role to play.

We’ve incorporated these relationships of service, more or less, into market exchange, into day to day purchases or occasional extravagances or, for a few people still, into hiring others for ongoing employment. But relationships of deference and service, only liminally governed by market exchange, were a much more pervasive part of preindustrial life. As much as 60% of the adult population in Early Tudor England lived in “service” in another person’s house; in other societies of the time, feudal relationships were even more static and inescapable.

I think this is how to understand Mencius Moldbug/Curtis Yarvin’s blog: as a fantasy of restoring the relationships of hierarchy and duty that characterized the world before capitalism, while keeping the wealth that capitalism brings.* It’s not accidental that Moldbug begins his narrative of The Descent of Man from the Jacobite ideal at the same time and place that, for example, Deirdre McCloskey begins her narrative of The Triumph of Bourgeois Equality and the rise of industrial capitalism, in early 17th century Northwestern Europe. These are identical processes.

There is loss, of course, as nonmarket relationships, governed by hierarchy, obligation, and service, are converted into the atomized world of exchange. And I worry that the internal world of the family is gradually, too, laid bare before the market, allowing each of us his or her chance at self-expression while destabilizing what were once enduring relationships. (I don’t think I’m being presumptuous in seeing a connection between McCloskey’s own personal story of self-transformation and family dissolution and the broader saga of individual actualization through capitalism that she began publishing at the same time– I think she sees them as connected and in parallel, too.)

And in the meantime, if Mencius/Curtis is nostalgic for hierarchy, perhaps he can go on vacation.

*Moldbug also runs into the problem of longing for hierarchy and deference between nations and peoples as well as within them. That’s why he got into so much trouble for the Carlyle essay, of course. I think he’s wronger on this point, but he also tried to talk around the issue in his half-Apologia last month rather than addressing it head on.

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