Alice and Bob Discover Capitalism

Capitalism has historically been defined by its opponents rather than its proponents, and in terms of its consequences rather than its mechanisms. Specifically, it tends to get defined primarily in terms of its intended malicious effects and unintended/unaccounted damaging effects: oppression and social costs.

To navigate by such definitions is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the beast, so I want to propose a definition of capitalism (or if you prefer a less loaded term, commerce) in terms what I will argue is its essential mechanism:

Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.

In practice, capitalism often operates with directness and violence, but the point of this definition is to get at the sine qua non that distinguishes it from other societal mechanisms. The role of “capital” is actually peripheral, since capital plays a role in defining the mechanisms of politics, kinship and war too.

The central fact about the mechanism of capitalism is that it needs neither capacity for direct action on a system, nor violent means, to influence it. This is not just a claim about an idealized model of capitalism: it is a claim about the real thing. Capitalism in our world has arguably gotten less direct and less violent over time. Today the visible motif that best captures the spirit of capitalism is not the East India Company warship, but advertising: messaging mechanisms that work to shape the background context of decisions.

Let me attempt an exegesis of my definition with a parable about the It Couple of geekdom, Alice and Bob.

Alice and Bob have a deep, cryptic bond based on priceless values nobody else understands. Outsiders can observe, but not decipher, their relationship. As best as outsiders can tell, theirs is a closed world. They live on a self-sustaining farm and do not trade with the outside world. They speak a language only the two of them know, and entirely refuse to communicate with the outside world.

Sociologists speculate, based on spy camera footage, that the Alice-Bob homestead runs on a purely Guardian system of ethics, impenetrable to, and untrusting of, outsiders, with nothing resembling a financial system. Any direct intrusion by outsiders into their private affairs provokes a war-like response from Alice and Bob.

At best, outsiders can observe when Alice and Bob are warming up or cooling off towards each other, based on the intensity of their communication.

Enter Charlie the Capitalist, or as socialist critics like to call him, Slightly Evil Chuck. Chuck runs entirely on the Commerce system of ethics. To socialists, the only thing that prevents Chuck from being Totally Evil is that he never employs violence in pursuit of commerce, and never directly intrudes where he is asked not to. His friends call him Opt-In Chuck.

Chuck is cheerful, peace-loving, quick to trust, quick to forgive, and above all, driven by curiosity, openness and an explorative spirit. Having made his fortune as a top salesman, Chuck prides himself on his ability to befriend anybody, and sell them something. To him, Alice and Bob are a personal challenge. He already knows that any direct overtures will provoke violence. He is also no cryptographer, and decides right away to not eavesdrop on their communications or attempt to decipher the Alice-Bob language.

Instead, he sets to work indirectly, by shaping the context of the Alice-Bob relationship with a growing number of choices. He does not even bother to curate the choices for salience, since he has chosen to know nothing about Alice and Bob (he is what I call a Slow Marketer). Opt-In Chuck just focuses on creating an arbitrary environment of accumulating choices at loci that do not infringe on Alice and Bob’s claimed territory.

He sets up a store to sell lemonade just outside their homestead. He gets his friends to set up other stores to sell other things like beads, books, Netflix subscriptions, telescopes and macadamia nut pies. He gets other friends (he has lots of friends) to advertise work opportunities outside the Alice-Bob farm. One friend sets up a sign that says “Experienced carpenter wanted, $15 an hour.” Another puts up a sign that says, “Wanted: PHP programmers, $70/hour.”

Within a few months, Chuck has an entire town up and running around the Alice-Bob homestead. Being a South Park fan with sense of humor, he names the town Sodosopa. He develops a condo building in Sodosopa called the Mansions of the Gods.

One day, Alice and Bob have a big fight. At least, that’s what it looks like to rubbernecking types outside. There is an intense burst of communication followed by hours of silence.

Then Bob wanders to the gate of the farm, and says his first-ever words to the outside world.

“What’s a macadamia nut?”

***

Understood through the lens of this parable, capitalism is not an ideology. It is the inevitable opening up of closed relationships due to the continuous emergence of more options in the environment outside the relationship zone.

To understand why, consider the concept of an idealized, self-sustaining relationship between two or more human beings that exists entirely within an impenetrable boundary. In such a system of relationships (an ideal tribe, analogous to an ideal gas, defined entirely by a beautiful Graberian nexus of relationships), all the dynamics must be internally contained. Assuming Alice and Bob need each other to survive, there is no such thing as a finite game (in either the game-theoretic or Carsean sense) within their relationship.

If Alice gets mad at Bob, there is really no option but to eventually make up with him and continue the relationship. There is no winning or losing for either of them. Their only option is to continue playing until death doth them part.

Alice and Bob, in this system, can only enjoy individual choice to the extent that behaviors they choose do not provoke punishment from the other.

In a very literal sense, the Alice-Bob system is an indivisible unit bound by an unbreakable infinite game, characterized by many conserved quantities (so it is conservative in both the physics and politics senses).

From the outside, it seems like a black-hole relationship zone behind a social event horizon, from which no free behaviors can escape. All of Alice’s behaviors concern Bob and only Bob. All of Bob’s behaviors concern Alice and only Alice. For a stronger version, we can assume that there are no Bob behaviors that do not concern Alice, and vice-versa. Each is entirely defined by the relationship with the other.

But the moment you allow that no real community can be this kind of black hole, the possibility that behaviors can leak becomes real.

A behavioral leak is any sustainable behavior on the part of either Alice or Bob that either can unilaterally choose, without fear of consequences from the other. This means turning some strand of their relationship into a finite game, by cashing out a temporary advantage through a permanent break, enabled by a latent choice in the background context.

This requires a defection in the sense of game theory (or exit, in the sense of Hirschman), and the archetypal mode of defection from a closed guardian system is trade with a stranger with whom one has no history.

This might happen, for example, through this sort of episode inside the Alice-Bob system (translated from the Alice-Bob language):

Alice: Take out the garbage.

Bob: I’m tired, do it yourself.

Alice: So you don’t want pecan pie for dessert tonight, I see.

Bob: Go to hell, I can always eat those macadamia nut pies those guys outside have.

Alice: Ha, right, with what money? We don’t have the dollars the evil outsiders use.

Bob: Oh yeah? I’m going to earn some. One of those guys outside wants a carpenter.

Alice: What? You promised to repair the dining table first!

Bob: Hah! Good luck with that.

The point of this exchange is that Bob could unilaterally break an illegible strand of mutual expectations concerning household chores. Chuck did not need to actively intrude (violently or otherwise) in order to engineer this break, or decrypt the Alice-Bob internal language. Merely presenting a sufficiently rich set of options for production and consumption in the environment was sufficient. Given enough time and non-zer0 variance in the Alice-Bob relationship strength, eventually one of them will defect from at least some small part of their all-consuming and illegible infinite-game relationship.

In other words, by creating an environment of meaningful choices, Chuck helped Bob put a price on the priceless, and make a decision about terminating an infinite game in an irreversible way.

This sort of behavioral leakage from nominally closed relationship systems is as inevitable as the second law of thermodynamics. If the boundary of a relationship is even slightly open, it has the potential to leak and weaken over time.

The only way it cannot is if there is a faster process deepening the relationship from the inside. As a result, the aspirational idea of deepening relationships is the central and defining element of guardian societies (there is a second, less plausible way: Alice and Bob making indefinitely increasing claims on their environment. For instance, they could have objected, violently, to Chuck growing the town of Sodosopa outside their homestead, by claiming damage to their scenic view, as would have been the case had they been home-owning NIMBYs in San Francisco, or xenophobic inhabitants of the planet Krikkit).

As something of an existentialist, I am skeptical of the indefinitely deepening-relationship idea (and perhaps more importantly, have no desire for such relationships). I suspect every relationship will eventually find its maximum depth, at which point, behavioral leaks will take over.

There’s probably some sort of metaphoric particle decay type theory in there. Maybe Romeo-and-Juliet stories are about proton decay.

Anyhoo.

The idea that capitalism is an inevitable and unavoidable asymptote, rather than an ideology that only exists while there are people championing it, is profound and highly distasteful to humanists everywhere (whom I will henceforth define as “people who believe in the possibility of relationships that can endlessly deepen faster than the environment can offer up destabilizing choices”).

Capitalism is not an ideology pursued deliberately by some to “defeat” those who live by other ideologies. It is a condition imperfectly closed societies default to in the presence of increasing choice in the environment, usually created either through the actions of outsiders or natural changes.

Actually, you don’t even need natural changes in the external unclaimed environment or a Chuck in the story. Unpredictable internal changes (curiosity driven by boredom) are sufficient. Bob would eventually have wandered off even if nothing had changed outside their homestead. Eve did not need the serpent to tempt her.

There can be no such thing as a human mind without a minimal level of restlessness, any more than there can be a vacuum without fluctuations. The Buddhist aspirational state of complete inner stillness and emptiness is about as real as the idea of indefinitely deepening relationships.

I introduced the Chuck character to personify capitalism, but not only is Chuck unnecessary, he is impossible. Real humans never completely accept the commerce system of ethics in the idealized way Chuck does, but they do differ in the strength of their guardian instincts. As a result, the weakest guardians in a strongly tribal system will likely be the first ones to behaviorally “leak” out into a neighboring weaker tribal system, triggering the process of accumulating environmental optionality.

This is the reason ideologies tend to be highly varied, but capitalism, wherever it takes root, tends to mostly embody a single uber-value: freedom.

This is not a result of conscious ideological choice by players of the capitalism game. Freedom in the sense of capitalism (as opposed to freedom in the sense of freedom fighter) is simply any new behavior that irreversibly breaks some strand of an infinite game defining some relationship.

  • Leaving your parents’ home to live as an independent adult is such a choice.
  • A fifth son leaving an ancestral village governed by primogeniture, to seek a fortune in the city, is such a choice.
  • Splitting a check accurately at a restaurant is such a choice.
  • Working harder to get a raise so you can hire a cleaning service instead of arguing with your spouse about chores is such a choice.

Ironically, this means that the most strident advocates of capitalism are actually strong Guardians, attached to particular functional forms of markets, organizations or legal systems, peculiar to specific times and places in history (this is the reason, in my map, I have market fundamentalists deep inside Guardian territory, marked by the Efficient Market Temple in the lower left).  The most ardent champions of capitalism today, from the startup tribe of Silicon Valley, are among the strongest Guardian-tribal types I’ve ever met.

Passionate Guardian capitalists, I’ve found, are unable to truly enjoy things like the hilarious Libertarian Police Department story, or this Fry & Laurie sketch from Series 2, Episode 5, criticizing the idea that the increasing choice is a good thing (see for example, this tedious response by Conor Friedersdorf to the LPD sketch, or this pedantic-economist take on the Fry & Laurie sketch in the Financial Times).

This sort of thing reveals a deeper truth about capitalism: the workings of advertising and increasing choice are part of the natural, irresistible physics of behavior leakage from closed relationship systems. Even if you abjure violence and uninvited intervention, capitalism still wins in the long term. Even if there are no capitalist priests proclaiming free-market manifestos from Libertarian think tanks, capitalism still wins.

It just doesn’t win quickly enough to suit market fundamentalists in their own Alice-Bob style homesteads. Attempting to accelerate capitalism is as much a Guardian act as attempting to slow it down. Both require non-trivial levels of violence and direct intervention.

I have been thinking about this proposition — that capitalism can only be significantly accelerated in non-capitalist ways — a lot lately. “Natural” capitalism, so to speak, operates without ideological championship or abstraction. By drawing the Alices and Bobs of the world outside their cryptic cultural redoubts, it gradually weakens all closed communities and wires them up into one large community, connected through commerce.

Capitalism only stops where there is nobody to trade with and nothing to trade. If there is somebody, capitalism eventually figures out how to make an offer that cannot be refused. Where there is nobody to trade with, but there is something to trade, it simply expands its reach at a rate limited only by the rate of scientific discovery.

By definition there can be no Pope of capitalism, authoritatively declaring what it stands for in terms of values. There can no Vatican or Mecca. When it comes to a defense of capitalism, as Al Qaeda discovered after 9/11, there is no there there to defend (and therefore nowhere to attack), and more importantly, no definable place from which to defend it.

So the twist in my tale is this: Alice and Bob are Chuck.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Well done!

    This also explains nicely why everyone except the Guardians of capitalism seem to hate capitalism: almost all violations of local sacredness will be those enabled by the expansion of capitalist networks. Even if each subgroup had their sacredness violated in a different way, they can all agree that the problem was capitalism.

    Also interesting to note that polyamory is capitalist in this view, which most poly folks would probably find horrifying.

    • Paul Fredric says:

      “Also interesting to note that polyamory is capitalist in this view, which most poly folks would probably find horrifying.”

      Except for Ayn Rand.

  2. I stopped reading (temporarily) at your definition, which doesn՚t match any model of capitalism I have.

    The rest of your post seems to be about trade or markets or freedom or the transition from tribalism to larger cultures, all of which are not the same thing as capitalism, though they are related.

    So maybe there are some good ideas there about how guardian/trader mentalities work in practice, but they are hard to see because that big C-word brings in all sorts of connotations and reactions that don՚t match your thesis. I don’t want to open up a boring argument about what capitalism really is or isn’t, but I’d pick a different word just for clarity.

    For something in a related vein, I recommend The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine. His terms for guardian/trader are Appollonian/Mercurian, and identifies certain ethnic groups (primarily he talks about Jews, but overseas Chinese and other groups also fit the bill, so it՚s a general theory) with the latter term. Some discussion here.

    • I have very little use for those definitions since they don’t help answer any questions I find interesting. And appropriating the territory those existing definition-maps cover is partly the point here. As you’ve probably recognized, that’s been part of my modus operandi for years. If people are forced to say “capitalism in the ribbonfarm sense” that’s a win for me :)

      I do think my definition leads to consistent understandings where existing models say meaningful things (I didn’t cover it, but my definition leads to a consistent overload of land-labor-capital models of factors of production, since I see them in terms of the agency they represent in crafting options), but much of what those models say I find to be increasingly vacuous.

      • This came to my head immediately as well: Markets and the idea of decontextualization of the value relationship is not a capitalist idea. Societies have been trading for thousands of years and to say the Persians for example were capitalist is historically and conceptually inadequate.

        Why do you chose to use “capitalism” specifically then? (I apologize because you probably answered this question at some point before but I am new to your blog – really like it btw)

        Thanks!

  3. This kind of seems to be begging the question, when you start with (paraphrasing) “I’m talking about capitalism, but without the capital”. If you ignore all the not very well informed proponents of capitalism (eg the organic food eating hipsters), the vast majority of arguments against capitalism are centered around the capital. I feel like you kind of realise this because you have to go to great lengths to remove any reality from your example (all this talk of “non evil capitalist” for example) in order for the argument to hold together. That’s pretty much the same argument you’ll hear from (say) a communist…yes, yes in theory everything works fine, if ONLY all those pesky people didn’t keep doing it wrong.

    I also feel like you’re making a common mistake of using the term capitalism to describe ANY form of trade. Remember trade and money existed for thousands of years before capitalist theories, and they’re not the one and the same.

    Lastly, I feel like you’re completely ignoring the extremely complex problem of property, which kind of ties in to capital (so this is kind of a corollary to my first complaint). Of course, I’m kind of assuming that you take property as axiomatic, at least for the purposes of this argument, so it’s just a minor complaint.

  4. I’m not making a mistake. I am deliberately conflating capitalism, trade and money. The idea that there is a meaningful historical distinction there is IMO a feature of specific ideologies, not a fact. Map, not territory. There is a moderately useful historical break between low-innovation pre-industrial economies and high-innovation industrial economies after 1800. Degree rather than kind.

    I am honestly puzzled by your one part of your comment. I am not going to great lengths to define a non-evil capitalist. That was a joke. I think *most* capitalists are not evil by my definition. The ones who are tend to use additional means (like guns against unions, or bribery) that are not useful to attribute to capitalism. Power corrupts all mechanisms. And yeah, I think the of myself as a capitalist. Even though the property or capital in the sense of “land, labor and capital” I deploy and accumulate is trivial, I think I use the same mechanisms as most capitalists, whatever the scale. I do think the idea of property is increasingly irrelevant. The Catholic Church is the biggest land owner, militaries control lots of territory, communist party leaders effectively “own” the land of the people.

    Ditto all property. It’s not a factor of production. It’s a factor of everything.

    I’ll be blogging more about these things, but I’m not going to particularly respectful of existing models, because they don’t work.

    Basically, I think definitions of capital by critics of capitalism are ill-posed, so an understanding of capitalism cannot be based on their definitions. Anymore than the terms of homeopathy are useful for a true appreciation of “allopathy” (the name for mainstream medicine homeopaths use).

    • Thanks for replying and clarifying your thoughts. :)

      When I talk about your “non-evil capitalist conceit”, what I mean is that I find the idea of a non-intrusive capitalist as completely non-believable, and I think that’s part of where the idea of capitalism falls down. The ability to be intrusive is in many ways a direct correlation to the amount of capital a person owns. Look at Rupert Murdoch for the perfect example. The argument you’re making, imo rests on the influence being balanced…so Bob is just as likely to be persuaded by Alice as Chuck, all other things being equal. But in reality this is simply not the case…an independent musician is not going to be able to compete with the record industry, just to use an example…and depending on your level of capital going in, this ranges anywhere from extremely successful, to making a living, to scraping by, to suffering in abject poverty.

      I will be interested to hear your alternative theories though, I look forward to it.

      • When you say “capitalist” you are thinking of a guy in a boardroom wearing a suit. When Venkat says “capitalist” he’s thinking of anyone exchanging anything of value in a non-closed relationship.

        • Pierre-Emil says:

          A capitalist is someone exerting power both economic and political through money. We are all capitalist in that sense but some of us are more capitalist than others. Capitalism is a nelief system in which exerting power both economic and political through money is defined as the central human relationship. It stands in opposition to any value system that values something above money.

          One of the fundamental beliefs of this system is the founding myth of enterprise. Retold (badly) above. Some people believe so strongly in these founding myths that they construct mathematical models to praise the gods and daily read these nonsensical numbers as an act of devotion.

          Only reason I can imagine why someone would do something so boring every morning.

  5. Sure, one can approach economical relations through options, preferences, the anarchy of the market etc. but one has to jump from there to the regime of property rights we are used to identify with capitalism. In a sense one cannot keep the violence out of capitalism because capitalism denotes our own specific legal and violent relationship to property. It isn’t simply Chuck but Chuck together with his lawyers, the state police and the creditors he is working for. You could implement all this options and freedom stuff GPL style which leads to a different legal regime, which is why capitalism, in principle at least, can be easily toppled. This doesn’t mean one can reduce contingent encounters or Bob leaving Alice or vice versa for a wider world.

  6. Pierre-Emil says:

    Sorry Venkat but Alice and Bob are included into the capitalist fold by force.

    Our dear mister Opt in Chuck does not allow anyone to opt out. Try to opt out and see how long it takes before the full might of the system comes crashing down unto you. This libertarian fantasy world of the autarky homestead bears no important parallel to actual events and serve only to muddy the waters about the conflicts that the intrusion of capitalism has had historically. Early capitalism was enterprise run by the state, late stage capitalism is a state run by the capitalist. The force of the state is basically what gives fiat currency any value.

    Secondly he does not have any friends since he did not earn the right to become a capitalist by his success in sales. The Capitalist is the one controlling the Capital, not the small time entrepreneur selling lemonade like a child. You seem to miss the distinct nature of being actual rich vs merely richer than Alice and Bob.

    Capitalism means rule by bankers.

    Very few people define it as such and view the system in a positive light. I’m going to say that capitalism has some merits, but I would prefer to live in a democracy.

    • I think you misunderstand what he means by capitalism, which is simply options other than the exact same set you have. Since markets don’t need a fiat currency to exist what you are saying is orthogonal to his point.

      Basically, he’s saying that capitalism has been around for all recorded history, not just since the industrial revolution.

      Also, I don’t see where you get the notion that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive options.

      • Pierre-Emil says:

        If you look at them closely one of them means rule by the People. The other means rule by the Bankers. There is a slight difference in appearance and a big difference in political outcome.

        Venkat imagines Capitalism as an economic system while I argue that it is a political system. The economic activity he describes takes place in a capitalistic society but that is in itself meaningless, because the very same activity also takes place in a communist state such as the USSR. All human societies maintain trade and commerce since trade and commerce are essentially human activities. Merely having commerce does not suffice to claim that a society is capitalistic unless we define all societies as capitalist. Which is fine but then the definition is literally meaningless. The only applicable use for this vague term might be to study the imagined behaviour of theoretical constructs inside a mental zoo such as in the example above. The study of theoretical people inside a mental petting zoo is normally referred to as economics. All conclusions drawn from the mental petting zoo are at best meaningless and harmless to the world at large and at their worst economically, emotionally and physically damaging to real people.

        Venkats definition of Capitalism very clearly defines a power relationship. The study of power relationships is the study of politics. Capitalism therefor describes a political system, not an economic system. Therefor it must be viewed in a political context. Further I believe it is morally and intellectually dishonest to decouple economic activity from its political context.

        This definition:

        “Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.”

        Is false. the key word here that I object to is peaceful. This is not even true on a day to day basis. A Capitalistic state such as the US (the shining example of “liberty”) regularly uses force to maintain the rule over the populace. A simple image search of “Police state” shows me a host of para-military organizations used to keep poor people in what is basically debt slavery and in many cases (many as in tens of thousands) deptors prison. This is not loon fringe theories found on the darkest parts of the internet. This is news. It is literally happening before our eyes.

        Of course this (the hunting of poor people by the state for economic gain) is connected with the fact that we live in a society where the rich do not pay taxes. To claim that this is not the case is not only stupid but also immoral. The force exerted by the system is not peaceful by any means and without it the manipulation of decision contexts would not be nearly as effective.

        The very definition of people as consumers instead of citizens is a political construct backed up by force. This violent background noise is looming even when people buy Colgate made by Johnson & Johnson.

        Hence why Venkat needs to regress his analysis back to a small pocket universe without any ties to actual reality. His Alice and Bob analysis may work out in his own head, but it has absolutely no meaning in the real world.

        The more troubling insight in all of this is that Venkat earlier did a brilliant piece on how the Capitalistic system work in his “The Office” series that was firmly based in analyzing the power relationships between those involved.

  7. The image this conjures for me – or the way I am reading this – looks something like an endless distribution of Guardian pocket universes, each formed by residents playing a local, finite game; they cannot see any borders to their pocket universes, because their Guardian cosmology leads them to believe there is no existence outside of them, and so their vision is finite and limited. In other words, from the outside, these pocket universes have obvious and clear borders, but from the inside, they are All There Is.

    Some Guardian pocket universes encompass entirely other, smaller Guardian pocket universes, and so those large-world Guardians can act as relative Commercialists (or Capitalists, in your sense?) to the small-world ones, presenting those smaller-worlders with new decision contexts simply by walking through their previously-invisible borders from the other side.

    And, at least in theory, true Commercialists wander the spaces between all of the pocket universes, in the “true” infinite universe that endlessly contains all the arbitrarily-bordered Guardian pockets. These free-wanderers, too, offer outside decision contexts (when they please) to the localized Guardians.

    Or, more often – as the conclusion of your post suggests – it is the Guardians (Alice and Bobs) themselves who open up their own borders, by the natural process of seeking alternatives in an effort to advance in their local finite game.

    And so the Guardians have their spheres torn open. But, do they ever truly (or with any frequency) exit entirely, and become Commercial wanderers? Or do they simply re-establish new borders in their minds to account for their expanded view, effectively just picking up and moving, or enlarging, their Guardian neighborhood, or joining a preexisting one? Is a Commercialist just a Guardian that is in transit?

    The other side of that question for me, then, is whether there any “true” Commercialists out there who really are free to wander the infinite space, or if instead there are merely maximal-space Guardians whose expanded sphere (which they call “Commerce”) encompasses all smaller-pocket ones but is not actually endless.

  8. About 15 years ago I coined the phrase “marriage is sexual socialism”. Just googled it for the first time and only three results. Feel free to use it

  9. Damn, you beat me to the “map is not the territory” line. Yes, money = trade = capitalism

  10. Marc Hamann says:

    I agree with you that capitalism, at the level of abstraction you are proposing, is the natural and inevitable state of human societies.

    Unfortunately, I think that, like a lot of people who don’t feel a resonance with “sacredness”, you don’t really understand its nature.

    Sacredness is quite normally and universally observed through hypocrisy: lip service must be paid, and certain totems and symbols representing the value must bowed to, but the odd person in a sacred system that takes those values too literally and forcefully, especially if they impede the healthy function of the community, is usually treated like an admirable lunatic.

    (For example, free market fundamentalists routinely take government program money, or lobby for legislation that favours incumbents; only “wingnuts” would actually abstain from that. )

    In a sense, this is the conclusion that you come to (the Guardians are traders), but for me this comes from first principles, without the need to “explain” the collision. Human nature just contains both elements in a cognitive dissonant balance.

  11. Another note. You can endlessly multiply clans and packs trading with each other without ever reaching the individual at the bottom of them. It’s like converting corporations into family clans and vice versa. The dissolution of these socio-economical structures led to the dual creation of the individualist capitalism and the bureaucratic-egalitarian-welfare state – in both of their democratic and authoritarian modes. Economic and political power became divided with the economic sphere being dominated by clan-like entities lacking the social responsibilities they once had and which had to be retrofitted by political powers. This division of powers gave charismatic leaders / founders a new ground to rise to lord-like status, ruling over thousands of employees, without challenging the political order. This order has always been challenged by left and right wing desires to remove the division by either crush all the clans and suck the citizens into the state machine or crush the state and return to the clans.