Thoughts on Culture and Empire

(If you haven’t yet read Pieter Hintjens’ Culture and Empire, I can only encourage you to do so. It is freely available at Without it this text probably won’t make quite as much sense as it was intended to.)

The tale of the Culture and the Empire is forms the beginning of the Preface and Chapters 1 to 6. The tale is longest in Chapter 4 where the motives and method of the Empire are explained. Here, it seems that the Empire is winning the conflict it stated.

Having given the book its title the conflict between these two entities lies at the heart of the book. Yet, the two terms are never used in the book as they are only parables (as Hintjens is willing to admit). This is all well as they are fictional and only loosely correlate to real-world entities. Furthermore, in the real world things are a tat more complicated. To each side there are multiple factions warring between themselves.

The real-world equivalent of the Empire does get a name: The Para-state. This term is introduced in Chapter 5 along with the entity named the Spider. The term is borrowed from Silvia Swinden and originally meant to describe the Bilderberg group. Hintjens uses the term to describe a parallel global state. He is very vague on the definition. The explanation is lengthy and we might imagine him being uncomfortable at coining and using such a broad term. He even justifies this method as making his endeavour impossible if he were not to use such a term.

What he obviously is doing, is creating a clear image of an enemy. It is an old tactic used by many states and groups to build coherence. Hintjens explains exactly how the Nazis used the jews, the Americans the communist and, more recently, spy agencies terrorists for just this purpose.

If he were to oppose the para-state he would be liable to the same faulty reasoning as all of these groups. He is more clever, though, creating a second enemy in the form of the Spider. Whereas the Para-state is described as largely benign, the Spider is not. Here, the explanations stop. We may argue about the existence and potential threat of the Para-state, the Spider, however, “is nothing to laugh at.”

In terms of rhetorics or even stage magic this is a brilliant tactic. Give people something obvious they can argue about and criticise. While they are busy with that get on with whatever is really going on; the left hand does a few neat, but not difficult, tricks, focusing the attention, while the right hides the coin.

Rhetorics or not, he does have a point. Cults often are compromised of two entities working side by side: The larger visible but also friendly one and the smaller but by no means less powerful executive branch. It is a tactic known to work extraordinarily well on people. Given these two entities we want the nice one to be our protector and thus cling to it. That both are of one mind and have the same goal does not easily enter into our calculations. The smallest example is the interrogation tactic called good-cop-bad-cop. If we look at states we often notice the pattern. Most dictatorships have a secret police. Even in communist Russia the state only wanted the best for the people. Quite easily it can become the secret police that holds the actual power.

Here, Hintjens might be on to something: When that happens, when the secret police is not anymore working for the state but the other way how would we notice? Maybe the state was corrupt even beforehand as under the reign of Stalin in Russia but maybe it was not. In that case what we could expect could very much look like what we are seeing in the US right now.

But back to the issue of reality: The Para-state is a handle for a conglomerate of entities, loosely linked by vague definitions. It is, so to speak, a creation of Hintjens which he admits. Does the same hold true for the Spider? Quite probably even more so. There quite probably is not one single entity controlled from a single source dictating the course of events. Rather, we have multiple agents (often agencies) with very similar goals, lately having begun acting in unison. The link between them is a similar structure and similar goals. Especially when we look at multiple countries we cannot assume that all of these agencies were even talking to each other when they started operating.

This is similar to the way healthy societies operate. Multiple individual groups or individuals have a common goal and decide to pool their resources in order to become more efficient. Sometimes these groups choose to give themselves a name and a symbol. This can crystallise a community and make it explicit. Yet, often a society can be even more efficient when its boundaries are hazy. “The Open Source Movement” is an example. Here, different people might not even have similar goals when they work on completely different projects. In Wikipedia, joining the community may be as easy as making the an edit to any page. In this sense the Spider is real, but it is better denoted as an idea or a loose community of agents.

This is distinction is highly important. The Spider as an entity in its own right is something we can feel emotions about or protest against. The Spider as an idea or as a conglomerate is too hazy an image for that. And let us not forget, that even an individual agency is not a single entity but rather compromised of a number of human beings, some guidelines and some technology.

This implies that the moral choice is far more difficult. A Spider may be evil and should rightly be destroyed. The individual people are a different matter altogether. Some may be guilty of criminal actions. Some to a higher degree than others. Some may only have been aware of what is going on without much in the way of stopping it. These may not even be guilty of anything. In part, the guidelines and rules may be to blame.

Another question is that of good and evil. How do we assign these values. Another question might me be more interesting: How natural is the process as a whole? Humans are not very strong animals. Indeed, in almost every category of physical prowess there are others much better equipped. We have two attributes speaking for us: the use of tools and the ability to work in groups. Tools themselves are not that useful if we do not have communities for exchanging them and learning. Communities, thus, are what makes us strong. Communities are always communities of individuals. Distribution and of power is important. For the species as a whole having benefiting the strongest is good while at the same time avoiding too much confrontation. Groups without unity of purpose or any kind of leadership or coercion quickly disperse. Groups in which anyone is free to challenge the leader in any way possible lead to too much bloodshed.

The optimal point is somewhere in the middle. Groups would be ideal where leaders are overthrown on a regular, but not frequent basis. This is akin to how evolution works: Obviously humans and most other animals have not evolved to live extremely long lives. In most species even highly successful specimen eventually die and make place for the next generation. If they did not, there would be no evolution. There would be comfortable genetic stagnation. At some point, another species, quicker at adapting would overtake it.

In economics we also see this effect: Companies may appear to be there to last. Yet they do not. Even Fortune 500 has is completely changed after a couple of decades. Why? Arguably, it is more difficult to change the structure of a company than build a new one with a better structure. Like old people, old companies have difficulties adjusting to changed circumstances. Their death is ultimately beneficial to the economy as a whole as it levels the playing field for new players.

Might it not be possible that this process, death and renewal, not just of individuals but of groups is quite literally, part of our DNA? Evolutionary it would make perfect sense. Stable societies are necessary. Without them there would be chaos, not trade and enrichment. Yet, their very stability might make them stagnant. Ultimately, a renewal is necessary if the species or larger group wants to stay competitive. A sort of house cleaning has to take place. Maybe it is inevitable that a society becomes dysfunctional, maybe this is an advantage. It allows revolutionaries to rebel against the old order. These might be something quite deliberate. It is not unthinkable that nature designed us in such a way that maybe one in a hundred grows up as a born revolutionary. Most of these will be criminals and negatively contribute to societies’ gains. But just in a few cases we get what Hintjens describes as Dangerous Young Men, the seeds for an actual revolution and thus a renewal.

If we draw this hypothesis to its conclusion it means that cults but also renewals are an almost deliberate advantage of humans. Together they give our societies just the right amount of stability: Enough to reap many of its benefits, yet not too much to lead to total stagnation.