More is Less

Substack is betting on prominent writers by handing out six-figure advances, but some of the bigger ones have paid off extraordinarily well. Matthew Yglesias admitted in March that by taking a guaranteed $250,000 from Substack in exchange for 85% of his revenue for a year, he left nearly $400,000 on the table, given that his newsletter attracted far more subscribers than anticipated. Roxane Gay similarly earned back her advance faster than expected. As long as readers are content to shell out for subscriptions, then why can’t the model become the industry standard?

If it does, something significant will be lost. Presumably readers don’t have infinite money to spend on subscriptions. If they shift resources to a handful of superstar Substack writers, then magazines and newspapers will suffer, leading to a public that has an opinion about more and more but knowledge about less and less.

I find I am now weary of how I must preface any discussion of this nature, but practicality dictates that I must. The term “liberalism” has come to be used vastly incorrectly in modern parlance, particularly in the United States. To most people, “liberalism” means “progressivism” or “the politics of the American left.” In actuality, the ideology described by the word “liberalism” centers around tenets of freedom from coercion by external social forces (read: individual autonomy) and a belief that societal organization should be centered around a respect for human dignity (also called “humanism”). By this definition, both the American left and right are liberal. The difference between the two is largely about which entities are identified as taking away our autonomy (to the right, it’s bad actors in the government and unnecessary government bureaucracy; to the left, it’s corporations and the military industrial complex). One could also have an interesting debate as to whether or not a majority of the American right has abandoned any pretense of caring about humanism, and perhaps under this lens we could say that they have morphed into something truly illiberal.

I will probably make an individual post solely for the above paragraph at some point, so that I can simply link to it every time I talk about “liberalism.”

The above quoted essay from the blog of The Hedgehog Review encapsulated what I’ve come to identify as a kind of formula for the way a liberal society critiques itself:

  1. A paradigm, usually a relatively recent and novel one, which lots of people think is great, is probed for its real value to individuals and society, and is shown to be, in fact, harmful.
  2. Lots of armchair philosophizing about why this thing which is actually harmful is able to masquerade as something good without more people catching on.
  3. Individuals are called upon to “try harder” to make better choices.

The specific article above maps to the paradigm as follows:

  1. The advent of the subscribe-per-writer platform Substack turns yet another element of the world of writing production into a winner-take-all popularity contest. The social institutions that lead to better writers producing better writing wither as does the ability of writers to challenge their readership (as opposed to pandering to them).
  2. Maybe this is because Americans are obsessed with creating cults of personality around celebrities.
  3. We, as individuals, need to think more carefully about how we spend our money on written, non-fiction media.

I used to go in for this kind of stuff a lot myself. The third beat in the pattern makes us feel hopeful, and also probably plays to our vanity. “Sure,” each of us says to ourselves. “By reflecting on and changing my behaviors, I’m doing my part to improve the lot of all of humanity.”

What I find annoying about this paradigm today is that such calls to action, if they actually worked, should have generated some positive results by now. I’ve been reading these kinds of articles for my entire adult life, so let’s be generous and say they’ve only been around that long (about twenty years). Is the US government filled with nobler, more intelligent people now than twenty years ago? No. Is it at least more stable? No. Do adults seem generally smarter? No. More emotionally aware? No. Less taken in by manipulative advertising? No. More interested in art, literature, or history? No. More interested in civic well being than their own selfish interests? No. Is the environmental degradation showing any signs of even slowing down? No.

But sure. Let’s just keep leaving it to individuals to reflect on their own behaviors and improve things a bit at a time. That will work eventually. It has to, right?

I suspect that the resistance to such lines of thinking and analysis is the idea that any alternative to the liberal status quo would end up being some kind of reprehensible, abominably oppressive world of fear, death, and human suffering. Such an outcome is imagined at the suggestion of even the minutest reduction of personal autonomy. It is as though, if a society restricts an individual or entity even the tiniest bit, if it stops them even from doing the most obviously harmful or petty or stupidest thing, then the inevitable result will be pogroms and gas chambers. To put this ideology concretely in terms of the linked article: We can’t make Substack’s business model illegal, because to do so would necessitate we also allow mass genocide. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

A society doesn’t have to kill people in order to disallow things that are obviously toxic, unhealthy, or detrimental to society’s most basic operations. The more interesting question is, if we do allow that some things are so obviously bad for us that we need to disallow them, then who decides that and how, since a slim majority of human beings clearly aren’t capable of arriving at the correct conclusion in most circumstances. A dictator doesn’t work. That’s been tried too many times and failed. The same with aristocratic oligarchies or any of their myriad variations. Neither is theocracy any help. The pace of change in religious institutions is glacial, and if a social organization system needs any property first and foremost, it’s adaptability. Religious institutions are also notorious for getting some things very wrong about good and evil.

Our predicament calls to mind Antonio Gramsci’s observation from the 1930’s that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” It is obvious that the train we’re stuck on is shuddering along and falling apart at the seams, albeit slowly, but we’ve indoctrinated ourselves with the knee-jerk reaction to every other potential line we could travel as leading to a miserable hellscape, and so we remain glued to our seats, even as evidence mounts day after day that this particular train’s ultimate destiny is to fall to pieces upon arrival at—a miserable hellscape.

Now more than ever, we need ideas about ways of existing with one another and with our planet that draw on the particularly rich philosophical and political history of Europe combined with some novel thinking about the technological and social pragmatics of today. If we did, we could eventually arrive at healthy and stable alternate modes of social operation. Liberalism writ large is doomed to fail. Its operation erodes the human faculties and characteristics upon which its mere functioning is dependent. Something else needs to be born, something that makes us actually good rather than content and pacified. But what?