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Great Founders Build Civilization

by | July 15, 2020

I joined Palladium Magazine for a Digital Salon on Saturday, July 11, moderated by Editor-in-Chief Wolf Tivy and Managing Editor Ash Milton.

Palladium Magazine is a non-partisan publication that explores the future of liberalism, governance, and society, through responsible slow publishing, long-form analysis, political theory, and investigative journalism. Palladium Magazine has sent its reporters on the ground everywhere from Xinjiang to Venezuela and has had its work featured in The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, TechCrunch, and more.

We had a fascinating discussion about great founders and what role they play in building and sustaining human civilizations, covering everything from ancient China to modern business management practice. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Read the discussion below, and watch or listen to it here!

Wolf Tivy

Hello everyone, and welcome to Palladium Magazine’s Digital Salon with Samo Burja. I’m Wolf Tivy, Editor-in-Chief of Palladium. I’m joined, as usual, by Ash Milton, our managing editor.

Ash Milton

Hi, everyone. Nice to see you again.

Wolf Tivy

Thanks, Ash. Our guest today is Samo Burja. In 2017, Samo Burja founded Bismarck Analysis, a consulting firm that investigates the political and institutional landscape of society. He also studies how institutions endure, as a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation, and how institutions can shape the future of technology, as a senior research fellow in political science at the Foresight Institute.

Samo Burja

Pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Wolf Tivy

Thanks for coming on. As usual, we’re joined by our live audience of Palladium members and friends. This conversation will be recorded and re-broadcast on YouTube and as a podcast. To become a Palladium member and get invited to upcoming salons please visit palladiummag.com/subscribe. The plan is for Ash, Samo, and I to have a discussion for about half an hour and then move to questions with our live audience. Please be sure to use the Q&A feature in Zoom to post your questions.

Let’s start with an overview of Great Founder Theory. You’ve developed what you’re calling Great Founder Theory, which proposes that great founders impact the world through the institutions they create, particularly those which outlast them. These institutions carry a civilization’s knowledge, organization, and social technologies. When they decay, so does society at large. How does Great Founder Theory compare to other narratives and challenge those other narratives like Great Man Theory or more structural theories like institutionalism?

Samo Burja

In particular, I think what is often missed by some of the more structuralist theories is a sense of human choice and construction. Often it is said that various things that are a part of everyday lives are social constructs. I think this is completely true! They are social constructs. Just as my home is a physical construct, you don’t necessarily want to deconstruct all your physical constructs and you don’t want to deconstruct all your social constructs. But yes, fundamentally, the house is kind of arbitrary, as are things like having a job, or participating in an organized religion or being a citizen of a state.

Now, what drives these social technologies forward? I think a lot of people imagine that this stuff is overdetermined. I would say that there’s a scarcity of innovation in social technology. So I think it’s a significant bottleneck in a big historical and civilizational event, when someone introduces a new social technology such as a new functional code of laws, or a different form of organized religion, or a new way to organize militaries and so on. Essentially, this is the innovation bottleneck. I think this innovation necessarily comes from individuals and small groups. Now while these individuals and small groups are themselves socially determined, it can be extremely difficult to work out what the psychological consequences of living in a certain society are.

Even though, in a way, I’m kind of a determinist, I think it’s extremely difficult to predict how a creative individual is going to deterministically result from a particular society. And since it’s a very stochastic event, since it’s not necessary, such an individual happens to come into play – such a prophet, general, statesmen, entrepreneur, or technologist – it’s very hard to predict what happens. I think that it’s very useful to have a theory that takes, as a given, that this individual is relatively unconstrained modulo knowledge. You can’t necessarily predict which knowledge they will or won’t have. You can predict that they’ll be pursuing some objectives, right? So, I think that a lot of these social determinist theories would propose that, actually, the biggest determinants are these invariants, like large population centers or material technology – the absence or presence of things like steam engines and so on.

But if it actually hinges on these individuals – these unusual individuals – these small groups of people, I think then that that type of prediction just doesn’t hold. And all we can do is this other type of prediction, where we just take the founders for granted and we can analyze what they’re doing, we can analyze how difficult or easy it is for them to intervene on society. As to their objectives, their goals, it’s often very idiosyncratic.

Ash Milton 

Do you think of this as an individualistic theory?

Samo Burja

Truly depends on what you mean by individualistic.

Ash Milton 

Suppose that the individual matters more than the contexts around them. Perhaps we think of individuals as primarily shaping rather than being shaped by their social context?

Samo Burja  

I think that a few individuals shape their social context far more than others. So I think that there are some exceptional individuals that shape society. In here, there is perhaps the nuance that distinguishes this from Great Man Theory as such. Great Man Theory proposes that you shape society by participating in grand events, right? It might focus on a general’s victory on the battlefield. I wouldn’t focus on the general’s victory on the battlefield at all unless, in the aftermath of the battle, the great founder was killed. No, I’d focus on the military reforms.

For example, if we look at Napoleon, I perhaps would acknowledge that his skill at winning battles is extremely important. But his enduring contribution to society and civilization would be something like the organization of the national conscription system, the precise way the Central Command functioned – the battlefield command where he often delegated decisions to his underlings – influencing later things like the Prussian system [of military staff command]. The Napoleonic Code of Law was extended and spread across all of Europe, often kept even after Napoleonic forces were kicked out. Finally, he engaged in a massive amount of myth-making. He revived this cult of Alexander the Great and Caesar. 

If you read 19th century literature, the man of destiny that shapes history, that shakes history, was Napoleon! And this archetype shaped European thinking and European statesmanship. Everything from Nietzsche and Hegel’s commentary on it on the philosophy side, and also on the statecraft side: at least Napoleon III tried to imitate him and arguably, less successfully, many 20th century leaders sought to imitate Napoleon and imitate his jump from military success to political control. So being an archetype, I think he also has a founder-like role there.

Wolf Tivy  

Interesting. Just earlier, you characterize this as an innovation bottleneck problem, but it’s not just an innovation, is it? It’s also reviving or rebuilding institutionally embodied social technology. It’s not like our social technology sticks around without the institution.

Samo Burja

No, it has to be embodied in a community of practice. This community can be highly bureaucratized the way that, arguably, parts of the Catholic Church have been, with the legal system and these clear divisions of responsibilities and roles. It can be less embodied and more like this practice where, say, a particular tribe might have a festival, somewhere out there next to a lake or in a desert every year. This is certainly something that can persist in a distributed manner, but is created in this very, almost centralized manner, though not presupposing that the innovator is at the center of society, right? They might actually be at the fringes of society. If you look at something like the creation of the Mormon religion by Joseph Smith. He doesn’t start off at the center of American society, but he creates a new center around himself.

Ash Milton 

It sounds like you’ve, in part, at least created here a theory of history. I’m wondering: why then do you think it’s important to have a theory of history?

Samo Burja  

To conclude an earlier thought, I do want to say the founders are always working with the raw materials available to them. They are building up on whatever surrounds them and they are somewhat constrained as to what they can achieve in a lifetime. I think, however, you can achieve quite a bit and I think there have been significant jumps in civilizational complexity driven by founders, the sort of thing where you might have a transition where, in two generations or in a single generation, you have a nomadic people become a settled people. Or build a grand city larger than any has ever existed before, with all the intricacies in it, or transition to an industrial society. But to answer your question, why is it important to have a theory of history? There are several reasons.

First off, I think it’s good to understand the social world. I think stories about how the social world works – ideologies around it – can be more or less accurate. People would direct their efforts and evaluate the legitimacy or illegitimacy of pro-social efforts to try to build up civilization through the framework they believe in. There’s a classical note during the French Revolution: “The Republic has no need of savants”. When speaking of people like Laplace and other mathematicians and scientists, if the belief is that the Republic has no need of statesmen and statesmen are persecuted, then the Republic’s revolution fares poorly, let alone the Republic’s evolution to whatever it might be trying to achieve that replaces the ancien régime.

So, I think that in societies where we don’t understand the role of founders, we have a confused relation to our heroes, where the confusion can go either way. It can be deeds-focused, which is perhaps useful – it’s useful to commemorate those who participate in grand events – but I think it’s much more important to look at the origin of social order, to look at the Moses’s and Lycurgus’s of the world, that set up particular social systems, and to understand what they look like.

Wolf Tivy  

So the idea there is that you almost need these archetypes kind of floating around in society that can legitimize certain types of constructive action.

Samo Burja 

Yes, I think the constructive action will often seem illegitimate, because if you are bypassing dead institutions, institutions that are dead players, that are dysfunctional, they obviously won’t like this very much, right? They won’t like the sort of circumvention that’s necessary to construct something new. You might be trying to bypass something like a political monopoly, or you might be trying to bypass something like an economic monopoly. Just to say one or two things more about why theories of history matter, I think everyone is always acting on an implicit theory of history. 

If you talk to anyone in Silicon Valley right now and you ask: why do you think what you do matters at all? They’ll say, well, technology drives history, right? Or they’ll say, well, I want to contribute to human progress, or, I want to advance technology. And this is the most important thing in the world. Embedded in those statements is an assumption of technological determinism, right? And that technological progress necessarily improves human lives and that the technological progress is kind of unstoppable and desirable. It’s important for us to participate in it, so that an individual can accelerate or decelerate it, but if you start talking to them about questions such as, how would you evaluate the speed of technological progress? Is this the right way to accelerate it? They usually run out of material, but that basic, believed theory is there. And arguably we all have these, right? 

I think, for many people, they might see history as a play of patriots and tyrants. This would be sort of this kind of American constitutionalist mindset. Or you might see it as a sort of moral reformation or direct formation, you would have saints and sinners, and they can shape the society. Or you might think people have no role at all, that individuals have no role at all, and it’s all pre-determined, and it’s the technology that’s moving us. But I would claim any individual that’s acting on the world must have, on some level, belief that they are affecting the world and that counterfactually, it matters whether or not they’re at home, playing video games, or at home coding, or leaving the home to win a battle. There’s some sort of implicit belief that it matters.

Ash Milton 

Right. It’s interesting that you’re talking about implicit theories of history here. As you probably know, we had a piece just this week at Palladium on Xi Jinping and his more explicit theory of history. It’s also the case that, in the world, a lot of the major theories about how history works originate from from Europe and from the Western world. And yet despite that, Western institutions and particularly America definitely don’t seem to have an explicit model of how history works anymore. Do you think that this is a serious problem in some way? And how would you get back to having an explicit model of history rather than just an implicit one?

Samo Burja

I’m going to note here that China is a Marxist-driven society and Marxism is one of the better demonstrations of coordinating power. So any theory of history can, in fact, serve as the basis of an ideology, right? And the more correct this theory of history is, the more powerful the adherents of the ideology are. For example, a Marxist ideology might actually describe fairly well what you need to do in order to industrialize while interacting with the market system.

It might propose things such as the need to maintain industrial sovereignty, the need to focus on heavy industry and so on. But it might get other things wrong. Let’s remember that no matter how wasteful or inefficient the Soviet Union was, at the end of the day, it could deliver many thousands of tanks to the frontlines of Eastern Europe. These are incredible feats of coordination and incredible feats of planning. I can even make this more visceral: consider something like D-Day. If large-scale, society-scale planning is not ever possible, then how in the world did they happen? They obviously did happen. Therefore, sometimes, society-wide planning is possible. 

You might get these gems of accuracy that enable correct policy or enable constructive action or you might have destructive things that lead to destructive action. For example, if you only have a class-based analysis of the role of military officers, rather than track the ideology of military officers – which is often centered on protection of the homeland, whatever the homeland itself is, it doesn’t matter if it’s Czarist or Communist, you might end up being a loyal officer to whichever regime – but if you analyze an officer through a sort of Marxist lens, you might come to the conclusion that, necessarily, because of their background, they’re going to have reactionary beliefs, and therefore, it’s important to purge them. And arguably that was a big problem for Stalin.

The explicit ideology of the Soviet Union is very close to the basis of current Chinese ideology. It’s good to remember that the Sino-Soviet split between Khrushchev and Mao was over Khrushchev denouncing Stalin. Mao emphatically believed this was revisionism, that you should not denounce Stalin. So Stalin is, in a way, directly part of this intellectual legacy. When we look at Xi’s decisions today, if you analyze them through this deeply post-Stalinist lens, it makes a lot of sense. And not only is there a believed explicit ideology by Xi, the explicit ideology is used as a method to coordinate the Chinese Communist Party. People are expected to be well-versed in this.

Again, the comparison I would invite is quite naturally between the Chinese Communist Party and the Catholic Church, or, arguably, in some aspects. They both govern about a billion people. They both have a catechism. They both used to also have the equivalent of the Inquisition, they had – theoretically – a central decision-maker and so on. Now, this analogy only goes so far. There are important differences. The first important difference is control of a nation-state. Secondly, a different belief about the course of history. You can’t just plug in one ideology for the other and expect the organizations to work just as well. The Marxist vision of the future is a globalizing future. It’s a technologically advanced future. In theory it’s also a materially abundant future. But it’s a future achieved through class struggle, so it’s fundamentally adversarial. This fundamental assumption of adversarial reality leads to fundamentally adversarial responses to social challenges. In the West, we also have adversarial ideology of a different type. Like say, the idea free market competition is pretty adversarial actually.

Wolf Tivy

A bit more closer to home, and related to that, is the Silicon Valley archetype of the founder, which almost seems, in some way, that it’s a socially constructed mythology of someone founding a disruptive start-up that roots around sclerotic economic institutions to create some value. It’s this theory of history that legitimizes a certain form of action and motivates a certain form of action. It’s very much in line with what you’ve been saying.

Samo Burja

Yes, well, if they didn’t believe in founders, there would be fewer companies, right? The PR would also be different. I think something like about 80% of the companies would exist in a Silicon Valley that didn’t believe in founders. But the 20% that wouldn’t exist are the most interesting ones. They’re counterfactually the most interesting ones. So I think we have to judge this idea of founders – if we analyze it as a social technology – on the basis of these things that might not have happened, these things that were not overdetermined.

Wolf Tivy 

So, in institutions – slightly different track – there’s this idea of knowledge embedded in those institutions, some of which we can’t see. And you’ve defined intellectual dark matter as the knowledge we can’t see publicly, but whose existence we can infer because the institution wouldn’t work without it. What are good examples of intellectual dark matter in present society? Are there key traditions of knowledge that are at risk of failing to be passed down and being lost?

Samo Burja

Intellectual dark matter is much like physical dark matter. We have the galaxies that must be much more massive than we can infer from the stuff that’s visible with normal light, the galaxies are spinning so fast and spin apart. In the physical world, it’s possible we just don’t understand gravity well enough. Maybe an alternative theory of gravity will reveal that the dark matter is just an illusion. However, the principle rested on stuff that we can show exists just as you hopefully summarized some of my thinking there. 

What are the types of dark matter? I think one, at least, is national security or state technological secrets. From the perspective of the Soviet Union, the atomic bomb in 1946 is intellectual dark matter. Second, trade secrets. Many of the details of how, say, a particular microchip might be constructed today are such dark matter. Further, what is the generating principle, the basic principles and tricks that a very, very good Fields-medalist mathematician might use to come to some of his or her strongest results? Those are things that the mathematician perhaps could put into words but might choose not to write. It’s not quite a trade secret, but a personal secret. But some of them are things you could never hear or should never put into words. That’s where we get to the implicit tacit knowledge. And it might be intellectually implicit – stuff that you might just perceive – it might be physically implicit, such as a surgeon moving through the human body with a scalpel.

The numbers are quite clear: you should definitely research how good your surgeon is! It’s one of the most variable tasks we accept in the modern world as primarily the result of individual skill, literally a matter of life and death. And the numbers, again, are very clear: these are order of magnitude differences between an extremely good surgeon and a mediocre surgeon, and it seems to be very difficult to get the extraordinary surgeons. This is why sometimes we see very old surgeons, even though you might assume that as far as age goes, that the shaking of the hand would be more important than the knowledge. But it seems, for a long time, this implicit knowledge is more important than the tremors. 

To move further on this, let’s look at a number of things. I think a lot of our social technology is running on fumes. A lot of the established high-trust nature of our society was built in a very, very different era in very, very different socioeconomic conditions. For the United States in particular, I think the massive expansion of both wealth and population from 1950-1970 caused a number of institutions to assume this pattern of growth that’s essentially a pyramid scheme, that’s unsustainable. One of these would be probably academia and the economics around grad students.

But the small, small details matter so much. In particular, I think there’s a certain kind of personal ability that millennials probably don’t have, having grown up, economically and socially, primarily in a zero-sum world, rather than a very positive-sum world like the one the baby boomers grew up in. Usually we critique the baby boomers and we know how unfair the world is for the millennials, but I still feel that the millennials often just actually lack some of the basic human interpersonal skills that the Boomers have. The millennial might find it frustrating that they have to teach the baby boomer how to use Microsoft Excel, but they never asked themselves how exactly the baby boomer managed to maneuver in the workplace such that they never needed to learn any of these new tools. They just know how to move the millennials around, right? I think part of it is seniority and privilege, sure, but part of it is just legitimate skill at management of people. Everything from team-building to judging individual psychology much more strongly.

Critically, the practice of science is significantly endangered. Possibly the best way to think of academics is that there are categories out there and they’re producing a catalogue of human knowledge. And I think that through the course of this training that proceeds through homework and practice, there is never any sort of training or practice in what research would look like at the edge of a field, before knowledge has fully crystallized.

I think in the 18th and 19th centuries, this kind of science was primarily practiced by a few privileged individuals, people who could support themselves economically and had enough social stability and support that they didn’t need to prove themselves to anyone. In other words, they started off with tenure when they were 20 years old, not crawled their way to tenure at 50 or 60, over 99 grad students that never made it. No, it was just like, you’re here, you have this privilege, this noblesse oblige commands that you use it. If you don’t use it, you’re a disgrace, at least go be a military officer somewhere. Somebody said it is acceptable to become a natural philosopher. I think they did quite a bit.

Ash Milton 

It makes me think of the Ivy League universities right now: universities around the world are talking about flipping to Zoom for classes in the fall. Given that we’re talking about intellectual dark matter at elite institutions, it sounds like if we assume that people go to these kinds of elite universities, in part, to associate with elites and elite institutions and learn these kinds of skills that can’t just be made legible in a textbook, if it becomes normalized that most people are experiencing the Ivy League universities through Zoom, is there still a point in going? It seems like this will kind of collapse in part what they’re trying to do.

Samo Burja  

I think the question is: to what extent has it already collapsed before Zoom made it apparent? The biggest critique one can make of Skull and Bones today is that not much plotting happens there. Arguably the entire point of Skull and Bones at elite universities is to produce elite conspiracies. I note elite conspiracy production seems to be falling rapidly. If we had a national conspiracy index, the national conspiracy index is super low right now. It’s high in China, it’s high in Russia: we can’t allow a conspiracy gap! Now, I’m not saying we should make more Epsteins, but, someone must do the function of coordinating and informal coordination is what you do at the institutional frontier, when you encounter new problems that the previous bureaucracies weren’t programmed for. If we’re perpetually stuck running the FBI of the 1960s, and this was our only law enforcement agency, we would be in a lot of trouble.

Ash Milton

There’s a problem that happens in conspiracies where – I call this “losing the joke” – you can have a public frame, but if you fail to inculcate your successors, then they will essentially just believe the public frame without understanding why it exists. I think something like this kind of happened with neoconservative conservatism, between the original generation and the Iraq War generation, it seems like you can’t explain a conspiracy over Zoom. Maybe there are no longer good conspiracies in the world. If there are any, they might not survive this.

Samo Burja 

I think that that’s very interesting. I think that writing can be critiqued in the same way. If Leo Strauss would propose that you can, in fact, communicate between the lines over writing, arguably much of the same can be done by video. So I think there are some methods to say things without saying them and so on. And this can provide a differential advantage. But, again, what I would propose is that the Harvard experience has already been so bureaucratized, that it was not a good sandbox for people to truly learn leadership. I think, at this point, it primarily grants you a minor patent of nobility. Other organizations hire a Harvard person because no one ever got fired for hiring someone from Harvard, right? So I think actually, my answer is, I don’t expect a critical shortfall of leadership because I believe no critical leadership skills were taught. That’s a pessimistic view.

Ash Milton 

You have a viral article that is sort of relevant to this, “Live Players Versus Dead Players,” that you wrote some time ago. Just to explain this distinction: a live player is someone who can do new things, who can act outside of the pre-existing norms that they are in. A dead player is not capable of this. They basically only work according to the scripts that they are surrounded by or that the institutions that they’re in have. It sounds like you don’t think there are very many live players in our institutions. I’m interested in why you think that is.

Samo Burja

I think performance is a very strong indicator here. How many institutions have, in an agile way, adapted to the shock of the coronavirus? Very few. How many of these institutions are having an easy time navigating the economic fallout? Again, very few. How many of our media institutions or political institutions adapted to the last few years of unusual politics? Very few, right? So when I look at governments and large economic bodies, they don’t display this behavior. If there are live players within them, they’re not piloting the institutions in question and their range, the range of their adaptability, what it can do for us is extremely limited. 

So in a way the effective intelligence of the organizations has gotten massively dumbed down. They become these dumb, lumbering giants that can’t see reality, but repeat these things over and over again, they used to do. Even worse, if you have essentially normal careerists filter up through a bureaucracy, the natural course of the wiring of an organization – its sensors – is that the wires rot away. Everyone always wants to report good news. So unless there’s a countervailing force, at the end of the day, if there’s a control room, all the panels have green lights because the lights are broken, not because everything is fine. And right now if you look at the stock market, how much of our society is used to looking at the dashboard of the stock market to figure out if things are fine? A significant number of organizations! But you would be insane to look at the stock market and decide that it’s actually all fine. 

The only way you can justify it is something like an excessive belief in the efficient market hypothesis. But I think this is overbearing, and over-believing in the information system that was set up for a very specific purpose, that has been many times modified, that has been adulterated through all sorts of strange legal, financial, and governmental mechanisms. So we introduced these measures to boost economic productivity and eventually we lost track of it. We started looking at these measures instead of the underlying thing. And that’s why it’s very easy to have an economy in crisis and have a stock market that, at least on the surface, you should interpret as a belief that things will return to normal and will be good.

Wolf Tivy

So this is interesting. This is related to the idea that these institutions kind of decay over time and need to actively prepare, and one of the aspects that you mentioned is that there might be live players around, but not actually embedded in controlling positions within the institutions, and thus not able to do that repair. Is locking out the live players part of the process of decay there?

Samo Burja

I think it’s either eliminating or locking out the live players but, also, not fostering the creation of enough live players. One could argue that the true reigning ideology of the industrial system has always been Six Sigma, a manufacturing ideology and method, where, when you find an error, when a type of error occurs at the end of the assembly line in your product – it could be a car, it could be a computer, it could be a can of soup – you don’t try to figure out what went wrong with that can of soup. 

What you instead do is, you go to every single step of the process in the assembly line and try to reduce variance. And then the end result is, often, your error goes away. What we’ve done is that through every single step from your childhood environment, to your early education, to your professional career, we’ve tamped down on the variants. So in a way, we have excellent cans of soup, but we don’t have very good live players, because the live players were never built by an assembly line. 

The problem of the creation of excellent free human beings was never industrialized. We know how to make good factory workers who know how to make good cars. And again, I’m not even saying that this is immediately achievable. I am saying, though, that when we look at something like the Sputnik moment and the Sputnik crisis, where the U.S. massively upscaled its production of engineers and technicians on paper, we should be very skeptical whether this resulted in the production of more excellent engineers and scientists, because if you’re reducing variance on some problem like educating engineers, well, you might get a very excellent mediocre engineer, but precisely the measures you use to get to that very excellent mediocre engineer precluded the outliers, precluded the outlier that might have been the inventor, or the industrialist or whatever.

Wolf Tivy

It’s notable that most of the engineers who did the great things in subsequent decades were trained before that, basically before the early Cold War, right? So, as institutions decay and society changes, occasionally, there’s these large institutional transitions, sometimes in the form of a revolution. But the degree of actual novelty versus continuity and the actual agents of change there are often not clear on the surface as to who’s actually the actor – how much are things actually changing? So I’d be curious: how do you see what a revolution is? And what do people not understand about how these big institutional turnovers actually work?

Samo Burja

My view of my view of revolution tends to be surprisingly – or unsurprisingly – Leninist. I tend to think that, yes, any transformation of society is spearheaded by a small fraction of a rising elite, organizing resources that were previously not organized to change the balance of power and the balance of coordination between society’s existing elites. So what are the consequences of this? 

For example, I think in a revolution, often a surprising amount of the establishment before the revolution is preserved. It’s just reconfigured. Examples of this might include the modern Japanese Diet, their parliament. I think about half of parliament members are descended from samurai families. How long has it been since 1945? And even before 1945? The Meiji Restoration itself disempowered the feudal system and installed the bureaucratic system. How is it possible that the samurai families survive both the centralization of the Meiji Restoration, the defeat of World War II – which really shattered the military institutions into which the samurai families had gone – and American occupation, and now, again, people from the same families from the same social circles are at least half of the people in Japanese parliament?

To give a different puzzle: why is it that so many of the early Bolsheviks ended up having some noble ancestry, usually from the minor nobility? And again, the same phenomenon can be seen in China. I’m not going to go into details of the French Revolution, but when the French Revolution was over, the aristocrats that survived from the ancien régime often found a spot in the new regime, whether Napoleonic France or the Restoration period. The continuity is even stronger in the American Revolution. In the American Revolution, just a few extra people joined the business of government, but the main thing that happens is the governments that were already active in the colonies receive independence from the central government in London. So it’s almost better to think of it as a secession rather than a revolution. The same people are running Massachusetts, the same people are running Boston, the same people are running Virginia on the same basis of power as before and after.

Ash Milton

You earlier mentioned the Sino-Soviet split, where part of what happened was that Khrushchev had denounced Stalin, forcing this break in the ideological continuity. In Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, one of the notable aspects was that he essentially, despite having been persecuted by Mao and his inner circle, refused to denounce him and very explicitly framed his project as a continuity of the Chinese Communist Party’s revolution. To this day, they have a party line where the history of Communist Party rule has been developing throughout, but always unbroken. I’m interested to hear how you interpret that kind of move on the part of leaders who are invoking revolution.

Samo Burja

It’s kind of risky, right? If you propose the revolution is a one-time event, a founding event, you might be stuck with a very narrow set of interpretations for how politics should go or how economics should go. If you propose the revolution is permanent, then you’re perhaps not securely in power. Arguably one of the biggest problems with having a government that is significantly staffed with a revolutionary cadre is that they might wish to continue the revolution as in the Reign of Terror, even if they need to step over your neck. The revolution eats its children, right? You kind of have to tamp down on it from a pragmatic perspective of self-preservation. On the other hand, if you valorize it as completely in the past, its relevance is lost to new generations. There is a significant victory cult in China where the victory over Japanese imperialists is considered as important an achievement of the Chinese Communist Party, as is the overturning of the old class system.

I don’t think the desire for continuity is just a feature of revolutionary regimes, even reactionary regimes will try to claim the revolution for themselves as a positive good. This is seen in some of the restoration monarchies and 19th century France, where even people who are themselves from the same monarchy, the same royal family that was guillotined there essentially, adopt and argue that the revolution was necessary and good. And for example, Vladimir Putin today might suggest that Stalin’s crimes against his people are unconscionable, but Stalin’s victory over Hitler is beyond reproach. He’s both condemning an aspect and endorsing or elevating an aspect, the belief being that there is a way in which the presence of unassimilated historical events could be considered a liability, like ideological ammunition. These events might turn out to be ammunition for a different type of ideology. So unless you can integrate into your history both the Gulag system and the defeat over Hitler and have it integrated well into your ruling ideology, these are essentially things that make alternative worldviews, something that are undesirable.

In modern China, I think claiming the mantle of communism and claiming the mantle that we are truly communist likely preserves the optionality for China to eventually start becoming more ideologically expansionary. Currently, it’s not. Currently it just wishes to preserve its own system for itself and have a different system for other countries. My read on the big historical landscape is that eventually they’re going to have to transition to a more universalist ideology. And here’s the reason: elites can only properly negotiate international treaties if they understand each other on a deep social level. In 17th and 18th century Europe, this might be the sort of Christian secularized aristocracy. They have common norms and common beliefs: if they go to a dinner party together, they know exactly what the things that matter are. They read the same people. It doesn’t matter if you’re Russian nobility or French nobility or British nobility or German nobility. You probably even speak the same language whether you’re from a German family or from a French family, no matter if you rule Greece, or if you rule Russia. 

And it’s very similar in the American system and American ideology. Why does America want there to be democracies all over the world? Well, because then this makes the politicians and the civil servants in the other countries intuitive. You don’t have to go into a deep dive to study exactly how France works. You kind of intuit it. When you meet the French president for a photo-op, you know exactly what you’re doing. If you meet Xi for a photo-op, it’s less clear exactly what you’re doing. How are you benefiting him? How are you hurting him? The mechanisms are different.

Now, again, there is some similarity. He wants good pictures for a newspaper. But he maybe wants good pictures for a party newspaper, or a good quote to put in the party newspaper, something you can say or did not say that’s tactically useful for winning or losing particular inter-party fights. It gets very complicated very quickly. This kind of complexity means that you’re not necessarily sure who to negotiate with: just because someone is called the foreign minister of a country, doesn’t mean they have any treaty-making ability whatsoever. It might exist de jure, but does it exist de facto? Because of this, if you have many client states, sooner or later, you will want to make their political system compatible with your own, so that their elites are weaker and easily comprehensible and legible to the elites of your country. In many ways, for example, Athens or Rome did something very similar. Arguably, the failure to assimilate local elites into their own value system might have been one of the driving forces of colonialism. What is the common framework of relationship between say, an upper middle class Englishman and a Hindu prince? Possibly, there isn’t any, so maybe you need to remove the Hindu prince and install the Englishman as a governor.

Ash Milton  

I am conscious of time, so we’re going to have one final question from us. Lots of other subjects: we could talk about long history, technology, China… hopefully we’ll get to some of that in the Q&A. A more practical question for you Samo: you’ve written a lot about the need to find exceptional thinkers and to learn from them. You had an essay on this, which is on your website, called “How to Find the Frontier of Knowledge” and you’ve put this in practice yourself. You’ve talked to Slavoj Žižek, Peter Thiel, David Deutsch, Tyler Cowen, others that I’m not mentioning. I’m interested to hear what kind of value this has provided for you. How do you reach out to thinkers like that? How do you establish those kinds of relationships?

Samo Burja

Unsurprisingly, because I believe in intellectual dark matter, I think almost anyone that’s very intellectually generative will have things that are difficult to put into words or possibly don’t travel well. An in-person conversation is better – a physically in-person conversation. Ideally, an extended correspondence over time can reveal many very, very productive subtleties to it. So they might have special pieces of knowledge that they can share. You might observe something about how they think or approach questions. After you’ve talked to someone many, many times over, it’s easy to recognize something as a Žižekian answer, or a Thielian insight, right? Something that really fits the thinking style of that person. 

In a way, if that gets good enough, you’ve essentially been informally apprenticed by that thinker. I actually think that some of the greatest thinkers in history were people who went out of their way to apprentice themselves to other exceptional thinkers. If you want to be a Fields medalist, one of the best things you can do is show up at a Fields medalist’s door and say “I just want to learn from you. Let me help any way I can. I just want to work on math with you. How can I make this viable?” When you look at the intellectual lineages, the numbers back it up. The best way to be an exceptional mathematician is to be taught by an exceptional mathematician. This doesn’t guarantee it, but it biases the odds. 

Secondly, it’s always good to correct your perspective. You never can be an expert in everything, but many things matter for active decision-making. So why would you settle for less? Why wouldn’t you go to the source? Why would you go to the photocopy of a photocopy of the photocopy if you can just read the original? If you apply this logic to originality and if your model of political economy of intellectuals is that there’s a small number of general thinkers who sort of emanate outwards, we’ll go to the source: that’s the best possible place you’ll be greatly advantaged! That’s the reasoning for why you want to inherit their tradition of knowledge as much as possible and you want them to correct your opinion on object-level topics and you want to offer value yourself, hopefully helping them in their service to society, because whether or not they want to serve society, they are serving society. The positive externalities are absolutely massive. I wrote an article for Palladium Magazine recently on how I think that Confucius, Lao Tzu and so on are possibly responsible for some of the unique positive features of Chinese civilization. Even if they did not intend it, as long as they were active, and as long as they were assisted, the positive externalities are there. 

I haven’t yet answered how to approach. I think, surprisingly often, an insightful cold email helps, though it has to be brief. Even more often, an endorsement by people whose opinion they respect. This kind of endorsement can get you a proper meeting. The endorsement can come either on intellectual grounds or if you have some economic or other value you can provide, so you kind of have to make yourself the right kind of person and you have to talk to the people right next to the exceptional individuals and eventually good opportunities and good reasons to talk to them arise. I will actually say it’s very easy to talk to some of the most prominent people in the world, but it’s much more difficult having something worth saying.

Ash Milton 

I think that’s a useful note then to end our first portion on. Wolf, do you want to take us to the Q&A?

Wolf Tivy

Sure. Michael asks: are you strictly agnostic on the question of the origin of great founders? Or do you have a view of how they’re produced? To what extent have any past societies figured out how to produce great founders better, for example via training programs or tyke bomb succession efforts. Are any societies or individual cases very interesting on this topic in terms of training more great founders?

Samo Burja 

The tyke bomb is a fun concept. It’s the concept of a kid that is trained from childhood or from birth for a specific purpose. There are a few of those. Michel de Montaigne is arguably such a person. The creator of the modern concept of an essay, he was raised from childhood by caretakers who only spoke classical Latin and Greek to him. That’s a really extreme approach: banning from your child’s ears any sort of profane language, only having mastered these languages, educating them and so on. A different example is John Stuart Mill, who was basically educated to be a replacement for Jeremy Bentham. I think Bentham was the intellectual they were trying to replace. Sometimes this stuff works. I don’t think it can reliably work. I think we don’t necessarily see the failed tyke bombs. 

I think the more specialized and rigorous a training program is, the more rigorous it is in a bureaucratic sense. The narrower it is, the more it’s an assembly line. The more it is a set of challenges, like the cursus honorum in ancient Rome, where you had a number of posts that were different in nature, possibly like a general, a provincial governor, someone who’s essentially dealing with law, someone who’s dealing with logistics – you have to succeed at each of these posts to eventually make it to consul as the crowning achievement. When the cursus honorum was least standardized, it worked the best. By the time when people aspire to complete the cursus honorum, at that point, it was dead. There was this joke at the time of Augustus and later on where people were made consuls for a period of 30 days just so they could say that they went through the cursus honorum and that they were made a man that year and that they were consul. That’s such a decayed version of it. And of course, by that point, it’s the period of empire, right? The Republic is long over.

This is why I think that, if I wanted to learn, educate and connect to others who want to feel responsibility for American society, the Harvard of 1900 might not have been a bad choice at all. It’s just that these things change over time, so I think the training programs for exceptional individuals are very specific. They cannot be bureaucratically administered for long. They often require direct contact with exceptional people. The parents of Montaigne and John Stuart Mill were not themselves exceptional individuals, but decently competent individuals that were, however, inspired by other exceptional individuals or put their children in touch with those individuals. But you have to make it worthwhile, right? If you have a society where it’s possible to invest in an intellectual successor, that’s a society that will have more great founders. When I say intellectual, let me be very clear: I consider Alexander the Great an intellectual successor to Aristotle, because I think the barrier between thought and action is, in the best of us, the best humans, very porous both ways. It’s actually a failure to think of thought as something that is stuck on paper. It’s never enacted in physical reality.

Ash Milton

Geoff has a question that fits as a follow up pretty well here. What are the most useful things individual people can do in the context of a declining civilization? Maybe, if they believe themselves to be living in a declining civilization, to overcome that decline? You touched on this in your article recently.

Samo Burja

The article on how late Zhou China reverse-engineered civilization is a pretty good approach. I think the most remarkable thing about late Zhou China is that they realized they were in decline. The default answer is you’re not in decline. So I would say: approach your society’s claims of victory with some minor skepticism, but not with the desire to see it fail, okay? Don’t be a blind contrarian, but examine the facts of the matter. Try to figure out whether it is or is not in decline, then I really do recommend that, if your belief is that it’s in decline, try to do an analysis: what’s the actual thing that’s going wrong? If possible, try to provide something no one else is providing. So if excessive bureaucratization is an issue, create pockets of resources, both social and economic, where you don’t need the usual credentials to have otium, another Greek and Roman concept: leisure time, reflective time, training time to master some of the things.

Because if it’s only possible to master science in an academic environment and the academic environment itself is broken, then there won’t be any scientific progress, right? You might try to reform, say, academia, or reform the cursus honorum. That’s a super difficult task: to reform the cursus honorum in the early imperial context would mean overthrowing Augustus, changing the economic fundamentals of Rome so that the land-owning class doesn’t dominate. Reform is more resource intensive than building something new. But you might be obliged to do reform, if you are late in a centralized declining empire, where the society itself is fairly unified and fairly dysfunctional. If it’s this unified and dysfunctional, you have to actually go to the center and just reform things at the center. What you then need to do is bring fresh forces. Maybe I would very, very cautiously propose a revolution – what do I compare it with? It’s sort of like a Heimlich maneuver. It’s like a desperate last attempt to save the thing, when it works. I don’t think it’s ever the normal, best way to achieve progress.

Ash Milton

And given what you were saying earlier, it sounds like you need to understand how the society you’re living in is structured. You mentioned centralized or decentralized. Perhaps if you study a person who responded in a society that was structured differently and you just take all their lessons to heart, but your context doesn’t allow for the same things, you will end up failing.

Samo Burja 

Of course! You can imitate something that’s completely ill-suited to your circumstances. Arguably, the brilliance of someone like Napoleon at the end of the day was that he understood when the lessons of Alexander the Great applied and when they did not apply, because, in fact, he understood quite well how, say, artillery changes things, or how Paris and France are very, very different countries from the Roman Empire at the time of Caesar. The balance of power and everything is quite different. It can be very harmful to be confused as to the nature of your society in this way. You might end up, in fact, producing perverse results. There are uncountable examples of attempted serious reform that weaken countries and weaken civilizations. And again, I want to emphasize, when I say the center, I don’t necessarily mean in government. You can have someone that is in the center of a civilization or in the very central heart of it, but doesn’t officially have a government position.

Ash Milton

Like the Pope in the declining Roman Empire.

Samo Burja

Exactly right. One way we could think about the papacy is that the papacy preserved itself and preserved the Catholic Church – the Roman state religion – past the decline of the Roman Empire. Maybe the brilliance of the Church was not being taken down with the Empire, so that’s also a viable thing. But in that case, you have to think: well, my institution was created in symbiosis with this thing. Can there be a church after the Empire? That was profoundly unclear. 

Again, there’s no large organized Zoroastrian religion after the fall of the Persian dynasties right after the conquest. If you were a Christian in the 4th century, you might not know that Christianity can outlast the Empire. It’s actually a significant achievement that it could. It means that you were essentially, over time, producing a whole new civilization. I think this reached fruition in the synthesis between the papacy and the Frankish warlords. Charlemagne sponsors the study of Latin and a revival of Latin law. However, this Latin law is applied in a context where it’s essentially this tribal feudal-ish society, this tribal society, translating into a feudal society, so completely different from Republican Rome. More like the early Kingdom of Rome. So even though the law might be super similar, the application is so different. This act of civilizational reengineering, necessarily, always is an act of civilizational creation, because so much of the intellectual dark matter has to be reinvented. 

So it can be implemented differently, right? It’s like finding the chassis of a car. You’re not obliged to put in an electric motor and you might, in fact, put an internal combustion engine into the same chassis and it might work better. Or if you’re really, really unlucky, you might just put a horse in front and call it a carriage.

Wolf Tivy

We have another question from Jeremy Real, who asks: who are some of the historical examples of individuals that are performing these repair or rebuilding functions other than, say, Charlemagne?

Samo Burja

Here’s an interesting argument. I think Alexander the Great was such a person because, usually, we consider him the person that ended the city-state and created the Greek Hellenistic empires, the Greek kingdoms that succeeded, and possibly even a template for the Roman Empire. Let’s remember that much as Napoleon admired Caesar and Alexander, Caesar himself and his contemporary Pompey both deeply admired Alexander the Great. There is the classical anecdote of the 30-year-old old Caesar crying and weeping in front of the statue of Alexander, bemoaning what all Alexander has achieved, and well, Caesar has done so little. Learning is by imitation, right? So I do think that there’s something that can be transferred between great founders and a society that’s aware of great founders will tend to produce more of them, if only through imitation and attempt, noting, of course, that Pompey fails and Crassus fails. So keep those attrition rates in mind.

You might think you’re Caesar, but you’re much more likely to be Pompey or Crassus. To actually answer the heart of your question, Alexander the Great produced a new form of Greek state. It’s my belief that even though we don’t have much written from Aristotle, Aristotle was an astute enough observer of humanity to realize that the city states of Greece were in his era quite dysfunctional. He, after all, had unfavorable run-ins with the Athenian government. There’s a reason he ended up being the tutor of Alexander the Great in this court in Macedonia, which was at the time considered half-barbarous. It was considered barely Greek. Why were they so focused on horsemanship instead of ships? So I think that Alexander the Great qualifies. 

He found a new formula for Greek society to operate politically. It preserved and even caused a flourishing of Greek technology over time. The aqueduct is not a Roman invention. It’s an invention of these Greek kingdoms that preceded Alexander’s conquest. They were all over Asia Minor and Central Asia. It’s good to remember that every place we might today think of as Islamic was essentially Greek-speaking in this period, as a consequence of Alexander’s conquest. There were Greek cities, Greek citizens, and Greek speakers in modern day Afghanistan. Or there was a Greek Kingdom all the way in India. And this definitely shaped future society. 

I won’t go into as much depth for other founders, but I will say Confucius. I think Charlemagne is more like the creation of a new one rather than reform. But I think Confucius counts as reform. I would say, Alexander the Great would. As I stated, I think that there’s a strong, strong argument to be made that Augustus is also such a such a figure. Once the Republic is no longer viable, you can maintain some of the features of the Republic. But fundamentally, you need to build something new. You need to build a new type of political system and machine that can work. And not only a new type of political system, arguably a whole different system of public religion. Religion in the Roman context was not separated from the state. 

Arguably, Constantine the Great is another such example with the integration of Christianity. There are some more interesting examples of people who would be seen more as reformers than founders. There’s a strong argument to be made that, assuming America is a world-historically important society, civilization, or fragment of Western civilization – I think an argument can be made just on the basis of its 20th century track record – I think Abraham Lincoln is straightforwardly a reformer, and possibly single-handedly shapes it more than most other Founding Fathers. I can say “most other founding fathers,” even though he’s 60 years later, and that that intuitively makes sense is testament to what a big reforming figure he is, for better or worse. Unsurprisingly, I also think Bismarck created the modern nation-state proper. So I think Bismarck also counts as a reformer in this sense.

Ash Milton

That’s a very good list. On your earlier point about the Islamic world, I think there’s often too little consciousness in the West that several Islamic empires, but especially the Ottoman explicitly considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire. It’s interesting to look at when these refounders or conquerors come about, who they themselves are taking as their own inspiration. I do want to get to Siavash’s question which has been pretty popular with the listeners. Siavash asks, what are some objective metrics that can be used to evaluate whether an institution or a civilization is declining? He proposes perhaps net out-migration or low savings rates. What metrics do you use?

Samo Burja

Wow, that’s an interesting question. I think most of the modern measures are in a way too attuned to a bureaucratic framework that might not survive it. What is net savings? If wealth is fleeing from a monetary medium? You could imagine a world where people are trying to stash assets in land rather than stuff that’s denominated in dollars or whatever. I also think that if you have a failing society, you might have incorrect numbers coming in or out. I think it’s possible to establish a few things. I think, for example, in the late Roman period, you had a decline in atmospheric lead pollution. This isn’t because the Romans invented green technology. It’s because they were mining much less. 

How do we know what the content of atmospheric lead is? We know because of the Greenland ice samples. The ice in Greenland, as it layered up, the small bubbles trapped basically atmospheric samples. Today, when we drill down into the ice, we can retrieve core samples and analyze the ice. There are all sorts of other physical measurements of byproducts. We could use things like how you know how much of the desert was irrigated, that’s like basically something you can just establish through material measures. I also think that it’s relatively more difficult but viable to track population size. 

I think, almost always, a society with declining population sizes is a declining society. Something has just deeply gone wrong if human beings are failing to replace themselves. I’m not even saying that they should replace themselves. I’m just saying that if you were looking at an animal and the animal stops breeding in captivity, it’s clearly because of some difference between captivity and its wild environment. I think perhaps right now, we have accidentally put ourselves in captivity because almost all advanced industrial societies have this failure mode. 

I think though more than low fertility, I’m thinking sudden population crashes when societal infrastructure fails. Key examples of this would be the aftermath of the Yellow Turban Rebellion, popularly known as the Three Kingdoms period, where China has a drop in population over the period of 60 years. That is, I think, a two thirds population drop. That didn’t happen through low fertility, okay? That happened through starvation. Probably some of it through disease and some of it through just direct killing. While the period of the Three Kingdoms is romanticized, that is a catastrophic drop in population size and arguably a catastrophic drop in societal complexity. There is a nonlinear relationship between population size and complexity. 

Also, I think that the late Bronze Age collapse is another great example. We just see a massive population decline. So, you can have material measures to track various kinds of production going down, you can have population drops, which can be figured out through things like examining how many people are in the cities, whether their cities are being abandoned or not, or just by like looking at their official figures, such as censuses, assuming the censuses are accurate. 

Finally, the loss of key indicating technologies. What’s the most fragile technology you can think of? It’s a little bit like a canary in the coal mine, right? You might see, as toys – not as methods of production – but as toys, steam engines in Alexandria at its peak. You won’t see toy steam engines in Alexandria when it’s declined. Likewise, you might see as arguably very expensive physics toys, the Large Hadron Collider today, but if these colliders were no longer built, while the justification for their building remains, likely something has gone wrong, something has gone a little bit off. We should be suspicious of things such as “Well, we are so rich now, we are so much richer than we were 50 years ago that we can’t possibly afford something as expensive as the Apollo missions”. There should be something weird there. That’s a little bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? These are not completely sure, but if you saw several of these indicators, it’s a good sign.

Ash Milton

What I’m taking from your statement about looking at lead levels, is that we today would think of this as a good thing, but it’s probably a sign of decline. I’m also thinking here of when urban dwellers in the late Western Roman Empire were abandoning the cities to live in monastic communities, for example, they themselves experienced that probably as an improvement in their own lives. But we know that in looking at the broad social level, it ended up being a decline, you could even look at how a surplus which is no longer reinvested in productive activity and civilization might sometimes get spent on gargantuan monuments which we think of as wonders of the world, but in those societies perhaps were signs that they could no longer be productive in other ways. So, I think you’re making an excellent point here, where sometimes we only know in the historical hindsight, that something was actually a sign of decline.

Samo Burja

It’s difficult, but I think, in general, societal capacity is something that you know it when you see it. Like in something like intellectual creativity or flourishing, or the creation of new entirely new traditions of knowledge. That’s something that’s way trickier to establish. Because there, the material in question is less preserved. For all we know, we have the intellectual history of the Roman Empire completely wrong. It’s all a matter of these sorts of obscure effects where we see certain pieces of literature and we don’t see other pieces of literature. It might be their censors because of religious or political frictions, or it might just be lost due to happenstance, so the intellectual imprint is always weaker. But if you have a good intellectual imprint, if you’re certain of it, I would add this as a fourth indicator, like a lack of any sort of intellectual production. Finally, I’m going to say I know of no great society without exceptional people.

Wolf Tivy

Interesting!

Ash Milton

Matt asks a question which takes us more to Silicon Valley: one common view in Silicon Valley is that technology lets us escape and route around politics. You can decentralize your way out of Washington, D.C. or something like that. You wrote at Palladium recently that material technology is often downstream of social technology and the institutions that exist. Given that, how should people in tech be thinking about politics and about social technology?

Samo Burja

Let’s put it this way. Every technology exists in a social context. By producing something intensely technological, you are always – without exception – producing something intensely social. I think by making something that’s more powerful technologically, that replaces a previous piece of perhaps intangible social technology, you’re always making yourself more the center of attention, and more a power player not less. So the idea of exit through technological progress seems the ideal of the absentee landlord.

I think it’s much better to think of it as like, if I am building new technology, if I’m replacing social systems, then it befalls me or befalls people like me to steward society. In a way, if you look at, say, coverage of Mark Zuckerberg, the coverage is split. It’s outraged that Facebook is doing, like, censorship and privacy violations, and on the other hand, people are outraged that they’re not using their powers to mold elections and mold public discourse. In a way, I would almost say that the second complaint is more real. Facebook has become extremely powerful, and we are upset with Facebook or rather, with Zuckerberg, that he is not ruling us.

We’re upset that they’re not thinking about society. I think that my formulation would be that technologists that strive to remain ignorant of politics and society will encounter ever worse pushback as they try to innovate. And founders or technologists that keep society in mind and accept both responsibility and limits, but also accept the reality of their personal power, will be able to innovate without limit. And I would argue that Bezos for example is very good at thinking about politics. Now, we might not agree with the direction of his politics or whatever, or we might agree that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he is not disliked in the same way, because he clearly does engage with the power structure. He doesn’t he doesn’t have the illusion that he’s outside of society. He’s not anti-social quite in that way.

Ash Milton  

And so perhaps he gets more goodwill from the people that do approve of his actions.

Samo Burja  

Somewhat. I think that, technological innovators, perhaps their desire for decentralization is coming from the very real feeling that technology is being choked off. I think that’s happening. I think Silicon Valley is no longer the center of innovation. I think that has moved to China. But I think China is much less productive than Silicon Valley was at the peak of its productivity. So I think the desire for decentralization, I can empathize with it. I think it’s a desire to alleviate the symptoms of malaise.

Ash Milton  

Do you think that, looking at people like Zuckerberg and Bezos, that they built these companies that are also social technologies? To what degree is it possible to build something thinking it’s just a material technology and actually output something that’s a powerful social technology? Do you have to actually be aware that you’re building a social technological institution? Or can you do it by accident, so to speak?

Samo Burja

You don’t have to think of it as a social technological institution. Just think of it as changing human behavior or believing it’ll change human behavior. Certainly there’s found innovation. It’s just that the most potent things historically have many moving parts. But let’s consider when America’s founding fathers are setting up the Constitution, how many moving parts are there in that design? That’s way too many to be unaware of what you’re doing. The same is true when it comes to a significant reform of the Church or when it comes to Rockefeller’s innovations in the industrial sector. There are too many interlocking parts. I think there are a few cases where a very naive discovery of something might result in massive changes, but again, I think it’s usually something that takes into account many, many different factors. Hopefully, that answers the question, but feel free to rephrase it again, if I didn’t quite answer it.

Ash Milton 

No, I think that was a fleshed out answer. Wolf, do you want to grab another question?

Wolf Tivy

Sure. So, Juan Manuel Segura asks: does society have to have its own consistent theory of history for great founders to work on that society? Or does it work when society has kind of lost its identity and doesn’t know how to think about history and how to think about itself? How do great founders react to, say, a situation where there’s a whole host of theories of history competing for prominence?

Samo Burja

I think that’s a great time. I think it can be a wonderful time of ideological competition. This is a relatively fragmented society, right? Again, the classic example might be the Hundred Schools period in Chinese history. Or it might be the 19th century in European history or possibly the 20th century. You can have a period of intense ideological competition with their radically different theories of history motivating very different factions resting on very different stacks of social technology. The theory of history of the Mohists is as distinct from the theory of history of the Legalists as the theory of the Soviet Union is from the theory of the United States during the Cold War, or even more so like Nazi Germany versus the Soviet Union. 

Ideally, they should be evidence-based, so if you see low belief, low understanding, low action at this relatively ambitious scale, versus a lot of activity on rapidly changing ideas, these are two different environments. One of those is an intellectually relatively dead environment. The other one is an intellectually very generative environment. You might have a lack of coherence because of overabundance of thinking on how history is happening or just because of the death of awareness where this kind of old ideology has been eroded away. These old understandings and beliefs have been eroded away almost into nothing, yet, nothing is happening, almost like a kind of heat death situation. 

I think the heat death situation is actually super unstable and very artificial. You can imagine it towards the end of a particularly dysfunctional Egyptian dynasty, or you can imagine it at the end of a particularly dysfunctional Chinese dynasty. But it feels like it’s very fragile, because there’s always an outside world, and the outside world has individuals that are motivated and other bases of power and infrastructure that might overcome your very, very stagnant society. But just to try to get to the crux of it, I think Great Founder Theory holds whether or not people believe in it. Because almost any social theory you might believe will change the function of society if it’s believed at scale. But in a way, Great Founder Theory is somewhat invariant. If people think it’s true, it’s only even more true and if people don’t believe it’s true, it’s still kind of true, actually.

Ash Milton

But if acted on, can a society structure itself in such a way as to create more great founders? I think they can.

Samo Burja 

Yes, I think they can. But it’s not going to be a big aware effort. It’s going to be like a very narrow institutional effort for human excellence.

Ash Milton

Do you think that, with founders, water travels to the lowest place? If there is an area in society where there has been a significant amount of decay, is that a place where we might expect to see either, if not more great founders, at least more people trying to be great founders, disrupting something that seems ossified, or how do you think about this?

Samo Burja  

I think that the most important thing often is that there is a resource base that the founders can command. So if the circumstances are too challenging, then the difficulty is higher. Then probabilistically you just expect fewer of them. This is what I mean by stochastic. It might be that an individual in a very tranquil society can change everything, but it’s very unlikely that they arise. I don’t quite know how to predict the probabilities of such individuals. I think that would be an extremely interesting research project. Probably best left for the next civilization, I think we’re probably not going to have the ability to crack that one. But the socio-emotional learning or the acquiring of both the right type of information and retaining the ability to act on that information, this seems to be exceedingly hard for human beings.

We seem to very easily slip out of it or fall out of it, or go into a lower energy or more stable state. In a way you could think of it as live versus dead players. I think live players can go dead and dead players very infrequently go live. I think this is almost an anthropological claim. People burn out way more than they are inspired or transformed. For every time Joan of Arc receives the revelation from God, about 10 or 15 people have to lose belief in life or lose belief in their ability to shape the world through knowledge. Maybe 1000, maybe thousands is the actual right ratio. I don’t know. It’s just lopsided.

Wolf Tivy 

Pulling together a bunch of different threads here about revolution, about theories of history, and about founding the great archetypal mythologies that we have in society: there’s this moment, after a revolution, or after some large institutional change, or with the founding of some new dominant institution where the mythology becomes society’s new framework for interpreting things. It’s like these large institutions often carry along with them an ideology. And this relates also to what we were talking about with Russia reinterpreting its history to integrate all these different things. I would just be curious to hear you talk more about how great founders, through their efforts, can plan and take into account these longer term effects of the grand mythological narratives that they end up founding and how much these are themselves institutions in a way that end up shaping subsequent civilization.

Samo Burja

It’s this deep spectrum where different civilizations have fallen on different ends of it. If we think about it in one way, there are kind of only two or three societies that have really embarked on rigorous historical analysis in the way we would understand it. So you could say China of a certain time period with the records of the grand historians, Greece with paragons like Thucydides, and early modern Europe. I would actually argue that right now we are transitioning from a society with a strong awareness of the past and the physical realities of the past towards a society with low awareness of the physical reality of the past. I think we’re actually transitioning out of a society that’s capable of having long term reflective historic memory, like early modern Europe, Greece, and China. 

This doesn’t however mean we lose all track of it. Again, the mythological component is another way to refactor history. You might not remember the particular lawgiver, but you might remember a particular story about Zeus, you might confabulate it or create it. And that type of memory can also be very potent or arguably can last for a very long time. There have been some claims with analysis of language and analysis of folk tales that there are folk tales that have stayed basically unchanged for about 10-12,000 years. The arguments on that are interesting; people can Google that if they want. One one has to be careful with them. Linguistic analysis is always very tricky. The question is how much one should believe the theories of linguists.

My point being, historical memory isn’t an intended choice and requires a certain type of apparatus in society to even access. So direct material facts of the past – mythological memory  – is usually available, though even myths can be subsumed and destroyed with explicit ideology. Because let’s remember what the term pagan meant. It meant rural backwater.

Ash Milton  

The country people.

Samo Burja 

The country people keep on sacrificing stuff and leaving beads and flowers next to the streams, even though we tell them good Christians don’t do this. And a few centuries later, will the country people like to keep giving beads and flowers to saints in the river even though we’ve told them no good Protestant does this? And today we might say, again, the country people keep having these local superstitions even though they’re not scientific. It’s this kind of memory that’s possibly emotional. It’s cached. It needs interpretation. 

You can have more or less sensitivity to mythological traditions as well. You can have more or less ability to reason about your environment. So I would say that the historical civilizations that track material history will communicate to each other through the depths of time. I think something like the Pyramids continues to shape history to this day. I think, were the Pyramids not constructed, 19th century British imperialists, 17th century Ottoman imperialists, and 10th century Arab rulers would have been less reflective on the transience of empire. 

The British Empire was keenly aware of its own mortality, and otherwise might have been blissfully unaware. Maybe the Pyramids aren’t enough, maybe the Romans need not have left ruins of a certain type. But I think there’s this fact that for societies that do rely on historical memory, these large material artifacts, but also the trajectory of past societies, are very important. They are facts about the world that shaped their beliefs. Again, why in the world is there a causal chain from Alexander the Great to Napoleon? It’s only because of historic memory.

Ash Milton

So Samo, I assume you’re working on how to transmit Great Founder Theory to the next civilization.

Samo Burja 

I mean, obviously, right? We’re still working on the Pyramid. It’s being constructed. It’s like this nice ziggurat-style structure. I think you guys might give us some advice on that.

Ash Milton 

If they wall off part of the Bay Area, now you know why, yeah? Yeah, we’ll figure it out soon.

Wolf Tivy  

Well, we’re just about out of time for the recorded section, Samo. Thank you so much for coming on. This is a very interesting discussion. We’re definitely looking forward to having more of your work at Palladium Magazine. You can follow Samo over on Twitter at @SamoBurja. He archives all his writing and talks at SamoBurja.com. Thanks to the audience for the great questions. Special thanks to all our Palladium members for coming out and supporting us! To become a member and get invited to our upcoming salons, please visit us at palladiummag.com/subscribe. And remember to subscribe to Palladium Magazine on YouTube and follow us on Twitter at @palladiummag. So thanks everyone. We’ll see you next time.

Samo Burja 

Thanks guys. Thank you for having me on the show.