08 May, 2007

On Sects

Like one of my cousins, Mencius Moldbug 'made a score in a recent dot-com boom', and now 'lives in San Francisco, where he is temporarily retired from the software industry'. He describes himself as a 'generalist without portfolio', which is of course my sort of generalist. Here's his manifesto, which was championed out of obscurity by the popular blogger Michael Blowhard a fortnight ago. Now, Mencius is rather fond of creating schemas, especially sociological ones: 'It's always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology'. Lately he's been propounding a caste-system of American society. He defines caste as 'a social group with its own internal status system', and lists five—the Brahmin (artists, scientists, scholars, doctors, lawyers, Ivy Leaguers), the Dalit (criminals), the Helot (Hispanic peasants), the Optimate (old money upper-class types), and the Vaisya (none of the above, or, Middle America).

This schema has had a mixed response from Moldbug's readership, which is already considerable, thanks partly to Blowhard. One commenter remarked,
Arbitrary and vague. Consider the following list of occupations which do not submit to any of the status systems as you define them:

* investment banker
* political lobbyist
* priest
* immigrant shopkeeper
* professional athlete
Mencius dealt patiently and convincingly with this objection, and its author concurred. Another commenter suggested a division more or less resembling the British class-structure:
Upper upper (old money)
Lower upper (new money)
Upper middle (doctors and lawyers)
Lower middle (bookkeepers and secretaries)
Upper lower (food service and manufacturing)
Lower lower (ghetto youth)
Still others sought to refine or develop Moldbug's classifications.


Anthropologists have always interpreted society in terms of hierarchies. The most popular model in the West, from Plato to Dumézil and beyond, has always been the three-caste system of worker, fighter and priest (or commoner, noble and clergy). This corresponds roughly to the Indian system of Sudra/Vaisya, Ksatriya and Brahmin. What's unusual about Moldbug's proposal, apart from his slightly odd reuse of the Dalit or untouchable caste, is that his groups are not ranked. He says so explicitly: 'I have ordered them alphabetically to avoid any implicit ranking'. In a fundamental way, therefore, he is deviating from the very notion of the caste.

In this respect his post reminds me of a scholarly curiosity, Kok and Boehls' 1887 Die Sozialsekten, finally translated in 1969. This book, written long before the important work of Weber and Troeltsch in the sociology of religion, is an attempt to define the social strata of the modern world according to the patterns of religious sects through history. And that's not caste but sect, which the authors take in the general sense of 'religious partisan group'. The various 'sects' of our society are groups with competing ideological and even epistemological claims, but they have no Rangordnung between them.

Kok and Boehls' schema is too elaborate to give here in full, and in any event I don't understand it in its entirety, so I'll just offer a few examples. In the Middle Ages, one of the chief religious distinctions was between the groups who would go out and mingle with the world—the Franciscan and Dominican friars—and those who were cloistered and removed from it—the Carthusians and Trappists. Similarly, one of the chief social divisions of the modern world is between those who mingle in communities—these form the majority—and those who prefer an isolated, contemplative life: this group includes some religious parties as well as loners, artistic geniuses, sociopaths and scholars. Kok and Boehls label the first group durchdrigenden, the latter undurchdrigenden; these have been translated as 'penetrative' and 'non-penetrative' sects.

Another pair of categories, overlapping the first, sorts those who work towards preserving the status quo from those who act destructively against it. Here the religious and scholarly, as well as the professionals and nationalists, fall into the first category—the einwilligenden or 'consensual' sects—while loners and organised criminals, activists, lobbyists and so forth, fall into the second class—the uneinwilligenden. This division, which reflects something of the ancient conflict of Sadducee and Pharisee, is the closest approximation in their scheme to our political categories of 'conservative' and 'progressive'.

Arthur Boehls, a Jew, was particularly disturbed by the rise of anti-Semitism occurring in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century. He had, in fact, been personally attacked in print by the infamous Bernhard Forster. For this reason he takes the unusual step of giving the Jews their own class in German society, and acknowledging their multiplicity he labels them die fröhlichen Sekten, the 'gay sects'. Boehls digresses at some length in a defense and panegyric to the spirit of the Jewish people, who have survived and conquered hardship with a happy heart; his model is the intoxicated David, 'a man of good presence', and the joyful debates of the Talmud rabbis. To the Jews he contrasts (though not categorically) the anti-Semites, whose defining characteristic, transcending their religious and class differences, was their sinister and evangelistic zeal; he labels this group the missionarischen or 'missionary' sects. Kok, more interested in political than social issues, contributes the category of mündlichen or 'oral' sects, to describe the outspoken rhetors coming to define well-bred German politics in the 1880s.


All this categorization still feels quite strange to our ears—perhaps even distasteful—and we are hardly surprised to find that their bizarre model did not catch on. The work is riddled with confusions, and although undeniably rich in interpretive possibilities, it is never clear just what its authors meant to achieve by dividing society up in this manner. Unlike Moldbug, they say little about the communal goals or ideals of each sect, although they go into greater length about the dynamic of interrelations between the different sects, of which there are many more than I have listed.

But I suspect there isn't much point to any of this diagrammatic sort of thinking, sophisticated or not—it is what Hegel knew to be a 'castle in the air, having no existence except in the terror of a one-sided and empty formalism of thought'. And as Mencius himself admitted, 'I don't think any of this stuff makes any sense'. But surely we can excuse his theorising on the simple grounds that it is 'always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology'. And fun to read the results. After all, what more could I want from the Varieties itself?

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