Some Basics of Cynical Sociology

The hidden social order beneath our cultural obfuscations

Image by Gaurav D Lathiya, from

In the Information Age and the transition to knowledge economies, we’re liable to take our ideologies at face value. We identify with our public image that’s shaped by our commitments to certain free-floating ideas in the noosphere. Thus, we take seriously such dichotomies as conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, establishment/populism, theism/atheism, Christian/unsaved sinner, rich/poor, and Boomer/Millennial. That is, we use these concepts to make sense of what’s happening whereas we should be recognizing how they’re often just obfuscations.

Just as scientists blow past our intuitions and snap judgments, to determine how a situation’s underlying mechanisms work, we should be wary of paying too much attention to ideological labels. For example, we should experiment with more cynical models to uncover buried social patterns.

The Hidden Social Order of Leaders, Followers, and Outsiders

Consider first, then, that in a sufficiently large population that’s subject to genetic variation, there will be numerous natural inequalities having to do with differences in intelligence, strength, speed, compassion, courage, diligence, creativity, ambition, and so on. Some will be more intelligent or ambitious than others, for example, so initially these advantages and disadvantages will be distributed randomly in the population, although that randomness will disappear as the members organize themselves according to their skillsets and to how lucky they’ve been. We can think of these natural differences within the population as the members’ potentials for development.

Second, in civilization as in life in the wild, there’s a shortage of resources, including money, food, shelter, and mates, and thus there’s competition for the members that are driven to survive and to be happy. Even with charities, a compassionate religion, and a welfare state, we don’t have a post-scarcity society.

Third, and as a consequence of the second point, there’s no arbitrary way of equalizing the distribution of resources. At best, the outcome of the natural competition can be mitigated but it can’t be negated except by destroying the society. Eliminating the struggle for survival would require enough resources to satisfy all the desires of all the members. In short, we’d have to radically curtail our interests, by resigning ourselves to Buddhism, for example; alternatively, we’d have to be living in Heaven on Earth, and neither option is feasible. This is why communes and communist societies fizzle or degenerate into asymmetric arrangements, because the lack of sufficient resources to please everyone pressures the members to make hard choices that can’t be justified with the group’s religious or political ideals.

There you have the makings of a social order that hides in plain sight in virtually every group of people. In governments, businesses, universities, militaries, the arts, social clubs, sports teams, and families, this natural competition for resources plays out, which is perhaps most apparent in sports since they’re openly competitive. Thus in American football, differences in size and speed determine how resources are distributed in the teams. But every occupation or recreation is subject to a comparable sorting of the interested individuals, depending on the qualities they can bring to bear in their struggles.

The social order that’s hidden by ideological rationales has roughly three positions you can occupy: leader, follower, and outsider. Let’s look at each in turn.

The leader in this context leads others in the pursuit of success in some endeavour. Notice that this isn’t the same as being the winner. In a large enough group such as a corporation or a military, most of the members will be leaders relative to others who are less successful than them and who thus follow them, but those leaders will also be followers relative to those who are more successful than them. A corporal outranks a private, but a corporal is outranked in turn by a sergeant.

Again, there are three primary causes of your success or leadership: your interests which draw you to certain competitions rather than others, your relevant strengths and weakness you apply in the competition, and luck which helps determine both your starting and your end points. For the same reason, luck and the relative scarcity of resources are both factors in this hidden social order: the competitions that matter most are self-organizing rather than established by a neutral intelligence with infinite resources. The exceptions, of course, are games and sports which have arbitrary rules, referees, and intelligent designers. But in the natural rather than wholly artificial conflicts, the playing field, as it were, isn’t ideal, so we work with what we have.

One universal trait that affects our behaviour in this masked social order is our susceptibility to being corrupted by our power over others in the race to lead the pack. The reason for this is that our brain is divided between its primitive impulses and socialized intelligence. We evolved to compete in the wilderness that prevailed millions of years ago, in which we often had to resort to physically overpowering each other or our prey. Force is typically outlawed in polite society, but the inevitable inequality in our groups presents opportunities to amuse ourselves covertly in the obsolete, taboo fashion.

What this means in practice is that the race to the top in material terms is simultaneously a race to the bottom in moral ones. The further ahead you are in the competition, the more power you have over those who follow you and who would be your rivals. The primitive part of your brain that’s titillated by the prospect of dominating others and disguising that abuse of power with an appeal to some ideology corrupts your character. A rule of thumb, therefore, is that leaders tend to be sociopaths; more precisely, the more you lead others and thus the more power you have over them, the less likely you are to preserve your conscience and empathy which might have counteracted the primitive thrill of overpowering lesser creatures with impunity.

The crucial characteristic of the follower — which distinguishes the follower from the outsider — is that the follower respects the system and competes in good faith, hoping to advance in her career or to produce higher-quality or more important work. By contrast, the outsider has been radicalized and seeks to reform or destroy the system that holds the competition.

The follower, as such, meaning the member of a group who follows more than leads or who has gotten used to being overpowered by others in the dominance hierarchy will be submissive in contrast to the more aggressive leader, since there are only two other options, both of which are blocked by definition. She can escape the covert domination from her more sociopathic superiors by radicalizing herself and becoming a hostile outsider, but her interest in and respect for the competition in question bar that option. Alternatively, she can advance to a higher position in the hierarchy, but as an overall follower, her ambition must be thwarted by the leaders who have been able to reinforce their more privileged position and whose success thus prevents her advancement. Those leaders will have greater skills and luck than her, which enabled them to advance that far in the first place.

Of course, everyone is an outsider in some respect, because we can’t join every competition or walk of life. But those who are principally outsiders in the hidden social order are those who fall through the cracks of social organization in general. These are the bohemians and the homeless, the mentally ill and the losers, the radicals and the mystics who have the least share of the society’s resources. These outsiders often turn to drugs, crime, comforting ideologies or suicide to alleviate their suffering.

Typically, the outsider is disenfranchised, resentful, and cynical, but the silver lining in her status as a virtual nonentity is that she stands outside the culture of self-serving ideologies and thus is liable to develop a fresh perspective. Revolutions in religion, art, and science are often initiated by social outsiders who can afford to see more clearly how the world works because they’re not beholden to the conventions that uphold a particular social hierarchy.

Notice that this bit of cynical sociology isn’t just Marxism or evolutionary psychology. I agree with Marx that ideology often conceals a more material reality, but there’s no need to think of that reality as a struggle between economic classes. Social systems develop the inevitable basic tripartite divisions for the above reasons and with the above provisos, regardless of where we are in history. And while we should agree with the evolutionary psychologist that we ought to recognize the animality of much of our behaviour, there’s no need to explain that behaviour as arising directly from how we managed to survive in our original, prehistoric environment. For example, much of our behaviour is exapted (co-opted) rather than adapted.

The Universal Social Order is Hidden because we’re Internally Divided

Let’s test this sociological model by applying it to some apparent counterexamples. Some wealthy people, after all, are progressive or socialist rather than nakedly protective of their dominant position or barbaric in their lust for power. The philanthropy or liberalism of billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can be explained by noting their mixed hidden identity. Nerds who either get lucky, as in Zuckerberg’s case or who happen to combine their expertise with high ambition, as with Gates or Steve Jobs begin their struggle not as followers but as outsiders. They leap over the normal period of protracted competition, skyrocketing to enormous success and fame.

This mixed leader’s creativity and drive aren’t subdued by years of his serving as a wage slave, nor has he been conditioned to approve of petty acts of domination, because he hasn’t climbed the social ladder but has shot straight to the top of it. Thus this nerdy billionaire is free to follow his ideological whims which may include socialism, liberalism, or dalliances with a variety of cults and fads. Alternatively, the memory of being bullied or ostracized as a young nerd may present this mixed leader with the outsider’s objectivity and humility, which shame him into giving away his wealth and relinquishing some of his privileges.

Another complex case is known in American politics as the lower class that votes against its economic interest. In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank brought to the fore this mystery of why many blue-collar Americans, who have been victimized by globalization and neoliberal economic policies stubbornly vote for the Republican Party which champions the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the country.

That’s a standard ideological formulation of the problem, but let’s attend to the deeper social categories. In some respects, these working-poor Republicans are outsiders. They may have lost their job due to downsizing, outsourcing, or progress in the marketplace (as in the switch from coal-fired power to renewable energy), so they’re not productive members of American society. But rather than admit their share of the blame for their loss, and direct their resentment towards the sociopaths whose concentration of wealth warps the economy, these outsiders scapegoat easier targets such as foreigners or liberal elites, and protect their pride by playing up their patriotic sentiments. These virtual outsiders thus see themselves as the truest Americans and so they succumb to the patriotic or xenophobic rhetoric of Republican demagogues. In short, this is populism and its source in this case is a psychological defense mechanism for resentful outsiders, which is exploited by the shamelessness of certain leaders.

You can tell from such complexities that the universal social order is often hidden. The reason for that hiddenness is that we prefer how we seem from some ideological or idealistic perspective, as compared to our animal nature, so we’re reluctant to admit that much of our behaviour is encapsulated by outbursts of cynicism. We bury traces of our status as mere leaders, followers, or outsiders in an unfair competition for resources, beneath convenient, academic excuses and half-understood myths, and we do so because this hidden social order conforms to the structure of the dominance hierarchy that’s so prevalent in the animal kingdom, with its divisions between alphas, betas, and omegas.

We are, however, not wild animals; we’re internally divided and thus our excuses and fictions aren’t epiphenomenal, which is to say our goal of creating an artificial world governed by unnatural or anomalous laws can complicate the underlying pattern. Again, though, short of drastically lowering our living standards or acquiring infinite resources, such as by perfecting space travel, we may prefer to think of ourselves as primarily liberals or conservatives, doctors or patients, soldiers or artists, old or young, but we thereby overlook our more fundamental position. As far as nature would be concerned, we’re more or less corrupt leaders, more or less cowed followers, or more or less deranged outsiders, regardless of the trappings of our competitions; the rest is incidental or idle flattery.

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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