Many of my friends from high school are dead. The worst instance is the loss of two of my best friends that I spent countless hours of adventure with. Those dead also include the brothers, sons, boyfriends, and girlfriends of those close to my family. It includes the guy I looked up to in sixth grade, who mentored me in my social development. Not too unexpectedly, it includes that one kid in elementary school with a single dad. Unexpectedly, it includes that promising and beautiful girl who gave a great speech at a rally. They aren’t the only ones.
The deaths are just the start. Of the survivors, many are strung out, violently insane, living on the street, in jail, selling sex for money, or just too whacked out to be talked to. Some are surviving and recovering; others, I don’t know. I could tell you their stories, but we’d be here all day. Pour libations for the dead homies, but let’s give them their privacy.
I don’t want to paint too bleak of a picture. We grew up in a desirable middle-class suburb near the beach, a 30-minute walk from downtown. There were plenty of kids and little crime or overt social dysfunction. Our neighbors were mostly Anglos and Greeks, with a multicultural smattering of others. Our relatives, neighbors, and longtime countrymen presided over us in government. Whatever problems we had were our own. I go back occasionally and it’s still like that, a beautiful little slice of apparently happy civilization. If something is going wrong beneath all this, it’s hard to say what.
Our parents were respectable folk. They were executives, officials, professionals, and small business owners. Our schools were decent, with a high rate of university admissions. Some of these kids were in gifted programs, others were homeschooled, or in various alternatives. Outside of a few cases, there was no wretched poverty, underclass heredity, bad neighborhood, or particular institution that killed my friends.
In most cases, the immediate cause was drugs. It started with weed, alcohol, and cigarettes, and escalated into party drugs, psychedelics, and street drugs. Maybe half were ultimately killed by fentanyl, whether laced into other drugs, taken deliberately for a high, or used for something darker.
You might blame the Chinese drug lords trying their revenge for the Opium Wars, the Mexican drug lords pulling one over on the gringo, or the corrupt officials who let either of them push their poison into our country to begin with. But that doesn’t explain how these kids got into drugs in the first place. It doesn’t explain the insanity or the suicides.
You would be closer to the mark to blame rap music. It’s not polite to notice, but you couldn’t honestly deny it if you saw the fatal descent up close. Rap is almost deliberately concocted to lure kids into delinquent self-destruction. In the case of many of my friends, it did. And between the personalities and the producers, rap is much easier to blame on someone else.
But not everyone was into rap. You would also have to blame punk, alt-rock, and grunge. And anyway, most people don’t die when they listen to the wrong music. Nor does music explain the stories I’ve heard from the next school over where half the art scene is dead. Is art the problem? The subcultures were mostly an opportunistic infection, maybe just an aesthetic expression of the despair and confusion we didn’t know how to feel. Some kids didn’t entirely fit in, or fit too well into the wrong thing, and so they died. What’s weird is how many there were.
My own drug of choice was homebrew extremist ideology—anarchism, primitivism, transhumanism, monarchism, you name it. I’m an engineer at heart. Engineers take for granted that we can systematically understand the world. Statistically speaking, this leaves us especially vulnerable to extremism. But I think blessed is a better word. After all, it was the lapses into fashionable normalcy that took me closest to destruction, and discussing things you can’t say with trusted comrades that set me right. Say what you will about philosophical extremism, at least it’s an ethos. But it isn’t attainable for most people. It couldn’t save my friends.
You and Your Idols
One of the most tragic parts of the loss of childhood friends to social dysfunction is how distant and cold it all is. By the time your friends are dead, they may have alienated themselves for years. They may have had no support left because they made themselves unsupportable. If there is a funeral, you don’t hear about it. There is no emotional catharsis. How does it affect the community? There is no community. You can only process it intellectually and ideologically.
One of my friends who survived her teenage delinquency phase now works in the anonymous bureaucracy responsible for those who didn’t quite make it. Some of the people dying on the street are our childhood friends. She is not really allowed to do much or talk much about it. Under our legal and ideological system, they have to want to help themselves. To fight too hard to save them would violate their autonomy. But most are far past that point; all we can do is pray for them.
We reflect together on what went wrong. We have few answers. We agree that the parents were ignorant of all this. They had only distant sanitized relationships with their children. Their children could not participate in their parents’ society, so they found their own, which killed them. There were neighbors, but none with the insight or authority to correct us. The official authorities all had their hands tied by procedural boundaries. Anyway, they were just another distant system of prison wardens to be evaded. All anybody could do was wring their hands.
In some older books, we read about societies with a thick multigenerational social fabric, and the freedom to talk about and act on their problems. If something was wrong, an intervention could hope for the support of neighbors and family friends close enough to be helpful. But that all sounds very alien to us. We never saw anything like that. The best we got was a desperate intervention by single parents, or implicit moral guidance from having parents with their own solid networks. Still, it made the difference for some of us.
A common question in response to stories like these is “Oh, are you from a downscale background?” No. This isn’t one of those feel-good human interest stories about the particular dysfunctions of someone else’s disadvantaged community. There is a class dimension in who survived, but it’s interesting how much people try to confine the problem like that.
I’ve met ambitious and intelligent people from all over, and I’ve heard the same stories from them or even watched them destroy themselves in real-time. I’ve seen it play out in people from the West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, elite prep schools, and humble rural counties. It’s not just one demographic; it’s everywhere, in a way we haven’t quite acknowledged or internalized in public. The class angle is only that a bit of wealth, intelligence, and a strong family insulate you from the worst ravages of these failures. But even then, the insulation is thin.
As for the rest of us, it’s easy to imagine that, unlike our classmates who became the drug addicts screaming at strangers on the street, we have done well for ourselves. We got our educations, built our companies, and found our social and physical homes. Many of you even became rich and famous. Unlike the zombies, we all suppose that we made it.
But when I ask some of my acquaintances who managed to stay on the tracks of relative success what they want, the answers aren’t promising. They want to make the next level of management. They need some particular aspirational lifestyle aesthetic. They are looking for their perfect “romantic partner(s).” They are staking it all on getting their kids into the right schools. They are finding themselves, putting off their own needs, trying to save the world, and getting prestigious jobs working on fashionable causes. They think what’s happening on MSNBC or Tucker Carlson is crucially important. These are all plausible in their proper context, but something feels off.
I used to make fun of my friends for their obsessions with clothing brands, lifestyle aspirations, music subcultures, and social performances. It didn’t work. People think of social failure just in terms of drugs, mental illness, and suicide. But in practice, there are years of desperate attempts to fit in somewhere before that. People go all-in on these weird subcultures with plausible but false values. They think that if they push deeper into the aesthetic, it will give them somewhere to belong. But it doesn’t work, so they go even harder. It’s the classic pattern in cults of all kinds, and it leads only to misery.
The aspirations of America’s upper middle class are less acutely self-destructive, but they remind me of the same obsessions. Some make sense, but they have a sense of desperate fantasy about them. Something isn’t working, so you attach yourself to consumptive identity performance or to the pursuit of socially constructed values in the hopes that there is some salvation. But that doesn’t work either. These obsessions don’t kill you. They’re bigger and more popular, filled with more competent and functional people, and have more of an element of rationality to them. But I can see the same mechanics of false value, escalating identity performance, and a trajectory toward destruction. Only this time, it’s not just a few high school kids on the fringes, but a whole society.
I remember reading once, in response to America’s junk food problem, that you shouldn’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. It’s a good rule. As I read over ancient stories with my kids, it strikes me that most of us are chasing things that the biblical Abraham wouldn’t recognize as valuable. Maybe that would make a good rule too. Abraham is an archetypal example of rejecting false value and sticking to the hard substance of life. He would recognize our pursuit of prestige, financial wealth, and lifestyle aesthetics as false idols, not even worth the cheap materials they are fashioned from.
The Problem of Trustworthy Social Perspective
Your values are a bet on what is best in life. There are multiple answers that work, but this is not a subjective question. If your value instincts are good, the world rewards you with power and life. If you make the wrong bets on what to do with your life, you end up unsuccessful or dead. If someone else can influence your values for their own purposes, you can end up slaving your life away for something that has nothing to do with your own real interests. I think this is what happened to my friends, and what is happening to many of you.
The self-destructive lifestyles that take our friends don’t just happen spontaneously; they are ideological subcultures sustained by the activities they teach. The parties bring in new people, the drugs are a sort of initiation, the clothes are a uniform that identifies you as bought in, and the music and media supply a steady stream of ideals and ingroup perspective. Even diets serve as ingroup markers and separate you from outsiders.
The resulting alienation from friends and family removes you from countervailing influences. All of these contribute to the social reproduction of the subculture and whatever values it teaches. If a lifestyle of partying, drugs, and alienation finally turns deadly, that’s fine as long as the average participant has by that point initiated enough new blood to sustain that lifestyle. When I’ve tried to talk to people who are on these paths, their answers are bizarre. They think it’s all good for them, and anyone questioning it is an enemy. It’s like talking to someone in a cult.
Likewise, behind the anxieties that drive America’s upper middle class are the employers, schools, lifestyle brands, and political causes that are only too happy to feed those fears. As soon as you get too much of your social perspective from the society you live in, you are in danger. Whatever institutions can get your ear will teach you whatever values most efficiently motivate you for their own purposes. They’ll gladly feed you suggestions that have nothing to do with your own real interests, as long as it’s useful to them to do so. It would be too real to pay you in actual power, actual freedom, and actual vitality, so instead you’ll be taught to accept payment in slavecoin.
Slavecoin is anything that is apparently valuable from inside the spectacle, but in fact, offers no possible independence from it, and can’t be redeemed for hard vital power. Slavecoin is fake in its substance: think of all the prestige, credentials, career attainment, identity validation, pleasures, luxuries, and financialized wealth that no longer buys power. These things seem valuable and have extensive social narratives backing them up. But when viewed skeptically from outside the system, there is much less substance there than the trusted social consensus would lead you to think.
When I look at the things my friends were into before they destroyed themselves, this is what I see: false value sold to them by institutions and subcultures that have no structural reason to care about their real interests. But this applies to far more people than just the few that didn’t make it. Almost everybody is trapped in some kind of propaganda complex, wasting their lives working for effectively nothing.
I met someone recently who was very much woke to this. She came from some kind of old-money family and still had the privilege to opt out of the rat race. She knew that everyone was caught up in false neuroses taught to them by systems of extraction. But as she explained how she was desperately trying to keep her son out of those patterns, I could smell the same old sulfur. Her conspiracy theories and psycho-social hypochondria were well-intentioned, but they were overblown, ungrounded, and of simply insufficient quality. She knew what to avoid, but sanity is much harder than that.
Your social perspective, which includes your values, is a complex living system. It contains not just bets on what is most important, but also all the practical life wisdom that supports and implements those values, and defensive responses to the various counterarguments life and critics will throw at you. This is too big for you to produce by yourself. It is too big to even maintain by yourself. Like any other product of industry, a sane social perspective requires an extensive and trustworthy supply chain of information, ideas, and values bringing together the work of many other people.
In a healthy social fabric, people talk to their kin and neighbors, who mostly have similar interests and share direct experience of what works for them. They maintain traditions of wisdom inherited from past generations. This makes for a trustworthy supply chain to form a robust social perspective. They can easily reject false value and keep each other grounded. This is what our neurotic friend with the vulnerable son lacked. This is what we lacked growing up. Trustworthy social perspective formation is what is missing in our society, and it is this that explains our strange social problems. For a variety of historical reasons, our social fabric is substantially weaker than it should be.
Without being able to triangulate to a trustworthy shared social perspective, you are stuck between getting taken for a ride by propagandists and collecting kooky conspiracy theories. No matter how hard you try to be rational, you simply lack the logistical backing necessary for precision. Your social ideas will be crude and misfocused. You’ll scream at your friends and family, not knowing who you can trust. You’ll double down on crazy lifestyles, get deceived by false value, get lost in drugs, and die in your own vomit at a disturbingly elevated rate.
The obvious solution is to rebuild real social fabric, or otherwise systematically provision trustworthy social perspective. This is easier said than done, but not exactly new technology either. Many churches pull off partial solutions every day, and we all have our networks of trusted friends. Besides, a large amount of power is sitting on the table for whoever can do it properly.
The real problem is that there are many powerful and wealthy institutions in our society invested in the lies that keep people working for false value. Slavecoin is big business. Any effort to rebuild trustworthy social perspective would very quickly threaten these lies and thus find powerful enemies in these groups. To avoid picking those fights, we accept taboos that stop thought short of the danger. The taboos themselves not only cover up the very lies we want to question but also degrade any discourse or social fabric we might otherwise create that could cast doubt on their trustworthiness.
How can we build a free and healthy social fabric that also reliably keeps the arbitrary taboos imposed from outside? Only by compromising its freedom or health. To the extent that we manage to keep the existing taboos in our discourse, we can not actually be trusted to come to real answers.
This makes both social fabric and trustworthy social perspective intensely political problems. It also gives some clues as to how the whole social apocalypse is locked in. If the fundamental crisis is one of low trustworthiness in social perspective formation, and if powerful groups and institutions are taking advantage of that crisis with their own cults of false value, then we have a vicious feedback loop. Those powers will reinforce the conditions that degrade trustworthiness.
At the end of the day, this is not an abstract problem. Lack of trustworthy social perspective manifests in people flailing around looking for something or someone they can trust, but not having enough social support to get it right—or to even survive the attempt. The social fabric, meanwhile, is itself degraded by the imposed taboos of many false value cults, though not always in direct or obvious ways. And so, kids grow up without effective neighbors to guide them into healthy life.
It may still be narrowly rational for most people to swallow their doubts and accept the slavecoin deal—to stay on track, chase the credentials, stack the retirement fund, believe whatever they hear in the official news, and play out prepackaged identity performances. At least it doesn’t kill you. But the deal is getting worse as the system itself gets tangled up in its own taboos, fails to produce even the slavecoin payouts, and continuously invents new and increasingly bizarre demands for compliance.
Taken together, these mechanisms mean that value grounding is a hard epistemic problem. It’s too big and difficult for you to figure it out by yourself. It is unhygienic to get your values from the society you live in. Sometimes you can trust your neighbors and kin, but often they are just as confused as you.
Well-grounded values, which is to say values that actually serve and accelerate life rather than deplete it, come from only one source: hard engagement with reality, where you can form an experience-building feedback loop of trial, error, and vitality. Call it evolution, science, revelation, or just clear seeing—that’s the only way real knowledge gets built about anything.
But you don’t have to do it by yourself. In practice, besides direct engagement with nature you have many secondary sources of information: your genetic instincts, representing the accumulated struggles of your ancestors; your own traditions of life wisdom, built up and hopefully passed down to you; the ways of life you can find in the healthiest times and places in history; and the examples of singular great men of history who achieved a bright flame of life. The key is to actually study these yourself, without intermediation by institutions that may have their own purposes for you.
This is still not enough, because your context is not theirs. Your challenges are not theirs. And you have only limited insight from these sources. You do have to face the very political challenge of collaborating with others to build up a trustworthy social perspective, even against the inevitable conflict with the existing balance of power. But these sources of insight into true value can be immensely valuable for getting your basic orientation in place.
I mentioned Abraham as an example of someone you might borrow some wisdom from on the value question. He is a great case study of someone from the deep past whose story is not particularly distorted by anyone trying to deceive you right now, who achieved great vital results, who himself painstakingly but successfully built up a trustworthy value perspective for his own people, primarily by direct engagement with natural law. And his story was written down for precisely this purpose, so it is a good rule to ask what Abraham would think of the values you pursue.
Abraham’s Transvaluation of Values
Three millennia ago, man once again struggled to find reality between the proliferation of false idols. Every city in Mesopotamia, then the richest and most developed center of civilization, had its own cults and gods. For a camp of nomadic herdsmen like Terah and his son Abram, it all looked very suspicious.
Perhaps with their mobile perspective, they could see better than others that these cults all worshipped their own brand of nonsense, and all contradicted each other. Perhaps they could see that something had gone sour and these civilizations would soon perish by their own lies. Whatever the reason, though they traded and gained in Ur, they eventually left for the land of Canaan. Terah settled halfway in Harran, but something called his son to keep going to found a whole new people and transcendent ethos, and eventually to take the new name that we know him by—Abraham.
We now translate the thing that called Abraham forward as “the LORD” or “God almighty,” but thousands of years of built-up ontological baggage do not necessarily help us understand what the authors of Genesis were getting at. The original word is closely related to a verb meaning simply “to exist” or “to cause.” It later identified itself to Moses as “I am.” In a more familiar cosmology, we might understand it as the living will of existence as such, the fundamental power behind all nature and contingent life.
New atheists make fun of monotheism for correctly disbelieving in almost all god cults and then somehow tripping up and falling into idolatry again at the feet of the last one. But the whole point of the book of Genesis is that Abraham’s God was not, or grew not to be, the same kind of thing at all. Where the local cults divinized non-total pieces of creation like the sun or moon, Genesis says these are just lights in the sky and tools for man. It implied that nature was governed by rational and exacting law, more true and more real than the arbitrary customs of the cults.
The thing Abraham was listening to was not some simple cult idol, but the living creative force behind and inside all of nature as such. You could joke that Abraham was the first atheist, but this would miss the point of how devoted he was to this divine Will behind nature. Whatever we call it, what Abraham saw with his prophetic ability to hear this voice was that something about staying in Ur or Harran was against natural law. So he took a leap of faith and trusted in Providence to deliver.
Abraham rejected the cults and their false and unnatural values. Instead of valuing the socially constructed and overly entangled values of the societies around him, Abraham expected a reward in the values natural to living existence. The various revelations he heard amounted to “I will make you a great nation. I will make your offspring as numerous as the dust on the ground and the stars in the sky. I will give them a great land, taken from those who sin against me. I will make your name great. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. Through you, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.”
The values invoked are significant: multiplication of biological kin, sovereign control of living space, eternal fame, rewards to friends and punishments to enemies, a universal benevolent impact, and harmony with the plans and laws of God and nature. These are things that, unlike slavecoin, have a very hard material existence outside of any particular symbolic social system. They are not the product of moralism, propaganda, or symbol manipulation. They are the fruits and substance of true life and true independence. This is the ball that Abraham kept his eye on in all his dealings.
It’s easy to imagine that disengagement with false value also means a retreat out of the center of degenerate civilization. But Abraham’s story was not in an obscure place. He was right in the high-speed center of civilization at the cutting edge of history. His tribe had built up their wealth in and around Ur, one of the major cities of the greatest center of civilization at the time. His wife was taken by Pharaoh when he was forced to enter Egypt, but Abraham was not helpless in the face of this corruption. He maneuvered the situation to not only recover his wife but also to make a substantial profit in livestock and servants.
But at the same time, he also fully had the ability and habit to leave with his profits, cashing them out in the hard natural value of independent existence with his own material base of production and security. He had one foot in the absolute cutting edge of history, and one foot fully outside of its symbolic spectacles and control structures.
Abraham’s tribe was no meek band of homeless wanderers, either. It was a strong house that needed much territory and could field hundreds of soldiers against his enemies. After his adventures in Egypt, Abraham’s camp had grown too large to occupy any one place. He and his nephew Lot decided to split the tribe, giving Lot the first choice of territory. Lot chose the rich and productive valley around Sodom, and Abraham took his camp off into the trees. Abraham was willing to take what was apparently the worse option, perhaps because he knew that in a place like Sodom, apparent wealth can be misleading.
When Sodom was raided by foreign kings, Lot was taken captive. When Abraham heard of this, he came armed with 318 trained soldiers from his household and raided the enemy camp, liberating Lot’s people and all the treasure that had been taken. The king of Sodom offered to let Abraham have all the treasure in exchange for his people. Abraham refused this gift and said he would take nothing but what his warriors had eaten, on the grounds that he did not want the implied debt and loss of independence that would come from anyone being able to say that they had made him rich. He was well aware of the pernicious enslavement that came with the rewards of the system and played rigorously against it.
Even the commandment to circumcise, and the near sacrifice of Abraham’s only legitimate son Isaac, make sense in this light. The point of these events is not that genital mutilation or child sacrifice is a good idea. The point is that Abraham had the kind of independent power to be able to take an extreme leap of faith against even apparent natural wisdom. The sacrifice of Isaac makes a point about Abraham’s hierarchy of values, placing even his own biological progeny on the line for the higher plan. But crucially, the higher plan was not something he learned from the moralistic cults of society, but something he discerned directly from revelation and natural experience. Circumcision was a mark of this subordination to something totally distinct from surrounding society, and above all petty values.
Abraham did not swear off contact with civilization entirely, nor did he strike out as an individual. He built a productive and self-sufficient sovereign house that didn’t base itself in the system of false value even as a beneficiary. His tribe traded effectively with the surrounding centers of civilization and benefited from their loose proximity, but he kept one foot firmly outside their domain, staying grounded in natural reality. During these interactions, it was Abraham’s absolute disdain for the false rewards of the surrounding civilizations that kept his tribe on the narrow path of true life.
The Answer Isn’t Easy
Back in the 21st century, we are likewise faced with a confused array of false value subcultures. Our friends, family, and neighbors are dying, losing themselves in the spectacle, or even failing to be born in the first place. There is nothing that can be done for those who have already fallen. Our neighbors that are currently caught in the false value vortex can only be helped on the margin. But for ourselves and the next generation, we have options.
Our most important low-hanging fruit is to recognize the problem: most of the values we learn from the institutions around us are fake and exploitative. They do not represent our real interests.
The issue isn’t just individual, either. A society overrun with these kinds of false value cults eventually has a very hard time sustaining even its own interests in real terms either. This problem is a symptom and cause of overall decline. No society where even the elites are hopped up on a previous generation’s manipulative propaganda can survive. Addressing the problem even on the level of our own small groups, and ideally at a larger scale, offers a great opportunity to partially alleviate that crisis and help rebuild a healthier society in the future.
In contrast to these false values, what we can do is recognize and orient ourselves more rigorously to Abraham’s hard natural values. Are you winning at a biological level? Are you getting more territory at a more sovereign level of control? Are you living rigorously in contact with natural law? Are you working on something that will achieve eternal fame? Are your enemies being cursed and your friends blessed? Does your winning at these things serve any great and higher plan of blessing for all creation and all peoples?
These are not the root of all value. But absent some kind of reliable revelation as to the deeper wishes of the higher powers, as Abraham had when he almost sacrificed Isaac, anything that doesn’t credibly offer you help towards these values is not your friend.
A mere abstract appreciation of true value is not enough. It does not help you in their application. It does not give you true comrades to collaborate with in pursuit of this natural value. It would be too easy to imagine how my dead friends could have rationalized their foolish activities with a fake version of even these values if they lacked trustworthy help in the application.
So more than anything else, we—meaning you and I rather than any abstract collective—must figure out how to provision a trustworthy and rigorously applied social perspective for ourselves and our friends and neighbors. Palladium itself can only be a small piece of this. There is more we can and should do together.
Even a basic version of this can go a long way. Growing up and meeting people all over, one of the most reliable things I’ve seen is that people who regularly go to church have their values in order more than any other group. They are often visibly healthier. It makes sense; meeting with your neighbors weekly or more to study the well-preserved tradition of wisdom that grew from Abraham, and apply it to daily life and struggles, grants you great spiritual security against the false value nonsense of the day. Almost any such tradition, and any format of regular social contact, would do. What is unique about the churches is their faith that the higher powers have commanded them to actually do it. The activity doesn’t reliably make sense under any more pedestrian motivation, even if it is ultimately necessary for life.
The problem with contemporary churches is the political problem. They too are falling into the false value vortex, because they do not recognize the danger of even their relatively lesser level of compromise. The things they insist on are often the things that don’t matter or the things which have been specifically twisted around against true value and their own real interests. If they hit the real problem more directly in their discussions, they would find themselves under a level of political persecution that they are unwilling to face. And so, they too will mostly die.
This is the crux of the problem: provisioning a trustworthy social perspective, even for yourself and your friends, is intensely political. You can expect to make powerful enemies as you even quietly question the lies of the powerful. The early Christians, the Puritans, and the Mormons, among others, are good examples of what this actually looks like in history. They faced brutal persecution and had to go to extreme and risky lengths to find the security to get away with living in their truth. The details differ immensely in our own time, and are still unclear, but will not be less intense.
But we are not without hope, either. There are still people around maintaining various traditions of trustworthy social perspective, who know the political situation they are in. Even if these traditions are on the fringes of the internet, in the past, in books, and from apparent enemy factions, they can be the basis for your own developments. All the pieces are there. When I was most at risk of falling into darkness and death, it was these sources that gave me the material to develop a perspective I could trust. I listened in my own way to a higher imperative, found my comrades, and was wrenched out of Ur.