You Won’t Survive As Human Capital

Matthew Roth/Dolores Park Bench

You and I operate as human capital: an input in the process of social reproduction, rather than its master or even its goal. Much of our life from childhood onward is dedicated to proving our value within this paradigm. No one living today is responsible for this mode of life. Some people more directly enforce its norms, a few try to resist them, and most go along as best they can.

Our talents and abilities are quantified by large organizations like state bureaucracies and private corporations. The intangible aspects of our personalities that we think motivate our decisions—loves, hates, desires, fears—are conditioned in organized ways. These organizations only rarely answer to particular people, but rather to their own and often seemingly mysterious internal logic.

We all know this isn’t quite right, yet most of the world has staked out its existence on this logic. The places that don’t are increasingly rare in a world where even the Taliban of Afghanistan submit to the advantages of a professional bureaucracy. No one has yet come upon a different material logic to outcompete it.

Some of the shortcomings of the underwriting assumptions are becoming clearer as we travel deeper into the twenty-first century. One of the most important is reproduction: having children has become an inconvenient and inefficient trade-off. Many of our friends and relatives will never do so. No known form of natalism has been able to reverse the great dying taking place within advanced societies. Unable to exist without its human substrate, yet also unable to sustain it, this technocratic paradigm has a fatal contradiction within it: despite its hegemony, it is incompatible with life.

Already in 1945, the writer H. G. Wells had a fit of despair as the specter of extinction loomed over all of humanity’s apparent advances. He laid out his fears in an essay that was strangely discordant with his career as one of the century’s great utopian modernists: “[T]he human story has already come to an end…The stars in their courses have turned against [man] and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind.” The various strains of transhumanists and accelerationists are only Wells’s latest disciples, finding a solution to the paradox of high modernism without people in the potential emergence of new beings. None of them have yet produced humanity’s successor.

For now, the human element is still the load-bearing one. As members of that element, you and I will only come out the other side by prioritizing our own success in biological and material terms over our usefulness to others as human capital. For our own lineages to increase in power and fame in the centuries to come, it is necessary for us to establish a completely different paradigm of life.

 “Us” Is a People

When populations converge on a material and social paradigm of life that powers their expansion, history records it as the coming into being of a new people. Often, a truly great civilization can be traced to a very small founding population at its origin. At this stage, a shared form of life shapes a powerful in-group consciousness, kinship against enemies, stable intermarriage, and endogenous reproduction. The population shares a niche of material activity and production. They absorb or displace rival communities, and their form of life grows increasingly distinct and defined against those of other populations.

The name for this kind of event is ethnogenesis. Often, ethnogenesis begins with a population on the order of several thousand families, of which perhaps only a few hundred are really dominant. Sometimes, these groups rule over still-larger populations, in which case the initial population may become one dominant endogenous caste or class within a conquered society. An early status of nobility is a good heuristic in these cases since it often designates those families that helped establish a social order. 

This pattern holds quite well throughout history. Roman historians record that the original patrician families of Rome numbered about 200 or 300 families that were descended from the very earliest senators, a number that expanded after the first generations. Classical Athens and Sparta ranged about 20,000 to 40,000 male citizens at their greatest heights, a number which was surely much smaller at their outset.

Centuries later, the numbers don’t change much: about 8000 Norman landholders are estimated to have settled and ruled England after the Conquest; in France, the number of noble families in the realm never grew to more than several thousand even on the eve of the French Revolution—and only a small number of these had truly feudal roots. At the time of the American Revolution, the major centers of power—Boston, Philadelphia, the Virginia plantations, and so on—were generally each run by insular collectives of hundreds of families, which eventually intermingled as the most prominent among each group established the national WASP elite.

The reason for such consistent numbers is that this is a practical and useful scale for an “us.” The range of a few hundred to a few thousand families is what makes up a collective in-group capable of real bonds, cooperation, and a sense of common destiny. This is the scale of a real community that can cohesively act on the world. This is far smaller than any modern nation-state or even large city. Populations may rise and fall, but the scale of agency stays much the same: in a solar system where 100 billion humans span multiple worlds and moons, it will still be coordinated groups of thousands of people that drive history.

When collectives of this sort rule far larger populations, as the Romans, Normans, Franks, and WASPs did, they make up the foundational element of the resulting regimes. Their marks are often felt centuries after the founding people themselves disappear as a distinct population: Latin remained an institutional language for millennia, and the modern British parliament still ritually uses Norman French phrases in procedures like royal assent to a bill. Such vestiges reflect that the state itself was initially an organized representation of a particular people’s interests and so reflected their mores, language, culture, and religion. Without their distinct state-founding people, those nations and empires as we know them would not have existed. At their founding, the formal purpose of such governments was to pursue the common interests of those groups that had established them.

The identity of state goals with the organized interests of a people defined by kinship and common consciousness is straightforwardly assumed by the ancient authors on politics—for example, Aristotle’s Politics and Cicero’s De re publica—and is also part of the English concept of the commonwealth. A state exists to handle the most general level of a community’s affairs, and doing this it all assumes that a defined community with a common purpose and interest actually exists.

The Modern State Is Not a Political Community 

Western debates over topics such as immigration highlight a divide within liberalism on just what defines the body politic. Some countries, like France and Hungary, embrace an older mythos in which the democratic state rests on a real national community, either civic or semi-ethnic, that is capable of collective agency; others, like Britain and the U.S., have rejected this mythos, or see it as undesirable, and reserve collective action for special minority interests while seeing citizenship proper as focused on individual rights. In either case, the body politic is an ideological construct. The sort of collective action and identity possible among small groups of founding elites is not possible in a national population numbering tens or hundreds of millions. It was not mass populations that founded these states, but much smaller, highly coordinated subsets of those populations.

Like all institutions, states tend to drift away from the purposes for which their founders created them. In the course of time, the community that once erected the state often loses its original vitality, then hegemony, and finally its central position within its own regime. The displacement of the old Roman senatorial class, by upstart Latin-speaking generals and politicians of plebeian ancestry traces these steps.

When institutions become powerful and entrenched, the logic of state interest begins to override the more fundamental interests of continuity. The qualities which brought the state into being may ultimately conflict with and upset its stability and end up suppressed. The militant hero culture of the old patrician families gave Rome its empire, but also contributed to the civil wars that plagued it whenever expansion slowed or imported slaves conflicted with free plebeian interests.

The reformations of Julius Caesar and Augustus saved the institutional Roman state and its power, but they could not reverse the demise of its founding families. Plebeians had risen into Roman institutions for centuries at this point, and eventually, foreigners did so too. By the imperial era, the Roman state was at its height but most of the original patrician lineages that had built it up were extinct. The institutions of a people had parted ways with that people itself, and the former survived far longer than the latter.

Confusing your own material interests with the reifications that exist in the culture around you, whether those be symbols or institutions, is a lethal generational poison. You and I likely grew up in a culture where attachment to “patriotism” or “freedom” or “democracy” served an ideological purpose. These words stirred the feeling that we were part of the ruling regime’s own in-group. This assumption is at least notionally shared by nearly all modern states from North Korea to Canada.

Those reifications are echoes of a past era, but do not reflect the present. Not only does the regime you live under not represent your fundamental interests, but many Western regimes have no such conscious in-group at all. They are either no longer in the hands of those who once established them, or else their current descendants have substantively ceased to identify with their own forebears. They are not even in the hands of a new people—no process of ethnogenesis is underway in Paris or Berlin. Rather all these people and structures have become fuel for the technocratic world.

However, you still possess interests that you can examine and discover yourself. And further, you share those interests with your kin and collaborators. Your own biological existence and that of your lineage are tangible interests. So is the successful exploitation of a novel material niche, the continuity of a way of life, and the ability to pursue transcendent or spiritual goals. Once reifications distract from these goals, it is better to jettison them.

Modern states view their populations as human capital fully replaceable first by immigration, and then eventually by technology. A citizen may have rights and privileges, but these do not constitute a community that could make those real. The community of interest can’t be brought into being through paper. The idea that such a society can have a res publica is a fantasy, but the res publica of you and yours is not. It is only with the people with whom you undertake these things that you can share political life—the common matters of a real people that the ancient writers saw as the business of government.

Implicit in the technocratic paradigm under which we live is the idea that something other than human beings could be the agents of history: technology, institutions, good legal mechanisms, labor relations, or even the post-human intelligence yearned for by Wells and by modern AI accelerationists. In fact, no such replacement has arisen, nor is there any certain pathway to one in the near future.

Instead, we are left with a logic that leads to suicide. Either its expansion stalls due to forces beyond its control, or the process that has consumed all advanced countries finishes engulfing the entire world, eventually running out of resources and territory for further expansion. In any case, the result is the same: stagnation and decay under irreconcilable contradictions.

Your Material Future

Despite the dead end of the technocratic paradigm, it remains the null hypothesis of all thought and action, and the state to which all failed attempts at exit eventually return. This is exactly the process that is plaguing one of the most famous groups to resist modernity: the Amish.

The fanatical dedication of the Amish to a form of life, founded on religious conviction, determined their material existence. And despite their lack of explicit concern for material power and expansion—and outsize genetic maladies—they have won both these things. In the last 100 years, they grew from 5000 to 370,000 people, acquired huge amounts of land, and began to dominate the counties in which they were the most concentrated. While easy to romanticize, the Amish are showing more and more shortcomings.

The Amish spiritual vision translates in material terms into the life of the family farm based on communal manual labor. When prioritized, this translates into rapid expansion, because land quickly becomes locally expensive and so new colonies continually have to be founded. But despite the apparently large number of colonies being founded, new ones often house only a small number of people. The actual number of new colonies should be far, far higher, and the membership of each far larger, if the community wants to maintain its original vision of life.

When they deviate from the communal family farm, things degrade fast. In Holmes County, an Amish hub in Ohio with nearly half the state’s Amish population, one can find Amish men and women sporting smartphones and Adidas sneakers. Between a fifth and a quarter of the state’s Amish kids attend mainstream public school. The results are almost instantaneous: the fertility of non-farming families drops by a quarter, and that’s just in this early stage of the process.

When Amish families do not prioritize the material niche necessitated by their fundamental spiritual mission, they lose their center of gravity and assimilation follows. The smartphone and the public school are vectors of a more powerful rival consciousness. The only way to avoid it while maintaining the benefits of smartphone hardware would be to establish a closed Amish-only intranet for the hardware to operate on with a strict firewall against digital leaking from the mainline internet. Whether the Amish survive likely depends on whether they can achieve these kinds of collective-level updates instead of allowing their unprincipled exceptions to become new de facto norms which then eradicate their form of life altogether.

The collective consciousness that a form of life sustains is the most important thing your community shares. For your economic incentives to align with your social and biological ones, the work you do to secure material wealth should rely on the communal bonds formed under your collective consciousness as assets, not liabilities. If the bonds become liabilities, the incentive already exists to trade off against them—and even short-term gains on this front seem to guarantee defection. This is the major principle that the Amish get right, and their assimilation begins insofar as they stray from it.

But the Amish way of life is not relevant to our interests or ideals. There is no value to you or me in fleeing to the woods or the countryside. Fortunately, the principle is not unique to them, nor is it synonymous with a primitive form of life.

Industrial civilization itself leverages numerous traits: a population that is competent at it must be able to command loyal manpower, coordinate across large spaces with tight information, unite around high-risk ventures, and do all this while enduring physically and mentally demanding conditions. These are inherently valuable traits. Industry often seeks out such populations through offshoring precisely because this cultural complex is so hard to cultivate in a workforce that doesn’t already possess it, or which has lost it.

Our own task is not to preserve modernity or industrial society for its own sake, though we may yet preserve some parts of them. The real vital forces behind its development are not unique and could survive and thrive in other paradigms. Advanced technical achievements will continue only insofar as some part of the human substrate of technocracy finds a way out of this ideological trap.

This also means that advanced society is dependent on an agency that is willing to construct it for some higher purpose. It’s unlikely that agency can be constructed, but it seems that latent agency can be activated under the right conditions. Industrial titans like Matthew Boulton or Thomas Edison often had intense personal drives and motivations that can’t be replicated at scale, and fields like rocketry even depended on fully-fledged theologies motivating its pioneers to get off the ground. The same holds true of the corporate structures that make up the social organization of modernity: the first global corporate structures were religious orders and charter companies that drew adventurers to the ends of the Earth.

Historically, those periods where people shift from one way of life to another in ways that magnify and increase their best traits are extremely generative and can define entire epochs. The prerequisites of industrial and technocratic society itself—the corporate organization and commercial capitalism—themselves were born as English, Dutch, and French populations spread around the world. A mix of material, political, and religious factors led to significant populations becoming free landholders and merchants across the ocean, and eventually vectors of empire for the Old World. Their recent ancestors had lived in feudal serf societies where their talents were expressed in categorically different ways.

Acting on goals and ambitions that could not be expressed in the societies they lived in, these people formed an array of settlements, colonies, charter companies, pirate bands, religious orders, and other structures adapted to their particular goals and natures. Later empires told the stories of their growth as highly coherent and predestined affairs. But this was post-hoc myth-making. Their foundations were laid on the same scale of action that all founding populations historically act on: thousands of people, not millions. 

These groups possessed common goals and ambitions that could not be expressed in the societies they lived in. The forms of life that they eventually developed could not be completely planned in advance, but grew in fits and starts. Our task at present is to identify those capable of this kind of action, and to enter into community with those who share our most tangible interests. It is only once we achieve a shared consciousness on these terms that a new “us” can exist, and with it the foundation for a new way of life.

Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.