Palladium Archive: The Rebirth of Industrial Mastery
Fundamental change only comes from outside established paradigms. Without room for new founders, progress is impossible.
A new year is always a refounding, and the solstice inaugurates the return of the Earth’s generative forces.
Last year, Palladium’s managing editor Ash Milton published a piece on the rebirth of industrial mastery. But this regeneration is something that requires an overhaul of institutions, as well as the modes of life of people who manage them.
When we compare dynamic eras like this one to our own more stagnant situation, it’s tempting to think that we’re dealing with a policy problem. But policy is downstream from governance. Instead of cultivating and integrating productive founders, we have a governance culture of suspicion and conflict. It plays out in the ongoing battle between DC and Silicon Valley; in the rapid political disciplining of the internet; in the overarching antagonism which legacy institutions from the public sector to media to academia seem to have towards potential disruptors.
Traditional American institutions are having trouble generating innovation, or at least recognizing it as such whenever it comes along. The reason for this is because however generative they may have been in the past, the institutions of today’s America are ossified:
America is a country littered with the wreckage of dead plans. The institutions responsible for its governance, economic wealth, and social reproduction were largely founded decades or centuries ago. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. An institution can last far longer if it solves the problem of succession. But the political settlements, human relationships, and conscious visions for society on which these institutions were founded have largely decayed, or even disappeared completely.
When institutions have outlasted the conscious missions that they were originally designed for, they become zombified. They may try to rebrand themselves, change their core competency, or put increasing effort into telling a convincing story about their continued relevance. One can still find plenty of rational agency being exercised throughout the structure, but it is no longer working toward its original goals and consequently no longer operating on its original logic.
One example would be Western Union, which began its telegraph monopoly in the 1850s. While it still exists today, mainly subsisting off payment transfers, it no longer holds the kind of telecommunications dominance it once had. Could we be looking at a similar fate?
Without the kinds of people who can re-found its most important institutions and the fundamental plan on which they operate, America will suffer this fate on a world-historical level.
Nearly all of its major institutions are essentially conglomerates of competing organizations. Nominally serving the ends of their parent institution, these organizations are utterly disinterested in whatever higher goals originally guided the structure—or even opposed to them. Military decisions serve private contractors, universities are in thrall to administrative bureaucracies, and big business pours money into consulting fees and marketing campaigns. The condition of the American state merely reflects this broader reality. There are countless dead plans weighing down the place, but precious few living ones.
Life in a maze of dead plans conditions entire populations into mediocrity. In a stagnant society, human skill and ambition are wasted on capturing rents or jobs that merely maintain the core structures, as well as on guarding whatever little patch they carve out in a zero-sum world. Risk is a luxury they cannot afford. In a dynamic one, they invest those talents in society’s growth and progress. When people have the sense of purpose that lets them take risks, and the ability to competently carry out a plan, the world stops being zero-sum. Individual effort has a compound effect as people keep on developing what has come before them.
The point of seeking out and propagating new modes of life is to break this conditioning.
Many great founders can come out of such experiences. But a founder who gains the authority of sanction can begin to break that conditioning on a larger scale too. Just as an organization, company, city, or empire propagates norms within itself, it can also propagate norms in the world around it. It can leverage its institutional wealth to terraform the social landscape. If the logic underlying its modes of life, its vision, and its plan is powerful enough, it can alter the course of a civilization.
This requires its own kind of vision. Many people who are successfully achieving an ambitious goal in their core domain don’t necessarily have any desire to change society as a whole. But they have an interest in doing so. The difference between living in a stagnant society versus a dynamic one is incalculable.
A dynamic society may face crises, but it also has reasons for great optimism. A stagnant one no longer has real life in it. Collapse and displacement could take a century, or it could come in a matter of years—but come, it will.
Building a society of dynamism, innovation, and creativity means reformulating the ways we think about life, then building or reformulating institutions in that image. Accepting risk, looking for opportunities off the beaten path, quitting your job—these are all great places to start.
We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
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That’s all for now.