Every Paul needs a Jesus

My take on some his­tor­i­cal re­li­gious/​so­cial/​poli­ti­cal move­ments:

  • Je­sus taught a rad­i­cal and highly im­prac­ti­cal doc­trine of love and dis­re­gard for one’s own welfare. Paul took con­trol of much of the church that Je­sus’ charisma had built, and re­worked this into some­thing that could func­tion in a real com­mu­nity, re-em­pha­siz­ing the so­cial mores and con­nec­tions that Je­sus had spent so much effort den­i­grat­ing, and con­vert­ing Je­sus’ em­pha­sis on rad­i­cal so­cial ac­tion into an em­pha­sis on the­ol­ogy and sal­va­tion.

  • Marx taught a rad­i­cal and highly im­prac­ti­cal the­ory of how work­ers could take over the means of pro­duc­tion and cre­ate a state-free Utopia. Lenin and Stalin took con­trol of the or­ga­ni­za­tions built around those the­o­ries, and re­worked them into a strong, cen­trally-con­trol­led state.

  • Che Gue­vara (I’m ig­no­rant here and rely­ing on Wikipe­dia; for­give me) joined Cas­tro’s rebel group early on, rose to the po­si­tion of sec­ond in com­mand, was largely re­spon­si­ble for the mil­i­tary suc­cess of the rev­olu­tion, and had great mo­ti­vat­ing in­fluence due to his charisma and his un­y­ield­ing, ideal­is­tic, im­prac­ti­cal ideas. It turned out his ideal­ism pre­vented him from effec­tively run­ning gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions, so he had to go look­ing for other rev­olu­tions to fight in while Cas­tro ran Cuba.

The best strat­egy for com­plex so­cial move­ments is not hon­est ra­tio­nal­ity, be­cause ra­tio­nal, prac­ti­cal ap­proaches don’t gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm. A rad­i­cal so­cial move­ment needs one charis­matic rad­i­cal who enun­ci­ates ap­peal­ing, im­prac­ti­cal ideas, and an­other figure who can ap­pro­pri­ate all of the en­ergy and de­vo­tion gen­er­ated by the first figure’s ideal­ism, yet not be held to their im­prac­ti­cal ideals. It’s a two-step pro­cess that is al­most nec­es­sary, to pro­tect the pretty ideals that gen­er­ate pop­u­lar en­thu­si­asm from the grit and grease of in­sti­tu­tion and gov­ern­ment. Some­one needs to do a bait-and-switch. Either the origi­nal vi­sion must be ap­pro­pri­ated and bent to a differ­ent pur­pose by some­one prac­ti­cal, or the origi­nal vi­sion­ary must be dishon­est or self-de­ceiv­ing.

There are ex­cep­tions to this pat­tern that, I think, prove the rule when you look at them more closely:

  • Hitler was si­mul­ta­neously an ideal­ist and a highly-prag­matic Machi­avel­lian. His plan, spel­led out in Mein Kampf, was to use ha­tred of the Jews to tap the en­ergy of the Ger­man peo­ple, im­ple­ment the re­forms he de­sired, and stamp out the Jews be­fore peo­ple had time to start feel­ing sorry for them and ques­tion­ing them­selves. It is a lit­tle more com­pli­cated since he re­ally did hate Jews (I think), and the re­forms he de­sired were re­lated to his views on Jewish vs. Ger­man na­ture. I don’t think it’s a good ex­am­ple, since Hitler might well have had to have been re­placed for the Nazi state to have held onto power if it had won the war.

  • Mor­monism and Scien­tol­ogy were each also founded largely by a sin­gle per­son who had, let us say, an ideal­is­tic ex­te­rior and a prag­matic, ma­nipu­la­tive in­te­rior, com­bin­ing the two roles in one per­son.

  • MIRI’s con­cep­tion of Friendly AI is benev­olent and ideal­is­tic, but im­ple­ment­ing its pro­gram would re­quire a wor­ld­wide per­ma­nent po­lice state (in or­der to pre­vent any­one else any­where in the world from ever con­struct­ing an AI). The free ac­cess we have now to com­put­ing power and sci­en­tific liter­a­ture would need to be for­bid­den.

And then there are just ex­cep­tions:

  • The Amer­i­can Revolu­tion had a charis­matic mil­i­tary figure in Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, but he wasn’t very poli­ti­cal. He was ideal­is­tic, but not im­prac­ti­cal or mes­si­anic. AFAIK, the Revolu­tion didn’t pro­mul­gate any ideals that it failed to de­liver on.

  • I’m un­clear on whether the French Revolu­tion and Rousseau /​ Robe­spierre fit this pat­tern. I think we would need to dis­t­in­guish be­tween con­scious and effec­tive ideal­ism: Robe­spierre be­lieved in high ideals, which he used to ra­tio­nal­ize his prag­matic, Stal­inist ac­tions. Also, Rousseau was prag­mat­i­cally-minded, but had no prac­ti­cal ex­pe­rience with power.

  • Anti-slav­ery, abo­li­tion­ism, women’s suffrage: Their ob­jec­tives were so sim­ple and clear that there was no way to obliter­ate the origi­nal mes­sage.

  • Ob­jec­tivism and LessWrong: Similar cases which need more anal­y­sis of what mo­ti­vate their mem­bers. There’s some­thing meta here; when ra­tio­nal­ity it­self is the totem, per­haps ra­tio­nal pro­grams can tap ideal­is­tic en­ergy di­rectly. But there is an un­der­cur­rent in both move­ments of “En­derism” (from En­der’s Game), a com­bi­na­tion of re­sent­ment and con­vic­tion of one’s own vast in­tel­lec­tual su­pe­ri­or­ity, which may func­tion as a se­cret shared “ideal­ism”.

One in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the pat­tern is its hys­tere­sis. Once ideal­ism has been suc­cess­fully co-opted, the re­sult­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion can con­tinue to siphon that cred­i­bil­ity in­definitely, while dis­miss­ing its more rad­i­cal de­mands.