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Price Anchoring & the Alt Right

[1]

Stephen Colbert demonstrating how far the Overton window in America has shifted over the past two years.

2,068 words

As Noam Chomsky points out in Manufacturing Consent, our propaganda system operates less by overt censorship and more by controlling the range of acceptable discourse. Of course, Chomsky was writing when The New York Times mindshare was significantly larger and more influential than it is now. During this period of nearly absolute control, high-level, structural censorship was the most efficient strategy for ideological enforcement.

However, as ideological competitors have managed to squeeze into the market, temporarily aided by new technologies, the good old days of monopolistic complacency and its concomitant best practices have started to wane.

The emergence and growth of dissident media has forced a change in the power structure’s tactics. Where a micromanaging approach to censorship was once simply inefficient and unnecessary, it is now increasingly de rigueur.

Despite the shift to more traditional modes of direct censorship that we are currently witnessing, Chomsky’s model still offers significant explanatory value.

The primary function of the propaganda system is controlling what assumptions people must have, and therefore what kind of arguments can be made—especially in public. There are numerous mechanisms for achieving this, some ideological, and some technical.

As an example of the latter, we notice that the time constraints of a medium such as a television interview force commentators to argue within the pre-existing parameters of ideological discourse. A thirty-second riposte to Rachel Maddow is not sufficient to challenge fundamental assumptions—hence the relative priority of controlling the technical means (centralized ownership of media) once assumption-makers (academia) are locked in ideologically, rather than worrying about policing every single utterance.

Even a medium which allows for massive and immediate algorithmic manipulation of content, such as Twitter, largely relies on this high-level approach. Like everything else under our system of inverted totalitarianism, control over discourse is decentralized, or rather, diffuse. Since much of human behavior is context-dependent, controlling thoughts and actions requires controlling that context.

While these framing assumptions are, for the most part, deeply embedded and unnoticed, they can also be consciously manipulated to achieve a short-term end. This is why, when the power structure wants a war, we get pictures of dead babies every [2] single [3] time [4]. The complexities of elite interests are too unwieldy for effective messaging; and they don’t want the public thinking about them, anyway. Even if they did, it would be hugely inefficient, if not impossible, to convince people to sacrifice themselves in their pursuit.

Once dead babies are proffered as the frame, those opposed to a given war must argue in terms of dead babies: “Going to war will produce even more dead babies, therefore we shouldn’t go to war.” Attempting to challenge the framing assumption that foreign policy should be based on a photograph or an anecdote will be a PR disaster. You end up looking like someone who hates babies, and your opponent can breeze by you yet again on the virtue spiral.

This is how people get trapped in “Democrats are the real racists.”

The only escape is to shift the frame.

***

People have a tendency to be centrists, but this has more to do with general patterns of social interaction than with deeper philosophical considerations. Centrism is an empty variable, entirely context-dependent. Marketers have known about this aspect of human cognition for years and regularly employ techniques based on this knowledge to successfully alter behavior.

The standard example is in pricing. Offer a subscription at fifty dollars a year and a few people will take you up on the offer; add a two hundred dollar option, and suddenly subscription rates go up. Further, add a one hundred dollar option and you’ve got a bestseller.

Despite the affront to unconstrained freedom of the will, price anchoring is a consistently effective technique with a wide range of applicability, including the political realm. Many on the Left lament the fact that President Trump has “brought people out of the woodwork” with his existential vileness. This fear of a shift in the frame in public discourse is entirely warranted. Changing the parameters of discourse makes reflexive labeling less effective. It is a major rhetorical advantage to be able to defeat your opponent by simply calling him a name; such a framing advantage will not be surrendered easily.

Take as an example the wondrous progress of our gender pseudo-scientists, making one discovery after another. The intensity of their charlatanism, however, is not a bug; it’s a feature.  Overwhelming the public with rapidly proliferating genders is a way of anchoring, and even they don’t know how many there are; is it 31 [5], 70 [6], infinity? It changes constantly, and besides, who cares?

The point is to get to three. Or maybe zero.

Here [7] is a video of Jordan Peterson being offered the—now eminently reasonable—option of only three genders. The original objective of three has suddenly become much more achievable, whereas if that had been the explicit goal the whole time, we would still be stuck in our pre-scientific, fuddy-duddy binary.

The extreme absurdity of a position, such as infinity genders, attracts attention (the sine qua non of persuasion), then accordingly directs energy towards a newly-shifted center.

So let’s apply this to our current political situation. The Left offers a full buffet to its constituents: antifa (the most “hardcore [8]”), then academia (Marxists, etc.), and finally liberals. On the Right, we have Nazis (whatever that means), reactionaries, and conservatives, like so:

antifa, academia, liberals  |  conservatives, reactionaries, Nazis

A nicely balanced system of ideological competition.

Although these parallels hold in theory, the practice is quite different. All three Leftist options are socially acceptable and in fact encouraged by the power structure (you will not get fired for being a member of any of them). On the Right, though, Nazis, when they aren’t entirely imaginary, are actively persecuted; reactionaries have no institutional power yet, and must operate largely anonymously. That leaves us with the conservatives (in polite circles, even this is increasingly a risky position, for reasons adduced below).

If we look at this distribution, modified to account for reality as it is, we get something like this:

antifa, academia  |  liberals, conservatives

Such a distribution schema will funnel support towards the middle option(s) (whatever those happen to be). If we were selling subscriptions, liberals and academia would increase their market-share relative to the others, and even absolutely—a good reason to keep those Republicans around.

This allows very intelligent people like Chomsky to unironically refer to an “ultra-reactionary Republican Party [9]” with an air of seriousness, while Bernie Sanders is “mildly progressive.” Republicans and everything to their right are squeezed into a tiny space and labeled “conservatives” for the sake of the Left’s convenience. What actually happens is that everything to the right of “liberals” is collapsed, for purposes of public discourse, into a single category, resulting in something like this:

conservatives:
Republicans, reactionaries, Nazis

In this way, conservatives can be made responsible for policing themselves internally and destroying “fringe” elements. Everyone on the Right has to live in the same house under the same rules, forcing conservatives to operate under the same moderating dynamics, only within their own group rather than as part of the larger ideological system. This effectively neuters their Overton-shifters (“Nazis”) and prevents them from working properly in the context of the larger system. It is no longer Nazis versus antifa, but Nazis versus Republicans. Thus, the Right is taxed twice, as it were—they moderate their extremists once internally, then again externally in conflict with the Left.

The failure to allow “extremists” to operate freely reduces the ability of the Right to counterbalance the Left.

Liberals do not take upon themselves the same burden of moderating their fringe elements and are therefore not held politically responsible for their Overton-shifters. But because conservatives are perceived as responsible for their extremists, they expose themselves to synechdohic abuse. “Republicans are Nazis” becomes a commonplace; try calling a Democrat “antifa”—it don’t stick, even on the Right.

This is a great pricing model for liberals, and to a lesser extent, academia. It is no wonder that they try so hard to prevent the emergence of independent options on the Right. International corporations, local governments, and establishment media all coordinate to make any movement beyond the Republican Party costly.

This is why I believe it is self-defeating to counter-signal events like Unite the Right and publications like The Daily Stormer, whatever their flaws might be.

Extremists are marketing tools. A group that fails to use the most effective techniques will end up out-competed by its rivals. The Left has an effective moderate faction in liberals as well as an effective extremist faction in antifa, and an intellectual generator in the middle. The Right presents the public with only one option—a self-policing milquetoast operation—while the Left has a robust, leftward-pushing faction which makes socialism seem “mildly progressive” to professors emeriti. This is how you make Cthulhu stew.

Every successful group can use these dynamics. Given underlying political support from the power structure, moderate Muslims enjoy special privileges in Western societies because the extremist members of their group terrorize the rest of the population in various ways. The result is either that moderates can be given resources to “reign in the radicals,” thus benefiting the group as a whole, or the radicals can help to clear social Lebensraum through the use of intimidation [10]—especially when the population knows that retribution is impossible because of the power structure’s agenda.

Extremists also provide a counterintuitive sense of psychological relief for people. Who would accept moderate Muslims so warmly without the ground-clearing work of all those perfectly-normal-in-modern-cities explosions, acid attacks, rape rings, and so on? Afterwards, the population can rush into the arms of the moderates and actually be grateful for them.

***

Successful groups always have an expensive option—a “hardcore” wing. Jews have the ADL and SPLC; Muslims have their increasingly bold little brother, CAIR—not to mention the antifa and ISIS. These groups actively work in coordination with each other and the deep state to destroy white culture. The Right has operated under the delusion that one can have a group composed entirely of sensible moderates, but that simply doesn’t work. Attaining power requires a full-spectrum organism: conservatives, reactionaries, and Stormers.

Shutdowns of publications like The Daily Stormer, attacks on Red Ice, and censorship waves from Google and other tech companies in cooperation with partner organizations like the ADL, are coordinated at the deep state level. While many reactionaries find such sites lowbrow or unhelpful, they are 1) creating and absorbing attention; 2) making conservatism and reaction more appealing in the long-term; and 3) making the antifa seem more extreme. At least they would if those on the Right would stop implicating themselves by racing to disavow them, and implicitly affirming a highly distorted media narrative. We are stuck arguing about dead babies instead of the power structure.

If The Daily Stormer is permanently suppressed, reactionaries will be the next target—even more so. The Left will not stop with the “Nazis,” since that term is just a floating signifier, anyway. They aren’t interested in ontological precision. They are interested in winning. A coordinated propaganda effort could similarly quickly brand reactionaries as unpersons, and the same resources could be brought to bear in a new wave of suppression. Whoever happens to be the rightmost at any given moment will have to absorb the damage. This is why the Right must be multi-faceted and multi-factional. A Right without a “hardcore” wing is exactly what conservatives are now; a neutered, easily-controlled opposition whose function is scooping up the stragglers on the leftward march.

The fact is, if Andrew Anglin, Richard Spencer, and the other deplorables weren’t out there absorbing fire, the guns would be directed at the next guy over. Rational disinterestedness and high-brow critique is a luxury paid for by the Overton-shifters—unless the goal is to become so esoteric and irrelevant that no one even bothers shutting it down. Yes, we can nit-pick and complain about optics at Unite the Right or The Daily Stormer, but the details really don’t matter to the power structure. Optics are context-dependent. It’s simple marketing—in the long run, we need them. If you want people to pay one hundred dollars for a service, then offer them a two hundred dollar option as well. The Daily Stormer is the Right’s two hundred dollar option. You don’t have to buy it, but it has to be there.