Anyone who’s done a fair bit of gaming will recognize the term “victory conditions.” They’re the way a game designer programatically defines what success is. Victory conditions can be simple, e.g.: “eliminate all hostile forces” or complex, “before turn 20, must have a unit under command control occupying any of the hexes between A-14 and A-20, inclusive.” When you do the thing that fulfills the conditions, you are a success.
I would like to muse informally (and with a bit of hyperbole) on the topic of “success.” Success is something that I think we don’t spend enough time considering, for reasons that will become obvious.
One of the great things about evolution is that it embeds a form of a definition of success. There is no other value proposition to it, other than “you were able to pass your genes on and there will be more of your genes than there were before.” The term “fitness” is used in a highly specific way: your fitness is how well and effectively you reproduce, it has nothing to do with crushing your enemies, having great cardio, owning a Lamborghini, having a nice hair-piece, or a big house. In social terms, that might equate to: the mighty warrior who goes forth and spends the best years of their life smiting foes may not be as “fit” (or “successful”) in reproducing than their competitor who stays away from the battlefield, learns the art of seduction, and leaves behind dozens of children. That dynamic is actually enshrined in the warriors’ pantheon; it’s “Jody” the hippy who dodges the draft, steals your prospective girl/boyfriend, and marries them while you’re off bombing Medcins Sans Frontieres hospitals or whatever your job in the military happens to be.
Jody’s a cuckoo, or, “a sneaky fucker” (as my college biology teacher referred to the octopi who intercept semen packets aimed at a female they are trying to inseminate) – it’s a strategy that crops up frequently in nature because it’s a successful strategy. Evolution doesn’t make any value judgements about success other than its simple victory condition: breed effectively. (Whatever that means) But perhaps you’ll notice I am flirting with linguistic nihilism [stderr] – defining a word circularly is dangerous; what does “effective” mean except “good” in this context? What does “fitness” mean except “good” in this context? What am I even talking about, trying to define goodness as being good? Never mind that I’m dangerously close to defining being a “sneaky fucker” as “good” (or successful) it turns out to be difficult to specify criteria without making it circular and, therefore, arguably undefined.
Figuring what “success” is is hard, but necessary because we do want to be able to casually group things or people in terms of success/failure. Or, some of us do.
Nietzsche would probably say that it’s slave morality, but in the example of the guy with the fancy car, the employee might consider themselves more successful, in that they are creative and talented and can write software (or whatever) and the capitalist overlord has nothing going for them except the situation in which they are able to extort work out of brilliant software engineers. The employee might bicycle to/from work instead of riding in a Lamborghini stuck in Silicon Valley rush hour – they’ve got good cardio and the boss is going to die of a heart attack and they’re going to still be bicycling and coding in to their 70d. The guy with the car might consider themselves to be a huge success: they are rich and have a car that is a much better car than they are a driver. A professional race-driver might look at that guy and think he’s a loser: he can’t wring all the performance out of the car that a professional could, and would lose an even race against the professional. A bacterium wouldn’t think, because they don’t waste their time doing that kind of stuff, but if one could think they might think, “I and my zillions of descendants are going to eat you.” The problem, here, is undefined “success” – who is successful is totally dependent on the situation and whatever external values the value-er brings to judgement.
Many humans naturally judge success in purely human terms: having a nice house is better than having a bacteria-style horde of descendants. But we only think that because we can think, and that is how we think. It is, however, impossible to deny that – for example – ants are highly successful. The ants will probably survive the apocalypse humans are bringing upon themselves; the Lamborginis will not have any value, nor the houses, or the cute kids the humans are raising. This understanding began to gnaw at me right after I graduated from high school, got accepted at the university I applied to, and suddenly I realized that all of the time I spent cutting study hall and learning to program computers might actually serve me better than the time some of my classmates invested in getting good grades. What is success, again?
Our collective attitude toward the question of success is incredibly inconsistent: Elon Musk is a success in terms of dollars and rockets launched, but in popular culture he’s probably not as successful as Kanye West in terms of name recognition and artistic reach. Again, neither of those guys are as successful as a well-situated ant colony which will outlive both of them.
That’s in terms of biomass not individuals. There are 7 billion-something humans, and just my colon contains billions of bacteria – what is success?
So, I wanted to inject uncertainty into the concept of “success” and to deconstruct it as a post-modernist would, by pointing out that everything depends on perspective. That’s important when it comes to a modern plague: racism.
Racists and white supremacists seem to think that there is a metric of success out there that points unfailingly toward them. But, there isn’t. I had a tangy email exchange a few years ago with a genuine aristocrat who believed that there are superior people in the herd, who ought to be elevated to something something I actually don’t know, what. I remember in our exchange that I pointed out that it’s very hard to tell what is success or failure until the dust has settled and the bodies are buried and we can assess that success or failure through the lens of history. Was Napoleon Bonaparte a great commander, or not? Well, if the only battle he had commended was Austerlitz, he was amazing. Borodino, Waterloo? Not so hot. Today’s white supremacists are like Bonaparte if, after Austerlitz, he had declared himself the greatest of all time. White Americans feel that they are on top of the heap because they are supposed to be on top of the heap, but they leave completely unexamined the questions:
- What does being on top of the heap mean?
- What heap?
- Who gives a fuck about heaps anyway?
They actually created the heap, so they could be on top of it. Then, they claim that being on top of the heap is a virtue demonstrating their superiority. Needless to say, they also appear to be comfortable with whatever violence and oppression they have to deploy in order to maintain that position. You know who else did that? King George III. Monarchs are the quintessential expression of this self-justifying definition of success.
Consider Richard Spencer, in a recent article in The Daily Beast [beast]
Clearly, Spencer is not superior in … well, much of anything except being white. He’s really good at that, but if you recall, he didn’t have any say in it. If being white was something Spencer had to work at, he probably would have fucked up even that.
Spencer pushes the same tired, debunked, institutionalized race science that—from the 3/5ths Compromise to The Bell Curve to the current anti-history effort—has always justified white American power and the racial caste system that supports it. “We build, we produce, we go upward,” he said in 2016. “We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around.”
Speaking of success, I wonder what Spencer has actually built. Is making stuff the criterion for success? Production? Did he just say that farmers are inherently superior to white wankers who live in their mom’s house? Because he may not know this but most of the people who produce, you know, Produce, are brown. If success was picking strawberries, then Spencer is not a success; there are old hispanic women who are 10x as successful at picking strawberries.
I really don’t want to talk about Spencer but it seems to be that his fate is to serve endlessly as a foil for people who are discussing dumbassery. But the article mentioned “race science” and, immediately, I am captivated. Race science is, first and foremost, an oxymoron, because scientists have already concluded that there is no “race” really. But racists use the tools and techniques of science to try to find ways that they can find a position from which they can feel superior. Let’s come up with a metric we’ll call “IQ” and then observe that our kind of people have more IQ than the other kind of people and therefore we are better. But what if being better means “working your ass off”? I’m not saying that all of the Mensa members I’ve met are pasty, flabby dweebs, but – as a racist would say – “there are stereotypes for a reason.” I find it amusing, for example, that some scientific racists try to justify their idea that black people are inferior because they’re better at basketball or boxing than white people. Wait a minute, cracker, didn’t you just say “they are better at X than white people” for a given X? What is the criterion for superiority that is at play here?
But Spencer’s own wealth comes in part from government handouts and racial exploitation. Back in 2017, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that Spencer’s family owns 5,200 acres of Louisiana cotton and cornfields, farmland that was “subsidized heavily by the federal government,” collecting $2 million in federal payments between 2008 and 2015. Since that report ran, it appears the family has continued to accept funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dickenhorst Farms, owned jointly by Spencer, his mother and his sister, received payments of $50,000 and $94,147 in 2018 and 2019, respectively; since 1994 it’s taken $1,245,118 in government support.
Ohhhh…. So is it that Spencer’s family is superior at “getting government hand-outs” than black people? It sure looks that way. Is he a “federal cotton subsidy Queen”? Is that what he considers “building” and “producing”? I’m just picking on Spencer because he invites it by shining a searchlight on himself, but he’s useful if only as a foil.
So let’s flip it around and talk about criteria for success, shall we?
Now, I want to be careful. Let’s talk about the stereotypical Hopi native american tribespeople. And let’s talk about some stereotypical white Europeans. I’m playing this game racist-style, and trading in broad cultural stereotypes that I know are wrong but I’m going to deal anyway, for the sake of argument. From stuff I’ve read, Hopi culture was family-oriented, agrarian, not particularly violent, “in touch with the land” and all that new agey stuff. On the flip side, white Europeans were imperialists, colonialist, highly militarized after fighting thousands of years of christian-on-christian wars, incredibly violent and possessed of technology of violence that had grown and evolved in the crucible of European nastiness. What’s success, here? I have had exchanges with white supremacists in which they have insisted that the fact that white European culture spread rapidly across the world in the 15th century and that was an indication of its superiority. To which I reply, “doesn’t that indicate that white europeans are nasty?” I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ “England built an empire so vast that the sun never set on it because god didn’t trust the English in the dark.” What’s a successful civilization, then? Is it one that tries to live a low-impact low-tech peaceful agrarian lifestyle, or is it the one that tries to militarize everything it touches to the point that it discovers fossil fuels are great portable energy for war machines, and – oops. Remember, white supremacists, it was white european culture that invented arms races, cold wars, capitalism, and christianity. Memo to white supremacists: christianity is a bug not a feature – the fact that white europeans exported christianity around the world is proof positive that they are cowardly failures who cannot confront death with dignity and self-medicate with some bullshit afterlife. If I may just point out, it was a bunch of Asians who invented Zen Buddhism, white european culture certainly coughed up its share of sophisticated and interesting philosophy, but what the hell is wrong with white people that they prefer capitalism over, I don’t know – sharing?
Of course I trust you know I think these are all learned behaviors and circumstance, none of which have anything to do with a person’s skin color. To me, the answer regarding cultural superiority was embedded a couple sentences ago: Europe, being a contiguous landmass with trade-routes became a war-zone, and weapons, strategy, and tactics evolved rapidly under Europe’s endless wars of empire and religion. The fact that Julius Caesar was (kind of) white had nothing to do with his military genius; that was sparked by his birth as an influential, powerful, supremely ambitious individual who was raised in a military state that valued the manly virtues of being a vicious, ruthless, motherfucker. I’m not trying to deride Caesar; he was a complex person, but was he born superior? But for his social circumstances he might have been born a farmer, taking agricultural subsidies from the government, and living in his mothers’ house until adulthood. (Which was a virtue in Caesar’s time, but it’s not in Spencer’s)
So, what the hell is wrong with white people? Why are they so greedy and murderous? Why are they so stupid that they fall for capitalism’s endless promise (see “car guy” above) that if you work really hard someday your boss will have a whole fleet of Lamborghinis? Why are white people so stupid that they can’t see the problems with IQ tests? Believe me, problems with testing regimes are really obvious to anyone with an education. What is wrong with white people? They think Kid Rock is talented. They think Bill Maher is incisive social commentary. They take Richard Spencer seriously, and they think that whatever Britney Spears is doing right now is news. And, somehow, they strut about thinking they are superior? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.
“When you accomplish something and you’re struggling, when you accomplish something and people aren’t just giving you something, it feels all the better,” Spencer said in another interview. “I mean, it really feels joyous.”
Nietzsche would call that “slave morality” but he wouldn’t mean it in the worst possible sense. I’ll go there, though. Spencer sounds like he really wants a job picking cotton in the hot Alabama sun.