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BPR Interviews: Jonah Bennett on Governance and its Future

Jonah Bennett is the Editor-in-Chief of Palladium Magazine, an online publication out of the SF Bay Area focusing on issues of government, society, and liberalism. This post is the third in an ongoing series of interviews with people invested in the idea of human progress.

Nick Whitaker: Palladium’s thesis could be stated as a need for innovation in governance. How do you motivate such a need?

Jonah Bennett: America’s governing institutions are broken. Our elite, the set of people who hold power in our society, is fractured, confused, and in conflict with itself. We think the first step to renewal is for a systematic upgrade of this elite. Most social change involves a combination of splits among the current elite class—spurring openness to new ideas and values among some segments—and the rise of new entrants into the elite class. We want both upcoming elites and current visionaries to step up and own the incredible power we have to govern our society, and think about how to use it to govern well.

Renewal is always a process of reinvention, which implies some level of novelty. But it’s good to make progress while we’re at it: we actually don’t have the ideas needed to boldly and honestly wield power in a good way. We’ve spent a lot of our history hypocritically denying that possibility. We need some new ideas, which could be called innovation.

On the other hand, much of the problem is just failure to apply common sense and best practices because of systematically broken incentives, narratives, and coordination structures at the top. In that sense, the solution isn’t the silver bullet or revolutionary change that many hope for, but a renaissance of the simple and hard business of coordinating political order and responsible governance.

Nick Whitaker: How do you think about the supposed triumph of liberal democracy in 1990 during the fall of the Soviet Union? If you were a prominent intellectual then with the knowledge you have now, what would you have written?

Jonah Bennett: I’d write something like this: We didn’t win because of the free market or capitalism, per se. We won because we had strong institutions, good geopolitical strategy, and managed to outlast the Soviet Union, which succumbed to internal political sclerosis and complete dysfunction at the highest levels. We should not assume that because a geopolitical rival collapsed, that this, therefore, means our current ideology is eternally good and eternally true, or even appropriate to our new circumstance. If we forget the common good, if our institutions suffer, if our foreign policy is schizophrenic and destructive, if other potential rival powers can stay out of the spotlight, leap forward economically, and develop new ideologies and self-confidence, then there is no future where liberal democracy remains as the sole hegemonic ideology. The end of the Cold War is not a time for over-exuberance. It’s a time to refocus on institutional health, elite coherence, and the economic achievement of decent lives for decent people.

As a retrospective, I think the U.S. has performed pretty poorly on the civilizational fundamentals. We’ve lost the moment, and it’s going to be very hard to recover. 

Nick Whitaker: In Peter Thiel’s essay, The Straussian Moment, he seems to see the crisis of liberalism as taking place on September 11, 2001. Do you think that’s right?

Jonah Bennett: Thiel claimed that the actions of Osama bin Laden’s followers disproved the liberal dogma that everyone’s motivations are ultimately material, and the dogma that we can ignore the big questions of human life and cosmic meaning. This is a powerful critique, but liberalism has since found ways to neutralize those particular enemies, thus restoring its mandated agnosticism of ends for now.

We defer and keep ourselves distracted from those big questions, which we don’t yet know how to answer, by means of continued material progress. As long as everyone’s slice of the pie is growing, we don’t feel the need to fight too hard. The true crisis will come when that progress can no longer be delivered, or if it becomes obvious that China’s illiberal model produces a higher level of material wealth than liberalism can.

Ultimately, we are going to need to answer those big questions. The fiction that human society is constituted purely for the material benefit of individuals, and that all questions of value are private and non-social, cannot be sustained. We are going to need a motivating account our own purpose in society, and the purpose of society in the story of the cosmos, and it doesn’t look like anything from the 20th century.

Nick Whitaker: How do you think about the relationship between San Francisco and DC?

Jonah Bennett: I chose to live in San Francisco specifically because it has a concentration of talented people who are capable of thinking at high levels of abstraction outside of the 24/7 political news cycle and the interest group-driven information ecosystem. This allows for more upstream, meta-level discussion of the topics that matter in the big picture. DC, on the other hand, is much more practical, as it’s where the levers of state power are located. Both cities have their criticisms of each other: the SF tech scene tends not to want to engage politics very readily and views DC with suspicion, partly because of its negative coverage of tech, while DC wonks have the tendency to view SF as full of weirdos who do too much acid, ask weird questions, and cosplay at Burning Man.  

Nick Whitaker: Why did you go to Davos?

Jonah Bennett: A constant obsession of mine has always been: where are the real things happening? Who are the people at the forefront of interesting thought? The process of answering these questions has driven me into a large array of groups across a variety of different subjects: meditation groups, political movements across the spectrum, psychology research, journalism, geopolitics, etc. And it’s also involved traveling around to find the most interesting conferences and the most interesting people. One of the consistent themes over the past decade has been this slowly growing consensus that the existing elite across many domains has failed to govern well, and it’s been a theme we’ve been exploring over at Palladium Magazine. Davos was naturally on the list of places to attend because it has this vague reputation as an international forum of the elite, where top leaders of business, academia, and politics come together to talk intelligently about the state of the world. Physical space is important because of this inversion that’s taking place, where the internet has become the ledger of official public record, and physical space is the more unofficial domain. What this means is that the kind of dialectic that you can get with elites in private physical space is substantially different from reading their op-eds. 

Nick Whitaker: To what degree does Davos match its popular perception?

Jonah Bennett: I think the World Economic Forum, originally known as the European Management Forum, has successfully convinced people that Davos is a space for the presentation of new and interesting ideas. It isn’t. It’s still primarily the EMF, which is to say, it’s a space for very basic narrative propagation across various layers of the elite class, which spans anywhere from the CEO of a global consulting firm, to a low-level McKinsey consultant. It’s also a space for businesses to do reputation management, product promotion, and for executives to schedule dozens of back-to-back meetings with each other. And then there’s of course government relations, as well. 

None of this is necessarily wrong or bad. It all makes sense for these things to take place at a business forum. But in terms of new intellectual work, it comes up short. Not long after Davos, I ended up attending RadicalxChange’s event in Detroit, and it was orders of magnitude more interesting, because it was actually aimed at generating intellectual output and grouping people together to work on genuinely cool projects, as opposed to managerial class public relations. That being said, the parties at Davos were wilder, and you’ll occasionally cross paths with an oligarch type or a crazy person, which is its own sort of unique experience.   

Nick Whitaker: How do you think about aesthetics in political theory?

Jonah Bennett: I think aesthetics is one of the more important points in political theory because it’s one of the most immediately legible and visceral. There’s certainly the more philosophical and social science elements of political theory, but people are much more likely to sort based on how they aesthetically and socially assess a particular political theory and its relationship to how they conceive of themselves: is it pro-system or anti-system? Is it high status or low status? Are the people who instantiate the theory good or evil or interesting or boring? Is it filled with people like them? Does it put forward a future they view as meeting their social and psychological needs? Does it have a community? Is it going anywhere? How do other people I care about view it? What does embracing this political theory say about me? 

These are psychological and aesthetic questions and, for most people, they tend to be prior to questions of pure theory. What I would say is that it’s important for those developing political theory not to neglect these questions, since they end up as the defining features of the community that embodies that political theory. If the aesthetic is juvenile, it will attract juveniles. If the aesthetic is dark and dangerous and evil, it will tend to attract the dark, dangerous, and evil, and you may not like what you get. On the other hand, if it has a confident, earnest, and responsible self-conception, it will tend to attract people who feel similarly. There’s a real responsibility here that theorists should not neglect.

Nick Whitaker: Which writers do you look to for inspiration?

Jonah Bennett: I’ve recently finished reading some work by one of America’s great diplomats, George Kennan, and I’ve been very impressed. Carroll Quigley is also underrated as a thinker. Most of the people who know Quigley think of him as a historian, but his thought is so much more wide-ranging. But they’re not with us anymore, and it’s very hard to find good contemporary writers because of the political situation. 

Nick Whitaker: What work of fiction has most influenced your worldview?

Jonah Bennett: This is maybe the hardest question because while I’m more than ever convinced of the power of fiction, I find it hard to come up with a pick that’s actually enduring beyond particular mood resonances or phases. I liked Ender’s Game, but it’s too individualistic and plays into nerd revenge fantasy a little too easily. I can think of multiple works of nonfiction that have been life-changing, but no fiction. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there.

Nick Whitaker: Where do you look for weird and unusual ideas?

Jonah Bennett: There isn’t much original or clear-headed thought in any area that’s primarily geared towards some combination of reputation building, political coalition development, and public opinion management. Original thought takes place in the weirder, obscure, and undiscovered places where people explore half-baked ideas for the fun and thrill of it. Twitter subcultures, blogs, forums, and private networks are some of the best places for real thinking right now.

Of course, most of the obscure ideas are bad and can end up attracting some bad people, but if you have good discerning judgment and an eye for potential, you can find some real gems. The great new paradigms aren’t going to be found in the halls of prestige. At the early stage of their life cycle, they are always weird, somewhat transgressive, and half-baked. You have to be able to see through that if you actually do care about ideas.

Nick Whitaker: Palladium has been known for its parties and events. How do you think about creating physical intellectual communities?

Jonah Bennett: Political theory and good parties are an odd combination, so I thought it should exist. But we don’t just hold parties. We hold theory labs, book clubs, dinners, and other events because purposeful physical community is highly underrated. Accessing social connection through a computer terminal is a poor substitute, since physical community more fully reunites mind and body in social interaction in terms of presentation, physical touch, vocality, facial expressions, physical presence, and so on. The logistics are just way better in person. Even this isn’t quite getting it. There’s something ineffable about being with others in the same room and purposefully trying to connect that allows for high-fidelity transmission of ideas. 

The key to a good intellectual event is good people, good ideas, good aesthetics, and good conversation. It’s shocking how often you go to an intellectual event where it’s based around a panel that says nothing and you don’t even get a proper chance to talk to the other attendees.