Essay - The Cold Civil War

The start

America grows superficially divided and fractured ideologically between the left and the right – but beneath surface level discord the same fundamental frustrations of disillusionment, alienation, and estrangement pervade all sides. These deep tensions and agitations are the etiology for both the protests on the Capitol following the confirmation of Joe Biden’s election and the protests across the country in May and June following the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others.

The active efflux of anger across this nation over this past year – no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic health crisis – is a direct result of the widespread expulsion of individuals from a dignified and autonomous position in their own lives. People continue to have their personal volition and liberty removed from them by force and en masse. It is now common for individuals to live the majority of their lives outside of their control. To put it curtly – the modern-day individual lays prostrate throughout his or her life and exists and acts at the whims of three looming behemoths of state, industry, and the other.

The state

There has been over three decades worth of uninterrupted growth of state regulation and bureaucracy that have set increasing levels of restrictions and limitations on individual’s freedom. Most see high levels of regulation as a necessary evil – however, I would argue that the majority of issues “solved” by regulation are more so issues of scale and misalignment of incentives and responsibilities. A large multinational agricultural corporation needs to be policed to keep poisons out of its food (Monsanto excluded) but a local butcher or locally sourced grocer has increased connectivity and direct feedback with the consumer. A wide-reaching financial institution where lenders can offload risk is incentivized to lend beyond prudent limits, but a local bank that knows its clientele and will hold a loan for 30 years is not.

Unfortunately, regulation is often scale-invariant and places the same or at least similar restrictions on businesses and individuals large and small. Ironically, this exacerbates the underlying issue of scale – as larger institutions with more financial means and resources are better equipped to deal with regulation than smaller businesses. The higher the threshold of regulation, the more competitive advantage large industry has over small business, and a self-reinforcing cycle materializes. In trying to start and operate my own small-business the massive amounts of red-tape to clear and hoops I had to jump through myself seemed to never cease and at times felt insurmountable. I can’t help but contrast this with when I worked for a large corporation that possessed teams dedicated to interpreting and maneuvering within the latticework of the law. It seemed as if the path forward for my own small business was always booby-trapped, with many the biggest obstacles coming from my own government. We will get into the perils of large industry later – but regulation – well intentioned or otherwise – nearly by-definition is limiting to an individual’s freedom. This is even putting aside “nudge”-type social policy that looks to coerce certain behaviors by directly incentivizing them and punishing disobedience – these are more clearly overt actions of manipulation and behavioral control by the state.

Bureaucracy by default divorces actors from the consequences of their actions. Decision making is poured into the hands of un-elected pencil-pushers who are shielded from the negative consequences of their judgements. As government scales decision making drifts further out of the hand of individuals, and more towards power centers completely out of reach. A person’s capacity to affect their lives is diminished and he or she is at the control of others.

Bureaucracy also strips individuals of creativity and general ability – artisans and entrepreneurs succeed based on their ability to endure a Kafkaesque labyrinth of paperwork and queues rather than their actual skill and acumen in their craft – the most tedious and dull-minded thrive. After expending time filling out forms or rifling through procedural bureaucratic formalities, I have always felt stripped of any creative impulses. In my gut I sense that these rituals were designed more to stifle proclivity for imagination or any general variability than they were for public benefit. It is not hard to imagine how limiting freedoms would lend itself to limited mental mobility. An increase in government institutions means a decrease in personal liberties and a suffocating of non-institutional minded individuals.

Not only has there been a flourishing of laws and bureaucracy – but there has been an explicit growth in the force by which people are coerced to adhere by these laws through the rapid expansion of surveillance, policing, and incarceration. There has been a proliferation and militarization of policing entities across the nation. The Food and Drug administration and the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing are just a handful of the federal agencies that have sprouted their own police forces (though only the FDA has a most wanted list).[1] America’s number of incarcerated citizens has swollen to proportions only comparable to the most authoritarian of historic regimes.[2] There is an ever-increasing scope of surveillance and overwatching by the government of individuals that is unchecked. These circumstances demand adherence to the narrowing bands of allowable conduct and evaporate personal autonomy.

As laws grow to be more intrusive and arcane – individuals are often put into a state of limbo, where they knowingly are already or may be set to persecution for the most minor of offenses. I was recently stopped by the police for speeding in rural Georgia, the officer ordered me to get out of my car with my hands in the air, and then in a thinly-veiled threat stated that he could search my car and likely finds something that “shouldn’t be there.” The incident did not escalate further but it exemplified how prostrate of a position an individual is – whether guilty or malfeasance or not.

The possibility of criminal conviction now has further implications on our ability to gain employment, housing, and access to capital – said bluntly there is a burgeoning and ever-expanding pressure to abide by the rules of the state. Furthermore, not only is the prospect of conviction paralyzing, but even the possibility of entanglement in the slow-moving and labyrinth judicial system – which fully incentivizes prosecutors to prosecute for conviction rather than fair and just application of law – can be ruinously expensive and taxing on an individual. How did I know that even though I was caught speeding I wouldn’t be ensnarled in something more sinister? The prospect of sinking into a legal quagmire – if not worse – haunted the back of my mind during that whole encounter. Federal law enforcement agencies have been known to entrap and prey on individuals in similar but more grand-scale manners too.[3] The pressure on the individual underneath the government’s police, surveillance, and penal state is not solely a push towards an explicit following of laws, but also a compulsion to not cause any trouble or make too many waves that could bring negative attention to oneself in the eyes of the state.


The second large behemoth, industry, has experienced accelerated growth brought about by globalization, consolidation, and streamlining forces dating all the way back to the industrial revolution. More recently, industrial institutions have flourished under America’s exalting of the stock market, including the hyper-focus around those 505 companies that comprise the S&P 500 – Americans have broadly conflated the health of these large-cap corporations as the vitality of the nation. Sadly, this begins to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as America’s economy, along with other factors such its food-supply, and military defense become more entangled, ensnarled, and concentrated within large corporations. Additionally, as mentioned before, regulation makes it more onerous to pursue personal business and financial interests. Institutions have the resources to navigate increased regulation and increasing with scale have comparatively much more ease than the entrepreneur. This allows for winner-take-all effects within the economic sphere, which allows for the continued proliferation and propping-up of industrial behemoths while squashing the ability for new sprouts underfoot to grow. Even the means for early growth to new business has become more institution-focused as venture capital and angel investing become more formalized and the focus of mainstream pools of capital.

With the growth of institutions, individuals again begin to lose autonomy and free choice. Through consolidation all differentiation or choice of craftsmanship is evaporating. Choices and degrees of freedom for how a person can act and what he or she can do are lessening. An individual can now effectively choose to have between two types of operating systems on his or her smartphone.[4] Only a handful of companies control the majority of mass-produced food and beverage products. [5] Though the individual is supposedly given a better product or more leverage through scale, what he or she is actually given is lack of choice and higher-level freedom. A person does not have the option to not have a smartphone, but rather simply has the option to choose between 4-5 smartphones, a person does not have the option to not use the internet but has a few options between select ISPs. For a micro example of necessitated choice: to eat at a restaurant I do not have the option to but now need the ability to scan a QR code and have access to Wi-Fi or online data. For a more macro example: individuals are increasingly limited in mobility – a striking example is the shrinking ability for pedestrian movement: following the car industry’s heavy lobbying walking in the street outside of narrow crossing bands was made illegal, and now design and plan for cities and living spaces is centered around automobiles.[6] Outside of the very core of urban areas, having automobile transportation is a must to execute the most basic of tasks.

With the increasing coercing of individuals out of entrepreneurship and economic individualism and into employment, especially employment for large institutions/corporations, we continue to witness increased demand for corporate jobs. The competitive landscape shifts as other viable options die off, and competition heightens to optimize individuals’ lives in their role as employees. Careerists look to ensure that no stone is left unturned on the path to becoming a more employable candidate – optimizing their diet, sleep, and exercise habits. They even bend their thought patterns and information intake. When I was first entering employment in the depths of leviathan financial institutions in New York City. I learned and practiced mindfulness and meditation in order to sharpen my mental acuity and be more even-keeled, I devoured all the self-help and management literature I could in order to boost my productivity and efficiency. These acts were not so that I would be a better person per se but were primarily pursued so that I would be better at my job – i.e. so that I would be a better employee – and more importantly I believed that was equivalent to being a better person.

There are additionally heightened levels of credentialing and gatekeeping for entry into corporate employment, especially as technology has advanced to help facilitate such checks. Now potential employees can expect thorough background and credit checks, and the need for verified references. Any blotch, sign of dissent, or veering from the approved norm is a mark of ham within the corporate world and potential grounds for expulsion or forbidding of entry. Within financial institutions I have seen resume books of potential hires and they are practically all carbon copies of the same pathway to careerism often starting in childhood.

Careerist adults beget careerist children, as institutionalized persons understand the hypercompetitive environment they push for any and all advantages for their children in the same rat-race. The goal of childhood for these types is to create excellent pre-employees (the most recent redefinition of student). The track for employment creeps earlier and earlier into life as parents look to make their children better candidates to be hired. I transferred from public education to an elite private prep school in my early teen years – I was both jarred and tickled by parents who forced their children to take Latin in order to boost their SAT scores or who mandated extra-curriculars so that they would have more colorful college applications.  Furthermore, these careerist parental types push for policy from their government - see the blooming obsession for standardized testing, academic performance, and educational achievement – the sacrificing of firstborns at the altar of STEM.

Being able to signal efficiency and productivity becomes paramount in our society. People must be dynamic and think outside the box but only in the right ways. There is the streamlined careerist pathway through life: elite private pre-k programs leading to elite private high-schools straight through to the ivy-league which leads to entry level positions in upper echelon corporations. But as the pressures mount for others to crowd into the same areas all other educational options are pushed to mimic these same institutions. We now rank all colleges against the same metrics, we rank our high-schools and elementary schools against one another as well. Even the potential of diversity of choice here is an illusion as one is picking from a handful of different shades of grey. Children now become placed on the assembly-line life with the end result being that they resemble more commoditized products than individuals.

Not accounted for in how individuals shape themselves to be better employees are how they are again pushed for conformity directly from industry and technological society in other pockets of one’s life. An individual is practically unable to interact with others, sustain oneself, or travel without a smartphone, access to the internet and access to a personal computer. In fact, technology is becoming more and more an aspect of identity, one’s personal cell phone number and email address is becoming par to their name in terms of identification. I am continually put-off by the amount of log-in credentialling needed for access to basic information and interactions online. To some extent – I am as much me as I am my username(s).  A person’s online presence and personality have become an extension of their being and existence. Having a smartphone, an individual carries along his or her shadow identity, and in many ways exists and interacts as much online as he or she does in the physical world. People now extend and exchange social media handles in the same manner they would exchange handshakes. The inseparability of these aspects which have become facets of identity underscore how tethered one is to practice a limited band of actions, again reduction of choice and volition through strong forces of conformity.

The Other

This leads directly into the last behemoth that individuals lay prostrate before: the other. With the advent of technology, especially social media, individuals are now hyper-exposed to one another. The sequestered sphere of private and semi-private life is vanishing. Even if one does not actively partake, many of the following subjects are now common fodder for open social interpretation: diet, exercise, lifestyle, vacation, personal relationships, religious beliefs, manner of thought, emotions, and feelings.

As more facets of the individual are bared in the public sphere they are also opened to others’ direct and near instantaneous judgement via thumbs-up, thumbs-down, and comments. Actions grow less about the self and more performative. Where and how one vacations is no longer about getting a reprieve from society but now about flaunting one’s journeys in front of others ranked by their own pleasure or displeasure.  This feedback potential combines with the drift of power politics into every topic (more on this later) so that all aspects of life are not only on display but have unforeseen moral and societal weight to them. Diet is no longer a matter of taste but is about climate change and oppression and bares the moral gravity of the existence of the entire human species on its shoulders. Individuals now expose their inner depths of thought, feelings, and political and personal ideology to each other. Where in previous times, private thoughts and opinions were much more our own, now we are often confronted with our neighbor’s, babysitter’s, and friend’s most private beliefs, which ultimately drags everyone into the fray.

Positive feedback in online social spheres is directed to those who garner the most likes. This promotes the most pandering and mimicking individuals – across private and public life, while pushing those with unfavorable aspects in these areas to the margins. Online we now idolize the average and relatable, dulling down all sharp or rough edges into digestible mush. Social media does not push for the advent of iconoclastic individuals, but Frankenstein-esque pillars of averages and mediocrities, mere mirrors of their audiences.

These dynamics push for conformity of beliefs, if one does not bend to the beliefs of one side or the other, he or she faces ostracization. Codification tunnels further into all aspects of society at an accelerating pace and facets of life once personal live under the pressure of external approval and disapproval. As all actions become lumped into milieu-like political camps of the left and the right we soon have to choose between one pre-defined life or the other.

The advent of the institutionalized

By having large swaths of their lives dependent on institutional thinking, individuals are coaxed into believing or defaulted to the idea that all solutions and fixes to problems should be institutional in nature. Institutionalized people seek institutional solutions. Speaking very broadly, these effects institutionalize and over-socialize individuals – conditioning them to having encroachment in their lives via the state, industry, and social voyeurism.

Aspects that empower and embolden institutions are exalted in society. As an example: the idea of scale has become  a good in itself as its downsides – the crowding and fragilizing of systems – are ignored or misunderstood.[7] Institutions as an idea are seen as positive forces and the manner in which they detract from self-volition and human dignity are ignored. No matter what good they provide – if an institution has the power to give a benefit it also has the power to take it away. It is in this manner that very quickly people grow to become dependent upon institutions whether government, industry, or technological. Institutions, left unchecked, have a preponderance to grow and intrude more into a person’s life and rarely retract out of their own volition. The creature comforts brought on by new tech of today, become necessities just to get by tomorrow.

The effects of this flourishing of what I call institutional thought are the advent of mechanical, philistine, rule-followers. The scale of our government benefits the most dull-minded and bureaucratic instruments. Corporatism rewards process-oriented and tedium-loving drones. And pandering feed-back effects of social media allow for the advent of the most clichéd person to the top – a rule for social networks: whoever produces the loudest echo of the crowd must be the hollowest. What type of individual do we hope to make out of ourselves by sanctioning this type of society?

The institutionalized person, though he or she primarily knows and operates through institutional ways is largely blind to their binding effects. The ability of a person to have volition over his or her life is a necessary aspect for personal development and fulfilment. The extent of volition which is satisfactory surely varies across individuals. Though I am doubtful that all – or even the majority of – people need to feel deep aspects of freedom; there undoubtedly are individuals that do need to have this basic aspect of fulfillment. In its absence there is a growing senses of disillusionment, anger, apathy, ennui, and alienation. I believe one of the main causes for the widespread proliferation of mental illness is this dearth of volition. Mental illness may be an ill-acted sortie of a spirit constrained by modern life. The tenets that lead to these negative psychological reactions in individuals have been spreading rampantly in our society and under stress come to the forefront.

People being institutionalized feel disillusioned. They have put their trust into a system but feel abandoned by it because it has failed to provide further deep psychological fulfillment even though many are more well fed, housed, entertained than ever before. This creates the feeling that something is greatly amiss – which is capitalized by ardent believers on the left and the right and most importantly by the media.

This is the true reason why individuals riot regardless of political ideology.

Politics all the way down

Political ideology has become the diversion with which harsh feelings from institutionalization have been focused. For this I must take a slight detour to survey the political landscape.

For the left, politics and the basis of social interaction have been hijacked by academia. Social movements and change, once led by popular sentiment have been removed from the street and placed in the ivory tower, the abstract and ethereal sentiments of fairness have been substituted with the theory-driven dogmatism of justice and rigid, sterile definitions of equality. Though the prospect that rebellion could be an area of academic discipline is laughable, this line of thought has become mainstream as reality has moved even beyond what once constituted parody.

The alignment of leftism with academic and dogmatic ideology has led to the rise of a new secular religion. On the left we find individuals in an ideological and moral pursuit of purity.[8] These people are ultimately looking to build a utopia devoid of oppression, harm, violence, and danger through a slow and long process of history. If this idyllic dream of a future earth strikes one as eerily reminiscent of Christian ideals of heaven, then he or she is not too far off. Much of the demand for purity on the extreme left is born from a secular evolution of Christian concepts and morality. Social unity and equality: all men equal before God. Inherent facets of character that make one morally impure (biases, racism, sexism, etc.): original sin. Traced back one can find this as a genealogical off-shoot of Platonism and Platonic idealism.

Years ago, when I considered myself a leftist activist I felt wholeheartedly that I was on the absolute righteous side of history – the battles I fought and actions I took were for the triumph of good over evil in this world.

The psychological make-up of the extreme leftist is the malcontent and the psychological, moral, and spiritual hypochondriac. A person who will always find fault or illness in the very being and nature of themselves and others.[9] The nature of these people harbors a predisposition towards deep feelings of guilt, shame, and ultimately self-flagellation. I am sure many on the extreme left would self-select to join an ascetic priesthood or nunnery in another time. When I subscribed to these ideals, I understood myself to be ever harboring a yoke of guilt for all aspects of myself that yielded power and advantages in society – my works to “better” the world were an extenuating apology for these aspects. This tendency for stigmatizing synthesizes with the spectral ability/inhibition for people to act inwardly or outwardly – those who’s nature to inwardly act will usually succumb to rather gruesome or severe mental illness – those who are able to outwardly act will look to tyrannize others and demand everyone bend to their ideological whims. Those outward facing people wage a cultural war and have a zero-sum approach to contorting and warping society to their liking. When I was a leftist I believed stopping the narrow definition of what myself and others defined as “harm,” was paramount to freedom of speech, freedom of action, and what I could easily now label as civil rights. I am able to explicate this type because of how close I was to it. If I do not handle it with kid-gloves – I do not mean it to be disrespectful. From subscribing to it for years I have a deep understanding of this general psychological and ideological bent though I am now to a great extent repulsed by it.

The ideological right, rather than be above the fray, also plays into the zero-sum game and begins to self-identify solely out of the negative space left by the left. This puts them in an impossible state of inverse-mimicry that is marred by hypocrisy: right leaning idealists preach limited government, but blindly back an authoritarian police state, they seek freedom of incursions by institutions yet glibly back large corporations, and they profess the sanctity of personal liberties yet are willing to relinquish them around issues that make them the slightest bit squeamish like abortion. If the left is suffused with idealogues, then the right is characterized by shadows and hollow-chested beings. I chronicle and explicate these ideas to expose how superfluous, shallow and futile both of these predispositions are.

The direct conflict of beliefs of both sides are born out of the insincerity of their positioning to begin with. Because the right and the left have evolved in countervailing forces, they cannot stand on their own legs ideologically. They define themselves in a series of factious offsetting positions which leads to two ridiculous ideological camps that realistically have more in common than not. Both cretinous parties mimic the same tactics of sanctimony, faux-martyrdom, and victimhood to win over the masses. The commonality between both was pronounced to me when I spent a quarter of the previous year living deep within a heavily conservative suburban town – where the political talking points were the direct foils – and still of the same substance of those that I had grown used to witnessing in liberal New York City circles.

The fourth estate

The warring between the left and the right is ultimately played out and exacerbated in the media. Media punditry has every incentive to pander to the basest thoughts of their audience using means of manipulative communication. This nation no longer has incentive structures for fair and moderate reporting – neither for large institutions, nor for individual sources. There is a vortex of polarization due to the swelling competition for the ever-divided and shrinking attention span of the audience. Media seeks to pander to demographics with each side severely distorting facts to craft nearly two distinct narratives in a cesspool of hot takes.[10] Watching reporting on the same story from different news sources feels akin to watching two alternate realities. Both sides seek to obfuscate enough to make sure a story is accommodating to their target audience and vindictive of those outside of it. The Tucker Carlson’s and the Don Lemon’s work daily to make sure they have an hour of content designed to fill their audience with rage and fear of their perceived political opponents. Their smaller individual copy-cats on Twitter and other social media look to posture similarly with just enough snark to remark how the most recent political event was either a vindictive win for their side or just another example of how depraved the other side has become.

The sad fact of the matter is that the tactics of our media work. The sharp incentives and proclivity to divide meet their mark frighteningly well. The US populace is largely attracted or repulsed by either side and because one is playing a zero-sum game if they do not subscribe to one side they are pushed to the extreme in the other direction. This push to extremes leads to groups viewing themselves as having an absolute moral high ground and those opposing them as being in direct opposition to the good – if not the direct embodiment of evil.

The end result is that individuals are conditioned to believe in an absolute dichotomy of beliefs, everything is in black-and-white terms and we are playing a zero-sum winner-take-all game. We have seen the homogenizing of political beliefs within political parties where there used to be much more diversity among constituents.[11] The atmosphere of all-or-nothing coerces individuals to conform their beliefs out of either a want to show solidarity or a revulsion at being identified with the enemy. This works in synergy with the hyper-exposure of private life in the public sphere. Forces for conformity have a huge moral and ideological weight to them.

All information begins to be processed in this binary fashion, every soundbite, social media post, news snippet, is scrutinized as an endorsement or rebuke of political ideals no matter how seemingly ambiguous. The slow creep – primarily driven by post-modernist belief that everything is political and ultimately tied to power struggles – incentivizes politicking in all areas forcing more and more of individual (and even private) life under a microscope. We grow separated and polarized in more aspects of our lives as America slips further into a cold-civil war.

The end

These multitude of effects are the reason the riots have happened. People are deeply disillusioned and disjointed in life from the ill-effects of these artificial leviathans. They gather around the false flags of ideology that point to the other side as the source of their anger and disillusionment. Instead of othering these people into an out-group, what is needed is a deep understanding of the pathways to their actions. One would have to be either incredibly calloused or incredibly impotent to not riot and protest if they wholeheartedly believed they were subject to the tyranny of racism, patriarchy, socialism, communism, or any of the other boogeymen crafted by the two ideological poles. Unfortunately, the protests, and especially the riots are ultimately distractionary and counterproductive. They all too often result in either seeking institutional solutions or evoke institutional reactions and pushback – outcomes which either way would further infringe upon individual’s dignity and further agitate and exacerbate the original underlying issues.

A personal note – this essay was formed with somewhat of a nuchal chord about its neck. It runs against all my sensibilities of taste when individuals posture themselves as speaking for the masses. I find such diatribes is all too often filled with trite cliches and being little more than a lambasting and prating against the very vague, amorphous, and sere concept of “the elites.” I have tried to steer well clear of these inviting traps and numerous times found myself combatting my own writing. I hope it is evident that this is not a “us vs them” tirade but commentary surrounding what I see as the barefaced unnatural contorting of human psyche and caging of individual volition.

So, what would a viable path forward look like? I have clearly barred myself from any institutional or large-scale solutions. And for the individual I make a polemical case about how hard it is to not conform and to be dissident in today’s society. Perhaps a proper retort or rebuke of my entire argument would simply be a flippant “so what?”

I have created a litany of the perils and obstacles of being an individual, but it is far from am impossible task. When I, in successions of stages of growth broke from my old conformist mindsets, as an idealogue leftist, as careerist, and as an institutionalized person, each move away was painful and isolating, but wholly possible. I am not idealizing any aspect of myself as a finished end-result – I have no want or need to self-flagellate or aggrandize. I am simply stating that breaking out of the conformity traps of society and attempting to wrench back and protect one’s own volition is possible, but not without significant amounts of dauntlessness in the face of discomfort and bellicosity towards all incursion into one’s own life. On some levels this is a call for an admixture of humility and pride. A person must be humble enough to accept epistemic and human limits, both for the self and the group – but also have the pride to consider one’s own life important enough to want control over it. The focus shrinks down to the individual level and ensuring appropriate bounds and relationships exist at that scale. As Candide put it – time to tend to our own gardens.

[1] Fairly entertaining to see who the biggest food fugitives are: For info on the Treasury’s BEP Police go to:

[2]A decent analysis of how though the US has victimization and violent crime rates on par with other developed nation its incarceration rate is almost 3x higher





[7] Nassim Taleb does great work elucidating these effects within much of his work but especially in The Black Swan  and Antifragile

[8] My friend, Justin does a remarkable diagram of what demands for purity look like in human group behavior, being a more noble soul than I, he leaves political ideology out of it.

[9] I am not blind to the irony of me calling out the ills in others/society at large here. In fact my own sensitivity to this type and others is I recognize my own proclivity towards such bents. All archetypes and psychologies elucidated in this piece are highlighted as malignant and hyperinflated aspects of human nature. They are all competing and symbiotic aspects within each of us.

[10] Matt Taibbi – for all his faults – does a very strong job at pointing out the crumbling of fair media