The Screwtape Stratagem
How global networks drive the efficiency curve of Evil (and why it will screw them in the end).
"Is the dullness of your present fare not a very small price to pay for the delicious knowledge that His whole great experiment is petering out? But not only that. As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue — almost every film star or crooner — can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him."
— excerpt from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” by C.S. Lewis.
The meals the arch-demon Screwtape describes above are the souls of modern people, whose sins aren’t nearly as delectable as those of the past. By this he means both the great and bloody criminals of history and the deeper participation of the average person in their crimes. When comparing these to the more commonplace and mundane forms of graft, dishonor and impiety that spread in modernity’s wake, Screwtape demonstrates how the latter is preferable in utilitarian terms; “quantity over quality” is essentially his argument.
What prompted me to look up this quote and contemplate it was a conversation thread with fellow Deimos Station member, in which she posited that Screwtape’s graduation speech aptly described the “infestation” phase of what we might call demonic possession. I agreed, adding that it could be the kind of phenomenon that occurs at multiple levels and fractal iterations. I think as well that Screwtape's depiction of the modern sinner as less-tasty-but-more-prevalent dovetails neatly with the growth of global communications networks. The net is cast ever wider, but also ever shallower, because a greater number of meaning-starved fish gather near the surface to feed.
Lewis wrote this short sequel to “Letters” in 1959, under the long but fading shadow of WWII. Because that war saw such grand, sweeping carnage and atrocity, he feared that the growing spread of “smaller” sins would be diminished in comparison, or even waved-off outright. In other words:
Sure, I might cheat on my spouse or skim a few bucks from the public purse, but at least I’m not Hitler! And besides, everybody does it, these days. How could it be that we’re all going to Hell?
The threat Lewis was noticing in ‘59 would only expand with the growth of mass mediums, culminating in the sharp and stratospheric rise of the 21st century consumer internet. When that medium’s dark side is discussed, it’s often in atomized fashion, broken down into categories like pornography, video games, social media apps and other addictive products. But as a whole, I think it can be described as a depersonalization engine, pumping waves of radiation that not only unmake minds and disintegrate souls, but flatten the addict’s capacity to act with any agency in the world.
But the other phenomenon that Screwtape points to is even more apt, given that Evil is a teleology which seeks ever greater efficiency. In reminding us that the “great sinners” are fewer in number, their tools of corruption are accordingly greater in strength and reach thanks to the technologies of the day. Wars and genocides that once took decades to brew can now be triggered on a weekend whim, with the propaganda used to justify them spread globally across the ether at minimal cost.
In Screwtape’s view of the war, this model of lower-intensity but wider-range corruption marks a signification advantage. Though few in number, the evil shepherds would corrupt their flocks from a much safer distance, slowly dissolving their ability to distinguish not only virtue from vice, but freedom from servitude and Self from Other.
Is this not a near perfect explanation of the "NPC" phenomenon? Masses of people who have traded their liberty, privacy and individuality for the ease of chasing a dim signal into the dark? Whether or not these people can be described as traditional “addicts” is a matter for debate. But I think what’s indisputable is that they aren’t only that.
When they submit to the latest political trend or identity campaign, they aren’t simply consuming, as the junkie consumes his heroin. They are acting and participating. The better addiction analog might be the gambler, who participates for the thrills but also has a real, material stake in the outcomes.
But if so, why do the participants who parrot official messaging seem so grey, flat and mindlessly performative that memes like these capture their gestalt so well:
While the case can be made that phenomena like transgenderism, climate change, COVID-19 and the Russo-Ukrainian war all involve a lot of real material at stake, the chips the NPC slides forth onto the virtual table are ephemeral and cost-free. When decorating a social media post in slogans, hashtags, pronouns and such, nothing but a moment of their time is being spent or risked. In fact, quite the opposite of the gambler, they seem to have become badly allergic to risk of any kind.
When compared to the actual rioters and fake revolutionaries in the street (whomrecently argued were more the product of subclinical narcissism than any particular ideological strain), the NPC can be thought of as the flabby, beer-chugging spectator in the stands. He cheers the players on as he orders his third hot dog, mustard stains running down his officially licensed team jersey. Though he parrots the latest buzzwords and beliefs, he remains safely distant from the sins themselves.
Or at least, he thinks he does.
The flavorless souls that Screwtape describes were themselves malnourished. The thieving bureaucrat quietly pecks away at a fund, instead of robbing it blind in one spectacular heist. The adulterers sneak off to a squalid motel in the dead of night, rather than murder their spouses and flee to Mozambique. Their sins are more mundane and less immediately destructive, and consequently thin gruel even for the sinners themselves.
On the path from 1959 to now, the nourishment of the everyday, rank-and-file sinner has diminished even further, even as the menu of options has expanded exponentially. By the early 2010s, the midnight motel rendezvous had been replaced by chronic porn-fueled masturbation, or simps forking over half their paychecks to vampiric online thots. And while cheating and theft by government workers hasn’t seen a decline, the prosecution of such crimes surely has. The instruments of law have regressed to a pure Rule-of-Man arsenal, such that whether you will be charged and punished for a given crime depends almost entirely on your political tribe, as does the public’s sympathy towards the accused.
For the NPC, the trick manifests as perverse form of brand loyalty. Joe Biden can peddle influence and trigger world wars all he wants, even if it renders your future prospects bleak. Donald Trump can forget to pay a parking ticket, and you’ll call for the electric chair. As long as no one’s forcing you to fight the war or pull the switch, you’ll leave the keyboard assuming that your hands are clean.
After all, it wasn’t that howling, hashtagging Judean mob who murdered Jesus, but a bunch of armed imperial troops doncha know. Because words aren’t violence, right? Except when they are, of course. You will be told which hypocritical test to apply, through means both direct and subtle.
Luckily, your gentle masters won’t expect you to noodle out the difference. That’s what their influencers are for: to tell you who to scream at, and how to cry foul when they point out your hypocrisy. It’s as though Sloth and Wrath had a baby, stripped of any real agency except to annoy the in-flight passengers and crew.1
So the fiery sinner became the drab oathbreaker became the shapeless gray blob, pecking the internet for virtual calories. Their diet is pure subsistence now, akin to those crickets hunted by starving waifs in North Korea: mild diversions and distractions; the projection of one’s own frustrations and failings onto convenient targets; a vague, parasocial approximation of “belonging” to a “community.”
Their sins are likewise so minor and indirect, each one might look like a single flake in a blizzard. But a death by a thousand cuts is still a death, and the frog still boils until it becomes frog soup. Screwtape would prefer pheasant-under-glass and caviar, of course, but he knows his master’s victory would taste far sweeter.
The strategy still requires powerful human assistants to work properly. In order to keep the masses on their gently sloping path to ruin, these agents must leverage existing resources for maximal output without exhausting themselves or revealing their hidden agendas. Thanks to the Internet and its offspring technologies, the tide of war seems to have turned sharply in their favor in recent decades. However, this approach includes some drawbacks, and perhaps even a fatal flaw.
One drawback is due to the shape of the battlefield. I suspect the curve towards maximally efficient evil has always been exponential, but that up until now the average human lifespan has been too short to recognize the rate at which the slope steepens. What we we may be witnessing now is the first generation of humans where the accelerating rise-over-run within their lifetimes has been both widely observable and steep enough to be detected by large numbers of people.
It’s not an illusion, in other words, that ideas and policies which would’ve been considered totally insane ten years ago have not only been normalized, but propped up on political and corporate pedestals for worship. In fact, the transition periods from the profane to the sacralized and vice-versa are getting noticeably shorter, as are the intervals between such radical transformations. Soon enough even the most diligent NPC will have trouble keeping pace with all the shifting idols, shibboleths, goalposts and rulesets.
That’s a big problem for Uncle Screwtape; when some of these egregoric engines really get cranking, they have a tendency to take on a life of their own. For instance, once NPCs start cancelling each other left and right for the morning’s new wrongthink (a phenomenon we’re already beginning to see), many castaways will seek comfort in the “Enemy’s” camp, where they’re in danger of awakening to the truth.
Lucky for him, Screwtape knows their hidden weakness. And, too often, ours as well.
When a dissident says something like, “What we need right now is real leaders!” sometimes I throw up in my mouth a little. It’s not so much that “leaders” are always the cause of all problems, but that they’re often the cause of many (and particularly in the political realm). But I also fear what’s lurking inside the sentiment itself.
The implication seems to be that we cannot lead ourselves effectively according to our principles, or don’t want to assume the risk of trying. Instead we look to outsource the work to distant and powerful strangers who we know almost nothing about. It’s almost the cry of the child lost in the shopping mall; he stands in one place, weeping and wailing until some helpful adult comes to lead him somewhere. Perhaps it will be to the Mall Security office, to page mommy and daddy. Perhaps it will be into the back of an unmarked van.
But for our new, network-based sinner, what the (mis)leader says or even does is beside the point. A lot of phony uproar was drummed up when Trump joked:
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?”
But for many lost and atomized souls, I think that joke has become something like fact. As long as the leader sports the tribal colors and can minimally recite the liturgy, he can commit practically any crime without fear of rebuke from his flock.
This in itself isn’t an innovation; in fact, the evil cult leader who can do no wrong is a dirge that echoes through all of bloody history. The difference now pertains to his current tools of amplification and seduction. Amplification is the more obvious of the two: messaging and marching orders transmitted to more people over greater distances, by fewer messengers and at lower material/opportunity costs. It’s the enhanced tools of seduction where things start to get a little murky and spooky.
For example, in addition to the visible leaders and “influencers” spouting official lies, the web has been inundated lately with chatbots of various species. I catalogued a few of those here, but with the admission that a variety of other dangerous mutants can and will emerge over time.’s recent piece about chatbots inspired thought of a potential new variant, which would serve to blur the lines even further between human and machine. As he writes (emphasis mine):
Even worse, the effect can be more powerful in groups. Suppose that some chatbot was distributed, unknown to the public, to a few thousand willing influencers. The result could be,
The steering of the influencers with biased, manipulative, or fabricated (dis)information.
The effect on the public would be like viewing the appearance of consensus among experts. To many, this is an even more powerful form of parasocial dunbar hacking…
When I first read this, I think I misinterpreted what Crawford meant by “distributed (to influencers)” and “unknown to the public.” Immediately, my thoughts ran straight to a transhuman version of the Faustian pact, which dissident writers have joked about ever since ChatGPT hit the scene. As the deal goes, a chatbot will be trained to emulate your writing style, allowing to you to kick back your heels while it grinds out articles in your name:
Also, the AI I’m training up to write this feature for me requires an obscene number of GPUs, and GPUs don’t grow on trees. The more of you sign up to support this blog, the quicker I can afford to pay for an AI to do it for me and go climb trees instead of sitting in this damnable chair all day.
But imagine the deal in the context of all those “experts” and “influencers” that the ruling elite seek to co-opt. They might leap at the chance to have such a virtual facsimile grind out their pedestrian tweets and posts, thus freeing them to spend more time Netflix-and-chilling (or whatever it is they do when they’re not sucking up to power).
Extend the deal’s parameters to the sorcery of audiovisual deepfakes, and you might soon see an army of digital homunculi rise up, parroting the regime’s messaging with what passes for their individual licensor’s style and flair. I suspect that many of them would even be flattered to receive such an offer, imagining they’ve been chosen as one of the Elect.
(Once again, I wonder what the perfect portmanteau of Sloth and Greed would be? Groth sounds a little too Star Wars-y.)
No matter how they’re tempted or corrupted, the Enemy’s goal is to maximize their leadership’s efficiency as well. A hidden author will sling out a certain term or catchphrase which shatters into a spray of fractal echoes, starting with corporate and social media agents and ending in millions of NPCs, sprinkled into their digital and meatspace conversations like a foul spice.
For most of these low-priced minions and swarms of cost-free parrots, there apparently exists no hypocrisy too absurd or crime too obvious to break the connection. I suspect this is because it’s a fundamentally unhuman one. This seems clear from the language they use, which is one of unending spite and accusation.
The devil’s forked tongue is seductive precisely because the world is an imperfect place. But it’s also anchored in the human being’s innate desire for a meaning that transcends the flesh. Like a clear-cut forest that someone forgot to replant, much older and stronger forms of meaning have been jettisoned with no viable replacements. So when the NPC echoes the latest approved sluagh-ghairm, he or she is simultaneously grasping for an ersatz moral scaffolding. They hope to stumble across meaning on the cheap, without putting forth the strenuous effort to first understand things as they are.
Again, the primary sin here is Sloth. The search for meaning is extremely difficult by design. You can’t get it at the drive-thru window, or by joining a Twitter mob. You also can’t find it by cheering on great harms in the name of free will. At the slope’s current arc, the hyper-individualistic lie that we are entirely self-created beings has mutated into an explosion of for-profit castration clinics and government-assisted suicide booths.
For the masses to confuse such carnage for mercy is the chef’s kiss of Screwtape’s palate, tastier than a brigade of gourmet serial killers. While it’s true that to sin in the mind (e.g. to think about harming innocent people) isn’t as bad as to sin in the flesh (e.g. to attack them with a homemade flamethrower), it’s not completely without cost. Sinful thoughts can add up, and weaken your spiritual defenses over time.
The digital realm of social media has sometimes been described as the playground of the id, where the darkest thoughts tend to reign supreme. These often take the shape of written words and symbols, or of one-sided jeremiads shouted into webcams and other recording devices. If deemed helpful to the regime, these thoughtforms are allowed to flourish unabated, even if some of them appear to oppose its agenda on the surface (e.g. the black propaganda, fifth column and false flag strategies).
There also exists what we might call the “good internet,” which involves thoughtful discussions and dutiful investigations, by people trying to connect in the most human way the medium allows. Whenever these people and groups threaten to become efficient leadership nodes, the Enemy tries to crush them using increasingly underhanded, disturbing and draconian tactics. The fact that there are more of these crackdowns lately suggests a fly in the ointment. Such tactics are seldom conducted from positions of strength.
That’s when the other big problem with Screwtape’s strategy comes into play: the quality of each side’s belligerents is unequal, and is becoming more unequal over time. As the Enemy’s forces grow in number, their competence shrinks right alongside the depth of their sins and willingness to take risks. For every fearsome Ugluk there are a hundred sniveling, pajama-bottomed Snagas, set to tuck tail and run at the first sign of trouble.
Our own growth and efficiency curves aren’t as steep. This is due to the inherent inefficiencies of freedom, individuality, creativity and openness to debate. But the end products are men and women who have been tested and tempered in the flames. They resisted the temptation to walk the Enemy’s gentler, undemanding path. They chose instead to build their minds and bodies, hone their weapons and skills, build networks of brotherhood and trust. They chose to speak the truth, even at great personal risk and with the odds stacked firmly against them.
Who would you take to war with you? A hundred honed Rohirrim cavalry, or a thousand gibbering goblins of Mordor?
To answer, I’ll propose my own toast in reply:
Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat; long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first; but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning.
P.S. If you found any of this valuable (and can spare any change), consider dropping a tip in the cup for ya boy. I’ll try to figure out something I can give you back. Thanks in advance.