Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leviathan, That Mortal God

"The main mark of modern government is that we do not know who governs, de facto any more than de jure." --Chesterton, The Nameless Age, G.K.’s Weekly, Aug. 7, 1926

Election time is over. My man lost.

No, I didn't vote for Mitt "Leveraged-Buyout" Romney this time, nor for anyone else on the ballot. What can I expect? And who writes in his own guy anyway?

Interesting is the widespread angst that I have noted over this presidential election. Was it missing from the previous one, or did I fail to notice? Perhaps I have a heightened awareness of these things due to the prevalence of social media. Anyone with a few connections begins to get a feel for the social landscape. So I begin to think of the sociology of elections.

I find some of the most eye-rolling behaviors among the dogmatically religious. A number of them were praying for their chosen candidate. Some of them even witnessed that they knew the Lord's hand would be evident in this election. Yes, I suppose God came through for some of them, and they now thank Him with outstretched arms and upturned faces. Perhaps God did choose our president after all.

But for others, in spite of all assurances and the whisperings of the Spirit, God failed. What happened?

Maybe the faith of some is shaken; perhaps they have awakened from their stupor and see the silliness of this whole notion that God fixes an election. Mostly, though, I see that they turn their disappointment upon those fellow Americans whose general wickedness (it is alleged) allowed this calamity to transpire. Jesus is still King, they remind themselves, as they weep with their betrayed god for the unrighteousness of the people.

Another discouraging story is of a business owner who, in a fit of spite, fired many of his workers when his candidate wasn't elected. Now we're doomed to drop off the fiscal cliff, you see. He blames the hardships of his former employees--a result of his own stunning foolishness--on the president he voted against. I find it troubling that this misguided businessman is not alone in his particular way of thinking. These people have seen the future, and it is despair. Of course it is; all of their prophecies are of the self-fulfilling variety.

Some are circulating petitions to secede from the Union. Others are displaying the American flag upside down. There has been some rioting at southern universities. Let us be grateful, in a land of Free Speech, that we find an outlet for our anger in words rather than in violence.

It is through speech, Hobbes tells us, that truth is made; and we live in an imaginary world where perception matters far more than reason. It is the world of marketing and PR, come to dominate religion and politics, where feelings and appearances are the only things that count. In this world, our make-believes sometimes have greater consequences than material reality because we have ceased to make a distinction between the two. If we have such power over truth, why not tell happy stories?

* * *

On August 21, 1858, Stephen A. Douglas delivered a speech at Ottawa, Illinois. In it he mentioned the Compromise of 1850 with an affirmation that sent the crowd into a prolonged ovation. Then the Senator said something that is completely alien to our modern political discourse:
"My friends, silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasm."
What are we to make of this? Such a strange sort of man, who wishes to be understood more than worshiped! Contrast this to our own bread-and-circuses political conventions where the masses, devoid of civic duty, seek to be entertained whilst they bask in the glory of their sham politicians. These are events better suited to bawdy, Clint Eastwood comic routines than to the exercise of conscience, understanding, or judgment.

And what of these televised debates? The tension on stage is palpable, but upon reviewing the post-debate transcripts, I am surprised to discover that the actual positions of both candidates are very similar.

"...This country was divided into two great political parties," claimed Senator Douglas in his Ottawa speech. "Both were national and patriotic," he continued, "advocating principles that were universal in their application." Indeed, the differences expressed by our leading candidates seem to me inconsequential enough that I am surprised at the level of conflict present in the debates. 

Here's the thing: In the 21st Century, we choose our candidates in the same way we choose our sports teams. Not on substance, but by loyalty, tradition, appearance, and above all, emotion. The conflicts are therefore primarily imagined, manufactured, and staged for our entertainment. We love our own team because they fly our colors and repeat our slogans.

Now, if all these distraught people for whom politics is some kind of sport would calm down and think clearly for a moment, I believe they will find that things are only as bad as they wish them to be. The outcome of our recent election has nothing at all to do with the fulfillment of prophecy or with the second coming of Jesus. There are difficulties ahead, to be sure, but these problems don't have much to do with the man elected to stand at the helm.

As it turns out, there's not much of a rudder on this ship anyway.

* * *

It is difficult for us to believe that the remarkable things around us are not all the result of some design. As a multitude united in one commonwealth--the generation of that leviathan who holds the keys to war and peace, to poverty and prosperity--we can't imagine that our destiny is not in the hands of this Figure who looms large over America, in the imaginations of many, as its elected (dare I say) sovereign

Things, however, are not always as they appear.

As far as I can tell, Adam Smith was the first to get an inkling of the thing scientists now call "spontaneous order" or "emergent complexity." Smith noted that there seemed to be some sort of Invisible Hand at work in the economy of a Scottish country estate. Here we have a small community that self-organizes and displays some complex behaviors that aren't according to any particular design.

We know that markets exhibit spontaneous order, as do organic things up to and including the universe itself. All that is needed are some very simple building blocks that can combine in some basic ways, and we end up with remarkably complex lines of development that will eventually produce surprising things--all without a guiding intelligence of any kind. These outcomes are not by design, though we try to predict them and sometimes offer our own inputs to guide them along as best we may.

Here is a Hard Truth: The federal government is a self-organizing economy that demonstrates emergent behaviors. If we discern peril in our future, there is not much one single, slogan-wielding politician can do about it. I concede that our politicians may play some part in slowing or speeding the fate of this nation, but in the end, it does not matter very much who gets elected; our destiny will be--has been, by now, I expect--dictated by an Invisible Hand.

If anything, this year's presidential election demonstrates the extent to which our elected officials stand in as proxies for God or Satan. Leaders in complex governing economies act as agents for interpreting and casting meaning upon the inevitable; they are accumulators of censure or praise. More than the embodiment of Leviathan, that mortal god, our leaders have come to embody the hopes and fears of their constituents. Though still wielding immense power, they have lost their deterministic potency in the mortal, material world and now reign greatest in the minds of men.

9 comments:

Dave McCombs said...

"The outcome of our recent election has nothing at all to do with the fulfillment of prophecy or with the second coming of Jesus."

The morning after the election, before I went off to school, I had to check to see who got elected. I didn't think Romney would win, but still, when I saw that he hadn't, I thought: "Well, the world isn't going to end."

I'm being silly, but I do fear leaders who believe in Armageddon: it's that self-fulfilling prophecy. We're so excited for the end times, so that we can know who was good and vacations for eternity and who was bad and has to suffer so the never-ending vacationing will, after a while, at least seem preferable in contrast. We must rise to the ultimate height of strife, and destroy the planet so that God is forced to come down and fix everything. It's aggressive mental neoteny. It's obsession with ultimate approval.

People who believe they are an instrument of their God's will terrify me. I'm wary of people who believe they're electing an instrument of their God's will, too.

People ought to act more in their own name, and take accountability for their own beliefs, rather than put it all on some ideal entity, and become furious when the entity doesn't pay off in empowerment, or prove itself the Right Thing.

Peter McCombs said...

Dave,

These visions of the future are a source of fear in a lot of people. I think you articulated the fear that many would have today had Romney won the election. We'd be one step closer to doomsday because a man with Religion is in office.

The fear among the conservative faithful is that this is another sign of the increasing wickedness of the world. We're one step closer to doomsday because a godless man is in office.

He isn't godless, of course, but as I said, truths are born of the stories we tell, and these days I hear stories about Satan's servant. So he might as well be.

As with all true sport fans, there's a real sense that justice has been denied whenever the team loses an important game. These fanatics, however, have a worldview that defers justice to the afterlife. At least then we'll have a president we can tolerate.

I think the real fear ought to be that we don't have any idea at all where this ship is taking us.

I have a hypothesis that emergent complexity is self-preserving by nature. It will develop until it can longer be sustained by its environment.

You can't stop these social machines that have run amok any more easily than you can stop a hurricane. At least with the weather, we have good models. What is the state of social modelling? Where will we end up?

Anyway, this post started out as a comment I made over at Tripp York's blog.

We might find a partial remedy in something like Mr. York's Christian anarchy. By removing these complex hierarchies and returning to simpler ones, we have a better chance at discerning (and perhaps controlling) our own destiny. But, as I mentioned, the time for that is past and our machinery will labor forward until it has outgrown its niche. Then perhaps we'll come to our senses.

Could the "fiscal cliff" be it? Maybe, but I think not yet. Perhaps it is a sign that we are getting close, though.

Dave McCombs said...

"But, as I mentioned, the time for that is past and our machinery will labor forward until it has outgrown its niche. Then perhaps we'll come to our senses."

Oh, come on, there it is again: The Event that will allow for an Ideal to become empowered.

I think the only kind of meaningful change comes from self-awareness and personal accountability, rather than reliance on destiny, or any other external force.

I also think we are nowhere near the maximum potential for our many emergent complexities.

Peter McCombs said...

So, let me get this straight. "Meaningful change" sounds like the result of an ideal becoming empowered. This ideal is said to be "self-awareness and personal accountability," whatever those things mean.

Whatever they are, they sound something like the ideal of anarchy I had proposed, which has to do with the self and with personal accountability and with keeping one's nose out of other people's business.

And under what scenario might _your_ ideal of "self-awareness and personal accountability" be empowered? You could certainly attempt to practice your own ideal, but then what does that have to do with "meaningful change?" Others are still empowered to pry into your business and legislate your future however they see fit.

Let us not look to any hypothetical Event, heaven forbid; let us exist now out of time where we might not commit the sin of eschatology with a view to future justice.

I can't see how anyone, including you, who views ideals of any kind could be criticized for speculating upon how those ideals might become empowered toward meaningful change.

You're saying saying to "be this way instead of that way." Then we'll see meaningful change. Yes, the event that will allow for an ideal to become empowered. Hm?

Destiny is nothing more than the state of the system at that point in the future when it ceases to develop further. It is not something to rely upon, because it is unknown and only guessed at, hence a reasonable source of fear.

External forces and emergent behaviors can't be helped. We are similarly ignorant about them. They are also things that cannot be relied upon.

That is the whole problem; when you are a member of an emergent system, a great many things that affect you are beyond your control. And unless you are a singularity, you are part of an emergent system.

My point is that the smaller the system, the more effective "self-awareness and personal accountability" (or anything else your ideals elevate) are toward whatever meaningful change you had in mind.

It is always at the trunk where the possible branches can be determined most readily. This is where intelligence and effort really count. Once you already have the engine of complexity running though, it's a natural process of development and a natural process of pruning that are creating primary change, not slogans or ideals or even heroic effort.

That's the thesis of my post: Sorry, suckers, this thing is taking you who-knows-where, and there isn't much you can do about it right now. So you might as well change your stories to something happy.

I am suggesting that we may be witnessing branches of emergent complexity, i.e. the federal government, that are already in an advanced state of self-organizing complexity where there is little room for further development or at least changes in the shape of the resulting system. I believe that much is self-evident. At some point the slate will be full and those branches will be pruned off.

Pruning events are the only events that allow for new ideals to become empowered. Otherwise, the ideals are operating out on the twig-ends of the emergent systems, where they don't make much difference. The shape of the thing is already pretty much determined.

Dave McCombs said...

You ask:

"And under what scenario might _your_ ideal of 'self-awareness and personal accountability' be empowered?"

It's a personal change, not an external one. Everyone is already empowered, you only need be aware of the fact. It's self-awareness free from pretenses, acceptance of your emotions, a realistic sense what role you play in the world, and then acting true to yourself. You make choices.

Others certainly may be empowered to "pry into your business and legislate your future however they see fit", but they can't forcibly change who you are.

There's no one event that's going to change everyone. Each person has to change themselves of their own free will, go through their own personal Armageddon.

Maybe it all sounds fluffy, but I think it's the only way any kind of meaningful social change will endure -- it has to come from the personal level.

I don't know what will happen to the world. I know who I am, though, and I think if I act true to myself, it doesn't matter what happens.

The real strife in all this is the pursuit of these illusions of power (some great Event), which is really just running away from the power you already have, and it's the only real power. The great Event is yours alone.

When it comes to Leviathan, I think it's just a pale, feeble manifestation of an infinitely greater complexity of which we are all a part.

You said:

"That's the thesis of my post: Sorry, suckers, this thing is taking you who-knows-where, and there isn't much you can do about it right now. So you might as well change your stories to something happy."

I agree, especially on the last part. That would make the world much more pleasant.

I don't like agreeing, though, without making some degree of fuss about why.

Peter McCombs said...

This self-awareness and inner life you describe is important, but what about civic issues and the need for government? The people are the author of Leviathan, out of necessity, according to Hobbes.

Dave McCombs said...

Right. And I'm far out of my element when it comes to civic issues and government. But these arise from self-awareness and inner life. If Leviathan is authored by the people, what leads the people to this result?


Peter McCombs said...

Hobbes says that the natural state of man is not one of enlightened self-awareness, but of war; every man against every man. It's every man for himself, and nature has made us essentially equals.

In order to rise above this natural state, we authorize the commonwealth as the enforcer of social contract, and this commonwealth is represented by a sovereign in an assembly or in a person.

Values must first be shared before there can be any social contract at all, so here is an ideology that extends beyond the self.

Since there is a need for shared values, there arises a "values competition." Whose values will reign supreme? What values should be common to all?

Dave McCombs said...

"Since there is a need for shared values, there arises a "values competition." Whose values will reign supreme? What values should be common to all?"

That's a good question. People obviously have different answers to this based on a variety of influences. What if people had answers based on their own sense of self-awareness, on the real values and feelings that motivate them, rather than the cloud of social influence that obscures it?

I think humanity would find a common set of values if every person really knew what they felt and why, and could communicate it.

For instance, why is murder wrong? Essays could be written on it and never tell the real truth. Often the responsibility for the truth is shrugged off onto some supreme authority whom said murder is wrong. But, really, why is murder wrong to you?

It's not about finding the universal reason and trying to prove it to everybody else. It's about finding your real reason, and discovering unity in feeling a sense of empathy for the reasons expressed by others.