Thursday, May 26, 2016

The return of political man (fighting the good fight)

We saw in a previous post that traditional politics (may be I didn’t make it clear enough that we were talking about representative democracy) seemed to have exhausted its capacity for aggregating the opinions of collectives of any size, as shown in a number of situations I considered highly telling. We mentioned then that there were three lines of analysis to be pursued: what is it about desiderative reason, the current dominant reason worldwide, that makes it especially incompatible with traditional ways of organizing groups (of which the most advanced and most widespread one would be representative democracy);  to what extent such incompatibility may extend to other forms of government (i. e. is autocracy better suited for directing large groups of people educated in such form of dominant reason?) and finally, if the answer to the previous question was in the negative, what changes should be made to both the dominant reason and the system for aggregating individual preferences into collective decisions to better align them. I want to start tackling them in this post.

Let us begin, then, with what is probably the least publicized aspect of our dominant reason: it’s incompatibility with the long term cohesion of the group in which it develops. Such incompatibility offers a nice paradox, as the reason it evolved and was selected in the first place, let’s not forget, is its ability to help the group produce more material goods (and services tradable in the market) and thus outcompete opposing groups in a scenario of international competition. It is not lacking a certain delicious irony, a certain poetic justice, that the ideology that has proved most able to propel the groups that embrace it to the forefront of international scene (the ideology exemplified by the current hegemon, the USA) carries in itself the seed of its own destruction, as after cementing the military superiority of its standard bearer its making that standard bearer ungovernable (and, fallowing its path, every other polity that has followed its example). But such is life, and since the classical Greeks hybris is always and swiftly accompanied by nemesis.

Although I’ve described that ideology elsewhere (calling it “desiderative reason”, as I was back then more interested in its aspect as underlying premise of all apparently rationalistic discourse within our society: Elements for a Critique of DR) I will remind my lazy readers of its main features:

·         The only goal of life is to satisfy desires (and those desires are axiologically neutral: they arise in us mechanically, and deterministically, so nobody can be praised or blamed by harboring any of them, and nobody can claim moral superiority by resisting one or yielding to another)

·         The only socially sanctioned desire is to better your social in a strictly ordered social hierarchy. This only apparently contradicts the previous tenet; you may wonder “didn’t you just say that all desires are understood as morally equivalent? Then if I want to fuck rabbits all day long, or smoke weed and do nothing else, and those can not be compared with what anybody else desires, aren’t my desires also somehow socially sanctioned?” nope, thinking that just shows you don’t understand what “social sanction” means. What it means is that to be understandable by others, to be accepted and even encouraged, they have to be implicitly translated to the language of social betterment, so your rabbit-fucking tendencies will be construed as an attempt to show your sexual prowess in an environment where such prowess is highly valued, and your pot-smoking inclinations will be explained as signaling your credentials within a culture of slacking and dropping out that values (and recognizes as respectable) precisely such attitudes. Such explanation will also involve the construction of a “just so” story about our evolutionary environment within hunter-gatherer small groups in the African savannah, and how such exhibitions of prowess and signaling helped our forebears to have more descendants which are not strictly necessary for our present argument

·         There is only one criterion for determining the position in the social hierarchy, namely the amount of money you have (technically, the amount of material goods and services whose enjoyment you can claim exclusively for yourself). !”Aha!” I can hear you exclaiming, “Now I’ve really caught you in a contradiction! if having moolah is the only criteria of success then my purported rabbit fucking and pot smoking, which provide no income, were not understood as valid (if that is all being socially sanctioned means) after all!” Not so fast, buddy. If you watch closely what the injunctions to “be yourself”, “march to the beat of your own drum” and “set your own individual criteria of what a life well lived means, screw what anybody else thinks” you can always detect a whiff of “but if you can not monetize such authenticity somehow you are a total failure”. So even the most ardent rabbit fuckers and potheads are expected (for their pursuits to be socially intelligible) to upload their exploits in Reddit and in Facebook and in Instagram and in YouTube and in Twitter and in Pinterest and to create a group in LinkedIn and to have as many followers as possible and, with time, to be able to sell something to them (or to sell their data to some marketer or other). Weren’t they to engage in such publicizing and attempt to derive some material gain from their otherwise peculiar preferences the apparent enthusiasm with which society applauded their decisions would be much subdued, to the point of turning into outright censure and disapproval (which proves my point, by the way)

But again, after having devoted almost 500 pages to how such type of reason became dominant I don’t feel like explaining it and defending it from hypothetical counterarguments (I feel I’ve repeated this particular claim more than enough), so you’ll have to accept my word for it… Assuming that is the case and you are already convinced that is how society molds its citizens (from the very first Disney movies they are shown to the hue everyday news in the media are tinted with, going through the narrative of the most successful books, movies and popular songs), what does such molding imply regarding the most convenient way of reaching collective decisions and setting collective goals? I’ll focus in two aspects of the problems it presents for the way under discussion: agency and manipulation through information overflow.

The term “agency problem” describes a situation when a subject A acts representing the interests of another subject B, but such representation entails some conflict of interest that leads A to act in his own benefit, rather than in B’s. The basic understanding of our current political system is that the representatives we elect act as surrogates of ourselves, choosing what is best for us and keeping our best interest in mind in any decision they have to take. Such arrangement seemed sensible (indeed, as the only viable alternative to being wholly excluded from the government of the common goods, as in despotism) when communications were slow and costly (it took a proverbial week to get from the Gironde to Paris, where the national convention was taking place in times of the French Revolution, hence the Girondins found it more convenient to send some delegates representing them than to go en masse to decide for themselves), and even today it is widely accepted that the administration of the “public thing” (the res publica) is so time consuming that we are better off leaving it to some designated agent, even assuming that he would not choose exactly as we would, given we have some means to control him (like removing him from office after a short time if he consistently decides against what we consider is the best course of action for us). However, given the current state of technology, plus the course that the dominant reason has taken, it would be worthwhile to revisit such assumption.

                        I.            The politician as agent of non-agents

When the French were tearing down their ancién régime in their 1789 Revolution, or when the British started extending the franchise with their 1832 Reform Act the Western world had already transitioned from Baroque Reason to Economic Reason (Abridged History of Western dominant reason) The overarching goal of life did not lay in another realm any more, thus freeing energies to unabashedly pursue material well-being (soon identified as the reward for producing distinctly appreciated commodities for consumption). But when it came to assigning precedence in the assignment of tasks and the allotment of the rewards of the social product it was still very much a society of orders, where each person’s “station” was determined by birth and lineage. It was natural then that, as had happened for millennia, the few found it natural to give orders and the many found it natural to obey. Many desires were still socially sanctioned, and thus understood as both legitimate and distinct, so the political principles of political liberalism (economic freedom above all, so each individual could pursue the satisfaction of the combination of desires he found more congenial and better adapted to his tastes) were a natural extension of the rationality of the times. Following iterations of such rationality extended the amount of people who should participate in the decision making (the abstract concept of the homogeneous “people” for which nationalism invented a conveniently unified history and the even more abstract social classes for which Marxism similarly invented not just a unified history but an even more implausible unified set of interests and goals) and tweaked a bit with the desires it contemplated and the criteria for determining the social hierarchy, but nothing in those developments impeded the basic idea that undermines the very definition of a dominant reason: having a set of shared criteria that facilitates the coordination of a vast group, so jointly they can reach better outcomes than each of its members acting separately.

However, something funny happened between the first decade of the XXth century and the end of WW II, as the new, extremely potent, set of  principles of the latest form of collective rationality gained hold in the USA and (belatedly) in Europe and its former colonies: although those principles led the members of the societies that embraced them to a veritable frenzy of material production (with the side effect of allowing them to manufacture the most powerful armed forces history had ever seen, forces that would defeat alternative world views either in the battle front –Fascism- or in the home front –Communism-) they corroded the ability of such members to coordinate between themselves, consistently degrading que quality of the institutions tasked with articulating such coordination: political parties, parliaments, even judicial power and the press are growingly distrusted and scorned by the citizens of most advanced democracies.

The explanation of such distrust is relatively straightforward: to represent another person, to act as her “agent”, you need first to recognize her as an autonomous and free agent also, and you need to share with her a common set of values, a common understanding of what it is for her life to go right, so you can further those values and enhance such life. If you see everybody as a set of automatons trying to deterministically maximize the pleasure they feel (trying to satisfy axiologically neutral desires) it’s going to be awfully hard to really try to identify with their ends and to honestly give your best to their achievement. The maximum you can aspire to coherently do is to maximize the fortunes of a certain group at the expense of others (that is the definition of what a member of a political organization does, btw, as developed in my classic Theory of the Organization III - Types), understanding such maximization as taking a greater percentage of the goods and services at their market value. And understanding the membership in such group as the only feature that can be taken into account, so for example a workers’ party would supposedly take decisions that would benefit generic workers, devoid of any individualizing feature they surely may have (it would favor things like high taxes on capital gains, as workers typically have few shares… if you are a particular worker that happens to have many for whatever reason, tough luck), even at the expense of other classes (I maintained elsewhere that homogeneous classes do not exist, they are not even a convenient fiction, I’m just trying to make my point more easy to understand through a somewhat cartoonish example, for Chris sakes).

What I’m trying to say here is that a rationality whose main premise is the incommensurability of every citizen’s preferences provides very little guidelines (none at all) for crafting policies towards the common good (good for who?) and for directing limited resources to the ends collectively identified as better. In a society where every individual provides himself with whatever rules he pleases, and where any appeal to tradition is considered illegitimate (an attempt to impinge against sacred autonomy) the only agreed rule can be non-interference. But non-interference doesn’t take you too far when it comes to any shared purpose that may exceed any individual’s capabilities, or, God forbids, redistribution for poverty alleviation or simply to help those that have fallen upon hard times through no fault of their own (luck, and bad luck, exist, as much as traditional and neo liberals would like to deny it).

                      II.            The opacity behind the (apparently) fully transparent

A possible way out of such conundrum, frequently invoked by techno-optimists of any stripe, is harnessing technological development to help with the integration of such incommensurable preferences. The reason we are stuck in such suboptimal social configurations, and so many people is dissatisfied with their multiple representatives is because we are stuck with low-bandwidth channels for conveying them our most current, finely grained preferences. We just vote every four (or two, or whatever) years according to a most schematic “party platform”, and we are regularly polled about what we would like to collectively achieve, or how popular are the different alternatives somebody else design for us, when we could provide real time information about each of the minutest details of what arrangement we would like to see implemented, and about what decisions we want to collectively take. Kind of referendum-oriented democracy on steroids, the whole electoral of each country could log in to vote on every single bill that was presented by enough proponents, immediately rendering parliaments and senates obsolete, and ensuring the collective will is formed truly giving each citizen an equal voice. If we have grown too diverse and too autonomous for traditional representation to work, let’s give direct democracy a chance and let everybody participate in the decision they may be affected by, getting rid of the representatives that are not needed anymore.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? One can not but wonder why nobody, at any point in the political spectrum, is already advocating, or even proposing it. Seems that really letting the people have an unfiltered voice gives most commentators the jeebies. Not surprising, given that the limited experiences with referenda (even the small, homogenous, reasonably prosperous places like Switzerland or the Nordic countries that have toyed with them have a tendency to produce results that are grossly misaligned with the preferences of the elites). It seems that paying lip service to the abstract idea of democracy and “one man, one vote” is preferable to actually implementing the darn thing.

The real reason is not hard to fathom: it is easier to manipulate a body of a few hundred congressmen and senators, a handful of judges and a small cabal of newspaper editors than to really take into account the multifarious needs and preferences of the whole population, so unsurprisingly in an age of instant communication we still choose our representatives as if they had to take a week to get from the Gironde to Paris, and as if deliberating about how to spend the public monies (and to define the right laws) could take their full attention year after year, and only consider substituting them every four years (for which we spend an unconscionable amount of money and time physically going to a few locations to cast our vote almost simultaneously, just to make things harder and more inconvenient). It works like a charm and doesn’t require anybody actively plotting to keep the poor disenfranchised and the middle classes (the few remaining ones) banging their heads against the wall because of the paucity of options they can identify with (or taking refuge in alcohol, opioids and finally suicide with ubiquitous firearms, as in the USA). Nobody has to explain growing swathes of the population who feel like history has passed them by and they have less and less control over their lives, stuck in a wave of economic recoveries that seem indistinguishable from the previous recessions, choosing not to reproduce because a) who can afford to have a toddler these days and b) if life is shit anyway, who would like to extend it… nobody has to explain them, I say, that the reason they are not trusted with the ability to participate directly in the decisions that are daily shaping their lives is because they could actually turn them for the better, but such turn would come at the expense of the high rollers that have been doing exceedingly well for the last four or five decades.

And they don’t have to explain it because it is hidden in plain sight, for everybody with eyes to see. The amazing effect of too much public information is that nobody sees anything. The internet and a culture of almost infinite transparency, of everybody sharing every little aspect of their lives, is an almost impenetrable opacity not just of how the vast majority live their lives (the “quiet desperation” presciently guessed by Henry David Thoreau) but of how alternative ways of living could be first conceived, and then actively pursued.

But how would that pursuit look like? Accepting that the political system is irreparably broken, how should we organize to restore a modicum of dignity to the public sphere, and maintain a spark of hope that things may get better for the majority? What form would the “good fight” take, what should substitute for what in times of yore was achievable only through political action? That can only be, after so many words, the subject of another post.

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