12.05.2004

politics: institutional cognition and its flaws.

I have a question for you.
What is politics?
I'm already on record (I hope) as thinking that Political Science (and thus four years of my education and tuition) is bunk.
Why?
It can't be a science. Science is when you test a hypothesis, in order to accept or discard it. You cannot perform an experiment on a society. There are too many uncontrolled variables. You have no control group; nothing to compare a 'test' society with. And to add annoyance to injury, you get plenty of armchair philosophers with intricate hypotheses
(Marxists, Capitalists, etc etc) who do not test their hypotheses, oh no, they merely twist history to reach the conclusion supported by their hypothesis. Communism in Russia failed because it wasn't really Communism. Structural adjustment in Argentina failed because they didn't do it right. Hey, the theory is sound. Trust me. Vote Republican.
Society unfolds at a glacial pace. Very few social experiments begin and end in a lifetime. So history is carried through the words of others, as narrative. All of our political theories end up being more robust than our experiments.

...

Let me state two things I've noticed about human cognition.
(II) Human beings are terrified of the unexplainable.
(I) We comprehend the world in metaphor.
[aside]: There are tribes who have no names for numbers past two (one, two, more). These people, as a result, can't comprehend mathematics. There are also tribes that don't distinguish between green and blue. They are functionally colourblind.
Let's assume that humanity's capacity for society-building (and our selfish claim to 'reason') began with our ability to create and communicate in Language. Language is the method that we use to build the lil' running commentary voice in your head, the thing called your 'self', your ego, your awareness and sentience.
Language itself is nothing but metaphor. (see: semiotics)
Mathematics is nothing but metaphor, albeit usually it is far more accurate than words. But I'll be damned if you can tell me that Infinity can be expressed as an imaginary number, and it equals a*b to the root of whatever. (I hated calculus).

We, as humans, use our Language to communicate. We can agree that 2+2=4. That's pretty clear. We can agree that there is a river thataway (points West). So far so good. Language is working. Our tribe of hunter/gatherers is pretty damn harmonious. We agree that the brown running things with horns taste good when cooked. We agree that we are People. We like to dance.

When we start a civilization things start to go awry. We found a city of 100,000 people. Naturally, there are problems in this city. An individual human being, the only thing capable of judgement that we have, is in a tricky situation. It does not have the spatial or temporal breadth of perception, nor the cognition to examine this city and its myriad citizens in its true form. A human being is not omniscient. Failing that, a human being might possibly be able to interview 100,000 people in a lifetime, but it would be quite impossible to disseminate a clear judgement from that task. Moreover, a human being does not have the lifespan to observe the long-term consequences of present actions.
So we fall back on metaphor. We collapse perception into, say, statistics and trends. We create general characterizations. We say: "Me see Black Ape and he stole bread. Me think Black Apes bad." "Well, Me think White Ape greedy; eat too much bread, no share." Okay, please, I'm doing it too, I'm creating a broad characterization, me a dumb White Ape and doing the best I can with what I've got. I'm not trying to start a race war here. calm down.
My point is that stereotypes are built into society as the only way we can make up our mind about things. Remember 'Politically-Correct?' Shit man, did that backfire on us progressive people or what? Now all these talkshow Fuckheads become big heroes for having the 'guts' to spew the oldest, sickest racial stereotypes they can find. The French wear berets and enjoy mime, you say? Really. Ever been to France this century?
And what do Americans say when they criticized by an English newspaper? "Hey, f*ggot, shut yer mouth, remember 1776! We kicked yer ass!"
Conversely, they won't thank the French for winning them their Revolutionary war. How rude.

Politics is our invention to try and create a meta-decision-making infrastructure. This infrastructure consists of: 1. the means to perceive a society on a mass scale, and then condense that information into easily-digested form. 2. a central decision-making elite that create 'solutions' based on their 'perceptions.' 3. an authoritarian system of coercion and that then imposes and carries out those 'solutions.'

It's easy to see how the first part of the equation fits into a society. Our very definition of 'civilization' is dependent on it. We divide societies into 'pre-historical' barbarians and 'historical' civilizations. The moment a group of people start to make records of important events, harvests, populations and such, they are considered civilized. Yes, even the Aztecs, who made accurate records of how many slaves they sacrificed. Yes, even the Nazis, who took painstaking records of everything they did in their camps, right down to the tons of gold extracted from the dental fillings of the 'Untermensch.'

The foundation of political perception is paperwork. The foundation of political coercion are walls. Surely these two mechanisms function well in tandem. The Panoptic machinery becomes a useful tool for both observation and for coercion. Now, what of the actual decision-making process?

In antiquity, of course, it was thought you should invest the decision-making process in one individual. The theoretical roots of the monarch originate in Plato's Republic, I think, although having the theoretical underpinnings of absolute authority is obviously not a necessity. You can just up and do it and not feel compelled to write a book about it. Plato, however, felt that need to write a book. He was living in a democratic Athens, a city that had executed Socrates. So he had no love lost on democracy. We'll get to that in a moment.
So the monarch's word is Law. He becomes our chief dispensary of Justice, thus, our best evocation of god. (After all, what is god's role except to provide the illusion of a just world?) But our monarch is mortal. Well, fuck. He just died. Alright, let's give the crown to his son, Prince Bucktooth the Unstable. You can see where this is going.

Marvin Harris (see a previous post) believes that many of the despotic monarchies that existed in ancient China and Egypt were able to exist so long because of agriculture. You see, the population was dependent on irrigation, which required a large infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, channels and so forth. These populations couldn't create these things autonomously because a neglected dam upstream could lead to disaster downstream. Only a highly rigid and violent authority could organize the manpower and planning required to maintain the agricultural infrastructure, and keep their populations fed.

Eventually, though, the Europeans had to abandon their absolute monarchies. Authority seeks only to maintain itself through the course of human lives. The shocks of unstable monarchs are dangerous for the entire system. Thus gives rise to the system of checks and balances, and its ultimate manifestation, representative democracy.
Instead of centralizing the decision-making process in one person, you maybe scatter it between a group of people, and then maybe ensure that they are accountable to yet another group. The actual problem, and its proposed solution, is argued and debated between several minds. Through debate we see the Truth emerge.
You want examples? Try every single decision-making structure we've got. The judicial system is based on a rigid set of laws and precedent. Two sides lay down their arguments. A judge decides how a present situation fits into the centuries of precedent before it, and instructs the jury. The jury is chosen to try and eliminate any possible ethnic or extra-legal sympathies and antipathies. They generate a group decision.
The scientific community struggles to come to a clear consensus through a system of publication and peer review.
The executive body of a nation is constantly under attack from the legislature. Every four years (in this country) they are given or denied a mandate through ballot.

I wrote a little bit about this machinery before, in terms of its relation to the Panoptic mechanism. Notably, it all happens on paper.
I would hope that everyone takes to time to read at least once their respective constitutions. Then listen to the supreme court as they bat around a specific issue in its relation to the sacred constitution. It's all recorded. Far from the decisions made in the shadows of an insane monarch's mind, the process of cognition is externalized as language. A judgement made yesterday is transcribed today, published, sold to the lawyers who put it on their bookshelf as precedent. It waits to be read when it affects a case that they are making. If a lawyer can make a strong case that a judge broke precedent in making their judgement, they might be able to appeal and overturn that decision.
Scientists, too, are expected to transcribe everything that they see and do to create their findings. For the sake of accuracy, qualitative observations are neglected, quantitative observations are promoted. If you are explaining the colour the pH paper turned, you are expected to give it a number, not call it 'magenta.' Your paper is then held up for review, criticized by your peers if it seems to lack scientific rigour or if it contradicts the established theories.
I don't think I need to discuss the process in which electoral politics unfolds. I think we've seen enough of that. What I'm getting at here is that there is a common decision-making structure at work, sharing similar characteristics. 1.Language is used to externalize the process of cognition. 2.The process of cognition begins dialectically, with established opposites forming the limits of possibility. 3.The process of cognition is evolutionary, in that it seeks not to end the historical train of thought, but to amend and complement it. In the United States, the judicial battle over gun control debates merely what the writers of the constitution meant in writing the Second Amendment, not whether that Second Amendment has any relevance today. 4.Each process of cognition has at its core a specialized language, and that specialized language is a method of controlling the means of the decision-making process.

How does one go about changing the world? Depends where one wants to find a position. You'll notice how human endeavour is cut into the different fields of expertise. To become a lawyer, you enter yourself into the Panoptic institution as a student. You learn the foundations of what has come before you-- the constitution, the language, the conduct, the etiquette, and the process of education is usually severe enough that you will be cramming fourteen hours a day in order to pass your bar exam. In other words, you are being restricted to the status quo by simple means of massive volume. There is never a question of striking out on your own to question the usefulness of what has come before; not if you want to practice and pay back your student loans. Once you enter into your 'profession', you are starting at the 'bottom.' Here again the Panoptic system of hierarchy, carrot and stick. Remember, in this system, those on top have to be the most disciplined of all. By the time you find yourself 'on the top', in the vanguard, you are playing for prestige. After thirty years of grunt work I doubt very much that you have the stamina or the clear independent thinking to dare question the system.
I read a fascinating article awhile ago, and I wish I could remember where I found it. The gist of the article was that something like 40% of the legal documents written since confederation contained serious flaws in jargon, such that they could be considered inadmissible. Legal language is the reason that there are such things as lawyers. And, it appears that half the time the lawyers don't know what the legal jargon means. What sort of mindfuck practical joke is this?
Legal language exists to create specialisation, to create a long process of financial strain and mental conditioning in order to protect the judicial institution from the outside world. And, since most politicians start out as lawyers, the parliamentary system as well. It exists to dissuade the general public from getting involved in policymaking. In addition, the system of civil liability exists not only to create an ironclad system of accountability within the Panoptic system, but to dissuade 'vigilantes' from, say, creating policy outside of this system of governance. Example: grocery stores crush their surplus food rather than let hungry people acquire it for free. What is their justification? 'Civil liability.' As if a bum can afford to hire a lawyer and sue a corporation.
And just how useful is this language in creating policy? Not very. Politicians spend most of their time debating points of order. I'm serious. Since every meeting is recorded in some form, most of the calories in Ottawa (or Washington) are burned following procedure. Down in the trenches of the legislature, you'll get fifty minutes of charge and counter-charge for every five minutes of voting. And what are these charges and accusations that are flung around? Usually that someone is 'stalling' or not moving quickly. Built into the very nature of our 21st century political institutions is a tendency of conservatism, of obfuscation, of rigid alienation from the facts on the ground. How does one become, say minister of the environment? No knowledge of the environment is necessary. Merely party loyalty. The party system is very strong in Canada, and it's yet another example of a system of rigid hierarchy, rewarding personal loyalty with greater prestige.

Now we enter electoral politics, where the jargon is significantly different. Now, citizens aren't specialists. They might not have the best idea of what policy ideas will work and which won't. I don't think there has ever been a succesful politician who lectured his followers. The language of electoral politics is one of high emotional calibre, suitable for melodrama and technicolor musicals. I jest, yeah, but not by much. Here, unfortunately, political communication must be rapid and punchy. To be effective it must be instantly digestible, immediately satisfying.
Once the monarch was understood to be the physical manifestation of god's will. Again, you can see where I'm going with this. Plato did. Putting his words into Socrates' corpse, Plato wrote that democracy would naturally lead to civil war and ultimately to authoritarianism. He came to the conclusion that what was needed was a philosopher-king, and laid out a system of education for creating such a person. So here's where we're going to drop his corpse and keep walking. This is the ultimate challenge of democracy, laid out in its infancy and a little too spooky to keep under wraps. Democracy put Socrates to death. Hitler was elected and remained quite popular. Then there's Georgie, who campaigned in military costumes and flew into stadiums to the soundtrack of 'Top Gun.' Okay, yeah, I'm drawing a glib parallel between Dubya Bush and Hitler, and it's bad form. But here's why it matters. Representative democracy doesn't exist to create a mandate for a politician. It is a mass spectacle, designed to draw people into a shared solidarity. Strange things to the system when people are paranoid or humiliated. It is a system that isn't reliable when the society is undergoing tension.
Compare the political profession in Ottawa with what occurs on the campaign trail. You have two seperate structures. Parliamentarianism, the bullshit in the senate and legislature, this is the machinery of governance. It is a Panoptic institution. Then there is the quest for the electoral mandate. Look at Paul Martin, solemnly swearing to LEAD CANADA INTO THE WONDERFUL FUTURE THAT IS ITS DESTINY. All kissing babies on the side, shaking hands, with that big banker's diamond tooth smile of his. I admit it, I'm cynical, ok? I grew up in the Chretien years, the dude who ran on the same platform every four years: Save Medicare, Abolish GST, Renegotiate NAFTA. Every fucking time. He's 0 for 3. And people kept voting for him? So who are you calling cynical?
My point is electoral politics has very little to do with governance. It's too anarchic. It's a sweaty spasm of asskissing and confetti and sweet little lies. I again draw your attention to the American election of '04. No serious candidate would dare tell the American people that they were making a mistake in Iraq. Socrates died because he was a pain in the ass. Nobody campaigns on a platform like that.

The painful truth is, democracy has a very checkered record. In most of the world, democracy leads to ethnic and political schisms, from the Czech Republic to Iraq to Canada. This happens regardless of economics, education, racial makeup, or whatever. Nobody has 'outgrown' this. It's not a matter of backward peoples, unless you count all of us together.
I'm also not suggesting that multiculturalism is doomed to failure, and we're destined to stay on the farm with all our cousins and give 'seig heil' salutes at suppertime. I'm saying that the democratic structures given to us are flawed. They take all power from us. They give us a heady rush of power, just a promise, in their parades and speeches. But only if we submit to a warrior-god. And then, they wage war on what only appear as concepts. George Bush doesn't out and say 'we hate fags' and he doesn't go onscreen to execute a 'raghead.' He solemnly promises to wage war on 'evil.' I'm willing to cut humanity some slack here. We have been made essentially powerless by the government's monopoly on policymaking. I walk past a dozen homeless people some days. I've given a lot of my hours to stopping homelessness. But so much time is wasted on advocacy; trying to get politicians to bat an eye. I've given up. That system of policymaking doesn't work. The machinery is creaking. But when we try to go out and do it ourselves, we find we've been surrounded by police officers. And we are beaten, pepper sprayed, shot if necessary. They make it clear: there is only Their Way. And if you haven't the masochistic streak or the adolescent rage necessary to sustain you through that fight, yeah, I can see how people can settle for shaking hands with a candidate and proclaiming him a Good Man. Hope is a fucking resource. Government holds the monopoly.

What I propose, when I am busy slagging off democracy, is that we abandon the very concept of politics. By which I mean, whatever method in which political decision-making is monopolized. Democracy is meaningless if people are not allowed to write their own policy. I propose doing away with any political theory that's going to demand obedience; I propose destroying any master plan that denies people the hard work and pleasure of creating Politics with their own hands in their own neighbourhood. Political theories are like Bibles, what the fuck does it have to do with us? I'm sick of politics full of grandiose statements and prophecies. True politics is like work rather than war; there's no glory, and you're not travelling to faraway lands to get it done. But at least it's not a lie.

1 Comments:

At 10:01 PM, Blogger Robert said...

"is that we abandon the very concept of politics."

right right...politics=the art of governance over men, so fuggit, yeah

funny, many people think of me as being "political"...i hate that shit...hate politics, no matter how "enlightened" or "progressive"

 

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