The Dream of a Managed Society
Excellent read – not a “TL;DR” piece. This is why it is frustrating to observe what appear to be more and more people “cheering on” statist controls and other taxes, bans, penalties, and so on. As well as their ties to global corporate interests. You must connect the dots – as well as see things from the big-picture perspective. Not a good path we’re on! As progressives like to say “unsustainable!”
The Dream of a Managed Society
Guest Post by John Michael Greer
My essay here two weeks ago on the way that the industrial world’s elites are beginning to back away from environmentalism, using chatter about “ecofascism” as a convenient excuse, got the lively response I expected. To be fair, there was also a certain amount of noise, and a certain number of exasperated demands that I stop disagreeing with the corporate media’s narrative du jour; I’m thinking here especially of three comments, apparently by three different people, which denounced my lack of adulation for media darling Greta Thunberg not only in identical language but in the identical faux-friendly chiding tone. Those readers familiar with ShareBlue and its sister troll farms would have recognized the style instantly if the comments in question had gone anywhere but the trash.
Fortunately, most of the responses came from people who weren’t rehashing somebody else’s canned talking points, and quite a few of them raised important issues. One that was especially good came from a regular commenter—tip of the hat to Mog—who noted that the reason why elites have embraced anthropogenic climate change, as a cause for which they’re ready to spend the last penny of everyone else’s money, may have quite a bit to do with the way that schemes for carbon reduction almost always involve setting up markets where carbon credits or the like can be traded, in exactly the same way that other speculative vehicles are traded today.
It’s a valid point. The global economy these days is dominated by a vast superstructure of what might best be called hallucinatory finance, in which investment vehicles that have no noticeable connection to actual goods or services are assigned arbitrary values and traded feverishly in worldwide markets. It so happens that in order to keep that superstructure propped up, a steady flow of actual wealth—modest in terms of the gargantuan notional values of the superstructure, but much less so in human terms—has to be added to the mix. Up until recently, most of that was extracted from the productive economies of the industrial nations by way of various gimmicks linked to the soi-disant “global economy,” with results you can see quite readily if you walk down Main Street in any American city or town outside a few wealthy coastal enclaves.
Successful as it was, that strategy has had serious downsides, among them the rise of populist movements—think Trump and Brexit—aimed at shutting down the extraction of money from Main Street for the benefit of godzillionaires and their hangers-on. (A recent video by economist Mohammed El-Erian let that particular cat out of the bag in a big way, noting that Trump administration policies have sharply decreased the “exfiltration” of wealth from the productive economy in the US and thus thrown the entire mechanism of globalization into reverse. Does this help explain the constant demonization of Trump by the corporate media? You tell me.)
Carbon taxes, and the resulting carbon credits, can thus be seen as an attempt to keep the game going a little longer, by extracting more blood from the well-squeezed stone of Main Street using a different set of excuses. The serene lack of elite interest in doing anything to decrease their own carbon footprints makes perfect sense in this context, since the whole point of the gimmick is to give the absurdly privileged the wherewithal to maintain their preferred lifestyles of obscene extravagance for at least a little longer. I suspect that Mog is quite correct in suggesting that this explains why the very rich parade a level of concern about anthropogenic global warming that they don’t display when it comes to any other environmental issue.
Some of the way that mainstream intellectuals have fallen into line behind the same banner, no doubt, has the same cause at second hand. For as long as there has been an intellectual class, a significant number of its members have figured out that parroting whatever the rich want to hear is one fairly reliable way to make a living. That sort of parrot song can also be enforced; I’ve heard from far too many scientists in far too many fields who’ve told me that for quite some years now, if you wanted to get grants for your research, you had to pitch your project to the granting agency by spinning it so that it would feed the global warming narrative. (Yes, anthropogenic climate change is a reality; yes, that reality is being used as an excuse for various manipulative political games. I’m not sure why so few people seem to be able to hold both these ideas in their minds at the same time.)
That said, I think there’s more going on here. I’m thinking here of the way that the Democratic Party in Washington State shot down a well-designed carbon tax initiative, as discussed in the post two weeks ago, because it was designed to be revenue-neutral instead of providing the state government with a huge slush fund for the purposes of social engineering. I’m thinking of the reports to the Club of Rome you never hear about these days, which we also discussed two weeks ago—you know, the ones that insisted that the limits to growth wouldn’t be a problem if only the global economy was handed over to a cadre of unelected experts. I’m thinking more generally about one of the pervasive themes of a certain kind of highbrow pop culture, the notion of global management, of the world as a passive object that humanity (or rather, as it always turns out, certain selected members of our species) should control.
And all of this circles back, of course, to an encounter on the road from the port city of Piraios to Athens, which begins with a slave boy running up to two men to ask them to wait.
That’s the opening scene of The Republic, Plato’s greatest philosophical dialogue. It’s a brilliant work, a masterpiece of literature as well as philosophy, and it’s also full of the freshness that comes at the beginning of any major tradition of thought or art, when a great mind is wrestling with a given set of questions for the first time in recorded history. Reading it is like standing by the anvil while a skilled blacksmith pounds white-hot metal into an enduring shape.
Plato lived on the cusp of the great shift of Greek philosophy, which changed the focus of the whole tradition from speculations about nature to explorations of what human beings are capable of knowing and what they ought to do about it. (Modern Western science has been frantically trying to stave off an equivalent shift for a little over a century, which is why Neil deGrasse Tyson and his fellow cheerleaders for institutional science denounce philosophy with such venom these days.) The Republic was an essential part of that shift, an exploration of the concept of justice that starts from crucial questions about the nature of human knowledge and goes on from there to sketch out what is apparently the first Utopia in human history.
One of the things that makes Plato so significant a figure in the history of thought is that his mistakes were even more useful to future thinkers than his successes. The Republic is a fine example of this, because it’s based on a series of assumptions that turned out to be hopelessly wrong. There’s a whole literature devoted to taking apart all the problematic features of The Republic, and readers who want to follow up on that could do much worse than start with The Open Society and its Enemies by Karl Popper, one of the classics in the field. Here, though, I want to draw a sharper focus, on one specific problem and its consequences.
Like a great many utopian authors, Plato built his imagined society on a particular view of human nature. It wasn’t a particularly rose-colored view—he managed to dodge that bullet—but it had a subtle but no less fatal flaw. Plato’s model divided up human nature into three basic parts. First was the collection of animal appetites, epithumia in Greek, the desires for food and sex and other creature comforts, which he associated with the belly. Second was a set of character elements for which there isn’t a good English collective term—the Greek word is thumos—which include pride, aggressiveness, and the sense of honor and self-esteem; these Plato associated with the chest. Finally there was the rational part, nous in Greek, the part that seeks to know and understand, which he associated with the head.
To Plato, as to plenty of other intellectuals then and later, there was a strict hierarchy among these parts, with epithumiaon the lowest level, thumos above that, and nous above all. What he did in crafting the utopia of The Republic—and what plenty of other people have done since his time—was to turn this into a social hierarchy. The equivalent of epithumia was the working class; the equivalent of thumos was a class of guardians, armed warrior-policemen whose job it was to maintain social order and defend the Republic against all enemies internal and external; the equivalent of nous, of course, was an elite class of philosopher-kings who had received a thorough education to fit them for their roles as the governing caste.
It’s a very common notion, not least because Plato’s impact on the history of human thought is almost impossible to overstate—if you grew up in a Western or Muslim society, dear reader, you use categories and concepts Plato invented literally every time you think. It’s also a very common notion because a great many members of the intellectual class like to fancy themselves in the role of Plato’s philosopher-kings, handing down wise commandments to the guardian caste which are then obeyed without question by the masses. Popular as it is, it’s the biggest bellyflop of Plato’s many bad ideas. We know this because it’s been tried many times and it always fails.
The problem is quite simple. Let’s start by granting that every human being is composed, as Plato suggests, of epithumia, thumos, and nous. If that’s the case, then it won’t work to assign any one of these to a social class, because every member of that class has all three, just as they all have heads, chests, and bellies. The working classes aren’t just epithumia; they also have their thumos—their pride, their self-respect, and their capacity for violence—and their nous—their capacity to think, and in particular to wonder whether the laws proclaimed by the philosopher-kings are actually wise commandments or are simply another helping of self-serving cant.
The same thing is true, crucially, on the other end of Plato’s totem pole. The philosopher-kings aren’t simply bubbles of nous contemplating truth. Plato offered a scheme for getting them to behave as such—basically, giving them a philosophical education—and that was an interesting hypothesis when it was originally proposed. It’s hard to think of a hypothesis that’s been more thoroughly tested over the last 2300 years, though, and the verdict is in: it doesn’t work.
No matter what kind of education you give the prospective ruling classes of a society, its members will still have epithumiaand thumos; they’ll still have the same animal cravings as other people, and they’ll still have pride and self-esteem and a tendency to overreact violently when their egos get stepped on. That means, in turn, that they won’t be able to fill the role Plato sets out for them. They won’t be a wise caste of enlightened leaders whose one thought is for the good of the whole society—though of course, under the influence of thumos, they’ll doubtless believe this about themselves. The decisions they make will always be at least a little twisted out of true by thumos and epithymia, the desire for honor and praise on the one hand and the desire for physical pleasures and comforts on the other.
So you have an elite class whose members insist that they’re wise and just and good, but whose actions are constantly shaped by self-interest even when this harms the rest of society; you have a managerial class—that’s what the guardians work out to be, of course—whose loyalty to the regime is at least tempered, and quite possibly undercut, by the fact that they have their own desires for physical pleasures and comforts, and their own ideas about how society should be run; and you have a working-class that is supposed to be wholly interested in physical comforts , but actually has a well-developed sense of collective pride and a robust capacity for violence, and is perfectly capable of recognizing when a set of policies imposed by the elite class, supposedly for the public good, is actually just another opportunity for the elites to line their own pockets or bolster their own egos at the expense of everyone else. If this doesn’t sound familiar, dear reader, you need to get out more.
That’s one of the reasons Plato is worth reading; if you think through what he has to say, and challenge his dubious assumptions, you can figure out an enormous amount about today’s world. In this case, the implications of his logic sketch out neatly what you actually get any time you have an elite class, of course—and in a human society of any size, you’re going to have an elite class whether you admit it or not; human beings are social primates, and like other social primates, we sort ourselves out socially into an inner circle that makes most of the decisions and gets most of the goodies, and an outer circle that has much more limited input and gets many fewer benefits. (Societies that claim to be classless, like organizations that claim to run on strict consensus, simply have a covert elite rather than an overt one.)
What makes an elite of educated managerial specialists such a disaster for any society cursed with such a system, in turn, isn’t that the specialists are morally worse than other elites. It’s that the ideology of that particular kind of elite education makes it all but impossible for them to recognize when they’re wrong. Ordinary politicians who aren’t subject to the mystique of expertise recognize that their number one priority is to find out what their constituents want and give them some of it, so they’ll be reasonably happy with their leaders and keep providing the passive support without which any government falls from power. Expert specialists are by and large too busy listening to each other and to their preferred sources of data to notice when the data from those sources, and the consensus opinions based on them, have drifted out of touch with the real world.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, ironically enough, provided an epic example of that kind of failure in action. All through the latter months of the campaign, as Trump flung prodigious resources into the critical northern Midwest states that ended up putting him in the White House, field staffers in the Clinton campaign in those states tried frantically to get the national campaign to notice what was happening and give them the help they needed to fight back. Their increasingly desperate pleas were dismissed by Clinton’s top staffers with the airy retort, “Our models disprove your anecdotes.” That turned out to be the epitaph for Clinton’s presidential ambitions, because models don’t prove or disprove anything: rather, they reflect the real, anecdotal world—or they don’t.
Does this mean that education is a bad idea for managers and politicians? Not necessarily—though if the education is too specialized, and/or focused on arbitrary ideological models that are never tested against experienced reality, it certainly can be. What it means is that if you’re going to have an educated managerial elite, you need some way for the rest of the population to yank hard on the leashes of the elite when the elite’s preferred policies inflict too much misery on everyone else. So far, at least, representative democracy with regular elections at which every adult citizen can vote is the best way to provide that corrective tug that anyone’s come up with. Yes, that means that the deplorables sometimes get to tell the self-proclaimed Good People what to do—and when this happens the self-proclaimed Good People need to shut up and listen for a change, because it might just be the case that their models are being disproved by reality.
You see, there’s a deeper problem with the dream of the managed society, and it’s one that Western philosophy—and indeed Western culture as a whole—still hasn’t come to grips with. We’ll get there in time, just as every other philosophically-minded civilization has done, but it’s a rough road and we’ve still got a ways to go on it.
The problem can be stated quite simply in the language of modern science. The human brain is a lump of fatty meat about six inches long. It evolved on the African savannahs over a couple of million years for purposes such as finding food, attracting mates, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards—none of which are all that intellectually demanding, however important they doubtless seem at the time. It has certain hardwired processes for thinking built into it, which also evolved over that same period in the same environment for the same purposes. Now that we’ve figured out how to describe those processes explicitly, we call them “logic,” but they’re still the same habits that happened to win out in the struggle for survival because, all things considered, they kept our ancestors alive a little more often than competing habits did.
That’s the mental equipment we have for making sense of the immensities and intricacies of a cosmos billions of light-years across: a lump of flesh the size of a meatloaf, a set of not very accurate sense organs, some habits of data processing that turned out to be useful for staying fed, getting laid, and dodging lions, and a certain amount of recorded experience we can use, if we’re minded to, as a source of guidance. Does that provide the kind of godlike omniscience that experts nearly always end up fantasizing they’ve achieved? Not a chance.
Thus the ultimate reason why the dream of a managed society always turns sour is that we social primates simply aren’t smart enough to manage the world. Our models, theories, and ideologies are inevitably too simplistic for the overwhelming complexity the world throws at us. Nor, by the way, will it solve the problem to hand the world over to what we quaintly call “artificial intelligence”—anything designed and built by humans, directly or indirectly, will share the flaws of the human mind. (The Clinton campaign, remember, generated its disastrously wrong models using top-notch computer technology.) And of course there’s also the same not so little problem with thumos and epithumia on the part of the people who own and run the computers, as Frank Herbert reminds us in Dune: “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
What seems to work a good deal better is to set things up so that the people on the spot can make most of their own choices, and make sure that when choices have to be made on a larger scale, there are ways for the people who are directly affected by those choices to make their voices heard even if what they say isn’t what the self-proclaimed Good People want to hear. That’s the great virtue of democracy—a word which means, by the way, government by the demos, the masses of ordinary deplorable citizens. Democratic societies make about as many mistakes as any other kind, but they have a somewhat easier time correcting their mistakes. Of course that also means abandoning the dream of a managed society and accepting a rather more modest role in the great scheme of things than Plato thought intellectuals should have. As an intellectual myself, I have to say, it strikes me as a fair exchange.