Sunday, July 29, 2012
The Technology Of Good
From Democracy To Totalitarianism
We Americans don't like to stay at home. Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, New Zealanders are unlike us. They haven't tried to reorganize themselves on the principle of money making. For them society is good enough because it allows them the home life they're satisfied with. The rest of us have set out to look for a better home. We leave home because as tolerant and skeptical democrats we know we are in truth living with strangers, and no matter what we tell ourselves we're not really comfortable. The Canadians, the Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, New Zealanders, don't care if they are living with strangers. They are in accord with Shakespeare, for whom the only justification for disrupting society is its failure to protect home life. But we are different. We are fascinated by the strangeness of our democratic life, and by money as a tool for resolving the strangeness. This fascination overpowers our love of home, suggests that since money is used by all the world with money we can be at home in all the world. We make the most money by perfecting ourselves in role. And to allow us make the most money the state must be perfected in its functions.
Democracy for those who love to stay at home is a tool for protecting their homes and does this job fairly well. Democracy for those who leave home for good is a tool for perfecting role play and leads to totalitarianism. This is how:
1. Democracy demands people accept their neighbors' different ways of life.
2. Because they don't get to know each other in what matters most to them people are strangers to each other.
3. As strangers, people play roles which establish probabilities that they are who they say they are.
4. People playing roles see nothing wrong with the idea that society should create the story and staging for their acting. Doing things in role for each others approval a priority is given to action, to doing, at the expense of thinking and desiring.
5. Stories about how role players ought to play together, whatever the particular story chosen, are about how society looks, what it says about itself, how it shows itself, not about what it actually does, just like roles are how people seem, not what they really do.
6. Putting the chosen story most efficiently into practice, protecting it, extending it, all of life is regulated, and totalitarianism is the result. What people want, how they think life should be best lived, are disregarded. It makes no difference if the disregard is in the name of free market or controlled market, everything is put into service of the market, which is another name for doing things in exchange for others doing things, which is to say, for role play.
A Society Of Money
1. Money is somebody's promise to pay, rather than some thing that is payment in itself, and money is transferable from one person to another.
2. When you play a social role, in compensation for playing by the rules, wearing the right clothes, using the right phrases with the right manners, the right facial expressions, you are entitled to certain treatment. The role you play is transferable, capable of being performed by innumerable others, paid for by your behavior in exchange for a promised response.
3. The more roles you play, the more promise. In personal life it is difficult without contradiction to play many roles at once. But in politics the opposite is true. Our President speaks of uniting in his person many contradictory roles of race, social class, geographic origins. Our other politicians are not far behind finding within themselves an equally rewarding magnanimity of origins.
4. In politics a collection of roles is expressed by collecting on the promise of money from diverse sources. (Contributions to election campaigns, offers of future employment, favors to friends and family.) The formal similarities between social role and money allows the one to be represented, and in some respects replaced, by the other.
5. This is what we mean when we speak about a society of money.
Specialized Society In Conflict
It does seem like our society acts like an organism with cooperative, technically functioning parts. But if so, why does it also show signs of its parts acting against each other?
According to the article, "Functional And Conflict Theories Of Educational Stratification":
"The evidence indicates that educational requirements for employment reflect employers' concerns for acquiring respectable and well-socialized employees; their concern for the provision of technical skills through education enters to a lesser degree.
"The higher the normative control concerns of the employer, and the more elite the organization's status, the higher his educational requirements.
"There has been only a mild trend toward the reduction in the proportion of unskilled jobs and an increase in the promotion of highly skilled (professional and technical) jobs as industrialism proceeds, accounting for 15% of the shift in educational levels in the twentieth century.
(Folger and Nam, 1964).
"Technological change also brings about some upgrading in skill requirements of some continuing job positions, although the available evidence (Berg, 1970:38-60) refers only to the decade 1950-1960. Nevertheless, as Wilensky (1964) points out, there is no "professionalization of everyone."
"The increasing supply of educated persons has made education a rising requirement of jobs.
"The large American corporations, which have led in educational requirements, have held positions of oligopolistic advantage since the late 19th century, and thus could afford a large internal 'welfare' cost" (of employing the less able of those in their own social class rather than those outside it who could do the job better)."
According to another article, "Leaps Of Faith", dealing with the question whether education is often a place of conflict rather than a preparation for cooperation and specialization:
Just as upper classes use education requirements to see that preferred jobs go to their own class, irrespective of functional capacity of employees, the lower classes deny themselves education, either as a deliberate act of resistance, or as unconscious victims of their cultural education, and so become ineligible for employment in the preferred occupations, not even as compliant subordinates.
Both articles agree that despite the obvious specialization and cooperation between specialists in our society, much of what goes on is conflict between groups which find their base of power in various specialties.
Both articles explain that the fact that a society is organized does not imply that organization must move in the direction of progress, defined either as greater productivity of goods or services, or passage to another form of social organization considered to be more perfect.
Specialization brings with it a change from our acting on what we know from our own experience, to learning how to manipulate the thoughts and actions of the people whose decisions our lives depend on. People in specialized roles naturally have an interest in protecting their own groups, because these are the people their lives depend on. They have no interest in a theorized future development in technical perfection of society as a whole in one form or another.
Functionalist theories and conflict theories both propose an order exists in society as a kind of natural law, and the two kinds of order are not incompatible with each other. In societies which are functionally specialized the social classes which take main possession of certain roles are in conflict with other social classes in other roles.
Herbert Spencer, considered to be one of the founders of modern functionalist theory, in fact proposed a third order: a future state would arise in which generosity, when it evolved from lower forms of behavior, would make government inessential. This kind of functioning can also, before it becomes dominant, coexist with the other two, in conflict with them.
Readers of Plato should at this point recognize a pattern: functionalism, conflict, and generosity as forms of social order are parallels to the three parts or faculties of the soul: the desiring, the spirited, and the rational.
Plato tried to imagine in "The Republic" what a society incorporating the three faculties of the soul would look like. He came up with totalitarianism in which each faculty was allowed its place, as workers, guardians, philosophers, each locked in fixed relation to the others.
This imagined society was presented as a functioning system, a fourth kind of order in itself, obviously in conflict with (because limiting) each of the interests of the three orders it incorporates, but suppressing conflict by its optimal functioning.
In Plato's imagined evolution, specialization leads to conflict leads to totalitarianism. Absent a mythological destiny of human beings, reason mysteriously evolving out of unreason, this was the best that could be hoped for.
Plato did not assume it was necessary to build a society on specialization. He described the overspecialized person as sick, and argued that making a society out of sick people was like in medicine treating symptoms without curing the disease.
As reason and stability are enlisted to aid individuals hold themselves together who are sick with desire, so for the class based on sick desire, the "oligarch" class, putting thinkers and fighters into stable, totalitarian relation to them is also in their interest. If they know it, they will work to establish this relation. Lacking knowledge, they may simply stumble upon actions which tend towards establishing this totalitarian relation, find they are rewarding, and go on doing them.
The social class of those sick with desire tells its stories of big government, of little government; the particular story doesn't matter. The stories are told to enlist the support of the other classes which, participating in the world of specialized roles, are burdened with the need of telling stories of themselves, reputation making. They chose between stories of the best society, looking for the one that most favorably solidifies and formalizes relations between classes, that is, allows them to most safely and successfully go on telling their own stories.
The story of relation between classes is not all that is going on between classes. Politicians elected telling stories of small government, once elected, enlarge the government, or vice versa. No revolution results, because voters, habitually paying more attention to stories than reality, don't consistently reflect and act upon what doesn't immediately interfere with their personal reputation making. Those who are most likely to pay attention to what really goes on, and do something about it, are those in the class of people the society is based on, those who have excessive desires that call for management, who want the excessive things the society is founded to produce, who unlike the other classes are more interested in things than ideas.
Plato left the question open whether different starting points could evolve different futures. If specialization leading to totalitarianism was a functional law, other functional laws could exist in conflict with it.
The Economic Model
1. There is order in specialized occupations, and there is order in the organization of society as a whole, protecting different classes of people from each other under principles of democracy and law.
2. There is conflict between social classes which dominate certain professions. The professions do not fight against each other, rather the classes of people of like temperament and manner occupying the professions use their organizations to gain and keep advantage.
3. There is conflict between the social organization founded on excessive desire and an entirely different social organization founded on generosity.
All going on at the same time. Organization in profession and democratic law, and conflict between classes, and conflict between the entire organized mess of classes fighting within law and specialties, and the beginnings of a new kind of organization based on generosity.
Without the opposing force of the principle of generosity the whole would by now have stabilized in totalitarianism or fallen apart in anarchy.
The same people who a drawn to making models of social life are the people who draw a line between themselves and others, and who fight for their side against the other side. If you say the world is economic in its main direction and momentum, and you do not allow that other models may change that dominance of past present and future, you are committed to fighting for your model.
We are so used to taking models seriously that we ignore the overwhelming evidence that what comes first is a temperament that wants to take sides. A Jean Paul Sartre first is an existentialist, a fighter for freedom, then he is a Maoist and Stalinist, a fighter for communism, because he felt he must act on his ideas, and he took the side, the only side he saw, that promised freedom, and he held to it despite evidence of the dictators' murderous careers.
The economic view of our times, the model most of us we live with, is made by a different kind of temperament, that of wanting things.
The economic view is also a model: and that means there is going to be some fighting going on for and against its application. Like Sartre began with emphasizing the spirited, forceful, defiant part of ourselves, and ended up fighting an economic battle, so those who begin with the economic, the desire to make and have and manage things, end up fighting to keep and expand these activities.
Sartre has kept much of his reputation. Anyone who reads his books knows he was well intentioned, that he was fighting out of a spirit of generosity. And it is not too long a stretch to argue that the economic order we have today would have collapsed long ago without a similar counter influence of generosity, reinforcing social stability. And that too, social stability, is a model which has its adherents who are willing to fight for it.
And these stories told of the economic destinies of individuals of various temperaments are models, though with a different application, not to take sides but to perform what the ancient skeptical philosophers called a purge: to loosen the hold of the dominant model of economics.
If we say that in modern capitalism workers own stock in, invest their pensions with the companies that work against their interest, that governments provide extensive social services, we are still explaining the complexity of our times entirely solely in economic terms. We've still got a model and we will end up taking sides over it.
We can't do much about the momentum of government generosity in social programs, workers pension funds invested in the speculations of bankers, the bankers' determination to flourish in doing what they know best. Alliances and animosities are obscure and entangled. People specializing in one side of human character throw themselves into a society of other people doing the same, and let come what may determine how the rest of their character is brought into alignment. A mix of wild chance and determined order does their thinking for them.
Instead of this, in our own lives, in our desire to have things, fight for them, and be generous about it all, could we not break free from where the momentum of our economy is taking us?
Human nature, mired in this mess of public order and disorder, can, possibly, pull itself out.
In the story I know best, from my own experience, maybe I have seen what it is like to have all this conflict and order within myself thrown at the world and receive it all back in like measure.
But what about it? Wouldn't that be just another kind of model? More confusion of models defended against other models, models attacking other models. But then, no. If I simply tell a story, the right kind of story, the model is implicit, safely ensconced in particular circumstance. There it can hurt neither author nor audience, it needs to be defended by no one. To say a story happened means a particular mix of character met a particular mix of circumstances, and then....
My wife came home one day and said to me,
- Who are you? What are you? Why are you in my house? Why are you in my life?
Or as Marx said,
"The capitalists have left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.",
I wasn't a paying proposition. Not that day, at least. Other days went better. I tried to figure out what to do with this wife. As I've said, I didn't believe in models of human relations. I didn't believe human society, human couples, human individuals, were moving forward in progress and complexity, nor did I believe the opposite, in theories of struggle class against class, husband against wife, part of self against part of self. I didn't believe in liberal principles of generosity, politeness and toleration of each others faults and self restraint and apologies and reiterated statements of love.
Instead I thought that I could, I should, and so I did throw my own collection of conflict and works and good nature into the mix of the mess outside me, represented by this embodiment of trouble my wife.
According to her I was a hermit disdaining the world (conflict), I was kind but useless (generous) I specialized in produced pages and pages of unread words and seemed satisfied going on doing it and doing more of it (acquiring). I incorporated all three models. What about her?
When we met she had specialized with absolute dedication in her career as a singer-pop star. Later she returning to school with equal application. She was at war with the world, or that part of it that was male, relieving that half of the species of its money with full professional skill. And the generosity that holds everything together? She tried to get along with me, with her family, she loved to cook for me and to flatter me with her confidences about her ex-husband, her ex-boyfriends all around the world, all of whom she kept in touch with, never know when they'd come in handy, better not burn bridges.
Now what I see, this is the first I'm looking at it, is that I was quite alright with my conflict with the world kept at a distance and generosity and acquiring of unread pages and being kind and useless. There was no story of getting my parts to like each other better. Not perfect, not close, but what was wanted was not better relations between members of the team, but each of the guys getting more of what they were already getting. The same was true of the wife, I think. I don't remember her ever questioning how she was made up. The action was in what happened when her mess of character got tossed in the recipe with my mess of character.
What happened? Our teams got more! More contempt for the world, more pages, more resigned kindness, on my part. On hers, it would be, a continual teasing fight with a male which she confided she greatly enjoyed, a strongly progressing new career, and holding it all together, a happy homecoming to me when time permitted.
And what good was that? Something was made between us, apart from the economic monolith, though made up of the same pieces. I really don't know what it was. I'm going to think about it more. Finding the unexpected is something to begin with.
The Technology Of Good
On the crowded train a young woman soldier sat on the floor with me in the vestibule, other soldiers stood above us. She asked me what I thought of her country.
- I haven't been here very long, but already want to leave.
- If I have to choose between bad places to live in I choose the bad place I come from.
- Where are you from?
- Los Angeles.
- How is it bad there?
- Same as here.
- Money. Worship of money.
- It's human nature.
- It's bad human nature.
- People will never stop being bad.
- Well, we don't know that, do we?
- We know. People will always cheat, steal, destroy.
- Yes, but they will also always want to love, understand, make things.
- Not enough. People will take what they want when they can.
- Yes. Though sometimes people want love more than money.
- A dream.
- You're sure? You're not very old. You haven't read much, seen much. You don't know.
- And you know me well enough to insult me.
- I've seen, read about better people, better places.
- Why don't you go there and live with them?
- Good times don't last, times change, people change.
- That's what I am saying. You can't rely on people to be good.
- But if we don't expect people to be better we can't make our lives better with each other.
- We can't.
- How do you know? It's a story, a myth, that people are more bad than good, that bad will always win out in the end.
- But history is one massacre after another.
- But is history proof?
- Why not?
- To be sure that we humans will always do bad because we are bad, we'd have to set up an experiment to see if we can exclude the exception.
- An experiment with good people? Where are you going to find them? Do you think you are good?
- Not bad. To do a thought experiment we don't need real people. Imagine getting people together who don't believe your myth, who want to try to be good.
- They won't succeed. Communism doesn't work.
- Communism is a myth about the destiny of property relations in history. I mean simply, can we, on the basis of what we know about human nature, exclude the possibility that if people used their inventiveness, their knowledge, if they experimented, they could not arrange things so that people got better rather than worse in each other's company?
- That's your thought experiment?
- Every civilization in human history has failed.
- Because the bad in us eventually dominates us and destroys us?
- How do you know?
- What would happen in conditions that gave the good in us a chance to establish itself more firmly in social relations.
- History shows it doesn't happen.
- But that is just it. You've a myth, a story that human nature is primarily bad and will always be that way, and our governments and manners express this. What would happen if our governments and manners expressed the opposite?
- It wouldn't work.
- Remember we're doing a thought experiment. It is conceivable, right, that we could learn how to communicate better with each other?
- What good would that do? Propaganda will bring out the bad and the good words won't be heard. People listen to the bad more than the good.
- They do now. Our experiment makes us ask, what if we developed means, techniques, a technology that reminds people of the good and keeps reminding them?
- That's fantasy.
- How do you know? To know, you need to test if there is anything that rules out the possibility. We need to know more about the new techniques.
- Even if they worked they'd be stolen and the advantage would be gone.
- Perhaps it isn't possible for them to be stolen.
- Why not?
- As acting bad makes it harder for us to be good, acting good makes it harder for us to be bad.
- A smoothy functioning army of soldiers who are good to each other is even more destructive.
- Sure. But would the soldiers good to each other want to be destructive?
- They'd have no choice.
- If they have no choice then they are good to each other not by choice, but habit: People really being made good resist being made bad.
- But good always loses.
- Imagine it once gets a good start. When things happen in nature we expect things to go on as they have. But when we are accomplices with nature, attempt to build something, our repeated failure doesn't convince us we won't succeed. If that were true we'd never build anything at all. We see signs that our building is succeeding in parts. History of failed civilizations doesn't show us attempting to conserve and build up on each other our partial technical successes. History doesn't build.
- Technology givies us greater power to destroy.
- What about technology of being good?
- There isn't any.
- Our thought experiment asks do we know there cannot be?
- Do you really think there can?
- A strange idea. As you said, history doesn't build, create anything new in human life.
- What about technology, our era of machines? Physical technology came out of nowhere. Moral technology can too. So our thought experiment concludes.
- But they're not the same.
- Why not?
- People have always used tools. But no one even has an idea what technology of being good is.
- Playing games and making art are technologies, organized ways of entertaining, of our being good for each other. Do you know what I did a few days after arriving in this country?
- No. What?
- I visited the offices of the world's biggest internet company to propose to them (actually to their receptionist) what I'm saying here.
- What did they answer?
- They didn't answer.
- Of course.
- In history there is a natural tendency for bad to organize. Destruction leads to more destruction. Unregulated trade leads to monopoly.
- That's what I have been saying.
- You have been saying human nature is responsible for the destruction and monopoly, not that it so happens that human nature left to itself in social relations leads to destruction.
- What difference does it make?
- We don't have to leave social relations to themselves.
- When we try to improve society it doesn't work. The bad wins. As you said, monopolies and gangs take over.
- Because we didn't apply technology to the good. Imagine if the hundreds of millions of people in the social network run by the internet company I visited here were guided to each other by what the network knows about them, and guided into creative activity. Would that be enough to counteract the destructive effect of gangsters and monopoly, of uninventive social life creating exclusive factions? Large numbers of people getting a taste of working creatively, being entrepreneurs with each other?
- I don't think so.
- But you don't know, do you?