Like millions of others I’ve been following the #ows and Occupy Everywhere movement grow in numbers and support (Maju has a great post up at his blog). What is most heartening for me, at least for now, is how robust the core desire of the movement appears to be. The ambition to redesign democracy from the ground up is hardly timid, and even if foolhardy—in that the enormity of the task is unimaginable—my sense is that it is precisely at this depth we must begin. All power to those who act so bravely and generously on the awareness that it is up to us, we naked apes, to restore our dignity and honour. No doubt this sounds overly dramatic to many, yet I would go so far as to add that this is humanity’s darkest hour, that if we don’t recognize the gravity of our situation soon, it will be the end of our chance at true civilizational progress.
What I want to ponder in this post, albeit briefly, is what it means for a system to be alive. Yes, that enormous old chestnut, ‘What is life?’ I feel this to be of central importance to what it means to believe in the sovereignty of the individual, to what selfishness and agency are, and what ‘earning a living’ means. For how can anyone claim to deserve either punishment or reward if there is no individual? And what is private property if the individual disappears? Discussing the phenomena of life as a process, a dynamic, an emergent, complex property of certain systems is key to this age old debate. Of course a blog post can only be a gentle introduction to such an enormous topic, but this is one intellectual battleground that will become more important as time goes on, so the more of us acquainting ourselves with the meat and potatoes of this debate, the better. (I don’t do predictions often, but yes, this is one. Suck it up, bitchez!)
According to my daughter’s school biology text book, an entity is said to be alive when it fulfils the criteria denoted by the acronym RINGER:
Growth and development
I find this too limiting a definition, too ‘biological’ or ‘matter-biased’, as do many others, which a look at Wiki’s page on living systems quickly demonstrates. As an old Star Trek fan I remember an episode of Next Generation in which Data’s right to be thought of as alive was discussed (for the uninitiated, Data is an android) . “I, Robot” covers similar ground, and there are many other similar explorations in literature and philosophy of course. However, the kind of living system I have in my sights here is a social system, such as a corporation or governmental organization.
What got me thinking about this was the YouTube video of the arrest of a woman outside a Citi Bank branch for closing her account (she was one of many, but the others had already been locked inside the branch). After my anger at the bank’s and police’s inelegant and panicked handling of the issue subsided, I started thinking about what one particular officer in a lower ranking blue shirt, with many cuffs dangling from his belt, rocking nervously on his feet in an aggressive-defensive posture, wielding his truncheon uncertainly as he protects the bank from the assembled crowd (about 2:20 on, right at the end of this short but compelling video). What was he thinking? Or, better, what was he feeling and experiencing for those few, hot seconds?
One thing is clear. The man is as much a human as any one of us. He has a job as many others do. His job is part of his totality, but only a part. Perhaps another ‘part’ of him sympathizes with those who claim to be “The 99%”. Yet in his role as policeman he must (at least while he thinks this way) put aside one part of his humanity in the interests of … What, exactly? I would say, in the interests of a living system we’ll call Police Force. Police Force trained him to become a Policeman, and when he’s in his uniform on the job he is a ‘different’ person to when he is on the couching watching TV. Why? Why do our behaviours change according to the hat we have on our head?
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a number of experiments on obedience, inspired by the question of the morality of Nazis such as Eichmann, as well as their underlings. What does it mean to be obedient if such results in our killing others? Milgram’s experiments involved three people: an actor posing secretly as a participant, a genuine participant, and a ‘scientist.’ The two participants were allotted the roles of teacher and learner, apparently randomly, but it was previously ensured that the actor always became the learner. The learner (actor) was then wired to an electric shock machine, and told to push buttons in answer to questions put to him/her by the teacher. The actor made plain that he/she had a heart condition. If the learner pushed the wrong button, the teacher was to punish him/her with an electric shock. Milgram wanted to find out how severe an electric shock the teacher would administer in the interests of ‘science.’ “He found that the percentage of participants who are prepared to inflict fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, 61–66 percent, regardless of time or place.” There are many experiments like this, and all yield, I suspect, similar results. That they are disturbing is because, in my view, we falsely think of ourselves as potent or sovereign individuals independently deciding on matters of right and wrong, correctly assessing situations ‘out there’ and acting accordingly in constant demonstration of our free will.
Are we discreet individuals in control of our lives, or are we emergent subsystems of larger subsystems in which we find form, definition and meaning in an ongoing and ever-changing way? What would your ideas about reality be like if you had been born deaf and blind? If we took identical twins at birth, raised one in a rich household in New York, but deposited the other with the Pirahã, how similarly would they turn out? If we then collected the Pirahã-twin twenty years later and brought it to New York to meet its identical sibling, how much would they have in common? How much about New York would the Pirahã-twin understand? If we deposited the twenty year old New York-twin with the Pirahã, how well would it function in that alien environment?
We will never know the thousands of reasons why the man shifting defensively on his feet outside Citi Bank became a policeman. If we asked, perhaps he’d tell us he freely chose the job. Could he have? Why not arrow-head maker? Or shepherd? Or poet? Or brain surgeon? How happy was he at school? How good a school was it? How ‘effective’ were his parents at raising him? Which of these many early conditions did he choose? Did he choose his body? Does such a question make any sense at all? When do we start being able to choose ‘freely?’ Certainly not where or to whom we are born. Nor the language our parents speak to us, nor how they communicate, their interests, sensibilities, passions, failings and strengths. Nor the television we are exposed to, nor the foods we are fed (though taste and screaming play a role here!). I’m not pushing the tabula rasa position of John Locke; I believe we are all born with a certain ‘stuff-mix’, a unique biological-social-familial-spacetime set that means we will remain unique forever. And we react uniquely to stimuli even though we have no ‘choice’ in the matter. We are not born blank slates, nor do we ‘begin’ at birth, and yet we are never ‘free.’ It is a non sequitur to point to uniqueness as evidence of free will.
So the policeman of this brief inquiry is a subsystem of a social organism called Police Force. The degree to which he is able to be ‘objective’ about this fact; that is, his loyalty to both his role and the oath he took upon becoming a policeman, is dependent upon millions of other factors we can never know about. For example, I am writing this article because of Universe as it has been through me up till now. As Charles Eisenstein puts it, I am Universe TobyRusselling. I am an unfolding verb, and so are you. Whether or not we see nobility in this or that part of Universe is a matter of perception, and all our perceptions are reactions we don’t control, as our reactions to what we perceive are beyond our control. Whether or not the policeman feels he acted nobly by virtue of staying true to his job is not as important as that we all tend to be true to our conditioning, as Milgram’s experiments show. And of course the minority who refrained from issuing the killing dosage were conditioned by their pasts to be less influenced by authority, less obedient, more critical of their situation.
As part of a nation, of a family, of a school and classes within a school, as child, sibling, father, mother, friend and employee, we are constantly influenced by ideas and other communications in various contexts; everything that we imbibe, not only as it comes to us from ‘the outside,’ but also as it exists in us in our own unique context, as we continually re-experience our ‘inner’ world of memories and senses and thoughts, we passively integrate into what we are becoming, passively generating associations, forming habits and addictions, likes and dislikes. This is what we are always becoming. We are not sovereign; it only seems that way because we can convince ourselves it is so. An idea-infrastructure is available to us with which we can create this impression. A human raised by dogs for long enough will never be able to comprehend the idea of individual sovereignty, for example.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Police Force is also a living system influenced by its environmental conditions, came into existence for certain reasons, and evolves over time in constant adjustments to unstoppable change. It, as we do, seeks to live on. In that it is what it does, and what it does is policing, it must police if it is to ‘survive.’ Furthermore, Police Force is a subsystem of State. State is also a living system which is what it does (extract the ‘foods’ it needs and ‘wants’ from its environment via exploitation of its citizens and other resources, in a hierarchical format), and seeks too to carrying on ‘living’ indefinitely. (And all this without even looking at issues of wages, money and debt, which are concepts, or communications, developed and evolved by culture and society.)
Niklas Luhmann posits that social systems consist of communications, and that the ‘soil’ from which they emerge are psychic systems (humans). Because we psychic systems find form in social systems, the interrelationship is obvious. Though notionally separate, in practice psychic and social systems cannot exist independently of one another. Even if we imagine a baby raised by wolves outside of human society, that psychic system is nevertheless embedded in a social system of communications consisting of barks, growls, snarls, smells and any other information produced by its environment, in my opinion including seasons, food, hunting, etc. Information is discernible difference, is anything we are capable of perceiving.
A large corporation emerges from the broader society of which it becomes a functioning subsystem. Ditto our Police Force. And as the cells of our bodies are living systems, so we humans act as cells of larger order social systems, from families to mutli-nationals. Our ‘obedience,’ or sense of belonging to those social systems we are part of depends on a multitude of factors I won’t even try to list. What I here publicly ponder, after having watched that video over and over again, is how the changes coursing through society as ideas that conflict with the existing paradigm of scarcity, greed and competition, are affecting people like the policeman here contemplated, or CEOs, or prime minisiters, presidents, and chancellors, and how they impact on social systems such as Police Force and Government. I don’t think I am saying anything controversial by stating they feel threatened.
Change is afoot at a scale and depth I suspect humanity has never remotely experienced before, yet the cultural equipment we have inherited to deal with this change finds itself in a defensive posture regarding that change. We are under an attack we must deal with using the cultural repertoire which is the very object of that attack. We each react differently, and likely we are all confused. That means Interesting Times Ahead, through which it is vital we remember, constantly, that we are all simultaneously ‘victims’ and ‘agents’ of reality, just as Police Force and Policeman. We are reality, as is everything else without exception. A wise mix of humility and confidence is therefore called for, which I fall far short of. My hope is that the efforts of those publicly closing bank accounts; those collecting in cities across the planet to teach themselves direct democracy; as well as those of us merely discussing, thinking and debating, find a constructive rhythm or cohesion towards a new direction thus far only minutely in evidence. If we are unable to keep this transition together to some useful degree, the centre will not hold and the subsequent, violent oscillations could destroy most of what humanity has built this far.
It's up to us, but by golly that doesn't mean it's going to be easy!
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