Sunday, December 25, 2011

The awful Truth of Ecosystems, the Lie called Ideology by Seth Galbraith

From the Havel essay The Power of the Powerless:

As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these correctives disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.

Phrases we should perhaps use more often: "post-totalitarian" (persistent repressive ideological government) "public competition for power" (the popularity contest that we commonly call democracy) and "dictatorship of the ritual" (when the internal reality of an ideology seems to guide the power structure of a post-totalitarian system.)

Humanity has so far got two great competitors for dominance of this planet. (A) ecosystems - networks of interdependent species which are capable of rendering the planet less inhabitable through thoughtless but complex changes to resource cycles and which could arbitrarily "decide" to favor bacteria over humans and kill almost all of us. (B) ideologies - systems of ritual and interpretation of reality that reconcile the ugly power structures in our lives with our ugly selfish desires into a beautiful narrative that we can identify ourselves with.

(Note that presently in North Korea, humanity is being squeezed out by both ideologies and ecosystems, as they seemed to have returned to the famine and malnutrition of the 1990's.)

In essence, ecosystems are the awful truth and ideologies are the big lies that excuse us from facing the truth. But it's not that simple. Ecosystems are immensely complex, possibly unpredictable, and we have very limited influence over them. This defies our conventional notion of "truth" as facts that allow us to improve our prospects by adjusting our behavior. Truth that doesn't give us an opportunity to improve ourselves is simply fate.

Ideologies on the other hand defy the conventional notion of a "lie" as a contradiction of truth that allows us to improve our prospects by rejecting the lie and adjusting our behavior accordingly. Rejecting ideology is difficult for the individual and seemingly impossible for an entire society. The best system we seem to have come up with is a public competition for power, which encourages ideologies to track reality, but that doesn't make the lies true.

Human self-interest is really a simple problem: we need first the necessities of life, second the security of social connections (family, friends, community, etc.) and finally we need to be engaged in some satisfying activity, which really doesn't have to be a lot more useful or complex than playing World of Warcraft.

We are supremely adapted as a species to pursuing this interest. The primary reason that we lived as hunter-gatherers for 100s of millenia before developing agriculture is that we were really good at it. Paleolithic bands were efficient, close-knit, busy and more fun than we usually give them credit for.

By the middle ages we had gotten so good at agriculture that it was actually better than living as a hunter gatherer (for the most part - we don't have much hard data, and conditions varied from place to place.) Medieval communities were efficient, close-knit, busy and more fun than we usually give them credit for.

By the 1950's some parts of the world had gotten so good at industry that it was actually better than living as a farmer (but again we don't have much hard data on pre-industrial societies.) Death of a Salesman notwithstanding, Industrial America is associated with creating great surpluses of the necessities of life (food, energy, housing) having extensive social networks (clubs, associations, family reunions) finding fulfilling work (entrepreneurship, skilled labor) and a near monopoly on defining good times for future generations (

So on the one hand we have human beings continually improving their lives by developing and perfecting our way of life. And on the other hand (A) our lives also depend on unreliable ecosystems dominated by selfish bacteria, and (B) we sell our souls to ideologies that also ultimately only care about preserving themselves.

It seems to me that this is a situation we can never really escape, but it is one that we can manage, as we have managed to live with bacteria (and they with us) for the entire history of our species. The rise of post-totalitarian communism in the 20th century was an example of poor management, but the situation has now improved for some communist and post-communist (post-post-totalitarian?) countries.

But this perspective raises some disturbing questions. For example what about persistent post-totalitarian states with starving populations and nuclear weapons? What if global warming eventually stirs up a global bacterial bloom that wipes out most life on Earth? If we find at some point that ecosystems and ideologies are ready to kill us all, how far would we go to prevent it?

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