Monday, February 22, 2010

Political Science as Oxymoron

revised February 23, 2010
Of Pyramids and Polishers 
For thousands of years the sole model of political power has been the pyramid. If you count thoughts and words and ideas, there may be alternatives, but if you consider only the way we act, the pyramid is it. It is alone. A pyramid is a shape with a large bottom and a point at the top. According to this paradigm, a leader or leaders sit at the summit with a small elite below, while the rest, the vast majority of the human race, hold their rulers up from the bottom. Whatever the theory or ideology, and no matter how egalitarian or democratic a society sets out to be, in practice it always ends up as a pyramid.
The Communist regime in the former Soviet Union, for example, started out aiming at a worker's paradise but very soon froze into centralized power in the shape of a pyramid. Everything was run from above by a general secretary, a tiny elite called the politburo, a larger elite of apparatchiks, and the proletariat below. Similarly, the present capitalist regime led by the world superpower professes to offer at least a chance at wealth for anybody, but in practice the pyramid of power is, considering the much larger population of the earth right now, far pointier than any pyramid at any age throughout history.
Why is the pyramid hierarchy so persistent?
Surely, the answer is that no matter where leaders may end up on the pyramid, be it on the very summit, or somewhere along the edges running down the sides, they have little to gain from a shake-up. Statistically speaking, the chances that one stone will end up on the edge, or even on the surface of the pyramid, are minuscule. Whether the leader rises through democratic or any other means, the nature of the pyramid assures that change, or even experimentation, is not in the interest of the leadership. This is why democracy, federalism and republicanism are as hidebound as any other form of government. 
Only token efforts at change are made, in spite of the glaring fact that the status quo is more sluggish, corrupt and dysfunctional with every passing day. Basic leadership is lacking; power structures are weighed down by incumbency.
The last thing elected leaders want to do is fiddle with the electoral process that got them where they are. That is why the term "political science" is and always will remain an oxymoron, unless a truly radical change takes place.
Some starry-eyed optimists still hold up hope, saying that the invention of computers, the Internet, virtual worlds and social media will be agents for the kind of radical change that could save us from ourselves. The Internet will allow egalitarian networking to take over from hierarchy. It will relieve us of the power pyramid pressing down on us all. In spite of some hopeful signs, I have seen little evidence that this sunny scenario will play out. There is and always will be too much to gain for the few to do everything to stay on top. For every network of concerned activists a thousand diversions and distractions crop up every day. If anything, the edges of the pyramid are getting sharper and pointier all the time.
This is not to say that the incumbency pyramid is utterly immovable. Revolutions do turn the pyramid on its top, albeit with great trauma and bloodshed. It takes decades and centuries to recover from a revolution. Iran has not recovered from its revolution, which started with a relatively peaceful change of leaders but this was followed by over a decade of bloodshed, persecution and war. The present recrudescence of persecution of the Baha'is in Iran is a sign of just how precarious its leaders feel themselves to be. No matter what happens, experience proves that no matter how radical the shift, sooner or later another pyramid will always emerge. The faces are different, the goals, principles and methods may vary, but a pyramid always emerges.
This problem of incumbency and revolutionary change has been staring me in the face for months. I have not been able to move forward on my book, People without Borders, until I feel that it is solved. I would feel embarrassed to share my ideas for change if I cannot honestly answer this question: What is to distinguish Comenian world governance from any other pie-in-the-sky utopia?
Then I woke this morning with an image in my mind, an alternative to the pyramid. It was a picture of a rock polisher.
I rushed off to my trusty search engine and found out that there are two main kinds of stone polisher, the tumbler or rotation polisher, and the vibration polisher. The rotation type turns a cylinder around for about a month, after which the formerly rough stones emerge smooth and beautiful. The vibration polisher, as the name indicates, uses only vibrations; rough stones are placed in a wash of water mixed with abrasive materials and emerge after only two weeks in their optimum state of smoothness. The vibration method is not only quicker, it uses less energy and emits less noise. Instead of turning over completely, the parts rub against one another and turn in place.
What is the equivalent of the tumbler and the vibration polisher in democracy and human governance? The rotation polisher seems like a revolution. What about the vibration polisher? Can we introduce something that gets the same result as the literally revolutionary method of the tumble polisher, only quicker and more efficient? What is political vibration?
It seems to me that vibration is a kind of enforced randomization without the dislocation of tumbling. Randomness is the political alternative to revolution.
Game theory tells us that randomness is essential to all games of chance, and has a place even in many games of skill. A coin toss evens out the home field advantage in soccer or football, for example.
Yet we make almost no use of randomness in government today, except in choosing jury duty. The Ancient Athenians, in their brief experiment with democracy, did choose citizens to fill certain important offices by lot.
Would judicious application of randomness offer an alternative to the unavoidable pyramid? Could this rid us of the reluctance of those on top to change the system of promotion that got them there? Would this bring about a true political science? I will discuss my answer to this question next time.
February 22-23, 2010


Sen McGlinn said...

Could you finish this sentence:

"This is why democracy, in spite of the glaring fact that it is increasingly sluggish, corrupt and dysfunctional."

You might be interested in this:

"99. QUESTION: Concerning consultation.

ANSWER: If consultation among the first group of
people assembled endeth in disagreement, new
people should be added, after which persons to the
number of the Greatest Name, or fewer or more,
**shall be chosen by lot.** Whereupon the consultation
shall be renewed, and the outcome, whatever
it is, shall be obeyed. If, however, there is
still disagreement, the same procedure should be
repeated once more, and the decision of the
majority shall prevail. He, verily, guideth whomsoever
He pleaseth to the right way."
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 136)

I think that a pyramid design is inherent to authority structures. However authority is only one of many social functions. The characteristic failing of the modern age was the fixation on authority, and therefore elevating the state and politics to an umbrella that controls all social functions. In my view the way forward is not to replace the pyramid with something else, but to put the pyramid in its place as the proper structure for one function in society, recognising that wealth-creation, knowledge, and religion (and others) are separate organs that have their own internal requirements. Science is not decided by fiat, a centrally-managed economy fails, religion and other ethical choices have to be free to be religious and ethical. Authority, in short, can only do so much.

There are some thoughts about the organic structure of a postmodern society in the Introduction (not the Foreword) to my _Church and State_, which is online in pdf format here:

Anonymous said...

Hi John

I don't think there being a pyramid is the problem; rather, it's the qualities or materials of the pyramid. The pyramid isn't an ugly or bad form. Even the best civilizations of the past had their pyramid form. The pyramid in which power is the top point is material, whereas the one with service as its apex is the spiritual one. Armies have to be pyramidal, and Abdu'l-Baha used the image of an army in the spiritual conquest of the planet.

I am also reminded of the analogy that Abdu'l-Baha uses in His explanation of sacrifice, that of the metal losing its coldness to become malleable--I think. In the Baha'i Faith there's also a pyramid. Spiritualizing the pyramid, if you will, would make its components fluid on a regular basis, as in Baha'i elections-- but not only then, because every act of obedience to the Revelation spiritualizes the pyramid. The lower elements, to follow this analogy, would be happy to play their role in being at the base, knowing that inward change only can raise them, and would desire to rise to be able to spiritualize every part of the pyramid.