Leviathan Revisited

I’d first like to begin by saying I’ve written about this topic several times already. But while those were basically artistic impressions, this is an outright essay on the mild disquiet I feel every day while embedded in this society, and what probably causes it. I’m warning you right now that it’s exceedingly long… about twelve pages going by word-count alone. You’ve been warned.

As a rather boring proponent of various documentaries, I recently ran across The Trap directed by Adam Curtis. It’s a three part series outlining how society has reached its current form, suggesting that elements such as Game Theory, Negative Freedom, and to a certain extent, pharmaceuticals and their ilk, have built a system of distrust and ultimate suppression of the individual. Further, it systematically explains what each piece contributes to this lumbering dystopia we apparently inhabit. Unfortunately—or fortunately, for us—Curtis makes several assumptions concerning his observations that fail to account for the self-organizing traits of large societies themselves, and does not consider that many of his hypotheses are actually backwards.

But backwards how? Curtis begins the journey with Game Theory. John Forbes Nash, probably one of the most infamous names in the field, made himself available for this documentary. The Trap purports that Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic at the time of his discoveries and advocacy, naturally constructed his hypothetical proofs to impart a certain level of mistrust and logic not commonly experienced by an average person. Indeed, assumed betrayal was central to several of these, and became a requirement for many of the mathematical models to function at all. During the Cold War, this level of distrust was considered healthy, especially given the alternatives. The root assumption implies than every person is always interested in advancing their own cause. Given these two aspects, Game Theory was effectively adopted worldwide as a method of quantifying performance, because it also works as functional equilibrium of balanced greed. The flaws in this are legion, which The Trap makes abundantly clear. Is that enough however, to fundamentally alter civilization?

Part three of the documentary unequivocally says no. While the second episode describes, at length, the part an individual plays in this new paradigm, it’s when the documentary gets to Negative and Positive Freedom, that the final pieces fall into place. Positive Freedom is the freedom to fulfill one’s desires, while Negative Freedom is the freedom to remain independent of outside influence. Isaiah Berlin’s position that Positive Freedom always becomes a tool of oppression, provided justification for Western governments to enforce Negative Freedom. The Trap suggests this philosophy is directionless, and while freedom is attained, a system that hasn’t been properly bootstrapped falls into chaos of competing exploitation. The link to Game Theory is strenuously reinforced by the assumption that competing desires will reach a natural and desirable equilibrium. But can such a stalemate lead to progress? That actions of Governments enforcing Negative Freedom itself has devolved into Positive Freedom, because that ideal is seen as fulfilling one’s potential to be as free as possible. It’s an interesting dichotomy that is presented as evidence that Society is less free.

But this isn’t a book report. Whether it’s Positive Freedom, Negative Freedom, Game Theory, or dehumanization to fit those designations, human psychology is far more complicated than application of a few misguided simplifications thereof. The Trap’s greatest flaw is not hyperbole, but naiveté. It’s very tempting to believe paranoid greed fueled by crude models of human behavior on a massive scale can degrade governments and individuals to work against their own interests. Yet this is no different from arguments posited by philosophers for thousands of years. Plato’s assertion that “Knowledge becomes evil if the aim be not virtuous,” is an easy example of this. Blaming misapplied knowledge or techniques is nothing new, and that very persistence of this paradigm demands an alternative explanation. Game Theory and Negative Freedom, no matter their paranoid or ambiguous goals, are merely a reflection of sufficiently advanced societies, not a tool to control them. They’re manifestations of a larger guiding force, and it’s one that arises naturally from self-organizing systems. Knowing how this mechanism operates is the true key to understanding culture and the punctuated equilibrium that seems to define it. This Leviathan of an operating society is critical to its survival, but requires certain concessions from an individual that mimic these theories without being driven by them.

Game theory for example, is a gross oversimplification of human motivation. While it’s true many cynical philosophies explain that even altruistic behavior is ultimately driven by selfish interests, the manifestations therein are legion. Human interaction also closely matches pack behavior in may respects. Taken at its most simplistic, would it be in the best interest for a person in a lower position to undermine his superior to get ahead, support her to obtain recognition, or leave for greater rewards elsewhere? These alternatives could lead to the downfall of a corporation, the establishment of a strong competitor, or any number of infinitely variable consequences. This simply can not be modeled by Game Theory alone. The excuse that Game Theory demands its participants mimic completely logical selfish entities is benign. Attempting to apply Game Theory by encouraging self interest is ultimately futile, because it may be in someone’s self interest to seek spiritual enlightenment or other charitable conduct, which undermines the very model. Emotions and their inspired application simply can’t be reduced to such an internally consistent mathematical representation. Game Theory may have had limited success during the Cold War due to sufficient polarization, but it’s hardly a universal solution to a successful society.

The Trap implied many of these conclusions, but did nothing to address the performance metrics used by governments it suggested as proponents of Game Theory. That those governments apply Game Theory to objectively suggest quotas for many business and government operations is presented, but the source of these projections is not. What were the inputs? What calculations were performed? What controls were used? Which subjective decisions were made to select variable interaction? Any of these can vastly alter quotas, but this point is never raised. The quotas themselves are considered the failure in the system, given how they’re circumvented in several examples or subverted outright. The situation is very similar with adhering to the letter of a law while ignoring the spirit which inspired it—a very human reaction. And it’s a human reaction because the quota is treated with contempt; instead of meeting a quota using any technique available, it becomes something to defeat. Instead of being an objective goal, it becomes a subjective one. The problem is, Game Theory does not fit human psychology, so it gets transformed to something which does. The human reaction to the tool is to neuter it, or find a method of interpreting the rules to justify existing behavior.

An even more cynical explanation is that Game Theory isn’t even new. The formation of the United States government was driven by the idea that people are selfish, and that power is a corrupting influence. Several roadblocks, from separating government powers, to explicitly denying certain abilities from the government, were created specifically to disrupt oppressive tendencies. And even these safeguards can be dismantled given enough collusion. This gives us the chance to examine Positive and Negative Freedom, in fact, because the US government is a clever combination of both concepts. The ideals of liberty, freedom to be left alone, is a central tenant in several documents. Yet a central government is necessary to coordinate many aspects of a sufficiently large country, which is a manifestation of Positive Freedom. By separating the powers of government, theoretically it can not become a dictator or oppressor with the power it wields.

Indeed, either of these things by themselves is demonstrably destructive. Negative Freedom for instance has no inherent safeguard to prevent Monopolies or collusion from permanently controlling a market or resource. And once such control is established, there is little to no incentive to innovate, leading to aimless stagnation. But Positive Freedom at its logical extremes is equally detrimental. Citizens now have direction and purpose as dictated by whomever or whatever wields the reigns that control the society, but has no real mechanism to limit that power. Even the most benevolent ruler can eventually be replaced by a malevolent one, and the limitless control to better society becomes an equally potent tool to corrupt it. It’s the position which has the mandate, not the person. The new ruler’s whims, even in amiable circumstances, can result in an overall loss of progress. The road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions. And again, these flaws are either explicitly described or assumed as understood by The Trap. However instead of being guiding elements of society, these interpretations of freedom are merely indicative a society exists. Any particular form is transitory, so long as the overriding goal of maintaining smooth operation is fulfilled.

And thus Leviathan is born. Born in almost the literal sense because human society viewed as a single entity fits all four requirements for a living organism. It’s an entity that at its extremes, represents nearly seven billion cells. Given a hospitable planet, a colonization effort would serve to create subsequent entities. Our mastery of the environment is sufficient proof specialization responds to novel and varying stimuli. Ant colonies are already considered a single organism, and there is little suggesting humanity is immune from this kind of convergence into a single super-organism.

This alone is not a novel proposal. However, in viewing society from the perspective that Leviathan exists, presents abundant complexity reductions in behavioral patterning. In order for such an organism to function, many things are required: information exchange, resource management, transportation, immunology, and so on. Education for instance, is seen as important by most individuals, but to a larger organism only the most basic techniques are necessary. Reading and Writing enable internal communication and message passing between specialized systems. Literature, while desirable, is superfluous. Mathematics leads to Chemistry and Physics, which aids in construction of the tools of society. Music? Art? Distractions. Higher tiers may embrace more advanced applications of theory to produce guiding influence, but many creatures survive without a brain. So too, does Leviathan; it is an amoeba of specialized organs that doesn’t purposefully accomplish anything.

The implications here are vast. Humans are social creatures. It’s one of the reasons for our success and development of language. Despite this, not even the most capable human can master every technique, absorb all knowledge, or perform all tasks. Not only is self-organizing a trait of our species, but so is specialization. This type of spontaneous formation leads to functional groups comprised of several positions to ensure proper operation. The interaction of these clusters produce a modern society built upon trade. It’s an economy of scale that allows cooperation between loosely aligned clans to produce efficiency that would never otherwise exist. Thus a business, or a corporation, or a government become various essential organs, and once established, will defend themselves as such. This becomes more true as the power of each individual organ increases; just as no person can live without a heart, the modern world would have a difficult time reflecting its current form in the absence of international banks.

And what does defense mean? An immune system. Police. Prisons. Methods of suppression large and small from repression to incarceration to distraction, all serve to preserve a functioning system. This need not be malevolent, just mindless efficiency as seen from the perspective of a neutral entity. This applies to organs which—through inaction, corruption, or failure—no longer fulfill their original function. Either these organs are replaced by an equivalent structure, or otherwise made redundant. This doesn’t always mean progress, as any owner of an appendix might attest. Disruptive is a very vague term, but in this context merely means external to established methodology. Thus in the right context, a peaceful activist or visionary is just as provocative as a hardened criminal. Notable historical figures such as Galileo or Martin Luther King Junior experienced this reaction firsthand.

But some ideas can be timely indeed. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paved the way for revolutionary advancements in physics that made technology such as the transistor possible. The internet began as a Defense-funded technology but ended up becoming a new nervous system for global interaction. What was once a lumbering and very loosely coupled creature transformed into something much more efficient and comparatively nimble. Yet this comes at a cost. As before, groups remain comprised of individuals filling specialized positions. However a global talent pool also implies a dynamic skill bidding system, driving efficiency further. Employees begin to resemble, except in the most highly sought or difficult to automate tiers, interchangeable components. This suppression is not driven by evil or conspiracy, but as a natural culmination of a varied hierarchy of interactive precision ingredients.

It’s easy to forget that these ingredients are thinking, feeling individuals. People with lives and emotions, goals, ideals, hopes, and dreams. But it’s all of these things that are either ignored or punished by Levithan’s internal structure, which strives for efficiency and repetition. Negative Freedom is effectively lubrication and Game Theory the grossest, lowest common denominator presumption to quantify human interaction. As soon as a more repeatable model than Game Theory comes along, it will most likely enter the global psyche as a new government tool to promote citizen productivity and happiness. There’s really no mystery here, and good testament that Aidous Huxley’s Brave New World was just as prophetic as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In essence, the combination of both are the extreme conclusion of a society driven by amiable workers embedded in a strictly managed machine.

Leviathan is very real. And though it’s not alive, its presence can be felt. A disillusioned idealist wonders why society never changes, why corporations steamroll the rights of individual citizens, why citizens rarely overthrow brutal regimes, why the rift between rich and poor is always widening. It’s simply how we self-organize, whether driven by instincts or a need to abstract our complex surroundings. But what do we gain by knowing this? Can removing ourselves from the system to observe it objectively, result in better social engineering that’s actually capable of avoiding the worst aspects of our limitations? Is being cognizant of the Leviathan we collectively create, give us the ability to control its DNA and produce something more benevolent to ourselves? I can’t say. It’s a monumental undertaking, and while cultural anthropologists and psychologists have historically been instrumental in explaining human behavior, few have offered their expertise in designing a better society. And even if they did, the general populace retains vehement distrust of this type of overt eugenics. But The Trap claims this has already been done with Game Theory at the very least, suggesting more complete models could just as readily be adopted.

Leviathan is a romantic notion for cynics and writers like myself. It’s the ultimate suppressive influence; always looming, making a man feel out of place, forgotten and unwanted. It’s what makes us work long hours in jobs we hate, only so we can numb our tortured minds with TV or video games or the internet before starting the next day over again. It’s everything we hate in education, as teachers get demonized and standardized tests evaluate the quality of each cog schools produce. But it’s also nothing. It can’t think, can’t feel; even if it did, we’re vital to its survival. Nobody wants their heart to hardly function, doing only the bare minimum to get by. It’s in the creature’s best interests the components of its organs are not only efficient, but content. Drugs can not bring enlightenment. Turning our minds off can never make us free. But neither can merely accepting what society has to offer. The real question: how to affect change without accidentally triggering an immune response. If we can master that, we can literally transform civilization into whatever we want, provided it doesn’t kill our host.

For us to truly mature, we must master the Leviathan.