home political and economic essays Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors, Part 2

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Who is right? Who has the correct prescription for getting us to the near-ideal world we anti-authority folk dream of for our grandchildren?

Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

the ultimate goal

In the previous section, we covered a short list of unconventional questions designed to avoid the stereotyped totems of typical political argument, and instead dive much deeper, to explore root attitudes. No doubt there are many other questions which might illuminate the opinions of diverse people heretofore trapped by the old, linear (left v. right) model. The objective was to provide room so that differences and quirks, as well as various styles of madness, might stand alone for inspection, unshaded and unsheltered by their neighbors.

(For an extensive exploration of this kind of assumption-checking, try taking "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny.")

But let's say you don't have this checklist with you. Say you've forgotten (or don't particularly agree with!) the multi-dimensional models described in the previous section. Is there one simple question you can ask, to get a good idea where another person is coming from politically?

Ideally, it should be one that avoids standard rhetorical positions and postures. If possible, you want not to trigger automatic Republican or Democratic or Libertarian slogans. A better target lies at a deeper level: the level of myth.

For example, you can tell a lot about people by asking what they think of Robin Hood, Galileo, Henry VIII, Czar Nicholas, Plato, Pericles, Nat Turner and George Armstrong Custer, none of whom we readily relate to present-day politics. Without a pantry already filled with stock answers, the responses may lay open insights to attitudes about aristocracy, nobility, free inquiry, free speech, social obligation, charity, taxation, religious, sexual and ethnic tolerance, property rights, authority... and vanity. There are scores of other possibilities, providing only that your objective is to listen and understand the other person, not to take turns haranguing each other.

Here is my favorite question of them all:

If you had your way, and your revolution succeeded, what would the world of your great-grandchildren be like, in a hundred or two hundred or a thousand years?

Failure to ask this simple question in detail led to some of Karl Marx's worst errors. Making this basic inquiry allows one to discover astonishing commonalities and differences among people today.


To illustrate, let me offer up an answer of my own — in the allegorical form of a science fiction story I once read. How you react will tell a lot about, among other things, your position on the model political spectrum we discussed a little while ago.

In this story, a mad scientist manages to project the mind of a "volunteer" far ahead in time, into the brain of a person living in the 35th century. The subject finds himself suddenly occupying the body of a wonderfully healthy human specimen, walking through the most beautiful park-city he could have imagined. Wildly varied architecture mixes tastefully with lovely countryside. And many other handsome, healthy people of all ages and colors are moving about as well... dressed in a plethora of styles, laughing, playing, making music, or poring together over blueprints for brave new ventures in science or art.

This is no land of lotus eaters. There is even plenty of argument going on, though apparently nearly always even-tempered and friendly.

A utopia? the man speculates. Can it be? This appears to be a nation of vigorous, free, happy people. He wonders how they govern themselves.

At the edge of the park he encounters their House of Law — a small, slightly dusty building with only a few people lounging around, disputing amiably. And there, carved over the arched portal, can be read the society's only two laws:

1. Thou Shalt Not Offend Others.
2. Thou Shalt Not Allow Thyself To Be Offended Too Easily.

To his amazement, the time traveler finds over the course of his stay that the system works quite well. Whenever citizens are in dispute over a moderately serious matter — and in the unlikely event they cannot come to an agreement by themselves — they simply call on six randomly chosen individuals to hear them out and decide the case.

"Oh, was I being offended too easily?" one disputant says, on hearing the ad-hoc jury's considered opinion. Then, because it is the way a polite person behaves, and because he so chooses, he accepts their ruling and apologizes.

I will not go into the rest of the story. What matters is only that the allegory stuck in my mind. To me this seemed quite a fine place... one in which human beings were raised to be civilized, and to behave that way of their own volition, without coercion. I am well aware that idealized utopias can never adequately represent the gritty complexity and chaos of a real world. (Indeed, a key element of the Modernist Enlightenment is to know the difference between idealized notions and practical reality!) Nevertheless, this allegory distills something I would like to imagine possible for my descendants.


Obviously, it also tells you something about my beliefs. Truly mature citizens ought not to need an intricate wrapping of laws and regulations, in order to do what common sense dictates as good for all. Members of such a society, while vigorously and competitively pursuing their own fulfillment, would also see far enough ahead to know that their own self-interest demands some degree of altruism and benevolence, because by acting that way they help maintain the culture that they love — a culture that maximizes their own opportunities for success.

Now comes the test. Did this little allegory please you? Did it approach describing what you would have for your grandchildren? If so, you belong somewhere in the bottom half of Figure Two (see the previous section of this series), with an arrow (representing your idealism) aimed generally downward. You also, clearly, believe in our improvability. (Note, we have no idea if this utopia-of-maturity was achieved through genetic manipulation or teaching, or some combination. Therefore, the third axis is provisionally neutral.)

In fact, I have found it amazing how many people respond positively to that little story. It sounds so essentially libertarian! But that should not be surprising. Stop and consider how well-endowed our society is in anti-authority myths. Deep down, it appears to be an attitude shared by most Americans.

Take your typical Republican. He speaks in anti-authority terms... against the accumulation of power in the hands of snooty intellectuals and Big Government bureaucrats. His liberal Democrat son, too, decries conspiracies to gather power. Only he sees the threat posed by Big Business, religious fanatics and a conniving Aristocracy. Father and son do not recognize that, while they differ in important details, they share a premise. A Jeffersonian premise (actually dating back to Locke) stating that, all else being equal, people shouldn't push other people around, and those seeking power should be carefully watched. (Ah, but which people?) Both would likely respond to my question in affirmation, agreeing that the depicted world of the 35th century would be a pretty nice place to raise kids.

They share a goal. It is the question, "How do we get there?" which divides father and son.

Here, indeed, is where many of the people so far joined in the anti-authority half of figure two part company. Some believe collective action will be necessary in order to arrive at that beautiful future. Others think that that is exactly the wrong road, leading instead straight down the road to hell.


more questions, more metaphors

How do we get to that (or any related) promised land? Having eliminated from our discussion (momentarily) those who seek coercion and authoritarianism, we see that remaining major political arguments may have much less to do with goals than means of bringing them about.

Having disposed of linear and two and three dimensional models... and allegorical stories, I would now like to propose that the strategies people choose, in deciding on their favorite program to reach utopia, often depend on how they would answer one more question:

Are human beings fundamentally rational and/or good? Or must they learn reason?

There are three prominent theories based on this question. They are represented best by Karl Marx, by classical Libertarianism, and by a third idea that has cropped up from time to time, but has only recently pushed its way into the mainstream of 20th Century thought.

FIRST: Classical Marxists (note that I exclude Soviet-style state socialism) believe a society much like the 35th century utopia described above will come about naturally and inevitably via a "Withering-away of the state"... but only after certain primary conditions have been achieved. Those conditions include the accumulation of tertiary industrial capital and the growth of a skilled proletarian class.

SECOND: Classical Libertarian philosophy states that achievement of a near-ideal society resembling the one described in our story awaits simply cutting away the shackles of the state and returning to a natural free market, which will provide surplus wealth adequate for all. Government may be dismantled slowly (as prescribed by libertarian gradualists) or all at once (as urged by radicals) but when it is gone, people will behave maturely and fairly simply in their own self interest.

Note that both of these idealisms side with Rousseau's fundamental assumption, that human beings are either inherently good, or need only follow a simple prescribed path in order to transcend into a state of much greater good. Marx perceives this state ultimately unleashed after generations of capital accumulation finally creates a populace that is both satiable and satiated enough for animal and predatory drives to quell and for better human qualities to come to the fore.

Libertarians see competition as essential and endlessly needed, though competition is not the same thing as predation. Satiation is not the same thing as goodness. Rather, goodness arises when predators can no longer use state force to repress fair competition. Goodness arises from reciprocal accountability.

Still, despite these differences, the underlying similarity of Marxist and libertarian fantasies is really remarkable. Both hanker for that 35th century utopia and a state that has withered away. Both yearn for an epoch without coercion. Both would claim credit for its success. Also, of course, both purist approaches are naive and utterly cuckoo.

Jay Kinney, in an article in the Summer 1988 issue of Whole Earth Review, sheds some interesting light on this. Both left and right analyses describe the present economic order as "monopoly capitalism." Both analyses contrast this with an earlier system of "free enterprise capitalism." For the left, the monopolization of capital is not necessarily the result of a sneaky plot by some backroom elite; rather the system of capitalism produces monopolies and elites as natural byproducts of its own evolution. The right usually presumes that if the elite conspirators behind this usurpation were identified on a mass scale, and their influence and control destroyed, the US economy could then be returned to a system of free enterprise.

Putting aside Kinney's use of hoary left-right imagery, it illustrates how two groups with very similar complaints and goals each take a romantic view of how transformation can be achieved — one by waiting for inevitable social forces to work their way through, and the other by calling for the clearing away of debris blocking the natural social perfection of the market.


THIRD: Our third group shares the same goal as the other two, but believes that hope for that era of mature individualism lies in the gradual maturation of humankind.

They see, in the last six thousand years of darkness and cruelty, one simple lesson — that human beings who are frightened, ignorant, tribal or desperate have nearly always behaved badly. People who are insecure will steal and cheat, if that is what it takes to feed their babies. Also, they will all too often gang up on each other, and conspire to create dynasties. The Marxists are right, that some kind of satiation must be achieved, before this fear-driven predation can end. And libertarians are right that markets are crucial in order to get there. But both groups oversimplify a complex process. They seek a magic wand.

The unique and startling hypothesis held by this third group of individualist-utopians is this — that mature, knowledgeable people will tend to approach the near-ideal society of our fairy tale from nearly any starting point, since to almost any unafraid adult it must seem the only decent way to live.

Absence of fear is key. In other words, the precondition necessary for creating paradise is... near-paradise. And, viewed in the context of human history, that is exactly what we've got right now. (One piece of evidence? Name another society that ever made more libertarians!)

What these three outlooks demonstrate is that sharing a common goal is obviously not enough. The three world views differ fundamentally over who is to blame for our present condition, as well as how to reach that utopia of freedom and dignity all claim to desire.


all three world views depend upon unproved assumptions

Both Marxists and libertarians had pieces of the puzzle. General wealth, achieved via accumulated capital and increasing worker skill, does help engender the satiability needed, in order for humans to calm down enough to turn predation into maturity. But that maturity MUST include competition! Not only because competition is deeply part of human nature. But also because the libertarians are partly right, too — that satiability, all by itself, will not end predatory behavior. There is a far more important condition. Reciprocal accountability — freeing individuals to hold each other accountable — is the only truly long term solution to predation.

Each had ways they were right. And, of course, both are desperately wrong. Because each claims to prescribe THE WAY.

The path of Marxism is the most easily disposed of, for while its criticisms of nineteenth century capital were incisive, none of its major predictions of events to follow ever came to fruition as prescribed. In science, that is primary disproof. Period. In retrospect, the image of humanity as a locomotive, constrained to a sequential series of psycho-historical ┬ôstages — like railroad ties on the way to some foretold workers' nirvana — seems pathetically silly.

I will refrain for now from a full-scale critique of underlying Libertarian assumptions — such as the unsupported notion that a true free market society has ever existed in the past, or that immature, neurotic people, freed suddenly of social restraints, will refrain from fighting, as they always have, to create aristocracies and make their neighbors' children slaves to their own. (See "The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism")

I will instead use another allegory to show a clear distinction between propositions 2 and 3.


explicit and implicit social contracts

Cynics have occasionally made fun of the Libertarian Proposition by comparing it to the beliefs of the French philosopher Jean Rousseau. Rousseau contended that society itself was responsible for all of the evils of mankind. If only the wickedness of law and religion, of technology and intricate custom, were removed, he said, men would return to the condition for which they were meant — that of "noble savages."

Of course we should mention also Hobbes and the inverse notion, that humans are inherently devils who must be fiercely constrained by society and elites... a version of Plato's prescription for fierce aristocratic control. (The closest adherents to Hobbes, today, are the Neoconservatives, who openly call for establishment of Plato's prescription of rule by a "benevolent" aristocracy of "philosopher kings".)

Of more relevance was the Englishman, John Locke, who refused to accept this false dichotomy. Especially since any reasonably person can see plenty of evidence in his or her neighbors, that human beings are a copious mixture of both inner angels and devils. (Duh!) We deserve something better than Hobbes or Rousseau or Plato ever offered. And Locke began to take us down that path.

He proposed that societies were built upon "social contracts" between rulers and those governed. At the time he meant something quite simple; the "contract" was nothing explicitly written down and signed by all parties. Rather, it was implicit in the relationship between king and subject. The lord ruled benevolently or else, in the long run, the people would have his head. In an early, primitive form, he was talking about reciprocal accountability.

Locke's basic idea still appears sound, as a rough metaphor. An implicit contract does make sense as a model of what we observe in primitive societies. Consider the dark millennia which lasted until a few centuries ago. During most of those years, the lives of peasants and poor craftsmen were brutal and short. Bandits were always conspiring to steal what little people had, or worse, to become aristocrats themselves, and make slaves of everyone else.

But once a line of aristocracy was established, a curious thing happened. Quite often the grandchildren of bandit lords, well-fed from birth and benefiting from what passed for education in such times, turned out to be rather well suited to rule. It wasn't that they were in any way more deserving, only that nourished brains and literacy could only be provided to a few individuals from the meager surplus available at the time. A young man who was already part of a dynasty, and not rapaciously obsessed with creating a new one, might actually, on occasion, rule wisely.

A careful look at history shows that, for all of their petty wars and brutality, this pattern seemed to work about as well as could be hoped. And when it failed, peasants often did rebel. (Almost always immediately handing their leashes over to new bandits, alas.) In a sense, Locke's implicit social contract is simply a description of the obvious.

Contrast this age-old pattern with one of the dream icons held dear by Libertarians — the explicit social contact. This is a contractual agreement between the individual and his or her society, worked out anew with each adult, who knowledgeably signs away a carefully chosen, narrow range of action-rights in exchange for certain benefits of cooperative society. For example, some contend that under true federalism each state in the Union should experiment with its own social structure, under the very broad umbrella of national defense and the Bill of Rights. Any man or woman, at age eighteen, would have the opportunity to sign a covenant, explicitly agreeing to the codes and customs and laws of his or her home state. Or, disagreeing, the youth would move to another commonwealth with institutions more to his or her liking.

In this way, people preferring paternalism could live in a cradle-to-grave welfare state (and pay for it!) in, say, New York. Others, traveling to Nevada or Alaska, might find "Respect Life and Property" and "Don't Pollute" the only laws in the book, along with the unwritten but implied caveat emptor. (Robert Heinlein depicted just such a social order in his novella Coventry.)

If Locke's vision of implicit charters between peasants and bandit kings lies at one pole, this libertarian idea of an explicit social contract, one negotiated afresh with each new citizen, is at the other. We see where we have been and where we might go. To those who dream of this particular end to authority, any present-day society might therefore be judged by two simple criteria —

1. by how far it has progressed, evolving from the implicit to the explicit social contract, and,
2. by its prospects for further evolution in that direction.


Now let's return to those three anti-authoritarian assumptions we examined earlier. The first two, Marxism and Libertarianism, each posit that an ideal society of freedom, dignity and prosperity is possible, indeed likely, if only certain impediments are removed.

While Marxism foresees that era coming as a natural consequence of capital accumulation and the behavior of mass classes, Libertarians prescribe removing government shackles to begin the era of explicit contracts and true individual liberty. If today's neocons are heirs of Hobbes and Plato, Libertarians and Marxists are both true heirs of Rousseau.

The third philosophy — which might be called Maturationism — is descended from the pragmatists of the 18th Century Enlightenment, such as Locke, Washington, Franklin, Madison and Jefferson. Sharing the goal of an open, coercion-resistant society of free adults, it contends that no such ideal society was possible during thousands of years of darkness, but now it may be.

Marxists and Libertarians agree that our present civilization is thwarting progress and thus in desperate need of drastic surgery, Maturationism, in contrast, makes the provocative suggestion that we might not be doing so badly, all considered. That progress from the implicit to explicit social contract is actually quite rapid, in the society around us.


It is a viewpoint that has one major drawback. Maturationism does not provide potential adherents the delicious satisfactions of self-righteousness and resentment, offered by most political-religious movements. (See "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?.)

One especially jarring irony emerges from this metaphor of implicit-explicit social contracts. Suddenly, one can see the reason for the complexity of modern law. You would expect, during this progression from arbitrary whim-rule by kings toward full autonomy for all adults, for more and more of the social "contract" to involve negotiated deals, not just in (libertarian approved) commercial deals but also in codes enacted via negotiated political processes — in other words state law. Because, until the Internet, there were no tools for dealing with the vast number of possible contingencies on an individual by individual basis. Even now it is only starting to seem possible, though these tools are rapidly taking shape. Hence, might one look at today's complex law as an awkward intermediate stage? On the way from simple tyranny to another simple condition called maturity? From implicit social contracts toward individually explicit ones?

More on this later.


Who is right? Who has the correct prescription for getting us to the near-ideal world we anti-authority-folk dream of for our grandchildren? Each movement has hordes of sincere followers. United, they might all achieve something toward their common goal. Alas, each seems to demand action contrary to the proposals of the others.

Or do they? Is that conflict more illusory than real?

Rather than writing prescriptions, the purpose of this article has been to criticize and set in perspective some of the totems which have crippled reasoned political debate for far too long. Stereotypes and unquestioned caricatures, while deeply, sensuously satisfying, have all too often caused us to wind up lumped in alliance with folks whose deepest goals would be anathema to us, while locking us in conflict against some with whom we might have common cause. In criticizing these stereotypes, I've offered a few suggestions for alternative ways of looking at things, ways which might illuminate issues better than the fatuous "left" and "right" model.

I don't pretend these metaphors are perfect. If they stir a debate, leading to something even better, that would be fine.

The best use of metaphors, after all, is to help us pry away from our rigid assumptions in order to learn something, rather than serving as stage scenery to cover and conceal the real world. They should elicit discussion and inquiry, rather than shouting matches. They should free us, rather than constrain us.

If these aren't the effects your metaphors have on you, and those around you, it just may be time to find some new ones, and throw the old ones away.

Next... is present-day American society the monstrosity that Americans of all political persuasions seem to believe it has become?


Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors

about this article

Copyright © 2006, 2017 by David Brin. All rights reserved.


"Political Totemism and the Danger of Metaphors" was originally posted on the Libertarian Reform Caucus (LRC) web site in 2006. It is published in four parts here.

In Part One, Brin looked at the way we frequently let ourselves accept other peoples' metaphors — their models of the world — without stopping to think or ask, "Hey, what are we talking about?"

Here in Part Two Brin maintains that different political philosphies can have the same goal while prescribing different paths. Here he make the case that incremental improvement in a context of general individualism may be part of a long process of transformation that was first envisioned by John Locke, an evolutionary process of gradually shifting from implicit to explicit social contracts.

In Part Three he asks — is present-day American society the monstrosity that Americans of all political persuasions seem to believe it has become?

In Part Four Brin notes that every one of humanity's brief experiments with free market systems withered soon after flowering. Few were permanently ruined by proletarian or peasant uprisings. A great many, on the other hand, were destroyed by another nemesis of free enterprise... aristocratism.


articles, films & books cited here

Andrei Amalrik, "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?" part 1 and part 2

David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"

David Brin, "An Informal Questionnaire Regarding Certain 'Fundamental Questions' of Politics, Ideology and Human Destiny"

David Brin, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age"

David Brin, "The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism"

Robert Heinlein, Coventry (in Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah's Children)

Jean François Revel, Without Marx or Jesus: The new American Revolution has begun (book)

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (book)


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