September 2, 2010

Of Starfish, Spiders, and People

This morning I listened to an NPR interview with Ori Brafman, author of The Starfish and the Spider:the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. It got me thinking about how little I care about ideology. That is, I'm not one who goes for the starfish or the spider, the federation or the dictatorship, monarchy or democracy. Starfish are great at self-perpetuation and coral reef predation, but what else do they do? Spiders (at least some of them) build webs of astonishing intricacy. Both seem to be good at what they do.

But what about humans? People can be good or bad at governing themselves and other humans, and no system will guarantee a maximum best of all possible worlds. I reject the old saw that "democracy is a terrible form of government but better than all the others" simply on the facial evidence. There have been terrible, repressive, abusive and dehumanizing democracies; and there have been noble, righteous and humanizing monarchies.

In short, systems, as interesting as they may be, as important as they are, are not the answer. Those who put their hope in a system --- that if we just got it right --- all would be well, are fooling themselves with the dream of Utopia, which means nowhere.

I would start the Pragmatist Party if I thought starting a party would accomplish anything. But I know it would just be one more voice in the whirling storm. Yet it is ultimately how each human acts -- each human him or herself a form of government with a head and heart and hands -- that will produce the net effect of any society's worth.

And yet each one of us is living in the flesh the drama of coalescence and senescence and evanescence; each of us a little State soon subject to overthrow as the Monarch loses power, the Workers go on strike, the Resources are exhausted.

Vanity, all is vanity, saith the Preacher.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

I also do not agree that democracy is the best form but for the others. That bon mot always served, it seems to me, as a pathetic excuse for the sins of democracy. "At least we aren't as bad as them!" Well, as a convinced anarchist, I say, punt the whole lot.

And for reasons like what you say: it is the pretension that structure, and government, etc., can do the trick. From Plato to Locke to Wilson and Roosevelt, I say, no. There is no way for structure to cure the ills of bad men. The sooner we recognize this the better.

Richard Littledale said...

Has anyone reflected, I wonder, on the three different societies emerging on the San Jose mountain in Chile.

Buzzing round at the mine head are the 'professionals' - swarming around in a state of anxious busy-ness.

2000ft underground are the 33 miners -seeking to live out some kind of democracy in the dark.

Meanwhile, in a Camp called hope, the families play out the ecstasy and agony of faith as they wait.

Which is the better picture of 'society' I wonder?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Thomas. I don't think it will ever be widely recognized. The urge to structure is so deeply ingrained; the need for dominance/submission mapped to so many various human acts and circumstances.

Richard, a fascinating cluster of micrososms each with their own context yet vibrating on that pulsing web of interrelationship...

musculars said...

While the saying may be a cop out, and in of itself as structure can accomplish little, a democracy with checks and balances where majorities rule while minority rights are protected and prevail may not be utopic and often fail in righteousness, but overall it can at least allow the possibility of change if not growth and allow the "arc of history" to unfold like no other. Despite the cruelties and injustices of the British Empire in India, the apartheid government in South Africa and slavery in America, the incongruncies with the stated ideals of their democracies bent them nearer to this "arc of history towards justice".

In our own Christian history, I much prefer the democratic governement of TEC than the monarchist structure of the RCC.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Musculars, I think you give a fair and accurate assessment. I certainly favor democracy over monarchy personally for that practical reason. But the main caveat is "when it is working correctly" -- and that ultimately has to mean something like, Government is good when it is a good government. A corrupted democracy -- one that fails to use its supposed checks and balances -- can be as bad as a bad monarchy. Risking the invocation of Godwin's Law, it is important to remember just how "democratic" the beginnings of Nazism were.

But I also agree about the structure of TEC vs that of the RCC!

Erika Baker said...

"A corrupted democracy -- one that fails to use its supposed checks and balances -- can be as bad as a bad monarchy."

The question is whether it can then still rightfully be called a democracy at all. Not everything that uses the word for itself is the real thing.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, and contrary to the assumptions of those on the right, I think that the founding fathers would have joined your pragmatist party. They were all about pragmatism and not much interested in what they called "factionalism."

One of the things that regularly gets my goat is when the reactionary wing of political discussion in the US (the Glen Becks and Sarah Palins) try to co-opt the founding fathers as some kind of ultimate free market capitalists diametrically opposed to government activity in the market.

I regularly point out that the "founding fathers" in the constitutional convention were pragmatists first, skeptical of human governance, and rarely ideologues of any sort. In fact, there is a legitimate point of view that the American Revolution was all about the fact that Britain was not permitting good government.

As evidence I like to ask constitution readers: 'what was the FIRST legislative thing the founding fathers did? Something they thought was so incredibly important that they didn't even want to wait until the convention was over and the new legislature was formed?' They NATIONALIZED the postal delivery system.

Not enough for you? What was the second legislative thing they did, right after elections had been held, and congress seated? They NATIONALIZED the banking system in the foundation of the National Bank.

They weren't interested in ideologies or even in particular economic systems. They were interested in what worked.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Good point, Erika. But the fact is that a "pure" democracy could be a tyranny to minorities (don't we see that ourselves?) without a "bill of rights" which is itself only adopted by the majority. What if the majority doesn't adopt the "bill"? One can't really argue it isn't a "democracy" -- witness Socrates' fate at the hands of a relatively "pure" democracy!

Book Guy, I think the Founders are a good example of seat-of-the-pants thinking. The philosophies or ideologies were there -- and evoked a good bit of lively debate; imagine the Federalists with access to blogging! -- but there was also a strong dose of pragmatism that tempered the ideology. It makes we wonder when I hear some of the Tea Party people -- who benefit so much from what a Federal government has provided, including literally the clean air we breathe, complain and make silly statements about "big" government. Not that I don't think government should be free from critique, but the ideology-driven silliness factor is so high! Like the guy opposing National Health concepts who said, "If Stephen Hawking were English he'd be dead today because the National Health wouldn't provide for the level of care he needs."