The emergence of civilization culture ushered in a huge shift in power, from egalitarian individuals voluntarily entering into tribal community together, to a small number of ‘leaders’ at the top of the hierarchy pyramid. This shift wasn’t a matter of greed or psychopathy. It was an essential property of the new emergent culture — to have a large number of people settled in a community working on projects for the benefit of others (some of whom the worker did not even know) required someone in control, someone giving the instructions on who has to do what, someone with the responsibility and authority to make decisions for others and ensure they are followed. As I mentioned in my last article, this cultural evolution has been at best a mixed blessing, but it was probably necessary for our survival as a species at the time.
There’s an implicit presumption, in everything the media reports on, in our whining about governments and elites and bosses, that as civilization culture has grown ever larger and more global, the power and control of those at the top of the pyramid has grown correspondingly larger, and that they’re still in control, still worthy of praise and re-election and multimillion dollar bonuses when things go right, and still worthy of blame and overthrow and opprobrium when things go wrong.
But there’s plenty of evidence that if that ever was the case, it isn’t the case now. One of the key attributes of complex systems is that, unlike merely complicated ones, because of the huge number of variables and moving parts and interactions and effects between and among them, we can never hope to understand what’s really going on in them, or predict or significantly influence what happens in them. They become larger and larger black boxes, ever more mysterious, until suddenly they produce great depressions, peak oil and runaway climate change, and no one knows how, or why, or how to mitigate or change them. Like Charles Barsotti’s cartoon above says, in complex systems nobody knows anything. And no one is in control.
This is perhaps one of the reasons we humans loathe complexity, and try to oversimplify everything so that we can presume and pretend to understand it and control our world. But that understanding and control is illusory, and its pretence is dangerous. We want to believe that by simply changing government we can get what we want. We want to believe that we can fix the intractable problems that have plagued us for centuries, by simply reforming or reinventing systems to be more ‘rational’. We want to believe that there is a fundamental set of mathematical rules and equations that precisely governs everything in the universe. But all these beliefs are folly. Complexity doesn’t work that way.
Hendrik Hertzberg wrote a great op-ed in the New Yorker shortly after the Obamacare debacle that summarized this brilliantly:
[What is called] “pathetic fallacy” is … the false attribution of human feelings, thoughts, or intentions to inanimate objects, or to living entities that cannot possibly have such feelings, thoughts, or intentions—cruel seas, dancing leaves, hot air that “wants” to rise [or "America", or "the company", or "the government"]. The American government has its human aspects—it is staffed by human beings, mostly—but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object. In our sclerotic lawmaking process, it is not enough that the President, a majority of both Houses of Congress, and a majority of the voters at the last election favor extending health care to all citizens.
Hertzberg reminds us that back in the 1960s we blamed “the system” for what was wrong with the world. And we were right — the complexity of the system made it uncontrollable, unwieldy, unable to do what we wanted it to do. But we were wrong in believing the system could be fixed. It is the inherent nature of complex systems — societies, governments, organizations, ecologies, even individual creatures (our body’s ecology is staggeringly complex) — that they cannot be fully understood, predicted or controlled, and the larger the system the more this is the case. Our political, economic, social, business/corporate and educational systems could be made much more controllable if we broke them apart and devolved them to democratic (rather than “representative”) community control. But they would then be much less “efficient”, and would require each of us to play a much greater and more informed role in making them work to suit the needs of our communities, something we appear to have neither the appetite or competency to do. And they would still be complex, and messy. Such devolution would also require us to start living within our means, rather than on the backs of exhausted and unsustainable mass-mined resources, the wage slaves of struggling nations, and the future generations our profligacy is saddling with staggering and unrepayable debt. Imagine a world without credit, mortgages, imported products, or cheap energy: It’s one few of us would want to live in, now we’re used to living high on borrowed time.
Venkat Rao provides this humorous summarization of the futility of us trying to ‘fix’ large complex systems:
Here is the recipe [for failure]:
- Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
- Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
- Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
- Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
- Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
- Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
- Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.”
And the complex systems that are not of our invention (such as ecosystems) have always been and will forever be beyond our control. So even smashing existing systems and returning to a sufficient and austere tribal/communitarian political and economic life would not help us deal with what we have unleashed through the catastrophic desolation of our forests, our soils, our air and our water, the artifacts of the sixth great extinction of life on earth. Or for that matter with the analogous microscopic desolation of our own bodies’ rich and resilient diversity.
We desperately want to believe someone is in control, that someone knows exactly what is going on, someone has the answers to the problems that are now beginning to overwhelm us as we plunge toward civilizational collapse. That’s why so many are drawn to conspiracy theories, secret all-powerful elite cabals, charismatic leaders, revolutionary rhetoric, magical thinking, technotopian promises, miracle cures, simplistic ‘theories of everything’ and religions and cults that promise salvation and rapture.
An acceptance that no one in control, and that no one knows anything, has two huge implications: First, it means that we can’t blame governments, elites, or anyone else, for what is wrong with our culture and the complex systems bound up in it — and that commensurately changing these groups, power structures, leaders or prevailing ideologies isn’t going to make things any better. That means for example that just about everything you read in the press or hear on the nightly news is useless, and we’d all be better not wasting our time and attention on it. When you stop consuming simplistic ‘news’ you quickly realize it’s meaningless, irrelevant, and needlessly anxiety-creating. That means, Occupiers take note, that redistributing the wealth, or putting the banksters in jail, justifiable and satisfying as that might be, won’t change either the direction or pace of our culture’s headlong race toward collapse, and might just open up space for someone even more corrupt and incompetent (but perhaps psychopathically subtler) to fill the power void.
So when Bill Moyers says “corporate greed” and “lax regulations” caused the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion and that this greed is “poisoning America” he’s kinda being rhetorical, because it just isn’t true that America’s “entire political system persists in producing gross injustice”. The “entire political system” is a massively complex and unmotivated system, and even if there were suddenly more oversight of corporations and more regulations and more enforcement (though any study of the US political system will quickly show that the system is now so bloated and dysfunctional that no matter who was in power such laws and energies are extremely unlikely to be instituted), but even if they were the outcome would be completely unpredictable, and more “poisoning” would be probably as likely a result as less “poisoning”.
Secondly, it means you (singular) and we (collectively) are likewise not ‘responsible’ or ‘to blame’ for the mess our world is in (or for that matter the mess your body, including your mind, is in). No matter how well we study, organize, and coordinate, we cannot hope to fathom or fix the black holes that are the complex systems currently ‘causing’ so much harm in our world. Things are the way they are for a reason — often an extraordinarily and unfathomably complex reason that has evolved because of a million other events and decisions and actions, and their often unintended consequences. To blame ourselves for not doing enough, or not knowing what to do, to “fix” runaway climate change is like blaming ourselves for ‘losing’ a pinball game with a thousand flippers which operate, and cease to operate, totally randomly as we play. One could even make the argument that conserving and recycling and going solar might actually result (thanks to the Jevons Paradox and other complex system phenomena) in the collapse our children are going to face being slightly worse for them than it would have been had we not done these things. We have no idea. Nobody knows anything.
Not surprising then that we loathe complexity. Yet I think accepting it can be profoundly liberating. Walk away from that wacko unpredictable pinball game and suddenly you wonder why you were so upset at yourself for how you were playing. Acknowledge that the climate-change denying propagandist billionaire Koch Brothers are just as unable to predict or influence the future of our culture as the Dalai Lama or Oprah Winfrey, and suddenly things don’t seem so bad.
What does it mean to accept that no one knows anything, and no one is in control?
First, I think, it means, giving up hope and living totally in the present. Hope is about the future, and giving up hope is about letting go of the myth that we can control it or know what it will bring us, or even influence it in any predictably significant positive way. That means being present, focusing on right now, and making every moment better for yourself and those you love. It means forgetting about the guilt and shame and dread you have about the world your children will inherit and what they’ll think in retrospect about what you could or should have done or not done to make it otherwise. And instead just making their moments, and yours, now, moments of a lifetime. That is something you can control.
Second, it means turning off the media, including the so-called social media, and reconnecting with yourself and the physical world. I have yet to hear of any prescription for being truly ‘present’ in cyberspace. And you can do without the media’s constant cognitive dissonance.
Third, I think it means giving yourself up, not to a cause, no matter how worldly or earnest, but rather to just being a part of all life on earth, fearlessly, without ego or intention or judgement or expectation or ‘self-ishness’ or self-protection. This is about becoming wild, as I described it yesterday. But it’s also about opening yourself up to love the world, nature, life, and laughing off its paradoxes and insanities. In a way, it’s the opposite of knowing yourself and loving yourself, which I said yesterday was part of my coping strategy: It’s more like losing yourself, being willing to not have a ‘self’, with all its baggage and bad habits.
These things may seem hard, even impossible, to do, and I have already confessed I have no idea how to do them, though I’m still trying. The alternative ways of living with the realization that no one knows anything and no one is in control seem to me much harder and more unpleasant: Being paralyzed with fear and helplessness and dread and hopelessness (which is not the same as giving up hope). So I’m motivated to keep working at presence and connection and selflessness.
Working at that is not a process: It’s complex, too, and not something I can plan or control or even ‘practice’, as much as I like that word and that way of working at things. And I’m trying not to over-think it, or to try too hard, but rather let my intuition and senses and body guide me. I am trying to imagine and envision what I would look like, act like, be like if I could be truly present and connected and selfless, every moment, becoming who I really am and have always been.
Not a future state visioning, but a present state envisioning.
Out of control.