Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fear and Envy: The Roots of Politics

Some non-scientific thoughts:

Politicians have two tools at their disposal: fear and envy. That’s it. The really “good” politician is able to utilize both. The even better politician is able to conceal the fact that they are using fear and envy, but those are still his only tools.

Humans, by our nature, exist in localized communities. Our ability to have emotional attachment to the communities around us is quite limited. In other words, our families, our friends, our coworkers, neighbors, and significant others are the ones we care about first and foremost. That is also to say that the scope of our worlds is generally very small: we care about ourselves and our loved ones first. This does not mean we can’t also care about others, but that we care about them less.

Each community has its own social dynamic consisting of moral and cultural values. And how those values can be realized is a matter of what tactics they use to fulfill them. Take your pick: violence or nonviolence, coercion or voluntarism, totalitarianism or free markets. These elements are “real” (using “real” in the economic sense of the word) meaning that they aren’t fictions -- created out of emotion or the mind. When you need to eat you can pick a fruit from tree or you can steal the fruit from someone who’s already pick it or you can kill them and take their fruit. Those are your options. Societies where nonviolence, voluntarism, and free market predominate are more likely to thrive and the answer to why is pretty obvious: people pick more fruit when they don’t think they’ll be killed and stolen from. And the key word is think -- perception is reality, at least as to how it affects our behavior.

So we’ve established the “real” world. People exist in varyingly sized networks (or potentially in solitude) where legitimate authority is distributed according to local values (which can themselves be specifically local or widespread). People dissatisfied with their networks may leave and try to find more appropriate ones. Societies emerge out of the intermingling of these networks and are characterized by the meshing of values. The success of networks and societies are determined by the viability of their values and their ability to adapt them to physical realities and that involves the degree to which violence and coercion are used.

It can also be said that because most people are so concerned with themselves they don’t spend much time worrying about what other people have or do. “That dude across town is gay or smokes pot? I’ve got my own shit to worry about.” - or - “That guy in Montana has a new huge truck? Who gives a shit? I live in California; I don’t have any use for a truck.” Without context, there isn’t really a reason or incentive to care.

The “real” world is, therefore, power neutral. The legitimacy of authority is derived organically (from within and from the bottom up) from values and experiences of those who make up networks and larger communities. Physical force is also a component of power, but it’s still organic. The bear eats the fish. There’s nothing you can objectively criticize about that power. It just is. [Intra-species] violence on the local level is costly because people will defend themselves and so violence just isn’t a tenable solution to apparent conflicts.

But the “real” world exists along with the “emotional” or “nominal” world. Those who seek power for its supposed benefits can use emotional manipulation in order to control others. By taking advantage of our default irrationalities, those who desire authority can cause disharmony by diverting attention to things that are simply nonexistent.

The more primal or reflexive irrationality to take advantage of is fear, a useful instinct that can restrain us from doing overly risky things. Since networks are composed of understanding and mutual relationships there is little to fear within them. But even outside those networks, our ignorance of what is going on keeps us passive and blissful. “I’ve got food to grow for me and my family -- got no time to worry about the outside.” Fear in such a case restricts people from moving between networks where things can be unfamiliar, but the scope of our fear must be limited to our experiences. If what we are used to is cordial and safe within our networks, the more “natural” response is to just expect that from the rest of the world. Children don’t fret over the state of the world; they don’t care; they live explicitly in their own world. And if you try to describe the world without loading the explanation with emotional signals about how things are elsewhere, the child will be dumbfounded, but not horrified. Without the prerequisite experience, a child doesn’t understand and can’t easily process the things with which they are unfamiliar. But if you explain using emotional cues and tie the effects back to the child, you’ll likely get a very different reaction. “People in the Middle East don’t have representative government and sometimes they use violence against innocents” draws a lot different response than “Middle Easterners have evil dictators and they send people out to kill people like you!” Once those emotions have been tapped, you can get someone to act differently as they are without the knowhow to respond effectively. Their perceptions of reality has changed, their state of alarm is heightened, but they have no way of dealing with it, so they turn to people who have the supposed answers.

We see this all the time in conservative political rhetoric. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, godlessness, multiculturalism, immigration, or terrorism, there is someone trying to violate your code of ethics and cultural values or, worse, steal your job and kill you. The fact that it isn’t true, or at least not as true, or warranting of much worry as it is made out to be doesn’t matter. You can use emotions to control people and benefit (the myopic?) self. The most obvious way is to scare people, tell them you have a solution, and require obedience to that solution which almost universally involves submission to the person who proposed it. Exploit fear. Gain power. Control People. Profit. (Not the perfect word. I just like the classic South Park episodes.)

On the other side of the coin, you can make people want something that they have no reason to want. This is accomplished by exploiting envy. By telling people that they are somehow entitled to X or Y because A or B has it, one creates a false reality. Objectively, the possession of a fancy doohickey by Joe Schmo does not imply anything about what Mr. Orange ought to possess. And if Mr. Orange is happy without the doohickey while Joe Schmo envies his contentment, there is still no reason to believe that Joe is entitled to the same contentment.

Statist liberal rhetoric involves such envy. This strategy inverts fear into hatred -- the idea that so and so is undeserving, yet I am. Instead of solutions being offered to elevate the “lesser” to the level of the “greater,” the political opportunist proposes that possessions be transferred thus creating a conflict between those who own and those who do not when the basis of the conflict is not even over fulfilling a thought out goal or need, but just satisfying the urge to be “equal” for no reason. If person A has no need or desire to own a truck, then being materially equal to the owner of a truck is not coherently relevant. But if a manipulator is able to nurture envy, just as with fear, they can utilize the jealousy of those incapable of constructively processing it and offer their “services” in satisfying the envy they nourished.

This is not to say that fear and envy cannot come from the individual without a catalyst, but that politics involves taking advantage of these irrational motivations and that power is more easily consolidated through this kind of manipulation than through sheer force.

It is also not to say that caution and discontentment, the rational (?) counterparts to fear and envy, have no constructive use. The error that libertines seem to make is to neglect that socially taboo things may be socially taboo for good reasons. Full blown libertine behavior has a hint of arrogance to it in that it disregards the tested and basic foundations of society. (I’m not bashing libertinism, I’m just pointing something out.) Likewise, the discontentment with the current situation, especially in light of current “injustices,” can be a major motivation to improve your own situation. The distinguishing characteristic between the rational and irrational motivations is how things are interpreted and evaluated given current knowledge involving skepticism and research.

This is obviously very relevant to anarchism and libertarianism which both, to varying degrees, seek to end politics. If anarchism’s goal is to dethrone those who suppress you, then exposing their manipulation is essential because their manipulation of others enables their control over you. If libertarianism’s goal is to establish each individual as their own sovereign, then ending the submission of people to manipulators is in order.

But this gives us a really good key as to how to spread libertarianism and anarchism. Fear and envy are tools of politics and submission, not liberation; therefore, fear and envy should not be used. Instead of exploiting irrationality, liberation needs to be revolved around helping people to overcome it. That means you should give them information and help them process it, not moralize, proselytize, and condemn. The tendency to sensationalize things will only backfire because it creates conflict amongst those who need to cooperate in order for progress to be made. The really subversive conspiracy stuff just makes people emotional -- on both sides of the issue. Explaining how different interests collude is one thing and is based in research and logic; telling someone the government is on a personal vendetta against them is an entirely different thing. The focus needs to be on what the reality is and how that affects, not harms, whoever it is you are trying to convince. Be guides, not pushers.

So if you want manipulated people to listen to you it’d be wise to avoid calling them “parasites.”

Any thoughts?