Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Societal Phase Transitions

David Brooks is an interesting character: he can write in complete sentences, assume a reasonable tone, and sometimes, if time permits, even cough up a sketchy anecdote or two to support his reasoning.  Pretty much the minimum required resume for political writing: Brooks' analysis looks like a (mathematical or psychological) projection of the shape of the world: he reports only the truthy light that manages to fall on the distorted contours of his 50s-kitsch, white, exurban mind, mistaking, in other words, that mirror for a window.  He sometimes seems too smart to believe the crap he writes, but if he's cynically peddling the ethos of Pleasantville it's hard for me to tell you how the corporate masters reward him--well, with a job I suppose, but who would want to be a professional toady?  I'd rather be a whore.

Brooks wrote a masterpiece of selective reading yesterday. You'll be surprised at the punchline, not that China is the one achieving a "meritocratic corpocracy," but rather his odd belief that a "top-down memorization-based elite" is incompatible with a "flexible, innovative information [service] economy," unlike, you know, the touted success story of the United States.  Never mind how insulting I find his opinion that engineering is unlikely to produce innovation: as the smallest and most disposable cog in the military-industrial complex, I'm scratching my head as to what kind of starry-eyed retard (or glassy-eyed shill) could fail to note the paternalism, the political influence, the state support in the homegrown system.  The corporate fathers are aswfully close to the governing nannies, when they aren't the very same people.  In government contracting, that relationship is rather direct, but Papa makes friendly laws for lobbyists when it isn't actively subsidizing or bailing out those interests.  So it goes.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say that state and economic power are identical (credit IOZ), and it's not like the mixture of political and economic power is a new phenomenon, (and it's not like I trust Brooks' reduction for that matter), but China and the U.S. look like they are converging toward a similar point from ostensibly very different political ideologies.  In China, the economic market is opening up under the dictatorial political elite.  In the U.S. , the authorities are clamping down on individual freedom as state enterprises become ever more profitable.

My own political instincts tend to be contrarian.  Even if reading about political principles can be sometimes addictive, I think the game as it's practiced insults my intelligence too much to get into it.  The empty sloganeering bothers me, the obvious insincerity beside the less-than-obvious interests, the screaming pander beside the moral emptiness, the necessary condescension to the philosophies of collectives of idiots, and the do-nothing execution of them.  So I read the cranks as much as I can, hoping to identify myself somewhere in the political sphere.  Sadly, much as I'd like to find some ground there, you'll find nearly as much credulity among the self-labeled libertarian or anarchist follower types as you would in your typical Daily Kozzie.  (The personal exceptionalism can be as annoying at the patriotic exceptionalism.)  Is a bustling laissez-faire society going to provide individual justice?  (Of course the fuck not.)  Is the absence of a state power going to ensure personal liberties?   (Maybe for the five minutes until some asshole fills the void.)

This I believe: any political system at all can work with hardly any people.  Frontier libertarianism to make Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand proud?  Sure.  Athenian democracy?  Okay.  Benevolent (or other) monarchy?  Why the hell not.  But with enough people, the political model can only take on a limited number of forms, depending on some combination of the wealth of resources, the technological base, population density, and age: the most obvious of these is either oppressed third-world shithole or top-dog empire.   Because if the machines make the society, they also give us a means to pack in the population, and all those bodies push the borders too, and all of those things need fuel. I believe that power will concentrate.  Whether it arises from an industrial base taking deep enough root that it necessarily employs the people and governs them, or if it comes top-down from a government committee wise enough to cut slack where it's needed in order to grow a viable economy, the result looks similar.  The power sectors willl coalesce into some incestuous monster: ask Lockheed, or Monsanto, or Carlyle.  A worker class and an innovator class is needed to support the governing one, and each of these can take a number of shapes, with more or less mobility, more or less abuse, but the overall structure doesn't change much.  They're all doomed for meritocratic corpocracy, for better or worse.  I believe that a big population density will push against its borders as much as it can, depending on how much resistance it's likely to receive.  I believe that empire has depended on its mobility and communications.  I believe that no empire yet has outgrown its resources, no matter what happy philosophical principal it may have been founded upon.   As anybody who has tried to get more than three people from one place to another in a timely manner, the egalitarian ideal has a tendency to devolve into clusterfuck, at least until someone starts issuing commands.

My goal here is less to generalize history, which would be endlessly trite (the differences are still important!), and more to universalize the human experience (the triteness of which is hopefully finite).  Twiffer, maybe indirectly, led me to a chemical analogy (and who doesn't love those?) about the human condition.  The deep mantle and the cores of the earth are of singular and necessary compositions appropriate to the temperature, pressure and composition down there.  They are hypothesized to exist in homogeneous phases of relatively invariate structure, packed together at optimal density over many cubic miles.  Essential silicates condense and sink while the rest of the crap floats up to the continents.  So it goes with people.  Squeeze enough of us in to the same place, and there are only so many ways we can fit.

Pressure.  Temperature.  Density.  Take a pure species, and compress it.  Chemically speaking, a phase (solid, liquid, or gas usually) is something that is phenomenologically continuous as you change these parameters.  It'll follow a smooth curve within its boundaries.  When there's almost no constraints on pressure or the available space, it'll spread and take any number of options for its existence.  The human gas existed briefly on the frontier, hunting and gathering.  Push 'em together, and those individuals are forced to interact with one another.  I like to think it's still fluid--surging past itself, splashing and mixing wildly--with lots of people bumping around, but still in any number of conformations for individuals and groups.  We just can't get very far apart.  One major difference between today's meritocratic corpocracies and the empires of old is the sheer number of people.  A bigger factor, perhaps, than the advancements of technology and philosophy. 

[IMG][/IMG]If you're varying one parameter of your fluid and keeping another fixed (moving at constant temperature say, and watching pressure change as you increase the density), then conditions will change continuously within a a point.  Nature actually has singularities--moving from one phase to another takes you over a sharp corner, where there's no mathematical derivative, just a nasty discontinuous step.   You're gliding along some smooth mathematical function, but then you hit some critical conditions and --boom--you're on a whole different curve.  Increasing the density of people may have the same effect.  Agriculture gets the nod for pushing the alleged sapients over the gate into civilization, but maybe that's just what happens when we find ourselves constantly bumping into one another, Malthus be damned.  Certain authors have wanked about a technological singularity, implying that the rate of a society's development is proportional to its knowledge, and at some point we'll accelerate fast enough to be unrecognizable to our current selves.  I'm doubtful, but perhaps, if there's enough fuel, we'll manage to populate our monkey bodies onto a separate post-civilization curve.  Some future Rousseau will romanticize the innocence of the corpocracy from the cramped efficiency of his own clamoring existence, wistfully imagining what life might have been like when all the empires started getting too damn close to avoid coalescence. Maybe someday, we'll even...

Ah fuck it.  That's just irresponsible.  It's something David Brooks would write.



*This is exponential growth by the way, which is very common but not singular.  But whatever.


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