Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Politics as defining the middle ground: thinking about Manuel DeLanda

If you care, among major influences on my political/economic/historical thought are both Fernand Braudel and Manuel de Landa.

Braudel, as I have posted at various times, explained to me the difference between The Market Economy and Capitalism, and he also demonstrated--through a mass of historical evidence impossible to ignore or refute--that government regulation of trade within the market economy has been a feature of such economies in Europe and America as long as there have been markets.

[Aside: note that I said government regulation, not State regulation; Braudel makes the point repeatedly that the locus of control for economic regulation was traditionally the city, not the State. Great Britain's Navigation Acts would seem to be an exception to this, until you realize that in the 18th Century GB was not so much a nation-state, but a single ubran entity (London) presiding over an imperial hinterland.]

Then I mix Braudel with de Landa, whose A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History and War in the Age of Intelligent Machines are so groundbreakingly complex that I am pleased that he takes so long to write books. I needed three damn years to get through his Non-Linear History, and I am going back for the second time because I am still not sure I understand it.

Here is more accessible de Landa, from a 1995 article about whether housing patterns are planned by our minds or our genes.

He uses two terms: meshworks and hierarchy to describe the two primary approaches to organization, both organic and inorganic. Meshworks never caught on; it has essentially been replaced in the science of complexity by the term emergence or emergent networks. For simplicity's sake, think of hierarchy as top-down design, and think of emergence as bottom-up self-organization.

De Landa:

While before the 1960's it was virtually imposible to imagine the emergence of order without a central agency behind it, today we are familiar with a growing body of knowledge about the spontaneous generation of ordered structures in inorganic as well as organic (and even social) processes.

That's the easy part. When he actually gets into history, economics, and social organization, that's when the fun begins:

Pre-capitalist markets, like those which existed in medieval Europe, in China or India, or indeed in many small towns even today, are structures that emerge out of a decentralized decision-making process which brings heterogenous needs and offerings together. In modern nonlinear models, markets have very little to do with the 'invisible hand', involving complex processes of self-organization and not just demand and supply. Behavioural AI (as well as other forms of nonlinear cognitive science) sometimes use market-like structures (such as bidding schemes) to replace centralized decision-making in the robot's mind.

On the other hand, cities are also the home of governmental, commercial, religious and other hierarchies, in which decision-making is centralized, and the effects of decisions travel through well defined chains of command. At every level of this chain, that is, at every rank, the human components are very homogenous: the very process of rising through the ranks performs a sorting operation which results in more or less uniform behaviour within each level. Indeed, the correct functioning of a command chain assumes this uniformity and predictability. And yet, here as elsewhere, when we actually study a given hierarchical structure we are bound to find mixtures of meshwork elements, even if only in small proportions.

Moreover, as markets grow in complexity they can generate hierarchies and viceversa. Take for example, the big fairs that existed in Europe form the 13th. century on: at the top they had the money markets, followed by luxury goods markets, while at the bottom we find food and other elementary goods. Hence these fairs were veritable hierarchies of meshworks. Similarly, when we analyse the interactions between goverments, large commercial monopolies and oligopolies, eclesiastical, medical and military authorities we find that they usually interlock in varying ways, complementing one another without losing their individual differences. Since no 'super-hierarchy' is controlling this process of mutual accomodation, the overall process suggests a meshwork of hierarchies.

Got that? Yeah. Sure. (And that's a three-paragraph summary of a detailed argument he takes 135 pages to make in Non-Linear History. I told you that it took me three years.)

But here's the point for today:

De Landa argues that organization comes simultaneously from both the bottom and the top in any society; I tend to think in terms of top-down as purpose-driven and bottom-up as function-driven--an inaccurate but useful thumbnail.

State exist as the framework used by elites in a society to impose their preferential order on what they tend to see as chaos, and to force society to move in certain political, social, or economic directions. The problem: what the rulers of the States see as chaos to be controlled is actually a complex, self-organized, nonlinear system that appears chaotic because it does not respond predictably to direct stimulus in an immediately observable cause-and-effect manner. But it's not chaotic, it is self-organized. But that self-organization does not have conscious purpose, merely what might be called evolutionary direction.

All of which brings me to the US Constitution, and the so-called Federal Compromise, which created the dichotomy between levels of power. I'm becoming more and more sure that 99% of everybody does not get just how radical this compromise was, because no equivalent of the individual colonial/state governments in Revolutionary America really existed in Europe. In England, for example, there was no intermediate level of government between Parliament and the Counties--and the Counties were organized and authorized by the Parliament, if only indirectly.

The US Constitution did something unique: it empowered the hierarchy of government, both theoretically and pragmatically, from the meshworks or emergent networks upward, and intentionally restricted the powers of that hierarchy. In a very real sense, the US Constitution attempts to replicate the situation in early capitalist Europe where the cities had far more to do with the way economy and society ran than their nominal States.

But the Framers also had to give that Federal government (thank you, James Madison, for better or worse) sufficient hierarchical power to keep the States from (literally or economically) going to war with each other. This all puttered along reasonably well, until the emergence [and I do not use the term loosely] of the progressive ideal that the hierarchical power of the State should be used to impose a more perfect society. In functional terms, progressivism only secularized the religious drive toward theocracy; both insisted that the way to a better world was to control the hierarchy and use it to cancel out the unacceptable results of emergence.

This in turn led to the development of radical libertarian thought, which then saw virtually any hierarchy as dangerous.

The problem? Human societies appear to require both hierarchy and emergence to function. Emergence almost inevitably creates hierarchy at some point in complexity (and unless you are an Intelligent Design advocate, that's the only way the concept of hierarchy could even have come into existence).

The question is: where should we draw the boundaries between what will be controlled by hierarchy and what will be controlled by emergence?

Oddly enough, while I don't have the answer (De Landa might, but I'm still trying to find it in there), the recent Great Meltdown of our economic system and the current attempts to fix it provide a clue.

Functionally (not politically) the economic system became so complex that the hierarchies it generated could no longer regulate it, so it collapsed. The collapse was--viewed in the long term--not a function of any particular decision to regulate this or let that go unmonitored, but rather the fact that overly complex nonlinear systems often seem to self-simplify by going ... BOOM ... occasionally.

But since the hierarchy has vested interest in not having the system crash, it will use all of its powers to avoid or delay that crash, which actually makes the end result worse in human terms. [Fortunately, this time we had an economic crash that had nothing much to do with the ecological carrying capacity of civilization, such as dominated history throughout the pre-Industrial Age. That potential joy still lies in our future.]

Back to my title: politics exists in the middle ground between hiearchy and emergence, and the essential of any political debate in our system is whether a problem is best taken care of through authority or function. Where we have gone wrong, I think, is that we have forgotten the pragmatism of the Federalist Compromise and have adopted rigid lines of (to over-simplify) libertarian and progressive ideological extremism.

Evolutionary biologists have a saying: Don't forget that evolution is smarter than you are.

The same thing could be said about the Framers, who--for all their warts and prejudices--understood with far more clarity than we show today, that the interplay of forces within our society is best nudged and managed rather than directed or commanded, but that the question of how much power to use on a problem or which level of government gets to wield that power should be an ongoing negotiation rather than a position of ideological certitude.

That's your long-winded, deeply philosophical, possibly bullshit pretentious intellectual post for the day.


Perry said...

Steve, I appreciate your sharing your three years of digestion, plus your years long studies and experiences. This is a superb piece well worthy of saving and rereading, then branching out and back as expansion and knowledge deepens.

One concluding comment of yours especially stands out for me: "... but that the question of how much power to use on a problem or which level of government gets to wield that power should be an ongoing negotiation rather than a position of ideological certitude."Would that our leaders and the everyday common man internalize this democratic gem and use it to enable judicious progress to occur to our mutual benefit!

Thank you, Steve!

Perry Hood

Perry said...

I realize full well that we two do not operate at the same level; however, I've understood, going back many years, that an ordinary tennis player benefits greatly by happily engaging a willing, formidable opponent/proponent.

Perry Hood

G Rex said...

Funny you should mention the medieval fair in this context - I recently read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Ken Follett's World Without End, in which the commercial function of the fair plays a central part. The town's viability depends on the success of the annual wool fair, the church and the guild are constantly at war with each other over who controls the fair and who gets the associated taxes & tolls, and the local liege lord wants another town to have the fair instead because they pay tribute to him personally, rather than to the prior of the monastery. Oh, and there's all sorts of plotting among the monks as to who should become the next prior. Meanwhile, the local economy suffers from all the political actors trying to get their cut from the fruits of labors for which they can claim no credit.

So it's just like today's Congress.

Delaware Watch said...

Great writing, Steve. I want to comment more later on your piece. About this for now:

"The collapse was--viewed in the long term--not a function of any particular decision to regulate this or let that go unmonitored, but rather the fact that overly complex nonlinear systems often seem to self-simplify by going ... BOOM ... occasionally."

Isn't this the invisible hand in reverse...a positing of an invisible hand getting paralyzed? As such, it sounds overly mystical to me.

Steve Newton said...

Unfortunately, in one sense, you're right. if I try to excerpt down the science of nonlinear systems in a paragraph or two, it's going to "sound" mystical. I've done enough reading, including the math, to convince me that there is a lot to this science. But, having said that, how do I convince somebody who hasn't or will not do the reading, especially since a lot of this material is counterintuitive.

There is a significant difference, however, between the suggestion in the emergent network theory that beyond a certain level of complexity nonlinear systems have a tendency to undergo a phase change that most often manifests in collapse and the 18th century "Dead hand."

Waldo said...

Your De Landa experience reminds me of my wrestle with John Rawls, now in its 32nd year.

kavips said...

I happen to share his vision; its nice to know I'm not the only one out there able to see things from a universal viewpoint...

His emphasis is not new, although for western Occidental readers, it may appear like a breath of fresh air.

The Eastern philosophies have as far as I know, embraced this intertwining of what at first glance, appears to be two threads going in opposite directions, but in reality, are just parts of a wonderful tapestry....

And from my humble perspective, in Jesus's own words, I believe he too grasped the significance of what is proposed herein...

And as one single fortunate person, I have had the opportunity to hear such from those living long lives, who were still sharp enough to educate and pass down their insights, on how things "really" work out.. They too, supported this vision.

So I offer my endorsement of his viewpoint, as well as too your subsequent thoughts as well... Perhaps some may call it wisdom; I would call it just seeing things as they are....

Thanks for writing it. It was refreshing to read.