Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Challenge of Collective Action

The left habitually under-appreciates the difficulties of collective action.

Joining the recent protests against our new president, I found myself marching along in a wonderful crowd, all with common purpose and strong emotion. But what struck me was the utter innanity of the chant- Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, etc... It was an embarrassing regression to a minimal, indeed infantile, common denominator.

Why? Why do leftist actions and protests routinely look so shambolic and fritter away their energy? Why are the high ideals not matched by high rhetoric and disciplined action? The Occupy movement added squatting to the menu of marching and chanting, but ended up in the same place- lodging a mostly inarticulate cry of protest against the System.

The same disappointments abound across the spectrum, though. The Dilbert cartoon lampoons the difficulties of corporate communication and management, among people who work together every day, yet still fail to communicate and collaborate effectively. Participating in organizations is difficult, at all levels. But that already supposes an organizational hierarchy, which is more than the deep left is willing to countenance. Can anarchists and egalitarians accomplish anything?

The System is made up of organizations of all kinds- corporations, parties, legislatures, think tanks, unions, magazines, clubs, non-profits- a wide range of institutions each with some kind of mechanism of translating personal, privately held intentions and desires into communal action. Each can get more done than a simple mob, by virtue of its mechanism- its hierarchical organization.

That is how inarticulate cries get translated into sustained action- through organization. The left creates organizations profusely, but does not typically sustain them very well. There are countless peace and justice movements, non-profits, and coalitions, which typically operate on a shoestring and have a tenuous and brief existence, due to their anti-organizational temperament.

The right is more temperamentally suited to organzation life. Hierarchy is ingrained and desirable, not an evil to be torn down. Existing organizations and orders of society are assumed to be good, not regarded skeptically, with a revolutionary glint. The corporation is a prime example of this, an organizational style that pervades our lives and politics, and is run, as a rule, by people of a right-ward temperament. Power is also understood better by those on the right, assuming as they do an organizational structure rather than a menu of nebulous ideals. The problems of gaining and using power are typically separated from those of justifying it, as hierarchy is regarded as good in itself. Thus we have the spectacle of Karl Rove rising through means that were completely immoral, but highly effective, through a succession of Republican youth groups. Thus we saw the utter nihilism of Newt Gingrich, and later Mitch McConnell, in their pursuit of power, in collaboration with a whole ecosystem of secret money, state-level gerrymandering, and media pollution.

And what is the point of all this? For the right, the preservation of hierarchy and order, of the rule by the strong over the weak, seems to be the point of whole exercise of having power. Organizational success results in successful organizations. Inquality and oppression of the powerless is part of the deal. On the other hand, for the left, the point is to make of the state a bulwark against the strong and powerful, so that inequality and injustice are reduced. But to do that, a super-powerful organization is required, i.e. the state itself, whose capture by either right or left is then the most momentous condition of society in general.

In this way, the right seeks its goals in natural fashion, while the left needs to use temperamentally unnatural and disliked methods to get to the same goal. The left thus faces an existential question- how to reconcile the dogged pursuit of power with the overall goal of taming power in society. This temperamental and philosophical problem is at the core of why democratic majorities are not enough, and why the right, despite representing in effect a very small sliver of the populace, regularly gains power.

One way to look at this is via the two-dimensional political temperament graph, plotting authoritarianism vs left-right orientation. Above, I have been conflating the two, since at least in the Anglophone world, there is high correlation of authoritarianism and right wing-ism. Indeed, one might add that the authoritarian dimension is far more momentous, historically speaking, than the left-right dimension, whatever their correlation. The diagram should look more like a vertically elongated diamond.
Left/Right vs Authoritarian/Libertarian layout from I would disagree with their placement of the main candidates, as Trump is clearly more right-wing, perhaps to an unprecedented extent in US history, as shown by his actions of just the first week of his administration. The researchers may have been hoodwinked by his various lies and poses during the campaign. Clinton, in contrast, could hardly be as rightist as shown, let alone farther right than Trump. It is an example of misreading people's characters, even by experts.

Take the Bolsheviks, as an example. Ostensibly leftist, they were also mad with lust for power, and in the end were both successful in seizing power from a rotten system, and in totally betraying their ideology to create just another version of Russian despotism. Such dedicated, organizationally competent, and doggedly power-seeking people (i.e. authoritarian) are rare on the left, since they operate against the natural temperament and ideological tendencies, which are disinterest in hierarchy and institutional power, free love, free work, free couch crashing, etc. This is the original non-profit sector. This internal, psychic opposition makes such authoritarianism particularly unstable.

Similarly, the Black Panthers only survived as long as they did thanks to some very authoritarian tendencies- hard-asses who ran the show, brandished the guns, and enforced hierarchical organization in the face of overwhelming right-wing infiltration and opposition. Relying on left-ish authoritarians to run one's organizations is clearly a recipe for disaster, however, as their temperament tends to a greater commitment to authoritarianism (i.e. power) than to leftism.

The left thus faces a deep problem. One needs leadership and hierarchy, even though few on the left are temperamentally suited to it. And one needs an ongoing diet of activities that allow groups to bond and grow their commitments and competence. The corporation, with its ongoing struggle to win the marketplace, is a good example. Churches are another, with the various personal and social goals that merge into a more or less stable institution that can occasionally be active politically as well.

The university is another, more left-aligned institution, where the society's need for knowledge and human development is channelled into maintenence of a cadre of left-leaning academics. It is typical that our universities have never taken up leadership of a larger social mission, but remain dutifully atomized in small departments, indeed individual labs and scholars, who are as distant as possible from social action. It is an example of how the temperament and interests of the left combine with subtle but influential incentive stuctures imposed from above (the competitive grant system, constant budget crises) to neuter a possible source of left social comunity and leadership.

  • Getting real about the Trump agenda.
  • If inequality is the problem, why elect a plutocracy? What were they thinking?
  • Does anyone buy it any more?
  • On the importance of truth and epistemology.
  • Example: climate change no longer exists.
  • But facts lie on a spectrum, so to speak.
  • VOA could be turned into Pravda.
  • EPA about to be destroyed.
  • Our decline is palpable.
  • Cybercrime is a huge economy. We need a better, and more open, defense.
  • Money is the only consideration now in the mainstream political system.
  • Exhibit A: Goldman Sachs is back to running our government.


  1. Hi, Burk - thanks for this. I've been thinking about these kinds of issues since the election.
    One related topic is the question of how a group communicates with those outside of the group, particularly in this "post truth" world. I see certain people post things on social media which are either contradictory or patently false (one example is a meme which states "US Treasury has said the wall will cost $120 per American... where do I send my check?"). The truth of the statement doesn't matter to them, though, and you can't refute the falsehoods because they simply won't listen. Even when such truths or falsehoods are detrimental to the person holding the belief, they refuse to let go... never mind that Trump lied to you by saying Mexico would pay for the wall, never mind that experts have time and again advised that the cost of the wall is underestimated or that building a wall will not have any meaningful effect on immigration or national security, none of those things are important.
    I am reminded of the example of the "Evolutionary Wars" years ago. One thing we did poorly was communicate (this is the gist of the movie Flock of Dodos). The intelligent design camp had catchy slogans and did nothing but drum them into constituents' heads day after day. We tried to refute those slogans, to intelligently debate, to present facts, but all of this effort fell on deaf ears.
    It must be the same now - we are losing because we are failing to communicate on their level.

  2. Thanks very much, Kelly!

    I agree. Communication at a high level is generally very difficult, and the liberal, science friendly crowd is composed of the people who succeeded in school by all those skills we expect everyone to have- close reading, analysis, book-learning, dedication to fact over feeling, etc. It is not everyone's cup of tea! I think the archetypal level is both more psychologically powerful and more commonly applicable. Even if it is, time and again, wrong, even dangerous. We seem to be seeing a Hitler-like demagogue in action, with what many see as charisma(!). Search me, but that will surely be fodder for future posts, and hopefully, full-throated resistance.