19 March 2008



It just works better. Sorry blogger!

18 February 2008

Horse-trading and instability in Communist Czechoslovakia

Horse-trading is "negotiation accompanied by mutual concessions and shrewd bargaining". I think much of the power dynamic under totalitarian regimes depends on horse-trading. This is unstable. More effective is inculcating "false consciousness" in your citizens: then they'll support you even as you act against them. If I was Putin, this would look like a good strategy.

No through-line, sloppy conclusions: that is the best this post has to offer. But I've been wrestling with this for a couple of weeks - maybe someone can shed some light on this area, because I don't seem able to do it for myself...

In 1989 the Czech state was badly weakened. In November of that year people spilled onto the streets and the old regime fell. It seems there was nobody to defend Communism against collapse - all it took (and please excuse me while I pull a number from nowhere) was for 10% of the population to rebel and the remainder to do nothing, and bang! New government. No more USSR.

I think we can assume that the UK and US states wreck enough people's lives to produce an underclass of equivalent size to that which rebelled in November 1989 and brought down the Communist regime. 10% of the population must be in pretty dire straits (there's that number again - it says here that 11.4 million people in the UK live on low incomes).

But this leaves a puzzle: in the UK and US we have this underclass - yet government change in these two countries occurs without drastic upheaval and revolution. Whatever the extent to which people might despise George W Bush or Gordon Brown, be opposed to the Iraq war, dislike tax levels or whatever, they aren't fundamentally opposed to the state and its basic institutions.

What explains the difference in mass behaviour? It must be to do with what the other 90% are doing. In the Czech Republic in 1989, the 90% just went with the flow. In the US and UK, they must be resisting rebellion - I don't mean by taking to the streets, but just refusing in general to go along with the 10%. They resist by being immobile, not active.

Let's look for a minute at the difference in relationship between state and citizen is in the US/UK and pre-revolution Czechoslovakia.

The Communist State wanted its organs and civil society to behave according to a set of goals and priorities that were some way out of step with what many of its citizens themselves considered important: essentially, it needed its citizens to act against their own interests.

To achieve cooperation, the Communist state offered its citizens a complex bargain: to be left alone, on the understanding the citizen never overstepped the boundaries of permitted action.

This horse-trading left a citizenry fundamentally at odds with its leadership: a citizenry tolerant of but opposed to the state. It put the state in a precarious position - it relied on its citizens' consent to remain in power, but was securing that consent contrary to the conscious wishes of its citizens.

Although the Communists had managed to get people to voluntarily act against their own interests, their solution was inherently unstable - should anything happen to drastically weaken the State, its citizens would be expected to rise up against it rather than in support of it.

Obviously, it's better if a state can rely on its citizens to defend it - to oppose the rebellious - rather than accept whatever change is afoot. I think this is the major difference between the Communist regimes, and the UK and US (and, I suppose, Putin's Russia).

In all states there is an underclass ("the 10%"), but I think the politically advanced states know that the important thing is not to get people to put up and shut up (which was the Communists' technique for control) but to make sure the other 90% don't roll over when the 10% get fractious. The US and UK governments may or may not do this by design. Putin may well be using this as his strategy.

How do you isolate the 10%? You need to convince the 90% that everything is OK for them - then the 10% can get as fractious as they like, but it will have no repercussions for the stability of the state.

It's at this point I wanted to include Marx's notion of false consciousness: in the UK and US, there is a lot of people there whose interests are not represented by government policy - who are increasingly alienated from government.

My intuition was that inculcation of false consciousness is one technology of power particularly important in advanced (and above all, stable) states. But I no longer see where that fits into the picture - it's not obvious to me that the 10% live in a state of false consciousness. And it's not obvious to me that the other 90% do, either.

To be honest, I don't even know what false consciousness is. I suspect that it's better simply to look at communications and propaganda, and think about how that can have its effects, than worry about false consciousness - an almost meta-psychological state which will be different in every different circumstance.

Although I'm sure a lot of people believe that many policies are working in their favour when they aren't, I don't see if that's enough for them to live in false consciousness. Until I know how many people live in a state of false consciousness, I don't know what role it can have in explaining power dynamics.

All I can conclude with is the obvious: systematic misrepresentation of State agenda garners a more stable, consensual support from citizens, which represses a revolutionary instinct. States which employ this power technology will last longer than those which don't... I just wonder where the weaknesses are in this system?

I suspect in alienation from the political process. More rambling on that another time.

Discussion group has moved

The Google Group I set up turned out to be lame. I think Facebook will work better as a forum - it's more tightly integrated with updates, works better with the blog, is better for discussion - and instantly got thirteen members where the Google Group got, um, three.

So, long live Facebook - with a few quid pro quos. Go to the new forum here. (You will need a Facebook account. It's not sooo bad.)

12 February 2008

The importance of being wrong

What if it's more important to communicate - and be thought wrong - than it is to be right? (I guess this is another way of saying "no publicity is bad publicity".)

I was thinking last night about social networking and Metcalfe's law (as you do). And I got to thinking about being thought to be wrong about something, which happens to me sometimes.

And then I thought about what would happen if I spoke to someone who disagreed with me about something important, and if that was necessarily a bad thing - from a communications perspective, at least.

This is something that happened recently. I'm cultivating a blogger for work - she's articulate and interested in what my organisation does. Interested enough to want to talk about it with her professors and friends.

Because I'm a filthy environmentalist, her professors haven't always taken too kindly to what it is she has to say about what it is I have to say. In short, they think I'm as wrong as anything.

So wrong, in fact, that they go around telling their friends just how darned wrong I am.

Intuitively, you might think this is a problem, if I'm supposed to be recruiting people to the cause. But the more I think about it, the less certain I am this is a bad thing.

These people who go around telling their friends and colleagues how wrong I am are bound to bump into someone who disagrees with them about me being wrong. I imagine the conversation would go like this:
Questioner: "Who do you day is wrong, again?"
Jerk-who-disagrees-with-me: "That Paul asshole, he's the guy who's wrong."
Quesitoner: "Uh-huh."

Because of that exchange, the questioner will know who I am and where to find me. I'll have successfully connected with someone, even though the linking person thought I was wrong.

Sure, it would be better if they had thought I was right - then I'd be connected with two people instead of one, and I'd have someone evangelising for me instead of telling everyone what a doofus I am. But it's still a darned sight better than nothing.

It may even be that this is the best way to deal with these people who think I'm wrong - the chances of me convincing them I'm right are about zero, at least in the short-term. So they might as well go around telling people that I'm wrong - at least they're doing more than nothing.

As a concluding leap too far, there is a tie-in to Foucault here (kind of). Discourse isn't shaped by an instinct for truth - it's shaped by social forces. The social forces can't act on silence, so to give yourself any chance of winning an argument-at-large (meaning, getting society to go along with you rather than your opponent) you have to hang it out there and be thought of as wrong.

At least that way the discourse is happening and the conflict begins. Whether or not it ends up resolved the way you want - well, maybe that is where convincing people becomes more important. But I don't think it's enough to be right.

01 February 2008

The funnies are mocking me

I like Dilbert because it mocks my colleagues. Today, Dilbert was mocking me. Fortunately my self-esteem got an 11th hour reprieve from the UnderstandingSociety blog.

Today's Dilbert goes a bit like this (I'd reproduce it, but that would be copyright infringement - and besides, it won't fit in the column - if you want, you can see the cartoon here).
Girl: Do you have any hobbies?
Boy: I like to read obscure articles on the internet and imagine having friends who are interested in the same things.
Now that I've found UnderstandingSociety I no longer have to imagine there are people out there who are interested in the same things as me.

All I need to do is imagine that the blogger is my friend.