Thursday, May 26, 2011

the open society and its enemies

This is the title of a very influential book that was written before the end of WWII. I think it has influenced neo-liberal and conservative economists. It is a critique of Plato's sociology, but also an eloquent defense of democracy and individualism.

Popper casts a few concepts in a different light than what I see them as:
1. Empire
2. Trade
3. Tribe
4. Social engineering.

According to Popper, the greek empire (and neo-liberals can extrapolate to the american empire) did not arise in order to exploit and oppress other tribes, but in order to facilitate trade of material goods and ideas.
Trade is not a means of exploitation either, but a means of improving the material well being of everyone, of learning (by coming into contact with other cultures) that one's ways of doing things are not unique and thus becoming less bound by one's tribe or social group. Tribe is seen as an oppressive institution, limiting individual freedom, an infantile stage of human development that we must grow up from. Social engineering, if it is to improve matters, is only to be done in small increments (piecemeal engineering), as opposed to wiping the slate clean and starting over with sweeping changes (utopian engineering).

I will start my critique with common ground. Both Popper and I agree on the ethical point that the goal of any "good" social arrangement is to maximize the freedom and potential for happiness of individuals, in an equalitian way. This is to be contrased with fascist (or communist) views that stress the stability of the state and the superiority of a master race (or class), or familial views that stress the cohesion of the family or tribalist views that stress the cohesion of the tribe.
All such collectivist ideologies, when implemented lead to what Popper calls "closed societies", in which individuals are not free to choose how they live, but must adhere to predetermined social norms or laws. Social norms exist in "open societies" too, but they do not totally hamper the freedom and creativity of individuals. Another lynchpin of some closed societies is the theory (dubbed historicism) that history operates according to certain laws and/or certain ends which are beyond human intervention, similar to natural laws or god-given will.

I think Popper is aware of collectivism as a political and social arrangement or ideology, which leads to closed societies that are detrimental to individual liberty and happiness. The other meaning of collectivism is a psycho-spiritual need of individual humans. Popper is aware of this need, but underestimates its imoportance. Collectivism in this sense is a need to transcend one's individuality/ego and either merge with or commune with a larger life (e.g. God, Spirit, Nature, family, tribe, mate, mob, nation-state, tribe). Similarly, individualism(differentiation) is not only an ideology and a resulting social arrangement, but a psycho-spiritual need. Looked at this way, it is not wise to choose either collectivism or individualism, as Popper seems to think is necessary. Both must be acknowledged and different individuals may make different choices (depending on how strong the respective need is in them) to optimize their happiness. Indeed, the psycho-spiritual need preceeds ideology and influences it. Suppression of benign, readily available means for satisfying the need for collectivism will only lead to its eruption in the (sports, or political) mob or narcotic use and an increase in ideological fascism, communism, cultism, and (lately) anti-civilizationism and neo-primitivism. Suppression of readily available means to individuate will lead to creative anemia, lack of innovation and ideologies which over-emphasize individualism, such as objectivism. Popper made an important distinction between individualism and selfishness and between collectivism and altruism, whereas most of these ideologies confuse these and allow only two possibilities: 1. individualist and selfish or 2. collectivist and altruist. Popper allowed for two more possibilites: 3. individualist and altruist or 4. selfish and collectivist (as in I only care about my tribe or my class or my nation-state). But if we view these as psycho-spiritual needs of individuals, then there are two more possibilities: 5. selfish and altruistic and 6. individualistic and collectivist.
A good social arrangement would encourage 2, 3 and 6, or equivalently all 3 of individualism, collectivism and altruism. This means that tribes and families would be encouraged, not just individuals. Possibility 4 is also known as parochialism, but tribes or families need not be parochial.

From the point of view of psycho-spiritual needs, empire does not usually increase the possibility for individuation but has the opposite effect. The needs of individuals are best decided by the individuals themselves and their family and local community, not by a global empire (whether it be ruled by tyrants, special interests or corporations). Empire may start with good intentions (or perhaps only selfish economic interest), to promote trade, which would edify people materially and culturally, but it seems to always end up oppressive.

Trade in goods and ideas can decrease parochialism and promote open societies, but when global it can also destroy families, local communities and tribes, which is precisely what has happened with global trade when 1. most people only have their labor to trade in a global market (as opposed to also guaranteed access to basic needs and a democratic participation in their production) and 2. Nasty environmental and human rights abuses can be hidden far away from those who pay for them unwittingly. Ultimately, global trade is also destroying individual liberty, because one can be controlled by the most economically powerful. There are more stringent limits to economic power when production (at least of basic needs) and consumption are local and democratic. Though the intention of global trade starts as one of freeing people from tribal customs and natural and social dependencies, it ends up making people into over-specialized idiots who do not know hot to provide for their basic needs without a dependence on global corporations, lots of capital which is only under the control of the few, and national governments. It ends up destroying communities and nature and by so doing it deprives people of the basic need for communion and ego-transcendence. I think there is a way to remedy this situation by enabling local economies at least for basic needs, but that is the subject of a different post (and has been mentioned in at least one previous post).

Last, I wish to discuss Popper's idea of social engineering. The distinction between piecemeal and utopian engineering is a very useful one and I agree with him based on history that piecemeal engineering is more effective in bringing about desireable change. However, it will be useful here to look not only at the evolution of technology but also at the evolution of biological species for a fruitful analogy, in order to learn what works. Analogies are dangerous because people often forget their limitations, but they can also be useful. Social Darwinism was an analogy that was not that useful, but only because the people making it did not understand the biology of altruism and speciation. They only focused on competition and micro-evolution (as opposed to macro-evolution, aka speciation). Analogies are useful because many interacting systems have similar dynamics, a fact that is exploited in systems theory (physics) and category theory (mathematics).

In order to understand the following, it helps to have a visual picture of a "fitness landscape". Moving in an east-west and north south direction corresponds to changes in genes and geographical location (in reality there are alot more dimensions than 2, but for the purposes of visualization pretend like there are only 2 dimensions to move in). The topography corresponds to negative fitness. Negative fitness instead of positive fitness only so that we can conceive of the highest fitness (lowest negative fitness) at the bottom of a valley. A species can move around this landscape by mutating its genes (or moving geographically), and the fitness landscape itself is dynamic by virtue of other species changing their genes and location too, and non-biological changes (meteor hits, climate change, mountain erosion, sea level rising, etc). A species which has achieved equilibrium in this landscape is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It has maximized its fitness (minimized its negative fitness). The question now is how does a species evolve to something else?

While small random changes can lead to large changes over time (on the time scale of changes in the landscape which is the sum total of all other species in one's ecology and abiological changes) and to one mode of speciation (called chronospeciation), there are other ways that species arise due to relatively quick changes in particular genes that can regulate many other genes (called master genes or regulatory genes). Changes in most genes do not make much difference because of redundancy, or only affect small changes because most genes only influence a few other genes. Master genes, on the other hand influence tens or hundreds of other genes and mutations in master genes can have large effects. Even when chronospeciation is the mechanism whereby a species evolves into another species, master genes are probably involved. Besides the timescale, the main difference between chronospeciation and a species bifurcation into two species is the fact that in a species bifurcation reproductive isolation (which might result from the original mutation or from a different mutation) is needed between the incipient new species and the mother species. I think this is because a bifurcation can occur by 3 means (after the mutation in the master gene has occured).
1. The mountainpass scenario. The next negative fitness valley can only be reached through a mountainpass, which while crossed implies lower fitness, which implies a quick transition is needed, before everyone dies. While going up to the pass, there are two forces acting against the incipient species:A. The decreased fitness. B the genetic drift partially coming from mating with the old species. If B can be eliminated by reproductive isolation, the incipient species has a better chance of overcoming A.
2. The entropic barrier scenario. There is one or a few downhill paths to the next valley, but they are very hard to find with a genetic algorithm. There are many more paths leading to higher (or equal) negative fitness (lower or equal fitness). Reproductive isolation is necessary in order for the incipient species to acquire enough distance in fitness space from the mother species. Without isolation, the incipient species is constantly coming back to the old valley through random genetic drift. Though it has acquired a beneficial mutation, the mutation can be lost by breeding with the mother species. In this scenario, there are two timescales: the time for the incipient species to get far enough away going downshill so that reproductive isolation happens automatically. The other timescale is how quickly the beneficial mutation can be eliminated by drift. Chances are increased for the new species to form with a steep downshill direction and a relatively small reproductively accessible population in the mother species.
3. The tunneling scenario. The mutation is silent for a while, offering no selective advantage or disadvantage. If the reproductive isolation does not happen quickly the mutation will be lost before the incipeient species has a chance to tunnel through to the new valley, where the mutation is now beneficial.

In these 3 scenarios a small population (the incipient species) is involved in finding the new (negative) fitness valley. This population will be genetically swamped by the larger mother species before it makes it into the new valley unless in can reduce or eliminate exchange of genes with the mother species. The mother species (unless it has small numbers due to some catastrophe) cannot make any of these 3 transitions en masse, quickly. It has inertia. Only a small population can be "lean and mean" enough to make it quickly into the new valley. The mother species can make it into a new valley only over large timescales, timescales over which the whole fitness landscape changes (due mostly to other species changing and perhaps climatic and geologic changes) and allows a constant downshill path that is easy to find.

The analogy I wish to make is with new cultures evolving similarly to new species. Instead of genes, we have memes. Instead of reproductive isolation, we have cultural isolation. Cultural isolation is not the same as starting with a clean slate, anymore than a new species has to start with a new genome. Engineering can speed up the natural process of culture formation and direct it in desireable, less random ways. In order for social engineering to be effective, one must respect these three laws of social engineering:
1. Cultural isolation is necessary unless one waits for an uphill direction to become a downhill direction, which could take eons, or an environmental/economic catastrophe.
One has to make memetic changes with a small, somewhat isolated group. The resulting culture is not closed in Popper's sense (since an isolated culture can allow for critique and individual liberty to question norms), nor does it need to stay isolated forever. Only until it is stable enough to resist being swamped by the mainstream culture from which it arose.
2. Any change proposed must be in a master meme if one of the three scenarios of culture bifurcation happens. If the change is not in a master meme, then many other changes will be required to be implemented "by hand" instead of automatically and this would take too long to figure out, even if the change is not random but engineered. All the bifurcation scenarios require a quick timescale. A mutated non-master meme will usually lead to going uphill and then coming back to the original valley, either a case of micro instead of macro-evolution (this is the case when a proposed change leads to the same old problems) or no change at all.
3. Mechanisms for mutation must be ample--by analogy with biological speciation mostly through imperfect reproduction of memes. This is exactly the open society where democratic critique and non-totalitarian education are encouraged.

Unless one respects these laws, then any changes will be short-lived and/or superficial.

Here is an example of the first law. I am struggling with this here in Atlanta. While my housemates agree that we want to change the meme of dependency on the global economy to one of local production of goods, they find it hard to not be influenced by the memes of cheap or free food which requires little or no processing (unlike garden food which at least requires washing). By contrast, the Possibility Alliance in rural Missouri has no cell phones, TV (actually no electricity at all) cars or internet, only lets in a few guests at a time and have a buffer of amish farmers around them. They are not prone to memetic infections from the mainstream culture, but actually can infect visitors with their mutated memes. They have already bifurcated.

An example of paying attention to the second law of social engineering is if one wants to change the carnivorous diet meme to a vegan meme, it won't work. Carnivorous diet is regulated by many other memes, hence it is not a master meme. One such meme is the need for more protein in a blue collar (physically demanding) job than a white collar job. Another is the meme of religious and cultural associations with meat (e.g. dominion over animals with no souls). A third is the supposed unsustainability of current alternatives to meat in industrial agriculture (their production and transport). A fourth is the reduced labor per calory of food possible with meat and animal products in areas where vegetable farming is difficult or impossible. A fifth is the supposed need for animals even for sustainable vegetable production (e.g. need for animal manure).

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