Rationality Will Not Save Us

Politics is in the Fourth Quadrant.  Efforts to apply rational, scientific analysis often fail to explain political outcomes and processes. Politics is the struggle for power and the process by which individuals and groups determine the division of power in human society. There is a need to recognize that relativism has some place in politics, however unhappy this may make some: individuals are frequently certain of what they believe to be in their own “best interest”. These perceptions are often limited in scope or even wholly tacit (known/unknown unknowns); individuals often do not fully understand why they feel they need or want something but still feel its necessity. In the fundamental human cell, the group, humans are not totally sure of what others in their groups — or in other groups —  intend or wish to happen. Uncertainty and fear dominate human life, tacitly and often explicitly. When made explicit, tacit sentiments can be of high utility in society and especially politics.

All humans live their lives narrating their behavior and others’ actions as they go along, as they look ahead and as they look back on the past. Life is chaos and humans struggle to make it comprehensible and manageable. Individuals negotiate their particular human circumstance with those of the Outside World — that is they reconcile what they do know with what they think they know and what they do not know. To address those things they do not know or cannot know, humans assign meaning to things beyond their control, often arbitrarily and sometimes more deliberately. The point of meaning and narrative is to distill order from chaos so that Man can feel at ease and carry on productively — human definitions wrestle control from the Outside World. All definitions serve worldly purposes, fair and foul (and in between). Different individuals frequently assign different meanings to the same thing. Where the stakes are concerned with first order priorities there may be competition, a struggle for control over property or mates or food or groups or whatever. To limit conflict it is necessary to decrease the degree of difference and exclusivity between those with competing narratives. There are some instances where this is impossible with the resources available and the actors involved. But humans can often function at so high (or so low) an order that resolution can be obtained through discussion or violence (politics).

The mass of individuals frequently have trouble expressing or totally understanding their emotions (and most other subtleties) in the larger context. These people require leadership and those aspiring to leadership — either for a beautiful vision or their own aggrandizement — need the them. Leaders find the gorgeous words that make the disquieted comfortable and direct the masses out of chaos toward a constructive goal, defined by parts of the mass and the leadership class as the “public good”. Leaders can come from various backgrounds: they can be religious, secular, familial, ethnic, nationalist or otherwise. Faith in God(s), Nations, Grand Outcomes and individuals, are potent agents for controlling and generating perceptions of consciousness, context, interest and purpose. Faith can motivate individuals and groups to protest and production; it can also stymie us in inaction and complacence. Faith helps in assigning meaning to and managing perceptions of the unknown. In politics, faith is instrumental, a tool in convincing and investing public trust in risky or uncertain efforts toward a particular (or general) idea of the public good. Religion is but one institutional mechanism of exploiting faith. Political or social ideologies, causes and organizations (and the personalities related to them) are in their own ways similar in application. Relative control is a tricky business — faithful undertakings can be as beautiful as they can be abhorrent.

Competing ambitions and differing priorities make collective action difficult, but the right intra- (and extra-) group narrative can help to bridge these differences. Moreover, no group of personalities is ever monolithic. There may be multiple mini-narratives within groups and their overarching narratives, bringing the masses together with a given set of leaders. Power is the ability to control narratives and to acquire and direct resources. Control and power are always relative to a task or alternative actor. In politics actors must always be conscious of their economy of force when in competition with their rivals and enemies. They must also be flexible enough to accommodate, rather than alienate, intra-group narratives and to convince others of the value of transcendence.

Groups form because individuals cannot achieve their own (proactive or reactive) objectives alone. Large groups often form in the face of severe perceived danger. The relatively weak bandwagon with the relatively strong. A series of complexes impact whether the weak attempt to join one or the other “strong” set — and whether the strong accept those seeking their protection and guidance. There may be economical or cultural reasons and even other ones that outside observers might find shocking and without any basis in “objective” reality. Fear can result from rational perceptions but it frequently inspires preposterous behavior and explicit beliefs. Humans are irrational; what select degree of rationality any one person might exhibit is relative to the select rationality (and irrationality) of others. Humans do not ever make perfect observations, evaluations, judgments or decisions. Nor do they always communicate clearly or honestly, sometimes because they cannot and at other times because they wish to obscure their true motivations hoping to advance ulterior objectives. It is sometimes said that policy has two modes: a stated and a real purpose. This is simple enough but requires explanation: policy is set with the interest of an actor in mind as determined by the actor designing that particular policy. Policy is then packaged, described and presented in a narrative that its originator believes will maximize its likelihood of success. Policy is reliant not solely on its own “objective” merits but also on the perceptions of those making it and those receiving or observing it from the outside.

Very often observers can only speculate what a particular set of actors hopes for its behavior to communicate or accomplish; actions often acquire additional or conflicting meanings as observers become aware of them in their peculiar circumstances and in terms of the responses of others (such responses are the product of similar processes). Those on the receiving end of an action will view it through their individual social, ethical and political schemas. These can tap into and be drawn into tacit sentiments, helping to crystalize things previously latent and obscure, making them available for use by rival (and friendly) narrators and predators. One observer says an action is about foreign policy while another links it to provincial elections and another to economic uncertainty and another to bigotry and another to the media’s laziness and still another to miscommunication and amateurism. At this stage, the narrative is more malleable than ever, belonging less to its originator than to the Outside World. Those who receive these diverse communications may draw conclusions based on inaccurate or incorrect interpretations, triggering tacit emotions and turning them into ill-informed beliefs. Some of those beliefs may be infused with anger, rage or inconsolable fear. And this may be the result of spinsters and enemies and not the original source of the irritation. The originator is nevertheless responsible for making his intentions clear from the onset, at the very least to himself: he must always be aware of his deepest truths even if he does not reveal them to the Outside World. The abdication of responsibility midstream may be evidence of crises in confidence, incompetence in leadership and flaws in the original idea and its narrative. It is nevertheless always difficult to justify.

Without clarity, the stated or real intention can become totally obscured as others evaluate it and react to an originally obscure enterprise. In such instances, establishing control and directing the debate in one’s preferred direction (let alone keeping it there) is difficult. It requires power derived from moral, political and economic institutions. Political balance requires a force of individual and institutional personalities that can bridge and narrow differences in competing narratives and political priorities. With those conditions met, will is the missing ingredient. Without will, none of that can be initiated or sustained. As little of this must be left to chance as possible. Because politics is irrational the originator of an idea must hold total control over it for his own purposes. Passivity becomes failure, and control transfers away from the originator towards the Outside World and all the ambitions and indifference and greed it contains. The sailor must take as full an account as he can of the variables at sea before he sets out — the weather, the currents, the wind, the safe ports and all the rest. And in the event of a shipwreck, he must transcend the debris and take control of his surroundings and find his way home — for the sake of his survival and the well being of his clan, who is otherwise left wandering in every valley. He cannot go home part of the way or move backwards in time; he must take full and absolute responsibility for all things he initiates, all decisions he makes. So too in politics.



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