Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Self-preservation & Climate Change

July 26, 2017

Ideas of “self preservation” or “genetic preservation” (making sure your genes survive in your kids), have been around for a long time and seem popular in a culture of individualism, consumerism and neoliberalism, but they don’t seem to have helped us deal with climate change at all. Nothing. These ideas may even be obstacles to us doing anything constructive. After all, the mainstream right seems to regard these kinds of ideas as fundamental – you, and nobody else, are responsible for your own survival. If you stuff up, then its not in my interests to help you back up, unless I do so charitably.

Partly I think the problem with self-preservation arises because in a complex system (and ecological and social systems are usually complex) it’s not absolutely clear what actions are in one’s self interest or contribute to self-preservation. Does it help your self-preservation to boost coal consumption as that has helped with lots of things in the past, or is it in your interests, to abandon coal and head for an uncertain future? Sure if you are wealthy and you are making money out of despoiling the world then you might think you should continue that action, as your accumulating wealth is as likely to protect you and your offspring, as anything else is. But that doesn’t help solve the problem, it makes it worse.

That is also the case for most of our socially approved actions; they seem to be part of the problem. They seem to make things worse. So following self-preservation as your guide could well lead to unresolvable problems, problems in which you try and dump everyone else in it. That is why climate change is an existential problem. We don’t know how to exist in it. We don’t know yet how to imagine life in it.

On top of that, because climate change is complex and existentially challenging, it can seem like everything is too big. It is beyond us. Actions we can take are actions at a local scale. Who can change the weather? Nothing we do apparently makes any difference. So we don’t do anything. We magnify the opposition, and are rendered incapable. Furthermore, it seems obvious, that individualistic action is not enough. We can only preserve ourselves with others. We depend on others. This is hard if we are focused on self-preservation. These others might free-ride on us, and hold us back.

So, to me, it seems like there needs to be something beyond self preservation. That is why we I’m arguing that we might need generosity.

Generosity has been around for a long time, it is a basic human configuration, and has not (as far as I know) been a feature of our cultural response to climate change, while self-preservation and justice have been. With climate generosity, we act without calculation, without fear of losing. We act to inspire. We just give what we can give, beyond what we need to give. We work towards becoming the solution, without expectation or demands on others.

Climate Justice???

July 25, 2017

The idea of “Climate Justice” perturbs me. It seems self-destructive, or self- undermining.

‘Justice’ as it works, usually involves two kinds of processes:

1) Defining someone as evil and punishing them for it. This requires violence for enforcement, and creates resentment and self-righteousness. It encourages projection, shadow play, in Jungian terms. In this set up there is only good and evil, whereas in a complex ecological and social systems there is neither, there is mainly mutual implication.

2) Appeals to fairness. But it is never fair that we have to give up anything while others benefit… hence we do nothing. Piers Ackerman was arguing the other day that it is unfair for Australia to do something when we produce so little CO2 (even thought we produce massive amounts per head of population). This is a common anti-global warming tactic, which avoids responsibility.

Justice arguments are continually used by India and China to justify their massive expansion of coal. They are used by the Australian government to justify the Adani mine – shared prosperity for all, the war on poverty and so on. They are routinely used by people to argue that Australia can make no difference, so those people who request that we act are making unjust, or unfair, demands upon us, consequently we don’t have to act.

As a result of these problems or co-options, it might be better to avoid ‘justice’ altogether and phrase action in terms of “climate generosity”, attempting to come from humans ‘good’ side (and through modes of status acquisition through gifting) rather than our punitive side.

Climate Generosity requires that we do more than is necessary or just – we are generous, we act beyond what is required of us, without much hesitation. We are magnanimous, excessive.

Climate generosity does not have to involve allocations of guilt and blame and suggests that we are ‘in this together’ and ‘working together’, and thus acknowledges the systemic nature of the problem.

Generosity upsets the power relations based on old habits, while justice requires enforcers. Generosity combines both individual and social action, and appeals to the greater good of everyone, without demanding victory. It does not say ‘we won’t act until its fair’, it simply sets an example to be emulated or ignored. It gets on with the job, and cultivates a sense of responsibility.

If we only do what is just then we will not do anything much, we will only go to the boundaries of what is needed – we will be continually check to make sure others are not freeloading or acting unfairly. We will not act first.

However, if we replace justice by generosity, then we can go over those boundaries – “yes it might be cheaper and just to sell goal, but how about we help you build renewables? How about we cut back more of our emissions than would be our fair or just share? Why should we wait for others to act so that it is fair, lets be generous and act now!”

Neoliberalism: again

July 22, 2017

Neoliberalism has always been about pork barreling the private sector, and public/private collaborations are at the heart of the neoliberal project. They are justified by the idea that the ‘market’ does it better, as it supposedly always does everything better, but as usual the technique insulates corporations and the wealthy from facing competition, or ‘market discipline’ which is just for the workers.

Public/private partnerships have the following advantages from the neoliberal point of view:

1) They hand over taxpayer’s money to corporations. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

2) Commercial in confidence means that the money cannot be accounted for, and accounting for inefficiency or stupidity is lost. Cost blowouts are normal, and cannot be contained, while the company makes still more profits. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

3) It seems the builders cannot be replaced – no matter how bad they are, and the law often gets changed to accommodate their failures, making the law less restrictive on other abusive businesses. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

4) The products of this public money, remain in private hands. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

5) The public gets charged to use the new services/products, and the public makes no money out of them. Indeed they end up paying for the product twice; once to build and once to use. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

6) Wealthy people get even more wealthy, and the public loses public service. (This is wonderful by neoliberal standards)

Neoliberalism, and free market talk, is absolutely the problem and public private “partnerships” simply make it worse.

Conspiracy Theory?

July 18, 2017

There is a well known argument, that faced with historical and policial complexity, people tend to reduce that complexity by implying that events arose because of secret and hidden actions. Conspiracy is something that is imagined to make the world seem ordered when its not. A recent academic version of this argument can be found at:

Now we know that one of the results of complexity is that prediction is incredibly difficult. It is actually quite hard to make a social or political result that one wants. The pessimist thinks it is harder to get a good result than a bad result – perhaps because there are so many ways things can go wrong and so few ways they can go right. This makes the idea that the world is controlled by conspiracy unlikely. However, that does not mean there are no conspiracies

Conspiracy occurs pretty much day to day. We all conspire with other people to get results. This is what we call decision making or self-governance. It is also pretty minor. However, it seems unlikely that powerful people do not try the same thing, planning to have effects over your lives. Certainly they like decisions to be shrouded in secrecy. You can think of public/private partnerships where the reasons for spending taxpayer’s money on corporations is often held to be “commercial in confidence”. The capitalist State is not always open, so it is unlikely other States are open either.

So it could appear some conspiracies are not purely imaginary. The difficulty is learning to distinguish between the imaginary and the real.

Do businesses conspire to fix prices and lower wages? It was reported by Adam Smith. The answer is probably as often as they can. It makes more money all around and that is what counts. There are known cases of price fixing, price gouging and prices moving in tandem, and, in the absence of unions, wages for ordinary workers rarely increase. So it is probable, although it may not be deliberate joining together, people may just say to themselves; that is the standard price and leave it at that. It may even be normal. The usual idea is that business does things as cheaply as possible and charges as much as possible, and is occasionally constrained by competition: if people know about it.

Do scientists uniformly conspire to tell us climate change is real for political purposes? This seems extremely unlikely. Scientists are not politically uniform. Scientists tend to like putting other scientists down and getting noticed for being innovative. When they get money from science grants they generally don’t have to produce particular results. However, it is quite probable that fossil fuel companies conspire to make it seem that climate change is unreal, or not urgent. Climate change threatens income and profit. It requires change. These big companies have a long history of conspiracy, when it comes to preserving profit and getting rid of inconvenient political challenges. They also sponsor think tanks, who give them the messages they want – or they don’t sponsor them anymore. Again we might wonder if this is not really conspiracy, but profit leading to misinformation. However, we know Shell knew about climate change but sponsored deniers. So it seem possible it was conspiracy.

Did the Freemasons cause the French Revolution? Harder to say. If they tried they would not have succeeded without a lot of help. They may well have worked for it, but I doubt they liked the result. Did Lenin conspire with others to produce the Russian Revolution? Yes – but again they had a lot of help – there were other people involved. indeed some people say Germany sponsored them to get rid of Russia from WWI – certainly a more intelligent strategy than Hitler’s. Sometimes they worked with people who did not like the results being gained. Complexity again.

We can use these latter examples to make further claims. If big results came from the actions of few relatively powerless people, then big events can certainly result from the actions of a few relatively powerful people.

So the conspiracy, no conspiracy idea needs complication. The world is unlikely to be run by conspiracies, but it is equally unlikely there are no effective conspiracies, ever, or that really powerful people do not conspire to keep in power and disadvantage everyone else – just make sure that you are really identifying who is powerful. Good questions for that include: who is wealthy, or has economic power? Who controls organisations with wealth? who controls violence? Who tells others what to do and its done? Who controls communication?

Being in complex systems

June 30, 2017

We are entangled in a dangerous situation of our own making, although it was not made deliberately. There is no point to blame other than assuaging personal guilt. We are all responsible, even if some are more responsible than others.

We are entangled in a set of complex systems with no straight lines and few determinable borders. These systems are not systems of firm bounded objects, they are systems of untidy, overlapping flows, with no absolute rigidity; things merge and blend.

These systems may not harmonise and may be subject to abrupt transitions to new states.

in such systems there are no lone individuals. There are no people not interdependent upon others, borrowing and transforming, and being borrowed and transformed.

Flux and chaos is Everywhere.

In these systems, we cannot know the totality of the systems (which compose us), or all of the interconnections, we operate within a swarm of unintended effects. Outcomes are unclear –as it is hard to determine what is the immediate cause of outcomes, as outcomes have multiple interacting causes and may look like they had nothing to do with us. We may not even perceive the outcomes we part-produce.

What we do will have unintended consequences, and we may not be able to recognise them. We also need to know lots of different facts and theories to make it clearer when we might be ignorant.

In these systems, lack of knowing is basic – we cannot accurately or definitively model complex systems (and if we could then acting on the model would change the system). This does not mean there are not degrees of lack. We don’t have to be claim everyone is equally ignorant, or that some ideas are not more accurate than others. Ideas are actions and actions are ideas.

However, given the lack, then we might have to educate towards conscious ignorance. Not unconscious ignorance, or thinking our knowledge is complete.
Knowing what we don’t know, to the extent we can know.

As we are ignorant, the unconscious (systemic and psychological) is everywhere. Our self bleeds into the world. It is not separate from that world. We do not know our self or where it ends, or what we are entangled with. Yet our self seems concrete as do the systems. This concreteness may be an illusion. We think with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. We also feel with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. The world comes to being in us, and we come to being in it. There are no lone individuals. Mind is extended, there are no lone minds. And yet: can we only respect the lone or be moral with the lone? We do not exist without the multiple, and that multiple appears to have no known border; it blends.

AS we are entangled then we (to some undetermined extent) involve the rest of the systems. How then, as we exist and attempt to extricate ourselves from the problems we created, do we involve the non-human without modifying it so that it exists for us? Speaking for the non-human renders it human, and risks erasing it. Yet if the human does not speak for the non-human then it does not exist to the human. This gives us the paradox of representation it represents and distorts at the same time. It may be that in dealing with complex systems and unintended effects we are always dealing with apparent paradox…

One way is to change ourselves (a small action with possible systemic effects). Knowing we do not know.

There is no way out of the systems we are entangled within. We have no option but to work on us or it and in it.


It may be that people have embraced the term ‘complex adaptive systems’ rather than simply ‘complex systems’, because the idea implies teleology and purpose – “to adapt, and adapt well”. The term suggests everything will adapt constructively, rather than that things can adapt destructively, or injuriously. It removes the spectre of disorder and suggests beneficence. It suggests an ordered cosmos once again, with aims and ends.

Individual vs Systemic change

June 30, 2017

The problem with promoting individual change to deal with large problems, is that it often operates without recognising that the individual is part of a set of systems and those systems make demands, or set up the parameters of action…

Thus the destructive action that one person may take, say using a leaf blower, driving a car several hundred metres to the shops, using new plastic bags or wrapping, planning a residential area that needs cars, may not make much difference in itself, but in their billions they do. One of our current problems is that if the ‘developing world’ emulates our way of life, then we are lost. The destructiveness is too great.

In our defense, we can easily use the examples of others’ behaviour to show we are not doing much harm. Using a new plastic bag is not as harmful as clear felling the amazon, or poisoning whole populations with waste from a single factory. Building one coal powered energy source is not as bad as building hundreds. Using a leaf blower is less harmful than building hundreds of coal power stations. It may even be less harmful than something else that is minorly harmful – such as driving a car to the shops. We can say we use a leaf blower because we have kept so many trees or because it is easier on our back or whatever. We can manage to feel proud that our destructive acts are less destructive than other possible acts.

And it is true that stopping by yourself will not change anything. But if millions of people stop, then it does change things. So, if you believe that something you are doing has the possibility of harm, then it might be your responsibility to a) stop that harm, as much as possible, b) be aware of the harm you do without making excuses, and c) exemplify the change and show others it is possible.

Humans learn through imitation of respected others. We have to exemplify the change we wish to see, and prevent exemplificatory capture by the powers that be. Donald Trump is perceived by more than us, and becomes an exemplar of behaviour and thus of what we can and should do. But despite this, we exemplify as well, and may well exemplify more relevantly to our audience, than the US President does.

By our behaviours, we make those behaviours normal, and it more likely that others will take them up and thus that the system changes. One of the problems with Revolutions is that individual behaviours do not change, and the new system becomes as harmful as the old. So changing behaviour is worthwhile.

The systems we are entangled in provide a degree of resistance, and this is what keep systems stable for periods of time. Learning to go against the system, helps us learn how the system reinforces its trajectory. For example we may learn that we are over busy without time to think and we do destructive acts simply to avoid more friction and consumption of our lives. We need freedom to live as well as to survive.

Changing even minor behavior can lead to calls for major changes as well.

Ultimately, what we do, and the systems’ responses to this, creates the future. There is no excuse for not doing what you think is right, but learn to recognise if it does not work. Failure is learning. Try something new.

Over time multiple changes in small parts of the system may reconfigure the system and so it was all worthwhile.

This also suggests that the solutions are found in the doing, and that we try and act small scale. Large scale may produce catastrophe – the point is we do not know. We can approach things with care, knowing that good intentions are not enough, they may even stop us perceiving what we need to know.

Small ways can lead to big things, although the small ways may need support. Even small acts can help. There can be ripple effects. Let’s not always get tied in the importance of big drama.

The systems may do the important work, not us.

How many people might die from climate change?

June 2, 2017

Sorry that is the sort of question which cannot be answered accurately.

Social systems, environmental systems and climate systems are complex systems which means they cannot be predicted in detail. All these systems will be interacting with different forms of landscape – such as low lying areas, loss of glaciers and water and so on. We need all of them to remain stable to make valid detailed predictions. All we can predict is the general trends, and these can be disrupted by rapid changes of state into new systems which may not be human friendly.

The trends are likely to be extreme. People will try and move from parts of the earth which become difficult to live in, because of temperature (heat stroke, heart failure, dehydration), lack of drinking water and sea level rise, and that will likely cause wars – in which people will die as well. The massive storms we have seen will cause deaths as well, as well as disrupt the balance and interconnection of social functioning which will produce more deaths. Destruction of agricultural stability will produce problems with food supply, which is likely to produce malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to the other effects. Tropical diseases will move into what have been temperate climates, as well as be carried by people movement. It is likely that those of us who live in temperate environments will have little resistance to these diseases. We may see some parts of the world which have previously been uninhabitable become open to human life and the great powers will compete over those areas, which is also likely to produce war and death.

We also keep polluting the oceans which will disrupt the climate and ecological systems. Many biologists think that ocean death is possible, this will mean we will lose most of our fish stocks, we may also lose oxygen supplies if the plankton die and we keep cutting down forests, although it is unlikely we will kill ourselves, this will also lessen resilience.

With pro-corporate policies which help corporations release chemicals pollution without much in the way of check we will also poison ourselves and the other creatures and plants we need to live. The results of these chemicals on bio-system evolution cannot be predicted at all…

Basically there are a whole heap of endangering ecological processes going on, of which climate change is only one. What the results of multiple chaotic disruptions will be is absolutely unpredictable. However, it can be predicted that normality is going and that many people will die as a result.

Power and incompetence

May 19, 2017

People in power are often structurally incompetent. Not only because they get promoted above their ability to handle the situations they are supposedly in charge of (as explained in the Peter Principle), but because they suffer from the power/ignorance nexus (David Graeber). That is, because all the information they receive tends to be tailored towards what those beneath them, think that they want to hear or see. The more the people in power have access to violence, or can threaten those beneath them, the more this is the case. ‘Superiors’ don’t have to understand people or events that they can hit, or order to be hit. Managers can also be cut off from reality by their immediate underlings who try to control them by feeding them ‘useful’ information – this is the evil advisor motif. Similarly, those in power rarely explain truthfully what is going on to those beneath them, as this would render them more vulnerable to criticism and challenge. Thus those beneath them have to guess what is meant to happen, or what is happening, and this opens the organization to complete fantasy where people know that everything they are told is untrue, but don’t know what the lies are covering. This further confuses the information that the ‘superiors’ receive.

The less competent the people in power become, the less they are likely to realise that they do not understand what is going on or recognize competence (Kruger Dunning effect) – they see everything as all someone else’s fault, or the result of a vast conspiracy against them. Given that power is always exercised in a complex process with active ‘counter power’, were events are non-predictable, then incompetent people are not only likely to generate unintended results all the time, but they are likely to blame those beneath them for that incompetence, punish them, or not learn from mistakes, and thus reinforce the power/ignorance nexus.

Problems with incompetents in power tend to get worse, because they like to appoint other incompetents, or people who engage in flattery to positions of power beneath them, or of giving advice to them. Knowledgeable people scare them. Knowledgeable people, who don’t lie to please them, will tend to get sacked as incompetents will not take advice from people who might be less incompetent; they will not recognise the possibility of accuracy which goes against their biases, and so on.

Given this, incompetent people tend to set up (or reinforce) organisational structures based upon, and generative of, incompetence and ignorance. If they can, then they will destroy ‘checks and balances’ which have evolved to give social stability and responsiveness, as these seem to be part of the conspiracy which supposedly opposes them; these checks and balances are merely obstacles.

It is, therefore, not unreasonable to assume that incompetent politicians and corporate commanders will generate a dysfunctional educational system, which then reinforces the power of those politicians, by corrupting knowledge and thinking and giving people a truly false sense of reality. Having an education system which taught people to recognise the problems that the politicians and the corporate bosses generate, would appear counterproductive to their power and simply seem untrue.

Incompetence and ignorance can be further magnified when, as with capitalism, the economic system only recognises the virtue of profit and wealth – all other competence, benefits and virtue are to be dismissed. Organizations based on profit and incompetence, may tend to select for certain types of psychopathology, which further distorts the processes and feedback perception, rendering the superiors even more incompetent, and focused on profit alone. If you want to get ahead in this system you have to be able to lie, misdirect and deceive others. You have to be able to dismiss others without regret. You have to be able to assume that money is the only thing in life, and that it should be distributed only to the few, of which you are one.

In such an environment, everyone becomes nervous of everyone else, and most people end up communicating strategically rather than truthfully. Hence not only the collapse of education and collapse of virtue, but the collapse of our ecology and the likely collapse of society..

A Defence of PoMo in Politics

April 19, 2017

I’ve seen a few articles recently in which people seem to be blaming Postmodernism for ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump, and for a departure from Enlightenment principles into ‘darkness’. This seems rather a stretch to me.

One of the problems with this position, is that it sees both the enlightenment and post-modernism, as single movements, when they are quite pluralistic: Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault for example, do not have a common project, other than in the sense that people writing at the same time in a similar tradition have commonalities.

I would further suggest that many apparent tenets of post-modernism actually share similarities with people in the enlightenment, and come out of other recognisable modernist sources such as anthropology, linguistics, physics and so on. Cynically, post-modernism as a whole has little interest in the British Enlightenment, because it makes it seem less original as a movement.

Many of the movers of the British enlightenment, which is the Enlightenment I am most familiar with, after a lot of arguing came to what I would claim is the entirely justifiable conclusion that ‘Reason’ was not enough, and that reason without reference to the real world could lead to complete fantasy. If your axioms/assumptions and obvious statements where wrong your conclusions would be wrong. Hence ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘alchemy’ moved into what we call science, in which, as far as possible, statements had to be checked against reality in front of trustworthy, knowledgeable and critical witnesses.

It’s position is we cannot assume things to be true in advance. That will mislead us.

Now, let’s move to a patch of Foucault arguing with Chomsky:

“… you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should — and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. ”

Foucault’s remark is entirely within keeping with these mainstream British Enlightenment Principles – where are these ‘rights’ that people keep talking about? Are they not enshrined in, and derived from, particular political structures – which as Adam Smith, no less, pointed out are there to defend the propertied and the powerful? It may be that the discourse is not entirely consistent, and can be turned against itself. But that does not mean ‘rights’ exist. You would need to show Foucault a historical example of this in action before he might agree to the process working. We are all familiar with the remark attributed to Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – this is more concise and more general than Foucault, but the meaning is similar. We need to change our reason to solve problems.

Likewise Foucault insists that knowledge is intertwined with power. Who is going to argue that Religion has not been intertwined with power and challenges to power and the same seems true of science and economics? We know that commercial science is not always as accurate as independent science. That is why some of us fight for academic funding to be determined by academics rather than corporations, and why others want funding and work conditions to be determined by corporations or corporate principles. To deny this relationship between power and knowledge, seems to be to deny a basic political truth, of which Voltaire and Diderot were not unaware.

I’d also argue that power is intertwined with ignorance, but that is another argument, but it should lead us to caution. Burke’s ‘conservative’ defense of British Tradition against revolution and ‘free markets’ is based upon a distrust in reason, and a trust in the empirical complexity of reality. We may not perceive everything which is going on, or how it all interacts and hence the system needs tending carefully not disrupting ‘reasonably’ according to our fancies. The same kind of proposition is found in functionalist anthropology acting as a defense of ‘native’ societies against colonial disorganization – it foreshadows systems theory, which is vital for understanding ecologies and social interactions with ecologies.

Now as it happens, both Hume and Berkeley disrupted this empiricist stand by showing from empiricist principles that we have no direct access to reality, only to our imagining and habits, or to the imagining done by God in Berkeley’s case. Of course there was the ‘common sense’ reaction to these positions, but it was always within this wider framework as discussed. Reason is not supreme. And a belief in the supremacy of reason leads you to serious misunderstanding of human social functioning.

Derrida further illustrates how this failure of reason and understanding can occur through language. One of his main claims to fame is the infamous argument that there is nothing outside the text. For me, this seems to be saying that humans give things meaning immediately – we treat things as ‘texts’. I don’t know why people get upset with this proposition. To some extent, science is about trying to remove the meanings we give things immediately and giving them meanings which are more in accord with their nature. But we are always prone to bend them to our inner psycho-cultural meanings. And the more obscure, or threatening, the science the more this bending will occur.

Derrida also takes the ‘context dependence’ of meaning seriously. Meaning is delimited by context. That is a fairly standard linguistic understanding. Context is unstable. Different people bring different contexts to the same ‘texts’, consequently meaning is unstable. Add difficulties of cross cultural understanding, historical shifts in the meanings of words and so on, then this becomes even more of an issue. We may be reasoning from assumptions which are mistaken interpretations of some previous work. This is fairly obvious to literary critics. Any relatively complex text will have an almost infinite number of interpretations; although it may not have every possible interpretation – as I commonly say the number of people who seriously argue that Hamlet is about the mating habits of African elephants is remarkably small. However, no valuable text is exhausted of meaning by any particular reading. I also don’t know why this proposition often seems to be considered a terrible thing, as it seems necessary to any kind of understanding.

Indeed one of the problems with understanding Trump and the Trump movement, is that the contexts brought to bear on understanding it’s statements are extremely different; they are so different that people in the same cultural group cannot understand each other. Refusal to accept context dependence, means that much commentary is framed in terms of the stupidity of others, and such statements help to further the separation and lack of understanding and communication.

These positions seem, to me, to be fundamental starting places for political analysis, along with understanding how economic and political ‘truths’ get propagated through organs of power, and they are not hindered by post-modern thought.

Individual vs Collective?

November 28, 2016

I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of depth psychology. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.

To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life (when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness), this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately (this is what the idea of the Anthropocene recognizes), and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.

This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.

At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being: we are symbiotes.

At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology for your evidence, then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.

We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.

We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working-together is working-against-each-other.

Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.

First point, which should contain no problems for depth psychologists, seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict the consequences of it in detail – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).

Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.

Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why these techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.

Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.

Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).

Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can perceive more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.

Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and come out, and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power and meaning as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss. If the reader is familiar with depth psychology and its metaphors, then they will be aware that in alchemy, the practitioner does not simply engage in ‘spiritual’ or ‘inner’ work, they do that work in conjunction with work in the laboratory. They take their insights from the inner work into the lab, and the lab work into their inner lives. Sometimes the two progress simultaneously. In alchemy, there is no enforced separation between ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and ‘body’, or between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ they are aspects of each other, and this may be a useful approach.

Clearly, then, I am not protesting against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.

However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others.

The more understanding we have gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.