A Matter of Character

In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama eschewed partisan politics and stretched for the heights of statesmanship. Frustrated in his most heart-felt passions by the institutions that foment mistrust of government, his program of political renewal is built around appeals to cherished notions of our national character. While composed of practical steps – among them redistricting and campaign finance reform, voting rights, and extension of public education by two years – its illustrations were drawn not from  isolated instances of specific lives transformed by those benefits, but from abstract descriptions of relationships transformed when we act from hope and trust.

Obama supported the authority of his prescription by outlining the results of seven years of quietly doing what was possible while his opponents trumpeted doom. This includes enhanced international cooperation to isolate and weaken the agents of violence, improved terms of trade to protect workers and the environment, enhancement of personal security with health care reform, and revitalization of America’s manufacturing and energy sectors.

His restrained rhetoric is set against a collection of voices that trumpet conflict. This is not limited to the field of Republican presidential nominees – the growing strength of the Sanders campaign is fueled by harsh rhetoric targeting the financial elite. I believe that the popularity of those voices reflects the sense that for the average American, security is precarious. This is supported by polling that reveals that as regards their condition, 49% of Americans have become more angry over the last year.

As wages stagnate and costs rise, inevitably every choice faced by a working family is fraught with consequence. Any single error can set us on the hard road to poverty. In that state, our natural desire is to make our choosing less difficult – in much popular political rhetoric, to remove the impediments imposed by the state. Unfortunately, this logic appeals to the interests of those that siphon financial energy from the system. One of the Koch brothers, after the federal investigation of climate science racketeering by Mobil-Exxon, appeared in public to state that in many ways he is a liberal – he believes that businesses are most successful when the individual worker is free to make his own choices. As “success” to Mr. Koch translates to “higher profits,” what history has shown is that a family man will accept lower wages when facing competition from a younger, unburdened candidate. “Freedom” as understood by Koch translates to a lack of security that eventually pits every man against his neighbor for the benefit of owners.

In his book The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued that the American century was birthed on the battlefields of WWII. For the first time, the American elite went to war, and came back appreciating the strength of the brotherhood that leads men to sacrifice their lives in service. It was this brotherhood that motivated the Veterans’ Acts that opened college and home ownership to the lower classes. And it was the clawing back of those gifts by that generation’s children that steadily weakened the lower classes as we entered the 21st century.

The fragility of the post-war Golden Age must lead us to ask: is Obama right? Is our national character one of quiet service, or a narcissistic struggle for privilege that slowly grinds down the weak?

Against the cynicism of the realist, Obama marshaled the words of the man that prophesied his presidency. In his last public address, Martin Luther King, Jr. promised his audience that they as a people would see the Promised Land. Obama borrowed not from that speech but from King’s Nobel Peace Prize address, in which the prophet heralded the ultimate victory of “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

That may sound like another flimsy basis for policy prescriptions, but it actually leads to an analysis that shows the inevitability of our exit from this era of untrammeled selfishness. Throughout history, when economic activity expands into a new scale (from the city to the state, from state to nation, from nation to globe), those managing the expansion are able to erode the rights of those that created the technologies and products that allow the expansion. They do that by transferring knowledge to impoverished labor markets (or by importing cheaper labor). By selling goods back into the originating society, owners are able to reap enormous profits.

What ultimately happens, however, is that as wages equalize, poor workers motivated by the hope that they, too, would achieve the rights of their richer cousins gain the courage to organize to secure those rights. Having played out the cheap trick of producing in cheaper labor markets, the elite is brought under ever increasing pressure to actually increase the value of labor through organizational strategy. They then confront the truth that a competent and creative worker is the best source of operational improvements, and that personal security is essential to avoid fear that distracts her attention.

This has been played out again and again through history, in each of the transitions listed above. We now face the last transition to the global stage, and growing economic instability in  China suggests that the cheap trick has just about played itself out.

So if the morality of Obama’s appeal doesn’t resonate in the pragmatic mind, I believe that it yet reflects the wisdom of historical experience. His prescriptions are the investments that we need to make now to ensure that when the burden of poverty is leveled, we as a nation are prepared to lead the charge into a future of common accomplishment safeguarded by international compacts of economic and environmental justice.

While the elite may create panic with rumors of “one world government” and “black helicopters,” the past proves that the lower classes will eventually recognize their common experience, and organize to ensure that the government that creates the rules by which power is allocated will do so in a way that ensures that power servers that greater good, rather than the whims of the elite. All the lower classes need do is to marshal the courage to believe in the commonality of their experience (which is the root of all truth) and recognize that when they invest in each others’ power (loving unconditionally), they strengthen themselves.

The Uses of Tyranny

Given the libertarian cachet of the software “Open Source” movement, I was taken aback, when reading through the Git source-control system manual, to discover that the model used to prevent incoherent updates was labelled “Dictator and Lieutenants.” Linus Torvalds, the acclaimed “Dictator” of the Linux kernel, is famous for abusive tirades on the discussion boards. I guess that it fits.

The Greeks used the word “tyrant” without any negative connotations. Tyranny was a practical response to the fact that most people are going to do what feels good to them in the moment. If a society is going to grow, somebody has to take charge and force them to move in the same direction – what we typically think of as getting them to “work together.” That’s going to make some of them unhappy, and unhappy people complain, and eventually band together to defend their liberties.

The reaction of the tyrant is often to interpret such claims as a threat to the society as a whole, which justifies brutal suppression. That has led, in the modern era, for us to view “tyranny” as an evil thing. But if consensus (the alternative to tyranny) really generated more power in ancient times, then we wouldn’t have had a 2000-year gap between the democracy of Athens and the democracy of the United States of America. Even so, the latter nearly failed the transition from tyranny during the distrustful era of the Confederacy.

What are the preconditions for a transition from tyranny to consensus? Widespread understanding of the forms and practices of government is one, which requires universal public education. Codification of citizen rights and creation of institutions to defend them are others. We might also uphold renunciation of political aspirations by the leaders of the agencies that manage coercion, such as the police and military.

Even in modern societies, these preconditions are somewhat tenuous, and the rights of freedom are all too often abused as libertine privilege. For this reason, many institutions still revert to the model of tyranny. Someone has to be in charge, and preventing the dilution of that individual’s authority is often critical to the success (or even survival) of the institution as a whole.

This presents a real problem to women, I believe, who are often psychologically predisposed to consensus. They tend to get people talking, find out what they need to be happy and effective, and raise alarms against the practices that prevent those results. They undermine the practices of tyranny, and so are pushed aside in order to preserve the integrity of the institution and its tyrant.

The cracks in human tyranny are becoming impossible to ignore, however. Controlling the thought processes of the creative knowledge worker is to contradict their purpose – they are supposed to come up with new ideas. The growing number of women in the workforce has already been mentioned. And the political strategy of non-violent dissent, which became so pronounced in the Communist countries, broke down all the practices of tyranny by pushing responsibility for failure back up to the leadership. “I’ll do it if you show me exactly what you want done” eventually left many with time to moonlight in a second job.

But pushing tyranny out of our lives, I believe, is going to require a sea-change. For the average citizen, we need a moral framework that enables people to regulate the assumptions of rights as privileges. I raised my sons with the mantra that my goal was to make them “able, healthy and happy”, and that to have all three was almost impossible. When we got down to negotiation of “I need”, I clearly articulated the difference between needs (healthy) and wants (happy), and declared that unless I saw a personal commitment to “able”, I was unlikely to accede to their desires for the latter. In the long term, happy depends on health, and both depend upon the ability to create value for others.

And for those at the top of the food-chain?

As a scientist and engineer, I am privileged to work among a community that does not require political structures to arbitrate consensus. Nature is its own tyrant, with its diseases, predators, and disasters. It also has a set of unalterable rules that beat down our most narcissistic flights of fantasy. It provides plenty for us to struggle against.

I believe that we are entering an era in which that struggle will be unavoidable for most of us. This means a change from “extensive” social orders, that grow through predatory acquisition of resources, to “intensive” social orders, that require effective performance from every member to avoid universal hardship. In that future, the imposition of will by the tyrant will no longer be enough to ensure institutional survival, unless couple with compassionate concern for the well-being of individuals. The indulgence of privilege by individuals will be punished by nature, requiring of each of us a commitment to our fellow citizens. The combine constraints on tyranny and anarchy will make the destructive political dialog of our era a luxury that we can no longer afford. Loud-mouths will be told to pick up a shovel and work, or go and shout in the wilderness.