Archive for October, 2012

Due to circumstances under control…


The time allotted to thinking deeply about the regularly scheduled blog post was consumed by Hurricane Sandy, so that\’s what I will write about now, just in case anyone is interested in the exotic subject of riding out hurricanes aboard sailboats at the dock. It\’s not as exciting as the subject of riding out hurricanes aboard sailboats at sea, but I haven\’t done that in a while. Nor do I wish that I have. I have a confession to make: I don\’t like hurricanes very much.

I spent the day biding my time, making sure that nothing would go wrong. A few things did go wrong: two little boarding ladders got blown into the water, and a bit of parachute chord holding down the corner of a dodger failed and the dodger started flapping around in the stiff hurricane breeze. Luckily, the boarding ladders were secured by lanyards; I recovered one, and a neighbor recovered the other. Then I replaced the failed bit of parachute chord with some temporary clothesline, and all was well again.

Aboard, it felt like a day at sea, except that we weren\’t going anywhere. There was a lot of wind-induced rocking, making it hard to concentrate on anything for very long. Periodically I suited up and went out on the docks, making the rounds, checking the dock lines for chafe and adjusting them (they tend to stretch). It\’s amazing, but it\’s quite possible to get a multi-ton vessel to come closer to the dock, even when a hurricane is trying to push it away from the dock, by taking a turn of dock line around a cleat and then alternately kicking it with your heel, then quickly taking out the slack. Since dock lines do stretch and fail, redundancy is key, and so each boat had to have four bow lines, two stern lines, and three or four spring lines. Some people also rigged additional spring lines from the side of the stern facing away from the finger pier to the main floating dock, to try to keep the boats from grinding against the finger piers.

Come to think of it, the motion of a docked boat in a hurricane is quite a lot more annoying than the motion of a boat at sea. The normal motion of a sailboat on water is pleasant, even soothing. (Yes, it depends on the boat; some of the sportier models try to toss you about the cabin and break your ribs.) On the other hand, at the dock, when the wind is howling and the chop is kicking up, there is a lot of snubbing going on. That is when multiple dock lines go from slack to taut and back in rapid alternation, producing sub-audial base notes and jerking the boat around in multiple directions at once. “Doing-doing… doing-doing-doing…” Add to that the pained squeaking and squelching of the vinyl fenders and the clanging of the halyards against masts, and the drumbeat of wind-driven rain against the deck, and it all ends up rather a lot for the senses to deal with all at once. I think I would prefer to ride out hurricanes at anchor (in a suitable hurricane hole) rather than at the dock. At anchor, the boat always points with the sharp end toward the weather, as is intended, and although the combination of chop and high winds tend to make it charlie-horse and hunt around at the same time, that motion is a lot more pleasant than the jerkiness induced by the snubbing and the grinding against the dock.

In all, Sandy turned out to be windier but less rainy than Irene. This time, the wind was from the northeast, blowing at around 35 knots steady, with many gusts over 50 knots, but the direction was such that the fetch (the distance over which waves can build up) was less than 200 yards. And so, it was blowing 50 knots but the seas were 3 inches or less. Eventually the wind started clocking around to the southeast, and there was an hour or so, while it was blowing from the east, that chop built up in the harbor and added steady rocking to the swaying induced by wind gusts and the snubbing and the grinding. That rocking was the normal thing with Irene, which blew in straight from the ocean. At the height of Irene, a two-foot swell was running straight through the marina. Now, two feet is not big, but imagine having to walk around on a floating dock that\’s doing that sort of dance! Also, the rocking was strong enough for us to wonder whether any of the sailboats were going to clack masts (they never did, but kept looking like they were going to at any moment).

Once again, none of the worst case scenarios came to pass. We had AC power and wireless internet the entire time. At some point a transformer blew out somewhere on shore (we saw the flash, and the shore lights flickered for a moment) but there was no outage. Had there been an outage, our battery banks were fully charged, so we would have had power for a few days. No boats came loose (one derelict-looking trawler lost a stern line, but we spotted it and gave it one). The storm surge was insignificant (under 2 feet) and the floating docks did not float off the tops of the pilings (they are also anchored, so they wouldn\’t have floated too far, but horsing them back onto the pilings would have been a crazy amount of work). In short, the hurricane was, once again, a complete waste of time.

A lot of people wrote to me wondering how I was doing out on the water in a hurricane. I hope that this answers all of your questions; if not, feel free to ask more. A boat is a reasonably safe place to be during a hurricane; it\’s all the stuff around it that\’s dangerous. Boats are designed to float on floodwaters and they are low to the water and streamlined, with low windage, allowing them to deal with high winds. Houses are not designed for any of the above: they don\’t float, and they have high windage causing them to capsize.

This is my third hurricane aboard. During the first one (Bertha) we were at sea, and the problem was that we were too close to land. Unless there is something specifically wrong with them (bad design, for instance) boats can deal with wind and waves; it\’s land that kill them. Usually the weakest link is not the boat but the crew. During the other two hurricanes (Irene and Sandy) we were docked. Both were unpleasant and tedious events that required some level of competence, but there was nothing that approached life-threatening. Nevertheless, thank you to all of you who wrote and called, and offered your couches (as if I\’d ever abandon ship for no good reason).

And today the skies are blue, there is a warm southerly breeze, and the sun is shining, so I think I will wander ashore and take some pictures of the wreckage there. Based on what is currently in the chattersphere, some of it ought to look impressive.

The Limits of Language

Pawel Kuczynski

Since this is the height of the political season, I have decided that it would make sense for me to say something about politics which, of course, doesn\’t matter. And that, obviously, is a political statement.

Last night was the third and final round of what are commonly believed to be debates involving the two presidential candidates. What was said is not very interesting or surprising at all, except in one respect: the two contestants played their role in accordance with a certain unwritten and unexpressed rule of discourse.
This rule requires them to strictly adhere to a fictional, toy version of the world and of the role of the President of the US within it. We did not see two candidates campaigning to be elected into a position of leadership, but two actors auditioning for the role of President in a play that takes place strictly in the past. Now, in a normal course of events, if one candidate started carrying on like that, the other candidate would be a fool to not try to score points by pointing this fact out to the electorate. But this situation is different: here, both candidates know with absolute clarity that they are auditioning for a ceremonial role, nothing more, and that bringing even the tiniest bit of reality into it would only jeopardize their chances of being elected.

You see, they are auditioning for the role of someone who pretends to be “running” a country (whatever that means) that is itself not exactly running. It is by now defined by just two things: unstoppable inertia in the wrong direction, and a long list of broken promises. The federal government over which, if elected, they will pretend to “preside” (whatever that means) has two remaining choices: continue with the strategy of hemorrhaging debt and collapse in a few years once that strategy stops working, or don\’t continue with that strategy, and collapse now.

The topic of last night\’s get-together was foreign policy. And so here is a country whose diplomats cower behind blast walls afraid for their lives (which they sometimes lose). A country that has lost (in the sense of losing the peace) two major conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a few smaller ones, and where its efforts in places such as Libya and Syria have only succeeded in destabilizing them. A country whose very expensive military has highest suicide rates in the world and has not been able to pacify any place, even a place that was weak, disorganized, backward or pre-destroyed by other militaries. A country whose main tool of foreign policy is political assassination using Predator drones. From the point of view of electoral politics, it should be clear by now what the goal of foreign policy should be: the goal of foreign policy should be to avoid discussing it, and in this both of the candidates have succeeded admirably.

How did they do it? At first it seems difficult to understand how these two relatively well-informed individuals could navigate such a minefield of dangerous facts without stepping on a single one. At first, I thought that this must take a lot of training, some creativity, and even some luck. But then I realized that there might be a new rule operating at the level of language that makes the entire operation perfectly safe and risk-free.

We tend to automatically assume that human language—any human language—can (with the help of a trained translator if necessary) be made to express any thought; that there exists a universal, innate human capacity for language, and that language is a universal tool. Noam Chomsky is the undisputed champion of Universal Grammar, which is an attempt to formalize this capacity as a set of universal, abstract syntactic rules, but he has recently conceded that his creation is a mere potentiality that may not be fully realized in any given language. What caused Chomsky to qualify his claim to linguistic universality was the recent research into Pirahã, a language spoken by a small group of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Pirahã is a highly unusual language. For one thing, its form is highly redundant, allowing it to be either whistled or hummed without any loss of meaning. But most notably, it lacks recursion—the ability to say things like “This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.” Since recursion is considered to be a key element of Universal Grammar, this was taken by some to mean that Pirahã is not a complete language, possessing, as it does, a finite set of possible phrases rather than an infinite set of possible sentences. Another notable feature is that rules of evidence are wired right into the grammar: in Pirahã the source of information is obligatorily marked with reference to known individuals using a specific set of verb suffixes. Taken together with the impossibility of saying something like “Jesus said that…” this feature makes the Pirahã immune to proselytizing by missionaries: spiritual evidence is ruled inadmissible on a technicality. Lastly, Pirahã lack the ability to count, and, in spite of wanting very much to learn to use numbers, to avoid being cheated when trading other tribes, have been unable to do so. Pirahã appear to have one word to signify quantity, which can mean both “few” and “many,” the gradation between the two being a subtle tonal difference. It is not that they don\’t have the concept of quantity, but their experience of quantity is similar to how we perceive quality: it is analog rather than digital. In spite of these linguistic limitations, the Pirahã are a carefree, thriving little tribe who get on splendidly with each other and seem quite happy with their lot in life.

The Pirahã are definitely a linguistic outlier, but once you get used to the idea that human languages are not all that universal but are all limited in one way or another in what they are capable of expressing, you begin to see all around you linguistic limitations, be they evolved or self-imposed, standing in the way of cognition. And this includes the presidential debates. Here, the new rule is not a grammatical rule but a discourse rule. Discourse does have rules, covered by a branch of Linguistics called Pragmatics. An instance of discourse is a single conversation, but it can also apply to an entire national political conversation in the course of a campaign. A discourse contains a certain set of discourse antecedents, which are elements that have previously been introduced into the discourse as new topics. The process by which new topics may be introduced into a discourse varies, and may be more or less difficult. But whenever a new topic is introduced into a conversation, that act must have some motivation behind it. The new rule is simple: play with the discourse antecedents—the kit of parts of contemporary political dialogue—and don\’t try to introduce new ones. The reason for the rule is obvious: any one of these new bits of information might turn out to be booby-trapped—tainted with the unspeakable reality of the country\’s true predicament.

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In Praise of Anarchy, Part III

Laurent Chehere

[Part I] [Part II]

Kropotkin worked within the framework of 19th century natural science, but his results are just as relevant today as they were then. Moreover, the accuracy of his insights is vindicated by the latest research into complexity theory. Geoffrey West, who was a practicing particle physicist for forty years and is now distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute, has achieved some stunning breakthroughs in complexity theory and the mathematical characterization of scaling of biological systems. Looking at animals big and small, from the tiny shrew to the gigantic blue whale, he and his collaborators were able to determine that all these animals obey a certain power law: their metabolic cost scales with their mass, and the scaling factor is less than one, meaning that the larger the animal, the more effective its resource use and, in essence, the more effective the animal—up to a certain optimum size for each animal. The growth of every animal is characterized by a bounded, sigmoidal curve: growth accelerates at first, then slows down, reaching a steady state as the animal matures.

What Prof. West was able to discover is a small set of general laws—formulated as algebraic equations about as simple and general as the laws of Newtonian mechanics—that have been validated using data on trees, animals, colonies of bacteria—all manner of living things, and that provide amazingly precise predictions. As the size of the organism increases, its metabolic cost, heart rate and so on scales as m-1/4 while its lifetime scales as m1/4 (where m is the animal\’s mass). The ¼-power comes from the three dimensions plus a third fractal dimension. This is because all living systems are fractal-like, and all networks, from the nervous system to the circulatory system, to the system of tunnels in a termite colony, exhibit fractal-like properties where a similarly organized subsystem can be found by zooming in to a smaller scale. That is, within any fractal network there are four degrees of freedom: up/down, left/right, forward/back and zoom in/zoom out.

Prof. West then turned his attention to cities, and discovered that they can be characterized by similar power laws by which they too accrue greater benefits from increased size, through increased economies of scale, up to a point, but with two very important caveats. First, whereas with living systems an increase in size causes the internal clock to slow down—the larger the size the slower the metabolism, the slower the heart rate and the longer the lifespan—with cities the effect of greater size is the opposite: the larger the city, the larger is the metabolic cost and the energy expenditure per unit size, and the more hectic is the pace of life. To keep pace with the metabolic requirements of a growing socioeconomic system, socioeconomic time must continuously accelerate.

Second, whereas all living systems exhibit bounded growth up to an optimum size, socioeconomic systems such as cities exhibit unbounded, superexponential growth. These two differences added together imply that cities must reach a point where they must move infinitely fast in order to maintain their homeostatic equilibrium: a singularity. But it is inevitable that they reach natural limits well before they reach the singularity, and collapse. In short, large-scale socioeconomic systems are not sustainable. There is a crisp difference between natural, biological, anarchic systems that exhibit bounded growth up to a steady state and artificial, hierarchical, socioeconomic systems that show superexponential growth almost up to a singularity and then collapse. Prof. West was able to formalize this difference using a single parameter, β. In biology, β is less than 1, resulting in bounded growth; in socioeconomics, β is greater than 1, resulting in explosive growth almost up to a singularity, followed by collapse.

The key difference between a living organism and a city is that while a living organism is organized anarchically, a city is organized hierarchically. A living organism is a sustainable, egalitarian community of cooperating cells, which leverages the economies of scale of a larger size to let it move more slowly and to live longer. A socioeconomic system is organized into various classes, some more privileged than others, and is controlled through formal systems of governance based on written law and explicit chains of command. The larger it becomes, the greater becomes the relative burden of police, the courts, regulation and bureaucracy, and other systems of overt monitoring, surveillance and control. Faced with these ever increasing internal maintenance requirements, it can only achieve economies of scale by moving faster and faster, and eventually it has to collapse.

There are many conclusions that can be drawn from all this, but perhaps the most important is that collapse is not an accident; collapse is an engineered product. It is being engineered by those who think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale. The engineers of collapse include political scientists, who seek universal peace, through ever-greater military expenditure and dominance, in place of many small-scale, limited wars, but drive the world toward world wars and a global conflagration. It includes economists who pursue stability and growth at all costs instead of allowing for natural fluctuations, including a natural leveling-off of growth at an optimum level, first creating a global economy, then driving it into a black hole of debt. It includes financiers, who seek uniformity and transparency of global finance and universal mobility of capital instead of allowing pyramid schemes to collapse as they always do and allowing productive capital to settle where it should—in communities and in human relationships based on personal trust. Last but not least, collapse is being engineered by theologians who have fixed and absolute notions of morality based on long-obsolete written texts which ignore known facts about human nature. All of these people are hopeless utopians attempting to base society on idealistic principles. Such utopian societies inevitably fail, while those that are cognizant of human weakness and are able to compensate for it can go on for ages. The greatest weakness we have in our nature is our propensity for forming hierarchies, for following formal systems of rules and laws that attempt to defy natural laws, and for listening to utopians.

In Praise of Anarchy, Part II

Pawel Kuczyński

[Part I]

When confronted with an increasingly despotic régime, the good people of almost any nation will cower in their homes and, once they are flushed out, will allow themselves to be herded like domesticated animals. They will gladly take orders from whoever gives them, because their worst fear is not despotism—it is anarchy. Anarchy! Are you afraid of anarchy? Or are you more afraid of hierarchy? Color me strange, but I am much more afraid of being subjected to a chain of command than of anarchy (which is a lack of hierarchy).

Mind you, this is not an irrational fear, but comes from a lifetime of studying nature, human as well as the regular kind, and of working within hierarchically organized organizations as well as some anarchically organized ones. The anarchically organized ones work better. I have worked in a number of start-up companies, which were quite anarchic, in a good way, and were therefore able to invent and to innovate. I have also worked in a number of big, established companies, with many hierarchies of management, and a laborious approval process for any new proposal. These companies couldn\’t invent or innovate worth a damn, and only continue to exist because the system favors big companies. When faced with the need to do something new, they always tried to buy a smaller, innovative company. This is because in a hierarchical organization people who know more are inevitably forced to take orders from people who know less, and often know nothing at all beyond knowing how to get promoted. The result is that in hierarchical organizations—and I have seen this over and over again—the smart people sit around and do nothing (or as little as possible) because following stupid orders is a waste of time, while the stupid people run around like chickens trying to get themselves promoted. This is not a matter of scale, but of organization: I have worked in just one (but it was quite educational) start-up that was organized as a rigid hierarchy and had a laborious approval process for any new proposal. This abnormal, dysfunctional situation came about because one of the founders was cognitively impaired, and the company did not get very far at all.

Thus, I may be persuaded to accede to the specific and temporary authority of a superior (superior at a given task) but I find it problematic to blindly accept the authority of my superior\’s superior. It does happen that a competent person gets kicked upstairs into management. This has happened to the best of us, and has even happened to me. But to keep climbing up the hierarchy after that is to prove that the promotion wasn\’t an error, and that the person in question really is management material, i.e., a bit dumb, not particularly scrupulous, but very obedient. I am definitely not management material: I seem to be missing a gene that allows middle-management types to automatically look up to their superiors and look down on their inferiors. I could never get past the thought that this hierarchy thing is all a big mistake. If anarchy works so well for the birds, the bees, the dolphins and the wildebeest—why can\’t it work for us? There are many things that deserve be feared in the world, but a pleasantly, congenially, efficiently organized lack of hierarchy is definitely not one of them.

But before we go any further, we need to address this irrational fear of anarchy that has been whipped up in the general public by the propaganda arms of various hierarchical organizations (governments, churches, universities and so forth). The term “anarchy” is commonly used as a slur against things that are thought to be disorganized because it is incorrectly thought to imply a lack of organization. Anarchists are also confused with communist revolutionaries, and the typical anarchist is imagined to be an antisocial and violent terrorist who wishes for the violent overthrow of the established order. Anarchy is also incorrectly conceived to represent the embodiment of a coherent ideology of Anarchism, making the argument against anarchy a straw man argument based on a false choice between an implied yet manifestly nonexistent system and a very real oppressively huge hierarchically organized régime. The only grain of truth visible in all of this is that Anarchism as a political ideology or a political movement is, and has been for centuries now, rather beside the point.

Glimmers of anarchism could be discerned going as far back as the Reformation, in movements seeking autonomy, decentralization, and independence from central governments. But eventually virtually all of them were drowned out by socialist and communist revolutionary movements, which strove to renegotiate the social contract so as to distribute the fruits of industrial production more equitably among the working class. In all the developed countries, the working class was eventually able to secure gains such as the right to unionize, strike and bargain collectively, public education, a regulated work-week, government-guaranteed pensions and disability compensation schemes, government-provided health care and so on—all in exchange for submitting to the hierarchical control system of a centralized industrial state. Anarchist thought could gain no purchase within such a political climate, where the rewards of submitting to an official hierarchy were so compelling. But now the industrial experiment is nearing its end: trade union participation is falling; companies routinely practice labor arbitrage, exporting work to lowest-wage countries; retirement schemes are failing everywhere; public education fails to educate and even a college degree is no longer any sort of guarantee of gainful employment; health care costs are out of control (in the US especially).

We can only hope that, with the waning of the industrial age, anarchism is poised for a rebirth, gaining relevance and acceptance among those wishing to opt out of the industrial scheme ahead of time instead of finding themselves pinned down under its wreckage. From the point of view of a young person seeking to join the labor force but facing a decrepit and dysfunctional system of industrial employment that holds scant promise of a prosperous future, opting out of the industrialized scheme and embracing the anarchic approach seems like a rational choice. Why toil at some specific, circumscribed set of repetitive tasks within a job if that job, and the entire career path it is part of, could disappear out from under you at any moment? Why not enter into informal associations with friends and neighbors and divide your time between growing food, making and mending things and helping others within the immediate community, with the balance of free time spent on art, music, reading and other cultural and intellectual pursuits? Why bend to the will of self-interested strangers who have so little to offer when you can do better by freely cooperating with your equals? Why submit to an arbitrary external authority when a sufficiently cohesive and egalitarian community can be self-governing? All of these questions demand accurate and reasoned answers. If we find ourselves unable to provide these answers, but nevertheless demand that our young people participate in the failing program of industrial employment, then we won\’t have them as friends for very long.

The best angle from which to approach the subject of anarchy is from the vantage point of a student of nature. Observe that, in nature, anarchy is the prevalent form of cooperation among animals, whereas hierarchical organization is relatively rare and limited in scope and duration. Kropotkin wrote convincingly on this subject. He was a scientist, and having a scientist\’s eye for hard data allowed him to make a series of key observations. First, he observed the vast majority of animal species, and virtually all of the more successful animals, are social. There are animals that lead solitary lives, but they are the exception rather than the rule, which is to live as cooperating groups. It is the degree and the success of cooperation that is the most important determinant of the success of any given species; the gregarious, cooperative animals thrive while the selfish loners are left behind. The striking success of the human species has everything to do with our superior abilities to communicate, cooperate, organize spontaneously and act creatively in concert, while the equally glaring, horrific, monstrous failures of our species have everything to do with our unwelcome ability to submit to authority, to tolerate class distinctions and to blindly follow orders and rigid systems of rules.

Which leads us to Kropotkin\’s second observation, which is that animal societies can be quite highly and intricately organized, but their organization is anarchic, lacking any deep hierarchy: there are no privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors or generals among any of the species that evolved on planet Earth with the exception of the gun-toting jackbooted baboon (whenever you see an animal wearing jackboots and carrying a rifle—run!). When animals organize, they organize for a purpose: birds form up to fly north or south, and spontaneously come together in colonies to rear their chicks; grazing animals gather together to ford rivers; prairie dogs post sentries that whistle their alarms for the entire town whenever any one of them spots a predator; even birds of different species cooperate to repel and harass predators, with the biggest birds taking the lead while the smaller ones assist. Some groups of animals do explicitly sort themselves out into an order, such as a pecking order among chickens or an eating order in a pride of lions, but these are sorting orders that do not create entire privileged classes or ranks or a chain of command.

Consequently, animal societies are egalitarian. Even the queen bee or the termite queen does not hold a position of command: she is simply the reproductive organ of the colony and neither gives orders nor follows anyone else\’s. Because animal societies are egalitarian, they do not require any explicit code of justice or process of adjudication to maintain peace, since among equals the simple golden rule—do unto others as you want others to do unto you—corresponding to the innate, instinctual sense of fairness, provides sufficient guidance in most situations. A second instict, of putting the interests of the group before one\’s own, assures group cohesion and provides a source of immense power. We humans have this instinct in abundance, perhaps to a fault: other animals follow it as a matter of course and do not decorate those who follow it with medals or cast them in bronze and put them on pedestals.

This clear understanding of cooperation, peace and justice springing forth through instinct in egalitarian, anarchic societies that are found throughout nature casts an unflattering light on written law. Kropotkin observes that systems of written law always start out as gratuitous, self-important exercises in writing down the unwritten rules that everyone follows anyway, but then sneak in a new element or two for the benefit of the emerging ruling class that is doing the writing. He singles out the Tenth Commandment of Moses. The commandment states: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor\’s house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor\’s.” Now, pre-literate societies, with their systems of unwritten, oral law, may vary, but all of them recognize that a wife is not at all like an ox, and all of them would recognize someone who tries to treat them as being the same before the law as a subversive or an imbecile.

Recognizing that a wife and an ox are different, some societies may choose to let oxen wander about the community grazing where they may, so that they can be pressed into service as need by anyone who wishes to do so, while stealing someone\’s wife may be a life-ending event for both the thief and the wife, causing the rest of the society to look away in shame. Other societies may regard borrowing an ox without permission as grand larceny, and borrowing someone\’s wife as legitimate love sport as long as the wife consents, but the jealous husband who then kills the two is charged with two counts of second-degree murder. The Tenth Commandment erases such distinctions and treats both the wife and the ox as individual property. Furthermore, it makes it a sin to regard the property of another with anything other than indifference, enshrining the right to own abstract individual property without limitation as a key moral principle. This, in turn, makes it antithetical to maintaining an egalitarian society of a sort that can remain anarchic and self-governing, making it necessary to introduce police, the courts and jails in order to keep the peace in a society characterized by inequality and class conflict. Moses smashed the tablets once when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf; he should have smashed them a second time when he saw them worshiping the idol of private property.

Kropotkin\’s third, and perhaps most significant observation addresses a common misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. You see, when most people say “Darwinian” it turns out that they actually mean to say “Hobbesian.” Kropotkin pointed out that the term “survival of the fittest” has been misinterpreted to mean that animals compete against other animals of their own species, whereas that just happens to be the shortest path to extinction. This misinterpretation of facts directly observable from nature has led to the faulty Hobbsian justification of the economic appetite as something natural and evolved, and therefore inevitable, giving rise to the conjectured laws of the marketplace, which in turn favor nonempathic, exclusionary, brutal, possessive individualists. The result has been to enshrine mental illness—primitive, pathological, degenerate narcissism—as the ultimate evolutionary adaptation and the basis of the laws of economics. Thus, an entire edifice of economic theory has been erected atop a foundation of delusion borne of a misunderstanding of the patterns present in nature.

Kropotkin provides numerous examples of what allows animal societies to survive and thrive, and it is almost always cooperation with their own species, and sometimes with other species as well, but there is almost never any overt competition. He mentions that wild Siberian horses, which usually graze in small herds, overcome their natural aloofness to gather in large numbers and crowd together into gulleys to share bodily warmth when facing a blizzard; those who do not do so often freeze to death. Animals do fight for survival, but their fight is against forces of nature: inclement weather and climactic fluctuations that cause floods, droughts, cold spells and heat waves, and diseases and predators that reduce their numbers. They do not compete against members of their own species except in one respect: those who win the genetic lottery by generating or inheriting a lucky genetic mutation are more likely to survive and to reproduce. Thus, it is possible to say that genomes compete, but this use of the term “competition” is purely metaphorical, while the dominant pattern, and the greatest determinant of success of a species as a whole, is its ability to communicate and to cooperate.

Thus, all living, biological systems are anarchically organized. They are highly scalable—from a single-celled amoeba to the blue whale—but the organizational principle remains the same: an anarchically organized cooperating group of cells. Biological systems exhibit a fractal-like property: you can zoom in on a detail and observe that its organization is similar to what you saw when looking at the whole. They are sustainable, each organism exhibiting bounded growth up to an optimum size. (Yes, yeast can\’t handle vats of concentrated sugar-water without a population explosion followed by collapse, but then vats of concentrated sugar-water are not their natual habitat—or anyone else\’s!) Biological systems exhibit all sorts of complex behaviors, sometimes leading us to believe that they possess intelligence and free will. But there is no command structure to intelligence or free will. Even consciousness has no specific command structure; the complex behaviors that make us think that there are such things as consciousness and free will are emergent behaviors of cooperating brain cells; nobody is actually in charge. As I sit here concentrating on this, my right hand picks up a cup of tea and raises it to my lips without the rest of me having to pay any attention; another part of me thinks that I should take a break and visit the shops before it starts raining. If I do, then the decision will have been reached cooperatively because there is nobody to give the order and nobody to give the order to.

If all life on Earth follows this pattern, then what about our current socioeconomic systems? What about huge nation-states and giant megacities? What about the global economy? The short answer is that they are all hierarchically organized systems, and that this makes them scale badly: the increase in their metabolic cost always outpaces their growth rate, plus their growth is unbounded, so they always collapse. Next week we will take a brief look at contemporary complexity theory, which will take us beyond what Prof. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, an authority on complexity theory, likes to call “qualitative bullshit.” There is some fairly simple math that characterizes both biological and socioeconomic systems, makes stunningly accurate predictions, and explains why it is that biological systems go on and on while socioeconomic systems go pop. Thanks to the work of Prof. West and his associates, we have an actual theorem that predicts collapse, taking the study of collapse beyond a hand-waving exercise and into the realm of hard science.

Browser Issues


Update: apparently the latest IE can deal with the brokenness of Blogger. I just went through and pruned the HTML by hand for the last month\’s worth of posts. I hope it helps. From now on I am not trusting Blogger\’s \”Compose\” mode and will craft the HTML by hand. Sigh.

I keep hearing from people who say that the blog is not showing up in their browser, by which I think they mean the ridiculous thing that is Microsoft\’s Internet Explorer. Apparently, Blogger has done something that doesn\’t work with IE. I have tested it in Firefox, Chrome and Safari and saw no issues, and getting things to work with IE is a waste of time. So, don\’t use IE. It\’s broken.

In Praise of Anarchy, Part I


Once upon a time there lived a prince. Not a fairytale prince, but a real one, his bloodline extending back to the founder of Russia\’s first dynasty. It was his bad luck that his mother died when he was young and his father, a military officer who paid little attention to his children, remarried a woman who also took no interest in him or his brother. And so our prince was brought up by the peasants attached to his father\’s estate (he was born 20 years before Russia abolished serfdom). The peasants were the only ones who took an interest in him or showed him affection, and so he bonded with them as with his family. And so our prince became a traitor to his own class.

Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin is our prince\’s name, and he eventually became a renowned scientist who advanced the understanding of the history of glaciers, an historian of revolutionary movements, foremost theoretician of anarchism, and, because of his lifelong burning desire to do something to help the plight of the common man, something of a revolutionary himself. His memory has not fared well over the 90 years that have passed since his death. On the one hand, he suffered from being associated with the Bolsheviks, although he never spoke out in favor of state communism or dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, a major effort has been made by Western capitalist régimes to denigrate anarchism and equate it with terrorism.

I would like to rehabilitate both Kropotkin and anarchy. People who bother to read Kropotkin\’s lucid and unpretentious writings quickly realize that he is first of all a natural scientist, who approached the study of both nature and human nature using the same scientific method. He was also a great humanist, and chose the path of anarchy because, as a scientist, he saw it as the best way to improve society based on successful patterns of cooperation he observed in nature. He had no use at all for the vague metaphysics of Hegel, Kant or Marx. He also had no use at all for the imperial state, be it communist or capitalist.

Kropotkin was an advocate of communism at the level of the commune, and based his advocacy on its demonstrated superior effectiveness in organizing both production and consumption. His examples of communist production were the numerous communist communities that were all the rage in the United States at the time, where the numbers showed that they produced far better results with less effort and in less time than individuals or family farms. His examples of communist consumption included various clubs, all-inclusive resorts and hotels and various other formal and informal associations where a single admission or membership fee gave you full access to whatever was on offer to everyone. Again, the numbers showed that such communist patterns of consumption produced far better results at a much lower overall expense than various capitalist pay-as-you-go schemes.

Kropotkin, in his usual data-driven way, was definitely in favor of grass roots communism, but I could not find any statements that he had made in favor of communist governance. He spoke of the revolutionary change—change that required a break with the past—as necessary in order to improve society, but he wished that it would be a spontaneous process that unleashed the creative energies of the people at the local level, not a process that could be controlled from the top. He wrote: “The rebuilding [perestroïka] of society requires the collective wisdom of multitudes of people working on specific things: a cultivated field, an inhabited house, a running factory, a railroad, a ship, and so on.” Another of his more memorable quotes is: “The future cannot be legislated. All that can be done is to anticipate its most important movements and to clear the path for them. That is exactly what we try to do.” (Here and elsewhere the translations from Kropotkin\’s quaint pre-revolutionary Russian are my own.)

Kropotkin\’s approach to the approaching revolution was also as a scientist, similar to that of a seismologist predicting an earthquake based on tremors: “Hundreds of revolts preceded each revolution… There are limits to all patience.” Participating in the many revolutionary movements in Western Europe during his long exile, he monitored the increasing incidence of such tremors. (He spent a long time living in Switzerland, before the Swiss government asked him to leave, during which time he radicalized a large number of Swiss watchmakers, turning them into anarchists who, we must assume, practiced their anarchy with great precision.) Based on his observations, he came to see revolution as rather likely. Again, he wished for it to be an anarchic phenomenon: “We… understand revolution as a popular movement which will become widespread, and during which in each town and in each village within a rebellious region multitudes of people will themselves take up the task of rebuilding [perestroïka again] society.” But he put absolutely no faith in revolutionary governance: “As far as the government, whether it seized power by force or through elections… we pin absolutely no hopes on it. We say that it will be unable to do anything, not because these are our sympathies, but because our entire history tells us that never have the people whom a revolutionary wave pushed into government turned out to be up to the task.”

Based on this, I feel it safe to conclude that Kropotkin was not exactly a revolutionary but more of a scientific observer and predictor of revolutions who saw them as increasingly likely (and in this he was not wrong) and kept hoping for the best as long as he could. It also bears noting that he declined to accept every leadership role that was ever offered to him, and that his participation in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was nil: he returned to Russia from exile as soon as he could, after the revolution of February 1917, but quickly removed himself to his home town of Dmitrov, north of Moscow, where he died in 1921. He wasn\’t exactly popular with the Bolshevik leadership, but they could not touch him because he was so popular with the common people.

Leaving aside the notion that Kropotkin was a Communist with a captal ‘C’ it remains for us to show that he was not an Anarchist with a capital ‘A’ either. My own personal working definition of anarchy, which has served me well, is “absence of hierarchy.” The etymology of the word is ἀν (not, without) + ἀρχός (ruler). Kropotkin\’s own definition is as follows: “Anarchy represents an attempt to apply results achieved using the scientific method within the natural sciences to the evaluation of human institutions.” You see, there are no Commie subversives here, no bomb-throwing Anarchists with a capital ‘A’—just some scientists doing some science and then attempting to apply their very interesting results to the scientific study of human social institutions.

Next week I will attempt to elucidate the principles of anarchy that Kropotkin observed operating throughout nature, which allowed him to make the dramatic leap forward and apply them to the analysis of human institutions. And the week after, in Part III of this series, I will attempt to show how Kropotkin\’s conclusions are fully vindicated in light of recent research into complexity theory. And, since stress is such a killer nowadays, and since anticipation has been demonstrated to raise stress levels in laboratory humans, here is what I will conclude, based on the work of Kropotkin in light of the latest stunning results from research into complexity theory. I will conclude that we have two choices moving forward: I. collapse, or II. anarchy. Pick either one, they are both very nice. Stay tuned.