Take Back Control From Fate Itself, Research Time, 02/05/2017

Today’s title looks like a Brexit joke nearly a year out of date. Hard to believe that it’s only six or seven weeks until the one year anniversary of a vote that will likely leave a lot of Britain in a serious bind.

Especially since I discovered over the weekend that the May government seems completely deluded about how the Brexit process will even work.

Control is sometimes what most concerns us in politics. When I say sometimes, I mean quite often, really. Political action is most often about negotiating different interests in who has control over what – and occasionally forcing open the subject.

The biggest fear about globalization, especially since the Seattle protests of 1999, was what would happen to the countries of the world when economic forces on a planetary scale eventually overwhelmed their government's power to keep things in control.

Meanwhile, the biggest rhetorical push for globalization came from the new liberal think tank circuit – a combination of Mt Pelerin ideology and occasional Koch Brothers money. If free markets are the necessary condition for a free people, then a global free market will set the conditions for a global democracy.

That vision isn’t working out too well, for a whole host of reasons. But I want to talk in a larger sense today about that desire for control. Two decades ago, the radical left was sending out the message of taking back control of your country from globalizing economic forces and agencies. Now, it’s the nationalist right.

The dream of taking control is a dream of power over everyone else.
This is the danger of the human drive for freedom. If you believe that
freedom can only be secured by preventing anyone from harming
you or interfering with you, it can easily lead you to think the
solution for freedom is to overpower everyone else. You may not
be wrong, but it's very likely that you're not right.
But it’s a common human urge. It’s frightening to surrender your life to forces beyond your control. It’s even more frightening to understand that your life has always been subject to forces beyond your control.

Greek tragedy is the celebration of this terror, probably our culture’s most direct confrontation with the terror of fate. Different art and philosophy over the last few thousand years have grappled with it, but Greek tragedy is probably the most intense effort.

Throughout the Discourses on Livy, and his body of written work more generally, Machiavelli admits that fate is the background on which he writes. It’s one of the paradoxes that arise between his popular reputation and the nuance of his actual thinking.

Machiavelli is often stereotyped as the philosopher of dictators’ morality. The blunt instrument of control and order that is authoritarianism, which culminated in the totalitarian states of the 20th century.

Yet fate – chance, the complexity of a world beyond immediate human understanding – is the centrepiece of Machiavelli’s account of the world. The wise political leader isn’t someone who can exercise control over reality from his leadership of his state.

Someone who thinks they can control the forces of reality – whether the duke of a principality or the emperor of a globe-spanning sprawl of military might – is a laughable fool who’s heading for their own ruin.

We can ask ourselves what it means to accept fate power over you, to put
yourself in the hands of reality's own flow. I don't think this is the best
imagery to express the convergence of fatalism, passivity, resignation, and
inner peace. No, not right at all.
It isn’t that Machiavelli necessarily thinks humanity can never learn in a scientific sense how the world works. We can learn the nature of the laws, forces, and relationships among processes that constitute the world’s chaotic flows, of course.

Speaking from the 1530s, Machiavelli was pretty neutral on the subject, though the Renaissance was a time of general optimism. But today, we’ve made a lot of progress in this regard, understanding economic and ecological processes that operate on global scales.

But that doesn’t mean we’re any better at predicting events on an individual scale within that massive, complex ocean of reality. Even in the relatively simple Newtonian physics, the mathematics of mutual influence gets too complicated for humans to follow simply by introducing three bodies into a system.

Now imagine all of Earth.

No, the real great power of human action in politics, economy, life in general, mess that it is, is very different from perfect knowledge of everything. It’s knowledge of the little signs that circumstances are vulnerable to a small action.

A brief push here, a little tug there. That the proper kind of small action for a complex situation can have some very good effects for you. Machiavelli found himself, in meditating on the ancient Greek notion of fate, flowing in parallel to the dominant conception of knowledge in Chinese thinking.

It’s also become a popular conception of knowledge in the West, as the ontological and epistemic ideas of nonlinear mathematics – the sciences of chaos or intensity – have seeped into popular culture. Butterfly effects, and all that.

Political knowledge – genuine effectiveness – is the knowledge to act. The knowledge of how to identify what about a situation that can change only slightly to produce incredible advantages for you. Politics as kung fu. As the conquest, however brief and fleeting, of fate.

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