No Really, What If You Were In Charge?
This is hard to introduce, so let’s get right into it. Consider the following question: Suppose you were in charge. What would you actually do? What would be your program? How would you think about the problem of governance?
People occasionally muse about such things, but I think chasing deeper and deeper answers to this question produces a significant worldview shift that is much needed in the world right now. It’s one of those loose threads.
I’m writing this at the behest of Adam Robbert, who runs The Side View, an interesting new journal exploring traditions of practice from a philosophical angle, and attention as a skill. Here I’m exploring some ideas that I want to work into my article for him.
There is a series of developmental updates you might go through in answering this question:
Non-governing Perspective to Governing Perspective.
Provincial Interests to the Perspective of Power.
Technocratic Political Dualism to a Cybernetic View of Power.
Naive to Cynical to Collective Political Consciousness.
From Material Analytic to a Spiritual Self-Ordering Framing.
I want to briefly explain what I mean by them:
Non-governing Perspective to Governing Perspective
Most of the time, people approach politics like a football game. They cheer for their side, nerd out about statistics, bond over hatred of the other guy, and disown the other half of their family.
Or they chafe under the rules, and just want power off their back so they’re free to tell offensive jokes, do business with whoever they want, and just live their lives in peace. Their experience of politics is of negative things being done to them and their friends, and wanting that to change.
Or they are a sophisticated operator. They know it’s all backroom wheeling and dealing, and the slogans are a shadow play for the people still trapped in Plato’s cave. They see it as a way to get a leg up, disadvantage their rivals, have fun in the drama, gain power, and maybe, at some point, actually do some good.
Or they revel in the power relation and the fray. They want to crush their enemies, achieve victory for their ingroup, and bring about the better society through the suppression of bad ways of being, and the promotion of good. I hear this is fashionable of college campuses these days.
These and many others are what I term non-governing perspectives. They are political, in a way, but they are not about, having taken power in hand like a woodcarving tool, knowing what to build with it.
Now that’s understandable, because they have not in fact taken power in hand, achieved a political order, and been confronted with the problem of what to do with it. Most aren’t even trying for that. Still, it’s good to think ahead.
The opposite is a governing perspective. The governing perspective starts with the assumption of a particular piece of sovereign power, a particular political order, and addresses what it should do.
Kids can answer this question: “I would make everyone wear yellow on Tuesdays, and give everyone free hamburgers. Also, littering would be illegal.” More sophisticated answers are of course possible.
The first transformation my little question is supposed to produce is to get you to adopt a governing perspective. What would you do if you were in charge?
Provincial Interests to the Perspective of Power
Ok, ok, you accept my thought experiment, and will adopt a governing perspective.
The first result of this may be to simply take your current political perspective, shaped by your own experiences and interests, and transpose it to the governing seat.
You car commute, and hate traffic, so you’ll widen that freeway and reopen that one scenic road to nonlocal traffic. You have a business interest in resource extraction, so you’ll plow ahead without this silly talk of environmental sustainability. You live in a safe neighborhood, so you don’t see any point in all this brutal policing. You own small-scale rental housing, so you don’t think the city should recklessly build low-rent slums in your backyard. You rent, so you think the state should build a massive oversupply of housing to crash the market.
These are broadly what we might term provincial interests.
We have to be careful here. Some of provincial interests are obviously dumb, but many of them are sound policies. Provincial interest is usually a bad reason to support a particular policy, but the policy might still be a good policy.
But what makes something a good policy, if not your current, necessarily provincial, interests? There are other things. Political prudence and the needs of political order and state capacity. The health of your empire and its people. The spiritual self-development of your society. We will get to these. You may already have some sympathy for them.
But for now, in this lower tier of consciousness where we think in terms of interests, consider that by now having control over the whole empire, instead of just a small corner of a small corner, your interests are fundamentally different. Your interest is now the imperial interest. Your set of concerns must now encompass the full set of concerns of the imperial state.
Now you have to rethink those positions you might have come in with. Widening the freeway? Does that solve the problem most efficiently as it is viewed by the state? What about denser housing near the core, or better public transit? On resource extraction wealth vs environmental damage, you now directly have to account for both sides of that balance. On policing, the value and costs of public order, and their variation between neighborhoods, takes on a whole new structure. On housing, you have a much more objective criterion of judgement: what is best for the polis, as viewed by the state?
This is the first major transformation after starting to consider the question: you realize that you now are operating in the perspective of the state. If you take the question seriously over a long period of re-thinking, it deeply recodes your worldview. You must empathize with power.
Many previously inexplicable policies, and things that chafed on you, start to make sense. They are hard tradeoffs from the perspective of power.
Technocratic Political Dualism to a Cybernetic View of Power
You may notice that so far, we have taken a technocratic framing, and a frame of what we might call political dualism. That is, we are implicitly assuming:
There is a hard division between state and society, rulers and ruled. The state, populated by disinterested expert social engineers, decides what is best for society, and then makes it so for a politically inert subject population.
The capabilities and responsibilities of the state are fixed a-priori. For some reason we can’t just give everybody free hamburgers, but we could build more housing. Can we go to mars? Can we change culture?
Political order can be taken for granted. The state will stay secure, and doesn’t have to worry about rebellions, traitors, or the actual logistics of regime formation and program execution.
If we’re being honest, these things are not at all assured.
The first is a dangerous fiction. It assumes and prescribes zero political agency in the subject population, which both underutilizes their actual dynamism, and demands oppression to the point of detriment even to the state. It is psychologically and socially unrealistic on the part of the rulers; they aren’t actually going to behave like that. Further, it falls by all the usual Hayekian information and knowledge arguments.
The second highly changeable, and usually underestimated. The central power of a modern society has immense ability to reshape and control nearly every aspect of life, within the constraints of knowing how to do so, getting the institutions to cooperate, and building necessary machinery. Almost nothing can be done by fiat, but almost anything can be done. The game is much more about mapping and manipulating this actual ruling structure towards a generally defined end than it is about twiddling policy knobs.
The third is wrong. Political order cannot be taken for granted. Making sure all the subordinate institutions stay subordinate, the ruling institutions stay ruling, the loyal are promoted, rebels stay suppressed, and the people support the regime isn’t some obsolete anachronism, but in fact the core concern of modern statecraft as it has always been.
So let’s describe and think of society and the state as they actually are: a teeming forest of growing and decaying institutions and conspiracies in various states of coordination with each other, the commanding hieghts of which are integrated into a semi-institutionalized semi-coherent central power, the formal parts of which we call the state. A system of information flows, power empires, social technologies, agentic network hubs, and inert resources. A complex sociopolitical narrative of legitimacy supporting and mapping a complex sociopolitical reality that it only partially resembles. A cybernetic complex system.
To update our question, what does it even mean to be in charge of such a thing?
Being in charge means being in a position of influence over a central and powerful institution. It means having a deep and fluent understanding of power, especially your own base of power. Or more realistically it means identifying yourself with an institutional machine larger than yourself, becoming an instrument of its imagination, and thinking up ideas of what to do with its power, from its own perspective.
Your set of concerns morphs. In this more cybernetic mindset, you come to focus on the institutions themselves, on building and repairing a base of power, finding new ways to extend the power to accomplish your vision, even if it means empowering others. The focus of your policies comes to be in maintaining political order, maintaining information flows, where to be agressive and where to be restrained, and preventing bad structural situations. This is very different from the initial focus on twiddling policy knobs.
Naive to Cynical to Collective Political Consciousness
We are now in the realm of having to transform our own consciousness to continue. We started with a relatively naive political consciousness. Of course we would just take the question at face value and do the right thing.
But once you were faced with the actual reality of having power, your naivety would rapidly dissolve. You start thinking about what you actually want to do, now that the question is real and there is no need to maintain pretenses of morality and virtue. You might at this point adopt a cynical self-serving mentality. The state and its power is yours, you can make it dance for you. Why not make it serve your own wants, and those of your friends? What do you want?
Fair enough. It’s a phase we must go through. Let’s note that this is what people mean when they say “power corrupts”. It doesn’t really corrupt, so much as enable the actual reality of the spirit. Sometimes that’s not the same as what you thought it was when you helped a seemingly good guy get the power in the first place.
Let’s also note that this thought experiment is a little unrealistic in light of the more cybernetic worldview and set of concerns we just developed. The state may not be receptive to your arbitrary fiat, but only to your empathic narration of its own interests. But let’s put that aside for now and see if we can get through this phase of cynical “corruption”.
Once you’ve got your golden palace and beautiful concubines, you still have the vast majority of your power and resources left over. Will you wax your personal appetites to sink into an even bigger and deeper hedonism? At some point the needs of the tiny human self are no longer interesting. Your empire is so much bigger and more capable than that. It would be like using the entire capability of your body to serve the interests of your little finger.
The fact is, the lower appetites can be solved rather cheaply. You only need so much food, sex, and space. In a healthy disposition, without weird fixations on the lower appetites, and once those needs are handled, your attention will turn to higher, and much more scalable needs: social connection, glory and esteem, knowledge, play, exploration, creativity. You have an entire empire with which to pursue these things, and an empire’s worth of people to work with in doing so. What do these things look like on a civilization scale? And once your attention is on those, the personal golden palace is revealed for a cheap simulcra of the real valuables, better left unbuilt, to put those resources into higher things, and keep your attention focused.
The other thing about these larger needs is that they are not really personal. In fact they are better shared with others. Perhaps even with your entire empire. And to pursue them as best as possible, you need your people working at peak sustainable performance. You need to govern for stability, prosperity, meaning, connection, and collective capability. And you need to narrate, and think in terms of, a collective adventure in pursuit of those higher wants. All together, you think of and pursue glory, truth, exploration, play, connection, and meaning.
In driving the attention towards this more collective framing of the problem, you need to develop a more collective consciousness about how to use power, and for what purpose.
This is what I think is the actual answer to the “power corrupts” problem: pushing through that, we find that corruption is just a lot lamer than the much more glorious alternative. The impulse to prevent power from existing is just a reactive response to our temporary lack of philosophical imagination.
That said, this transformation does depend on a certain level of philosophical imagination. Enough to viscerally realize that the personal needs are finite, and the more interesting needs are our shared needs for higher things.
From Material Analytic to a Spiritual Self-Ordering Framing
This sets us up for the final transformation of our political attention. So far we’ve mostly been analyzing this in material terms, in terms of information flows, social processes, power dynamics, and in terms of our own psychological relation to them. I think there is an alternate framing, at least once these more basic concerns are solved.
Consider the relation between the internal structuring of the self as an individual, and the internal structure of society as a collective selfhood.
The mind has many of the same problems. It is composed of a multitude of cybernetic processes capable of acting at cross purposes or coming into outright conflict with each other. It has the problem therefore of harnessing them without suppression, while maintaining some internal political order with the parts in stable hierarchical relation to each other. It has to develop a holistic self-identity where it handles the basic needs of the parts and then turns to moving as a collective body. All of these are much easier to solve in the case of the mind; the problem is simpler.
Having solved them, the mind moves on to conceiving of its problems no longer in terms of its internal mechanics, but in terms of truths, beliefs, plans, beliefs, virtues, vices, knowledge, mindfulness, flow, and spiritual harmony. That is, it moves on to a philosophical, or spiritual self-ordering framing.
This is a neat insight, but the real treasure is applying the correspondence the other way: having solved the basic conceptual foundation of rule, what if we look as society as a collective self, a collective mind, and collective body? There will still be more problems to solve. This is only the beginning. There are many problems of internal order to work out, many efficiencies to gain, much knowledge to explore, spiritual insights to pursue, decay processes to get a handle on. As well as social problems and pursuits, those problems can be approached as the internal spiritual ordering of a single mind. Virtues, knowledge, play, skills, exploration, meditation, contemplation, askesis, and enlightenment, but as a collective self.
I don’t know the details of what this will look like, its internal organization, or entirely how to get there from here, but this is my utopian vision of the ideal future of human society, and the result of taking seriously the question of rule. It is the starting point of our further collective spiritual and practical development.
Conclusion and Disclaimers
If one is going to think seriously about politics, I regard this series of attentional transformations as table stakes. The game is ultimately about fleshing out the details, fitting ourselves into this story, and building this perspective as an institutionally embodied social force.
Even in quite primitive stages of development, such as that we currently find ourselves in, this full framing of society as a self, subject to askesis and internal self-ordering, seems productive. An ancient city state could have rulers and citizens thinking in this way just as well as we can, and as well as our descendents will be able to. These are not stages in historical development, but stages in the conceptual development of a discourse grappling with the problem of rule.
I am sure some will regard engagement with these questions, and my final utopianism, as dangerous, or anti-individual. Let us therefore be exceedingly careful, and not give any further reason to shy away from this kind of thinking. And let’s note that the individual, individual judgement, and local use of local information for local ends, remains a central ordering principle of any functional society. Let’s also note that this is all, especially the latter parts, rather speculative. But let us also not shy away, as we have for so long, from grappling with the problem of rule, and targeting a philosophy of rule based on collective selfhood, and collective striving.