By S. Leon Felkins
Written 9/12/06 -- Revised 11/17/06
We Instinctively Regard Large Organizations as Organisms — and It Makes Sense to do so
"Every political system is an accumulation of habits, customs, prejudices, and principles that have survived a long process of trial and error and of ceaseless response to changing circumstances. If the system works well on the whole, it is a lucky accident — the luckiest, indeed, that can befall a society."
— Edward C. Banfield
A couple of weeks ago (November, 2006) voters expressed their disgust with government which resulted in a Democratic win at the polls. Not long after this initial exhilaration, for both citizens and political analysts, the realization started to set in that, most likely, nothing was going to change.
Some time ago, I was reading one of the many blogs devoted to the expression of disgust with the government, the loss of our rights, the trashing of the Constitution, the ever increasing growth and debt, and son on. The author of that blog, who considered himself to be a patriot and an activist, had ideas for how we might cure the problem. His primary theme was that what we needed to do was to kick the bastards out of office and replace them with folks like you and me — honest, compassionate, skilled, well-meaning folks. Such a scheme is fairly common among the activists, to some degree at least, not usually quite as naive.
Frankly, my immediate thought was "What a stupid idea — how does he know his audience would be any better?" Of course, the scheme would not work. While I admit that government and politics probably do attract a class of person that has certain undesirable characteristics, replacing them with a general slice from the population would, in my opinion, not make a whit of difference. Not in the long run, for sure.
And why that is so is the subject of this paper. Government is a system and systems tend to take on a life of their own. That is to say, systems such as the government and other purpose driven organizations tend to act like an organism - a superorganism, or living system, some would say.
When viewing systems as organisms we sometimes get a little loose in our descriptions, using such expressions as "it wants to be thus and so", or "to improve its survivability, it elects to follow some such strategy", and so on. Please understand that this is just a convenience to speak this way — it does not mean we think the system or organization is really "alive". Actually some philosophers may claim that the group of things under study may be "alive" depending on how you define "alive". My usage here, however, is just for convenience of explanation and illustration. For there are always reasons why the organism takes a certain path and these reasons are founded in basically "what survives", not on any internally planning by the organism. That is, it is a process of evolution, mostly.
Actually it is quite common for all of us to regard large organizations as an organism. We speak of the "the government", "Congress", Republicans, Democrats, a state, etc., as if it were a thing in itself. I recently bought a can of paint that had this bit of wisdom on its label:
"This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm." [emphasis added]
How else to interpret that other than the state of California is a living thing and, apparently, a helluva lot smarter than ordinary mortals in the rest of the country!
In fact we often talk about the state as if it were an organism with a finite life. That is, empires start like an infant, grow to maturity, and then seem to age and die just like animals and plants. Or, sometimes they are cut down in their prime as the Inka empire in South America was (by the Spanish empire), again just like what might befall a plant or animal.
The "organism", or blob, if you will, that I am addressing here is the state — the combination of the government and the politicians. Authors, journalists, politicians and the public commonly speak of the "state" as if were a being unto itself. A typical example is the LewRockwell.com article "Ten Righteous States" by Michael S. Rozeff. As a bonus, he also speaks of the market as if it were a thing in itself, with a purpose;
"The unhampered market maximizes well-being. The unhampered state minimizes well-being. The completely unhampered state is the most complete totalitarian tyranny. States hamper markets and diminish well-being. When citizens hamper and restrain states, they increase well-being."
The most well-known and accepted example of a process composed of a large number of active components being regarded as one macro process or organism is the so-called "invisible hand" of the marketplace, as conceived by Adam Smith (See "Markets without Makers: A Framework for Decentralized Economic Coordination in Multiagent Systems" by Torsten Eymann). The important observation of this spontaneously organized system is that it will, without any overriding control, provide what is believed to be best solution to the "market". That is, no system of human control — Communism being the largest and boldest attempt so far — has been found to be superior to the system of free market wherein the system organizes its own self.
An interesting book that looks at history with the view of large political entities being regarded as organisms is Manual De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. For example, he describes cities as organisms — with personalities:
"By contrast, speaking of concrete cities (instead of "society" in the abstract) enables us to include in our models historically emergent wholes that do not form totalities but simply larger-scale individual entities.
viewing cities as individuals allows us to study the interactions between them and the emergent wholes that may result from these interactions.
Under certain conditions, any large collection of entities can start to act like a "superorganism". Of particular interest to citizens, or victims, if you like, are the ones we call "states".
[Continued at "The Invasion of the Giant Blob: Government as a SuperOrganism, Consuming all in its Path", http://perspicuity.net/politics/govasorg.html]