Power Through the People

by Wholesome Rage | 13 September 2018

[Transcript Follows]

It’s a little bit tricky to write. There’s been a lot of unrelated thoughts on this one clicking together, and the problem with that is it makes it difficult to think which thought is the important one, or the best starting point, to work forwards from.

Maybe a good starting point would be the issue of human collaboration.

On the one hand it’s obvious to say that groups act differently to individuals, but it’s less obvious to say one of the reasons is because individuals will act in ways that they know are bad for a whole group. In Australia, as one example, we have a serious problem with overprescription of antibiotics. All our doctors, individually, know that overprescription of antibiotics is causing far more dangerous strains of diseases to spread. If you asked any individual doctor, they’d say that obviously everyone should use less antibiotics.

But they will also keep prescribing antibiotics ‘just to be safe’ for their own patients.

This happens because what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people is often not the greatest good for any individual. The collaboration of large groups often depends on a lot of people acting against their own perceived self-interest. This is where prisoner’s dilemmas and trust theory comes into it.


Namely, the behaviour of individuals will be influenced by the behavior of the larger system they operate in, and the incentives they’re offered within it. So if you want to get people to co-operate, you need to make sure that people are either rewarded for co-operating, or punished.

In the antibiotics case the doctors are doing what’s best for their patients, even though it’s bad for society. This is because there is incentive for them to do so — at the very least, it makes their patients feel better than being told to go away and wait to get better on their own, and that makes the doctor’s life easier — and no punishment to them personally. There’s no punishment or reprimand, just the vague sense of unease.

Incentives are a lot more important to individuals than the overall good. Large systems don’t even need to represent the will of the majority of the individuals in it. Many exist to funnel resources from the most people possible people to the hands of the fewest people possible.

Dictatorships perform worse than democracies, so it’d be in everyone’s best interest to live in a democracy. Dictatorships still exist because they use the control of a military to steal from citizens for the ruling class, who use that wealth to pay the military and its necessary bribes. Dictatorships are worse and poorer countries for it, but everybody with the power to change that system directly benefits from its existence. To change it would require the military to act against its own self-interest.

The ultimate, overriding goal of any large system is its continued survival. The fact that most of the individuals are harmed by it doesn’t change that. The fact that the system survives is also not a compliment to that system or power structure.

So something beneficial for the system can be harmful to even most of the people in it. Without those big systems of power, though, we can only ever have individual doctors overprescribing antibiotics so to completely eradicate large systems wouldn’t be good, or even possible in the long term. It’s why I think it’s important and interesting to ask: Why and how do these large power structures form?

One of the most common reasons is that there’s a big, easily understood threat. Something where individual action just isn’t enough or can’t work.

Actually, let’s explain it like this. Let’s treat real life like a MMORPG in a total PVE server. I don’t mean World of Warcraft either, I mean something like DayZ. Everyone can stab everyone else in the back. Attempting to work together isn’t just a risk and trust problem, it’s also having to share your loot with them. If the loot would be coming out of the strongest player’s share, then isn’t working with anyone weaker than you a net loss?

A lot of people are compelled to act as individuals, as while it’s not the best outcome for the most people, it’s the best outcome that everyone can negotiate for themselves.

But what happens when you introduce the concept of a raid boss, something that’s designed to be a challenge to even ten players working together? Something like that wandering around and gibbing every player it sees.

This is going to unite people to work together to take on the threat. It’s now better for every individual to pool their resources to work together because it cannot be taken on as an individual. Backstabbing your teammates while you’re doing this, too, just seems a good way to get killed by the boss. Every individual’s best outcome is now tied to the success of the group.

Sure, there might be infighting. As the boss’s health bar goes down, there might be a few weaker team mates who get picked off because the need for their strength is outweighed by the greed for their share of the loot. Or just because you don’t like them. But, overall, you’ve still got a group of people working together where they simply wouldn’t have before.

When the boss is killed and the loot is shared, that team doesn’t have to go their own separate ways either. The big problem was risking trusting people, of getting them together. Now that they’re actually together… Well, aren’t they a lot more powerful like this? Why not just go steamroll everyone else?

Who could stop them?

It’s thought that there are over a hundred thousand active members of the Yakuza crime syndicate world-wide. The Triad in China are even larger, even spreading as the Tong to the US, like the Italian mafia spread from Italy. These groups can be huge, sprawling, highly co-ordinated, and are largely comprised of members who are absolutely going to act in their self-interest. They’re crime syndicates, that’s… basically the point of them.

There’s a ton of risk in them. More importantly, there’s a huge amount of risk in organizing them. Which is probably why every group I just listed started out as community policing efforts in minority groups, groups that were not receiving protection by or from their state.

These groups didn’t form with the desired end goal of becoming a crime syndicate. The Yakuza are still largely made up of societal outcasts, like families that came from butchers, leatherworkers and executioners, from gamblers and from smugglers. The Tong and the Italian Mafia were the recognized authorities within those communities for dealing with criminals. They held a monopoly on violence by taking protection money and taking out competitors.

We can see this happen in our lifetimes with the Crips in Southern California. There’s a reason that the over-50,000 strong gang started out as a youth group for poor teens, to give them something to do, to clean up local crime. CRIP is actually an acronym for Community Reform Interparty Service.

So what happens? Well, the original problem gets defeated, but not the underlying causes – poverty, ostracizing of the minority group, absence of law enforcement. As a result disorganized crime is replaced by organized crime, with the structure that allows it to operate in things like smuggling and protection instead of petty theft and mugging. Those more violent crimes will usually be discouraged, even. It’s part of what makes them look better than what they’re replacing.

The organization gives power to the individuals to do things they couldn’t otherwise, but has long forgotten its original purpose of preventing crime. Why? Well… by achieving it, they’ve removed all incentives to not be criminals. They’ve lived in a place where existing law wasn’t doing anything before, and it’s much harder to deal with a crime syndicate. They operate in poor communities, which means that the money you can make from crime is pretty appealing.

Few people in those communities see peoples’ lives truly get better from hard work and education, that truly lifts them out of their community. But they see that the local dealer has a much nicer car than anyone else.

With me so far? Good. Cool. So that’s about how these groups form (people need collective power to take on a problem) and why they’re not confined to that problem (once that power is organized it doesn’t go away). The end result is that the new coalition of power is used for the benefit of the powerful against the powerless.

There’s a next part to this that I find interesting though, which is power vacuums. Namely, if these groups form to fix a problem, why did that problem exist? Why did the Crips have to form to clean up gangs in the 60s when the US had an ostensibly robust police force?

Well, in those communities, more than 99% of the police force was white. Their job wasn’t to prevent crime in those communities, but to keep black people to their poor areas and enforce redlining laws. The crime within those areas wasn’t considered a problem by the state unless it affected white people.

The Black Panthers are an interesting parallel to this because they tried to attack the underlying problems; That is, instead of forming to stop crime, they formed to attack the underlying causes of crime. Poverty, housing and food insecurity, racism. The Black Panthers might have encouraged armament and a distrust of the police but it is highly unlikely to say that they would have followed the path taken by the Crips.

What the Black Panthers took from their Maoist roots was an awareness of power and hierarchy. Their founding wasn’t just reactionary, like the Crips, but a planned and educated political framework. They especially seemed to take to Mao’s firm belief that political power grew out of a gun: The goal of their community policing project was largely to police the police themselves. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, to quote Batman.

This is important, because it means that their problem wasn’t individuals, or a static objective. The problem they were dealing with was the existing power structure that they operated in. it was also a zero sum game: Everyone who decided to be for the Black Panthers had to be against the US Government.

Regardless of whether you believe the assertion this would not have ended in just another organized crime syndicate — it must be stressed that the Black Panthers were successful in calling for ceasefires between gangs on the condition of fighting poverty as a common enemy— here we see a difference in the formation of even the Crips from the same time period, from the same population.

The Crips formed in an absence of state power. The Black Panthers formed to oppose it.

The ultimate goal of any system of power is its self-perpetuation. This is why the Crips survive, because while they’re bad for everyone and their communities, they don’t meaningfully challenge the state. The Black Panthers were crushed by co-ordinated efforts from the FBI and local police forces, despite their efforts largely being devoted to community clinics, school lunch programs and other net social goods.

The ruthlessness with which these groups were dealt with, then, isn’t a reflection of their ‘good’ or ‘bad’ factors, but effectively how much they were perceived as a legitimate threat to the State. The Crips might hurt the State, but it isn’t a threat. The Black Panthers helped a lot of the people that make up the larger system of the State, but they’re a threat to the continuation of that system. At least an ideological one, it’s hardly like Fred Hampton was going to overthrow Washington DC.[1]

Okay. So where are we up to now?

Groups form to deal with a problem that benefits those individuals to deal with, but can’t be dealt with by individual action. This creates a system of power that can be used to deal with the original problem, but can stick around afterwards, which can be a big problem depending on what the incentives are for that group’s use of power. If that group doesn’t threaten a stronger power, it can probably keep going. If, however, it does threaten one, it needs to either go big or get crushed..

Revolutions happen when the alternative power that challenges the state is stronger than the state. Oh, and that coalition has to be careful not to reveal itself too early, or in too many pieces, or it’ll be crushed by the already established one.

But so far we’ve gone with power that’s easy to understand, the kind that grows out of the barrel of a gun. But there are alternative kinds of power! The war for hearts and minds, certainly, but capital can be a weapon as much as an objective.

This is where we get to #MeToo, a movement that has been wielding a lot of alternative power despite a distinct lack of activists storming Hollywood with AK47s. In Australia, from what data I can find, only 3% of reported rape cases end in a conviction. The demands for evidence and assurance of guilt in the traditional justice system simply make the nature of the crime really difficult to prosecute. Harder still when false accusations do happen, rape convictions destroy lives, and these people are in a position of power that would make an accusation out of spite so plausible.

At the same time, it’s obvious that sexual harassment and serial predation has been happening in Hollywood, and that there are a lot of victims, but the accused have been getting away with it for decades.

So we see the absence of justice, and the level of power needed to deal with those accused. They’re wealthy Hollywood elites with entrenched institutional power. But it’s a problem because the absence of justice can be caused by… well, good reasons. It’s not arbitrary oppression, it’s not wealth extraction, it’s that a robust legal system with the restrictions you need on them to protect the many cannot be utilized to deal with the few. And the solution shouldn’t be to remove those protections for reasons I’ll get back to in a moment.

So #MeToo is a massive coalition of very dilute power. No individual in it has particular agency over it, but the threat of the social and financial power of that many people is significant. As a result, they can protect the accusers who would otherwise be vulnerable to retribution, and they can deal heavy financial and social penalties to the accused that is completely outside the bounds of the established system.

So far so good.

But here we get to the final idea I think I want to cover here, which is that this power is a weapon, and it’s not always in the hands of the people that provide it. This means it can be manipulated or abused in the same way.

This is why the legal system has the safeguards that prevent so many convictions: To minimize the risk that someone can use the state as weapon against someone else.

Even if most of the individuals that give it power disagree, they’re bound to the system they’ve created. And that system even existing is a problem to anyone who would risk appearing to be a target. Again: It doesn’t matter whether what you do is good or bad, it’s predicated on not wanting to step on the bigger guy’s toes.

#MeToo as a movement, right now, is a huge coalition of soft power with the incentive to eliminate rape culture in the entertainment industry. I mean, everywhere, but specifically people with a platform. This has been great in taking down Weinstein, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. Hopefully it’ll take down Brian Singer at some point too.

So what do we make of James Gunn’s firing?

This is interesting to me. The existence of this movement has made Disney sensitive to the idea of a backlash which hadn’t even happened yet when it cut ties with director James Gunn. A man has been non-personed because of insensitive, dumb tweets he made a decade ago. Shock humour, problematic to the Disney brand? Sure, but they’d have absolutely known about it when they hired him. His past was hardly a secret. The guy made Slither back then.

What brought it to their attention, though, was concern-trolling by alt-right groups. That’s who originally highlighted the tweets. Gunn’s firing was a motivated political attack using the #MeToo movement as its club. The fact that they didn’t do it directly doesn’t change that, because their existence is the threat. The right wing groups spoke softly, and pointed at someone else’s big stick.

The reasons #MeToo formed were to fill a justice vacuum. But the tools it needed to be effective — trust accusers first and prove innocence later — are the ones that make it so dangerous and open to abuse, and so likely to be used against actually innocent people.

So is the solution to say movements like #MeToo shouldn’t happen?

I don’t think so. I think it’s better to try to find the underlying problems that cause these groups to form in the first place. Very few people start out trying to be the bad guy. And when these groups have already formed, it becomes obvious why someone would want to join them: Do you want to have a share of the power, or be a victim to it?

A computer scientist friend of mine said something that I think is really interesting, when he was talking about something called goal alignment. Artificial intelligence is going to happen, he says, and quite possibly in our lifetimes. The trick is figuring out how to make the AI want to be on our side on its own. Goal alignment is about figuring out how to make the god-machine want what’s best for us.

But the most interesting part was this, to quote him liberally:

“We aren’t facing this problem for the first time, but have in fact failed at goal alignment before
when we created an analog AI, called a “corporation”, whose goals are, it is evident, rapidly diverging from those of common humanity. Even the bits of humanity that make up the gears and levers and springs and things of the AI. […] The corporation neither loves you nor hates you, but your life runs on money it could use for profit.”

I think it’s also important, if you’re a part of these larger groups or you’re trying to form one, to look at exactly what behaviour is incentivized. Once that much power is gathered, it’s really hard to stop it. And the primary goal of that system of power, before all others and no matter how harmful it is, is going to be the continuation of the system.

[1] Postscript: This isn’t to imply that the government doesn’t use ruthless tactics against gangs. A lot of unconstitutional laws were passed to deal with them, including “broken window” tactics.

This is more to suggest that the power used against them represents their threat to the legitimacy of the system. The level of wealth redistribution needed to actually deal with the underlying causes of gang crime is way more of a problem to the state than retributive policing that just treats symptoms.

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