Political and Professional Ethics and the Suspicious Nature of Specialization

Can politics be moral? It seems to me there are three basic approaches to this question existing on a spectrum, the naive moralist approach, the cynical nihilist’s approach, and the “statesman’s” approach.

The naive moralist says that yes politics can be moral in the ordinary sense of that word and it’s a great shame that so many politicians are not moral. It’s then very much the public’s responsibility to hold immoral political actors to account and promote moral political actors.

The cynical nihilist’s approach says that no politics is a dog eat dog world, and fundamentally corrupting such that no politician could ever succeed by being moral. The nihilist might encourage us to turn away from politics or merely excuse the decisions of politicians as simply the way of the world encouraging us to realize that if at the very least we don’t want the other guys to have the big red button we’ll have to learn to live with what needs to be done.

The statesman’s approach is to say that politics can be moral but that there is a distinct morality to politics. It’s not simply that anything goes or that the ends justify the means. But rather, the fact that making decisions on behalf of a public and exercising the coercive force of that public raises distinct questions from private morality. What might seem intolerable for an individual to do on their on behalf may become justifiable for reasons (whether those are rooted in the consequences, the rights of the parties, some contract, the role of a political leader, or something else) that a private individual could not access. A simple example of this might be that a private individual could never be responsible for deciding the rules of the road in a way that a public authority could be and therefore could not be justified in the same way for pursuing and sanctioning individuals for violating their preferred rules.

It could be argued that a similar spectrum follows other professions such as lawyers. Some would argue lawyers must be held to ordinary standards of individual morality. Whereas others insist that there is a morality to the practice of law distinctive to it, e.g. remaining silent about the guilt of an individual, etc.

The interesting pattern to be observed here is that when we insist on an autonomous field or professional morality, really what we’re counting on is the individual’s suspension of their individuality. That is, they cease to make decisions as a holistic individual, since to do so would invite having one’s actions subject to the holistic network of principles and rules and relationships that govern morality as a whole. Instead, they adopt the posture of a specialist, making decisions according to that role and attracting the distinctive moral code of that profession. This dichotomy is so strong that even if one makes the same decision for private as one would make for professional reasons (e.g. a politician passes a law because of his daughter’s disapproval of the alternative, or a lawyer defends her client with zeal because of a romantic relationship) one would have to conclude there was a certain immorality to the action, a certain conflict.

This logic, much akin to the market rationale that if businesspeople only pursue the bottom line and do not cloud their business judgment with private moral concerns society will be better off as a whole, betrays the specialized structure modernity necessarily imposes on morality. In some sense, the balkanized nature of ethics among professionals stems from this conviction that through the specialized pursuit of various ends some kind of integrated public good emerges superveniently.

If that public good never does seem to emerge, it may be tempting than to subsume the specialization of the individual to a more integrated personality. Nevertheless, taking such a reductive approach to ethics it seems to me would “level the playing field” at the expense of disfiguring it and what would be lost would be the truly distinctive moral problems and features that come out of being faced with certain kinds of problems, having a certain responsibility in them.

Treating Indigenous Law as Law and Not “History”: Beyond a Fact-Value Distinction

Giving “the Aboriginal perspective” equal weight in the law means taking Indigenous law seriously as law. One of the barriers to this is the reduction of Indigenous legal claims to claims about history, which can be seen in cases such as Tsilhkot’in and Marshal. Prof. John Borrows, as well as others, have briefly set out ways to think about the distinction between law and history so as to make clear that Indigenous law must be treated separately and on its own terms.

In the first part of the paper linked below, I argue that the attempted distinctions between law and history have relied on the “is-ought” (or “fact-value”) distinction used in ethics and the philosophy of social science. I explain this distinction and analyze whether it is tenable both in itself and as a grounds for separating out Indigenous law so it can be dealt with on its own terms. I conclude that ultimately it cannot do justice to “the Aboriginal perspective” because it is both theoretically flawed and the ontology on which it relies already denies “the Aboriginal perspective”. Nevertheless, building on the distinction, in the second part of this paper, I argue for a way to think of the distinction between law and history which will offer a principled approach to separating out Indigenous law and dealing with it on its own terms. I argue for an “incapable of external corroboration” test which will offer a short-hand for the many nuanced ways in which law and history can be distinguished.

TL;DR If you want to know if someone is making a historical claim or a legal claim ask “Is the statement being made on behalf of (i.e. as an authoritative pronouncement of) a legal system by someone authorized to speak for it? Is it a statement which could be corroborated by someone outside of that legal system or is it essentially non-falsifiable except by people authorized within the legal system operating according to the rules of that system?”

You can read the paper here.

The Ethos of a Caring Organization

In her seminal work, “Moral Boundaries”, Joan Tronto identifies four elements of an ethics of care:

  • Attentiveness: Care is about responding to need, so it makes sense that it would begin by being able to spot need.
  • Responsibility: Before one can address a need, one must take responsibility for addressing it.
  • Competence: To care ethically one must do so effectively.
  • Reciprocity: Ethical care giving is not just one way, the care giver must hear from the recipient to know they have really been effective.

How can this ethic be manifested at the organizational level?

An attentive organization is an organization in a constant state of needs assessment. Needs assessment studies shouldn’t just be one off studies that an organization does occasionally, or even frequently. Rather the very structure and work flow of the organization must put it in the constant position of assessing the needs of the communities it serves. This should inform everything from how an organization takes in and stores information (e.g. what information does it ask for on its contact us page? Does it have a client relation management system built with this in mind?) to the regular synthesis and use of that information to constantly improve its services.

A responsible organization has a fluid scope of service and a networked approach. One of the classic ways in which bureaucracies fail to take responsibility for the needs of others, even when it is confronted directly by them, is by saying “that’s not our department.” or “that’s outside the scope of our work.” Of course, there are many good reasons why organizations have limited scopes and mandates, from ensuring the organization remains focused to ensuring services are indeed within the competence of the organization. A scope of work that is too flexible is a recipe for overwhelming the caregiver. How can an organization take responsibility for a need while avoiding these pitfalls? Firstly, if it is engaged in a constant needs assessment and using that information, it should be regularly questioning the boundaries and focus of its services. But secondly, and probably more realistically and immediately practically, it should be fully equipped to refer people to others and have a meaningful relationship with those others to ensure the individuals get the care they need.

A competent organization is a learning organization. Taking responsibility for a growing array of needs whether through direct service or referral means committing to constant learning, both the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and context required to deliver the services, but also building the names, relationships, and trust to discern who else can deliver competent care. Fundamentally, therefore a caring organization must be constantly learning. The idea of a learning organization is by now well developed. What situating it in an ethics of care framework does is give a direction for the learning as well as priorities for who to learn from and how to learn from them.

A reciprocal organization is governed or at least accountable to the people it serves. Joan Tronto’s more recent work has built on this fourth point to talk about how ethical care is democratic. Indeed, this resonates more directly with caring organizations than with individuals I think. Not only do organizations needs to constantly “evaluate” how they’re doing (part of being engaged in a permanent needs assessment), but they need to actually be accountable to the people they serve. The most robust way to manifest this accountability is indeed democratically, i.e. the people served should actually have governance rights either directly as members or in some other capacity. In this way the governance-operations divide should be broken down.

Ultimately, this is just a theoretical framework. Practice is the hard part.

The Beast Along the Way

My child, you are old enough now that I can tell you the fire is getting closer. Soon, our village will be completely consumed. You, no doubt, feel it. The young are intuitive in that way although they do not really understand what it is they feel.

So you have come to me because you want to know about the Golden City? Perhaps you are right. There is no hope for us here, but they say that the light of that pure place will cleanse the world if only one can attain it.

You were smart in coming to me. It’s not so much that the old know better. There is not a living soul who has seen the City and I am no exception. Yet we are closer to the legends and have failed longer than you. It is more from our failure than anything else that you can learn. The young are foolish to think that because they have not yet failed they have some special insight. Good then, with the time we have left together, let me tell you about the time I tried to reach the Golden City.

As it happens, I was about your age and there was a famine in the entire world. It is a wonder anyone survived at all. Like you, I had grown up with the stories. I knew that at the edge of the world there was a chasm so vast and so deep that even an eagle could fly all its life and not even see to the other side. It is a vast sea of nothingness and there is no way around it. The wise ones have concluded that there are only two ways across it. One must either ride the Beast one meets along the way or one must raise one’s own Beast.

Now, as a youth, I certainly tried to raise my own Beast. At that time it was quite fashionable. But you understand they get so hungry so very quickly and I spent my time dreaming of its great powerful wings and what the wind would feel like as we lifted up. I could hear the cheer of not just our village but every village everywhere as the shadow of my great Beast engulfed them all. As I dreamed, my Beast quickly starved to death. It did not occur to me that perhaps I needed help.

But raising Beasts was a mere childish hobby. It was not until the famine took hold that I realize I had no choice. I set out to go meet the Beast along the way. I had barely left the village when I could already hear its breathing miles away. I shuddered at the thought it. My child, there are only two types of people who ever go to see the Beast along the way: those who are desperate and those clever and sly devils who believe they can turn it to their ends. As it happens, I was both.

The journey was long but the path was clear. I sometimes forgot my hunger to marvel at all the places where people used to live. The closer I got the stronger the walls of the towns seemed to get. One seemed ravaged by the famine. Another seemed ravaged by those Creatures that come from the woods, or perhaps it was the Beast along the way, or perhaps it was both. The Beast has an odd way, you know, of sometimes protecting us and sometimes destroying us.

Days and nights passed before I reached it. At first, I could see it from far away as just a heaving mass. Its sheer enormity made me weak. As I came closer, with slower and slower steps, more and more details became apparent, though these details did more to obscure the Beast and the way than to reveal either to me. One day, I finally reached it.

I looked at it, unsure of what to do next. It looked at me too. Well in a way it looked at me. You see it has more eyes than I could ever count. Some were dozing, some were grinning, others seemed to be fixed on a point in the distance in every direction, still others looked at me suspiciously.

I stood there for a little while like a fool. I could hear the sound of a thousand voices, barking orders to birds, musing calmly with foxes, laughing and singing to an audience I could not see. Somehow, through this cacophony of voices, I heard one that seemed to be directed towards me. Since the Beast had more mouths than it had even eyes, I could not be sure at all where the voice was coming from or where I should address myself. Since I could not seem to pair most of the voices with most of the mouths many of the voices seemed to come from nowhere. The voice said as follows, “What have you brought me?”

You understand, my child, Beasts are always hungry. One must know precisely what to feed a Beast if one is to have any hope of getting anywhere with it. Yet when I asked, none of the elders in our village seemed to know what the Beast along the way actually eats. I made my best guess and brought along what I like to eat, which is a special dish of our people. I took it out from my bag to show the Beast but could not understand if there was any response at all.

I summoned all of my courage and began to approach it. What was to stop it from eating me, I wondered. As I got closer, I began to notice under its thick glossy coat of fur, how many legs it had. And what strange legs they were– almost human with feet pointed every which way. It was a wonder the Beast moved at all. And though it may have just been the light, it seemed to me it was growing more feet by the second. I did not know what to make of any of this my child at the time, and even now all I have are theories that you do not need to hear.

As I approached, I was surprised to find that there was nothing monstrous or rotting about the smell of its breath. I could only describe it as stale, as if the air had been all used up. My child, I tell you these things because many people tell stories of the Beast who have not really met it along the way and though there is more in it that is grizzly and monstrous then could ever be told in a story, yet story-tellers have a way of adding still more. Still others perhaps did take some road to it that came to an entirely different more monstrous face. For my own part, I think it is fitting that you know my small experience of it exactly as I have met it. But understand there are others.

I came right up to it when it occurred to me that I still had no clue what mouth to offer my modest offering to. Did they all go to a single stomach? I looked in one mouth on what was very much like a human head. Its tongue was dry and teeth rotted out. It seemed to lazily hang open and I wondered if it was dead. I looked in another mouth much larger than the first. It seemed to constantly gnash whether out of hunger or compulsion. Though it opened and closed rapidly, I noticed that its teeth appeared to once have been sharp yet they had been filed down by someone.

It was then I realized I wasn’t alone. A jackal whistled at me, as if to say “do you like my work?”. I began to notice all around the Beast were wolves and deer and birds of different kinds. Some suckled at its many teats. Others seemed to whisper secrets in its ears. They seemed somehow to take refuge with it. The posture of each animal was one of reverential submission. And yet, as soon as one of the Beast’s many eyes closed, a bird would steal the food right out of its mouth and a wolf would swipe at it. My child, all my life I have lived with the ordinary deceit of human beings but I have never seen anything so brazen before or since.

A friendly enough mouth opened wide and I was called back to my task. I gently tossed the food into it and waited. It seemed to be months before I saw some legs shuffle and much excrement emerge that gave me the feeling the offering was the cause. In truth though, my child, I do not really know. I wondered then how I could ride a Beast if I could not discern what my actions had to do with it.

If the excrement was indeed due to my offering, then it appeared I had made a mistake. Just because we like a dish, does not mean it will agree with the Beast’s digestive system. If you are going to feed a Beast, it is that system above all else that you must understand. So I began to experiment. I would search for different things from the woods and surrounding places and feed the different mouths at different times my various goods. Months passed and I began to discern that the wolves and birds seemed to be doing the same thing. I wondered occasionally about the famine but above all needed to find that recipe that would get the Beast to move. For now, it did not matter where so long as I could understand it. Indeed, I did not even know where I would take the Beast if I ever succeeded, but that could be figured out later.

One night, as I slept (some ways away from it), I dreamt of murdering the wolves and the birds. How much simpler it would be if it were only the Beast and me. Yet then I remembered my poor little Beast and how quickly it had died.

I awoke that morning feeling sorry for it. Surrounded as it was by traitors and hangers-on. What did they want from it? They did not seem to be on the way to any Golden City. Why torture the poor Beast with their constant prodding and feeding? This is what you must know my child, there is no creature stronger than it and no creature more fragile than it.

As I looked on the poor Beast filled with its sadness and pain, I noticed at its feet emerging out of the dust all the bones. There were Beasts before it that it had devoured and many people besides. Indeed, surely any youth with enough vigor and cunning to raise their own would have had to come this way. No doubt this Beast consumed them all.

Perhaps an eye had fixed on me and seen all these thoughts because a voice again came as if from nowhere, “Clever child. Perhaps it is time now that you join me.” And in that moment I thought two things. I wondered what the world would look like from atop the Beast and remembered our village that I had so quickly forgotten. It was winter now and the famine was surely as bad as it could be. Indeed, though I fed the Beast much, very little of what it ate was suitable for me. I realized that I could not carry this on much longer so if I planned to ever reach the Golden City, I must move now.

I ran to its side and gripped its strange oily fur. A strange look of pleasure seemed to cross each eye I stared into as the mouths around me licked their lips. The fur was warm and the Beast’s body broke the wind. Indeed, within moments it seemed I was making the right decision.

And yet, as I climbed higher, I began to notice arms of other creatures caught in the Beast’s fur. Just like me they seemed to climb with the idea of perhaps riding it somewhere, commanding it, and yet here they were. I could not stomach it and fortunately the Beast along the way seemed to lose focus. I slowly climbed down and returned to the village.

So you see my child, I do not really know how to get to the Golden City, But you know, we also have a much older tradition that the Messiah will come riding on a donkey.

The Queen’s Gambit, Batman, and the Fantasy of the Human Instrument

The Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, at least in the first couple of episodes, seems to me to be a bit like Batman. An orphan is lost and alone and finds meaning in the wholehearted dedication to a single purpose. Whether it’s fighting crime or playing chess, both seem to be a dramatic illustration of Viktor Frankl’s principle “one who has a why to life can endure any how”.

Frankl’s proposition seems particularly compelling in environments where a person is deprived of “everything else” (a bit of a stretch for Bruce Wayne, I know). It is their total deprivation that allows them to become an instrument, in the sense of having a single purpose.

I don’t know where the show is going. For example, I don’t know whether the single purpose will be a jumping board from which the protagonist will grow into a well-rounded person. It could be. But it seems to me now that other interests, namely boys, are portrayed mainly as a threat.

In any case, it seems to me that these heroes are essentially embodiment of modernity’s ideal of specialization and the rationalization of labour. We all occupy a spectrum from generalist (having many moral commitments and needs requiring a more or less wide variety of knowledge, skills, judgment, and sensitivities to meet) to specialists (excelling in some particular thing that contributes to the larger whole of society in a way which relieves others of requiring any knowledge in the matter).

The people we look to as heroes are generally people who sacrificed a great deal in most of their moral commitments in order to do something exceptional in some one area. I don’t know if there are any films or television shows made about the “great generalists”. Indeed, the people who spend their lives rejecting the specialized nature of modern society (e.g. homesteaders) have themselves really just become just another kind of specialist. This is evidenced by the fact that to accomplish the ideal of self-sufficiency one necessarily has to extricate oneself from the tangled morally compromised web of moral commitments one is born into in society.

What would a film or show about a truly great generalist look like? How can a society produce what is it not even capable of portraying fictionally?

Dewey’s idea of liberal education gets us some way there. (I wish somebody would make a film about his life!) But that remains a masculine generalism of privileged irresponsibillity. Perhaps a film like Mamele might be the answer, except it’s entirely personal in its politics.

Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again–OR–On Perpetual Crisis and Productive Nostalgia

Before there was the CW series Riverdale, there was the 1990 made-for-TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again“. The film is a hilariously awful and vacuous depiction of the gang in their mid 30s returning to their hometown. Notwithstanding how bad it is, I think it can’t help but teach us something about crisis and the productive potential of nostalgia.

The film begins with Archie and his non-descript yuppie fiancee, Pam. They are getting ready to move to “the city” where Archie will practice law at a big firm. Before he goes, however, he must attend a Riverdale High reunion weekend. Jughead, a divorced, single dad psychiatrist, will also be there, as will, you guessed it, Betty and Veronica. Betty has her own non-descript scumbag boyfriend (aptly named “Bob Miller” thank you very much) and Veronica has been through countless fiancees and 3-4 marriages. They’re all unhappy in this post Riverdale future.

High jinks ensues. They save Pop’s diner from being bull-dozed. Betty and Veronica throw themselves at Archie, who sort of resists them. Jughead tells Archie his inability to choose is due to a retrogressive fixation on the past. When Archie suggests he’s moving on, Jughead tells him he’ll miss the old Archie. When Archie points out Jughead is contradicting himself, Jughead assures him that’s what psychiatrists do. Ultimately, Pam leaves Archies and Betty leaves Bob, and everyone decides to stay in Riverdale. When Betty and Veronica tell Archie he has to choose, Jughead’s kid conveniently interrupts and the movie happily ends.

At first glance, it seems like “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” is a film about not choosing. It’s about not giving up on the past while acknowledging it has inevitably changed. It’s about preferring, over a definite “city-life”, a teenage fantasy of perpetual indecision because it “knows us better”. They choose to live in a history that may have never been.

However, this so-called “indecision”, it seems to me, remains profoundly alluring political choice for many and is in this way a choice of its own.

If crisis is about social contradictions manifesting in ways that make business as usual or any kind of moving forward impossible, this is a movie about choosing to dwell on history and live in perpetual crisis over the bland uncaring promise of progress. The “city” is about the only thing decisively rejected in the film. Why do the characters make this choice?

One telling scene is when Pam comes to visit Archie in Riverdale. After getting in his car, she throws an old bottle out. Archie picked up the bottle in an earlier scene from the Riverdale dump while he and Jughead sifted through deeply nostalgic trash (including inexplicably an old sock). Pam doesn’t understand any of it. He tries to explain to her why he cares so much about saving Pop’s, basically saying “Because it was ours.”

That seems to encapsulate the film’s answer. The city is profoundly dislocating and dispossessing, but even garbage is special if it is yours.

Ultimately, the writers were not so lazy as to leave things simply in a state of crisis. Betty is able to confront her lack of romantic fulfillment which spurs her to succeed in her dream of being a writer, as a romance writer. Veronica is finally pushed to speak to her father about something other than money. Jughead connects with his son.

The CW series aside, Archie has long represented a nostalgia for a bygone era that probably never existed anywhere and is therefore dangerous especially in our current absurdly nostalgic times. Yet “Archie: to Riverdale and Back Again” in having the characters confront their own nostalgia for their younger selves may unwittingly teach us a lesson about productive nostalgia. That is, in not simply accepting the “inevitability” of a certain kind of progress, and thereby being willing to live in crisis, we create the possibility for actively questioning why that revered past that was “ours” was taken from us in the first place. In so doing, we may not get back the world we think we had but instead find a much better one.

For more on the politics of inevitability, see this blog post on the caring labour of political action.

New Forms of Power: Reflecting on Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is a popular anime part of a sub-genre in which a protagonist, disempowered in the real world, enters another world (e.g. video game, time traveling, fantasy world, etc.) and often becomes a powerful and central figure in that world.

On one level, this sub-genre is simply about escapism. On another level, people’s tendency to create worlds in which their particular talents and skills are valued actively reshapes this “real” world. So, for example, while a few generations ago the particular mix of skills and personality traits that make up a successful film maker, rap artist, YouTuber, or gamer didn’t necessarily translate to any real-world clout, it is now a means by which thousands of others may listen to particular person.

Furthermore, once established, these worlds tend to be self-perpetuating as others seek to attain the success modeled by those who have shown what the world. Though, they may also pass out of fashion, as for example military leadership which once (and still in some societies does) played a central role in a political power has been overtaken by skills once upon a time unheard of (e.g. social medial campaigning).

It may be observed that escapist tendency to create bubbles, to the extent that it preserves the overarching structure of power, is really just shuffling around chairs. But there are material consequences to creating worlds in which some skills and not others are valued. There are also material consequences to creating worlds in which some vices are tolerated or encouraged. This is not only true because people get sucked into these bubbles, but because inevitably they are not air tight and those who rise to the top of them may gain the means to have a much wider impact.

The irony therefore is that the escapist may get exactly what they want. We must therefore be careful in our fantasizing.

Corporate Culture-A Work of Legal Fiction

It was once a land of great prosperity. Even then, though, it was a land of extremes. Or at least that’s what the history books say. It’s been hundreds of years since government dysfunction, natural disasters, and internal conflicts turned it into the greatest quagmire of human suffering. Little is known of the people that remain there now as they are physically cut off from each other and the world and are suspicious of strangers besides. Still, those few brave souls that have managed to make the trip and come back alive have brought strange rumours of what goes on. I suppose it is only natural that a society pulled apart by extremes, if left alone without even the checks and balances of others would only get stranger.

I was just a young anthropologist when I first heard the story from one such traveler. In almost a whisper, he told me of a large and apparently flourishing community far inland that worshipped a corporation. I was both intrigued and aghast. We had long ago done away with these “legal fictions” when they became far too powerful. Yet here was a society in the midst of utter chaos that not only kept them but deified one! And they managed to flourish?

I had to see it for myself, whatever the risk or cost. Was there some secret that we, in our rush to be rid of the old ways, had missed? At the very least, it would make a fascinating series of articles and a monograph on a fresh topic.

Naturally, it took months to get the funding, proper approvals, and arrange the passage, but this was somewhat expedited due to my urgent plea that this odd community could be swallowed up at any moment by the natural or political instability of the continent.

Getting there was no small task. When I finally arrived at the place the traveller had indicated on the map, I was a little disappointed to see a rather ordinary town. Of course, an ordinary town amidst what I had seen elsewhere was odd in itself, just not the kind of oddity I had hoped for. When I came into town, a woman in uniform came out to greet me. On her shirt was simply written “K Corp”. I explained who I was and what I was doing there. Without any apprehension, the woman said, “You’ll want to speak to someone from public relations. They’ll be able to answer your questions.” With that, she handed me a glossy print-out of the map of the town and pointed to a building simply named PR.

After a short walk, I stood in the hall of the PR building where a man greeted me with an eerily friendly smile. “You must be famished from your travels. Why don’t you come into Meeting Room 1 with me and we’ll have some lunch.”

“Thank you,” I said, and followed. After a sufficient lunch of mediocre egg salad sandwiches and juice, I took out my recording device.

Before I had a chance to ask anything, he began, “I understand you have some questions about our way of life. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. We are in a growth phase and we believe there are a lot of opportunities for personal investment here. You’re aware of the problems with our domestic situation no doubt, so foreign direct investment is welcome.”

“Thank you, that’s very generous of you. I will certainly share what I learn as widely as I can,” I said truthfully. This seemed to please him and he began in earnest with an enthusiasm I can’t remember ever seeing in a person.

“As you know, the Great Divide tore apart our world long ago. All around us, many died from war, famine, disease, and other disasters. Our ancestors, however, survived. A great leader, an entrepreneur, saw in all the chaos a business opportunity. Our ancestors, his employees, understood his great vision and followed him. In exchange, he took care of them. As long as they served the bottom line, their interests were his interests. As the chaos grew, so did the company. More and more sought security among its ranks. A steady paycheque, a warm office, family benefits… these were the difference between life and death. And for a while it worked, but all natural persons are flawed. You have that saying where you’re from, right?” I nodded, not wanting to offend. “And even our great Founder, may his name be preserved in our Minute Book forever, began to err. As he grew more successful, he invested less and less back into the company. He spent more on himself. He spent less time making decisions and the products suffered… the people suffered. It was almost as if the bottom line and the people’s interests were not the same, may it never be so resolved!” He shuddered, but with an audible relief, he continued. As he did, I marvelled at how, though it seemed to be well rehearsed, he looked as though he was giving it over for the first time.

“But you see the bottom line did eventually begin to suffer. The Corporation itself punished the Founder and he soon died in an earthquake. Though he could not see it, his accomplishment could not be undone. He had given birth to the Corporation, but there was no heir. Without a natural person to pervert its vision, the Board and Officers could carry out its will unmediated. Their task was an awesome one and though they faltered at first, unanimity soon reigned. The Founder, after all, had selected them carefully. The Corporation alone has protected us ever since. We are all only accountable to The Bottom Line. Our interest is its interest, and as you see, we are very comfortable.”

The whole thing was quite astonishing, but I wondered what it all meant in practice.

“A people lives by its calendar, and we are no different. Not only does each individual have their own personal holidays according to their place in the Corporation, but we all come together several times a year. Once every five years, in April, the Board goes on a Retreat wherein they must be completely secluded and purified so that they may determine the Corporation’s Strategic Plan. Each year, they Retreat again to ensure they are on track to meet the Corporation’s Goals and Metrics, by which we all live. This is a period of great anticipation and anxiety for us all, since it is not revealed to us until the Annual Staff Meeting in May. April, in general, is a time of self-reflection for us as each must take stock of their accounts and see how they have contributed to The Bottom Line. Performance evaluations determine who will be promoted and who must be… let go.” The pain in his voice told me all I needed to about what that might mean and so I didn’t ask.

I asked if they had any belief in an after-life. “Of course! At the age of 18, all employees have the opportunity to incorporate. It is only then that they receive their true name. Mine for instance is 1795643677 Inc. We believe that life before incorporation is inherently temporary. You are merely a natural person, cut off from your fellows. You may wish with all your heart to serve the Bottom Line, but ultimately, your pay is alienated from the Corporation. Once you become an incorporated employee all that changes. You can become a wholly-owned child of the Corporation, a subsidiary, whose whole purpose is to serve it. Your bottom line is its bottom line, and though you may have your own balance sheet and your own annual report, you can become truly part of the Great Annual Report. In exchange, you are granted perpetual existence. Indeed, we have a Department dedicated to maintaining the corporations of our ancestors.”

While my own society was far more technically advanced than this one, they seemed to be in touch with a dimension of existence we had totally lost touch with. The idea of being so devoted to something greater was at once monstrous and seductive. With all my training, I should have known how to extricate myself, but I simply could not.

“And does everyone get incorporated?”

“Well there is a fee involved with the process but for those who cannot afford it, the Corporation has set up a foundation.”

Potato Soup

The chef herself came out and, quite pleased, laid the soup out before customer.

He took one look at it and said, “What is this? I ordered potato soup!”

The chef, undeterred, replied, “Yes, I did try to include some potato in it. In fact, to complement the potato, there’s also dill, onion, and garlic.”

The customer’s look became steely and his voice began to rise, “I ordered potato soup. There should be more potato! You can’t get potato soup anywhere in town and we both know why. It’s not right. There should be more potato.”

The chef’s looked a bit impatient. There were, after all, many more meals to prepare. “I hear what you’re saying. I’m aware of the issue and we’ve been making an effort in the kitchen lately to add more potato but we have many customers to feed and they’re looking for different things…”

“Yeah, and who are your customers?” The customer interrupted.

But the chef continued, “and besides which, we have nutritional targets we need to hit. You need a balanced soup.”

What seemed like common sense to the chef certainly wasn’t to the customer. “Your nutritional advisors thought potatoes were poison until two weeks ago! How can you talk to me about balance? Last week you included kale in all your salads until we all woke up and realized it causes head explosions.”

The chef knew where this all led. She had been involved in many such conversations. It was part of the job and yet the kitchen depended on her moving on. “We were as surprised as everyone else about the kale. We have learnt the lessons and changed our recipes.”

The customer looked indignant, “The dangers were all known! Don’t tell me you didn’t know.”

The chef suddenly looked tired. “Look, I got into culinary school because I like making things for people not because I’m a scientist. People come, they order, I barely get home before midnight much less have the time to sort through all the science. I wouldn’t understand it if I did. Enough people enjoy the soup to keep the restaurant open. That’s my job. I am sorry if you don’t like the soup.”

The customer had much more to say, but just then someone called from another table, “Excuse me, Chef, but this soup needs more onion.”

Polarization, Aggregation, and the False Anti-Democratic Promise of Microtargeting

“…it has always been no less dangerous to discover new ways and methods than to set off in search of new seas and unknown lands…”

-Niccolo Machiavelli

Politics is not only unpleasant but difficult. It requires bridging the infinite gulfs between people’s metaphysically irreconcilable worldviews and conflicting desires. Out of the rock of these apparent islands, the politician is tasked with building the bridges on which most people must travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could just order in? If the goods we all want could just show up on our island one day like an Amazon package (perhaps by drone)?

That is the false promise of microtargeting, which is the practice of communicating distinct messages to increasingly narrowly defined segments of the population (e.g. through Facebook ads).

Why go to the trouble of writing a speech, law, or policy that weaves together all the disparate views into a coalition capable of propelling the politician forward, when you can merely aggregate the support you need one micro-constituency at a time by giving each some discrete good or promise? While they’re busy at home, you can remold or neglect the landscape as you please.

But make no mistake, it’s a false promise. People may be able to draw their blinds and eat their piece of the pie at home alone or with family and friends for a while, but eventually they will look outside. It may be that every time they looks the weather is a bit worse encouraging them to stay in a bit longer, but sooner or later the banks of the river will overflow and the flood will force them out.

When they do, they will notice the crumbling bridges, the broken sinews of the body politic.  Something will happen and they will recall why it was people first drew together in common life (or at least so the story goes). But they will be cut off and what could only be accomplished together will simply not be possible.

But necessity is the mother of all invention. And when the political technology of aggregation is revealed for what it really is, something new, or perhaps something old, will have to come.