Pathfinders: Analogy Aversion

A recent study of social unrest in 170 countries over the last hundred years claims to show that political turbulence shares something in common with other types of organic contagion, like epidemics and forest fires, with key variables determining susceptibility, resistance and transmission (New Scientist, 29 June). The model shows that prolonged social stresses create the conditions for an eruption which is then often sparked by some random or even unrelated event.

You can do something similar in your kitchen, of course. If you fill a pan with water, fit a tight lid and then set it to boil, the lid will at some point blow off. Key variables like how high you’ve got the gas, how tight the lid is, how big the pot is, all affect the experiment.

If this seems logical to you, beware. What the preceding paragraph has done is to argue the validity of one analogy, a ‘bio-political’ model of contagion, via another analogy, a simple ‘thermo-political’ model.

Analogies are useful for illustrating the gist of ideas but they are notoriously misleading precisely because superficial similarities can obscure deeper inconsistencies. In short, people tend to get carried with them.

Comparing the ‘contagion’ of ideas to the contagion of germs is an example of a ‘bio-political’ analogy. The application of biological analysis to social phenomena has in the past led to the egregious excesses of sociobiology. But the temptation is understandable. Ideas do appear to spread, reproduce, mutate and trigger complex processes, just like germs. We even talk about ‘the germ of an idea’. The danger is that people begin to forget that it is an analogy and start thinking it’s real. At this point fact stops and fancy takes over.

Something like this has happened with meme ‘theory’. The term ‘meme’ is bandied about willy-nilly these days as a handy – or lazy – shorthand for any cultural element which can be transmitted and mutated. In this view a tune is a meme, especially if you sing it wrong, and socialism is a meme par excellence, considering how many deformed freakish offspring have claimed it as a parent. Meme theory, or memetics, is also a meme where, like socialism, the word itself is sometimes the only thing which survives intact. Richard Dawkins first posited the idea in his 1976 bookThe Selfish Gene, making clear something even his most ardent supporters seem to have forgotten since, that it was not a theory per se but analogous to his main argument, that the unit of evolutionary change is not the group or the individual but the gene. The point was to show that genes act as the agents and beneficiaries of change without having any conscious intentionality about it, just the way an idea can sweep through a population if conditions are right, regardless of whether the idea is good or bad for the people holding it. As with many great works, vast confusion was the result. Dawkins later railed at those who only read the title page before criticising, but admitted he may have chosen the wrong title because some people thought he was arguing that there were genes for selfishness, or that genes acted with a selfish ‘purpose’, or that selfishness (this was during the Thatcher years) was somehow ‘a good thing’.

Memetics and the selfish gene are both heartily disliked because they seem to reduce humans to the status of a dumb and brainless ‘survival machine’ whose sole purpose is to incubate and perpetuate the evolutionary agent. This is intolerably upsetting to some people’s ego. Just like pre-Copernican Catholics, we like to think life revolves around us, not that we revolve around life. But this is not the real objection. Whereas the selfish gene argument does offer explanations not available to individual or group-based evolutionary perspectives, the selfish meme proposition as a theory is less useful and convincing. Modern telecommunications is based on the fact that you can quantise, or digitise something which is analogue in nature into discrete parcels or ‘quanta’. CD music works this way. But sound-waves are physical phenomena with properties that lend themselves to quantising algorithms, ie. you can easily cut them up into little bits. Can you really do the same thing with thought processes? What would be the properties of a cultural ‘bit’? As Dawkins expresses it, there is no limit on what you can call a meme. This means that memes have a property no gene has, namely the ability to nest themselves inside each other like infinite matryoshka dolls. So ‘reality’ is a meme which contains all other memes. To say that everything is a meme is the same as saying that nothing is, which is meaningless. Maths equations that result in infinity are also meaningless, and quantum theories of gravity – the search for a theory of everything – frequently run into the ‘infinity’ problem. But here’s the difference. A quantum theory of gravity is necessary because without it the universe is largely inexplicable. There’s no equivalent and pressing case for a quantum theory of knowledge.

Using memetics to underpin a statistical study of social unrest is therefore a deeply supercilious activity. But this is not to say that statistical studies can’t tell you anything useful.

Loss aversion

Consider the finding by another researcher that ‘most protestors worldwide are not the grindingly poor but the newly prosperous’. The argument is that people don’t protest against poverty while they’re in it, but once they have left it they will protest vigorously against a possible return to it. Thus, food and bus price increases which sparked the recent riots in Brazil can be seen as a manifestation of that well-known phenomenon, loss-aversion.

Loss-aversion bias, attested in many studies, states simply that people tend to make more effort to prevent the loss of X than they would expend to attain X in the first place. It’s not about what you haven’t got, and it’s not about what you could get, it’s about what you have got that you might lose.

To a socialist there is a clear implication here about how we approach the task of presenting our case. It’s uncontroversial to say that through the generations most workers have gained in capitalism. When it comes to contemplating major social change, therefore, the fear of losing these gains overrides every other consideration.

This suggests that what we should focus on is not what workers might gain from socialism so much as what they have gained, but might lose, by continuing to support capitalism. From jobs to houses, food to health to civil rights to the planet itself, there are no shortage of contenders.

Lenin aversion

One other observation gleaned from academic studies of unrest which may be worth noting is the perceived shift in recent protests away from top-down hierarchical organisation (aka the classical Leninist left-wing) towards leaderless self-organising networks. Much has been written on the ‘contagion’ of crowd-based action, including recently in this column (Crowd Atlas, May issue). But is it true, as one researcher has suggested, that it’s not just a question of spontaneous gatherings of the Twitterati but a general evolution away from hierarchies and towards horizontal democratic structures in broader society? Fingers crossed, we can only hope so, because that would mean society is ‘mainstreaming’ the socialist ethic without any help from us. We’ve always argued that this could and should happen, but we’ve been disappointed before. If it is happening, the capitalist elite are not going to like it one bit, and may try to reimpose top-down coercion and wipe out these democratic gains. Still, if the studies are right, that might be the point where workers’ famous loss-aversion impulse really comes into its own.

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