Monday, 2 May 2016

Politics - networks vs hierarchies (forget 'left' and 'right')

My brother e-mailed me after my recent post concerning the Brexit referendum, suggesting a new way to look at politics. Agree. Left and right might be convenient short-hand labels, but they are increasingly inadequate in today's complex world. My brother suggests another way; networks vs hierarchies.

Networks, based on teamwork, strive towards consensus.

Hierarchies place power in the hand of those higher up the pyramid, passing to its apex.

Do you want to be led? Or do you want to take an active part in the solution?

These are times of fear and loathing, anxiety and mounting mistrust. Part of society (UK, Poland, US, Russia, Turkey - anywhere) will look for a strong personality who can lead them to better days. The other part implicitly believes it's up to them to do it for themselves.

The hierarchy model is driven by a leader hungry for personal power. To obtain and maintain that personal power, there must be a hierarchy - or there will be chaos. The solutions proposed by the leader are varied - they can be nationalist, socialist - or both.

The network does not to be dominated by a powerful individual. The network has a rough idea of the goals - economic, social, geopolitical - and moves haltingly in that direction. Two steps forward, one step back, trial-and-error, muddle-through-somehow. This can be portrayed as ineffectual. But over the decades, it's proven to work better than when a strong leader leads people ineffably in the wrong direction.

In the post-war West, the network model took hold, with enlightened social democracies advancing progress, by and large - but always at a cost. Higher taxes, more regulation. Society was willing to accept this, and the work-in-progress nature of this model - as long as there was economic growth and geopolitical stability.

After 2008, things broke. Debt and stagnation, terrorism, migration, climate change are upon us.

Has the muddle-through-somehow approach failed totally? Dull committees, endlessly poring over the fine detail of policy position papers do not have the popular appeal of firebrand leaders giving simplistic courses of action needed to assuage voters' worries.

Trump, Kaczyński, Putin, Orban, Ergodan - these politicians have an instant response to problems. They take decisions, they define the course. But what if the course they take is ultimately wrong?

The network is like the internet. If one node breaks down, traffic is rerouted.

Networks, as my brother says, evolve to survive. Unfit parts drop away, tested solutions replicate and flourish.

Hierarchies are as good as their leaders. Who can lead them to hell (Berlin, 1945), or, indeed, as also happens, to more positive outcomes.

Networks are about checks and balances. Executive, legislature, judiciary.

Hierarchs tend to concentrate power in to their one hand.

Networks are short distance-to-power cultures (see Geert Hofstede). Western.

Hierarchies are long distance-to-power cultures. Oriental.

So why is the West turning its back on networks? Is it that they don't work? They have kept the world safe for 70 years, and have delivered prosperity and stability.

If America votes for Trump, and the UK votes to leave the EU, it will be in reaction of voters in two long-established democracies to the networked model of governance.

It is worth looking at politics and society through the prism of biology. My brother's suggestion about networks vs hierarchies prompted me to unearth research published in PLOS ONE in February 2013. This looks at the brains of American Democrat and Republican voters and shows a clear correlation to how they respond to risk. Indeed, there's a closer correlation to risk response than to parental socialisation. There are different cognitive processes at play when the two groups think about risk. The research results support evidence that Republicans show greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.

"Help! We're under threat. Vote for the strongman!"

A short-term fix. Biology, history, economics are suggesting that a networked approach to dealing with risky situations.

Getting it slightly wrong is better than getting it totally wrong. Getting it slightly wrong and retreating can be done without too much loss of face by a network. Hierarchs, being by their own definition, never wrong, can keep charging up a blind alley, unable or unwilling to turn or to accept another way.

These are times for keeping a steady network of hands on the tiller, rather than allow individuals to take the power to make knee-jerk policy decisions that would be regretted later.

This time last year:
45 years under one roof

This time three years ago:
Pozytywki ponds after refurbishment

This time four years ago:
Mayday in the heat (don't exaggerate with the suncream!)

This time six years ago:
Bike ride across rural Poland

This time nine years ago:
Raszyn radio tower from the air 


Sigismundo said...

This is not a new problem. The original democracy, Athens, had an assembly recruited from the citizenry as a sort of jury service, but in times of crisis they understood this was a luxury and gave up power to a few individuals, who, it was thought, could get things done more quickly and efficiently.

In theory, a democracy, especially a randomly elected democracy (in Athens they drew lots), should be able to represent the populace at large and so be unbiassed, especially if the individuals don't serve long enough to become corrupted by power (in Athens they served for 12 months, with a limit of two terms in a life time).

But in practice, a people's democracy could still make imbecilic decisions, provoked by a few brilliant speakers who were able to sway the crowd in the heat of the moment, for example, prompting the execution of Socrates, which was subsequently greatly regretted. This was not an isolated mistake, other spur-of-the moment decisions led to the execution of groups of victorious generals and the massacre of the population of an entire Greek island.
And so it is today, when democracy has extended to all of us via the Internet, and the public at large choose to call a 200m GBP research vessel RRS Boaty McBoatface.

So is it Anarchy? Rule of the Many over Rule of the Few? Rule of Networks? I think it's dangerous to extend these terms too far. Pigeon-holing is academically satisfying, but the behaviour of real people, especially in large groups, is far more complex than that.

Michael Dembinski said...


Many thanks for your Athenian reflections. Checks and balances are crucial - RSS Boaty McBoatface ended up as RSS Sir David Attenborough, no bad thing. A bit of a Volty McVolte-Face on the part of the British Antarctic Survey, but there you are.

Behaviour of real people in large groups will be better understood using biology rather than sociology as the research tool. Richard Dawkins' concept of the meme is crucial; an idea that spreads from brain to brain like a virus. In democracies the speed and virulence with which an idea can spread ("Trump can and will become president"), and which sort of brain is most at risk, needs to be better understood.