"Assassination Politics" Part 9, by Jim Bell, February 27, 1996
For about a year I have been considering the implications of "Assassination Politics," and for more than six months I've been sharing the subject and my musings with you, the interested reader. I've also been debating the issue with all comers, a self-selected bunch who range from enthusiastic proponents to clueless critics. Ironically, some of you have even chided me for "wasting time" with some of the less perceptive among my numerous "opponents." In defense, my response has always been that when I respond to a person, I do it not primarily for his benefit, but for others who might be fence-sitting and are waiting to see if my idea will break down anywhere.
If there is anything which has fascinated me as much as the original idea, it is this vast and dramatic disparity between these various responses. It's been called everything from "a work of genius" to "atrocious," and probably much worse! Clearly, there must be a fundamental, social issue here that needs to be resolved.
While nobody has quite yet said it in those terms, I'm sure that more than one of you have probably wanted to react to my prose with the line, "See a shrink!" [American slang for a psychriatrist, for the international readers out there.] Well, in a sense that's exactly what I did, but the "shrink" I "saw" had been dead for over five decades: Sigmund Freud. Much to my surprise, I was handed a copy of a book, Introduction to Great Books (ISBN 0-945159-97-8) which contained (page 7) a letter from Freud to Albert Einstein. On page 6, there is an introduction, describing the reason for this communication. It says:
"In 1932, the League of Nations asked Albert Einstein to choose a problem of interest to him and to exchange views with someone about it. Einstein chose "Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?" as his problem and Sigmund Freud as his correspondent. In his letter to Freud, Einstein said that one way of eliminating war was to establish a supranational organization with the authority to settle disputes between nationas and power to enforce its decisions. But Einstein acknowledged that this solution dealt only with the administrative aspect of the problem, and that international security could never be achieved until more was known about human psychology. Must right always be supported by might? Was everyone susceptible to feelings of hate and destructiveness? It was to these questions Freud addressed himself in his reply."
Interestingly enough, when I first started thinking about the idea that I would later term "Assassination Politics," I was not intending to design a system that had the capability to eliminate war and militaries. What I was targeting, primarily, was political tyranny. By my standards, that included not merely totalitarian governments but also ones that many of us would consider far more benign, in particular the Federal government of the United States of America, "my" country. Only after I had thought of the fundamental principle of allowing large numbers of citizens to do away with unwanted politicians was I "forced," by my work up to that point, to address the issue of the logical consequences of the operation of that system, which (by "traditional" ways of thinking) would leave this country without leaders, or a government, or a military, in a world with many threats. I was left with the same fundamental problem that's plagued the libertarian analysis of forming a country in a world dominated by non-libertarian states: It was not clear how such a country could defend itself from agression if it could not force its citizens to fight.
Only then did I realize that if this system could work within a single country, it could also work worldwide, eliminating threats from outside the country as well as corrupt politicians within. And shortly thereafter, I realized that not only could this occur, such a spread was absolutely inevitable, by the very nature of modern communications across the Internet, or older technologies such as the telephone, fax, or even letters written on paper. In short, no war need ever occur again, because no dispute would ever involve more than a tiny number of people at any one time. Further, no tyrant would ever be able to rise to the level of leader, leading his country into a destructive war against the wishes of his more reasonable citizens. He would be opposed, logically enough, by the citizens of the country he intended to war with, obviously, but he would also draw the ire of citizens within his own country who either didn't want to pay the taxes to support a wasteful war, or lose their sons and daughters in pointless battles, or for that matter were simply opposed to participating in the agression. Together, all these potentially-affected peoples would unite (albeit quite anonymously, even from each other) and destroy the tyrant before he had the opportunity to make the war.
I was utterly astonished. Seemingly, and without intending to do so, I had provided a solution for the "war" problem that has plagued mankind for millennia. But had I? I really don't know. I do know, however, that very few people have challenged me on this particular claim, despite what would normally appear to be its vast improbability. While some of the less perceptive critics of "Assassination Politics" have accused me of eliminating war and replace it with something that will end up being worse, it is truly amazing that more people haven't berated me for not only believing in the impossible, but also believing that the impossible is now actually inevitable!
A little more than a week ago, I was handed this book, and asked to read Freud's letter, by a person who was aware of my "little" philosophical quandary. I began to read Freud's letter in response to Einstein, having never read any other word Freud had written, and having read essentially none of the works of the giants of Philosophy. (Now, of course, I feel tremendously guilty at the omission in my education, but I've always been attracted more to the "hard sciences," like chemistry, physics, mathematics, electronics, and computers.) Since this letter was specifically on war, and the question of whether man could ever avoid it, I felt perhaps it would contain some fact or argument that would correct what was simply a temporary, false impression in my mind. Simultaneously, I was hopeful that I might end up being right, but alternatively hoped that if wrong, I would be soon corrected. I was fearful that I was wrong, but also fearful that there would be nothing in this essay that would assist me in my analysis of the situation.
About a third of the way through Freud's letter, I had my answer. Below, I show a segment of Freud's reply, perhaps saving the whole letter for inclusion into a later part of this ongoing essay. While I could drastically oversimplify the situation and state, "Freud was wrong!," it turns out that this brief conclusion is at best highly misleading and at worst flirting with dishonesty. By far the greater part of Freud's analysis makes a great deal of sense to me, and I would say he's probably correct. But it is at one point that I believe he goes just a bit wrong, although for reasons which are entirely understandable and even predictable, given the age in which he lived. It must be remembered, for example, that Freud was born into an era where the telephone was a new invention, broadcast radio was non-existent, and newspapers were the primary means that news was communicated to the public. It would be highly unreasonable for us to have expected Freud to have anticipated developments such as the Internet, anonymous digital cash, and good public-key encryption.
In some sense, at that point, my biggest regret was that I couldn't discuss the issue with either of these two communicants, Freud having died in 1939, and Einstein in 1955, after having helped initiate research that led to the development of the atomic bomb, the weapon that for decades and even now, makes it absolutely, vitally important to eliminate the possibility of war from the world.
But I'll let Dr. Freud speak, as he spoke over sixty years ago, because he has much to say:
"Such then, was the original state of things: domination by whoever had the greater might--domination by brute violence or by violence supported by intellect. As we know, this regime was altered in the course of evolution. There was a path that led from violence to right or law. What was that path? It is my belief that there was only one: the path which led by way of the fact that the superior strength of a single individual could be rivaled by the union of several weak ones. "L'union fait la force." [French; In union there is strength.] Violence could be broken by union, and the power of those who were united now represented law in contrast to the violence of the single individual. Thus we see that right is the might of a community. It is still violence, ready to be directed against any individual who resists it; it works by the same methods and follows the same purposes. The only real difference lies in the fact that what prevails is no longer the violence of an individual but that of a community."
[But below is where I think Freud falls into a certain degree of error, perhaps not by the standards and realities of _his_ day, but those of ours. My comments are in square brackets, , and Freud's comments are quoted "". Freud continues: ]
"But in order that the transition from violence to this new right or justice may be effected, one psychological condition must be fulfilled. The union of the majority must be a stable and lasting one. If it were only brought about for the purpose of combating a single dominant individual and were dissolved after his defeat, nothing would be accomplished. The next person who though himself superior in strength would once more seek to set up a dominion by violence and the game would be repeated ad infinitum. The community must be maintained permanently, must be organized, must draw up regulations to anticipate the risk of rebellion and must institute authorities to see that those regulations--the laws-- are respected and to superintend the execution of legal acts of violence. The recognition of a community of interests such as these leads to the growth of emotional ties between the members of a united group of people--communal feelings which are the true source of its strength." [end of Freud's quote]
[Those of you who truly comprehend the idea of "Assassination Politics" will, I'm confident, understand exactly why I considered this segment of Freud's letter to be important enough to include, and will probably also recognize why I consider Freud's analysis to go wrong, albeit for comparatively minor and understandable reasons. I will address the last paragraph in greater detail, to explain what I mean. I will repeat Freud's words, and address each of his points from the standpoint of today's situation and technology.]
"But in order that the transition from violence to this new right or justice may be effected, one psychological condition must be fulfilled. The union of the majority must be a stable and lasting one."
[In a sense, Freud is absolutely correct: Whatever system is chosen to "govern" a society, it must continue to operate "forever." ] Freud continues:
" If it were only brought about for the purpose of combating a single dominant individual and were dissolved after his defeat, nothing would be accomplished."
[This is where the problem begins to creep in. Freud is leading up to justifying the existence of a formal government as he knew them in the 1930's, based on the continuing need for keeping the peace. The first, and I think, the most obvious problem is that Freud seems to implicitly assume that the purpose of the union will actually be fulfilled by the formation of a government. Freud, who died in 1939, didn't see what his survivors saw, a "legitimate" government in Germany having killed millions of people in the Holocaust, or many other incidents subsequent to that. And Freud, whose letter was written in 1932, was probably not aware of the slaughter of the Russian Kulaks in the late 1920's and early 1930's, or the purges which followed. Freud could have felt, generally, that the problems with a country's governance were caused either by inadequate government or simply a rare example of government gone bad. We know, to the contrary, that governments very frequently "go bad," in the sense of violating citizen's rights and abusing the power entrusted to them. Few may end up killing millions, but to assume that we must continue to tolerate governments just because they don't go quite as far as Nazi Germany would be foolish in the extreme.]
[The second problem is the implicit assumption that the long-term control he (correctly) sees MUST come from an organization like a traditional government. True, in the era in which Freud lived, that conclusion made a great deal of sense, because a well-functioning government appeared superior to none at all. And it was at least plausible that such control COULD come from a government. But as the old saying goes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."]
[To use a house's thermostat as an analogy, but differently than I did in "Assassination Politics part 6," a person who lived in an era before automatic furnace thermostats would always conclude that a person's efforts would have to be continually directed towards maintaining an even temperature in his house, by adding fuel or limiting it, by adding more air or restricting, etc. To the extent that this manual control constitutes a "government," he will believe that this hands-on control will always be necessary. But we now live in a time where a person's time is rarely directed towards this effort, the function having been taken over by automatic thermostats which are cheap, reliable, and accurate. They are also, incidentally, essentially "uncorruptible," in the sense that they don't fail except for "understandable" reasons, and repair is cheap and easy. (And a thermostat can never be bribed, or get tired, or have its own interests at heart and begin to subvert your own commands.) Quite simply, the progress of technology has put control of temperature in the hands of an automatic, error-free system that is so reliable as to be ignorable most of the time.]
[I argue that likewise, the progress of technology would allow an automatic system to be set up, which I called "Assassination Politics" (but could probably use a more apt name, since its application extends far beyond the issue of politics) different from traditional government, a difference somewhat analogous to the difference between a person's full-time efforts and an automatic thermostat. Aside from the dramatic reduction in effort involved, an automatic system would eliminate the errors caused by inattention by the operator, such as leaving, falling asleep, or other temporary lack of concentration. These failures are somewhat analogous to the failure or misbehavior of a corruptible or indifferent or even a malicious government.]
[This makes a government like Freud saw totally unnecessary. Of course, Freud could not have anticipated the technological developments that would make an "automatic" replacement for government even possible, and thus he followed his contemporary paradigms and sought to justify the governments as they then existed.] Freud continues:
"The next person who thought himself superior in strength would once more seek to set up a dominion by violence and the game would be repeated ad infinitum."
[This statement is correct, but I think it misses the point: Many functions of individuals and machines are never "completed", and must "be repeated ad infinitum." (The most basic example: If we are optimistic about the future of the human race, by definition reproduction and survival must be "repeated ad infinitum.") That does not mean that the mechanism which handles that need must be any more complicated that the minimum necessary to achieve the control needed. I agree that a system of long-term control is necessary; where I disagree with Freud is simply that I believe that a vastly better method of control now can potentially exist than the traditional governments that he knew. To the extent that he couldn't have anticipated the Internet, anonymous digital cash, and good encryption, he had no reason to believe that government could be "automated" and taken out of the hands of a tiny fraction of the population, a fraction which is corruptible, malicious, and self-interested. Also, by not being aware of modern technology, he is unaware how easy it has become, conceptually, for people to come together for their self-defense, if that self-defense required only a few kilobytes be sent over fiber-optic cables to a central registry. Freud's objection to an "endlessly repeating" system breaks down in this case, so his conclusion need not be considered valid.]
"The community must be maintained permanently, must be organized, must draw up regulations to anticipate the risk of rebellion and must institute authorities to see that those regulations--the laws-- are respected and to superintend the execution of legal acts of violence."
[Again, I think Freud misses the point. He refers to "the risk of rebellion," but I think he forgets that the main reason for "rebellion" is the abuse by the government then in control. (Naturally, it looks differently from the standpoint of that government!) If the latter problem could be eliminated, "rebellion" would simply never occur, for there would be no reason for it. If those that were "rebelling" were in the wrong, violating somebody's rights, then my "Assassination Politics" system would be able to take care of it. This, presumably and understandably, Freud could never have foreseen. Also, Freud does not address the question of whether or not the government which promulgates those laws is doing so in a way primarily for the benefit of the public, or those who populate the government itself. Graft was well known if Freud's time; it seems to me that he should have addressed the question of whether or not an entity called a "government" could actually achieve the benefits he claims justify the government, without being subverted by those who control it, for their own interests. If not, then there is certainly a issue to be addressed: At what point do the depradations of a parasitic government exceed its benefits? And can we find a way to do without it?] Freud continues:
"The recognition of a community of interests such as these leads to the growth of emotional ties between the members of a united group of people--communal feelings which are the true source of its strength." [this is end of the portion of Freud's letter which I quote here.]
One of the interesting things about this statement is that it is the development of tools such as the Internet which will be eliminating the very concept of "foreign" and "foreigner." They will become artificial distinctions. There is clearly much precedent for this, from the country in which I live, America. When formed, it contained people whose primary loyalty was to their _state,_ not to the Federal government as a whole. Even our civil war, from 1861 to 1865, was based on loyalty to states or regions, rather than the country as a whole. To cite just one example, myself, while I reside in the state called Washington, I've lived in a number of other states, but I don't consider myself loyal to any particular state. (Perhaps using myself as an example is misleading, because at this point I don't consider myself "loyal" to any government at all!)
In fact, later in Freud's letter, he says, "Anything that encourages the growth of emotional ties between men must operate against war." Sadly, Freud did not live to see the development of the Internet, and the massive international communication which it has already begun to foster. In _his_ day, the ordinary people of one country and another rarely communicated, except perhaps for letters with relatives from "the old country" that emigrated. The idea of going to war with people from whom you get email on a daily basis is, in itself, a "foreign concept" to me, and I hope it will remain so! In that sense, Freud was very right: "Assassination Politics" active or not, it will be much harder for governments to whip up their citizens into a frenzy to kill the enemy if they can type to them every day.
Frustratingly left unanswered is a question whose answer I'd like to know: Could I have convinced Freud, or Einstein, that "Assassination Politics" is not only a necessary or even an unavoidable system, but also a GOOD one? Could I convince them today, had they miraculously survived until today, aware of the last 64 years of history subsequent to their correspondence?
Klaatu Burada Nikto
Something is going to happen... Something...Wonderful!