Well, it was either this or get in line to throw rocks at the ninnies trying to diss Tam, and I’m all about position and context as you will see.
The content-lite-of-late Kevin Baker (you see what I did there, right? :)) makes with the QOTD to good effect. Again. Tuesday’s QOTD is from Robert Shea’s recent re-posting of an earlier editorial. My opinion of self-portrayed “anarchists” notwithstanding (a topic for a different post than this one), I take my opportunities to illustrate lessons on classical strategy where (and from whom) I find them. Kevin quotes Mr. Shea:
Every combination of two or more human beings has both a useful aspect and a political aspect. These tend to conflict with each other. As the political aspect becomes more and more influential, the organization ceases to be useful to its members and starts using them.
Why does this happen? Because the better an organization is at fulfilling its purpose, the more it attracts people who see the organization as an opportunity to advance themselves.
The ability to get ahead in an organization is simply another talent, like the ability to play chess, paint pictures, do coronary bypass operations or pick pockets. There are some people who are extraordinarily good at manipulating organizations to serve their own ends. The Russians, who have suffered under such people for centuries, have a name for them — apparatchiks. It was an observer of apparatchiks who coined the maxim, “The scum rises to the top.”
Empire of the Rising Scum, Robert Shea
What Mr. Shea is describing is the strategic concept of “position”. Briefly, we each comprise, both as individuals and in our various associations, a unique position relative to all else in the universe within which we exist and perform actions. For instance, Kevin is himself a position, he and his wife comprise a largely overlapping but still independent position separate from his and her individual positions, his position shared with his employer, his (again somewhat overlapping) position as a gun rights advocate as separate from his other positions, and on and on to the extent he can differentiate between his varied interests and activities. The same can be said for every other human on the planet as well.
Mr. Shea’s description, “Every combination of two or more human beings has both a useful aspect and a political aspect. These tend to conflict with each other.“, is more-than-a-little misleading for all it does capture the conflicted nature of the related strategic concept of “alliance”. A more accurate description might be worded as, “Every position has both a static and an active aspect. These consist of fundamentally opposed imperatives which tend to conflict with each other.”
The static aspect of a position is quite conservative in that it seeks to protect what already exists (to a surprising degree, without regard to the nature of the existing condition) and resists change thereto. The active (and therefor more accepting of risk-taking) aspect is the drive to improve the position by means of alliance or acquisition of some additional capability. This fundamental conflict between the two positional motivations greatly contributes to the human decision-making process being the less than coldly logical process we observe, quite aside from the inclusion of associational inputs.
Mr. Shea again, “… the better an organization is at fulfilling its purpose, the more it attracts people who see the organization as an opportunity to advance themselves.” Author Jerry Pournelle describes this process in his Iron Law of Bureaucracy as:
… in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
To restate Mr. Shea’s intent in more strategic terms, “… the better an associational or shared position is at advancing it’s position, the more it attracts other’s seeking to advance their own position by allying with the associated position themselves.”
The good Dr. Pournelle would further have it that the shared position’s effectiveness eventually succumbs to the inherent individual positions who best work to advance themselves within the associational framework. I can’t disagree with this.
The day before’s QOTD is taken from the book Opposing The System by Charles A. Reich. The opening sentences of the quote Kevin selected quite neatly introduces the strategic concept of “context”:
The elite live in a different country than the rest of Americans. It is not possible to understand the System and its actions without understanding this fact. The elite see its own ascendancy as just, and cannot understand the anger below. Yet the rules for success used by the elite are often very different from the rules observed by ordinary people.
Each independent position is, by it’s very nature, completely natural and entirely proper to the position holder. As well, and again by it’s very nature, each position is unique to any other, thereby making it very easy to justify distinct rules from all the rest. The idea of positional context isn’t meant to imply any degree of justification or excuse for actions taken or beliefs espoused, it simply explains the potential for conflict as well as the limitations inherent to every position taken.
Professor Reich seems intent on identifying some deliberate scheme being behind “the elites” attitudes and beliefs. I believe classical strategy provides a more effective mechanism with which to categorise the basic assumptions and beliefs of any position (singular as well as shared) and to then identify the deliberate inimical actions from the merely assumed-to-be-proper self-indulgent behavior. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of any action isn’t always as clear as people like to assume from their own shared positions of moral superiority, and classical strategy deliberately declines to impose more than a measure of practical effectiveness as it’s internal ethic (which is extensively moderated by consideration of existing and potential allied position’s strength of support depending upon consistent and acceptable behavior by all allied parties).
People tend to self-identify their position with other’s position for numerous reasons; sufficient for this day is that they indeed do so and leave the various “whys” for another. That stipulated, I don’t believe Prof. Reich’s thesis adequately addresses people’s motivations or their strength of support for such seeming alliances as he identifies as “the elites”. As a general rule, people don’t give much credence to appellations from other’s not recognised (by them) as being of an allied position – in non-strategic terms, their social/moral/economic/whatever peers. “The elites” almost never self-identify as such, however much they may “naturally” assume such a condition to be true. This is simply the unthinking expression of the context of their position relative to all others from their own point of view.
One of the profound lessons to be learned from classical strategy is the distinction between the nature of actions and decisions, and the individuals making them. The man who hung Saddam Hussein is not evil, not because of who was twitching at the end of his rope, but because of the context within which he performed this otherwise “evil” act. Removing these particular individuals from that statement doesn’t alter the ethical outcome, but altering the strategic context within which the cold-blooded killing is decided upon does. Similarly, we each make decisions largely determined by our positional context. It seems self-deluding to apply any other motivation then assumed propriety to anyone’s actions absent some pretty compelling evidence of malice (one of the most difficult determinations required of anyone is that between the exercise of an assumed right of possession or theft, since doing so requires resolution of competing – and often authentic – claims of legitimacy).
Those who seek to successfully advance their own position relative to some other’s would do well to keep all this in mind. It’s much easier to make a move perceived to be personally non-threatening than is otherwise the case, and that consideration is what makes it the art of war, isn’t it?