Anthropomorphizing Organizations for Social Change
Originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of the journal SynaptIQ+
For more than twelve months, the Syrian contribution to the Awakening (the Arab Spring) predominantly took the form of _non_violent protests in the face of an increasingly violent resistance from the Syrian government. As for Egypt, weaks claims of a “social media effect” were too-often traded for the much stronger claim of causality, creating a so-called “Facebook/Twitter revolution.” However, online social networks were hardly sufficient to explain the events on the ground, and it became clear that their efficacy was only in relation to the already-extant political organizations that these new media augmented.
Compared to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt had a relatively mature and well-distributed political opposition, not only in the form of the long-standing Muslim Brotherhood, but also with the rise of female employment and the expansion of union organization and workers groups that occurred in response to Mubarak’s neoliberal reforms. These organizations had experienced political repression in the wake of the fiercely denounced election of 2005 and through suffering at the hands of endemic police hostility and repression. Add to that the increased food insecurity stemming from international commodity speculation, and Egypt presented a population that was hungry, struggling economically, had many valid concerns for their safety under the existing establishment, but whose political formations were, crucially (especially when compared with Syria or Saudi Arabia), neither brand new nor entirely inexperienced.
To be clear, social media provided an out-of-band means of communication that, particularly given the regime’s propensity for restriction of speech, was an undeniable asset. But our focus here is on the organizational, rather than the technological elements of this ecology of institutions and movements.
Even given the convergence of these diverse groups, newly emboldened and digitally equipped, the solidarity that was so striking in images coming from Tahrir Square in 2011 could scarcely have lasted had the Supreme Council of Armed Forces not seen the wisdom of disassociating with Mubarak. Had the army fired upon the protestors as reportedly instructed, it might have triggered a long and bloody civil war, and Egypt would have found itself in a situation parallel to the one we see in Syria today, sowing the seeds of strife to be harvested for generations to come.
As these events progressed, the North American media and political establishment found themselves flailing to find appropriate language to describe the various powers in play. In a sense, the language that explained away the protesters’ successes as resulting from the use Facebook and Twitter was a symptom of this sense-making attempt. This complicated an already ambiguous situation, and legitimized the tendency for consumers to choose analyses that were ideologically compatible with their own hopes and politics. American political conservatives warned of the rise of radical Islamists, seeing Egypt as a replay of the Iranian revolution (hardly a predictable outcome at the time, but one that was ultimately far closer to the mark than most people desired or suspected). Political activists worldwide called for solidarity and saw the movement as liberatory, almost inherently so. Most stories focused on the entities of “the people” versus “the regime,” opting for a low-resolution narrative, but the conflict’s complexity grew rapidly as one zoomed in to the situation on the ground.
In the wake of Mubarak's departure, terms such as “the people” were clearly overly broad, and in time even the Muslim Brotherhood separated out into its constituent components. “Regime change” was the order of the day, but few could articulate the interrelated power relationships that Mubarak, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the IMF, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others held in the country—not to mention the innumerable domestic collectivities, organized along ethnic, religious, political and economic dimensions.
A New Political Grammar
What follows is the beginnings of a new political grammar. Our existing language seems to misinform as much as it informs, and combining it with new (by which we mean infant) media may give us the illusion of insight, particularly when applied to situations (such as eruptions of social violence) that are informationally-unstable and changing rapidly. Thankfully, this is not a new task and we have resources to draw upon, even if they are in discrete domains that have not historically learned from one another.
We will introduce the actors and networks of sociologist Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory (ANT), the objects and machines articulated by philosopher Levi Bryant and the language of power that theologian Walter Wink extracts from the New Testament. Along the way, we'll borrow some additional concepts and metaphors that will help us in the project of talking about individual and aggregate agency, for the purpose of coming away with a more durable and viable political grammar.
We will here delve into ontology; a branch of metaphysics concerned with what in fact exists, and how. Our objectives in this process, however, are not the same as those of the philosophers. We are not concerned with discovering the ultimate key to metaphysics; we are just trying to get an intellectual grasp on our lived situation. Our explorations into ontology, then, will have more in common with what Ian Bogost describes as ontography and metaphorism (Bogost, 2012) or the umwelt von Uexküll deploys in his ethological practices attempting to explain the lived experience of ticks and sea worms (von Uexküll, 2010), than with the Platonic world of forms or the Hegelian history of Geist. Our ontologies discussed here will be treated as metaphors, anthropomorphizing social structures and institutions in what may be an unavoidable fashion. As Jane Bennett writes in Vibrant Matter:
Maybe it’s worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing (superstition, the divinization of nature, romanticism) because it, oddly enough, works against anthropo_centrism_: a chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman “environment.” [my italics]
Graham Harman has proposed an object-oriented ontology (OOO) that serves as a structure for describing the reality of entities of all scales—not merely things such as tables and stones and persons, but cities, societies and fictions. His object-oriented philosophy extends Husserlian and Heideggarian phenomenology, but profligately extends Heideggarian’s major insight regarding tool use to all objects, not merely to Dasein or the human subject. For Harman, objects are never totalized by a comprehensive whole (whether Spinoza's God or Schelling's Nature). Objects may contain other objects as parts, but the enclosing objects do not totalize the enclosed. Each object has a hidden essence, inaccessible to external objects except through the lossy act of translation that prevents any object from accessing the “real” core of another object.
This selective openness of objects is expounded upon by Levi Bryant in his onticology detailed in The Democracy of Objects and again in the forthcoming Onto-Cartography. Inspired by the systems theory of Maturana & Varela and Niklas Luhmann, Bryant reconceives objects as “machines” and focuses upon their acts of translation, with machines only ever being able to partially translate incoming signals from other objects. Some machinic communications find no purchase upon the recipient object whatsoever, in which case there is a failure to translate. One of his favourite examples of the latter is that of the neutrino, which is “not capable of being translated” by most forms of matter, but the diminished sensitivity of human eyes to infrared or human ears to dog whistles are more relatable examples of the principle.
What Bryant contributes in his extension of Harman's work are the concepts of autopoietic closure (the capacity for a system to maintain and reproduce itself) and the work required to maintain machinic coherence in the face of entropy. This necessity is well understood in the natural sciences, but less so among political theorists. There is seemingly no shortage of political scientists (or professors in the humanities, Bryant’s primary audience) making pronouncements divorced from the material constraints and energy requirements of the social and political realities they describe.
Bryant builds out these ideas in a paper entitled “Politics and Speculative Realism” (Bryant 2013). He begins by articulating a proposal for what he terms Borromean critical theory (in reference to the Borromean knot of Lacan, consisting of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary), which attempts to expand the horizons of critical theory beyond semiotics and phenomenology to allow for the inclusion of “the Real,” by which Bryant means a sort of material realism; the substrate upon which any sign or experience is necessarily built. Interesting as that is, we are more concerned here with the subsequent -politics Bryant names: geopolitics, infrapolitics, thermopolitics and chronopolitics. These are not distinct disciplines, but rather additional dimensions to include as we expand our political inquiries to bring forward the material constraints that are typically elided in most analyses.
In brief, geopolitics brings to the fore the geographic constraints of politics. The best starting points in this discussion would be Jared Diamond's seminal Guns, Germs and Steel, and James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed, both of which rely significantly upon the contingencies of geography in making their political arguments. Infrapolitics describes the architectures and infrastructures of politics. It is in this sense that talking about Facebook and Twitter works; it is also helpful in describing the state of the colonial project in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness—the absence, as much as the presence of infrastructure plays an crucial role in the maintenance of organizations and the dispersal of signs.
Chronopolitics and thermopolitics are closely related, in that both are tied to economic concerns; respectively, the expense of time and energy. Given a limited amount of time and energy, possibilities are necessarily constrained, leaving decisions to the fate of playing near-zero-sum games. Chronopolitics is at work in the strategic just-in-time scheduling that Wal-Mart and other major retailers use to suppress worker wages by maintaining many employees at below full time, but fragmenting their schedules enough that holding down second jobs become next to impossible. In another domain, thermopolitics is expressed in the grueling gauntlet put forth by some bureaucracies (notoriously, insurance companies) that, while not technically making a given action impossible, restricts access to only those willing and capable to exert the effort necessary to jump through all the hoops presented them.
This seems like common sense, but this attention to these non-human political dimensions is striking in its absence in typical political crises reportage. A recent survey of Britons showed a significant misinformation effect (Paige, n.d.), a result that is likely due in part to the information sources that are easily consumed and readily available being the least reliable in terms of information quality, and the most likely to pander to their audience's expectations and established prejudices.
The same bias shows up in law, as with Cory Doctorow arguing in an interview with Steve Paikin on The Agenda that the defeat of the SOPA and PIPA bills in 2011-2012 did not in fact close the issue out, as it costs less (in terms of time and energy) for a new bill to be proposed that is largely the same as the previous bill than it costs for activists to inform and collect the diffuse public interests necessary to defeat it again. The result is a sort of political whack-a-mole, with a beleaguered populace caving to the concentrated forces of organized special interests of all kinds.
Bryant's explicit use of autopoietic concepts in the political space helps immeasurably here. In Onto-Cartography, he defines animate machines as those that “engage in operations to preserve their organization.” This takes work in the face of the forces of entropy, and work takes energy. All machines are thrust into a defensive posture from the beginning, and animate machines take measures to resist and remain in existence. In the political sphere, this is the background work that sustains groupings and institutions; remembering this provides a great deal of explanatory value, whether one is analyzing activist mailing lists or the rationale of a bureaucratic department using its full allotted budget to ensure that it is not shrunk the subsequent year.
Manuel DeLanda proposes a similar project in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (DeLanda, 2009). There are important distinctions between DeLanda's thought and Bryant's, but here I will focus on the parallels. DeLanda brings to the fore the role of feedback mechanisms in social systems, with negative feedback mechanisms serving to reinforce norms for a given assemblage (in Bryant's verbiage, an animate machine). This is the self-healing aspect of an assemblage; its response in the face of damage or entropic decay. The concepts of tipping points and emergence are borrowed from complexity theory and begin to supply the ingredients for a social theory that spans disparate scales of sociality (from individuals and families up to national and international organizations). The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi is a clear example of one such tipping point, a single action that shifted the whole of a society. But this does not mean that self-immolation is inherently efficacious politics; if anything, the spate of imitators across the MENA in the years following illustrate just how dependent the results were on the state of the social system at the time of the action. Tunisia's political and social organization was already at a tipping point when Bouazizi set himself aflame; it is likely that had it not been Bouazizi, another action would have served as a replacement catalyst.
The reason why radical actions do not often result in radical change is largely because the actor initiating the action is weak compared to the system the actor is trying to change, as the system (being an animate machine) actively preserves its organization against threats via negative feedback mechanisms and immunological responses. This allows us to draw another connection, this time to the actor-network theory (ANT) of Bruno Latour. Latour speaks of a process of composition for politics, the coming together of human and nonhuman entities to persuade, empower, enforce, or insist upon. Latour has spoken about this at length in the context of responding to climate change in his recent Gifford lectures, but the lessons apply to more quotidian organizations and causes. Latour is sometimes critiqued by the “scientistics” (i.e., partisans of the ideology of scientism, not practicing scientists) for being a relativist, but Adam Miller explains well the thin line Latour walks with actor-network theory in Speculative Grace (Miller, 2013):
The success of an interpretation is not just dependent on the number of humans that it is able to effectively convince but (at least as importantly) on the number of nonhumans that it is able to effectively gather, connect with, and persuade. If all human beings (perhaps even together with some gods and angels!) agree that dogs can fly but neither the dogs nor gravity are convinced by your proposed interpretation, then it’s not a very good reading. Because material relations are themselves semiological, all the material stuff out there in the world has to be persuaded by your reading as well.
You may offer a brilliant, popularly-supported reading of Genesis 1 as requiring that the earth be 6000 years old, but if 4.5 billion years worth of rocks and weather disagree – well, sorry, but you’re out of luck.
In his article Love Your Monsters (Latour, 2012), Latour deploys this notion of composition to the hoary problem of technological threats, attempting a balancing act between the competing ideologies of the precautionary and the proactionary principles. The very concept of human mastery over its technologies indicates, to Latour, that we consistently misthink how we mutually compose one another, and the responsibilities that arise from this interdependence.
Bringing this bouquet of ideas together, the project of describing political change becomes a question of composing social and political machines that subvert, overpower, disrupt or corrupt (or, alternately, strengthen, expand, support and extend) target machines. This project is not simply about changing peoples minds, but involves information networks, physical gatherings, sustained energy over time and translation efforts.
This latter point is particularly important. One of the little remembered successes that arose from the Occupy collectivity was the impassioned and substantive defense of the Volcker rule by the Occupy the SEC working group. This was followed a year and a half later by a lawsuit “against six federal agencies, over those agencies' delay in promulgating a Final Rulemaking in connection with the ‘Volcker Rule.’” (Occupy the SEC, n.d.). Occupy the SEC was notable because the “concerned citizens, activists, and financial professionals with decades of collective experience working at many of the largest financial firms in the industry” that composed this working group understood that efficacious actions take into consideration their recipient entities. The papers and lawsuits from this body were not activist creeds but documents designed to be read and understood by the political, financial and legal establishment.
Another example of elegant, effective action is that of Tim DeChristopher at an oil and gas lease auction of public land held by the Bureau of Land Management. Intent on protecting the public interest by impeding the sale of public lands, DeChristopher successfully bid on 14 parcels of land (out of 116), and his bidding raised the final prices paid for many of the remaining parcels. He reneged on the purchase and did jail time, but as an act of political protest it was striking in its efficacy; particularly as the parcels, whose bids were raised by DeChristopher but won by other parties, did not become contractually void, resulting in higher payments to the public for the land that was successfully leased and requiring another auction for the parcels DeChristopher had won.
Whether a machine (in the previous examples, a social or political entity) ought to be sustained or disrupted is wholly in the eyes of the beholder. Individual humans, then, may serve as cells or antibodies, or as cancers or viruses to their larger social organisms. It is important not to valorize particular organizations or tactics, as what is adaptive in one situation may be maladaptive in another. As an individual, your politics will determine which party machine you want to support and which you want to disrupt. What is important is not your actions and intentions, but your actions as they will be translated by the receiving entity or entities.
Maladaptation of individuals to their organizations has perhaps been best portrayed in Kafka's seminal tales of bureaucratic horror. In The Trial, the full force of institutional perversion is arrayed against the protagonist, Josef K. But it is not simply the power of the institutions that are horrifying; it is their opacity and in- or non-humanity. The alien aspects of social systems can be impediments to understanding, as we alternate between treating entities as monolithic (and missing the structures they are themselves composed of—in this instance, human beings) and falling back to synecdoche, using a CEO or a political leader as a shorthand for thinking about an entire company or nation. This is where having a variety of metaphors is helpful, as the weaknesses of one may be compensated for by the strengths of another.
Gareth Morgan did this in a limited sense with his excellent application of Lakoff & Johnson’s work on metaphor in Images of Organization. Unlike DeLanda, Bryant, Harman and Latour, Morgan does not make any ontological claims about the nature of organization, but instead he provides a tour of metaphors, presenting organizations as mechanical systems, organisms, ecologies, structural conflicts, among others. The value in the project is in realizing the subjective nature of the metaphors that we see as natural fits (often, they aren’t even recognized as metaphor). (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003) The latter part of the book then presents exercises and case studies to flex the reader’s imagination for envisioning alternative organizational metaphors beyond those that are usually employed. Really, this is an exercise in empathy.
A theoretically mature perspective comes from what may be a surprising domain: theology. Theologians such as William Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, and particularly Walter Wink have laid a substantial foundation for thinking and responding to what has come to be known in the discipline collectively as “the powers.” Wink's trilogy on the Powers (Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination) is a taxonomy of inhuman entities, what Neal Stephenson described in a Reason interview as “an epidemiology of power disorders.” (Godwin, n.d.). While Wink’s research is panoptic, the pivotal citation is Ephesians 6:12, which reads in the King James version:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Wink doesn't assert the unreality of the spiritual powers described in the New Testament, but neither is he proposing a profligate demonology. Rather, he writes that he is:
“viewing the spiritual Powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power. ”
“None of these "spiritual" realities has an existence independent of its material counterpart. None persists through time without embodiment in cellulose or in a culture or a regime or a corporation or a megalomaniac. An ideology does not just float in the air; it is always the nexus of legitimations and rationales for some actual entity, be it union or management, a social change group or the structure it hopes to change.” (Wink, 1984)
While Wink insists upon using spiritual terms, his analysis of the inner aspects of power is not dissimilar to Bryant's concept of virtual proper being for objects and machines; and Wink's insistence upon the embodiment of spiritual realities parallels closely Bryant's Borromean critical theory, where semiotics and phenomenology are grounded in the Real, that is, the material.
Returning to the powers, John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus concurs with Wink’s assessment:
There could not be Man without the existence above him of religious, intellectual, moral and social structures. We cannot live without them. These structures are not and never have been a mere sum total of the individuals composing them. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. And this "more" is an invisible Power, even though we may not be used to speaking of it in personal or angelic terms. (Yoder, 1994)
Experimental psychologist Richard Beck drew out some of the implications of this approach in a series of posts on his blog, Experimental Theology. Starting from Wink's analysis of the powers and coming back to the Darwinian language of survival (which should remind us of Bryant’s description of animate machines, above), Beck quotes Stringfellow in a post entitled The Ethic of Death: Reflections on the Policies and Procedures Manual:
Whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality—for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity—that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is—apart from God—the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers—the idol of all idols—is death. […] Survival of the institution is the operative ethic of all institutions, in their fallenness.
Beck then comments:
Death (or, rather, Death's avoidance) is the motive force behind all institutions. Oh, no one ever really says it that crudely, but every institution has a metric of death that it monitors: head counts, attendance, membership, money, sales, market share, web hits, etc. And when this metric starts to flat-line the institution will go into a "death throe," doing whatever it can to survive. In this instance, the ethic governing the institution is revealed to be Darwinian in nature, survival is the highest good. And if you doubt this you've never been a part of an institution that, struggling to survive, has cut people loose. When it comes down to you or the institution the institution will always choose itself.
The mission statement of your institution might actually be very inspirational. But we need to be clear: Death is the mission statement behind all mission statements. The real mission of the institution is to survive. (Beck, 2011)
Death is the entropy that all animate machines resist in order to persist and maintain their order. In a strictly materialist realism, this is where all equivalences separate. The peculiarity of theology is this addition of an outside perspective; a God beyond the powers that be that is not held in thrall to the “machines of loving grace” that surround, envelope, depend upon and sustain us. This “outside” of power, a “weak call of an event” as John Caputo puts it, is what fuels the prophetic impulse to speak truth to power, to insist upon an alternative.
This is theology’s hope but also its weakness. It does not provide any guidance to those that are immanent to this stack of structures, these nested machines that compose our world(s). In many respects, the theistic perspective is not wholly different from the attitudes of those who see the emergence of an artificial superintelligence as the foremost existential threat (or the Lovecraftian analysis of Nick Land, describing capitalism as a Terminator-style alien invader from the future). In a feature on existential threats in Aeon Magazine, Ross Anderson interviewed Daniel Dewey, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, who said:
“The basic problem is that the strong realization of most motivations is incompatible with human existence […] An AI might want to do certain things with matter in order to achieve a goal, things like building giant computers, or other large-scale engineering projects. Those things might involve intermediary steps, like tearing apart the Earth to make huge solar panels. A superintelligence might not take our interests into consideration in those situations, just like we don’t take root systems or ant colonies into account when we go to construct a building.” (Anderson, 2013)
The fear of AI and the fear of God are not so far apart; both eschew immanence for a threat, or hope, that is overwhelming or even transcendent. Perhaps a better response to the thought of God or a superintelligence is that of Tim Maly: “we already have one of those.” (Maly, 2013) Mike Travers even made a name for them; hostile AI--organized entities whose interests are proximate to but not identical to those of humans. Travers was originally referring to the financial system (Travers, 2013), and Maly to the transnational corporations, but in many respects what they are describing is isomorphic to “the powers.”
What does this mean, practically? As compelling as Latour’s argument for a recomposed world under “Gaia” may be, it is hardly something that can be achieved in a single jump, but must be arranged over time. On a more local and shorter time scale, it may mean naming the powers and exorcising them, as Wink argues. Bryant writes that assigning blame to individual capitalists without acknowledging the constraints and formative pressures of the system they reside in is unproductive if one’s aim is societal change (Bryant, 2014). David Graeber writes, in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, that
Spectral zones are always the fulcrum of the moral imagination, a kind of creative reservoir, too, of potential revolutionary change. It's precisely from these invisible spaces--invisible, most of all, to power--whence the potential for insurrection, and the extraordinary social creativity that seems to emerge out of nowhere in revolutionary moments, actually comes. (Graeber, 2004)
For early Christians, this meant recognizing that failing to worship the imperial gods was simultaneously an act of imperial rebellion, and punishable as such; but it also served as a critique of Roman imperialism, a stuck gear in the imperial machine. More recently, Occupy Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee project took a business-to-business transaction (the buying of debt for a fraction of its stated worth, to be sold to debt collection agencies and the like) and made it a tool for debt relief and political awareness. As of November 7th, 2013, Strike Debt had raised $620,673 , to be used for buying up debts that were being sold off for 1/20th their face value, and forgiving the debt. The anticipated result is writing off $12,413,611 of personal debt (solely medical, so far). Similarly, Strike Debt's success hinges on its ability to successfully mimic the purchasing habits of debt collection companies in service to quite opposite ends.
Hostile AI. The Powers, Assemblages. Cosmopolitics and networks. Objects and Machines. These aredifferent dialects, developed independently and often with little or no knowledge of one
another’s existence. These ideas were not drawn together because they are identical to one another, but to extract from them the beginnings of a common root, a grammar of which they could each be an instance of. By establishing these shared foundations, insights drawn from one domain (sociology or theology) may be found to be useful in another (journalism or science studies). Isabelle Stengers writes, in Cosmopolitics I, that:
The only singularity of political ecology is to explicitly assert, as a problem, the inseparable relation between values and the construction of relationships within a world that can always already be deciphered in terms of values and relations. Which both changes nothing and changes everything, as is the case whenever what was implicit becomes explicit. (Stengers, 2010)
So may we commence our making explicit our political ecology, name the powers, begin the onto-cartography of the systems that enmesh us, that we create and destroy and transform, that antedate us and will succeed us.
Returning to our earlier observations about the current political tumult in Egypt and Syria, we can use some of the concepts outlined above to practically understand some of the dynamics of recent events as a simplified example of how future journalism could communicate about disparate collectivities.
In Egypt, much ado was made about the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian people, the army (by which was usually meant the SCAF, but sometimes that included the police and non-uniformed “thugs.”) While Morsi was yet in power, speaking of “Egypt” at the highest resolution largely corresponded with the policies and actions of the Morsi government. However, increase the resolution just a little, and the unitary object of “Egypt” splits into the major power blocs of the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, with some minor liberal Muslim and secular organizations, all of which overlap but do not overdetermine the Egyptian people as a whole. The changes instigated by Morsi’s government were seen by many as changes to consolidate power with the Muslim Brotherhood in ways that were seen as threats by the broader public and by SCAF. The massive protests and resulting coup showed that any reliance upon the nominal power figure of Egypt as being representative of the whole was grossly mistaken. As with the case earlier of Bouzazi, the more precarious the situation, the greater the need for clarity. In stable states, wide guesses are often right, or right enough to sustain equilibrium.
In Syria, the international incident that arose with the use of chemical weapons has largely settled, as of late 2013, in the popular press—this even as the UN is reporting a humanitarian crisis that affects more than half of the population of 18 million. The flurry of concern over chemical weapons was primarily about the power balances between the United States, Russia, Iran, and to some extent, Saudi Arabia and Israel; Syria was, to some extent, incidental.
The persistence of the Assad regime is, in particular, a slap in the face to the liberal worldview and the faith in democratic progress. Why Syria's story was so distinct from Tunisia's is well documented conceptually in The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Absent the removal of the support struts of power—the enforcers and enabling coalition, the material flows, those interest groups that provide political, social and economic foundations for Assad and his government—and power, even flagrantly unjust power, may continue to sustain itself into the indefinite future.
This is not an argument for political quietism. It is, however, a call for a tempering of expectations, and a request for consideration of collective agencies—and not merely that of a multitude.
We’re still in the early stages of such a project, where most of the time is seemingly spent talking past one another. “All communication is miscommunication,” but just because something is always lost in translation doesn’t mean there cannot be significant improvements between one imperfect translation and another. Adequately addressing this centuries challenges in an inter-cultural and inter-disciplinary world will require of us a sensitivity towards what others are capable of hearing, and the strength to speak in a language that makes clear the structures of our predicaments.