By many standards, our current political system in America is broken. Our Congress is barely able to pass a budget, confirm non-partisan appointments, or even deal with looming health or environmental crises in a timely manner. This is mostly thanks to Republican obstructionism, but it speaks to a larger issue of an adherence to the status quo amongst our leadership in both parties. More than almost anything else, our elites believe in the precarious balance of the system. In such an immense country with such diverse beliefs and interests, there is a pervasive view of our political system as a teetering tower that took years to construct, and many are only interested in the lightest little re-alignment this way or that when it comes to tweaking the tower. Anything too radical could risk unsettling our equilibrium and toppling the entire thing.
Belief in a natural equilibrium does not only exist in politics. In the documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the incredible British filmmaker Adam Curtis tackles this concept of equilibrium from a few angles. In the world of ecology, for example, the study of the natural world has been dominated for years by this notion of a “self-regulating ecosystem.” In nature there is a balance, an order. If the ecosystem is disturbed, it will always push to return to this previously established balance. It's a familiar and rather appealing concept, one that I think I may have been taught as a kid. As it turns out, however, this conception is a fantasy.
“[In the 1970s], a new generation of ecologists began to produce empirical evidence that ecosystems did not tend towards stability,” explains Curtis, “but that the very opposite was true: that nature, far from seeking equilibrium, is always in a state of dynamic and unpredictable change.” Contemporary ecologists have revisited ecosystems that were thought of as “models of stability,” and have discovered that, although there had been no outside interference, these systems had fluctuated wildly. Populations of predators and prey that were believed to be in "harmony" with each other had changed significantly for no apparent reason. In some ways, these ecosystems were unrecognizable as compared to what they were years earlier. Nature was always changing, always moving forward. “You get a disturbance, the forest doesn’t come back the way it was,” explains an ecologist in the documentary. “Disturbance comes along, and it resets the system to something new… you have to replace that assumption of the balance of nature. You have to discard the myth.” It seems that in nature, without active regulation, true stability is impossible. Decentralized self-regulation is not enough. Luckily, the natural world has very little interest in "cultural stability." Elk and lizards don't seem to mind chaos and unpredictability. The collective organism that is modern humanity, however, is quite different.
Adam Curtis continues onward, discussing another kind of “self-regulating ecosystem,” in the form of the countercultural communes of the 1960s and 70s. In short, thousands of young people were moving out of cities and joining unregulated, egalitarian communities in the wilderness and deserts. “The communes deliberately had no hierarchy of control or authority,” summarizes Curtis. “Instead, the central idea was that everyone should see themselves as part of a system— a distributed network that could stabilize itself, just like the ecosystems in nature.” Yet again, while this theory of self-regulation is profoundly appealing in its simplicity, it also proved to be false for many of these communities. “Most lasted no more than 3 years, some for less than 6 months. And what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power.” In a series of interviews with former commune members, Curtis shows that without any regulation, stronger personalities rose to the top, leaving the weaker personalities with no structured mechanism of opposition. Differences in intelligence, education, confidence, charisma, and even physical fitness imposed an inescapable hierarchy on these communes that doomed them to fracture and failure. The lesson here is profound: contrary to one’s own instincts, equality is not a natural state. Without having a governmental and legal structure imposing true equality, these communities were helpless against the influence of powerful individuals.
In the last week, it has felt like powerful opposing forces in our country are pulling it apart at the seams. Our nation’s celebration of its independence was cut short when Alton Sterling was murdered by a police officer on the 5th, Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop while a four year old girl sat in the back seat on the 6th, and then five police officers were killed by a sniper on the 7th— all while the Republican nominee tweets anti-semitic memes and the Democratic nominee is scolded for being “extremely careless” with classified material by the FBI. And all of it less than a month after Orlando. The conversation that I keep having over and over with my friends in the last few days has been about what we can actually do. Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. Tweets and expressions of outrage aren’t enough. What do we do? Can the democratization of the internet age help us solve these problems through self-regulation and global collaboration? Or does change need to come from the top down? How does a modern society efficiently address their major systemic issues?
I’ve thought about this question a lot in the last few days, and I kept coming back to one of the central theses of Adam Curtis’ documentary. “What we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, that it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas about what comes next. And just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.” In other words, the computer age has propagated this idea of human beings as software, running on hardware in the form of the status quo. And while this mindset might seem harmless, it does in fact fully dismantle our ability to challenge that hardware, to rewire and rebuild it on an elemental level.
Beginning in the 1980s, it became very fashionable to say that more government is never the solution. So fashionable, in fact, that even the Democrats found themselves saying it from time to time by the mid-90s. This is an argument again rooted in a belief in self-regulation, in the free market. These people believe that the natural order of things should be given space to flourish, and government needs to get out of the way. What Adam Curtis’s film and our current political climate has shown, however, is that this belief in the myth of equilibrium has stunted our growth. Unlike smaller, more politically limber, often quite socialistic countries around the world, we are too encumbered with fear, bureaucracy, and inertia to actually fight for radical, sweeping reforms that can keep pace with our ever-changing world. It may be partially due to the coupling of Republican politics with religion and ethnicity, as that association has created a political climate of tribalism and infallibility. The “problem” is never on the inside going out, it is always from the outside, coming in.
I am not saying that any one particular piece of legislation or act of governance could have saved Alton or Philando. Rather, I am saying that when a problem is systemic, that means the system needs an overhaul, and that means a willingness to re-configure the hardware. Clearly we all hunger for this overhaul, just look at the meteoric rise of Trump and Sanders. After all, as Curtis’ examples show, attempting to seek an original "equilibrium" is a futile pursuit of a debunked fallacy. Every moment that passes where the system is not revised is one step closer to a system that is antiquated and irrelevant. If we are to learn anything useful from the computer age, it is that as soon as something is set in stone, it starts becoming obsolete. Instead of attempting to obsessively protect that teetering tower that the status quo has built, we should be purposely tearing it down. We should be taking a hammer to it, sifting through the pieces, and re-building it for this moment in history.
So, what do we actually do? I think we need to start taking politics seriously. We need to understand that we cannot self-regulate, and that even open systems like Wikipedia have strict governing principles that maintain order and have evolved over time. Founding documents get amended. Government is not only our ally, but it is the only thing keeping humanity afloat, promoting true equality and allowing unprecedented coordinated action to solve problems that would otherwise destroy us all. We need to vote, to campaign, to run for office. Talk to people that you disagree with and engage them in a healthy debate. For God’s sake, we need work overtime to get anyone who only cares about partisan horse races and obstructionism out of office. We in the arts should try our best to make things that can affect and change the conversation in an unexpected way. We need to knock our culture and our government out of auto-pilot and aggressively establish the new normal. This won’t fix anything overnight, but it will begin our collective adaption to treating government not as a constant, but as a reflection of us, always in flux, always looking towards the horizon. And then, inevitably, this new normal will become obsolete, and it will have to come toppling down once again. And again. And again.