Post-Newtonian politics, or, Psychopathology and national security

A short addendum to the comment about the seemingly counter-productive tactics of the US and European security apparatus in its attack on everyone involved in the Snowden NSA-document affair. Inspired by remarks of John Quiggin, I observed that we can’t understand what is happening when we view the state as a unitary goal-directed entity. Much of what is going on now can only be interpreted as eruptions of an internal power struggle, where the security services feel threatened, and are throwing their weight around.

Talking about throwing weight around puts one in mind of celestial mechanics. Under most circumstances we can consider planets as being simple objects, a mass located at a single point, the so-called centre of mass, whose motion is defined by a single momentum vector. It is only when we look at the fine structure, long-term behaviour, or extreme events that we need to consider the internal disposition of the mass. So it is with governments, that we may incline to see as unitary objects moved by the single will of the president or prime minister. Of course, political theorists and historians know that even the most extreme dictatorship has factions and power structures that shape the master’s will.

The analogy has been applied to the philosophy of mind. Two decades ago Philosopher Daniel Dennett introduced the definition of the self as a “center of narrative gravity”. We have intuitive models of human psychology that work, like Newton’s Laws, to predict people’s behaviour without reference to their complex inner life. Thus, if I arrange to meet you at a restaurant at 6, it suffices for me to have a few high-level beliefs about you — you want to see me, you know where the restaurant is, you have a watch — to predict that you will be there at about 6. I don’t need to concern myself with your inner life, and, in fact, for me to do so would be intrusive. It is only when behaviour becomes pathological that the unitary self loses traction.

Similarly, the pathological outbursts of the security apparatus (calling them “services” suggest that they are serving someone other than themselves, which is doubtful) force us to consider the complex power relations between government institutions.

We need to turn to some unemployed old kremlinologists to understand our own governments.

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