XCI – The Reactive State

Email Print

than three years after 9/11, I visited the Wall Street area of New
York City to discover police officers with machine-guns patrolling
the streets in front of the stock exchange. Other than their menacing
presence, everything else seemed peaceful. Why this show of force
in that area when other parts of Manhattan — much less the streets
of Los Angeles with which I am more familiar — were devoid of such
well-armed agents? Standing just a few blocks from the World Trade
Center site, they looked more like props one would find at a historic
recreation such as Gettysburg or Valley Forge, or the spear-bearing
sopranos in Wagner's Die Walkre, rather than integral parts
of the functioning economic system in which they were located.

possible purpose is served by this .50 caliber charade? The explanation,
I believe, lies in a crisis of authority being experienced by political
systems in an increasingly decentralized world.

remain viable, every system must enjoy the sanction of its members.
Such approval ultimately depends upon the effectiveness of the system;
upon its capacity to produce intended, beneficial results. In a
market economy (i.e., one free from government restraints or manipulation)
a business enterprise must continue to satisfy the preferences of
customers in order to remain in business.

political systems must appear to be effective agencies of social
order if they are to enjoy the continued sanction of their subjects.
To this end, states condition people in the belief that, through
the exercise of coercive power, they can protect the lives and property
of their citizens, and generate social and economic regularities
in what, it is alleged, would otherwise be a disordered and destructive
society. While the lawful use of violence is the modus operandi
of all political systems, it is the popular expectation that
states can regularize society and protect people that sustains their

order to carry out this ordering function, the state must convince
its subjects that it has the capacity to marshal and analyze information
that is unavailable to others, in order to create programs, policies,
and practices that can produce predictable and desired ends. Modern
political systems are grounded in the belief that legislation has
magical powers to transform humanity; to mandate "good"
and to enjoin "evil." It is presumed that a combination
of wise leaders and expert advisors will employ political power
to achieve wondrous social ends.

illusions have become increasingly difficult to maintain, even for
college-educated folk. I have written before about the importance
of the study of chaos — or complexity — to an understanding of why
vertically-structured political systems are not only incapable of
generating social order, but invariably produce disorder.
In a complex world, only unstructured, spontaneous practices are
capable of generating social order, a truth that can be glimpsed
by comparing marketplace economic behavior with systems of state
planning. In an age of sophisticated technology, political thinking
remains an anachronism, bogged down in medieval social assumptions
that continue to find expression in such bromides as "the more
complex society becomes, the greater the need for government."

CIA exemplifies the political model that presumes the state to be
capable of gathering and analyzing information so as to predict
and direct events. The functional absurdity of this idea continues
to reveal itself in such glaring failures of "intelligence"
as the CIA's inability to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet
Union or the attacks on 9/11. The consistent dislocations produced
by state economic planning and regulation are further examples.
To speak of "unintended consequences" is but to acknowledge
the dynamics of complexity, whose interconnected networks render
our social world quite unpredictable.

state authorities are no more capable of predicting outcomes from
the interplay of complex relationships than are you or I, they are
quite adept at reacting to such events. Political systems
must have been the model for the adage about locking the barn door
after the horse has escaped. In reacting to the unpredictable —
particularly when done with dramatic self-righteousness — the state
endeavors to reinforce the impression that it is controlling
that which determines events.

devastation of 9/11 was implicit in years of American foreign
policies and military actions, but it was not predictable.
Neither are any future terrorist actions — including the forms they
might take — predictable. Still, the illusion of being able to control
the future must be maintained if the state is to retain credibility
with the public. For this reason, political agencies establish systems
and practices directed against behavior that has already occurred!
The 9/11 attacks arose out of aircraft highjackings — despite the
fact that airport searches of persons and baggage failed to prevent
them — and so the state's response is to intensify such surveillance,
reaching such absurdities as the removal of passenger's clothing,
the pat-down of women's breasts, and the confiscation of fingernail

even own a box-cutter knife — the "weapon of mass destruction"
on 9/11 — is probably sufficient, in this reactive mindset, to get
one labeled a "terrorist suspect." I am convinced that,
had these highjackers used peanut butter as part of their criminal
act, peanut butter would now be declared an unlawful substance,
and those who expressed a liking for this food would find themselves
visited by FBI agents!

behavior on the part of government functionaries — like the presence
of machine-gun-armed police officers in the Wall Street area — serves
no pragmatic purpose. Theirs is a purely symbolic role, a
reaction to 9/11. Like the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, these
reactions are designed to leave gullible minds with the assurance
that the state is controlling events so as to prevent such further
atrocities. Paradoxically, it is the failure of political mechanisms
and procedures to alleviate our fears of uncertainty that energizes
our attachments to these agencies and their symbols. In such a way
do we learn to conflate responses to the past with control of the

is a simple-mindedness in all of this, perhaps a corollary to the
definition of an "insane" person as one who keeps repeating
the same acts under the same circumstances and expecting different
results. To set up mechanisms in reaction to past conduct is to
presume an undeserved stupidity on the part of those who might be
planning future attacks upon Americans. Wall Street police officers
with automatic weapons posture as ex post facto symbols of preparedness:
"terrorists attacked major landmarks in this area on 9/11.
This time we'll be ready for them!"

believe that men who used box-cutter knives to commandeer airliners
will be so unimaginative as to repeat their methods reflects the
paucity of thinking within governmental bodies. On the other hand,
what other conclusions can be drawn by men and women whose political
weltanschauung deludes them into believing that a complex and uncertain
world can be rendered orderly and predictable through the use of
laws, regulations, and other mandates imposed through state violence?

decentralizing implications of chaos theory to social behavior have
not yet "trickled down" to members of the established
order, whose very existence is bound up with assumptions of centralized
power. True to its reactive tendencies, the state has responded
to the centrifugal forces at work within society by increasing its
machinery of coercive force: the Patriot Act, increased surveillance
and tracking of people, endless wars, and the airport fondling of
passengers. But such will, I believe, prove to be vain efforts to
resist the coming collapse of centralized power systems.

a crisis of authority confronts the state, it reacts irrationally
and destructively in order to sustain its privileged position. I
liken the modern American state to a chicken that has just been
beheaded. In a final burst of energy, it flaps around wildly and
noisily in a futile resistance to its terminal state. It makes a
bloody mess of anything with which it comes into contact. But its
fate has already been determined.

is time for the rest of us to grow up and abandon our beliefs in
institutional wizardry and philosopher kings who, we are told, can
bring our lives to order. Police officers with machine-guns and
airport security agents with groping fingers are no more capable
of preventing another 9/11 than were the "intelligence"
agencies and trillion dollar defense systems that were in place
on that dreadful day. We must walk away from the state's gated and
well-policed "planned communities" and discover new social
models that are premised on our functioning autonomously, spontaneously,
cooperatively, and responsibly, within a society far too complex
and uncertain to be capable of centralized management.

of Contents

Email Print
  • LRC Blog

  • Podcasts