The Reactive State

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More 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.

What 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.

To 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.

Even 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 authority.

In 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.

Such 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."

The 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.

While 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.

The 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 clippers.

To 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!

Such 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 future.

There 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!"

To 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?

The 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.

When 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.

It 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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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