As I wrote in The Dance of Consciousness, there is an eclectic coherence to the thoughts expressed on this blog, as there is to all thought that penetrates beneath a certain level of superficiality, and much that doesn’t. And as I explained in The Algorithms of Complexity, that coherence is a product of what might be described as “a tree of natural algorithms,” with larger branches controlling smaller ones, and our shared intellectual (and thus political) quest being getting closer and closer to the sublime and perhaps ultimately unattainable “trunk” controlling them all.
I described this in terms of a synthesis of several ideas about ideas, including paradigm shifts, dialectics, and meme theory. We live in a world forged by a competition of ideas, some sets of which may come to predominate in certain times and places (in the form of dominant paradigms), but which themselves are constantly challenged by both internal anomalies and conflicting interests or perspectives, combining an on-going problem-solving process with an on-going competition of both ideas and material interests.
To be clear, the competition of ideas has a large material component, such as the competition between military and economic technologies (which are implemented sets of ideas), a competition decided by which win in a physical competition over either the relative ability to physically coerce, or the relative ability to win market share.
In many ways, what happens in academe is more deeply political than what happens in politics narrowly defined, because it involves explorations into deeper currents that eventually inform the shallower ones. The processes are intertwined, so that as political permutations of academic ideas are discredited, so are the academic ideas, whereas political forms that succeed become academically rationalized.
So, the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Montesquieu were derived from a combination of classical political philosophy and the recent historical experience of Western European, and particularly English development (most particularly in the form of The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was arguably more the moment when sovereignty shifted from crown to people than was The American Revolution), and in turn informed the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution, which have been vindicated by historical success, securing the success of their foundational ideas along with them. Conversely, the equally intellectual ideas of Marx and Engels, as well as a variety of fellow-traveling anarchists and socialists, informed horribly failed political experiements, discrediting the whole complex of imperfectly implemented ideas along with the discredited attempts to implement them.
This sometimes involves “babies” being thrown out with “bathwater,” or “bathwater” being retained along with the “babies” that were in it, such as the popular Western dismissal of every idea Karl Marx ever had due to the abject failure of most societies that tried to implement his general doctrine, or the popular acceptance of an idealized laissez-faire economic philosophy because the more nuanced reality more or less incorporating it has proven to be generally successful along certain highly valued dimensions.
Not only are our ideas and political forms a product of various dialectic and paradigmatic dynamics (including the dialectic of conceptualization and implementation), but also of how these are compiled into ideological packages. The translation of ideas and political forms into political ideologies is very consequential, because even slight errors can be amplified into tragic proportions. For instance, Social Darwinism, despite how horrific it was, was essentially just the confounding of a descriptive reality with a normative one, justifying and even idolizing successful brutality because successful brutality tended, historically, to prevail.
The challenge we are faced with, as conscious beings, is how best to participate in these processes. There are many facets to this challenge, including identifying the purpose(s) of our participation, and the degree to which we feel any imperative to impose our will on the organic development of human history. Some might argue that there is no real purpose to our participation, that we should each simply pursue our own lives, addressing our own interests and the interests of those we care about, and let the rest take care of itself. This is the value-system of “mutual indifference,” caring about ourselves and those closest to us, but not caring about others only to the extent that doing so serves our primary concern.
But this is akin to “non-cooperation” in collective action problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), condemning everyone, now and in the future, to fare less well than we otherwise might have. It is the embrace of a mere hyped-up animal existence, grasping in the moment, without far-reaching imagination or foresight or compassion in any way informing our choices. The result is a combination of organized violence and relentless exploitation of any human or natural resource that any group is able to exploit, to our own ultimate self-destruction.
Both humanity and Gaia are better served by more conscious participation in our shared existence, by the proactive effort to understand the systems of which we are a part and which comprise us in order to most fully realize the genius of the many, in service both to our collective material welfare, now and in the future, and to our cognitive capacity to most fully enjoy it. I call the ideology which best meets this challenge “cynical idealism,” the pursuit of the ideal in the cold light of an unflinching understanding of less-than-ideal existing realities.
What we see more frequently is the exact opposite: “Idealistic cynicism,” which is the idealization of who and what we are, while essentially surrendering to the cold, cruel realities of the world. One prominent examples of this is the ”angry progressive” movement, driven by the belief that conservatives are the enemy, and committed to achieving immediate progressive policy ends while surrendering to politics as usual in order to do so. It is idealistic about existing realities, by frequently ignoring the real political dynamics by which those ends must be achieved, inconveniences such as compromising with competing points of view and interests, while remaining cynical about our ability to ever transcend our current state of being in any fundamental way (despite the historical reality of constantly transcending previous states of being in very dramatic ways, through a combination of technological and political economic revolutions, for instance).
Another example of “idealistic cynicism” is Tea Party conservatism, which is superficially the opposite of angry progressivism, but on a more fundamental level representative of essentially the same political modality. Tea Partiers are driven by an ideal that they believe to be immediately dispositive, the ideal of absolute freedom from state (i.e., mutual) coercion, which is mobilized in service to an implicitly cynical reality, that we are just a collection of ultimately disconnected individuals whose highest responsibility to one another is to stay out of each other’s way.
Both of these archetypal examples of idealistic cynicism are dogmatic, convinced of substantive truths without worrying too much about how those substantive certainties were arrived at. Cynical idealism, conversely, is the exact opposite: It focuses on procedures by which to improve both our understandings and our implementations of those understandings in service to our collective well-being, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. A cynical idealist recognizes our foibles, including the foibles of oneself, and so is more committed to careful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of various conceptualizations and proposals than to precipitous advocacy of the ones they find most emotionally appealing (the latter leading to our noisy and dumb politics of today, a competition of ideas less refined than otherwise might have been attainable in an alternative political culture).
Therefore, the first pillar of transcendental politics is a dominant commitment to procedures and methodologies, and a more humble and flexible commitment to the inevitably tentative substantive positions that are produced by those procedures and methodologies (see Ideology v. Methodology). This has already occurred to a large extent in one of the most important of our deep political institutions: Academe. Academe is political because it is a place where we produce authoritative (though often competing) statements about reality. And it is not, as has been the historical norm, a mere branch of politics narrowly defined, authoritative truth being a product of who can force it upon others, but is rather, to a large (if inevitably incomplete) extent, a product of a very sophisticated process, of a particular algorithm of for discovering certain facets of reality, carved on the lathe of history, and by the efforts of human beings engaging in it and advocating for it.
It has also occurred, to a lesser but growing extent, in law, where resolutions of legal disputes (including disputes over the meaning of the law itself) are resolved through a very highly refined academic process. This is not to say that politics narrowly defined do not in some ways and at some times control decisions in both of these spheres: Supreme Court justices and federal judges are appointed for political reasons, with attention to their political predispositions; scholarship can be funded or unfunded by political processes, and certainly is very much in the grips of the local politics of academe itself. The point is not that some absolute transcendence of the politics of competing material interests and precipitous substantive certainties either motivated by those interests, or manipulated in service to them have been completely transcended by the disciplines of law and science, but rather that some marginal degree of such transcendence has made significant inroads through these two methodologically-dominated spheres of our social institutional realm.
The major benefit of this procedural or methodological commitment is that, if well designed, it steadily increases The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, and does so at a constantly accelerating rate. The same methodologies can be used to continuously refine the methodologies themselves, and to continuously refine the procedures by which the procedures are refined, delving ever deeper into the The Algorithms of Complexity, just as the fictional character Algono did in the abstract metaphorical representation of this process in The Wizards’ Eye.
We are on a journey, both individually and collectively, both haphazardly and intentionally, toward ever deepening consciousness, and toward ever more holistic and robust implementations of that consciousness in the form of our social institutional and technological landscape. It is a journey which occurs both despite and due to our efforts, one whose path and destination are not predetermined, but whose logic will sweep us along slowly or quickly, painfully or happily, in service to some at the expense of others or in service to all at the expense of none. These are the dimensions along which our shared fate varies, dependent on the degree of compassion and wisdom we employ and cultivate, in ourselves and in those around us.
I have offered my own nascent view of a way in which we can participate more consciously and more effectively in this shared endeavor of ours, as I have defined it in this essay (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, or, for the more in-depth version, A Proposal). But that suggestion is just one starting point for discussion. The essential step, and the only thing we ever need agree on, is that we are capable of doing so much better than we are doing now, and that there is a conceptual framework that better serves our ability to do better than the blind ideologies to which we currently cling.