The Invasion of the Giant Blob: Government as a SuperOrganism, Consuming all in its Path

By S. Leon Felkins
Originally written 9/12/06
Last revision was on 10/7/09

We Instinctively Regard Large Organizations as Organisms — and It Makes Sense to do so

Every political system is an accumulation of habits, customs, prejudices, and principles that have survived a long process of trial and error and of ceaseless response to changing circumstances. If the system works well on the whole, it is a lucky accident — the luckiest, indeed, that can befall a society. — Edward C. Banfield

A couple of weeks ago (November, 2006) voters expressed their disgust with government which resulted in a Democratic win at the polls. Not long after this initial exhilaration, for both citizens and political analysts, the realization started to set in that, most likely, nothing was going to change.

Some time ago, I was reading one of the many blogs devoted to the expression of disgust with the government, the loss of our rights, the trashing of the Constitution, the ever increasing size of the government and the public debt, and so on. The author of that blog, who considered himself to be a patriot and an activist, had ideas for how we might cure the problem. His primary theme was that what we needed to do was to kick the bastards out of office and replace them with folks like you and me — honest, compassionate, skilled, well-meaning folks. Such a scheme is fairly common among the activists, to some degree at least, not usually quite as naive.

Frankly, my immediate thought was "What a stupid idea — how does he know his audience would be any better?" Of course, the scheme would not work. While I admit that government and politics probably do attract a class of person that has certain undesirable characteristics, replacing them with a general slice from the population would, in my opinion, not make a whit of difference. Not in the long run, for sure.

And why that is so is the subject of this paper. Government is a system and systems tend to take on a life of their own. That is to say, systems such as the government and other purpose driven organizations tend to act like organisms - superorganisms[sorg], or living systems[livs], some would say.

When viewing systems as organisms we sometimes get a little loose in our descriptions, using such expressions as "it wants to be thus and so", or "to improve its survivability, it elects to follow some such strategy", and so on. Please understand that this is just a convenience to speak this way — it does not mean we think the system or organization is really "alive". Actually some philosophers may claim that the group of things under study may be "alive" depending on how you define "alive". My usage here, however, is just for convenience of explanation and illustration. For there are always reasons why the organism takes a certain path and these reasons are founded in basically "what survives", not on any internally planning by the organism. That is, it is a process of evolution, mostly.

Actually it is quite common for all of us to regard large organizations as organisms. We speak of "the government", "Congress", Republicans, Democrats, a state, etc., as if it were a thing in itself. I recently bought a can of paint that had this bit of wisdom on its label:

This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. (emphasis added)
How else to interpret that other than the state of California is a living thing and, apparently, a helluva lot smarter than ordinary mortals in the rest of the country!

In fact we often talk about the state as if it were an organism with a finite life. That is, empires start like an infant, grow to maturity, and then seem to age and die just like animals and plants. Or, sometimes they are cut down in their prime as the Inka empire in South America was (by the Spanish Conquistadors), again just like what might befall a plant or animal.

The "organism", or blob, if you will, that I am addressing here is the state — the combination of the government and the politicians. Authors, journalists, politicians and the public commonly speak of the "state" as if were a being unto itself. A typical example is the LewRockwell.com article "Ten Righteous States" by Michael S. Rozeff. As a bonus, he also speaks of the market as if it were a thing in itself, with a purpose;

The unhampered market maximizes well-being. The unhampered state minimizes well-being. The completely unhampered state is the most complete totalitarian tyranny. States hamper markets and diminish well-being. When citizens hamper and restrain states, they increase well-being.

The most well-known and accepted example of a process composed of a large number of active components being regarded as one macro process or organism is the so-called "invisible hand" of the marketplace, as conceived by Adam Smith (See "Markets without Makers: A Framework for Decentralized Economic Coordination in Multiagent Systems" by Torsten Eymann). The important observation of this spontaneously organized system is that it will, without any overriding control, provide what is believed to be best solution to the utilization of the "market". That is, no system of human control — Communism being the largest and boldest attempt so far — has been found to be superior to the system of free market wherein the system organizes its own self.

An interesting book that looks at history with the view of large political entities being regarded as organisms is Manual De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. For example, he describes cities as organisms — with personalities:

By contrast, speaking of concrete cities (instead of "society" in the abstract) enables us to include in our models historically emergent wholes that do not form totalities but simply larger-scale individual entities.
...
viewing cities as individuals allows us to study the interactions between them and the emergent wholes that may result from these interactions.

Under certain conditions, any large collection of entities can start to act like a "superorganism". Of particular interest to citizens, or victims, if you like, are the ones we call "states".

Government and Society

There are many aspects of government. The one least considered is what may be called the biological aspect, in which government is like an organism with such an instinct for growth and self-expression that if let alone it is bound to destroy human freedom – not that it might wish to do so but that it could not in nature do less. — Garet Garrett, Insatiable Government
There is an invisible hand in politics that operates in the opposite direction to the invisible hand in markets. In politics, individuals who seek to promote only the public good are led by an invisible hand to promote special interests it was no part of their intention to promote. — Milton Friedman

The concept of government or political structures being viewed as an organism involves an arbitrary and overlapping boundary. That is government, political organizations, the state, and general society have overlapping boundaries. While this complicates the problem, it is still useful to concentrate on these sub-groups for purposes of analysis.

In fact, many individuals think that the groups overlap far more than they really do. I have often heard the phrase, "we are the government" in this "democratic" society of the U.S.A. Not very accurate! While many individuals may be a member of the government or a political party and at the same time be a member of general society, the groups are really quite distinct — as organisms. If you don't believe that, try going to your nearest National Park and attempt to cart off one of their valued artifacts. Even trying to get into a park or any other government facility by claiming "I am the government" will not get you very far!

Practically speaking, the government is distinct from society. It is the controller, society is the controllee. The distinction is clear and forceful. They can use force, you, the citizen, cannot. For practical purposes then, we can consider government as being a separate organism.

The government organism can be quite small, such as a family, or it can be monstrously large as it is in most developed countries. Gary Johnson, in "The Evolutionary Origins of Government and Politics"[ref], defines the function of government as being "centralized system coordination." That then means the government could be one person or millions of persons. In either case, it can be regarded as an entity.

One of the most sinister components, or sub-blobs, of the government is the so-called "Justice System". For whatever reason, once a person hits the trip wire and sets this system in motion, it is virtually impossible to stop. Virtually all of the individuals in this system are helpless to stop its process no matter how unjust it may be.

Let's look at an example of a system that we hear about constantly (and the analysis is usually completely wrong) and that is that there is some group somewhere that is causing the deterioration of morals, education, compassion, responsibility, etc., in our society. It is not usually said directly that this evil group exists but it is implied. For example, one hears that "It used to be that kids were morally upright, worked hard, and respected their elders. Now they are out of control." There seems to be a message hidden in here that some group was the cause of this. OK, well some folks just say right out, it is the fault of the politicians, the liberal press, academia, Hollywood, and you name it.

But is that really the best way to look at the problem? Does it really make sense at all? No it doesn't because unless you assume that all of these bad people live external to our society, then it would be best to simply look at society as an evolving organism. We have to take one step backwards and ask how did these evil influences come to be. Did yet another group teach them to be evil? You see the mess we are in trying to fix blame on some group.

Academics, especially in the field of Political Philosophy (and a gazillion web and blog authors), supply a constant stream of solutions to the problem of government. But, of course, it doesn't make a whit of difference. The monster government just keeps plodding on its chosen path, driven by internal and real external pressures and pays no attention to the cacophony of voices trying to persuade it to do otherwise.

So, let us look at society as an organism that adapts and changes over time. Members of society are constantly being replaced over time, but it makes no more difference than the water molecules moving in and out of a wave as it passes through. It is the wave that matters! Society's attitudes change with time just like the wave and for the same reasons: external and internal forces. To get specific, universal education is most likely the main force behind the change of morals. When the mass of the citizens were mostly illiterate, if was easy to induce them to follow the rules. Without knowledge, they easily believed illogical things that in turn led them to comply with their leaders wishes. They accepted their fate and had no idea that they could do otherwise.

But education changes things. While our education system is not necessarily turning out swarms of rocket scientists, it does modify the minds to the effect that there is more than one view of the world. Students are not only exposed to at least some other philosophical ideas than what they get at home and their selected church, but also serve as a mixing bowl of ideas from each other. So doubt develops and new things are tried. Like lying and being irresponsible. Most of them find that they get away with it. That is, what we consider to be immoral may actually be rational. It may pay off. And if it does, the blob will move in the direction of the payoff!

The system of universal, government-mandated, education has other aspects that support the "organism" concept. Evolution first comes to mind. Instead of imagining an evil cabal that is determined to dumb down America, a more logical approach is to look at it as an evolving organism. To start with, let us accept that kids coming out of school today probably are not as knowledgeable of the basic "3 R's" as say my generation was. Or the generations before me. On the other hand they do know a little about far more things than we ever imagined! But why would that be so? The teachers, the school board and the parents are to blame, right? But wait, where did they acquire their skills and attitudes? From the same system! At best, only marginally better. So each generation contributes to the deterioration and the reason is, their capabilities and morals are a product of the same system.

Why does it get worse rather than better? I suspect that it is because it is our nature to look for the easier way. That may be a nice way of saying, because we are lazy, I don't know. In any case it seems doubtful that we could expect the whole population to all pull together to build a better system. If they did, you would have to wonder, where did they get the idea to do that?

Maybe from observing other "superorganisms"?

Other similar Organisms; Birds, Fishes, Teens, Ant Colonies, etc.

A people is an organism created by the past, and, like every other organism, it can only be modified by slow hereditary accumulations. — Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, 1896, Page 49
The value of viewing government and political structures as organisms will be more easily understood if we look at a few similar examples.

Obviously there are many forms of superorganisms or "living systems", many of which are fascinating to study in their own right. Now let us look at the principles of their existence.

Some Theory

Accept your fate as the stream accepts the stream bed. The bed forms the stream; the stream forms the bed.William Markiewicz, in Extracts of Existence
From the systems point of view, the understanding of life begins with the understanding of pattern. — Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, page 80

Now, let us look at the merits of viewing large organizations as an organism. Is anything to be gained by this approach? Very definitely, yes. The primary benefit is the predictive value of systems analysis.

That is not to say that by simply regarding a political party as a huge, voracious, organism will allow us to predict what it will do next. No, large organizations fall in the class of things called "complex systems". Complex systems are not very predictable with any known approach but can be handled somewhat by computer systems simulation. These complex systems have the characteristic described as "chaotic", which is to say, that long term predictions are impossible.

But all is not lost for short term predictions are worthwhile and even the knowing of current trends has great value. Consider the weather — a complex, chaotic, system. Are weather forecasts not of some value — even if wrong when it is more than a few days in the future? So, the value of systems analysis, necessarily done on computers for all but the simplest systems, is the same for political structures as it is for the weather — to give you the most probable result. Long term results are still of some value but must be accepted as only "probable" and that with a low probability — a good example being the former USSR!

Further, in many cases, a group of individual components, while not tractable as independent items — the "micro" view — may have mathematically tractable characteristics in the "macro" view. For example, from physics, we know that the macro characteristic of a gas, pressure, is really the result of millions of individual molecules colliding with each other and the container wall. We could attempt to model this closed gas system by mathematically modeling the paths and collision of each molecule. But that is a hopeless effort as there are far too many molecules to model even for the most powerful computers.

On the other hand, if we take the "macro" view, we can use the empirical formula, PV=nRT. That is, the product of pressure and volume is equal to a constant times temperature (see Gas Laws). So a "macro" view of the billions of individual molecules turns out to have some simple properties that are quite useful in describing the global behaviours of the gas. And so it is with other grouped items — including humans in organizations.

Another example of a useful "macro" law is Moore's law — A principle first stated in 1965 by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, who predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 18 months. Such "laws" may be a fundamental property of complex systems and therefore may apply to systems like politics and government. Specifically, government growth may also be determined by such a law.

Gary R. Johnson, in his article, "The Evolutionary Origins of Government and Politics"[GRJ1], expresses the hope for the discovery of these basic principles:

"... we should in the future be able to identify a set of basic principles of government and politics that apply across all levels of life's hierarchy, from the simplest prokaryotic organisms to incipient international organizations."

We don't have room here in this essay to go into the many other examples of the macro behaviour that results from micro actions and interactions but we can briefly discuss why this might be so. Philosophers and scientists have tried to define just what it takes for a collection of objects to act as an organism. The best introduction I have seen available on the web (see the Reference section for other books and articles) is the article "Self-organization in Collectivities. The Combinatory System Approach", by Piero Mella.

Mella expands on various theories and classifications of "collectivities" but the idea that seems to best summarize the issue at hand here is what he calls "Complex Adaptive Systems Approach". Such systems have at least these characteristics, according to Mella:

This seems to adequately describe the organizations that we are discussing here. However, I do want to note that some philosophers include many more characteristics for "living organisms", even the idea that maybe they can learn — see "the learning organization" at http://www.infed.org/biblio/learning-organization.htm.

While there is not room here to pursue the many facets of the theory of systems that have the characteristics of organisms, I have provided several references that would give a good start to anyone that finds it interesting. There are a few online pages of links or references; the best one that I found is the "Complexity Papers in Postscript, Archive or Downloadable form" at http://www.calresco.org/offline.htm. A good start for research on the subject, in any case.

Conclusion

There is hope in men, not in society, not in systems, not in organized religious systems, but in you and in me.— Jeddu Krishnamurti

In summary, what I have suggested in this essay is that there would be usefulness in regarding the state as a giant organism and to try to establish laws that describe such organisms in the same way physicists have established "macro" laws about physical processes. Description of water waves and the gas laws were given as examples. With some research, I believe that similar laws could be established for the growth of government and be used for reliable predictions. Whereas predicting weather using the "micro" approach is essentially impossible, we get very useful results using the "macro" approach.

It appears that the growth of debt, tyranny, loss of freedom, concentration of power, and other undesirable functions are inherent trends of the state "organism" and is virtually impossible to change by individuals either in or out of government and politics.

No, it cannot be changed by you and me; it will require an organism at least as big as the state itself. Which, of course, could be me and lots and lots of you!

Leon Felkins is a retired Engineer, a retired Army officer and former teacher of Computer Systems. He now maintains a web page on political philosophy, "A Rational Life", and a "Political Almanac."

Copyright 2006 Leon Felkins. All rights reserved.


References

Notes:


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