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Thursday, March 08, 2018

Conflict Theory

[Warning: This very long post was inspired by a SlateStarCodex post, but from there goes rambling all over the place. I take more potshots at Scott Alexander than he deserves. For that I apologize, but I can only say that I find his writing extremely thought provoking, and I feel a need to provoke back.

I had to divide this into sections to make it even moderately navigable.] 

Blind spot

I՚ve been making various criticisms of Scott Alexander, mostly attacking his antipolitical stand,  accusing him and people of his general ilk of not only disliking the conflict inherent in politics, but of denying its importance and occasionally even its very existence:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind… Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. …
This quote seems to reveal an epic blindness – a dread of conflict so complete it has repressed the very possibility of disagreement. But like the good rationalist that he is, the author is both aware of his own biased tendencies, and pledged to fight against them.

The meta-conflict

His newer post, Conflict vs Mistake, seems like an effort to notice and correct for this epistemological blindness, to figure out a way to encompass conflict, to acknowledge its reality and power, and to theorize about its relationship to knowledge.

To this end, he sketches out a dichotomy between two separate forms of political theory, two opposing mindsets, two different kinds of people who prefer different kinds of explanations for social problems:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects. 

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
To reword it a bit: Mistake theorists treat politics as a technical problem and view political disagreements as being basically the same sort of thing as engineers disagreeing about a problem – that is, there may be better or worse solutions, but ultimately there is some objective notion of better and worse that everyone can agree to if they are smart enough.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, treat politics as a struggle rather than an optimization problem. Individuals form coalitions to advance their own interests and these coalitions compete for resources, control. and dominance. Political conflicts are not about who is right and wrong, but about who has power and who doesn՚t. There՚s no possibility of a stable best solution because different factions have different goals, and no solution can satisfy all of them simultaneously.

First thing to note – does anybody really believe that politics and conflict don՚t enter into engineering or medical decisions? Certainly nobody with any actual experience in an organization.

Nevertheless it is true that engineering and medicine are grounded in a reality that is independent of human opinion or interest, a physical world that at minimum puts tight constraints around what is possible, what works and what doesn՚t. There is an objective ground truth, no matter how we slice it up or what values we want to impose on it. As a result, disagreements can at least in theory be settled by disinterested calculations.

Mistake theorists view social problems as being like that, or possibly they are people who want problems to be like that. Or perhaps feel that they should be like that. Or maybe they are afraid (not without reason) that if we don՚t approach social problems in a way that is a joint search for a best solution, then there is not even a possibility of peace. The world ends up being a hellscape of perpetual war, or maybe one side annihilates the other. This is such a horrifying and depressing prospect that they feel a visceral moral obligation to move towards a more mistake-theoretic worldview.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, have evidence on their side. Whether or not conflict is bad, it is certainly a basic fixture of human reality, and inescapable if one is to do any remotely serious thinking about politics.

Taking a side against taking sides

Nevertheless, while the SSC post as a whole earnestly strives to present both sides on an equal footing, it doesn՚t take much subtextural analysis to get the impression that the author himself is solidly a mistake theorist who thinks the conflict theorists are basically jerks (sometimes far worse), and maybe not all that bright. Perhaps as a consequence, he can՚t quite imagine what it would be like to be a conflict theorist, and his portrayals of the conflict theory stance always sounds kind of weak.
For example, here he compares the two sides take on the specific issue of democracy:
When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate. 

When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.
Unpacking this, there are at least two serious distortions here. For one thing, it equates “conflict theorist” with leftism or a pro-democracy stance, which oddly ignores the entire neoreactionary movement, which is very much a conflict theory with an anti-democratic stance ( SSC has written extensively about neoreaction in the past, so this is a kind of weird omission).

For the other thing, it also equates conflict theory with both millenarianist utopianism and manicheanism – a belief system of dreamers for whom politics is a utopian fantasy (“once and for all”) rather than an actual daily struggle. While I՚m sure there are people like that, it ignores 95% of the ordinarily politically active people, who are conflict theorists simply because it՚s a very ordinary aspect of life and a defining feature of political life.

So the attempt to describe conflict theory doesn՚t seem very convincing, even given the explicitly cartoonish aspect of what he՚s trying to do. You can really feel that an effort is being made to be generous to a foreign and distasteful worldview, and that the effort is not really that successful.

Wishing away conflict

He՚s perfectly aware that conflict is a real feature of political life, of course – you՚d have to be kind of idiotic to think otherwise. But, he also seems to think it can be magicked away somehow. Here՚s a quote from a follow-up post:
Politics is about having conflict. Mistake-theorists would love to become post-political, in the sense of circumventing all conflicts. Conflicts actually happening as conflicts is a failure, deadweight loss. This wouldn’t mean that nobody has different interests. It would mean that those different interests play out in some formalized way that doesn’t look conflict-y.
These ideas don’t deny the existence of conflict – they just represent a desire to avoid it rather than win it.
So mistake theorists do acknowledge conflicting interests, they just want those conflicts to be settled in “some formalized way that doesn՚t look conflict-y”. I am not sure what this means. We actually do have really existing formalized ways of dealing with conflict, such as the judicial system, but that is plenty “conflict-y”. To be sure, it՚s a better, less damaging kind of conflict than (eg) blood vendetta, but still fundamentally conflictual in its nature.

The idea of a non-conflict-y way of settling conflict doesn՚t actually make any conceptual sense, if you think about it for ten seconds. War, lawsuits, arguments, and coin tosses are all ways of settling conflict. Some are more civilized than others, but all are equally conflict-y, because a way of settling conflict sort of has to be.

What would a non-conflicty-y method even look like? The examples he gives are various libertarian utopian schemes where people who disagree simply sort and separate themselves geographically, so you end up with a bunch of different polities each coalesced around shared values. In other words it is a way of avoiding (as opposed to settling) a conflict, so I guess that is actually kind of non-confict-y (whether it realistic or desirable is another question).

Now, if the above quote was rephrased to say “different interests play out in some formalized way that is nonviolent or less violent”, then it would make far more sense. Lawsuits and war are both conflicts but one is far more violent and damaging than the other, and it would be good to try to get people to use the less harmful and costly methods. But I don՚t think Scott is making an argument for nonviolence, at least in the usual sense, given that the leading practitioners of nonviolence (Gandhi, King) were most assuredly not avoiding conflict, but actively engaging in it with nonviolent methods.

God must like conflict or he wouldn՚t have made so much of it

There are plenty of good reasons to have a distaste for political conflict. It can be kind of brain-numbing, it encourages sloganeering rather than deep thinking, and in our present environment relies on a rather toxic process of demonizing opponents (and a correspondingly moral self-regard which might be even more corrosive). It seems to be part of a world grounded on brute force which is anathema to the higher values of civilized society, including morality and justice. Certainly the world would be a better place if we could stop fighting and solve our collective problems through the application of reason. Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (war, famine, disease, death), war is the only one that seems like it could be easily prevented by simply not doing it.

So yeah you can hate conflict for many different reasons – for the pain it causes, for the waste, for the ugliness of enmity when compared to the beauty of harmony, for its stupidity, for its privileging of strength over intelligence.

But, despite all that, conflict is not all bad, and in fact something to be sought out (I am seeking it right now, and don՚t really feel all that ashamed about it). Conflict is interesting, peace is boring. We love heroes, and you don՚t get them without battles for them to fight. If we feel we have been treated badly, we not only feel the right to fight for justice, we are almost compelled to do so.

So yeah I guess I am on the other side of the meta-conflict between conflict and mistake. It՚s not even that I like conflict so much, I just see it as an essential feature of reality, and for me, understanding the world requires integrating conflict at a fundamental level.

The metaphysics is probably for another post, but briefly: you can՚t understand the world without understanding purpose and teleology, and you can՚t have purpose and teleology without conflict. That՚s obviously how biology works; and despite our quite stunning cognitive abilities, we haven՚t leveraged ourselves that far from biology yet.

Why I fight

The cultural and political wars are very real, and I feel compelled to take part in them, even though they often get stupid and ugly, as war does.

Digging into the nature of that compulsion might be another future post, for now let՚s just say that those of us who have had political mass-murder directed at their families and communities are a little impatient with the why-can՚t-we-all-get-along stance. This isn՚t theoretical, there is something out there (well, it used to be out there, now it has in here, quite at home and public within the US) that actually wants to kill me. That gets my attention. There are no mistake theorists in foxholes.

Why is any of this interesting?

Scott seems to have reconceptualized a very fundamental and basic (and not all that new) philosophical issue – the relationship between knowledge and power. At one level, we are both roughly on the same side. We are knowledge people, or we wouldn՚t be reading and writing amateur philosophy; we՚d be out gaining power and making money – doing politics, not arguing meta-politics. And we are both trying to grapple with the reality of how to live as knowledge people in a world ruled by power.

But beyond that similarity, there is a big difference: Scott and the rationalism he exemplifies thinks that pure, disinterested knowledge can and should supplant power. I don՚t think that is possible and I don՚t even think it is particularly desirable – or to put it another way, I can՚t imagine a realistic world that works that way.

And I also have to admit that amateur nerds like Scott and myself are late to this party. The nature of relationship between power and knowledge has been the subject of investigation by serious thinkers, like Nietzsche, Foucault, Latour. Pretty much the whole field of critical theory is about just this. But that kind of stuff does not penetrate very far into the rationalist community, almost by definition. I՚ve been trying for a few decades now to absorb it myself, with only limited success.

But I persist because understanding this particular dichotomy seems absolutely critical, not only for politics but for the development of computational technology (my day job). Computation is also a theory of how knowledge and power are related. Computer programs are symbolic structures that also have the ability to act on the world. AI in its various forms is founded on the idea that computers and human minds are alike, and the core of the similarity is that both computations and minds have this weird dual nature of being both symbol manipulators and embodied causal systems. And in both cases, the relationship between representation and action is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Politics may be seen as how this process works at a social level. Politics too involves beliefs (in values, in particular leaders, in justice) and collective action. In politics, it's very clear that representations don't stand alone but are only as strong as the energy they can enlist in their cause.

I'm grateful to Scott for bringing this question up in a new form, at a good level of abstraction, even if I don't much care for his specific takes. 


Dain said...

Good piece. Recalls this new one from Hanson:

Could be restated as "Study Resistance To Widened Conflict Theorizing." Conflict theory puts people in a very zero sum mood, to put it mildly.

It's been the American privilege to avoid rampant political conflict in everyday life, unlike many of areas of the non-developed world where politics (conflict rhetoric) colors and determines everything of any interest to the human animal. Those days may be coming to an end...

exuberance said...

Nice. Illuminates a question that has puzzled me, i.e. why are most engineers so passionately dismissive of politics. In the light it might be explained as a consequence of thier training: how their trade (claims to) solves problems. Their weak skills in conflict (resolution) amplifies that. As does the bewilderment at the hands of events emerging from political actor around them. Naturally anger emerges when your both powerless and awoke to the the discovery that you highly trained skills are of limit help.

mtraven said...

@Exuberance – yes, engineers and nerds tend to be the kind of people who aren՚t very good at politics. But they aren՚t stupid and know that it՚s important. There are two possible reactions to this: try to redefine the world so politics is not so important (the general thrust of libertarianism and the vaguely related ideologies around rationalism), or, man up and realize that politics is one more element of reality that has to be taken into account, given the engineering profession՚s job of being designers of real-world artifacts and systems.

mtraven said...

@Dain – I think you are missing the point, and so is Hanson. Conflict is everywhere, it certainly informs every aspect of American life (which, contrary to th post you linked, has always managed to find a way to provide separate institutions for different races, classes, and ideologies). To think that the existing order somehow descended from heaven and it is only those unruly people who are trying to change it who are guilty of conflict is the standpoint of the privileged.

That՚s the really irritating thing about these antipolitics people, they end up being apologists for the established order.

Mupetblast said...

You are just as privileged as Hanson. So that particular criticism won't get us anywhere.

"That՚s the really irritating thing about these antipolitics people, they end up being apologists for the established order."

The status quo is up to its eyeballs in partisanship and ideologues, so that description seems way off. I think what you mean is that by muddying the waters of confident leftism with doubt, they are effectively boosting the established order. But "established order" isn't very informative. For the alt right - to whom Hanson et al. are aspie cucks or something - and evangelicals, Muslims, Scientologists etc. the established order is described differently than you'd describe it. Mistake theory allows us to hash out our differences and look for common ground. (Barring this, property rights help, but you seem to dislike libertarians as much as liberals.)

You seem steeped in zero sum conflict thinking. It's weird to see it coming from the left. It's a very Schmittian attitude. Then again it's also weird to see the "right" coming off as cultural relativists asking us to tolerate all POVs and open our mind. But that's another conversation. We live in interesting times...

mtraven said...


You are just as privileged as Hanson. So that particular criticism won't get us anywhere.

What criticism? I am not saying Hanson is wrong because he is privleged, I՚m saying that his ideology is suspiciously self-serving. Consider the possibility that I am just as privleged as Hanson but pushing a less-self-serving set of ideas.

"That՚s the really irritating thing about these antipolitics people, they end up being apologists for the established order."

The status quo is up to its eyeballs in partisanship and ideologues, so that description seems way off.

Again, I՚m not really sure what you are saying (or that you understand what I am saying). I agree that “The status quo is up to its eyeballs in partisanship and ideologues”, the people who pretend that it isn՚t can՚t help become unconscious apologists for it. If you believe that the current order of power just somehow is a reflection of reality, and any attempt to change it is “politics”, you are a tool.

I think what you mean is that by muddying the waters of confident leftism with doubt, they are effectively boosting the established order.


But "established order" isn't very informative. For the alt right - to whom Hanson et al. are aspie cucks or something - and evangelicals, Muslims, Scientologists etc. the established order is described differently than you'd describe it.

Everyone may have different descriptions of the established order, but that doesn՚t make power into something amorphous and subjective. Charles Koch and George Soros both have more power than I do, no matter what I or anybody else thinks about it, and even evangelists or the alt.right will acknowledge it, even if (especially if) they want to change it.

Mistake theory allows us to hash out our differences and look for common ground. (Barring this, property rights help, but you seem to dislike libertarians as much as liberals.)

I think you have a mistaken notion of "mistake theory", which is not about "hashing out" anything (that is conflict-y!) but in denying or avoiding conflict entirely. Read the original SSC posts if you don't believe me.

You seem steeped in zero sum conflict thinking. It's weird to see it coming from the left.

I can՚t really imagine why you would think that.

Take an example dear to the libertarian heart, two individulals engaged in a business transaction and negotiating over it. Like, say A has a house on the market and B is a buyer. Their goals are very much in conflict, since A wants the highest possible price and B wants the opposite. But, they have a mechanism for resolving their conflict which has presumably non-zero-sum results.

That is an apolitical example of conflict, possibly irrelevant, but it is a lot better captured by “conflict theory” than by “mistake theory”, which would require some objective standard of who deserves the house (or something -- it doesn't actually make much sense). Political conflicts get resolved by other mechanisms, but even so the normal process is negotiation and finding settlements that resolve the conflict. Of course sometimes you need a revolution, which I guess is more zero-sum, but hardly weird "coming from the left".

Ut's a very Schmittian attitude.

Not really, Schmitt had a very particular version of conflict theory that I (obviously) don՚t endorse. I actually had a whole section on that in the original post, but cut it because it was going in yet another direction...may eventually finish and post it.

Josh W said...

I have a lot of sympathy for a "mistake" theory of politics, in the sense that when given two participants of equal power, negotiating carefully, they will do best if they find a compromise synthetically, and if you look at conflict resolution or arbitration structures that are designed to artificially make participants equal, that is what they tend to seek.

But this mutually beneficial position is sort of like the calculated equilibria of neoclassical economics; you assume that all conflict-based components cancel out, leaving a mutually comprehensible optimisable situation for both participants.

The problem comes when you try to apply the same reasoning to situations with people with varied power, then instead of the conflict related part you exclude from consideration being the earnest effort of conflict-resolution-experts to bring equal parties to the table in a negotiation, it becomes the efforts of people to get parties to accept as a starting point things they have recently won from them, according to the current dynamics of the conflict between them.

In other words, the mutually agreed rationally accepted state of facts, "the best reasonable state of affairs for both parties", becomes "the best you can accept seen as I took your house".

In that sense, a true "mistake theory" which is not based on an avoidance of conflict, but it's rational resolution, would be happy to reopen those wounds, and would recognise certain kinds of gains from conflicts as illegitimate, and not a reasonable starting point.

At the limit, you'd consider how people's interests would be treated in a hypothetical world of equal power, such as the various "veil of ignorance" approaches.

Once you reject that as too theoretical, and stop collating people's different assessments of their own priorities and interests, and then optimising political solutions from a position of absolute justice, then you have a theory that either blindly follows trends in conflict, seeking to help people set the appropriate amounts of money for ransom, given the resources available to a kidnappee's family, or alternatively your realism must force you to consider the existence of conflict.

If it does not, then this "peaceful" model of politics will be constantly embroiled in conflict against it's will, as the perfect accompaniment to unexpected attacks, helping to secure their gains, and it's foundations, will constantly shift as the conflict moves underneath them, making it less and less useful analytically the more the power relationships it assumes are uncertain or time varying.

Considering mistakes within the context of conflict, without assuming that justice can be known completely, results in an iterative and normative approach, in that political theory describes what you need to do next to act politically at the current state of knowledge.

It is forced to be normative because it takes a side, in the sense that unlike the hypothetical world in which all parties will agree to the most rational approach, it is expected that some people's interests and resource positions gained according to illegitimate modes of conflict, will be found inevitably to be unjust, and so they will have an interest to act against clarity itself, perpetuating mistakes.

So even if you're focusing just on seeking a clarified state of affairs, you will have to define it in terms of direction, setting up some state-space surface that the system should pass through to become more just, given our current state of knowledge, and more able to determine future surfaces. Then because you have considered people as inherent functional generators of certain kinds of misunderstanding, or reductions of it, you'll end up proposing redistribution of power according to whether people will help to move it through that threshold, even if you leave the details of that to conflict theorists.

Josh W said...

Inherent functional generators is probably a little strong, but the premise is pretty simple, if you recognise that conflict has the capacity to obscure the path to the true resolution of conflicts in rational compromise, you want to give power to people whose interests align more to truth than propaganda, while also balancing that with pushing to strengthen actors whose displayed interests and strategies head towards increasing justice as it is currently understood.

This isn't precisely an endorsement, it's an investigative procedure; so even if we don't have a watertight ethical definition of the bounds of whistleblowing, we can still support it's expansion in areas that we believe have obscured the calculation of just outcomes with their power relationships. We can say that society is making certain patterns of mistake, and either act within a conflict domain to lessen them, or leave that to someone else.

I'd like to say that this varies from the standard “progressive” model of supporting vanguard groups because it also supports disinterested or even misanthropic academics etc. but more recently, the political storms around fact checking and so on suggest that the dividing line has moved to match this more closely.

So we end up with something like a conflict theory, but which "side" is the right side can shift according to their strategies and the current state of knowledge, as they align or dis-align to current systemic patterns of knowledge production. In another sense, you could say that "avoiding mistakes" becomes a self-conscious side of it's own, although that reveals the flaws and capacity for co-option that is possible if this perspective is taken too far..