13 thoughts on “Sandpit

  1. How does power work in modern human societies? It seem to me that the answer is quite simple but that might just be my Dunning–Kruger bias talking. In simple terms, power works like this.

    Four mates have gone on a 4WD fishing trip in the Top End. One guy owns the 4WD and drives it exclusively. The commonly accepted “right of ownership” plus the fact that he is the biggest, strongest and most aggressive of the four mates, ensures in practice his “right to drive” the “system”. The 4WD in toto is a system.

    The four mates come to a river crossing. It is still quite soon after the Wet and the crossing is flooded. It is hard to estimate the depth as the water is turbid and rushing quickly. It is not possible to walk the crossing to test it as this is crocodile country and very large crocodiles are known to inhabit the area.

    The driver states he thinks it is not that deep and he can get them across. He has every over-confidence in his own and his vehicle’s capabilities. The other three mates protest vociferously and argue there is no way to know how deep the crossing is and whether they will get through or get washed away. An upturned vehicle in a crocodile infested river is no place to be. Let us suppose the vehicle is stopped at run-up distance to the crossing for the argument. The driver also abuses his three mates as gutless and central locks the doors, windows up, so nobody can exit. He states his intention to go for it.

    At this point, the smartest guy in the 4WD, sitting in the front passenger seat, surreptitiously grabs the window exit safety hammer used for smashing car windows. Deep inside he wonders whether to apply it to the window or to the temple of the driver. Tensions have already been rising on this trip. Instead, he initiates a debate. He has crossed this crossing before, he has some experience in judging its depth and in his opinion it is too deep, it is running too fast and they will be washed off the causeway. The other two passengers agree.

    Now, we have the position that a democratic majority has voted to not make the crossing. The bull-headed driver continues to retain real control of the real system of the car. He continues to insult his passengers for lack of courage and insists that he will cross, beginning to rev the engine for that purpose. The back seat passenger, directly behind the driver, fortuitously is the second strongest man in the vehicle and possess both courage and sense. He declares he will grab the driver around the neck and choke him is he so much as moves the vehicle a centimeter towards the crossing.

    The driver says he will drag this man out the car and beat him up if he tries it. The other two declare they will join the back seat man in beating up the driver if he tries that. It well understood by all four that the three would have the combined ability to beat up the one.

    What are the salient features of this scenario?

    (1) Ownership, as an institution observed in theory and practice, confers a position at or closest to the instruments of control of the system be that system a 4WD vehicle or a social-economic system. In the case of a society, it may be the case that servants, factotums, delegates, representatives or technocrats sit at the instruments of control but take orders from the owner(s). This leads to a further level of discussion (how are the delegated controllers controlled?) which I will omit for the time being.

    (2) The owner is the only one with the immediate power to both propose a direction and then to execute it. This is due to proximity to the instruments of control. The control may be direct or through delagated controllers who the levers of power. They are the levers of power quite literally. Eventually all power is effected by physical levers. Arms on steering wheels, legs on pedals and in other settings fingers on keyboards: all real physical levers.

    (3) When debate arises, even the jaw is a lever, the tongue is a lever and vocal chords are kinds of levers. Am I being too literal and physicalist for people? Words of reason, persuasion or threat are metaphorical levers on the understanding. When democratic debate arises, the majority express their views and collective will, and the owner(s) will decide to listen or not listen.

    (4) Quite typically owners will consider violence, as the last resort, to retain ownership and control. If an owner persists in behaviour which threatens the very safety and/or amenity of the majority, the majority may eventually rebel and apply superior violence. This is not advocacy of violence. Indeed, I always advocate that warring parties find an agreement before open violence. It is to point out, as a matter of realism, that violence or at least the threat of it is the final recourse for all parties when all else fails. This alone should impel us to find solutions before that late and desperate stage.

    (5) It is the twinned and rather opposing phenomena of ownership and democracy, especially when set up as formal institutions, which set the stage for this conflict. A minority of owners have their hands effectively on the levers of power and the majority are placed at a remove from the levers of power. There is a practical reality here. Only one or a few at a time can operate levers of power. The issue is whether the delegates at the levers of power are put there by owners or by the majority. Only in democratic governments are the delegates put there by the majority by votes at relatively infrequent intervals. In addition, these delegates, or their votes, can be bought in one way or another by rich owners. This is now commonly the case.

    However, in the business and corporate world, the onwers do have direct access to all levers of power in society other than those operated by government. Workers have little to no power unless they rebel. This is the non-democratic realm of the everyday operation of our society. Onwers propose directions for all sorts of things and then execute these decisions. Non-owners are, on a day to day basis, almost completely powerless in our society, unless they combine and rebel or threaten to rebel as did the passengers in the 4WD.

  2. The problem is that the driver’s “ownership” status is irrelevant to his power in the scenario. His power derives from the fact that he is sitting in the driver’s seat. If the car were jointly owned by all four men, and the driver was determined by vote or by rotation, the person sitting in the driver’s seat at the point at which the river needed to be crossed would still have the capacity to generate a crisis such as you describe by being bellicose and unreasonable, just like the owner in your scenario.

  3. Now I’m retired, I keep busy each day
    Correcting the silly things some people say;
    I try to relax, but it’s hard to forget –
    Somebody’s made a mistake on the net!
    I get up each morning, I dust off my wits,
    Get on the net and I read the obits:
    If my name isn’t there, then I mustn’t be dead,
    So I eat a good breakfast, and go back to bed.
    How do I know my youth is all spent?
    My get up and go has got up and went;
    But in spite of it all I’m able to grin
    When I think of the places my get up has bin.
    (“Get up and Go”, set to music by Pete Seeger)

  4. Tim Macknay,

    Thanks for putting some thought into replying. It may be that my scenario is oversimplified and hence incomplete. Any model, including a scenario-model like mine above, is clearly abstracted and simplified compared to the whole complex of reality: in this case compared to the full complex of ownership and power in society.

    I am certainly glad you brought up joint, that is to say, collective ownership. I still argue ownership is relevant because, if the ownership was collective and the driver determined by vote or rotation, then there would only be a 25% chance of the bellicose and unreasonable person being the driver in charge at the time of reaching the crossing. This is certainly an improvement on the 100% chance in the original scenario. We can theorise that collective ownership likely would have a number of effects on membership and members.

    People are likely to vet membership of a collective and go in for joint or collective ownership carefully and make sure, so far as they can, that it was with like-minded and reasonable people. In turn, joining a joint ownership group is also an act which could modify the choice of others (to join at all) and to modify choices made after joining, particularly if the parameters of continuing joint ownership were made clear. These effects, I argue would reduce the chances, of a bellicose and unreasonable person being the driver in charge at the time of reaching the crossing, to considerably less than 25%.

    More generally, I think that ownership (of things) to some extent and level is unavoidable in human society. Humans need exclusive and/or guaranteed access to certain things if they are to survive and have reasonable amenity and rights. We can nominate the access to potable water and washing water, and to adequate food, clothing and shelter. In turn, certain levels of exclusive or shared access to various possessions, tools and services are required in any given socioeconomic system. The need for personal ownership or the workability of collective ownership has to be decided on a case by case or at least a category by category basis. As one writer has said before on J.Q’s. blog, collective ownership of a humble toothbrush is not going to work.

    But in general, collective ownership and democratic decision-making around the issues of large productive assets can work well and should alleviate a lot of our problems. It’s the decisions of a few rich owners of large assets which determine much of the content of our society. For example, certain rich and/or sectional interests in society have determined (due to the high private profits involved and the pushing of externalities costs elsewhere) that many processed foods should be very sugary, salty and fatty and that these should be heavily advertised and promoted. The net health effects are harmful and the extra positive economic activity and empoyment could be generated in other ways: less of these foods and ads but more gyms, physical trainers, rest cure sanitariums and dental hospitals for example. The latter conformation is more likely to arise with less private ownership or at least less heavily concentrated private ownership. But that assertion will require further argument. Let’s see if get any more takers for this kind of discussion.

  5. @chrishod
    If you’re retired, good for you. The very occasional internet comment does, I’ll admit, afford me a brief distraction from the frustrations of work. All of us who comment on the interwebs are afflicted by SIWOTI to some degree, and I have no doubt that you would readily acknowledge that you are equally afflicted. 🙂

    I like your rejoinder about the chance of having the particular bellicose individual driving at the critical moment being reduced to 25% in the scenario of collective ownership – good point.

  6. @Ikonoclast Thank you for sharing the interesting analogy above.
    As Tim M, again I am having difficulty establishing the true/meaningful/relevant relationship between the ‘ownership’ and the ‘coflict’ of interest between the powerful/owner and the powerless for example.
    The worker/powerless person (me) has the choice to walk off from the ‘owner/s’ and starve (maybe we have been brainwashed not to do this by our parents; but then we are borne into a situation where all the resouces have already been alocated).

    When I engage with the ‘owner’, I am counting on existing laws to protect my interests against those of the ‘owner’. So these laws are what is relevant to me and what needs to be negotieted between the ‘owner’ and myself. I guess this is done through the government I’ve elected.

    The problem is that this government was elected by the owner as well. Is the ‘owner’s’ influence on those in government secured through the collateral of things owned by him? This seems sufficient, but is it a necessary condition? Even if he did not possess these things, he could ‘apply’ and obtain an unsecured loan (a contract and alliance that he may use in the future to exploit and gain advantage over some section of the population, by example changing the existing laws, and share the profit with the lawmaker who advanced him the loan).

    And what about the women who have put the most effort and sacrifice into raising the humans necessary to the ‘owner’s’ future prosperity, to anyone’s future (often for little if any financial gain for themselves, often only being able to survive in return for a lifetime of sacrifices)?

    How do women end up in this situation? Is it through monopoly on some sort of violence, held by males or the state? I am not paid and will never be compensated financially for the child raising and house work done over my life. This is a major additional problem to any other I may have with the work I do outside the home for a salary.

  7. I would guess that a critic would say that I have still benefitted indirectly from the system that has been there for a while. Surviving childbirth was almost certain to me as was the survival of my child.
    If we hadn’t stolen and robbed, cheated and accumulated profits in hands of a minority but divided things evenly among ourselve, pr not cheated in the first place, would we still be doing as well as we are (in terms of good things I have today, as above)?

  8. chrishod,

    I am definitely afflicted by SIWOTI. In point of fact, I am afflicted by JAEIWOTIAIRL. 😉
    (Just About Everybody Is Wrong On The Internet And In Real Life.)

    Tim Macknay,

    I’ve found a flaw in my own analogy or thought-experiment. We could also take it that there’s a 25% chance that each of these four men could have been be the sole owner of the vehicle in the first place. That is if ownership of 4WDs is not in any way determined or predicted by the broad types of character I gave the men.

    Overall however, our society does give me the feeling I am just a passenger. I feel that I and many like me (the majority in fact) have no real way of influencing the direction of our society and civilization. I’ve fixated on the construction of private ownership as a main problem. I wonder if Rupert Murdoch feels helpless or if he feels “I can actually influence the direction of all this!” I imagine it’s the latter.

    Of course, feeling that one can influence civilizational direction, even with a lot a wealth, still could be an illusion. I do wonder if we (all humans) really have any “civilizational agency” individually or collectively. Can we influence the direction of our civilization or are the outcomes profoundly emergent and thus beyond agency? If the whole is greater than the parts, then no agents can direct the whole, not even agents collectively, as there are many factors outside of agency per se.


    The whole analogy or thought-experiment is sexist as women are not depicted at all. I admit that but I felt I had to simplify it and avoid awkward grammar. Women have been in a very bad position historically and their position is still far from substantial equality.

  9. Ikon – my Dad was an owner. I was schooled by religous bullies. My Dad said “they are taking your will away / money away. Don’t let that happen”. I leant to be 1. Not in the car. And 2. even to my immediate detriment or just yank the wheel to bifucate the power situation. And hichhike.

    Annon… “I am not paid and will never be compensated financially for the child raising and house work done over my life. “. As a single parent, me too. Glad I am though. Some economist (cheeky!) needs to deal with trauma and lack of support for mental health as well.

    “Although survivors of domestic violence are more likely to suffer mental illness, they arenot routinely asked about domestic violence or abuse when getting mental health treatment. So they’re not provided with appropriate referrals or support.”

    “Dr Rosenberg says the questions driving funding models have been about who pays and not what works.
    “We don’t have patient-centred care, we have funder-centred care.”

  10. Thought about privative clauses? (Yes, probably not.)
    There’s a spreading rash of ‘agreements’ – generally, contracts of adhesion – that prohibit a party from recourse to the courts. The usual defence is that people agree freely to this. (It’s written into a take-it-or-leave-it monopoly service or goods contract; it’s written in as a precondition of any employment with particular employers; and so on.)
    The rule of law means that the law applies in a disinterested fashion to all.
    If opting out of the courts is a good idea, people should be able to do it by agreement…after a dispute has arisen. After all, if opting out will get things dealt with quicker or cheaper or both, or according to principles both parties prefer, they should be able to agree easily on opting out of the courts.
    So a simple defence of the rule of law, and a simple defence against oppressive preconditions imposed by a stronger party, would be to provide that no agreement to opt out of the courts could be validly made except in relation to a dispute that has already arisen and has been particularised by the parties to the dispute.
    That would leave alternative dispute resolution, settlement conferencing, court-compelled negotiation or discussion all unaffected. And it would not touch agreements to take an issue to a parallel process, and even to parallel rules, if both parties decide to do that.
    But a lopsided exclusion from the law and from the courts that is really just a denial by one party of the rights other parties would otherwise have…would always fail.
    Worth a try?

  11. Chrishod, I see you and raise you one:

    Prescribed private funds?
    (Kellogs & Smorgons + a wide range) ”

    “Regulation Impact Statement is not mandatory and was not prepared.” This is called a RISible.

    I don’t have such a prescription. I need a new tax doctor and a bag of cash though.

    “Federal Register of Legislation Income Tax
    Assessment Amendment Regulations 2009 (No. 1)

    Subsection 12(2) prohibits the retrospective operation of regulations that adversely affect the rights of, or impose liabilities upon, a person.

    The Regulations are beneficial to the institutions and funds concerned and to taxpayers making donations to them
    The Regulations are administrative in nature, rather than regulatory. 

    They are a machinery of government and do not substantially alter existing arrangements. Accordingly, a Regulation Impact Statement is not mandatory and was not prepared.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s