New Terms for New Times

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
– Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”

It’s tough enough to live in a time like the present, when things are changing in so many ways. What makes it even tougher is that language often fails us. While we may have vague ideas about how things are changing, we have two problems in talking about those changes.

The first involves the uncertainty that inevitably revolves around great change. We find ourselves asking “what’s going on?”; “what does it all mean?”; and “how do I deal with it?” If we aren’t sure about what’s happening and what it means, we won’t be able to talk about it with any great assurance.

But beyond that there’s the problem of terminology. The words we use are based on shared past experience. If you tell a friend “my car has a flat tire,” the sentence is understandable because you and your friend both know what a car is, what a tire is, and what getting a flat tire means. If you could somehow go back in time 150 years and tell someone “my car has a flat tire,” they wouldn’t know what you are talking about because they’ve never seen a car or a tire, and have no idea why it would matter if the tire is flat.

An example of this terminology problem is the recent flurry of blog activity about a relatively new term: “liberaltarianism.” The word, coined by Will Wilkinson, apparently points to a new perspective on creating workable policies:

I predict Democrats will become somewhat more receptive to arguments that certain less centralized, more market-oriented policies do a better job of achieving liberal goals than do the more heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites.

A problem Wilkinson has here is coming up with a suitable label for such adaptable Democrats. Apparently believing that Democrats are associated with liberalism and market-oriented policies are associated with libertarianism, he uses the conjoined terms to reflect the conjoined concepts.

However, both “liberal” and “libertarianism” carry a heavy load of conceptual baggage: many people have strong beliefs and associations with each word, and the discussion of Wilkinson’s concept seems to often founder on that baggage. Liberals express concern about libertarians taking over the Democratic party; libertarians dismiss any possibility of change among Democrats. In both cases, the argument revolves around the labels.

I believe it is possible to have Democrats who favor “market-oriented policies” rather than the old, centralized approach to problem solving. I think in many cases it’s even essential for Democrats to adopt such approaches. The problem is, what might we call such people?

I have a suggestion.

While he may not be aware of it in so many words, what Wilkinson is really talking about here is a shift from the inflexible, mechanical world view of Newtonian mechanics to the adaptable, organic world view inherent in the modern science of complexity.

John F. Schmit, a military consultant and writer who has been closely associated with Marine Corps doctrine since 1986, gave a lecture at the National Defense University in 1998 titled Command and (Out of) Control: The Military Implications of Complexity Theory. He concluded that military success required a shift from the prevalent mechanical world view:

The physical sciences have dominated our world since the days of Newton. Moreover, the physical sciences have provided the mechanistic paradigm that frames our view of the nature of war. While some systems do behave mechanistically, the latest scientific discoveries tell us that most things in our world do not function this way at all. The mechanistic paradigm no longer adequately describes our world—or our wars. Complex systems—including military organizations, military evolutions, and war—most definitely do not behave mechanistically. Enter complexity.

Complexity encourages us to consider war in different terms which in turn point to a different approach to the command and control of military action. It will be an approach that does not expect or pursue certainty or precise control but is able to function despite uncertainty and disorder. If there is a single unifying thread to this discussion, it is the importance of adaptation, both for success on the battlefield and for institutional survival. In any environment characterized by unpredictability, uncertainty, fluid dynamics, and rapid change, the system that can adapt best and most quickly will be the system that prevails. Complexity suggests that the single most important quality of effective command and control for the coming uncertain future will be adaptability.

For the same reasons, liberal Democrats need to shift away from what Wilkinson describes as “…heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites.” Such policies are based in a mechanical world view; they seek out control over problems just as a driver seeks to control a truck. We might describe supporters of such policies as “mechanistic Democrats.” (I thought for a moment of using the term “machine Democrats,” but that has its own history and baggage – especially here in Albany.)

As for Wilkinson’s more adaptable Democrats, I would suggest using a label that reflects their non-mechanical approach. As adaptability is a quality inherent in all living organisms, we might refer to them as “organic Democrats.”

Clarifying this distinction between the old and new ways of evaluating policies will help us understand how they differ, without getting bogged down in discussions of labels. And any terms that help us understand our changing world has got to help us in adapting to it.

As John Schmit observed, adaptability is key.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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