Saturday, June 6, 2020

Civil War & Systems Views

Systems View of Civil War

The basic idea behind systems thinking, popularized by Peter Senge’s 90’s era book, is that a view at any level hides other views, at higher or lower levels, each of which paints a slightly different picture of things. This happens because of

-different levels have different factors which dominate (or recede)

-yet each level is connected, often by numerous factors, many of which produce novel insights when mapped through.

Senge operationalized this with his 5 level of why questions. Whenever you think you have an answer, ask yourself what is going on behind that answer. In practice this means any problem can be viewed from multiple levels of granularity. Finer views are better for some questions, but worse for others.  Complexity means that emergence always happens and no single view is able to capture every (eventually) significant thing. The nice thing about systems thinking is how it lets you hold onto the threads from one level to the next.

The US’ current cold, but gradually warming, civil war is at a stage where a systems view is probably needed.  There are multiple views of causation, each one being right is its own way, and each highlights different aspects and causes of the current turmoil, which is bound to get worse after the Nov elections.

National Level

At a high level, current civil strife is well characterized by Peter Turchin’s secular cycles frame. Current civil strife is caused by elite over production. Real wages of producers continues to shrink. The gradient between elite and non-elite status becomes starker. Governance systems become increasingly strained to employ a civil servant class who comes to expect more and more. Governance and monetary reward / power become increasingly intermixed. The only way to keep your head above water is to abuse the producer / lower classes (either directly through commerce and low real wages, or indirectly through governmental grift)

This is good view for the current US unrest. Wage disparities have energized a system. Authoritarianism and loss of trust in the rule of law are the weights that topple the cart. Intra-elite competition between moralized media and various political cabals are, at this view, the root causes of strife.

Supra-National Level

One level above Turchin’s view is a multi-level selection frame based on polity sizes. From this frame, the current civil strife is a consequence of the tensions between operation at a pan-national level of selection and a national level of selection. Steve Bannon has the best framing here. It conceives of current tension as tensions between nationalism and globalism. It explains the right side of Trumpism as a form of sort-of-ethnic nationalism and the left side of Bernie Sanders as a from of economic nationalism. This is the horseshoe theory of politics. Eventually the far right and far left become functionally indistinguishable by policy, albeit not be social demarkers.

In the 20th century, nationalism gradually stabilized. Fits and starts of it occurred during the treaty of Westphalia. It continued to settle down as the French revolution ushered in a new type of ideological unity as a national unifying force. While in the 1910’s you could still conceive of a war for land between developed nations, WW2 was the last real kick of the land grab can. Various cold war encounters sealed this deal. Nation state lines are now largely inviolable. Of course proxy possessions still occur, but they have to be framed very different than they once would have had to have been.

From the multi-level national-vs-pan-national perspective, US’ current civil strife is a result of an inevitable backlash against the requirements that occur with a country’s move to pan-national focus. The gene-cultural traits (conflict minimization, inter-dependence, coordination) required to stabilize things at a higher level of selection just aren’t ingrained or common enough to enable stabilization. The national level focusses on things like the need for borders, tighter labour markets to drive up real wages, etc. The pan-national level focusses on things like accepting open borders and  such Movement to a higher level of selection, such as pan-nationalism, is almost certainly never going to stabilize on the first few go rounds. Expect a good thousand years or so for stabilization, at least if history is any guide.

The ultimate causes here are genetic. It is simple selection between the adaptive value of larger groups vs the adaptive value of more tightly coverable smaller groups.

Stability Through Tribal Based Dynamic Tension

If you haven’t watched any of the new genre of ex-felon prison vlogs, you probably should. They’re equally informative for current social tensions as the various 1st amendment and police over-reaction vlogs that have been popular for a number of years.

From a multi-level selection frame, you can interpret current de-fund and disband the police rhetoric as both an appeal for community based policing by local militias and a desire for more localized rule of law which are not arbitrary but are sensitive to local contexts. The US constitution seemed quite keen on these ideas. Federalism sort of quashed this. Remember the uniqueness of each cities’ charters back in the early 1800’s?

That’s all well and good. But from a multi-level selection lens, what you seem to have is an exploration of dynamic tensions. To go back to the prison example, federal higher level prison have very clear race based dynamics. I doubt that such people aren’t any more or any less racist than anywhere else. What seems to happen is clear boundaries between arbitrary groups produce a stability that exceeds what could happen when migration between groups is free and you can never be certain who is on who’s side or who is subverting whom.

The result is some scary group based thinking. Things such as “I don’t care who gets punished, but your group owes us a head” tend to occur. You had similar type thinking among many native american groups, especially amongst plains indian groups.

Tension between competing groups with similar polity sizes produces an environment that doesn’t tolerate much gamesmanship. Obviously operation at a higher level of selection minimizes overall violence levels (see Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature on the history of violence decline as polity size increases), but this is only true is the conditions necessary for operation at a higher level of selection are stabilized in a population.

As the riots, and inner city violence, and police double standards show, this isn’t the case in many environs.

Socio-Cultural Level

This is a view that dominated up until a few years ago. We’re in the last stages of a cultural war. The winners of the cultural war went for total domination and now having backed its foes into a corner, have elevated things into a full existential war.

This is really a group social psychology frame.  It’s one group against another for cultural domination. I doubt much more needs to be said here. If you thought the culture wars were coming to an end as woke-ism died out these last few months, you were probably as wrong as I was. 

Governmental Level

The simplest systems frame is that of competing governing factions. Blue vs red state thinking. To my way of thinking this is overly simplistic. But, it does work, especially if one starts to look for negative sum thinking (if it hurts my enemy more than me, its good)


Civil War 1.0 was the war of independence. It was a combination of a socio-political purge with a foreign power rebellion.

Civil War 2.0 was ‘the civil war”. I interpret it as a weak empire conflict. I believe empires that weaken (or are stretched too thin for federalist demands) tend to bifurcate into two or so strong mid-sized states. In the lead up to this war, northern and southern states solidified. But, in a very unique solution, moderately strong federalism won out. Nonetheless northern and southern differences remain very start up to this day, despite fairly large levels of migration between the two.

Civil War 2.nothing was the social conflict that almost blew up in the late 1890’s and into the early 1900’s. It was avoided, largely due to strong memories of the Civil War, and elite inter-pressure for philanthropy. The New Deal 

Civil War 2.nothing2 was the social upheaval of the 60’s with its fairly large levels of left-wing violence.  Death rates per annum amounted to 

Civil War 3.0 (usually called 2.0) is where we are now. As I’ve said before things will get bad in 2020, but really bad in 2024 or 2028.

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