Warning: Discussion of Violence from a Favorable Viewpoint.
This is something I’ve been pondering for a long time, and I have no answers. But it bothers me; I feel like everyone ought to understand the dynamics of power and be able to resist people who seek to abuse the system for their own ends.
I suspect that this problem could be framed as an instance of a “prisoner’s dilemma” in terms of game theory, but I don’t think game theory results in useful advice for real-world situations. Imagine if you were playing some game in a social science lab, in which we were bidding unknowns for marshmallows. But when the opponent’s turn comes, they just reach across the table and grab your marshmallows, saying “don’t move a muscle. I win.”
That’s the nihilism gambit: you have been sucker-punched because you were playing by the rules, or even some rules. The nihilist ignores the rules and, I am going to suggest, always has an advantage over the player that is constrained by rules. It seems that any rule at all can be gamed to serve as an impediment, even if it’s a minor rule, it’s less efficient to obey rules than to simply use them as a smoke-screen for doing whatever you think you can get away with.
I have tried for some years to philosophize my way around this, and failed. My first attempts were looking at game theory constructs and trying to compose a sort of philosophical defense of retaliation. You’re probably familiar with the “tit for tat” algorithm in the prisoner’s dilemma, in which a steady (advantageous) state is achieved if one player simply plays the other’s move back at them: if they are cooperate, be cooperative. If they are greedy, be greedy, etc. I’ve seen humanists and skeptics point at this as an argument for cooperation in social dealings, but if the opponent has the first mover advantage they can always end the game ahead by one result. I believe it may also be possible to manipulate an opponent away from “tit for tat” by signalling cooperation and then choosing opportunism. In the armchair of philosophy, the dynamics are cleaner, so instead imagine you are negotiating with Mitch McConnel. When he’s weak, he whines for mercy and cooperative bipartisanship. When he’s strong he tells you you’re Melians who must endure what you must. If you give him anything when he is weak then he gains “more than zero” when he’s weak, but he gives you “exactly zero” when he’s strong. Basically, he’s winning the marshmallow game one marshmallow at a time, except for when he is grabbing huge handfuls of marshmallows.
So, I started thinking that, against such an opponent there is no value in negotiating or collaborating: you just try to obliterate them completely and end the game. When the other guy grabs your marshmallows and laughs, you stab him in the heart with the dagger you brought, because you’re more of a nihilist than they are. But that reasoning devolves to a Dalek-like strategy of pre-emptive obliteration. You can’t be sure who will shoot first so you stab your prospective opponent as soon as they walk into the social science department’s lab. Oh, they brought a gun.
The film War Games tackles this problem: the best move is not to play the game at all. But in real life, that doesn’t work: your opponent is ready to play a single-handed game of “global thermonuclear war” whether you are, or not, and they just took the first-mover advantage.
Once I started thinking about this, I see nihilists everywhere. Sometimes they masquerade as authoritarians (e.g.: christian evangelicals) but they reveal their nihilism as “moral flexibility”, i.e: “you didn’t really think I believe that shit, do you?” as soon as it is convenient or offers short-term advantage.
Another place I see political nihilism is when someone is able to hold hostages against their bad behaviour. “How can you hurt these poor hostages?” They cry, as they act with relative impunity. And the situation often winds up with the hostages as human shields – the allied strategic bombing campaign was mostly pointless until they focused on denying the Reich war materials. Hitler and his cronies didn’t feel bad. Other than the pain of losing WWII they were comfortable until the end. Right now, the Georgia vote suppression situation is nothing that will affect the republican leaders who caused the situation – so why do they give a shit who in Georgia suffers? They have money and security and they are old and don’t believe that anything will hurt them, except as some kind of abstraction.
Now I must quote Nietzsche, as he is appropriate to the situation: “as you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” And “those who hunt monsters become monsters, themselves.” When I was an undergraduate I thought long and hard about Nietzsche and concluded that he was not really making an argument; it’s fine bloviation but it’s bloviation. If I decide to be an abyss-dweller, though, that means I can pull the nihilism maneuver and also stop playing by the rules. When Saladin allegedly said “kings do not kill kings” he was, I remind you, a king.
It seems to me, then, that because of the nihilist’s first-mover advantage, that they can seek to negate retaliation. The obvious answer to political nihilism, then, is the abyss option: murder them, without mercy or anger. They are dangerous and human history shows again and again how such people exploit the folly of man. They will never play fair, they have no feelings for anyone but themselves, and once they reveal themselves, they have probably bypassed some of the body politic’s defenses – they get more dangerous the more power they can accrue and they are more expensive to remove, later. Of course they protect themselves with guards and barbed wire, as innocent well-loved and respected leaders do.
So, that brings retaliation into our game theory game. The key may be to promote an ideology of the abyss-monster: you never know when your corruption will be summarily judged. Don’t feel bad for the political nihilists; they’d do the same to you without blinking. They just haven’t identified you as a threat, yet.
Another way I come to this conundrum is the behavior of the Proud Boys (henceforth “PB”) – they are playing a weird version of the marshmallow game, in which they sometimes find and beat a solo person or someone who is not MMA-trained and ready to fight. I.e: they are looking for unfair fights that are just unfair enough that they have an enjoyable edge. They are not interested in finding themselves lured into an alley and a crossfire of AK-47s; that, to them, would be unfair and they’d run blubbering for their mamas, as bullies are wont to do. So, the PB model is to beat up singletons and they are happy with that game because they got to set the rules and they only play (like Mitch McConnell) when they can define victory.
It’s a strange thing: they don’t expect to walk into a firesack because “good guys don’t do that” and good guys, honestly, don’t do that. Good guys don’t play games that are structurally unfair; that’s part of the definition of “good guy” – that’s why I see this as part of the Nietsche axis: they have arranged the game so that, to play without a built-in disadvantage, you have to stop being a “good guy” and become a monster.
Alexander Berkman was an anarchist who believed that industrial magnate Henry Clay Frick was a monster who abused workers and amassed his vast wealth thanks to their broken bodies and chemical-burned lungs. He was right, for what that was worth. He let himself into Frick’s house, stalked up to his office, shot at him, and caused a relatively minor injury. Berkman thought that shooting Frick would trigger a workers’ revolt, which was not the result. As it happens, even if Frick had been killed, he would have been replaced by a new capitalist exploiter, same as the old capitalist exploiter, etc. It’s a fascinating question to me how many capitalist exploiters would need to be gunned down before someone a bit more labor-friendly stepped up for the job. Arbitrarily, I will say 8.
Where I wind up, with all this, is that Berkman did not communicate effectively. Nor did the labor movement. Or progressives. I know it seems like the most un-progressive thing, ever, to say “Play fair or we’re going to treat your life as a chip on the table. Like you treat ours. That doesn’t mean I’m going to kill you, but you’re a monster and you are fair game for other monsters that are looking to hunt.” The same could be said to the PB: “We hear you don’t like fair fights. That sucks but you know what? Not all of us will only fight fair. Any time you follow someone into an alley you may be about to die so think twice.” The problem with Frick was that some progressive monster didn’t sit him down and tell him “I am not your nemesis but you need to re-think certain things because not all of the good guys shirk from being good monsters.” I wonder if Jeff Bezos would hear and learn from a conversation like that, or if he’d just ruin his own life out of fear of the consequences.
And that brings me to the end of game theory: it’s stupid. It’s a waste of time. Why? Because the games are specifically constructed scenarios in which there is no communication. There is no avenue over which a threat of retaliation can be carried.
Kings don’t kill kings, but pissed off peasants – it’s just another messy job for them. I wonder if someone would fuck Jeff Bezos’ day all up for $15/hr. This is personal, not institutional, the great criminals of our time hide behind institutions for their protection and to deflect the chance of confronting the consequences of their actions in person.
I see Berkman as the hero of his tale, but ultimately a failure. A better example might be Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the off-duty policeman who realized he was inside the security cordon of the Russian ambassador, who he blamed for attacking islamic forces in Syria. He had the badge and the gun and the badge got him into position behind the Russian ambassador, who he shot, then made some brief remarks, while smashing things. OK, maybe he was not a good guy, but I consider it a certainty that All Russian Ambassadors Are Bastards and anything that forces them to cringe behind their security helps reduce the quality of the life they sought to gain.
On 29 January 2017, Turkish prosecutors said the entirety of Altıntaş’ email had been deleted from his Gmail platform two-and-a-half hours after the assassination, by which point Altıntaş had been shot dead by police. I don’t even know if I’d consider Altıntaş to be a “good guy” but I am also willing to accept that Russian ambassadors almost certainly aren’t – was it a fair trade? When I started trying to figure such things out, I pretty rapidly developed a contempt for the peddling of consequentialist moral systems, which pretend to have a “moral calculus” that’s really just some guy reifying his opinion. How can a moral calculus take into account pre-emption and retaliation? And, if it cannot, then it’s vulnerable to the nihilist axis: sit there and reason about the greater good, and the nihilist grabs the first-mover advantage and does whatever they want.
So, what is my point, if I even have one? It’s that “good guys” are always going to get rolled because they implicitly cede the strategic initiative to the “bad guys.” That is a species-ending threat: imagine if we got some sore loser nihilist who starts a thermonuclear war to distract from their domestic politics? Don’t think for a second that couldn’t happen, because it can, which means it eventually will. I think we need to foster “good monsters” – people who are willing to look ahead, see who’s going to cause a problem, and head them off at the pass. I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot of guillotinings or shootings – the sociopathic nihilists in politics tend to be cowards when the chips come down. I think we need a cultural shift in which those people learn to fear the governed, again. It’s the nihilist axis that get the sole use of fear and intimidation, because “good guys don’t do that.”
I think “good guys” need to learn how. Whenever I see a bunch of cops beating unarmed protesters, now, I think that I would stand up and cheer if they were suddenly blasted flat with a massed barrage from hidden rifles. And I know they wouldn’t pull that shit again, so long as the “good monsters” communicated effectively: “you crossed a red line there, and you will be served the same every time you do.” Suddenly, police job postings would go unfilled and you’d see cops hunkering down in Ft Zinderneuf precinct houses, refusing to move. And, of course, corrupt and lying politicians are practically what guns were invented for.*
I’ve been choosing my words very carefully here. I am not trying to encourage violence. I am saying that I understand why otherwise “good guys” might resort to it. And, I’m surprised that the nihilist axis has been allowed to get away with the shit they have gotten away with, for so long. The history of humanity is chock full of examples of people who rose up, and said, “enough of your shit” and laid some smite on an oppressor. Generally, nobody cries for the oppressor.
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
I spent 4 hours lying on a gurney in Clearfield General Hospital last night, and I decided to write a blog posting, using the miserable text interface on my iPhone. That done, let me advise against it: keyboards rule.
At various times I have wanted to offer a full on defense of nihilism, in the vein of Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism but I don’t know if I have the chops for it – and, also, I find that nihilism is a will o’the wisp: you can’t defend nothing. You can, however, defend other people’s radical skepticism, which is what I think we’re dealing with (in one form of nihilism, anyhow) I admit I am also terrified of the quagmire that is the “no true nihilist” argument – one problem with nihilists is that they’re often familiar with pyrrhonian tropes and can demolish any statement that takes a position. The end-game there is predictable.
* actually invented in order to play games of “my underclass can kick your underclass’ ass” by monarchs. Why did the men in ranks never figure this out and simply blast the bastards?