George Walford: The Homeostat

In the Domain of Ideologies Walsby speaks of a process by which the conformity of the great majority of members of a large group, such as a nation, is ensured: “If… there arises a comparatively strong, critical faction… which threatens the group with dissension and disruption, the mass suggestion will increase in strength, volume, intensity and violence, until the former condition of mass conformity is again restored” (pp 86-7). Thus the rise of the Left in Germany in the 1920s stimulated the growth of Nazism. Walsby notes that the process normally remains largely unrecognised by those it immediately affects, and compares its stabilising effect to that of a thermostat. Here we bring forward another process, one which is in a sense the complement of Walsby’s, producing among the upper levels of the ideological pyramid [See Note] an effect the converse of that which his produces on the lower. (“Homeostat” came to mind as a term for a device or process maintaining a stable condition, and we use it although it does not appear in SOED; if it isn’t a word it ought to be.)

The key observation is that the higher in the pyramid an ideology stands the more strongly those identified with it tend to repudiate domination, even domination by their own group. On these upper levels the ability of a movement to attract and retain potential recruits tends to diminish as it increases in size and strength, any substantial growth producing tensions which tend to be resolved in one of two ways: Either internal conflict and schism develop, bringing the movement back into comfortable powerlessness, or it undergoes a change of ideology, shifting down the pyramid to a position where its greater strength is acceptable. (When this happens it may retain a title implying that it belongs on the upper levels).

The movements towards the base of the pyramid, Nazism and conservatism for example, tend strongly to think in terms of discipline and control; they favour the military structure, a hierarchy of commanders and subordinates. Those on the upper levels (mainly labour-socialism, communism and anarchism) prefer a different pattern.

They set out not to command the people but to lead them, and those nearest the peak are even more restrained, seeking only to get them to understand their position; it is to be not the party but the people themselves who sweep away the old conditions. As the (A-)SPGB phrase it, “this emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself” (Principle No. 5). The revolutionaries glory in being a tiny minority, possessing understanding rather than power and struggling against massively superior forces. They look forward to a time when there shall be no government, and if one of their parties or groups starts to become large enough to exercise power this tends to repel adherents of the revolutionary ideology rather than attract them. But there is more to it than a difference of attitudes between the revolutionaries and those they call reactionaries; we need to trace the change as it develops through the successive ideologies.

The group identified with the primal ideology tends strongly to accept conditions, including the presence of domination, as it finds them, adjusting itself to them as best it can. Changes tend to be ascribed to the actions of individual people – Hitler caused the war and Mrs. Thatcher has increased or reduced our pensions – or just to happenstance. For this ideological group social power relations are not an issue.

At the next stage comes the first conception of the social group as a distinct and active entity. This awareness can take a variety of forms, the social group appearing as the state, as the Church, as the Conservative Party or in other guises, but in each case being seen as properly entitled to domination although having to struggle for it against destructive forces. Here large size, power and domination, actual or imminent, serve as attractions. The presence of threatening enemies is a necessary stimulus, but provided these are present (and if lacking they can usually be created) the bigger and more powerful an institutionalised church, or a right-wing party, or a state, the stronger its appeal.

On the next level it comes to be held that size and power do not constitute good evidence of virtue, value or validity. Domination must be kept under control, the conditions under which it may legitimately be exercised carefully specified. Often phrased as a demand for freedom, this attitude appears in nonconformist religion and freethinking, in some of the social sciences and in liberalism; it accounts for the tendency for liberals to act as “single-issue campaigners”, rather than seeking to wield the overall power of an establishment. The Social Democratic Party, also operating on this ideological level, expressly disclaimed any intention of seeking domination, declaring its intention to “break the mould” of domination by one side or another. We are not, of course, bound to accept everything politicians say; the point is that the SDP made this declaration an important part of its appeal for support, while conservatism chooses rather to assert its intention of continuing to exercise domination. The difference points to different attitudes held by the groups appealed to.

When movements on this level gain office, and find themselves carrying responsibility for the abuses and malfunctions they have been complaining about – and imperfections are inevitable in a complex society – this tends to produce self-criticism, inhibiting the confident exercise of power. It is as critical outsiders, rather than as dominators, that they tend to be most attractive to their potential supporters.

At the next level, in socialism, the response to domination hardens, criticism turning into opposition. The effort is no longer only to restrain it within specified limits but ultimately to do away with it; the socialists within the Labour Party aim to suppress domination and introduce greater egalitarianism. They oppose tendencies on the part of the leaders of the party (elected mainly by its non-socialist majority) to exercise or tolerate domination by operating an incomes policy, retaining the nuclear deterrent, restricting the privileges of trade unions or resting content with anything short of complete equality for all minorities. They carry their opposition to the extent of provoking conflicts which go far to ensure that the party shall not obtain the electoral support needed if it is to gain office. Their actions, if not their words, show them preferring defeat, while opposing domination, to victory while accepting it.

Socialists join the Labour Party in the hope of using its power and size in a move towards a more egalitarian society. On the next level, with communism, this comes to be seen as an unacceptable compromise. Gradualism is rejected, revolution demanded. Communists certainly work within the Labour Party when they can, but with the object less of influencing it along the socialist path than of transforming it into a revolutionary body.

For the communist attitude towards domination the revealing phrase is “dictatorship of the proletariat.” On the face of it this is an absurdity; how can the largest class in society constitute a dictatorship? But this is just the point; it can’t, in any straightforward use of “dictatorship.” For the proletariat to gain control would be to end the class system which (the communists believe) is the source of domination. It has not worked out like that where communist movements have gained control, they have held on to power as firmly as any right-wing movement; but this is an instance of a movement shifting down the pyramid to a point where the exercise of domination becomes acceptable. In both Russia and China, as the old revolutionaries have died off or been eliminated their places have been taken by “apparatchiks,” the bureaucrats and go-getters who in Britain join the conservatives, and the original communist objectives have been replaced by acceptance of the economic competition and political domination found in capitalist societies.

In Russia and China the equivalents of the original communists have managed to retain their favourite position, the one they occupy in the capitalist states, appearing as a small group in opposition, safely distant from the exercise of domination. There is no reason for believing things will work out in any substantially different way in other states ruled by “communist” movements.

With the “purist” anarchist movements of the next level upwards (including the anarcho-socialists calling themselves the Socialist Party of Great Britain) the repudiation of domination becomes for the first time self-conscious and explicit; they condemn all connection with even the reformed or revolutionised versions of it offered by socialism and communism. In doing this they remove themselves from the risk of contamination, at the cost of foregoing participation in the positive operations of society and adopting an almost purely negative stance.

One might think that their inability to do anything useful about the social problems they go on about would discourage people from joining these movements. It certainly does discourage the great numbers who want power to put their ideas into effect, but in doing so it gives the tiny minority on this level what they seek. They proclaim that the workers must not be commanded or even led into the liberated society but must emancipate themselves, and the only way to ensure that this condition shall be met is for the group propagating it to remain so small that they are powerless to lead or command. If any of these movements were to grow to a point where social changes couldbe ascribed to their influence they would cease to attract the people they now do and either shrink to an acceptable ineffectiveness or move down the pyramid to an ideology where their new size and power became welcome.

This homeostatic effect, which maintains and perpetuates the ideological pyramid, is built into the ideologies themselves. By acting in conformity with their assumptions the groups on the upper levels bar themselves from coming to compare in size with those lower down.

“Higher” and “lower” are not being used as synonyms for “better” and “worse”; they refer only to the positions of the different ideologies in the diagram representing the ideological structure of modern advanced society as a pyramid. In order to show that the common association of elevation with value is not universally valid we need only point out that a high window is not better to fall out of than a low one, that a high death rate is seldom preferable to a lower one, and that when we describe a statement as “the height of absurdity” this does not mean we think particularly well of it.

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NO, WE DON’T believe in reincarnation. But then we didn’t believe in it last time round, either.

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AN EXPERT on computers has remarked to us that people complain about a lack of user-friendly systems when the greater need is for system-friendly users.

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RUNNING HIS eye along the titles and authors on the spines, he came to William Caird’s book on Hegel, and read its spine aloud: “Hegel Caird – Ah, it’s good to know!”

from Ideological Commentary 30, November 1987.