Friday, October 28, 2011

Individualism and Collectivism: Schismogenesis and #occupywallstreet

Most social systems require a balance between symmetrical and complementary relationships or patterns.

A symmetrical pattern is characterised by ‘tit for tat’.  You hit me, I’ll hit you back. Obviously, this pattern has its uses, but unchecked would lead to the destruction of one of the parties in the relationship, and thus end the relationship too.

A complementary relationship is characterised, crudely, by a sadist and masochist, where the behaviour of one party complements that of the other. Again, this type of relationship can be useful, but unchecked, this pattern can lead to destruction as the sadist becomes increasingly sadistic and the masochist becomes increasingly masochistic.

Gregory Bateson (1972) referred to these runaway patterns that lead to destruction as ‘schismogenesis’ and argued that most relationships need to have a balance between complementarity and symmetry patterns. This balance could be thought of as a form of homeostasis. For example if a relationship is tending towards more ‘tit for tat’ (symmetrical) patterns, for example both partners becoming more violent, if one party becomes submissive (complementary), this would disrupt the runaway pattern and lead to a balance. Of course this new complementary pattern will, in time, need to be balanced by more symmetrical behaviour and so on.

In an earlier post (I seem to have deleted by accident) I wrote about how privileging personal gain over co-operation can ultimately become self-defeating, and I wonder if there are parallels in the current political context where we might think of balancing patterns of behaviour on a societal level.

Short term, personal gain seems to be the raison d'ĂȘtre of the individualist culture; characterised by politicians whose policies are influenced by terms of office, popularity and benefitting themselves and where corporations are motivated by keeping profits up and shareholders happy. It has become increasingly evident with recent revelations regarding News International and the scandal involving Liam Fox and his friend Adam Werritty that politics and corporate desires are intimately connected, adding more weight to suspicions that there is small elite of people who conspire to serve their own needs.

The benefits of this culture are of course, competition (although sometimes this is faux), comparatively cheap prices and a reasonable standard of living for many people (in the developed world).

The downside to this type of culture is that the addiction to short term gains for the few is leading to future consequences that are self-defeating and destructive.

Cheap, unhealthy processed food has led to phenomenal numbers of people becoming obese, and diabetes is likely to be a massive burden on future health care services.

The environment is exploited without regard to the long term consequences of pollution and deforestation. The fact that global corporations sponsor climate change deniers is significant. Their addiction to short term profits over-rides any responsibility for future generations.  Automobile manufacturers and oil companies have a vested interest in lobbying governments to keep citizens dependant on cars rather than other forms of mass transit.

The developed world’s addiction to oil is almost certainly the reason for US intervention in the Middle East, with countless dead and injured. The concept of transgenerational trauma (Shevlin & McGuigan, 2003) indicates that relatives of people affected by trauma, including those born after traumatic events, have symptoms of post traumatic stress. This does not bode well for the future health of states so significantly impacted upon by conflict.  A dominant narrative of the developed world’s rapacity is likely to feed the emergence of more dissent and violence from poorer states.

A balance is required to counter what I believe is a runaway pattern of individualism, where a more collectivist, long term approach might privilege and prioritise differently, considering more closely the long term ethical and environmental consequences of behaviour. I hope that the #occupywallstreet movement is the beginning of this counter-balance. It is, so far, a peaceful and determined protest and it is to be hoped that it remains so.

I’d like to close with these words from Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Nora; words which I believe offer a wider understanding of the situation:

“When you peel back all of the lovely accomplishments of the great revolutionaries what do you find? At the center there is this: They did the impossible. They risked everything, and changed the unchangeable. Occupy Wall St...This is the exhale we have been waiting for. This movement is the release of all we have held back, and all we have deferred: the fatal complications of poverty, ecological disaster, and political injustice against. Until now, we have been betting away our futures to keep this monster from tipping over; we have been covering for it, nursing it, convincing ourselves we were even proud of it. Like children of abusive alcoholic parents-- we have been silenced for so long. Finally the unsayable is being said, giving the unmovable boulders of this illusion of subservience to economic structures an opportunity to crumble. We were as my father said, “double binded” by the loop of needing the corporate body to both employ us and then relieve us of our earnings for what we thought was survival, but is actually destroying our real survival in our environment and with each other. Now, the thing that has kept us rapt and bound is grotesque: oozing greed, eating its young, poisoning us, the earth and even itself. If we can remember, that these structures are constructs of our imagination, not forged in nature, we can begin to re-imagine the system. Ideas... are what we are working with, and they can grow, change, evolve. We can live better, but first, we occupy. Don’t be distracted by the deeds of the change-makers, the “what” in what they changed, really, the key is THAT they did not wrap themselves in the practicalities of reason. Of course it’s impossible, that is why we have to do it.”  Nora Bateson

 Shevlin, M. & McGuigan, K. (2003) The long-term psychological impact of Bloody Sunday on families of the victims as measured by The Revised Impact of Event Scale.
British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42: 4, 427–432.

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