Sunday, July 05, 2015

On Institutional Politics

I consider myself political, but find it difficult to align myself to institutional politics. It has been a constant battle since I was in college and was expected to pledge allegiance to one student union body or another, in a very divided and political state, and utterly failed to choose. In terms of institutional politics, there is nothing equivalent to 'open-minded' and therefore, I firmly belonged to the 'confused' group, or worse. Over time, I have learnt to accept this as a compliment.

This is because institutional politics is confusing, and if one is confused, one is possibly thinking. I can perhaps cite many examples, but the one closest to heart is the ongoing debate, somewhat cutting across party-political lines, about abundance and Armageddon. While these ideologies are not on the ballot by themselves, they are clear markers of political positions that inform ideas, and taxes, that are on the ballot. On one side, there are people who believe that we are in a phase of exciting technological change when Moore's Law would step up to solve all our problems, including world hunger, epidemics and educational disadvantage. On the other, there are those who argue that we are pushing it too far with our consumption and desires, and coming up fast against a climactic precipice that will set the clock back on progress.

Indeed, looking at the evidence available right now, it is rather easy to take exactly opposite positions right now. Technology has done very little to solve the problems such as hunger, and indeed, helped worsen it by growing inequality. And, for climate change, while there are some noticeable changes, one can not be absolutely certain that these are anything abnormal, as we don't have any definitive trends yet. And, this is indeed part of the argument of the opposing sides, as they claim the others to be definitely mistaken. And, for their own views, they defend these by pointing to the human incapability to properly see over longer term. The changes in technology are baby-steps today, and we are going to see exponential progress soon, we are told. The changes in climate are baby steps today, and sure indeed, we are heading towards disaster, the other side claims.

This is where a 'confused' label suits me well, as one can see the irony of the extreme positions, and indeed, all extreme positions. At the same time, there is a irony of ironies, that there is no road outside these extreme positions. If you want to be a technology Utopian, you can not doubt its possibility. If you are a climate warrior, surely you need to have unshakable faith that everything is going wrong. Yet it is an irony because one knows those extreme positions will solve nothing and inform no one, because all meaningful human actions must start with a collaboration. In fact, these extreme positions are nothing but jockeying for advantage in the coalition, because it will take all of us to make technology beneficial, or reverse climate change.

Those who win in politics, then, are those shape-shifting opportunists who glide from issue to issue without commitment or understanding, leveraging soundbites but hollowing it out of content. The ideal positions in institutional politics are so untenable that all ideals are excluded for good reason. This does not help, as it solves no problem. In the example I cited, technologies are allowed become self-serving and anti-human, and the climate is allowed to be a divisive issue and degrade at the same time, only some people using both to climb career ladders, enacting about-turns when needed, pursuing rhetoric as they please. This is what institutional politics came to mean to me - an ironic combination of extreme positions, which lead to a vacuous no-positions game - of which one can be confused, or more suitably, utterly disgusted.



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