Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : a Paradigm
(2002 - 2013)
From fake polarities
to fitting pluralities
|The functions of polarities|
|The limits of polarities|
|Reality as plurality|
|Plurality as variety|
|The multiple networked continua|
|From polarity to plurality|
The paradigm in use during
the last two centuries has portrayed and interpreted the social reality
as generally made of opposing polarities.
For instance, the unfolding of history has been characterized by the contrast of interests and the struggle for power of two vying protagonists:
- freeman and slave in the antiquity
- patrician and plebeian in the ancient Rome
- lord and serf in the feudal time
- guild master and journeyman in the cities of the Middle Age
- Guelph and Ghibelline (later Black and White) in the opposition between pope and emperor
- proletariat and bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution
- left and right since the French Revolution
- national and foreigner in the age of nationalism and of the nation state
- communist and fascist (or conservative and labour, republican and democrat) in the political struggle of the XX century.
Besides these (supposedly)
contrasting protagonists, other aspects of reality have been included in
this two pole scheme, as for instance:
- private and public
- town and country
- manual and intellectual.
Some of these polarities
(e.g. manual and intellectual) were and are still useful ways of portraying
reality, even after a certain amount of revision and updating has been
Some of them have been dropped altogether as depicting a bygone reality (e.g. Guelph and Ghibelline).
Some others still survive more as remnants of a familiar past than as tools of any use for the present. They are so out of touch with current reality that their total suppression or radical reformulation should be high on the agenda of the social scientists and of any sensible human being.
Nevertheless, they are still
kept in constant use for lack of better terms or for dearth of better ideas.
What is put forward here is that the paradigm based on polarities is undergoing a radical crisis and it is not any longer (if ever it was) useful and relevant for interpreting reality.
Before advancing suggestions as to the replacement of the polarity scheme, let us see the reasons why it came to be accepted and the role it has played in social and political thinking.
The functions of polarities (^)
The idea of portraying and
interpreting reality as made of opposing forces and figures is an appealing
The strength of this mental tool derives from its performing three indispensable functions of everyday life, that is:
In fact, the carrying out of these three functions is greatly assisted by the polarity device, insofar as it permits:
of reality (assisting comprehension)
The aim of giving intelligible order to reality is generally performed by grouping similar (or supposedly similar) elements having similar features.
The natural limit of this grouping is reached when two distinctive groups have been made up. Without this distinction in at least two groups (duality) we would be back to some undifferentiated, incomprehensible or hardly definable reality. With a finer richer distinction we would be in a situation of complexity, more difficult to grasp, discuss and deal with.
For this reason duality, that is polarity, strikes a cord, giving the impression of achieving a good balance between simplicity and complexity.
Duality has seemed to work wonderfully well because it has facilitated another essential task.
of/with reality (assisting communication)
Once reality has been simplified, the composing entities can be identified with more clarity. Besides recognition, identification can also be a personal association with one or the other entity.
Then, what has been identified (e.g. a colour) or identified with (e.g. a party) can be communicated to and apprehended by the receiver of a message, quickly and easily, the more precise is the assumed contrast and the expressed polarity between entities.
Black and white, left and right, us and them: these have become the simplified archetypes of any process of recognition and identification. The result has been to facilitate a further task.
- Decision about
reality (assisting selection)
The process of identification, in the wide sense of attraction, leads to decisions. In the case of personal identification, it refers to the process by which an individual decides to belong to one group instead of the other, to support one team in opposition to the other (or all the others seen as a block). The selection, and so the decision, is easier when the choices are few and neatly characterized; the most convenient (but not always the less awkward), being the case where there are only two sharply contrasting options. Below this minimum, there is not even matter for discussion.
The limits of polarities (^)
Given the worth and strength
of the functions performed and the tasks facilitated by the polarity approach,
it is not surprising it had and still has a wide appeal and application.
Nevertheless, the very points of worth and strength of polarity (simplification, identification, decision) represent also its main weaknesses and limitations.
We refer here not to the instrument itself of highlighting contrasts, as in literary plots and in many other expressions of human creativity or human competition. What is here under critical questioning is the use of feeble or, even worse, fake polarities to diminish and impoverish a rich reality or to conjure up some makeshift reality.
In this case, the reality of polarities is based on:
Simplification (even over-simplification) can be the initial step in the process of perceiving reality but certainly not the final one unless we accept the fact of remaining always in an infantile childish state.
In this case, simplification becomes stultification, based on the use of very elementary categories.
Furthermore, an excessively simplified grouping is generally based on sloppy clichéd concepts (e.g. bourgeoisie, capitalism, democracy), where the duality is achieved through duplicities, i.e. through the use of other ambiguously formulated and ambiguously employed concepts. This happens generally in the social and political discourse, and it prepares the conditions for the rise of another negative aspect.
Elementary categories and classes represent, most of the time, only propaganda catchwords employed by those in power or seeking power. In due course they become empty labels, useful not to identify a certain reality and the affected people, but to manipulate both reality and people. The reality is made to fit the label according to a pre-ordained image. For instance, fascism (historical fascism) is seen always as promoting order even in situations, of its own making, characterized by total disorder and disorganization; communism (historical communism) is seen always as advocating equality even when those who define themselves 'communists' implement total and blatant inequality; conservatives (U.K.) and republicans (U.S.A.) are seen always as championing budgetary responsibility even when they squander billions in extravagant or dangerous endeavours.
The manipulation of reality reaches its zenith when basically homogeneous realities (e.g. communism and fascism as statism) are made to appear as totally different realities (proletarian communism vs. capitalist fascism) and totally incompatible realities (war vs. peace) are presented as basically homogeneous ones (preparing/waging war is peace or the best way for promoting/keeping peace).
The process of manipulative identification facilitates, almost automatizes, the decision process. This leads to a further negative aspect.
- Decision as imposition
A fake polarity, based on manipulated empty concepts, strongly suggests that the choices made by individuals on that basis cannot be defined as meaningful ones.
In a fake polarity, the falsification of options imply that, whatever the decision, the outcome will be the same, that is, the imposition of the same reality, although under different labels. In the political arena this means that people think, falsely, that they are fighting for alternative positions but, in fact, they are supporting the same constrictive power and the only difference is in the faces of those who constrict them. They are framed in a fake "either ... or" alternative until they discover (if they ever do) that both poles of the alternative are so similar as to represent a choiceless identity.
Reality as plurality (^)
From what has been said so
far, it should be clear that 'polarity' is only a device, an elementary
one, for capturing reality and dealing with it.
Familiarity with this conventional device should not hide the fact that reality is not at all made (simply) by polarities, that is reducible to "either ... or" alternatives, to positive - negative poles, to a 0 - 1 symbols, however forceful and useful this kind of conceptualization and representation might be.
Reality is a buzzing dazzling mix of multivarious entities (e.g. human beings, objects) on multilevel networked continua. To master and make sense of its richness we need much more appropriate and powerful tools.
In other words, reality is plurality, or better a variety of pluralities (different entities) on a variety of continua (different levels and places), with many links amongst them (networked entities) and in permanent transformation (birth, growth, development, decay, disappearance, modification, regeneration, etc.).
Pluralities are entities
- fields (domains)
- factors (elements)
- features (aspects)
Entities (for instance the
human beings in a family) are dynamic forces, active in fields of space
and time (e.g. the home, daily activities) through the factors composing
the specific entity (e.g. the members of the family) and the features (e.g.
the extrovert personality of the child) associated to those factors.
The interactions between entities with/within fields-factors-features make for the extraordinary variety of reality.
The seeing of reality as plurality is strictly associated with the vision of plurality as variety.
Plurality as variety (^)
Variety is related to the
qualitative and quantitative richness of the entities (and their fields,
factors, features) composing reality.
At this point it is necessary to make a distinction between manufactured difference and meaningful variety.
- Manufactured difference
(unseemly and useless)
It generally derives from the implementation of restrictions to access (in the widest sense of the term), through the protection of some monopolistic locus of power (political, economic, etc.). In the fore front of those who manufacture useless, or even harmful, differences we find the state and the state-associated groups (protected industries, nationalistic newspapers, etc.), with their propaganda and interventions aimed at imposing on everybody a mystical national identity and to cry wolf against 'external' 'alien' influences.
Needless to say, the imposition of a so-called national identity is a clear case of shielding diversity through insularity, that has nothing to do with promoting variety. In fact, while variety is based on the concept of plurality within an entity (e.g. open multi-cultural cosmopolitan societies), diversity refers to similar entities that diverge in their behaviour and are sometimes opposed to each other (e.g. closed mono-cultural national societies).
The absurdity of proclaiming and sustaining this specific manufactured difference resides in the fact that, after centuries of intermingling of people and cultures, we are all "bastards"; and this should be a title of pride in contrast with the mono-cultured mono-tone mono-lithic moron likely to come out of a closed group interbreeding (biological and cultural).
- Meaningful variety
(fitting and fruitful)
It arises out of the free inter-play of free individuals, and it becomes consolidated in cultural expressions, adopted and re-adapted by people all over the world, in a changing tapestry of colours, sounds, smells, sights, feelings, attitudes, and so on.
In the global village, the variety of plurality (activities, messages, experiences, cultural expressions, etc.) is growing fast and expanding wide and, if left free to develop, it will soon break the constrictive mould containing the old paradigm of beliefs.
Leaving this process to run its course while actively participating in it, means that unseemly and useless differences should be allowed to decay while fitting and fruitful varieties should be left free to develop.
The process of promoting (or
not impeding) the spreading of plurality is here called pluralization.
It is based on the implementation of:
- standardization: reduction of differences that complicate life unnecessarily, obstruct the free flow of exchanges and do not enhance variety (for instance, incompatible technical devices). In the domain of production, for example, standardization translates into lower costs and lower selling prices, with advantages for both the producers and the users (interoperability, intercommunication, integration).
- personalization: development of as many viable personal answers as there are possible personal questions. This is, differently formulated, the sadly neglected and generally ignored law of requisite variety that affirms that, for the working of a (complex) system, the variety of possible situations should be matched by a variety of possible responses. Otherwise the system will, sooner or later, get out of order and finally collapse.
So, through the interplay of standardization and personalization, a sound pluralization (plurality as variety) can be achieved.
The multiple networked continua (^)
The conceptualization and
representation of reality as plurality of variety lead us to the concept
of multiple networked continua.
If we examine an entity, for instance a human being, we can portray the same element (factor : eye) of many entities (i.e. human beings) belonging to the same domain (field : humankind) as arranged on a continuum according to its qualitative or quantitative variations (features : colour, size, etc.).
The various factors (e.g. eye, face, hand, etc.) that compose the entity human being can be depicted on multiple continua representing variations in their features. An entity is a whole made up of these interconnected variations.
The same procedure can be
applied while examining and comparing a series of other entities (with
their fields, factors, features).
The merit of this simple way to represent reality consists in showing, at the same time, the unicity and unity (i.e. singularity and similarity) of all existing entities. This is in contrast to the old paradigm where disjointed entities are seen as opposite poles of a reality characterized by duality (e.g. black-white, male-female, human-animal).
We cannot help stressing,
over and over again, that most of these polarities are the result of ideologies
and practices whose main interest is to impose a rudimentary label for
the purpose of identification, manipulation and control.
The scientist, that is any human being as knowledge seeker, is interested in a deeper and richer apprehension of reality. To this purpose, the cognitive tool represented by the multiple networked continua seems more truthful and useful.
Consider, for instance, the best example of the continuum concept: colours. In nature colours exist as light (one). Visible light consists of wavelengths in continuous variations; the variations affect the retina, linked to the brain, producing colours (many). So, out of one beam we come to perceive many colours. The brain then interprets some wavelengths as a colour, for instance, green, but this is in reality a mixture of yellow and blue. So, from the unity of two or more colours we are led to peculiarity (a specific colour) and plurality (many different colours).
What is applicable to colours
(unity within variety) can be extended to most, if not all, life entities
To fully grasp this reality, our conceptual tools must possess the same multifarious richness. And this requires a learning process away from banalization and polarization.
For instance, again with respect to colours, a child might be able to distinguish and name only a few of them (grey being confused with black); an adult will clearly differentiate between grey and black, while an expert painter is able to distinguish and name 5 types of grey. All in all, a manufacturer produces more than 100 different oil colours for artists and these will be further mixed to produce an astronomical variety of tonalities.
This is art and this is life.
As for the colour of our skin, science (and personal experience) cannot avoid pointing to the incredible variations of pigmentation, from very dark to very pale. And for the sexes, it seems that at least five are biologically recognizable. Moreover, from personal experience, we all know how varied is the mixture of so-defined masculine and feminine traits in each of us.
To make a further example
of the richness of reality and the poverty of our conventional way of expressing
it, take the entity 'snow.' What to a common person living in a temperate
climate appears as snow and is simply called snow, is put by an Eskimo
into several categories with different names.
This proficiency to perceive and name variations, makes the richness of a culture and its ability to survive and prosper.
It should be then evident
that the polarity outlook, far from being an instrument to advance science,
reveals only the gaps of missing data in our knowledge base and the coarseness
of our perceptive faculties.
To represent the incredible variety and variations on a single theme of reality, the multiple networked continua could be a useful device. Clearly, other mental tools can be put forward and employed. In any case, what should be very clear, is the fact that the paradigm based on polarity has outlived its usefulness.
We need to move beyond it.
From polarity to plurality (^)
The polarity paradigm has
been adopted and employed extensively in the human sciences and in human
affairs (e.g. religion, politics).
This has fostered a vision of the world as made up, almost exclusively, of fights and hardship (the struggle for life).
For instance, religion has
operated, in the past, as a factor of polarization, leading to clashes
instead of promoting communion. The world was said to be divided between
Christians and Pagans, true believers and heretics or infidels, and the
task of power was to convert them or to get rid of them with any means
(expulsion, torture, burning at the stake, dismembering the body, etc.).
Only after centuries of strife, persecutions and horrendous misdeeds against different religions and religious practices, did it become manifest that the only way towards a possible solution relied in tolerance and freedom from any interference. Almost at once, an intractable problem, a barrier to any civilizing process, magically disappeared from the scene.
In more recent times, and
especially throughout the XX century, politics has replaced religion as
the agent of polarization and as the new stumbling block on the way to
the development of civilization. Politics has become the new opium of the
Nothing is more representative of the old paradigm than the way politics has been and is still conducted, totally based on polarities that are stultifying, manipulative and do not represent real alternative choices.
In many countries and places,
during the XX century, the political scenario has been frozen for generations
- two factions (communist and fascist)
- two parties (conservative and progressive, labels that do not always mean what they are literally supposed to say)
- two ideologies (left and right, whatever that means)
- two classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat or their new updated versions)
- two economies (socialist and capitalist)
- two sectors (public and private)
- two camps (East and West)
- two worlds (North and South)
Whatever could be dicotomized
and polarized, politics has done it. Nothing touched by politics has escaped
this dualistic categorization, be it race (Aryan-non Aryan, black-white),
science (materialistic-idealistic), art and literature (revolutionary-reactionary)
and so on and so forth.
At the same time, politics offers individuals the same richness of choices as when Ford introduced the model T car, saying that people could have any colour provided it was black. Now the electors can choose any political soup provided they do not carry out a thorough inspection or serious comparison (between programmes or between declarations and actions), as all of them are based on the same unpleasant recipes masked by lofty words and all have, eventually, the same unsavoury taste.
In politics, as in any other
related area, we have reached the end of the road: the manufactured (i.e.
fake) polarities have become moral, material and mental barriers to any
further progress in knowledge and civilization. The old black and white
contrapositions mask only grey people with blank minds.
It is time to move from fake polarities and frozen contrapositions to fitting pluralities (many, small, dynamic entities) and fruitful co-emulation (cooperation + emulation); from constrictions and confines to freedom (of movement, of development, etc.) and open-ended continua.
"One does not show his greatness by being at one extreme, but in touching both extremes at once, and in filling all the intermediate space." (Pascal, Pensées)