Babich and Bateman: Monopoly and Other Games
February 02, 2017
Last week, a discussion about corporate venality and Ivan Illich’s ‘machine’. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman turn to the problems of US politics.
BB: Our relation to industrial or corporate capitalism seems, at least in certain of its elements, to be a version of the faith one might have in the Irish Lottery, that or a kind of contact fetishism: we seem to think we must be beholden to millionaires all the way down (as if contact with or enthusiastic support of the wealthy might be the secret ingredient to waking up wealthy some fine day). I like your feudal vision of this indenture [discussed last week], perhaps there could be game design that might be thus inspired – if the great Jane McGonigal’s game reflections draw out the advantages of games for life and even for measurable pain management, maybe we can have a game for the economy, the opposite of Ge Jin’s ‘gold farmers’ (like Jane, he had also been briefly at Fordham, though I met him at UCSD) a game that might help us understand real-life economics. Of course, as you know, such exist, like Bertell Ollman’s board game for Marxism, Class Struggle (which was actually released as a board game — and I am grateful to Tracy Strong for tipping me off about this, although, and this is also how metonymy works, Tracy remembered Ollman’s game under the name of the more memorable, because rather higher profile board game, Anti-Monopoly by the San Francisco political theorist Ralph Ansbach).
CB: Since you have invoked Monopoly, I am honour bound to comment on the rather sordid history of this game. For it originates, as these days people are more aware of, as a modification to Elizabeth Magie’s 1904 The Landlord’s Game. Magie, struck by how children had an innate sense of fairness, thought that if a game made it clear how unjust property ownership was, it would allow a future generation to produce a fairer world. The game rules, in fact (linked to above), contain some remarkable clauses such as: “The Landlord’s Game is based on present prevailing business methods. This the players can prove for themselves; and they can also prove what must be the logical outcome of such a system, i.e., that the land monopolist... is monarch of the world.” There is also a rule allowing players to vote in a Single Tax, which allows land ownership revenue to be used for everyone’s benefit. It’s a remarkable design – and an even more remarkable story, for of course the ending is that it did not enjoy success in that form but instead became the design template for the hymn to capitalism that is Charles Darrow et al’s 1935 game Monopoly. It’s a game, frankly, that game designers hate because it is shockingly unbalanced – yet it has its fans, if for no other reason than its millionaire power fantasy has a near-universal appeal.
BB: My point is less about riffs upon or reinventions of Monopoly than the critically phenomenological observation that we do not buck the system. Thus it is worth remembering that the same system one worries about under the reign of the crass and still crasser regime of Trump-style crony capitalism was unchallenged in eight years under Obama, whose main virtue now seems to be that he was classier about it. Obama bailed Wall Street out effectively to the very same dollar amount that Bush had done just prior to his own assumption of office, as if to send a signal. And as power is passed from one administrative regime to the next, the most critical voices (though not heard on mainstream news channels) raise questions about Obama’s drone habit…
CB: It continues to shock me, both that it happens, and that people do not appear to be horrified about it.
BB: Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air could use an update on the bombs dropped by the US under Obama – a fairly silent war conducted without report, behind the scenes, unwitnessed, to which we can only add current anxieties about the very same legacy of the military industrial complex that will continue under Trump whose only promise appears to be to bring us more military projects for less investment.
CB: This is a problem that can be out in the open or hidden away. In the US, the demand for the best equipment for the troops (who are now permanently deployed, in stark denial of the intentions of the Founding Fathers) pours shocking money into programmes that culminate with planet-killing bombs or murderous robots. The UK, with its smaller size, does not engage so directly with industrial weapons research and settles instead for a thriving business selling weapons abroad. We rival China for arms exports, although the two together sell less than a third of what the US manages to send abroad. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this regard, the CIA and similar agencies keep pushing along their projects and agendas more-or-less regardless of who sits in the White House.
BB: Note that we didn’t quite have a choice in the last election which was less a matter of Trump or Clinton (and the very fact that Sanders was closed out of the election is part of this non-choice), not only because of the workings of the ‘Hallelujah Effect’ but also because the popular vote has never been what decides an American presidential election: we did not invent the electoral college at Trump’s behest. And despite this, professors of political science who teach the rules for American elections in their classes by day, moonlight on Facebook and Twitter saying the same things one can hear on Fox News and CNN regarding the dangers of Trump, the virtues of the popular vote, and the importance of blaming Jill Stein for Clinton’s defeat. After the election the same debates re the popular vote continued, shifting blame still to Jill Stein or else to Russia. But hacking is an issue that has nothing to do with Russia, it is an old question in a digital age (thank you Diebold) so clichéd by 2016 that ten years ago there was an HBO documentary on hacking American elections, Hacking Democracy. At issue in the documentary – it’s worth seeing – is less that hacking happens as it does than that, and this is digitally and philosophically very intriguing, when it does it is undetectable: it is a difference that literally makes no difference: it is undetectable, unless you know it is being done, you can neither detect it nor rule it out.
CB: As a friend of hackers, I might dispute that claim – a good hacker can produce a trail of breadcrumbs in situations that otherwise seem immaculate. But please go on!
BB: Still, what may be more disturbing is that stealing elections, the very idea, is so entrenched in US politics that political scientists take it for granted and factor it into their discussions of the popular vote, as if there were no other way about it. Thus if Bush steals an election from Gore, we shrug, or at least we let the Supreme Court do the shrugging for us. When Clinton’s campaign does related things contra Sanders, we shrug: backroom politics, what are ya gonna do? Thus in the face of all that past shrugging the most surprising thing is perhaps mainstream media complaints regarding a putative Putin hack, post Trump. Hacks to one side, what is evident is that we work ourselves into a frenzy over the supposed choice between two non-choices while ridiculing anyone who claims that either one comes down to the same. We do this even after eight years of explaining on both social media and in academic conference lectures and corridors that Obama could not keep his campaign promises because of Republican opposition and corporate and lobbying forces in Washington – the same Republican concerns Obama sought to work with, the same corporate interests Obama bailed out.
CB: We are so focussed on the person who sits in a particular office, that it manages to obscure the larger system they are incorporated into, and which they cannot change. It always comes back to the same thing for me: how was Obama unable to stop drone assassinations? Attacks that killed vast numbers of innocents and that were by no means the ‘precision strikes’ they were intended to be. Indeed, these shameful practices – which in my view dishonour the very troops that US citizens, and indeed myself, have such respect for – flourished under Obama’s watch. And not, I suspect, because he was entirely in support of them, although sometimes I wonder...
BB: Note that we have already said all the trigger things needed for the automatic associations that drive these debates and to inspire counter claims: everyone knows where to come down on these and related issues.
CB: This is the problem with moral horror, as I call it in Chaos Ethics; the cognitive dissonance of politics and ethics: the moment you are triggered, as it has become popular to say, all possibility of discussion has already ended. We fight over these flashpoint situations without there being any possibility of that conflict doing anything but entrench our ‘enemies’, making productive dialogue impossible. It is all too easy to simply give in to cynicism and conclude that there is no point making any kind of effort at all. At which point, Illich’s machine has most certainly won out. Corporate venality, as you have eloquently put it, is all that is left.
BB: I take very seriously your question as to what one might then do. I don’t know. It seems to me that a great deal might be attained if one might finally come to see that there was a problem to begin with, in all its complexity and not less in its persistence. As Nietzsche once reflected – and his formulation is more salient than standard reflections on akrasia [ἀκρασία] – knowing better does not remove the conundrum: it does not mean one will do things otherwise, and it is far from the beginning of liberation: there is necessity, ananke [ἀνάγκη], all the way down.
The dialogue continues next week: Mediaddiction
So I know this is a long one. Believe me, I would dread finding this in the comment’s section. Nonetheless, I feel like my life has been revolving a lot around the idea of belief recently. I know it’s essential to expand our world on rudimentary logic, but these days it just feels like our pensive connection with the world around us has been lost through politics, and the evolving nature of the secular age. It seems like the general idea of the word “belief” or “philosophy” is seen only as the agency to slow down progress; as if the world no longer has time to think beyond the limits of our physical universe because it’s “unprovable.” Derogatorily, it's like viewing anyone who clings on to something outside of what we factually know as an illogical dumbass with imaginary delusions (basically a deadweight to society).
Maybe that’s just the archetype for the left’s view on religion (christianity in particular). Which is kind of disappointing, for within every flamewar online between the usual christian fundamentalist and the edgy internet atheist on message boards, normally no one on either side addresses the argument with a broader sense of wisdom. Because at heart, the true source of the argument is between philosophical theism, and philosophical naturalism. Both remain “philosophical” sense it is obviously still theoretical. But the word “philosophical” to me seems like it’s been dissolved by skepticism against every angle of the metaphysical.
So… is philosophy really untestable even as it derives from empirical knowledge of the world, universe, and body we live in? Wouldn’t that make philosophy somewhat accountable then? I’m certainly no scientist myself, but even though I find it primitive towards a better future, I can't always understand why we have to establish a thick division between investigating our corporal existence, and investigating our personal existence.
One marking period, I took one of the most exhausting and definitive high school electives known to man: Psychology. I likened every bit of the class through the knowledge it opened me up to about the fundamentals of our mental biology; studying stuff like the hippocampus, our neurons, the cerebellum, and the four various lobes of our brain. Sure, this more or less narrows things down into elementary neuroscience, but it’s rightfully paired with an introduction to psychology. Although, psychology itself heavily draws from abstract interpretations to recognize (and categorize) a pattern (or even to label upon a new sort of response) in the human condition of reaction and counteraction. Just as it also balances logical neuroscience to back things up like happiness, depression, fear, and love. These feelings and emotions are scientifically measurable when analyzed on a molecular level: Happiness is a relevant term for serotonin. Depression is relevant for a serious lack of serotonin and dopamine. Fear is relevant for a rise in adrenalin and potential noradrenalin, as love is relevant for a lengthy compound highlighted by dopamine.
Ok. So how can this contribute to something more ideal like the greek philosophy of different types of love existing? It’s an abstract step further, but “abstract” can be put to rest when you figure that something as contrived as the love type "Philia" (friendly, brotherly love) is just a reduced hormonal drive of testosterone and/or estrogen (remember, this is branded as an amicable type of love instead of lustful or romantic).
A lot of theoretical ideas familiar to Plato and Aristotle’s groundwork for diversified love can be reasonably compared to Freud’s famous study of ego, superego, and id. I was wondering if things could be hypothetically dissected the same way different types of love could be accounted for scientifically.
Luckily some guy on Quora happened to share the same exact question I had, “Is ego measurable?” At first, it was more plausible to say no. But when I started digging into the basic building blocks of what ego really is, the term was deducted back into self-esteem, synonymous with pride, as pride is a key factor of happiness. And once again, happiness is the cognitive packaging of a chemical called serotonin. So to possibly measure ego, the process would have to be chemically broken down to land a number on self-esteem (tricky stuff). But from the logic we have gathered today, this whole paragraph can probably just be summed up as a bloated, fifth-grade hypothesis being used as an over-contrived example to bridge me into what my main point is.
Psychology is like an unusual branch of science that lingers in between quantitative logic, and qualitative philosophy. Nobody established a physical proof that ego, superego, and id actually exist. Maybe one day that answer will be logically proven, although I think it would be irrelevant sense Freud’s brilliant philosophy of the mind has already been seeded as something so rational and applicable, that it’s practically become a fact (or at least the closest thing a philosophy can come to as commonly inarguable).
So does it really matter if it’s not empirical by the traditional means of the scientific method? The wisdom surrounding us is still evidence, even though it’s interpretive evidence that can be molded into a cognitive brick for morality, society, nature, identity, etc. In spite of all this, do you think that philosophy has any provable aspect to it? Or does it strictly depend on the viewer’s subjective interpretation?
If two of some of the most famous philosophers of all time can create a scientifically plausible idealogy of love that no one (to my knowledge) has bothered to logically prove sense they are philosophers, then personally I just don’t always believe that the physical proof of a theory always matters in the grand scheme of things. As long as it maintains a sturdy construct of rationality, enlightenment, room for intelligent curiosity to evolve bits and pieces of the idea, and the vitality of wonder and hope.
...whew... Sorry, I know that was a lot. Maybe I know nothing and I'm just wasting my time.
Posted by: Ryne Barnish | October 27, 2017 at 06:38 PM
Firstly, you certainly don't 'know nothing'! Everyone knows more than they think they do, and the biggest cause of ignorance at our time is simply relying on robot-run aggregators to exchange facts, excusing us from 'knowing' (strictly: remembering) anything. Your comment is shot through with knowledge and factual statements that show that your position cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, and I would chastise you - in as friendly manner as possible! - for dismissing yourself in this way.
Secondly, far from 'dreading' your allegedly long comment, I welcome it (and all polite comments)! Frankly, you don't even hit 1,000 words here, and thus it doesn't hit the top ten of long comments that have been offered as part of Only a Game's long history. ;)
Now to your more substantial points. You raise several of these, and they intermesh with one another, but at the core of your concerns are what Charles Taylor calls 'the imminent frame', which is to say, the belief system produced by adhering to what I have called 'the science megatext'. What is significant about the imminent frame, and Taylor is clear on this, is that it is shared by the vast majority of people today, regardless of whether they belong to a religious tradition, and it is precisely this element of contemporary thinking that is obscured when something like your archetypal internet clash between the "Christian fundamentalist and the edgy internet atheist". One of my purposes in writing at Only a Game was to try to offer a different kind of encounter between these and other factions - although the two you mention are most easily detected on the English-language internet because of the heat given off in every clash.
Now the dissolution of metaphysics has, partly for the reason I outline here, been part of my mission here... and it's no coincidence that the first of my 'campaigns' (in the tabletop RPG sense) was the Metaphysics Campaign. Because one of the unfortunate consequences of the imminent frame is that we tend to think that it discredits metaphysics and in so doing fail to recognise the role of metaphysics in maintaining it. Hence we get to this weird place whereby scientific research has an artificially inflated respect that it sometimes deserves and oftentimes does not, while everything 'outside' (and philosophy is bundled with religion in this regard) can be dismissed. This leads to a number of crises, many of which are not perceived as such, and which in my role as 'outsider' philosopher I have tried to patiently engage.
In the middle, you bring up the neuroscience issue, and this is of interest to me since I dabble in this material myself from time to time. But it's really important to distinguish between the biological underpinnings of a phenomenon and the phenomenon itself - and not all discussions of this kind manage it. There is this faith in the explanatory power of reduction - you say "These feelings and emotions are scientifically measurable when analyzed on a molecular level"... and this is actually not the case! Indeed, having tried to get into these measurements, it's really striking how difficult to measure the neurochemicals are (with a few exceptions - testosterone, for instance, has a handy spit-test) compared to the emotions, which Paul Ekman was able to lay out as micro-expressions. Measuring epinephrine doesn't tell you if fear or excitement is experienced; for that, you'd need to also scan the amygdala... or, you know, just ask the person in question. So here, just within science, we have a wonderful example whereby the lowest scale 'explanation' is the least useful as an explanation... there are relationships here, but they do not act as master explanations or anything of the kind. And this subtle point is all too easily lost.
Hence love, which is not explicable in terms of either emotions (there is no micro-expression of love) or neurochemicals (because it is a phenomena of mind that entails extremely complex and indissoluble relationships between elements of brain, memory, etc.). Now you bring in a contrast about Plato's words for love, or Freud's use of ego, superego, and id, and the thing about these is that the desire to justify them in terms of purportedly scientific explanations (i.e. to fit them neatly into the imminent frame) obscures the key point here about the role of hermeneutics (i.e. interpretation practices) both inside and in relation to the sciences. Because it will not do to try and dismiss all these things that require hermeneutics (like Plato's categories of love, or Freud's terms) because they require interpretation since so does everything in the sciences. And this is precisely why the split between 'scientific' and otherwise is typically wielded unscientifically - as a means of using a tacit, unrecognised metaphysics to defend itself.
The text of mine that most interconnects with these issues is The Mythology of Evolution, which has the dubious honour of being my most-praised, least-read book! I fear coming shortly after the Darwin bicentenary was a major issue, as was the fact that the word 'mythology' put off the athiests, and the word 'evolution' put off a fair number of Christians. :) I'm still proud to have written the book, and the endorsements from Mary Midgley (philosopher) and Francesco Ayala (scientist) really add to the sense of having accomplished something, even if it is essentially unknown.
I hope these thoughts are useful to you in thinking through the connection between 'belief' and 'philosophy', and the other issues you read, and encourage you to have a go at my work of epistemology, Wikipedia Knows Nothing since it is available for the generous price of free, and it questions the distinction between 'belief' and 'knowledge' in a way that you might find both helpful and interesting. (I lack time to cleverly put a hyperlink in for the book - but there's a cover picture in the sidebar you can click on).
Many thanks for your thoughtful comment, and you are always welcome here - as is anyone else who is willing to spend the time to write their mind out and share what they are thinking.
All the very best,
Posted by: Chris | October 28, 2017 at 01:22 PM
Thanks for your input! I really appreciate it. But real quick, in your own words, how would you define Taylor's 'imminent frame?' Just curious for the sake of being able to approach it on a simplified level.
Posted by: Ryne Barnish | October 30, 2017 at 08:11 PM
Sorry, I totally took a shortcut there by invoking Taylor, and I see now that you hadn't mentioned him at all so that didn't actually work out! But there's a nice summary on the imminent frame right here at this blog:
Many thanks for getting involved!
Posted by: Chris | November 01, 2017 at 06:39 AM