Black Hole Theories of Social Power

A black hole theory of social power holds that when an institution gets too much power, that power will snowball, making institution ever harder to stop. Left unchecked, the institution will control most or all of society and use various forms of coercion and violence to cement its power for good.

There are two big black hole theories in the recent history of political theory. Roughly, the simple socialist theory is that large capitalist firms (boss-dominated) are the black holes. And also roughly, the simple libertarian theory is that large states are the black holes.

I tend to think the libertarian theory is better than the socialist theory for familiar reasons. States have more coercive power to begin with, they have far more monopoly power, and so aren’t subject to the checks of competition. And I don’t think the history of markets illustrates the ability of capitalists to achieve hegemony through the market order. Real capitalism is just so chaotic, and generates so much creative destruction, that it’s hard for any firm to stay on top for long without help. So they tend to co-opt specific parts of the state to engage in the most severe forms of domination. (An oldie, but a goodie on this last point.)

I’ve become more worried about the simple libertarian theory with time for a few reasons. First, states can’t really be modeled as one big bad actor any more than markets can. States are huge conglomerations of agents with different interests and goals, as are firms in a market. And, while states tend to grow more than they shrink, they do seem to abide by more limits than you’d expect if the liberal theory were true. Social norms, social trust, religion, and ideology have big roles to play in determining social outcomes, so much, in fact, that they may often overwhelm economic and political centers of gravity.

I now think that there are probably no social black holes. Or better, there are centers of social gravity, but there are a number of them, and they interact and conflict in complex ways such that predictions based on black hole theories often turn out to be false. Many human institutions are rather fragile, and are subject to contestation and decay, and so don’t really have event horizons.

The good thing about having no black holes is that it is harder for a society to become permanently dominated than many fear. The “bad” thing about having no black holes is that we have fewer big, powerful enemies to fight against in order to give our lives meaning. Socialists often make big business their meaning-bestowing political foe, while libertarians often make big states their meaning-bestowing political foes. Sometimes these mindsets lead to improvements in well-being, sometimes not. Neither theory is probably a very good thing to bet your life on.

I prefer a Wittgensteinian* theory. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself. And the best way (though not the only way) to fight evil is to try and make moral progress, in small steps, each day, struggling to be kinder, more forgiving, and more loving than the day before. It may sound lame, but seriously, who do you have more control over in the end, yourself or other people? And how are you going to make the world a better place if you’re a bad person?

*Wittgenstein may not have said this, but it is often attributed to him.




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