The western worldview is underpinned by post-Enlightenment, scientific thought. Accordingly, western nations tend to be governed by technocratic public servants that reduce the art of government to the science of policy outcomes.
This pattern is understandable. It is a very human activity, in that it attempts to sever human messiness from that most innately human of activities: politics. However, by seeking to deny human fallibility any role in public life, scientific government—sometimes gloriously, sometimes tragically—affirms our enormous capacity for failure.
We should recognise Operation Fortitude—madly conceived and abruptly terminated this Friday past by the Australian Federal Government et al.—as one of the more glorious instances.
Many words of derision, abject horror and justifiable outrage have already been penned to this melange of horrible, terrible, really bad ideas masquerading as—what? A mistake? A public relations exercise? A calculated dog whistle?
Regardless, it has, momentarily, turned government—that institution valorised by western political theorists as the repository of public legitimacy and guarantor of an ordered society—into a farce. And what a massive entity it is that now looks foolish.
Public administration is a cascading series of hierarchies that organise innumerable technical roles and functions into a monolithic, rational being: ‘the state’. Through careful organisation, countless public servants working across diverse fields constitute a rational entity with the power to address the manifold issues of modern society. The same logic that applies to corporations also animates government.
And surely this structuring, this funneling of resources into a unified, near-omnipotent sovereign being, is more necessary now that ever before? With the advent of globalisation, of digitisation, of mass-development in the ‘Third World’, surely the complexity of the world is growing exponentially? Let’s save the actual answer to that question for another time. Suffice to say that the received wisdom is yes: complexity in society is growing as the years go by.
Human beings have two impulses when faced with complexity: to control it, or else to avoid it altogether. A kind of modern fight-or-flight reflex. Operation Fortitude is a graceless monument to both these impulses.
First, to control: the western state, by amassing vast resources at great expense, seeks to morally and physically control the space it governs. So we have screeds of legislation regulating every aspect of every fraction of ‘public’—and, often, ‘private’—life. So we in Australia must have a massive, paramilitary Border Force to control who comes ‘here’, and on what terms. (As do all nations, to a greater or lesser extent.)
Second, to avoid: the great flaw of the western state is that is an incredible human machine, composed of logical structures of skilled professionals—and headed by a select group of painfully human humans. A Department answers to a Secretary answers to a (in Australia) Parliament that is controlled by the government that is dominated by Cabinet that is ultimately run by a clique of ‘decision-makers’. Faced with complexity, critical thought is avoided. Ambiguous choices are thrown one link higher up the chain.
Thus the god-like beast answers to a few, who, like all of us, have good and bad days. A few who, understandably, might have the desire to avoid the insurmountable problems of—for example—tax avoidance in a neoliberal economy, a fatally warming planet, and public furor over whether the modern conception of marriage should equate with love or sex.
The few decision-makers of government may wish to avoid these issues and more, therefore, revert to the few levers they have a definite grasp on. Who comes ‘here’, and on what terms. If that is not a large enough problem, they may seek to make it appear so, by—for instance—deploying those that watch the border inside the border.
Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.
Plato – The Republic
And, crucially, all this if fine. It is human. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had, or almost had, car accidents. We’ve all signed off, or conceivably could have signed off, on paramilitary operations involving the threat of deportation.
But we don’t expect government to do these things. We believe, wrongly, that we have inhuman government: rational government. We have essentially created a mode of government which gives power to a fallible few, whilst expending great effort to convince ourselves, the polity, otherwise.
None of us would wish to live in a tyranny, on the basis that we do not trust a single human’s judgement. Theoretically, there is not so much difference as we assume. Day to day, ours is government by the few on behalf of the many. The mechanism that makes this acceptable to us is scientific thought: if we organise government rationally, it must be rational. As we have seen, time and again, this is a fallacy.
Science is not to blame for our collective delusion. It does not claim to be an absolute truth. It is a thought experiment, one of innumerable lenses for viewing the world, and one whose immense value lies in attempting to confidently isolate the parts of an occurrence. Similarly, the problem is not that scientific logic has spread outside the realms of knowledge and investigation and mutated into the dominant mode of organisation in westernised countries.
The actual tragedy is that the scientific, rational approach has become the standard by which we view ourselves, and others. And from perception, comes action. Great power is given to the perfectly rational being. That’s only logical. Unfortunately, the assumptions underpinning that conclusion are illogical. We should not expect perfect rationality from a state, just as we should not give it massive power to control. The body might seem rational; the head is not perfectly so.
We tend to get caught up in the day-to-day details of our complex worlds. I, for one, have spent a great deal thinking about one local instance of bureaucratic madness. But the problematic goes wider than Australia—globally, in fact. The very concept of ‘borders’, as they demarcate our planet, is an Enlightenment concept.
Our ‘states’ are entities designed during the Westphalian era of colonisation and industrialisation. The idea that a society naturally coheres within these constructed boundaries is just that—an idea. Nation-states are another way of controlling and avoiding the complexities of a vast, interconnected world, a way of partitioning human problems into manageable, territorial blocks.
As Operation Fortitude gloriously shows, forcing a concept too far inevitably shows its age, its flaws, its opportunities for improvement—opportunities for evolving seemingly fixed social structures so they better fit the post-Enlightenment beings that reside within them.
But I will have to leave these loose threads for another day—I’m only one human, and my rationality only stretches so far, and for so long. Certainly, I would need the help of many, many others to logically plan out an act of madness commensurate with Operation Fortitude.
Featured Image: Border Fence and Imperial Beach, San Diego, California. Photo taken by Tony Webster.