between good and pierce: on dungeons & dragons, and why deliberative democracy can’t work

Deliberative democracy has long been characteristic of governing institutions, if not in purpose, then certainly in composition. Deliberative decision-making, as Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson describe it, represents an essential act of governance, particularly during a period of diffuse information and increasingly transparent institutions. Gutmann and Thompson cite the opacity of the Iraq war debate as a keystone for their practical concern for deliberative democracy. Reasoned and publicly justified decision-making, however, occurs at almost all levels of the U.S. government structure: consider Leslie Knope’s town-hall shouting matches or President Bartlett’s thorough evisceration of Governor Ritchie’s fiscal conservatism. Of course, those two are fictional, but I hope you’ll concede the point: to paraphrase Hugh Grant, public deliberation actually is all around.

Deliberative democracy extends from Jurgen Habermas’ high-falutin’ notions of discourse in civil society, with a particular concern for the civic dividends of a robust, open “public sphere.” Gutmann and Thompson, however, take the German philosopher’s public sphere a step further: where Habermas’ theory remains at a discursive “meta-level,” the democracy theorists insert reasoned deliberation into democratic decision-making–that is, discourse serves a political function, in addition to a Habermasian social role. Gutmann and Thompson outline four criteria for an effective deliberative democracy. Public discourse must be “reason-based,” wherein the public discussion relies on logical, easily interpretable argument. Reason-based discourse necessitates the accessibility of public information, as well. Gutmann and Thompson describe this deliberative discourse as “binding,” inferring the particular influence of democratic discourse on public policy decisions. Lest public officials view deliberative processes as unchanging, the discourse must also fulfill a “dynamism” threshold, whereby policy decisions interact with developing norms and discursive trends–President Obama’s recent “evolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage is an instructive case.

It’s easy to see how deliberative politics might emerge as a technology of governance, and how political decision-makers might engage with a dynamic population of public ideas. Gutmann and Thompson, however, propose deliberative democracy as a form of governance itself–rather than a tool of governance, or a standard operating procedure, deliberation is a descriptive element of a democratic institution. We needn’t look further than primetime comedy to demonstrate why this won’t work. Dan Harmon’s Community is a relevant, if idiosyncratic demonstration of the political pitfalls of deliberative institutions. In one episode, Community’s motley crew of adult study buddies sits down for a game of Dungeons and Dragons, in order to raise the obese Neil’s spirits. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), as a Forbidden Planet saleswoman once explained to me, is a highly social game (“Everyone thinks D&D fans don’t have friends. But that’s not possible–it’s a multiplayer!”). The study group’s D&D decision-making mirrors Gutmann and Thompson’s deliberative model: from a capabilities perspective, each character stands on equal footing, and the game’s progress relies on the continued, public participation of its individual components. Abed (“The Undiagnosable”), in his capacity as the game master, lays out the game’s progress in a transparent manner, ensuring that all characters can access the same information about collective processes, institutional decisions, and resource distribution.

The system starts to breakdown when Pierce (“The Dickish”) enters the game. Concerned that the group excluded him from the D&D game, Pierce decides to exact vengeance against Neil’s alter-ego, Duquesne. The study group exiles Pierce to the supply closet, where he uses a collection of supplementary D&D rule books to endow himself with new powers. Pierce returns to the study group room, using his new powers to “control” Draconus, a dastardly dragon with time-stopping powers. A maniacal Pierce “transforms” Neil from Duquesne into his prior, obese self. If not for the group’s rejection of Pierce’s vengeance, the non-Pierce members of the Community study group would have lost the game.

Community’s D&D game may be goofy–and a simplistic reflection of the challenges of in-group/out-group dynamics in collective decision-making–but it demonstrates an important gap in deliberative democracy. Organization is driver of decision-making processes, and with social organization comes social hierarchy. Even the simplest societies contain a degree of intra-communal specialization, which determines access to key resources and, more importantly, information. Public information is asymmetric–groups have unequal access to information resources, due to their particular participation in or exclusion from policy institutions. In the study group’s D&D game, Pierce’s additional rules enhanced his abilities, and limited the influence of the study group’s deliberative process. Community’s D&D activities demonstrate the questionable impact of the “information age”: there’s more information out there, but it’s difficult to say whether that has led to the democratization of policy-relevant information. This information asymmetry, which has emerged because of intentional and unintentional characteristics of technocratic governance, dooms deliberative democracy to little more than a dispensable governance technology.

rousseau’s general will and the zombie apocalypse

As I referenced in my previous “the reanimated dead take on dead philosophers” post, The Walking Dead‘s core community–Rick, his family, Shane, and their various affiliates–resembles a rudimentary social hierarchy: as the group coalesces during the show’s first season, following the Atlanta exodus, power structure becomes clear, and, with the exception of a simmering, internecine struggle, political decision-making centers on Rick, his survival savvy, and his nearly uncontested authority over firearms. It’s difficult to characterize the group’s survival-oriented community as a state, per se, given the non-distinction between decision-making institutions (the state bureaucracy, which is comprised of Rick, Shane, and a couple of thorn-in-your side external actors) and the general polity. The group’s increasingly violent processes of social breakdown, ostracization, and consolidation, however, are evidently intended to mimic the nascent process of political creation, in the midst of a destructive world. The technical bureaucracy of authority gradually expands throughout the course of the show’s first two seasons; individual firearms become caches, “walker”-targeting capacity expands from a small constituency to a large hoard, and the group’s access to transportation and public health balloons. The group’s size remains relatively constant, due to the “mortality” rate, but the human consequences of the group’s decisions seem more substantial.

In the course of the Walking Dead community’s collective decision-making process, the group’s conduct–in particular, Rick’s, due to his assertion that the counter-zombie corps is “not a democracy anymore–raises some valuable concerns for the existence of democratic processes within a political society. For all intents and purposes, the Walking Dead group’s decision-making was not, at its core, democratic: voting procedures determined only the most significant of political, social, and economic decisions, and Rick’s consolidation of power seemed, insofar as is narratively possible, nearly inevitable. The “general will,” which Rousseau describes as the legitimacy-granting origin of a sovereign state, plays very little role in the group’s decision-making. Rousseau’s “general will” is, to a certain extent, an ambiguous entity: its process is neither deliberative nor sectarian, but its positive attributes are, at best, opaque. The concept coincides with a “collective good” framework, and the sovereign entity within a political society should–not the normative, rather than positive classification–determine the exercise of social welfare on the basis of the general will’s public outlook.

In the world of the Walking Dead, as in the complex politics of contemporary society, the “general will” is a Platonic idea, hardly representative of a tangible reality. Rousseau, for one, assumes a degree of information transparency that, given the bureaucratization of public politics, cannot occur in a real-world political society. Where a sovereign exists, as one does in Rousseau’s Social Contract, various characteristics of governance are inaccessible for the general public. Nowhere is the informational hierarchy clearer than the Walking Dead‘s dramatic, second-season conclusion, during which Rick reveals the existence of a ubiquitous “walker” disease, as opposed to the confined, only-communicable-through-brainzzzzz disease the group had previously imagined. Rick had known of the “walker” infection since the CDC explosion, but had withheld informational access until, during Shane’s death and undeath, the reality of the group’s infection became readily apparent. The group’s decision-making surely would have changed, as it did on the highway road, but the informational hierarchies prevented the emergence of a democratic discourse, thus establishing Rick’s authoritarian leadership as an inextricable characteristic of survival in a zombie-fied world.

the civil society gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now

Writing in the weeks following the The Dark Knight Rises‘ release, Jeff Spross and Zack Beauchamp described Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a “layered defense of liberal democracy against its authoritarian components.” For Spross and Beauchamp, Nolan’s Bane-, Joker-, and Ra’s Al-Ghul-infused riffs on Gotham’s pervasive inequality, corruption, and moral decadence have their origins in an abiding concern for the interaction between anarchic criminality and an over-reaching state. As the authors observe, Nolan’s Batman is neither conservative nor liberal, but rather liberal-democratic: prompted by his butler and mentor Alfred, both Bruce Wayne and Batman find an equilibrium in Gotham’s civil institutions–in participation in “communal life and shared institutions,” and in the amorphous institution of public trust, which sustains Gotham amidst Bane and Ra’s Al-Ghul’s unwavering attempts at civilizational overthrow, as well as the Joker’s anarchic tests of spectacular violence.

Bruce Wayne and Batman’s stirring commitment to civic institutions transcends the film trilogy, and manifests itself in the original, comic-book representations of the Dark Knight, his millionaire-playboy personality, and his sidekick, Robin. After all, Robin’s origin story–the “real one,” rather than Nolan’s “Dick-Grayson-as-junior-cop” version–has its foundations in the demise of a Gotham civic association. Dick Grayson’s parents were trapeze artists in the Gotham circus; after his parents fall victim to a mob assassination, Grayson transforms, channeling his rage into Robin’s superhero-dom. Bruce Wayne’s Batman story is similar; his father, a business tycoon, maintained an extensive philanthropic enterprise, until he, too, fell victim to Gotham’s criminal violence. More than any other comic-book superhero, Batman’s history has relied on his robust relationship with his urban landscape; not just the physical structures, but the civic institutions, as well. Nolan’s spectacular, high-tech Batman makes it easy to forget that, at his core, Batman is a detective, reliant on common society’s resilience against organized crime to drive his heroism.

Batman’s multi-decade treatment of “civil society,” as a conceptual framework, undergirds a core distinction in philosophical treatments of civic association. I’ll address Locke and Tocqueville here, not because of their particular conceptual strength–indeed, “civil society” is one of the best-tread subjects in contemporary political theory and scientific inquiry–but because, due to my philosophy class, they’re at the forefront of my present thinking. John Locke, the English philosopher, frames civil society as a functional extension of political consolidation: fearing the descent from the state of nature into one of war, and subsequent infringements on personal life, property, and happiness, individuals establish institutions of governance, hierarchical power, and justice, which Locke describes as a “political society.” Political society is an institution, comprised of legal systems, jurisprudence, and common security assurances; civil society, on the other hand, is a state of being, determined by social interactions between individuals and communities within a political society. Civil society participation is a fundamental characteristic of membership in the political commonwealth, whereby the individual citizen forfeits his/her natural right to a vigilante defense of private affairs, in order to secure a state of persistent security. Locke’s civil society relies on the absence of authoritarian governance, within which justice and dispute resolutions are necessarily arbitrary.

But, as Batman’s Gotham demonstrates, Locke’s civil society, under the auspices of liberal governance, is insufficient. In the seven years between Harvey Dent’s death and Bane’s return, Gotham establishes a “liberal peace,” largely as a result of the civil-liberties-infringing Dent Act. It’s easy enough for the Gotham government to mete out justice, to restrict crime, and to ensure collective security, but Gotham’s security institutions, legislative reforms, and political leadership aren’t what restore Gotham’s sanity amidst widespread social fear. Batman defeats the villains, but the public trust he inspires–and the social cohesion of Gotham’s run-of-the-mill civil society–sustains Gotham while the city’s police clear the rubble. This, I suspect, is what Tocqueville means when he refers to the United States’ civic associations as an engine of democratic prosperity: Batman perceives Gotham as “worth saving” because, as the Dark Knight says to a beleaguered Joker, “it’s full of people ready to believe in good.” In a society where the government–and Batman, for that matter–is perfectly content to extend its authority, to infringe on the very natural rights that Locke prioritizes, Gotham’s social institutions, and not just its civil society, matter most.

tabula zombie: locke’s political society and the post-apocalyptic scene

Philosophical zombie scholarship has understandably focused its intellectual energies on the role of natural rights, societies, and social contracts in the post-apocalyptic context. To a certain extent, this concern for the zombie-tinged social contract makes sense: almost all zombie invasions/contagions/humanitarian emergencies comprise the emergence, persistence, and incomplete resolution of civil conflict, a case study in Hobbesian contract breakdown. For political philosophers, the zombie apocalypse represents a near-perfect incubator for the state of nature, through which social roles, political societies, and internal economies are constantly in flux, due to the emotional and psychological pressures of constant flight, fratricide, and institutional collapse. As Jason Walker suggests in his treatment of The Walking Dead‘s varied embrace of Hobbesian and Lockean social contract theory, post-apocalyptic communities often resemble Hobbes’ basic expectations of human nature, as well as Locke’s concern for the corrosive impact of vigilante justice.

The state of nature’s gradual growth is, for all intents and purposes, an assumed characteristic of the post-apocalyptic scene. Rights regimes increasingly break-down over the course of The Walking Dead‘s two seasons: property rights do not retain their salience–theft and looting remain rampant among human communities in Georgia’s urban centers, almost entirely as a survival mechanism; in Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick et al.’s arrival at Hershel’s farm quickly encourages a process of normative break-down, whereby Hershel’s “enlightened” understanding of zombie/human symbiosis no longer applies to their social circumstances. This process reaches its symbolic apex during Shane’s murderous assault on Hershel’s zombie-filled barn, which culminates in the death of zombie-fied Sophie, a child and (prior to her death) member of Rick’s cohort.

Lest the post-apocalyptic scene appear as too much of an overlap between Hobbesian and Lockean state-of-nature concerns, Locke’s description bears further investigation. Locke describes the state of nature as one of “perfect freedom” and “equality,” two precepts that emerge from his epistemological understanding of human behavior: that is, knowledge within a civil society, such as it is, emerges from the state of nature’s tabula rasa (“blank state”) of human perception. It’s worth noting that this reading is an integrated understanding of Locke’s epistemology and social contract theory, which assumes conceptual consistency throughout the philosopher’s core values. While the tabula rasa is not an inherent characteristic of Locke’s social contract, one can assume that, insofar as the state of nature represents a natural point of origin for human societies, and the tabula rasa for human knowledge, perception, and experience, the two are intertwined. Like his own epistemological thought, as well as Hobbes’ political theory, Locke describes a sociopolitical teleology, through which the state of nature prompts the intentional, path-dependent consolidation of political societies and, eventually, states. Locke acknowledges a “natural law,” which, in regulating the state of nature, necessitates the gradual emergence of judicial institutions: finding vigilante justice insufficient and destructive, societies will establish magistrates of justice, in order to regulate nascent power hierarchies. Individuals and community units tacitly consent to political, judicial, and social institutions, looking to protect personal life, property, and happiness.

Reason–according to Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a factor of life emerging from perceived human experience–undergirds the peaceable operation of natural law in the state of nature. Social breakdown and political violence, which Locke defines as variations on the “state of war,” rely on the corrosion of reason within human society. It’s easy to see how, within the context of our present international sphere, establishing “reason” as warfare’s causal determinant requires, at best, generous assumptions about prevailing cultural and societal norms in conflict-affected communities. Certain, disaggregated components of society may experience a normative breakdown, in line with Locke’s dismantling of reason’s common ties, but “political societies,” as Locke describes them, might well coexist alongside a “state of war.”

The Walking Dead‘s post-apocalyptic scene may provide a more instructive indication of Locke’s challenging dichotomy. Zombie communities, following the United States’ debilitating cerebral epidemic, could hardly be described as “reasoned” creatures, by Locke’s standards: in contrast to human communities, they have little understanding of private property, a natural right to human life, or the experiential perception that Locke associates with the exercise of reason. The zombie state is one of unending conflict, in which life-forms violently compete for perpetual nourishment. Insofar as social hierarchies exist, they are determined by access to flesh and brains, rather than an exercise of social power, regulation, and leadership. In order to avoid zombie transformation, Walking Dead‘s humans place themselves into a political society, determined by rudimentary, confined forms of common resource distribution and security. Towards the end of Walking Dead‘s second season, Rick’s tyranny gradually matures, but it is a “tyrannical rule” that is far removed from the all-encompassing, rights-revoking rule that Locke’s treatise envisions. And, despite the consolidation of authority, the general protection of life, property, and (to the extent that this is possible in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse) happiness, violence persists, in the form of internecine conflict: between Shane and Rick, most prominently, between Shane and Hershel’s son, and between human stragglers and the main society. That is, the existence of the political society, per se, does not prevent the emergence of violence–or, in Locke’s case, war–merely mitigates it.

Locke’s dichotomous characterization of political conflict may have applied well to his experiences in England’s civil war, which encompassed English society, infecting the full realm of social institutions, communities, and networks. But for localized violence, like the type that occurs in post-apocalyptic, human circumstances, the divide between the state of war and the political society strikes the casual zombie-observer as much less salient.

timey wimey hobbesy wobbesy

A quick survey of Hobbes’ most prominent Leviathan passages should yield the strikingly obvious: the seventeeth-century philosopher, for all his polymathic genius, is hardly aware of the full spectrum of terrestrial and extraterrestrial life forms, institutions, and social communities. In one sense, this isn’t very surprising: Galileo Galilei, Hobbes’ Italian contemporary, was having a house party imprisoned in his Italian villa–on charges of observational astronomy–when Hobbes began work on his magnum opus. So, we can hardly begrudge Hobbes’ ignorance of the abundant variety of other nasty, brutish, and short lifeforms that span the galaxies. Suffice it to say that, short of an inherently anachronistic encounter with a Big Blue Box, there’s very little reason why the British philosopher would have encountered a Sontaran during his time in Malmesbury.

Writing in 1651, just following the conclusion of the English Civil War, Hobbes sought to develop a unified theory of political statecraft. Identifying human social interactions as survivalist and competitive–characteristics likely informed by his empirical observation of Parliamentarian/Royalist conflict–Hobbes views man’s natural state as a deadly, nearly unfettered competition for limited resources. On regular, not-as-awesome Earth, Hobbes’ state of nature represents an ideal state. Hobbes’ posits a civic interplay between freedom of action and communal security, which emerges from two (seemingly contradictory) laws: the first requires individuals to “seek peace,” while the second ensures that humans will act in self-defense. Given the absence of time specifications, one can assume that Hobbes’ behavioral assumptions coexist at an origin point, preceding the gradual emergence of a human polity. Except for the fleeting point of conception, the state of nature cannot exist–the collective fear of its “reemergence” sustains the authoritarian commonwealth in static form.

Doctor Who’s multiverse, as a more-than-adequate manifestation of the time-space continuum, underlines the conceptual inadequacy of the Hobbesian state. As in regular, not-as-awesome Earth, a pure state of nature does not seem to exist. The closest approximation, one imagines, are various incarnations of deep space (the multiverse’s outer rims, not the TARDIS’ time-space trajectory), which would be less accessible via TARDIS. But even the most “anarchic” of deep-space entities–for example, see House, the TARDIS-consuming asteroid–more closely resemble post-apocalyptic states than prehistoric states of nature. In general, Doctor Who’s multiversal polities represent the sort of dynamic institutions that you’d expect from human–or Silurian, or Cyberman, or Silence–civilization: they suffer from internal squabbles, variously weakening and strengthening institutions, and transitional turmoil. From the Doctor’s perspective, Lake Silencio’s “fixed point” (on April 22, 2011, the date of the Time Lord’s “death”) mirrors Hobbes’ state of nature: it is a chronological keystone, theoretically unalterable by any human action. The “fixed point,” like Hobbes’ laws of nature, operates at a point of ambiguous convergence, where the Doctor’s future and River Song’s past intersect.

As in Hobbes’ theory of political development, however, the “fixed point” isn’t a very good keystone at all. Far from a baseline standard, consistent throughout time, it’s easily avoidable, granted a bit of human Time-Lord agency. If the first two episodes of Matt Smith’s third season are any indication, politics continues as it always has, in spite of the variation in the multiverse’s fixed point: the Indian Space Agency still monitors the Earth’s atmosphere, Jurassic organisms are ubiquitous throughout space, and, perhaps most importantly, Rory and Amy remain happily married. There’s a simple lesson here, which Hobbes’ theory of the commonwealth doesn’t capture: political development evolves as an iterative, ever-shifting series of fixed points, rather than a static institution. In increasingly complex systems of intergalactic governance, there’s little room for evolutionary determinism; it’s just not natural.