Rigidity vs. Chaos

Over January, I watched most of a TV show from the 90s called Babylon 5. I will not link to the Wikipedia page, because any attempt to fully explain the show requires explaining the plot, which has spoilers galore. I’ll probably talk about some things from it in the next few weeks, but what I want to talk is one of the primary central conflicts of the show: that is, rigidity and chaos. I’m not going to tell you how the conflict gets resolved in the show, save that it’s awesome, but I want to dig a little deeper into it, in sort of a real-life fashion.

American political and cultural conflict, like most ideological struggles, is based on just how much chaos and how much order is needed for society to both grow and to maintain itself. Tilt too far one way, and everything falls apart. Tilt too far the other way, and everything ossifies. The extreme of those who favor the former consider any move away from chaos to be tyranny. The extreme of those who favor the latter consider any move away from rigidity to be anarchy.

The problem here is that this is something of a false dichotomy, at least as far as the people who live in such systems are concerned, because both end with the same sort of situation.

I’ll explain.

Anarchy is, in a sense, unorganized tyranny. Instead of there being one tyrant who rules a massive swathe of land and oppresses people via his minions and laws–that is to say, his guns–there are many little tyrants who rule tiny bits of land and oppress people via their minions and guns. No one is really safe from anyone else, and everyone struggles with everyone else, except for those few groups that manage to hold together some kind of cohesion, and there is no higher authority to appeal to, for there is no law.

Tyranny, on the other hand, is organized anarchy. No one is really safe, because they can be slain at the tyrant’s whim, or that of his minions, or reported for sedition by an enemy, or something of that nature. Instead of a bunch of men pointing guns at your face and demanding stuff, you have a bureaucrat with the force of an army behind him demanding your stuff–and there is no higher authority to appeal to, for the law is not meant for the men of the tyrant.

As if those two situations were not similar enough for those under the guns, they’re also similar for those behind the guns. Leaders of anarchy fear being supplanted by underlings or being destroyed by rivals, as do the functionaries of tyrannies. Furthermore, both find themselves in a position of diminishing returns, as their depredations cause those they prey and feast upon to have less and less to give.

As if these were not enough, the one tends to lead into the other. Anarchy causes people to look desperately for anyone who can promise order and stability. Most often, the man who can assemble enough firepower to make this happen is a tyrant, because it is rare for a good man to be single-minded enough to acquire such. Then, the resultant tyranny eventually causes people to look desperately for anyone who can promise a way out–and while the promise is most often made by a would-be tyrant, what allows him to become a tyrant is the resultant anarchy when the previous tyrant is overthrown. Rinse and repeat with vigor, good luck getting the bloodstains off.

The point is that, after a certain point, leaning towards either one causes the other to come into existence, despite the fact that it was the very thing you were trying to avoid. Now, I’m not going to go into where that point is, necessarily, but the general principle is something that we need to be aware of–because trust me, you do not want to be under the boot.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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