How to be a Fatalist

rs_speed_posterOf the four worldviews of grid-group cultural theory, the one cultural theorists themselves most often exclude from the discussion is fatalism. They do this by claiming it is ‘passive’ (Michael Thompson), or ‘isolate’ (Mary Douglas), and by claiming fatalism opts out of policy debates, or is excluded by the others by definition. This betrays a real bias and a failure of imagination on the part of researchers.

Continue reading to find out about fatalist activism and the fatal nation.

Fatalist Activism

There is no reason to think that fatalism is any different from the other three paradigms in its capacity to organise actively and to actively seek to exclude other perspectives. Believing the world to be capricious, fatalists seek to make it more so in a thousand different ways. They seek to enact their worldview, to prove themselves right – just as the other paradigms do.
Two writers have shown how fatalism works at a policy level. Vernon Bogdanor claims fatalism is ‘not typically a strong bias in deliberate policy, but widespread, probably even ubiquitous in practice’ (2005:63,77). He uses the wonderfully evocative phrase, ‘random acts of senseless partnership’ – which anyone who has engaged with government will recognise immediately. Christopher Hood (1998 ) goes further, and shows with great insight how fatalism busily creates ‘contrived randomness’ which can ‘turn public organization into something less like a predictable slot-machine than a gaming machine, making it difficult to predict in detail where the chips will fall at any one time’ (Hood et al 1999:16).

A parallel concept is that of ‘Keno capitalism’ (Dear and Flusty 1998), which deliberately organises urban space on a random basis, so that ‘capital touches down as if by chance’ in one place, ignoring neighbouring locations.

Fatal Nation

The prime example of a society dominated by a fatalist activism is Australia. I’m hardly the first to notice this. The Fatal Shore (Hughes 1987) and The Lucky Country (Horne 1964) are two epithets that have stuck. Its modern foundation as an archipelago of repressive penal colonies, its history of near genocidal oppression of the indigenous population, together with its genuinely unpredictable climate (dominated by El Nino Southern Oscillation) make this a continent uniquely conditioned by and for fatalism. Australia has 1 gaming machine for every 99 people (contrasting with the UK at one per 236 people or the US at one per 426, according to the 2004 World Count of Gaming Machines). These produce significant revenue for the government, particularly in NSW, strongly impacting on policy. Policing is controlled by fatalism. A widespread Government advert says ‘More police: more chance of getting caught’. Every social event includes a raffle; even the recent Monet exhibition at the Gallery of NSW ends with online competition entry to win a trip to Giverny. These are all examples of contrived randomness hard at work every day.
To sum up: at least one country is in constant danger of suffering a monoculture of fatalism. Meanwhile, cultural theorists themselves conspire to create a limited culture that mistakenly regards fatalism as inactive, and therefore irrelevant.

This is an edited response to Matthew Taylor’s blog at the RSA website.

9 thoughts on “How to be a Fatalist

  1. I don’t find the explanation Douglas or others give of how fatalism emerges out of high grid, low group at all cogent. I also have never been able to understand how it can be a “cultural way of life”– it seems more like neurosis (particularly in context of risk perception) than a form of social organization. I had interpreted the omission of fatalism from most CT public policy analysis (Wildavsky never mentions it, except in the work he co-autored w/ Thompson) as evidence that it is a misconceived part of the scheme. But I’m now moved to look at these books to see if I’ve just been too constrained in my imagination & understanding (wouldn’t be first time!)

  2. DK, I agree with you about the neurosis, but stick with it! When I moved to Australia my mother in law kept offering me ‘scratchies’ (instant win lottery tickets). I ungraciously told her I didn’t agree with them and quietly thought she was crazy wasting her money on them. Neurosis indeed. After while, though, I realised it wasn’t about the scratchies as such. It was a quite ‘rational’ ritual. Not only did she think the world is a lottery, she was enacting little rituals such as this daily and weekly to make sure that it was. My overt anti-fatalism was a threat that she was seeking to neutralise. In this way, fatalism can be seen as a ‘cultural way of life’. I think Clifford Geertz has things to say about the social importance of these kinds of micro-ritual.
    As for why fatalism is routinely omitted from CT policy analysis, I may have been a bit harsh. Douglas describes ‘isolates’ as being part of a social order (high grid), but not by choice (low group). Prisoners and mental patients would be typical. The institutionalised indeed have little to say about policy, because their voices are systematically silenced. But I’m thinking of a slightly different set of people – those who apparently choose their fatalism, in the way that, say, Individualists apparently choose their Individualism. (The smokescreen is that whereas Individualists have an ideology of free choice, Fatalists might claim they had no choice at all in the matter). My claim is that they are not passive in this but active. Fatalism has to be constructed and reconstructed every day. Even in the United States I suspect there are plenty of people ready to do such work. Dowty and Wallace identify FEMA as a fatalist organisation and give an example of its fatalist supply chain management – purchasing and shipping ice before anyone has decided where it is required.

    Click to access dowty.pdf

  3. I found this page while researching the role of fatalism in the United States, and wondered how it is that we, a nation of immigrants from countries that have/had strong fatalistic philosophies, does not appear to be a fatalistic country ourself.

    1. Interesting question Gail. A couple of recent posts here have questioned the idea of national cultures and raised the possibility that cultures exist within and across nations. As for fatalism in the US, have you read this post? Places to look: Las Vegas/casino culture; prisons (the US is seriously over-supplied with these); certain financial speculation and the environment that makes it possible. I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition between Lady Luck and Lady Liberty in the American imaginary.

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