Fatalism in America today

black swan event by Jurvetson

I’m still thinking about fatalism as one of the four cultures of Grid-group cultural theory.

Even in the United States, whose mascot is Lady Liberty, not Lady Luck, and don’t we all know it, there is clear evidence of fatalist activism.
Nassim Taleb and the ‘epistemic arroganceof anti-fatalists

Nassim Taleb is certainly a man of the moment. Having long predicted that financial markets would come to no good by arrogantly ignoring the possibility of catastrophe, he’s been proved fairly conclusively right, and should now feel justified in gloating. Oh, he already is gloating…
Taleb is a Fatalist almost to perfection. The opening paragraph of his website says:

‘You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race’.

The rest of his work reads like the Fatalists’ manifesto. The title of ‘Fooled by Randomness‘ says it all but Taleb just keeps going.
And it isn’t as though Taleb is the shy type, slow to make policy or organisational recommendations. He is trenchant, polemical and opinionated in the best sense of those words. If you want to know what fatalist activism – a social or political program based on fatalism – would look like, just read Taleb. His central thesis is that highly improbable events happen much more often than anyone except Nassim Taleb (and possibly Bernard Mandelbrot) would think. Luck rules. And looking at the wreckage of the economy, he seems to have a point.

“The future will be increasingly less predictable, while both human nature and social ‘science’ seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.”

Writing off Fate
So why is it that the developers of grid-group cultural theory more or less wrote off fatalism as an organisational possibility? For them (especially Douglas, Wildavsky and, still, Thompson) it was always ‘passive’, inactive, withdrawn from policy debates. Of course, fatalists make out they’re just shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘what the heck’, that they can’t influence anything anyway (they may not be able to change the world – remember?) but that’s no reason to actually believe them! Behind the scenes (or in front, if you’re Taleb) they’re busy perfecting ‘contrived randomness’ – making the world seem even more random and fate-controlled than it otherwise would do.
I think the omission of fatalism from such accounts of organising amounts to what Michael Thompson in his latest book, Organising and Disorganising, terms ‘information rejection’. A cultural bias is recognised by what it rejects, and by and large, these writers are not at all Fatalist in outlook. Therefore Fatalism and Fatalist ways of organising represent  ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ (Steve Rayner) that is to be rejected.

get out of jail free by Mark StrozierNothing to contribute?
A counter argument might be that, as  Mary Douglas suggested, the high grid, low group quadrant is populated by those who are controlled by social norms but are alienated from any group – they are ‘isolates’. By definition, then, they are not in a position to engage with debates about policy, or politics, or management, or, well, anything, so they can safely be excluded from analysis. They have nothing to contribute. Think of prisoners, whose lives are strictly controlled by the system (high grid), but who have no say in anything, and no affiliation to anything around them (low group).

But I’m arguing that the very existence of these people speaks volumes in its own right. They are not just sitting there doing nothing, but present a vision (mostly a negative vision, at least for me) of a world in which choice is a fantasy and luck the only hope. The other three worldviews, egalitarianism, individualism and hierarchy, need this fatalist netherworld in order to demonstrate what will happen if their social norms are broken. They call this ‘deterrence’.

The Fashion of Fate

But that’s not all. Think for a moment about this supposedly impotent culture, in which everything is pointless because you can’t change anything and the only winning strategy is to keep your head down and roll with the punches. Then think about fashion – not exactly a cottage industry. Prison culture has dominated the fashion of adolescent males for at least sixty years, if not more. Where I live, many thousands of miles from an American jail, young men’s underwear is routinely on display simply because in the US, prisoners routinely have their waist belt removed from them. From the jails, via hip hop, to a street near you. Uncomfortable as it may seem to those of us who are (usually) not Fatalists, Fatalism is widely regarded as something to aspire to. Not only does US prison have a culture, paradoxically this culture of having no influence is highly – and globally –  influential.

What’s less likely – Fatalist activism…or Individualist organising?

It’s odd, I think, that the grid-group cultural theorists were unwilling to accept at face value what their own typology was telling them – that there is a high-grid, low group quadrant and it’s important. But in a way it’s no odder than the very common tendency to ignore egalitarian environmentalists in favour of either markets or hierarchies. Or to ignore contracts in favour of familial obligations. It’s odd, I think, to claim that fatalists withdraw from policy debates, while at the same time insisting that Individualists do not withdraw from such debates. But why would an Individualist want to get involved with ways of organising society? As Margaret Thatcher said, there’s no such thing! Surely the term Individualist suggests a person, a culture that devalues the very idea of social organisation. Surely the concept of Individualist organisation is even more unlikely than Fatalist activism. But somehow we can easily see that this is not the case – individualists very actively organise themselves and others to make the world a better place for individualists to live in (think of Charlton Heston running a huge association of rugged individualists with guns – incongruous, but not so incongruous that we particularly notice). Why then shouldn’t fatalists, in their fatalist way, be doing exactly the same – working with the inevitable social transactions in order to favour their own worldview?

A prescription for change

My prescription  for those who work with the paradigm of grid-group cultural theory, and for anyone else who’s made it this far into such an over-long post, is to re-evaluate the significance of Fatalism for their work, and to start to take it seriously, to include it, even though this knowledge is distinctly uncomfortable. In spite of itself, grid-group cultural theory still points to four, not three or two, ways of seeing and organising the world, and one of it’s great strengths is that it challenges us to see what we don’t want to see.

congressonal quote by kdonovan11In an earlier post I wrote of Australia as a prime example of a ‘fatal nation’, where fatalism dominates policy discourse. But isn’t it ironic then that America, the Land of the Free, the Individualist’s paradise, is also home to the high priest of Fate, Nassim Taleb? But then isn’t this the same Land of the Free that also has one of the highest prison population rates on earth?

Oh, and I thought I was going to have time to mention Vegas…

See also: Fatalist economic policy


6 thoughts on “Fatalism in America today

  1. I like this post. At an atomic level an individual may chose ‘passivity’ and to champion it, but this is still an active choice. Or meta-choice. The bias to champion or not and the bias about how the world is structured (not) are two different impulses. I suspect the urge to champion is nearly always stronger than the urge to maintain a coherent lifestyle (e.g. of passivity and worship of Fortuna).

    Perhaps the impulse to project intentions onto the nature of the world springs from the same basis as the desire to project gods into it.

  2. Thanks for the link to the New Scientist article, Meika. I have a lot of respect for Scott Atran’s work, but I’m suspicious of the methodological individualism that says it has to be all down to the individual psychology (religion, that is), either as an adaptive characteristic, or as a nonadaptive byproduct. Mary Douglas’s approach, following Durkheim, was to see beliefs as shaped by social practices. Given the particular way a society is organised, certain religious beliefs will be rational, and other beliefs, not held, will be irrational. Putting my own gloss on this, I’d suggest that society is performative of certain practices, which then entail the social necessity of certain, sometimes more abstract, beliefs. For instance, there is an interesting view among many Catholics, Orthodox and Anglo-Catholics that women can’t be priests. Not shouldn’t, but can’t. Part of the reason, as far as I can see is that since all priests are, empirically men (social performance), it follows that no women are, or ever could be, priests (personal belief). I think the key – and possibly adaptive – psychological factor is the ability to defect from the dominant view. I’m still not convinced grid-group cultural theory can explain this on its own, Thompson et al’s (1990) ‘theory of surprise’ notwithstanding.
    An interesting profile of Douglas considers her Catholicism and how it shaped her approach to Hierarchy.

    1. Usually we seem quite happy with the idea that there are two groups in society. Left and right is a common distinction, conservative and liberal. Cultural Theory suggests an alternative, which requires four ‘ideal types’. Actually there are still only two scales being considered: the Group scale which identifies the significance of group boundaries and group belonging (strong or weak Group), and Grid, which identifies the significance of regulation and social structure (strong or weak Grid). By looking at these two scales together a ‘map’ of ideal types is constructed, which has four poles:
      Strong Grid-Strong Group (Hierarchal or Positional)
      Weak Grid-Strong Group (Egalitarian or Enclavist)
      Weak Grid-Weak Group (Individualist)
      Strong Grid-Weak Group (Fatalist)

      Given that we’re already quite used to dividing the world up into opposing pairs (left-right etc) it’s not such a stretch to think in terms of four opposing cultural biases. The claim is that these four describe social interactions better than two (or three or twenty) would.

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