Control Theory and Politics: A New Understanding

Politics is described as “the dependable coordination of human efforts and expectations for the attainment of the goals of the society,”[1] or, more famously, as the “authoritative allocation of values [and goods].”[2] In political science, control—of people, of the distribution of goods, of acceptable discourse, etc.—is perhaps the core concept. If political systems did not exercise control over outcomes, the rationale goes, they could not perform these basic functions.

In political science and political theory, control is hardly ever referred to as ‘control’ as such. Instead, control is conventionally described as ‘power’ or ‘influence,’ instead of as ‘control’ as such.

While these more traditional conceptions of control have a long history of study in political science and theory, they still remain rather amorphous and highly disputed concepts, with myriad definitions. However, this ambiguity regarding the nature or exercise of control in political systems is not necessary. There is actually a formal theoretical framework for the analysis of control from outside political science which can be used to definitively identify the presence or absence of control in politics: Control theory. Not only does formal control theory provide the basic framework for the identification of proper control, but also how it can be analyzed. As far as I can tell, a control theory approach has yet to be applied in a direct and systematic way to the issue of political control.

Control theory

Per control theory, control is the product of specific functions and processes performed in a specific order. A control system is any system whose components interact in this specific way to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. This control is achieved via feedback, as responses to the effects of the system and the influence of the environment on the controlled quantity, resulting in the purposive, self-regulating behavior characteristic of control systems (the prototypical example being the common household thermostat).

Any system with the requisite components interacting in the ways identified by control theory will produce these stabilizing behaviors. Thus, this conception of control can be applied to mechanical, physical, and biological systems, as well as to personal, organizational, social and political systems. Conversely, to the extent the components of a system do not perform these basic functions in the ways identified by control theory, that system cannot be said to exercise control.

This ability to definitively identify the presence or absence of control in and by political systems via control theory plays an important role in the Existential Citizenship Project, but not for the reasons you might think. As will be discussed in more detail in subsequent installments, when control theory is applied to political systems, the result is a surprising lack of evidence of control in and by political systems. This unexpected result has serious implications for the study and the practice of politics.

Mainstream political science and political theory are constructed upon a foundation of largely unquestioned—and therefore largely untested—assumptions about political systems as control systems. For example, this uncritical assumption of control is a primary justification for the hope-based politics discussed in previous installments (i.e., because political entity X controls outcome Y, I can realize my hope to change Y by controlling X), and therefore also a major contributor to the apathy, cynicism, and nihilism from disappointed expectations which characterize so much of our contemporary politics. As such, the revelation of this pervasive lack of control in political systems would necessitate a fundamental revision of much of the basis of political science and political theory.

In the context of civic and political engagement, these revisions would mean not only a new understanding of how political systems actually work, but also the derivation of new motivations for meaningful and enduring political engagement in the face of this lack of control. Notably, explaining and motivating meaningful political engagement in the face of such ‘hopeless’ circumstances are precisely the focus of the Existential Citizenship Project.

Cybernetics and control in political science

Control theory is akin to the cybernetics approach, popularized by Norbert Weiner in the 1940s, which is perhaps more well-known in the social sciences. Cybernetics has a long—though often unrecognized—history in the study of political systems. For example, the etymology of the English word governor illustrates this fundamental connection: Greek kybernare – Latin gubernare – English to govern.

As far back as ancient Greece, politics and governance have been associated with purposive control. Plato[3] and Aristotle[4] both referred to the kybernetike tekhne, as the technical art of steersmanship, in comparing the governing of a community to the piloting of a ship. In an essay published in 1834, noted French scientist Andre-Marie Ampere first suggested that the proper name for the scientific study of politics is cybernetique,[5] more than a century before Norbert Weiner ‘coined’ the term cybernetics to describe the general study of feedback control processes.[6] Weiner’s popularization of cybernetics-as-control lead to a proliferation of cybernetic models across the social sciences, including political science, though control theory has been implicit in the study of politics from the very beginning—just without the benefit of a formal theory or framework.

Cybernetic models enjoyed a moment of vogue in political science—in particular in association with the behavioralist movement of the 1950s and 1960s—such as the cybernetic model presented by Karl Deutsch in his book The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control,[7] but they have since faded from use, due in large part to their theoretical and practical shortcomings.[8] Given the differences between these previous cybernetic models and a control theory approach, I believe control theory provides insights into political control that these previous cybernetic models did not.

Formal control theory and cybernetics are related, but they are not identical. Cybernetics as conventionally understood is the “study of the isomorphisms of communication structure in mechanisms, organisms and societies” as the means through which control is exercised.[9] However, according to the control theory pioneer William Powers, control theory is not just the identification of these isomorphisms, but also provides the formal specification of these relationships, thereby allowing for their formal analysis:

Control theory does not consist of the statement that organisms are control systems—that statement proposes only that certain relationships will be seen in behavior; if they are seen, the behavior is indisputably that of a control system. Control theory is the method of analysis that lets us understand and predict the behavior of any system in this kind of closed-loop relationship with an environment: basically, it’s a body of mathematical analysis.[10]

As such, control theory represents both a refinement and an extension of the cybernetic models which have come before.

The Existential Citizenship Project and political control

Although cybernetic models of control in and by political systems have already had their moment in political science, as far as I can tell a control theory approach has yet to be applied in a direct and systematic way to the issue of political control. In the context of the Existential Citizenship Project, as I will show in subsequent installments, this more formal understanding of control provides a new understanding of control that has substantial implications for not only our scientific and theoretical understanding of politics, but also for our meaningful and effective engagement with our political systems.

In particular, if this new control theoretic understanding of political systems demonstrates a substantial lack of control in and by political systems—which my preliminary work in this area suggest it does—then new motivations for political engagement in the face of this lack of systemic control are required. Luckily, this is what the Existential Citizenship Project provides.

The next section will provide illustrations of what a control theoretic model of political control looks like, and discuss some of the profound theoretical and practical consequences of this new understanding of control.

[1] Preuss, U. (2007). “The Significance of Cognitive and Moral Learning for Democratic Institutions.” In Rethinking political institutions: the art of the State, Shapiro, I., Skowronek, S., & Galvin, D. (Eds.). NYU Press.

[2] Easton, David. (1965). A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, pp. 50, 56.

[3] Republic 1.346b

[4] Nicomachean Ethics V 5, 1133a25-28

[5] Ampere, A.M. (1834—1843). Essai Sur la Philosophie des Sciences: Ou, Exposition Analytique d’une Classification Naturelle de Toutes les Connaissances Humaines. Paris: Bachelier.

[6] Wiener, Norbert (1948). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[7] Deutsch, K. W. (1963). The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control. (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe).

[8] Bryen, S. D. (1971). Cybernetic Analysis and Political Study. In The Application of Cybernetic Analysis to the Study of International Politics (pp. 1-33). Springer, Dordrecht.

[9] Edwards, M.G. (2010). Metatheorising Transformational Management: A Relational Approach. In Wallis, S. E. (Ed.) Cybernetics and Systems Theory in Management: Tools, Views, and Advancements: Tools, Views, and Advancements (pp. 127-150). IGI Global.

[10] Powers, W.T. (1987). “Control Theory and Cybernetics.” Continuing the Conversation (Newsletter for the American Society for Cybernetics) 11.

2 thoughts on “Control Theory and Politics: A New Understanding

  1. Pingback: Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control | The Existential Citizen

  2. Pingback: Politics, Thermostats, and Existentialism | The Existential Citizen

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