Category Archives: Control

Politics, Thermostats, and Existentialism

Control theory has been introduced in previous posts, in the context of explaining or describing the nature of the complexity of our political systems, and specifically whether an existential orientation towards politics is justified or not.

If causes and effects can be reliably identified and consistently traced through our political systems, then the existential assumption that our political systems are irreducibly complex is invalid, and therefore an existential orientation towards politics is unnecessary. However, if our basic assumptions about how our political systems work can be shown to be fatally flawed, particularly pertaining to our understanding of what our political systems control or do not control, then conventional conceptions of citizenship based on these assumptions of coherence and control will be fundamentally inadequate—or, worse, actively contributing to the apathy and pessimism which characterize so much of our contemporary politics. As such, because Existentialism is explicitly premised on taking meaningful action in an implacable world that repels ultimate meaning, an existential account of citizenship is the only orientation towards politics that can not only embrace this incoherence but still motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement.

This installment will thus demonstrate one such fundamental challenge to our unquestioned assumptions of the ultimate coherence of our political systems from the application of control theory, and why an existential approach to citizenship is the most appropriate response.

What the thermostat knows

As described in more detail in previous installments, a control system is any system whose components act together in such a way as to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. Notably, there is only one basic way that control can be exercised. To the degree the components of a system perform the functions described by control theory, and relate to each other in the order described by control theory, that system—regardless of its physical composition or complexity—will be exerting control over the quantity or property in its focus.

The prototypical example of a control system is the common household thermostat:

Thermostat

Believe it or not, even at this rudimentary level of explanation a proper understanding of how control systems must function to exert proper control already reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of political control which is evident at all levels of society, from regular people, to politicians, to academics: The one basic aspect of control systems that most people confuse—and which results in fundamental errors in the attribution of control, which is such a critical aspect of political systems—is in their identification of what is the focus or target of control.

As demonstrated above, for the thermostat to function as such there must a component which senses the ambient temperature of the room as the input, converting that into a feedback signal. This feedback is then compared against a reference signal (i.e., the setting of the thermostat), returning the magnitude of the difference between the present room temperature and the desired room temperature as an error signal. This difference is then translated by the output function into a change in the state of the furnace (off or on, or no change if the error signal is within the parameters). The action of the furnace then contributes to the temperature of the room.

However, the temperature of the room may in turn also be subject to other influences in the external environment (open doors, summer or winter weather outside the house, a crackling fire in the room, etc.). As such, the temperature of the room—as the combination of the results of the output of the system and any environmental perturbations—is then sensed by the feedback function, compared against the reference, and on and on. Again, only by these specific components performing these specific functions in this specific order does the thermostat fulfill its intended purpose of controlling the temperature of the room.[1]

This likely seems a basic, obvious, and superfluous example, with little relevance to the question of control in and by political systems. For as trivial as this example might seem, though, this demonstration of the sequence of functions and relations which are necessary for control suddenly becomes very significant when this basic understanding of control is applied to politics.

Fundamental misconceptions of control

Keep in mind that if the components of a system do not perform these necessary functions in the proper relation to the other components, even the simple thermostat will not be able to control the temperature of the room as intended. If the comparator compares the reference signal to the output signal, or the feedback function processes the error signal instead of the input quantity, then this chain is broken and the room temperature is not stabilized or controlled.

However, when asked to describe how a control system operates, even one as basic as a thermostat, most people will say that what is being controlled is the output of the system.[2] This makes superficial sense, as this output is the ‘product’ of the system, and therefore what seems to be the purpose of the system, but this is a fundamental mistake. Notably, this is the same fundamental mistake that many people also make in their attribution of control to political systems.

ThermostatRed

As demonstrated in the basic thermostatic model above, control systems do not stabilize their outputs; rather control is produced by focus on inputs (i.e., true control systems control their inputs, not their outputs).[3] The outputs are necessarily related to the inputs, otherwise there would be no cause-effect relationship to be manipulated for the purposes of control, but, contrary to these appearances, true control systems do not actually control their outputs. This distinction is exceedingly important in the attribution or assumption of control in and by political systems.

Consider a thermostat that did control its outputs in the way most people assume. Such a configuration of control would necessarily look like this:

ThermoOutRed

Even this rudimentary example demonstrates the significant issues which arise from this common misconception of control. For one, as can be seen, this would mean that the action of the thermostat is indifferent to the temperature of the room, and is concerned instead only with the output of the system (i.e., the level of heat produced by the furnace). Another consequence of this misconception of control is that the reference signal would now also have to pertain to the amount of heat produced by the furnace, and not to the temperature of the room. The end result is that such a system would control the level of heat coming out of the furnace, and not the temperature of the room, which is the presumed purpose of a thermostat.

Political systems: Out of control?

Now consider control conceived in this way—as the control of outputs and not inputs—applied to a political system, such as a policymaking agency, for example. Assuming that all the necessary components have been identified, and that they perform the requisite functions in the proper sequences, this configuration of control would look like this:

PolicyOutRed

From this configuration of control based on this common assumption that political systems control their outputs, there are a couple of conclusions which have unnerving implications for our understanding of politics, and therefore for our motivations for meaningful political engagement:

  1. If political systems actually do control their outputs in this way, they would be closed systems fundamentally disconnected from their political environments. In this case, these political systems would be exerting control, but only of themselves and not in response to ongoing changes in some aspect of society at large that we assume are the purpose of our political systems.
  2. If this common conception of control is instead a misconception of control, and our political systems are in fact controlling their inputs in the proper way, then this means that most people fundamentally misunderstand how our political systems actually work. In this case, people are assuming that our political systems are controlling something that they are not. The subsequent problem is that this means we do not actually know what our political systems are controlling—they may well be controlling some aspects of social life, but the problem is that we have not yet identified what those aspects of society are.

The upshot from this rudimentary demonstration is that either we do not understand how our political systems actually function, or our political systems do not function as we assume they do, specifically in terms of what they do or do not control, which is the primary justification for our political institutions and agencies.

This fundamental misconception of how our political systems actually work is one reason why the first and second principles of the Existential Citizenship Project are so important, because otherwise the result is the pervasive and uncritical acceptance of more or less mythological accounts of how our political systems operate. To the degree that our explanations of political systems do not explain how they actually operate is also the degree to which prescriptions for action based on these flawed explanations are liable to mislead and disappoint, leading to widespread apathy or nihilism. Because we either do not understand how our political systems work, or because they fundamentally defy explanation, what is needed are justifications for political actions that do not rely on the coherence of the system or on our comprehension of it. Again, these fatal flaws in our basic understanding are why an existential approach towards politics is the most apt orientation for political engagement.

Existentialism and political control

That said, there is also still the possibility that our political systems do in fact control their inputs in the proper way, as described by control theory. If this is the case, then we might be able to comprehend the system after all. The basic diagram of political control properly conceived in this case would look like this:

Policy_Effect

Again, as a proper control system, this means that an input quantity is detected by some feedback function within the policymaking entity, which is then compared in some way against a preferred ‘level’ of policy, generating an error signal of the difference that initiates an appropriate output. In the context of a policymaking entity, this output would presumably be a level or quantity of policy.

However, even if this is how our political systems actually work, there is still a substantial problem revealed by this control theory approach that does not yet appear to have a satisfactory resolution: What are the inputs into such a system (i.e., what is the actual controlled quantity)?

Again, this controlled quantity would not be the ‘level’ of policy, as this is the output of the system itself, which would result in the self-referential ‘closed thermostat’ model diagrammed above. So this input must be something else. Given how we conceive of our political institutions, these inputs would ideally be some effect in society at large as the focus or target of policy. There are any number of possibilities for these controlled quantities, depending on the political system being analyzed (Public preferences? Political mandates? Bureaucratic imperatives? Etc.), but the identification of these inputs is ultimately an empirical matter.

To my knowledge, though, there has been very little work done on identifying the inputs into political systems as a focus of control as suggested by control theory.[4] I have yet to see the inputs of specific policymaking systems—when they are discussed at all—treated as the proper focus of control, much less the inputs for political systems as a whole. This absence of attention in the literature to inputs as controlled quantities strongly suggests, again, that we do not as yet know what our political systems actually control, which means that even with a proper conception of control we do not yet adequately understand how our political systems actually work. This is in addition to the fact that the general conception of political systems as controlling their outputs is still a fundamental mistake, and therefore that most people—including most politicians and academic scholars—still fundamentally misunderstand how our political systems as systems of control actually work.

Given these fundamental flaws in our basic understanding of how our political systems work, even with a proper conception of control, our traditional justifications for political engagement based on these assumptions of coherence and control are at best inadequate and at worst actively contributing to the apathy and pessimism which characterize so much of our contemporary politics. What is needed instead is a conception of citizenship capable of acknowledging this fundamental incoherence of our politics and yet is still able to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement. The only philosophical stance explicitly premised on taking meaningful action in a world that defies our understanding is Existentialism. This is why an existential account of citizenship is the only viable orientation towards politics in the face of all this fundamental uncertainty.

[1] Another simple example of the importance of the focus of control systems on their inputs and not their outputs is to think of a driver steering a car as a control system. In this case, the inputs are the events outside the windshield as the focus of the attention of the driver, the reference signal is provided by the lane markers, and the desire of the driver to keep the car in its proper lane and to avoid obstacles, and the outputs are the motions of the hands of the driver on the steering wheel which affect the position of the car. If the driver were to be controlling their outputs, as is the common assumption about control systems, the driver would be focusing on their hands on the steering wheel, and on keeping those motions within certain parameters, which is obviously a disastrous way to drive a car. Instead, by focusing on the proper inputs, the driver is able to respond effectively to even unexpected events using their outputs to adjust the orientation of the car according to these inputs.

[2] This evidence is admittedly anecdotal from my own experiences over years of asking people seemingly inane questions like “So what do you think a thermostat controls?”, but this misunderstanding of basic control principles has been my repeated experience. By all means go ahead and try this out yourself, and let me know what you find out.

[3] In well-functioning control systems, the outputs may often behave in a consistent manner correlated with the inputs that might appear to be control, but this is because the outputs are a systemic response to the inputs—not because the outputs themselves are being controlled (i.e., as the inputs change, so also will change the outputs). On the other hand, because the system is responding to both its own outputs and perturbations in the environment, the outputs can sometimes vary widely from one moment to the next, depending on the magnitude of the error signal that is generated. However, in a proper control system, these wild swings in output will be contrasted with a relatively steady input signal—again, because what is being controlled are the inputs and not the outputs, this seeming lack of correlation of inputs with outputs is in fact a sign of true control. What is more important in assessing the presence or absence of control is the relation between the inputs and the reference signal.

[4] At least in the domain of public policy, which is the area I have looked for control in the most. In other areas of research in political science and theory it may be that political control is properly conceived as control of inputs, and is therefore studied appropriately, but I have not yet encountered evidence of this.

Complexity, Absurdity, and the Problem of Political Control

“Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.”[1]

Similar to this recommendation from Hannah Arendt, the first basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that as much as is possible our political systems must be confronted as they are.[2] The second basic tenet of the Existential Citizenship Project is that not only are our political systems irreducibly complex, they are also Absurd. In other words, according to the Existential Citizenship Project, the first steps for meaningful and enduring political engagement are to acknowledge and accept the irreducible complexity and absurdity of our real world political systems.

At first glance, the acknowledgement of this inherent absurdity probably appears an admission of defeat, and an invitation to apathy. This is because, as discussed in much more detail in other installments, one enduring legacy of the Enlightenment has been the exaltation of hope—but hope conceived in a particularly pernicious way. This conception of hope is actually the root cause of much of the apathy, cynicism, and nihilism which characterize so much about our contemporary political systems.

Recognition of this inherent absurdity and complexity is a fundamental principle of the Existential Citizenship Project because this Absurdity and complexity are the source—at least in part—of the frustration of the hopes that people invest into their political systems. Therefore, what is needed are explanations which a) accept these inherent though (seemingly) unsettling features of our political systems, AND b) are still able to motivate meaningful and enduring political engagement. This is what the Existential Citizenship Project provides.

Absurdity and complexity

That said, there is an important distinction to be made between complexity and Absurdity, especially in the context of political control—or the ultimate lack thereof. Absurdity in this existential sense describes the conflict between our innate human need to find meaning and the ultimate lack of inherent meaning in things. As such, Absurdity does not pertain so directly to control (or not), in that we could be able to effectively trace how causes are manipulated to realize specific effects through the system, and yet our political systems could still be fundamentally Absurd (i.e., lacking objective meaning). Thus, Absurdity is more of a philosophical or metaphysical question than a mechanical or logistical question.

A good technical definition of complexity is the increasing abstraction of effects from their causes (i.e., the more complex a system, the more steps between the initiation of a cause and its eventual effects). In terms of assessing political control, the accurate identification of effects from their actual causes, and the definitive assignation of responsibility for outcomes, are assumed to be fundamental functions of political systems. Thus, the increasing abstraction of causes from their effects would fundamentally impede both of these basic functions of political systems in the real world.

Compared to Absurdity, complexity is much more of an empirical than a philosophical question. The degree to which this complexity can be demonstrated empirically (i.e., that presumed causes are not related to their assumed effects) is also the degree to which our political systems do not function as we assume they do. Again, a fundamental assertion of the Existential Citizenship Project is that contemporary political systems are in fact irreducibly complex in this more mechanical and logistical sense, which is a major factor in the apathy and nihilism that are the bane of contemporary politics. As such, one of the primary thrusts of the Existential Citizenship Project is to still provide effective motivations for meaningful and enduring political engagement even in the face of this fundamental separation of political causes from their political effects.

Complexity and political control

So, are our political systems irreducibly complex? This can be a difficult question to definitively answer. One way to begin to answer this question, though, is through the identification of what is meant by control in and by political systems, and how this control is evident (or not).

A substantial issue in political and social theorizing is that most people—including most theorists, who should really know better—tend to take political control as a given, and to assume that control in and by political systems is more or less obvious. These are both fundamental errors in reasoning which are responsible for so many of the longstanding blindspots and contradictions which have bedeviled political theory and practice for centuries.

Assuming control as a given or accepting it as proven anecdotally is not a solid foundation for either theory or practice—especially if, as asserted by the Existential Citizenship Project, political systems are irreducibly complex and therefore defy the reliable identification of causes and their effects.[3] That said, this assertion could be wrong—which is the prevailing view—in that political systems are not irreducibly complex, and that significant causes can be reliably paired with their effects. However, this identification of political causes and their political effects cannot be simply assumed by fiat, but rather must be hypothesized, demonstrated, and verified. Until the assumption of political control is tested in this way and satisfactorily verified, it is little more than a useful fiction.[4]

Therefore, to begin to answer these questions about the nature of political control what is needed is a concise way to define, describe, and identify control in and by political systems. Although this might seem to have been the purpose of the bulk of political science and theory from the very beginning, precious little attention through the centuries has actually been given to identifying, and verifying control in and by political systems. Much ink has been spilled in describing political control, but considerably much less ink has been spilled in actually verifying these descriptions of control.

Control theory

This is where formal control theory from engineering has such an important role to play. Control theory provides the basic model of the exclusive principles by which control is realized. In essence, a control system is any system whose components act together in such a way as to stabilize against disturbances some quantity or property in the ambit of the system. In particular, this control is achieved via feedback, through the system reconciling the effects of its own prior actions on the controlled quantity with the influence of the environment, resulting in the purposive, self-regulating behavior characteristic of control systems.

This likely sounds similar to cybernetics, which has a long history in the social sciences, as summarized here. This previous post discusses in more detail the differences between this control theory approach and cybernetics. Specifically, control theory names the basic components and describes the relations between components within a system that are required for control. Thus, a control theory approach is distinct from cybernetics in that it is not just about postulating control or identifying isomorphisms, but rather specifying the chain of relations which which result in control.

To the degree the components of a system perform the functions described by control theory, and relate to each other in the order described by control theory, that system—regardless of its physical composition or complexity—will be exerting control over the quantity or property in its focus. Likewise, to the extent that the components of a system do not function or relate in the ways described by control theory is also the extent to which that system is not exerting control over its ostensible focus.

To demonstrate, as illustrated in the rudimentary diagram below, for a system to stabilize or control a specific quantity, there must be a few necessary components which perform some basic functions:

Basic Control System

First, there must be a mechanism or process that performs a feedback function by sensing as input what is to be controlled and transforming this sensory input into a sensible signal for the system. The next step for control requires a comparator to compare this feedback signal with a reference signal, generating an error signal as the difference between these two signals. This error signal must then be received by an output function which converts this error signal into an appropriate output signal by initiating the proper response in the repertoire of the system.

This output quantity is then often subject to other influences from the environment outside the control system which can also change this quantity. The combination of system output and environmental influences results in a new input quantity, which then feeds back into the system via the feedback function, is translated into a new error signal, and so on. The result is the constant regulation of the controlled quantity, even in the face of external perturbations, that is characteristic of true control systems.

Politics and control

Given this basic account of what is needed for control, the next obvious step is to apply this model to policy and politics. This is the relatively straightforward process of identifying the functions and relations of real-life political systems with the corresponding components of the control model. To the degree that all the necessary components can be identified, and these real world isomorphisms perform the requisite functions in the requisite order, then these political systems can be said to exercise control.

Again, while the general assumption is that political systems obviously exercise control over their particular domains, to my knowledge these assumptions of control have not been tested in any direct or systematic way. The preliminary work I have done in this regard—which will be described in subsequent installations (with more diagrams)—has yielded a couple of unexpected results: First, that most conceptions of political systems are, on their face, not capable of exerting control in the necessary way, and, second, that most political systems therefore do not perform the functions ascribed to them. The implications of this disconnect between assumption and reality will be discussed in more detail in subsequent installments.

In particular, the extent to which the application of control theory to politics reveals this ultimate lack of control is also the same extent to which this widespread assumption of control—which informs not only theory but practice—has been for the most part a useful myth. The implications of such a conclusion for the actual practice of politics, and for the practice of the ostensibly scientific study of politics, cannot be underestimated. This ostensible lack of control is one reason why the recognition of this ultimate lack of control, and the frank acceptance of this ultimate lack of control, are such fundamental and necessary principles of the Existential Citizenship Project: So that hopes are not misplaced, resulting in apathy or nihilism, so that effective action can still be undertaken, but with eyes wide open, and so that the world can be loved as it is.

[1] From Amor Mundi: Civility and Politics (weekly newsletter of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College), at http://hac.bard.edu/news/post/?item=19795#il-mondo-va-a-destra

[2] …to the extent we are able to comprehend this reality, that is.

[3] To be understood in the non-trivial and non-tautological sense. The effects of many political events, such as elections, can be identified with their causes in a tautological sense (the effect of winning the election was caused by garnering more votes than the other candidates). Cause-and-effect in this sense of control is meant more in the Humean sense as the identification of those conditions which will necessarily result in the anticipated effects, such that changes in the ‘treatment’ of these causes can be reliably associated with subsequent changes in outcomes as the desired effects.

[4] Per methodological fictionalism, as described first and perhaps best by Hans Vaihinger in his The Philosophy of ‘As if’ (1925), the unverified assumption of political control may still be not only a useful but a necessary fiction. However, given the methodological role of fictions, as compared with hypotheses and verified ‘facts’, this also means that political control as such cannot be asserted or maintained as a factual description of political systems, but rather is a convenient tool or bridge to testable hypotheses.

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.