Against Bigness

There is great news out of Turkey today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has been defeated in an attempt to win a super-majority in parliament. This would have allowed Erdogan to change the constitution and greatly extend his power. For the record, I think Erdogan is a fine (if only moderately democratic) leader. Why do I cheer his defeat then?

William James writes, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets….” This sums up my understanding of the attitude which must underlie any healthy society. Bigness, be it in the form of a powerful leader like Erdogan, or the fetisization of an idea (racial or religious purity, for example), is the enemy of efficient administration. In short, for a space to be optimally governed, there has to be a constant circulation of ideas and personalities. Too much power (or faith) concentrated in any one person or idea, for too long, short-circuits this process.

On the level of macro-politics, I think the above idea can be empirically justified. If you look at the most materially advanced nations– the US, western Europe, etc.– the time any one individual spends at the top of the pyramid seems universally quite short. The same is true, interestingly, of China, which while not conventionally democratic, changes leadership every 10 years. My hypothesis is that the sharing of power among different groups of elites in these nations has factored in their success.

On the micro-level, this view also has consequences. Within any society, some groups may have too much symbolic power. Cops, for example, or the military, or priests, or even professors. It doesn’t matter who they are– when any group gets too big or too great we must challenge them, “steal in through the crannies,” as James says and shatter their aura of invincibility. The internet is a great tool for doing this. One of the goals of this blog, undoubtedly, is to assist in the smashing of idols.

Finally, on a practical level, this view has one important political implication– it makes me hesitant to support Hillary Clinton. Though I generally agree with her policies, I worry that extending the power of her group of elites may have a negative effect on the long-term health of the system. In short, the Clintons and their friends have already had a chance to make their mark and fill their pockets. It may be best not to let them back in the game. We don’t want them to become idols.

3 comments
  1. Great post. I’m interested in why you consider Erdogan a fine leader seeing as how he’s not very democratic. I absolutely agree that Clinton’s elites have had far too much power and I’d recommend Bernie Sanders as a rare genuine alternative.

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    • mwover said:

      Thanks! Like James, I’m a pragmatist, so I look to consequences to determine value. In this case, it seems the consequences of Erdogan’s time in office have been pretty good for Turkey (reduced role of the military in politics, etc.). Re Bernie Sanders, yes, I think his candidacy is good for the political ecosystem. A lot of hearts and minds would have to be changed though before his policies could get any traction.

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  2. That’s really interesting. I always associate Erdogan with violence against protesters, but if he reduced the military’s role that’s fantastic.
    Yes, Sanders has a long way to go, but his strategy seems to be pretty unique in refusing billionaire campaign contributions. And it seems to be striking a chord.

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