Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Is the word “government” the problem?

“The wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand…that the state must follow, and not lead, the character and progress of the citizen.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our prejudices can run so deep that it takes a veritable thunderbolt to make them visible. Ideological divisions can be so pervasive that only a penetrating light can pierce the veil separating them. Such is the case of current notions of government and the divide between right and left.

An unassuming piece of recycled sculpture in a rural Wisconsin town jolted me out of my ideological slumber. It is not at all easy for political art to succeed. All art must by nature be polysemic, but political art especially must ask multiple questions in order to keep our interest. If the inquiries can be answered by logic alone, the work would not be art; if they can be answered just once, the art would not be timeless. When, after all this, the work uncovers a truth from the depth of our collective subconscious, we call it genius.

Such genius is Brent Gonyea‘s Mr. Tillerman’s World. It triggered a cascade of multi-dimensional questions that smit me as art, then touched facets of the human condition that were hidden behind my ideological biases. So moved, I hoped the experience would not end. Then, as the questions smoldered, a deep political-philosophical truth revealed itself.

First was the surface level. The entire piece is composed of wood scraps and found objects. Mr. Tillerman – a futuristic, jangly Conquistador on legs too-skinny, feet too-large, in an angular hat reminiscent of Franco’s Guardia Civil or George Washington, posing as he did crossing the Potomac, chest forward, arms extended, nose in the air, nostrils flaring – stands tall and with one hand casts his fishing line into his own vessel, with the other commands his tiller. His subordinates are hunched over before him in the sunken deck, perhaps rowing but without arms. They do not look a happy lot, naturally, for they are the objects of their captain’s fishing expedition. The recycled craft seems to be gleaning itself, comically, eerily.

The political dimension slaps us in the face. Is Mr. Tillerman a tyrant? Does he symbolize the extremes of control? Overseeing the inhabitants of his vessel, all of them sunken below, Captain Tillerman is secure on feet of large copper tubing that tightly grip the stern. From this commanding position he needs no Panopticon to observe, regulate, punish the shrunken, stunted, armless denizens of his world. Everything here is by nature centralized, and the Captain fancies himself Alexander Hamilton on steroids. Nothing can happen below him on deck, without his approval, and he’s not bashful to shout orders like Uncle Joseph Stalin, or we imagine, Antonin Scalia on too much red wine. His posture too suggests the overconfidence of hubris, or rather the intoxication of power, because the pose doesn’t quite fit. Nevertheless, we must admit his ship appears rather well governed.

Second, the international relations dimension sails us out to sea. The world-traveling Mr. Tillerman’s feet are so firmly planted, we suspect he would only begrudgingly set out on the open sea and swear he would not leave his ship as it arrived in foreign ports, because we reckon he could not bear to walk on anyone else’s turf. Yet, somehow, he manages to navigate the oceans of the world. That Mr. International Tillerman would not bother to learn a foreign language, or leave his own ship, doesn’t seem to matter to the world, for his ignorance relieves its worries. The world even awards it with a Nobel Prize for peace. Or is it for being tall, good-looking, and nonthreatening to the international status quo? How could he threaten when he’s firmly on his own ship, speaking only his own language, circling only the neutral waters! Yet Mr. Tillerman does indeed embrace change; so long as it happens somewhere else. Moreover, he shows great tolerance for what happens on other boats as long as they stay far enough away not to disturb the waters around his own.

Thirdly, the psychological dimension turns a light on inside our heads. By avoiding the open water, casting his line only within his own vessel, Mr. Tillerman maintains unequivocal control. There is nothing unexpected in his world. There is no luck. Before he sets his line he knows exactly the type of (armless, misshapen) fish it can bring. He manages to control not only his feelings, but his very thoughts too, by completely shutting out the unconscious, the illogical, the intuitive. This he contrives rather cleverly. Tiny earbud headphones (barely noticeable under his imposing thicket of hair) continually stream his anthem inside his ears; so he hears no rumblings of doubts or murmurings of history. In the meanwhile, he shields himself from other worlds with a flat, thin black mask that covers his face and eyes, as it reflects back his own beliefs, projects, prejudices, and ambitions into his vision. Nothing can get in his way. His own laser logic and regimented reason guide him, always onward, always towards his ends.

At this point we ask ourselves, “What for?” Why is he so driven? If he were sailing in the wrong direction, how could we warn him? We bet he would not hear until it were too late. Isn’t this all overkill? “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for,” said William Shedd. Then we hazard to ask, “To what extent are we all tillermen, casting our lines only within our own, tightly-managed vessels? To what extent are we continually on headphones, listening only to our own anthems?”

Finally, uncannily, a philosophical-linguistic dimension leaves us open-mouthed. The word “govern” means to rule over, from the Greek kybernân = to steer and kybernḗt = helmsman, tillerman! The word “cybernetics,” by the way, shares this root.

Mr. Tillerman is no appraisal of contemporary government, or American isolationism, or American imperialism. Mr. Tillerman stands for 2500 years of a conception of government as controlling, disciplining machine. To some, it means controlling the masses or keeping their hands off the property of elites. For others, it means checking the abuse of the weak by the strong. For some, it means limiting the influence of social organizations like the church. Again for others, it means curbing the economic power of moneyed elites.

Mr. Tillerman stands for a society that controls the unpredictable by casting its lines only within its own ship over which it stands vigilant guard, that keeps order by making sure its members are helpless or “armless.” He points out that you cannot “govern” over equals because governing implies inferiors, those who lack something–knowledge, virtue, or money–that you have. Whatever that distinction it becomes a category justifying subordination or, worse yet, exclusion all together.

For a progressive idealists, this begins a heavy task, a deep reflection. What if we want a new kind of political entity, one built on reflecting the knowledge, values, and goals of society and coordinating its collective action rather than controlling its memebers? What would we call it?

Whether you judge this new organization can best be achieved through electoral reform, the use of technology, or the use of sortition, whether you call the regime a “participatory democracy,” “sociocracy,” “demarchy,” or “lottocracy,” if you still call it “government” you betray the ideal of equality and representativeness or miss-articulate the values of this new state. These thoughts led to the following neologism (as a first attempt at) articulating this ideal for the 21st Century:

Politdoche = representative coadjument entity organizing a body politic.
Greek polis (city) + dochë (received).

It would receive/reflect a people rather than command them. It would coordinate healthy social actions rather than prohibit undesirable ones. If you do not like “politdoche,” please find a better one, share it, and begin using it. Who knows, it might be the one that these revolutions, crises, and dead ends need to find a way forward. More needs to be said about this, and more I hope will soon be.

2 comments on “Is the word “government” the problem?

  1. AhmedRTeleb

    An interesting discussion, one that has inspired me to dig deeper, can be found at: Daft Blogger at:

  2. Pingback: After government: Towards a political organizat...

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