Silverback Gorillas and Lead Gazelles

Question: who runs the world?
"Baah. Or whatever noise it is we make."

“Baah. Or whatever noise it is we make.”

I was recently playing Edward De Bono’s dictionary game in preparation for my latest thought experiment. Edward De Bono, for those unaware of his work, was a master of lateral thinking – indeed, he virtually invented the field. His pastime, according to legend, was to open a dictionary at random and blindly pick two words to strong together. While my first attempts at this method were hopelesss (“Recidivist” followed by “Mongolian”, for example) I did eventually hit on a great combination: Lead Gazelle.
While it might sound like a quasi-Afrikaans Led Zeppelin cover band, Lead Gazelle did give me the subject of today’s little essay. You see, Gazelles, a sub-species of antelope, live in largely non-hierarchical societies. When pursued by predators they will often dodge and turn en mass, seemingly as a single unit. The question is: which Gazelle makes the decision to turn left or right?
Those of you of a Heraclitan mindset might argue that there exists in Gazelle groups the aristoi and the hoi polloi (the few geniuses and the many dunderheads), and that the aristoi decide which direction to turn in. To which I say this: don’t be a silly billygoat. The short answer is that no single antelope decides. There is no Lead Gazelle (which would make a great first album name).
You could apply the same process to human society. Who leads our civilization? Politicians? No, because they’re prey to their own interests and the pressures of big corporations. Is it, then, big corporations? No, because they are subject to their shareholders and bankrollers. Is it their shareholders, then? No, because they only want to follow market pressure. Is it the market that decides the way the world works? Not really. For, while the ebb and flow of commerce resembles an organism, it is subject to all factors: the tides, the wind, natural disasters, the availability of resources, the whims of the buying public, the liquidity of capital, new technology, and tens of thousands of individual causes. At this point the whole notion of How A Bill Becomes Law seems to resemble the most complex spider diagram in the universe. Votes become meaningless; spending power even less. The world fluctuates and shivers to a frequency of its own, dancing to a tune that only it can hear.
I’m inclined to say that the tao keeps things in check. I might be tempted to quote from the Tao Te Ching:
Great tao overflows
to the left, to the right
all beings owe their life to it
and do not depart from it
it acts without a name
it clothes and nourishes all things
but does not become their master
But I’m not here to preach to you.
“Pshaw!” I hear you say.”Tush and fie to your anarchic, mystical nonsense. Humans rule civilization”. You might be right. But consider this merry little pondering from Arthur Schopenhauer:
Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.
We may vote for our leaders and what they stand for, but can you look at your political opinions and determine that every single one of them was derived from nothing but cold, rational thought? Can you, to take a simpler example, even say that about the brand of toothpaste you buy? I buy Colgate because I buy Colgate. I’ve always bought Colgate. My parents bought Colgate. I’ve often flirted with the idea of Crest or Aquafresh, maybe even (gasp!) Macleans, but…no. I’m a Colgate guy. Why? I haven’t a fucking clue. People’s voting habits are like their toothpaste habits. That’s how the world works.
Colgate rules the world! No, the other Colgate, stupid.

Colgate rules the world! No, the other Colgate, stupid.

Enough, you gasp, exhausted. The world is a chaotic nightmare. We are snails crawling along the edge of a straight razor, just like General Kurtz said.
Pictured here looking lustfully at Colgate the pony.

Pictured here looking lustfully at Colgate the pony.

Come come come. It’s not as bad as all that. There is, of course, a certain amount of chaos in everyday life. I recently wrote a piece for a travel zine that talked about clear-air turbulence. That’s when a plane that is happily flying along suddenly bucks and snorts like a buggered giraffe. They’re entirely unpredictable and they cause several injuries a year. Chaos lives in everything. Incidentally, the zine didn’t like my piece much. Their loss. Yes, it’s a cold and uncaring universe and, yes, a large part of it is pretty determinedly trying to kill you at any particular moment but, no, that’s not the whole picture. Order lurks insidiously among the chaos, too. And this is what I’m trying to illustrate. My father tells me that fairly recently the Belgian government was dissolved and for eight months that little country was without any kind of political control. In such a situation you might expect rioting, looting, and internecine strife. Quite the opposite. Belgium was happier, wealthier and more productive.
Well, it was Belgium, so it’s hardly indicative. This is a country that, if it’s not being invaded by the French, Germans or the British, is being buggered about by its own government. They were probably just glad for the peace and quiet. But it does illustrate, or at the very least suggest, that those vested by the state with power might have less authority and control than we suspect. My country, the UK, has been run by a sentient elbow with the wit and intellect of a potting shed since 2010 and, shockingly, hasn’t been fully bought out by Google and the Chinese (they’re making every effort, though). The US government, the most powerful institution in the world, was for a brief time powerless and broke, and from the looks of things it barely registered with most Americans (but, since it didn’t involve guns, immigrants, terrorists, or anti-gun immigrant terrorists, this is probably why). To be brief, out vaunted institutions might just have less effect on our daily lives than they (and we, I suspect) would like to think.
Partly it’s in our makeup to accede to a higher power. Anthropologically speaking, humans are primates like any other, and need to belong to a group in which one member has almost total control. Think silver-back Gorillas. In small-scale societies this works like a charm. The grand master decides which food to gather and where to sleep, and that’s all there is to it. Expand the concept to, say, a country, or a hemisphere, and things become stickier. There is no human being who has total control over a country.
That’s not so bad. We rarely find ourselves in this day and age in a Charles I / Louise XVI situation. And, as Thomas Hobbes so wisely said, “the illusion of power is itself power”. That, at least, fits our requirement of a leader for our little Gorilla tribe. Unfortunately this power, as all power surely is, is illusory. A Prime Minister or a President can no more cause you to live or die than he can stop the tides. Human power is fragmentary and fleeting.
Those of you of the God-bothering variety are okay with this because, as must surely be known, the kingdom of heaven is eternal. The problem is that God is a) the ultimate imaginary silver-back Gorilla and b) either willfully uninterested in our total wellbeing or outright malicious. Witness the diseases that kill babies, the tidal waves that destroy towns, and the casual acts of capricious sadism that characterize our lonely little marble. If there is a God he’s either not really concerned with human suffering or one nasty little sod. No, absolute control doesn’t seem to be emanating from that corner, either.
If you’re categorically deranged you might suffer the delusion that the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group or even shape-shifting lizard people are controlling our destiny. Compared with the idea that nobody’s in charge, that’s a comforting thought. Comforting thoughts are rarely true.
The truth is that our world exhibits all the signs of being both chaotic and adhering to a level of order. Human beings, being categorically unable to deal with the idea that there isn’t a silver-back in charge, have created institutions that purport to control the tides. These are illusions that we comfort ourselves with, and it’s not hard to see why. The idea that nobody is in charge is far more unsettling than the idea that there is a supreme leader. However, from a rational perspective, the truth is always preferable to a lie.
The answer is that there is no Lead Gazelle. The world takes care of itself, by and large, and that’s not something to be unsettled by. There never has been anybody in charge. The people we pay to act as our Prime Ministers, Presidents and Kings are just that: actors. They exist to amuse us, to take the blame when things go bad and the praise when things go well. They are an illusion that we adopt to make ourselves feel better. They are our elected silver-backs. Their power is an illusion that we willingly submit to.
To sum up: a poem. I don’t often use poetry to make a political argument, but this seemed fitting. “Ozymandias” by Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”. 

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