Multicellular Politics

A couple of days back, I posted a piece on the Idle Theory of Politics. The gist of it was that in busy, hardworking societies, the job of making the political decisions was perforce left to one person – the king. Nobody had the time or energy to question his decisions. But in idle societies in which people have plenty of time to think about these things, people tend not to accept such decisions so readily, particularly if the decisions made impact them adversely. So in idle societies, political power tends to get shared more and more widely. Everyone gets to have a say in the political decisions that affect their lives. The transition in Britain from absolute monarchy to representative democracy over the past few hundred years has been, I suggested, a consequence of rising social idleness and (same thing) prosperity.

But it occurs to me that I am actually a member of another, far larger yet seldom-considered society, which has its own fully operational representative government. I am speaking of the society of cells – 1013 or 10,000,000,000,000 of them – which make up my own body. Each one of these cells is an independently reproducing unit of life. And each one is, if you will, a voter. And they all get along very harmoniously. There are no strikes or civil wars or uprisings. It’s amazing. How does it manage it, with a population that is a thousand times larger than the entire human population of the world?

I suppose that in this society of cells, ‘I’ am the government. That’s to say that I make the political decisions for Frank Davis Incorporated. Like whether to go shopping in Tesco and what to buy there, and stuff like that. These decisions affect all the cells in my body, because I’m going to have to walk around Tesco on my legs and feet, and I’m going to have to reach up and get tins of Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pudding with my hands and arms, and my spine is going to have to bear the weight of all the tins of it. And with all of this effort my heart is going to have to beat a bit faster, and my lungs breathe a bit quicker. All 1013 cells are going to have to do their bit during the Tesco Shopping Trip.

But when it comes to deciding whether to go shopping, do I have a big parliamentary debate beforehand, with representatives from my knees and elbows and toes and thumbs all saying their bit, and finally voting on whether to go shopping or not?

Seems not. My knees have no opinions about shopping trips. And my elbows have no idea what Tesco might be. They don’t give a damn about it. They just want to live their knee and elbow lives, doing the things that knees and elbows do.

I don’t seem to be a democracy at all. There’s no voting system in Frank Davis Incorporated.

But what there does seem to be is a veto system. Any single part of my body can veto what I’m doing. It can demand that I stop doing whatever I’m doing. For example, if I’m walking through a door, and I stub my little toe against the door frame, my little toe can scream for me to ‘Stop It!’ And I’ll hop around on one foot, while massaging my little toe with both hands, and cursing the door frame loudly. The other 1013 cells in my body will leap (quite literally) to the assistance of the few bruised cells in my little toe.

So my body seems to have a veto system, and also a graduated veto system that ranges from ‘Hey, I’m a bit uncomfortable’ through to ‘I can’t take this much longer’ all the way to the final scream of ‘Fucking Well Stop It!’

So, while my knees and elbows may not have duly elected MPs in the parliament of my mind representing the constituents of West Knee or Elbow on the Forearm, they do have an emergency hotline to the government, a bit like the alarm cables on trains. They don’t partake in the debate about whether to go shopping in Tesco, because they’re not interested, but they’ll make their voice heard in no uncertain terms if they don’t like what’s happening.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the book of multicellular politics. After all, all animals seem to be wired up the same way as I am, and it seems to work very well for them. If we were to run our political institutions the same way, we maybe wouldn’t have any elected representatives in parliament or congress at all. There would be the government, and everyone would have a veto hotline to it, a bit like the alarm cords in trains. If you just Had Enough of what was happening, you’d reach up and yank the cord, and the whole train would stop dead.

After all, I don’t really have an opinion about 99% of the things the government does, like whether it’s going to increase duty on petrol, or offer gift vouchers for higher education, and hundreds of thousands of other decisions it makes. I don’t care. They’re all Tesco shopping list stuff, most of them. What I do want to have a say in are those things which personally adversely affect me. And when the effects are so adverse that I want to scream ‘Stop It!’, I want it to stop, and stop immediately.

For instance, in the case of the smoking ban, if there’d been an alarm cord I could have pulled on 1 July 2007, I would have done so. Because it’s got to stop. The government has got to stop destroying communities and bankrupting pubs. It’s hurting an awful lot of people.

But we don’t have such emergency alarm cords. Nobody’s listening. And so it just carries on happening. Which is a bit like somebody stubbing their little toe against a door, and then doing it again and again and again.

I read once that the effect of leprosy on its sufferers was that they lost some or  all sensation from their limbs, and the result of this was that they would repeatedly do things like stub their toes against doors and walls without noticing it, and the long term result was that their feet and hands became more and more progressively damaged and deformed. Our modern societies are rather like these lepers. There are no pain receptors in it firing signals through a nervous system. There are instead ‘representatives’ who we only vote for once every 5 years, and who don’t represent us once we’ve voted for them.

With a veto system, the government would just go ahead figuring out what was the best thing for the country, and implementing its measures, unless it got stopped by a veto. It would then have to take measures to lift the veto. e.g. in the case of the voting ban, smokers like me would have vetoed it, and the government would have had to take measures to get us to lift our veto (e.g. by providing a few smoking pubs or smoking rooms). They would have had to pay close attention to smokers just like I pay attention to my stubbed little toe. And they would have had to have done so quickly if they wanted to carry on with their other business.

Of course, in some circumstances, the veto would have to be overridden. If I stub my little toe while I’m running away from a hungry tiger, my little toe is just going to have to suffer until I’ve made good my escape. So also with the government of a society. In an emergency, it would have to override some (or all) vetoes.

There are all sorts of potential difficulties and likely objections to such a political structure of society. But if it’s at all an accurate reflection of the way nature does things in its multicellular societies, it ought to be worth seriously considering.

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2 Responses to Multicellular Politics

  1. Jax says:

    That’s a very thought-provoking post. It’s odd, isn’t it, how we’ve all become so used to the idea of what democracy “is” and what it “isn’t,” that we almost can’t comprehend that there are other systems which might work as well, or better, than the present one. It’s as if there are only two types of society – dictatorships and democracy – with no grey area in between. Of course, amongst people who study politics and societies in depth there are probably lots of those shades of grey that they learn about, but as far as the general public is concerned, those are the only two systems available to anyone, ever. So, the battles in Libya are seen primarily as a battle between the existing dictatorship and the possibility of a democracy. Nobody ever questions whether or not there might be a third, or a fourth, or a fifth alternative which might be viable in terms of saving face for the proud and stubborn Gadaffi, but at the same time giving people much more of a say over how their country is run.

    Your article reminds me of a programme I watched a few years ago, about a little Swedish commune (it was the oldest one still in existence, I think) whereby all decisions concerning the whole commune had to have the full agreement of everybody before they could be implemented. The disadvantage of this, of course, was that decisions took a very, very long time to get made, because just one person objecting would force everyone back to a re-think about the proposed plans; the advantage was that everybody took an active part in decision-making, so there was tons and tons of input into every question and people had to use their imaginations to come up with, often, unusual solutions to the problems which faced the community. As one commune member said: “It isn’t a system which is conducive to swift, decisive action, and it’s fair to say that it certainly isn’t what you would call an efficient system, but it does mean that everybody gets a little of what they want, everybody has to compromise a bit, and you don’t end up with a situation whereby some people get exactly what they want at the expense of other people, who have to put up with getting exactly what they don’t.”

    Clearly this wouldn’t be a system which would necessarily be practical in a country of over 60 million people, but the theory – bearing in mind that there is no one system which could be regarded as “perfect” in a complex world – isn’t a bad one, and it does mean that the “tyranny of the majority” doesn’t occur, and neither do clever politicians or fake-charities get the chance to do precisely what they want, and to hell with the rest of us.

  2. Junican says:

    A very good response, Jax. Very good indeed.

    I personally have been coming round to some sort of similar thoughts, but they are very ill-formed at the moment.

    If we might consider Frank’s idea about the multicell organism, there is no doubt that, in some place in the human body, cells have to co-operate. Thus, the cells in the brain must die and renew in an organised way, otherwise we would all die pretty pronto. But the cells in the heart need not know anything about the activities of the cells in the brain, provided that the activities of the cells in the brain do not interfere with the activities of the cells in the heart. But the body does not quite work that way. The whole is integrated in such a way that parts can be independent and still influence and react with each other! Is it any wonder that no one knows what really causes cancer?

    You are right about different types of democracy. At this time, our British type is different from the American type, which is different from the French type. Our British democracy was lovely (as far as I know) some 30 years ago (or was it?), but now it is a Nazi type of democracy in which propaganda influences ‘the masses’. By virtue of propaganda, enough people can be persuaded to take a particular view to ostracise a large section of the people. As it happens, the matter in hand is smoking and smokers, but it could easily be anything else – anything.

    Is there a democratic answer? My own opinion is that the real decision makers (not politicians who are not the real decision makers) need to be identified and it is these people that we should be electing. And, it should be clearly understood that you cannot demonise smoking without demonising smokers.

    It is not easy at all. There is no easy solution, but there must be a better way than draconian bans and punitive taxes. That is why our present political system stinks.

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