In mentioning Idle Theory yesterday, I remarked that it was really a piece of simple physics. In fact all my ideas seem to be simple physics, including the Newtonian orbital simulation model I use for looking at asteroids. Included in that simulation model (with a note saying it really ought not to be there) is my simple physical model of a human society as a set of nodes (people) with ties between them (relationships of one sort or other). Some time ago I used it to demonstrate how a society could be pulled apart by centrifugal forces (for example between smokers and antismokers), so that what started out as an ordered and cohesive society (top right) could be torn apart (bottom right, with ties in compression red, ties in tension blue).
The obvious problem with this analogy is that humans are not actually subject to actual forces pushing them together or tearing them apart.
But this morning, remembering how the UK Brexit vote was balanced on a knife edge back in June, with Remain expected to win – and how the US presidential election is similarly poised -, I wondered whether this regular rough equality of opposing forces might in fact be an expression of Newton’s 3rd law of motion: To every force, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
I also thought how my own political orientation – mildly left wing for many years – was turned upside down by the UK smoking ban. For me that ban has always seemed crushing. And amounted to being expelled from society. Or “exiled” as Deborah Arnott would put it. Either way, all these terms – “crushing”, “expulsion”, “exile” – speak almost of some kind of physical force being employed. And indeed, it has been the force of law that has been used to expel or exile smokers like me. So perhaps it’s not improper to speak of forces being exerted on people. And perhaps what happened to me was that, if as a slightly left wing member of society I was experiencing a slight tension, when I experienced the ‘crushing’ force of the smoking ban I flipped into experiencing strong compression (and also started ‘pushing back’).
But in human societies there is actually very little real force ever exerted. There is instead the threat of force. And in the case of the smoking ban, the threat was that if I smoked in prohibited places, I could be heavily fined (i.e. have money forcibly taken from me). If I haven’t been fined, it’s because I’ve internalised that threat, and so act as if I am being subjected to force, although I am not actually being subjected to any force.
People internalise the force of law, and this internalised force of law constrains their actions just as effectively as any real physical constraint – such as a ball and chain.
And quite often the force of law becomes overt, as when riot police with helmets and shields and batons confront some unruly mob. The same demonstration of the possibility of the use of force lay behind the Roman fasces – a bundle of rods and axes – which were used as a not-so-subtle demonstration of the potential force of Roman law.
Money is another ‘force’ at work in human societies. If nothing else, it can be used to buy arms, and hire the mercenaries to carry them. And military law ensures that they don’t desert, on pain of being executed by firing squad.
And then of course there are ties of family and friends and colleagues, which also tug people to and fro.
So – using the idea of internalised force – I began to wonder if my simple physical model of society was perhaps rather more realistic than I had imagined. We are all subjected to internalised forces that pull us or push us in various directions, and we respond accordingly. And we can change very quickly from going in one direction to going in the opposite direction, just like colliding balls on a pool table. My own change of political orientation was an example of this. It wasn’t something I wanted: it was something that happened to me.
Also, we very often speak of “being torn between” choices, or “under pressure”, or “hemmed in”, or “losing momentum”. We actually use the language of force and motion to describe events from which real forces are absent.
And when internalised forces mount, they may break out and become externalised forces, when people start fights or commit murders, and internalised potential energy becomes externalised kinetic energy.
This is perhaps a rather deterministic view of social life, in which there is little or no freedom of choice: we are all just being pushed and pulled, and we move accordingly, just like balls on a pool table. But faced with a variety of different pressures, there are usually a variety of different responses available. With a collision imminent, a cyclist might accelerate, brake, swerve, or throw himself off the bike. He has a little bit of freedom of action.
Anyway, this was the novel thought that I entertained while sitting in the sunny garden of an English pub today, with a beer and a cigarette.