Philosophy, pretty much like every other discipline, has always been ecological in nature (that is in the broadest sense of the term) in that it is always a study of systems and the ways in which they interact, and often with the intent of building yet more systems. And for the most part, that focus has been dominated by a Metaphysic of Power in which individual interactions are characterized by one node or actor exercising power over another. We see it explicitly in Machiavelli and Hobbes, but find it implicitly going back to Plato who sees harmony in a political system in which mind dominates the passions and the body. The nodal aspect emerges in Spinoza who works in terms of sad and joyful affects: sad affects being those in which the individual node is affected or overpowered by another, and the joyful being the reverse. By the 17th century, it all converges in the thought of Adam Smith where it takes the form that plagues us still: Capitalism. Nor do more progressive and cooperative models escape it. Take Utilitarianism. While we can sympathize with the notion of maximizing happiness, we're still talking about power or, rather, empowerment. And the same goes for egalitarian systems.
By the nineteenth century, it morphs into its most blatant, often vulgar, and, to this day, popular form: the Will to Power as embraced by Nietzsche. This popularity can be seen in how, for many philosophers after (especially the continental kind), the reference to was a kind of badge of authenticity. And we hardly need mention its grip on our culture, especially in Hollywood. We see how Nietzsche is the most cited philosopher in movies, including the ironically quoted to death "What doesn't kill me makes me strong". And finally, we see it in the convergence of Nietzsche, Darwinism (both of the authentic and Spenserian kind), and the rise of the industrial revolution into the outright sociopathy of Ayn Rand and Neo-Liberalism. And it shouldn't surprise us. Power, via the competitive mode of existence, has been intrinsic to our evolutionary process since our existence as single cell organisms.
But as intrinsic as it is to the human condition, we still take issue with the Metaphysics of Power and the Culture of More that sprung from it. Wordsworth reminds us, "The world is too much with us." But all this getting and spending seems to have done little to appease the disquiet that Wordsworth felt. We lay waste our powers that might be better utilized elsewhere. And there are questions. There is the old adage that labor seeks more wages for less work while employers seek more work for less investment. But if that were true, wouldn't the workplace be little more than a battlefield in which every individual is merely fighting their way to the top: the most compensation regardless of whose expense it comes at? In fact (and at a deeper level), we have to ask if all interactions in a system were characterized by what overpowers what, wouldn't the whole universe collapse into one system that survived some cosmic game of king of the hill?
Furthermore, it fails to explain how some can be so happy at 10 an hour while others are so miserable at 30. And if power and more were the primary force driving the universe, we have to ask why many people are so willing to surrender to less. We have to ask why welfare recipients, alcoholics, drug addicts, and the chronically homeless would continue (choose even) to scrape by with their hand to mouth lives. And then there are us, the intellectually and creatively curious: strange creatures that, in our backwardness, would approach the hierarchy of needs from the top down for the drug-like experience of self-actualization -that is when many of our heroes live public lives of misery and self-destruction. Like common addicts, we deprive ourselves of creature comforts, the only difference being that we claim to do so for a higher purpose.
Clearly, we need to think “outside of the box” in ways the corporate gurus have failed. And it is against this that I pose a Metaphysic of Efficiency: that which is maximized by minimizing the differential between input and output. But first, I would ask the reader to consider their happiest moments. Were they a matter of having more? Or were they a matter of having their expectations and resources arranged in such a way that everything seemed in its proper place?
The Macro-Mechanics of Efficiency:
Let’s start with a shared experience: this article. First of all, it's not just an article about Efficiency; it is an instance of Efficiency itself, or better said a coexistence of efficiencies. But for the sake of clarity, I will describe it in terms of interacting systems while asking the reader to keep in mind the primary distinction between the two: Efficiency is about the individual events and interactions within a given system while systems are the composite effects of those instances. First, we have the system of the article itself which consists of various subsystems. There are the sections of the article that act as supra-systems to the subsystems of paragraphs that, in turn, are composed of the sub-systems of sentences and so on down to the letters, spaces, and symbols that act together to impart meaning. Then there is you and me: two systems composed of various sub-systems that, in turn, are the composite effect of other sub-systems, many of which participate in the process by which meaning is disseminated and extracted. On top of that, there is the culture that we share (Stanley Fish refers to it as the interpretive community) that, in turn, serves as sub-systems to various systems of increasing complexity: our social circles, communities and so on.
As we can see, we are looking at infinite regress in both directions: from the micro to the macro and the macro to the micro. And we can think of Efficiency in the same way. We can think of it as a complex interaction of various instances of Efficiency or, rather, efficiencies that can act as sub or supra efficiencies depending on their relationship to each other. The important thing is that threading throughout it all are the always supra-efficiencies of the coexistence of efficiencies (Coexistence for brevity). We can further see that the terms supra-efficiencies and Coexistence are interchangeable. This is because to define something as sub-efficiency is to say they are acting as a component in another system. Hence: the always supra-efficiency of Coexistence.
Which brings us to the point. What distinguishes it from the Metaphysic of Power is the import of Coexistence, an instance of efficiency itself that seeks the same thing as any other instance: once again, to be maximized by minimizing the differential between input and output. Unlike the individualistic model of the Metaphysics of Power, Efficiency, via Coexistence, works under the imperative of working with its various components since they are codependent. Consequently, it is a matter of distributing resources and adjusting expectations in such a way that a working harmony is achieved, one that will create more resources that, in turn, can be utilized by other instances of Efficiency.
The Micro-Mechanics of Efficiency:
But to truly appreciate how it stands against the Metaphysics of Power, I would ask you to consider an equation: Efficiency potential = Resources/expectations. Don’t worry; there’s no need to do the math. It simply means that efficiency can be maximized by either increasing the resources available to a given act or system of acts, or decreasing the expectation involved. Inversely, nothing minimizes efficiency like decreasing resources available to a given act or system of acts or raising expectations to an unreasonable level.
We’ve seen it in the workplace. Upper management, under pressure from shareholders, seeks to increase profits. Raising prices, of course, will only decrease sales. Although they still do so by more subtle means. So the option remaining is to turn to slashing jobs or new policies meant to squeeze more production out of employees, in other words, raise expectations while leaving them fewer resources to deal with them. They might, for instance, pile more responsibilities on the individual while cutting overtime. The assumption, of course, is that the individual will simply “rise to the occasion”. What actually happens is that the individual will seek to maximize their coexistence by lowering expectations in other tasks they use to perform well, or maintain corporate appearances by pencil whipping certain tasks and making it work on paper. On top of that, the individual may have to redirect resources away from activities outside the workplace, such as their family because of energy draining stress. What results is a minimized Coexistence that can sometime send the company itself into decline. We see a real world example in research done on Boeing employees from 1996 to 2006. What they found, much to their surprise, was that employees who were laid off tended to be far happier and healthier than those kept on. And there are many reasons given for this. But by this model, we can see it as a matter of the laid off being forced out of a minimized coexistence which opened them up to more harmonious and maximized Coexistences.
And while we’re on the subject, I would bring up the old so-called efficiency experts that were often brought into these situations and were notorious for wreaking the same kind of havoc. It is because of these types of means based approaches that the word may run shudders down some reader’s spines. They may have had similar experiences with the micro-management that started with a lot of talk about efficiency. “Lean and mean” as they use to say. Or they may have visions of an Orwellian police state in which government does the micromanaging for the higher principle of efficiency. But here, we are talking about efficiency as an ends. And by that approach, we see that neither approach is all that Efficient, the efficiency experts for reasons described above, and the Orwellian police state for reasons shown in 1984: its failure to address the expectations of the governed, expectations that can be redirected into transgressions.
I always imagine people responding to my point with: No…. actually, I just want more. Fair enough. But I would remind them of the documented "lotto curse", the phenomenon of people winning the lotto only to find themselves deeper in debt because of the raised expectations that naturally emerge from an increased pool of local resources. Others of the analytic type may, especially since I included a formula, attempt to apply it with mathematical precision, only to be frustrated and dismiss it. This often occurs when those of a more analytic/scientific slant approach more continental/literary thought. They tend to take it too literally, that is when it is offered strictly in a metaphorical sense: a model, perspective, or tool (one among many) designed to change sensibilities. And finally, some will get the scent of something familiar. They should. While I arrived at it through anecdotal and less academic means, much of what I have found in more academic pursuits lends it some support. This is why this particular conceptual construct has stuck with me nearly 10 years. Game theory seems most pressing here. In fact, I would direct the reader to the Ron Howard's movie, A Beautiful Mind, and the scene in which John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) comes to an important epiphany about how he and his friends should approach a group of young ladies. This, to me, gets at my point in a concise and effective (efficient even) way. And the most efficient expectation here is that I haven’t plagiarized someone.
Still, the model gives us tools for description and prescription. I would first point out how profoundly inefficient Capitalism, as practiced today, actually is. It is, inherently, an expansionary ideology which must, by its very nature, increase expectation which, in turn, must demand more and more resources, resources that might be used by other instances of expectation to maximize their Efficiency. This, in turn, puts some shine on the falsehood perpetrated by produce/consumer Capitalism: the mythology of merit. We’re expected to believe that the rich are rich by virtue of merit: that the reward somehow equals the effort put in. But, due to resistance and heat loss, 100% efficiency cannot be achieved, much less 125%. I mean you have to ask how it is that a billionaire exerts any more energy than some poor soul working two to three jobs to stay up with the medical bills for a sick child. This argument assumes Capitalism as some kind of natural force, while neglecting the fact that the billionaire does not work in a vacuum. Their wealth is built off of the resources others: our labor as producers and our purchases as consumers. And we should further note that pretty much every problem we deal with is a matter of the distribution of expectations and the resources available. Media is full of explanations why we suffer such maladies as crime, terrorism, social unrest, moral decay, the decline of our democracies, etc... But doesn’t it really come down to the fact that you simply cannot have a handful of people feasting at the table and the rest of us fighting for the crumbs and not expect the problems we are having?
On the other side of the equation, we have, in America, the well-intended efforts of Democrats and unions to raise the minimum wage. And while anything would help, it fails to address and actually participates in the Culture of More. It may help in the short run, but can only lead back to where it started, via wage push and wage pull, through inflation. In this case, the resources a raised minimum wage would provide would only increase the expectations of those who would sell them things. One could easily see, for instance, a day when janitors are making six figure salaries, but are no better off (if not worse) than they are today. Efficiency, on the other hand, points to an expansion of the public economy in which the expectation of profit and shareholders are left out of the equation –especially in America. A public option in healthcare might be a good start as it would be difficult to convince Americans of the benefits of the one payer system that every other advanced nation happens to have –and with better results. Or it could target other forms of forced consumption and the higher expectations that come with it. We could (once again, in America) expand public transportation or better city design in which affordable housing is provided closer to major areas of employ and retail. This lessens our dependency on personal transport: a major source of imposed expectation. Here we take the cue of the individual who is happy at 10 an hour while others are miserable at 30. Clearly, they have managed their expectations in such a way that their resources can easily meet them. We see a similar dynamic at work in people who follow Thoreau in downshifting.
And who could blame them? Isn’t most of the malaise we suffer due to a constantly shifting economy that increases expectations while offering fewer and fewer resources to meet them? We see this at work in the choice of drug and alcohol addicts, as well as the chronically homeless and people on welfare. It’s not that they don’t want to work. They just see more Efficiency, or a maximized coexistence of efficiencies, in staying out of the muck and focusing on what does seem to work for them, even at the expense of lowered expectations which the resources available to them can more easily meet. A similar dynamic applies to us: the intellectually and creatively curious (see, for instance, the American poet Charles Bukowski). We function as we do because we have, somewhere along the line, lost the ability to embrace the expectations that “normal people” do. On top of that, we are fighting for our increased expectations against a society (one beholden to the tyranny of the functional perpetrated by producer/consumer Capitalism) not altogether willing to give us the resources we need –that is until we somehow become useful to them. This was addressed by Marx who, while described by many as a man with grey hair, a long grey beard, as well as horns and cloven hooves, was actually a guy who found what he loved to do, and wanted to create a world in which he, and others like him, could flourish. And we should also note here the implications for literary criticism. What are family dramas (think Death of a Salesman here) but explorations of a minimized Coexistence due to one member raising expectations to an unsustainable level?
As concerns science, the implications for climate science are obvious. On top of that, Efficiency also points us to the expectations raised by population growth. And, here again, Capitalism is indicted. As many pro-market economists will gleefully claim: a growing population is essential to a growing economy. But by Efficiency’s model, not only does this seem oblivious, but reckless and irresponsible as well, especially for people with academic credentials. And at what point was it ever rational to think that fossil fuels are an infinite resource? Contemporary evolutionary biology recognizes that the “survival of the fittest” is not exactly correct. Contrary to Social Darwinist claims, organisms at different levels of power tend to coexist. Natural selection’s main targets are those species that work against the system as a whole (Coexistence). So what instance of expectation would be more detrimental than that which has expectations that are detrimental to the whole? I even wonder if Efficiency might not have implications as concerns basic physical laws. But given my knowledge of physics (my resources), it might be more efficient for me to lower my expectations and leave that to the experts.