Conflict theorist models of coordination

Never ascribe to incompetence that which is adequately explained by malice, if you want click-throughs

July 20, 2022 — February 25, 2024

bounded compute
game theory
incentive mechanisms

Assumed audience:


Content warning:

Contains critique and analysis social-justice-movement-affiliated-strategies as means to attain social-justice ends

Figure 1

Conflict theoriest is a designation attached to thinkers who primarily model human dynamics in terms of group coordination to advance group interest at the expense of other groups, and in particular that rhetoric is best dissected as a move in a competitive power game.

Terms need some refining for modern usage, but the basic Marxist definition is an adequate starting point. Weber also described a version, although my politics studies are sufficiently far into my personal history that I can no longer distinguish between these. It is also popular in classical fascism, which notoriously was good at picking an other side to blame for everything. Oppression and privilege and elite are the weight-bearing words in modern usage, depending on your political stripe. C&C economic models of collective action.

Ths placeholder is to collect some interesting modern applications of the term.

1 Observation grab bag

There are some tendencies in this body of thought, as least as encountered in internet drive-bys, that I am curious about.

  1. The size of the coordinations implied are often surprisingly large (“The bourgeoisie”)
  2. Often there is a conflation of group interests in terms of kinds of status, i.e. in terms of prestige/dominance, and other types of resource control.
  3. People seem to be loose about the intentionality and explicitness of the coordination. Are the group coordinations discussed conspiratorial or emergent? These get conflated.
  4. What are the incentive structures implied by favouring explanations about malign intent rather than systemic failings? Does the need to identify a saboteur disincentivise people from honestly communicating their means to fix the system?

Empirically, conflict is a great thing to use in rhetoric, because it gets people motivated to act, in a way that incompetence, or systemic failure does not. So, in a democracy, it might be the best way to get people to act to make things better. It might be the most effective way to motivate people to bring about systemic change even if there are no enemies, just well-meaning people at loggerheads by dull chance.

At the same time, framing things as conflicts has obvious downsides. For one, maybe it is just wrong, and there are no enemies, so we might pay a price in truth.

For another, it might be a hyperstition, a self-fulfilling-prophecy, which will make enemies, and to use people instrumentally as enemies is to treat them as means, not ends, which is repugnant to me.

Further, even if there are enemies, and the conflict is real, thinking about it as a conflict might encourage us to seek zero-sum or negative sum solutions, because once we have decided that someone is our enemy, we might be more inclined to punish them than to solve the problem.

2 Interesting opinion pieces

Figure 2

Here are some links.

Figure 3: Overt conflict theorists in Australian history. Modern Australia prefers a less overt approach.

Did Social Dominance Orientation (Pratto, Sidanius, and Levin 2006; Sidanius et al. 1994) pan out?

3 When does conflict theory fit the world better?

Provocative example: Geoff Shullenberger, The Guild and the Grifters

The “grifter” accusation hints at a crucial backdrop of these ongoing ideological battles: the dismal and worsening career paths in both academe and journalism, both of which have become increasingly precarious industries in recent decades. As the aspirants and incumbents in these fields confront waning prospects, it is not surprising to see them organize informal guilds dedicated to protecting their interests. This, in any case, is one way to understand the tendency of journalists and academics on Twitter to line up in lock step behind certain orthodoxies and denounce dissenters as “grifters” and worse.

These sorts of collective action might be understood to proceed from rational self-interest. The enforcement of ideological shibboleths serves as a form of gatekeeping that limits the pool of competitors for limited positions. As skeptics of the notion of “cancel culture” often observe, the supposedly “canceled” often seem to have had no trouble reaching large audiences. But what if the real aim is to prevent the adherents of some views from having jobs in certain professions, and thereby to free up a few positions in the relevant industries? By that measure, cancelation has enjoyed some small success. The accusation of “grift” attempts to reinforce the guild’s monopoly by reminding us that those excluded from it lack the patina of institutional legitimacy.

The problem is that the expulsion of dissenters also accelerates the decline in stature of the legacy institutions themselves, which look less and less like neutral arbiters of truth and more and more like another set of self-interested competitors. This process is self-reinforcing: As establishment insiders are forced to compete with upstarts and outsiders, they also come to resemble them. The grifter accusation, then, is a convenient way to avoid asking why those who remain in legacy organizations have lost the trust of the public.

Likewise, assertions from academics and journalists that the University of Austin is a “grift” distract from a more concerning question: Even if it is a scam—Trump University redux, as some have alleged—how much would that set it apart from much of what occurs in the more respectable realms of higher education? Many critiqued the first degree to be offered at UATX, an “Entrepreneurship and Leadership M.A”.But if that sounds vague and slapdash, it is of a piece with an array of overpriced master’s degrees of dubious value, cash cows that keep the nation’s prestigious universities in business.

TBD for now see the Benjamin Hoffman bit, the logic of Pol Pot which casts light on conflict-construction from an odd angle:

Pol Pot’s policies aren’t indicative of his personal badness, they reflect a certain level of skepticism about expertise narratives that benefit extractive elites.

Expertise narratives definitely have an extractive component. (Medical doctors use law and custom to silence others’ claims to be able to heal, but MDs are obviously not responsible for all healing, or only doing healing, and they ARE collecting rents.) If they are 100% extractive, then anyone participating in them is a social parasite and killing or reeducating them is good for the laborers. I think it’s easy to see how this can lead to policies like “kill all the doctors and let teens do surgery.” This naturally escalates to “kill everyone with glasses” if you are enough of a conflict theorist to think that literal impaired vision is mostly a motivated attempt to maintain class privilege as a scholar.

See also Oppression and production are competing explanations for wealth inequality..

Regina Rini, considers Wokeism as an aircon setting, which also possibly gets at the same idea:

you can see the influence of superhero theatrics in public discourse about the culture wars. On Twitter and in podcasts, everything now seems to be an epochal struggle between two factions, the “Wokeists” and the “anti-Wokeists,” whose battles over social justice will doom or save us all.

Guillotines and pitchforks make for arousing imagery, but they won’t solve any problems. I find this “final battle” framing less socially enlightening than, say, a video on air-conditioner repair. Air conditioners are complex systems that can fail in many ways. Fixing one is a delicate process — one that is not enhanced by identifying ideological enemies. Imagine a team of repair technicians falling into dispute over allegations that some are “Coldists” who secretly aim to turn the entire building into a frigid wasteland. Their bitter enemies, the “anti-Coldists,” refuse to install another wire until their opponents’ plot has been exposed and halted.

This would be a terrible approach to air-conditioning repair. It’s also a terrible approach to social justice.

4 If conflict is the dominant strategy, what next?

Do we need to lean all-the-way in to conflict theory to change the world? I call such a possibility “All we need is hate”.

5 Decoupling and niche-construction for conflict theories

Activist and rationalist style, as seen on the rhetoric page, a.k.a. Decoupling. Is decoupling possible in conflict theories? Or is everything ideology?

Turning that around, does refusal to decouple construct a conflict theorist niche?

6 Conflict and democracy

See agonism.

7 Incoming

William Buckner at the Human Systems and Behavior Lab based in the Department of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University has a blog on conflict in cross-cultural perspective and other fun stuff (New address: Traditions of Conflict).

8 References

Ataöv. 1998. Narcissism of Minor Differences: Nurturing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’.” In.
Belletier. 2021. Which Side Are You On? The Answer Is Clear for Today’s Useful Idiots for the Right.” Class, Race and Corporate Power.
Bowles. 2001. Individual Interactions, Group Conflicts, and the Evolution of Preferences.” Social Dynamics.
DuFord. 2022. Solidarity in Conflict: A Democratic Theory.
Hsiang, Meng, and Cane. 2011. Civil Conflicts Are Associated with the Global Climate.” Nature.
Lena, and Peterson. 2008. Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres.” American Sociological Review.
Leslie. 2021. Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes.
Lönnqvist, Szabó, and Kelemen. 2021. ‘The New State That We Are Building’: Authoritarianism and System-Justification in an Illiberal Democracy.” Frontiers in Psychology.
Mott. n.d. “The Coming Confluence Between Social Justice & Neoconservatism.”
Pratto, Sidanius, and Levin. 2006. Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Intergroup Relations: Taking Stock and Looking Forward.” European Review of Social Psychology.
Ross, and Ward. 1996. Naive Realism in Everyday Life: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding.” In Values and Knowledge.
Sekeris. 2012. The Tragedy of the Commons in a Violent World.” Working Paper 1213.
Sidanius, Liu, Shaw, et al. 1994. Social Dominance Orientation, Hierarchy Attenuators and Hierarchy Enhancers: Social Dominance Theory and the Criminal Justice System.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Smith. 1980. “The Theory of Games and the Evolution of Animal Conflicts.” Journal of Theoretical Biology.
Tajfel. 1982. Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations.” Annual Review of Psychology.
Talisse. 2021. Sustaining democracy: what we owe to the other side.