This is a tricky one. My Monkey Logic column started out as a kind of joke. Look! Ha Ha! We are Monkeys! We think we are soo smart! Typical human hubris! But as I wrote the pieces, it turned out the hubris was mine. I’d believed the insight that ‘we are animals’, was quirky enough to riff a few amusing essays off of. Perhaps I might make a few people think, I thought. Maybe nudge a few into changing their environments to make life a bit more comprehensible to a poor perplexed Monkey cowering in each of their heads.
Writing the essays, I got pulled into thinking about primate hard wiring; how each generation of our species learnt how to survive sharing a patch of forest/savanna/classroom with angry, chest-beating Alphas. I mused at how, over millions of years, lippy apes, who pissed off the Alphas, got beaten to death with branches before bringing children into the world; evolution informing us, in its typical blunt fashion, that it’s best to not mess with the Alpha; not to question power.
We are herd animals, or troop animals, which is basically the same thing. We no longer live in the jungle or on the open savanna, but we still have that old Monkey Logic running in our ape minds. Logic built to make the Alpha happy. Our behaviour is wired to anticipate what the Alpha wants: don’t sleep with his mate, don’t rock the boat, go along with the latest fashion, aspire to buy a Rolex, align with consensus opinions, do what you are told! OBEY!
I stopped finding it funny. My writing may have suffered. Sorry about that. Things were serious. It looked like human behaviour really was dominated by subconscious forces; animal emotions; evolutionary heuristics; MonkeyLogic if you will.
I am not burying the lead. I promised to reveal who THEY are, and I will, I wanted to set the evolutionary stage first. So, here goes, who are THEY?
At one level they are our own creations. Psychological pathologies personified. Mental demons projected into the world. If you are familiar with the film, they are the monsters from Forbidden Planet.
We are simps [not chimps, look it up], sycophants. 80% of us will never comment on the emperor’s lack of clothes, however much his nudity puts us off our soup. There has to be a THEY because our primate programming needs something to put on the pedestal waiting in our minds. We want to read about their affairs and what appliances they have in their kitchens. 80% of us need this pointless nonsense in our lives. It doesn’t matter that they are dumb Apes like us. We don’t care. If the troop decides they are the Alphas, we are programmed to care who they sleep with and whether they bake good cakes.
We imagine our masters into existence. We make rods for our own backs - then we hand them to anybody with a blue tick, a black AmEx, or golden Rolex.
But most of THEM, the people we look up to, are just as confused as we are. They have more stuff, but they are shaved-apes way out of their depths, just like us, except they are often less happy and more stressed. They don’t really understand how they got into the first-class line in the first place. They suspect it might have something to do with all the handbags and expensive shoes they own, but they can’t be sure. They never had to clean the toilet and they don’t know why. This scares them. They worry that if they say or do the wrong thing, somebody might make them put on a pair of marigold yellow gloves and start! The last thing these imposter-alphas want is to draw attention to themselves. They suspect there might be real monsters out there ready to tear them apart if they slip up. They are right.
Most people don’t have the capacity to lead. Of those who do, most are unwilling to make the impossible moral choices necessary to perform the job. Anybody who does step up in this world of terrible compromises must therefore be both capable AND ruthless. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad. There are a few good leaders who are both of these things. They understand that talking softly and carrying a big stick means that sometimes you might have to hit somebody over the head with it. But how does this hypothetical ethical leader react when the people who need hitting are innocents? What if not hitting them only hurts more innocents? What if the trolley will always crush someone and you need to choose who… NOW! CHOOSE! WHO DIES?! CHOOSE! What if there are no good answers? What do you do then? Even if you started out as one of that vanishingly small fraction of people who can, want to, and want to for the right reasons? What then? Confronted with the impossibility of the task? I think you give up in the face of this abyss. You retreat into delusion. You convince yourself you are in charge while abdicating real responsibility to others. You take the payoff that is waiting; million dollar speaking engagements; chauffeur driven transport for the rest of your life; fancy trips to Caribbean islands on private jets with pretty young stewardesses. You never admit these are payoffs. You allow the tricky decisions to pass to the bankers, the generals, and the regulators. You displace any residual horror by speaking at the UN, choosing a new CEO, shopping for a new housekeeper, or attending TED or WEF. You plug your ears to the screams.
This is true for those leaders who didn’t start out as psychopaths in the first place. The less said about the latter the better.
As I warned, it is tricky. There is no cabal of Illuminati huddling in Bavarian castles, discussing the bloodline of the Son of Man [well there might be, but it would be a side show]. There is instead a lot of ignorance, a lot of bureaucracy, and a little evil.
So, to summarize, THEY are:
Imposters; most are simply the 20% the universe decides will always have the lion’s share, regardless of any underlying meritocratic justification [check out Zipf’s law, or the 80–20 rule ]. The wiring of our monkey brains ignores any obvious deficits and insist their ideas and wellbeing must be lofted above our own petty wants and needs. Out of their depth, these individuals are often scared and confused. They are always looking for a real Alpha to agree with:
Leaders; the few good men and women who start out clean only to shatter on contact with the fractal fuckedness of the modern world. Minds reeling from the horror they delegate to:
Bureaucracies; endless committees, algorithms, think-tanks, and corporations. All the non-human entities that have intent without compassion or comprehensions, and which are, in turn, run by:
Psychopaths; those who understand it all and just kind of like the sticky feel of our blood on their hands.
THEY is a gestalt beast, easier to picture as a ravenous, sadistic evil from another dimension, than a collection of policies and peons (think British Telekom or AT&T).
THEY is a mob of emergent, crowd-sourced evil made up mostly of dumb b-list celebrities and mundane-middle-managers.
THEY is the MAN. It doesn’t matter if they are in denial, deliberately ignorant of the horror their compliance is supporting, uncomprehending algorithms maximising numbers that have no meaning, or cold technocrats playing with lives as a child plays with Lego.
THEY is a fortification of compliance; an adobe insect castle built from our own archaic behaviour to protect the bloated corrupted grubs of power skulking in dark tunnels below.
THEY is POWER.
Whenever I suspect I might be one of THEM, I use whatever puny levers of power are available to me, to make sure I remain one of US instead.
In the next and final essay in this series, I am going to tell you what THEY want.