By Philip Pilkington, a writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland
A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy.
– Milan Kundera
Imagine a world where everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts. There would be no privacy, of course, and no trust. We would all know what each other were thinking and would act accordingly. We would not be able to hide certain thoughts we had about others – and we would be aware of every intention others had toward us.
In Milan Kundera’s seminal novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being he explores privacy in great detail. Teresa – one of the novel’s main characters – is a deeply traumatised young woman. When she was growing up her mother allowed her absolutely no privacy and this invasion of her personal space haunted her into her adult life, colouring all her relationships.
Almost from childhood, she knew that a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling but something very basic, a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only with the greatest of efforts.
Kundera cleverly uses Teresa’s psychology to raise questions about what it means to lead a private life as a dissident under Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. The authorities there secretly record dissident’s personal conversations in order to broadcast on the radio; they trick dissidents into sexual encounters which they videotape and then report in the media. In modern democratic societies, we have institutions in place that do this, but they leave citizens alone and focus on celebrities (who, naturally, none of us sympathise with).
When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning into a concentration camp?
But the life of a dissident in the Soviet Union or the celebrity in a Western democracy would be nothing compared to a person living in a telepathic society. Toward the end of 1984 George Orwell makes the convincing case that we are still free when our thoughts are still our own. A person living in a telepathic society would not even have ownership over their own thoughts, which would be broadcast at every moment to everyone around them.
Tragically, there are indeed some who live in such a world. They are not telepathic, of course, but they may come to think that they are. These are people who psychiatrists refer to as suffering from a severe and usually chronic form of psychosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
The most famous case of paranoid schizophrenia in the case literature is that of Daniel Paul Schreber – a high profile judge who lived in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Schreber is famous in part because his case was picked up on by Sigmund Freud, but his case was only picked up because it was so fascinating. Schreber – a highly gifted and intelligent writer – wrote a long book about what he had experienced while in the throes of paranoid schizophrenia.
Here is a good characterisation of the role of telepathy in the Schreber case by the psychoanalyst Michael Vannoy Adams, taken from his book The Fantasy Principle: Psychoanalysis of the Imagination:
[T]he essence of the ‘paranoid style’ is rampant, pervasive suspicion. Paranoid schizophrenics are suspicious that someone might ‘influence’ them. In just this way, Schreber suspects that his psychiatrist’s ‘nerves’ might influence his ‘nerves’ – that is, murder his soul or destroy his reason. Schreber believes that his psychiatrist has exerted the influence of telepathy. He assumes that his psychiatrist is attempting to read his thoughts for the purpose of, as he says, “appropriating his mental powers.” In order to defend himself, Schreber pretends that he is demented – that he has no thoughts that his psychiatrist might read. This is what Schreber means by “the so-called not-thinking-of-anything-thought.
Schreber’s delusional state, then, puts Teresa’s neuroticism and totalitarian state/celebrity culture invasion of privacy in their proper light. The latter are bad; but they’re not that bad.
In cases of paranoia, as the psychic structure disintegrates various last gasp defences are often summoned up. In cases where telepathy plays a role a typical manifestation of this is that the sufferer begins to think that they can read the thoughts of others. By assuming that one can read the thoughts of others, one insulates oneself from the notion that others might be reading one’s own thoughts. This gives the sufferer a defence with which they can (usually temporarily) control the disorder and maintain some sort of control over the world around them.
And this brings us to the case of John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash – who many will remember from the film (or the book on which it was based) A Beautiful Mind, which depicted his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia – played perhaps the most significant role in the development of post-war neoclassical economics.
On October 12th 1950, Nash delivered a paper on game theory to the Cowles Commission – a group of mathematical economists who were intent on formalising the discipline. What Nash gave this audience was a means to close off the theoretical edifice of neoclassical economics once and for all – something that previous generations of neoclassicals had been unable to do and which leading figures like John von Neumann and John Maynard Keynes had essentially declared impossible.
Nash employed some fancy mathematics to do this, of course, but, like all applications of mathematics, it was in the assumptions buried within the equations where the truly relevant assumptions lay.
First Nash assumed a fearful and paranoid universe where everyone was constantly scrutinising each other and weighing up what each would do next. In Nash – as in any paranoid universe – there was a total elimination of trust. In their book Modern Political Economics: Making Sense of the Post-2008 World the economists Yanis Varoufakis, Joseph Haveli and Nicholas Theocrakis, put it as such:
Nash proves that bargainers [that is, economic agents] will only settle for an equilibrium of fear agreement and then proves that there exists only one such agreement: his solution to the bargaining problem. [Authors’ emphasis]
In his book Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, the historian of economic ideas, Philip Mirowski, ties this directly to the ‘paranoid style’, as portrayed by Vannoy Adams above:
The Nash solution concept was not a drama scripted by Luigi Pirandello or a novel by Robert Musil; it was much closer to a novella by Thomas Pynchon. Just as von Neumann’s minimax solution is best grasped as the psychology of the reluctant duelist, the Nash solution is best glossed as the rationality of the paranoid. Nash appropriated the notion of a strategy as an algorithmic program and pushed it to the nth degree.
From these paranoid premises where all trust is eliminated and all action taken on the basis of perpetual fear, Nash then slips in an assumption that completes the circle and makes his vision of the economic agent truly in line by assuming telepathy on the part of the actor. From Modern Political Economics:
[Nash’s proof] only holds water if we can assume that [the economic agents] can potentially share common knowledge of the probability of no agreement [taking place when one agents threatens another]. But how can they, given that [each agent] has an incentive to overrepresent it [in order to strengthen their bargaining position]? As rationality alone cannot bring about such common knowledge, something closer to telepathy is necessary.[Author’s emphasis]
Or, Mirowski again:
In the grips of paranoia, the only way to elude the control of others is unwavering eternal vigilance and hyperactive simulation of the thought processes of the Other. Not only must one monitor the relative ‘dominance’ of one’s own strategies, but vigilance demands the complete and total reconstruction of the thought processes of the Other – without communication, without interaction, without cooperation – so that one could internally reproduce (or simulate) the very intentionality of the opponent as a precondition for choosing the best response. An equilibrium point is attained when the solitary thinker has convinced himself that the infinite regress of simulation, dissimulation, and countersimulation has reached a fixed point, a situation where his simulation of the response of the Other coincides with the other’s own understanding of his optimal choice. Everything must fit into a single interpretation, come hell or high water.[My emphasis]
Welcome to the concentration camp in which telepathy reigns and all privacy melts into ether!
We should, of course, take this as a powerful critique of the game theoretic foundations of modern neoclassical doctrine – foundations which were then built upon by Nobel prize winners Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu and many others. But we should also see this as something more.
Those who came before Nash recognised that the economy – inhabited as it is by people whose decisions are impossible to pin down – cannot be wholly reduced to some model or others. Keynes’ theories were the most eloquent expression of this, but even von Neumann who did develop game theoretic and general equilibrium models which he deployed for the purpose of economic explanation recognised the limits of this axiomatic way of portraying a capitalist economy. And yet, after the war, the neoclassicals pursued their closed, autistic models with gusto.
What we should see in this example is something about the very nature of trying to apply mathematical models to systems that are created and inhabited by humans. Modelling these systems is equivalent to trying to model those around us. And while many neoclassicals (we hope) would not try to write equations to explain their spouse’s or their child’s behaviours, they seem perfectly content to do so for everybody else – absurdity be damned!