Internal Combustion versus Conflagration

I ended my previous post by calling language games “the internal combustion engines of society.” Nature abounds with naked power struggles: tectonic plates bumping and jostling, atmospheric forces colliding to create weather, species competing for an ecological niche, predator/prey relationships. The ability to control and make use of fire was a key turning point in human evolution. Fire is dangerous when out of control, but when contained in a wood stove or an internal combustion engine it provides useful energy to power our economic activities. Similarly for language games: power imbalances are harnessed to move society forward.

When uncontrolled, the power imbalances among people can be quite brutal. Feudalism, slavery, predatory capitalism, organized crime, despotic regimes, and wars are examples where the only check on power is the existence of a rival power. The modern liberal state exists in part for the purpose of checking the abuses of power through the collective action of “the people” through constitutions, legislatures, laws, regulations, courts, and law enforcement institutions. Within each of these are language games that allow for constrained power struggles between agents: court cases, free-market competition, sports, and, of course, political competition in elections. The societal forces that enclose and structure these games prevent the conflagration that would result from a lawless, Hobbesian war of all against all, while the power struggles fought within the confines of the “rules of the game” lead to progress: new laws, new products, new ideas, new knowledge, and the carrying out of justice.