prisoner's dilemma world

The conceptual children of the Cold War came out of its belly with the apocalypse in their eyes, a mindset conditioned by the great global unconditional surrender of the Axis. There was a ghastly optimism in it that danced in the nuked ruins of cities, and then rebuilt them carefully, like the potential targets that they were. Keep your high use population away from the epicenter, and let the low use population take the brunt - that was the day's secret slogan.
Among this progeny one finds the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Like all the problems in game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma arose in the fold between economics and the Air Force – between the Cowles commission and the Rand corporation, between the economy of managed demand of the future and the Air Force’s interest in dropping hydrogen bombs, or at least  threatening to, for maximum effect. In reality, it came out of a problem in game theory developed at Rand and observed by Albert Tucker, a Princeton mathematician who grasped the structure of the game in a story about two prisoners who are confronted with a “game matrix” of three options. They can either both stay silent, they can, one or the other, rat on the other, or they can both confess. The payoffs are structured so that the one who rats on the other will get the most benefit – if, that is, the other doesn’t rat on him as well. If they both confess they will get the least benefit. The most rational option, the “equilibrium” point, is the most irrational from the point of view of self interest: that they both stay silent. That irrationality evolves from the fact that neither knows what the other is doing – they are isolated from each other.

This impressed game theorists, who defined rational in that irrational way that utilitarians and economists define it: as maximizing one’s own ‘advantage’. In this world, the advantage of, say, true repentence a la the end of Crime and Punishment is hogwash – Raskolnikov got it right the first time when he axed the pawnbroker. But in the world of Bentham and Raskolnikov, the prisoner’s dilemma seems to show that situations can arise when an action that is logically rational turns out not to bring the maximum payoff – that is, it turns out to be irrational. Of course, iterated prisoner dilemma games often tend towards the maximum payoff, but this is because iteration sneaks in communication between the two parties.

In Alexander Mehlman’s Games Afoot, which explains the prisoner’s dilemma, he uses a beautiful, hoodish terminology to divide the strategic positions open to the prisoners: the sucker and the traitor.

If we look at the prisoner’s dilemma game long enough, we can see something more than a variation of détente and deterrence between the superpowers: we can see the deep structure of American politics at the moment. It is a politics divided between “individualism” and “collectivism”, or, to put it more frankly, between traitors and suckers. Individualism is not actually a natural position – in the game,  it is a condition enforced on the players. This is a more difficult thing to accomplish outside the think tank laboratory, but you can approximate it through a vast media noise machine. Which is exactly what we have. And then you have the suckers – the “liberals” – who have made their bet on solidarity. But of course this solidarity is a funny thing – suspecting the traitors of having the better deal, accepting the terms of rationality as Raskolnikov defines it, it is solidarity with a bad conscience. Suckers in American politics have long satisfied their thirst for solidarity by being solidaire with liberal financiers and corporate heads. Not, by any means, the dreadful suckers who sweat and, when you give them computers and the Internet, immediately start using them to play online poker and watch porno – a fearful thing recently highlighted by the NYT.

The prisoners dilemma regime is at an interesting point. The neo-liberalism that attempted to “do’ social democracy whilst allowing the 1 percent to gorge themselves with a vast share of the social  product is now disappearing in the maw of “debt” – while who the “debt’ is owed to is a nicely obscured topic, never broached in polite circles. But as this happens, the prisoners start crowding into the cells. The capitalism that in their parents and grandparents lifetimes proved wildly beneficial, elevating lifestyles over three generation, is now spinning back. The generation coming up may be the first since the nineteen twenties to experience capitalism as a curse, rather than a blessing. The prison can only hold so many prisoners before they do start communicating. And who knows what “irrationality”will result.