Von Neumann and the weapons of Imperialism

John von Neumann (1903-1957) was probably the most influential scientist of the 20th century and in many ways we live in an age shaped by his legacy. Einstein even said he was the greatest scientist of his day. His three most telling contributions to our lives being, digital computing, the detonation mechanism for the atomic bomb and Game Theory. It is Game Theory that I wish to address in this post.

He was a Hungarian by birth from a non-observant Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism on his death bed.  He was a child genius, even having a photographic memory and was something of a polymath; turning his talents to computing, mathematics, chemistry, physics and Byzantine history. He came to the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation who financed his studies and eventually he made his way to the US, becoming part of the Manhattan Project, working in the nuclear bomb.

Game Theory is a branch of logic. It is a way of developing strategies; it is equally useful for economic strategies and strategies for conflict.  Various phrases from Game Theory have entered common speech: ‘Total War’ and ‘Zero-Sum game’.  It is necessary to define these terms. ‘Zero-sum games’ have fixed payoffs/winnings, there is no room for negotiation. ‘Total War’ means one person wins, only if the other person loses.  Game Theory is more than a strategy, it is a weapon and you can see why it is the weapon of choice of our Imperialist overlords.  Let’s look at a few, two player ‘games’.

Firstly, lets look at ‘Chicken’.  Two drivers are heading straight for a cliff, the one that drives off the cliff dies, the one that puts on the brakes just before the edge wins the girl.  Driving off the cliff means you give the other side victory: a fixed pay-off, Total War.  You can of course back out but this requires humiliation (being a chicken).  It is not difficult to find examples where the US Empire has instigated games of Chicken: the Cuban Missile Crisis being a classic example.  To win at Chicken you need to be a psycho.

Secondly let’s look at ‘Deadlock’. One side wants the defeat of the other and both are supposed to follow an agreed set of rules (say a charter at the United Nations).  Let’s give scores to various strategies the players could take.

If both sides cooperate they look weak, not v. desirable (1,1)

If side A cooperates and side B doesn’t, this is desirable for B (3), but undesirable for A (0)

If B cooperates and A doesn’t, this is desirable for A (3), but makes B look foolish (0)

The best possible outcome is for neither side to cooperate.  It is ironically, the most mutually beneficial outcome.

Thirdly let’s look at a mixed strategy game. Indeed, this is the game favoured by the Imperialists.  They play deadlock and force the other side into a game of chicken. They are totally un-cooperative yet force the other player into defending something because it is right to defend that thing, then they drive them over the cliff because backing down is not an option, the fight is existential, yet unwinnable.

My concern with the current crisis in Ukraine is that this third strategy is what the US and NATO are doing.  Nothing that Russia says or does will prevent them from persevering with their intentions which are the destruction of Russia and China: this is their Total War, Zero-Sum game.  It is pure insanity.

Do we stoop to the level of the Imperialists?  Hell no. But granted, from this angle everything looks very bleak.

There are other perspectives which I hope to address in future posts.

One comment

  1. Biden is being catastrophically ‘assertive’ to the point of mutually assured destruction! Total annihilation is the logic of predatory capitalism – because somewhere in this materialist ideology is the promise of ‘profit’! However, Bide is destroying the functional framework of capitalism which has historically been the bulwark against the much slower and less obviously dramatic development of sustained Socialist ideology! The predatory capitalism that Biden is destroying through the ridiculous and widespread sanctions against Russia – is the exactly the same predatory capitalism that he and his ilk have historically asserted is ‘better’ than the Socialist alternative! What happens when predatory capitalism collapses and no longer provides some people with plenty of material sustenance? China’s ‘Socialism’ has cleverly engaged the socio-economic system of US capitalism, has extracted tremendous amounts of wealth from it, whilst not allowing it to infiltrate or alter the ‘Socialist’ interior of China! In this regard, China has succeeded where the USSR failed. Modern (capitalist) Russia can also ‘fail’ if it means a dialectical step-forward into a better tomorrow for the Russian people and a ‘new’ forming of the USSR!

    Liked by 1 person

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