September 14th, 2003

bald australia sepia

Meditations on Breaking the Chains

Driving past a construction site I see the beginnings of a steel reinforced column being set up. I see cranes that use steel braided cord rather than chains to lift heavy things. I think about the incredible amount of force that this building will be able to withstand.

The saying "a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link" is this pervasive and universal wisdom it seems. I don't know if it's a specifically American obsession with weakest links or if it is pan-western or global or what but I think that one simple phrase is used by a LOT of people to sway the opinions of others towards some pretty weird attitudes. It seems sometimes that even those liberals that would eschew social darwinism can be swayed that when something important is on the line it is best to eliminate the weak from the system.

But here's the thing. Chains are not the only or even the best means of attaching, binding, lifting, moving things. Chains are as strong as their weakest link but a braid/rope is as strong as the sum of its elements and a composite material (like steel reinforced concrete or fiberglass) is STRONGER than the sum of its parts. Why are these metaphors not used to describe systems of people? Why are systems of people described in terms of chains?

Chains have elements which are only attached to their direct neighbors. Chains are like linked lists. Ropes and composite materials have strongly intertwined elements that have complex connections to their neighboring elements, like a complex web-like graph. In groups of people individuals who would be incredibly weak on their own can be an incredibly important part of a community. In our highly specialized society we're all really pretty weak, but together we're awfully strong. Every link in the web adds strength.

Is there something in our industrialized culture that prefers the assembly-line/chain-of-command style of the chain to the complex harder to analyze community structure of the rope or composite?

I bet steel chains are easier/cheaper to make than equivalently strong steel braids even though I bet those cheap chains have a higher failure rate. Industrial processes can tolerate an acceptable failure rate if it saves money.

So next time someone uses "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" as a justification for the fascist elimination of the weak from a system (say layoffs, downsizing, elimination of social welfare, militarization of a labor force, industrialization of a social process, random social darwinism, etc) then the appropriate response is to question why the system takes the form of a chain. Perhaps, it is the system that is weak, not its parts.