Political Turmoil in Legotown

21:59 Tue 10 Apr 2007. Updated: 12:46 21 May 2009
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This article about Lego, power, and property in an elementary school was completely fascinating to me. It recounts the experiences in a clearly “alternative” school when the teachers and children attempted to unravel what was causing conflict over the resources of “Legotown”.

If you have any interest in politics, equality, children, education, or the nature of property, read the article.

The first thing that really took my breath away was how the kids who were essentially power-brokers in Legotown objected to descriptions of their ability to give pieces to other kids:

Carl: “We didn’t ‘give’ the pieces, we found and shared them.”
Lukas: “It’s like giving to charity.”
Carl: “I don’t agree with using words like ‘gave.’ Because when someone wants to move in, we find them a platform and bricks and we build them a house and find them windows and a door.”

That rings entirely true to me, remembering childhood—but it also rings true to me now, considering “adult” politics and power distribution. After all, those who wield power will almost invariably attempt to a) downplay the extent of that power in discussion, b) emphasize the benign aspects of their use of that power, and c) emphasize the disastrous alternatives to the status quo. As further shown by this:

Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like “Somebody’s got to be in charge or there would be chaos,” and “The little kids ask me because I’m good at Legos.” They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

I just laughed out loud at this, both admiring the cleverness of the little scaremonger claiming to be warding off ‘chaos’ (I would have done more or less exactly the same thing at that age) and the benign meritocrat (I would have used that line, too), and despairing at how adult politics are so often little more than exactly the same bullshit perpetrated by people who dominate countries and who have no excuse of youth.

I was also particularly struck by the authors’ observation that the children, when upset by inequality, tend to blame individuals and not the system:

The game created a classic case of cognitive disequilibrium: Either the system is skewed and unfair, or the winners played unfairly. To resolve this by deciding that the system is unfair would call everything into question; young children are committed to rules and rule-making as a way to organize a community, and it is wildly unsettling to acknowledge that rules can have built-in inequities. So most of the children resolved their disequilibrium by clinging to the belief that the winners were ruthless — despite clear evidence of Liam and Kyla’s compassionate generosity.

Again, how like “adult” politics is that? Whenever “winners” are exposed as unfairly taking advantage of our economic/political rulesets, thre’s an attempt to shift the terms of the debate to be about them as individuals, and not about the system itself. The system is usually just fine, but there are these bad few that occasionally take advantage…

Finally, a point that came up early in the article was another mirror of adult-world politics—how the excluded and disenfranchised ones just drift away and lose interest, evidently deeming it not worth the effort of challenging those who have established themselves as in charge:

… Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. The other children didn’t complain much about this; when asked about Legos, they’d often comment vaguely that they just weren’t interested in playing with Legos anymore.

There’s a lot of hope in the article, too, as the teachers do guide the kids through to a different and more cooperative model, and succeed in demonstrating to the kids that there are fairer alternatives. Frankly, the adult world needs a lot more of that, but it’s a lot harder to push through in the absence of benign absolute dictators forcing everyone to talk honestly and openly about what’s really going on. Not impossible by any means, but a lot harder.

Just briefly, an application of the basic tools for political understanding in situations where a currently-reigning big shot either in Legotown or your city/country claims that things can’t be altered because otherwise there’d be “chaos”:

Who benefits? The big shot, of course, if things are left alone, but also all the rest of the power structure, which is often hidden or obscured.

What resources are involved? Lego bricks and/or money, or access to same. Or access to land, or other resources required to build, which can usually be translated to money. Controlling those resources (as they do in the status quo) gives the big shot(s) access to power and status (and, usually money, although this isn’t required, as seen in Legotown).

What emotions are being encouraged? Fear. Especially fear of the unknown and fear of the rapacity of others. “Things might be unfair (unspoken: and making me rich/powerful/high status) right now, but at least we don’t have total chaos, and that might happen if we throw out the current system!” Fear of the unknown makes a small amount of sense, but in general the fears are inflated to ensure nothing significant changes. Fear of the greed of others underlines this, and ironically the demonstrated greed of the current major participants amplifies this fear (“This crowd are bad enough, imagine how it’d be if there were chaos and worse people came along!”). Lastly, there’s also usually an attempt to invoke daunting complexity here: the big shot will claim technocratic understanding of how the “complicated” system works, and then scare off others who wish to change things by using this complexity to point to the fear of “chaos” if the wrong things were changed. This is one reason why regulations tend to complexity over time—as they become more complex it’s easier to get people to cede power and participation.

One Response to “Political Turmoil in Legotown”

  1. clay Says:

    Brilliant analysis!

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