This has been a tough century already. Remember when we thought the hard part was over? The old militaristic days of the USSR, cold war, and regional dominoes had all resolved itself and we were driving our little red corvette into the new century? Then we let an increasingly desperate Republican party steal a presidential election. We were still pretty sure we had the new economic thing figured out courtesy of Bill Clinton so what could happen? There was some vague disquiet as the new economic thing looked an awful lot like an old Republican thing but there hadn’t been really much difference in many, many years. Same corporatist policies but they worked pretty well under Clinton as Democratic presidents tend to be much more intelligent and competent than Republican presidents. That is one of those things we know but don’t really talk about because it isn’t politically correct. Then we found out what can happen when a mediocre student who made it on family power and money reacted really badly to a lucky punch. . .
Jump ahead fifteen years and we are taking serious hits without a clue. I’m certain that the historical record will show how lucky we were to have elected a very intelligent and capable mixed African American from Hawai’i who managed to keep things together for eight years. But he was another new corporatist much more conservative than Eisenhower or even Nixon and crippled by accelerating change and the slow motion train wreck of the US political system. Nothing like hindsight to see the bad turns except when you don’t even see them then because the map we’re using is from the wrong planet. Reality starts to catch up in a very ugly way when you realize someone changed the maps. Where the hell are we?
We are already getting pretty good analysis of the landscape around us. With the sudden rise of the Donald, a really, really bad joke we really, really wish would end and post disaster confusion from Brexit we can finally see some of the seriously wrong turns.
- This is a very small planet getting smaller everyday with a planetary economy that really can’t be managed on an ad hoc basis. Sorry, that answer has gone away.
- Obviously you can’t outsource control of the economy too far away from where people live. They get angry particularly if they realize they are getting screwed. People need some ownership of their economic condition. That outsourcing answer has gone away also.
- We actually know this but we really ignored it: people will put up with a lot as long as everyone is in it together. It might get really old and there needs to be hope that it will get better. The irony that in the incredibly rich post capitalist world we are reenacting exactly what happened in the USSR will make a good joke one day. Leave a bunch of the population behind with no options and they will do something rash. Which they may not even understand.
- Representational government is not a New England town hall. Social media is also not a New England town hall. The basic assumption of representational government descended from the 18th century ideal assumes enough similarity of people as citizens so that they can achieve a working, unemotional, and rational agreement. Homogeneous societies are the only ones that have ever been able to actually do this. That is no longer a workable answer for this planet.
- An underlying problem is a basic dichotomy of human nature. We are social animals supportive of others. We are also competitive and the product of our evolutionary biology. We need security and we need opportunity. Different people need a different balance of security and opportunity at different times. By every known standard happiness comes from maintaining a reasonable balance in each society. Ignoring this is no longer an answer.
- Religion is not an answer. That actually went away a long time ago. We also know what has replaced that: Human rights as defined extensively over the last centuries respects people’s diversity and the sanctity of free human relationships as well as our shared stewardship of this planet and all it’s living things.
So where do these landmarks lead us? The beginning of a journey that will be the most difficult we have ever taken as a species. We are just beginning to understand how wrong the old maps are for how we need to change. The catch is, if I’m correct, that all the old answers are gone. The easy way is to take the traditional, emotionally satisfying route of nationalism, racism, misogyny and reaction. There are always individuals who prey on the weak and insecure and promise them the return to lost glory or at least a comfortable living. These are almost always con games that take us back to where we were only older and poorer.
At this point I think we need to start looking at what it means to ensure happiness for the great majority of people. There are growing efforts to begin to define happiness more objectively and to judge societies on some independent scale. This is not just something you do when you have time. It’s not a luxury activity for the elite. Check back to the list above and think about how much of the anger and emotional mistakes are made because large segments of our population in any given place are unhappy. We have created a very distorted view of happiness as a product of the capitalist economics. That is clearly a system that has done all it can do and is now clearly a major part of the problem. Time to learn and move on.
A major issue, in fact the most difficult, will be dealing with administration of our societies. After some two hundred years of working on various types of representational government we seem to have failed. Small, homogeneous cultures can be moderately successful with well established parliamentary style governments as long as you don’t look too closely or stress them too much. Larger units, such as the US, Russia, the EU and others are, in fact oligarchies with growing gaps between the ruling elite and the rest of the population. The question seems to be, again, one of happiness based on the balance between security and opportunity. Ideologies of whatever type are, effectively, based on emotional manipulation. Given resources and a broad enough population this is a practical problem of production and distribution with an agreed range of minimum and maximum. The problem is that we have never had the ability to actually solve these problems without emotional appeals to some abstract justification to deny someone else’s happiness based on little more than guess work. What else is the appeal to racism, misogyny, bigotry but the justification to deny our shared wealth with the “others”? What we refer to as conservatism is exactly that, conserving what we have for ourselves. There is not enough. We’ll go broke supporting those damn immigrants.The economic reality is that immigrants are always quickly more productive than the people they have joined unless they are denied opportunity.
Notice how everything comes quickly to emotional arguments and not on standards or logical decisions on resource allocation. That’s all we ever had because we could not really solve those types of big data problems. But that is exactly what we are beginning to do. Isn’t it time to actually solve these problems of distribution? Not as political guesses but as complex but boring data collection and analysis problems? We couldn’t do this before. It is beyond our capabilities. But if we can solve the resource and distribution problems we can reduce politics to what that is really about: Do we have enough to be equitable for all and how much are we willing to share? We need to solve these problems as boring logistical problems and remove human emotion from our administration of ourselves.