The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Ideology Page 1 of 4

The Supreme Stupidity of the “End of History” And Its Consequences

I remember the first time I heard of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, and I remember thinking “no one can be stupid enough to believe that.”

But I knew I was wrong, because it kept popping up. The article became a book, even, and fools further down the intellectual stupidity chain made careers out of sub-theses, like Thomas Friedman’s “the world is flat”.

The thesis of the “End of History” was that the ideological wars were over: democratic market capitalism had won, everyone knew it, and history was in effect over because the great ideological war of the 20th century between capitalism/democracy, communism and fascism/democracy had ended. Everyone admitted that democratic capitalism had won and was the best system and now inevitably it would sweep the world and usher in an era of prosperity and relatively good government.

This is what elites wanted to hear after the fall of the USSR and Francis was the one to tell them. He was considered a great intellectual, made lots of money and elites proceeded to act as if he were right.

There were a lot of knock on consequences but there two were most important. The first was that without a competing model, western elites felt free to really rev up the immiseration train started by Reagan and Thacher. Post-war elites had been genuinely scared of Communism, in the “we could wind up dead” way and that had driven a lot of their acquiescence to cutting ordinary people a good deal. (A lot, not all. Much of it was just that the Great Depression cut their legs out from under them, and FDR then broke their kneecaps.)

The shipping of industry to allies and to the third world did not start at the end of the Cold War, but it did go into overdrive. The old police was to make sure that the countries it was sent to were not a real threat: either small to medium developing, or American allies. Now, however, the offshoring and outsourcing train traveled to China. Deng had opened up markets and privatized a large chunk of the economy, and Fukuyama had said that capitalism lead to democracy, so by shipping all that industry to China, well, the West would make them into a democracy.

The Chinese Communist party, in this storyline, were a bunch of suckers, who were inviting in the very forces which would overthrow them.

The line in poker is that if you don’t know who the sucker at the table is, it’s you, but the real danger is when you think someone else is the sucker, and they aren’t.

The CCP had understood Americans and the West very well. Ironically they were aided in this by Marxism and their belief that capitalists were blinded by greed. They offered Western elites cheap labor and high profits and dangled the dream of access to a market of a billion people.

There was a time when it was understood that what made countries mighty was industry, and that you kept the industry at home. In the post-war era that was relaxed: by you still didn’t send your industry to anyone who might well become an enemy.

But history was over and there were no enemies and the West, with its transnational elite largely shorn of patriotism figured they’d co-opt Chinese elites and make them no longer nationalist.

They didn’t understand that the CCP didn’t feel that way: they were proud of being Chinese and they also believed that if they lost power a lot of them would wind up dead. They obsessively studied the fall of the USSR (and its communist party) and were determined that wouldn’t happen to them. And they deeply resented the west, including America, for the “century of humiliation.”

Sure, they were willing to go to a mixed economy with a lot of capitalism, but they were determined to stay in charge and never become democratic capitalists, and they wanted to return China to its natural place as the richest and most important country in the world, a position it had occupied for most of the last 2,000 years (before that it was India, and before that it was Mesopotamia with Egyptian interregnums.)

So you had two bets. The West, led by America, bet that if they shipped industry to China, China would become just another country like them, happy to be part of an international community running on laws that had been created when China was at its weakest.

The Chinese Communist Party bet that they could let some capitalism in and catch up in technology, and even exceed the West in terms of industrial base.

We now know who was right, and it wasn’t the West. Our tech boycotts are a sign of weakness, not strength. We know we can’t stay ahead of them without restricting their access, but it’s very much a case of slamming the barn door after the horses have left. The tech lead moves to where the manufacturing floor is. Britain stayed in the lead technologically for about 20 years after the US became the manufacturing power, for example, but it was a lagging indicator, and ironically Britain had done the same thing America has done with China: it invested big time, built the factories and transferred a ton of tech.

Fukuyama was full of it. He sold a fairy tale to an elite desperate to believe they had won forever and he in selling it and they in believing it took the exact steps required to ensure it wasn’t true, by empowering the only nation in the world strong enough to challenge America. (India was never in the running due to severe corruption and governance issues.)

But the people who engaged in this foolishness (from the POV of the Americ and its allies) reaped their mortal reward: the elites became stinking rich, and Fukuyama become wealthy and was regarded as a genius for telling the story his audience wanted to hear, even if it was obviously wrong.

History never ends. There is no end-state ideology or system and when someone tells you the world is exactly as wonderful as you want it to be, run.

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Problems of Capitalism: Power Accumulation

Capitalism has a lot of problems, a lot of ways it can go wrong. But power accumulation is baked in. Capitalism is the centralization of capital in a few private hands. This is justified in the ideological literature (mostly economics), because it allows for scale, and thus economies of scale, and allows for development. If capital doesn’t accumulate in a few hands it is hard to build factories, huge mines, and so on. (This is the theory, there are obviously other ways to do large scale tasks.)

Now, power accumulation is a problem in all systems. You need some to get things done, but doing too much always leads to dysfunction.

In capitalism, money controls capital (labor, land, resources, etc.). That’s what makes it different from communism, feudalism, despotism, or centralized monarchy. This is so true that the pre-conditions for capitalism include being able to buy labor and land and resources with money. This is because in, say, feudalism, you can’t — in feudalism, people mostly aren’t for hire, land is controlled by nobility and clergy, and free farmers who don’t (and in many cases can’t) sell much.

Money, in a capitalist system, is power. Power is the ability to decide what other people do. At the lowest level, this is known as demand. If you buy a chicken, it sends a signal to someone to keep producing chickens. If more chickens are bought, it says “breed more chickens.” If you’re an ordinary individual, you have this power only in aggregate.

The more money you have, the more demand you control, but you also gain the ability to not just signal; you can rent people to work for you, and they’ll do what you say.

At a certain point, you gain political power because you can hire people to influence politicians, or give them things they want, or help them get elected, and pretty soon they tend to do what you want.

The problem is that capitalism is a money accumulation system. Unless the tendency is carefully checked, money flows to the top, and so does power. Whatever secondary system is in control, be it representational democracy or the CCP, they stop making decisions based on democratic or party principles and start making them based on money.

But capitalism, to the extent it works, works because of good price signaling and semi-competitive markets. For markets to deliver, no one must have market power except a government which is acting out of motives other than profit motives.

Competitive markets are dynamic: it’s hard to keep your money over the long term, let alone for you children and grandchildren, who did nothing to deserve it, to keep it.

So capitalists on winning want to change the rules so that markets aren’t competitive.

They also want to expand capitalism into areas it should not control: roughly anything that is a natural monopoly (all of which should be run by government) or a fundamental welfare service (health, education, etc…) or which runs better when vastly dispersed.

So capitalism becomes a cancer: not only does it grow further than it should, it destroys the proper functioning of markets and of anything else it takes over which should never be part of capitalism.

The further effect is a fairly simple mechanical one: the more money is concentrated, the weaker is demand for non-luxury, non-investment goods. Back in the 2010s people were crowing about how low inflation was, but it wasn’t: the price of arts, collectibles, yachts, real-estate and so on soared: all the things rich people want. This causes general demand collapses which lead to recessions and eventually depressions.

They also distort price signals so that what the majority of the population wants and needs is under-produced and what the elites want are over-produced.

So the general rule for capitalism is that the rich have to be kept poor, which is a specific instance of the general rule across all society types that the powerful must be kept weak if the people are to prosper.

JFK was the first post-war break: he dropped high marginal tax rates significantly. Estate, income and capital gains taxes all need to be quite high on those with the most.

As for oganizations, the corporate socialists are more or less correct. We organized control in the wrong ways: large businesses must be controlled either by their employees or by their customers, or perhaps both, with the community  also having some control and a veto over destructive actions. Small business are fine in the control of a single person, large ones are not. We’ve proved that over and over again.

Every good thing about capitalism is based on keeping markets relatively competitive and keeping capitalism out of the parts of the economy it shouldn’t control (about 60% of it.) And doing that means keeping the rich poor and weak.

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Rising Ideologies Need People Inside; Stagnant Hegemonies Want People Out

When a new system is on the rise, it needs more people to join. Maybe it doesn’t need everyone, there may be an “out” group which is either the enemy or the scapegrace or both, but basically they want people inside their new system. Capitalists want wage workers; communists want everything collectivized and so on.

But when you’ve won, when your system, your ideology, is the only one available to most people, well then, you want people out because if you push them out the benefits for those who remain are greater and because being pushed out is such a huge punishment. If there is more than one system easily accessible to people, a person kicked out of one can usually go to another.

Even an alternative system which is not easily available, but does exist mitigates against abuse. It’s not an accident that the late era weakening of the Soviet Union and then the end of the Cold War saw much more abuse of populations in the capitalist world.

We, if it’s not obvious, are in a period with a dominant hegemonic ideology: capitalism of the neoliberal variety. (The previous dominant capitalist ideology was “New Deal” or “Post War” capitalism and was quite a bit different, while still being capitalist.)

This “pushing out” operates at all levels. At the bottom it means you get pushed out onto the street. In the middle it means descent to the working class or precariat. In the upper class, which is not the ruling class), it means dropping to the middle. And at the top, in the ruling class, it means being pushed into the upper class: people who are very comfortable and have more money than they need, but have no real power. You can have tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars and be in the upper rather than ruling class: it’s about power more than money. Some politicians and corporate executives are in the ruling class despite being worth only a couple tens of millions and even some billionaires, with just a few billion, aren’t really ruling class if they only have the money and don’t have control of any important company or some lever of power.

The pushing out is one of the symptoms of ideological decay. Peter Turchin has become famous for talking about “elite overproduction” but it has been understood for a long time that people who had expectations of being in the ruling or upper class and are kicked out are dangerous to the status quo. Indeed everyone who had expectations and didn’t get them is dangerous, but people who know how the system actually works and who were groomed for some form of leadership are particularly so.

At first the pushing out doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter much in the 80s or 90s or even 2000s, but eventually it reaches critical mass: an elite faction in opposition to the main system, massive popular discontent and, for a variety of reasons, an enforcer class unwilling to do their jobs.

This doesn’t have to be from the left; there are definitely right wing revolutions.

I leave it to readers to think this thru and apply it to our current situation.

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Capitalism’s “Invisible Hand” Is Prescriptive More Than Descriptive

The invisible hand is the idea that people operating based on their own self interest in a market economy will optimize “value” and by doing so will increase human welfare. If a person runs a company which makes something that people are willing to buy, they must want or need that thing, and the person will want to make more of that thing so that they can become richer. They do it out of greed, but the richer they get the more they improve the common weal, as it were.

So even though they aren’t doing what they do because they care about the welfare of others (Adam Smith is very clear about that) operating from greed leads to increase human welfare.

Works, except when it doesn’t.

Descriptive statements describe how the world objectively is. Prescriptive statements describe how the world ought to be.

It is certainly possible for someone to get rich doing good. It is also possible for them to get rich doing evil, and it is quite common for them to get rich doing both good and evil things.

Oil companies produces something people want. Oil, natural gas and coal have lead to a large chunk of the world being much better off. But the oil companies knew about climate change and not just suppressed the information, they funded denialism, for the obvious reason that they would make a lot less money if there was a political consensus that less oil and gas and coal had to be used.

Every company wants cheap labor, to reduce their costs, but wants consumers to buy their goods. This led to the Great Depression, in effect (the story is a bit more complicated but this is the essence), and was only fixed when the government forced them to give good wages to employees, and provided price and wage supports along with social security and medicare for old people who couldn’t work, but could continue consuming.

All companies who provide necessities, things people must have, have the ability is they are a monopoly or an oligopoly acting in a collusive matter (which doesn’t require meeting) to raise prices much higher than is good for human welfare. This includes food, water, housing and medical services, among others.

Many companies produce what economists call negative externalities: they do something which hurts other people, but don’t pay the cost. Right now in Britain, privatized water and sewage companies are paying record dividends while dumping record amounts of waste into Britain’s waterways.

Walmart and Amazon both tell their workers how to apply for food stamps and other benefits: they take the profits from cheap labor and dump much of the costs onto the government.

Positive externalities are as big a problem: you do something good and someone else gets the profits, so you have trouble doing more good or even continuing to do good. I like to use the example of the British Museum: without them many people wouldn’t come to London or stay as long, but almost all of the money is spent in hotels and restaurants and the British Museum gets almost none of it, even when you consider the government funding based on taxes it receives.

Universities are another classic: they produce a great deal of value, but are able to capture almost none of it. A good government keeps them well funded and emphasizes teaching and research not administration because they know that universities create value the government will eventually capture.

In dozens of ways markets actually incentivize acting in ways that don’t lead to human welfare, but they can improve human welfare. That’s the issue. It isn’t automatic. Sometimes it works that way, sometimes it’s nothing but oligopolies grasping an excess share and companies dumping their costs on society while taking the profits.

So the invisible hand making greed work to the benefit of all is prescriptive: it is a way that an economy with markets can work, not a way that it must work. If you want the invisible hand to do what Smith said it would, you have to stay right on top of capitalists and make sure that the can only get rich if they increase human welfare.

To a large extent, in the New Deal and post-war American period, that’s what government did. Once Reagan took over, it didn’t, it did the opposite because a rich middle class with a lot of money was like sheep in full coat waiting to be sheered for wool, then eaten.

Most economic issues are politics in drag and the vast majority of politics is just about power and coalitions. The remaining economic issues are about natural laws: ecology, geology, physics, biology: mother nature bats last and she doesn’t give a damn what happens to stupid humans or any other species.

All economic systems are prescriptive. “This is how the economy should work” and are descriptive in the sense that if the economy is organized according to the prescription, it is expected to produce certain results.

Capitalism can, for certain periods and places, produce increased human welfare. But it’s not automatic, it requires keeping capitalists under firm control. Capitalists, as it were, make fine servants, and terrible masters.

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The Disastrous Rise of STEM

STEM includes the natural sciences, math, engineering, and technology-related fields. It’s all the rage, and at the same time universities are shutting down or reducing humanities and social science faculties and offerings.

In one sense this is a simple result of market forces: university is ludicrously expensive, especially in the US (but tuition has risen massively in many other countries) and the “degree premium” has declined. Once just having a bachelor’s degree was enough to get you a good job, now it’s enough to let you apply, competing against a ludicrous number of other candidates, for a wage that often won’t allow you to afford a house or children.

But STEM jobs are in demand, although this may be changing. The current downturn has seen a large numbers of coders laid off and Chat-AIs threaten a lot of programming jobs, though I suspect less than it seems, so far.

I bow to none in my admiration for science, but our society suffers from a simple problem: we’re doing mostly the wrong things with our technology. For all the increases in renewable energy, the climate change and ecological collapse charts  show no change in trajectory. We’re in ecological overshoot, and we’re accelerating it.

This is not a technological problem. We’ve known what to do for a long time, and we haven’t used the technology we have to fix it.

To put it more simply, more technologists just pours fuel on the fire.

A fairly strong case can be made that our problems have been made worse by technology, but more to the point, the solution to our problems is not technological. Our problems require social and ethical change: they are problems related to the social sciences and humanities. We have to do the right things, not the wrong ones.

I’m not sure that the social sciences and humanities have a solution, but they are at least oriented in the right direction, with the exception of Economics and perhaps political science.

Now there are larger problems with academia. For the current topic, let’s just say that they’ve become disconnected from society, and mostly aren’t working on solutions, because of an overemphasis on sterile “research”, publishing findings for other specialists which don’t get to the general population or influence elites for the better.

But a start to solving those problems is to not worship funneling more programmers to figure out how to serve ads better and create superior echo chambers and walled gardens.

A lack of programmers isn’t holding us back. A lack of good ideas becoming influential is.

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Capitalism as Mental Illness, by Eric Anderson

It’s axiomatic that any system preying upon the vulnerabilities of the many, to profit the few, is both a moral and ethical atrocity. Capitalism embodies such a system. As originally conceived by Adam Smith “selfish interest” would theoretically extend “that universal opulence … to the lowest ranks of people.” But at some historical point his creation escaped. It turned malignant. Today, it serves only to increase the opulence of the opulent, while recruiting the rest of us to wage perpetual war against each other for survival. When, and why, did this occur? I’ll begin with a brief technical digression.

Psychologists have long used the diathesis/stress model to explain mental illness. The DSM-V defines mental illness as a syndrome of disturbances in cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior reflecting dysfunction in psychological, biological, or development processes. In medical terms, a diathesis is defined as a tendency to suffer from some latent condition. Stress defined as a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse circumstances. Also known as the vulnerability–stress model, the model attempts to explain mental illness as the result of the interaction between latent vulnerabilities (diathesis) and adverse life experiences (stress).

Not coincidentally, the U.S. leads the world in mental illness. More than 50% of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in our lifetime, and 20% of us will experience a mental illness in a given year. The perversion of Adam Smith’s originally benign, and arguably beneficial early conception is to blame — and the story of John Watson marks a good starting point to the divergence.

Watson was a behavioral psychologist at John Hopkins University, who, together with his research assistant Rosalie Rayner, conditioned an infant to fear a white rat by loudly striking a metal rod every time the rat was introduced. “Baby Albert’s” aversion was then extended to white rabbits, dogs, and cats. Watson made no attempt to decondition Albert leading to severe developmental and emotional difficulties.

Subsequently, the discovery of an affair with Ms. Rayner led to Watson’s expulsion from John Hopkins in disgrace (quaint — what progress we’ve made). It’s also known that three out of four of Watson’s children attempted suicides, two of them succeeding, due to Watson employing his children as subjects of his conditioning techniques. Yes, he was a moral monster.

But the moral monster landed on his feet. He took his ‘talents’ on the road to New York City where he rapidly climbed to the upper echelons of the Madison Avenue advertising world. He did so by employing his conditioning techniques on a public totally unprepared for incessant psychological warfare. Watson also inspired Edward Bernays — known as the Father of Propaganda — who is credited with ad campaigns popularizing female smoking under the banner of freedom. In short, Watson’s behaviorism copulated with Smith’s self interest and spawned the science of exploiting psychological vulnerability for profit. Capitalism became mental illness the moment diathesis met stress.

And long before the science of psychology, theology recognized that we all possess multiple diatheses that reduce our humanity. Christianity warned us against indulging these psychological vulnerabilities. They’re called the seven deadly sins, which are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. But virtually every religion forewarns against overindulgence in these base emotions and behaviors. Advertising, invariably appeals to precisely these base impulses.

Tying back to psychology, one’s imagination need not roam far to begin drawing parallels between these “sins,” and the ten recognized DSM-V personality disorders, known as: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Ultimately, one could go on at book length about the relationship between sin and psychological disorder. But for the sake of brevity, I’m certain you take my point.

As to the stress mechanism, Adam Smith supplied that with his theory of “selfish interest” providing collective benefit. And while it’s inarguable that being forced to compete in a self reinforcing and ever accelerating rat race has provided us with many industrial and technological milestones, we must ask ourselves: at what cost? The fracture of social cohesion? The immiseration of the many to benefit the few? Graft and corruption?

Over generations now, the diatheses and the stresses have combined and evolved together, entwining ever more tightly like tentacles around our collective throat. Over generations we have become inured to the impact upon our mental health. But make no mistake, the impact is real, as evidenced by a society that has become morally and ethically unhinged.

Ethically, our collective conception of the the utility of preying on the vulnerable among us is commonplace. We pride ourselves in becoming rich by selling snake oil. We turn our backs upon the poverty stricken while shunning them to makeshift camps, which we then tear down with impunity. And as amply demonstrated by the Covid 19 pandemic, we turn our backs on the oldest and youngest among us in the name of protecting the rights of the strong. We’re destroying the very planet that sustains us and massacring our fellow species that inhabit it in an orgy self-loathing masochism. Why? Why do we it find so difficult to be humane?

In a word: fear. We are taught to fear the success of our fellows by teachers aiming a fire hose of capitalist propaganda at us from the moment of conception. We are taught young to fear our precarious positions in life. And thus, we fight interminably for ascendance to the promise of opulence, displayed on TV by the Jones’ we’ll never meet. And from fear arise those close cousins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Oh, how well we’re taught young to fear falling behind those ubiquitous Jones’, ever parading their opulence before our eyes.

The result is predictable. Morally, our political leaders and captains of industry are insane with greed for wealth and power. How does someone need billions of dollars? And how can someone possessing billions of dollars look around the world, witness mass suffering, and do nothing about it while possessing the means to fix it? How can they use every tool at their disposal to crush the efforts of those who would try?

The answer is simple. Latent vulnerabilities, coupled with the stress of the hyper-competitive environment they were raised in, drive them insane. We all possess psychological vulnerabilities. We’re all incessantly exploited by well rehearsed behavioral tools. Algorithms, we call them now. And coupled with a conditioned creed to compete only for our own selfish interest, we’ve all grown sick in the mind.

Psychologically, we have been conditioned to accept an ethical system that treats atrocity as mundane, while simultaneously lionizing morally diseased monsters. We’re swaddled from birth in fear. We’re coddled on competition. And we age into insanity. This isn’t a portrait of a mentally healthy society. It’s a portrait of depravity on a mass scale — of capitalism as mental illness.

The Law of Equal Treatment

Last Friday, I wrote an article on the idea that if a society has a rule or duty, it must apply that to everyone in the applicable situation, no matter who they are, even if it’s someone you love. It was interesting to me that most of the commenters disagreed. Perhaps this is my fault, as I chose to use the famous example of a German general executing his own son for abandoning his sentry duty to fight and win a small skirmish, though I think this speaks partially to people not understanding how important sentry duty is — a group of soldiers ambushed in an encampment because sentries fail tends to get wiped out.

But whether the rule was reasonable or fair was NOT THE POINT. The point was that, if you have a rule, it must be enforced for everyone in the same situation. This can be a punishment, as in the example, or it could be a reward.

And that everyone isn’t just about people you love, it’s about you.

Ask yourself this: For what crimes, if you committed them, would you turn yourself over to the police? Those are the laws you actually support. You don’t support any other criminal laws, no matter what you say. This exercise may be a little hard, because most people support laws because they lack the imagination to conceive they would break them or be caught if they did, but give it a shot.

The law that everyone in the same situation should be treated the same is almost the most foundational law of a good society. Finland often ranked as having the world’s best education system. A researcher asked someone involved in designing and setting it up about how they did it, and they replied that hadn’t been the intention; they were trying to make sure that everyone was treated equally.

Again, though they didn’t say it, “in the same situation,” that clause is very important. If your kid is disabled in way X, they get treated the same as a rich or powerful person’s kid who is disabled in the same way. You can use power or money or connections to get better treatment, and not having money, power or connections doesn’t mean you will be treated badly.

There is a famous quote from Anatole France:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

These are bad laws, because they don’t acknowledge context. A better law about sleeping outside on another’s property might be that only those who have nowhere else to sleep can do this — with exceptions for camping and whatnot. Or, perhaps we would assume that if someone is sleeping outside they have a good reason, and when we see someone doing so in an odd place (a.k.a. not camping) we ask what the reason is, then get them some decent shelter if it’s because they have nowhere else. (As opposed to sending them to a homeless shelter, where theft and assault are common.)

If someone steals basic food, well, again, probably they need help because they’re hungry, and sending them to prison probably isn’t the best answer to the issue. In this case, the law might be that those who steal food and are found to not have the ability to otherwise feed themselves are sent to a social worker, not prison, and the state reimburses the business. Or perhaps a decent system of social support makes this sort of thing virtually not a problem. People who are old enough will remember that food banks were almost unheard of before the 80s recession because most countries had decent welfare system, and the chronic street people (of whom there were far fewer) were helped by soup kitchens run by a few large private organizations.

All of this is important. This is so basic that if it isn’t grasped, having a decent society is essentially impossible. Everyone must be treated the same in the same circumstances. Everyone. The poor and unconnected must be treated well when the rules say so, and the rich and powerful and connected must be treated badly when the rules say so. (Doing so is the best way to fix evil rules, by the way. Enforce them against the powerful.)

There’s a step beyond this, a prescriptive step. We’ll touch on that in a later article.


Failures of Democracy & the Original Intellectual Fascist

Bertrand Russel once called Plato the original intellectual fascist (in “A History of Western Philosophy,” which is well worth reading.)

In The Republic, Plato tries to come up with the ideal form of government and decides on a caste system, where children are educated, and then, based on their character and aptitude are divided into workers, enforcers, and rulers. The rulers are to be those who are philosophers by nature and training — those who love wisdom and are uninterested in wealth.

It’s easy to sneer at Plato, but there’s a reason why Whitehead’s line that “All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” has a lot of truth to it.

And one has to remember the context: Athenian democracy, the most famous in the Grecian world (and the most famous in Western history) had failed and been defeated by Sparta, after a reign of abuses which turned its allies against it. Entire cities were destroyed, with men killed and women and children sold into slavery. The most glorious city in their world, conquered and occupied.

Plato was never a democrat, and he hated Athenian democracy for killing his teacher Socrates, but he was looking at a real problem: those who became leaders in democracy were very often unsuited to rule. Pericles was great, aye, but he led Athens into a war it lost.

There are really two problems: the selection of leaders, and how they are treated. Lord Acton said that “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Tends is important; it doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to most. When you’re powerful, you don’t have to care about other people without power, and over time, most people tend not to.

Further, powerful people spend time with other powerful people as equals or near equals and, in time, they become their own faction, and look after their own interests and not those of people without power.

The story of “crusading politician goes to the capital and gets corrupted” is ancient. A cliche. It’s a cliche because it happens most of the time; there are exceptions, but they are exceptions.

So, for any and all societies, the question is: How should we select leaders?

As I’ve said before, there can be no question that all societies on Earth have failed the leadership selection test (with the possible honorable exception of tiny, powerless Bhutan). We have failed because we knew of climate change and ecological collapse and we did nothing; indeed, we put our collective foot, hard, on the accelerator.

There’s an argument that this is just how humans are. There have been multiple collapses in history, including ecological, and we never seem to do anything to stop them.

But there’s another argument that we can find a better way.

Leadership and followership are related. I had this first brought home to me when I was in elementary school. From the third grade to halfway through sixth grade, I was in a class where the boys had two leaders. They were best friends, and they were friendly, inclusive of everyone, and tolerated no bullying. It wasn’t that they stopped it, though on a couple occasions did I see them step in, it was that their example was so much the opposite that it just didn’t happen.

Then, halfway through sixth grade, I went to another school and the leader of the boys was himself a bully, and bullying was rife.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen how groups and organizations become like the people who run them. Leadership is incredibly powerful, just by example, even before any “power” is used.

So the most important question in improving human society and groups is improving how we select and treat leaders, and by this measure, representative democracy has rather obviously failed.

This is noted often by conservative neo-reactionaries, but such folks are misguided at best. The eras of nobles or aristocrats (two different things), or of kings, were not better — they were often awful. The rise of agricultural kingships lead to cruelty of a type and scale hard for us now to imagine, and that continued throughout their history. One common punishment in Tudor England was opening someone’s stomach, pulling out their intestines and burning them while the person was alive; crowds would gather, treat this as entertainment and have a party while it was going on.

The answer to democracy’s failures isn’t some foolish nostalgia for a time which was worse; we need to find something genuinely new, or we will keep stumbling from catastrophe to catastrophe, and at some point said catastrophe will wipe us out.

So I suggest to readers to consider the question, which Plato tried to answer, of how to select, train, and treat rulers — and I would add that they should act in the best interests of all, especially including those they don’t know, both who are alive at the same time the leaders are, and those who will be alive after they are dead.

This is the human problem. If we can’t solve it, we can’t have good societies — save by chance and for brief periods.


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