The end of a unique experiment
Just as many people misunderstand evolution as an inevitable progression towards more and more advanced forms of life with humans comfortably at the top, so many people also misunderstand civilization as an inevitable progress towards greater prosperity, peace, and civilized values.
We take for granted the accumulation of thousands of chance events, seeing them as inevitable. We fail entirely to understand how precarious our civilization is, and thus how vulnerable we are as individuals to its erosion.
Reality is highly stochastic. The less we grasp the need for continual reinforcement of the fundamental components of our civilization, the more easily we let them slip away.
As the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell put it, You don’t know what you’ve got. Till it’s gone.
It’s worth trying to understand how we got here. We’ve enjoyed a few brief decades in which prosperity and (to a lesser degree) the rule of law seemed to be the norm for most in the West. So much so that most people assume this is the inevitable nature of society. In fact, however, nearly all of recorded history shows that the normal state of human society is tyranny in one form or another. Even today in our supposedly egalitarian societies it’s obvious that the wealthy and powerful enjoy privileges entirely denied to those in less fortunate positions.
So how did the nations of Europe, and those they influenced in North America and Australasia, come to enjoy the fruits of Western civilization? Why did Asian nations, despite having significant material and intellectual resources, fail to advance materially and politically until the 20th century when many began to copy Western models?
The answer is: sheer chance.
After the slow collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe devolved back into feudal blocs. One part of Rome clung on, however: the Christian church. Before 313 CE, Romans worshipped a pantheon of gods. This was the norm across what was then known as the civilized world. Polytheism has a great many advantages over monotheism because it’s easy to accept other people’s gods when you have such a large number of your own. When in Rome, one worshipped Roman gods and one’s personal gods of the hearth and home; when elsewhere one would continue to pay respects to Roman gods but also accept the validity of local gods and give acknowledgement to them too. This meant that until the arrival of monotheism in the Roman Empire, religious strife was largely unknown.
Unfortunately for world civilization, monotheism spread slowly through the Roman world in much the same way that cancer slowly spreads throughout a body. Attempts to suppress Christianity failed to eradicate it entirely and thus it kept on extending its tendrils. Eventually it became a way for Emperors to prop up their precarious position, much as today’s US right-wing politicians rely on the votes of evangelical Christians to secure office. By the time of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity had spread far enough for it to seem a useful resource and so it became expedient to embrace it officially.
Early Christianity would not be recognizable to any Christian today, however. It was full of doctrinal schisms and most of the tenets accepted by today’s Christians were either entirely unknown or at best obscure semi-heresies. Nevertheless, over the following centuries it evolved to the point where the Roman Catholic Church could claim a unified dogma and, more importantly, authority over the many squabbling feudal groups scattered across Western Europe. For the next thousand years the Roman Catholic Church controlled the destiny of Western Europeans regardless of their language, their royalty, and their geography.
All monotheistic cultures have the same problem: the claim of certainty.
Monotheistic myths are rooted in the idea of eternal verities. Every supposedly essential precept is contained within the foundation texts. Any deviation from these texts is necessarily wrong and therefore must be opposed by whatever means available.
Hence monotheistic cultures always stagnate. That’s why, for example, Confucianism meant China stagnated for centuries despite a few individuals making important advances in mathematics (Shen Kuo, Zang Heng, Su Song, among others) and in navigation (the voyage of Zheng He). It’s why after a brief efflorescence in the fields of science, Islamic nations have likewise stagnated.
Europe would have remained backwards and stagnant too had it not been for the chance event of a priest becoming so disillusioned with the blatant corruption of the Catholic Church that he penned 95 theses for reform. These theses were widely circulated and, because so many were likewise unhappy with the corruption of the Church, soon created an unstoppable but entirely accidental movement.
Martin Luther’s protests against the corruption that riddled Catholicism weren’t intended to split the institution. Luther genuinely believed the Church could reform itself. He imagined he was merely prodding it to do so. As we now know, however, like nearly every rotten body in history, the Catholic Church was beyond hope of reform. Where it could apply all the coercion at its disposal (including violence) the Church clung on; where it was less able to enforce its will, new varieties of Christian mythology emerged.
What mattered was not the minor doctrinal differences between these different versions of the Christian myth; what mattered was that none of the many little churches emerging across Northern Europe from the bloated corpse of Catholicism could establish dominance over the others. No Northern European leader wished to exchange the dead hand of Rome for an equally dead hand centered closer to home. Thus local varieties of Christianity were supported either overtly or clandestinely, and so dozens of different versions of Christianity flourished, all on a small scale.
This meant that Western Europeans could less easily be suppressed in the name of dogma. If your local version of Christianity was impeding your research or your publications, you could move to a neighboring country that had a slightly different version of Christian dogma and carry on there instead. Slowly, very slowly, this new freedom meant that new thoughts could be entertained. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, these new thoughts could spread throughout society. And so rapid innovation was born.
In the years between 1521 when Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and the present day, our species has experienced discoveries and innovations at an astonishing pace. It took our ancestors more than three million years to go from stone tools to fashioning implements out of bronze. We’ve gone from the longbow to the F22 Raptor in the blink of an eye.
During the same period of time we’ve gone from being ruled by monarchs to electing politicians for terms of office. We’ve gone from droite de seigneur to the idea (if not the practice) that everyone is equal under common law. We’ve gone from “knowing our place” to believing in “upward mobility.”
But all these changes occurred by sheer chance. If Luther hadn’t been brave enough to challenge the might of Rome, the entire future of Europe would have been very different. There was nothing inevitable about the protestant revolution: Rome had been blatantly corrupt for centuries and could easily have continued indefinitely.
In which case all the scientific and social progress we imagine to have been inevitable would in fact have been impossible.
Between the years 1945 and 2005 the entire world benefited (to varying degrees) from the innovations that first arose centuries ago in the small countries of Western Europe. In the sixty years following WWII, prosperity and innovation entirely unknown in human history lifted billions out of poverty. Tens of millions of people migrated to new countries and contributed to them immensely. Two persistent ills of humanity were greatly diminished: slavery, and the subjugation of women. For six decades it really seemed as if progress was an inevitable force that would gradually improve everyone’s lives everywhere.
So we became spoiled, petulant, and complacent.
The slow-witted and ignorant came to believe they are “just as good as” the more intelligent and well-informed. Self-indulgence and indolence came to be regarded as the norm. Meanwhile, thanks to the mass media, politics became a sub-category of the entertainment industry and so we began to elect “leaders” who are nothing more than infantile buffoons. We vote for them because the amuse us, because we can’t tell the difference between reality TV and real life.
Unfortunately, putting infantile morons into positions of power inevitably has catastrophic results, not unlike pouring strong acid over one’s favorite aunt.
So it is that everywhere we look today we see the triumph of mindless populism. Brexit, Trump, Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Orban, PiS, AfD, Erdogan, Le Pen, and so many others are all riding the unstoppable wave of populism/nationalism and creating havoc in their wake. The harm they create is not always intentional; as rather dim-witted individuals themselves, they react to the popular mood as much as they shape it.
Hence the catastrophically inept global reaction to the minor threat posed by covid-19. In a handful of months, all the progress so painfully made since the end of WWII has been stripped away and thrown into the trash.
Borders have closed. Nations blame one another. Politicians have inflicted on their own voters an economic meltdown greater than the Great Depression that began in 1929 and which spurred on World War II. Civil liberties have been abrogated in the name of “keeping people safe.” Job security has largely vanished for tens of millions of people.
Few now believe in any vision of international cooperation.
While we expect authoritarian regimes around the world to take advantage of this artificial crisis to exert an even tighter grip on their people, and while we expect the USA to continue its slide into dysfunction and irrelevance, it’s deeply sad to witness the end of the European Union.
The EU is the first large-scale human enterprise to be founded not through the application of force but by entirely means of an appealing vision. Commencing as a Coal & Steel Community comprising six founding members (France, West Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, and Luxembourg) that was explicitly intended to preclude any future war in Europe, the founding six gradually expanded as new nations sought to join.
No army imposed the EU on any member nation; countries lined up for admission because the benefits were so obvious. Never before in history had such a thing occurred.
By 2015 the EU could boast nearly 450 million people living in 27 different member States. Travel and trade across the zone was largely free of impediment and the Euro enabled those countries using it to avoid currency exchange costs. The rule of law was paramount and Europe saw itself as the heart of humanistic civilized values. Life was far better in most EU nations than anywhere else on Earth. Cultural differences were seen as part of a rich tapestry, not as a threat to be extirpated. Europeans were more educated, better informed, and more culturally aware than people elsewhere. Compared to the EU, the USA is a social an cultural backwater.
But now it’s all falling apart.
Panicked reactions to covid-19 have exposed the latent nationalism everywhere. As uninformed and thoughtless citizens panicked in reaction to the irresponsible sensationalist media coverage of the pandemic, politicians flailed wildly in search of policies that would minimize their loss of votes at the next election. No matter how obviously stupid or pointless or self-defeating a policy might be, provided it played well to the great mass of hysterical voters, it was embraced.
And thus the world threw itself into financial catastrophe, threw one and a half billion people into penury, and destroyed the very global commerce we all depend on for everything we enjoy. European leaders acted in precisely the same way as leaders elsewhere: they retreated into nationalistic policies that tore apart the founding principles of the European Union.
Today, 44% of Italians express a desire to leave the EU. Similar sentiments are heard elsewhere, and famously the British were so simple-minded as to vote for Brexit back in 2016 and then reconfirm this appalling stupidity at the last General Election. Meanwhile in Poland and Hungary, authoritarian regimes are ignoring the rule of law and the EU is ignoring their actions, thus ensuring that authoritarianism will spread unchecked.
Many of the jobs lost during the mindless panic we’ve just endured will never return. As economic insecurity always impels us to seek a “strong leader” to “save” us it’s evident that the future will quickly bring more authoritarian leaders who will impose increasingly harmful policies that will exacerbate the problems we face and thus create the next cycle of repressive authoritarianism. Everyone will blame everyone else for their own failures.
As the average person is neither intelligent nor perspicacious, most people will eagerly embrace the idea that all their self-harm is “really” the fault of others.
And that’s how wars begin.
Today southern European countries see northern European countries as the enemy. Northern European countries see southern European countries as feckless. The notion of shared values has evaporated like mist on a summer’s morn. Although Europe will attempt to return to normal by re-opening internal borders and initiating a limited transfer of funds from north to south, the damage is done and cannot be repaired.
Authoritarians in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and elsewhere will seize the moment and increase their power. Liberal values will be swept away as a brutal realpolitik crushes abstract ideas about individual freedom and rule of law. The EU will remain in name, but not in substance.
And thus, humanity’s unique experiment in attempting to overcome our hardwired atavistic impulses will crumble.
Our children will look back on us from the darkness of their future and wonder how we could have been so blind, so unthinking, and so infantile as to have thrown away what it took so long to create.
You don’t know what you’ve got.
Till it’s gone.