Hope In Darkness
Why despite all evidence to the contrary, and without being naively Steven Pinkeresque, there may be reason to look forward to a better future
We live, as the Chinese would say, in an interesting time.
Since the middle of the last decade we’ve seen a tsunami of mindless populism sweep the globe, with predictably catastrophic consequences. As a result, the thin veneer of civilization upon which we all rely is being stripped away while ordinary people go about their lives utterly oblivious to what is happening around them. At best, a few look at events in their own nation and imagine the problem is entirely local and unique.
In the USA excitable liberals have been celebrating the fact that an entirely uninspiring geriatric candidate received enough protest votes to defeat the populist incumbent who gained the second-greatest percentage of votes in US history. But these celebrations are naïve at best, for key elements of the Republican Party have made it plain that they will do everything possible to hold onto power regardless of the cost to the nation. Although Trump may slither out of the White House in a few weeks, his poisonous legacy will grow and grow like cancer. In the next four years the far-right Supreme Court will overturn decades of liberal judicial activism and a Republican-dominated Senate will emasculate the feeble Biden Administration as it emasculated the naïve Obama Administration and the haphazard Clinton Administration.
In the UK the British are adopting their usual passivity and meekly accepting Brexit, telling themselves that surely it won’t really be as bad as all the indicators show and that by magic if people can just keep their heads down and bumble along then all will be well. In continental Europe, naïve politicians imagine that they can co-opt the votes going to far-right and neo-fascist Parties by adopting some (but surely not all!) of a basket of far-right policies — a strategy that history shows conclusively will end in failure because it validates and thus empowers far-right causes. Intolerance and racism will increasingly eat away at civilized values until each nation is blaming every other nation for its home-grown woes.
And we know how that always ends.
In India Narendra Modi continues to wreck the economy with his infantile economic and social policies while assiduously stirring up religious hatred against India’s 195 million Muslims — a tactic that will inevitably result in genocide on a scale never before seen. And in South America populism is making its inevitable return after a too-short break, dragging in its wake the inevitable consequences.
Africa remains a vast continent in which tribal alliances overwhelm any other factor in politics, enabling leaders of the majority tribe to democratically misrule and loot their countries and then eventually pass on the right to misrule and loot to their immediate relatives.
There is one strand that explains all of these seemingly disparate events: they are all the fruits of representative democracy.
Representative democracy is the only system we’ve so far invented that enables blustering infantile incompetents to gain power. Military coups require a modicum of organizational skill, forward planning, and cohesion; but representative democracy requires only publicity. With enough media coverage, the most entertaining moron wins the greatest number of votes — and media coverage is assured for the most entertaining moron because their antics will reliably grab more eyeballs than the other candidates and thus generate more revenues for the media organizations that provide billions of dollars of free publicity.
As most people are wholly ignorant of even the most rudimentary knowledge concerning matters of real importance, and as most people are easily duped, this means the mass media enables charlatans and liars to capture the hearts and minds of a huge number of voters by repeating and thus amplifying the lies and impossible promises made by the most unscrupulous candidates. As ordinary people know nothing, they accept what they’re told at face value. What small child would not vote for free ice-cream forever? What empty-headed adult would not vote to Make ‘Muka Great Again or Take Back Control?
Ordinary people know nothing and understand nothing. They imagine what they see on TV or on social media is real. Ordinary people are intellectually incurious and would never dream of seeking out reliable sources, acquiring the intellectual skills that would enable them to assess claims by means of reference to real-world data, and drawing logical conclusions from hard evidence. Ordinary people believe whatever they’re told by purported authority figures — and the more simple-minded the assertion, the easier it is to believe. Hence populist nonsense is eagerly accepted over complex facts.
Furthermore, the essence of populism is an appeal to our worst instincts. Populism works by creating adversaries, generating fear, and then stirring hatred. Even at the best of times most people are incapable of coherent thought; populism ensures that whatever slender capacity for reason that formerly may have sporadically made itself felt is suppressed entirely. The mob is happiest en mass, cheering for the Great Leader who will save them from the (fabricated) threat.
Everywhere we turn we see the same thing: Trumpies fear and loathe Hispanics and Lib’ruls because populist politicians pretend these people are an existential threat to every US citizen’s right to be obese, superstitious/religious, and gun-toting. Brexit voters fear and loathe Europeans because populist politicians pretend the EU is an existential threat to every British citizen’s right to sit on the sofa drinking cans of lager and eating junk food while watching endless re-runs of Who Dares Wins. Hindu voters fear and loathe Muslims because populist politicians pretend Muslims are an existential threat to every Hindu’s right to force women into arranged marriages and mistreat Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) with impunity.
When we ask people who vote for Trump, Modi, Brexit, AfD, PiS, Orban, Erdogan, Putin, et al why they support such nonsense, they merely repeat the sound-bites and slogans they’ve been fed. The hard fact is that we humans aren’t evolved to think; in fact we’ve evolved to avoid thinking whenever possible because for most of our evolutionary history this was the most adaptive strategy available. Consequently our complex interconnected technological world is utterly beyond the grasp of 99.9% of the population. Not surprisingly, people seek simple-to-understand memes and sound-bites in preference to attempting to comprehend even a tiny fraction of reality.
It’s clear, therefore, that as populism continues to wreak its baleful toll, our Western style of civilization is coming to its inevitable end, undermined by ineradicable ordinary human stupidity.
Yet despite the fact the next few centuries will make the Dark Ages that supervened after the collapse of the Roman Empire look good in comparison, there are reasons to be optimistic about the longer-term view — at least for those of our descendants who manage to survive the coming centuries of horror and privation.
It is highly unlikely that as our civilization collapses we’ll lose every aspect of the technologies we take for granted today. There will, in consequence, be historical records that future generations can study. There will be knowledge that is not entirely lost — and among the most important shards of understanding will be those concerning human cognition and our hardwired inescapable behaviors. When we realize that we humans are essentially baboons with better technologies, we can begin to understand our fundamental limitations and the implications of those limitations. From here we can begin to consider ways to mitigate our hardwired tendencies.
Much as automotive engineers mitigate ordinary human incompetence by building in antilock brakes, airbags, crumple zones, and departure warning systems into everyday motor vehicles so too we need to engineer safety features into our modes of government. Instead of pretending that ordinary people are adequate drivers, we strive to build ever-safer vehicles. Instead of pretending that ordinary people are capable of adequate reasoning and behavior, we should strive to build ever-more-efficacious governance systems — and ensure they continuously evolve in response to changes so as to avoid the otherwise inevitable capture by special interests.
Clearly any improved approach to governance must also tackle the hard problem of information flows. We have overwhelming evidence today to show that our current approach is guaranteed to destroy all civilized values as the media races to the bottom to generate the most revenues. If ten people are interested in a program about quantum mechanics but ten million want to gawp at two trailer-trash couples fighting, it’s obvious where the media will go. And, as pointed out near the beginning of this article, lowest-common-denominator freak show entertainment guarantees the success of populism. And populism is always toxic because it relies on stirring up the very worst aspects of our hardwired behaviors.
My optimism comes from the fact that populism today is worldwide. Those who look back, centuries from now, won’t be able to delude themselves that Trump or Brexit or Modi or Erdogan or Putin or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Jarosław Kaczyński or AfD et al were somehow unique isolated phenomena possible only in one country or one region. Those who look back will see that representative democracy combined with an always-on sensation-seeking mass media to guarantee the victory of mindless populism, which in turn guarantees the end of civilization.
And thus, from the complete and unambiguous ruin of a wholly dysfunctional self-reinforcing system, may come better understanding of the problems of governance.
With better understanding can come better solutions.
So while our children, their children, and their children’s children will have to endure the horrors we have unthinkingly created for them, perhaps there will be light at the end of the long dark deathly tunnel. Perhaps next time we’ll engineer less inadequate systems of social order and thereby arrive at a way to make less damaging decisions.
It is, frankly, the only possible hope left.