Stupid actions always have dire consequences
Back in 2009 The Economist magazine naively argued that despite the strong historical correlation between major economic downturns and an upswing in populism/nationalism, the 2007–2008 global recession had not led to the rise of populist Parties and politicians.
One can only wish that The Economist would hire journalists with a more adequate grasp of affairs.
Needless to say, by the end of 2016 it was apparent to even the most innocent journalist that a tsunami of mindless populism was sweeping the globe. Today, very few nations have escaped the toxic effects of populism/nationalism and to many observers it seems we are doomed to return to the stupidities of the 1930s, not least because we failed to learn anything at all from the history of those times.
Some years ago I wrote a book called Why Democracy Failed, in which I argued that representative democracy was an accidental outcome of unique historical factors and was able to stumble along for nearly two hundred years due entirely to the many impediments that precluded its proper implementation. Since World War II, however, those impediments have been removed one by one, and so representative democracy’s systemic flaws are now exposed.
The result: near-total dysfunction.
Today, politics is a sub-category of the entertainment industry and the road to power is through the mindless majority whose intellectual limitations lead them to vote for the most entertaining personality because any concept of coherent policy or cause-and-effect is utterly beyond their grasp. So we have Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Babiş, Modi, and all the other prancing blustering clowns whose infantile incapacity is every day on display, yet whose endless blunders and incompetence are regarded by the drooling howling mob as proof of their “strong leadership.”
In my book, I predicted that the West would be over just before the end of this century. Even total systemic collapse takes time, just as big ships don’t sink the instant a hole is ripped in their hulls. Today, however, I suspect the timeframe will be shorter. This year we’ve blindly stepped on the accelerator pedal.
The question is: why?
All the various news organizations and mass media have a simple formula: sensationalism at any cost. The contest to grab eyeballs is fierce, and only the most sensationalist content stands a chance of winning those essential moments of attention that can be translated into revenue. Thus “news” is actually mere sensation, and a policy of relentlessly “staying on message” ensures the masses aren’t confused by conflicting narratives.
That’s why 99% of all coverage is essentially the same, though there are of course differences in spin. Ultra-right-wing propaganda outfits like Fox News present lies and distortions to serve the cause of power at any price, while more moderate organizations cleave to whatever happens to be Politically Correct at any given moment. These small differences aside, however, the fact is that all these messages are monotonic.
As most people are totally ignorant of pretty much every aspect of life and know nothing meaningful about history, it’s easy to shape mass perception. In a world of constant distractions in which the average person knows more about sit-coms and sci-fi than any real-world matters, what we’re told is what we believe. It really is that simple. And as we’re not exposed to anything that would be off-message, we uncritically swallow whatever nonsense we’re fed.
And so when the mass media saw in covid-19 a golden opportunity to boost revenues, the entire world was thrown into hysteria. The fact that all the data showed clearly there was no existential threat didn’t matter at all. People were stampeded into panic, and politicians flailed wildly in search of strategies that would enable them to seem as if they were “doing something” in response to all the fear and clamor.
And so we shut down the world, imagining that everyone was about to die.
The media presents this global collapse of reason as “covid-19 shut down the world” but that is of course untrue. A virus can’t actually shut down anything. How can a virus close schools, make airlines ground their fleets, lay people off work, and all the other things we rushed to do because we were scared out of our already-slender wits? All of these actions were ours. We did these things. Left to itself, covid-19 would almost certainly have looked like just another severe flu season. Iceland and Sweden and the Netherlands are proof of this: they didn’t rush to lockdown and more than four months into the pandemic their death rates are no higher than in a bad flu season.
And their industries and hotels and restaurants and public services didn’t collapse as hundreds of thousands dropped like flies. Because hardly anyone got seriously ill. In fact, life went on almost as normal given the constraints imposed by the rest of the world shutting everything down all around them.
But facts and reason have no purchase on the herd mind. People believe what they’re told to believe, and the only acceptable message today is “we went into lockdown to save lives.” We studiously ignore the tens of millions of lives we’ve endangered across Africa and Asia by wiping out global logistics chains. We studiously ignore the tens of millions in the West who will never recover from this self-induced economic hardship. We cleave to the fairytale we’ve been fed by the media and eagerly embraced by politicians desperate to escape blame for decades of inattention to broken health care systems.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what we believe. The only thing that matters is that we’ve created a global Depression.
Anyone remember what happened last time the world experienced a global Depression?
Oh, yes, right! Mass economic suffering led to the desire for “strong leaders” to save us. We saw the inexorable rise of fascist Parties everywhere.
It’s pleasant to forget the fact, but nearly every country saw a huge upswell in support for fascism. In Britain Oswald Mosely was a successful politician and his British Union of Fascists had hundreds of thousands of supporters. The USA likewise had its own popular fascist movement, the Black Legion (which had emerged from the Ku Klux Klan) led by Virgil Effinger. France, always ready to embrace “strong” leaders, was full of eager fascists thronging to the Party Populaire who, during World War II, were only too eager to denounce their Jewish neighbors and profit from their confiscated assets. Fascists in Austria welcomed the Anschluss with open arms. Even the Dutch had a significant fascist Party that, of course, embraced the subsequent invasion by Nazi Germany.
After World War II everyone pretended otherwise. We all agreed on collective amnesia. History books were written claiming that the democracies had defeated fascism, which was presented as a uniquely external threat confined to Germany and Italy. The USA whitewashed its illegal detention of 120,000 citizens of Japanese descent. Every single person in France, including those not-yet-born, were members of The Resistance. We all pretended we’d been good.
We intentionally learned nothing whatsoever from history.
Due to the unique economic boom that occurred between 1950 and 1970, people began to feel secure and comfortable and so the toxic appeal of ultra-right and ultra-left ideologies faded somewhat, with only the emotionally and intellectually damaged continuing to seek comfort in their dogmas.
Today, thanks to our self-inflicted Depression, we’ve just thrown hundreds of millions of people into absolute financial insecurity. If you thought mindless populism was bad before, just wait until you see what’s coming over the next handful of years.
Far from exposing the absolute inadequacy of populist/nationalist buffoons like Trump, Modi, Johnson, et al, economic hardship will strengthen their appeal. And it doesn’t matter whether any of these clowns dies, is executed, or is replaced by an even more cynical and repellent creature. The trend is ineluctable: we will move far more rapidly than I originally predicted towards autocratic regimes.
But don’t worry: just as was the case with ancient Rome, we’ll preserve the outward trappings. We’ll still pretend that whatever we end up with is “democracy” and we’ll still imagine that democracy is a good thing.
The reality, however, will be political and social systems of increasing conformity and increasing self-harm. The ultimate destination is the collapse of Western society and the emergence of all manner of local authoritarian regimes. Almost certainly in most places these regimes will be supported by a theocracy eager to re-establish its influence over the masses, and so we’ll be told by both politicians and priests alike how wonderful things are now that we’re being protected by strong leaders serving the will of their gods.
We’ll still have toys to play with, though far fewer and far more expensive due to the collapse of global commerce. We won’t mind, however, because our tiny little ape brains will be focused on blaming everyone else for our problems. No matter how much we self-harm, it will always be someone else’s fault.
No prizes for guessing the inevitable outcome of such conditions.
And so, thanks to our mindless panic over a meaningless threat, we’ve accelerated the decline of our fragile civilization. We’re now rushing headlong towards the future, and it won’t be an era the more thoughtful among us would ever wish for our children.