Why the West is finished
On 12th December the British people had an opportunity to vote for their next government. As the election was predicated almost entirely on the question of whether or not the UK should leave the world’s most successful trading bloc (the European Union), and as the preceding three years had made it abundantly clear that leaving would harm the UK in every imaginable way, you’d think the Brits would have voted for any Party offering the chance to remain within the European Union.
Instead they voted overwhelmingly for a Party led by a proven serial liar, an incompetent buffoon who is deeply corrupt and contemptuous of the rule of law. The British people voted for a Party led by a man whose lies have been exposed, whose promises have been shown to be utterly worthless, and whose behavior has been consistently reprehensible.
Meanwhile the one political Party offering both truth and a sensible way forward received so few votes it may now disappear altogether.
To understand why creatures like Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Bolsonaro, et al are consistently winning elections we need to understand some fundamentals about human psychology.
We are a group primate species. Lacking speed, agility, strong muscles, powerful jaws or sharp claws, we group primates survive only as members of a group. Our brains therefore are hardwired to belong to a group at all costs. For most of our evolutionary history, even if the group was led by a catastrophically inept individual, we would still have had a far greater chance of survival than if we’d attempted to go it alone. Until the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago the average survival time of a solo human bereft of a group would have been less than a week. Being a member of a group was the over-riding factor in human affairs.
Furthermore, because primate groups are always in conflict for resources with other local groups of the same species, changing groups is usually impossible. So we’re hardwired to stick with the group we were raised in. come what may.
As hardwired behaviors are the result of a complex set of interactions among potentially hundreds of different genes, the evolution of hardwired behaviors can only happen over timespans far greater than our written history. Thus we are, in a very real sense, still hunter-gatherers living in caves. Our smartphones and automobiles and airplanes and global supply chains are marvels of innovation resulting from the efforts of a tiny percentage of the population; the rest of us are merely apes stroking devices we cannot comprehend.
What this means is that our forms of social organization and our tribal loyalties are evolved for circumstances very different from those pertaining today. We’re hardwired to be loyal to our group, to think as little as possible in order to preserve precious scarce calories, and to obey The Great Leader. So when reality contradicts our beliefs we ignore reality because, for most of our evolutionary history, this had very little downside and a great deal of upside: continued membership of our group.
Today however the situation is reversed. And we have no way to adapt.
Our world has become very complex. We are inter-dependent with people we’ll never meet, in countries we’ll never visit, whose languages we’ll never understand. We have global-scale problems such as resource management and climate change. The scale of challenge means that only global inter-dependent solutions have any chance of success.
But meanwhile our tiny ape brains are clamoring for simplicity. And those who cynically lie and promise us simple-minded solutions are best placed to take advantage of our hardwired yearnings. They offer us easy answers that our tiny brains can (almost) encompass. They offer membership of The Group. They offer an enemy (foreigners) we can identify and oppose, thereby solidifying our sense of group solidarity.
In short, political success goes to those who unconsciously or otherwise exploit our hardwired instincts. That’s why the UK Conservative Party just won an overwhelming majority and will proceed to eviscerate the UK economy and society, all in the name of pursuing a mindlessly inadequate “vision” that is nothing more than running away from complexity and hiding under the metaphorical bed of faux nostalgia.
That’s why Trump won in 2016 and will win a landslide majority in 2020. That’s why populism is sweeping the world and undermining everything that made the West slightly more civilized than other nations.
When given a choice between a knee-jerk mindless reflex and attempting to grapple with real-world complexity, the vast majority of people will always choose the mindless reflex.
In 2016 I knew Trump would win the White House because I’d heard sensible and moderate Republicans say the same thing over and over: “I can’t stand Trump. He’d be a disaster for the country. But I’m gonna vote for him anyway because I just can’t face the idea of another Democrat being President.”
Real-world issues were no match for mindless tribal loyalty.
And this is why the West is finished. Sure, it may take another twenty years before everything collapses around us. The West is a big ship, and big ships take time to sink. Even the Titanic didn’t slip instantly beneath the waves despite the iceberg tearing away over 300 feet of its hull. But just as the fate of the Titanic was sealed the moment it made contact with the iceberg so the fate of the West was sealed the moment real-world complexity utterly overwhelmed our cognitive faculties.
By way of analogy let’s imagine an early automobile: a steering-wheel, three pedals, a manual gearbox. Now let’s imagine automobile engineers never considered the limitations of the human animal. They added air conditioning, electric windows, adjustable seats, windscreen wipers, radio and cassette players, a navigation system…. But instead of designing these things to be simple to use, they simply added more and more complexity. Pretty soon very few people would be able to drive without crashing into something because they were grappling with overwhelming complexity.
Well, that’s where we are with our modern world. We’ve added enormous amounts of complexity but we haven’t made any allowance for human cognitive and behavioral limitations. And so our systems of governance are now crashing everywhere we look.
Today, instead of uniting to solve global challenges we’re running away and hiding under the bed of mindless tribal behavior. We’re demonizing everyone who’s not like “us” and we’re voting for grotesque buffoons who promise only the most brain-dead “solutions” that are guaranteed to make everything much, much worse.
So where do we go from here?
The probability is that our species will accidentally exterminate itself at some point within the next 100 years.
Our amazing technologies are merely amplifying our hardwired folly. We cheer the mindless tyrant who promises us that our weapons are better that the other guy’s weapons. We cheer the blustering demagogue who undermines every civilized norm because we imagine we’re part of their team. Hey, we bought the hat, we re-tweeted the post, we laughed at the meme. Stands to reason nothing bad will happen to us, right…?
If we don’t go out in a blaze of monumental stupidity we will need to accept our fundamental cognitive and behavioral limitations and, like good automotive engineers, explicitly design systems of governance that take these limitations into account instead of pretending they don’t exist. If we do that, then perhaps we’ll stand some slender chance of rectifying the terrible blunders that have until now characterized our history since the accidental development of agriculture at the end of the last Ice Age.
But my money is firmly on stupidity-induced Armageddon.
It is who we are, in the deepest and most intractable part of ourselves.