There are three ancient Chinese curses.
- May you live in interesting times.
- May you be recognized by people in high places.
- May you get what you wish for.
Of course, these are not ancient. Or Chinese. But they are curses. And it seems that the curses have been cast. We do live in interesting times. That’s what this blog is mostly about. Why we live in times of political turmoil. Why our democracies are increasingly unstable. Why the solutions proffered by experts seem hopelessly inadequate. In understanding the reasons for our interesting times, it is worth contemplating the other two – esp. the third.
Most of human history has been brutal. Subsistence agriculture with its risks of famine and disease. Predation from other species – and your own. Skirmishes. Wars. Battles. Warlords and the extraction of wealth from those weaker or less fortunate than themselves. People dreamed of peace. Dreamed of food and fat bellies. For life to be pleasant. To be nice. To be boring. There were consolations. Those of religious belief. The protection of fellow believers. Religions offer a complex mix of gifts but the offer of a supernatural guardian above vouchsafed by communal protection in the here and now should not be underrated.
And then human beings invented machines and flocked to the cities that housed these machines. Living standards plummeted even further in harsh, exploitative environments. New forms of communal identity emerged. Labour unions offered workers protection from those who would use them. The 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in a global economic depression and two Industrial Wars in the US, European and their colonies. Millions of dead. And then, unexpectedly, all our wishes were granted.
In 1947, US real GDP per capita was $13,513. By 2017, it had quadrupled to $52,879. The USA in 1947 roughly equates to Serbia or Algeria or China today. Ordinary inhabitants of Western nations are wealthy beyond the dreams of our ancestors. We have running water and electricity and sanitation and ovens and TV and iPhones. Mass industrial employment after World War 2 offered lots of jobs. Economies grew through increased productivity, increased labour force participation as women joined the workforce and populations boomed. The welfare states established in many nations offered a better distribution of wealth than ever before. Let the good times roll.
The old institutions came into the new world. The mainstream political parties in the newly rebuilt Western Europe were linked to either the Churches (Christian democrats) or the Labour Unions (social democrats and communists). The membership of these parties was still a mass phenomenon with millions of members – an engagement that mostly peaked in the 1950s.
While economic growth continued, the collective institutions that had offered protection for decades and centuries did not. Participation in organized religion in the Western world declined from the 60s onward. This is sometimes positioned as Religion losing the Battle of Ideas to Science. This strikes me as unconvincing. Yes, literacy and education continued grow – esp. in the domain of higher education. But the decline of religion has not led to a rationalist mass movement. While 20-30% of Australians do not identify with a religion, the number of Australians who actively participate in organized religion on a regular basis is nearer 20%. Most the population live in the “Valley of Meh” – religion is at best a source of culture identity or entertainment. However, the number of self-identified atheists is very small – much less than 1%. Those living in the Valley of Meh have filled their lives with all sorts of beliefs but they see no value in committing to organized religion. The welfare state can offer the same protections as religious charities. As for the afterlife, there are many sources of consolation – and some of us now live long enough to see death as a welcome release rather than an unwanted interruption. We have no need of visions of paradise. It is notable to me that the Western country where religion has stood strongest is also the country with an unusually dysfunctional and fragmented welfare state (Although I think the relationship between religion and social order in the US is more complex than uni-directional causal and effect). As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Churches then we would have them.
Meanwhile, union participation decreased. Now to some extent this is the result of anti-union policies deployed by conservative governments in the 1980s. The unions were already in decline. At their cores were men working in factories. The machines that had promoted the creation of factories in the first place continued to automate that work. Some of that work was outsourced overseas (but not as much as some people think). And the service sectors of Western economies expanded massively. Above all, the unions had won. Working people had a decent wages and social benefits. Now there are still very successful unions out there, but they are for middle class people and prefer to be called “professional associations”. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Unions then we would have them.
Political parties lie at the heart of representative democracy. Their influence runs in two directions. Firstly, they are conduits for popular desires and concerns into the structure of government. But they can also communicate the decisions and actions of government back to their members. They hold the political system together. However, they too are in decline. Their memberships have fallen 100-fold, from millions to tens of thousands. They have become associations for yet another profession – in this case, politicians. You can go from a degree in politics or law to a role as a researcher or a staffer to that of elected member without ever needing to work outside the political system. As with any insular coterie, they are bitchy and self-obsessed (along with the journalists who cover them and the lobbyists who try to influence them – each group validating the other). But despite the constant complaints, the system seems to kinda sorta work. Life goes on. Most of us make a dollar. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed engaged Political Parties then we would have them.
We appear to have the same institutions that we had back in 1945 but we they are nothing like the churches and unions and political parties that we had. They are far smaller and far more withered. Those who manage them must shoulder some of the blame for this. They have often been selfish and short-sighted. But we must also acknowledge our role – or rather, our lack of one. Our apathy and complacency has led to this. But does any of this matter? Let the good times roll?
Provided our society was under no stresses then this mismanagement and complacency would be irrelevant. However, there are divisions opening up in our society that we can only solve with politics. And if our democratic systems are busted then we might have to solve them in more unrepresentative or even violent ways. The forces that will tear our corroded systems apart vary from society to society but the big four are:
- Inequality in Western societies dropped between World War 2 and the early 1970s. Then it started to rise again. Recently it has taken the form of a concern about economic opportunity. Basically, do most citizens expect their lives to get better or not? Or do they fear that others will benefit at their expense?
- National Identity. We do not live in a period of unparalleled migration. The ethnic cleansing that occurred at the end of World War 2 was ferocious. Global, inter-state migration peaked in the late 1980s. But we do live in a period of where continued migration into Western countries is causing anxiety among some existing citizens. Demagogues would protect
- The Generation Gap. Thanks to the developments of medicine and the welfare state, Western citizens now live longer than ever. And the elderly have moved from being a poor element in society to holding a disproportionate level of wealth. Bigger and richer, they wish to shape society to their desires (which may include security and nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed). Meanwhile the young face a society in which they have limited influence and resources.
- The Education Gap. Higher education in Western societies exploded after World War 2. Holding a degree went from being an elite marker to something perfectly normal. And while university graduates do not make up the majority in Western societies, they are significant minority that control power and resources. Their aspirations and values may be different to those who have followed other educational paths. While they cannot dominate elections, they have significant economic advantages and tend to skew younger due to the timeframe of higher education explosion.
Obviously these four forces are interlinked. Obviously, they emerge in politics in different ways. They don’t always align neatly to existing political party divides (one can be an ethnic nationalist and favour either private markets or public ownership). There are oncoming forces that I don’t list here – environmental and technological change being the two most important that are obviously missing. These will create political stresses but they do not (as yet) form coherent political identities.
The Uncast Curse
So, we got what we wished for. And we live in interesting times. What of the middle curse? This remains, frustratingly, uncast. Many people in high places are aware of some or all of the things that I have mentioned here. They are not stupid. But it does not feel as if they are paying attention. Yet. We are still going through the motions with the institutions. We are still pretending that our existing political structures can absorb these new sources of tension. We are still painting over the cracks caused by our shifting foundations.
Things will go on. Until they cannot.