What is the point of politics?

‘Politics is not worth a lightning bolt to me. Throw it to the sharks,’ the Dutch band Normaal sang in 1984. Many people in democracies experience disillusionment with their government and political system, but the feeling is not new. Something appears to be wrong with politics. But what is the problem, and what are the solutions? Perhaps, we expect too much of our politicians as they often have limited influence on affairs. Maybe, politicians interfere with issues that are the domain of experts. And what is the point of politics when there is no food on the table?

Still, there has been some progress in political institutions. Political institutions can be customs, laws, government organisations, and other arrangements. Human nature does not change, and politicians have remained more or less the same, but our forefathers devised political institutions to provide political stability and make governments work better. They learned from previous mistakes, so there was some improvement. But institutions can outlive their usefulness because societies change over time. So, what is the point of politics? To answer that question, it might be good to start with the basics.

The basics of politics

Humans flexibly cooperate in large numbers. That made us so successful as a species. To do that, we need language to describe what is happening. For instance, during a hunt, I can tell you that a deer hides behind the tree in front of us. Some animals have languages to communicate about the whereabouts of food or enemies, but human language serves more purposes. Most notably, we gossip and discuss what others are doing and thinking. That gives us more accurate information about other people in the group, for instance, who can do a particular job best. We use this information to cooperate in sophisticated ways.1

Another essential feature of human language is not gossip but the ability to convey information about imaginary things. Many forms of large-scale human cooperation, such as nation-states, religions, corporations, laws and money, are fictions that exist only in the collective imagination of human beings. Our collaboration depends on shared beliefs or collective imaginations.1 If you believe that a piece of paper is money, but I do not, we cannot trade. If I think a law exists, but you do not, we may get into a conflict. And if we share the same religion, we can do things together, like praying or building a temple.

Politics usually deals with questions like: what should we be doing as a group, which are our rules, and who will lead us? What we are going to do, is decided by ideas like we should sow crops in the spring, do a rain dance in the summer to please the rain fairy, and harvest in the autumn. Doing a rain dance in the summer is a rule. It depends on our belief in the rain fairy, our collective imagination. Religions and ideologies more or less play the same role in politics. Ideologies are beliefs too. They can be wrong. For instance, we could expect better results from an irrigation system connected to a nearby lake. And ideologies like socialism and liberalism do not work in practice as their proponents claim.

The rules could dictate that we need a priest for the religion of the rain fairy. Every year, he leads a procession while holding the stature of the rain fairy in front of him before the rain dance begins. The priest is a sage of the village. The priesthood is open only to highly esteemed men of a certain age. If rain does not come and the crops fail, the question of who will lead the procession next year becomes of the utmost importance, as harvests depend on rain and, therefore, on pleasing the fairy. Our ability to gossip allows us to evaluate potential candidates. And so, the village may elect a new priest, hoping the fairy will send rain next season. If droughts are rare, this approach usually seems to work.

This short tale about the village that worships the rain fairy and elects a priest explains a lot about politics. There is a belief system. There are rules about the priesthood, and the priest has authority. Villagers believe the priest can influence the rainfall. Political leaders can influence what happens, but in many cases, they have to deal with circumstances over which they have little control. Leaders might revert to public display, like doing a rain dance to show the public they are working on the problem because building an irrigation system is not an option in our religion. Imaging can trump facts, but the underlying cause is often not politicians but our beliefs, for instance, the imagination that rain dances promote rainfall.

The big man

We are social animals, and politics is part of our nature. Traditional societies have politicians too. For instance, the big man is the leader of a family group or a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. No one is born a big man, nor can a big man hand that title down to his son. Rather, his position has to be earned. It falls not necessarily to those who are physically strong, but to those who have earned the community’s trust, usually on the ability to distribute pigs, shell money, and other resources to the members of his tribe. The big man must constantly be looking over his shoulder, because a competitor for authority may be coming up behind him. Without resources to distribute, he loses his status as a leader.2

This description comes from Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order. The big man is a politician. Much of politics comes down to distributing resources and favours. To become the leader, the big man forges a coalition of followers, and his followers benefit once he becomes the leader. A big man can also take actions that benefit the entire community. Likewise, a politician can look after the interests of his followers or work in the public interest. Also, the ideology-based programmatic political parties in Europe operated for the benefit of their voters. For instance, labourers often voted for socialist parties because they expected to benefit, while business owners often voted for liberal parties for the same reason.

The role of institutions

Our disappointment with politics is not always justified. Politicians in modern democracies are like the big men in Papua New Guinea or the priests of the rain fairy. And in democracies, the citizens elect their leaders, so why do we not elect better ones? Hence, the room for improvement in the quality of politicians appears limited. But we cannot do without politics. After all, it is part of our nature. The programmatic ideological political parties of Western Europe may have been an apex in the development of politics. They promoted general policies in the interest of their constituency rather than benefits for individuals.

These parties have lost their lustre. Today’s world differs from the world where these parties emerged and flourished. If you were born in a socialist or Roman Catholic family in the Netherlands in 1900, you remained a socialist or a Roman Catholic for the remainder of your life. Society was stable and politicians didn’t need to compete for attention. The ideologies and religions of these parties have not passed the test of time. They do not answer the questions of today. And many voters think traditional parties have neglected their interests. In the absence of better ideas, politics became more about personalities and emotions.

Institutions can raise politics beyond the level of individuals and their interests, emotions and weaknesses. Traditional societies already have them. For instance, the practice of electing a new priest if the crops fail is an institution. This arrangement answers the question of what we should do on such an occasion. Otherwise, villagers might disagree and start a bloody conflict. After all, the harvest is of the utmost importance, so if you do not have faith in the measures taken, you must protect yourself and your family. But institutions like rain dances do not guarantee good outcomes.

The Chinese were the first to develop a modern state with a rationally organised administration with merit-based recruitment and promotion. It was one of the most significant improvements in state institutions in history. But Chinese emperors did not have to pass an exam. They usually inherited the title or emerged from a power struggle. Emperors had unchecked powers. So the question was how to guarantee a continuing supply of good emperors?2 You cannot, but perhaps institutions can protect the country from poor rulers. And this problem does not go away by electing leaders. That is why democratic states also have institutions, most notably, the separation of powers.

The separation of powers aims to split the state into three independent branches, which are the administration (the executive), the parliaments (the legislative) and the courts (the judiciary). Each has its responsibilities, and the branches do not interfere with each other’s tasks. Parliaments make the laws, the administration executes them, and the courts verify whether they are applied correctly. Ideally, the administration has no power over the parliaments and the courts, for instance, the administration should not nominate or appoint candidates for the parliaments and the courts, and the courts should stay out of political affairs, which is the domain of parliaments.

As political leaders often change or are controversial, many nations have a ceremonial head of state to provide a sense of stability and continuity in the form of a person. Some countries hold on to their royal families, while others have presidents. Usually, ceremonial presidents are highly respected individuals who are supposed not to interfere with political affairs. Royals can also provide a stable sense of nationhood, but kingship is a birthright. Kings do not need to have particular qualities, so they may lose respect, while a ceremonial president usually has earned respect.

Our predicament

Improvements in democratic political systems are possible, but our current predicament is not so much the result of a lack of democratic oversight of governments. Our belief systems are at stake here, for instance, nationalism, socialism and liberalism, but also cultures, religions and traditions. And money can buy influence in politics. That has always been so, but wealth inequality has increased in recent decades, creating a self-reinforcing trend. Existing ideas and ideologies are models of reality with assumptions that do not always apply.

For instance, you can analyse the economy from a socialist or a capitalist perspective. The results are very different, and neither is entirely wrong or right. The proponents of ideologies and religions have an explanation for everything. Within the confines of their models, their arguments make sense. If you believe in the rain fairy, it makes perfect sense to think she is angry if rain does not come. We all have beliefs, and so do I. And it might surprise you how often I find my opinions wrong. We should let go of them and see them as models of reality with merits and limitations. That allows us to have rational debates.

Our political institutions are based on ideas from the past. Clinging to defunct ideas is like doing rain dances to prevent harvest failures. If existing ideas do not work anymore, troubles arise. If crops continue to fail because of persistent droughts, some villagers realise that electing a new priest does not solve the issue, and they may get into conflict with adherents of the religion of the rain fairy. And even though the causes appear complex, our predicament is about the failure of ideas. We are at a crossroads and some developments may soon alter human existence:

  • We are running out of resources, and a protracted period of economic decline might be upon us. Our institutions are built for growth. And so, we could expect political instability to increase.
  • Nation-states and their ambitions pose a constant threat to peace. To have peace, we need the world to be unified under one leadership, which could be democracy on a global level.
  • Humans may soon enhance themselves with biotechnology, information technology, and cyborg engineering, and may turn into post-humans with abilities we do not have, while artificial intelligence may make decisions for us.
  • Post-humans might already exist and created virtual universes for their personal entertainment. We may find out that we live inside one of those universes and who owns our universe.

Apart from that, several developments have converged to make existing political systems increasingly dysfunctional:

  • Political institutions developed on a national level. They are not well-suited for today’s globalised world. At the same time, existing global institutions lack legitimacy.
  • Globalisation changed politics. Wealth inequality is extreme, mass migration creates new social problems, while elites have undue political and economic influence.
  • Individualism makes it harder for people to rally for common causes, make sacrifices, and for individuals to submit themselves to agreed collective purposes.
  • Identity politics pits people against each other. In the past, it was about nations, but nowadays it is often about religion, gender, race, and political orientation.
  • The outcomes of policy measures are often not easy to estimate as many factors interfere. Usually, there are unintended consequences. We must allow for a degree of trial and error to arrive at improvements.
  • Many issues are of a technocratic nature and involve science and uncertainty. Most people have not learned to evaluate scientific research and statistical analysis.
  • Parliaments are theatres where politicians compete for voter attention. They often do not quietly and diligently work on the nation’s problems.
  • Many important decisions are made outside the public view. Governments and businesses collect data about us. We often do not know what is going on.

Each country has a distinct history, hence unique institutions, laws and arrangements. Nowadays, many critical issues are global, but it is not the level at which states operate. As a result, the influence of the elites and wealth inequality increased, and the elites became less accountable. The issues we face, like global warming, crime, and infectious diseases, require a global approach. Businesses increasingly operate internationally. Existing world institutions lack legitimacy and democratic oversight. And there are issues with democracy itself.

Liberal democracy emanated from liberalism, which centres around the individual. We are social animals and collaborate in groups and societies. Liberals may neglect societies. Most notably, neoliberalism helped to undermine their social fabric. Societies are more than social contracts. They can make people feel they belong to a community and it is a basis of social cohesion. That is why we can become emotionally attached to our nation-states.

The liberal view holds that you are free to do as you please unless you harm others. That can work well if we correctly identify harm to others. In the past, the definition of harm has been too narrow. As a result, we now have to deal with consequences like the disintegration of societies, mass migration, pollution and depletion of resources. Liberal democracy works best when there is a balance of power between social groups, and none can dominate the others. In recent decades, the balance of power shifted in favour of corporations and wealthy people, and conditions became less favourable to liberal democracy.

Individualism allows us to appreciate personal experiences and feelings. Everyone’s life is different, and you do not know how it is to be someone else who has a different life. For instance, a white man can never truly understand how it is to be a black woman and how it is to be discriminated against by whites and to be beaten up by her jealous boyfriend. That is true, and personal experiences can help to identify underlying problems, but once personal feelings get the upper hand, there remains less room for objective reality. And solutions more likely come from addressing facts than from catering for sensitivities. But people often desire attention and understanding rather than solutions for their problems.

It is hard to interpret data, scientific analysis, correlation and probability when multiple causes interfere with the outcome. In economics, that is all too clear, and the mathematical models that economists use can give us a false impression of exactness. Scientists can err, but usually, it is up to science to prove that. For instance, we use coronavirus vaccines based on a risk assessment. There is a chance the vaccine harms you, so you only take it if the disease is more dangerous than the vaccine. Vaccine sceptics have a different assessment of the risks of the disease and the vaccine, often based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, the coronavirus vaccines are of a new type, and their long-term consequences are not yet known.

We do not always know beforehand what will work. Technocratic issues usually are not well-suited for politics. Measures can have unintended consequences. Improvements may come from trial and error, and problems often are not fully solved. Politicians may not be interested in improvement. Instead, they may tout their ‘solutions’ based on their ideology or religion and simplify matters to play on the emotions of voters. Perhaps you have the impression that politicians are more occupied with political theatre or doing the bidding of lobbyists than the betterment of your country. You are not alone.

The boards of corporations and government agencies make decisions that affect us all. Meanwhile, corporations and governments collect data about us. Their decisions usually stay outside the public view. Lobbyists influence the political process and often operate in secret. On the local level, business representatives befriend politicians and civil servants who grant them contacts. These things happen everywhere, and also in countries with low levels of corruption. Successful people in business and politics spend much time on social networking. The elites are, above all, a social network.

We are accustomed to growth, for instance, economic growth, and so are our political institutions, but we are using more than Earth can provide. To prosper in the future, we must change how we live. We hope for a better future but think in material terms, not well-being. Property, not happiness or love, has become the ultimate goal in many lives. And for many, the ultimate nightmare is to own nothing and be happy. We will not elect politicians who tell us we have to do with less. The expectation of material gain defines our political systems. After all, big men distribute resources to their followers.

The limits of democracy

In democratic countries, leadership often changes, and that can cause discontinuity. Dictators often stay in power for a long time. The limits of democracy are most visible in times of crisis because there is freedom of speech and the press. Usually, the institutions of a nation provide political stability, but if people think the institutions fail, political instability ensues. Today, this is most visible in the United States where political violence is rising. China is moving ahead and may become the most powerful nation in the near future. During the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union also powered ahead but failed later on. And so, China’s success is not necessarily a failure of democracy.

Politicians often do not do what they promised to do. There might be political struggles that deflect attention away from the nation’s problems. And democracies can make poor decisions when voters don’t like much-needed measures. In times of upheaval, voters might opt for a leader who promises to take drastic action, for instance when the economy has collapsed or when insurgents and criminals wreak havoc. The most notorious example is Adolf Hitler. The suffering of the Germans during the Great Depression and the inability of politicians to solve the economic crisis helped Hitler to grab power.

Political debates can be about facts, interpretation of facts, and fiction, for instance, the rain fairy, reptilians, or the Jewish deity. People also believe in money, laws, nation-states, and corporations, but these fictions create reality. In other words, we make these imaginations come true. Our faith in the rain fairy does not produce a rain fairy, but this religion might promote social stability. Lying and misrepresenting facts to forward political goals can undermine the functioning of democracies. Usually, people believe these lies. Politics is about which collective imaginations should drive our decision-making. A correct assessment of the situation likely leads to more favourable outcomes. Ridicule and containment probably are better countermeasures than banning free speech. After all, sometimes crazy ideas turn out to have merit.

Even in stable and functioning democracies, citizens often lack faith in politicians. Politicians are easy scapegoats if things go wrong. Most people do not see their contribution to a problem. Parliaments are not a representation of the population at large. Those who like to talk, for example, lawyers and teachers, tend to be overrepresented. Engineers who know how systems work tend to be underrepresented. Perhaps that is why laws often fail to meet the intended objectives. Poor people and people with little education also do not enter parliaments in large numbers. And so, politicians neglect their interests.

Perhaps giving citizens more responsibility via direct democracy can make democracy work better. If you voted for it, you won’t blame others if it goes wrong. And that can make you think better about the consequences of your choices. Switzerland uses referendums in addition to parliaments. The Swiss are content with their political system. Hence, it could be an improvement. Implementing direct democracy the right way is not simply introducing referendums. After all, good institutions do not guarantee good outcomes. Referendums can go wrong, for instance, by reducing complex matters into simple yes-or-no questions. Referendums work well in Switzerland because the conditions in society are favourable. Switzerland has a political climate in which citizens civilly debate issues, and people are willing to compromise.

Swiss democracy

 
Switzerland combines representative democracy (the use of parliaments) with direct democracy (voting on issues by citizens). The Swiss are satisfied with their political system so it might be an improvement to political systems in other countries.

As they say, freedom comes with responsibility. Perhaps, we can only be free if we consider the interests of everyone else because our choices can impede the liberty of others. And so, individual liberty may only thrive with social equality. Societies that succeed in combining personal freedom and social equality tend to be the happiest. The American natives had a great degree of individual liberty and social equality. When making decisions, they strived for consensus. They could be an example to us.

The Great Law of Peace

 
Is a more equal and free society possible? In the year 1142, five North American tribes formed a league known as the Five Nations. The league still exists. Their arrangements are not uncommon in tribal societies, and we could learn from them.

Some countries have done a better job of creating a prosperous, free and equal society than others, and their examples can help to lead us to a better future. Denmark is such a country, and Francis Fukuyama calls the issue of creating a prosperous, free and equal society ‘getting to Denmark’. Denmark combines a competent government with a cooperative relationship between unions and employers. The Danish economy is innovative, incomes and social benefits are high, and labour markets are flexible. Many pundits argue that cultural differences block the introduction of these features into other societies. It is not easy and takes time, but it helps when everyone agrees on the goal and helps to make it happen.

Featured image: House Of Commons in the United Kingdom. Parliament.uk. [link]

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

Earth from space

The sacredness of Creation

Thus spoke Chief Seattle

In 1854, the native American Chief Seattle gave a speech when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. You can read it by clicking on the above link.

Different versions of Seattle’s speech are circulating. In 1971, a screenwriter wrote the text you just read. It subsequently became a religious creed within the environmentalist movement. It differs significantly from the first published text compiled from memories and notes of one of the attendants. As is often the case with religion, historicity is not of the essence. It is an inspiring speech.

The message strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our planet and our humanity. The white man may think he owns the land, but he does not. He may think he controls his destiny, but he does not. We share a common destiny. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the children of the Earth.

As long as production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than we can solve old ones with laws, technology, targets and other solutions. Most of us believe that structural changes are impossible, but acknowledging a problem is the beginning of a solution. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, our beliefs and thinking and our place in the universe. Small steps cannot save us. We need to completely change the way we live. God gave us this planet on loan. As long as we do not change our ways, our societies will not become more humane and respectful of Creation.

People within the environmentalist movement tried to make the planet and everything on it sacred and claimed that everything is interconnected. In 1991, the environmentalist group Strohalm issued a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness.1 It lays out Strohalm’s vision for a sustainable and humane society.

The principal founder of Strohalm is Henk van Arkel, a dedicated individual who remained its driving force for many decades. His views mask that Van Arkel is a moderate man who does not blame anyone in particular for our current predicament. In 1993, I became familiar with Strohalm when I joined the environmentalist movement.

I knew that the people from Strohalm were right, but I also believed they were naive dreamers. People will not change their lifestyles out of their free will. And we cannot do without energy. But as we are heading for an apocalypse, we cannot allow a false sense of realism to stand in the way of what we should do. Things have to change dramatically. Perhaps, there is a way out, but it will not be easy.

Featured image: Earth from space. NASA. Public Domain.

1. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Thus spoke Chief Seattle

The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him since we know he has little need for our friendship in return.

We will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.

But how can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them from us?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

The red man has always retreated before the advancing white man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun. But the ashes of our fathers are sacred. The graves are holy ground, and so these hills, these trees, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care.

He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, or sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath―the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a many dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever, happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the children of the earth.

This we know. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

We may be brothers after all; we shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover―our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.

This earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

God gave you dominion over the beasts, the woods, and the red man, and for some special purpose, but that destiny is a mystery to the red man. We might understand if we knew what it was that the white man dreams―what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights―what visions he burns onto their minds so that they will wish for tomorrow.

God loves us all. One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st century Roman artwork

Rational debates and historical processes

The discovery of ignorance

Is there progress in ideas? And can we achieve progress in thought by rational debates and persuasion? These questions are not easy to answer, most notably because people disagree. Still, some ideas may be better than others. So, how can we achieve progress or can we not? Socrates was a Greek philosopher who pondered this question. He lived around 400 BC and was the founder of the practice of rational debate. Socratic debates are discussions between two or more people with different viewpoints who wish to establish the truth using reasoned arguments. Asking and answering questions is a critical component of this process. It stimulates critical thinking and draws out ideas and underlying presuppositions.

In his dialogues, Socrates acted as if he was ignorant. According to Socrates, admitting one’s ignorance is the first step in acquiring knowledge, and awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. The discovery of ignorance can wake you up and push you into pursuing knowledge. For instance, the discovery of America, a previously unknown continent, was a shock to the European worldview. There was an entire continent that nobody in Europe had known. It set in motion the Scientific Revolution. European scientists started to ask themselves what more they did not know. They began to investigate anything they could think of.1 After 500 years, science has completely altered the way we live.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel’s dialectic

By the year 1800, the idea of progress was firmly established. The impact of scientific discoveries began to increase and the Industrial Revolution took off. Societies began to change and enlightenment ideas were spreading. The American Revolution followed the Glorious Revolution in England. During the French Revolution, the masses mobilised for the first time, and they ended the corrupt old regime. The armies of Napoleon then spread enlightenment ideas over Europe. It was the time when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came up with a scheme for rational arguments. It consists of three stages:

  1. A theory is invented. Hegel calls it the abstract.
  2. The theory is criticised or tested. Hegel calls it the negative.
  3. The criticism and testing lead to a better theory. Hegel calls it the concrete.

Alternatively, the three stages of Hegelian dialectic are presented like so: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved in the synthesis. You can apply it to rational debates. It works like so. First, someone comes up with a proposition. Then someone else brings in an opposing idea. If both parties have valid concerns and are willing to listen to each other, a rational debate between them can lead to a better understanding of the issue. The new understanding can be a thesis in a new argument. And so, the process can repeat, resulting in the progress of ideas.

An example can illustrate this. Suppose that Adam Smith and Karl Marx meet in a conference hall. Suppose further that a discussion between the two could settle the debate between capitalism and socialism. Smith sets out the thesis. He says that capitalism and free markets are great because they create wealth and distribute goods efficiently. Marx then comes up with the antithesis. He argues that the living conditions for workers are miserable and that capitalism distributes its benefits unfairly. He then says that workers should take control of the factories. Smith then objects by saying that workers are poor entrepreneurs so if workers take over businesses, that will cause a drop in living standards.

If both are willing to consider each other’s ideas and understand the issues at stake, they might concur that capitalism creates wealth but that the plight of workers needs improvement. They could agree on minimum wages, unemployment benefits, workplace safety laws, and state pensions. That is the synthesis. It may work for a while. Then a third individual might enter the debate and say that some people abuse welfare schemes. Another person might argue that economic activity will destroy the planet. That could be the beginning of new discussions that lead to measures to reduce fraud with unemployment benefits and investments in making the economy sustainable.

Hegelian dialectic applied to history

For Hegel, historical development proceeds not in a straight line but in a spiral leading upwards to growth and progress. From the opposition of action and reaction, harmony or synthesis emerges.1 In history, progress often involves conflict, and in many cases, there is not a synthesis but an end to the old ideas. For example, in the second half of the eighteenth century, more and more people felt that slavery was morally wrong. It took nearly a century and civil war in the United States to end slavery. And so, activists, planners, and politicians use Hegelian dialectic to enforce change. The Marxists are a prime example. They believed that capitalism would vanish and that socialism would replace it. The Marxists thought they were helping history by trying to end the capitalist world order.

The conflict between capitalism and socialism turned into a power struggle during the Cold War. The United States and its allies advocated capitalism, while the Soviet Union and its satellites promoted socialism. The capitalist block featured freedom of expression, so there was a public debate and ideas could be tested and improved in a Hegelian fashion. Consequently, governments interfered with markets and created welfare states. Their economies became mixtures of capitalist and socialist elements. In the socialist block, there was no freedom of expression or public debate, so the socialist countries did not enhance their economies with capitalist elements. In the end, the leadership of the Soviet Union realised that its mission of uplifting the working class had failed.

In the nineteenth century, workers did not appear to benefit from capitalism. It was hard to envision how socialism works in practice, so it may have been necessary to try it. The Soviet Union did so for seven decades. With the benefit of hindsight, the flaws of socialism appear evident, but if no one had tried it in practice, they probably were not so obvious. The main issue with socialism is that it can make people passive so that they will not take matters into their own hands and wait for the state to solve their problems. Socialism can work well in specific situations. For instance, healthcare in socialist Cuba is cheap and effective compared to the United States. The life expectancy in the United States and Cuba is nearly the same despite the United States spending more on healthcare per person than any country, while Cuba only spends a fraction of that amount. Once upon a time, market-driven healthcare may also have seemed a great idea. By trying, you can find out.

Some Scandinavian countries are more socialist than the United States, and citizens in those countries appear happier with their lives than Americans. The degree to which socialism can work depends on the social trust and work ethic within a group. Scandinavian countries have a Protestant work ethic and are culturally homogeneous. Cultural homogeneity can promote social trust like in Scandinavia, but not necessarily so. Greece is also culturally homogeneous, but the level of social trust is much lower than in Denmark or Sweden. Hence, culturally diverse countries can develop a high level of social trust, even though that is more difficult because of cultural differences. To make socialism work, people should contribute what they can and take what they need, and the needs should not exceed the contributions. Imposed socialism, like in the Soviet Union, will not work. Scandinavian countries are not as socialist as the Soviet Union once was. Their economies are a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements.

Hegel and dialectic conflict

Ideologies like socialism and capitalism are models that describe how society works or is supposed to work. Models are simplifications or abstractions. Models can help us organise our thoughts and establish which ideas have merit and under what circumstances. But for many people, ideologies are like religions. People who use one model all the time tend to be poor problem solvers. If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Political debates are often about scoring points rather than reasoning and listening to each other in a Socratic fashion. Parties use the Hegelian dialectic as a tool in political conflict. They frame the discussion by using their models and language. In your model, you are right, and your opponent looks stupid. Consequently, there can be no rational discussion between opponents who live in different realities like liberals and conservatives in the United States.

Scientific progress

In science, ideas advance. Thomas Kuhn came up with a scheme to describe scientific progress. He believed that science moves forward by theories replacing each other. Scientists in a specific field often work with a set of hypotheses. You may not be surprised to learn about that. So let’s call one of those theories the Old Theory. The Old Theory works fine in most situations, but sometimes it does not. Scientists at first ignore these exceptions, for instance, unexpected readings on their instruments. At first, they may think that faults cause these readings. As more and more experiments indicate that something is not right with the Old Theory, some scientists start to question it.

Then one of them then comes up with a revolutionary New Theory that explains a lot more than the previous Old Theory, including the unexplained readings on the instruments. At first, most scientists have their doubts because the New Theory is revolutionary. When experiments confirm the New Theory, scientists gradually embrace the New Theory and the Old Theory gets abandoned. In this case, there is also an argument going on between two sides, but the New Theory is superior to the Old Theory. That is most clear in the exact sciences like physics. In social sciences and economics, there is progress in theories but there are also debates between different approaches that appear unresolved.

An example might clarify how it works. Around 1680, Isaac Newton worked out the laws that explain the motion of objects. Newton’s laws tell us how fast objects fall to the ground and how planets orbit around the Sun. Newton presented his laws in a few mathematical formulas so it became possible to calculate how long it would take before a stone hits the ground if you drop it from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

In the centuries that followed, scientists developed more precise instruments and did measurements they could not explain. These were only small deviations from the values calculated with Newton’s formulas so they did not worry much about them at first. They could be errors. But the more precise the instruments grew, the more sure physicists became that something was not right. Albert Einstein then developed a theory that explained these curious readings, but also the motion of objects.

Assessing what to do

A reasoned debate combined with experimenting may be the best way of assessing what to do. Social sciences, including economics, involve human interactions. The number of variables is high and not all are known. That makes it difficult to ascertain causes and effects or to make accurate predictions. And so, experts in these fields make wrong judgements from time to time. It can be dangerous to blindly trust experts, but ignoring them can be even more hazardous. An ignorant person can be right by accident, while an expert can miss out on something. Sometimes, the difference between expert opinion and mere guessing is obscure. That emboldens the ignorant, and it makes the experts cautious.

Experiments can help to ascertain whether or not an assumption or a theory is correct. In social sciences, that may involve experimenting with humans. And that is not always ethical. And so, we should be careful as to the social experiments we engage in.

Reasoned debates are more common in science than in politics but scientists need research budgets provided by businesses and governments. The issues scientists investigate and the outcomes of scientific research can be influenced by the interests of those who fund the research. And so, the results of their research are not always what you might expect from an unbiased investigation.

Even when actions are based on the outcome of rational debates and experimenting, the actions lead to new issues that may need to be resolved in subsequent discussions and trials. The questions that will arise are often difficult to foresee, and it is even harder to think of how they will be resolved. Marx thought he could predict the future. Using Hegel’s dialectic, he thought he could predict how history would play out. Thinking that you know what will happen is a mistake many people make.

Marx believed in progress as Hegel did. Many people think there is progress. Yet, that is not so obvious. That is why conservatives want to keep things the way they are or go back in time to revert things to as they once were. To put it into perspective, if you live in a developed country, you may ask yourself, ‘Are you happier now than your parents were fifty years ago?’

Featured image: Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st-century Roman artwork. Eric Gaba (2005). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Hegel’s Understanding of History. Jack Fox-Williams (2020). Philosophy Now. [link]

The last day

The limits to growth

Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing. Its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days, and it doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day. Behold the power of exponential growth.

In one day, the size of the plant doubles, so the lake will be fully covered the next day. It does not matter how long the plant has been there already. Exponential growth stops once there is no more room for expansion. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.

The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth means that mass starvation is not far away. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use two times as much. By 2050, humanity will need three Earths. Make no mistake. We live on the proverbial last day.

The end may come suddenly. Most people do not see it coming, while others believe it is unavoidable. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome predicted the end of civilisation when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1 Their predictions did not come true because new technologies allowed us to extract more raw materials from the planet.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

– The Doors, The End

End time prophets have been consistently wrong so far. That does not mean that the day of reckoning is not at hand. The laws of nature usually are not kind to those who ignore them. The measures currently entertained likely are vastly insufficient. Technological innovation alone could fail to solve the issues we face. And so, a lifestyle change, most notably for rich people, seems imperative. Possible solutions are politically incorrect, so liberal democracy may not deliver them. The reasons could be:

  • We are inclined to value the present more than the future. What will happen later on does not affect us now. That may be why voluntary pension schemes often fail.
  • It is a collective action problem. It is pointless to restrain yourself when others do not. For instance, if I stop using my car but others do not, it will have no effect.
  • The future is uncertain. Predictions often do not come true, and most disasters we prepare for never materialise, so people hope rather than act.

We do not like to hear about inconvenient truths. Our way of living is unsustainable. Climate change gets a lot of attention, but we hear less about cutting down forests to produce biofuels. And completely switching to renewables may be so costly that reducing energy consumption will be cheaper. That is hard to sell to the public as it may entail a decline in the standard of living for many people. That standard of living probably is still better than most people had for most of history. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.

What does it mean to live sustainably? A ‘worst-case’ scenario might be living like the Amish. How bad is that? Amish are free to leave their community. Most of them decide to stay. It appears that their living standard is not a burden to them. Adapting likely is the most painful part. Once you become accustomed to a new way of living, it becomes normal for you, and you will probably be as happy or as miserable as you were before.

The exponential growth of human activities may soon hit the limits of this planet. Waiting for more evidence to arrive does not seem a good idea. You have conclusive proof when it happens. But that is too late. And so, our lives may depend on taking appropriate action now. The limits of the planet do not care about you or your feelings. You will have to cope with them. Societal collapses often coincided with die-offs in which up to 90% of the people perished. The measures we can take affect the following areas:

  • food and water
  • energy
  • pollution and destruction of ecosystems
  • population

Food and water

The impact of climate change on future harvests is unknown. Climate change may cause harvest failures and famine. Crops could fail in unison so the global food supply may become unstable. Currently, stored food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It seems wise to heed the advice Joseph once gave the Pharaoh, which is storing food to cope with poor harvests.

The need to increase food supplies in the face of diminishing harvests may require a critical look at our diets. The food for animals we eat takes arable land that could feed humans. It often takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Meat production causes animal suffering and destroys ecosystems. And meat production is a source of greenhouse gases.

Nearly one billion people lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes. Every year 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, dirty water and poor sanitation are often to blame. By 2025, half the world’s population could live in areas with water shortages. Causes are irrigation for agriculture, climate change, and water-intensive production processes like producing clothes.2

Energy

There are two diverging predictions regarding the future of renewable energy. The first scenario is that renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels and replace them.3 The second scenario is that this will not happen because solar and wind cannot provide a stable energy source. Our civilisation depends on a constant and reliable supply of energy. Hence, backup power from other energy sources must remain available.4 Renewable energy may become cheap, but stabilising delivery may be prohibitively expensive. And so, the most challenging part is not getting to 50% renewables but 100%. Perhaps it is possible but that is not certain.

Denmark is successfully switching to renewable energy, most notably wind. Denmark’s government is committed to renewable energy. And the Danes are willing to pay up for electricity. Electricity in Denmark costs twice as much as in France. In 2020, 32% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from renewable sources. Denmark’s ambition is to get to 100% by 2050. That points at the central issues: there must be political will to make it happen, but there may be limits to what is possible. If electricity becomes ten times as expensive, lifestyles will have to change.

Renewable energy sources will not meet the projected global energy consumption in the coming decades. They may cover the rise in demand, but not more than that. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a near 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.5 The EIA further predicts that the use of fossil fuels will not go down. That may necessitate additional measures like:
• curbing non-essential energy consumption;
• using nuclear power (the projected damage caused by climate change dramatically exceeds that of nuclear accidents and waste);
• using natural gas and compensating for the carbon emissions.

Many people feel entitled to their lifestyles, so curbing non-essential energy consumption is a politically incorrect idea. It may be needed. High energy prices affect poor people the most. Ending non-essential energy consumption means that the rich make the greatest sacrifice by saving fuel for essential purposes so that energy prices may not rise as much. It may also affect many middle-class people, for instance, when air travel stops or car use becomes restricted.

Nuclear power can provide a reliable source of energy. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this energy source. Nuclear accidents were rare and did not kill many people, but many think nuclear power is evil, perhaps because radiation is invisible and has a long-term irreversible impact. In the Netherlands, national route 666 leads to Borssele. It is the location of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. I once came on this route after leaving a village named Kwadendamme (translation: Evildam). The second power plant in Dodewaard (translation: Death Holm) has been closed. The former municipality of Dodewaard had been 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be noteworthy. Nuclear power may be a ‘deal with the devil’ that we wish to avoid, but burning fossil fuels most likely is far more problematic.

Nuclear reactors may become safer and cheaper to operate, but the problem of nuclear waste remains. This waste will remain dangerous for over 10,000 years. Nuclear fusion can be safer than fission, the type of energy currently used. If something goes wrong, the process dies out. The nuclear waste from fusion is more manageable and will probably be safe to handle after a few hundred years. Energy from nuclear fusion may be available within a few decades, but that is far from certain. During wars, armies may bomb power plants, so nuclear power can never be safe without lasting world peace.

Pollution and destruction of ecosystems

Several environmental disasters are happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.6 There is hardly any wildlife left.

To put it further into perspective, the seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.7

Why produce garbage

Economists argue that economic growth is the way to a cleaner environment. Wealthy people usually are willing to pay more for a clean environment. It can be true as long as the benefits of economic growth exceed the cost of cleaning up. Only, costs tend to escalate once you become more ambitious. Joseph Tainter claims that removing all organic waste from a sugar processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%.8 Many pollution-related issues are of a similar nature. In such cases, doing less damage is cheaper than repairing it. And so, the way to a cleaner environment could be producing less.

Population

A mother in waiting once asked the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing harms the environment more than having a child. ‘Cutting down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest is not nearly as bad,’ he added. Limiting the number of children people get, for instance, to one child per couple, can be a good idea. Population control becomes even more urgent when humans live indefinitely.

Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek economic security. Their retirement plan is to have children who can care for them when they are old. Even though they do not use a lot of resources, poor people often have many children. If their standard of living rises, that will place an even greater burden on the planet. The limits of our planet make population control imperative. In the long term, it will have the greatest impact.

The nature of collapse

The breakdown of societies and civilisations is a poorly investigated domain considering the likelihood and implications of such an event. Most people think that life after the collapse is a war of all against all where only the strong survive. There is a breakdown of authority and central control, law and order disappear, local self-sufficiency replaces trade and specialisation, and populations decline. No longer can people rely on defence, maintenance of public works, or delivery of goods.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter investigates some known cases from the past and available hypotheses about the causes. He then tries to come up with a general theory of societal collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a rapid loss of social and political complexity.8 It affects both the public and the private sphere. Existing explanations mention external causes like resource depletion, (environmental) catastrophes, changing circumstances, or internal causes like conflict and mismanagement.

Human societies are problem-solving organisations. Societies become more complex when they add institutions to address new problems as they emerge. Institutions have benefits, most notably just after their introduction, but they can outlive their usefulness and become a liability. Each additional institution comes at a price for the population. According to Tainter, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to investments in societal complexity. At some point, the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. Hence, a reduction in complexity can be a boon to the population at large.8

Maintaining complexity requires surpluses. In agrarian societies, most people were subsistence farmers. Their produce was scarcely enough to feed themselves and their families. Few surpluses were traded in markets or appropriated by governments. Since the Industrial Revolution, surpluses rose dramatically, and societies became more complex than ever before. In modern societies, only a few per cent of the population are farmers. Most people nowadays work in the service sector and do not produce things. An abundant supply of energy provided by fossil fuels made it possible.

When societies experience a stress surge, for instance, resource depletion, a catastrophe, or mismanagement, then the available surpluses drop, and the cost of maintaining complexity can become prohibitive. The current world economy needs growth or continuously increasing surpluses. When energy and resource supplies do not enlarge, surpluses do not increment, and stress may emerge. Products may become unavailable, and public services may halt. People may see their prospects dim and grow angry.

Competing societies cannot collapse voluntarily as a competitor could take over. In the past, competing polities continued to invest in their militaries, regardless of the cost to their populations. Societies do not have to break down under those conditions. Europe has seen centuries of intense military competition and warfare without polities collapsing. If competing states did break down, they usually did so in unison when their dwindling populations were exhausted and starving.8

A recurring pattern is a frantic increase in coping activities on the eve of a breakdown. These activities can be public display to legitimise the leadership, for instance, building monuments, adding hierarchical levels to manage dwindling resources, building a military to raid neighbours, and cultivating barren lands to scrape out a bit of additional agricultural output. Cleaning up the environment after polluting it may also fall into this category. During collapses, leaders appear inept, even when they make the best out of the circumstances.

Aborting the exponential growth of our economic activities and scaling them down to a sustainable level could be in the best interest of humanity. It might entail a reduction in complexity, in other words, simpler lifestyles for many people. A managed complexity reduction could be better than a collapse, as collapse can come with famines and resource wars. Nevertheless, that could still cause emotional stress and dislocations in the economy. You only have to think of what abandoning air travel will do for the freedom of movement and jobs in airline-related industries.

Tainter sees collapse as a consequence of diminishing marginal returns on investments.8 If additional investments yield nothing, there appears to be no point in making them. Negative interest rates can mitigate the breakdown and help to turn it into a more graceful contraction. For instance, a holding fee on currency could make the financial system robust and capable of withstanding a financial shock resulting from an economic decline caused by halting non-essential activities.

Few people are willing to give up their lifestyles. Countries do not stop competing and will not end economic growth out of their own. If we do not alter our course ourselves, then the limits of this planet may do it for us, resulting in unprecedented suffering, wars, and starvation. Voluntary change requires an authority all people in the world accept. Only a possible owner of this universe has this kind of authority. If the end of times ever comes, it may be now. We can only imagine how life in Paradise is going to be.

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?

[…]

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers

Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other images: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
2. Are we running out of water? Fiona Harvey (2018). The Guardian. [link]
3. The Sky’s the Limit: Solar and wind energy potential is 100 times as much as global energy demand. Carbon Tracker Initiative (2021). [link]
4. The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mark P. Mills (2019). Manhattan Institute. [link]
5. EIA projects a nearly 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, led by growth in renewables. US Energy Information Administration (2021). [link]
6. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
8. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter (1988), Cambridge University Press.