Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are you terrified yet?

After the third terror attack in England in so many months (one in Manchester, two in London) it behooves us to consider if we are pivoting to a true clash of civilizations, in Huntington’s sense, and if the world we inhabit is more dangerous, or more risky, than the one we grew up into (let’s say, between 1970 and 2010 or, if we want to align the focus of our analysis with the great tectonic shifts of history, between 1989 -the year of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War- and 2001 -the year of the attacks that felled the twin towers in New York on Sep-11 which in turn triggered the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003).

But before we discuss the issue at hand, let me give a little background of my upbringing, as it has surely colored my understanding of this “terrorism” thing. I grew up in Madrid, in the 70’s. A little separatist group had been recently established vying for the political independence of a small corner of the country, the Basque region (that group was the only recently disbanded ETA, whose two first murders happened in 1968, although there is an apocryphal attribution of the killing of a 22 month old girl in 1960, most historians today think they were not the culprits of that one). In the second half of the decade they were killing between 60 and 80 people a year, more than one per week: mostly policemen and soldiers (members of the “occupation army” both in the Basque provinces and in the capital) but also businessmen who didn’t pay the “revolutionary tax”, bus drivers, teachers, owners of bars and restaurants, patrons and simple passers-by gunned down or blown away just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, rare was the week that didn’t bring the news of another attack, or another victim. Some were, as mentioned, members of the “state security forces” in the terrorists parlance (as if such category were not just another kind of salaried worker, directly providing a much needed service for the well-being of most), but unavoidably many of them were not.

Later, well in the 80’s the band would lose its initial “legitimacy” (in the eyes of a part of their populations of origin, who still saw them as freedom fighters again Franco’s dictatorship, many years after such dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government) by perpetrating ever more savage acts, bombing apartment blocks and public places were scores of women and children would be killed (like a shopping mall in Barcelona in 1987, causing 21 deaths, or the blowing of an apartment building housing policemen in Saragossa in 1987 also, resulting in 11 deaths, or in Vic in 1991, with 9 dead).

All that may sound like ancient history, like the wars of the Greeks and the Persians: some historians tell you who were the good boys, and who were not so good. All equally removed from us, burdened with concerns and preoccupations very different from ours. Until it all becomes awfully close and clear. I remember very vividly the morning of the 14th of July 1986, as a car bomb exploded just three blocks away from my house, as a bus transporting policemen passed, killing 12 of them and wounding scores of bystanders. The bomb went off besides the entrance of the tube station I sometimes used to go to school, and although I wasn’t taking it that particular day, it felt near enough to make it uncomfortably real. And it was not just my country. 

On some summers we would go to Ireland to practice English, and learn of the state of slow motion civil war up North (Bobby Sands was already in jail, he would die in prison in 1981, after a hunger strike) and the renewed activity of the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and in London. In Germany we heard of the RAF (Fraction of the Red Army) led by Ulrike Meinhof (suspiciously found dead in her cell in May 1976, she apparently hanged herself with a towel, something I propose my most venturesome readers to attempt, just to realize how difficult it would be) and Andreas Baader (even more suspiciously found dead, also in his cell, within a high security prison complex, with a difficult to explain shot in the head in October next year). In Italy the “red brigades” were conducting a terror campaign that culminated with the kidnapping and killing of the Christian Democracy leader Aldo Moro in 1978 (I personally remember with great clarity the images in the news -still in black and white back then- of the just found corpse of the politician). In most of Latin America those were also the “lead years” that would end in the rise of more or less sinister military dictatorships.

So I have an intimate, first person experience of what it is to live in a society besieged by terrorism, where terror attacks are not an exception or something that every now and then seem to come out of the blue, to be quickly forgotten, but part and parcel of everyday life. Where you know some of your countrymen are actively dedicated to the overthrowing of the (more or less) legitimate form of government. You wake up in the morning and go about your life (go to school, to the Uni, to work, buy groceries, visit a friend, go to a movie) knowing that a certain number of those you cross paths with are devoting all of their waking energy to plot for mayhem and destruction. In “secret locations” they store weaponry (machine guns, pistols, revolvers, explosives, pressure cookers, nuts and bolts, ignition switches, catapults, truncheons, balaclavas, knifes… their arsenal, luridly shown when arrested, always has some shockingly outdated, incongruous materials), they train in their use, they follow political leaders, members of government, industrialists, famous journalists or just look for busy places where they can cause the maximum carnage. And as they more or less successfully carry on their grim trade and the list of casualties grow by the day you become number and number to a certain amount of pieties: the rule of law, presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, the unconditional evil of torturing a prisoner to attempt to extract some information…

Indeed, I recall that being (as it still is nowadays) the absolutely predictable reaction of a growing segment of the population: harsher punishment for terrorist; Bring back the death penalty! Mix them with common criminals, so they are regularly beaten, and raped! (in the mind of a certain segment of the public, “normal” incarceration is supposed to be a Holiday spa, certainly not much of a punishment for such grisly acts as terrorists have committed. And of course, not only the perpetrators, but their accomplices must be similarly prosecuted. And not only current accomplices, but potential ones. To prevent their hateful ideology from propagating, freedom of the press (and of association) can and should be curtailed. You don’t want to provide the killers with a bullhorn and allow them to form a political party so they can better spew their credo of violence and aggression against innocent people! In my own country, the “German solution” (difficult not to reach the conclusion than the country’s security forces had something to do with the “suicide” of the Baader-Meinhof leaders) was almost universally praised.

Now we know that some countries went along those lines further than others. Spain dabbled in “state terrorism”, and a “counterterrorist” group was founded (GAL, the not terribly imaginative acronym for “Counterterrorism Liberation Group”) with funds and material support from what were then called the “states’ sewers”. Active between 1984 and 1987, they killed a number of militants accused of belonging to ETA or their political arm (HB), but also up to 10 people with no relationship whatsoever with the band. They contributed to the end of what was known as the “French sanctuary” (where people accused of terrorism in Spain, a democracy on the verge of joining the EU, could roam absolutely unimpeded) but also helped a significant segment of the public opinion in the Basque provinces stay resolutely in favor of the terrorists’ activity (presented as a legitimate defense from an equally bloodthirsty national state that had no qualms to resort to similarly indiscriminate violence) for many years. However, due in part to their sheer bumbling incompetence (the “GAL affair” would be used against the then-governing socialist party once the many links between them and the government became public, and the Home Secretary that probably oversaw their creation ended up serving time in jail) they did not irreversibly degrade the still very recent democratic institutions of the country, and the final disappearance of ETA was due to the vast majority of the population turning against their methods, rather than the “military defeat” that many dreamed of in their worse days. Although militarily defeated they were, with their commandos being regularly dismantled by the police and a growing number of members behind bars claiming for a “negotiated agreement” being one of the factors that undoubtedly accelerated their demise.

In a certain sense, that’s the better outcome that could be expected. European democracies were never really threatened by left-wing radicals in the late 70’s (we now know that they had some modest material support from the Soviet Union, but not so much between their own citizenry to ever have a realistic shot at seizing power, or just triggering a popular response that would seriously destabilize democratic governments), and even the separatist movements (IRA and ETA) that continued into the 80’s and 90’s never had much of a chance, no matter how serious the grievances against the local populations from which they drew their support truly were. 

Thus, the societies they tried to terrorize, just by staying resolutely democratic and not deferring to those between them that claimed for more “extraordinary powers” to better combat the scourge of terrorism, defeated them at the end of the day. But not all the countries were so lucky: in Latin America, as I mentioned, democracies were indeed overturned (in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador…) and replaced by military rule, that in most cases ended being worse for the majority of the population than the terrorists ever were, and most have still not fully recovered from the cronyism, corruption and loss of civic spirit that totalitarian rule entails. Not only that, but they are probably much less equal societies than they were back then, with solidarity between elites and the majority of the population significantly eroded by the former’s support to military regimes, and the latter’s bearing the brunt of the repression and abuses of said regimes. I’m not saying that terrorism is the only explanation for the rise of the harvest of strongmen and military juntas that seized power in the region in the 70’s and 80’s (a wide number of additional reasons explain that, including the interference of USA’s State Department and the more or less open support of the CIA), but ti definitely had an oversize role in such developments.

Talking about myself, I can say that now (with Basque separatists’ terrorism all but extinct for a decade, although the latest terrorist attack in Spanish soil was pretty spectacular: on March 11th 2004 ten explosions in trains at peak hour would cause the death of 192 people and injured more than 2,000) I oppose the recourse to “extraordinary means” to combat violence as much as I did back then, when my political philosophy was forming, and basically consisted in being against what the majority of my countrymen would be for (always the contrarian). Always against the death penalty (the state has no business taking any of his citizen’s lives, no matter what unspeakable evil they may have perpetrated). Always against limits to a free press (heck, if we allow “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior” by Gary Becker to be widely discussed and sold, I can’t see why we shouldn’t do the same with “Mein Kampf”, “Das Kapital”, or any similarly demented manifesto from whatever half-addled visionary psychopath).  Let us not forget I’m a Kantian, so in particular always against torture, which is for me a line in the sand beyond which I do not think it permissible to go ever (not even in a “ticking bomb” scenario, and furthermore I think the plausibility of those scenarios is mostly hogwash). A society that grants certain “extraordinary powers” to its government so it can more effectively provide security and “fight terrorism” may be in for an ugly shock, when the behavior of the government ends up being as immoral as that of the baddies it had to purportedly fight.

But, as opposed to today’s dominant narrative, I don’t think such opposition aligns me instead with your average wishy-washy liberal (in the American sense): I’m not especially fond of a number of progressive shibboleths, from identity politics to representative democracy itself (although I don’t know of any historical example of single party polity that was supportive enough of a free press to win my admiration), and I believe in a number of tenets (from the moral superiority of what, from lack of a better term, we may call the Western tradition to the existence of biological differences between races and sexes, plus a certain irrational allegiance to heteronomous norms for organizing collective existence that have been definitely out of fashion for at least a couple of centuries) that put me waaaaay beyond the pale for your average run-of-the-mill left-leaning enlightened citizen. However, as usual in this blog, I don’t think my own highly idiosyncratic thoughts and opinions are as interesting for my readers as a wider analysis of why the majority think as it does. So rather than discuss what I personally think about the terrorist threat (that can be summarized as: it exists, it is blown out of all proportion by a frenzied media, as it is much less serious than it was four decades ago, and it is best combatted with good police and an exquisite application of the rule of law) I want to devote the remainder of this post to consider why it gets so much attention and what is the most rational attitude towards it (towards the attention, that is, not towards terrorism itself: it goes without saying that the only rational attitude towards terrorism is of unqualified condemnation -without forgetting that one man’s terrorism is another man’s dignified struggle for liberation and recognition, see Menachem Begin and Hotel King David bombing).

But first, to put things in perspective, let’s remember a couple facts: the number of people who have died in terrorist attacks in the whole wide world in the last years hovers between ten thousand and forty thousand:

That looks pretty bad, doesn’t it? But if we decompose the figures a bit, we quickly see that most of those victims, sad and heartbreaking as they are, are very much concentrated in a few trouble spots, which (and I know I’m being admittedly rude and insensitive here) we could summarize as “Muslims killing one another”. The majority of casualties of terrorist attacks, as publicized as disasters like the Bataclan shootings, the Lockerbie bombing or Madrid train explosions are, com from bombings and shooting of Shia Muslims at the hands of Sunni ones (and a considerably lower amount of the opposite). So much so that some newspaper have already noticed that while journalist in the West routinely look for the “human interest” angle of the victims of the (comparatively few) attacks in the West, they give at most a statistical summary of the much more violent carnage relentlessly unfolding in the rest of the world (Terror attacks in the West and elsewhere ). Now I don’t want to convey the impression that not all acts of terror are similarly tragic, or that there are different classes of victims, some more deserving our sympathy and commiseration than others, but as I want to center my subsequent analysis on Western media and Western society reactions, I’ll zoom in the number of victims in Europe and the US, namely:
So in the worst year (1988: 270 people died over Lockerbie and about 100 in Spain due to a single terrorist group, the already discussed ETA) a bit more than 400 Europeans died in terror attacks. Within a population of about 250 million.

What about the USA? For all practical purposes the USA has suffered a single, very traumatic big attack (Sep 11th) and then a drip of smaller ones (the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 being the most notorious, and deadliest, of them):

So on a typical year terrorism, that modern scourge, that deadly plague, that most awful threat of our times, is likely to kill a couple hundreds Europeans and a couple dozens North Americans. Some plague! Just to put it in perspective, in 2016 deaths directly attributable to tobacco use reached 7 million worldwide, and slightly less than half a million in the USA. Deaths in car crashes amounted to 1.25 million worldwide, almost 35,000 in the USA.

And of course, the number of fatalities in car accidents in the USA is actually below that of people killed using a gun:

Yup, I know the source is the Communist News Network, not a reputable source like Taki or Breitbart (just kiddin’ folks) but the numbers add up with what I’ve been researching in other sources. And the majority of those deaths (about two thirds) are suicides anyway. And the statistics do not reflect the hundreds of thousands of acts of violence prevented by heroic and well-trained armed citizens protected by their sacrosanct right to keep and bear arms, enshrined in the 2nd amendment. Yadda, yadda, yadda, my point is, a society inured to that level of violent death (self-inflicted or otherwise) has no rationale for taking every sort of constitutionally dubious measure (special tribunals, state-sanctioned “enhanced interrogation” methods, foreign detention sites with no judicial supervision, discretionary powers to snoop into the communications of ordinary citizens with no explicit warrant, and on and on and on…) because some weirdo or other decides every few months to kill one or two of his countrymen whilst shouting “Allahu Akbar” (instead of shouting “gimme your wallet” or the plain ol’ “you talkin’ to me?”).

So back to my original question: if you live in Europe, or the USA (or Australia, or Japan, or Korea, or Canada) these are still pretty peaceful times compared with historical standards, and your chances of dying or being hurt in a terrorist attack are as slim as those of being struck by an actual, honest-to-God lightning, and much, much lower than being involved in a car accident or contracting a cardiorespiratory disease due to second-hand smoke. Just to clarify, things are much grimmer if you live in Iraq, Afghanistan or South Sudan, but that’s not what we are talking about here. I do not read Iraqi, Afghan or Sudanese newspaper, but I do read European and American ones, and rare is the day when terrorism is not in them. Months after any substantial attack we are still discussing them, obsessing about them, analyzing how the perpetrators radicalized, who they talked to, what they were like, what they posted in social media and what signals if any they did give of their growing alienation.

And I think that is the key to the fascination of the media with terrorists (or, more precisely, with terrorists who strike in our midst, as they really couldn’t care less about the ones that choose to blow themselves up in Helmand or Lahore): they are the perfect example of the “other one” in our midst that most substantially reject our value system. As a brief aside, what is that value system made of? A rule for assigning social precedence (who gives orders and who has to obey), a set of socially sanctioned desires (what is it considered legitimate to strive for) and, most conspicuously, what a life well lived consists in. The trifecta of dominant reason. Which is the real key of the attention we lavish on those that reject the three tenets wholesale: painting them as the most evil, most disturbed, most despicable and most deserving of scorn (it is interesting to note how frequently they are depicted as “losers”… well in a sense they are, and that’s part of the reason they chose not to participate in the common criteria for assigning positions in the social hierarchy) serves the purpose of increasing the social cohesion, by emphasizing the worst outcomes of stepping out of the majority’s consensus of what serves as an intelligible reason for action (those conforming to the dominant, desiderative one).

Indeed, a crumbling dominant reason that is questioned (or openly rejected) by a growing percentage of the population can not expect to obtain new allegiances through positive messaging: that is what being exhausted entails, it has stopped efficiently convincing the newer generations of its validity, and can only resort to pointing out how much worse any imaginable alternative is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the terrorists’ credo is a valid, viable, imaginable alternative (I have not studied whatever form of reason was dominant in Xth century Arabia, but I doubt it can function to instill XXIst century globalized society with a functioning set of shared values), I’m saying we find it endlessly highlighted in the news, in the press, on TV, in memes and FB posts and incendiary podcasts because a number of actors see it as a useful foil (“don’t like desiderative reason? Look how much worse the alternative looks like”) with which to prevent further social degradation. And again, it’s not that I think preventing social degradation is an unworthy goal. I’m all against social degradation, but presenting a boogie man, a red herring and crying wolf all in one is not going to do the work.

It is not going to do the work because when a dominant reason loses its grip on the collective imagination the only way to revive the fortunes of the suddenly rudderless group that it previously helped to coordinate is to replace it with a new one. As far as I’ve been able to see, no dominant reason ever was revived by the oversized depiction of an external threat. Rather, such strategy has frequently backfired and accelerated the demise of the old set of values, and their replacement by a new one. Like Burke fulminating the incoming Romantic Reason by associating it with the excesses of the Terror phase of the French Revolution (did Burke, and many like him, manage to sustain Economic Reason? Nope, Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth were in the end more influential than Condorcet and Rousseau and Voltaire in overcoming the venerable dominant reason he so much cherished, but overcome it they did, and thus Romantic reason ended reigning supreme in England as much as in the Continent). Or like Heidegger fulminating against bureaucratic reason in the name of god ol’ romantic one (well, in his home country romantic reason did experience a comeback, and a whole world war was needed to unseat it again), or Adorno, Benjamin and Horkheimer fulminating against the then rising desiderative reason (from their bureaucratized perspective, it was so much better in their eyes to have a cadre of humane, well-trained, cultivated public servants organizing society and deciding on the social hierarchy, rather than the messy business of leaving it to the market!).  

So don’t get too fixated on the barrage of news of atrocities in the great Western capitals (atrocities that can, and should, be stopped by patient police work, not by the granting of “extraordinary powers” to governments too prone to abuse them). Whatever hodgepodge of half-baked value system comprising legitimate desires, criteria for social precedence and what a life well-lived looks like as are proposed by people that try to advance them by indiscriminately blowing people up will not prevail, I have little doubt about that. But neither will our own current set, if only because it has shown itself incapable of physically reproducing those that should embody it. Decrying and denouncing and belittling the former will do little to bolster the latter. Accelerating the advent of self-driving cars, and thus reducing the number of accidents, on the other hand, seems like a very worthy endeavor...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

About that second (or is it third) Industrial Revolution

I’ve been reviewing some of Peter Thiel’s musings about the deceleration of Technological progress, something that any regular reader of this blog knows I mostly agree with. From the most famous 2011 National Review article “The end of the future”: The end of the Future to this pretty perceptive take on the implications for VC on our lack of optimism and belief in a determinate future contained in the class notes of the course he imparted in Stanford in 2012: Thiel's class. Mr. Thiel is obviously a very perceptive observer, and I find it doubly deserving of praise that he has managed to avoid the (in my humble opinion entirely unfounded) techno-optimism that permeates so thoroughly his milieu (the Silicon Valley based investors and entrepreneurs between whom he makes his living), regardless of the “exotic” policy choices he has made of late.

Or may be both (the savviness about how to invest money in a modern, technologically stagnant economy and the support for an “unconventional” candidate in politics) are intimately related, as precisely because he has such insight in the workings of the system he realizes the dangers of stagnation, the likelihood of collapse derived from unfulfilled promises to a growing majority that is growing restless with the perceived inequality and underlying unfairness of how things are organized, and is thus willing to cast his lot with the person less likely to keep the status quo going, unpredictable as the outcome of such bet may be. However, what the review of such copious notes (with which again, and uncharacteristically, I found much to agree) has kept me thinking about is the extent to which the current consensus about how the future may look like is wrong, and how a more sober assessment of where we are headed to may look like.

 Now, when we talk about the “current consensus” we have to take such artificial construct with a pinch of salt, as there is a growing number of academics and journalists on whom it is (slowly and painfully) dawning that the super-duper revolutionary changes that are upon us may be a bit oversold, that there may be a bit more hype than reality in the maelstrom of technological wonders that the likes of Thomas Friedman keep describing in the editorial pages of the NYT. Not only Robert Gordon (whom I’ve drawn extensively from) has tried to show that the pace of innovation has measurably slowed in the last decades, but even more run-of-the-mill journalists are letting some doubts about the incoming automation revolution (see, for example, Derek Thompson in the latest number of “the Atlantic”: So where are all those robots?). However, I still think the vast majority of public opinion lives in a La la land in which innovation is still happening at a breakneck speed, and we are on the cusp of the “greatest changes in how humans live in the whole history of our species”, a vacuous assertion typically backed by some of the following:

·         Automation and artificial intelligence pose an imminent threat to the livelihoods of a third of the workforce (lawyers, physicians, accountants, truck drivers, retail clerks, inventory managers, and almost any conceivable manufacturing-related occupation are widely considered jobs that may be replaced and made redundant by “robots” in the next five years, ten tops)

·         Autonomous electric vehicles are all you will see on the roads five years from now (sounds far-fetched? I’m I straw manning here? Not at all, according to John Zimmer, not surprisingly CEO of Lyft: Third transportation revolution is upon us already in 2025 private car ownership will have all but disappeared from major US cities)

·         Renewable, clean energies will replace all coal, gas and nuclear power stations within the next decade

·         Advances in medicine enabled by the “decoding” of the human genome will “defeat death” and make us live forever (side rant: one can not but wonder if the people that give voice to such pabulum thinks that “us” is just the journalist and his interviewee -who is the one making a comfy living out of other people’s credulity, usually thanks to the media platform provided by the gullible reporter- or includes somebody else, up to the whole of humanity, like Aubrey de Grey seems to imply with his frequent quote that “age-related diseases account for one hundred thousand deaths a day, that’s the cost of every single day of delay in defeating death” - by giving him more money for research, one surmises)

·         Between now and 2045 (the stated date of the singularity, according to Ray Kurzweil) the continued improvements in hardware will make the apparition of a “superintelligence” (general purpose and well beyond human capabilities in any cognitive field) all but inevitable. Once that superintelligence becomes sentient, all bets are off about what may become of us, old and clunky chunks of meat sadly unable to compare with such clever contraption

·         If genetic tinkering doesn’t do the trick, the massive use of nanobots to replace our aging cells and remove damaged tissue will surely vastly improve our life expectancy. If separating the good cells from the bad ones proves to be too daunting a task, there are bazillions of things the incoming nanotechnology revolution will potentially do for us (building materials that reconfigure themselves to adapt to the stress they are subjected to, intelligent fabrics that reflect the climatic conditions or just our mood and fancy, cleaning sites after nuclear accidents… ooops, sorry, no nuclear accidents in our future, as we will be getting all our energy from wind and sun in a few years)

·         And of course, we have the Internet of Things, truly revolutionary in its implications (or has that one already been exposed as a commercial gimmick that consultants use to convince their naïve clients so they part from their hard-earned money?)

·         Immersive, seamless Virtual Reality will revolutionize entertainment, bringing an end to every form of leisure humanity has known until know as people retreat more and more within the harmless artificial paradises enabled by the new technology (well, given all the work will be done by robots, it’s all well and good we will at least have something to keep the masses entertained)

·         What to say about space travel and exploration? Permanent base on the moon? Human colony on Mars? Laser-on-lightsails powered nanoprobes on their way to the closest star? Guys, is the future we are talking about! Why be shy? All of them, and then some, in the coming decade!

What can I say? Other than, as I’ve indeed say before, none of them are going to happen. Not for sure in the “immediate future” (between now and 2027, sorry Mr. Zimmer). Most likely not between now and 2037 either, a collapsing social system in which a growing majority is “proletarianized” (again, as I do not tire to remind my readers, in a Toynbeean, not Marxian sense) and thus disengaged from the dominating values of the elites is less and less able to innovate, and one of its defining features is that everything end up costing more than originally envisioned. I do not entirely deny that some of those marvels may end up materializing in 20-50 years (my bet for most likely ones are autonomous cars, which will probably be electric and communal -but never all of them, cars are too much of an status symbol to be so easily forsworn by plutocrats; followed by overwhelmingly wind- and solar-based energy somewhere around 2040).

Am I an “stagnationist”, then? Do I think that the future will look more or less like the past, as the vast majority of people have thought for the vast majority of human history? Far from it. Given how good we have it (in our corner of the world, sure, but such corner now encompasses more than a third of humanity), being a stagnationist would be a joy and a source of comfort. This is the deal: societies are essentially unstable (I’ll get to why in a moment), so when they are not “advancing”, developing its internal strengths, growing and evolving they don’t just stay put in whatever level of civilizational achievement they have reached. They start to decompose, degenerate, rot from the core and disintegrate. It can be a slow process, drawn out during centuries (like the paradigmatic case of the Roman empire, and may be the Ottoman empire too) or they can pretty dramatically go out with a bang (like those pre-Columbine Mexican societies whose cities we can still admire, abandoned in an unexplained bout of fury and despair). In the growth phase we tend to pay attention to a couple of forces: art and technology, as they help us understand the world view of their inhabitants: what scenes did they paint? What aspects of man did they enhance and pay more attention to in their sculptures? About what circumstances did they write? And of course how did they cultivate their fields? How did they procure clean water? How did they dispose of their refuse? How did they weave their clothes? A lot of ink has been spilled, and a lot of thought devoted to how those two currents (arts and technologies) relate to each other, how one explains more or less of the other and how advances in one modify or open new fields of exploration in the other. But what is less frequently acknowledged is that in the second phase of every civilization’s lifecycle (the descending one) those two forces become secondary to another one: social relations.

You may rightfully argue that “social relations” is a catch-all term that can easily incorporate under its broad mantle both the two previously mentioned forces (art and technology) as well as many, even more disparate, others: economic relations are definitely social in nature, the use of military force may be construed as an extreme form of social relation, and so on and so forth. So let me explain what I mean. What I detect in most writers that have stubbornly bought the canard of accelerating technological advances in the face of (equally stubborn) productivity and median income statistics that show that there is no acceleration at all, but rather a day by day more marked deceleration is a fixation in technology, and in a particular type of technology at that: Google has developed a program that can defeat the best human go player, and go is the most complex board game devised by humans (I don’t have the faintest idea of the rules of go, so I’m taking that oft-cited assertion at face value); Amazon can deliver to your doorstep any book ever written or any tchotchke you can dream of a few hours after you know of its existence for the first time; You iPhone can alert you that an appointment on the other side of town is coming, and call an Uber car for you to get there without you as much as lifting a finger… So everything is up for grabs, and the future will be even more full of such wonders because that particular type of technology has the potential to completely upend how society works.

And what I’m trying to say is that technology doesn’t function in a vacuum (not exactly groundbreaking, I know), and that the areas in which it chooses to invest, the problems it sets to resolve and the obstacles it attempts to overcome all are dictated (if you think “dictated” is too strong a word, change it for “influenced”, the argument doesn’t change much for it) by the social circumstances of the people that fund it. Which, in our current age and place, means the elite cadres of Western bourgeoisie (what different writers have termed the “Davos elite”, the “Complacent Class”, the “Globalist elite” and the like), which at this point just yearn for more convenient delivery of richer goodies, chosen from a vaster selection, with less time investment (so they can work more and earn more money, which in turn they’ll use for more of the same ultimately vacuous cycle). Some of them practice philanthropy and throw some resources to solve some (for them) marginal problem like malaria or lack of running water in villages in Africa, but essentially the time and energy devoted to improving energy, human transportation, third world health, building, agriculture or manufacturing is zilch. Or maybe not exactly zilch, but in any case not enough to overcome the mounting inertia imposed by the regulatory needs of a complex economy.

One example I’m more familiar with: apparently a lot of investment goes into new forms of producing energy. But no new reactor designs are being approved or, I dare to say, will be approved for massive deployment in the next two decades. And I’m not talking just ol’ fission, the same goes for fusion, coal (although we are talking of super-hyper critical boilers already, the real equivalent to a “new generation” here would be carbon capture, which is as “not gonna happen” as any SMR), and even wind and solar. I can hear Tom Friedman scoffing how the latter have reduced their price in one or two orders of magnitude to which I can only say sure, as long as you do not take into account what actually building the stations cost (as opposed to what the estimates of the IPP bidders say it may cost according to the most rosy scenarios imaginable) and you take the storage cost conveniently out of the picture (to do things like, em, keeping the lights on when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing). So the vaunted reduction in renewable energy prices is basically a bit of economies of scale for manufacturing more of ‘em (undeniable, but overblown) and accounting gimmickry, as a society we have decided we don’t mind paying substantially more for our energy (not that I oppose that, I would just prefer we were more open about it and not try to sell it on false premises).

The question then is, why aren’t we collectively getting more bang for our buck of investment in the development of newer energy sources? And the answer is that the investment that does happen is simply not enough to overcome all the regulations we have found it necessary to impose on the activity to avoid chocking on the fumes, rad waste and other ugly byproducts. We have learned so much of the negative effects of the existing ways, most of which are still not fully borne by the ones benefitting from its production (case in point, CO2 emissions by coal-burning plants in most of the world), that we have created a very necessary mesh of rules to try to minimize their negative impact in our common well-being (and, again, we have not been entirely successful at such prevention). But such mesh also gets in the way of newer forms of energy production, making it simply unfeasible at the end of the day. A number of (mostly American) conservatives seem to naively think that it is a simple instance of regulatory overreach by that dreaded and hated Leviathan, the state, and that just repealing it wholesale would make all the good entrepreneurial spirits flourish and the innovations in this area (like in so many others) blossom. I don’t share their uninformed optimism at all. Most (if not all) of those “burdensome” regulations are there for good reason, and there is simply no way to just get rid of them wholesale and expect the economy to chug along graciously (that is, without going back to a grim past of soot and polluted waters for most, probably billionaires would still be able to get clean air and water delivered to them by drone). So in that are, like in so many others, we are essentially screwed.

But that doesn’t mean, again, that all I see in the horizon is stasis and continuity. Back to my argument about the distinct force of social relations: what the pundits and the journalists and the Davoisie don’t realize is that even in a scenario of technological (and economic) stagnation powerful currents may still be at work, accumulating tensions in weaker parts of the structure until they are violently released. Those tensions take the usual form in decadent societies (or, resorting again to Toynbee, in the terminal phase of civilizations): a majority of disgruntled, disengaged proletarians that do not identify with the characteristic values and goals of the civilization, and a minority of creatively exhausted elites that focus on their particular problems (for example, extending their lifespan even more without worrying if such expansion would ever be scalable to the forgotten masses) unable to offer any hope or any guidance to the rest of society. And when people realize (consciously or unconsciously) that’s the predicament they are in, when they finally accept that the idea that their sons (those they are not having, because life is not worth it anyway) will have a better life then themselves is an empty lie, that the fact they have not experienced a salary rise in a decade is not an abnormal glitch that will soon be corrected, but a newly built-in feature of the system, what will they do?

That’s exactly what I mean by social relations coming to the fore and displacing technology (or the arts, which are but an expression of the collective interests, and which in time of creative exhaustion instead of proposing common goals can only certify the emptiness and lack of meaning of every human life). And why the substantial change that awaits us will not came in the form of some magic technology delivering us from our present malaise, but in the old, worrisome, unpredictable, likely violent form of major social upheaval.

So a second (or third) revolution? May be, why not, most likely. Just don’t count on it being known as “industrial” a few centuries from now.

Friday, May 5, 2017

France and the expected return of flying cars

Reading the news this last couple of weeks you would be justified in believing that Western Civilization, the World Economy, our Shared System of Values and Beliefs, the European Union and the Powers that Be, all at once, had barely budged a lethal bullet and been saved of their imminent demise. The tide of populism, extreme far-right ideas, acceptance of inequality and rejection of the Enlightenment worldview had probably crested and were expected to start the precipitous decline whose opposition to the universal impetus of a never ending progress condemn them to.

Or so would like to think the lazy peddlers of secondhand, never-too-well-analyzed, opinion generally known as journalists. We beg to differ. First, let’s look a bit more in depth the apparent cause of such glad sighs of relief: the first round of the French presidential elections that took place on Sunday, May 23rd saw a moderate, pro-European centrist (Emmanuel Macron) take the first place, to compete in a run-off with the much-feared head of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. A runoff in which he will, almost assuredly, trounce her, as famously happened with her father in 2002, when all the forces of the “reasonable”, “established” political spectrum joined against him (as they have already joined against her, with one notable exception, that of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon).

According to the received opinion, Mrs. Le Pen was cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump and the anti-EU politicians who caused “Brexit” at the other side of the Channel (Farage, Johnson, Gove). A dangerous extremist, an anti-Semite, a traditionalist set against the unstoppable progress of mankind, had she won she would have caused the doom of the decades long European integration project, the collapse of globalization, the return of national enmity and conflict to the continent, the confrontation with the resurgent Islam at Europe’s doors, the return to the demonic forces of nationalism that tore the continent apart a bit more than half a century ago.

Mr. Macron, on the other hand, which every respectable pundit is telling us should be voted, talked up, promoted, actively endorsed and praised, is your run-of-the-mill technocrat, not clearly affiliated with any of France’s traditional parties, somewhat nebulous about which precise policies he may pursue once at the helm of the country, whose main merit seems to be (other than the already mentioned non-affiliation, which definitely has played an oversized role in his rise) not at the head of any kind of avowedly “fascist”, modestly “far-right” (for the tastes of the commentariat) party. What seems clear is that he essentially promises more of the same: continuity in foreign affairs (that is, permanence in a European Union increasingly dominated by its more and more powerful Northern neighbor, more so after Britain’s departure in two years, regardless of the decades long suffering imposed by the policies more favorable to such neighbor for France’s dwindling industrial base), continuity in the economy’s direction (a modest liberalization and slow reduction of France’s public sector and a very gradual attempt to lift some of its comparatively cumbersome labor regulations), even continuity in the cultural realm (France is distinctively great, but such greatness is not to be too openly flaunted, especially in front of people “from other cultural traditions” -i.e. its own Muslim minority- lest they feel alienated or slighted). And that more-of-the-sameness is what troubles me and makes me think if the overwhelming consensus of the opinionators may not be wrong after all.

With that I’m not saying that I myself would vote for Mrs. Le Pen were I in a condition to choose. She has her own baggage, her own morally dubious choices (not least a potential corruption scandal involving a European Parliament stipend she didn’t have a problem bagging, while thunderously campaigning against the institution) and a certain dodginess that leaves me uneasy. But regarding the program of her party, the much derided, scorned, attacked, vilified and pilloried FN? I don’t see anything there that makes me want to run for the barricades, or that I would be surprised to see in as little as 2-4 years in the plank of any respectable center-right party that ends up governing a major European nation, without anybody as much as blinking an eye for it.

What’s all the fuss about, then? Well, for starters, I think it helps analyzing the situation in the light of the political philosophy dimensions that I identified in my last post. So let’s ask ourselves where do Mrs. Le Pen and her acolytes stand regarding our age’s dominant reason. Are they against it? I don’t think so. She seems to be OK with “the pursuit of happiness” as the ultimate goal of life, and with a certain form of well-ordered society where the police ensure everybody stays in its place, and do not try to overstep their station in life. She also seems to be perfectly happy with the idea of money (or property) being the main determinant of social rank, and with the desire for social improvement as the main (actually, as the solely intelligible) spring for action, the main socially sanctioned desire. I may be reading too much here, but if I’m right so far, that would mark her out not as a nationalist (that would think that it’s only genius, or rather a particular kind of genius born of a distinctive attunement with the ancient Spirit of nation, blood and soil, which should determine every person’s station in life) but as a more prosaic populist. What she is essentially telling her likely voters is that the values ruling our lives are OK, but the result they’ve produced (all those Muslims, and immigrants in general milking the generous State’s udder and mocking the sacred creed of national unity that built that State in the first place with their alien culture and traditions) has been thwarted and perverted by a twisted cabal of multiculturalists and internationalists, that dreaded “elite”, that is siphoning off the hard earned euros of the middle and lower-classes and showering with largesse a bunch of undeserving female genital mutilators.

That makes the contest between Mrs. Le Pen and Mr. Macron a rather uninteresting competition between two camps of cheerleaders of the current reason. In France there are no neoliberals (although some sentences of the candidate for en Marche! May be construed as willing to imperceptibly tilt the behemoth of the French State in a more liberal direction), so the discussion essentially takes place between people willing to change things even more imperceptibly, be it towards a more bureaucratic, redistributionist past (social democrats), towards an uncertain future where the main difference is stepping out of the single currency straitjacket (those have to be the populist) or towards doing nothing at all and hoping that a sustained improvement in the foreign markets will miraculously lift the economy and exogenously solve France’s unemployment problem (conservatives). No kidding the social democrat and traditional conservative’s (that initially rallied under the banner of the Gaullist François Fillon who, marred by a small scandal of his own, couldn’t get them in a number enough to pass to the knockoff stage) recommend frantically voting for Macron to block a potential Le Pen presidency (who is but a square further from them in my little map of political sensibilities). No kidding either that the truly leftist part of the electorate (who in the first round voted for the unreconstructed Marxist Jean-Luc Mèlenchon) are more hesitant to follow suit, as they see Mr. Macron perched between neoliberalism and conservatism, as far from their own sensibility as Mrs. Le Pen populism (which, as she astutely has observed, may be made to appear to include some left-leaning elements that would made it clearly more palatable).

However, the result (for what it’s worth, I forecast a slim victory for Mr. Macron, at least five percentage points less than what the press consensus predicts but still enough to get him to the Élysée Palace) is unlikely to change much or make any noticeable difference in the life of the French. This is still an exhausted social system, whoever wins. France’s economy, like the rest of Europe’s, will limp along for a few more years (and Mrs. Le Pen wasn’t likely to trigger a “Frexit” right away). Demographic growth, the rate of technological innovation and productivity improvements will not resume in the near future, and in their absence the lackluster growth in wealth will keep on being monopolized by a shrinking minority. In France, with its moderately robust State and redistributionist policies as in the UK (without any of those) or in the US (ditto on steroids). And the concomitant growing inequality will accelerate a negative feedback loop of even less demographic growth, less innovation and less wealth creation…

Until the system is exposed for the fraud it already is, the column of proponents of the dominant reason gets emptied (there stops being anybody defending it, outside of the super-rich one percenters that are revealed as its only beneficiaries) and there are no more neoliberals, populists, conservatives or social democrats, and only revolutionaries (under the generic banner of anarchists, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still Marxists around, their chiliastic faith has survived worse…) and reactionaries (the true ones, wanting to go all the way back before the start of the Enlightenment) remain. By the way, interesting article by Andy Sullivan in the New York Review about neoreaction, kudos for distinguishing between reactionaries and conservatives: Taking those crazy reactionaries seriously... seriously? although what he calls reactionary would be, in my terms, either a nationalist (back to the romantic reason of great Nations with a distinctive Geist -oh, well, it was always about race anyway), a Marxist (back to the good ol’ State deciding who gets what or, in Lenin’s as unforgettable as pithy definition of politics, giving an answer to “Who? Whom?”) or a full alt-righter (back all the way to absolute monarchy, when men lived for a possible everafter, surely much happier regardless of being dirt poor and mostly condemned to a life of endless toil without parole or reprieve).

Be it as it may, when we judge of the impact of a populist win we shouldn’t forget that, unable to change the exhausted dominant reason that got us in this mess in the first place, the only questions of interest are a) how long will they maintain the fiction that all that is wrong (that, for such reason, can only boil down to the lack of robust, equitably divided growth in material comforts)  is the fault of an evil cabal of outsiders that can be easily countered and b) what happens when the mask falls on that (historically, it tends to not end well for the populist in charge, which will usually turn their aims to new foes increasingly more complex to vanquish, until they lash out to foreign enemies and vast, cosmic-scale conspirations that require the engagement of all the Nation’s forces to counteract them… and we also know ha that one ends). What populist typically do not produce are viable, vibrant, healthy alternatives to the inert dominant reason that enabled their initial ascent. So not many causes for cheerfulness. Even after the Front National is defeated (again) in a couple of days, it is only a matter of time until its ideology (populism) triumphs, in France or anywhere else, tilting more to the right (to better ally itself with credulous conservatives) or more to the left (idem with hopeful but equally naïve social democrats).

Meanwhile, we will still be busy trying to formulate the true alternative that may deliver us collectively from such evils. Not too likely to succeed, but at least it won't be for lack of effort.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

A little political philosophy won’t kill you (or will it?)

Some anxious readers of this fine blog have been complaining of late that the frequency of my musings has decidedly diminished of late, and wonder if my much decreased output is due to an irreversible disenchantment with the medium, or is rather a temporary blip, hopefully to be soon reversed. Difficult to say for sure. I enjoy writing furiously almost unintelligible blabber as much as ever, but it’s true that the number of my commitments has increased, with the career in mathematics and the demands of the weightlifting club. It doesn’t help that April and May are usually the busiest months at work (I’m the head of the quality organization within my firm, and in May we pass our annual certification with external auditors, which require a lot of attention). So for the foreseeable future my posts will be few and far between, and I’ll need to compensate my faithful followers with extra doses of quality (in the form of pungency of the commentary on the follies of our current and past mores, rather than in brevity and pithiness, of course) as a form of compensation for the decrease in quantity…

Now to the matter at hand: I finished a couple weeks ago a rather infuriating book by a retired editor that had published too many Marxist historians, and it showed, as he had himself imbibed too much of their wacky outlook during his professional career. Nothing unusual or shocking that would merit a post to comment, as Marxist historiography in Continental Europe held almost a monopoly position within the opinion of the learned since the end of WWII. To make things worse, the author in this sad case was Spanish, where a Marxist orientation was almost mandatory if you wanted to be published in the post-dictatorship squalid intellectual milieu of the last decades of the last century. The result could be summarized as a mediocre book by an incurious author (incuriosity masked by the mandatory hundred pages of bibliographical notes containing all the canonical leftist blabber, plus some liberals in the Anglo Saxon tradition to keep the appearance of academic impartiality) that leans too heavily in every conceivable stereotype and commonplace to describe a century (the XVIII) whose intellectual forces he barely understands. But such lack of understanding is in itself revealing, as he essentially takes a trope well loved by left-leaning thinkers the world over, namely, the fact that every product of the human spirit, be it art, political discourse, philosophy or the arrangement of society itself, is a manifestation of “ideology” to mask the only thing that really matters: the relationships of production (in Marxese, the fact that owners of capital force the proletariat to sell their labor for a pittance, to extract from them the maximum benefit trying to compensate for an ever diminishing rate of return on their investments) and runs with it as long as it would allow (it could be argued that he indeed runs with such tired trope a few hundreds of pages longer than what it would allow, but let’s be charitable here).

Our author (whose name will be left unsaid, there is no need to publicize mediocre writing) doesn’t resort to the pseudo-economicist language his brethren is so sadly famous for (I use the prefix because the relationship between a Marxist and Economics is similar to that between a logical positivist and Religion; they may dabble in opinions about its syntax and how their statements are built, they may, that is, pontificate about the “object language” without actually being able to use it for its original purpose, without really “getting” it), and relies instead in a simpler concept that seems easier to grasp: what makes our own age awful, and made the XVIII century in the West even more awful (and I would argue made the whole of human history everywhere else the absolutely most awful thing ever, but the author seems strangely unable to reach that self-evident conclusion, as it would imply that our current age was the less-awful actually obtaining in the real world’s history, something no self-respecting leftist could ever agree with) was its appalling inequality, an inequality whose defense and justification is the ultimate explanation of everything that every historical character of that time and place set out to do: Mozart operas (“the magic flute” first and foremost among them)? A mere justification for growing differences in wealth and income. The American, English and French revolutions? A shameless power grab by elites to ensure they could increase their exploitation of the hapless populace. Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant’s philosophy (an odd mixture if there ever was one)? All barefaced defenses of the great unfairness of their society. The ultimate force behind the Industrial Revolution? The desire of greedy capitalists to amass more material goods and differentiate themselves from the toiling masses (and their sequestration of the legislative process to ensure they could do so in ever more egregious ways).

Not especially subtle (or original, again) but it got me thinking about how the perspective of every author is tinted (defined by) his previous political persuasion, and how a few simple concepts (like inequality, in this admittedly somewhat extreme case) are marshalled to provide an explanatory scaffolding far beyond what their ramshackle frame would allow them to comfortably do. It is probably an unavoidable part of our mental architecture, and surely we all do it to a greater or lesser degree. So I started considering how my own thinking may be constrained (or oriented) by my own big idea (the fact that a lot of social constructions, from the most complex organizations to the most everyday individual decisions, are guided by what I’ve called “dominant reason”, which can be summarized as the collectively agreed upon answers to three key questions: “what is the ultimate goal of life?”, “what desires are socially legitimized to attain such goal?” and “how is socially precedence determined (and thus, how are conflicts between individual’s desires solved)?”). And it dawned on me that such big idea could indeed be applied to classify, and better understand the political persuasion of most people, not only the residual and somewhat nostalgic leftovers that constitute the dwindling crop pf disciples of Marx.

It stands to reason that although everybody participates in the main tenets of such dominant reason (everybody is aware of them, as they constitute the default answer to such questions that he may individually offer, prior to any reflection), not everybody endorses them with the same enthusiasm. Every society has its critics, and some are more vocal than others. While most criticize some accessory aspects of the social organization, advocating very minor changes (like the substitution of one governing party by another within the same constitutional framework, which I’m learning more and more is of very little consequence), a few others go against the most fundamental elements that serve as foundation for the whole social edifice. That allows for grouping very naturally political tendencies that, although apparently very different, share between them a definite “family air”, just by considering their attitude towards the current dominant reason. That way you may find that certain strain of conservatism and certain strain of progressivism have more in common than what immediately meets the eye. When the terms “right” and “left” were coined (that was in the States General of France in 1788, according to where the representatives of the Nobility, Clerisy and the “third state” sat), being more or less for maintaining the institutions of the Ancien Régime could be a meaningful distinction, but nowadays it most certainly is not.

Accepting then that such attitude towards the dominant reason of the age is one defining feature of every political persuasion, we may identify a further dimension for distinguishing between those that reject it (or share a basically negative outlook) if we focus on what they would replace it with. Is it something that has already been dominant in our history, or something entirely new? If the former, how close is what they yearn for in time? If the latter, how hierarchical is what they envision as an alternative to today’s system?

Given the characterization along those two dimensions, we could elegantly plot the existing political options in the following diagram:  

Which I would argue defines the different political outlooks of our days better than other, more traditional classifications, typically along a single axis (like progressive vs. conservative, or democratic vs. authoritarian, or individualistic vs. communal). Our taxonomy would then classify the different political philosophies:

-          According to their attitude towards the dominant reason we find first the ones that enthusiastically endorse it (considering more of it should be applied, so it more fully and completely determines your own and everybody else’s life). Let us call them either libertarians (desiderative reason is highly accommodating to possessive individualism, and it can be argued that it has indeed provided for unprecedented levels of individual freedom) or neo-liberals. Both groups overlap, albeit do not entirely coincide: the first appellation is most used in the USA and the 2nd in Europe, but both refer to people relatively opposed to state intervention in the economy and oriented to a mythical laissez faire economy in which the “market” optimally regulates what is produced and how it is distributed, externalities be damned. Note that the opposition to state intervention can be construed as a rejection of any interference with social status being determined by anything different than the possessions any individual is able to acquire all by himself (one of the central features of desiderative reason), as the dreaded state intervention introduces a redistributionist tendency that necessarily alters the “natural” outcome of the market with some exogenous criteria. Distinct from those enthusiastic endorsers we would have people which overall agree with the prevailing dominant reason, but rather than making it “more” desiderative would try to fix it in its current form, which already requires a significant participation of the State in the economy (understood, in opposition with the former groups, as acceptable), and which could admit of an even greater intervention to reduce the inequality of outcomes that the unfettered operation of the markets may produce. As the size of the public sector in most advanced economies is relatively high compared with the historical standard (much, much higher if we extend the comparison to the eras before the development of modern, technologically advanced Nation-States) such people today tend to be classed broadly as conservatives, if they are happy with the last four decades of growing inequality, and consider such an acceptable price to the concomitant increase in GDP (however inequitable distributed -they tend to be in the winning side) or social-democrats (a more European label, in the USA they are simply those aligned with the Democratic party) if they have become increasingly queasy about it. The important thing about those two latest groups is that, as we’ve already stated, they are both essentially happy with the status quo, and think that very minor tweaks are necessary to maintain it humming along (just putting their preferred representatives in power, identified with a political party within the purported democracy in which they think they live). Also happy with the current desiderative reason, but unhappy about how it is being applied we have the populists, with which we will deal in more detail separately. For now, it is enough to note that they are attracted by the current system of values (which they understand as a meritocracy) but not by the way it’s being, or has recently been, applied (as it enhances the social recognition, and gives all the spoils of the social product, to “others” defined in a way that excludes them, based on criteria they can not share) which makes them willing to bet the house on untested formulas that promise to correct such wrong. Finally, we would have the (so far mostly in the fringe, and with little prospect of acquiring political power anytime soon) outright critics (considering the current dominant reason, and its subsequent social system, an unmitigated disaster that cries for being replaced with something better).

-          To analyze the latter, it serves us better to resort to the second dimension, that is, which is the alternative dominant reason they consider optimal, be it a future (mostly undefined) one, or any of its past incarnations. In the former case, I’ve labeled anybody who doesn’t want to share in the dominant reason of any age, including the present one, an anarchist, as they obviously have a problem with settled and commonly accepted rules, be they for determining hierarchies (they would rather dispense with all of them outright) or for establishing what a life well lived looks like (better to leave each individual define it for him or herself -punctiliousness in gender assignations seem to be a fastidious feature of the anarchist tradition). As a brief aside, such outlook, which I have looked with great sympathy in the past, is extremely naïve (Duh!) and self-contradictory. As I’ve said in many other forums, people con not auto-legislate individually the foundation of their morals, or in other terms, give themselves an ultimate goal in life and decide in a vacuum what desires are acceptable and which ones are not. All of those have to be socially provided to boot, and they are both the prerequisite and the consequence of any minimally functioning society (as we see in our own current one, less functioning by the day as the agreement on such issues wanes and weakens). You can aspire to change the dominant reason, but it is irrational and misguided to aspire to live collectively without any reason being dominant at all in the sense I’ve described…

So let’s commiserate poor anarchists for a moment, forever doomed to vie for a dominant reason perpetually in the future because of their wholesale rejection of the current one, whatever the current one happens to be (indeed, since the creation of the movement they have already rejected, and rightly so, the two types of reason that have become dominant: both the bureaucratic one, against which they rebelled in the first international, and the desiderative one, which they currently fulminate). They are joined in their rejection by traditionalists and counterrevolutionaries and legitimists and reactionaries of different stripes, which similarly reject the current reason, but in their case because they would like it to return to a (typically highly idealized) past. Such past may be more or less remote: Marxists would like a restoration of bureaucratic reason, and have the state fully determine everybody’s position in the social hierarchy; Nationalists would like a restoration of romantic reason, and the genius (the ability to embody the spirit of the people, the mythical volk) of each gifted individual being again the sole determinant of the recognition (and eventually the material wealth associated to such recognition) to be granted to him; Alt-righters (or Neoreactionaries) have upped the ante, and are claiming for the rejection of the whole modern project embodied in the three last iterations of the dominant reason, which would take us all the way back to Baroque reason, where the ultimate goal in life was not to satisfy desires, but to prepare for the next life, social rank was determined by birth and only simple, survival-oriented desires (eat good food, have a nice house and a comfortable bed) were socially sanctioned. Surprisingly, they reveal their affinity with the other publicly visible group today that espouses such quaint views of how the good life and the good society that would nurture it look like: radical Islamists (Wahhabis) equally suspicious of modernity, that would like to take society to a pre-modern state not that different from the one proposed by Mencius Moldbug, Nick Land, Andrew Anglin and the like (well, the clothing, the traditions and the race of the simple, contented masses lorded over by the übermensch that know better may be different, but that’s all).

But before leaving my readers to ponder about such fanciful taxonomy of the political kingdom and its consequences, I would like to dwell a little more on the particular taxa that has forcefully occupied the limelight of late: the populists. According to my schema, populists in all ages are essentially conformists that agree with the three tenets of the dominant reason, but feel slighted by the results of its application. There are interesting ways of interpreting great upheavals in human history as populist movements acquiring power and finding out that they could not just redistribute more of the social product to their followers while keeping the ultimate goal of life, the acceptable desires to achieve it and the criteria for deciding who should take precedence in case of conflicting desires between individuals intact, so ended up overturning the dominant reason in which they thought they were comfortable enough:

·         In a big European country, towards the end of the XVIII century (under Baroque reason, although a neighboring country on the other side of a certain channel had already started moving towards the next type), a relatively new class (the commercial bourgeoisie) just wanted to pay less taxes (but at the same time enjoying a similar level of national prestige and security, which required noblemen and priests to pay a bit more). They all publicly professed a religion that in private they mostly despised (but not as much as the aforementioned noblemen). They all harbored the same simple desires and, by seeking to buy a nobility title as soon as their rents permitted, agreed that birth was the main determinant of social precedence. They saw that poor harvests had bred a level of popular discontent between the peasantry that allowed for minor tweaks in the existing system they thought were enough to improve their lot. And they ended up causing the French Revolution, the Terror, the fall of the Old Regime and the consolidation of a new kind of dominant reason in all of Europe and its American colonies.

·         In a much bigger country, straddling Europe and Asia, at the beginning of the XX century (but living in a complicated mixture of reasons that had not fully congealed in a coherent whole that could be called dominant, hence the difficulties of the ruling dynasty to translate the country’s many natural riches in power and international recognition) a group of daring intellectuals tried to harness social discontent from a foreign war gone wrong to impose the rule of a tiny minority (nominally the urban proletariat, in reality y a cadre of opportunists and bandits extracted from the very scarce students of certain branch of German political philosophy) over a huge majority of illiterate peasants. In this case, they succeeded in imposing the reason that was already dominant in the rest of Europe (bureaucratic), developing it in the general direction of more despotism (the Asian tradition?) and less respect for human life and flourishing.

The two previous cases show us populism before democracy, so it was a populism of certain factions of the elites vying for power and trying to grab a larger share of the pie, that only in an advanced phase resort to the masses to strengthen their hand and unleash forces they are typically not able to contain and that end up consuming them (the proverbial revolution devouring its sons). I’ll analyze now two cases that happen in the more familiar milieu of representative democracy and party politics:

·         Again, big European country that had been the poster child of the improvement in material wealth and shared prosperity that bureaucratic reason can generate, with a vibrant cultural life and universities that, both in research and applied science cause the envy of the world. Unfortunately, its cultural and material success makes it arrogant, and it ends up caught in a global war that destroys most of its infrastructure and ends up losing. Far from uniting the population, it ushers a wave of cross-recrimination that is only exacerbated when an international economic crisis sinks its economy even further. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has monopolized all the levers of power within the country, and embarks in a furious program of public works to refloat the economy. Unsurprisingly (given the low level of resource utilization) it rebounds strongly, and in a similarly unsurprising way (given that the renunciation of previous international commitments has closed any means of foreign borrowing) in few years the economy overheats, inflation threatens to rear its ugly head again and corruption and graft in a single party state with no checks and balances are more and more prevalent. To extend the party’s grasp of total power the staid, vaguely boring bureaucratic reason is jettisoned and replaced by none other than its predecessor, romantic reason, as any appearance of fixed rules and impersonal merit recognition is displaced by party loyalty and belonging to the “right” race. You all know how it ends, when the need to keep growing the economy can only be met by crazy rearmament, then imperialist expansion in neighboring land, then total war and then near total annihilation.

·         A very big American country that has emerged from a series of fortunate historical circumstances as the single hegemon of the world system, with unmatched military power, at the beginning of the XXI century (the age of maximum dominance of desiderative reason). By the end of the previous century the system was giving clear signals of exhaustion: innovation was slowing (although most people were not aware, as the media kept reporting more and taller tales of breakthroughs and disruptions that somehow failed to materialize and actually affect average people lives’), median income had been stagnant for almost three decades, and even the frequent wars the country embarked on to keep hidden the continuous flow of resources from the public sector back to (few and well connected) private hands (“weaponized Keynesianism”) never seemed to be won, or even to actually end. Although the middle class has seen its fortunes dwindle, two classes have kept steadily improving: the super-rich (more and more visible in an era where the only true progress happens in communication technologies, thus making everybody’s lives more and more interconnected and visible) and the urban poor. Along comes a clear sighted leader, that tells everybody that everything will be OK. He’ll make the country great again without having to change mental habits or old hierarchies. Their dominant reason had not failed them, the motive it was not working any more was that a powerful cabal of secret conspirators was thwarting the normal outcomes of the democratic process, so if they kicked them out, everything would be good again. The guy barely wins a contested election, but scrapes by to form a government that in few months has achieved little, as checks and balances seem to preempt his every move. In the face of sinking popularity (the ultimate fuel that keeps him going, like most populist leaders) he makes more and more outrageous claims that somehow leave his followers undaunted…

Of course, the final outcome of the second case study has yet to be written. The orange one may be a blip, an anomaly after which the system regains its footing and continues towards ever more enlightened, fairer, more prosperous configurations (with or without desiderative reason that, long as its reign has already been, will some day be superseded, as all dominant reasons have been before). Or he may be the harbinger of something more substantive, a true (and infrequent) revolution that provides the final push to a crumbling system to force it to radically change, setting in motion the (typically serious) disturbances that announce (and are the prerequisite of) a change in dominant reason.

And what I’ve said of the American president could as well be applied to the many populist leaders-to-be waiting in the wings in so many other countries: Will Marine Le Pen end up inhabiting the Élysée Palace? Beppe Grillo in the Quirinal? Is it legitimate to compare the two, and both of them with the Donald? I’ll have more to say on the French election (summarizing: I think not in the end, but wouldn’t be surprised if she did), but I say the comparison is fully legitimate. What we see in all cases is a bare majority forming thanks to the discontent with a situation where no discontent is easily granted. Voters of populists are not the downtrodden of the Earth. Most are employed in economies that, in historical terms, are wildly successful and wealthy. But they all see the future with anguish and feel they are not getting from society as much as they should. I don’t understand them as saying that the rules are rigged against them, they seem to be fine with the rules, at least with how they were interpreted and applied twenty or thirty years ago (when their parents benefitted from them to achieve a standard of living unheard of, and most likely unexpected even by themselves). What has changed (it is important to note that in the populist imagination this is always the case) is that suddenly those same rules that benefitted their parents are benefitting somebody else, and not leaving enough for themselves. Those free-riding immigrants, mostly (although in the middle-class white North American the role the immigrant plays for the European is played by “blacks” and, a late addition, “browns”). It is them who have to be purged from the social body, put back in their place, so the current rationality works again for the benefit of the native sons.

I think that expectation is basically deluded. The generation that is nowadays beginning their professional careers (from the kids entering college to the thirty-somethings that should be settling in a job and being offered their first significant promotions, or starting to generate benefits in their self-started businesses) is working longer and longer hours for more meager rewards not because immigrants are siphoning off all the riches we are collectively capable of creating (what in its face is a pretty absurd notion), but because we have exhausted the possibilities of our current dominant reason, which at this point is not able to make us collectively produce more, or even just enough people to replenish the ranks of consumers that modern economies demand to keep chugging along. We could close our frontiers and prohibit trade as firmly and as tightly as we wanted, and our economies would still be in the gutter (again, compared with those of our parents, which still leaves ample room for them to be outstanding compared with 99,9% of human history) for lack of aggregate demand in the face of a dwindling population AND lack of Total Factor Productivity growth in the face of lack of innovation outside of Telecomms and video games. Want proof that getting rid of the maligned “other” used as scapegoat by the populist leaders rarely, if ever, works? The Germans kicked out the Jews really bad, and see where that took them (I’m aware revisionist historians see their defeat at WWII as the ultimate proof of the existence of that powerful cabal, which then successfully whitewashed history to exonerate themselves… hogwash, the German economy had proved to be inviable before the Nuremberg laws, and certainly long before the start of the war). Expect nothing different if Trump built his wall and repealed every single trade treaty (or Marine did the same). The ills that have created populism in the first place can not be cured with populism own recipe’s.

How could they be cured, then? That, thoughtful reader (you have to be really thoughtful to have made it up to this point!) would be the subject of another post.