Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What to believe (against relativism)

I’m well aware that an era of societal collapse and civilization’s decadence is not the best of times for strong assertions of belief and rigorous declarations of faith. Although it is difficult to disentangle what is a contributing cause and what is an unavoidable effect of the sorry state of modern society, the loss of legitimacy of our time’s dominant reason (for those new to this blog: aka desiderative reason, very bad!) contaminates any attempt to build a widely shared “grand narrative”, to articulate a set of guiding principles on how to live that a majority of people can give their assent to.

We are all jaded cynics nowadays, disenchanted empiricists, nihilistic spectators of the “death of God” and participants in the deconstruction mandated by post-modernism, well steeped in critical theory (the right, “alt-“ or vanilla, insists in calling it “cultural Marxism”, but we are not prone at this point to abet by that particular piece of tomfoolery), which means we are highly suspicious of any statement aspiring to be valid for “anybody” at “anytime”. Tools of oppression by the heteropatriarchy! We may cry on hearing them. Unsubtle attempts of the dominant groups to impose their value-system on the poor and the dispossessed. Indeed, the most cursory look at who formulated most of those tenets (we will look at them more closely in a moment) reveals the limited, unrepresentative nature of the group whose dominion they sought to validate: Western propertied white heterosexual men! (only Confucius and Lao Tzi were not Westerners, Diogenes of Sinope had no properties, Plato was not heterosexual, Augustine was -probably- not white and… well, you got me with the last one, to the best of my knowledge all the contributors to the canon I’m about to defend belonged to the male sex of the species, as Jack Lemmon famously said caught in a similar pickle, “nobody is perfect!”).

Which means that, given what we know of how History with a capital H has turned out (World Wars! Genocides of all classes, sizes and stripes, from the Armenians to the Jews to the Tutsis almost in our very own day! Environmental degradation! Totalitarian regimes mass murdering their own subjects! Global warming abetted by giant corporations and governments! Mass famines! Crushing poverty!) we can’t just look at the camera with a straight face and proclaim that there is a solid body of things we humans have learned that may differ a little itsy bitsy bit in the borders, but basically agree (meaning any reasonable person would be OK with something around 80-90% of it) on the fundamentals about how we should live, what we know and can know of “what there really is” (of what constitutes the world), and how we should treat each other.

Or can we?

Of course we can. Not only we can: we must. Because if we shirk our responsibility to state what we believe,  to announce what constitutes the foundation of our value system, so other people can know it, eventually discuss it, and be affected by it (be it for embracing part of it, for rejecting it wholesale or for refining it at the borders, in that comparatively minor areas where there can be some well-intentioned difference between reasonable people) we are implicitly accepting the sorry state of affairs I mentioned in my introduction to this post. Recognizing that such value system is just one between many, equally valid, or rather, equally invalid, equally unfounded, equally random and haphazard, an unjustifiable accretion of ideas that we got to have by circumstances we have no control over, like our birth, our environment, or the peculiar position of the stars in the moment of us forming them. Recognizing, thus, that embracing such values, living in accordance to them, is but an aesthetic option, not that different from choosing one outfit rather than another to go to a certain party, and not more amenable to rational justification or to reasoned defense of the choice (as such justification and defense can never go much further than “I just happen to like this particular combination of clothes” or “I just happen to find this set of colors, shapes and textures more pleasing than any other alternative”).

Which, on first sight, doesn’t seem such a bad thing. Very befitting of our super-individualistic (in Durkheimian words, super-anomic) social arrangement. You do your thing as long as nobody is harmed by it, and I do mine. Respect all options, live and let live and all that. Until you look around and start realizing the harm done by such individualism and relativism. Just a quick recap:

·         Inability to reach agreements that require sacrifices of a part of the population (even if it’s the part that is enormously better off), and forces us in suboptimal collective states as long as there is not some “Pareto-efficient” way out of them (i.e. one where nobody has to sacrifice anything for the common good, unfortunately we run out of such ways 40 years ago). Examples of such states are economies with ever-increasing degrees of inequality in the advanced West (to the point of the top 10% hoarding all the fruits of productivity increases to the exclusion of a growing percentage of impoverished left-behinds); impossibility to wean ourselves off fossil fuels (see the “yellow vests” revolts in France, or the growing emissions of greenhouse gasses in Germany: everybody is super-environmentally friendly until they have to pay more for their gas, or have to keep their nuclear power plants running); apparently insurmountable difficulties to address the growing demographic imbalances around Europe (African Sub-Saharan population ballooning and European one collapsing) and to accommodate the now incompatible demands of a group that wants to escape abject poverty and ecological collapse with those of another that wants to maintain their current racial and cultural homogeneity…

·         Not only are we failing as a collective to steer ourselves in the direction more conductive to our flourishing (which, again, would require us to distribute what we jointly produce more fairly, to take better care of our shared environment and to accommodate each other less confrontationally), we are note even able to conduct our own lives, not having “strong enough” motives for choosing one way of comporting ourselves rather than other, and thus choosing once and again the path of least resistance (those activities that give us more pleasure, without requiring too much sacrifice or effort from us). Unfortunately, choosing the easy path over the hard one once and again ends up painting ourselves in a corner, or boxing us inside a suboptimal version of ourselves. After you have exhausted the enjoyments and pleasures the material world has to offer (and your mileage may vary, but you reach that limit much sooner than you expect when you are young and feel both immortal and invincible) all there is left is to let yourself go entirely and die in a more or less self-destructive way (depending on how attached you have remained to other people whose feelings you may be loath to hurt). Need proof? Check the decrease in life expectancy in one of the most materially wealthier (and spiritually poorer) societies in the world today (you know who I’m talking about).

So only the very, very short-sighted may nonchalantly agree with the rosy diagnostic that everything is fine and dandy in our blissfully value-less societies. Things, really, are rotten and going to hell. Yup, China has lifted 800 million people from the abjectest poverty (yipeee! Good for them!) and that masks a lot of worldwide statistics, but once they finish playing catch-up (same applies for India, Latin America, SW Asia… only Africa so far remains a hopeless basket case which I cannot fathom how it may evolve) they will join us in our accelerating collapse, which translates into a steeper decline for the average person in disposable income, wealth, health, life expectancy and security (so the nations that have just barely joined the global middle class will feel as if the party they worked so hard and so long to join is abruptly winding down immediately after their arrival, just imagine the sort of angry populism that feeling may spawn!) . Which, again, is only meant to strengthen my contention that we need values, we need to proclaim them, we need to publicize them, we need to submit them to careful scrutiny, and we need to proselytize about them, trying to convince other people to adopt them and to live by them.

That proclamation, publicization, scrutinization and proselytizing is what I try to do in my ethics classes (but, alas! Preaching ethics to business school students many times feels like extolling the virtue of chastity in front of testosterone-laden 18 YO male athletes… they sometimes seem to get a fraction of it, but I’m afraid the mix of the environment and the strength of their own impulses end up overpowering most of them), plus, more through example than discourse, in my job and in every interaction with family and friends. Although describing those values in more detail (so the claim that the vast majority of what they consist in is shared by every well-intentioned, rational person, can be validated) may be a worthy use of this blog’s space, this is not what I will attempt in the remainder of this post, as I’ve many times found that previous to the exposition of any coherent system of values, some foundations have to be laid down. The necessary foundations (the precondition that have to be fulfilled before a certain value can be recognized and agreed upon by multiple individuals) that are required are some very basic constituents of the reality we inhabit. If we cannot first agree on the nature of what is really and factually “out there”, there is little chance we may agree on what we have sufficient reasons for doing (or for refraining to do). So bear with me for a moment whilst we review those basic constituents:

·         The universe is, without a hint of a doubt, “designed”. Let’s take the most famous metaphor to explain how we can so confidently assert such surprising fact (taken directly from William Paley’s Natural Theology): if we found a watch lying by the road we immediately apprehend that it is very different from the “productions” of the natural world, like a stone or a tree. Its parts (wheels, springs, hands) are intricately connected to each other and, even if we know nothing of its purpose and use (if, that is, we know nothing of time measurement), we can see that a minimal deviation of each of those parts (the misalignment of a wheel or the fracture of a spring, say) would cause the whole to stop functioning entirely. Similarly, it is a well-known fact that the most minute deviation from their currently observed values of each one of the fundamental constants of nature (those that determine the strength and evolution of the forces of nature -gravitational constant, electric charge, weak and strong nuclear force, average life of the different baryons, spin, etc.) would cause a universe not only radically different from our own, but one where complex conscious life could not evolve (the concatenation of conditions to have a first generation of stars explode creating the necessary concentration of heavy elements like carbon, oxygen, iron, calcium, etc. to gravitate around a second generation of stars to create planets at the right distance of them for amino acids -or any similarly complex molecules, amenable to an almost infinite number of recombinations from a basic repeatable pattern would simple not be possible, given any of those minutest of changes in the basic structure of how nature works). That’s the “fine tuning” argument for the universe being designed, and hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to find a cogent argument against it.

Too bad in its original form it has been essentially discarded, as good ol’ Bill Paley applied it to the biological form of humans (thus for him, it was not the whole universe, but just the human body, which had been obviously designed by the superior intelligence of a designer), and his book happened to be printed just a few years before On the Origin of Species, by a certain Charles Darwin, which proposed an alternative explanation for how the apparently intentionally directed wondrous adaptation of man (or any other species of animal or plant, for what it’s worth) could be so admirably suited to its environment. That explanation was, of course, the theory of natural evolution through the survival of the fittest (or the most attractive to the opposite sex, in sexually reproducing species), which materialist philosophers extol mainly because it allows them to discard the need of an “intelligent designer” that a designed organism would otherwise call for. So the whole “argument from design” got a really bad rap, and has since then been seen with suspicion (if so inclined you can read the whole The Blind Watchmaker by the somewhat repetitious Richard Dawkins as a relentless and quite joyless exploration of such line of argument, although I would advise against it).

But of course, what applies to individual organism (or to whole species) and brilliantly explains their adaptation to an individual, concrete environment, is far from being applicable tout court to the whole of what there is. Not that some astute cosmologists have not tried, and indeed an “evolutionary theory of the cosmos” has been postulated, in which whole universes are being born (in the singularity conditions within black holes, maybe) in quick succession, with quantum fluctuation allowing for slight variations in the values of the fundamental constants. Some of those universes die almost instantly, others prosper for a little longer although they are uniformly dull and uninteresting, and others, finally are stable and varied enough for complex biological entities to evolve within them (and then, of course, it stops being surprising that we find ourselves in of those blessed by the right set of conditions for us to appear in it).

However, you cannot apply the same epistemic weight (call it "measure of epistemic success") to the theory of natural evolution and to the theory of multiple universes (necessarily of mind boggling number and variation). For the first one we have countless proofs and traces and confirmations (and we can even see it happening in real time in the evolution of short lived organisms, from lab mice to bacteria). For the second one we have nothing, and it is doubtful we could ever have something as tenuous as a vague indication, let alone conclusive proof. If there are all those universes with different constants, they are beyond our event horizon, there is no way we can reach them or have “real” information about their existence (involving the exchange of some force or matter).

But frankly, every time I tell someone “on the strength of the evidence, the most parsimonious, more efficient, more plausible working hypothesis is that the universe has been designed” I see their resistence coming from something that goes like “ooooh, I see you coming from a thousand miles! A designed universe requires a designer! The designer has to be a big guy with a long beard that condones the burning of heretics and the subordination of women! And I don’t want such a big guy to exist! I just don’t want there is a God! Hence, the universe cannot be designed! Hence almost infinite universes of whom there is nay a trace!”. I grant that from the first premise (designed universe) the second necessarily follows (there is a designer). But all the rest is not just unwarranted, but just a lot of baloney. Furthermore, you should realize that what you want or do not want there to be is of no importance for what there really is. We will get in a moment to what the acceptance of the design of reality entails (not a big bearded guy, for sure), I’ll just reiterate that for anybody with a basic understanding of language (that is, for anybody who understand what “being designed” means, and yes, that meaning surely also includes somebody with intention doing the design) there simply is no (honest) discussion that the universe is, as a matter of fact, designed. By something. Let’s call that something (the one that has done the design) “a mind”, and let’s concede that such mind has to be external to the universe itself.  

·         There are conscious beings in the universe, starting with us, humans, which exhibit that consciousness to a highest degree, but following with a plethora of other living things, some of which seem to be also conscious (we don’t need to concern ourselves now with just how similar or how different those other types of consciousness can be from our own). That is, there are “minds” within the universe. If we want to be fully rigorous, we can only have absolute certainty of one mind (namely, ours), and the extent to which we can be sure of the existence of other minds is a pretty thorny issue that has exercised (unsuccessfully) intelligences more brilliant than mine. For the purposes of this post I’ll let it be at the point where I ask my patient readers to take it on faith that there are indeed other minds mostly like his own, which, as a minimal introspection will show, are capable of forming intentions, having desires, notice impressions, recall past events, harbor feelings, formulate sentences, invent stories, imagine alternative states of affairs, consider hypothetical consequences of actions and whatnot.

So far, and regardless of what some neuroscientists enamored of not-too-subtle splotches of color purporting to represent how our brain works (aka fMRI, EEGs and the like) would like you to believe, the interaction between those minds and the material reality to which they are tethered is pretty mysterious. We know that minds require a very, very complex biological structure, called brains, and made by a grey gooey weighing around five pounds and sitting inside our skull, to be self-conscious. If the brain is damaged, or dissolves after death, as far as we know the brain stops being able to manifest itself. Not being able to measure its influence in the material world any more (regardless of legend, lore, and a sometimes flourishing psychic industry), we assume it is no more, although a massive number of traditions maintain it just goes to some other place. If we are honest with ourselves, we have no credible evidence whatsoever of such persistence, and for all practical purposes (regarding this material universe we are familiar with) the disappearance of the brain is necessarily and inexorably accompanied by the disappearance of the mind it supported (or, as naturalist would prefer to say, unwittingly drawing on a scholastic term, of the mind it “embodied”).

·         We, humans, can understand the “deep” structure of the world (identify the astounding regularities we call “laws of nature”, and which enable us to predict how things will be in the future in an amazing number of realms, with an amazing degree of precision). To put it another way, our “minds” cannot just identify patterns, and then patterns within those patterns in a seemingly unbounded recursivity, but can quantify those patterns, abstract them from the precise conditions we have so far observed and generalize them to other equivalent ones (to other places, or other times, be they in the future or in the past). And, in what may well be the most surprising aspect of this ability of ours, we have devised a whole method to test those regularities, recreating the precise combination of observed conditions and intended variation to ascertain if the model of how reality works does indeed correspond reliably with reality itself.

There is some legitimate discussion about how much of the structure of reality we really understand, and about the possibility of some day understanding all of it, and how such understanding would look like (what a “Grand Unified Theory” would be), but what few people deny is that we are indeed making progress, every passing century allows us to model and predict and tinker with new areas, in a sense confirming that the understanding we have gained so far is for real, is the reflection of a deeper alignment between our knowledge (a mental aspect) and what is “really out there”. I mention this because in the “social sciences” (an oxymoron, as I’m about to explain) since the beginning of the last century there has been this notion about the supposedly shaky status of the “natural sciences” (or even “hard sciences”), which has taken a number of forms (scientific paradigm theory, social constructivism, epistemic skepticism, Edimburgh School strong program) and basically maintains that the apparent success of physics, chemistry (a branch of physics), engineering and the like is just a mirage, born out of the power that technicians exert over how natural science is taught. So the progress of the sciences is not a reflection of our minds somehow getting closer to “truth” (a very tricky concept), or of us refining our understanding of how “the external world” really works (as there is no external world, or if there is, as Kant would have it, there is no way for us to know anything about it). It is just a matter of wily teachers duping their gullible pupils in some methodologies that conscientiously erase every alternative approach that came before, and brainwashes them in appreciating only the “newest” way of doing things. “Newest”, of course, is uncritically equated with “better”, or “truer”, but in reality it is not, everything is a social construct, hiding power relationships (thus the professor is more powerful than the pupil, the physicists are more powerful than the literary critic, and all of them are more powerful than the secretary that, through the practice of transcendental meditation, understands the true nature of reality better than any of them).

May be. May be, as Richard Rorty put it, geology is not really a science about rocks and mountains because there are no such things as “rocks and mountains” (there are only mental representations, and words that try to describe them whilst being very imperfect means of conveying meaning from one mind to the next). I can’t be sure of certain things like what would Rick Rorty think of this post (and of the kind of things that social sciences deal with in general). But I’m pretty sure of what the temperature of a nuclear power plant core will be a certain amount of time after scramming if the primary pumps do not keep recirculating the coolant. I’m pretty sure of the amount of weight a bridge can support before collapsing, or the amount of radiation at a certain point of the spent fuel pool given the level of burning such fuel has sustained. Even for non-deterministic events I can calculate with astounding precision the probability of finding certain electron (with a very finely measured energy level) in certain region of the space. And I know when a new theory to explain the behavior of the core of the NPP, of the bridge and of the electron is “better” or “truer” (when it gives me more precise predictions, applicable to a wider range of cases). So I’ll leave the discussion of the “real” existence of the core, the bridge and the electron to people trained in disciplines that obviously have not prepared them to distinguish in a similar way between good and bad theories, between those that describe nature more truly or less truly (maybe the objects their theories deal with are not amenable to such clear cut distinctions, I won't go into that here). I’ll just tell my readers bluntly that, in the realm of inanimate matter (that not involving minds, isn’t that curious?) we can confidently assert with Hegel that “all the real is rational, and all the rational is real”. We can assert, with an extraordinary level of certainty, that there is a material world independent from us and, what is more surprising, that our minds can, to a (so far) ever increasing degree understand that material world, construct inside them “mental models” that reflect such reality with ever increasing accuracy and elegance and perspicuity.

So, to recap, there are three extremely important things that, before forming our beliefs, we should consider, namely:

1.       The universe has been designed by a mind outside it

2.       There are other minds (other, that is, than our own) inside it

3.       Those minds can understand how the universe works (which can alternatively be stated as: "there is a homothecy between the mind that designed the universe and the minds that inhabit it")

Given how long it has taken me to argue for those three simple truths, I’ll leave the consequences we should extract from them (and maybe some further strengthening of the argument by considering the most common objections) to my next post. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The center cannot hold (the nuts and bolts of how “this” goes to hell)


These last weeks have given us more examples of the demise of traditional parties, and the rise of groups that the MSM likes to portray as “extremists” or, until recently, “fringe”:

·         The Brazilian presidential election has been won by Jair Bolsonaro, widely depicted as the local version of Donald Trump because of his incendiary declarations condemning homosexuals and darkly warning of the dangers of a “communist threat” that, after almost 14 years of PT (workers’ party) government, probably existed only in his fevered head

·         Two consecutive regional elections in Germany (in Bavaria and in Hesse) have seen the collapse to its lowest levels since WWII of the traditional center-right (the Christian-Democrat CDU and its Bavarian variant, the CSU) and center-left (the social democrats of the SPD), and the concomitant rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Greens (considered not long ago to be far-left, but in these confused times who knows how they are classified any more)

Those electoral tidings that resonate with a number of similar ones (the election of Donald Trump in the USA, the victory of Brexit in the UK, the formation of a government dominated by the Lega Norte in Italy, the ascent of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, the consolidation in power of the authoritarian forces coalescing around Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary and Kaczinsky in Poland, etc.) which I already analyzed in a previous post The allure of populism .
In this post, I want to provide a further explanation of why those forces are in the ascendant, why we can expect to see many more of them winning elections, governing and consolidating their hold on power, and why, far from preventing the collapse I mentioned in my last post (Decline and fall, indeed ) they are the surest sign of its inevitability. We won’t avoid “this” collapsing by electing extremists and letting them try (foreordained to fail) alternatives to the current social compact, we will rather ensure that “this” goes to hell in a swifter, speedier fashion, as those “alternatives” promising easy fixes to complex problems, once given the chance to actually spread their fairy dust over the electoral body, will miserably fail and only hasten the demise of “this”.

“This”, of course, being our current socioeconomic system, and its dominant reason (the ideological underpinning that both justifies it and keeps it humming along by indoctrinating every member of society to play by certain rules that, although noxious for each individual, happen to be great to smother any alternative that may be presented). To understand why the failure of the “extremist” or “populist” alternatives is unavoidable, let’s quickly summarize the problems that affect every single one of today’s societies, stated as succinctly and pithily as possible (so do not expect any of my usual rhetorical flourishes in the following enumeration):

1.       Demographic collapse of advanced (and middle-income) economies, with number of births in all of Europe, America (North and South), Oceania and North of Africa and Asia below replacement levels (not yet in India, but getting there surefootedly), and increasing life expectation causing a ballooning of unfunded liabilities in the most advanced economies in the form of medical costs and social security for retirees that the new generations will be unable to provide

2.       Demographic explosion of Sub-Saharan Africa, that increasingly depends on the rest of the world to feed a population that keeps growing (as the increasing amount of international help barely compensates the increase in mouths to feed, they stay at about the same level of poverty, that in turn keeps the incentives for having as many babies as possible in place… for a notably delirious and pigheaded analysis of the problem see Douthat: all of Europe's problems would disappear if womin went back to having seven babies each )

3.       Increasing intra-country inequality, somewhat compensated by a shrinking inter-country one. But at some point, Chinese peasants will be more riled up by the differing fortunes between themselves and rich city-dwellers than by the joy of seeing the diminishing differences between them and rust belt Americans. And who knows? May be rust belt Americans will stop being assuaged by the fact the blacks and Latinos still have it worse than themselves, and will in turn be riled up by the fact that all the improvements in wealth production of the last fifty years have been vacuumed up by the richest 1% between them

4.       Environmental degradation, caused by the increasing pressure of a growing/ much grown population on a finite planet. Such degradation takes the form of shrinking wild habitats, loss of biodiversity and, the one with the biggest potential for worsening our quality of life, anthropogenic climate change

5.       Technological stagnation or, rather, technological development of the “wrong” technologies: we do not invent much that help us produce more material goods with less effort (thus, we are getting significantly worse at generating energy, extracting less and less Megawatts from each megawatt devoted to the production of the required infrastructure, ditto for transportation, agriculture, residential building and space exploration), but such lack of inventiveness and technological development is clouded (and people are kept ignorant about it) by the stupendous development of technologies to capture our attention and entertain us (aka dupe us, fool us, lie to us, deceive us, delude us, distract us and whatnot)

Those are serious problems. Because of them, the generation that today have between 0 and 15 years in the advanced economies will have the dubious honor of being the first, since the collapse of the Roman Empire of the West, to enjoy a life materially worse than their parents’ (the Chinese and Indians and Latin Americans may get a bit more mileage from playing catch up, in their case may be its two generations down the line that will have that same distinction). They will have ubiquitous Internet access and will enjoy almost for free any entertainment we can dream of, but Alas! That entertainment will be dismal, crappy and despondent. How do I know? Because dying, decadent societies are unable to create great art. Creating durable, inspiring, arresting art requires believing there are things that really matter, identifying oneself with great narratives bigger than us, being able to sacrifice one’s own comfort for the good of others or for the sake of self-expression, or believing in sources of meaning outside of the material world. And almost nobody in the West or in the East, in the Northern hemisphere or in the Southern one, truly believes in that any more. They can only be cynical, post-modern, self-referential, jaded, detached. More Banksy than Michel Angelo. More Jay Z than Beethoven. So yep, they will populate the noosphere (or the memeplex, or whatever idiotic name the clever studious of the virtual reality want to concoct) with catchy images and catchy tunes and catchy, snazzy ideas (expressed in less than 140 characters, who has time for more than that?) that will go viral in ever shortening times, and be consumed by ever increasing amounts of rapt audiences, only to be forgotten as fast, in the perpetual pursuit of the latest fad and the latest trend, all equally perishable and equally fast forgotten. What’s more, that deluge of empty entertainment will not make us a iota happier, will not make our life a iota worthier, and will not, thus, make us want to propagate it a iota more than now (which is not much, see problem #1).

But before we get there (the nuts and bolts I mentioned in the title, more about them in a moment), let us review what answers the “traditional” (i.e. non-populist) parties, the representatives of the majority of the people (according to the establishment) are offering to those serious, seemingly intractable problems:

·         From the right, we hear that

o   1. Is no problem at all: less people? More riches to enjoy between the remaining ones! And if we really want more people (i.e. if we took the demographic suicide of advanced and not-so-advanced economies seriously) all we would need to do was ban abortions and limit access to contraceptives! (never mind European societies have been successfully controlling their reproduction rates since the XVIII century, when abortion was as effectively banned as the most traditional conservative could dream of and no contraceptives existed)

o   2. Is a convenient excuse for more socially regressive policies: those dark guys pouring over our frontiers are the source of all our social problems, give more weapons to the police to keep them out and send back those who seep inside!

o   3. Is a blessing: inequality spurs innovation and incentivizes the right behavior by rewarding the industrious entrepreneurs that create wealth for all and punishing the lazy, undeserving poor

o   4. Is a temporary blip: if we keep on incentivizing those same industrious entrepreneurs they will come up with technology-based solutions to those problems (clean energy technologies! Carbon capture to reverse climate change! Cloning to retrieve extinguished species! Age-reversing medicine to make us immortal!)

o   5. Is not happening at all: thanks to Moore law, technological change has not only not stagnated, but is still accelerating. What if TFP is not increasing as it used to? It is surely a measurement error, and we are one expansive cycle away from reaching a post-scarcity society where we will be able to tie dogs with sausages!

·         Whilst from the traditional left we receive the following messages regarding the challenges we face:

o   1. Is no problem at all: less people? Less pressure on the sacred Earth! We humans are a cancer on the planet, anyways, so the less of us there is the better!

o   2. Is a convenient excuse for more redistribution: those unlucky individuals are not responsible for being born in the wrong place (true), so they have as good a claim as us to the collective benefits our society bestows on its undeserving members (false, if their enjoyment of such benefits would make said benefits disappear both for them and for us, as is sadly the case), thus we have to welcome as many of them as possible, in order to force the rich to give more of their illegitimately accrued wealth to the rest

o   3. Is a temporary blip that can be corrected with a bit more of social engineering and state intervention (although it is unclear how that intervention is supposed to work, after in the 90’s and aughts social democrat parties in Europe essentially subscribed to the neoliberal creed and lowered taxes, deregulated protected industries and committed to balanced budgets regardless of business cycle): the modern left agrees with the modern right that the first imperative is to grow the economy with low inflation, and only after that has been achieved may some (very minor) redistribution be considered. If there is no growth, no redistribution will be abetted (see Greece for the last ten years)

o   4. Is not happening at all: the only environment to be concerned about is the social environment. There is no such thing as nature, only what we create with our labor (and labor relations can only take the form of class conflict, because we all belong to a class, namely exploiters or exploited, rapacious capitalists or progress-bearing proletarians), so animal species disappearing or the planet warming is of no consequence, other than by its potential influence on what class finishes on top in the centuries long struggle

o   5. Is a blessing: that so-called technological advance was a source of disruption and stress for the weakest members of society (the blue-collar workers that constitute the majority of the membership of leftist parties), so the less there is of it the better. Lowbrow culture available to all is great, as all that snotty highbrow was a conspiracy of the elites to identify their own members and collectively disregard the good, honest entertainment of the subjugated masses

So traditional parties may switch some message here and wiggle some answer there, but what both the left and the right have in common is a complete lack of solutions to our society’s most pressing problems. Instead of solutions, they offer the following (what, for lack of a better term, we may call distractions, or more directly, canards):

·         The great lie of the right is that we are not yet rich enough, our economy is simply not producing enough goods, so the first imperative is to make it grow even faster. Some good things (more individual freedom of choice) and some very bad ones (less solidarity and a more frayed safety network in the form of less guaranteed, mandatory health and unemployment insurance) are presented as the necessary price that it is reasonable to pay in order to achieve that accelerated growth. Look, I get that growth in the West has been, until now, a very considerable net gain for almost everybody. I see that there is an airtight, super-strong case for growing the economies of Botswana, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam (among many other) before considering how that growth is distributed. But Germany? Sweden? The good ol’ US of A? If they had to choose between producing more goods and enjoying more leisure time, or producing more goods and ensuring everybody has health insurance and nobody goes bankrupt because of an unexpected serious illness… I know very well what morality would unabashedly demand: bring on the vacations and the socialized medicine! Even if they require higher marginal taxes for individuals and/or corporations, which in turn cause a bit less growth (a causal relationship that is in no way as firmly established as its proponents would like you to believe). The case for the opposite is looking more and more morally suspect, as the Republican party of the USA makes more apparent every passing day.

·         The great lie of the Left is that we all belong to some oppressed minority, and that only through collective action can we redress such oppression and improve our sad lot. Women? Victims of the hideous patriarchy that single-handedly explains why there aren’t as many female CEOs as male ones, plus of the almost universal prevalence of rape and sexual harassment, to which 99% of them are daily subjected. Homosexuals? Victims of permanent and widespread homophobia that marginalizes them and silences them and physically harms them through countless hate crimes. Immigrants? Heroic, hard-working saints in pursuit of a better life, animated only by their desire to improve their descendants’ lot in life and unfailingly respectful of their host countries traditions and norms. Racial minorities? If they are not all millionaires it is because society is rife with racism and discrimination, they are given no opportunities at all, the system is uniformly rigged against them and the police and the judicature conspire to keep them down, massively (and unjustly) incarcerates them, when not downright guns them down. Transgender people? As homosexuals but on steroids regarding how brutalized and attacked they have been (so deserving an extra dose of sympathy and support, that in the USA apparently starts and ends with signaling the bathrooms they can use).

Those elements, so prominent in the public discourse of the traditional parties, are finding less and less enthusiasm, and are less and less able to mobilize their dwindling bases because they appeal to non-existing problems (or to problems that few people, outside of the think tanks and university campuses from which those parties recruit their cadres, consider relevant). In the meantime, the real problems, the five problems I enumerated, are either ignored or given false solutions, condemned to fail. And as long as they are not solved, which would probably require the reformulation of the dominant reason that organizes social life (something that I’m afraid no single human being, doesn’t matter how enlightened or persuasive or convincing, can accomplish), they will keep getting worse. And all of us will be worse off because of them, trundling along in a society that is more inimical to human flourishing, where we spend more time in school/vocational training/ university (online or otherwise) but we learn less and less, where we eat worse quality food, we live in lower quality buildings, we breathe lower quality air, we wear lower quality clothes, we go from one uninspiring place to the next more slowly, in a less efficient vehicle (doesn’t matter if it has an internal combustion engine, like current cars or planes, or an electric one, like many current trains, which only displaces where the pollution is generated). But boy, will we be entertained in the way! By ubiquitous screens, absorbing our attention every single second with a steady flow of trash that will make current reality TV look like Socrates discourses during the Athenian enlightenment in comparison.

Maybe we will still vote, maybe we will give up on democracy altogether, because we finally realize all options on offer are but aspects of the ruthless defense of the same hapless plutocracy, intent on corralling every last atom of material wealth produced and siphoning it towards the lucky few that consume the same crap (ideological or otherwise) than everybody else, only in greater abundance and with one small twist: they will delude themselves believing they somehow deserve their superior riches, their differential access to those material goods everybody is so unhappily producing, whilst paying them a pittance, the bare minimum to keep them alive and servile enough to tend to their every whim in exchange for the scraps of their continuous feasting. They will try to convince everybody else of that same mantra, of course (that is, they will keep on selling the ideological justification of such inequality: the meritocracy myth and all that), and for some time they will succeed (see the current state of the USA and UK politics if you need an illustration of how such a society may look like) but I have a strong hunch that at some point they will stop pretending, and just cancel the whole charade and keep the masses subjugated through (stale) bread and (high-def, VR enhanced) circus, without giving them a say on how they are governed (too complex and technical, you know, to leave a bunch of rubes decide on such substantial issues).

Until that final state (universal dictatorship supporting appalling levels of inequality) is reached, the three key aspects to pay attention to in how the decline of the current social order plays out are:

-          Corruption as the symptom of the disaffection between elites and the rest (that thus becomes a proletariat in the Toynbeean sense), and as the common theme of dissatisfaction with established parties and experts from all disciplines. Perceived corruption of all the political choices on offer will be (as it has usually been in the past) the final argument for the abolition of democracy and popular participation in the decision of how society is governed and what laws are enacted. Expect, thus, higher and higher levels of corruption at all levels, ceaselessly denounced by the free press (while there is such a thing, being a useful tool of justification of the rule of the few) until nobody cares any more about it and it is widely accepted as just the usual way of doing business.

-          Lack of legitimacy of all the institutions (political parties, unions, established churches that align themselves with the temporal power, even civic institutions, that end up also aligned with one tribe or other), derived from the fact that they are (correctly) seen as answering to non-existing problems while ignoring the real ones. Again, what today would be perceived as an illegitimate form of government (a military dictatorship, say) may not be so once every other option has been similarly discredited. Expect the army to be one of the last institutions to be discredited, and thus at some point to be the one the oligarchy (that’s me and my pals, in case you have forgotten) turns to in order to buttress a collapsing social order.

-          Remember, finally, how according to Toynbee in the collapsing phase of every civilizational unit the proletariat always finds a common narrative, alternative (and typically despised by) to the one embraced by the elites, to give meaning and make sense of their condition. A new universal religion still has to take shape and inspire the proletariat to overthrow the current elite that is hoarding all the economic growth (the future that has indeed arrived, but unequally), and at this point I for one has no clue about what shape that universal religion may take. It may be (my preferred option) a revival of the existing one, cleansed of its most unsavory elements. It may be something entirely new we still have not heard of. Be it as it may, we will contemplate it with dismay, we will despise it and accuse its followers of irrationality and fanaticism and bigotry and idiocy. But they will teach it to future generations, while the values we cherish will be seen as corrupted and false. 

In summary: expect the five big problems to get worse, democracy to wither away, corruption to balloon (even from its currently stratospheric level, to be soon dwarfed by what is to come) and finally, some obscure sect propounding barely intelligible nonsense to catch the imagination of the masses and finally to overturn our current order. Whatever comes next, I have no clue, and I can only pray it is not worse than what we have now in front of us (or than the last five thousand years, which have been dismal enough).

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The decline and fall of… what, exactly?


I want to start this post with a confession: I bought my first books from Amazon around September 2002 (actually, that was my second purchase at the then budding site, as I had previously attempted to buy a book by William Burroughs which ended up being a cassette recording of him reading Cities of the red night, and which I think I never got myself to listening). My first order included a nice, hardback copy in three volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cloth binding and all. Back then, I did with my Amazon orders what I was well accustomed to doing with my brick-and-mortar book purchases: I kept on indulging in them well before I had finished reading the haul from the latest one (or with the ones previous to that), so there were always books that sat in my nightstand unread for years, as I always found some newer, glitzier (or for some reason just more urgent) ones to turn my attention to. Also, I used to read multiple books in parallel back then, so finishing something or other always seemed more pressing than going back to the ones that, inadvertently, had been bought long ago. Be it as it may, the thing is that the imposing boxed set containing the first half of Gibbon’s masterwork had been sitting for 16 years in a corner of my library (the “history important books” corner, alongside the much revised, commented and dog-eared editions of Toynbee’s Study of History, Spengler’s Decadence of the West and Collingwood’s The Idea of History).

Since then, my reading habits have noticeably changed, as long ago I started reading a single book at a time, and not opening a new one until I had finished the one I was currently engaged with (no matter how boring or disappointing… indeed finishing boring and disappointing books has turned out to be a most rewarding endeavor, and a superb training method for attention and intelligence in general,  see my posts Why reading boring books is good for you and Maybe even better ). I also reined my obsessive-compulsive buying behavior, not ordering (or buying in a physical store) anything until I had cracked open the last exemplar hauled in the previous order. During those years of subtle but persistent change, whilst occasionally I remembered with regret the mountains of unread books I had accumulated in wilder, less disciplined times, I was still too attracted by the allure of new volumes to pay much attention to the former. And thus the Decline and Fall languished in a corner both of my physical library and of my mind, very occasionally giving a gentle tug to my attention, reminding me it was still there, unfinished business from the past. Long story short, a couple weeks ago I finally gave it a go, as it fitted neatly within my overall intent of understanding better how civilizations have collapsed in the past, to better be able to judge how our own may develop, when its particular collapse seems more evident by the day.

A few words about Gibbon’s work, then, before I turn my attention towards what we may learn from it. I (like every other half-cultured rube) was already familiar with the basic shape of the argument: the empire fell because of its internal contradictions, exemplified by the loss of civic virtue of its elites, with a little help of that obnoxious and most irrational heresy (Christianity) that was carelessly elevated to the role of official religion by Constantine. Such sketchy outline has been rehashed by so many later historians and thinkers (it very much permeates the Essay on the History of Civil Society by Adam Ferguson, and we can still find the basic idea of elites losing their ability to respond to external challenges because of the adoption of a universal religion better suited to proletarians underlying most of Toynbee’s understanding of social dynamics) that it has become a commonplace, and it’s difficult to evade or to challenge its main tenets. I had already high hopes for the writing style, as it is generally acknowledged to be a high mark of XVIII century English prose. Maybe I harbored unrealistic expectations, but I found the prose a bit flat and unenticing. Not abysmal, mind you, but stilted and clichéd at some points, and with some quirks certainly grating for modern sensibilities (Gibbon almost never encounters anything coming from Asia, be it a custom, a ruler, or a cultural artifact like a building, a painting, a vase or a statue, which he doesn’t automatically qualify as “effeminate”). Interestingly, it is a style that I’ve come to associate with German philosophical writings of the following century (the same standard turns of phrase being used and abused, the same highfaluting appeals to national character and the same understanding of a certain kind of exalted, highly emotional spiritual contemplation as the highest good, described in very similar and a bit conceited terms), which may be explained by the influence that Gibbon exerted on them (I may need to get to a contemporary translation to confirm that hunch, though). Not entirely my cup of tea, although competently executed.

However, I also felt it a bit lacking in the elaboration of a consistent theory of why things happened as they did, where the particular events narrated (colorful and amusing as they undoubtedly are) are weaved as different strands of causal ingredients that serve to highlight a common thread, making us believe that things were as they were for a reason. There is, of course, the underlying narrative I sketched before (the Senate just went soft and corrupted, let unworthy rabble become emperors, and in the end they couldn’t even defend themselves), but that barebones narrative leaves too many questions unanswered: did the whole senatorial class slumped wholesale into stupor and irrelevance? Doesn’t seem likely, as with few exceptions it kept producing some very redoubtable emperors; why did some noble families slid into irrelevance (other than by being exterminated by political enemies, which at some points seemed like all too common) while others kept on producing imperial scions for centuries? How did the development of latifundia and the disappearance of tenant farmers affect the civic spirit of both classes? (not that we should expect Gibbon to provide a class-struggle based analysis that would only appear in the intellectual scenario with Marx almost a century later); Why weren’t there any significant technological developments in almost a millennium? Was that a cause or a consequence of a society where more and more of the production was being carried out by slaves, lacking thus the incentive to economize in manpower?

It is probably my fault that I’ve come to enjoy “big history” (the “grand theory” as described/ warned against by Quentin Skinner) and in contrast seem to enjoy less the traditional way of telling it, which I find too much “one damn thing after the other” (long chapters of Gibbon seemed to me little more than:

…so Valerian went to that city, and fought that battle and (probably, we can’t be sure because our sources are crap and most ancient historians are not really very reliable, ya’ know) lost it, so he was murdered by his soldiers, who appointed Valerianus, who in turn went to that other city, where he fought that other battle, which he won (yay!),but then lost a subsequent one, and was in turn murdered by his soldiers (or slain in battle, according to a not-very-reliable source again, lovingly quoted in Latin), who this time appointed Valerianulus, who, who would have guessed! Went in turn to a third city where he fought a battle that he either lost or won…

I get it that most of those dudes a) reigned for just a few months b) didn’t do anything remarkable or leave any perdurable trace other than minting a few coins and may be erecting some memorial column or other and c) have reached us through chronicles written some centuries after their deaths by unscrupulous hacks with an ax to grind and some spurious interest in maligning/ whitewashing them, depending on the inclination of their patrons, but the succession of their exploits sometimes makes for some winding, unfocused and boring passages. So there you have it, I have the gall to, being and absolutely shitty writer myself (and egregiously overindulging in winding, unfocused and boring passages as much as the next guy), criticize one of the universally accepted masters of the English language… in words he would have considered fitting: o tempora, o mores!

Which doesn’t mean I’m not highly recommending the book. As Hugh Trevor-Roper remarks in the introduction (an introduction that would have benefited itself from some judicious editing), Gibbon is our first “modern” historian, trying to discern longer-term trends below the hurly-burly of battles, murders, rapes, illegitimate accessions, revolts and plagues that afflicted such unhappy and tumultuous interval of our common history, and applying a discerning critique to the different sources he masterly commands, trying to adjudicate between the sometimes wildly differing reports of his predecessors with (mostly) unerring authority. Just be aware that the discipline has evolved, language itself has evolved (mostly for the worse, I’m afraid, as we use less and less words to express poorer and less structured thoughts), and the classics, worthy of attention as they undoubtedly are, keep growing more alien to us by the day, and thus their books present some difficulties that should not be underestimated. 

But surely of more interest to my modern anxious readers than my (highly idiosyncratic) opinions on Gibbon’s work is what I coyly suggested in this post’s title it may teach us about our current predicament. To such juicy comparison I now turn, starting with a quick recap of the underlying causes Gibbon identifies as being the real culprits of the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization (although only the Roman half of the empire is dealt with in the first three books, whilst the Eastern part would get its own subsequent three volumes, I haven’t bought those… yet!):

1.       Loss of public spirit by the elites (senatorial class), and of civic virtue, sense of decorum, and of obligation first and foremost towards the common good.

2.       Extension of the benefits of Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the Empire, thus debasing the value of such citizenship, and the homogeneity of the social body (and thus losing the ability to easily collaborate in common projects).

3.       Loss of discipline of the legions, that found there was more benefit to be had from deposing whoever happened to be emperor, and then choosing a successor (whose first decision would then be to rewards them generously in a vain attempt to ensure their loyalty) than from defending the ever more porous frontiers against continuous Barbarian incursions.

4.       Loss of faith in the common narrative shared by the elites (whose external manifestation was a traditional religion whose beliefs were, in the author’s arch-famous words “considered, by the people, as equally true; by the philosophers, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful”). Needless to say, that common narrative would be substituted by a new one, Christianity, that in Toynbee’s analysis was the expression of the universal religion of the estranged proletariat that already exhausted empires always formulate in their decomposition phase

Although of course Gibbon, like any other thinker, could not avoid projecting in his understanding and interpretation of events the forms, mores and most salient features of his own age, and his Roman citizens are thinly veiled Englishmen in the eve of the Industrial Revolution, threatened by external forces (mainly France) he identified with barbarism and a lower level of civilization (a civilization he, of course, understood as linearly progressing and having reached its apex in his own society) and subjected to a loss of traditional virtues for the love of commerce and material gain (the most forceful denunciation of such “corruption” of mores being found in a contemporary of Gibbon, the already mentioned Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was published the year after Gibbon’s first volume), the parallelisms with our own age are nothing short of amazing:

1.       Whatever you consider the elites of our time (the media, politicians of every stripe, and millionaires, be them from show business, sports or industry), the confidence or admiration the public expresses in them is at an all-time low in all advanced societies. The reason is their evident selfishness, self-regard, narcissism and disregard for traditional norms of solidarity, decorum and simple common decency. Our forebears called that “loss of public spirit and civic virtue”, and it manifested itself in a perception of corruption and extended decadence not different at all from the one we have.

2.       Any attempt to somehow limit the public benefits to the native-born citizens of those same advanced societies where the elites are loathed and distrusted is regularly denounced by those same elites (plus most of the academic establishment tasked with ideologically justifying and perpetuating their dominion by the proper indoctrination of the young), as nationalist/ populist/ retrograde and most uncivilized and hateful drivel. The non-elite population can, with great difficulty, notice that those who so ardently preach in favor of the extension of public benefits to all are pretty zealous to preserve the enjoyment and transmission of their very private benefits for themselves and their descendants only (see my Problem with open borders ), without noticing any contradiction at all. The fact is, advanced societies (more markedly, Western ones, Asians are more circumspect in welcoming foreigners) show a clear tendency towards universalizing the benefits of citizenship, and that indeed causes tensions, fractures, and makes more difficult for them to coordinate their actions.   

3.       The military, in those advanced societies, has stayed loyal and disciplined so far. Although the 70s and 80s saw their share of military coups (mostly in East Asia, Africa and Latin America), a good deal of those devolved power more or less peacefully to civilian leaders in the last decades, and the threat of a “new authoritarianism” so far seems to come from the civilian part of the social body. But beware men with arms in a fragmented society slowly sliding into chaos and disorder, as ours is doing (so slowly, indeed, most commentators have not yet noticed it). I would expect armies to have a much greater role (not necessarily for the good) in the second and third decades of this century, but will have more to say about them in a moment.

4.       If we resort to François Lyotard’s concept of “postmodernity”, it is precisely the loss of legitimacy of every previous “grand narrative” what is most characteristic of our own time. Traditional (Christian) religion is bleeding adherents and authority, but the “secular” (whatever that means) alternative that appeared in the XIX century to crystalize and exemplify the hopes and desires of the disenfranchised proletarians of the then-crumbling world-system is as much discredited, if not more (I’m talking of Marxism, as much a religion as the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, Mayans or Incas). Which means that the true universal religion (again, in a Toynbeean sense) that captures the imagination of the proletariat of our times (the non-elite masses that cannot share the ideological tenets of the dominant belief system any more, and are thus growingly alienated) has still to take shape, or, seen from a different perspective, is still up for grabs. May be that role can be played by a re-energized Christianity (my own and very idiosyncratic preference, although I wouldn’t bet on it), may be by a rekindled nationalism (with whatever foreboding overtones you want to paint it: neo-reaction, neo-fascism, traditionalism, populism…) if and when it somehow acquires the ability to provide credible meaning and an action plan to a society sorely lacking both. May be by something entirely new we still don’t have a grasp of.

So I would say, except for the military running amok, we are quite advanced in a process of massive social disenchantment and hopelessness and loss of faith in a common future not too dissimilar to the one that precipitated the collapse of the Roman world. There is one difference, though, and to that difference I will now turn my attention: technology, which between the II and IV centuries of our era we believe was extremely stagnant, is nowadays progressing royally, and will surely deliver us from any kind of decline, decrease of living standards, or regression. Or so they tell you, don’t they (the same people, remember, that defends openness and generosity with the public goods they don’t use or need, while at the same time guarding jealously from competition or access the private goods they have amassed in an increasingly unequal system)? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you: technology is not progressing at all in any meaningful sense, except in one area: the ability of giant corporations to trade with your attention, which should be your most precious asset and which you are squandering and giving out for free (as attested by the fact that you are reading this blog -that is, if you managed to make it this far!).

Want proof? I’ll give you three pieces of evidence: total factor productivity (the ability of the whole economy to produce more material goods -the classical four F’s we humans need to be contented: food, fiber, fuel and procreation) doesn’t rise significantly since the 70s of last century; the median salary (what half the population has to live with) has barely budged since that very same decade in almost all advanced economies, despite the average GDP per person having grown fivefold (which means most of the increase in wealth creation has been corralled by a tiny percentage of the population); and in most of those same advanced economies, the guys currently in their 20s-30s are wont to become the first generation since the Industrial Revolution that will not live better (in terms of material wealth) than their parents.

But hey, they will have Internet! Smart phones (to communicate more impoverished messages with more brainless peers)! cheap giant plasma TV screens (on which to look at utter rubbish)! That is, they will have a shitty house, shitty clothes (very much like the ones I myself wore as a teenager, for what I see), a shitty urban environment (public squalor amidst great private wealth, albeit for the majority that great wealth will be held by other people) and a shitty health, partly caused by the polluted atmosphere and partly by the shitty food they will eat, which they will pay with the shitty salary provided by a shitty, precarious job. But they won’t mind, because they will also have a thousand shiny screens so their attention will be almost continuously held by wonderful algorithms away from their shabby surroundings into wondrous realms of amazement and entertainment and fun! I doubt even the most refined virtual reality will, in the long term, prevent them from at some point revolting and overthrowing such anti-humane, meaningless system, but who am I to know?    

Well, before being labelled a loony pessimist and total nut (not that I would care), I’ll point my hypothetical readers’ attention to an additional parallelism, as shocking as the previous three (remember, the one about undisciplined armies is still the only element missing from a full-decadence scenario, and we may not be as far from that as we like to believe). Do you, dear reader, know which are the two only ages of recorded history of “voluntary population contraction”? that is, of decreasing population in the absence of major wars or epidemics, just by the sheer lack of belief in the common future, by sheer lack of commitment with the continuation of one’s own system of beliefs, by sheer abandonment of the participation in a shared narrative that gives meaning to one’s life, and makes one want it to continue in his descendants. A hint: one of those ages is precisely II-IV century Europe, which saw Rome go from a million inhabitants to maybe a quarter of that, and saw the surrounding fields and villages, all over the continent, being depopulated and left uninhabited. And it was not a catastrophic event, but the result of millions of individual choices, of individual couples deciding that, in the end, life itself was not worth living (a question that was already dangerously close to the balance for their Greek cultural forebears), and if life was not worth living, it was not surely worth creating or passing to the next generation. The barbarians kept crashing at the gates until, when the gates finally went down, they came inside a mostly empty territory, with nary a functioning army to stop them. The other only age that has seen a similar phenomenon? Our own, our very current enlightened and hyper-prosperous day. So prosperous indeed, that we have collectively decided to enjoy ourselves so much that we don’t have enough time or energy to do things as little enjoyable as raising the next cohort of enjoyers…

Don’t give me, then, sophistic answers about the greatness of the technological revolution we are supposedly in the midst of. About how the awe-inspiring creativity of the unchained human intelligence, free of the bounds of superstition, held firmly by the wings of sacred Science, and soon to be complemented by that of the machines we are creating, will soon overcome every and all limitations and create a post-scarcity society where we will all be rich as Croesus, healthy as a fit teenager, and live happy forever in the land of plenty. We are a decadent, wasted, spent bunch of pathetic and deluded hairless apes that have forsaken the traditions and rituals that gave their short lives meaning. And, alas! Meaning is in the end more precious, and more difficult to obtain, than material wealth, than bodily comforts. At some point in the next three or four decades we will realize we are not a iota closer to “defeating death” as the Egyptians priests were. Not a iota closer to developing a real general-purpose artificial intelligence as Leibniz was. Not a iota closer to a society of unlimited material riches freely available for everybody as the slave societies of Greece and Rome.

Which brings me back to this post’s title. Who are those “we”, exactly, bound to decline and fall? Because decline is a relative concept, and for “us” to decline (relatively) somebody has to be (relatively) rising. If we are to fall, it has to be at the feet of somebody else who is apt to benefit from our falling. Some would say the Chinese are the ones better positioned to succeed “the West” as Earth’s foremost society. Bollocks. I hereby enunciate what I will call the “Vintage Rocker Rule” (VRR): “no society has ever become hegemonic with a fertility rate below 2.5”. How many babies are Chinese women having these days? A quick look at the CIA World Factbook tells us it is a whooping 1.6. No wonder they have ended their one-child policy, but so far everything indicates it’s too late, and the reversal is having almost no effect. Since decades ago it was not the fear of punishment what kept Chinese couples from having more than one little boy (and man! Did they prefer it to be a male! As shown by one of the most skewed male-to-female ratios at birth ever recorded), but the pressure of pursuing a competitive career in the crazy environment of keeping-up-with-the Joneses-dialed-to-eleven of contemporary Chinese society. So good luck dictating to the rest of the world how to behave and what values to acquire when 50% of your population is 65 years old or older, as theirs will be in a couple decades (when the USA finally crashes, if they continue in their current course)…

The fact of the matter is, there are no barbarians with the demographic oomph to seriously challenge the Western model, with its accompanying dominant reason. Islam? Fuggedaboud it. In the heart of Ayatollah-land (Teheran) devout ladies are having 1.4 babies on average. Immigrant populations in the social democracies of Europe are freaking out conservatives and nationalists of their host countries keeping a fertility significantly above that of the natives, but they can’t escape the pull of the times, and in 2-3 generations they revert to the mean (as Mexicans are doing in the USA). The only geographically significant place substantially resisting the trend towards sub-replacement fertility is Sub-Saharan Africa, which doesn’t offer much, at this moment, of an example of social organization one could think is required to present a semi-credible bid for world domination. But, is demography is destiny, just give them time…