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of origin, who still saw them as freedom fighters again Franco’s dictatorship, many years after such dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government) by perpetrating ever more savage acts, bombing apartment blocks and public places were scores of women and children would be killed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.