Summary: The people in Europe’s periphery suffer from a lack of alternatives. This locks them into two ugly choices: suffer years of austerity (with no end in sight), or futile (perhaps nihilistic) protests. In fact, the West as a whole has a lack of alternatives. Here we discuss that problem, and possible solutions.
- The importance of alternatives
- We yearn from change. And we get…
- What comes next?
- For More Information
(1) The importance of alternatives
“There is no alternative.
Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not, there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If it has, then are they like the other laws of the universe-sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exceptions.”
— Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) — He laid the foundations for modern conservatism. He also coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” in 1864.
“Because there really is no alternative.”
— Catch phrase of the late UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, about the necessity to adopt conservative and neoliberal economic measures for the maintenance of capitalism.
Social evolution runs far faster than Darwinian evolution because its teleological. When people have a vision of a better society, sometimes they are willing to risk large rapid changes to achieve it. But this requires an alternative that looks better than what they have, attainable, and practical. Otherwise political progress either runs slowly, or stagnates entirely. For example, monarchies worked poorly Europe during the millennium in which they were the dominant political form. There were alternatives (eg, the Republic of Venice, the Swiss Confederacy), but these were not considered realistic by a sufficiently large combination of the elites and masses. Various belief structures precluded experimentation with other forms of politics.
- A belief that society was an organic whole like the body, with differentiated organs (as described in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus 1. 95-156).
- The commandment in Romans 13 to unconditionally obey rulers.
- The divine right of Kings
The potential for overthrow of these regimes came with the long strain of philosophical work beginning with Machiavelli’s The Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (see Wikipedia) in 1651. Once the first regime fell in 1783, the evolutionary process accelerated with fantastic speed — with most monarchies replaced in the following 140 years.
The development of Marxism (and its successors) accelerated the pace of social evolution again, so that the conflict among different social forms bathed the 20 century in blood on a scale seldom seen in history. The result gave a clear winner: various combinations of free-market capitalism and representative democracy (each having a wide range of forms). Various rear-guard retreats are still fought with some intensity, such as by evangelical Christians and Salafist Moslems — but their difficulty coping with modernity gives them low odds of gaining power.
But what happens as the contradictions and flaws accumulate in free market republics? In what direction does the arrow of evolution point? What political model motivates and directs social reform?
(2) We yearn from change. And we get…
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
— “The End of History?”, Francis Fukuyama, The National Interest, Summer 1989
“Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Forty years ago we were debating what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today nobody debates these issues. We silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating because of some virus, an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is that it’s much easier to imagine the end of life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
— Slavoj Žižek in Žižek! (2005 film documentary)
We wish our political and social systems would run better, more honestly and efficiently. We wish for them to run better than they have run in the past; better than they probably can run in the real world. But how to make such reforms?
- Some people hope for reform through religious reformation (eg, libertarians, looking for the day when people can live in peace and prosperity without government).
- Some seek simple, near-magical political transformations (eg, a Constitutional Convention at which right-thinking folks will implement what they cannot through conventional politics).
- Some seek a leader to achieve changes that we cannot envision, using his (or her) charisma to overcome problems to which we — who do not play 12-dimensional chess — cannot see the solution. This state of mind leads to delusions and then disappointment. The Left is in the midst of this process with Obama, as his second term reveals his true politics (as the GOP foretold, but predicting the result 100% wrong).
- Others despair, and default on their political responsibilities as citizens (participating only by complaining).
(3) What comes next?
“Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”
— Heinrich Heine’s History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834)
“The world revolves around the inventors of new values; invisibly it revolves. But around the actors revolve the people and fame: that is the way of the world.”
— Nietzsche’s Thus spake Zarathustra , #12 (1885). See the full excerpt here.
“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
– John Maynard Keynes, chapter 24 of the General Theory, pg. 383 (1936)
“Trouble rather the Tiger in his Lair than the sage among his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but the things of the Moment, to be overturned with the turning of a page.”
— From Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake (1971)
This is a familiar problem for humanity, a commonplace in history. Eventually creative individuals will imagine new solutions. Or leaders under pressure will break through the walls of conventional thinking, taking bold steps that incrementally force new solutions, as Octavius did for Rome. Or both will occur on separate tracks, as happened in the Great Depression. Although running on a conservative platform — attacking Hoover’s budget deficits — FDR ran larger deficits to finance counter-cyclical fiscal stimulus programs. He took the US off the gold standard to allow monetary stimulus. In 1936 Keynes published his General Theory explaining why these were the correct steps to take, allowing economics to help build the great post-WWII global prosperity.
Perhaps we have reached the limits of our current political and economic systems. They might have lost their vitality, their ability to inspire citizens, retain their loyalty, and control the wilder vices of greed and dominance. There might be no effective marginal reforms that make a difference. If so, history will run in circles until new forms of organization are discovered or imagined. That will happen, eventually.
On another day we will discuss how this happens. See Max Weber’s Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1922). Or Nietzsche. It’s not always a pretty process.
“Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”
–- Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx (1859)
(4) For More Information
(a) About alternatives
- The CIA’s forecast about the Iranian Revolution – and the revolution prediction tool, 6 January 2010
- Hear the cattle bellowing in the chutes. Will they revolt?, 8 September 2011
- Music to accompany a Revolution, 28 November 2012
- Social unrest coming to Europe? If not, why not?, 21 March 2013
(b) To see all posts about reforming America go the FM Reference Page: America – how can we stop the quiet coup now in progress?
(c) Some posts about reforming America:
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the 1st step to reform, August 2008
- Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008 — Part 1.
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008 — Part 2.
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008 — Part 3.
- How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
- The first step to reforming America (the final version), 7 December 2009
- The project to reform America: a matter for science, or a matter of will?, 16 March 2010
- Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012
- We are alone in the defense of the Republic, 5 July 2012
- Attention Americans: the Revolution has begun. You must choose a side., 23 November 2012
- Do America’s leaders say “Apres moi, le deluge”?, 10 January 2013
- Realism about the prospects for reform in America, 3 March 2013
(d) About today’s reform movements:
- The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
- About the Oath Keepers: boon or bane for the Republic?, 12 June 2010
- Occupy Wall Street, another futile peasants’ protest, 5 October 2011
- How do protests like the TP and OWS differ from effective political action?, 26 October 201
- Civil disobedience by the “Occupy” movement is a challenge to our rulers, 21 November 2011