28th April 2018

Social Disorder

When we look back at the last century and realize what we as humans did to other humans, the conclusions one must draw is that at a fundamental level not a lot has changed in comparison with the previous centuries. There is still a lot of beast in many humans. Why is that?

Perhaps the best shortcut answer to that question can be found in the Maslov hierarchy of needs. What that hierarchy shows is that our actions and decisions are first of all driven by two factors: physiological needs and safety. Now imagine an average person voting in the UK Brexit referendum and look at the arguments the politicians used. Politicians appealing to Remainers and Brexiteers used exactly the same arguments – talking about economic needs (the UK would save £10bn net), safety (increased level of sovereignty, and migration control, by controlling the borders). Very few politicians addressed higher needs in Maslov’s hierarchy towards the top of the pyramid e.g. belonging (similar democracy, history, friendship) or self-actualization (fuller potential and creativity – e.g. Erasmus programme, CERN, European Space Agency, tourism, etc.).

The point is that to survive we must eat and be safe and that has remained man’s main preoccupation for millennia– an evolutionary trait, a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest. The fact that our GDP per head is about 20 times higher in real terms than 200 years ago does not change anything. Yes, we have far more time and do not have to work that hard, but our basic needs are still the same. In the Northern hemisphere the need for physiological survival may have a slightly different meaning, than in poorer countries. Very few people face famine today in London. However, if we interpret it as a desperate urge to have something here and now, e.g. whatever new gadget there is on the horizon, then that urge is similar as for those people on the other extreme of the wealth pendulum, where the equivalent of a new mobile phone may be a full bowl of rice. And then it is the need for safety. It is born purely out of fear and of course has an emotional underlying. Fears drive our emotions and mostly create instantaneous responses, like Europe-wide anti-emigration protests over the last few years. Deep down, at a physiological level people have broadly the same needs and fears.

The consequence of that is that the scope for making rational decisions in politics for vast majority of people is very narrow, practical, and must include achievable results over a very short period. The last point is perhaps best illustrated by the recent calls by the Brexiteers in the UK ‘to get on with it’, meaning the Government should get out of negotiations right now. They just cannot wait any longer for the result of the negotiations, almost irrespective of the consequences.

The post-war liberalism, especially in Europe, was an antidote against most brutal oppressions during the Second World War. It was necessary for Humanity to regain its faith in its capability to renew itself and be motivated by our most inspiring inner qualities. From that perspective, the post-war period has been just amazing and it still is today. However, there is also another perspective.

The focus on human rights alone has been tilted so much that it has led to irresponsible behaviour on a massive scale. The state has been perceived us ‘they’, who ‘have’ (whatever that ‘have’ means at any given time) and as the one whose main obligation is to fulfil the needs of those who ‘do not have’. Because those who ‘do not have’ feel it is their right ‘to have’, and please do not ask who will pay for it. We have completely forgotten about the reciprocity and responsibility for our own lives and the lives of those, who sometimes for no fault of their own, cannot cope with the adversities of life.

President John Kennedy saw that danger very clearly when he famously said in his presidential inaugural speech on 20 January 1961: “Ask not what you country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. To turn these words into action, he set up the Peace Corp, a predecessor of current hundreds of voluntary organizations. One may argue it was a riposte to the Soviet Union’s export of tens of thousands of experts and technicians to developing countries to spread communism under the cover of help. However, when one looks at it from a more benevolent perspective – the focus was on young people to help anybody truly voluntarily anywhere in the world.

Today, most of young people concentrate almost exclusively on their own needs rather than thinking of what they could do for members of their communities. Many of them do not even participate in elections. Some of them rely almost exclusively on the state’s handouts and then blame the ‘elites’ for not providing enough. But it was not always like that. We have already forgotten that for at least 40 years of the post-war period in most democracies young people served for a minimum of one year in the military service. Here the benefit for a society was two-fold. Young people were taught that freedom did not come free and it was their responsibility to defend their country in the hour of need. But the second long-term benefit was even more important in peace time. They had a period of maturing into people that considered responsibility in a more general sense as the other side of the equation, balancing their rights.

Since the early 80’s that system seemed to have collapsed. The way young people behave today was at least partially due to abolishing the military service or the mandatory public service, as is still the case in Germany and now again in Sweden. But it was also due to utter failure of the education system, the increase of wealth, more free time and the ability to become self-sufficient (thanks to the generosity of the state). Some of those young people who were brought up according to that model of state generosity and minimal responsibility for societal affairs, are now well into their middle age. So, today the vast majority of people in western democracies are completely oblivious to a simple fact that their citizens’ rights must be balanced with their responsibilities.

That has obvious consequences. The state, keen to fulfil our immediate wishes also stopped to be responsible. The lack of state’s responsibility for our long-term well-being can be seen in many western countries, such as the USA or the UK. It manifests itself into pretending that everything is generally OK and literally patching any problems and hoping that they do not come out just before the next election. Such a literary example is patching the potholes in the road after the winter rather than laying a new surface, which would have been a more durable and in the long-term and more cost-effective solution. However, for a local council it has some sense, because it can say its budget in in perfect order, people pay smaller taxes, so please re-elect us.

It is this kind of irresponsibility of not telling the nation the truth because that is not what the electorate wants to hear. It is even difficult to blame governments for that – this is simply showing who we are as species (the Maslov’s hierarchy again). We are motivated in vast majority by our most evolutionary instincts – meeting immediate physiological and safety needs. As an example, take the percentage of personal savings. In the UK it is very low at about 5% in 2018 down from 8% in 2015 (in Germany it is up from 8% to 10% in 2018). The hope in the UK is that the rainy day never comes. The reason people do not save that much as they used to in rich countries is because they feel they can always count on the government. Perhaps it is the feature of humanity as a species that the better off you are the less prepared you are for the worst? The fact that we do not save and do not take precautions as we have done before is a more general symptom of shedding off our responsibilities on others. We have become an irresponsible species!

So, here is an example of how ill prepared we are as a society to withstand even the slightest departure from what is considered a ‘normal’ life. It happened in London in wintery March 2018. There was a 5 cm of snow fall and the minimum temperature over two days was -4C in the night. But the result was that most trains stopped to run, most schools were closed and tens of thousands of people were without water for a few days, because main pipes broke down. Snow and frost in London is rare and happens on average for about a week every few years. But the transport and social life is completely disorganised. At the same time in Europe, where the temperature fell to -20C with heavy snow falls, the repercussions were far less severe. Yes, there may be some societal differences how various countries prepare for a proverbial ‘rainy day’. However, irrespective of that such an incident illustrates much bigger problems with fighting risks of any kind anywhere, in particular in western societies because it is a question of certain attitude to how societies manage their life.

If we look at such events as above from a wider perspective, it is clear that politicians prefer not to tell the voters the whole truth about the state of their country’s affairs, because most people prefer not to hear it. So, politicians follow the voters’ instincts, or preferences, if you like, i.e. people are interested only in what they can get here and now. Therefore any long-term projects like infrastructure investments are not going to win many votes. That’s why there is such an unbelievable underinvestment in the American infrastructure, about which even Donald Trump lamented. This is a common approach in almost every country.

So, what kind of future will we have in the age of Superintelligence? Perhaps we can find it in the quotes of these two famous science fiction writers. The first one is already mentioned Isaac Asimov – an American science fiction writer who characterised society as follows: “The saddest aspect of society is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. Somewhat strikingly, Stanislaw Lem – the Polish philosopher and science fiction writer offers a similar assessment when he says: “The fact that competent experts must serve under politicians of mediocre intelligence and little foresight is a problem that we are stuck with.” That is one of the reasons why I would propose a much clearer delineation between the legislative and executive powers, leaving the art of governing a country to real experts.

One of the areas where societal disorder can increase beyond control is the media, including social media and the Internet. The best example for me is the interview of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Leveson Inquiry in the UK Parliament on 28th May 2012. Here is an extract from that interview as reported by BBC:

“Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has defended his friendship with Rupert Murdoch, saying … a close relationship was inevitable but also involved a ‘certain level of tension’. After all, in this day and age, it is ‘essential and crucial’ to have good relationships with the media. With any of these big media groups, if you fall out with them, then watch out, because it is relentless. You then are effectively blocked from getting across your message’. In his witness statement, Blair said that media owners use newspapers and other media as instruments of political power.”

And that was said by the politician who was aware that Mr Murdoch’s company News Corp controlled almost 40% of the UK media, including the newspaper “The Sun”. The situation in the USA and its impact on politics is similar, where Comcast controls almost 40% of all media, including more than half of the broadband market. In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by 50 companies; as of 2011, 90% was controlled by just 6 companies.

Next: Political Disorder