Sunday, February 13, 2022

Anarchic Trends in Political Evolution

When I began this blog eight years ago, the impetus was my frustration with online publications and Internet discussion generally. I had noticed that American intellectuals had no influence on domestic or international policy and had merely been scribbling away during the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and the Tea Party movement without solving any problems and, quite rightly, being ignored. Since then, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Capitol attack of 2021and the anti-vax movement of today, a much broader failure of traditional media is evident. Not only are American intellectuals irrelevant, but so are most newspapers, magazines and television news programs. This turn of events in the U.S., Canada and much of Europe is making the political order seem more unstable than it has been in decades.

As I've often said, it is appalling that Donald Trump was elected president. Of course, this was merely symptomatic of deeper social ills which have since then more clearly manifested themselves. First, it was greedy small business owners and disenfranchised blue-collar workers, and now it's also truck drivers and poorly-educated people in general. It has been dispiriting to observe the stodgy, pro-business Republican Party of 1950 evolve into an unhinged far-right organization that openly suppresses the democratic process and is supporting dishonest opportunists in order to gain political power. To be clear, I am not primarily in favor of democracy, and my preference is for rational laws based on the concepts of equality, human wellbeing and the preservation of the environment, along with the impartial enforcement of these laws. At heart, I'm a law-and-order advocate, and to me it is simply a matter of having the right laws and enforcing them. Currently, in the U.S. we are witnessing both the absence of necessary laws and a reduced emphasis on supporting the public good.

I am almost old enough to remember the privations that people suffered in England during and after World War II. When there were food shortages, people accepted rationing and grew their own vegetables when possible, without making a fuss. In the U.S. during the Great Depression, people met with privations far more severe than they have in recent years, and there was little sign of a revolt. This has caused me to think of modern Westerners as whiny spoiled brats. The phenomenon is currently showing up in the anti-vax movement. It is difficult for me to imagine a convincing justification for their actions. We have a situation in which a pandemic is killing people and adversely affecting world economies, and people are facing greater economic hardship. There are free vaccines that have been proven effective and are available to everyone. The anti-vaxers are both encouraging the spread of the coronavirus and disrupting their economies, and they are not offering an intelligible rationale for their behavior. In my view, the anti-vaxers who riot and block bridges ought to be arrested, because they are acting against the public interest without any mitigating circumstances.

Actually, in a sense I am an advocate of totalitarian regimes, and, for me, we are going through an interesting period in which we have an opportunity to compare and assess the efficacy of both totalitarian and democratic regimes. In the West, I think that the Internet, along with ineffectual political leadership, have already seriously damaged a system that was once capable of sustaining and protecting the inhabitants. The Internet itself is rather innocuous, and the difficulties that it has created result mainly from the fact that it transmits multiple ideologies and worldviews, which have not been filtered or edited, resulting in a large assortment of incompatible worldviews within the population of each country. When you consider that humans are fundamentally irrational, this is a perfect scenario for the breakdown of society into cult-like groups which understand neither themselves nor other groups and may even inhabit fantasy worlds (see "Pizzagate"). The existing totalitarian regimes now have a significant advantage if they can both sidestep democratic processes and filter alternate worldviews from their Internet services, while also meeting the needs of their citizens.

Although I'm obviously not an expert on Russia, I don't think that its political model is sustainable. Vladimir Putin is essentially a dictator backed up by a powerful group of oligarchs. Russia's economy is not diverse compared to that of Europe, which means that it can never generate comparable wealth. Add to this the fact that Putin and the oligarchs are probably hoarding much of the wealth, and that the Internet also works against them, Putin's days seem numbered. At the moment, he is reflexively bullying his neighbors because of political weakness in both Europe and the U.S., but he has no discernible end game and no suitable replacement for himself. If he doesn't trigger a nuclear war, history will see him as an insignificant Cold War carryover.

I am also not a sinologist, but I think that the outcome in China will be far more consequential. Xi Jinping resembles a dictator, but he is operating in a political system that is quite different from that of Russia. If he is corrupt at all, it is at a much lower level than that of Vladimir Putin. He has also led a campaign to root out corruption. As I said earlier, I don't think that Western individualism ever caught on in China, and it is possible that Xi is actually working for the good of the people. Westerners collectively get upset about China's treatment of the Uyghurs, but Xi's strategy for dealing with them may be justifiable. In China "the people" is a meaningful concept, unlike the U.S., where it has never been more than part of convenient political slogans. I'll allow that Xi and his government may be overreacting to the problems that Islamic groups have caused elsewhere over the last few decades. In any case, the main advantage of totalitarian regimes is that they can use brute force and take immediate actions to correct perceived risks. The question is whether an action is appropriate and whether it entails corruption of any kind. My view is that "the people" are paramount, and that it is the duty of the government to protect them, even when that requires the curtailment of a minority group. Also, I might note that the Uyghurs as a group are not universally discriminated against in China; we know a Chinese Uyghur who is a student at Middlebury College and whose father is a successful executive in the oil industry. 

My impression of China is that it is more amenable to a cooperative mindset than most Western countries. This is partly the result of ancient social conditioning and partly the result of exposure to decades of communist propaganda. As in the West, China is vulnerable to ideological intrusions from the Internet, but there is little sign, except in Hong Kong, that protest is widespread. The potential problem for Xi Jinping would be to make missteps that cause dissent in pockets of Chinese society. At this stage, protest is hardly evident, and Xi could be given credit for controlling the COVID-19 outbreak better than any Western country. If Xi is also able to maintain economic stability over the next few years, he could become more respected than any Western leaders have been since World War II. I am a little suspicious of his current alliance with Vladimir Putin, but it is possible that it is merely a case of short-term political expediency. As a new phase in my interest in governance by artificial general intelligence, I am imagining Xi as a robot that is controlled by AGI and becomes the world leader without anyone suspecting that it isn't human.

Regardless of my speculations on China, I think that the political situation in the West is beginning to look dire. Political leaders here are increasingly forced to solicit campaign money from corporations, which don't generally act in the public interest, while at the same time soliciting votes from an uninformed public that is being barraged with misinformation. It is possible that Western governments will address the divisive effects of the Internet, but it seems unlikely that that will occur soon, because, in the U.S., Congress currently can barely even agree to continue funding the government. 

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