Thursday, 1 March 2012

Decline and fall

There’s one perplexing issue that floats* across my mind fairly regularly and that’s the issue of decline. I don’t mean personal decline, although that's scary enough, but social, political and possibly economic decline. History suggests civilisations don’t go on forever. They are either conquered by outside forces or enter a period of decline usually ending in some kind of collapse and a new regime. So how to view our own civilisation? Optimistically or pessimistically?
*Floats in what though?

Optimistic examples.
We have a number of well-known issues such as more international competition for fossil fuels and raw materials, but new resources such as shale gas could sort that out. After all, we can do anything if we have reliable sources of energy. Gene therapies, new materials and communications may all be set to change our lives for the better. 

Pessimistic examples.
Democratic accountability has all but disappeared from the EU. What little elbow room there is left is taken up by vested interests. Climate change is an obvious global fraud where ordinary citizens don’t count except as a resource to be controlled and subdued. The nuclear family is disintegrating and corruption and dishonesty are rife among the global elite. 

So pessimist or optimist?
I think one could look at our own times from many angles, either optimistically or pessimistically. In line with the principle of having at least two competing theories, I opt for both. However, I do have a leaning towards pessimism, mainly because of the problem of complexity.

To handle complexity, we don’t need complexity managers in Whitehall, we need flexibility and the freedom to succeed or fail. I don’t think we have that and far too many people seem not to want it. 

Allow me to float just one obvious indicator for a society in decline, because certain simple indicators can be more compelling that the super-complex nuances of social and political analysis .

Take a walk through any town centre on a Saturday morning and check out how many people have failed to control their calorie intake to the point of serious obesity. Why has this happened? I don’t know and really it's none of my business, but I suspect it happens whether people want it to or not. To my mind this is the social indicator - the likelihood that obesity is usually involuntary. 

I see this as a warning flag that people are not in control of their own bodies, let alone their personal destiny. Something is seriously wrong. Widespread obesity is only one issue and anyone may ignore it if they so choose, but for me it’s important. I see it as evidence that things are going wrong with what we usually call personal responsibility. 

It isn’t a problem for governments to resolve though, because that simply takes away one more bit of personal responsibility. It's a logical bind that governments cannot deal with by more of the same. Having taken away personal responsibility, they have to allow it to reinstate itself. Which it will if we are allowed to run our own lives.

Otherwise the monumental complexity of trying to manage our lives centrally will simply defeat them. Both the UK government and the EU have taken on a hopelessly one-sided battle against complexity where they stupidly try to defeat the symptoms by more complexity.

So complexity will win.

The only outstanding question is the scale of the defeat. In order to mitigate it we need a society where social support for the afflicted does not snuff out personal responsibility. In that way we learn to live with complexity and adapt ourselves to its unending vicissitudes.  

So pessimism prevails with me, although I’m always prepared to hold optimism in reserve. I don't think I'll need it though.


Sam Vega said...

"Take a walk through any town centre on a Saturday morning and check out how many people have failed to control their calorie intake to the point of serious obesity. Why has this happened? I don’t know and really it's none of my business"

It has happened because they ate too much shit food, and it really is your business because you are likely to subsidise their medical treatments some time very soon!

On a more serious note, it could be argued that such people have in fact gained a lot of control over their bodies which was lacking in the past. They have a lot more autonomy than the (virtually indentured) factory labourers they have replaced. The women are much more in control of their ferility. Other medical conditions are much more amenable to treatment. These people even look more individual, given the control they have over their consumption of clothes, tattoos, and general lifestyle.

Something is definitely wrong, but I don't think it is a loss of control over personal destiny. The idea of a personal destiny (as opposed to theological, community, national, or class) is relatively new. The sociologist Anthony Giddens is good on this issue.

A K Haart said...

SV - I take your point. Maybe it isn't a loss of control, but a shift in control. In other words the price of calories is a control.

I've sniffed around sociology but find it rather like economics - too many concepts for my simple tastes.

For example I'd quite like to read someone like Giddens, but I'm very wary of the way the language of sociology seems to carve out territory rather than resolve anything. Maybe I should read one of his books.

James Higham said...

Uncanny that - that complexity will always initially win over the simple solution, no matter how non-efficacious in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the central weakness of democracy is the difficulty of saying 'no'. Humans are greedy, quarrelsome and deceitful but somehow - democracy even - we rub along. It all depends on a bit of altruism, I lay off the pies and booze (a no) and society has another £10 to buy a hospital (a yes). Greece is in trouble through a lack of 'no', banking got in a mess through lack of the 'no' word and of course people get fat.

If a government says 'no' its opposition will say 'vote for us - we do yes'. The 'no' word is only used if the result of saying 'yes' is worse than 'no' . No-one is going to crack down on overspending governments or bankers - and every public sector manager has a stake in saying 'yes' - no need for the 'no' word. As for personal responsibility - there is no need to say no, nothing bad will happen, the taxpayer will pay. Worse, suppose government tried to take away the safety net. There would be screaming and raving and an appeal to Human Rights - where of course there is no incentive to say 'no' - the cost is not the lawyer's problem. Failure is not an option, have another pie (or bail-out).

Sam Vega said...

AKH, you might want to try Giddens' 1999 Reith Lectures - "A Runaway World" - in which he looks at globalisation and late modernity. You are absolutely right about the concepts and Giddens definitely does "carve out territory" (Well, he is a good friend of Blair, so what do we expect!). Nevertheless, he always gets me thinking differently about the world, and the level of generality he favours is often similar to your own writing.

Sam Vega said...


Perhaps we should all be saying "no" a bit more often, but I couldn't say it in the case of your post. You get it spot on, in my opinion. Many thanks.

A K Haart said...

JH - yes, complexity is self-generating and we have to cope with it ourselves.

Roger - I agree, yes and no have defined the raising of children for generations. Now it has spread to the adults, certainly in the public sector where the criteria for no have become skewed towards the politically correct no and away from the moral or responsible no.

SV - I've just checked Amazon. The paperback is only £4.84 so I'll buy it.