Image from Stripe Press. Below are some of the notes I jotted down while reading this book. These notes are by no means comprehensive. They are paragraphs or sections that struck me and or that I underlined while reading. Have thoughts or recommended reading for me? Feel free to leave a comment below.
My thesis is a simple one. We are caught between an old world which is decreasingly able to sustain us intellectually and spiritually, maybe even materially, and a new world that has not yet been born. Given the character of the forces of change, we may be stuck for decades in this ungainly posture. You who are young today may not live to see its resolution.
Famous landmarks of the old regime, like the daily newspaper and the political party, have begun to disintegrate under the pressure of this slow-motion collison. Many features we prized about the old world are also threatened: for example, liberal democracy and economic stability. Some of them will emerge permanently distorted by the stress. Others will just disappear. Many attributes of the new dispensation, like a vastly larger sphere for public discussion, may also warp or break from the immovable resistance of the established order.
The center cannot hold and the border has no clue what to do about it.
Another way to characterize the collision of the two worlds is an episode in the primordial contest between the Center and the Border. The terms were employed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky in another context, long before the advent of the information tsunami, but they are singularly apt for our present condition.
“Center” and “Border” can be applied to organizations embracing specific structures, ideals, and beliefs about the future. The two archetypes are relative to each other, and perform a kind of dance which determines the direction of social action.
The Center, Douglas and Wildavsky write, is dominated by large, hierarchical organizations. They write: “It frankly believes in sacrificing the few for the good of the whole. It is smug about its rigid procedures. It is too slow, too blind to new information. It will not believe in new dangers and will often be taken by surprise.”
The Center envisions the future to be a continuation of the status quo, and churns out program after program to protect this vision.
The border, in contrast, is composed of “sects”—we would say “networks”—which are voluntary associations of equals. Sects exist to oppose the Center: they stand firmly against. They have, however, “no intention of governing,” and develop “no capacity for exercising power.” Rank means inequality, hierarchy means conspiracy to the Border. Rather than articulate programs as alternatives to those of the Center, sects aim to model the behaviors demanded from the “godly or good society.”
Douglas and Wildavsky write: “Making a program is a center strategy; attacking center programs on behalf of nature, God, or the world is border strategy.”
To maintain unity, the sectarian requires “an image of threatening evil on a cosmic scale”: the future is always doomsday. The Border somehow reconciles a faith in human perfectibility with the calm certainty that annihilation is just around the corner.
A Crisis Of Authority
Remember that ugly word, “disaggregation.” Meaning: to unbundle, to unpack—to tear apart. As it was in politics, the disaggregation of the masses has been a revolutionary economic event. It marked the passing of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “new industrial state,” in which BIg Business and Big Labor divided the spoils of the modern economy at the consumer’s expense. Today, Big Business faces a radically shortened life expectancy, Big Labor is in full retreat, and the consumer—the mutinous public—is in command.
I want to be precise. I am not saying that business has been smarter or more effective than government. Corporations invest heavily in being smart and effective, but Pual Ormerod has shown that, allowing for the differences in time scales, the failure rates of businesses recapitulates the mindless, random pattern of species extinction. Nor am I claiming that the corporate CEO has demonstrated greater prophetic powers than, say, the scientist or the bureaucracy. On this point, I will simply cite Duncan Watts: “Corporate performance is generally determined less by the actions of CEOs than by outside factors, like the performance of the overall industry or the economy as a whole, over which individual leaders have no control.” It would be strange, anyhow, to glorify the captain of a ship whose expectations of sinking increases by the moment.
In the current environment, as I understand it, businesses have proved no wiser, more far-seeing, or successful than other institutional actors. But capitalism, as a whole, has made more productive use of the failure of its parts than most institutions under assault by the public. To borrow Taleb’s terminology, capitalism appears to be “antifragile”: it “regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.” This has allowed the system to prosper despite the horrors of 2008, while, not unrelatedly, bestowing on the consumer a multitude of new technologies and products.
The political and expert classes claimed competence over settled truth. That’s who they were, what they did: they produced a certainty and erased doubt. But if certainty is a function of authority, then a symptom of authority’s decline will be a radical and generalized uncertainty surrounding important questions.
Today we drown in data, yet thirst for meaning. That world-transforming tidal wave of information has appropriately worsened the noise-to-signal ratio. According to Taleb, “The more data you get, the less you know what’s going on.” And the more you know, the less you trust, as the gap between reality and the authorities’ claim of competence becomes impossible to ignore. If the IPCC climatologists fear a dispute with skeptics, how can they be believed? If the Risk Commision seismologists can’t warn us about a catastrophic risk, who will? As I tried to show in this chapter, the public has lost fail in the people on whom it relied to make sense of the world—journalists, scientists, experts of every stripe. By the same process, the elites have lost faith in themselves.
Uncertainty and impermanence are symptoms of social life under the conditions of the Fifth Wave. That, in any case, is my conjecture. It may be that both attributes reflect the reality of the human condition more accurately than the mastery and confidence assumed by the industrial age. Alan Greenspan and the Italian seismologists really felt uncertain about what the data meant, whatever they said in public.
But the conflict at the heart of this book isn’t a debate about the nature of reality. It’s a struggle for supremacy, in which blood has been spilled. Uncertainty, in this struggle, reflects a negation of the standing structures of knowledge. Impermanence signifies the demolition of the current structures of power and money. A large empty space, a conceptual hole, a nothingness, is in the process of creation, where once a complex society wrestled institutionality with its own contradictions and fallacies.
Liberal democracy has been the chief mechanism for mediating such internal flaws. The question of nihilism, now inextricably tangled with the crisis of authority, will be answered in terms which either affirm or negate the legitimacy of the democratic process. As I move to consider the effect of the crisis on government, this remains, for me, the most consequential and least noticed imponderable of our moment in time.
The Failure of Government
If it isn’t within our power to ordain the future, an irresistible temptation will be felt by political actors to confuse progress with the negation and condemnation of the present. That has already transpired with the sectarian public. From Tahir Square to Zuccotti Park, the public has rejected the legitimacy of the status quo while refusing to get involved in spelling out an alternative.
In JFK’s time, the public and the elites averted their gaze from the emperor’s nakedness. In contrast, we paraded the failures of President Bush in Iraq and President Obama with the stimulus in the manner of defeated chieftains at a Roman Triumph. Democractic life, as I write these lines, has been reduced to the exhibition and contemplation of the emperor’s naughty bits. A way out of the utopian ambitions of modern democracy was needed, for democractic government to subsist.
Choices and systems
Much of the negation poisoning the democractic process has stemmed from a confusion of the personal and the statistical. I may hold down an excellent job, but the failure of the stimulus to meet its target infuriates me. I may live in peaceful Vienna, Virginia, safe from harm—but a report that several Americans have died violently in Kabul appears like a fatal failure of authority. By dwelling on the plane of gross statistics, I become vulnerable to grandiose personal illusions: that if I compel the government to move in this direction or that, I can save the Constitution, say, or the earth, or stop the war, or end poverty now.
Though my personal sphere overflows with potentiality, I joint the mutinous public and demand the abolition of the established order. This type of moral and political displacement is nothing new. The best character in the best novel by Dickens, to my taste, is Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House, who spent long days working to improve “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger” while, in her London home, her small children ran wild and neglected. Dickens termed this ‘telescopic philanthropy’—the trampling of the personal sphere for the sake of a heroic illusion.
A Finale for skeptics
My thesis, again, is a simple one. The information technologies of the twenty-first century have enabled the public, composed of amateurs, people from nowhere, to break the power of the political hierarchies of the industrial age.
The twentieth century saw the rise of mass movements dedicated to the destruction of liberal democracy. Each, in turn, was defeated to the point of extinction. With the fall of communism and implosion of the Soviet Union in 1992, no alternative system was left to oppose the democracies. They had triumphed with a completeness rarely seen in history. As early as 1989, Francis Fukuyama, in his famous essay “The End Of History?”, could speculate about a world wholly dominated by the democractic ideology:
”What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, of the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs’ yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the real of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.”
Following the horrors of 9/11, Fukuyama and his ideas were derided as triumphalist nonsense. But he was only half wrong. Fukuyama, a Hegelian, argued that Western democracy had run out of “contradictions”: that is, of ideological alternatives. That was true in 1989 and remains true today. Fukuyama’s mistake was to infer that the absence of contradictions meant the end of history. There was another possibility he failed to consider.
History could well be driven by negation rather than contradiction. It could ride on the nihilistic rejection of the established order, regardless of alternatives or consequences. That would not be possible without precedent. The Roman Empire wasn’t overthrown by something called “feudalism”—it collapsed of its own dead weight, to the astonishment of friend and foe alike. The centuries after the calamity lacked ideological form. Similarly, a history built on negation would be formless and nameless: a shadowy movement, however long, between one true age and another.
Let me submit, as my parting word, a warning to the skeptic: the democratic process is in peril of self-negation. The public’s mood swings are driven by failures of government, not hope for change. Each failure bleeds legitimacy from the system, erodes faith in the machinery of democracy, and paves the way for the opposite extreme. Democracy lacks true rivals today as an ideal and ideology. Fukuyama was indeed half right. But there is a decadence in certain historical moments, an entropy of systems, propelled by the internal dynamic, that makes no demands for alternative ideals or structures before the onset of disintegration.
At some point, failure becomes final.
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