Weren't we supposed to have reached "the end of history"?
Our societies are in the grip of wrenching changes. It feels like the throes of an epoch change. Previous epochs used to last centuries, or even milennia. Yet for today's observers of social evolution, the hypothesis advanced by Francis Fukuyama barely 25 years ago, that humanity had reached "the end of history" could not be wider off the mark ...
Powerful forces tear at the social fabric of Western countries both at a macro and at micro level.
At a macro level, the major vector of disruption is the globalization and the consequences it had. A profound rearrangement of economic flows on a planetary scale upended the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the Western world. The proponents and advocates of this phenomenon amounting to a non-violent, slow-motion revolution, could advance two arguments:
- The democratic market liberalism (the form of our social and economic system, also called "capitalism") is robust enough to allow the disrupted societies to attain a new, generally satisfactory social and economic equilibrium, where the overall prosperity would be even greater than before.
- Including and allowing previously underdeveloped countries to participate in the economic system (market liberalism), which enabled the greatest increase in human welfare in history, was not only noble and good but also rational. After the successful experiments with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in the previous half century, the last 25 years were the era of the China inclusion.
At a micro level, a similar if less decried social challenge was raised by the mind-boggling technological progress of the past 25 years. Technology has transformed our everyday lives down to their minute details. Consider the typical daily routine of a twenty, thirty or even forty-something years-old back in 1992 and compare it with what a person of similar age would do today. Statistics show that a significant number of people consult their smartphones within 15 minutes of waking up. Any routine trip in public transportation can easily underline the overwhelming role that Facebook, Google, Apple and smartphones play in people daily lives. Aside from Apple, which was at the time a company coasting towards bankruptcy, none of these existed 25 years ago. Beyond their influence on individuals, technological progress has strongly impacted how we interact with one another. Compared to the early nineties, a much higher number of human interactions is conducted at distance and display a feature which was almost absent in the era of the telephone: the high uncertainty affecting the precise identity of one's interlocutor - because "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog". This has subtly undermined the tissue of our modern societies: as numerous studies show, people tend to act in a more selfish, less social way when they believe that anonymity will protect their reputation.
The relative influence of these two major factors of disruption and their interplay is left for another time. Of foremost importance though, is to realize, and shudder before, the great abyss which has opened in front of us; we are stranded in a supposedly civilised world which appears torn, riven by strife, while the shiny and prosperous future for all (that Fukuyama's thesis seemed to promise back in 1992) is on the other brink and might well be receding.
Many "democratic, market-based, liberal" (in short "capitalist") societies, both advanced and in development, display unmissable markers of high stress and instability. I am thinking here of the mass unemployment in several European countries (Spain, Italy and France come to mind) but most of all about the less visible stress that accumulated in the UK and the USA and led to seemingly irrational outcomes: the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
What is plain for all to see, is that the still-on-average-prosperous "capitalist" societies have been spinning like centrifuges, separating into very wealthy, prosperous layers, and much less prosperous, troubled, insecure and angry layers.
The notable twist here being that huge technological progress and the fabled capitalist ability to mass-produce concurred to put a sleek, powerful, connected smartphone in the hands of everybody, including the less prosperous, insecure, angry people, thus in a way "rubbing their nose" in how much less prosperous they were, compared with the privileged.
What brought us here? And where to from here?
If we want to make sense of the current situation and get an idea about where the Western civilization may be headed from here, we need to understand why things did not turn out as it was expected 25 years ago. What brought us to this point, what was that Fukuyama's analysis had missed?
I've recently read a very good analysis by Martin Sandbu in the Financial Times. Its profound insight: that our economic system has lied about the market's ability to price financial and other assets. Ten years ago, people suddenly woke up and when they realised that "the wealth [they] thought they possessed did not in fact exist [...] the system unravelled. [...] Market liberalism", M. Sandbu writes, "betrayed the dream it had promised." The lesson he draws: "the most resilient societies are those that know the truth about themselves. Deceit makes for brittleness. Market liberalism is in peril because its financial system allowed us to tell ourselves lies". He goes on to conclude that "any social and economic system must be kept honest". Yet his analysis limits itself to the economics part and stops short of addressing the social part. And if we are indeed to heed the lessons of the global financial crisis of 2007, shouldn't we also take a look at other aspects of our societies?
i. What about demographic changes, including lower natality, increased lifespan, immigration?
ii. And with work recognized as the backbone of social identity, what about its changing nature due to the impact of technology?
iii. Finally, what about our political systems which appear in places to be less and less well-suited to steer our countries?
Are we being honest with ourselves?
Are we being honest with ourselves and ready to face what might turn out to be inconvenient truths in these areas?
i. One can't help but notice that, while most mainstream sources appear to concur that immigration has a mostly positive economic impact, too little about its social impact breaks out of academic research circles and into the realm of non-specialists. Empirically, the message sent by most if not all western societies confronted to it is quite clear: immigration appears to have an unwelcome social impact. Yet the question of how to mitigate or even reverse that negative social impact does seem insufficiently discussed and the thinking in this area has not advanced enough. It would appear that those who could enrich the debate prefer to abstain, maybe because of the risk of being labelled a chauvinist, a racist or worse. Are we being honest with ourselves here?
ii. Similarly, technological progress is conducting a co-ordinated assault on the world of work. The blows are coming ever harder and tighter. After robotisation and automation, we are facing the onslaught of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Yet a significant number of economists hesitate to declare a full-blown state of emergency. Somehow, we keep soothing ourselves with stories about how we managed to cope with the introduction of mechanical knitting looms and automated production lines. That is not to say that everyone is silent. Jeremy Rifkin had signalled the future advent of a "workerless world" as early as 1995; Martin Ford had noticed almost a decade ago that new jobs being created are only a tiny fraction of the number of jobs technology renders obsolete and these reflections were neatly brought together and discussed at least as far back as 2011 in The Economist. That piece manages to stay positive though, by inviting people to cultivate the comparative advantages of humans over machines and looking forward to forging partnerships with the machines. Do we spend enough time figuring out how exactly will hundreds of millions of people displaced from their work by algorithms manage to carve partnerships with said algorithms before losing their houses and daily bread? Are we being honest to ourselves here?
iii. Finally, there's the politics and the democratic system which, despite a vast number of different implementations is still based around the antiquated principle of public consultations spaced by several years in which each person has one vote and each vote weighs the same. As time has passed, this principle seems to have behaved as game theory would predict, by becoming ever more unquestionable, a true "sacred cow" which nobody dares to challenge anymore, despite it producing sub-optimal results in ever higher proportion and despite the easiness of imagining its complete disruption by the same technologies which have managed to upend everything else ... Given questions which have a range of relatively "good answers" and a range of (at least partly) disjoint "bad answers" - and it is clear that a significant number of questions governments are confronted with fall in this category - shouldn't we be able to do better than completely disregard in the consultation:
- how knowledgeable (of the domains in which the questions fall) different voters are?
- how interested in learning more and forming a preference for some answers different voters are?
- how aware of the impact in the short, medium and long term (of the different answers they are asked to choose among) different voters are?
Are we being honest to ourselves here?