Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Turning the tables: How revolutions do choke on themselves

What do the anti-smoke lobby, women’s lib, socialism and black emancipation have in common? That enlightenment largely is the new darkness.
They are all movements to righten glaring injustice by continuing the problem they want to solve. Turning the tables is just turning the tables. George Orwell ends Animal Farm with: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

What is the case for female emancipation? Thousands of years of oppression. What better case is there? What stronger case is there? Still, emancipation is largely more of the same, just turned inside out.
Oppression of women is based on the idea that women are a different kind, that to know that someone is a woman is telling a thing or two. Even when there are true statistical difference, you can’t judge individuals on that. ‘Women are more emotional than men.’  Let’s assume that we know what we mean by that and that the difference is statistically significant, still there will be millions and millions of women being more businesslike than millions and millions of men. If being or not being emotional would be a meaningful difference, let’s say for a particular job, the fact that a particular candidate is male or female is highly irrelevant. Or should be. Unless we pick blindly - what only people do who are grossly incompetent and grossly indifferent.

The essence of discrimination is lack of discrimination, is to think in abstract generalities instead of concrete individuals. Likewise, many women really think that men are a different kind of people.
Does having different physical equipment mean different qualities and different preferences? Again: statistically yes - at least in many respects and not at all in many more. But individually not at all.
If being a muslim gives ten times more probability to be a suicide bomber (I am making this up), still 99,999% percent of Muslims aren’t. The evil is in generalizing in judging individuals.
The way many women talk about men is just turning the tables, historically understandable, to say the very least, but simply continuing thinking in stereotypes. Also, many black people think about white people as if they were a different kind.
There may be real differences in skin color, in gender, in money, in religion, in culture, in sexual preference, in age. But seeing individual people in such categories is not very helpful.
Black people who see white people as racist are racist. Women who see men as bigoted are bigoted. Non-smokers who see smokers as dumb and evil are dumb and evil. Poor people who see rich people as bastards, are bastards.
When revolutionaries win, they usually treat others like they have been treated. When tyranny is toppled, injustice trades places. Whoever runs Russia becomes a czar, whoever ends on top in Egypt becomes a pharaoh.

And now we have modern, enlightened people who embrace diversity and celebrate gays, bisexuals and transgenders, celebrate everyone who used to be considered outlandish, exotic, handicapped or weird. They are inclusive of outsiders and they celebrate their own broad-mindedness and open-mindedness.
The only people they reject and even despise are the narrow-minded, the petty-minded, the bigoted, the nationalists, the populists, the racists, the backward. The people that voted for Trump. The despicables.
 White is the new black. The tables have been turned. And sometimes the compliment is returned again: the backlash.
Progressives despise conservatives; conservatives despise progressives.

Any social or political movement that downgrades the unwanted, the despicables, that has contempt in its diet, is a social ill. Contempt is the great poison, humiliation is the great evil.
So, if we would eradicate these tendencies in ourselves, we would solve the problem. Without these unwanted, primitive judgments we would be clear-headed, objective, neutral. Yes, but probably also tasteless, robot-like, autistic.
So, if there is a solution, there is only a partial one.

In individual cases, we should be aware of our tendency to generalize and look through our own filters. When I was 19, I boarded a bus in Amsterdam-West with six or seven black man in it and felt somewhat threatened. I was shocked by my own discrimination. Why was this? Was I a bigot myself?
Coming back to it several times in the next month, I suddenly found the explanation: I couldn’t read their faces, they looked all the same to me. But once you are in Surinam, where black people are in the majority, this apparent sameness dissolves in a few days and you see and sense the individual differences like at home.
When I first landed in Tokyo, I saw a mass of Japanese that all looked the same - though I noticed the difference between young and old and between male and female. After a week or so, I saw them like I see Dutch people: in their individual differences. Some businesslike, some artistic; some expressive, some reserved.
My guess is that when you would be among a tribe or among a rather isolated rural area anywhere in the world, it may take you a few days or a few weeks extra to sense the individual differences.

Prejudice is natural. When we hear that some stranger at a party has been just released from years in prison or in a mental institution, that strongly influences the way we see that person. That is unavoidable. Bur we should see our first impressions as a starting point, not an end point.
We look differently to obviously very poor people and to obviously very rich people. Especially when our own financial position is not too bad, but vulnerable.
We look differently to very famous people. And fame rubs off—a little. “Yesterday I bumped into Brad Pitt! And he smiled at me!”
We walk with prejudice and we meet prejudice. Some of us meet a lot of it.
There is painfully little we can do about that. But we can do something about our own prejudice: consider our first impressions simply as our first impressions.

If we would like to improve society, naturally we dislike those who are opposed to these improvements. We want to overcome their objections, their resistance. We see our opponents as backwards—or as arrogant. We want change, if necessary: revolution. But revolutions most of the time end in chaos—or in more of the same: upturned tables that are indistinguishable from the old ones. Sometimes marginally better, sometimes clearly worse.
What remains is to study and understand how really successful improvements have come about, how some new countries really have taken off, how some revolutions really have been beneficial. There is reason for optimism, but at least as much reason for pessimism.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Beware of pigheaded do-gooders. Don’t be one yourself.

(Disclaimer: This writer declares that he has nothing against doing good—and nothing against pigs. He even doesn’t eat them.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The need for an enlightened populism

Where democracy ends, fascism begins. So we should stop forerunners in their tracks. Populism is the main forerunner.
There are always different interests and different views that need to be balanced. What makes democracy work is not the rule of the majority, but the the recognition and acceptance of plurality. Even economically, inclusive societies do better than exclusive ones. In a democracy it is never the winner takes all. 

Many people have been getting a more open-minded view of cultural and national and religious differences. We consider that modern, liberal, enlightened. We may even glorify differences and we overly respect those groups that have been treated or are treated disrespectfully. That makes us feel we belong to the right kind of people.

But other people, tired of economic, political and religious tensions between different groups in a country long for a less diverse society. One dominant religion, one dominant culture, one dominant tribe. They may remember fondly the past. But the past has never been that nice. The French revolutionaries around 1790, who almost invented nationalism, were shocked to discover that more than 80% of the French didn't consider themselves French and even didn't speak French, at least not what the people in Paris considered to be French. Today, the Parisian people consider the small-town and the rural French as the true French, la France profonde, not yet urban and international. Assumptions, the world is full 0f them. And the more brittle our assumptions, the more we seem to believe in them.

Obsession with the past is a recipe for stagnation and exasperation. Any type of obsession: both glorifying the past and blaming the past. If it wasn't for colonialism and slavery, black people would still live in peace in Africa, without artificial, 'unnatural' borders. But only the most uncrossable borders are natural. Borders are never simple and always are shifting and permeable. That is what border areas should be.

The injustices of the past father the slippery monster of grievances. Rightful grievances should be met. But here is a snag. Two snags actually. Unfortunately, both are huge.
One snag is that grievances often are fostered. They feed indignation and so identity. Such grievances can never be met. It's never enough. People may have become addicted to the poison of grievance. Grievances start with facts, but they may grow into mental infections. We can bend over backwards and the grievances still may stay. How many excuses and compensations were needed to resolve old wrongs, like true Germans having to live outside Germany?
The other snag is even more pernicious. Modern, liberal people who are inclusive, open-minded, internationalist, look with disdain to more traditional, exclusive and nationalist people, consider them backward bigots—and so exclude them. Inclusive people exclude exclusive people.
That's the rub. A progressive, developing, modernizing democracy creates its own nemesis.

We should accept and embrace differences; we should especially accept and embrace everyone who historically was excluded. And so we exclude the ones that are not modern, not international, not inclusive. They are the losers, the 'deplorables.'  They hopefully will dissolve and die out while enlightenment advances.
So they despise, even hate, the people of goodwill, the know-it-alls, the yups, the expats, the graduated, the well-to-do, the well-employed, the modern: the … (expletives deleted) elite.

This frustration becomes pot-boiling when from the outside a new proletariat comes in: hard-working people willing to do odd-jobs, work for a pittance—and usually bringing a few new loafers alongside. Insiders who are stagnant look badly at outsiders who are on the way up.

And then come people who offer a way out. Populist politicians sell a double hamburger of a lie. They promise back to the good old days. Well, they weren't that good at all— and you can't go back to them.
As Carl Rogers once remarked, nobody is shouting out load to large crowds that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The more unfounded the message, the more the volume is turned up. Who needs arguments?

Populism is the bastard child of progress and progressivism: an unrecognized offspring. But one: this bastard has a power, no matter how backward or even ugly you may think it is: numbers. And two: people susceptible to populism are real people with real lives under real conditions. Whatever we may think of their thoughts, they have them for a reason. For a couple of reasons, usually.

Reactionary nationalism is dangerous, but people are nationalist for a reason. Understanding the reasons, even acknowledging those reasons is necessary. There is no other way to get your reasons for modernity and internationalism acknowledged with them. Why would people listen to people who don't listen to them?

Populist voters  deserve better leaders than the ones they have got. Or not? Anyway, we all would be better off by better populist leaders. Less unreliable, less egocentric, less crazy.
Where can we find a better alternative? Social-democrats would be the best bet, at least in Europe, but they seem to have forgotten their raison d'ĂȘtre. To take care of common people with simple interests and simple outlooks is not very sexy for politicians. And they have been bowing to the prevailing winds of neo-liberalists and neoconservatives who sincerely think they own the place. Well, they don't. At least not anywhere near to the extent they are assuming that.

To cater to common people may seem not to be very sexy for politicians, but in the face of the inexorable dwindling of simple work, it is one of the deepest human and political challenges for the century that just began. The new proletariat is not necessarily poor and ill and dirty; it often has plenty of leisure and usually some money to spend on that. The options for wasting your life have grown considerably. Drugs have been diversifying from alcohol. The US is going the way of Russia: life expectancy is decreasing. Twenty years ago that would have been unthinkable.

Don't leave an enormous segment of the population to the Pied Pipers of populism. From populism may come fascism. From fascism dictatorship. From dictatorship the degrading and fragmentation of society or the horrors of war and civil war.
After coming thus far we shouldn't stop progress. We have to eye populists coolly and their constituencies warmly, at least with understanding. We have to understand their views.  We have to recognize their interests. And we have to communicate that understanding and that recognition in the most practical and down-to-earth way possible. If they don't listen to us, we should start listening to them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The tragedy of populism

To understand the present rise of populism in Western democratic societies we need to understand five global trends, that have been slowly building up over two centuries and are accelerating:

  1. The ever expanding role of technology diminishes the need for simple work.
  2. More and more people concentrate in ever larger cities.
  3. The international mobility of people is still increasing.
  4. The international mobility of business and money is still increasing.
  5. Developing countries are finally catching up, including the giants China and India.

Urbanization and  internationalization create a network of megacities with growing interaction between them, while the integration with the rest of the countries they are in lags behind. Metropolises like London, Frankfurt, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo are increasingly part of one international network.

Less visible, but more fundamental: ever more people are unemployed. In the US only a quarter of all non-working adults are in the unemployment statistics. The others don’t try anymore. The dropouts from the workforce are an ever growing poor leisure class. With growing passivity goes growing drug abuse, including pain killers and antidepressants. Read for example 'Our miserable 21st century' by Nicholas N. Eberstadt in Commentary, Feb. 15, 2017 explaining why Trump shouldn't have been a surprise.

These work force dropouts are no longer necessary. Above they are supplanted by technology, sideways their work is supplanted by laborers in the developing countries, and at the bottom of the labor market they are supplanted by immigrants, either legal or illegal who are willing to do the work they feel is below them. The only economic function of the work force dropouts is consuming. There will be always simple and honorable jobs, but not in sufficient numbers.

UK farmers are worrying: who has to help with the harvest if Brexit becomes a reality? In Finland, the annual harvest of swamp berries is done by Vietnamese flown in. Till the Vietnamese can earn the same money in their own country. In the Netherlands the unemployed refuse to do menial jobs in horticulture, they stopped doing the heaviest work in factories already forty years ago. The difference between them and foreign people who are willing is simple: what for many immigrants is up, for them is down. And down is unpalatable when the general development is still up.

Those left behind in the this international and technological dynamic are not conservative, they are reactionary: progress is threatening, they want the conditions of yesterday to be restored.
They are the ones who elect the populists: unreliable and sometimes unsavory characters that can’t solve their problems. They will rather worsen them. The disappointed people will be in for more disappointment.
They will not see the dynamics in society, they will see conspiracies by the rich and the smart.  By the elite, a concept once more en vogue. (Excuse the elitist expression.)
Like with most problems, there is no solution without starting to acknowledge the problems and their underlying dynamics. Who should acknowledge and understand the problems? Primarily the well-employed and well-earning. Out of compassion; out of enlightened self-interest.

One of the few ideas around that will,  if not solve, at least lessen the problem is a simple basic income for everybody, no strings attached. The hard working will cry wolf, but populism and fascism are an immensely worse perspective. But what will that do to immigration?
The outflow of failed states is threatening the whole international system. This is already putting pressure on national sovereignty. That pressure will only increase. We are in for more multinational institutions, not less. But that is anathema to the populists. Catch 22?

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Since the break-up of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, general anxiety about nuclear war has lessened, and rightly so. Though the risk of a nuclear wolrd war between yje Unites States and the Russian Federation is much less, other risks have grown.
Three 'nuclear wapen states' have not signed the non-proliferaion treaty and ome has not even acknowledged it has them. Those states are Pakistan, India, North Korea and Israel. Two of those are uneasy neighbors with a history of conflict: India and Pakistan. North Korea considers South Korea and the USA its enemies.

According to Brecher & Wilkenfeld the moment that had the largest probability of unleashing a nuclear world war was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. They estimated that probability as around 25%. They saw the primary conflict at the end of the 80s as the Israel-Arab tensions. By the way, SIPRI estimates that today Israel has around 80 nuclear weapons. In the whole world we are over 10,000.

Reading a couple of recent analyses, it seems to me that the three major dangers are:
Use of nuclear weapons by North-Korea against South Korea and the USA.
A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan
A nuclear exchange between the USA and the Russian Federation.

The first seems the least unlikely, but will be by far the smallest. The second will be larger, but even less likely and the third is very unlikely, but may be incomparably larger.

And what about terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear weapon? It will be horrible, but most  milited and unlikely to set off a nuclear war, though it seems nort impossible in the second scenario. And if Islamists would set off a nuclear bomb in or near Israel, that would certainly set off a chain reaction. (Excuse the wording.)

What is probably the most unmanageable factor in creating havoc? Psychopaths, like the pilot flying the passenger plane into a mountain. But nowhere can a bomb be launched by a single individual. Smuggling a device into a city requires fewer people, but seems still a far cry from a lone wolf set-up.

The general consensus among the specialists is that the chance on a nuclear war today is definitively larger than during the Cold War, though most probably not as world-wide as it was envisaged then.

But one large bomb on Israel will destroy so much, that no restraint can be expected in the response. Or one nuclear missile on Seoul or a large Indian city will not go unanswered, if only because you don't know if more are coming.

The UK, France and China have also nuclear weapons, but the chances of them unleashing a nuclear war seem slim.

How to manage this risk? The challenge boils down to: how to avoid the first nuclear explosion?
Read my chapter 10 in 'People Make the World' for a more general analysis.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Referendums, populism and deliberative polling

Democracy is good. Churchill in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947: It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
And before that on 8 December 1944:  The ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament— he is the foundation of democracy. This man or woman should do this without fear and without any intimidation or victimization.

Democracy is good. The ultimate in democracy are referendums. So referendums are the ultimate good.
Are they?
In theory yes, in practice no. Everything under the sun has its conditions. Conditions to exist, and conditions to exist well. If I look at the Brexit-referendum and before that the Ukraine-referendum in the Netherlands, I see a fundamental weakness and a fundamental error.

The fundamental weakness was the lack of a sturdy, disciplined public debate. When that is not in parliament, where is it? In the newspapers, on radio and television, on the internet. The problem is that very few media are geared to non-partisan debate. Most media are either partisan or commercial and so geared to sales and not to debate. And how to make a debate so lively and so interesting that it is followed and echoed in homes and public places?

Somehow, politicians consider referendums not sexy, like elections or parliamentary debate. Also interesting how abstract and far were the arguments for against how lively and near were the arguments against.

The only solution I know that directly addresses this problem is the 'deliberative polling' (google that!), in a sense the return of ancient Athenian democracy. Representatives are drawn by lot, like in a jury. They get full access to interest groups and to expert opinion. And the deliberations are public. Anyway, talk shows are not enough, especially when politicians are lukewarm for a fight outside parliament.

The fundamental error is to submit foreign policy issues to a referendum. Imagine asking the workers in a factory to vote on sales strategy. They should vote on production matters, if anything. In referendums, people shouldn't vote on foreign issues but on domestic issues.
No one in his right mind would ever suggest to have the Home Office absorb the Foreign Office. Though once I heard a human resources manger advocate that sales should be under human resources, because both were about people.
Don't treat external matters as internal matters.

Referendums try to involve citizens in politics, as citizens have distanced themselves form politics in recent years - or rather: recent decades. Confidence in politics, politicians and political parties has diminished. But going to the ballot box on referendum day is attracting smaller crowds, not larger crowds. We can't blame people for that. We let them vote on complex issues, without committed champions with a compelling story on both sides of the issues.

When we want more direct democracy, we need not less, but better populism, as the Belgian David Van Reybrouck argues convincingly in, among others, Tegen Verkiezingen (against elections). It starts with preparing referendums better: stronger debate, about domestic issues.

Referendums are no escape for lazy politicians. They heat up politics. They should.