Professor, historian and celebrated futurist, Yuval Harari, addresses this collapse in his book, "Homo Deus." He writes of governance falling ever further behind technology and losing its way, the reins of power slack in atrophied hands.
In the coming decades it is likely that we will see more Internet-like revolutions, in which technology steals a march on politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology might soon overhaul our societies and economies - and our bodies and minds too - but they are hardly a blip on the current political radar. Present-day democratic structures just cannot collect and process the relevant data fast enough, and most voters don't understand biology and cybernetics well enough to form any pertinent opinions. Here traditional democratic politics is losing control of events and is failing to present us with meaningful visions of the future.
Ordinary voters are beginning to sense that the democratic mechanism no longer empowers them. The world is changing all around, and they don't understand how or why. Power is shifting away from them, but they are unsure where it has gone. In Britain voters imagine that power might have shifted to the EU, so they vote for Brexit. In the USA voters imagine that 'the establishment' monopolises all the power, so they support anti-establishment candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The sad truth is that nobody knows where all the power has gone. Power will definitely not shift back to ordinary voters if Britain leaves the EU, nor if Trump takes over the White House.Fear Not an Era of Authoritarian Rule.
In science-fiction films ruthless Hitler-like politicians are quick to pounce on new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that megalomaniac political ideal. Yet flesh and blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, Iran or North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don't seem to be plotting any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don't extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. Putin's aspirations seem confined to rebuilding the old Soviet bloc, or the even older tsarist empire.
Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently, in the early 21st century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don't overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.
To a certain extent, this is a very good thing. Given that some of the big political visions of the 20th century led us to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, maybe we are better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats. Mixing godlike technology with megalomaniacal politics is a recipe for disaster. Many neo-liberal economists and political scientists argue that it is best to leave all the important decisions in the hands of the free market. They thereby give politicians the perfect excuse for inaction and ignorance, which are reinterpreted as profound wisdom. Politicians find it convenient to believe that the reason they don't understand the world is that they don't need to understand it.
...It is dangerous to trust our future to market forces, because these forces do what's good for the market rather than what's good for humankind or for the world. The hand of the market is blind as well as invisible, and left to its own devices it may fail to do anything at all about the threat of global warming or the dangerous potential of artificial intelligence.As Harari sees it, human civilization has reached the end of its rope. Nothing proves this better than the abrupt decline of our political leadership. There's a reason they can so often appear to govern as though we were still in the in the 80s. It reflects nothing so much as their inability to evolve beyond that. It is why we remain in the rut of neoliberalism long after it has failed us.
Some people believe that there is somebody in charge after all. Not democratic politicians or autocratic despots, but rather a small coterie of billionaires who secretly run the world. But such conspiracy theories never work, because they underestimate the complexity of the system. A few billionaires smoking cigars and drinking Scotch in some back room cannot possibly understand everything happening on the globe, let alone control it. Ruthless billionaires and small interest groups flourish in today's chaotic world not because they read the map better than anyone else but because they have very narrow aims. In a chaotic system tunnel vision has its advantages and the billionaires' power is strictly proportional to their goals. When the world's richest tycoons want to make another billion dollars they can easily game the system in order to do so. In contrast, if they felt inclined to reduce global inequality or stop global warming, even they wouldn't be able to, because the system is far too complex.
Consider Canada's recently proclaimed climate emergency. In an emergency, governments mobilize the nation. Its industrial base, its people are harnessed to the effort. It is a time, as Churchill put it, in which we must do what is required. It is not enough that we do "our best." What measures typical of an emergency, an existential threat at that, have you observed? Does the government's go-ahead for construction of a new and expanded bitumen pipeline count? No, if that emergency proclamation looks like a farce, that is because it is a farce, one in which, despite all the consequences for the future, we happily collude.
Harari's observation that, "democratic politics is losing control of events and is failing to present us with meaningful visions of the future," is a damning indictment of our leaders. There is no vision and, without vision, there is no conception, no planning, no action.
I tried to make this point in a recent post asking whether we were going to fight climate change as ineptly as we fought the Taliban in Kandahar. The approach reveals close and worrisome parallels. Our leadership is not in it to win. They're not even in it for the consolation prize, a somewhat survivable crash landing. They "have no idea where the country will be in twenty years." No, they have an election in four years, monies to raise, campaigns to organize.
What can we expect from a school marm or his adversary, a summer-help insurance clerk? How did two visionless men of such meagre talent rise to lead our two dominant political parties? How did their parties choose them? Where has all the real talent gone?