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Factors governing social change

Factors governing social change

An email is not the perfect vehicle for such a debate, but I summarise below a few observations and a few questions that came to mind when reading your scenario document :

  1. Rules of the game
    Which are the fundamental principles that, in every scenario, will apply throughout the scenario period? These will determine to what extent 'the world' will be able to make the right and relevant decisions. For example, can we have "Waking Up" if democratic societies will only change when they are forced to do so by a crisis? Will they only create new institutions if a majority of the population have concluded that there is no alternative? Could 'muddling through' turn out to be the maximum possible, in a society where everyone has information and opinions on everyone and everything else? Is it possible that effective change can only take place as the result of many people gently leaning in a given direction, for a number of consecutive years? Does 'muddling through' not imply that there will never be equilibrium anymore - carrying penalties that are not 'too great'?
  2. Changing rules that will force us to change
    "What comes first?": the people or their institutions and regulations? The important role of institutions in structuring and streamlining the decision-making in modern society, is undeniable. But new institutions have to be created and approved by many of the very people who will be affected by them. Will people change their institutions if, as a consequence, they need to change their behavior and may be losing out ( cf Eurozone stability pact)? In particular, will the rich, powerful world – which by definition is best placed to resist change - "cede the most"? Or should we assume that the required changes will not be forthcoming on a voluntary basis ; which leaves the possibility that major changes will only take place if terrorist minorities take the initiative, inflicting asymmetric damage on the majorities?
  3. Technology and a better world
    The potential of new technology is indeed a crucial factor, which especially in the long term tends to be underestimated. Nevertheless, to what extent has new technology shaped and changed our world in the last thirty years? In terms of business opportunities, gadgets and lifestyles, the answer is obvious. But is our education system more successful as a result of the e-learning tools? Do our state bureaucracies work better, make smarter decisions, are they less obsessed with the short term and 'spin'? Our factories use new techniques and materials, but has this made the role and rationale of corporations more ethical or sophisticated? The current arms race is more hi-tech than its predecessor, but has it created a new world order? Will truly massive processing power really change or improve a child's up-bringing, i.e. make it better – and if so, from whose perspective?
  4. In control of technology
    With regard to technology, the question is not only whether we will be able to avoid the undesirable side-effects, but even whether we will be willing to try. Of the fascinating new technologies 'in the pipeline', the drones and war robots are a case in point. Their use has been rapidly expanded without serious debate on either the moral aspects of targeted killings, and the dangers of making this the norm of modern warfare. Among the victims, anger is rising, and within years even low-budget countries or organisations will be able to launch their own drones, which will greatly diminish their 'peaceful' potential. If we cannot handle, in peace time, a development like this, how could we take effective precautions where more complex technology is concerned? It often seems that we are embedded in a system where everything that can be done, must be done – if necessary by inventing applications. Not a system where the introduction of new technology depends on analysis of the pluses and minuses.
  5. National solidarity
    The GDP per km2 chart is very interesting. It illustrates that every kind of 'solidarity', also within countries, depends on the willingness of the winners to support the losers. This triggers indeed the question what rights people have to benefit from others by virtue of living in the same arbitrary chunk of geography? The same question is raised by the other interesting statistic, that the top 30% of earners support the rest of society - the 70% who cost more to keep than they generate in added value (once services such as health and education are taken into account). Intuitively, people must know that the end of this tacit 'solidarity'-agreement means the end of national cohesion and the nation-state. This explains the emotional energy invested in mythology to prevent this question from being asked. Indeed, as you are saying, the gaps are growing, not least because the tricks to camouflage the true balance of power (debt, free services, welfare) are no longer available in the right volume.
  6. Social groups that change very slowly
    The three main actors - Establishment, Technocrat and Populist -- are the political classes, and they seem to have been characterized primarily on the basis of their functionality, careers and behaviour. Their role patterns may, however, change. Technocrats can be single-minded nerds, but also social engineers in pursuit of a better society. Populists can be demagogues and exploiters, but also true democrats listening to the people. An 'educated elite' is not a social class in itself, but can be split into results-oriented individuals, a community-minded 'noblesse oblige' segment, and people who defy classification. If the key players are defined in terms of values and personal motivations, they can be regarded as key actors and driving forces for the long term. Societies are described in terms of values (the ambitious and 'not at all communautarian' Chinese, the possessive Qataris, Europe's Enlightenment values, etc.) Where values are concerned (but not political roles), we are justified in assuming change will be very limited during the scenario period.
  7. Democracy under scrutiny
    The traditional Western value of 'democracy' is met with rising skepticism and doubts. It is quite possible that democracy will not be anything like 'the end of history' and even will lose ground to various types of autocratic governance structures. Internally, the key role played by media 'spin', campaign donations, and manipulation in general, will reduce its legitimacy. The Diktat of the "50% + 1" majority is proving counter-productive in ever more situations, - where no one has the power to trigger real change but everyone has the power to prevent all others from doing so as well. Most visibly, the democratic countries are economically, and perhaps geopolitically, less successful than several emerging autocracies. The 'democracy' slogan loses its value when it is used to impose decisions outside one's own sovereign domain, or to distinguish automatically between good governments and evil regimes. If we were to return to centralised leadership as the standard type of government, this could have a major effect on the balance between the scenarios.

I hope these observations are useful, and I look forward to the next phase of the project.

Comment 1

Great thoughts! You discuss social solidarity as consisting of transfers. Speaking as a historian, one point that occurs to me is that we have never had societies without net transfers; indeed, they would probably not be societies at all. the difference with former times and other societies is that the transfers were from the poor to the rich, in lieu of services such as military protection, the maintenance of law and the support of religion. People were frequently forced to give not only taxes and tithes, but periods of service. This might comprise anything from work on the land to road construction and military services.

When did this switch around? When did the rich need the poor more than the poor needed the rich? I suggest two forces were at work.

The emphasis was, however, on controlling and repressing social change. The boom in farm exports in the period after 1860 depressed farm wages in the industrial nations, creating a supply of low skill labour that kept down wages. What changed around 1900 was the demand for skilled labour, and the emergence of mass manufacture and its associated work force.

The mobilisation of civil society for World War I accentuated the notion of solidarity, of "Them" needing "Us". As Kipling put it:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

Left ideology did very well out of World War I. Capitalism - or any way, the old regime - was in crisis. A catastrophe had occurred for no reason that made any sense to any of the participants; but a lot of rich people had plainly got richer, whilst the people who regarded themselves as the national backbone had suffered the most.

The second post-war legacy was that of mass manufacture, exemplified by the US. Labour not only had a new ideology, it had the capacity to organise; for it was now densely inter-linked in factories and cities, and had access to telephones and to the mass media, including many influential books. Above all, it had the power to bring increasingly systems-critical mass industry to a halt. If coal was not produced, or trains did not run, then it was ever-more likely the entire economic system would also came to a halt.

The Russian revolution and the economic collapse of the 1930s generated new ideologies which placed emphasis on the collective, on the achievement of great tasks that would benefit the group through planned joint effort. From sharing out the wealth, the new schemes eliminated private wealth altogether. "Community" was to be defined by, once again, the sovereign who owned you; but in this case, it was ownership by the the abstract state. The state was supposed to be acting on your behalf, for you ultimate good, but seemingly always achieved the exact opposite.

Happily, we seem to be beyond that phase. However, what we are moving into has many similarities. The nation is "for" the people who live in it. As these cannot be expected to understand many technical issues, or may do themselves harm if allowed unrestricted access to certain technologies - medicines, for example - and behaviours, the state needs to stand in loco parentis. (This is discussed in the excellent main paper as the role of the Technocrats, with the Establishment also imposing values and ways of thinking on this.) These forces undertake Great Projects on behalf of the People: particle accelerators, telescopes, foreign wars intended vaguely to achieve foreign enlightenment; all the abstract Cathedrals of the modern age. There is no sign that they will do any less of this and, in fact - through the financial collapse and the now central role of the state in the economy - they are expanding their domain.

That brings me to an important point in this text. It discusses the clear fact that modern government needs to solve intensely technical, long run issues; often using a strong evidence base. This is set in opposition to the plethora of opinion - emotional, quasi-rational, sometimes reasoned, often skewed by partial knowledge or partisanship - but opinion that tries to block or derail such solutions. Do we therefore need ways to harness knowledge into new policy formation machinery; or does existing machinery need to ignore even more strongly the more distracting of these voices? Plainly, the first is preferable. The sheer complexity of the modern world and the strength of the new media make these two trends like like bull seal lions, battering each other into submission; yet with each moment, the strength and determination of each continues to grow.

Bull sea lions, added by Ed.

Comment 2

I wanted to make a quick point about populism. Yes, as you say, it can be a finger of scorn pointed by the Establishment at people who listen to the society as a whole, and not just its elite. But there is without doubt a style of politics that is a lot more, and worse, than that. Abstract thinkers ask: how can that person possible believe what he is saying? Yet, he seems sincere, so he must be a really good actor, and utterly false.

I want to suggest that something else is happening. Science know that we have two cognition systems in play that do quite different things for us.

My point is that we all use both of these. They occur in separate parts of the brain, and use different tissue in it, they respond differently to hormones, to the time of the day and so forth. If we react primarily through our System 1, we seem spontaneous, erratic and emotional. If System 2 predominates, we seem cold, rational, set in our ways. System 2 people are very hard to persuade through reason, whilst Systems 1 individuals respond to argument and evidence. Systems 2 people go along with the group, respond to group emotion and to symbols, colours and motion - the political demonstration, for example.

Populists are frequently System 1 people, speaking to System 1 people. They cannot "hear" Systems 2 types. The opposite is also true.

Comment 3

The main paper makes some points about the middle classes in emerging economies - that their values and views on social support are not those of the West. I had started to refute this, looking at the mass of work that has been done on the universality of values in the field now called "experimental economics". Study after study had shown the way in which groups punish "cheaters", on how collaboration breeds collaboration, how collective values arise when groups are allowed to interact, and that those values are mutually supportive. So, fine, we are hard wired to be nice: that seemed to be the consensus.

Well, it seems that I - and the Establishment that had latched onto these studies - are largely wrong. The problem has been sample bias, that the work has been done almost entirely on college graduates from the rich world. These are, in the jargon, WEIRD - Western, Educated, and from Industrial, Rich Democracies. If you carry out the same experiments in a wider context, the results are very different. (There is an article in the Economist 26 May 2012 pp 73-74 that reviews one approach to this, using the Internet.)

Thus our collective behaviour behaviour can be - or may not be - oriented to the benefit of the collective. What predominates depends on the society chosen, the class within that society and, indeed ,the terms of reference in which the experiment is framed. "You are a war leader, charged by sacred oath protecting your people; and..." will generate completely different behaviour to the same question, framed as an abstract philosophical issue. So, perhaps we are going to be understandable, but that does not at all mean that we are the same, or that cultures are somehow all the same in the end.

Behavioural economics has recognised this, and moved away from the Homo economicus model of optimisation and self-betterment. It makes a few gestures towards collective-betterment, but tends to focus on how our attempts at optimisation are heuristic or group-determined, rather than rationally calculating. Indeed, a choice between apples and pears is always going to depend on something ill-defined, as it is the result of the choice and not the cause of it that chiefly sets the relative prices of these fruit. Its sister discipline, experimental economics, shows us how culture-dependent these ill-defined qualities are, and indeed, how class-based.

So, emerging market middle classes may indeed have different values to their Western counterparts. Let's look at how "fundamental", how innately true, are the values of the Western middle classes against whom this is going to be pitched.

Well, let me go back to those WEIRD undergraduates.

These tend to come from elite schools in the US, where much of the work has been done. Such people will have been steeped in the culture that our higher schools now inculcate, and have very little experience of a world that does not at all harmonise with this perspective. Emerging into the world of work can be a challenge for such people, for this is a culture that is a remarkable break with the past; and is not at all reflected in the typical workplace.

The culture is a vaguely nihilistic culture - it implies that nothing is to be privileged (a key word) through its character or its longevity, that any attempt to distinguish the best from the worst is either predicated on innate cultural bias, or is otherwise a result of the actions of an elite, invariably working for its own benefit. Facts are malleable, and truth is defined by the social stance of the truth teller and the listener. Values are socially generated, and the useful values are those to which the community generally adheres. If the community changes, then values change as a result, and former values have no strength as guides to future behaviour. Lacan, Foucalt and Derrida must be bouncing up and down on their clouds, assuming them to be dead.

A pair of quotes to end: "a vast range of loosely-connected thinkers with very different ideas [...] have called the possibility of truth into question for various reasons. [These] deny the possibility of a truly scientific study of "man" or of "human nature". They reject notions of historical progress - the idea that the gradual movement out of darkness and superstition and into light and reason is a necessary condition of man's being. [They believe] that the concept of "self" as a separate, singular, and coherent entity is a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises tensions between conflicting knowledge claims (e.g. gender, race, class, profession, etc.)"

Or, giving a flavour of the incoherence of these ideas: "For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges".
Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976

So hurrah for the insurrection of subjugated knowledges!

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