If it’s broken it’s broken Pt.2

When we say a system is broken, we mean it’s not working properly. There are two, connected, ways in which this might be the case and both are true in the modern world.

The first way is internal and technical, which is to say that the actual processes that should make the system work are functioning badly, or not at all. The system may manage, more or less, to produce outputs, but not as easily and as well as in the past. Universities, for example, still just about manage to produce graduates, but with much more waste, conflict and bureaucracy than in the past. Hospitals still, as far as they can, heal people, but they are being strangled by management and private sector involvement and drowning under massively increased demand. Perhaps the totemic example of process failure is Brexit: whatever you think about it, the UK should never, ever, have got into the situation it’s now in, and if the system had functioned properly it wouldn’t have done.

The second is teleological and outcome-based, which is to say that the system is unwilling to, or incapable of, producing the necessary outputs. Schools in a number of major countries are scarcely capable of producing school-leavers who can read and write: in France, once renowned for its education system, about 20% of 11-Year-olds are functionally illiterate. But nobody cares because they are largely from the poor and immigrant communities. Sometimes the system doesn’t even try: today’s private sector, for example, no longer even pretends to deliver jobs and investment. It’s become a mechanism for allowing a cabal of managers to loot the assets of the company, the economy and often the state as well, in the form of subsidies and tax-breaks.

OK, then: before we go on, is there any hope for the future?

If it’s broken it’s broken, Pt 1

The chances are that if you speak to a  random stranger in most western countries today they’ll give you a variant of « the system is broken. » 

They may be talking about the organisation or company they work for, their children’s’ school or university,  the health system, or the whole government of the country. The older among them will also say, truthfully, that it wasn’t always like that and that things generally worked better in the past. Younger people, having grown up in a society where nothing worked, have lower expectations, and often a more fatalistic attitude. 

But if the system is broken, what are we going to do? Well, when something is broken, you usually try to fix it. But after forty years during which the system has been deliberately and continuously broken for political and financial profit, it’s now too late. Attempts to rescue the system will only create more problems.

So the system, in all its manifestations, is broken beyond repair. Now what? 

Watch out: liberal democracy

A bit like a second-rate cover-band performing a version of an old  hit single, it was common not so long ago for your average bog-standard pundit to construct an entire presentation or article from the following couple of verses:

End of the Cold War, triumph of liberal democracy, that American guy with a Japanese name, Kantian Universal peace

Chorus, Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Return of nationalism, conflict everywhere, ethnic cleansing, genocide, Islamic extremism, ISIS, guys whose name we can’t pronounce. 

Chorus: Something went wrong, something went wrong, nothing to do with us. 

Well, this isn’t entirely false (at least the second verse isn’t) although if you ever sang the first verse, you were an idiot. But of course it had everything to do with us, or at least those who claimed to act in our name. They encouraged nationalism and religious extremism as weapons against Communism and secular populist regimes in the Arab world, they cheered the fracturing of Yugoslavia, they made friends with anyone who claimed to dislike Putin. Oh, and they rotted up the international economic system with floating currencies, wildly gyrating raw material prices and abolition of trade “barriers”, all complemented by Structural Adjustment Programmes enforced by the IMF, which is the kind of organisation you would get if the Waffen SS had ever set up a satirical comedy troupe.

But the thing that always amazed me about these people was their failure to understand that conflict was not a bug, it was a feature. It’s not that liberal democracy was tried but unfortunately was sabotaged by malevolent foreigners. It’s that attempts to impose “liberal democracy” (as we called it, anyway) were more or less a guarantee of conflict. And not just conflict between others, caused by our own heavy-handed blundering either. What, after all, are the most violent and destructive wars of the last generation? Iraq (twice, plus the bombing throughout the 90s) Afghanistan, Libya….. In other words, wars launched by us. This is not a coincidence or an accident.

“Liberal democracy” (let’s keep the quotes) is normative ideology, and so must be adopted everywhere. It’s values are “universal” so they have to be applied everywhere, or they are not universal. Which makes it very uncomfortable if you don’t share these values, or don’t adopt them quickly enough. There’s a good argument, in fact, that liberal democracy is inherently aggressive, inherently violent, intolerant and hateful, and cannot abide difference. If you see it coming you should get out of the way. It doesn’t matter whether its ideas are attractive, or even sensible, but if a normative ideology is held by a bunch of rich and powerful states, determined to impose it on others, conflict is pretty much inevitable, and you are likely to come of worse.

I’ve noticed fewer cover versions of the song recently. maybe that’s not a coincidence.

 

 

 

 

How to elect a dictator

If you’ve been reading the coverage of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez you will have been brought up short, as I was, by the persistent references to him as a “dictator”. Since anyone with the attention span equal to or greater than a gnat knows that Chavez was democratically elected several times in fair and open polls,it can only be that “dictator” is being used here in the unusual, but not unique sense of “decisive leader who does and says things the West does not like”.

It’s easy to assume that this is just hypocrisy – after all, no-one calls Karzai of Afghanistan or Kagame of Rwanda dictators, because we consider them allies. But I suspect there’s actually a deeper set of factors at work here.

Living inside the western political bubble, we tend to assume that the rest of the world is like us, and that what is important to us is important to them as well. National leaders who have different opinions from us therefore represent an anomaly which needs to be corrected, and it used to be thought that the simplest way to do this was through elections. After all, it was reasoned, leaders who thought differently from us could not really represent the views of their people. Get rid of those leaders, let the people choose, and, as if by magic, leaders more to our taste would be forthcoming.

Or maybe not, as, with great inevitability, popularly-elected leaders turned out not to share our ideas at all. In which case, there must be a fault with reality. Such leaders can’t really have been properly elected, can they? And if they weren’t properly elected, they must be dictators, mustn’t they? problem solved.