Order vs. Chaos: How We Choose

(The Towers of San Gimignano)

Below is a thought-provoking essay by historian Niall Ferguson examining the fluid structure of societies that swing from hierarchies to decentralized networks.

Anyway, this is a subject dear to my heart, as it is the overriding theme of several of my fiction books. See interjections below…

In Praise of Hierarchy – The Wall Street Journal
https://apple.news/A3UEyEvI-SnuHNdt8fLLjzg (paywall)

The Saturday Essay
Established, traditional order is under assault from freewheeling, networked disrupters as never before. But society craves centralized leadership, too.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we now live in a networked world, where everyone and everything are connected. The corollary is that traditional hierarchical structures—not only states, but also churches, parties, and corporations—are in various states of crisis and decline. Disruption, disintermediation, and decentralization are the orders of the day. Hierarchy is at a discount, if not despised.

Networks rule not only in the realm of business. In politics, too, party establishments and their machines have been displaced by crowdfunded campaigns and viral messaging. Money, once a monopoly of the state, is being challenged by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which require no central banks to manage them, only consensus algorithms.

But is all this wise? In all the excitement of the age of hyper-connection, have we perhaps forgotten why hierarchies came into existence in the first place? Do we perhaps overestimate what can be achieved by ungoverned networks—and underestimate the perils of a world without any legitimate hierarchical structure?

True, few dare shed tears for yesterday’s hierarchies. Some Anglophile viewers of “The Crown” may thrill at the quaint stratification of Elizabeth II’s England, but the nearest approximations to royalty in America have lately been shorn of their gilt and glamour. Political dynasties of the recent past have been effaced, if not humiliated, by the upstart Donald Trump, while Hollywood’s elite of exploitative men is in disarray. The spirit of the age is revolutionary; the networked crowd yearns to “smack down” or “shame” each and every authority figure.

Nevertheless, recent events have called into question the notion that all will be for the best in the most networked of all possible worlds. “I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, told the New York Times last May. “I was wrong about that.”

Far from being a utopia in which we all become equally empowered “netizens,” free to tweet truth to power, cyberspace has mutated into a nightmare realm of ideological polarization, extreme views and fake news. The year 2016 was the annus horribilis of the liberal internet, the year when the network platforms built in Silicon Valley were used not only by Donald Trump’s election campaign but also by the proponents of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom to ends that appalled their creators. In 2017, research (including some by Facebook itself) revealed the psychological harm inflicted by social media on young people, who become addicted to the network platforms’ incessant, targeted stimuli.

Most alarming was the morphing of cyberspace into Cyberia, not to mention the Cyber-caliphate: a dark and lawless realm where malevolent actors ranging from Russian trolls to pro-ISIS Twitter users could work with impunity to subvert the institutional foundations of democracy. As Henry Kissinger has rightly observed, the internet has re-created the human state of nature depicted by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, where there rages a war “of every man against every man” and life (like so many political tweets) is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

We should not be surprised. Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza.

DSC_1483_2

Siena’s torre

This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

COM2014-tiny FB cover

The epic story of chaos vs. order during the Savonarola-Machiavelli era, foreshadowing Martin Luther.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.

Like the Reformation, the 18th-century Enlightenment was a network-driven phenomenon that challenged established authority. The amazing thing was how much further the tendrils of the Enlightenment extended: as far afield as Voltaire’s global network of correspondents, and into the depths of Bavaria, where the secret network known as the Illuminati was founded in 1776.

In Britain’s American colonies, Freemasonry was a key network that connected many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and the crucial “node” in the New England revolutionary network, Paul Revere.

IGWT Cover12 6x9 large 2017

Freemasons in today’s Washington, D.C.?

At the same time, the American revolutionaries—Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette—had all kinds of connections to France, land of the philosophes. The problem in France was that the ideas that went viral were not just “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but also the principle that terror was justifiable against enemies of the people. The result was a descent into bloody anarchy.

 

Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to relearn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy. At the Congress of Vienna, the five great powers who defeated Napoleon agreed to establish such an order, and the “pentarchy” they formed provided a remarkable stability over the century that followed.

Just over 200 years later, we confront a similar dilemma. Those who favor a revolutionary world run by networks will end up not with the interconnected utopia of their dreams but with Hobbes’s state of nature, in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus-like memes and mendacities. Worse, they may end up entrenching a new but unaccountable hierarchy. For here is a truth that is too often glossed over by the proponents of networked governance: Many networks are hierarchically structured.

Nothing illustrates this better than the way the internet has evolved from being an authentically distributed, decentralized network into one dominated by a few giant technology companies: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet’s Google—the so-called FANGs. This new hierarchy is motivated primarily by the desire to sell—above all, to sell the data that their users provide. Dominance of online advertising by Alphabet and Facebook, coupled with immunity from civil liability under legislation dating back to the 1990s, have create an extraordinary state of affairs. The biggest content publishers in history are regulated as if they are mere technology startups; they are a new hierarchy extracting rent from the network.

The effects are pernicious. According to the Pew Research Center, close to half of Americans now get their news from Facebook, whose incentive is to promote news that holds the attention of users, regardless of whether it is true or false, researched by professional journalists or cooked up by Russian trolls. Established publishers—and parties—were too powerful for too long, but is it really a better world if there are no authorities to separate real news from fake, or decent political candidates from rogues? The old public sphere had its defects, but the new one has no effective gatekeepers, so the advantage now lies not with leaders but with misleaders.

The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the threat posed by Cyberia, where jihadism and criminality flourish alongside cyberwarfare, to say nothing of nuclear proliferation. Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy, despite its gridlocked condition throughout the Cold War.

It is easy to be dismissive of the UNSC. Nevertheless, whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the 19th century, is a great geopolitical question of our time. The hierarchical Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about a “new model of great power relations,” and it may be that the North Korean missile crisis will bring forth this new model. But the crucial point is that the North Korean threat cannot be removed by the action of networks. A Facebook group can no more solve it than a tweet storm or a hashtag.

Our age may venerate online networks, to the extent of making a company such as Facebook one of the most valuable in the world. Yet there is a reason why armies have commanding officers. There is a reason why orchestras have conductors. There is a reason why, at great universities, the lecturers are not howled down by social justice warriors. And there is a reason why the last great experiment in networked organization—the one that began with the Reformation—ended, eventually, with a restoration of hierarchy.

There is hope for hierarchies yet. “The Crown” is not mere fiction; the hierarchy of the monarchy has continued to elevate the head of the British state above party politics. In a similar way, the papacy remains an object of authority and veneration, despite the tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church. Revolutions repeatedly sweep the countries of the Middle East, yet the monarchies of the region have been the most stable regimes.

Even in the U.S., ground zero for disruptive networks, there still is respect for hierarchical institutions. True, just 32% of Americans still have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency and 12% feel that way about Congress. But for the military the equivalent percentage is 72% (up from 50% in 1981), for the police it is 57%, for churches 41%, and for the Supreme Court 40%. By comparison, just 16% of Americans have confidence in news on the internet.

We humans have been designed by evolution to network—man is a social animal, of course—but history has taught us to revere hierarchy as preferable to anarchy, and to prefer time-honored hierarchs to upstart usurpers.

Mr. Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook,” will be published by Penguin Press on Jan. 16.

 

Advertisements

The Reassertion of the Nation-State

My how we live in interesting times. I’m sure they said that at the turn of the 20th century too. Let’s hope our leaders can manage this phase of national sovereignty a bit more successfully.

It’s a mistake to ignore or turn away from this reassertion of national sovereignty with horror. It is a natural communal reaction to rapid change not properly managed. The intention should be to slow down the social impact of those technological and economic changes in order to maintain a stable path to progress. This requires the establishment center to hold, but not by dismissing the real problems faced by significant portions of their populations. Because mismanagement of this complex challenge carries risks for nation-state conflict through trade wars or even hot wars with imperialist intentions.

We should keep in mind that nationalism, patriotism, and national identity are not necessarily expressions of ill-will toward others, but they can be turned into that.

From The New Yorker:

EUROPE’S POPULISTS PREPARE FOR A NATIONALIST SPRING

By Elisabeth Zerofsky   January 25, 2017

A gathering of European far-right leaders in Koblenz, Germany, on the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration expressed growing confidence in its agenda following his victory and that of Brexit.

On January 20th, as Donald Trump was taking the oath of office, in Washington, populist leaders from across Europe were arriving in a quiet city on the Rhine. Early the next morning, French, German, Italian, Austrian, and Dutch nationalists stood together on a stage in Koblenz, a central German town that has been associated with political countercurrents since it harbored aristocrats during the French Revolution. Their national flags flew behind them as they greeted what they called the “birth of a new world.” “Yesterday, a new America,” Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, proclaimed to a hall filled with about a thousand attendees, most of them sturdy men in dark suits. “Tomorrow, a new Europe.”

The momentum of the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election, has provided European populists with a ready-made argument for their own inevitability. “People thought Trump wouldn’t win and he won; they thought during the two months preceding his Inauguration he would backpedal on all his promises, but he didn’t do it,” Thibaud Gibelin, a parliamentary aide to France’s National Front, told me. “It shows it is possible to achieve victory over the establishment, and for us that’s the most beautiful symbol.” The parties gathered in Koblenz have gained voters over the past few years, as Europeans across the political spectrum have lost confidence in mainstream politicians’ ability to manage the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, and, in some cases, high unemployment. Both Wilders and Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, will face elections this spring, and both lead in the polls. Le Pen, who could become President of France in May, has called for a Brexit-style referendum, which she claims is the only way to regain control over national borders and put an end to immigration. France and Germany are the nucleus of the European Union, and a “Frexit” would in all likelihood mean its end.

The Koblenz conference was organized by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a four-year-old party that is trying to gain a foothold in a country that is still loath to tolerate the far right. In the fall, the AfD will likely obtain seats in the German parliament for the first time. Much of the French and German press expressed surprise that Frauke Petry, the party’s forty-one-year-old chair, would appear with Le Pen; the National Front presents a particular taboo in Germany because of some of its founders’ ties to the Vichy regime. But of Europe’s populists, Le Pen has the most serious ambitions to become head of state, and she is the clear kingpin of the group.

Le Pen took the stage like the instructor at a populists’ master class, radiating a warm familiarity. She hailed the domino effect that June’s Brexit vote had set in motion. “We have felt it coming, the rebellion of the people of Europe against a non-elected power that has pretended to be based on democracy,” she said. “What a blow to the old order!” The applause at the end was so rapturous that she returned to the stage for a curtain call.

There is something contradictory about a confederation of nationalist parties, but in addition to their shared opposition to the E.U. the parties have a common patron in Moscow. “It’s pretty clear that one of the geopolitical elements bringing these different forces together today is proximity to the Kremlin,” Joël Gombin, a political scientist who studies the National Front, told me. Le Pen’s party has been taking money from Russian banks for years, most recently a nine-million-euro loan, in 2014, from a bank that has since been dissolved. Over the past four years, Le Pen and members of her inner circle have made several trips to Moscow, where they’ve met with officials including the Deputy Prime Minister and the speaker of the Duma; her contacts reportedly include politicians who have been sanctioned by the E.U. in response to the Ukraine crisis. Leaders from the AfD have been guests at Russian government forums, and Austria’s Freedom Party has signed a coöperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s party. These connections have coalesced into an informal network connecting Putin’s inner circle and the European far right.

Le Pen presents an alliance between nationalist parties as a source not of bellicosity but of harmony. In Koblenz, she laid out a vision of a flowering of European cultures, and argued that a “diversity” of strong national identities would bring not war but mutual respect. Far-right supporters also believe that new European and American alliances with Russia will bring about a broader détente. In Koblenz, I had coffee with a fifty-four-year-old German attendee who politely refused to tell me his name or profession. “I don’t know what American troops are doing six thousand kilometres away from their country at the Russian border,” he complained. I suggested that they might be responding to Russian provocation. “No, the Americans provoked first, by orchestrating Ukraine,” he said. “The Americans are very big in regime change, very bad in solving problems. Trump will solve Ukraine and concentrate on American interests. Then it’s O.K.”

At the Koblenz conference, the populists made their claims of “rebirth” before an audience of mostly older white men. But the “identitarian” movement, while small—the French chapter claims two thousand paying members—is growing among the young. Gibelin, the National Front aide, is twenty-seven years old and was dressed in a gray wool suit, his hair slicked back in the manner of Donald Trump’s elder sons. As we stood in the café outside the conference hall, the babel of languages thickening around us, I asked whether he agreed with the vision put forth by older party members. His response came in the form of a seamless narrative. “The reality today that European countries are interdependent is clear to everyone,” he told me. “Coöperation is obvious, but it’s a question of what kind of coöperation. The one we have now, which benefits the economic empire and denies identity in submission to globalized interests?” Europeans, he said, share a cultural heritage. “We have our Roman roots, our language, our culture; the cathedrals you see, whether in Cologne or Paris, that are Gothic, that’s transnational; the Renaissance was a European phenomenon; and the great religious moments that marked Europe, the spread of Christianity, the Reformation, those were never isolated to one nation.” The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”

The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”

The Tides of History…

ukraine

…advance and recede. Some interesting Big Think, something we don’t get too often from our political process. From the WSJ:

A West that prefers debt-subsidized welfarism over economic growth will not offer much in the way of an attractive model for countries in a hurry to modernize. A West that consistently sacrifices efficiency on the altars of regulation, litigation and political consensus will lose the dynamism that makes the risks inherent in free societies seem worthwhile. A West that shrinks from maintaining global order because doing so is difficult or discomfiting will invite challenges from nimble adversaries willing to take geopolitical gambles.

What Samuel Huntington Knew

The dictators are back. The political scientist saw it coming.

‘What would happen,” Samuel Huntington once wondered, “if the American model no longer embodied strength and success, no longer seemed to be the winning model?”

The question, when the great Harvard political scientist asked it in 1991, seemed far-fetched. The Cold War was won, the Soviet Union was about to vanish. History was at an end. All over the world, people seemed to want the same things in the same way: democracy, capitalism, free trade, free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom for women.

“The day of the dictator is over,” George H.W. Bush had said in his 1989 inaugural address. “We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right.”

Not quite. A quarter-century later, the dictators are back in places where we thought they had been banished. And they’re back by popular demand. Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will not have to stuff any ballots to get himself elected president next month; he’s going to win in a walk. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presides over the most illiberal government in modern Europe, but he had no trouble winning a third term in elections two weeks ago.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent recent months brutalizing protesters in Istanbul, shutting down judicial inquiries into corruption allegations against his government, and seeking to block Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the ultimate emblems of digital freedom. But his AKP party still won resounding victories in key municipal elections last month.

And then there is Russia. In a Journal op-ed Monday, foreign-policy analyst Ilan Berman pointed out that Russia had $51 billion in capital flight in the first quarter of 2014, largely thanks to Vladimir Putin‘s Crimean caper. That’s a lot of money for a country with a GDP roughly equal to that of Italy. The World Bank predicts the Russian economy could shrink by 2% this year. Relations with the West haven’t been worse since the days of Yuri Andropov.

But never mind about that. Mr. Putin has a public approval rating of 80%, according to the independent Levada Center. That’s up from 65% in early February.

Maybe it’s something in the water. Or the culture. Or the religion. Or the educational system. Or the level of economic development. Or the underhanded ways in which authoritarian leaders manipulate media and suppress dissent. The West rarely runs out of explanations for why institutions of freedom—presumably fit for all people for all time—seem to fit only some people, sometimes.

But maybe there’s something else at work. Maybe the West mistook the collapse of communism—just one variant of dictatorship—as a vindication of liberal democracy. Maybe the West forgot that it needed to justify its legitimacy not only in the language of higher democratic morality. It needed to show that the morality yields benefits: higher growth, lower unemployment, better living.

Has the West been performing well lately? If the average Turk looks to Greece as the nearest example of a Western democracy, does he see much to admire? Did Egyptians have a happy experience of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood? Should a government in Budapest take economic advice from the finance ministry of France? Did ethnic Russians prosper under a succession of Kiev kleptocrats?

“Sustained inability to provide welfare, prosperity, equity, justice, domestic order, or external security could over time undermine the legitimacy of even democratic governments,” Huntington warned. “As the memories of authoritarian failures fade, irritation with democratic failures is likely to increase.”

The passage quoted here comes from “The Third Wave,” the book Huntington wrote just before his famous essay on the clash of civilizations. The “wave” was a reference to the 30 or so authoritarian states that, between 1974 and 1990, adopted democratic institutions. The two previous waves referred to the rise of mass-suffrage democracy in the 1830s and the post-Wilsonian wave of the 1920s. In each previous case, revolution succumbed to reaction; Weimar gave way to Hitler.

Huntington knew that the third wave, too, would crest, crash and recede. It’s happening now. The real question is how hard it will crash, on whom, for how long.

A West that prefers debt-subsidized welfarism over economic growth will not offer much in the way of an attractive model for countries in a hurry to modernize. A West that consistently sacrifices efficiency on the altars of regulation, litigation and political consensus will lose the dynamism that makes the risks inherent in free societies seem worthwhile. A West that shrinks from maintaining global order because doing so is difficult or discomfiting will invite challenges from nimble adversaries willing to take geopolitical gambles.

At some point the momentum will shift back. That, too, is inevitable. The dictators will err; their corruption will become excessive; their cynicism will become transparent to their own rank-and-file. A new democratic wave will begin to build.

Whether that takes five years or 50 depends on what the West does now. Five years is a blip. Fifty is the tragedy of a lifetime.