Monday, 3 November 2014

Book Review: The Fourth Revolution

As far as elections go, the 2014 attempt had a horrible turnout. No one quite knows why citizens of developed countries feel less politically engaged, so a book by the editors of The Economist brings some of the ideas together.

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge isn’t a manifesto on getting to a new era of political engagement and societal evolution. But it isolates what’s going wrong with politics, making some of the hidden answers more obvious.

Economic Development minister Stephen Joyce isn’t concerned about the poor voter turnout in 2014. When I asked him recently what National plans to do about the 1 million people frustrated with the system he responded dismissively saying “it’s really something for the other side to worry about.”

Yet, as the authors point out, Mr Joyce’s indifference probably stems not from his personal politics but from the sheer inability of almost anyone inside the current democratic system to notice how distant and ill-fitting the structure has become for the realities of the 21st century.

Moving through the first three (and a half) revolutions, the book constructs an oddly linear overview of the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan nation state, John Stuart Mill’s concept of the liberal state, Beatrice and Sydney Webb’s hit-and-miss welfare state and finally Milton Friedman’s economics which was either never fully conceptualised or unable to break through the existing structure, hence the half turn.

Present-day democracy retains a good chunk of each of these ideas - benign atavisms are just as important for an organism. And yet, the convoluted amalgamation of the ideas may be the very mud we’re dragging ourselves through without realising.

Knowing the past is crucial to reacting to future surprises. But this may not save us from making the same mistakes. The mere fact that some of the evils of pre-modern societies are returning (such as crippling income inequality) suggest moving society through a true fourth revolution could be far harder than many think.

Beatrice Webb’s safety net for the disenfranchised did more to help lift all boats with the rising economic tide than almost any other contemporary idea. However, the creation of a welfare class had the inevitable consequence of entrenching the existence of an aristocracy – because we’ve found it’s impossible to have one without the other.

As the world moves into another age of unprecedented wealth, the risk of that wealth coagulating at the very top increases. Although the authors don’t touch the concept explicitly, the emergence of truly global companies threatens to scuttle the next revolution before it begins.

There are too many interests in the current system to let it evolve. Some of those companies will amass so much true power that their movements around the globe will begin to look like nation states.

Despite all the faults of how fragmented our governments are (and the book supplies plenty of embarrassing examples), current politics is paving the way for the creation of these pseudo company-states and they don’t want some public longing for greater inclusion or enhanced representation messing it up.

The book’s overarching thread points to better ways of doing government (the Chinese, for instance, are showing a far greater flexibility than the West), unfortunately there few hints that the required new answers are anywhere to be seen.

The problem of grabbing the old answers of government and bending them with all our strength into the new questions is like shoving square pegs into a round holes. Sure, ideas are out there. Occupy Wall Street offered the destruction of the system but never suggested an alternative - and so it collapsed. It seems fledgling ideas often can’t penetrate the broader consciousness, fading into oblivion.

Modern governments are failing us, but probably only at the margins. They are not failing the people with true power. Yet there’s a nagging feeling the system itself is to blame for the lack of voter participation. But that’s not entirely accurate either. It’s us that’s the problem, most people don’t really care about the future anymore, at least enough to think about what the true problem is.

Smart people like Mill, Locke, Hobbes and Webb are desperately needed to spot new patterns in the noise and guide us towards a new government. The book isn’t optimistic about achieving this, but we are desperate for new ideas. The question is: will there be time between Friends reruns and little Timmy’s Mandarin lessons to think about it? Not likely.

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