I've often wondered what feudalism would look like with modern technology, anti-biotics and dentistry.
So I'll paint an answer to whether the West or more specifically, the US, is nearing collapse. My interpretation will play with virology to describe why movements for change make just enough noise to become no threat. Just enough for catharsis. But never enough for proper change, because protests and conflict within the substrate always perpetuate the status quo. You have to come from truly outside the system to threaten anything and today there is no outside.
People say Western society is Judeo-Christian. That’s only half true, and not in the direction that helps any understanding. Morals are a dime a dozen because societies that embrace murder don’t tend to last long. Morals tend to align across cultures and over time as societies discover the most conducive ways of living with each other by stumbling on the natural limits of human interaction. But religion can’t flourish without a larger system to plug into. So, we have to go higher than just saying "God did it." (Besides, don't you want to know how God did it?) Instead, we have to ask about the system Christianity latched onto, or, more precisely, what system chose Christianity as a useful adaptation?
My answer is the system is Greco-Roman. Wow, big news. Stop the presses. Ok, hear me out. While I don't like starting the clock at some arbitrary moment, we have to start somewhere. So let's tentatively start with Christianity moving north out of the Levant with St Paul, who was a Roman citizen.
It then travelled through Greece, where it picked up the disciplines and ethics of rationality and logic, before landing in Rome due to the unhinged nature of a guy called Constantine. The Emperor was a superstitious dude who chose Christianity almost on a whim after seeing a giant cross one night in a dream just before a pivotal battle to decide who would rule Rome. He won the fight and codified Christianity into the Roman system from the top-down, effectively meeting a grassroots movement halfway. Christianity in Constantine’s day was an invasive political sect and it didn’t take much for Rome to realise that switching its persecution to control the tenets and overlay the belief onto the major sections of the system would be a good idea.
So, temples became churches, taxes became tithes (to an extent), priests became clergy, prayer to Mars became prayer to Jesus, emperors became popes (to an extent), etc, etc. Essentially, the Greco-Roman system played host to Christianity’s virus. And rather than killing the host, Christianity attached itself to the DNA like an endogenous retrovirus (ERV). In one description of evolution, organisms experience punctuated leaps in mutations as a result of viral exposure at the coding level. The core structure of the organism remains, but mutations introduce new features on the DNA strand and it eventually the animal undergoes speciation. Society acts this way as well.
Under my theory, the basic structure of the Greco-Roman system persists in 2017, having experienced a series of power flows between and amongst people living in that system. When one side wins, they capture the institutions of the Greco-Roman system and rename them. When names change, you can trace back to find the victor, and therefore locate the new virus as it latches onto the central strand. A few moments can be located.
For instance, the information dissemination mechanisms (let’s call them “repeaters”) of each power is useful because not only does it persist through time, it often functions as the renaming entity. The Romans located their repeaters in temples, which were eventually captured by the new power believing in Christianity who changed the repeaters to churches. Then Martin Luther came along with the Gutenberg Press and wrenched the repeaters away from the Roman Catholics towards the official press, which was an invention of the emerging “body politic” (civil service) largely owned by his Protestant Christians.
Later, the Industrial Revolution allowed the official press and civil service to fully take control of the repeaters from Protestant churches and to organise the state-nation, which became the nation-state. The culminating point of this flow was the invention of broadcast television between 1980 and 2000. Then at the turn of the millennium, the internet wrenched the repeaters from the official press and civil service and flowed them toward international business (part of the “extended civil service”). Today's new repeater controllers are carrying on a system that’s been alive for 3000 years. By the way, I missed out the part where lots of blood was spilt. History isn't pretty.
The shifts in Greco-Roman power can also be registered in the constitutions of its society. The princely state evolved into the kingly state, which became the state-nation and then nation-state, before moving into the market state. The Treaty of Augsburg, the Peace of Westphalia, the Treaty of Utrecht, the Congress of Vienna, the Peace of Versailles and the Peace of Paris are other clear waypoints in these evolving constitutional orders. Ultimately, the underlying Western organism interacted with new viral exposures but stays alive, getting more complex each iteration.
The Greco-Roman system straddles the globe today. It has quite literally eaten the world. There isn’t a space in this world that isn’t a nation-state. Even the Chinese, our supposed “adversaries,” still turn up to business meetings wearing suits. Are those Sino sartorial choices? And what about international business China conducts every day? If you look closely, you'll see these are actually Western ideas, transmitted planet-wide, overwriting all competing modes of government. The West achieves this through hard power (masses of men and metal) and soft power (jeans and I Dream of Jeannie). It is so successful that angry people are always acting IN RESPONSE to Western actions. By doing so, they assume the West has agency, and they do not. This is how power works.
One day Islamists or Chinese will assume their traditional cultures (which have only been captured, not destroyed) are acting while the West is reacting. At that moment, you'll know the Greco-Roman system has collapsed. It's all about initiative. It might occur tomorrow or next year. But I wouldn’t bet on it. After all, the only thing that comes from grassroots is grass, and it doesn't really need your help. It just needs you not to have the time to consider planting something else. Power doesn't care about your motivations, so long as you act in the required direction.
The Greco-Roman system operates so that the institutions and repeaters self-organise along a synopsis, rather than rely on hierarchical instruction. For instance, when ISIS invaded Mosul in 2014, they were careful not to break the fibre-optic cables. Why do I point this out? Because the internet is the quintessential Western invention. It is flat, free, egalitarian, unstructured, business-run, open, global and written in English code. ISIS thinks it’s just a technology, which is why I knew the West already won. Using the internet forces ISIS to accept the default Western assumptions about living in a good society (flat, free, egalitarian, etc). ISIS is fighting on a battlefield chosen by the West. The group failed to see how "social media" is actually just a vivid metaphor for globalisation.
Really, there are two types of people in the US: old-style Christians and new-style Christians. The new-style are commonly called “progressives,” even by themselves. They are not only firmly in control of all the major repeaters (universities, official press, NGOs, civil service, etc) but despite what they promised, they never changed any part of the “patriarchal, oppressive” system they claimed to despise in the 1960s. Changing the system? Don't play its game. The system will spit you out as not digestible or subvert your movement from the inside.
All they wanted was power. And the used democracy to get it. Which means we have to look at democracy as a tool, not a separate form of government. Most have heard the maxim: if voting changed anything, they wouldn’t let us do it. Democracy is a method used by two or more aristocracies to gain power over the other. The victorious aristocracy then formalises into the natural mode of government: monarchy. That's just, like, what hominids do, man.
In the US, this formalisation is occurring. The new “progressive” version of Christianity has stabilised its control over the system and the new constitution of the Greco-Roman structure – the market state – is being administered by international corporates by creating a new body-politic/monarchist structure. That's why there's tension everywhere. We are living through the passing of the old constitutional order. Such shifts are categorised by epochal wars and a change in control of repeaters. I think the epochal war that boosted this present shift began with WWI, moved into WWII with the final decision being made at the close of the Cold War. They were the same conflict called the Long War. So we’ve already had the epochal war. And as I said above, the invention of the internet forced a change in control of Greco-Roman repeaters. This is the tension people worry about.
But let's look quickly at the civil service. It usually hides in plain sight, and yet a proper understanding of the system cannot be possible without appreciating the bureaucracy's power.
Since the world is basically a series of American-style governments with local characteristics, I'll use Washington as my canvas. The US has not one, but two, competing executive branches: executive A, the democratically elected "political" system symbolised by the White House, and executive B, a "nonpartisan" civil service isolated from "politics." The simplest definition of executive A is that it covers all political appointees. Executive B is everyone whose salary is paid by tax dollars and who is not in executive A. The two executives have almost no power over each other. The Hatch Act pretty much prevents civil service employees from being involved in "politics," while the Pendleton Act (ending the "spoils system" and enacting "civil service reform") prevents 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from making personnel decisions in most of the executive branch.
The White House appoints some top-level employees in executive B departments. However, these "political appointees" have neither budgetary nor personnel authority. They are not analogous in any way to a CEO of a private corporation. All they can do is slow things down. And as we've seen lately, the White House does not really have management control over them either. (It matters whether the "people" elect a Democratic or a Republican president, but since the New Deal, the Democrats have served the interests of the civil service faithfully and without cease.) The one major department over which the White House has any influence left is DoD. And it tends to, um, overcompensate a bit.
Executive B is at least two orders of magnitude larger than executive A. For the last 60 years, the power of executive A relative to executive B has been decreasing, true also for New Zealand and Australia. In any conflict between executive A and executive B, the official press almost always sides with executive B. (In fact, the difference between the US and Europe, in which the official media is often a de jure part of executive B, is insignificant. Does the BBC act under a different set of incentives than CNN? I doubt it. The civil service is "responsible," which is just a synonym for power.)
In general, the employees of executive B are smarter, more professional and more competent than the employees of executive A (cough Donald Trump cough). If you want a counterexample in which a state operates an executive B, but no executive A, look no further than the mighty People's Republic of China. Close behind it is the European Union. Those two are far more evolved towards the new reality than the laggard US (pity for them this lead won't translate to any real power).
Executive B has no connection with "democracy" at all, but selects itself, as it has for the last century. With a construction like this, why bother with executive B and its version of the Truth? Why not just ask the Pope? After all, the Catholic Church has been selecting its elders from the ranks of its own not just for the last century, but for the last 20. The transition will dispense with the charade of an executive A eventually. Anyone who wants to get rid of this bureaucratic one-party state - executive B, - should know that electing Republicans with real estate experience is not the answer.
The way I see it, the US-led Greco-Roman global empire of progressive Christianity is like a human lifetime. A person goes through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, maturity and finally hits old age. I think the US is presently in its adolescent stage of its turn to administer the Western system. Aren't adolescents characterised by the emotional outburst, irrationality, poor foresight, lack of confidence, hatred of parents, etc? This pretty much narrates Washington's actions, I think.
The system of the Greeks and Romans grows stronger every day. It likes to nudge you towards the binary extremes so it is easier to control you. It wants you to have opinions, it wants you to "pick sides", "get involved", "take a stand." Anyone who thinks the profound changes happening in the world now are going to result in greater democracy or equality is not reading The Economist as carefully as he should.