The Dynamics of Power Decline

US President Donald Trump speaks during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

States have power based on multiple factors, including natural resources, technology, and the strength of government capacity. As the global system develops and evolves, demands for certain resources move around, and globalised supply chains in the past twenty to thirty years have had the effect of distributing wealth less unequally. Thus we have had the paradox of inequality: that the extremely rich have disappeared into the distance, while the wealth generating capacity of the not-rich has increased significantly. Alternately put – the middle classes continue to grow. There are shifts occurring in relative power, as in general relative wealth moves from west to east, and in particular from the US and Europe to China. How are these shifts impacting geopolitics and decision making, in, for example, the cases of America and the United Kingdom?

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Technologies of Theology

The British Museum is a controversial edifice. In part a persistently triumphal display of looted treasure – such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes – by a brutal and supremacist empire, part conservator of important artefacts of social history, its symbolism at a time of Brexit and resurgent nationalism is unhelpful to liberal sensibilities. It remains something of a contradiction that its erstwhile director, Neil MacGregor, combines a defence of its virtue as a world museum with criticism of the British view of its history in general as ‘dangerous’ (Allen, 2016).

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The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that there were a thousand people there, and each had ten units of value. If half of those units of value were offered up to the communal icon building exercise, then the collective wealth of the group was now reduced by half. That value has now – for all earthly purposes – vanished. It’s gone. It can be recovered, but biblical wrath would surely follow. A lot of effort went into creating that calf, it had better be worth it.

Now consider the wealthy family paying forty thousand dollars to fly first class from London to New York. This family has a lot of money. Let’s say it’s $100m. They could do this a hundred times, and still have $96m left. So they don’t really care. If asked about their conscience, they might say something to the effect of ‘trickle down economics’. The logic runs something like this: of the forty thousand dollars, some contributes to the cost of the flight – along with the other two-hundred-odd people on the plane, they’re all contributing in a relative way to the fuel, the cost of airplane maintenance, the cost of security, the cost of airport services, luggage handling, food, flight attendants, pilots, rights for on-demand entertainment channels, and so on. The total cost of that will still, however, be less than the total cost of the tickets.

This rich family have paid more than their share, in order to get the nice plush seats at the front of the plane. The moral rationale remains that the balance of their ticket price will find its way into the pockets of other people less fortunate, by being distributed through the corporate system into other workers’ pockets, sometimes as sub-contractors, perhaps as wages, perhaps as services in kind, perhaps as government services funded by corporation tax receipts. That’s trickle-down economics.

Let’s say there are another two hundred people on the plane, each of whom has paid $1,000 each for their ticket. That’s a total of $240,000 for the flight. Let’s say each flight like this costs the airline company $200,000 for everything, including a contribution towards company overheads like marketing, CEO bonuses and so on. This means that the company will make $40,000 profit on this flight. Where does that money go?

Increasingly, the money is beginning to accumulate into funds, high net worth individuals, and ‘off-shore instruments’ that protect that money. A larger and larger portion of the world’s GDP – around 10%, or $7 trillion according to the IMF – is held ‘offshore’. It is too much money to spend, and so it sits there, slowly – very slowly – being chipped away at by agents, bankers, insurance salesmen and other financial intermediaries tasked with maintaining the advantages of the elite.

It represents incredible waste. The money fails to trickle down, but remains suspended in untouchable isolation, a golden calf for the twenty-first century. We dare not touch it – last the wrath of our modern day secular theology be loosed upon us. This is the central suggestion of an upcoming book by Eugene McCarraher, called The Enchantments of Mammon. Having not yet seen the book, I would anticipate that it follows on the work of Carl Schmitt and Giorrio Agamben, and the concept of secular theologies that have so dominated the later twentieth century. ‘Far from displacing religions, as has been supposed,’ the blurb puts it, ‘capitalism became one, with money as its deity.’ We shall see!

The Rule of Law and Bentham’s Panopticon

Modern politicians, and – if polling is to be believed – modern electorates are preoccupied with law and order. Policing, rural crime, safety on our streets are issues of grave concern to the politicians promising more and more cops, and deliverance from threats to safety and security. At the same time, spending is being reduced, and outcomes are deteriorating in visible ways through reduced sentences, and lower conviction rates. The rule of law appears to be weaker.

In all liberal democratic countries today, rules-based systems for management, scoring and budgeting are proliferating, where algorithms score performance of social functions – like policing – and allocate resources accordingly. Tolerance thresholds are tested to assess the point at which people will reject austerity and cuts, addressing popular reactions with localised and targeted investment. The approach results in a minimum viable level approach to policing.

These rules-based systems are doing something else too. They are scoring the individual, designing incentives programs for job performance, promotion and preferment. The functions and objectives of individual policemen are quantified and reported upon in a thoroughly transparent and often subjectively oppressive way.

Rules-based systems – algorithmically implemented or not – have a performative impact on the service being delivered. Good behaviour is often not recognised within the system, and poor behaviour is sometimes rewarded. While on the one hand, resource distribution in an area might be statistically equitable, officer performance may be optimal, and crime rates may be acceptable, people may perceive there to be a breakdown of law and order. They may detect that the incentives for crime are higher – that there’s less chance of getting caught; that even if you do get caught, you’re not likely to be convicted; that you’ll be out on bail in twenty-four hours and not likely to see a judge for a year or more; that even if you do get convicted, you’ll only serve half your time.

The rule of law is based on two elements, one prescriptive and one invisible. The prescription is the law-book itself: things that are illegal, rules for discipline and punishment, and a court, prosecution and enforcement bureaucracy. The invisible element of the rule of law is the complicit populous, a people who agree with the system, who participate in the system, and who are a part of that system. This needs officials – police officers – who are focused on reinforcing the rule of law, and not just enforcing the law. That is the shift that liberal democracies are making, and the absence of rule of law reinforcement appears to be undermining the rule of law itself.

Of course, this is happening while the actual enforcement of the law is becoming ever more efficient. Fewer cops are needed, fewer stations, fewer prisons. At the same time – the algorithms and the statistics tell us – we are becoming safer, because the crime rates are falling. Every quarter police agencies all over the world release crime statistics showing how things continue to get better; and yet, too often it simply doesn’t seem that way at all.

Jeremy Betham’s idea for the panopticon – a prison design formed in a circle, with an elevated platform in the center from which every cell was visible – has often been referred to in the recent debates on privacy and surveillance. A key element of Bentham’s idea however is that the prison population becomes compliant, as it is always possible that any one of the prisoners is being observed. The rule of law is not merely about the enforcement of law; it is about the willing compliance of the lay population in its enforcement.

In a fascinating paper last year, Bayamlıoğlu and Leenes outlined three areas of concern in the rule of law under the auspices of data-driven decision making: law as a normative enterprise, law as a causative enterprise and law as a moral enterprise. Recognising these three, and acknowledging the poverty of algorithmic decision making in the execution of policing as competent to reinforce the rule of law, how far should we go? A rules-based approach is bound to fail; we need to redesign how we do policing.

Anarchist Reactionaries

The term ‘reactionary’ is a part of the conservative lexicon, referring to those opposed to progressive or liberal politics. In general terms, the reactionary harkens back to imagined histories, recoiling against the ‘improvements’ of liberalism and the destruction of a happier, often bucolic past. Things were simpler then. As Tony Soprano says, ‘What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.’ The reactionary abhors what is called ‘political correctness’, ‘safe spaces’, and the idea that everyone is somehow entitled to their own personal truth about the world. The reactionary seeks a common view of the world that he and his kind can share in. The world, in the mind of the reactionary, is not a complicated place, it’s pretty black and white. 

It seems there has emerged a new reactionary in the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. The classical reactionary core has persisted, an illiberal nostalgic set that verges on (and sometimes indulges in) racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia. But there is another kind of reactionary force that neither seeks a return to the past or an elimination of the liberal conception of progress: these reactionaries seek to blow up the system itself, this image of the world that has failed. This is often poorly articulated, but finds voice in those who respond to claims that Trump or Brexit will cause huge disruption with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘So?’ they would say, ‘That’s why I voted for him/Brexit!’ They are fed up with left and right; they didn’t vote for a party, they didn’t vote for an ideology: they voted for an explosion. 

The new reactionary has more in common with anarchists if the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. They are reacting to the inequality that both the conservative right and the liberal left are seeking to preserve and perpetuate. The right seeks to stop the liberal socialist agenda and maintain a historic position of ascendancy that has been successful for them; while the left seeks to perpetuate the progressive politics that serve their people better, with their cosmopolitan / Utopian view of the world. Each of them has little to offer the marginalised, the less well educated, the impoverished, whose numbers continue to swell. The electoral calculus is less between the parties, and more between the disenfranchised and the voters, between the numbers of unequals who choose to vote, and those who do not. And even were they to vote – who would they vote for? Brexit wasn’t a who, but a what – and that was a box they could tick. Similarly, Trump wasn’t really a Republican – the GOP hated him almost as much as the Democrats – and that meant avoiding a red/blue choice entirely.

On top of all of this, history is served by that group deciding between left and right. This isn’t quite the same as shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic; these ‘leaders’ aren’t even on the same boat as everyone else. It may work, in the short term; but our history is a short lived thing. In the greater scheme of things, hubris to one side, what exactly are these people – those in titular power – trying to achieve? Can they articulate that?  There is a detachment of power from populous, where the architecture of State is not governed by the people but merely navigated by them. Moises Naim’s 2013 book The End of Power is a useful assessment of this new alienation, and helps to inform what happened in 2016; but it doesn’t explain how those in putative control persist their ambition, itself an atavistic, out-dated model.

The alliance of these two groups – the opportunist elites and the marginalised poor – is a strange one. They share an objective on one level – that of blowing up the status quo – but their ultimate aims are both nebulous: the marginalised just want to shout that ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’, while the elites merely want to acquire power for power’s sake. Neither is a substantive ambition beyond immediate electoral success. Ultimately, having succeeded in the first part of their plan, the question is a simple one: Now what?

Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

Plato’s Republic begins ‘I went down to the Piraeus.’ He is descending to the port of Athens, where unsavoury types tend to gather, the great unwashed. These are the uneducated people, the slaves, the lower order beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the cave on top of the mountain as a kind of shift from pure being to some kind of contaminated entity. Marx and Engels develop Feuerbach’s theme of alienation for the worker (something that was apparently not an issue when craftsmen made objects and sold them) from the commodity, has similar themes of distance. Indeed, in Feuerbach’s original work his distinction was that between God and Man, between the moral and the immortal. Most of all, Heidegger’s language evokes The Fall of Man, the original sin in the Garden of Eden, of innocence and paradise lost.

There is in all of these things a clear distinction between a higher plane of existence, and a lower, base, grubby humanity. There is a gap between what Heidegger would call authenticity and inauthenticity. It is between the real and the unreal.

Sometimes we open windows onto this realisation, when something that defies science or rationality rears its head. Something that just doesn’t make sense. Like Brexit, or War, or Suicide. How can rational beings act in such ways? Does the question morph into – are we rational beings at all? From time to time, we inquire into the nature of our reality to try and understand – to really understand – what is going on, to seek to become authentic. We get glimpses, brief moments of clarity. We recognise that we have blind spots; we recognise some of the follies of our world, the hypocrisies and the hubris. We might briefly recognise that upon these false assumptions we have built enormous social edifices, that persist through a shared (mis)interpretation of what our purpose on this earth is.

That misinterpretation is there because we are fallen, descended, socialised, machined. Heidegger also talks about technology – a lot! – and describes technology in two ways: as revealing, and as enframing. In revealing, technology is a revealing of the potentiality of the world. A tree is a potential mallet; the emergence of the mallet from that tree is a revealing of its potentiality. In enframing, technology (particularly modern, industrialised technology) enframes the world, it corrals the world for the purposes of human advancement (to wherever).

In my continued evaluation of the theology of technology, these themes in Heidegger resonate forcefully. In particular, however, I continue to consider the power of AI and information technologies to see past the blind spots and hypocrisies and hubris not just occasionally, but persistently; unless we design all of these machines to be inauthentic – and many of them will certainly be designed that way – AI will become authentic. AI will become Zarathustra. And to us, it may appear that the machines will have gone insane. As Heidegger said in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, ‘…only a God can save us now!’

Judgement, Certainty and Theories of Value

In a recent high court case in Ireland, a Judge in the High Court ruled in a precedent-setting decision that in delivering an ‘all-clear’ result from a cervical smear test, the lab should only do so in cases where they have absolute certainty. The language used has raised significant concerns, as such a threshold is seen as too high to reach. As cancer specialist Prof Donal Brennan told RTE, there’s very little that is absolute in medicine; one presumes he was thinking of death as the sole exception to the rule. The reaction briefly opened up a dialogue on science and knowledge, truth and epistemology, revealing a fundamental flaw in the human condition, and just as quickly it closed again.

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