As harbingers of a troubled 2015, last week’s events in Paris were a stark reminder that the world is facing a year desperate for clear and benign leadership: the ever increasing complexity of our societies requires thoughtful and wise decision making. Any balance in the globalised world is easily disturbed, and difficult to restore. While humanity as a whole possesses resources as never before, the ways those resources have been allocated in recent times does not bode well. This is particularly visible in international policy making. With organisational bureaucracies bloated, it is increasingly unclear who is responsible for global politics and choices on war and peace, poverty and prosperity, destruction and creation. The world is inevitably turning into a system where no one is in control, and no one is responsible for centralised decisions. The necessary response to this is one of stimulating natural checks and balances, thereby ensuring flexible response mechanisms to disasters and global opportunities alike.
2014 was a year in which the flaws of international decision making processes were painfully exposed, ranging from continued violence around the globe to failing global economic policy and ever present local hardship. The fundamental problem is not one of lack of potential, or of large scale conspiracies, nor of conscious manipulation by those in power. It is one of system creep, in which the answers that human structures provide no longer coincide with the reality of the problems. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only exacerbated the position of Western nations, causing destruction and mayhem along the way. Huge budgets spent on fundamental issues such as European and global governance, on development cooperation, on human security and economic stimuli show very little bang for their buck.
Those who benefit are people working within the system, within the tools that supposedly serve the wider population; they make a living- and therefore are the primary beneficiaries- by spending money on taxpayer’s behalf to provide specific services. And yet, the productivity of such expenditure is typically alarmingly poor. Trust in European institutions is at an all time low, and the UN is increasingly farcical, with workers and consultants all around the world facing increasing moral dilemmas about their own standard of living compared to those local populations that they are supposed to serve. The Pentagon has consistently failed to show how its actions make the world safer for the average American, but on the flip-side, it does have over 200 golf courses.
The issue is not even limited to the public sector. Share and stakeholders are increasingly left out of the loop in ever-expanding private companies, with internal benefits to be reaped from expansion, even if it makes the general outcomes of operations less effective. One of the main causes of the economic crisis of the past decade was a private sector run amok, without any counterbalance to internal interests and system creep into competitive enterprise. CEO-employee wage ratios are higher than they ever have been in modern society, without any proven increase of CEO importance in company success. That is not the sign of an evil elites, but of a system not working properly.
Humanity is currently suffering from its own structures, its own institutions; their added value is too low for the resources we spend on them, while their costs are still increasing. System creep is eating away at our structures, and the most fundamental challenge for 2015 will be to halt that trend.
A problem as old as civilisation itself
Throughout history, civilisations ended when clear lines of responsibility faded. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, its bureaucratic bulwarks were unable to react to new threats, leading to unresponsive policy making. These ills were later inherited by the Byzantine Empire, which was also unable to cope with autonomous organisational growth, with systemic interests crowding out effective leadership. China’s Ming dynasty fell from grace in large part because of quarrelling, inward looking bureaucrats and corrupt eunuchs. Tsarist Russia had been in steady decline for decades before revolution finally struck administrative incompetence. Similar explanations have been used to explain the decline of Babylonian, Egyptian and Classical Mayan empires.
The pattern here is one familiar in current global society: steady growth of social structures and economic welfare, followed by a rapid boom signifying the zenith of society, which then leads to failing checks and balances on ever-growing human organisations. Initially these institutions have clear purpose and add value to society’s growth and wellbeing, but once a certain peak has been reached, they tend towards slow endemic corruption of their original purpose and nature. They begin to hog resources and stifle critical thought, while becoming vehicles for internal interests rather than tools in the hands of political and social leadership. Personal interests by insiders begin to trump social interests, and growth of the system becomes a primary objective, regardless of whether this caters to the needs of its wider environment.
The problems that this systemic expansion brings often remain hidden when social and economic conditions are favourable. They only rear their ugly head when crisis strikes. Then, all of a sudden society is confronted with an inability to react to barbarians at the gates, environmental collapse or internal strife, with institutions consuming the resources necessary to face such existential challenges. Having grown fat and lazy through economic boom, the ability to deal with unexpected downturn evaporates. What is even worse is that these once proud institutions not only have lost purpose, but typically resist attempts to bring back political strength and leadership. They have become hijacked by countless individual, mall-scale agendas that will resist personal loss of status or income. The role large scale organisations play is too abstract to be able to compete with the livelihoods its employees count on. There is no general decision-making process anymore; the initial tool for greater purpose has come to life, and has turned into an independent creature no longer be controlled by its original masters.
The beginning of the end…
The events after 9/11 and the War on Terror were not those of institutions solving existential threats, but rather of using such threats to remain relevant, despite their tremendous costs and long-term destruction. The UN and European Union, having started off with clear direction and purpose, are now mere shadows of their former selves, inhabited by anonymous employees whose livelihoods depends on ever-expanding departments and institutional agendas. Original purpose be damned, the main objective of transnational organisations is their own survival, like an aging male lion increasingly monopolising food supplies to stay alive while the pride that it was supposed to protect starve.
Other global challenges, such as climate change, violent conflicts and lacklustre economic trends, remain largely unsolved, without any serious attempt to deal with such existential threats. Some are even fed to the beast in order to satisfy its hunger. Eisenhower’s warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex is as valid as it has ever been. Companies, conferences, academic departments and armies of specialists and consultants work on the issue, but they become part of the very same animal that is starving the system. Instead of serving societal needs, they endanger them.
The problem can even be seen at a national level, especially in Western countries. After decades of social and economic growth and steady improvements in democratic and welfare structures, the peak seems to have been reached- perhaps sometime in the 1990s- and the state has well and truly started to move downhill. Governments seem rudderless, managing rather than leading their country. Populism and centric mediocrity compete for favour. Beholden to special interests, and living in fear of losing influence or power, politicians feed the institutional beast rather than putting it on a diet. Après nous le déluge.
…Or the end of the beginning?
Despite similarities with past civilisations, not everything in history repeats itself, and there are a number of fundamental differences between then and now. Firstly, 20th and 21st century globalisation and technological advances increasingly allow for global dynamics, and therefore global responses. This ability to globally communicate, analyse and find solutions dramatically changes the range of options available. Secondly, unlike historical cases, there is no clear antagonist, no barbarians at the gates, attempting to spur on our civilisation’s decline. Thirdly, we have come to understand and appreciate the strength and elegance of natural, decentralised dynamics without heavy handed interference from above, even in societies that emphasise social cohesion and the welfare state. Fourthly, we have the benefit of hindsight. More than ever before we understand the past, and know how and why societies collapsed.
Unlike empires of the past, human society in 2015 is much closer, much more united through natural flows than it has ever been. Even if this increase in scale of operations may have contributed to the system creep discussed above, it also allows for a reversal of such dynamics. Unlike other ages, the current world is in it together; there are no new tribes ready to sack and pillage a decaying empire. No one benefits from collapse, and people all over the planet are facing very similar challenges.
Without downplaying substantial differences in agendas between specific human groups, there is no reason to believe that the general masses around the world are in opposition to each other. There is no such thing as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, however much certain self-serving institutions and small groups of violent fanatics would have us believe exactly that. The dynamic nature of a planet facing success and failure together means a constant stream of new ideas and alternatives to reverse global society’s fortunes. Dynamic competition and cooperation between ideas, projects and outcomes tend to stimulate the best in human beings. As long as there are no stifling institutional monopolies and systemic beasts starving global society of resources, its modern worldwide nature is in a unique position to bounce back. If society can make institutions work for them, rather than being beholden by institutions’ insatiable appetite, global civilisation could benefit tremendously from technological progress and opportunities.
All of this requires from politicians and social leaders an adjusted set of priorities; not the kind that bloats the circles around them, but the kind that strengthens micro dynamics in their respective societies. We must return to smaller-scale lines of responsibility, with dynamic cooperation and competition in which outcomes, rather than size, are recognised. This also reduces the margin of error, as small scale mistakes, failures or corruption are much more quickly corrected by other micro dynamics than large, centralised, error prone bureaucracies can ever hope to do. Encouraging institutional cultures in which small is beautiful, and effective outcomes are all that matter, is therefore an absolute priority. The inverse relationship between organisational size and purpose must be understood and recognised. It is a matter of taking pride in small-scale success, and taking responsibility for personal outcomes. It is about not letting the eunuchs get in the way of our civilisation’s survival. Eugene O’Neil sagely wrote that “there is no present or future- only the past, happening over and over again -now”. It is time to prove him wrong.