Monday, August 1, 2011

The Transition of "Conventional Wisdom"

As someone who still finds himself attracted to the world of politics (like a fly to a venus fly trap, alas), I've been watching various different elements of the political ecosystem. This ranges from the loony American debt ceiling debate, through the municipal politics of Toronto, through the tragedy in Norway to the farce in Greece. Looking at all of these different elements together, I've come to the conclusion that they all have one thing in common: we've reached a "tipping point" in the evolution of "conventional wisdom".

People involved in radical politics understand that in a liberal democracy the terms of debate are severely limited. For example, none of the major parties will ever suggest that we need to radically change the way our government works. They all believe in roughly the same thing----a capitalist state with some welfare state provision for the poor. No one is talking about nationalizing the mines or locking up dissidents in concentration camps. (No matter what the rhetoric may suggest.) It's pretty much been this way since the end of the Second World War up until now. All debate in elections and Parliament has boiled down to seeking the percentage of emphasis----so many dollars for guns, so many for butter, so many for business, so much for the poor; and; the best means----low taxes, government incentives, strategic investment, free trade versus tariffs, etc.

This sort of stability is essential to the long-term viability of democracy. If people in parliament really did have radically different visions of what the state should do, at best this would result in procedural logjams as each fought tooth and nail for their vision. At worst, this could degenerate into civil war.

Well, I think if we look at the USA, I think that the case can be made that this government is suffering from procedural a logjam because the conventional wisdom has broken down and the Republican and Democratic vision is so far apart that it is almost impossible for them to agree on anything.

In parliamentary and municipal governments a different result comes from the same cause. Premiers and mayors work in a political system where they are not bound by the "checks and balances" that Barack Obama does. This means that they can actually make the changes that they seek without being stymied by the opposition. But come the next election they are sometimes replaced by administrations that then move to undo their work. In either case, administration of the state ceases to be effective because there is no unified vision at work.

As I see it, this dysfunction is not a long-term phenomenon but rather a specific period of dynamic chaos that exists between two islands of stability.

As I mentioned above, there has been a sort of "conventional wisdom" or "common sense" that has existed since WWII. A few parts of this consensus have been based on the idea that energy is cheap, nature can be taken for granted, there should be a sort of hierarchy in society, and, that the only viable morality flows out of the Bible.

Prior to the age of fossil fuels the cost of energy was a constant drag on economic growth. It takes a huge amount of wood to make charcoal to make iron. This puts a real limit on the amount of iron that a society can use. The same can be said about a great many other elements of our society. When the price of fossil fuels goes up, it means that money that used to flow to other things----such as wages, taxes, etc----is now used to purchase that energy. Since the price of oil by the barrel is currently around $100/barrel this means that any energy intensive activity in our society (or, damn near everything) has had to cough up an astounding $85 extra dollars for energy, per barrel, over what it did in 1988, when oil cost only $15/barrel.

All of a sudden, the cost of energy is now a part of the equation. Yet people who still adhere to the old consensus simply cannot figure this point out. That's why they constantly complain that there is a "conspiracy" by oil companies to gouge the public. It's also why they fight tooth and nail against creating a more energy-efficient society, simply because they cannot conceive that the cost of energy as being an intrinsic part of "just the way things are". These are the people who's answer to Peak Oil is the empty phrase "drill baby drill" or who make ridiculous claims about the promise of shale oil. Having lived most of their lives with energy being trivial in cost, they simply cannot accept that something so basic has changed dramatically.

A related issue is that of global climate change. People who have lived their whole life believing that nature is an "externality" that can be ignored simply cannot believe that serious amounts of money has to be spent on preserving the ecosystem. As a result, they have fled into denial, believing that some shyster economist that they read on the internet knows more than the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists.

Probably of equal import is the way women, gays, and, people of colour have become significantly more equal. This change is so pervasive that a lot of folks don't understand what a cataclysmic change this has been in the way people relate to each other. But for people who took it for granted that white men had exclusive access to various elements of society this change must seem like a tooth-grindingly awful change for the worse. Certainly it must make many feel like they have been totally short-changed by a system that changed the rules just when they got to the age where they could reach for the brass ring.

This change is more than just that of women in executive office, of course. It also means that the nature of work has changed dramatically. For example, the idea of "service" has become an integral part of many workplaces, which makes the sort of gruff, "macho" ideal that many blue collar grew up with an actual impediment to employment.

Finally, many people grew up on the idea that morality comes from submission to a set of moral rules that were codified in the Bible and explained by their local church. The idea that people would be able to come up with alternative sets of moral rules (e.g. that it is immoral to discriminate against gays), and actually suggest that this new morality is actually better than the old, has also caused a great deal of anger.

What I'm suggesting is that the Conservatives are right, there is a "culture war" at work in our society. Moreover, I would also suggest that they are also right in feeling that they are losing that war. It might not seem that way, because their militancy has allowed them to organize and exert influence beyond the actual numbers would support. But this is just a rear-guard action. No matter how much they howl "drill, baby drill", the price of oil has nowhere to go but up. And women, gays and people of colour are not going to go back to the kitchen, closet or Jim Crow.

It comes down to the numbers. The people who support the old status quo are older, and they are not reproducing. The people who are supporting the new consensus are growing rapidly. To cite one specific example, the battle to stop gay marriage is well on its way to being over. This is simply because the polling numbers show that a growing majority of Americans simply don't believe that the government should ban it. As I see it, the problem for conservatives is that once something like this becomes legal and people see that it doesn't lead to the horrible results that they suggest (the decline of Western civilization) people simply forget what the fuss was all about. (A similar phenomenon happened with abortion. A recent poll in Ontario suggests that only 8% of the population believe that it should be outlawed. That horse has left the barn too.)

The wild instability we are seeing in our political systems is coming about because in any transition from one conventional wisdom set to another there inevitably comes a point where both points of view are roughly balanced. At that point, a shift of support one way or the other can result in a huge victory for one at the expense of the other. Fortunately for the people who support the new consensus, however, this is just a temporary situation. Eventually, the new consensus achieves large enough support that the old once simply becomes incapable of every winning any more elections. It then dwindles down to being an angry, increasingly radical rump.

These rumps can cause problems for their society. The shooter in Norway and other terrorists like Bin Laden are fueled by resentment that their vision of society is so out of date that they cannot win at the ballot box, so they seek to win with the rifle. But they simply cannot win. Their actions do nothing more than convince the other side that they are even more right that they were before. This is why the Norwegian's promise to become "even more tolerant" will probably be successful. People resent being terrorized and it usually hardens people's resolve more than anything else.

I'm trying to suggest that "progressives" should avoid despair when they look at the way Conservatives seem to be able to wreak havoc on the world around us. I think that in ten years or so they will be fundamentally a spent force. That doesn't mean that the future is going to be all rose water and white gloves. There are objective problems that people are going to have to work hard to deal with, such as climate change and peak oil. But the current time of political paralysis is, IMHO, going to pass by fairly quickly. At that point we will have a new consensus and society will mobilize in order to deal with these crises---just as our grand parents did to deal with WWII.

What does all of this have to do with the Dao? A lot of people suggest that Daoism is not much more than walking in the woods with a smile on your face. But I would suggest that it is also about learning how to see the underlying, subtle laws that lie underneath the surface. I would also suggest that it is about developing a sense of equanimity that allows a person to focus on the big picture in order to stop hyperventilating about the problems that face her here and now.


Tao1776 said...

I know a guy who loses sleep over what they're doing over in Spain! (what are they doing in Spain that warrants his interest?) He is so plugged in to the political and economical goings on in the world, citing stats, history and a frothing at the mouth conservative world view that it leaves you wondering why anyone would do that to themselves! Give me a smile upon my face and a walk through the woods.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Well, there certainly isn't anything wrong with walking in the woods with a smile on your face. But if you don't know anything else, what are you going to do if the woods gets sold to a Korean company and it is going to be clear cut to make toilet paper?

I think that Daoists should have some appreciation of the greater world around them, because that is also part of the Dao too. Moreover, I tend to think that insofar as the universe has blessed someone with insight, it confers an obligation to try and protect and preserve.

shadowplay said...

Re: forests being destroyed: As Ralph Nader once said, "turn on to politics, because one day politics will turn on you"...

I imagine it would behoove even the wise Daoists of the ancient Middle Kingdom to know when the warlords were stirring up trouble, if only so they could avoid it!