Thursday, April 03, 2008

Gloom and doom

The imminent end of the world as we know and want it is now virtually assured. This catastrophe is not due to global warming, disease, or nuclear war, although these are likely to be immediate causal factors. Paradoxically, it is due to two interlocking developments of the 20th century, each of which seemed and under the right circumstances could be extremely beneficial: the rise of popular democracy, and the conversion of economies to competitive private enterprise-driven systems.
The vesting of governmental power in people selected through and responsive to popular democracy has normally been thought to be a great advance, in that it gives the weak and afflicted a voice in public affairs, and therefore a share in the distribution of benefits. Not only is this system fairer than autocratic forms of government, it is economically wiser as well, since the distribution of benefits enlarges markets and increases society’s wealth. Unfortunately, however, the growth of popular democracy has not been accompanied by a similar improvement in popular civic, moral, and practical education. The result, therefore, has been to empower a mass of people whose personal development remains childlike; they are little concerned for their communities, consider the most primitive forms of selfishness and cruelty to be entirely natural and justified, and for lack of worldly understanding remain credulous and easily led.
At the same time, private enterprises have become the principal economic actors. These are marvelously efficient and effective engines of economic activity, and have propelled western economies to previously unimaginable heights of prosperity. They are now doing so in the rest of the world as well. But they are also, by design, oriented toward relatively short-term profits for themselves, and will relentlessly seek to influence governments on their own behalf. Their managers want to gain power as against owners and workers, and they want terms of trade that reduce their costs, subsidize their operations, and refrain from actions that they or their managers dislike.
With the world population now so large, and the environmental impact of economic activity so great, the combination of an ignorant and credulous electorate and a wealthy and selfish business community has become deadly. The business community uses the organs of publicity and persuasion in society to lead the electorate in the directions it prefers. As the de facto leader of the world, however, business is extremely defective. The top managers have an even shorter-term focus than their businesses, and despite the occasional public-spirited exception tend to wield their corporate power for personal gain without regard to any greater good. But even if management’s goals were better aligned with those of the corporation, the result would be similar. In effect, as was true in the Dark Ages, we have delivered worldly power to people who use it unwisely and selfishly. Unfortunately, under modern conditions the entire world is now the community that bears the consequences.


  1. Obama's election makes the doom of this blog a bit excessive. For the time being, at least, popular democracy has pushed back against the power of propaganda. The question is, is that an extraordinary event, or does it begin a better trend?

  2. I agree with the poster; it's momentous, and there is good reason to hope that it begins a better trend.