Fear Factor: Damocles

It doesn’t take much, perhaps a tragic organisational miscalculation or an inflammatory remark in the wrong place or at a critical moment, for international conflict to blossom and careen out of control. Physicist Brian Cox once expressed an opinion that it may be that our technological advancement has far outstripped our political maturity, our ability to successfully navigate the complexity of a world we have created. This particular dissonance between technological capacity or ability and political (and its related psychological) stability and maturity represents a very real existential threat for Homo Sapiens. The potential and omnipresent horror of nuclear apocalypse where sabre-rattling, for instance – in the South China Sea, by accident or design rapidly escalates to the insanity of a plutonium-fuelled nuclear inferno is one scenario that remains a very real candidate for global catastrophe and perhaps is more real now than at any time in the past. The looming titanic climactic shifts of global warming, still in their nascency but clearly and by all evidence actually occurring, may actually represent a greater long-term existential threat than does nuclear war. The global international political system is in many regards resilient but is in other ways fundamentally brittle and fragile and appears to have only just managed to have survived to the present day, somewhat dishevelled and withered.

The effects upon international political stability of what may become an unremitting rising tide of extreme weather and environmentally-induced events emerging from climate change remains to be discovered.

Where opposing nations possess the power to almost instantaneously turn hundreds of their antagonist’s cities into ashes, dust and molten glass but not the wisdom or maturity to recognise this zero-sum game for what it ultimately is – this is where meaning, purpose and sanity cease to exist. I can not believe that as a species we would ever willingly do this to ourselves. It is more likely that we are subject to impulses and actions which we not only do not understand but which are ultimately also beyond our conscious control. The self-beliefs and ideological assertions upon which we construct and maintain our personal identities (and, by extension – our societies, political systems and nations) are not necessarily as cut-and-dried or as simple as it may at first appear.

It generally requires an extensive academic study of history and social development to develop the skills required to be able to at least begin to understand the complex emergent patterns of evolving subjectivity and personal identity that underlie political, psychological and social or cultural structure and change. For a majority of people it is probably not all that important to understand why this history and evolving complexity is the way it is and how it is has developed. While we don’t generally need to understand the molecular structure of the air we breathe to continue successful respiration, medical professionals and physiologists may find it indispensable in some contexts. Politicians are those who genuinely comprehensive understanding of the complexities of human reality and they are also very often those with very limited overall comprehension of the large-scale consequences and contexts of their work.

Politicians and policy makers are the contemporary professionals who find themselves in positions where they would be particularly well-served by acquiring a complex understanding of the subtleties of human psychology and the cultural influences upon, and effects of, political ideologies and policies. On the contrary, there exists an almost complete lack of understanding of the subtleties of human psychology and culture by politicians (and their associated administrators). At the same time as there arguably exists an enormous void of applied intelligence to understanding the contexts and consequences of their activity, politicians and their motley apparatuses are the bearers of the economic and international-relations destinies of the nations they represent. The very people who are tasked with preventing conflict and nurturing economic and political stability often possess a very limited appreciation of what the deep causes of such conflict and instability actually consist of.

The central problem in this professional mismatch of politicians with their roles is that playing the game of being elected and of rising to positions of power is fundamentally not the same thing as actually playing the game of governing well.

Arriving at a historical juncture where more than ever before the ideologically-induced and diminishing intellectual horizons of the people who actually hold our collective fates in their hands (and minds) are incapable of comprehending the consequences of their activity (and inactivity) – we find ourselves internationally and globally directionless. The arrival of a supremely unqualified businessman into the White House represents a victory for bluster and confidence at the expense of actual experience or competence. It also represents what may be the apotheosis of Capitalism – supplanting an aggressive and occasionally successful businessman in place of a seasoned and intelligent politician at the head of the most powerful economic and military country in the world.

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The suspension of disbelief.

I’m not that interested in discussing Donald Trump and his consequences because I find the whole situation to be rather unfortunate and potentially ill-fated. Unfortunately, it is not possible to ignore that coming storm of international uncertainty and instability which is now almost upon us. Much is made of Trump not possessing or expressing any comprehensive ideologies of his own but he very much finds himself in a situation where he does not require one: he has embedded himself in a cabinet and advisory environment deeply influenced by the ideologies of big money, conservatism, protectionism, jingoistic nationalism and a deep economic obligation to the old world of coal and fossil-energy. An ability to comprehend the underlying reasons for the beliefs and ideologies people hold would be of much use to this new President but is unlikely to emerge.

I do not know if there is any successful strategy to rewiring and restructuring our democratic systems so that competent, effective political players can be guaranteed to emerge – indeed, an intrinsic part of complex emergent systems such as nation states and their large-scale cultural and social systems is that the uncertainty is fundamental and reflects predictive successes not dissimilar to those of long-range weather forecasting. I suspect that while the pendulum of political ideology is swinging far into the right-side of politics at the moment, this is a temporary affair. Right-wing politics and politicians make a litany of errors and then the pendulum swings back to the left where a different but similar suite of errors and confusion emerges before moving on to another iteration of the cycle. Politicians who do not understand the gravity of their role and the great responsibility of their assumption to power place their nations and the international order into non-trivial risks.

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The pendulum swings.

The Sword of Damocles is a reminder to those who seek political power that the burden of responsibility is not easily carried. If an individual assumes power but does not perceive the true gravity of this burden – the threat, stress and danger is displaced to the people they are tasked to represent. The threat of international conflict and environmental catastrophe are clear and present dangers which, if not managed effectively at the executive level will still come to negatively effect the vast majority of human beings who themselves have no influence on political and economic directions. This underlines the democratic responsibility of intelligent political evaluation and voting thoughtfully and carefully – of understanding what political candidates say, and why, and of not being carried away by populist slogans and impossible fantasies and mythologies of control or the cult of personality that our current global information economy is so easily influenced by.

It remains an irony of the current rise of conservatism and right-wing politics and politicians that the mind-set of the modern conservative is likely to support economic and political systems which will increase the financial insecurity and political instability of the world – this generates cultural and psychological responses to insecurity and uncertainty which lead people to invest their political capital back into what are perceived to be strong or powerful leadership figures. The apparent or projected psychological security of the authoritarian or right-wing leadership is itself based upon an illusory fantasy of control which trends towards psychosis at its extremes. Some systems – both cultural and psychological – appear to have their own free-floating methods of self-perpetuation above and beyond the volition of those who participate in them. It appears that the insecurity, fear and chaos instilled by international conflict and environmental catastrophe will strengthen the perceived truth of right-wing ideologies and these are the very ideologies which may successfully, recursively induce the situations which lead to such conflict and catastrophe.

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When leadership fails to successfully engage with risk and responsibility, this causes the epistemic burden of stress and worry to be displaced to everyone else.

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