A World Without Power | Tim Chapman
The history of politics is a history of failure. Every experiment to solve the fundamental question of government: how to distribute power, has ended in disaster and decay. Eras of peaceful and prosperous co-existence are small puddles of relief in the vast desert of violence and poverty which have informed the past, and most likely will inform the future.
As the last great social experiment of the Enlightenment, the United States continues it’s precipitous decline, and China rises, it is worth radically reconsidering our fundamental understanding of power, and our desire to wield it.
Our past attempts to create Utopias, have emphasised the importance of controlling power. Perhaps the most radical and enduring attempt was the United States. Within the founding documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is a system designed to contain the corrupting influence of power.
Executive authority is restrained by the legal system, in the form of the Supreme Court, bi-annual elections. An independent free press which can report abuses of power unfettered by intimidation, with the protection of the first amendment. The final and most chilling failsafe, the second amendment, a ‘well-regulated militia’: the threat of a second violent revolution.
Neil Postman identifies, in his excellent ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, how this model for society has become unsustainable with the advance of technology. Writing in the 1980s, he saw how television, and the impacts it had on American’s abilities to reason and debate, was destroying a political system which demanded active intellectual engagement from it’s constituents to function effectively.
He relates how during Abraham Lincoln’s presidential elections, candidates would make speeches to captive audiences, from memory, which would go on for hours. By the 20th century, stripped of their attention spans, Americans voted for handsome movie stars like Ronald Reagan. Reagan, never a powerful speaker, would not win a captive audience from monologues on slavery, and force them to confront their moral prejudices. Instead, he promised to build lasers in the sky to protect them from Nuclear weapons.
Technologically, it was a fantasy, but to an audience whose mind was dissolved into visual mediums, simplistic contrasts between good and evil resonated with their cultural understanding of the world. While an American contemplating war in the 19th century might consider the Melian dialogue, or the Peace of Westphalia, the American of the 21st understands it through films like ‘Braveheart’ or ‘The Patriot’. The electorate’s simple understanding of freedom versus evil are then exported abroad to countries like Iraq, with devastating consequences.
Who holds power in modern society is not decided by reasoned debate, but by hysterical contrarian soundbites which thrive on social media. Discourse plunges into new depths, political discussions devolve into name-calling, disabling the most powerful country in the world and rendering it defenceless to the meteoric rise of China. Here is a new model for society, which operates exclusively in the interests of acquiring wealth and power for those who already hold it.
Conservatives are often accused of nostalgia, and this is not entirely unfair. To some extent, Neil Postman’s vision of the past is rose-tinted. 19th century America had periods of instability, severe racial prejudice, financial crashes and for the majority of people, material prosperity was elusive.
Even if we believe that a Utopia did exist in the past, that society must have been flawed, as the Utopia it created was not eternal. The Garden of Eden was not a Utopia. It had within it, the Apple which would precipitate the fall of Man. 19th century America was also not heaven on Earth, because it contained within itself the ingredients for America’s current malaise.
Because Postman is nostalgic for his imagined past, he perceives subsequent developments in technology only from a negative perspective. If we want to create Utopia, and create a political system that is eternal and prosperous, we must endeavour to harness technology to solve that ancient question: how do we distribute power?
From power arises most of the misery of the world. Power, and the desire to wield it over others makes human beings behave in a despicable manner. It is what compelled Brennus to sack Rome, Stalin to starve Ukraine, and Donald Trump to tweet. Every hierarchy, every superstructure like racism, all find roots in this very human affliction.
Technology has eroded the tools by which a civilised society can restrain the impulse of human beings to dominate each other. Because reasonable debate is now impossible, it is now impractical to entrust individuals, or society, with power.
But at the same time, perhaps Technology has provided us with the tools we need to dispose of power, and the enormous responsibility it engenders. Computerised systems of government, holding absolute authority over our decisions, designed to maximise our prosperity, preserve our lives, and guarantee our safety.
We will, in a single keystroke, be able to reverse the fall of man. If we can craft remote technological political structures that are benevolent, and completely remote from human impulses, as was God before Eve ate the apple, we can cast away the worst aspects of our humanity.
The impulse which put the children of Israel into cattle trains will cease to exist. National histories, replete with tales of murder and exploitation, will serve only to remind the present that humanity’s surrender of autonomy to technology was its wisest endeavour.
The Divine Right of Kings was nonsensical because it was visibly untrue. The Kings and Queens of England were, far from being infallible, visibly beholden to corruption. The power of technology is more akin to that of the fake gods from which these monkeys in fine robes derived their earthly authority.
We imagined there to be gods and built churches and temples to celebrate their dominion. Comforted by absolution that their omnipotence conferred. Our sins, explained through heavenly intervention. Sins against us, given justice by divine righteousness. Confronted with the harsh realities of a secular universe, uncovered by science, we have tried to harness humanity to create a just and equal society. This has patently failed.
If we want to return to the Garden of Eden, we must cast back the forbidden fruit.