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The period of 470-1000AD encompassed what is now popularly referred to as the medieval ‘dark age’. During this time, human civilisation in the West saw a stagnation of not only culture but society itself. It was a time of great persecution, societal uncertainty and religious fanaticism. It cannot be helped that similarities seem to arise between this tumultuous period and that which we experience today. Some have even proposed that we stand on the brink of a new era, one that is set to repeat the stagnation of the medieval dark ages albeit with a more modern flavour. Current worldly happenings seem to support such a conclusion. If we are at such a point in the history of modern civilisation, what form would a ‘new dark age’ take? What factors are conspiring against humanity to usher in a period of uncertainty and danger? Do dark ages occur in predictable cycles, and if so, should we embrace rather than fear this possible development? These are the questions I would like to discuss in this article.

Historically, the dark ages were only labelled so in retrospect by scholars reflecting upon the past and embracing humanistic principles. It is with such observations that we cast our aspersions upon the society of today. Even so, humanity struggles for an objective opinion, for it can be argued that every great civilisation wishes to live within a defining period of history. Keeping such a proposition in mind, it is nevertheless convincing to proffer the opinion that we are heading towards a defining societal moment. A great tension seems to be brewing; on the one hand there is the increasing dichotomy between religion and science, with sharply drawn battle lines and an unflinching ideology. On the other we have mounting evidence suggesting that the planet is on the verge of environmental collapse. It may only be a matter of time before these factors destabilise the dynamic system that is modern society past its engineered limits.

Modern society seems to have an unhealthy obsession with routine and predictability. The uncertainty that these potential disasters foster act to challenge this obsession, to the point that we seek reassurance. Problems arise when this reassurance takes the form of fanatical (and untenable) religious, philosophical or empirical belief structures. Such beliefs stand out like a signalling light house, the search beam symbolising stability and certainty in stark contrast to the murky, dangerous waters of modern society. But just as the light house guards from the danger of rocks, so too does the pillar of belief warn against corruption. For it is, sadly, intrinsic human nature to take advantage of every situation (to guarantee the survival of oneself through power and influence), and in combination with personality, (propensity towards exploitation of others) beliefs can be twisted to ensure personal gain or the elimination of opposition. It seems that such a phenomenon could be acting today. Religion provides a suitable system upon which to relieve mental anguish and distress at the state of the world (reassurance that . So too does science, as it proscribes the fallacies of following spiritual belief and a similarly blind ‘faith’ in securing a technological solution to humanity’s problems. In that respect, empiricism and religion are quite similar (much to their mutual chagrin).

In such a system we see that de-stablisation is inevitable; a handful of belief structure emerge from the chaos as dominant and compete for control. Progressively extreme positions are adopted (spurred on by manipulators exploiting for personal gain), which in turn sets up the participants for escalating levels of conflict. Our loyalty to the group that aims to secure its survival, ultimately (and ironically) leads to the demise of all involved. It is our lack of tolerance and subservience to evolutionary mechanisms, coupled with a lack of insight into both our internal nature as a person and social interactions that precipitates such a conclusion.

This brings the article to its midpoint, and the suggestion that three main factors are responsible for the development of a new dark ages.

Human belief systems

As argued above, humans have an intrinsic desire to subscribe to certain world views and spiritual beliefs. Whether due to a more fundamental need for explanation in the face of the unknown (being prepared for the unexpected) or simply the attraction of social groupings and initiation into a new hierarchy, the fact remains that humans like to organise their beliefs according to a certain structure. When other groups are encountered whose beliefs differ in some respect, the inevitable outcome is either submission (of the weaker group) or conflict. Perhaps an appropriate maxim that sums up this phenomenon is ‘if you can’t convert them, kill them’. Thus we see at one level, our beliefs acting as a catalyst for conflict with other groups of people. At a higher level, such beliefs are then modified or interpreted in varying ways so as to justify the acts committed, reassuring the group of its moral standing (the enemy is sub human, ‘infidels’, wartime propaganda etc). Belief is also a tool that is used to create a sense of identity, which is another feature that conscious beings seem to require. Those that are lacking in individuality and guidance take to belief systems in order to perhaps gain stability within their lives. Without identity we are operating at a reduced capacity, nothing more than automatons responding to stimuli, so in this respect, belief can form a useful method for providing motivation and structure to an individual. Problems arise when beliefs become so corrupted or conflict so great that any act can be justified without cause for long-term planning; only the complete destruction of the enemy is a viable outcome. The conflict spirals out of control and precipitates major change; another risk factor for ensuring the New Dark Age is a plausible reality.

Economic/Political Collapse

Numerous socio-economic experiments have been conducted over the few millenia that organised civilisation has existed on this planet, with varying degrees of success. Democracy seems to be the greatest windfall to modern politics, ushering in a new era of liberation and equity. But has its time come to an end? Some would argue that the masses need control if certain standards are to be maintained. While a small proportion of society would be capable of living under such an arrangement, the reality that some large swath of the population cannot co-exist without the need for social management and punitive methods calls into question the ultimate success of our political system. Communism failed spectacularly, most notably for its potential for abuse through corruption and dictatorship. Here we have the unfortunate state of affairs that those who come into power are also those whom lack the qualities that one would expect from a ruler. Islamic states don’t even enter the picture; the main aim of such societal systems is the establishment of a theocratic state that is perhaps even more susceptible to abuse (the combination of corrupted beliefs that justify atrocities and unification of church with state causing conflict with other populations whose beliefs differ).

Is democracy and capitalism running our planet into the ground? Some would point to recent stockmarket collapse and record inflation as a sign that yes, perhaps human greed is allowed too much leeway. Others merely shake their heads and point to the cyclical nature of the economy; “it’s just a small downturn that will soon be corrected” they proclaim. Mounting evidence seems to counter such a proposition, as rising interest rates, property prices and living costs force the population to work more, and own less. Is our present system of political control and economic growth sustainable? Judging by recent world events, perhaps not, thus precipitating another factor that could lead to the establishment of a new dark age.

Ecological Destruction

Tied closely to the policies implemented by modern politics and economic propensities is the phenomenon of ‘global warming’, or more broadly, the lack of respect for our biosphere. It seems almost unbelievable that humanity has turned a blind eye to the mounting problems occurring within our planet. While global warming has arguments both for and against, I doubt that any respectable empiricist, or indeed, responsible citizen, could refute that humanity has implemented some questionable environmental practices in the name of progress. Some may argue that the things we take for granted (even the laptop upon which I type this article) would not have been possible without such practices. But when the fate of the human race hangs in the balance, surely this is a high price to pay in such a high stakes game. Human nature surely plays a part in this oversight; our brains are wired to consider the now, as opposed to the might or could. By focusing on the present in such a way, the immediate survival of the individual (and the group) is ensured. Long term thought is not useful in the context of a tribal society where life is a daily struggle. Again we are hampered by more primitive mechanisms that have exceeded their usefulness. In short, humanity has advanced a sufficiently rapid pace that has since overtaken the ability of our faculties to adapt. Stuck with a game of catchup (that most neglect to see the value or importance of) society is falling short of the skills it needs to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. The destruction of this planet, coupled with our inability to reliably plan and deal with future events could (in combination with previous factors such as deliberate political/economic oversight of the problem) precipitate a new dark age in society.

But is a new dark age all doom and gloom? Certainly it will be a time of mass change and potential for great catastrophe, but an emergence out the other side could herald a new civilisation that is well equipped to deal with and manage the challenges of an uncertain future. Looking towards the future, one can’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. Over population, dwindling resources and an increasing schism between religion and science are all contributing towards a great change in the structure of society. While it would be immoral to condone and encourage such a period in light of the monumental loss of order, perhaps it is ‘part of the grand plan’ so to speak in keeping humanity in check and ensuring that the Earth maintains its capacity of life. In effect, humanity is a parasite that has suitably infected its host, resulting in the eventual collapse of its life-giving organs. Perhaps a new dark age will provide the cleansing of mind and spirit that humanity needs to refocus its efforts on the things that really matter; that being every individual attaining individual perfection and living as the best they can possibly be.

A common criticism I have come across during my philosophical wanderings the accusation that such thinkers and dreamers cannot possibly expect their ideas to ever take hold among society. “What is the point of philosophy”, they cry, “if the very musings they are proposing cannot be realistically and pragmatically implemented?” The subtle power of this argument is often overlooked; its point is more than valid. If all philosophy can do is outline an individual’s thoughts in a clear and concise manner without even a hint of how to implement said ideas then what is the point in even airing them! Apart from the intellectual stimulation such discussion brings of course, it seems as though the observations of philosophers are wasted.

In the modern world, the philosopher takes a backseat when it comes to government policy and the daily operation of state. Plato painted a far rosier picture in his ideal Republic which placed philosophers directly in the ruling class. Plato placed great emphasis on the abilities of philosophers to lead effectively.

“Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,… nor, I think, will the human race.” (Republic 473c-d)

But is this really attainable? Was Plato correct in stating ‘until (my italics, TC) philosophers rule as kings’? The implication here is that philosophers currently lack certain qualities which make them suitable for the role of leadership. Was Plato referring to a lack of practicality, a lack of confidence in their abilities to lead or something more menial such as the public’s intrinsic distrust of intellectualism? Certainly, looking at the qualities of today’s leaders it seems that one requires expert skills in the art of social deception and persuasion if they are to succeed. When Plato speaks of “those who love the sight of truth” in his description of the ideal “philosopher kings” that would rule the republic, it seems at loggerheads with the reality of modern politics.

So in order to become a successful leader in the modern world, one must be socially skilled and able-minded to sway the opinions of others, even if you don’t end up delivering. The balancing act becomes one that aims to please the majority (either through actual deliverance of election promises or ‘pulling the wool over eyes’ until we forget about them) and upset the minority. Politicians need to know how to ‘play the system’ to their advantage. They must also exude power, real or imaginary, relying on unconscious processes such as social dominance through both verbal and non-verbal communication. Smear campaigns act to taint the reputation of adversaries and deals are brokered with the powerful few that can fund the election campaign with a ‘win at all costs’ attitude (in return for favours once the individual is elected).

So why do such individuals gain a place above the world’s thinkers? Plato would surely be turning in his grave if he knew that his republic ideal would thus far be unrealised. I intend to argue that it is their pragmatism, their ability to turn policies into realities that makes politicians suitable over philosophers. Politicians seem to know the best ways of pleasing everyone at once, even if the outcome is not the best course of action. They can simply snap their fingers and make a problem disappear; ‘swept under the carpet’ temporarily at least until their term ends and the aftermath must be dealt with by another political hopeful.

Philosophers are inherently unpopular. Not because they are wrinkly old men with white beards that mumble and smoke pipes indoors, but rather they tell the truth. The scary thing is, the public does not want to hear about how things should be done; they just want them gone with the least possible inconvenience to their own lives as possible. This is where philosophy runs into trouble.

The whole ethos of philosophy is to objectively consider the evidence and plan for every contingency. It relies on criticism and deliberation in order to arrive at the most efficient outcome possible; and even after all that philosophers are still humble enough to admit they may be wrong. Is this what the public detests so much? Can they not bring themselves to respect a humbled attitude that is open to the possibility of error and willing to make changes for the sake of growth and improvement? It seems this way; society would rather be lied to and feel safe in their false sense of security than be led by individuals that genuinely had the best interests of humanity at heart.

Of course, there is the dark side to philosophy that could possibly destroy its chances of ever becoming a ruling class. The adoption of certain moral standpoints, for instance, are a cause for argument insofar as the majority would never be able to arrive at a consensus in order for them to be enacted. Philosophers seem to have alot of work remaining if they are ever to unite under a banner of cooperation and agreement on their individual positions. Perhaps the search for universals amongst the menagerie of current philosophical paradigms is needed before a ruling body can emerge. As it currently stands, there is simply too much disagreement between individuals over the best course of action to make for a governing body. At least the present system is organised under political parties with members that share a common ideology, thus making deliberations far more efficient than a group of fundamentally opposed (on not only beliefs but also plans of action) philosophers.

Does a philosophical dictatorship offer a way out of this mess? While the concept at heart seems totally counter to what the discipline stands for, perhaps it is the only way forward. At least, in the sense that a solitary individual has greater authoritative power over a lower council of advisors and informants. This arrangement eliminates the problems that arise from disagreement, but seems fundamentally flawed (in the sense that the distibution of power is unequal).

The stuggle between the mental and the practical is not only limited to the realm of politics/philosophy. An individual’s sense of self seems to be split into two distinct entities; one that is intangible, rational, conscious and impractical (the thinker) whilst the other is the inverse, a practical incarnation of ‘you’ that can deal with the unpredicabilities of the world with ease, but exists mostly at some unconsious level. People are adept at planning future events using their mental capacities, although the vast majority of the time, the unconsious ‘pragmatist’ takes over and manages to destroy such carefully laid plans (think of how you plan to tell your loved one you are going out for the night. it doesn’t quite go as smoothly as you planed). Does this problem stem from the inherent inaccuracy of our ‘mental simulators’ which prevents every possible outcome from arising in conscious consideration prior to action? Or does our automatic, unconsious self have a much further reach than we might have hoped? If the latter is correct, the very existence of free-will could be in jeopardy (the possibility of actions arising before conscious thought – to be explored at a later date).

So what of a solution to this quandry. Thus far, it could be argued that this article simply follows in the footsteps of previous philosophy which advocates a strictly ‘thought only’ debate without any real call to action or suggestions for practical implementation. First and foremost, I believe philosophers have a lot to learn from politicians (and quite rightly, vice versa). The notion of Plato’s republic ruled by mental  giants who are experienced in the philosophy of knowledge, ethics and meaning seems, at face value, attractive. Perhaps this is the next step for governmental systems on this planet; if it can be realised in an attainable and realistic fashion.

Perhaps we are already on our way towards Plato’s goal. Rising education levels could be reaching sufficient levels so as to act in a catalytic explosion of political and ideological revolution. But just as philosopher’s tend to forget about the realities of the world, so too are we getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Education levels are not uniform across the globe, even intelligence (we can’t even measure it properly) varies greatly between individuals. Therfore, the problem remains; how to introduce the philosophical principles of meta-knowledge, respect for truth and deliberated moral codes of conduct? Is such a feat even possible what with the variety of intellects on this planet?

One thing is certain. If philosophers (and individuals alike) are ever to overcome the problems that arise from transferring ideas into reality they must take a regular ‘reality check’ and ensure that their discourse can be applicable to society. This is not in any way, shape or form advocating the outlaw of discussion on impractical thought exercises and radical new ideas, but rather pursuading more philosophers to reason about worldly concerns, rather than the abstract. The public needs a new generation of leaders to guide, rather than push or sweep aside, through the troublesome times that surely lay ahead. Likewise, policitians need to start leading passionately and genuinely, with the interests of their citizens at the forefront of every decision and policy amendment. They need to wear their hearts on their sleeves, advocating not only a pragmatic, law-abiding mentality within society, but also a redesign and revitalisation of morality itself. Politicians should be wholly open to criticism, in fact encouraging it in order to truly lead their people with confidence.

Finally, we as individuals should also take time out to think of ways in which we can give that little deliberating voice inside our heads a bit more power to enact itself on the outside world, rather than being silenced by the unconsious, animalistic and unfairly dominating automaton that seems to often cause more harm than good. The phrase ‘look before you leap’ connotes a whole new meaning if this point is to be taken with even a grain of truth.