Theories of history are fun in the same way speculative science is fun. Because there’s no need for proof in the strict sense of the word, you are free from the narrow pedants who now dominate the empirical fields. I’m a numbers guy, by nature, but the narrow-minded ninnies with their freshman-level understanding of statistics now fill up the comment sections of social science stories. As a result I find myself more drawn to big picture stuff these days.
One way of reading history, a quasi-Marxist theory of history, is that it is the dynamic between the internal jostling of skimmer classes and the external jostling of those skimmer classes with one another. For Instance, The Hundred Year War can be read as the skimmer classes of England and France competing with one another for rights to skim the proceeds from the Continental landowners and merchants. It was driven by the lack of opportunities for English elites to skim from their own people.
It’s a pretty cynical way of viewing human society, but feudalism was a system for the elites to raid and plunder their own people. That can only scale up to the point where the peasants are starving. That would inevitably put pressure on large landowners to prey on the smaller landowners. This is a dynamic that turned the Roman Republic into an oligarchy and then dictatorship. The big landowners used slaves to bankrupt the small landowners, much in the same way Silicon Valley uses indentured servants today.
We like to think we are past all that stuff. With democracy and market capitalism, the rulers are now beholden to the people and no longer prey on them like the aristocracies of old. Most Americans really think that our elections are critical for deciding the direction of the nation. The winners will respect the wishes of those who put them in office and follow through on their promises. It’s why we have ritualized the public freak-out when a politician inevitably does the opposite of what he said he would do once in office.
Anyway, I’m reading about the current phase of the Greek drama and it occurs to me that our ruling classes are exclusively concerned with deceiving the public. If you noodle through the options facing Greece and Europe, it is pretty clear that both sides are trying to come up with a way to pull one over on the Greek people. Tsipras and the Troika agree on one thing and that is the Greeks need to eat the turd sandwich. The question is how to make them do it.
In another age, national governments could use the people’s sense of duty against them to inflict sacrifices. America got into WWI because Wilson said it was about making the world safe for democracy. FDR pushed through his economic policies on the lie that they were necessary to save the nation from depression. The Civil Rights movement was sold as a moral cause. Whites had to make these sacrifices to get right with God.
Further back, the preferred option was force. The landowners under the prince had to provide food, labor and fighters for the lord or face the sword. The smaller landowner would pay his crop tax and maybe provide a son or two to the service of the military. That was the price for peace and protection. Coercion is still a part of governance, obviously, but it is not as overt.
The global ruling elite has a problem in that they lack the legitimacy to demand sacrifices from their people since they no longer have people. At the same time they lack the will and stomach to use force. In another age, Tsipras could beseech his people to eat their turd sandwich. A reduced standard of living for the people could be pitched as a duty to the people. Failing that, he could make them eat it, by killing the appropriate number of trouble makers. Today, he has to fool them into it.
That’s what’s going on with these long “negotiations” between Syriza and Europe. Both sides are teasing out how they can fool the Greek people, who voted for Syriza believing it would be the end of the turd sandwich program. Instead, we see developing a game where Tsipras games his own party so that he gets to stay in power, without having to do any of the things he promised.
The post-Democracy game is on full display on the UK. The “conservative” party used public discontent with Europe as a way to win big in the UK elections. Part of their campaign was the promise of letting the people decide on their role in Europe through a referendum. Clearly, the public is not all that happy with erasing their country and becoming a province of Brussels.
Now that he is safely in charge, Cameron is now working with Europe to game the people into doing that which he promised not to do. There’s simply no way Europe can make the reforms Cameron has demanded. That would require a new treaty and new referenda around Europe. But, this is complicated stuff that even experts struggle to understand so that means fooling the public is the easier path and that’s what they are working to do.
What will happen here is a load of promises from Merkel and Hollande about making reforms. Cameron will ride around England braying like an ass about how he has got all the good stuff patriotic English demand, without having to leave Europe. That will fool enough of the public into voting against leaving Europe. Immediately after the vote, none of the promised reforms will happen and the march to integrating the UK as an island province of Brussels will continue again.
Representative democracy was a solution to the problem of coercion. Forcing the people to do give up their property to the skimmers is bloody and messy. If the skimming class takes too much, the people revolt. That means a bloody response to put down the revolt. Self-government means the skimming class has to win the approval of the people to take their skim. That can’t work when the people in charge are a global elite detached from their host countries.
In the post-Democracy world, the ruling elite conspires with and manipulates local elected officials into gaming the public, foiling them into being looted by the global elite. We think our elections are about arbitrating disputes between the ruling class over public policy. In reality they are festivals to keep the public busy so they don’t revolt against their leaders. The Greeks can have as many elections as they like, the results will not change. The turd sandwich is what they get. The English can vote Tory or Labour. The results will be the same.
If there is any doubt about this just look at American politics. The GOP ran against ObamaCare in 2010 and won a huge majority in the House. They spent the next two years trying to enfeeble the Tea Party movement, rather than halt ObamaCare. They won big again in 2014, capturing the Senate and a bigger majority in the House. So far they have managed to pass more of Obama’s agenda in six months than Reid and Pelosi did in six years.
In the authoritarian age, violent revolt was the check on the skimming class. The ruling families could only loot so much of the people’s wealth before they ran into dangerous resistance. In the democratic age, the ballot box forced the skimming class to compete for the public’s affection. Get on the wrong side of the voters and you ability to skim was diminished. In the global age, what will be the check on the skimming class?