Final millennial prediction: initiative will continue to shift

Fernandez-Armesto’s final prediction is almost too mild. It would seem like stating the obvious until you recall how often the obvious is ignored. Cultures freeze their minds at the moment of their triumph, and continue to regard themselves as global leaders while decay is obvious to all. The United States with its eternally replenishing liberal fantasy of itself as the indispensable nation is the most blatant example. The rest of the world moves on as this wounded giant thrashes in its death throes, unable to project authority abroad, paralysed by ideology in protecting its own citizens from random gun violence at home.

Fernandez-Armesto sees these shifts gathering pace, with the rapid decline of the Atlantic century, and a possible brief passage of initiative through California and Japan. Even Australia is mentioned as a possible source of future initiative, as a nation of under-exploited resources – minerals, minds and mores, I would add.

But future initiative may not settle in regions, and here Fernandez-Armesto goes against the grain of his otherwise localised thought. “Collective self-perceptions can be shared by very widespread groups; and the shifts of initiative in the next millennium may be in the hands of worldwide elites or of a few masters of cybernetics , mouldings world culture from a specific location through millions of modems.” Fernandez-Armesto did not anticipate the blow to national identities and indeed to elite culture with the shift of initiative to collective selfies or hesitated through empty agit-prop in social media. Billions of cell phones have provoked an implosion of world culture and an outbreak of narcissistic idiocy.


Political order and political decay in Australia

If there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, either aspiring or well established, it has been centred in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality basic public services like education, health and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.” Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay p 524

Governments are failing in Australia, and yet there is next to no insightful commentary on the underlying reasons why. There is much noise and puff about failings of the political class, and tiresome predictable conferences on reigniting “reform.” There is an endless circle of meaningless commentary by self-regarding journalists and panellists, who perform no useful function other than their own self-promotion.

Occasionally, there is discussion of trust, of disengagement from “mainstream” politics and the media, and of a need to establish new processes and institutions to renew democracy. Much of this material comes from former political advisers, such as Nicholas Reece and Mark Triffit, at the Melbourne School of Government. Their proposals include ideas such as participatory budgeting or new forms of media engagement. Some of this discussion receives sponsorship from wealthy patrons like the Belgiorno-Nettis family and their foundation that sponsors forms of citizen deliberation.

These ideas are worthwhile innovations, but in the end are minor changes in process, and will always be of marginal concern. They can provide for entertaining workshops now and again for people with boundless enthusiasm and restricted responsibility. But they do not offer a way to reshape the ordinary, enduring duties of governing. They do not consider the deeper institutional and cultural foundations of the problems they discern. Small changes in process will not address profound failures in political order. To rectify the course of democracy it is important to understand the roots of the decay that has taken hold in the contemporary political order.

This is the task performed by Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay. As Fukuyama indicates in the quotation above, the loss of trust and discontent with democracy is at its foundation a failure of performance: modern democratic governments are failing as political orders because they do not provide the substance of what people want. They pursue “reforms” to pander to media and elite audiences, but do not deliver the substance of what people want from their governments: real improvements in their linked lives. As Stein Ringen comments in A Nation of Devils, the best explanation for a loss of trust in governments is that governments have not acted in trustworthy ways. It is not a newly fickle public, but a long, slow decay in governing that is at the heart of our democratic disorders. It is not a failure of “reform” vision that is the problem of Australian political culture, as argued most insistently by Paul Kelly, but a betrayal of democratic substance by political elites whose careers are grounded in a new patrimonial political order.

For Fukuyama, a successful political order stands evenly on three legs: accountability, rule of law and state capability. But in contemporary democracy, this balanced order is not achieved. Most of the discussion of democratic renewal focuses on process changes in accountability, and indeed attempts to sabotage state capability, by investing new authority and resources in non-state actors, such as citizens groups, charities, social businesses, and social entrepreneurs, or democratic monitors in the form of public or private “oversight” organisations. The appeal to philanthropists and “independent” persons is evident, but these changes have minimal impact on the prime institution bonding political elites to the ordinary citizen, parliament and other forms of democratic representative assembly. Similarly, the rule of law becomes a process driven diversion – “the worship of procedure over substance is a critical source of political decay in contemporary liberal democracies” – or a game of lawyers prosecuting political elites too little and too late. The grossest example of a deformed institution of the rule of law in Australia is the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that despite high profile indictments for minor misdemeanours has systematically failed to prevent gross, pervasive and destructive corruption in that state.

While rule of law and accountability are common themes in discussion of the ingredients of successful democracy, state capability is a more important contribution from Fukuyama. States must be effective if they are to be authoritative. If they are not authoritative, they cannot impose the democratic order on reluctant others. Democracies must project authority and command obedience – they are not a vaudeville show for gadflies and media critics. And capable states have emerged as often from authoritarian origins, as from cultures of dissidence and citizen participation. The Westminster system was the product of a tightly organised aristocratic elite opening itself to new talent from a commercial, technological elite, and preceded a significant widening of the democratic mandate. Germany is the prime example of an effective bureaucracy that worked through various forms and deformations of the rule of law and accountability. Fukuyama shows how well-functioning bureaucracy is essential to political order and democratic success. His analysis ought to underpin wide-scale institutional change in today’s bureaucracies in Australia.

It is the disease in state capability in contemporary democracy that I know best. Twenty-five years in the Victorian state government bureaucracy has given me direct experience of the decay of an institution, the public service, and the deformation of a culture, an ethos of governing well. Slowly, without anyone really noticing, over the last thirty to fifty years a model of governing, rooted in economic and social developments, has emerged triumphant within its enclosed walls. But its triumph has undone state capability, entrenched an elite consultocracy – squads of advisers, job-hopping executives and consultants – through new forms of patronage and clientilism. This consultocracy is befuddled by its own rhetoric and rites. The more it talks about reform, the less it contributes to the performance of a capable state. It is the unacknowledged legislator of Australia’s political crisis of recent years. Fukuyama’s analysis of the deformation of contemporary democracy by new forms of patronage, clientilism, kinship affiliation and reciprocal altruism shows how these bureaucratic gangs have taken over and sabotaged Australian public institutions. This is the treason of the clerks.




Millennial predictions: cities will wither

Paris. London. New York. Perhaps Tokyo. Never Sao Paolo. Never Mumbai. So sings the liberal cultural fantasy of the tourist consumer who shops in the great cities of the world before returning to home base, where they gather in the inner city and try to impose their strangely rural visions of the 20 minute city on poor uncultured suburbanites.

This fantasy is insulted by Fernandez-Armesto’s scepticism about the viability of the large cities of the earth in the face of increasingly intolerable living conditions. So too the vanity of technological Utopianism: where these zealots believe there is no problem that cannot be solved without the technical application of knowledge, Fernandez-Armesto posits a likely pause or even an end to the endless technological development. There will come a time when, like all previous civilisations, there will be no answer in technology to the problems posed by human life together; when technology adoption curves will appear to be a quaint belief of ideologically incensed minds; when our culture will stutter and stumble, tired and without hope, before the challenges its elites pose for it.

Of all the marvellous technological-social inventions of humanity, cities are the most death-defying, the most exhilarating, the most fecund for the writers of speculative fiction. They have also been harbours for deep doubts, who have prowled its back lanes and slums and wondered why the cruelty of cities is not better known.  Fernandez-Armesto looks out, like a wistful traveller, at the great mega-cities we have created and asks if we have made Frankenstein’s monster? Have we made a set of challenges that are beyond the range of responses our cultures are capable of?

Cities of 20 million. Commuting in crowded tin cans for 2 hours a day. Spectacular ugliness combined with inhuman splendour. Has the scale of our cities defeated us, and will we retreat into a reinvented village life, enabled by collaboration through telecommunications that he imagines. Our governments seem unable anymore to plan and think for the needs of massive cities in decades from now. Roads are built for the tolls, not for the travellers. No one builds cathedrals any more. Physical decay is accompanied by social decay. We have learnt to exploit urban property, to market liveability, but we have turned away from the fabric of shared social experiences great cities on smaller scales once gave to their cultures.

So I agree. Cities are withering before our eyes. But if only because of the numbers, an alternative way of life in the country, chatting with colleagues by Skype, will be a rare alternative. More likely violence and warlordism will stalk more cities; more likely the cultured will retreat to Lindisfarnes in the suburbs, where the gentle work of holding onto the human heritage will go on in isolation and beneath the contempt of the new power elites; unless the culture begins to build again the public goods of connected life.


It is not just the Paris attacks but Lebanon, the Russian plane from Egypt and Paris in quick succession, in a crescendo of terror.

And Hollande’s direct words: we are at war.

Speaking to a colleague when making morning coffee, I was told there was nothing new, nothing distinctive about this attack. David Kilcullen says the military situation has not changed even if the political situation has.

Some march and sing in the streets claiming we are not afraid. They are not the people who panicked behind chairs and sheltered behind shop warehouse screens when a light bulb blew in a Paris square.

I have sat tranquillised with fear watching the journalists and experts hide their forebodings.

Staying sane and the infinite conversation

He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four

The lonely and arduous duty of the poet in destitute times is to obey this command: stay sane.

If you stay sane, you will defeat the monsters who torment and taunt you with their scorn for the finer arts of the mind.

If you stay sane, the writing will come and will slowly if enigmatically crystallise into the forms that it demands.

If you stay sane, you will resist the temptations of fame, the distractions of media, and the follies of common thinking. Sanity is a reprieve from the world that presses against the resisting body of the poet, the authentic dichter, and importunes it with the latest sass and seduction.

If you stay sane, you will maintain the song lines of human heritage. When these songs appear to be destroyed in engineered fires; when they are smothered in the driving drums of a city in a rush; when war is declared again within the soul of civilisation, and the city of lights becomes the scene for new massacres; it is only the lonely tenacity of single sane souls that invests in the harmless runes of prophecy.

But from those chance meanings, spread like disorder across time and space, will emerge the infinite conversation.

Millennial predictions 3 – big states will continue to fragment

Fernandez-Armesto’s interest as an historian rests in his unusual observations, framed in remarkable prose and made piquant with exceptional learning. His third prediction that big states will continue to fragment is based on some intuitions about the attachment people have to partial loyalties and local identity. “In a world where the bell tolls for all, people prefer to listen for only part of the peal” (p. 704) In other works he develops further the theme of expanding and contracting diversity, and tolerance for diversity,  over long waves in deep history.

Does the relatively recent past of formation of larger state entities represent the end of a wave, so that the forces of divergence, provincialism, preference for the idiosyncratic over the universal may take hold. Fernandez-Armesto thinks so. “Whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.” So he foresees the breaking of European nations, and those seeming megaliths, China and the United States of America, are not immune. We imagine one too young and another too old to disintegrate, but Fernandez-Armesto’s most provocative prophecy is that both may splinter. India is likely in this view to be home for “more rounds of ethnic cleansing,” and South Africa is doomed with a flawed constitution that cannot contain its divergent cultures.

We cannot say Fernandez-Armesto is right or wrong after these twenty years. The United States appears on the brink of social and political collapse, but continues to limp on. But each Presidential round suggests a catastrophic democratic failure rises in probability. Here is a society in which it is expected there will be no ethnic majority within years or decades; and yet here is an electorate that taunts the world by encouraging Donald Trump’s candidature including his promise to expel millions of Mexicans. China on the other hand appears to be fighting its inner demons of corruption and dissent, and suppressing the identities of its citizens within a newly great China. This authoritarian wave is on the rise, and it may well be the prelude to twilight of the superpowers that Fernandez-Armesto imagines.

But I think Fernandez-Armesto has a loyalty to quaint and local cultures, and is perhaps too optimistic that they can survive in political form despite the death of culture in the endless spectacle. I see a breakdown of political and governing authority and a fragmentation of cultures, but without alternative identities that recreate nation or civil society at a smaller scale. The state is breaking down, but not fragmented, and may remain a husk of institutional identity for many years unless a countervailing current begins to develop from the ruins. Collapse not fragmentation may be our fate, and from collapse dark riders may come.

The Armenian genocide

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire began to crumble and to resent the European empires who pitied this sick man of Europe, yet on whom the Turkish elite depended for their brittle rule. As its authority collapsed, more or less at the same time as the fall of the Chinese imperial dynasty, modern Turkey sought to strengthen itself by turning on one of its former loyal nations, the Armenians.

From the 1890s massacres occur, and these massacres and deportations are only accelerated by World War One and the rise of the young Turks. This group of the Muslim elite feared the loss of their state, and so in a kind of radical nationalism they forged a modern Turkish state through the genocide of the Armenians and massacres of other minorities such as the Pontic Greeks. Forced marches into the Syrian desert, labour camps, mass killings, starvation and mistreatment of refugees, forced conversions, mass deportations, renaming villages and places, changing churches to mosques.

Briefly at the end of World War One the young Turks fell from power, and a liberal group ruled briefly. They sponsored trials and other exposures of these crimes. The historian, Arnold Toynbee, led a historical commission that documented many of the crimes against humanity. Woodrow Wilson led a conference at Sevres, a side meeting to Versailles, that defined the boundaries of an Armenian state to be excised from the new Turkish Republic. But a revolt against the liberals defeated this plan and Mustafa Kemal came to power. Ever since, the Turkish state has dedicated itself to the extinguishing of Armenian identity, culture and memory. Of course, it denies its crimes, and perpetuates myths of innocence that present Kemal, Attaturk, as the founder of the nation, opposed to the imperialists, a warrior of honour who purified Turkey against collaborators with imperialism.

Kemal, it turns out, not without some controversy and uncertainty of documentation, was an inspiration to Hitler and his Nazis. Germans were directly involved in the massacres and forced marches, and there is considerable evidence that the Nazis applied the Turks methods to their own genocide and modelled the adulation and style of the Fuhrer on Kemal himself.

Still in Australia each Anzac Day Attaturk is honoured for his tribute to the johnnies he fought against. We ought to do better. We ought to read this likely fabricated statement as a warrior code tribute, insinuated against British imperialism. We ought especially to know these things, and say these things as Anzac Day is tomorrow to the day, April 24, chosen to commemorate the Armenian genocide.

Lest we forget.