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Politics is like engineering, sort of.
A few introductory remarks.
As you get older, you become more and more distrustful of people who tell you that, “we are living today in a time of unprecedented change.” Normally, that’s just an excuse to make life worse for you, get money from you, or force you to do things you don’t want to do. Ironically, though, we are now at a point of major change that hardly any of the usual suspects are prepared to recognise, because, for once, it’s their version of the world which is being upended.
Put simply, we are one of those periods in history where things move extremely rapidly, and after which nothing is ever really the same again. It’s accepted that 1914, 1945 and 1989 were like that. It is pretty clear that we are now living in such a period, for all that the political classes of the West are desperately trying to avoid seeing it, and to discourage the rest of us from doing so.
Like most seemingly violent changes, this one has been building up for some time. The roots of it lie in a whole series of progressive, unconnected, but cumulatively catastrophic errors made at the end of the Cold War, essentially by people who wanted the illusion of change without the hard work of actually deciding and implementing it. True to the short-term benefit-maximising culture that has dominated the last thirty years, the future was expected to be much like the present only more so, and anyway capable of looking after itself, so we only needed to think about the next few years at any one time. Liberal political and economic ideas would spread without limit or resistance, it was thought. NATO and the EU would expand forever, without resistance or consequences. Western domination of the world economy, of international trade and international institutions, would continue forever, without resistance and ever more intensively. At some vague, indeterminate, point in the future, it was thought, the whole world would come to resemble a brown-bag lunch at a progressive American think-tank. The fact that if something can’t go on literally forever there must be a point at which it stops, was somehow overlooked. Indeed, if there is a single phrase that encapsulates the intellectual lethargy of the last thirty years, it’s “we’ll worry about that when it happens.“ Well, it’s happening now, and western elites have absolutely no idea how to deal with it.
In the last few years, the economic and military balance of power has visibly shifted away from the West, but not in a simple or obvious way. The Ukraine crisis isn’t responsible for this in itself, it just demonstrates what was already under way. The West can’t significantly influence events on the ground in Ukraine, and few countries outside the West are particularly interested in what we think about the war. Apparently, this has come as a surprise in certain quarters: I can’t think why.
So I’m going to produce a few essays trying to explain what I think went wrong and what might happen now. I’m not deluded enough to believe that I have a solution. Still less am I entitled to give political advice or moral lectures to others. But I do hope to shed some light on the mechanics of what’s going on. “Mechanics” is perhaps the word, because I always argue that politics is about engineering, not ideology. Of course, ideology is important, and can even be decisive in certain cases. But ideologies themselves, whatever some philosophers may have argued, only have influence if they are taken up by the powerful, or if the powerful are converted to them. That’s true of Christianity, it’s true of Islam, it’s true of Communism, it’s just as true of the semi-articulated social and economic normative liberalism which is pedalled to everyone by the Global West today. The delusion that “western norms” (not western practices, of course) are universal, has long been doubted by many: it’s now clear that it is indeed a delusion. The West’s ability to give orders and sit in judgement on the rest of the world is disappearing fast, not because the ideas are any more or any less valid than they were, but because the West’s ability to make others respect them is draining away.
So we’re back to forces. In the next few essays, I want to analyse some examples of forces at work. Now bear in mind that there is nothing deterministic about the process I’m describing. Forces can, and do, act on bodies in unexpected ways, individually and together. And individual actors can massively influence how these bodies behave, and how they respond to the forces in play. Which is why I describe politics at all levels as being similar to engineering. Just as an engineer looks at a bridge, and decides that it’s unsafe and will probably fall down one day, so anyone who has enough experience can look at a political situation, and say, “that won’t last.” In neither case can you make precise predictions: someone might decide to drive a heavy vehicle over a defective bridge, just as a powerful individual might decide to involve themselves in a crisis in a particular way, and that can bring the collapse forward. But once we understand that politics is like that, some things become clearer. In the next few essays, I will try to give some examples.