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The Performance is Over
Even if the artists don't realise it.
Note: Last week’s comments got sidetracked into bad-tempered exchanges on climate change, which was not what the essay was about. I had several requests to delete comments that some people found offensive. I let them pass on that occasion, but as from now I will start deleting abusive comments. Discussion here has always been very civilised. Let’s keep it that way.
Last week, I argued that the kind of crises that we can expect over the next few years will be beyond the ability of our enfeebled governments to tackle, and that in any case their room for manoeuvre to tackle them will be very limited. (If you think climate change is not a problem, fine, you can substitute any other of a long list of potentially ruinous events.) This week, I want to take the next logical step, of trying to begin to imagine what a society in which government could no longer deal with major problems would be like, and what the implications would be.
I want to discuss it via a consideration of the nature of Power. Now in English, “power” has generally-negative connotations, not helped by its incessant use by IdiotPol pundits, who are obsessed with it and see it everywhere. But “power” is derived from the medieval Anglo-French pouair , with its roots in the Vulgar Latin potere, meaning “to be able to do something.” This is essentially the principal meaning of pouvoir in modern French: a good translation would be ‘capability.” (Foucault, who wrote about pouvoir a lot, was essentially interested in how things got done.) On the other hand, when you talk about Great Powers, or electrical power or a powerful ruler, the French word is puissance.
So I’m going to use the word “power” here in the sense of how decisions are made and who makes them, and what the implications of that would be in the kind of world we may soon experience. But we first have to consider the nature of power itself, and get rid of a few ideas that are especially, um, powerful in Anglo-Saxon circles.
In our culture, we tend to perceive of power as something that inherently exists. We say that so-and-so is “powerful,” we describe a country or a regime as “powerful,” and there is a cottage industry ranking nations against each other by the size and strength of their economies or their military forces. So you might read that the United States is “more powerful” than China on land, because it has more tanks. Likewise, Nigeria is often described as a “regional superpower” in West Africa.
Yet in reality, power has no objective existence: all depends on context. I want to try briefly to explain why that is so now, under three different headings. The first is that power is always relative, never absolute. There are nations that have certain types of power in the sense that they have a great deal of a certain thing. But whether they have what I define as the ability to do a certain thing, is an entirely different matter, and depends very largely on context. To take an absurd example, the United States could raise an Army of two million men, armed with antique muskets, swords and horses. This would amount to “power” of a sort, and could probably be converted, somehow, into an actual ability to achieve defined goals, but I wouldn’t count on it. Rather, power needs to be appropriate to the objective it is intended to reach, otherwise it is irrelevant. By itself, GDP, or for that matter possession of raw materials or a large population, does not make you powerful. These assets have to be converted into something useful, and used in pursuit of something specific, before they are translated into power. The reason that Saudi Arabia is “powerful” and the Democratic Republic of Congo is not, has nothing to do with the quantity of raw materials that each possesses.
Secondly, power is not simply quantitative: something Anglo-Saxons find very hard to accept. In the example above, the fact that the US has more tanks than China is only relevant if there were one day to be a land war in which the entire tank forces of each country participated, which seems, to put it mildly, unlikely. But the same problem applies at more mundane levels: in domestic politics, for example. Thus in the French Parliament, the largest and most “powerful” political group is (currently) entitled Renaissance, and is loyal to President Macron. But it controls fewer than half of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, and is dependent on the votes of other parties to pass legislation. Because only one party, the Republicans, is prepared to vote with them, this makes the Republicans actually the most “powerful” group in the Assembly. Moreover, since the Republicans are divided among themselves, and not all of the deputies want to vote for Macron anyway, a small number of deputies can have disproportionate “power.” Although this situation is unusual in France, it is very common in countries where Proportional Representation means many parties are represented in the national parliament. And it is nor unknown in the United States: I have often heard US officials complain bitterly about the antics of a small number of Senators, holding up the passage of important legislation or international treaties.
A corollary of this is that “power" is not a simple zero-sum game between big and small players, ie we can both lose or both win, not least because our objectives will often be different, but still compatible. Thus, small countries in Western Europe give up some of their theoretical national “power” to NATO, an alliance dominated by the United States, but in turn gain some “power” over Germany, a larger country for which they have a historic distrust. (Indeed, manipulating the United States to increase national or even personal “power” is an art-form, and a popular pastime for small countries around the world.) Likewise, it’s wrong to imagine that nations necessarily have incompatible objectives in crises, for example: some actors may be persuaded to go along with others, some actors may have no strong views on the question, and some others may be in agreement anyway. What matters is whether the actors have the capability to achieve their objectives, rather than whether they display “power” in some crude quantitative form.
Finally, power is not an inherent characteristic either of people or of institutions. It is common to refer to the current President of the United States as “the most powerful man in the world.” Yet if Mr Biden were to look out of the window of his office and see a group of individuals trying to break into the White House, he would be powerless to stop them. Likewise, the US government has shown itself to be powerless to undo the results of the military coup in Niger, just as they were powerless to leave behind an enduring pro-western government in Afghanistan. Now if we take “power” to be about the ability to get things done (so the United States was unable to influence events in Niger), it becomes obvious that getting things done requires cooperation, and people ready to do what we want. This does not have to mean domination and exploitation: it may simply be, for example, that we employ people and pay them to carry out our ideas, or even that we are elected or appointed to a position which conventionally commands obedience. But “conventional” is the word here: if parts of the government simply decide not to follow the law and to disobey their elected leaders (as appears to have been the case with Donald Trump) then there is not a lot that leader can do about it.
This is why, for all the studies of leadership, it’s really followership that is more important. The real question is not, why do people revolt, but rather, why do people obey. The simple answer is that society would not function otherwise. The Liberal dream of wary coordination for defined economic purposes, the anarchist idea of “no rules,” never mind libertarian fantasies, all fall prey to the complexity of life and social relationships. Again, it’s important to blow the post-1960s dust off words like “obey.” All of us obey both laws and social conventions all the time, and we expect others to do so as well. Otherwise, life would come to a halt. Western society can, and always has, tolerated a degree of nonconformity (not all societies have been so indulgent) but fundamentally we cannot live our lives eternally uncertain about what to do, or how others will behave or will react to our own behaviour, or how to get their cooperation.
Sometimes, this cooperation is formalised into patterns, but these patterns rarely conform to some simple calculus of crude power. The most common mechanism for establishing genuine relative position is by comparing experience and knowledge. At the macro level, for example, an EU discussion of the Niger crisis will tend to be dominated by countries that have Embassies there, by countries familiar with African questions generally, and countries that have the resources to spare to study the problem. So Iceland, Cyprus and Poland are unlikely to try to dominate the discussion, whereas Belgium, which retains a considerable interest in Africa, will have more to say than, perhaps, Spain, although it is a much smaller country. Clearly, if the subject was Ukraine, then the lineup of countries would differ somewhat.
We find effectively the same thing in everyday life. Hierarchies are the most natural and efficient type of organisational principle, which is why they have been used throughout history, and why people will tend to sort themselves instinctively into hierarchies based on knowledge and experience, just as nations do. Hierarchies in an organisation enable work to find its own level, and avoid individuals at the top of organisations being overwhelmed (as has happened to every senior person in a “flat management” system that I have ever met.) More importantly, hierarchies which arise from experience and knowledge enable good decisions to be made: in the absence of formal hierarchies, you tend to get informal ones, dominated by the person who shouts loudest. In practice, we all recognise when the time has come to follow someone else’s lead: when we are lost on a hiking trail and have no phone network, we follow the suggestions of the person who still knows how to read a map and use a compass.
So “power” turns out on inspection to be a rather complex and sophisticated thing, far removed from the mechanical and quantitative models beloved of political scientists, or the vocabulary of domination and oppression, so beloved of IdiotPol theorists. (If you’re interested in the theory you can read this book by Stephen Lukes, which apparently stunned political scientists when it first appeared: I can’t imagine what they had been thinking before.) Once we understand that the real issue is how decisions get taken and how things get done and who does them, we are better equipped to look into the future, when these patterns will certainly be changing. For example, at the international level, a crude form of realist measurement of power is normal in Anglo-Saxon writing. So in this view the United States is the “hegemon” and the current debate is about whether China will replace the US in that capacity. Yet if we accept that the ability of states to get what they want in international relations is the result of very sophisticated and complex processes, rather than bare-chested thumping and animal noises, we see that the hegemonic model is not, in fact, very useful, and debating whether there will be a change of hegemon doesn’t have a great deal of point. Whilst the cards in the game of international relations are clearly being reshuffled, they won’t all be in the hands of one state in the future, any more than they are now.
The same is essentially the case at the domestic level, which I now want to move on to discussing for the rest of this essay. Last week, I suggested that, for a number of reason both individually and in combination, the challenges of the future were likely to exceed the capability of our weakened states to manage, and for that matter the capability of our increasingly-juvenile and performative ruling class even to understand. So, building on the argument above, the first thing you would expect to see is western states losing “power” in the sense of losing the genuine ability to affect things, and get things done that they wanted. And indeed this is what we see. By comparison with more capable states like China, Russia, Japan and others, western states in general just don’t seem to be able to get things done, as the serial failures like Covid have demonstrated. Indeed, as I suggested last week, getting things done is no longer a priority, and no longer something that the performance artists in our western political classes believe is that important, so long as they control the narrative. I have finally come round to deciding that the incoherent and mendacious response to Covid that characterised western states was less the product of malevolence, or even incompetence, than of an inability to distinguish between reality and appearance. What mattered to western leaders was not what needed to be done, but what needed to be said and performed. And what needed to be said had to be ideologically correct and enforced on the population not as rules for practical behaviour, but rather rules about what to think. And at a certain point, if Covid was declared to be over, it was over, in a world where in the end all is discourse.
But the result of this is that western states, broadly defined as any probable government and their “experts,” are now quickly losing the “power” to influence public opinion on contentious issues. A new epidemic, or even a return of the worst days of Covid, is likely to be impossible for governments to manage successfully, and the same could easily apply to other, future emergencies. Since it is now clear that most western governments have difficulty distinguishing fact from fantasy, there is no particular reason why we should believe them. Heaven alone knows what the public reaction will be as the full extent of the Ukraine shambles begins to unfold. And this is a real problem for governments, not just a problem of presentation, because in the end they are few and we are many. All states throughout history have essentially depended on public acquiescence for their survival. Ironically, the post-modernist, ironic, discourse-dominated modern state and its Professional and Managerial Caste servitors have destroyed all traditions of deference to experience and knowledge, and substituted deference to message alone. (“Follow the science” is a slogan, not a policy, on the same level as “drink responsibly.”) Once the population stops believing the message, the state has nothing left. Its repressive apparatus is too small to be effective, and in any event, the PMC in most countries has been busy alienating the Police, and treating them just as hired help.
In such circumstances, people will turn their back on the state and the state will lose its “power” to determine how they should live. We can already see how this might play out in the law-free zones that have sprung up in various cities in Europe, usually in areas of high immigration. The situation is similar in a number of countries, but I will mention France since that’s the example I know first hand. There are parts of the outskirts of French cities where the State might as well not exist. Such power as there is, is held by gangs, who fight among themselves to control the drugs trade. The Police don’t go there, because they are conceived, as is every other part of the state apparatus including schools, doctors and even postmen, as “the enemy”: just another rival gang to be fought if they enter your territory and even more if they dispute your “power.” And such gangs do have “power” in a practical sense: they can control entry and exit to areas by demanding to see identity papers, for example.
Now of course we wouldn’t want the same situation to occur in our neighbourhoods, would we? But how would we prevent it, in a world where the State no longer has the capability to do things, but only perform? One way to approach the question is to ask what makes people band together for any purpose, develop common objectives and find and follow leaders. After all, in spite of what Liberal political theorists like to pretend, there are few if any “ungoverned spaces” in the world. It’s just that we don’t see the mechanisms of government: they are not “legible” to us. Somalia, for example, may not have much of a government as we understand it, but it has a highly sophisticated system of governance organised along tribal political lines. Many states in Africa, indeed, have highly sophisticated social control mechanisms working alongside poorly-functioning formal western-style mechanisms, and to some extent substituting for them.
So what would be the equivalent in the average western state? Well that’s an interesting question with a potentially very depressing answer. There may not be one, or at least not one we would like. Collective action has to be based on some sense of shared identity and interest, but the only shared identity that Liberalism acknowledges is shared (and often transitory) economic interest. Unfortunately, that puts criminals, or those prepared to be most ruthless, in positions of “power,” as always happens in periods of crisis. Moreover, criminals have no political agenda and will cooperate with even deadly enemies if there is money in it. (A colleague with long experience in the Balkans once shocked a meeting I was at by ironically suggesting that we should just hand the governance of the region over to organised crime, since that was the one thing that actually worked. He had a point.)
And in any case, what are the alternatives? How else would we organise ourselves in the effective absence of a state, if not by economic interest and the strong dominating the weak? In the West, we seem to be just incapable of spontaneous organisation of the type you find everywhere in Asia. Consider, for example, the much simpler case of the formation of political parties, even at local level. Classic Liberal theory assumes class-based politics, with parties being political expressions of class interests. In some countries, this was at least partly true. But in reality almost all political parties have some kind of local or regional bias, attract different ethnic, cultural and religious groups disproportionately, and are stronger in the city than the country or vice versa. This is why democratisation after the end of the Cold War produced so much conflict: how in practical terms could you organise a political party in Bosnia or the Ivory Coast except on ethnic lines?
The same is likely to be true with the decline of government and the State. But there’s an extra couple of catches. First, we live in highly complicated society, where little takes place locally any more. At an everyday level, police and other emergency services often live some distance away from the place where they work: the days of the municipal policeman living in the community have long gone. A hospital might draw its staff, especially the lower-paid, from considerable distances, and it can only really function anyway as part of a widely-dispersed network of laboratories, pharmacies, providers of food and fuel and family doctors. Even quite limited petrol rationing, power cuts, transport disruption and similar problems could bring many local services to a halt. A hospital might have medicines but no food or clean sheets to give its patients, and test results usually sent by Internet would not be received. Hospital cleaners might not be able to get to work. Indeed, we now live in such a complex and interconnected society that even quite small and banal problems can have enormous knock-on effects. Fifty years ago, at the time of the Oil Crisis and a strike by coal-miners, much of Britain was put on a three-day working week. Such an option could not really be attempted now, even if the technical capability to make and enforce the decisions still existed.
If we bear in mind the wider definition of “power” as “capability,” we realise that keeping the streets safe is only one of the problems to be expected in such circumstances. Consider: a supermarket functions according to price rationing, in the sense that people buy what they need and can afford. What happens when there has been no power for two days and the emergency services eventually arrive and force the doors of the supermarket? The payment tills are not working, the electronic price labels are blank, and few people have very much cash. How do you allocate the goods in the supermarket, some of which are starting to go bad, and who decides and how? Do you simply let people pillage? Do you try to ration goods, and if so who enforces the rationing? Is it per person or per family? Are people entitled to anything they want? How many bottles of single malt whisky are allowed per person? Is it limited to habitual customers only, and are you going to let others starve? Do people have to come from the town to benefit, and if so how do you treat the family with small children that has just arrived after walking for three hours because their own local supermarket is still closed? How do you deal with people who come back on multiple occasions, and how would you know, anyway?
The point here is not “power” in the crude sense, but the capability to manage a complex and sensitive situation, and to set and enforce simple rules. It is likely that most urban centres in the western world lack even the capacity to do these things for a simple problem like the one described. Who should be allowed to have petrol under rationing and how should it be allocated? What about stocks of prescription medicines in pharmacies? For that matter, what about the distribution of drinking water, under certain circumstances?
Now it might be suggested that this is the role of a local or regional government, but that is just to pose the same set of questions at a lower level. There is some evidence that Mayors and elected councillors may be less incompetent than national politicians, simply because they are much closer to their communities, and deal with real problems every day. (I lived for a while in a tiny community where you saw the Mayor in the local supermarket.) But unfortunately, the larger cities, where the major problems will be, tend to be run by media-obsessed performance artists as well: the present management of Paris has trouble compiling a grammatically-correct tweet, let alone doing something difficult like managing public works.
And of course, at whatever level we are discussing, leadership requires followership. People have to be prepared and willing to do what an authority asks them to do. Normally, this is a matter of habit, but the more difficult the situation, the more people will actually stop to think before reflexively obeying. And in the last analysis, the “power” of political authority mostly rests on acceptance, not repression. Unless your security forces are overwhelmingly large, as in Cold War Rumania, or North Korea today, there’s not a lot you can do if large numbers of people decide to stop doing what you want. Contemporary society is much more fragile than is often realised, in part because its very survival these days depends in part precisely on this acquiescence. And even in those two country examples, all that was really repressed was overt political dissidence.
But the greatest weakness at all levels in modern political culture is one that I’ve touched on several times in these essays: the modern preference for performative acts and speech in place of actual practical activity, and the tendency to confuse the one with the other. Of course, this approach only succeeds as long as really critical problems don’t come along: Covid is perhaps a foretaste of the performative way in which our political elites fool themselves they are managing problems, when they are really just trying to use words to make them go away. The problem is, that there are other actors in society who are interested in real, rather than performative actions, and not all of them are well-intentioned. Performative actions, by contrast, imply an audience to perform to, and in situations of crisis not everyone will be hanging on your latest ironic tweet: indeed, their mobile phones may not even be working.
The two actors who are likely to become most powerful in a crisis and the effective disappearance of the state are organised crime and, in Europe at least, extreme Islamist groups, and neither is interested in performative actions. (There are perhaps other possibilities, which I’ll get to in a moment.) We’ve already had a foretaste of the difference between real and performative approaches in the limp-wrested response of authorities to attacks on the French education system (which, being non-religious is an inherently sinful system and must be destroyed), as well as enforcement of increasingly fundamentalist rules on Muslim populations, many of which conflict, for example, with human rights laws. So let’s say a harassed Mayor or Prefect goes to see the Interior Ministry: look, gangs of young men are threatening shopkeepers in the town if they keep selling alcohol, and several shops have been vandalised or burnt down as a result. What do you want us to do?
Well, of course we must make sure that vulnerable populations are not stigmatised.
No doubt, but what do you want us to do?
Well, we need to tackle the underlying causes of blah blah structural racism blah blah police violence blah blah.
Yes, but what do you want us to do?
Because of course our performative politicians hate actually taking real decisions and doing things, and they are in general very bad at it. When an expensive wine shop in Paris is assaulted with automatic weapons and hand grenades and the patrons killed, when a Professor of Biology at a prestigious University is murdered for teaching the theory of Evolution, or white, middle-class female students are attacked with acid for having the presumption to go to university and dress inappropriately, then at that point the performance artists who masquerade as our political leaders will react with panic and hysteria. Why was this allowed to happen? Why did nobody tell us? And of course the answer will be, we’ve been telling you for twenty years and you wouldn’t ****ing listen. But for the performance artists it’s always too late, because they can’t imagine that anyone else might actually do real things for reasons that they genuinely care about.
There are some problems you can’t tweet you way out of. The kind of societal breakdown that I’ve postulated over the last few weeks will put “power” in the sense of decision-making into the hands of those with organisation and commitment, and in contemporary western society, that means those committed to money, and those committed to fundamentalist religions. Now it may be argued that such groups are not everywhere, and are not necessarily very large and “powerful.” That’s true, but in politics you don’t have to be objectively powerful (a dubious concept anyway, as I’ve suggested) you just have to be less weak and less disorganised than the potential competition. “Power” is effectively a gradient, or at least responds as if to one, and general settles with the least incompetent individual or group. Likewise, these groups don’t have to be very large: they just have to be less small than the opposition. The difference in “power” between a large, amorphous group and a small, disciplined and trained group, is fundamental to all public order and pacification efforts.
So, even in the kind of relatively mundane situation described a few moments ago, are there going to be any other organised, coherent and motivated groups capable of better organising daily life than either organised crime or religious fanatics? I would certainly like to think so, As recently as fifty years ago, most western nations had capable states, with services organised at different levels, relatively large armed forces and reserves, and generally some kind of emergency mobilisation systems. They had reasonably settled communities with historic bonds, extended families in the same area, local associations, trades unions, church organisations and many other intermediate structures. It’s not just that pretty much all of that is gone, it’s that the situation has become totally confused. I’m in England at the moment, and I’ve just seen rubbish being collected in the street. Fifty years ago, that would have been the local authority, now it’s done by casual workers employed by a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a multinational. Why should they help out in a crisis? Why should we think they owe the community anything?
There are occasional glimpses of what may be to come. After the recent riots in France, groups of retired military began to get together to carry out deterrent patrols. There may be more such initiatives in the future, although in most European countries there simply aren’t the numbers of people to draw from, and they also tend to be concentrated in certain areas. The thought of a society run at local level by ex-military and former police vigilantes is not an appetising one, but the alternative is, what, exactly, apart from more performances? There is going to come a time, after all, when the performance artists are booed off the stage, and the public demand to actually do something becomes irresistible. Parties of the so-called “extreme Right” are likely to step in to fill the breach, and the last act of the performance artists will be to faint in horror. But by that stage nobody will be paying them any attention.
The gratifying increase in the number of subscribers (4000 now) means that people are reading and commenting on my older essays, and in some cases asking for my replies. I will get round to this as soon as I can.
These essays are free and I intend to keep them so, although later in the year I’ll introduce a system where people can make small payments if they wish to. But there are other ways of showing your appreciation as well. Likes are flattering to have, but also help me judge which subjects people are most interested in. Shares are very useful in bringing in new readers, and it’s particularly helpful if you would flag posts that you think deserve it on other sites that you visit or contribute to, as this can also bring new readers. And thanks for all the very interesting comments: keep them coming!