How Wobbly Is Our Democracy?


This is how democracy died in Chile. Before the 1973 coup, Chile was Latin America’s oldest democracy, buttressed by vibrant democratic norms, including a well-established “culture of compromise.” Chileans liked to say that there was no political disagreement that could not be settled over a bottle of Chilean cabernet. But beginning in the 1960s, Chile’s culture of compromise was shattered by Cold War polarization. Mutual toleration eroded, and political parties eschewed forbearance for a “win at all cost” strategy. Chilean democracy fell into a death spiral, culminating in a bloody coup. (The intervention of the United States accelerated but did not cause this death spiral.)

Could it happen here? It already has. During the 1850s, polarization over slavery undermined America’s democratic norms. Southern Democrats viewed the antislavery position of the emerging Republican Party as an existential threat. They assailed Republicans as “traitors to the Constitution” and vowed to “never permit this federal government to pass into the traitorous hands of the Black Republican Party.”

Norm erosion alters the zone of acceptable political behavior. Partisan violence pervaded Congress. Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale, counted more than 100 incidents of violence (including fistfights, canings and the pulling of knives and pistols) on the floor of Congress between 1830 and 1860. Before long, the republic would be broken — and Americans would be killing one another in the hundreds of thousands.

Levitsky, Ziblatt Posted at 6:50 pm on January 28, 2018

How Western civilisation could collapse

By Rachel Nuwer | 18 April 2017

It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point…

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?

While it’s impossible to predict the future with certainty, mathematics, science and history can provide hints about the prospects of Western societies for long-term continuation.

Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse. According to findings that Motesharrei and his colleagues published in 2014, there are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic stratification. The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests – all of which could be worsened by climate change.

That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his colleagues. Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour. Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour. The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. For example, the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Similarly, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day.

For both scenarios, the models define a carrying capacity – a total population level that a given environment’s resources can sustain over the long term. If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable. That fate is avoidable, however. “If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution – all perfectly doable things – then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory,” Motesharrei said. “But we cannot wait forever to make those decisions.”

Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities. “The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual,” says Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. “The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.”

While we are all in this together, the world’s poorest will feel the effects of collapse first. Indeed, some nations are already serving as canaries in the coal mine for the issues that may eventually pull apart more affluent ones. Syria, for example, enjoyed exceptionally high fertility rates for a time, which fueled rapid population growth. A severe drought in the late 2000s, likely made worse by human-induced climate change, combined with groundwater shortages to cripple agricultural production. That crisis left large numbers of people – especially young men – unemployed, discontent and desperate. Many flooded into urban centres, overwhelming limited resources and services there. Pre-existing ethnic tensions increased, creating fertile grounds for violence and conflict. On top of that, poor governance – including neoliberal policies that eliminated water subsidies in the middle of the drought – tipped the country into civil war in 2011 and sent it careening toward collapse.

In Syria’s case – as with so many other societal collapses throughout history – it was not one but a plethora of factors that contributed, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and author of The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon calls these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check.

The Syrian case aside, another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone, Homer-Dixon says, is the increasing occurrence of what experts call nonlinearities, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election.

The past can also provide hints for how the future might play out. Take, for example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 100BC the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean, to the places most easily accessed by sea. They should have stopped there, but things were going well and they felt empowered to expand to new frontiers by land. While transportation by sea was economical, however, transportation across land was slow and expensive. All the while, they were overextending themselves and running up costs. The Empire managed to remain stable in the ensuing centuries, but repercussions for spreading themselves too thin caught up with them in the 3rd Century, which was plagued by civil war and invasions. The Empire tried to maintain its core lands, even as the army ate up its budget and inflation climbed ever higher as the government debased its silver currency to try to cover its mounting expenses. While some scholars cite the beginning of collapse as the year 410, when the invading Visigoths sacked the capital, that dramatic event was made possible by a downward spiral spanning more than a century.

According to Joseph Tainter, a professor of environment and society at Utah State University and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, one of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state – and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things – an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences – just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.

So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies – think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices. Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. “Imagine the costs if we have to build a seawall around Manhattan, just to protect against storms and rising tides,” he says. Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse. That is, he says “unless we find a way to pay for the complexity, as our ancestors did when they increasingly ran societies on fossil fuels.”


Also paralleling Rome, Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing. “It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,” Homer-Dixon says.

Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. “By 2050, the US and UK will have evolved into two-class societies where a small elite lives a good life and there is declining well-being for the majority,” Randers says. “What will collapse is equity.”

Whether in the US, UK or elsewhere, the more dissatisfied and afraid people become, Homer-Dixon says, the more of a tendency they have to cling to their in-group identity – whether religious, racial or national. Denial, including of the emerging prospect of societal collapse itself, will be widespread, as will rejection of evidence-based fact. If people admit that problems exist at all, they will assign blame for those problems to everyone outside of their in-group, building up resentment. “You’re setting up the psychological and social prerequisites for mass violence,” Homer-Dixon says. When localised violence finally does break out, or another country or group decides to invade, collapse will be difficult to avoid.

Europe, with its close proximity to Africa, its land bridge to the Middle East and its neighbourly status with more politically volatile nations to the East, will feel these pressures first. The US will likely hold out longer, surrounded as it is by ocean buffers.

On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilisations simply fade out of existence – becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper. The British Empire has been on this path since 1918, Randers says, and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today. “Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” Randers argues. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

Some of these forecasts and early warning signs should sound familiar, precisely because they are already underway. While Homer-Dixon is not surprised at the world’s recent turn of events – he predicted some of them in his 2006 book – he didn’t expect these developments to occur before the mid-2020s.

Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development, Homer-Dixon says. Even as we weather the coming stresses of climate change, population growth and dropping energy returns, we can maintain our societies and better them. But that requires resisting the very natural urge, when confronted with such overwhelming pressures, to become less cooperative, less generous and less open to reason. “The question is, how can we manage to preserve some kind of humane world as we make our way through these changes?” Homer-Dixon says.

During the formative years of the World Health Organization (WHO), broad consensus existed among United Nations member countries that overpopulation is a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future. One of the founding fathers of the WHO, the late Milton P. Siegel, speaks to public health doctor Stephen Mumford in 1992. He explains how the Vatican successfully stymied the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.


It May Actually Be Worse Than You Think: Assessing the Integrated and Funded Machine We Are Up Against

by Cynthia Kaufman, Common Dreams, September 06, 2017

… learning about the vast right wing conspiracy and how it functions. I read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean. And now I am more deeply afraid for our future than I have ever been in the past.

Neither book overstates its claims or veers into speculative conspiracy theory. The two books are very well researched, incredibly clear, and factual. Dark Money focuses on the network of organizations that have been funded by Koch and Scaife money.  Democracy in Chains is a deep dive into the influence of James Buchannan, a Nobel Prize winning economist, who was one of the leading thinkers behind the Koch enterprise. The punch line of books is that we are up against an unprecedented level of organization and funding by a right wing that is more extreme than anything seen in the modern period.

We are not up against the old, pro-capitalist business elite, which uses the constitution to ground its actions in the rule of law, and which seeks more than anything, a stable environment in which business can operate. The goals of this new extreme right wing are an end to taxation, which they see as an infringement of liberty; and end to the social welfare state; and a shrinking of any aspect of government that has to do with taking care of the environment and social needs. The Kochs are oil people and maintaining reliance on fossil fuels is crucial to their plan.

Charles Koch, the brains, and main funder, behind the operation, is an incredibly successful and ruthless businessman. And he has brought those skills to the political arena. The network he dominates is horizontally and vertically integrated, deeply strategic in is approach, extremist in its goals, and almost infinitely well-funded. And we ignore it at our peril…. Everything good we have in the country has come as a result of the hard work of social movements

I think of US politics as generally working that way: popular forces mobilize and sometime they win concessions from a largely pro-capitalist political system…It relies for its electoral successes on giving the people civil rights, environmental protection, and a social safety net. The Republican Party, on the other hand has been even more beholden to pro-capitalist forces, and, ever since Nixon, has used coded racism to build popular support for policies which were in the interest of the wealthy.

What is new, in the present period is that the pro-capitalist, but stability seeking, Republican Party has now been taken over by a well-integrated machine. That machine has no interest in democracy, the constitution, or stable condition in which business can operate, or even stability of the climate upon which all life depends. And it doesn’t play by the old rules.

The Koch machine helped put Pinochet into power in Chile, and rewrite its constitution… They have invested millions of dollars in paying for positions at universities for professions would support their views. They have set up powerful and well-funded think tanks to propagate their views, even founding the  discipline of “law and economics” and establishing it as many law schools, to develop scholarship that looks at law through the lens of libertarian economics…

They gave a start to James Buchannan who got a Nobel Prize in economics for taking the view of human beings as fundamentally self -interested that dominates the discipline of economics, and applying it to an understanding of how government bureaucracies operate. This has helped propagate the view, now widespread, that government programs are a problem in people’s lives as opposed to a means for solving problems. They funded the work of Charles Murray, who made the case that welfare makes its recipients psychologically dependent, and funded its propagation.

And they are the forces behind the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent propagating climate change denial. Again, academic and think tanks they support have flooded the intellectual sphere enough to have a tremendous impact.

Between 2010 and 2012 their non-profit legislative arm, ALEC, had sponsored over 180 bills in forty-one states to restrict who could vote. The Koch’s have funded “think and do” tanks in all fifty states which are networked through the State Policy Network. The Michigan affiliate, the Mackinac Center, proposed the policies that led to the disaster of the poisoning of the water of Flint Michigan.

This network is in it for the long game…until the election of Obama, they had tried and failed at achieving general popular support for their views. The move that changed that was the Tea Party. Their think tanks developed the propaganda and talking points used by that movement. And they paid huge sums of money to right wing media outlets and personalities, such as Bill O’Reilly, to whip up enthusiasm for their anti-government point of view.

Their next move is to come after public employee unions, as union political power is one of the strongest counterforces to the money of the “kochtopus.” …The politics of right wing populism prey on the resentments that can be mobilized to divide working class people from each other.

This network did not at first support Donald Trump. They saw him as too liberal and unreliable. And yet,  his form of fact-free pseudo populism is exactly what the Koch people and their allies unleashed with their Tea Party movement. Trump is not who we should be focusing on. He is likely to be a passing symptom of a much larger and deeper disease.

If you have the stomach for more of this I suggest you watch the recent film, Get Me Roger Stone, and read The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton as well as Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, written by David Daly. Get Me Roger Stone focuses on one ruthless Republican operative who is the king of fake news, as the brains behind the birther lie, and the one responsible for the relentless hammering into the minds of the public of the idea of Hilary Clinton as criminal. The Anatomy of Fascism explains in detail how the Nazis were able to consolidate state power. Finally Ratf**ked, is a detailed examination of the gerrymandering the congressional seats in the recent past, which has led to it being very difficult for democrats to win a majority in the house of representative.

Of course the deep pessimism I feel today could all be washed away in the 2018 midterm elections. It may be that the Republicans have gone too far. There seems to be about one third of the electorate that is addicted to the drug of self-flattery, who are willing to let any lie go by as long as it makes them feel like they are righteous people who are being milked by the government in the interest of underserving others, may never sway from support of people like Trump.  

But even with gerrymandering, support from that one third can only get you so far if, enough other people vote. But of course that is the crux of what happened with the 2016 presidential election. It was not the case that more reactionary white people voted than in previous elections. What lost Clinton the election was that fewer low-frequency voters came out to vote for her.

And so the question for our electoral system is what would it take for the large number of progressive minded people who don’t vote to engage with the electoral system? But at this point it also looks as if the Democratic Party is not willing to give disenfranchised people enough of a reason to vote to get them engaged. And that scares me more than Trump does.