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Theology or technology….

Published on 24 December 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

In IVth century Constantinople, it is reported, disputations were held in barbershops about the essence of the Christian Trinity. Was the Son of the same substance as the Father, and when did the Son “separate” from the Father? Everyone felt entitled to mouth his own opinion on such transcendental issues. Actually it was a battle of wits, and it all ended as such battles usually do: the autocrat had the last word – both Constantine and Theodosius closed the discussion and enforced orthodoxy by police action[1].

Discussions on the merits of technology have replaced theological discussions nowadays. Everyone believes himself an expert on the effects of nuclear or solar power. The likelihood of sudden climate change is either asserted or questioned with religious intensity; and GMOs and other manipulations of all-too-patient Mother Nature are either damned or praised with conviction inversely proportional to factual knowledge. The dismal science – economics – has more experts than insights; economic gurus tout their survivor biases as truths – until submerged and drowned by ever discontinuous froth of reality. Riding the next crest other gurus are appear to loom large until also this whitecap rolls over.

Ignoramuses proudly exercise their constitutional right to contradict the thoughtful. With so many fingers wagging and pointing into all possible directions, it is not surprising states find it difficult to chart a course of action. To compound difficulties, globalization defeats unilateral action, so the cacophony over policies is repeated when countries gather to reflect on what is to be done. Policy matters become ensnared in recriminations about the past and haggling over burden-sharing. Achieving a majority around a policy (let alone a consensus) is predicated not on sound advice, but on coalescing disparate interests. How do we get ourselves out of this predicament?

“Democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried” muttered Winston CHURCHILL. Kenneth ARROW pointed out 50 years ago that if three people have different preferences about three things, no democratic majority can emerge. This is today’s conundrum.

Democracy worked quite well as long as it was used to secure what Isaiah BERLIN called “negative freedoms” – curtailing the power of the state over the individual. When it comes to achieving convergence on a common project, however, (exercising BERLIN’s “positive freedom”), democracies seem to dither and dawdle, trying implausibly to do the right thing by society as a whole as well as each individual. At this point charting a path across precipitous mountain terrain is best obtained by populist assertion that the earth is flat.

In a thoughtful article[2] David RUNCIMAN points out that just as democracies turned to temporary autocrats in the past (the Roman dictator, who ruled for six months) to get the country out of the mess, they seem nowadays to prefer replacing the autocrat with the technocrat. Italy and Greece are run by proconsular technocrats who enjoy the trust of the international creditors.

“Democracy is all about throwing out the rascals” – mused Karl POPPER[3]. We cannot throw out the policy problems with them, however, hence the belated recourse to technocrats rather than the (un)usual suspects an election would round up. This reflects (I am quoting RUNCIMAN here) what TOCQUEVILLE defined as democracy’s fundamental vice: fatalism. John Stuart MILL qualifies it as: ‘Western’ fatalism, which is the belief that we can know how things will turn out, because the scientific order of the world follows regular patterns. By the way: both Marxism and its most decided antagonist, the Austrian philosophical school, share this benign view of historical forces (their difference is over whether the ‘h’ in history should be capitalized or not).

Autocrats failed because they never knew when to relinquish power. Meanwhile autocrats have learned their lesson as well. In China “managed autocracy” provides for orderly succession and the illusion of change – autocracy is no longer tribal, but institutional. In Russia autocracy has down-sized to hit-and-run cleptocracy[4].

We are living in interesting times.

[1] See e.g. Charles FREEMAN (2009): A new history of early Christianity. Yale University Press, New Haven; or Charles FREEMAN (2008): Heretics, pagans, and the dawn of the monotheistic state. Overlook Press.

[2] David RUNCIMAN (2012): Will we be all right in the end? LRB – Vol. 34 No. 1, 5 January 2012

[3] Karl POPPER (2000): Lessons of this century. With two talks on freedom and the democratic state. Routledge & Keegan, London

[4] “Russia’s affluent classes are irresistibly drawn to relocate their assets to countries where there appears to be a future. Their lack of confidence doesn’t reflect a fear that the government they work for is too strong and may one day initiate mass confiscations. Their worry, on the contrary, is that their government isn’t stable enough to protect their investments.” Stephen HOLMES (2012): Fragments of a defunct state. LRB – Vol. 34 No. 1 · 5 January 2012 pages 23-25.

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