To live in interesting times
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A tentative outlook over a century full of uncertainty.

The English have a very characteristic expression, called the Chinese curse, which goes like this: “May you live in interesting times!”

The wittiness of the expression lies in the ambiguity of its meaning. If someone wants us to live in interesting times, it is not clear whether we are facing a curse or a blessing.

Personally, I think we generally prefer the times to be uninteresting.

In fact, simplifying a lot, we could say that History is the unfolding of successive solutions found by humans to make life more and more predictable and, therefore, less interesting. Thus, I am inclined to agree with the English when they consider the expression to be a curse.

What follows are some thoughts and ideas on this question.

First part. The best time to live

Steven Pinker is a Canadian psychologist at Harvard University who in the last ten years has written two books that have turned him into the world’s apostle of optimism. In both volumes, this professor offers big amount of data that show objectively that our time is the best to live in along the history of humanity.

Pinker has worked intensively gathering information from all kinds of sources. His method is very rigorous, and his research has been praised for its thoroughness and transcendence.

I will refer to some of the data he collected. Considering humanity as a whole, there are fewer wars and fewer deaths from violence today than at any other time. According to Pinker estimates, in prehistoric times 15 percent of deaths were violent, caused by any kind of fighting. Today, even in years as bloody as those of the first half of the twentieth century, this rate does not exceed 3 percent.

On the other hand, life expectancy is the highest in history: 70 years in 2012, more than the double that the expectancy in 1900, while the infant mortality rate is nowadays the lowest. Amongst every 100 babies born in 1800, 43 died before the age of five; currently, this rate has dropped to 4 out of 100. This decrease has been possible thanks to the consistent and sustained progress in the last 25 years. In fact, over the past quarter century, the number of people living below the extreme poverty line has fallen by 137,000 every day. Today, a beggar in a suburb of Sudan has a mobile phone with more features than the device that Michael Douglas used in the movie Wall Street when he played a finance shark.

Today we are even considerably smarter than our ancestors. Surprisingly enough, IQ has risen 30 points in 100 years. Today, the average citizen scores better on an intelligence test than 98 percent of citizens who lived a century ago. This is because people have healthier lifestyles, are more cultured, and are exposed to more intellectual stimuli.

Anyway, anyone who is interested in gathering reasons to convince him or herself that this is the best time to live -the period with the least threats, with more knowledge, with more well-being and with greater control over nature- needs only to read the almost 2,000 pages of Pinker. Or, if he or she prefers a more direct formula, by accessing the statistics of any social or economic indicator from the World Bank or the OECD he or she will see that the graph always reaches the same conclusion: never along history have the values ​​of these indicators been as good as they are today.

Unfortunately, the good news is of no interest to anyone.

Times become interesting when, instead of tranquillity, stability and progress, we face a horizon of uncertainties, concerns, risks and threats and, ultimately, we feel helpless in the future. Unfortunately, the time in which we live is -in this sense- quite an interesting time.

Perhaps it is more a matter of perception than reality. The German philosopher Heidegger believed that history was determined, in a radical way, by the states of mind and moods of human beings.

Although the head and the statistics tell us that our time should seem stable and uninteresting, our hearts, and the intimate perception of how things are going, tell us that it is not like that, that society is immersed in a major crisis.

Second part. Clouds on the horizon

The clearest example of the crisis, to which I am referring, is the fragility and delicate health of the great social institutions, the decline in civil liberties and democracy, and the rise of populisms in practically all Western countries.

In 2018, the American magazine The Atlantic published a full page, on the cover and in very large print, a disturbing question: “Is Democracy Dying?”

I have referred to the facts, before, to document why the present age is the best to live in. Below I will present some reasons to justify the headline of The Atlantic.

The Freedom House think tank, an international observatory that monitors the state of civil liberties in the world, annually publishes an analysis of the state of democracy on the planet. The title of the last published report, referring to the year 2017, seems to have been written by a first cousin of the editor of The Atlantic: “Democracy in Crisis.” I will quote a couple of the highlights:

“In 2017”, they say, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades  as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world. Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom”. [1]

According to a 2017 survey in the United States, more than half of Trump’s supporters believed that the president should be able to overturn judicial decisions with which he disagreed. [2]

Another survey, also conducted in the United States, shows how democracy is ceasing to be something relevant to citizens. When asked about how important it is for them to live in a democratic regime, only 57 percent of those born in the 1980s answered that it is very important. The rest answered that they did not care. [3] If you look at the youngest, the millennials, the numbers are even worse.

Therefore, the question posed by The Atlantic -“Is democracy dying?”- is wholly relevant. And, among the different reasons that make it relevant, I would highlight one: the parallel emergence of populisms in the West, whose dynamics tend to social polarization and the use of democracy against democracy itself.

Populism is not a new phenomenon. It has been developing steadily in Europe since 1960, although it is true that, in the last ten years, its growth has been exponential.

According to Sitra, a Finnish think tank specializing in foresight, populism as political discourse is at its best in 30 years, with an average representation of 14 percent, and growing in many of the European parliaments. [4]

In fact, according to Brookings, one of the most respected political analysis think tanks in the world, “the rise of populism, basically right-wing, is the most important political development in 21st century Europe.” [5]

From the United States, with Donald Trump, to Turkey, with Erdogan, not fprgetting Putin’s Russia, Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Matteo Salvini’s Italy, Xi Jinping’s China, Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines or Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the irruption of strong and radical presidents in their ideologies is forming an international coalition of mutual support between illiberals, autocrats and small dictators who are cooperating in a slow and subtle change of the rules of the democratic game.

Third part. The reason for the issue

So far, we have seen why the times in which we live is interesting. My hypothesis is that one of the most important causes -perhaps the main one- of this decline in freedoms and democratic values ​​is uncertainty. Or rather, the general perception that we live in uncertain times.

I am going to give an example to explain in what type of daily affairs this slide from a stable, certain and predictable society model to an uncertain society model materializes: notary public examinations. But first I will briefly refer to artificial intelligence.

An artificial intelligence system is intelligent because it is capable of finding regularities, relationships, and correlations between things. You need huge amounts of data to be effective, because the more data, the more accurate the regularities, relationships, and correlations it will detect.

For example, artificial intelligence applied to vision is the ability to recognize objects of a specific class among objects of all kinds. All that needs a system like this is a database with thousands of pre-tagged images. That is, images of cats, each with a label that says “cat.”

The system then begins to look for what all cat images have in common and, when it is presented with a new one, even if it is different from the ones it has stored, it is able to identify it correctly. He has learned what a cat is, and knows how to recognize a cat whenever it is there.

The most disturbing thing about artificial intelligence systems is that they are what we call “black boxes”. That is, they reach conclusions and give answers without justifying the inferences made. They reach the right answer, so we know they work, but we do not really know how they do it.

Now let’s think about the concept of public competition. A public competition is a transparent selection procedure with rules of the game that the participants know. For example, in the case of notaries, the eliminatory tests are even public. They have an agenda that defines the parameters of what they must prepare to approve.

The principles embodied in the competitive recruitment system go beyond the demonstration of knowledge. They have to do with values ​​such as perseverance, self-discipline, sacrifice, , effort, attention or willpower. And, above all, transparency, which is the other side of predictability.

Now imagine that we nurtured an artificial intelligence system with exhaustive information on the profiles of all the notary candidates of the last fifty years. Not only of those who have ended up becoming notaries, but of all those who began to prepare the public competition.

Let’s suppose that we could enter in that system all the data of these real and potential candidates: their age, their gender, their place of residence, the number of siblings they have, the profession and studies of their parents, the school where they studied high school, the itinerary they followed, the grades they got during their degree, the electives they chose, the courses they took abroad. And even some data on their health, such as cholesterol levels or the number of heart beats per minute.

With this information, an artificial intelligence system could propose, in each new call for notary public examinations, the candidates with the best chance of passing the tests. Over the years, it would improve until it was able to predict the results of a public competition before its realization. Therefore, strictly speaking, the playoffs would no longer be necessary. It would be enough to select, among all the candidates presented, the names that the algorithm gave us.

What a system of this type does is introduce uncertainty into people’s lives. It makes the decisions that affect our lives less and less dependent on ourselves.

From the public competition with a closed agenda and the knowledge tests related to the job, we have derived to the personality tests, to the interviews in which we talk about anything but work, to group dynamics or, finally , to expert systems equipped with artificial intelligence. And each step forward has meant an additional twist towards the loss of control of our own biography.

The unpredictability of our time —which is what makes it so interesting— is also what keeps us from trusting that our children will have more and better opportunities than we do to prosper.

Every time we go through a metal detector arch at an airport, every time we stop at the exit of a toll by a police checkpoint, every time we receive recommendations about hiring a pension plan because the public system will not be able to cope to the aging of the population, every time the company recommends us to undergo a medical check-up, instead of being calmer, what actually happens is that our feeling of uncertainty increases.

This uncertainty, which extends to more and more areas of our life, is expressed in us in the form of an emotion: fear.

The great recession that began in 2008 has revealed before our eyes the volatility of everything that seemed stable, solid, and durable.

The World Economic Forum, which is the foundation that annually organizes the Davos Summit, has been saying for years that the skills that the market will demand will be related to adaptability and lifelong learning.

The OECD, by its side, published a report [6] on the skills that governments should promote among their citizens. The recipe: adults should continually adapt their capacities and abilities to the changing reality.

This advice only infuses pressure into people. Furthermore, despite the benefits that globalization has undoubtedly brought, it has also generated veritable corporate leviathans at the multinational level that intensify the sense of loss of control of the citizenry.

According to a recent United Nations report, to which an article in The Financial Times alluded, in any country in the world the exports of the 10 companies that sell the most abroad account for, on average, 42 percent of all the country’s exports. Businesses are getting bigger everywhere.

Considering the panorama, it should not surprise us that citizens legitimately consider whether instead of being the ones who should be constantly changing, it would not be more intelligent, perhaps, to change the rules of the game to make life easier for them. In short, it is not surprising that they wonder what could be done to make life, again, something less interesting and something more boring. So that it was something more “under control”.

Precisely, the mantra of all populist proposals is “regain control.” Attack uncertainty. Populist leaders refer to a control that today is in the hands, they say, of elites, plutocracies, businessmen or immigrants. But the important issue is not the term “recover”, which always refers to a reactionary position, but the term “control”.

Uncertainty is fought with control. And this control neither has to come from force, nor from the curtailment of rights, nor from police security, nor from isolation and autocracy. Control, or security in the face of uncertainties, is provided by strong democratic institutions.

With this idea we enter the fourth and last part of this reflection.

Fourth part. What is the next step?

In 2017, one of America’s top political analysts, Fareed Zakaria, published an article [7]  in The Washington Post titled “Stop being afraid of more government. It’s exactly what we need”.

To fight against the uncertainty of our times, we need institutions of all kinds that guarantee the political and social rights that allow citizens to live in peace.

According to the Sitra think tank, which I referred to earlier Entity, there are three factors that explain the current growth of populism in Europe: [8]

  • The first is the management of immigration, particularly of immigrants of Muslim religion. Since 1990 Europeans have consistently expressed, in different polls, at least their scepticism regarding the benefits of immigration. And populisms are fed by that perception of conflict between cultures.
  • The second factor is the breakdown of the middle class. According to the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, a prosperous and wealthy middle class is the key to a strong and stable democracy. On the contrary, an economically highly polarized society is an excellent breeding ground for movements that seek to erode democracy.

The newspaper El País published an interview with the German sociologist Oliver Nachtwey. This young sociologist explained his successful concept of “regressive modernization.”

He states there that history does not always evolves forwards and explains that the “social elevator” that worked in Europe since the Second World War has broken down. There are more skilled workers and more women working. But there is more inequality and more precariousness, especially for women.

There is a new social class, that of low wages, which is forced to live on the periphery, in smaller flats, which takes longer to get to work and cannot afford the life of the middle classes, nor go to restaurants of healthy eating, or taking their children to good private schools or to English or music courses.

And many of these workers, Nachtwey says, become voters for Alternative for Germany, the far-right party. Even if they were not its original “clients”, because this party was founded as a liberal and bourgeois party against the euro. Job insecurity creates more precarious democracies.

  • The third factor that favours populism is distrust and dissatisfaction with institutions, governments, and traditional political parties. In this sense, it should be noted that over the last ten years the Eurobarometer shows a sustained decline in trust in the European Union and in national parliaments and governments.

I would like to refer to this third point. The evolution of certain freedoms and institutions in Europe has become unbalanced. European integration has allowed the emergence of the movement of goods, capital and people. But it has not been accompanied by political integration. This has been a monumental mistake of the European project.

The European Union is a textbook example of how the lack of common, strong, integrated and democratic political institutions has opened a space of opportunity for reactionary political proposals, which offer the stability that the European club has failed to provide.

Historically, democracy and the welfare state have provided developed countries with a set of solutions to deal with human uncertainties. They have provided a universal health system, social security systems, such as pensions, and platforms for personal advancement, such as education. And that has happened, with greater or less depth and extent, from the United States to the Scandinavian countries.

However, these systems begin to show symptoms of exhaustion. Public education is incapable of guaranteeing competitive access to the labour market; public and private pension systems are subject to terrible stress due to demographic constraints; and health systems have an increasingly aging population on the horizon, with greater life expectancy, and personalized medicine that promises to multiply the costs of treatments (for those who can afford them).

The Spanish population suffers an inexorable aging process that will double the current public spending in regard to the elderly, according to data from Airef and Eurostat. The dependency rate will go from 25 percent to between 50 and 60 percent in 2050. The dependency ratio is the weight of the population under 16 and over 65 with respect to the total. These are people who are not at working age and who therefore depend on the workforce.

At the same time, there will be an increase in life expectancy to 87 years in 2050 (today it is 83 years).

Western states do not have adequate instruments to face the challenges ahead and recur to increasing debt as an interim solution. But this resource, unless it is punctual, is an unsustainable way of making public policies.

This makes the future more uncertain every day, and that uncertainty increasingly worries citizens.

The welfare state emerged as a response to the social problems of the twentieth century. For many years, it was a powerful instrument to address the concerns raised by democracy, freedom and free market. Today we must consider the possibility that, just the way it was designed at that time, it may have now become old. And that implies that, if we do not want to renounce to it, we must rethink a welfare state that finds new formulas to provide citizens with stability, certainties and confidence in the future.

In short, that it acts as a counterweight to the new and unique challenges that democracy, freedoms and the market must currently face.

[1] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.

[2] “The Threard of Tribalism”. The Atlantic, octubre de 2018.

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/08/yes-millennials-really-are-surprisingly-approving-of-dictators/?utm_term=.e900fff9e073.

[4] “The era of populism. Seasonal fluctuation or permanent change?”: https://www.sitra.fi/en/articles/era-populism-seasonal-fluctuation-permanent-change/.

[6] http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/oecd-skills-outlook-2017-9789264273351-en.htm.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/stop-being-afraid-of-more-government-its-exactly-what-we-need/2017/09/07/e362177a-940a-11e7-89fa-bb822a46da5b_story.html?utm_term=.f9d46cc7cb02.

[8] “The era of populism. Seasonal fluctuation or permanent change?”: https://www.sitra.fi/en/articles/era-populism-seasonal-fluctuation-permanent-change/.

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