In Libya, the public in arms has overthrown and executed Muammar Qaddafi, brutal dictator of 42 years. In Syria, the public has battled the equally ruthless Assad regime to a standstill. In Tunisia and Egypt, the protesting public, after toppling authoritarian rulers of long standing, now seethes with discontent. A wave of popular anger has shaken repressive governments in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Morocco.
Democracies have fared no better. Protesters are assaulting political establishments from Spain to India, as this New York Times piece observes. It makes little difference whether a nation faces economic collapse in the manner of Greece or enjoys economic growth like Israel. In each case, the public has judged government to be the plaything of selfish interests, and seeks to punish the ruling elites.
A chasm of distrust has opened up between the public and government: arguably, the most powerful source of turbulence in the world today. That the rupture has attracted such limited attention is astonishing. Thinkers, commentators, and journalists across the globe, one suspects, have been unable to look past their local dramas.
The public’s quarrel isn’t with a particular administration, party, or ideology: it is radical and systemic, implicating most of the great enterprises of the modern nation state. The crisis concerns government as such, the perceived failure of this colossal machine to deliver what it has promised.
Critiques of the status quo favor conspiracy theories and the exposure of scandals over specific proposals. The public, it turns out, is driven by fundamental grievances yet has no idea how to redress them. Egyptians who faced down Hosni Mubarak’s violent repression now bicker without a clear vision of the way forward. Spain’s indignados have rejected capitalism and representative democracy, but are vague about what will replace these deeply-rooted institutions. Protesters in Israel far outnumbered our own Wall Street occupiers, but needed weeks to articulate a set of positive demands.
Lack of a coherent program generalizes the friction between public and government to every point in the political landscape, and magnifies the unpredictability of the consequences. Energized into action, the public has lurched left and right with the erratic motions of a broken pendulum.
Wreckage from such mood swings lies all around us. The public plucked Barack Obama out of relative obscurity and swept him to the presidency, crushing the Democratic and Republican establishments along the way. A year later the Tea Party coalesced around opposition to the president’s programs, and in the 2010 elections shattered his governing coalition. Today the Occupy Wall Street protests may signal a new lurch to the left.
The crisis of government is part of a general collapse of authority in the wake of the digital revolution: what I have termed the fifth wave of information. A generation ago opposition needed a hierarchy, funds, a program to rally around, a printing press, a captive audience of supporters. The public as public was excluded. Today the public has seized control of the means of communications, and desperate attempts by authoritarians to shut down the internet, or by the US government to prosecute the Wikileaks source, cannot reverse this revolution in the balance of political power.
Virtually every protest movement now agitating the world began online before spilling into the streets – and the character of the protests betrays their origin. Networks have replaced hierarchy. Programs and ideologies are treated like useless baggage. All that is required to turn out vast numbers of oppositionists is an accredited villain: something or someone to be viscerally against. In extreme moments, the rebellious public regurgitates the nihilism found in certain corners of the web.
But there is also an opposite extreme – another lurch of the broken pendulum. When groping toward solutions, protesters tend to propose extraordinary increases of state power. The indignados, for example, have called on the government to expropriate all unoccupied housing in Spain. Exceptions exist – notably the Tea Party – but by and large the protesting public seems willing to supersize the very institutions it despises.
The chasm between protesters and their own demands mirrors that between the public and government. Both begin with a romantic faith in human problem-solving: and in the persistence of this faith, and its assumptions about democracy, we come to a fundamental source of the crisis.
Ruling elites have shared with much of the public a vision of government as a powerful machine constructed to “solve” social and political “problems.” From obesity to inequality, from childhood bullying to global finance, no state of affairs is too minute or complex to fall beyond the possibility of solution. In his brilliant Why Most Things Fail, Paul Ormerod draws up a list, here partially reproduced, of motions under consideration by the British Parliament on a random day in 2004:
The British government was urged . . . to hold a full inquiry into political opinion polls; give air quality a higher priority; take firm action against ‘disablism’; . . . introduce North Ireland-wide standards for care and access to arthritis treatments; press for the introduction of regulations to improve safety standards in European holiday resorts; increase the amount of funding to hospices; not bring back the poll tax; . . .
This is the romance of perfection: once all problems have been identified, and all solutions implemented, the peaceable kingdom will arrive. Hence the 2,500 pages required by President Obama’s health care law, the similar bulk of regulatory fixes produced by the Dodd-Franks financial overhaul.
Disgust over government failure follows inevitably from such heightened expectations. The moment of disenchantment – Pierre Rosanvallon’s term – marks the emergence of the public as a political force.
Because corrupt cabals are assigned the blame, the first reaction is always a cry for more democracy. Yet elections are a procedural business, and procedural rules, as Egyptians and Tunisians are learning, must favor some groups at the expense of others. Liberal democracies over the last century extended the vote to women and minorities, and tinkered with proportional representation to empower slivers of political opinion. Democratic expansion of the electorate has only intensified public disenchantment with government – the suspicion of corruption, the perception of radical failure.
Ormerod makes a compelling case that, objectively, government not only has failed but must fail in its more ambitious “solutions,” such as the elimination of inequality. Most human plans, he argues from strong evidence, simply fail to achieve their intended outcomes. Intention itself – planning, constructing strategies, policy-making – appears largely disconnected from the outcome. Setting aside the different timelines, company failure rates track closely with species extinction rates, even though the latter are innocent of purpose or intent.
Most plans fail because they are enmeshed in complex environments in which causation works mysteriously and the future is concealed behind an impenetrable veil of uncertainty. The only path to progress is trial and error, and error will always outnumber success. This is true of business as well as government, but there are structural differences between the two types of organization. In business, the company is the unit of trial and error: failure means replacement by another company representing a different approach. (In science, the hypothesis plays the same role.) Government lacks a unit of trial and error. It can, and often does, argue that failure is the consequence of not embracing the failed policy enthusiastically enough.
Here is Ormerod’s stark conclusion, which he applies universally to the human race, “whether acting as individuals or making collective decisions in companies or governments”:
We may intend to achieve a particular outcome, but the complexity of the world, even in apparently simple situations, appears to be so great that it is not within our power to ordain the future.
The premise of contemporary politics is that government exists to “ordain the future” in ways both minute and grandiose. This is what competing politicians promise. This is what street protesters demand. If the reality of the world explodes this premise, and detaches government promises and programs, in principle, from outcomes, the public’s relationship to democratic rule will suffer a drastic and traumatic reorganization. The present crisis, in such an eventuality, will become the preface to a much longer tale.