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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Great Unraveling and the Collapse of Complex Societies

Roger Cohen's op-ed at the New York Times, entitled "The Great Unraveling," seems to have garnered a lot of attention. The piece is essentially a "worst of times" litany of major problems and issues, with an overtone of ennui, with Cohen concluding:
It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.” 
Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.
 It was nice of Cohen to quote from Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," but Cohen either overestimates the ability of his audience (i.e., readers of the New York Times) to draw the correct inference, or is afraid to do so himself. And that is that the woes described by Cohen are the products of the progressive/socialist policies that have ruled the West for the past 100+ years.

Cohen cannot plead ignorance by the very fact he quoted Kipling, who addresses three of the major cornerstones of progressive thought in his poem:
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know." 
 
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death." 
 
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die." 
However, my intended object was not to critique Cohen, but to focus on one part of his list of woes--the potential that Scotland might split from England. Cohen writes:
It was a time of breakup. The most successful union in history, forged on an island in the North Sea in 1707, headed toward possible dissolution — not because it had failed (refugees from across the seas still clamored to get into it), nor even because of new hatreds between its peoples. The northernmost citizens were bored. They were disgruntled. They were irked, in some insidious way, by the south and its moneyed capital, an emblem to them of globalization and inequality. They imagined they had to control their National Health Service in order to save it even though they already controlled it through devolution and might well have less money for its preservation (not that it was threatened in the first place) as an independent state. The fact that the currency, the debt, the revenue, the defense, the solvency and the European Union membership of such a newborn state were all in doubt did not appear to weigh much on a decision driven by emotion, by urges, by a longing to be heard in the modern cacophony — and to heck with the day after. If all else failed, oil would come to the rescue (unless somebody else owned it or it just ran out).
The most recent polls indicate that the question of  whether to secede is too close to call. However, in an effort to win over undecided voters to the "no" side, there has been a steady outpouring of how good Scotland has it now, and how Scotland stands to lose economically if it secedes. For instance, even though Scotland has a healthy GDP:
Yet, 'No' campaigners are adamant that Scotland, a nation of just five million people, is economically ill-equipped to deal with life on its own. At the crux of the argument is the fact that its exports sector is so weighted towards international communities which, post 18 September, Scotland may no longer be part of. 
Of course, a 'Yes' vote will lead to secession from the UK, but there are also no guarantees that a future Scotland will be an automatic member of the European Union. Therefore, whether or not Scottish independence will have a negative drag on its exports to the remainder of the UK and the EU has been a political hot potato.
Scotland's energy future is apparently uncertain as well:
 EDF Energy has warned that Scottish independence would herald massive uncertainty for the energy sector, accusing Alex Salmond of failing to answer a series of fundamental questions over issues such as nuclear waste. 
In a memo to the energy giant's 15,000 staff - 1,200 of whom are based in Scotland - Vincent de Rivaz said those voting on Thursday's referendum had "enormous responsibility" and warned the outcome "will affect EDF Energy and its employees". 
Mr de Rivaz said it was not his place "to tell voters how they should vote" but said he had a responsibility to "defend the interests of our company" and made clear that these interests would be at risk from a "yes" vote.
 Gordon Brown warns:
The SNP are "perpetrating a lie" about protecting the NHS with Scottish independence because Holyrood already has the power it needs to do so, former prime minister Gordon Brown has said. 
Mr Brown said the nationalists should make way for a Labour government in Scotland if they continue to insist they are "powerless" to protect the NHS without a Yes vote in the independence referendum. 
He also said voting Yes would mean throwing Scotland into the "chaos of a separate state". 
The SNP has argued that the health service north of the border is at risk due to health policies at Westminster, despite the area being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
 Of course, it is not all sticks--there are some carrots being offered as well. Some prominent political leaders have promised to devolve more powers to Scotland if voters favor remaining as part of the UK.

My interest in the issue of Scottish independence is the application of Tainter's theory on the collapse of complex societies. Cohen essentially argues that Scotland needs England's paternal care, and derives more from the relationship with England than vice versa. However, under Tainter's theory, the issue is not whether there are benefits from the relationship, but whether there is a reasonable marginal return. If there isn't, then Tainter's theory predicts that regions on the margin of the society will seek to reduce complexity by seeking to autonomy or independence.

The very items highlighted by Cohen and others actually tends to support Tainter's ideas. The EU and the National Health Services are perfect examples of needless administrative overhead that reduce the marginal return on investment. So what if Scotland has local control over its health system if it burdened by the additional administrative levels in England? The complexity of remaining part of the UK is the overriding issue here, not whether Scotland benefits from remaining part of the UK. I doubt it is boredom driving the vote in Scotland as much as the compounded frustrations of living in a bureaucratic hell. In any event, whether there is a "yes" or "no" vote, Scotland will have greater autonomy, just as Tainter's theory predicts.

I can't leave this topic, though, without discussing some of Spengler's ideas. Per Spengler, we live in the late autumn or winter of our society. The vital culture is dead, replaced by a technically proficient, but otherwise sterile society based around the metropolis. The greatest of this cities--the world cities--have not only forgone the native culture but, as Spengler theory states, have lost even their national identities, with little or no interest in the rural population. Spengler would undoubtedly label London as a world-city. Thus, the question is, do the UK's elites represent a nation, or their nationless world-city? I think the events unfolding around the Rotherham scandal clearly show that the UK's elites have no concern in defending or protecting the UK as a nation. They, in their minds, have moved past that. It is further illustrated by the arguments as to why Scotland should stay part of the UK. For the most part, the arguments are not about the greatness of a United Kingdom, but the advantages afforded by belonging to the European Union and larger world community. "You will lose your trade and hurt your currency," is the battle cry against dissolution. That is the argument of an international financial elite, not the nation that stood against the Nazis.

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