Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Singularities in History

If one looks at history from the long view you will notice that certain times and certain epochs are denser than other. Take the history of France, the era of the Revolution and Napoleon has a density and a flavor that other sections of French history lack. Taking a long view one can see cultural, political and ideological forces coalescing into one point of hyper-importance. It is always hard to actually tease out the larger forces because they always collect around a singular personality. For example ancient Rome was tending toward absolute rule long before Julius Caesar ambled across the Rubicon but the specifics of the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Imperium are hard to imagine with out the central figure of Caesar and his overarching will to power.

The best way to understand these phenomena is to borrow an idea from astrophysics. Before starting down this path an apology is offered to any of the good scientists who labor in this field. Yes, a metaphor is going to be taken and run with far from its source material.

If one looks at the larger impersonal features of history they all have a specific heft and gravity to them. Economics, culture, religion, politics, society all have a certain gravitational pull to them. Just like the massive structures and forces in the physical world they too bend and distort the fabric of the landscape they reside in. As these forces move through time they interact with each other, attracting here and repelling there.

It is at very special times in history that all these forces will focus together and form a singularity. When the proper lynch-pin arrives, when the proper historical person appears, the whole fabric of human life changes.

Unfortunately just like their astronomical brothers these massive collections, these singularities of history, defy easy explanation. They have their own strange, chaotic rules. Just as no light can escape a black hole, the astrophysical singularity, no reason can escape a historical singularity.

Both phenomena are best observed at a distance. Get too close to either event horizon and you get sucked down a rabbit hole that has no exit. Good productive lives have been lost by people who have surrendered to the minutia of Napoleonic France for instance. The history of Hitler and the Third Reich is another massive reality-bending phenomenon.

Look one of the bigger of these events, WWI. Just as light bends and time unravels when passing a massive black hole in space, human events bends, twists and distorts around WWI. Before WWI colonialism was at its peak, after WWI it was mortally wounded. Before WWI the aristocracy and the bourgeois had reach an iron-clad social-political system that was self-perpetuating, self-regulating and kept the working class in check. After WWI the Aristocracy had imploded, the bourgeois were in a state of narcolepsy and the working class was grabbing the brass ring of power. Even the political map of Europe was radically altered by WWI. Four empires that had stood for hundreds of years had evaporated; the fifth empire of the UK was ambulatory corpse. Europe is still trying to adjust to the reality of the collapse of the Prussian, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. Granted it took the collapse of the Iron Curtain to finally seal the end of the Russian hegemonic efforts.

People forget how big a historical wrecking ball WWI was because it was so quickly followed by the second swing of that ball known as WWII. Even the effect of that massive blow was obscured by the false stability of the Cold War. With the political and ideological freeze of the Cold War over, the pent-up political, social, and other forces liberated by the thaw are running wild. With the end of the Cold War we are not so much witnessing the end of history as we are witnessing the revenge of history.

It is hard to say what type of singularity of history we are racing toward. With their heads stuck in the past historians make the worst predictors of the future. Still the easy prediction for the next critical event is the most depressing for the U.S. The next great historical act is the end of United States hegemony. We are headed for a fall from grace.

One can see the signs already, the pervasive political corruption, the rigidity of political discourse, the lack of good will, the failure in leadership, the lack of political inventiveness, and the willingness of large portions of the population to sabotage compromise. Most importantly one can see the loss of core values, no not sexual mores but core political values. For nine years now the political system and the citizens of the US have allowed grave crimes to go unaccounted for. Massive violations of our civil rights (FISA) have been allowed to continue. Massive violations of the norms of civilized conduct (torture) have not been punished. It is hard to say if like Rome in the fourth century or Byzantium in the fifteenth that our doom is inevitable.

The even bigger elephant in the room is the confluence of forces that will bring about what can only be described as the cleaning of the fouled nest. Our present global disorganization is headed for a wall. Capitalism, which was once symbiotic with our global society, has now become parasitic. Worse it has become a metastatic cancer. Population growth is unsustainable and we are slowly poisoning the earth with CO2 and other toxic substances. Left unchecked these forces will coalesce into a singularity that will make the fall or Rome and the following Dark Age look like a refined tea party. It all depends of the personalities of the leaders.

Our problem is that we have systemic issues in how we are lead. In short we suffer under what can be described as the Addams Contradiction. In his five book trilogy (don’t ask, just go with it) The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Universe Douglas Addams sarcastically pointed out the central failure of our leadership. Simply put any one who wants the job of leader, any one who for instance who wants to be President of the United States, is a person who absolutely can not be trusted in that position. More and more that idea appears to be more truth than fiction. Our present political system seems to reward the very type of leaders we absolutely should not have.
Meanwhile the people who could actually help us out of our current predicament are de-incentivized to lead. Our brilliant personalities, our stellar individuals, are quickly weeded out by the political process and we are left with go-along-to-get-along glad-handers and other mediocrities. Nothing truly challenges the status quo and conventional wisdom. We continue on our way despite all the systemic flashing red lights. Entrenched interests continue to push their narrow, short-term goals while the long term accounting only gets worse. Instead of the flexibility we need in our society, we seem to only get more rigid and hence more brittle. The politics of personal destruction rules with each side throwing low blows and bathing deeply in the waters of hypocrisy.

It is hard to determine where this is all this is going other than we are headed to another singularity of history. Looking at the forces involved it looks like a big monster. It looks like the historical equivalent of those huge astronomical black holes that hold galaxies together. Buckle up dear reader it is going to be one hell of a ride.
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