See Part One of this thought piece here.
Lack of Community
Meanwhile civic participation is diminishing. Memberships in civic organizations and the role these play in our lives is lessening. For many institutions such as the communist party, the labor union or local civic organizations were a cornerstone of their lives. For others the church was not only a focal point but also provided many ancillary points of contact from dinners to events and continuous gatherings. For many people these civic and religious organizations are playing much less of a role in their lives. While some countries still boast robust religious participation organized religion as a whole is declining. Entire lives were built around church groups, church sports events and social gatherings. Communities of families all knew each other and met regularly throughout the week. Now even in the USA, one of the most religious wealthy countries, only 28% of millennials attend services weekly as opposed to 38% of baby boomers and 51% of older generations. In Europe the figures are far lower still. The church or local civic organization was a fabric of one’s life a generation ago. It is where you met friends and communally gathered. Now this fabric is slowly unravelling.
Alone in the city, cocooned in our homes
We are also increasingly alone in the city. We have little contact with neighbors and local communities. When we walk around we recognize and have bonds with comparatively few people. We’re going out less and spending more time indoors. The average American watches five hours of television per day. There are many people who are online more than off. This has led to further disengagement from the world. In essence we are decoupling from each other, drifting away from communities and society. We’re spending more time alone.
Lack of job security
Simultaneously there is a lack of job security. Whereas in a previous age you joined a company straight out of college or high school and worked there for life, jobs are shorter now. Contracts are shorter and company benefits have diminished. Pensions are less generous or less assured. Short-term labor contracts are becoming more prevalent. Automation and outsourcing have made job options for lower skilled people more limited. Knowledge work on the one hand means that this work can be done cheaper overseas and on the other hand that if you don’t have the skills you’re going to be left with dwindling options.
Capital more mercenary
Retail investors used to park their money in stocks they trusted for years. Capital nowadays has become more mercenary and fluid. More money is being made more volatile by professional money managers incentivized by quarterly bonuses and targets. Money moves faster, sometimes moving in and out of stocks in seconds. Long-term structural growth is still of interest to some investors such as pension funds but most people’s investment horizon now barely stretches beyond lunch.
Money in politics
Money is also playing a more important role in politics influencing elections worldwide. Money can be donated anonymously meaning that your contribution could, unbeknownst to anyone, advance your business interests. If you as an individual have strong business interests in regulated industries or strong political views you can change laws or win elections. By controlling media or influencing them behind the scenes you can double down on your political donations by having your candidate present their own truth and your media confirm that truth’s value.
Wealthy ever wealthier
More wealth is now concentrated in fewer people. The wealthiest individuals on this planet have diversified their assets to such an extent that they hardly feel the business cycle. The economy may contract or expand but it will not affect them directly in any significant way. As isolated as the rest of us but with more means these individuals are getting more powerful. If all of them were like Bill Gates for whom curing malaria is a worthwhile hobby (and a misguided attempt to let us all forget about the Microsoft Paperclip) then it would not matter so much. But, some of them want to change the world in other ways and through their money now can influence global politics. A global wealthy entrenched elite now has the tools to influence politics in many countries.
Polarization of politics in the face of complexity
The political structures that parliamentary democracies have built have become very complex. In Europe governments became technocratic. Political debate was bloodless and filled with difficult concepts. Law was stacked on law and each new government had its fresh new initiatives. In America it was Red or Blue and every year amazing things were done by this government and the other guy sucked. Yet it did not feel as if we were making much progress. Some experienced disenfranchisement by multisyllabic words. Not having been exposed to concepts in economics and not abreast of the latest developments these people saw decades of promises which they could increasingly understand less. They didn’t know what governments or parties actually did for them and politics became a boring contest of gobbledygook. Widespread nihilism spread through this group. They were not engaged by technocratic debate in Europe or the Red/Blue game in the US. They were left out because they dared not engage others in conversation about the Trade Deficit or the latest government initiative because they did not understand them. Unwilling to feel embarrassed they retreated from politics. Until, populists started talking about things that they could form an opinion on. Is it OK to wear this particular outfit? Are the X people bad? Populism with racist undertones was not something that primarily appealed to their more base senses. It was something that was liberating. Finally they could engage in the political debate. Finally they could form an opinion on the latest goings on in government and elections. Politics went from being an hazy and complex affair distant to them to something that they can wholly engage with again. This explains the rise in popularity of populist politicians worldwide.
Simple Stories Sell
Against the backdrop of an ever more complex world, with a lack of job security, more mercenary capital, a decoupling from society, more isolation and more outrage this was their time to shine. In times of fear and complexity the simplest story sells. The most consistently well-told simple fairytale is the one that works not the one that is the most correct or the one that’s the most well qualified or uses the best, longest words. In an ever more complex world, we crave simplicity. Shortening attention spans and a fragmented dumber media then led to further polarization as messages got simpler and shorter. In an escalating war of words the long-winded complex best solution for the world’s problems will lose out to a simple blurb. The more noise there is the less time there will be to find signals. What does always make the eight o’clock news though is a good blurb or a dramatic painting of the Other as evil. When the ratings agencies downgraded US debt democrats were falling over themselves to blame republicans while they in turn glued themselves to microphones blaming the democrats for destroying their country. Meanwhile if one read the conclusions of the ratings agencies, the reason for them downgrading US debt was that they thought that the political parties in the US would not cooperate in order to make the important changes the country needed to improve its long-term financial health. Especially in the US politics has become inflamed. Politics is now infused with vitriol and hate. Since policies no longer matter, its all about bluster and blurbs. If one increases the polarization or notches up the hate they will be given ever more attention. Hate is a successful attention-getting strategy, and so is acting out.
Flight, Fight, Freeze
Our minds are hardwired in life-endangering situations to turn to very simple decision models. Molded in the savanna by running from lions our minds turn off the analytical part of our brain, the slow thinking wise owl, and turn to a quick thinking nervous bird like mind. There is no time to make the thought out all information best decision, the quick decision must be made now. When we are caught between such decisions, the pain is agonizing. We become stressed and nervous since our bodies are forcing us to choose because what our bodies want most of all is any decision quickly. With the indecision and pain of a monkey frozen in a tree besieged by a lion we face overwhelming information and data. We worry about the mortgage, other countries, politicians and agonize over the right insurance or coffee maker to buy. Simple stories, polarized stories and simple overall all explaining narratives end this agonizing indecision for us. Our minds become calmer when convinced by a good simple lie that all will be allright and future agonizing choices will be simpler. Amidst the complexity and ever increasing information our brains demand calm.
Homicide rates and crime are actually in decline. It has never been a safer time to live. But, it doesn’t feel that way does it? The thousands of hours of consumed news, these screens we watch beam danger into our homes and hearts each day. People feel less safe and more under threat each day from exotic, rare and inconceivably remote threats. As the world becomes more safe, for some it actually feels more dangerous.
Previously we had a capitalist and communist system for the world. There were choices, opposing viewpoints. Yes, capitalism wasn’t perfect and did have its excesses but at least we didn’t have the gulag. Now with capitalism the one and only way of the world we have no “grass is greener” nor any other system to look down upon. We have but one choice and one system to guide us and this system is gradually breaking down.