History is full of dead civilizations. Few apart from a few archaeologists much cares about who the Etruscans were or what gods they worshiped, but the Etruscans mattered a lot to the Etruscans before they were destroyed by military invasion. The Etruscans are mostly significant because of the civilization that absorbed them afterwards.
Anyway. No one gets weepy over the Etruscans like they get weepy over dead lions. They’re a long-extinct people.
Some mixture of economic declines and military & naval losses resulted in a string of rolling catastrophes for them which they weren’t able to recover from. They lost their independence and coherence to their stronger neighbors, in stages. It’s certain that the Etruscans were aware that they were in decline, but there was no period of time during which awareness would have made much of a difference at all in their collective fate.
In democratic politics, agitators tend to see raising mass awareness as the critical antecedent to the resolution of some political problem or another. This is so solidly believed that ‘raising awareness’ often becomes the sole end of an agitation. The idea is that the people will ‘wake up,’ demand action, just action will happen, and the world will be improved. It’s often the case instead — just about always — that the demanded action is stupid and destructive, because the enthusiastic masses have no idea how to manage anything at all.
Agitation is usually something that’s better directed against your enemies, which is what it’s typically used for even when some idealistic cover story or another gets adopted. The point of agitation, properly understood, is to undermine the authority of some state or another that you want to destroy. It’s not something that results in an improvement, properly understood.
In a universal suffrage democracy, mass agitation isn’t actually quite so important as it sometimes seems. The way to get a law passed is to bribe politicians to pass the laws that you write, and then those politicians will use the bribe money to agitate the party faithful to keep them in office. Politicians challenge one another for a chance to be a channel for that bribery. They will also sometimes get the chance to serve on helpfully labeled committees and caucuses that tell bribers from different industries whom they should funnel money to, for convenience purposes.
Bribing officials must always happen for private advantage at public expense, because otherwise there would be no motive to do it — and the advantage must come at the expense of some group.
Occasionally, the politicians will create or expand bureaucracies which will actually do the work of governing. Those bureaucracies tend to be immune from the effects of public opinion, even when it’s nearly unanimous. This tension makes it so that the state continually bleeds off legitimacy over time. The politician says “you, the people, are the sovereigns here — I will do what you ask of me in return for your votes.” After the election, the politician is not actually capable of doing what he promised, and the bureaucracies will actually rule.
Politicians have the right to perform ‘oversight’ on bureaucracies, which means that they can hold televised meetings in which they make a big show of ceremonial authority over bureaucracies which they can’t actually execute on.
Popular sovereignty is the legitimizing myth, which the actual process of ruling in a modern state then undermines. After this happens, the people whose job it is to generate that legitimacy — the press — have to stoke up more demonstrations of popular sovereignty. People marching around in the street, yelling, and burning things has come to be identified with popular sovereignty, which, come to think of it, is appropriate considering democracy’s historical record. There’s no such thing as actual popular sovereignty, but it’s easier to pretend that there is when you have mobs of ‘the people’ manifesting themselves to burn things down and complain.
This is a recipe for constant civil conflict, and constant civil conflict weakens a civilization against external enemies, and those external enemies will eventually overwhelm it. Awareness of this does nothing to stop the process.
Awareness of the future ramifications of present behavior does nothing because humans will always chose a short-term benefit over long-term stability. There are always harbingers of doom, and they are routinely ignored. Even if the “mass” of society becomes “aware” of impending doom, history shows that the most likely response is not any attempt to effect systematic change to prevent the collapse/doom; rather, the response is always to gather as many resources as possible to ensure a short-term advantage—“i’ll take what I can while there is still stuff to take.”
Cassandra was right, but it didn’t do much for the Trojans as a civilization.
Brian in the desert says
In other words it is human nature at work. Most people choose to focus on their own desires and ignore anything not directly related to or that is immediately impacting these. Thus the barbarians aren’t even noticed or, if they are, are seen as some abstract presence “over there”. It isn’t until the barbarians are actually smashing down the front door, stealing everything in sight and positioning the knife at the throat that awareness is truly raised and the importance of reality truly appreciated. The few who could see reality and prepare for it might survive but there are so few of these that they are unable to maintain the old culture and are inevitably absorbed into the new.
This won’t happen, but it should: Restore the old “spoils system”. When one party wins power, they purge the bureaucracy of the other party’s hacks and replace them with their own. This wouldn’t attract capable professionals to the civil service (nor does the current “sinecure system”) but it would give civil servants an incentive not to piss off the voters.
Steve Johnson says
About half the damage that the progressive state does it does to ensure that it wins enough elections.
If you made the permanent government so vulnerable that they’d be at risk if they lost a single election they’d have to turn the destruction to overdrive.
The problem isn’t that the progressive state is too insulated from voters – the problem is that it acts to get votes.
‘Reality’ Doug says
Henry, you are mentally a real man. This stuff should be so obvious, and I think it really is. Animals and savages are pack and street smart, not simply dumb. They intelligently ignore the negatives of corruption with built-in bias for immediate gain, what works in the wild. Progress requires evolution which requires mass individual replacement and bars mass individual reform. The only sentence I don’t completely agree with is: “After this happens, the people whose job it is to generate that legitimacy — the press — have to stoke up more demonstrations of popular sovereignty.” The press is about awareness, which as you astutely observe is no solution. It is the action male patriarchs take to acquire and maintain sovereign power that matters. Intelligent action is the key. There are no militias, only professional militaries. Smedley Butler should be a household name. Animals and savages will not care when their higher-order societies collapse. They can’t. They only see relative social rank as the end all and be all. Primitive existence does not phase them like low relative rank does. The barn is yonder, my friends, somewhere down the road of time. It takes a patriarchy. For now, every real man must ruthlessly prioritize his focus on his welfare with the system as a given. Women present the common pasture problem under government sponsorship. Poach responsibly and gtfo. The female player mindset judges the male mindset by players’ values. You young guys have a chance if you figure out this game early enough. Essentially, I think the title of this post works strictly as facetious impossibility.
I like the designation “animals and savages”, is there a reference behind them or some further reading I could look into? It fits my biological way of thinking well— would love to learn more.