Times of Great Confusion: On the Concepts by Which We Comprehend the World

A correct system of coordinates, a system of terms is needed, which — when discussing what is happening in the world — we will understand it approximately the same way, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy.

The events of all human history, up to the present day, reveal how often and how tragically people make mistakes, and commit actions that lead to catastrophic consequences. What is especially dangerous is that the growing technological power of civilisation greatly enhances the consequences of possible catastrophes, up to the death of the civilisation itself that gave rise to the regrettable course of events.

It’s possible to speak at length about the causes of these historical errors, about blindness and selfishness, or, conversely, about the wisdom and nobility of those who make certain decisions, but, in my opinion, the most important thing is to understand, in what coordinate system, in what system of values the human action is taking place. At least only because the vast majority of decisions are the result of reasoning, they obey the known logic. The question is: what is this logic? To what extent does it rely on real knowledge of the world, and to what extent on speculative ideas about it?

If you look at human history, as a rule, political actions are explained by the desire to achieve the most good for the largest number of people. But the concepts of “the good” have always been different. There is the salvation of the soul with the help of true faith, there is freedom, including freedom of religion, and there is simple prosperity, and protection from enemies, and much, much more. Recently, the mainstream interpretation of the good, developed mainly in the so-called Western countries, but, of course, not only there, is based on humanistic values associated with human rights and the opposition of democracy to authoritarianism and/or totalitarianism. In a democracy, people are supposed to make their own decisions, find a balance of interests, live in a legal system that protects everyone, and in general their quality of life improves more or less uniformly. So everyone gets better and better. Authoritarianism, according to the same mainstream zeitgeist, limits people, makes them victims of arbitrariness, toys in the hands of the authorities. In this sense, the goal of historical development is the establishment of democracy everywhere.

Of course, this approach greatly oversimplifies reality. You can cite examples of amazingly successful monarchs and find democracies in which it is almost impossible to live. But that is not the essence of the problem, as far as we should understand how the world really works and what people really need. For such an understanding, a correct system of coordinates, a system of terms is needed, which — when discussing what is happening in the world — we will understand it approximately the same way. In general, we should talk, in my opinion, about two things — about value systems that meet the interests of people and about political systems that are best adapted to establish and maintain these values. Of course, a caveat must be included that it will never be possible to completely unify humanity. After all, if someone enjoys the life of a hunter-gatherer, then it is not at all a fact that he should be prohibited from it.

Giorgio Agamben writes in his Opus Dei. An Archeology of Duty that “the history of a particular term often coincides with the history of its translations or its usage in translations.”

Therefore, in my opinion, many problems of today’s world are connected with a poor understanding of what is happening. Above all, with our ability to correctly describe and correctly understand the political organisation of the modern world. Not just to call some countries “democracies” and others “autocracies”, but to describe their political (and social) language in a more or less precise way. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to find mutual understanding. We just can’t discuss real issues.

For now, we live in a world of confused definitions. How, indeed, do we distinguish between democracy and autocracy? This is not an idle question.

Another pertinent question is why autocracy is considered worse than democracy. Here we must understand that the historical forms of human society are changeable. The aforementioned hunter-gatherers managed to live without any state and, in general, without a permanent power structure. In any event, this is how modern scientists write about them. There is even a feeling that numerous myths about paradise may be based on the relatively idyllic life of primitive people. There are also opinions (and numerous ones) that the Neolithic revolution 10-20 thousand years ago (opinions differ slightly) led to the great enslavement of people, to the emergence of real inequality. But what is important for us is that even though the hunter-gatherers lived without a state, they had a system of values. They cared about each other, they had mutual help, they aspired to gain knowledge and communicate. And — in a sense — they were free. Both in time and space. So the system of values, what makes us human, appeared a long time ago. It still has not lost relevance. What is especially enviable is that the hunter-gatherers had a lot of free time.

Later, in antiquity, the prominent philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did not consider democracy to be an ideal system at all. Aristotle, as far as we can judge from his Politics, believed that each of the three main types of government has its downside. Monarchic power threatens to become tyrannical. Rule by the aristocracy leads to oligarchy. And polity (some sort of majority rule) leads to democracy. In the latter case, many philosophers of antiquity, not only those already mentioned, saw a threat to what we would now call human rights and minority rights, as well as justice.

It is clear that these are ancient writings. But talking about the Greek democracy, the world’s most ancient, we do not mean the democracy that Aristotle wrote about. It’s all about terminology.

So, although it is not so difficult to distinguish the power of the king from the power of parliament, this does not yet yield sufficient grounds for conclusions about the system of political organisation as such. There were parliaments that sat for many years; there were sovereigns who knew how to create effective and free societies with the help of autocratic power.

Not to mention the fact that in reality, nothing at all exists in a pure form.

For example, an American president has more rights than a British king. It is simply customary to have one president for no more than 8 years — two terms. This is the case in many countries, but not everywhere. By the way, until recently, few kings could boast of such a long reign.

But it’s not just that. Humanity is changing, developing. A new global world has emerged with a completely new system of communications.

There were thirty thousand citizens in ancient Athens, and they struggled with democratic procedures. There are more than 300 million citizens in the United States today, and they all elect a president! How? This isn’t just about the notorious electoral college system. Isn’t it just strange for hundreds of millions of people to place insane power so easily in the hands of one person? Especially as the American president can send troops around the world and seize any capital that he can reach. This is simply amazing power, which any would-be William the Conqueror could not even dream of before. However, the United States is by no means the only example of an extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of one or very few people.

In Athens, all 30,000 citizens somehow took part in government, paid taxes and fought the enemy. Being a citizen then meant participating in court, holding public office, and fighting for the state.

In the US, many do not pay taxes, and they do not fight with anyone except their neighbours.

And they do not take any part in the governance.

Moreover, the vast majority do not have the slightest chance to take part in the big political game. Of course, one can and should talk about the complex political organisation of modern society: a multitude of institutions, a hierarchy of certain representative bodies, a multi-stage system of training political personnel.

However, no one has yet revealed the secret of how democracy can fully function even in countries with a population of millions of people.

What about hundreds of millions or even billions?

In general, if the idea of democracy is that all the inhabitants of a country or land had an equal right to take part in political governance, to entrust certain administrative functions to the best of the best, then in reality this is a sad situation. At a minimum, we see ever-growing inequality in terms of property distribution, which has reached such a point that even the idea of equal rights among people seems blasphemous.

If so, then we have very limited experience with democracy. At best, about a hundred years.

I’m talking about equal voting rights for everyone, without qualifications or other restrictions.

In England, for example, equal voting rights were only extended to all adult women in 1928.

One can, of course, argue that democracy is just a local deviation in the long history of mankind. For all the superficiality of such a statement, the actual experience of what we very vaguely call democracy is limited. But the main thing is the value system that unites society.

The question arises, why do we need a political system? What values must be maintained?

To save the human race?

Or that each person lives well the life allotted to them?

Or that some people can assert themselves, rule over others and be richer?

To maintain social hierarchy?

It is not a fact that all these motives can be reconciled with one another.

Especially considering the complexity of the world we live in.

If in politics one can talk about some democracy, then in business this is not the case.

Yes, there is also a problem with the family. But this is a separate issue.

A person spends more time at work than at home.

But a business is run by the owner. And he is, very often, an autocrat. Often enough, he founded the business himself.

This is his project. Moreover, he is the owner of all the money. While there are legal procedures and protests like strikes to redistribute income, their effectiveness is not great.

New communication platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, for example, also present challenges.

Inaccessible Freedom or New Ignorance?
Andrey Bystritskiy
The freedom of expression, as well as the right to reliable information, which are often (and mistakenly) combined into one concept - “freedom of speech” - are going through conflicting times. It seems to have never been so easy to communicate as it is now, but, all the same, people roam blindly in the all-consuming fog of information and risk wandering into a place from which they can’t find a way out. Perhaps today, new communications are the main threat to peace.
Message from the Chairman

Obviously, there is no smell of democracy on these platforms. No country in the world has yet managed to create a consistent system of regulation. There are many reasons for this. Here, the cross-border, truly global nature of the system of modern electronic communications is made apparent. Here you see the private nature of the ownership of social media that bring astronomical income. Here you can witness the opaque nature of communications management: in fact, mysterious administrators run everything, and this creates fertile ground for manipulation.

In general, billions of users are actually powerless; they do not even have a theoretical opportunity to effectively influence the policy of communication platforms.

I suspect that the owners do not send anything other than general impulses. Although I may not be entirely right. The example of Elon Musk is evidence of how the owner can deal with his own property.

However, more often private small groups rule, they are rooted in the nodal elements of existing structures.

In the social media, for example, these are administrators.

In ordinary societies, there are all kinds of media, bloggers and NGOs. That is, people who have assumed the duty and the right to judge, to decide what is good and what is bad; to influence public opinion. Of course, they have different motives. Some may be the most dignified. I know for sure, not everyone. The problem is that society, so to speak, the main mass of holders of democratic rights, does not have the opportunity to adequately respond to this impact, verify information, compare various sources, and so on. Consequently, the relevant information necessary for democratic decision-making procedures is missing.

The problem of such a middle link, of course, didn’t arise recently. In his The New Class, Milovan Djilas, a prominent functionary in socialist Yugoslavia, argued that Yugoslavia was ruled not by the working class or even by the party, but by the apparatchiki. That is, all kinds of intermediate people interpreted the decisions of the authorities, prepared them. This group of controllers, responsible to no one, largely appropriates real power for themselves, both directly and indirectly: through the manipulation of public opinion, resource management, influence on public politicians, civil society institutions, etc.

This is not a new problem, but the achievements of modern civilisation, modern communication and digital technologies have radicalised the issue of subordinating huge masses of people to relatively small groups of managers in various fields.

Shoshana Zuboff's In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,  discusses in great detail and convincingly the risks the new reality brings to people. In particular, when defining the so-called surveillance capitalism, she argues that under it there is “an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”. Of course, there is a separate question about the evolution of this very sovereignty, but the dynamics that Zuboff draws attention to are very indicative.

In general, one can talk for a very long time about autocracy and democracy. These are vague and complex concepts and there is no impassable boundary between them. So, if there is a desire to use them further, they definitely need to be rethought, redefined. But I don’t think that’s what matters most.

The most important things are the following.

First. Why do we need a political organisation of society: both the world community as a whole, and society within individual states? What system or group of value systems should this political organisation reflect?

Second. How do we create an appropriate political organisation? Is there even a theoretical possibility of its rational construction? Or are we doomed to a bad infinity of recurring conflicts and destructive competition between states, elites and other subjects of political activity?

However, humanity, albeit not ideally, has managed to create various types of political organisations that have made it possible to somehow restrain the contradictory and very often aggressive nature of man. The fact is that people are not always able to control themselves. Understanding this, over the course of thousands of years of world history, various forms of persuasion and coercion have been tested to curb mutual human enmity. Modern people are probably softer than their distant ancestors, they need a smaller share of coercion, they are easier to educate and persuade, but still people remain people — quite dangerous creatures. And now all of us, regardless of the measure of danger for each of us, have found ourselves in a new reality. The connectedness of the world, the interdependence, has increased enormously. The world has never been more interconnected than it is today. The growth of conflicts in recent times, the dangerous aggravation of international relations is taking place everywhere and is interrelated. There is not a single corner of the Earth where one can sit it all out comfortably.

So the world for its functioning is in dire need of a new system of governance, new forms of political organisation and self-organisation. The only question is, is it possible?

As Edward Wilson noted in a debate, the real problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and divine technology.

World at a Crossroads
Andrey Bystritskiy
Our time is very interesting, but unfortunately, it is also very sorrowful. The keyword to describe the contemporary situation is autarky, the ability of a country to live relying on its own resources.
Message from the Chairman