Big Picture Politics

In this post I would like to reflect on the big picture of politics, within which any political system and accompanying set of policies must sit. It is reasonable to ask why political systems matter: surely individual policies are what affect our lives? My answer is that the political system defines the space in which policies can exist, and therefore define which policies can gain popular support. For example, the complete nationalisation of all industry will never have majority support within the western world because it is outside of our current political system, which is free market neo-liberalism. A politician wishing to enact such a policy would first have to achieve a political upheaval to replace neo-liberalism with something else.

The Branches of Humanism

In his 1989 essay entitled ‘The End of History’, Francis Fukuyama posited that there would be no entirely new political philosophies, and that Liberalism will become more and more prevalent in the future. The other two options to my mind are Communism and Nationalist Totalitarianism. Yuval Noah Harari makes a compelling case in his book ‘Homo Deus’ that a new political philosophy will arise in the future, but that discussion is for a later post. These three options can each be considered as branches of Humanism, which began during the Renaissance. Humanism was predominantly a literary movement, but in political terms it introduced a new source of legitimate political power. For any political entity to be stable, its members must consider its rulers to be legitimate. Before Humanism, rulers could only claim legitimate power through God, or simply through superior strength. Humanists sanctify humanity, and believe that people rather than God are the only legitimate source of political power. They may still believe in God, but they don’t think God determines who should be in charge.

The notion that people are the source of power leaves plenty of scope for debate, hence the three political branches. Humanism says that human happiness is the most important objective of politics, so it is useful to think of the three branches in that context. The challenge of course is that everyone is different, so how do you make everyone happy? Nationalists believe different groups of humans are in competition with each other, and that their group is superior to others. If some people are superior to others then the best and most capable person is best able to determine how to make everyone happy, and that only the happiness of their group is important. When taken to the extremes of Fascism and Nazism, it becomes a belief that the strong have a duty to destroy the weak so as to improve humanity as a race, like a warped version of evolutionary theory. Communism sanctifies human beings as a collective rather than individually, and says that equality is the best way to achieve the happiness of the collective. Therefore everyone should have equal political power. Finally, Liberalism sanctifies humans as individuals, and says that the best route to happiness is to give people the freedom to seek happiness for themselves. Freedom of the individual is therefore a cornerstone of Liberalism. The only source of legitimate power is the opinion of each individual; therefore democracy is inseparable from Liberalism. It’s worth noting that the common definition of happiness as ‘subjective well-being’ is liberal. It means that happiness is a feeling whose causes are unique to each individual; therefore it cannot be determined objectively. A scientist might argue that happiness is determined by brain and nervous system activity and the presence of biochemical substances such as dopamine. This is just one example where new scientific understanding appears to conflict with our liberal way of thinking.

There is, as far as I’m aware, no universally accepted definition of the term Communism, so I will briefly explain what I understand it to be. It is sometimes misunderstood to mean a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which incidentally Marx did not intend to mean a totalitarian dictatorship, but rather a democratic model where voting rights are restricted to the working class, who would be the majority). This however is not Communism, but a system Marx invented as a step towards Communism. A real Communist society is a collection of small and self-sufficient communities. Marx hoped that a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat would dissolve the State in order to bring about a Communist society, but this has never happened, and the reality has always been Nationalist Totalitarianism. There are many examples where Communism has existed, but only at the level of a town or village, and only for a few years. I have so far not used the term Socialism, only because to my understanding it is too broad to be usefully applied to a political system. In the broadest sense, Socialism is a desire to act in the interests of society as a whole, and this sentiment is not incompatible with any of the three branches of Humanism (although it is most compatible with Communism).

Political Power & The State

To make this a little more visual, I have shown the three political systems in order of extent of central government control. Communism is at one end because there is no central government control, and no state. Nationalist Totalitarianism concentrates all power in the State, which is controlled by an individual or small group. Liberalism sits in-between, with a State which has significant power but which is ultimately chosen by the people. Before choosing a political system it is worth considering what characteristics they have in regards to other aspects of politics, such as the basis for authority (how do you choose who is in charge?) and their economic systems. Liberalism sanctifies the opinion of every individual, so the question of who should be in charge can only be answered by asking everyone through a democratic process. The Nationalist Totalitarianism system says that the strongest and most capable leaders will naturally rise to the top, so favour oligarchic systems. If you believe that greatness is at least to some extent passed on genetically, then hereditary systems also make sense. Communism is compatible with all of these systems, but Marx intended Communist societies to be democratic. Indeed, democracy is easier in small societies from a logistical perspective, and options such as direct democracy become more practical compared to a state with tens of millions of people. 

Economic Systems

Liberalism is closely tied to Capitalism, which requires the state to step back from direct management of the economy and leave it to private individuals, including investors and entrepreneurs. The natural inclination in a Totalitarian state is for the state to run everything, including the economy. The obvious historical example of a managed economy was the Soviet Union. The problem with this approach is that as society became more complex and the pace of change accelerated through the 20th century, economies became impossible for a single central committee to manage effectively. This is somewhat analogous to a set of Christmas tree lights wired in series or in parallel. In a parallel system one failure means one light fails, but in a series system they all fail. Likewise, a free market capitalist economy has countless failures, which means people lose their jobs and investors lose money on a daily basis, but the failures are small enough that they don’t undermine the system as a whole. When a managed economy fails, it can and has led to the starvation and death of millions at a time. The Cold War in this context was really a victory for an economic rather than political system. Capitalism has reigned supreme since 1989 but Liberalism has not, as can be seen from the example of China.

The problem for Communism is that modern standards of living require mass cooperation, in order to create and maintain the very complex goods and services that we have become used to, and to achieve the productivity levels required to produce enough food despite so few of us working in agriculture. For that reason a true Communist society would, in my opinion, be an agrarian society. In a Communist society all goods are owned in common and not by individuals, and the managed economy is the system for distributing goods for individual usage. The problems associated with complexity in a Totalitarian state-managed economy are addressed by the relative simplicity and small scale of a Communist society. It can be further addressed in a democratic Communist society because everyone can have a say in how the economy is managed, making it a less centralised system. If you can forego the amenities of modern life then Communism has much to commend it.

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