By Roland Watson

In the introductory article on human cycles, I presented Giambattista Uico's theory of history. He said that as society becomes increasingly individualistic, it tends to disintegrate into chaos and anarchy. Our society, institutional form notwithstanding, is increasingly individualistic. And, it does show evidence of anarchy. The questions is, is this what he was referring to? Is his prediction coming true?

Actually, our individualism is a necessary reaction to institutional form. When individuals are strong, and institutions weak, the social group is considered to be paramount. We do what we can to strengthen it. However, when this strengthening occurs, and then evolves into dominance, the balance shifts. The individual is then seen as more important, and in need of support.

Social failure in the 21st century

The world in the 21st century is in many ways the same as Uico's world of the 18th century. Individuals in both lived - or live - under the constraints of death, and the unfathomability of the universe. Also, we share the impositions of social conformity, such as inequitable class structure.

On the other hand, the 18th century lacked today's extreme population pressure and technological nightmares, and consequent environmental and cultural destruction. There is also no comparison between the 18th century and the unimaginable social complexity of modern life.

Still, that does not undermine Uico's argument, and insofar as the anarchy increases, and leads to a general social collapse, it will actually validate it. The question, though, remains. If this occurs, what will follow the collapse? Will there be a new primitivism, as he suggested, or something else? And, to what extent are we now undergoing a social breakdown? Again, it varies by country and culture, but there are many disturbing signs.

National decline

At the national level, there are mixed signals. One positive indication is that in recent decades there has been a decline in the number of political dictatorships worldwide. First in Latin America, and then in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, many totalitarian states have been defeated by democratic forces.

Still, there are unsettling trends. Many of these newly democratic nations are barely functioning. Their institutions, ironically, are too primitive and powerless to deal with modern conditions.

The risk of reversion to dictatorship through a military coup is ever present. Also, the new democracies are experiencing an increase in lawlessness and other forms of social disorder, such as the rise of distinct groups, usually ethnically-based, which are struggling for autonomy.

This process is actually leading to the formation of new criminal states, which are known as "kleptocracies," where the leaders, the new "democratic" elite, use their privilege and authority to pillage their nations' resources, and the ordinary people are powerless to stop them.

In many cases, these new elites are working closely with unethical corporations to accomplish their exploitation. This in fact represents an evolution in the nature of dictatorship. Newly liberated states, nominally democratic, actually function as autocracies for the benefit of their corrupt elites and their international corporate partners.

Of course, many traditional dictatorships remain. And, their authority is becoming even more entrenched due to their own alliances with these corporations, which provide them with the financial resources that they need to maintain their repression. For example, this is clearly what has happened with China.

We're not there yet

Still, there is not much real anarchy around, just a lot of the repression and disorder that we have had for millennia, albeit in new forms or from new sources. Indeed, the likelihood of real anarchy is remote, perhaps even impossible.

In the abstract, anarchy is the absence of organization or structure; of form. In a social context, though, it can be viewed in a number of ways.

In its historical derivation, anarchy translates as "against rule." This website can even be considered to be "anarchistic" under this definition, since it opposes the unchecked rule of social institutions.

More generally, people call themselves anarchists because they are in opposition to current social norms. They defy the law, and engage in other forms of rebellion. Such anarchists, though, usually have an idea of the social system, the new form of order, with which they intend to replace the current system, and as such their anarchism can be seen as a means to this end.

Real anarchy

Following a strict definition, though, an anarchist is a person who so dislikes the social order that he or she wants to destroy it, at any cost. The dislike is so great that the anarchist does not care what comes after. Anything, any possible outcome, no matter how bad, would be better, would have to be better, than what we have now.

We know that humans look forward. We also tend to look up, ignoring the many serious problems that we have caused. Anarchy can actually be viewed as a positive reaction to this. Many people do not blind themselves. They see and, to a degree, understand what is happening.

But, there are serious consequences to their vision. They regularly fall victim to despair, and are prone to self-destruction. Some people also become misanthropic. They end up detesting humanity for what we have done, and for the apparently irreversible course of our behavior.

To such people, anarchy can actually be viewed in a positive light. The consequences of social chaos may be terrible, but they still hold onto the hope for change on the other side, that after such a cataclysm we will come to our senses and correct our wrongs. And, of course, in at least one way they are right to remain hopeful. Given the uncertainty of life, anything is possible.

But, I hasten to add, there are few such anarchists, either with this belief, and certainly with the courage to act on it. And, in any case, even if a small group of anarchists, as individuals or in an organized fashion, did create serious disorder, their efforts would soon get out of hand - go off in unexpected and, surprisingly, to the anarchists, quite possibly unwelcome directions.

The reason for this is that a social order is equivalent to a power structure. Destruction of that order creates a power vacuum. Without a new form of order ready to be installed, others will step into the vacuum and attempt to take advantage of it.

Anarchy is an extreme form of rebellion, and as we have seen rebellion is easily misdirected. Situations with anarchistic aspects, such as in the states that came into being following the collapse of the Soviet Union, are soon exploited.

This occurs either by criminal elements, who use the disorder to increase greatly their criminal activity, or by neo-dictators, who seek to foment nationalism and social outrage, and then establish new autocracies with themselves at the helm.

Also, many other great risks remain. While the possibility of a third conventional world war is slim, the probability that an incident of nuclear terrorism will occur, and lead to a dramatic escalation, is great enough to be statistically significant and it is probably growing each year.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of an act of nuclear terrorism, but there would unquestionably be a spike in social disorder, which at a minimum would be difficult to calm down. Indeed, we can already see that states that face terrorism-generated unrest - this is largely in the Middle East and Asia - generally react to the unrest with force, which only fuels it even more.

Environmental collapse

Our continuing destruction of the natural environment is another possible trigger of widespread anarchy. We seem unable to halt the destruction that we are causing, of bioregions and species. But this destruction, as I have said, will also have major consequences for us.

The world is heating up. This is leading, first, to areas that are becoming simply too hot for us to inhabit. More generally, deserts are spreading. Our supplies of clean water are at risk, and also our food production. Moreover, with our ever-expanding population, we require more food and water. This means that social dislocation, accelerating social dislocation, from food and water shortages, is certainly possible if not likely.

Indeed, as a species we appear to be following a survival pattern that mimics that of insects. This is where a life form strives to increase its population as much as possible. That way, if it does encounter a major threat, at least a few members survive to perpetuate the species.

Humanity is trapped in its own evolutionary insect phase. The irony, though, is that with our advanced consciousness, we don't have to be. Many people understand what we are doing, to the world and to ourselves. We just haven't found a way yet to stop it.

Technological nightmares

The final risk we face is from other unintended consequences of technology. We are rapidly digging into, and manipulating, the deepest levels of the organization of life. Other than the scientists who are involved, though, very few people are aware of how quickly such fields as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, self-replicating and self-assembling systems, robotics - including robotic weapons, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology, are expanding.

These fields pose profound risks. But the scientists, in their rush to discover something new, are paying scant attention. The possibility that they will open Pandora's Box, and unleash a new type of plague, is growing every day. Also, this is not limited to unintentional consequences. New technologies spawn new opportunities for terrorism, including bio-terrorism.

Indeed, the price of the laboratory equipment for genetic engineering is falling rapidly. Soon, if not already, mad scientists - it's like right out of the movies - will be able to engineer new illnesses, in their own personal labs, which illnesses have high mortality are able to spread quickly, and for which we have no defenses.

In conclusion, we are still a long way from a planet-wide social collapse. However, the risk of one is growing. Certainly even a few decades from now things will be much worse than they are today. Moreover, if any of our technological nightmares come true, including through terrorism, the collapse will arrive much more quickly.

In the next article, I will examine social breakdown at the individual level.

© Roland Watson 2014