IS THE MODERN WORLD BETTER?
By Roland Watson
This series of articles is about the future of human society. To begin, it has been observed that the general level of faith in and focus on the afterlife, is a reflection of the degree of optimism or pessimism in a society. Great interest in the afterlife, and in superstition in general, as occurred in Europe during the "Dark Ages," reflects a world in disorder. The afterlife and other such beliefs are viewed as a solution, a hope, and a goal. On the other hand, in better times the emphasis shifts. People become engrossed with their lives, and seek to take advantage of the new opportunities that are available to improve them. The idea of the afterlife recedes into the background.
A superficial appraisal
As a measure for the present day, one would have to conclude that the prevailing mood, worldwide, is optimistic. And, in fact, doomsayers notwithstanding - and I hope you don't think I am one of them - most people, in most nations, would probably say that the times are good. The basic reason for this is that the world is undergoing a great rate of change. The last century saw the greatest rate of change, by a tremendous order of magnitude, compared to any other time in human history. The world as a whole is experiencing great volatility, and in a sense we are all on the inside, acting as traders, seeking to take advantage of it. This in turn supports what I said earlier, that change in general is positive, and that it should not be feared or cut off through inflexibility.
But, the question must be asked: Are we essentially shallow beings, and is this only a surface judgment? Are modern times truly better? The conditions vary by country and culture, and it has also been noted that such optimism now fluctuates continually and rapidly based on short-term economic expectations. However, there are many positive signs. But, before I present these, I want to make it clear that:
- This is a judgment on present-day social conditions, in isolation of both short-term and long-term risks, which I will examine later.
- That it reflects issues which to a great extent, through world wars and science, were resolved in the twentieth century, and also those which await their resolution in the twenty-first, if they can even be resolved.
- And lastly, that a distinction must be made between meeting our basic needs as individuals, and achieving our higher needs and also our social goals.
How are you doing?
So, have we progressed, and if so, how? Well, first I would say that for most people, and certainly for most readers, there is no real threat to your person, relations and property, other than through accidents and random and improbable acts of crime. Your world is not going to end tomorrow.
Also, you will not become involved in a war or other such conflict. Situations like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria notwithstanding, and even given the uncertainty that results from having the most populated country, China, under the control of a brutal dictatorship, the world is at peace. There truly has been a "peace dividend," affecting the entire world, from the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the nations of the former Soviet Union.
(Ukraine is more of a problem between former Soviet Union states, rather than with - at least directly - the rest of the world.)
Indeed, tomorrow will probably be much like today, and because of this you do have a high degree of security. And, a significant part of this comes from the fact that in most nations - most nations are democratic now, at least nominally - there is the rule of law, which though regularly suffering abuses does provide you with some protection.
The establishment of this law, and its regulatory mechanisms, is one of the most important of all our human accomplishments.
Secondly, for general life conditions, we have better health care, education - including higher levels of literacy, and more nutritious and sanitary food and water, and, through all of this, increased life expectancy. One would have to say that the quality of our lives, as it relates to meeting our basic needs, has increased dramatically.
This is also the case with our higher needs, particularly for expressing our creativity. One of our core social goals is for everyone to cultivate their own creativity, and through increased education and broader exposure to life experience this is being realized. There has been a huge increase in our creative output, per individual and in total, and one consequence of this is that you, personally, can only expose yourself to a small amount of the latter.
One hundred years ago you could have, in your lifetime, read a good part of what had been written before. Now, and conversely, without institutional support, no matter how talented you are it is probably the case that only a few people will ever appreciate your creative efforts. The world of the past, where a few individuals stood out far above the crowd, is largely gone.
Of course, conditions do vary by country and culture. In many regions, including North and most of Central and South America, and Europe, democracy is established and population pressures have eased - slightly. But, in other areas, namely the Middle East, Asia and Africa, there are still great ills, which have resulted from overpopulation and also all of the environmental destruction that I have described. In addition, such areas are for the most part far from democratic, with all manner of government repression, including the most severe, still actively in force.
Unfortunately, through the actions of other institutions, dictatorship is present in democratic countries as well. It has evolved to new forms. Also, the governments of democracies themselves retain many authoritarian subsystems, including the military and the police.
Dictatorship is about power: the different ways that people get what they want. Anyone who tells you what to do is, or is trying to be, a dictator. Also, any social system where there is no independent judge, or right of appeal, is dictatorial.
As does inequality
More broadly, though, the problem, or continuing social ill, is the lack of equality. Starting with class structure and gender inequality, it is in many ways as strong as ever. We even still inhabit the age of human sacrifice. While there are few cannibals and headhunters left, we do still have sacrificial temple virgins. In a few countries, including India and Ghana, young girls are given - their "title" is transferred - to temple priests.
In Ghana, the girls, who are known as trokosi, are used as compensation for the misdeeds of their fathers. If a father is caught stealing, the punishment is not his imprisonment, but rather the sacrifice of one of his female children. The young girl must work for the temple for her entire life, and at puberty she is raped by the priest and becomes one of his "wives."
This is another example of "God's Law" and - like the effects of the Original Sin - of the transference of guilt, or actually of punishment, from one person to another. Also, this is obviously a male designed and implemented social system. It serves only the needs of the men, and it represents one of the worst imaginable forms of sexism.
Slavery, in its many forms, is of course still widely prevalent. It lives on in many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, and ranges from indentured laborers to the raising of young girls as a "cash crop," to be sold into sexual servitude. Then there is the modern ill of global sameness, the requirement that we all conform to the same standard, and all of the destruction of traditional culture that is associated with this; which we have seen is actually its goal. This is a type of slavery as well.
And social imbalance
More generally, what is happening is that there is an undeclared war over the social contract. Institutions have forfeited our loyalty. The result is that we strive for absolute individuality, and they demand complete submission. And, this is an unresolved conflict. Institutions have become stronger, but so too have individuals. The institutions have been unable to prevent this, but they are fighting back.
The obvious source of increased institutional power is physical force, such as through the government's greatly strengthened military and police. But, the less obvious source is the intense demand for conformity. Institutions are seeking increasing conformity, which they also attempt to enforce more rigidly, to reduce and if possible eliminate resistance.
This conflict, between individuals and institutions, is reflected in our lack of social balance, including the increasing number of dissidents and discontents. I believe it is of such great concern that it cannot be overemphasized, that so many children are now seen to suffer from "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder" - ADHD, and are prescribed drugs to achieve "stability." The fact that so many children have such problems means that our society truly is out of equilibrium, and the fact that so many people unquestionably accept the need for these "treatments" reveals their ignorance of this, and also their belief that we do have the answers to, and can control, everything. Any society that deviates so far from meeting real human needs, and which completely fails to grasp the implications of the chance aspect of existence, is in deep trouble and will prove to be untenable.
Indeed, there is an abundance of human sacrifices in modern society, more than ever before, including our children, lower class "losers," minority "enemies," and non-conformists.
And environmental problems
Next, there are the social concerns that derive from our environmental problems. These concerns exist now. They cannot even be considered to be part of the short-term future - although they will certainly be magnified in it. The types of effects I am referring to include: increasing cancer rates from toxins introduced into the environment, and from ozone depletion; the "jumping" of certain diseases, perhaps including AIDS, from other species to humans; loss of usable habitat and resources from over-exploitation, and the effects of this on personal livelihood; quality of life declines from haze created by massive burning in tropical rain-forests; and the social destruction and loss of life resulting from increasingly massive floods, including due to deforestation.
As another example, it has been predicted that global warming, in addition to increasing the volatility of climatic patterns and changes - we will see more and more extreme weather events, will lead to increased desertification, and hence great food and water shortages. However, in these predictions another, more immediate effect is being overlooked. In recent years there have been extreme heat waves around the world. For example, in Central India the temperatures have approached 50 degrees Celsius - 122 degrees Fahrenheit - every summer, for days or weeks at a time, and many people, perhaps thousands, die solely from the heat - from heat exhaustion and sun stroke. The question should be asked: What will happen if the temperature reaches 52 degrees celsius, or 54? What is the limit of human endurance to heat? It is not as if the people there have access to air-conditioning, and if such a limit is broached they will be forced to migrate to cooler areas. But, of course, many people will not make it.
The rise of activists
The final aspect of my judgment of modern society concerns activism. Even with all of the challenges that are involved, it has been working. There is greatly increased public awareness of such issues as civil rights, human rights, and the need to protect the environment. There have even been examples of massive, and effective, civil disobedience.
What this shows is that resistance can work. Centralized power has limits, too. The forces of centralized power have not yet found a way, other than through massive repression and extermination, to extend their reach to everyone. But, what we are seeing now is that corporate power, which lies largely in subtle techniques of enforcing conformity - and which is also less centralized - is in many ways stronger than government power, which is based on the application of force. Said another way, the classic axiom is that the pen is mightier than the sword. The modern restatement of this is: is the pen mightier than the bank account?
We shouldn't write the government off yet, though. And, I do not mean to imply that corporations are immune to the temptations of force. Governments commonly engage in suppression of activists. And many governments now have truly awe-inspiring surveillance, police and military power.
In summary, while activism has had a good effect, the forces arrayed against it - and us, the general public - are getting stronger. Also, in most countries it is difficult to attract new activists, because the public has been brainwashed so effectively.
In the next article, I will consider the social critics George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Ted Kaczynski.
© Roland Watson 2015