Reading Francis Fukuyama’s new book, The Origins of Political Order, the comparisons to today are just too easy to make. A jumble of people latching on to opportunity only to gradually sort themselves out into winners and losers. The winners are the tiny percentage who were able to parlay one advantage or another, often with a lot of hard work thrown in, to increase their advantage over the rest of the population.
Fukuyama’s emphasis is on the decay of political order as well as its rise. An equilibrium cannot last; changes are generated internally (technology) and externally (immigration) and things begin to shift around. Around the year 0, give or take 400 years (Chinese history, like its census, requires large numbers), the Chinese, as a civilization, established the first state, something Rome did not accomplish. It had order, laws, accountablility, and stability.
Various changes allowed certain families, lineages, to restrict access to government to themselves, thus cutting out pathways to success for the bulk of the population. I was struck by one major manoeuvre: tax exemptions. Eventually, the government fell into the hands of a power elite which then so dominated the country that rebellion was assured, bringing an end to their lineage.
That got me to thinking about how things in this country settled down after WW II. Just as in China, our population was growing but able to move away from onerous burdens, except the slaves. Once the country was settled, we went through economic dislocation during the Great Depression, but after WW II, equilibrium of opportunity was reached, culminating in the Civil Rights Movement, which reached to the most despised elements of the population, racial minorities, and enabled opportunities earlier undreamed of for them.
Over the last couple of decades, we have seen the rise of an elite, protected lineages whose off-spring enjoy the benefits of wealth, thus giving them access to more and more restricted opportunities. A religion, like Confucianism, has arisen to justify the wealth and opportunity gap, telling us that questioning the economic order is somehow irreverent and unpatriotic. Those elites gather themselves into corporate and government entities and, as in ancient China. their access to the government allows them to propagate laws and politices which further entrenches and enriches them, at the expense of the bulk of the population.
But the bulk of the population is lulled by the religion: told of American exceptionalism, meaning we cannot go down so don’t worry about the widening wealth gap; fed lies about foreign countries and our relationship to them; signed up for wars designed to fatten the coffers not of the nation but of the corporations. Censorship, made easier by the accumulation of media outlets into the hands of a few who are related to the elite, generates images crafted to lull us further with entertainment and stranger and stranger food – bread and circuses, we might call it.
I’ll add to this as I read on in Fukuyama’s book.