ISA Research Committee on Rational Choice (RC45) presents:
Current Challenges in the Mirror of the Past
University of Zurich, Switzerland
Somewhat tired and perplexed – that was how in 2015 the Western world commemorated the end of World War II seventy years ago. Challenges as terror, war, and migration, being complex and puzzling no less than those of the 1930s, shatter the former complacency of having built a sustainable world order on the ruins of 1945. Even commemoration has changed its face: Over decades, every new groups of former victims have been included into remembrance. This year, the usual rituals suddenly reminded how many people currently die.
This parallel of challenges should be, however, more a stimulus than a hindrance. It opens the perspective towards changes necessary to cope with the current problems. Instead of seeing the current challenges as signs of an end of modernity, they can be read as signs for a current transition to a second step of modernity – far beyond what Ulrich Beck discussed thirty years ago. Parallel problems result from two steps of modernity, each in a stage of transition when organization already follow new rules while societies and their institutions did not have implement the new logic. Between 1813 and 1930, the modern principles of rationality and deliberation were implemented around organizations as household, firms or parties. But it took a long, bad period until the macro-social acceptance of collective bargaining provided a stable base for industrial society after 1945 – at least in societies that were used to the European (and Japanese, and partly Indian) tradition of stable group bargaining structures under generally accepted institutions. The introduction of the modern principles of rationality and deliberation within these organizations, however, started only in 1968, and the related macro-social arrangements are not yet established. This is where the current problems come from: Democracy based on organizing society in groups works less and less in Western societies and did never work as well in societies outside group-related traditions and on the supra-national level. Labor relations based on organizing society in groups excludes more and more people in Western societies and did never work as well in Non-Western societies.
Currently, societies’ power positions are occupied by cohorts that grew up in times of industrial society stability and hence tend to attribute stability to the group-based institutions which in between have turned from being the solution to being part of the problem. The speed of generational sequence has more or less stayed the same, so, starting in both cases with a terrorist attack, the time from June 28, 1914 to 1949 may relate to a time from September 11, 2001 to 2036, until power positions will be filled by “millennials”. The latter do no longer attribute social stability to group affiliations but to individual social networks. What is being perceived as normal is already changing, and in about 20 years this process will be completed.
But what kind of specific institutions will emerge in this process? Which changes will result to cope with the more individualistic setting of these days and of the Non-Western (and Non-Japanese and Non-Indian) world? To understand this, we have to step back a bit to a more general understanding.
Generally, the increasing complexity of society means that less is fixed. Modern rationality and deliberation imply more decisions. Efficient decision-making needs the creation of responsibility, co-operation of individuals and organizations to make use of the mutual advantages of both levels, and hence a linkage between both levels (to make inter-level co-operation possible), and competition (to assess the performance of organizations).
In the crisis of the 1930s, competition was the crucial point. From the past, people were used to unquestioned authority, and first experiences with competition violated stability images that had been shaped against the background of the Thirty Years‘ war and other case of collapsing order. The answer was the fascist attempt to eliminate competition in politics and labor relations. After its abysmal end, Churchill ironically described democracy as “the worst form government, except all that have been tried” – and surprisedly, everyone nodded: As unexpected matter of course, industrial society was now tied to a commitment to democracy and workers‘ rights, since appropriately regulated campaigns and labor disputes efficiently transmitted information about scarcity relations and power relations in a world that had become more complex. Compared to this, the linkage between individuals and organizations was rather trivial, because the combination of modern competitive relations between organizations and traditionally stable relations between organizations intensified the occidental assignment of individuals to groups, so that organizations (parties, unions, schools) needed to address only groups.
Currently, this situation has turned: Although currently critique of competition is en vogue again, people are used to it. But the linkage between individuals and organizations has become problematic. Responsible linkages between individuals and organizations collide with images of privacy that have been shaped against the totalitarian background of the 1930s but have gathered momentum in a way that currently hinders social development. This is where efficiency is hidden, and it will be used, simply because this is the only way out of the current crisis. The individual linkages between people and their organizations will become more efficient, and with a newly appropriate regulation they will allow the provision of information transmission and responsibility allocation as efficient as necessary for today’s increased complexity levels.
With regards to politics, the problem is vote detachment: We fear violations of ballot secrecy, set a taboo, throw our vote into the ballot and take back our hand. And hence we deprive ourselves of all possibilities which are included in keeping that linkage. Although the responsibility of last resort for every decision is with people, the people is always kept away of most of these decisions, and although in most areas other groups apart from parties have much more knowledge than parties, these advocacy organizations are completely excluded from formal decision-making and relegated to informal lobbying processes. But when the taboo is tackled, liquid democracy will be possible that stores trust assignments – encrypted, hence extensively secure, but of course never perfect safe against possible insight. But that allows to make more decisions subject of a ‚liquid‘ flexible direct democracy where those who do not want to the cognitive investment in an own opinion can be represented through their stored trust assignments and the positions of the supported groups. This allows to integrate specialized organizational competence, most legitimacy problems of current votes cease, and even the danger of a tyranny of the majority can be banned.
With regards to skills and work, the problem is leaving school: We fear violations of independence, set a taboo, and leave school, university, and every coach and career counselor on our way, pay the bill (or others pay it for us) and go our way. And hence we deprive ourselves of all possibilities which are included in keeping that linkage. The appropriate incentive for all these organizations on our way should not be to be paid when we leave but to add to economic autonomy, performance and development over our trajectories. But when the taboo is tackled, economically responsible support becomes possible that pays education, training and coaching for their factual contribution to individual human capital, including liabilities in the opposite case. This eliminates the problem of being left on one’s own that is, as stated by either inequality or unemployment figures, or both, overwhelming for an increasing part of populations even in the advanced economies, not to speak of other parts of the world.
Currently, these taboos are still valid. They are so valid that even related research is difficult. Universities, funding institutions and even journals and publishers focus on research that is directly applicable and questions current institutions at most in single aspects. And for the sketched institutions, a lot additional knowledge is needed.
But in only ten to twenty years from now, such knowledge will be available, and institutions as sketched (or along similar lines) will structure the political and economic world distinctly different than it is today, and help solving the current problems – plus the global environmental problems that are here to stay anyway, with an unprecedented increase in relevance and a complete impossibility to be solved within the current institutional framework.
As example take a small sketch of how different would the world look like with the future institutions with reference to the current migration problems. Migration arises in countries where neither of the industrial-era dichotomy of group-oriented Western democracy and old-style dictatorship does any longer fit and the false friends (or inappropriate attempts to cling to one of these old alternatives) have created political or economic chaos and in many cases both. Liquid democracy allows true democracy based on individualized trust relations and hence sets a framework in which individuals will re-gain the perspective to understand their polities as their own and hence develop the norms to respect the other and the guts to be responsible for that. Responsible coaching on the other hand develops the much-needed individual skills to convert a stable political framework into growth and development.
Hanno Scholtz is currently a lecturer at the universities of Zurich, Konstanz, and Fribourg, after studies in economics, political science and sociology, and former positions at other Swiss and German universities. He holds board positions at the ISA research committees on Comparative Sociology and on Rational Choice Sociology. Contact: email@example.com
Images: Banner photo collage by the author (cc Hanno Scholtz 2016; based on the following images: September 11, 2001 by Robert J. Fish; CC Wikipedia, Sarajevo 1914 by Achille Beltrame, PD Wikipedia; Migration 2014 by Vito Manzari, CC Wikipedia; Migration 1947: unknown author, PD pikiwiki.org.il; Lehman Collapse: PD (newspaper frontpage); Black Friday 1929 by unknown author, PD Wikipedia, Fall of Berlin Wall 1989, CC Wikipedia; Paris Barricades 1848 by Horace Vernet, PD Wikipedia). Photo of the author by Vera Markus, © 2015, www.veramarkus.com.
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