To Hell in a Hand Cart - Again

By Robert Mercer-Nairne

When, in 1923, Germans were forced to carry their depreciating currency around in hand carts, the world was well on its way to hell. Could history be repeating itself? Unless we can get a grip on the present situation, it easily could be. A characteristic of these violent disruptions in human affairs is that an over-arching order, which was thought to exist, turns out not to, and the baseline for decision making becomes raw survival. Trust between individuals and organizations collapses and in a dash to survive, their actions further undermine the fragility of the existing equilibrium, accelerating a downward spiral towards a more primitive basis of control.

To avoid this fate we need to understand how our human systems work. In the absence of consciousness we would be subject to our biological drivers. Species seem to be characterized by three drives, one tendency and one constraint. The three drives a species is subject to are: (1) the drive to maintain its structural integrity (so in human terms, to root for the home team, regardless); (2) the drive to reproduce (in human terms, to be subconsciously driven by sex), and (3) the drive to capitalize on its distinctive advantage (which, in human terms, translates into an attempt to dominate each other and our surroundings).

The tendency to mutate (which violates a species' structural integrity and occurs as a result of random outcomes that take place during reproduction) only comes to anything (gives rise to a new species) if the equilibrium a species is part of breaks down or is still fluid (allowing the mutation room to establish itself). In human terms, mutation becomes innovation, and as we know, human creativity only flourishes in an atmosphere that supports it: where there exists a conscious belief that creative change can improve our lives. A species' drive to capitalize on its distinctive advantage leads not to one species (or in human terms, to one tribe, one nation, or one giant corporation) conquering the earth, but to an eventual equilibrium with other entities similarly driven, on account of the fact that all are interdependent to some degree. This interdependence is the constraint.

With the evolution of consciousness, man has found himself in the position of being able to imagine future outcomes and so arrange his affairs in an attempt to attain them. However, these imagined outcomes tend to be of a general nature, such as the pursuit of happiness and frequently fall foul of the means we devise for achieving them. The idea of communism, for example, embodied a lofty objective but the methods used to attain it owed more to the law of the jungle than to intelligent and humane thought. The adage that the end either does or does not justify the means indicates that we are aware of the problem, even if we have not grasped its full nature.

What we have attempted to do is to build organizations that are intended to achieve specific functions, such as defense, government, the transmission and augmentation of knowledge, the resolution of squabbles and economic well being, that reflect our human aspirations. However, these organizations behave like proto-species, with 'minds' and agendas of their own, and although we repeatedly try to lock them into a moral equilibrium, one with another, the dynamic nature of things (variable personalities, technological break-throughs, external shocks) frequently disrupts it, allowing one or other of them to dominate, thereby moving us away from our human ideal. As an example, military dictatorships frequently emerge to re-establish order, when order has broken down, but at the expense of social diversity and individual creativity.

The difficulty we face is that the systems we put in place today, however well thought out, will not be effective indefinitely. The dynamic tension that powers them grows thin when the story that justifies their use in people's minds ceases to be believed. There are various reasons why this happens, but the two most obvious are (a) that a changing environment (which consists not just of the world around us but of our individual aspirations and understanding) causes us to see our existing arrangements in a fresh light, and (b) because organizations and those in them tend, like species, to be driven by an urge to survive rather than by an urge to achieve their original objective. We have tried to get round both these problems by instituting systems that enable governments to be chosen on the basis of popular will, and corporations to be formed that exist only for so long as they serve investor and customer needs. Unfortunately both these devices existed before the catastrophic failures of the early twentieth century, so neither is foolproof.

In fact the area in which we are weakest is precisely that of being able to stand back from our systems so as to adjust them to changing circumstances, before a serious crisis forces us to do so. And the danger of waiting for a crisis is that there is no guarantee we will end up with an improvement. Indeed, there is every likelihood that any new equilibrium we manage to establish will be based upon a cruder disposition of power - the downward spiral of the opening paragraph. So what threatens to take us to hell in a hand cart today, and how can we make this outcome less likely?

The recent financial crisis that has abated, thanks to an extraordinary conversion of private debt into public debt which governments will now try to pay down, with deflationary consequences, owes much to globalization. In effect, economic decision making out-ran our global political structures (as it has done before, most recently towards the end of the nineteenth century). The growing importance of the emerging economies, particularly China, and the commensurate weakening of American hegemony (the position Great Britain found herself in versus the rest of the world in the nineteenth century) has led to extreme imbalances which western politicians have tried to accommodate through leverage (consumer debt) and transfer payments. The former gave rise to asset bubbles and casino capitalism - essentially debt chasing its own tail. The latter has given rise to Greece (and to the problems simmering in a number of other European nations), where poor productivity was hidden for a time under the Euro blanket.

Intelligent control needs to be asserted over the global economy, but on a regional basis so as to make our problems more manageable. As an alternative to the present haphazard structure of the United Nations, eight regions suggest themselves: (1) North America, to include Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the peoples of the Caribbean and Pacific islands; (2) South America; (3) the European Union; (4) Russia, to include its former satellites in the Caucasus; (5) the Middle East, including North Africa; (6) Sub-Saharan Africa; (7) the Indian subcontinent; and (8) the Far East. In breaking the problem down in this way, global cooperation would be made easier and regional coordination more effective. For once, elected politicians (and dictators) should play second fiddle to technocrats. Their brief would be this: to stabilize the global economy, to create an environment in which private capital can seek out solutions and to support structures that promote individual freedom. Now is not a time for ideology or populist saber rattling, but for sound morals and smart thinking.

Robert Mercer-Nairne has previously published three novels and two collections of poetry. He has a doctorate in the field of organization theory from the University of Washington, Seattle. He lives in Malta with his wife.

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