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Anyone Else Having a Foreboding of Large-Scale Global Instability?

March 3, 2021 19 comments

As many know, I have a strong interest in many areas beyond my professional expertise. One of them is history, specifically as reconstructed from multiple independent and often contrary sources. The context of historical events also matters. It is, for example, hard to understand why WW1 kept going for over four years even though almost every party in that conflict was losing people and material on an industrial scale over that timespan. Hint: it had as much to do with ideology of nationalism, race-based ethnocentric beliefs and mass culture as it to do with the productive capabilities of industrialized countries. My point is that all “official” history is outright bullshit and the past can only be only understood by careful reconstruction of the course of events as seen from multiple viewpoints in the proper context.

With that in mind, let us talk about an interesting pattern that keeps popping up throughout history- but especially within the past 150 years. Outbreaks of large scale wars, civil wars, collapse of empires and widespread generalized global instability tend to follow a general pattern. To better understand what I talking about, let us focus on a few events in past 110 years such as WW1, collapse of some old European empires in its aftermath, inter-nation conflict in eastern Europe during 1920s, warlord era in 1912-1949 China, WW2, post-WW2 collapse of European colonialism, collapse of USSR, beginning of collapse for american empire after 2003 etc. Ever wondered if there is a common thread running through all these events other than them occurring within past 100 years?

Well.. there is one. As it turns out, almost nobody was able to predict that these events would occur even 3-5 years before they occurred. But why were so many unable to foresee a course of events which in retrospective seem inevitable? Why were all the “geniuses” and “experts” of that era unable to foresee how disastrous WW1 would turn out? One possible explanation is that too many of these “experts” had such a strong vested interest in the status quo that they were unwilling to consider a world where that would change. But why were the contrarian “experts” of those eras also blind to the actual likelihood of these massive and systemic events. What cause almost all the “smart” people of that era to ignore the obvious?

Here is my hypothesis about why so many were oblivious to the real risk of large systemic events. The short version is that even decaying systems appear far stronger than they turn out to be under real stress. This is why, for example, why the Ottoman Empire, Romanov dynasty and Ottoman empire looked far stronger in 1914 than they turned out to be under real-life adverse conditions. This is also why nobody foresaw the collapse of USSR and all those other communist regimes in Eastern Europe as late as 1986. It is also why the USA of 2003 thought they had the capability to occupy Iraq and subdue all those pesky Arabs in that country. Or why almost nobody imagined that the GFC of 2008 would occur.

Complex systems, especially highly-centralized ones, are always much more fragile than they appear. BTW- China is a significantly more functionally decentralized system than USA or other western countries. And this leads us to the next question- how do we determine which systems are fragile or whether current trends will lead to some “unforeseen” outcome? Let me answer the second question first. See.. to model the effect of any trend, you have to first identify it. For example, the effect of European style nationalism on intra-ethnic conflict were not fully appreciated until after WW1. But could this trend have been identified before 1914?

Well.. yes, because the problematic effects of “modern” nationalism were obvious in Balkans and outlying parts of the Ottoman empire for at least a couple of decades before WW1 started. Similarly, the ability of industrialization to prolong wars and fundamentally change their nature was obvious as far back the american civil war and hard to ignore after the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The arms race, colonialism race and potential for conflict among European countries were obvious for at least two decades before WW1. So why did even the contrarian “smart” people of that era ignore these obvious trends? The simple answer is that they thought that a system which could handle all these trends and contradictions for a decade or two would be able to keep doing so indefinitely.

This is also why, for example, all of the signs of socio-economic stagnation in USSR and other East-European communist countries which began in early-1970s was ignored and seen as unimportant till it wasn’t. It is also why so many western China “experts” were unable to see the real long-term effects of outsourcing manufacturing on a huge scale to that country. But what does any of this mean for the era we live in today? For starters, we live in an era of multiple systemic trends which will end in disaster- sooner or later. Consider, for example, how USA and the west approach nuclear proliferation. You have to a pretty delusional white ivy-leaguer, if you think that DPRK is going to give up or even slow down its acquisition of nuclear weapons and ICBMs. The same is now almost inevitable for Iran and they too are very likely to go down that particular path in near future.

Then there is the issue of continued and escalating conflicts with Russia on a number of issues ranging from oil and gas pipelines to nuclear weapon deployment and proxy wars. Then there is the trend of China becoming the predominant manufacturing superpower and largest functional economy of our era- without accepting western-style financialism. Did I mention that they also have nukes and ICBMs. We cannot forget that all of this occurring in addition to the slow-motion collapse of american military capabilities and civil society in addition to a profound demographic decline among its European allies. We cannot also forget that the “west” has been in a state of technological stagnation for past twenty years while rest of world has either caught up or moved on. All these systemic trends are adding up rather quickly.

Now add in the massive socio-economic issues caused by the botched handling of COVID-19 pandemic by western countries. Do you really think that public trust in public institutions of those countries has not experienced a serious decline within past year. So you really think all the half-assed and open-ended authoritarian measures instituted by these countries won’t cause serious blow-back and greatly increased levels of political polarization. I just don’t see a way how the combination of multiple and irreconcilable systemic trends exacerbated by more acute trends such as those caused by mismanaging COVID-19 pandemic can lead to anything other that widespread global instability that will upset the rotten status quo.

And yes.. there are other trends and issues such as precarity and childlessness of younger generations in western countries which I have barely touched upon in this post.

What do you think? Comments?