Getting Back to the Roots of Nihilism and Cynicism in Modern Democracies: How to Rebuild Trust?
Clara H. Whyte
Executive Director, Paideia Mundi
Economist and Political Scientist
Article presented to the 5th International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP5), Barcelona, 2021
International Public Policy Association
Theme 1. Policy Process Theories
Panel 8. Rebuilding Public Trust in Policy-Making Processes Under Complexity
Keywords: democracy; oligarchy; neoliberalism; ethics; public affairs; leadership; trust; ecological civilization
Our times are characterized by rapid changes not only in science and technology but also in the fields of politics and even philosophy. Those are times of instability and anxiety, and our societies seem not to have a compass anymore to direct their actions. In the political sphere, that translates into a neoliberal political regime that is hacked by a minority of wealthy citizens more concerned with increasing their benefits than with the common good. For this reason, inequalities are constantly on the rise, and people are becoming increasingly cynical and nihilistic in the face of a political regime that while pretending to serve their interests, actually does the opposite.
In this article, we would like to get back to the roots of cynicism and nihilism in modern “democracies” to better understand how they emerged and where they came from, to come up with some preliminary suggestions on how to rebuild trust, a process that is as necessary as urgent.
To this end, we shall first show that the current political regime in place in most Western countries relies on duplicity, manipulation, and propaganda, and has lost track of the common good, hence inducing rising levels of cynicism and nihilism in citizens.
We shall then explain that this reality is the result of a long process of moral degradation which has led to the collapse of our worldview and the rise of new ideologies based on historicism, including neoliberalism, which are dangerous and destructive, and might lead to the emergence of new forms of totalitarianism.
This will finally bring us to suggest a series of preliminary ideas on how we can rebuild our worldview and our political regime to progressively implement a new ecological civilization based on values of life and freedom, rather than death, chaos, and destruction.
To come down with solutions, we first need to investigate thoroughly the problem or the set of problems that we are facing.
This first part will be dedicated to making a diagnosis of the situation we are currently facing, and why and how it leads to widespread nihilism and cynicism, a mindset that is very dangerous since it has been proven to be a precondition to the rise of totalitarian regimes.
First of all, we should get back to the roots of the political foundations of human societies. Why are human societies created in the first place? Why did people, at some point in history, shift from living in small tribes to founding major cities and states?
According to Cicero, the birth of city-states is related to the need that human beings felt to help and support each other to have access to more comfort and more safety. Hence, he states, “in consequence of city life, laws and customs were established, and then came the equitable distribution of private rights and a definite social system. Upon these institutions followed a more humane spirit and consideration for others, with the result that life was better supplied with all it requires, and by giving and receiving, by mutual exchange of commodities and conveniences, we succeeded in meeting all our wants.” And Plato to add in The Republic: “so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice.”
So here are the primary reasons why human beings decide to form major political entities and live together under the same laws: it is to get more comfort and safety, as well as better protection against injustice thanks to the establishment of a set of laws that ensures basic respect for the rights of all citizens.
Now, for those objectives to be reached, societies need to be organized, and there are several ways in which that can happen.
We call a “political regime the order, the shape that gives a particular society its specific character. It is at the same time its way of living, its lifestyle, its moral orientation, the form of the State, the form of its government, and the spirit of its laws”.
From there follows our next question: under what type of a political regime are Western societies currently living?
2.2 Liberal Democracies: Searching for a Balance between Collective Interests and Individual Freedoms
If we listen to the regular media and most political analysts and experts, we are currently living in so-called “liberal democracies”.
A democracy, as its Greek root entails, is the government of the “Demos” that is the government of the people, or said differently it is a form of government in which laws, conventions, and policies derive from free will of the majority.
However, all along human history, there have been different understandings and applications of the concept of democracy.
Liberal democracies generally recognize the right to exercise a share of political power to any national citizen beyond a certain age, independently of his or her fortune, gender, social status, etc. They rely on a “constitution that emphasizes the protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals, and which places constraints on the leaders. (…) They also tend to be characterized by tolerance and pluralism; widely differing social and political views, even those viewed as extreme or fringe, are permitted to coexist and compete for political power on a democratic basis.”
To work properly, liberal democracies rely on a series of preconditions though, ranging from a strong middle class to a flourishing civil society and a “loyal opposition”. The latter refers to a situation in which political competitors may disagree but still tolerate the expression of political views that might be very different from their own.
When looking at the state of our societies at this point in time, it is increasingly legitimate to question whether those preconditions still exist, and hence whether we are indeed living under the rule of “liberal democracies”.
In fact, over the past few decades, inequalities have been on the rise in all developed countries so much so that we are seeing the return of issues that we thought were now part of a remote past, such as child malnutrition.
What’s more, with the rise of the so-called “cancel culture” people are becoming increasingly susceptible and intolerant to ideas that do not correspond exactly to their political views and their interpretation of history.
As a consequence, at least two major preconditions under which liberal democracies can thrive seem to be on the verge of disappearing.
From there follow two more questions: if we are not in “liberal democracies”, under what type of political regime are we currently living, and what does this political regime consist in?
If we get back to Plato’s Republic, we learn that there are two types of political regimes that are particularly prone to see public institutions confiscated by a minority to serve its particular interests at the expense of the common good. Those regimes are tyranny (government of one man) and oligarchy (government of the richest).
If we take a look at the unprecedented levels of wealth concentration at a global level, it is hence fair to state that contrary to what common knowledge would suggest, we are not living under democratic regimes, and even less under liberal democratic regimes. The type of regime we are currently living in is an oligarchy, which is “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.”
If we take a look at the very high costs implied by participating in a leadership race to potentially become the leader of a major party in some countries, we are left with no doubt on the previous assumption.
According to Plato, this regime is neither fair nor good, and this for at least two main reasons.
First of all, it does not place the best citizens into power. It places the richest or their marionettes who are not necessarily the most skilled to lead a government. In this regard, Plato refers to the metaphor of a boat, and asks us to consider what would happen if instead of choosing the captain of a boat relying on his or her skills to operate a vessel, we would choose him or her based on his or her fortune: what would be our chances of reaching our destination without trouble? Now, says Plato, if we would not choose the captain of a boat in this manner, how come we sometimes do choose our government leaders relying on this method? Are not government affairs way more complex and important, with far more consequences in the long and the short term, than the driving of a boat? No wonder societies start taking on water when we go on to choose political leaders on such bases…
However, continues Plato, the problem of leaders selection is not even the biggest evil of oligarchic regimes. Their biggest evil is that they create a permanent state of internal conflict, a state of sedition in which society is not united but divided, between the rich and the poor, leading those groups to constantly fight and plot against each other, instead of being focused on building a good common future for all.
Because the rich are in power and have an edge, and because they intend to remain in that situation and continue to make government and institutions work in their own interest, they start plotting to create further divisions among the mob to reduce the risks that the latter, which is far more numerous, might be able to overthrow their power. And this is where the oligarchs begin to promote all sorts of lies to induce conflicts between the poorest. By doing so they are leading societies even further away from what they were first meant to be: places where all citizens find protection and safety. By doing so, they are leading societies even further away from the common good and promoting a form of political regime that works only for a minority, at the expense of the weakest. In other words, they are promoting a bad form of political regime, and hence bad moral values, bad institutions, a bad form of state, and a bad form of government.
This is exactly where we are in most “liberal democracies” at this point in time, and one just needs to take a look at the daily news to notice how divisions among the various groups are being actively promoted and encouraged. Hence, while we notice rising levels of disengagement – due in part to financial issues – in regular political affairs, we can also note that some groups in society are “increasingly politicized on the topics of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religious affiliation, and increasingly trenchant about staking and defending their identities therein.”
Contrary to what many people seem to believe when playing this game those various minority groups are not actively promoting their rights and liberties or any healing process. They are working at annihilating them altogether. They are serving the interests of the oligarchy by making the poorest majority incapable of joining its efforts to create a better common world for tomorrow since identity-based political advocacy lacks the “generalizable patterns or dynamics” required to mobilize a critical amount of citizens around them.
This leads to further isolation of citizens in their own particular bubbles and promotes ever-rising levels of social isolation and anomie.
In this regard, a Daoist quote is rather relevant. It states as follows: “Thereafter, the government altered with time. The leaders’ greed increased and, under their orders, there was only lust and lack of reflection. Common people, poor and miserable, were fighting each other. They were working hard without ever accomplishing anything. Smart manipulators and robbers appeared. (…) And as they tried to govern in this manner, disorder increased.”
The previous quote is relevant to the current state of “liberal democracies”, which we shall from now on call “neoliberal oligarchies”, in different ways, but one aspect to which we should pay particular attention is the appearance of manipulators.
In fact, neoliberal oligarchies correspond to a very malicious form of political regime that constantly promotes a wrongful form of equality, which we shall describe later, to create jealousies and rivalries among the majority, hence inducing divisions.
As Tocqueville already noted in Democracy in America “for a society to exist (…) the spirits of its citizens must be joined and maintained together by a few main ideas, and that cannot happen unless each of them regularly comes and searches his or her opinions at a common source, and agrees to receive preconceived beliefs. (…) As a consequence, whatever happens, there must always be a source of authority in the moral and intellectual world. (…) While citizens become increasingly equal and similar, their tendency to blindly believe a certain man or a certain class decreases, their tendency to believe the masses increases, and it is more and more opinion that leads the world.”
The problem with opinion as a source of authority is that it is very changing and easily manipulated. In modern times, the oligarchy has come down to the simple and easy conclusion that manipulating the masses was the best and easiest way to control them, way more efficient indeed than authority. In fact, you can easily rebel against authority, but manipulation is way more perverse and difficult to identify, and even if some citizens do identify it, they will often face the highest level of difficulty to open the eyes of their fellow citizens. This is probably why Prince Shang, one of the founders of Chinese legalism – a very Machiavellian school of political thought, stated that you should “rule the fools with deception and the wise with coercion”. This is what we are witnessing every day leading to damaging consequences and the loss of very valuable and principled people.
Now, how can you fool people into believing that they are still living in a democracy? How can you bring them to believe that they are still in control of political power and decisions when they are actually serving the oligarchy’s interests, and this even, if not particularly, when they believe that they are fighting for their own rights? Through manipulation and propaganda, obviously, and those are being implemented through two major avenues: education, provided that such an “education” would still deserve this label, and political communication.
As far as education is concerned, we have noticed a constant degradation of educational systems and of the contents they deliver over the past decades. That has led to a decrease in the basic abilities of people in all subjects, including reading, writing, and calculus, as well as in their capacity to show critical spirit. The “education” that is offered in most public schools in the Western world nowadays is a servile education aimed at forging obedient slaves rather than informed citizens. It is the opposite of what a humanist education should be and depriving future generations of their chance to create a better world at their image.
Having deprived citizens of their critical spirit, they become increasingly easy to influence and manipulate so as to get them surreptitiously to serve the interests of the oligarchy.
And this is where the most sophisticated communication tools, ranging from social media to neuropolitics are being used to get the people to follow, trust and vote for leaders that serve neoliberal interests which are far from promoting the common good, instead promoting such measures as trade liberalization which leads to the loss of local jobs, or financial tools and laws, such as predatory loaning that facilitate further enrichment of the neoliberal ruling elite, and further impoverishment of the masses.
As Plato stated in The Laws, “such governments are not polities at all, nor are laws right which are passed for the good of particular classes and not for the good of the whole state. States which have such laws are not polities but parties, and their notions of justice are simply unmeaning. (…) That state in which the law is subject and has no authority, I perceive to be on the highway to ruin.”
Never in history has image in politics been so important, so much so that it would be relevant to go as far as to state that many current political leaders are nothing more than good-looking marionettes at the service of neoliberal interests. In other words, apparent leaders are not the real leaders, they are only their marionettes. As such, they are chosen primarily on the basis of their physical attractiveness and their frivolity, that is on the fact that they look great but have very limited content and principles to offer, if not no critical spirit at all, be it due to a lack of intelligence, or to cowardice and corruption. They are great actors though, playing their role on the political scene as required from them. As Mario Vargas Llosa puts it in The Civilization of Spectacle, “popularity and success are conquered not so much through intelligence and probity than through demagogy and histrionic talent.”
Those who do not conform to those rules are being actively eliminated from the political circles and “disciplined” in different manners. “The just – stated Plato – will be scourged, racked, bound—will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just.”
On the other hand, “in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he has taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required by his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. (…) But I hear someone exclaiming that the concealment of wickedness is often difficult; to which I answer, Nothing great is easy. Nevertheless, the argument indicates this, if we would be happy, to be the path along which we should proceed. With a view to concealment, we will establish secret brotherhoods and political clubs. And there are professors of rhetoric who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies; and so, partly by persuasion and partly by force, I shall make unlawful gains and not be punished.”
What I am trying to show here is that we are currently living under a political regime that relies on duplicity constantly, pretending to be ruled by the people in the best interest of the people, when it is ruled by an oligarchy in its own particular interest. This reality is having devastating effects on the state and morality of our societies, and as people progressively become aware of the duplicity of the system in the face of rising inequalities, and of their own impoverishment, they turn, in the best case, to cynicism, disengaging from any type of political activities, or to nihilism, actively practicing immorality themselves since justice does not seem to lead anywhere in such a society, or even to extremism, promoting intolerance and violence against other groups of the society hence unknowingly serving the interests of the oligarchy while pretending to rebel and fight for their rights. In other words, duplicity is destructive to the highest level for the social fabric and slowly leading to its disintegration. We can barely imagine how justice and the common good could ever come out of a system that relies on lying and cheating all the time.
- Arendt showed in The Origins of Totalitarianism how duplicity had been a major promoter of the rise of the totalitarian Nazi regime. “Since the bourgeoisie, she wrote, claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values and general amorality because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.”
In this regard, the current situation should ring a bell in our mind, and we should pay attention to the potential rise of new forms of totalitarianism that, relying on the current state of science and technology, could be more oppressive and intolerable than any previous forms of totalitarianism.
Novel technological tools associated with social divisions and anomie, active political propaganda, and an education system that clearly shows totalitarian tendencies, could lead to new forms of totalitarianism in the 21st century that would make 20th-century totalitarianism green with envy…
Having established the fact that, contrary to common knowledge, we do not live under the rule of “liberal democracies” but rather in neoliberal oligarchic regimes in which the richest capture the institutions to serve their own interests at the expense of the common good, we need to analyze how this situation came about. In fact, we can only begin to offer solutions to a series of issues if we diagnose them well, put a name on them, and then have the courage to try and understand how they came about. This is what this second part is all about.
According to Leo Strauss, the current situation is the result of a long historical process of moral degradation which started when Machiavelli declared that aiming at transcendent values concerning human virtues was not realistic and that political action should rather aim at some more down-to-earth goals, hence proposing the glory of the Prince as its ultimate goal. To reach this goal, all the means can be used. It is the beginning of the idea that “the end justifies the means”, the idea that as long as that serves our glorious objectives, we can do anything without any consideration for higher moral values, or any standard of good or bad.
This statement is certainly in stark opposition to the values held by ancient philosophers. Hence, in De Officii, Cicero, stated that “if upon closer inspection one sees that there is some immorality connected with what presents the appearance of expediency, then one is not necessarily to sacrifice expediency but to recognize that there can be no expediency where there is immorality.”
In an interesting book entitled Zombies in Western Culture – A Twenty-First Century Crisis, a team of researchers of the University of Toronto (Canada) made the hypothesis that this movement of moral degradation was initiated by the trauma caused by the Great Plague, which would have shaken our worldview. This worldview, they say, was crafted by Judeo-Christianism, and major ancient thinkers such as Aristotle or Aquinas. It relied on the idea that “the story of God’s love inspired the rational mystical ascension of God, through the deep connection between the rational mind and the structure of the cosmos.” Hence, “the world was inherently meaningful, beautiful, rational, valuable, and spiritual.”
After the Great Plague and the horror it inspired, “the divine became something non-rational and arbitrary, almost absurd, and the inherent meaning of Aristotle and Aquinas’ worldview had been replaced by a growing sense that everything, including the self, was ephemeral, strange and something other than we ought to be.”
From there on, men would have begun to consider that they had to take charge of their own fate, which would have open the way to modern science but also to individualism and a will to free themselves from the rule of moral authorities.
On his side, Leo Strauss goes on explaining that the process of moral degradation was only initiated by Machiavelli and then deepened by the following thinkers with Hobbes stating that the main goal of political action should not be glory but power, and Locke saying that it should be profit and commercial values. So at the end of what L. Strauss calls “the first wave of modernity”, we had gone from setting our goal on transcendent values and virtues to focusing on profit and commercial values, quite a fall indeed.
Continuing his analysis, L. Strauss then goes on to describe what he calls the “second wave of modernity” which would have been initiated by Rousseau and which ended up in stating that the ultimate criteria to define justice, and the good and the bad, was the will of the majority. In that case, says Strauss, cannibalism could be considered a good thing as long as the majority would agree that it is. In other words, with Rousseau, it is the end of any superior criteria of justice. Justice is on the side of the majority, no matter what it decides and there are no outside and superior moral criteria that would enable us to disagree with the majority should it be wrong.
According to H. Arendt, this dissolution of all transcendent norms into relationships between members of the society that become established as “functional values” leads to the radically new idea that all things, including material things, can be put in an equation with values. Hence, she says, when debating whether value derives from work or capital, we tend to forget that at no other time in history had we suggested that value and not things are the result of man’s productive capacity. As a consequence, debates on values have become mainly concentrated within the field of economics, with one obsession: finding one material thing which could serve as a standard to measure the value of all the others. Those materialistic values, states H. Arendt, in their exchangeability and interchangeability, are the only values left to modern men, who appear to be people who have decided to “never get out of what Plato called the cave of human affairs, to never venture in a world that the integral functionalization of modern societies has deprived of one of its most elementary characteristics: being filled with wonder in the face of what is as it is”.
According to Leo Strauss, this long process of moral degradation finally ends in the “third wave of modernity” which is represented by Nietzsche and his nihilistic philosophy, leading him to make such terrible statements as:
What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.
What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness.
What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtu, virtue free of moral acid).
The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.
What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak.
(Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Chap.2)
The previous statement is very representative of how low our moral standards had arrived by the end of the 19th century. It denotes a huge inversion of values in comparison with ancient thinkers who advocated in favor of the protection of the weak as a moral duty for all, and this not only in Western culture but in any major moral traditions.
For example, Mengzi – one of the founding thinkers of Confucianism – mentions that “the old and wifeless, or widowers; the old and husbandless, or widows; the old and childless, or solitaries; the young and fatherless, or orphans – these four classes are the most destitute of the people and have none to whom they can tell their wants, and king Wen, in the institution of his government with its benevolent action, made them the first objects of his regard, as it is said in the Book of Poetry, “The rich may get through life well; But alas! for the miserable and solitary!”
In the face of such vileness, as demonstrated by Nietzsche, we shall no longer be surprised by the level of violence and destructiveness that was brought about during the 20th century with its wealth of bloody revolutions, world wars, and totalitarianism.
Nietzsche only used his incomparable literary genius to express ideas and feelings that had been quite generalized among the intelligentsia of his time.
Hence, H. Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism stated that the success of totalitarian movements had often been “blamed upon the morbidity or nihilism of the modern intelligentsia, upon a supposedly intellectual self-hatred, upon the spirit’s hostility to life and antagonism to vitality.” She further noted that “the elite went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in its “storms of steel” (Ernst Jünger). In the carefully chosen words of Thomas Mann, war was “chastisement” and “purification”; war in itself, rather than victories, inspired the poet”. Or in the words of a student of the time, “what counts is always the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made”. (…) And long before one of Nazism’s intellectual sympathizers announced “When I hear the word culture, I draw my revolver”, poets had proclaimed their disgust with “rubbish culture” (…). Destruction without mitigation, chaos, and ruin as such assumed the dignity of supreme values.”
The last words of the previous statement are just terrifying. They underline the end of a process that led to a complete inversion of values that our culture has gone through from ancient thinkers who promoted the highest human virtues as the ultimate goal of human actions, to contemporary thinkers who have placed “destruction without mitigation, chaos and ruin” as the supreme values on which to base human and, hence, political actions.
From there on, we cannot be surprised with the level of decadence and moral disintegration that we are witnessing in our societies, and which is exemplified by the level of destructiveness and violence expressed by many “masterpieces” and so-called “artists”.
Hence, in his book, The Civilization of Spectacle, M. Vargas Llosa describes with horror and disgust some contemporary masterpieces that were displayed at the “Royal Academy of Arts, a private institution founded in 1768” and that included a portrait by Chris Ofili of the Virgin Maria surrounded by pornographic pictures, or a portrait by Marcus Harvey of a famous child murderer, Myra Hindley, made up of children’s hands, not to mention a “masterpiece” by Jake and Dinos Chapman which represented children whose faces were replaced by erected phallus, or another one by Mat Collishaw which was supposed to show in the first plan the impact of a bullet on a human brain, but that actually displayed a vagina and a vulva.
This deadly culture does not restrict to the arts though. It is present in all spheres of society, including in social science, and can be noted in such diverse phenomena as the opioid crisis, environmental degradations, the education crisis, or even the repeated calls to giving up on having children for the sake of the Planet that are made by some extreme environmental militants.
In order to be sane and to stick together, society needs to share a set of common values that come together in the form of a worldview. In this regard, we have previously shown how the disintegration of our worldview had led to a disintegration of our scale of values, and this with devastating effects.
But, what exactly is a worldview?
“A worldview is two things: 1) A model of the world; 2) a model for acting in that world. It turns the individual into an agent who acts, and it turns the world into an arena in which those actions make sense.”
When this worldview disintegrates not only does the world not make sense to people anymore, but they also lose sense of their role and place in this world, and that can progressively and insidiously lead to the collapse of civilization and the return of barbarity.
After the collapse of our worldview, we have come to stick to materialistic values and to turn science into “an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence, and transform the human nature of man”. Hence, science has to some extent replaced God in the mind of modern men, and because science is a human creation, some have come to believe that human capacity was limitless and anything was possible and could be done in this world without any consequences whatsoever. As H. Arendt puts it, “nothing perhaps distinguishes modern masses as radically of those from previous centuries as the loss of faith in the Last Judgement: the worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope.”
Alongside this scientism, the Machiavellian downgrade of values has brought about positivism, which prohibits us to formulate any moral judgment relying on superior and timeless values. This positivism has led to another very important by-product of modernity, namely historicism. Since all men were made progressively more equal and the world began to be led by opinion at the expense of other sources of authority, it seemed like human societies were racing along a defined historical path on which no one really had control. This idea can be found in Hegel’s philosophy which states that “the universal spirit keeps on manifesting itself in historical events. (…) All that happened in history had to happen this way because such was the will of the universal spirit. This opens up the way to the various forms of historicist philosophies of the 20th century” including Nazism, communism, etc.
Historicism leads to some sort of fatalism. As Tocqueville also noted in Democracy in America, “historians who live in democratic times do not only refuse to a few citizens the power to act on the destiny of the people, they also strip the people themselves of the faculty to modify their own fate, and they submit them either to an inflexible providence or a blind fatality.”
As M. Eliade stated “historicism appears as a product of decomposition of Christianism: it grants decisive importance to historic events (what is a Judeo-Christian idea), but to the historic event as such, that means ripping it off of its ability to reveal a soteriological trans-historic intention.”
In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper demonstrated that historicism derived from a wrongful transposition of the rules of physics to the field of social science transforming what are only circumstantial historic trends into laws of history that would make it possible to predict the future. He then shows that the “central mistake of historicism” is that “its laws turn out to be absolute trends; trends which like laws, do not depend on initial conditions, and which carry us irresistibly in a certain direction into the future. They are the basis of unconditional prophecies as opposed to conditional scientific predictions.”
To the question, “Can there be a law of evolution?” he answers a clear “no” and goes on to state that “the search for the law of the unvarying order in evolution cannot possibly fall within the scope of the scientific method, whether in biology or sociology.” Why so? Because “the evolution of life on earth, or human society is a unique historical process”, and “its description is not a law, but only a singular historical statement.”
Yet, many philosophies and ideologies starting with Hegel, followed by Marx and communism, or Nazism, rely on historicism and consider that History is irresistibly conducted by scientific laws in a definite direction. Totalitarian ideologies hence pretend to have discovered those laws and rely on them to make prophecies on what the future of society will be. Once those prophecies are defined, they consider that it is the role of political leaders to ensure that those scientific laws can unfold freely and unrestricted to reach the desired future state they have defined. For this reason, totalitarian regimes hate human spontaneity and creativity which might get in the way of the realization of their prophecies, since spontaneity and creativity are precisely those human aptitudes that make it possible to create something perfectly new and that nobody had ever thought about before. As a consequence, totalitarian ideologies and regimes have one major goal: to annihilate human freedom and spontaneity, so that they do not get in the way of the scientific laws of history, and delay or cancel the occurrence of the wishful future that their prophecies have defined. To this end, they use scientific tools to terrorize or even exterminate and degrade human beings.
As H. Arendt put it “their hideous discoveries in the realm of the possible are inspired by an ideological scientificity which has proved to be less controlled by reason and less willing to recognize factuality than the wildest fantasies of pre-scientific and pre-philosophical speculations.”
And K. Popper to add, “we have all the time to try and imagine conditions under which the trend [on which the totalitarian prophecies are based] in question would disappear. But this is just what the historicist cannot do. He firmly believes in his favorite trend, and the conditions under which it would disappear are to him unthinkable.”
From a political perspective, historicism has very severe consequences. Not only does it lead to fatalism, but it also justifies the most hellish scientific experiences on human nature (and on other living beings). Since its goal is to free the laws of history, it no longer searches to establish public policies and to build a society in favor of the common good and to make it fit human needs, but rather it goes on to establish societal models and policies to fit its historic prophecies. Human beings, and other living beings, are now the ones who are expected to adapt and fit into those models, rather than the opposite.
Since the results of historicist prophecies are for the centuries to come “that clearly removes any possibility of testing the success or failure of the new society” and “those who do not like living in it only admit thereby that they are not yet fit to live in it; that their human impulses need further organizing.”
Hence, this “utopian engineering” of society leads to two things: 1) a form of social Darwinism, with an “adapt or die” attitude typical, for example, of the current opioid crisis in Northern America; 2) an increasing emphasis placed on the use of pharmaceutical or psychological methods to bring those who do not fit into the models to adapt or at least manage to stand the new conditions yielded by its utopian projects.
In the field of social science, where value judgments have become almost inexistent in the name of scientificity, that leads social scientists to talk about “unstable and deranged, neurotic or inadequate people. But those value judgments part themselves from those used by major historians not by their higher level of clarity or certainty, but rather by their poverty: a good technician can be just as adapted, he can even be better adapted than a good man or a good citizen.” In other words, it is not a sign of mental health to be well adapted to a sick society, nor is it a sign of mental illness to appear as a social misfit in such a society.
In this regard, Confucius stated that “when a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.”
However, labeling people as sick or social misfits allows historicist engineers to practice the most hellish experiences on human nature, some of which appear to have more to do with pre-scientific primitive, if not simply, barbaric practices, than with real reasonable scientific experiences. Hence, H. Arendt showed how in the concentration camps, the Nazis were trying to destroy human nature completely under scientifically controlled conditions, to build a new man that would be completely adaptable and tractable. However, she adds, if we have sure proved we can destroy human beings, we have not yet proven that we can rebuild what has been destroyed afterward.
Those experiences appear to be actually rather irrational and to come close to the “initiations” that were practiced by some ancient tribes in which drugs, tortures, etc. were applied to give birth to a new man. It is, in fact, relevant to talk about “pre-rational” and, event, barbaric practices.
With a great share of our leaders and scientists sharing sympathy with those methods, no wonder so many people placed in vulnerable situations (orphaned children, children in boarding schools, etc.) are reporting to having been submitted to degrading and traumatizing experiences, and no wonder that those people go on to live with destructive behavior patterns having devastating effects on themselves and their relatives, and no wonder that our societies as a whole become animated by destructive and chaotic patterns.
This translates socially into the resurgence of primitive, if not barbaric social practices, such as the one of taking drugs to reach altered states of consciousness and that sometimes ends up in mental pathologies, if not death by overdose, or the “rave parties” during which thousands of people, often drugged, reach states of trance by “dancing” with their feet in the mud for hours on endlessly repetitive and deafening rhythms. As M. Vargas Llosa puts it, “this is the contemporary way, a lot more fun though, to reach the ecstasy that Saint Theresa or Saint John of the Cross would reach through asceticism, prayer, and faith.” Although, I personally think that those people far from having fun are in fact in terrible pain, a pain that they seek to escape by those means.
What the previous analysis shows is that our societies are indeed actively creating mental and social pathologies where there were none, and this is certainly not the sign of sane and ethical leadership at the head of our societies. In other words, many leaders – whether at the forefront or behind the scenes -are the ones who should be placed under check for mental health issues, or encouraged to practice the famous biblical saying which states that “you should consider the beam that is in your eye before looking at the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” That would at least have the merit to reintroduce a beginning of moral sense in those senseless beings.
This return of barbarity caused by the collapse of our worldview and historicism finds its expression in the various spheres of the life of our societies, and because materialistic values have become our main, if not our only values, it appears particularly clearly in the economic sphere under the name of “neoliberal economic order”.
This order can be said to be a historicism in the sense that it relies on a prophecy: the fall of all barriers to trade and free circulation at a global level will lead to an ideal world in which the wellbeing of all will be maximized by letting the market law, and more specifically the law of supply and demand, operate completely freely without any interference whatsoever. If things are not working exactly this way at the present time and we witness a lot of poverty and misery, neoliberal thinkers say, it is because some barriers are still in place and hindering the full action of the market law. For this reason, they argue, in order to reduce poverty and misery, we should not let nation-states intervene, but rather reduce their intervention even further so as to really liberate the full power of the market law. In this regard, those who are currently miserable and dying in poverty are just the unavoidable waste of the historical process that will lead to a perfectly free market that will create an ideal world for all at a global level.
Put in this way, it is very clear that neoliberalism is a historicism of the most fundamental type, and as such could easily slip into some forms of totalitarianism. It is no longer about making the system work for the people, for their wellbeing, and some higher moral and ethical values. It is about letting the law of history unfold freely until we reach a prophetic ideal world of free market and economy. Because such a completely free world is fictitious and will never happen in real life, this ideal world will never occur and so we can expect that neoliberal thinkers will have an eternal excuse to justify the deaths, destructiveness to the environment, and human tragedies that neoliberalism brings about. This is where we see the barbarity of our current state of decadence find its expression in economic terms, and this mainly serves the interests of the new globalized oligarchy who is the only social class that is yielding real and huge benefits from this system. This neoliberal historicism, relying on the supposedly only social science which is truly scientific, namely neoclassical economics, becomes a justification to the sufferings imposed on the rest of humanity, and for the reformation of the latter by all means (pharmaceutical remedies, psychoanalysis, birth reduction, etc.). It has clear totalitarian tendencies, and if left unchecked might lead to some of the worst forms of totalitarianism ever witnessed thanks to the use of novel technologies such as biotechnologies, toxicology, microbiology, artificial intelligence, etc. It might be able to control people totally through artificial means, including using drugs and artificial intelligence, and through sanitary laws put in place to fight microorganisms that the oligarchy may itself create and propagate where and on whomever it wants. It might even come to a point where it will turn huge masses of people useless altogether thanks to the automation induced by the increasing use of artificial intelligence and robotics, hence justifying birth control measures, if not the massacre of huge masses of people starting with the “weak” namely the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, etc. New technologies would make it possible to make sick any person you want, hence condemning that person, for example, an ideological opponent, to death without appearing to be doing so. For this reason, we should be particularly careful to all those wishful discourses on birth control for the sake of the Planet, or on the right to die with dignity, which real purposes might be far less laudable as they might seem, and mark the beginning of one of the most oppressive forms of totalitarianism that humanity has ever witnessed.
I barely need to add that those methods could obviously also be applied, and are in some cases already being applied, to other living beings and even to the ecosystems and the major balances of the Planet. The time when we might be able to scientifically induce climate changes is not too far away, with scientific technologies such as “cloud seeding”, for example… hence justifying the prophetic and apocalyptic narratives on climate change and the calls to population reduction and collapse in living standards that generally come with it.
There is still time to wake up, but time is running out!
In the previous sections, we have first shown how Western countries are currently living under a political regime that pretends to be democratic but actually corresponds to a form of oligarchy based on duplicity, and that extensively relies on manipulation and propaganda to maintain and extend its power. This duplicity leads to widespread nihilism and cynicism, as well as to social divisions and anomie, which are all preconditions to the rise of totalitarian regimes. We then went on to explain how this situation came about through a long process of moral degradation that ended up placing destructiveness and chaos as the primary values of political actions. We have also shown how this collapse of our worldview led to the emergence of historicism which creates fatalism and also justifies wrongful and immoral policies.
Relying on those premises, we now realize that what we need to do goes way beyond the simple idea of “rebuilding trust”. What we need to rebuild is our worldview and the scale of values that comes with it. Once that is done, we should review our political regime so as to make it work for the common good. That will imply that we rethink the way our leaders are educated, selected, and promoted. To avoid falling into the pitfalls of historicism and its “utopian engineering” methods of building society, we should proceed to implement the changes by using a “piecemeal approach”, that is an incremental and adaptable manner, open to new ideas, debates, and criticisms.
All the previous changes, if properly managed, might lead to the emergence of a new ecological civilization that will ensure a better standard of living for all citizens, while promoting more respectful relations with other living beings and the Planet.
We are living in an age of huge and rapid change. Indeed, science and technology have evolved so fast over the past centuries, that humankind now has the aptitude to do things it had thought completely unreachable in the past, from flying in the sky to modifying the nature of other beings through genetic modifications or creating its new forms of intelligence with so-called “artificial intelligence”. This is both an amazing chance and a huge danger, depending on how we use those very powerful tools, whether for the good or the bad.
As a consequence of those huge changes, our epoch is facing a major value crisis which has resulted in the collapse of our previous worldview. The myths and philosophies of the past no longer give complete and adapted answers to the challenges of our times because they were designed at a time when human beings did not have the aptitude to do many of the things they can now accomplish.
For this reason, we are going through unstable and uncertain times characterized by a progressive paradigmatic shift, where new values, philosophies, and beliefs are going to emerge and provide better answers to the new challenges that we are facing.
Humankind faced a similar situation about 2500 years ago when several civilizations at the same time (China, Ancient Greece, India, Persia, etc.) reached what German philosopher Karl Jaspers has called the “Axial Age”. It was also a time when huge changes in human lifestyle and progress had made ancient myths useless. People did not believe in those myths anymore and so there was no compass left to orientate people’s thinking and actions, and particularly those of the political leaders. Those were times of instability, but they were also times during which new philosophies and religions emerged, coming up with novel answers to the new challenges faced by people.
It is generally agreed that all those new ideas relied on two major aspects: humanism, putting human beings at the center of their attention, and reason, giving human beings the aptitude to interpret and analyze their world independently of sacred forces and myths.
I strongly believe that we are currently undergoing a new “Axial Age” from which new philosophies and possibly new religions are going to arise. It is up to us to work at creating those philosophies, and ensuring that their ethical bases lead humankind in the right direction to avoid the massive destructions and damages that neoliberal forms of totalitarianism could yield.
In order to do so, we have an amazing tool at our hand which has been widely left aside since the beginning of the scientific revolution. This tool is political philosophy which, says Leo Strauss, is currently “in a state of decay or of putrefaction if it has not entirely disappeared.”
What is political philosophy?
According to L. Strauss, it is “the constant relentless and coherent effort to replace opinions on political principles with knowledge”, that is to substitute vague and changing ideas with timeless unchanging principles.
According to G. Vico, the reason why we have come to leave political philosophy aside is that it requires studying the “characteristics of the human soul and its passions with regards to civil life and eloquence, to the different properties of virtues and vices, to the good and bad ways of behaving, to the particularities of customs depending on age, gender, social status, fortune, nation, forms of government, etc. (…) We no longer study human nature because free will makes it too uncertain” and the “only end of research nowadays in the truth”, the reason why we prefer to focus on the “study of physical nature which seems to offer more certainty.” For this reason, “the doctrine of the State, which is so important and eminent, has been almost completely abandoned, and no one cultivates it anymore in our countries.”
The ultimate goal of political philosophy is to come down with absolute moral standards of good and bad on which we can base our thinking and actions so that independently of personal objectives or historical events, we have a compass to determine what we ought to do or not to reach the highest end, the one that we should strive to reach beyond all other ends. And this end, states Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics is the Good in its highest form, which then translates in terms of political objectives as the search for the “good life” or the “common good”.
Now, relying on the methods of political philosophy, I think it will be possible to progressively rebuild a worldview for ourselves that is a model in which the world appears beautiful and coherent, rather than absurd and terrifying, and in which our actions make sense.
I would like to suggest here some preliminary bases on which this new worldview should be based.
First of all, I believe that the use of reason that was developed during the “Axial Age” has brought about a lot of progress and positive changes for humankind. Consequently, it should be maintained as a primary tool of reflection to grasp and understand the world around us.
However, totalitarian ideologies have also shown what the consequences of misusing reason can have. Those ideologies come to use reasoning and logic independently of practical experience and reality. Reason becomes a purely abstract tool, a “movement of thought – and not a necessary control of thinking – applied to an idea” from which completely unrealistic, but apparently scientific, demonstrations can be derived.
In other words, the excessive use of reason as a pure demonstrative tool, independently of reality, can lead to unreasonable conclusions.
To avoid falling into this pitfall, I think we need to put reason under check from two elements.
One is reality, obviously, that is we need to ensure that our demonstrations remain grounded on facts and reality and that we do not escape into purely fictitious worlds of reasoning where one element follows for the other without any realism.
The other element is sensitivity. Human beings, other living beings, and even the universe we live in are not “ideal”. In this regard, they are not perfect and they are not always rational. Being reasonable also comes with recognizing this part of irrationality and unpredictability that exists in ourselves, in other living beings, and the universe, and learning to live with it rather than trying to control it. That requires an ability to understand the feelings of others, acknowledge them, and try and accommodate them whenever possible. This part of “irrationality” that we all have is also what leads to creativity and the invention of new ideas and concepts that might primarily have appeared to be completely quirky and, precisely, irrational.
However, this sensitive and creative part of ourselves can only express itself under one condition, and this condition should be one of the bases of our new worldview. This condition is freedom. Freedom gives people the right to do things their way, which includes the right to be conventional and gregarious, but also the right to be different and “weird” and to do things differently from others. It is this ability and right to be weird and different that yields innovation, including social innovations, and creation in all its forms.
In this sense, I believe that all moral traditions that leave people the freedom to choose their own path are more prone to lead to all sorts of improvements than those that use coercion to impose a way of being on the people.
Now, freedom associated with reason and sensitivity should result in our ability to think without dogmatism that is without fixed and preconceived ideas, and hence to remain open to other people’s ideas, including radically innovative ones.
Contrary to what we often hear, the absence of dogmatism was one of the cardinal values of major thinkers in history, and a key to philosophical progress.
For example, in The Analects, we read that “there were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.”
And in his Confessions, Saint Augustine also stated that “were I to indite anything to have supreme authority, I should prefer so to write, that whatever truth any could apprehend on those matters, might be conveyed in my words, rather than set down my own meaning so clearly as to exclude the rest, which not being false, could not offend me.”
Relying on those premises, we shall be able to develop flexible ethics that will nonetheless include some timeless elements of good or bad. For example, respecting others and their freedom to be different or “weird” could be one of the timeless and universal values of this ethics; remaining open to different ideas and to considering them as possible parts of a wider truth could be another one, etc.
Axial Age philosophies, as mentioned, relied on humanism that is that they set their primary attention on human beings and their needs and aspirations.
In my view, because the new technologies that we now have at hand can modify and endanger not only human beings but also all the other living beings as well as the major ecological balance of the Planet, I think it is relevant to shift from humanism to some sort of environmentalism. That will imply a philosophical shift in which our responsibilities will no longer be merely “social” ones and focused on the rest of mankind, but rather “cosmic” ones and include responsibility for the wellbeing not only of other human beings but also of other living beings and the Planet as a whole.
In any case, this new environmentally-based cosmic ethics will require that we shift our attention from purely materialistic values of greed and profit and that we get back to focusing on higher ends such as justice and honesty, this to reach our ultimate goal which is the Good, translated politically as the “common good” for all human and living beings and the Planet.
Implicitly, that implies a shift from a utilitarian view of other human and living beings, and the Planet, to a more caring view, in which their value does not derive primarily from their potential utility, but rather from their existence as such, from what the fact that they exist and are unique can bring to our lives in terms of beauty and love. Here the importance of the sensitive element to our new worldview becomes even more evident and necessary. It is the definitive cure to perceiving large parts of humanity, of other living beings, and the Planet as useless, and hence disposable.
The previous elements are only part of a preliminary reflection on what a new worldview, adapted to our times, could become. However, they offer some bases on which to initiate our work if we are to make it go in the right direction and lead to the common good, rather than to chaos, destruction, and ruin.
Now, since rebuilding our worldview will be a long and costly collective process, we cannot wait until it is complete to rethink the bases of our failed political regime. It is a discussion that we should start having now and very seriously, and yet it is one of the toughest discussions to have, precisely because some people find their advantage in the current regime and certainly do not want to see it change.
In fact, for the past 200 years, since the French and American revolutions, we have been told and taught endlessly that “democracy” is the best political regime.
Yet, we have widely demonstrated in this article that the so-called “democracy” has hardly ever been anything else than an oligarchic regime relying on manipulation and propaganda to make people believe that they were in charge of public affairs when it has in fact hardly ever been the case.
In some sense, we could say that “democracy” has become some sort of dogmatic theory, which as any dogma cannot be discussed. It is a given data, just like the fact that the sun rises to the East every morning, and as such it has been banned from the realm of political and philosophical discussions.
Yet, if we accept the idea that the ultimate goal of politics, and consequently of a political regime, is to bring the best possible life for all human and living beings on this Planet, then we should have the right, if not the duty, to consider which political regime is the most adequate to reach this objective. Relying on the experience of the past 200 years, “democracy” as it has been sold to us, and which is nothing but a hidden form of oligarchy, does not fit into the criteria to qualify as the best possible regime.
In fact, it relies on duplicity since it pretends to be what it is not, and as such promotes cynicism and nihilism within societies what goes against the common good.
As a consequence, I believe it is time for social scientists to be truly “disruptive” (a fashionable word) and to question the concept of democracy as it has been promoted and implemented over the past centuries.
To do so, it is important to get back to the roots of another concept that has often been misused and turned into an unquestionable dogma precisely to manipulate and divide the masses, I am referring to the concept of equality.
In his book The Laws, almost 2500 years ago, Plato underlined that there are two conceptions of equality: a true one and a false one.
True equality exists when each person receives a share of the common good and is being promoted according to his or her needs and merits. False equality happens when all receive the same share independently of their needs and merits. This false concept of equality was widely promoted under former communist regimes, and led to laziness and disengagement: why should I work hard if I will get the same share as those who do nothing anyways? This is not equality.
In fact, says Plato, what would we think of a medical doctor who would distribute the same food ration to the various citizens of an assembly without taking into account their size, age, level of activity, etc.? Would that be fair? Obviously not, and the reasons for that should be obvious to everyone.
For the same reason, in various other spheres of socio-economic life, equality does not consist in giving everyone exactly the same share, and that principle should be widely taught and understood by citizens.
If we look at the news, we see examples all the time of how the concept of equality is being misused by the oligarchy to create rivalry and jealousy among citizens. It uses the fact that “there is in the human heart a depraved taste for equality that leads the weakest to want to bring the strongest to their level, and reduces people to preferring equality in slavery to inequality in liberty.”
It is the famous Machiavellian principle of “dividing to rule”, but unfortunately it does not promote harmony and wellbeing within a society. It rather leads to competition and sedition, the worst evils that might affect a City-state or a nation according to Plato.
“For to unequals equals become unequal, if they are not harmonized by measure; and both by reason of equality, and by reason of inequality, cities are filled with seditions.”
To which Plato adds that “war, whether external or civil, is not the best, and the need of either is to be deprecated; but peace with one another, and good will, are best.”
For this reason, “in a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues-not faction, but rather distraction; here should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty, nor, again, excess of wealth, for both are productive of both these evils.”
As a consequence, we can add that “among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice – with that justice which is called distributive – toward each and every class alike.”
What has just been said is of primary importance because it means that no matter what political regime we might decide to implement, this political regime will only be considered good and fair if it relies on truly equalitarian bases, and ensures a fair distribution of wealth among all citizens, this to promote stability and the common good.
Relying on this basis, what political regime could we suggest that would promote the best possible form of equality to reach the highest level of wellbeing for all – really?
I would suggest here a political regime that would rely upon a mix of real democracy at a local level, and real meritocracy at a national level.
In the coming years, the increasing use of new communication technologies will probably raise the number of people who are working remotely. As a consequence, we might see more and more people moving back from urban centers to rural areas. This is an opportunity to rebuild strong local communities in those areas, providing remote work is supported by progressive and fair labor laws. Obviously, those areas will need to be managed, and I am suggesting that they be organized on a truly democratic basis in which all members of the community will have a word to say in the governance of their community.
Yet, those communities will not be isolated in the world. They will be part of wider political entities, possibly nation-states or possibly other types of entities, and due to natural inequalities, some might fare better than others. For this reason, there will be a need for a central government to coordinate and redistribute resources between the various communities according to their needs.
I am suggesting that this central government should rely on strong and genuine meritocratic bases in which the most skilled and most ethical citizens would be in charge of public affairs.
Anyone who has ever worked in rural areas will know that they do not necessarily offer the idyllic lifestyle that urban dwellers imagine. Depending on the case, there might be loneliness there, or extreme poverty, malnutrition, and poor access to basic services. For this reason, if we want to rebuild strong and healthy local communities, democratic local institutions will not be sufficient, and good national redistribution and coordination policies will be required, aimed at the common good.
This meritocratic central government would also be in charge of overseeing the use of new scientific tools and technologies thanks to proper laws and policies, and this to ensure that they serve the common good.
Because of the huge importance of the role it will play, this central government will need to place honesty and justice as its cardinal values. It will also need to be crafted in a way that ensures a balance of power, to prevent that a citizen or a group of citizens would take it over and put in place a tyrannical regime in their one interest. How this will be done remains to be defined since, once again, the previous ideas are part of some preliminary reflections that still need further improvements and developments.
That naturally brings us to the selection of our leaders.
In this article, we have widely demonstrated the pitfalls of oligarchic regimes, the two main ones being that: first, a small group of the richest citizens takes over public institutions for the sake of its own interests, leaving behind the common good; second, that leads to permanent sedition and lack of stability within societies, and more generally to an inability to build and construct the future together in the best interest of current and future generations, as well as of other living beings and the Planet.
For this reason, we need to set up the scene for national political regimes in which the most skilled and ethical citizens are in charge of public affairs, those who have both the capacity and the sensitivity to lead for the common good.
To do so, we need to define, first, the personal characteristics that those people will need to display, and, second, the type of education required so they become the best versions of themselves as leaders.
First of all, what are the main personal characteristics that our future leaders should display?
To answer this question, I believe it is relevant to get back to what ancient philosophies have to say about this matter. By doing so, we will notice that most philosophies agree on the basic characteristics that are required for good leadership which is a sign that those refer to timeless and universal values.
We primarily want them to be good and ethical people and as Leo Strauss stated, “while the good citizen is relative to the political regime, the good man does not have this relativity. The signification of the good man is everywhere and always the same. The good man only merges with the good citizen in one case – that of the best political regime.”
So, what are the main personal characteristics that good and ethical leaders should display?
In The Republic, Plato comes down to the conclusion that they should be “courageous, temperate, wise and just” which requires that they display both irascibility and reason. Irascibility is required to make things move forward. However, says Plato, irascibility without moderation would lead to the destruction of the city, a reason why the irascible element should be placed under the control of the reasonable element of the soul.
If we turn to Confucianism, we learn from Mengzi that all human beings have in themselves the following four germs that they need to develop to become superior human beings. Those germs are humanity, justice, wisdom, and rites.
As we can see, wisdom and justice are common characteristics of good leaders for both Plato and Mengzi. What’s more, humanity also requires to be courageous and temperate, so that those are also common values.
An innovative aspect of Confucianism might be the idea of “rites”. It consists of social decorum and leads to a laicization of religious rituals. In societies such as ours where several religions are living alongside each other, it is an aspect that might be worth considering. It would mean that leaders should conform to a series of lay rules that would determine how they should behave in different circumstances to ensure the harmony of social relations, independently of any religious beliefs.
If we look at the Christian faith, it has two cardinal values which are to love God above all and to love others as oneself. While the first concept is not compatible with the idea of lay leaders, the second sticks very well with the Confucianist concept of “humanity”. In fact, in The Analects, Confucius said that you should “not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself”, and he also insists on the fact that “the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”
That also connects with the Daoist idea that one should “shrink from taking precedence of others”. Other than that Daoism also advocates for gentleness and economy, values that are linked to justice and temperance.
As a consequence, we can say that the timeless and universal values that our leaders should display are justice, temperance, wisdom, courage, and rites, all of which should lead to a higher preoccupation for the common good and an increased ability to manage public affairs with honesty and integrity.
In this regard, the Zhong Yong, one of the founding books of Confucianism, also states that “Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought; he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast. To this attainment, there are requisite to the extensive study of what is good, accurate inquiry about it, careful reflection on it, the clear discrimination of it, and the earnest practice of it. The superior man, while there is anything he has not studied, or while in what he has studied there is anything he cannot understand, will not intermit his labor.”
This quote naturally leads us to our next point which is that having the right personal characteristics cannot happen randomly. It will come from thorough studying and strong education.
For this reason, we now need to define the kind of education required to train good leaders who will have the right personal characteristics, and also the proper skills to lead public affairs.
In our opinion, the main characteristic of this education will be to be multidisciplinary. In fact, our leaders will need to understand science and technologies to be able to put them under check and ensure that they are used properly. However, to do so, they will also need to have strong knowledge of other fields such as the arts and humanities that will help develop their sensitivity and sense of ethics. Such an education will enable them to put down the boundaries between the various fields and to create links and connections between them to make them work together for the common good.
When people are overspecialized in one particular field, as often happens with utilitarian education, they end up being trapped in their own field of expertise and unable to envision the impacts that the latter might have on other areas.
“The specialist, says M. Vargas Llosa, is a unidimensional being who can be both a major specialist and an ignorant because his knowledge instead of connecting him or her to the others, traps him into a specialty which is only a tiny part of the vast field of knowledge.”
What should “maintain social communication [are] the elites, the cultured minorities who besides of building bridges and exchanges between the various fields of knowledge (…) [exercise] an influence, either lay or religious, but always loaded with moral content.”
This multidisciplinary education should include all the relevant subjects to understand and manage ethically not only human beings, but also all living beings and the Planet. This is the biggest novelty if we compare it to what a humanistic education used to be, an education centered on human elevation and human wellbeing. The goal of this new type of multidisciplinary education is to train leaders who can exercise a “cosmic responsibility” toward all living beings and the Planet, this point being at the core of the paradigmatic shift that we are currently going through.
Once identified and trained, our leaders should be encouraged to join the government and take part in public affairs actively, for “whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them (…) for the benefit of others.”
Finally, once we have crafted a strong political regime designed to put the values of justice and honesty at the forefront in favor of the common good, and that we have identified and educated the leaders that will take care of it, we should consider how those leaders will implement their policies and projects in order to reach the best possible results.
In this regard, we shall keep in mind that the grandiose methods of totalitarian regimes that intend to implement huge projects at any cost have devastating effects on people, the environment, and the social fabric.
For this reason, we would like to recommend that our leaders adopt what K. Popper has called a “piecemeal approach” when implementing their projects and policies. The approach aims at designing or reconstructing social institutions, or at running those already in place using an incremental and adaptive method to learn from one’s mistakes and to continually improve our processes. That leaves space for new innovative ideas, as well as for debates and potential changes.
This approach is very close to the one promoted by Plato in The Laws where he said that “I am of opinion that, in matters which are not present but future, he who exhibits a pattern of that at which he aims, should in nothing fall short of the fairest and truest; and that if he finds any part of this work impossible of execution he should avoid and not execute it, but he should contrive to carry out that which is nearest and most akin to it; you must allow the legislator to perfect his design, and when it is perfected, you should join with him in considering what part of his legislation is expedient and what will arouse opposition.”
This method has the merit to aim at the best possible results while remaining able to adapt, incorporate criticisms and improve. Hence, avoiding the suicidal attempts to impose a plan at any cost even though reality would show that it is not practical.
In this article, we have demonstrated that contrary to common knowledge, most Western countries do not currently live under to rule of “democracy”. In fact, the type of regime that we live in would rather be called a “neoliberal oligarchy” in which the richest rule in their own interests. In order to do so with ease and still make people believe that they are in charge of public affairs, the oligarchy needs to use manipulation and propaganda, and this particularly in two main areas: education and politics.
Yet as people get poorer and realize how little ability they have to change their fate, they become increasingly cynical toward a system that they know is not working for the common good. That leads them to become fatalistic and also possibly nihilistic.
A divided society that is cynical and nihilistic is the ideal ground for the rise of totalitarian regimes, a risk we should be aware of.
Once we become aware of that situation, we need to get back to its roots and realize that it was created by a slow historical process of moral degradation that led our societies from aiming at the highest human virtues to conduct public affairs to having “chaos, destruction and ruin” as cardinal values.
This process of moral degradation corresponds to the collapse of our previous Aristotelian and Judeo-Christian worldview and leads to the emergence of historicism as a theory to understand human affairs and their evolution. Historicism is a dangerous theory though because it mistakes unique historical trends with universal historical laws that would enable us to predict the future. Relying on historicism, several prophetic ideologies have arisen that pretend to put in place the conditions to have some ideal and prophetic times come true. Those ideologies have a major pitfall though: rather than being focused on the wellbeing of citizens and the common good, they are focused on achieving their prophetic views at any cost. For this reason, they hate human spontaneity and creativity and do not hesitate to destroy human nature and degrade human beings to mold them toward their grandiose purpose. Consequently, a rising number of people cannot find their place in those societies anymore and suffer from all sorts of social diseases, to which the historicists respond with medical treatments, be they chemical or psychological, rather than by changing their plans toward the common good.
Neoliberalism, we have shown, is a form of historicism, and because it is expanding globally and has unrivaled scientific and technological tools at hand, it could progressively lead to some of the most oppressive forms of totalitarianism ever experienced in human history.
Hence, “we should not rest assured by the thought that barbarians are still far from us; because if some people let the light be torn away from them, others stifle it themselves under their feet.”
Time is running out, but there is still hope if we become aware of those risks and work at rebuilding our worldview and the set of moral values that comes with it, and at setting up a political regime based on justice and honesty, rather than on duplicity and manipulation. Such changes would lead to restoring trust over the long term.
To this end, I have put together a series of preliminary reflections on how this change could progressively be brought about.
I have shown that we should rebuild our worldview based on reason and sensitivity and that we should shift from a purely humanistic perspective to a more environmentally-centered one in which we would consider the well-being of humankind alongside that of other living beings and the Planet as a whole. For this reason, what I am envisioning is an upcoming ecological civilization based on the core values of life and freedom, rather than on values of death, chaos, and ruin.
To put this model in place, I am suggesting that we shift to a political regime that would promote real democratic institutions at the local level and real meritocratic ones at the national level.
I am also suggesting that we review the education and the characteristics of our leaders to ensure that they are the most cultured and ethical citizens, those most concerned with the common good, and most skilled to achieve it through the proper management of public affairs.
Finally, to avoid falling into the pitfalls of “utopian engineering” used by the historicist approach, I am suggesting that the upcoming ecological civilization be implemented progressively and incrementally thanks to what K. Popper has called a “piecemeal approach”. This approach leaves place to innovation and debates and hence preserves our ability to make things work for the people and the common good, rather than trying to force the people (and the environment) to fit into the grandiose prophetic plans of historicists.
As a final statement, I would like to say that we are indeed at this end of an era, the one that had propelled our civilization for the past 2000 years almost. However, this is not the end of History, and it is up to us to turn this end into a chance or a disaster, depending on whether we keep focusing on values of deaths, chaos, and ruin, or whether we adopt new constructive values focused on life, freedom, beauty, and love.
In this regard, I would like to quote the last words of H. Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “There remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only “message” which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man, politically, it is identical to man’s freedom. “That a beginning be made man was created,” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”
Arendt H. .- The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York: USA, 1973, 527 p.
|Arendt H..- L’Humaine Condition, Trad. de l’anglais (États-Unis) par Marie Berrane, Guy Durand, Georges Fradier et Patrick Lévy. Édition publiée sous la direction de Philippe Raynaud, Paris : France, Collection Quarto, Gallimard, 2012, 1056 p.|
|Aristotle.- Nicomachean Ethics, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html|
|Cicero.- De Officii, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Officiis/2A*.html|
|Eliade M..- Le sacré et le profane, Paris, France : Éditions Gallimard, 1965, 185 p.|
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|Popper K..- The Poverty of Historicism, Boston: USA, The Beacon Press, 1957, 166 p.|
|Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labour, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html|
|Shang Yang.- Le livre du Prince Shang, présentation et traduction de Jean Lévi, Paris : France, Flammarion, 2005|
|Strauss L..- Qu’est-ce que la philosophie politique?, Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 2010, c1992, 296 p.|
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|Vargas Llosa M..- La civilización del espectáculo, México, D.F. : Alfaguara/Santillana, 2012, 216 p.|
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|Vico G..- La méthode des études de notre temps, 1708, 93 p. https://inventin.lautre.net/livres/Vico-Methode-des-etudes-de-notre-temps.pdf|
|Zhong Yong.- https://ctext.org/liji/zhong-yong|
 Cicero.- De Officii, Book II, Paragraph 4, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Officiis/2A*.html
 Platon.- The Republic, Book II, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm#link2H_4_0005
 Strauss L..- Qu’est-ce que la philosophie politique?, Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 2010, c1992, 296 p., p. 38
 Plato.- The Republic, Book VIII. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.9.viii.html
 Vervaeke J., Mastropietro C., Miscevic F..- Zombies in Western Culture – A Twenty-First Century Crisis, Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017, 93 p., p. 65
 Ibid., p. 65
 L’Art de Gouverner – Le livre des maîtres du Sud-de-Houai, Traduit par Patrick Carré, Édité par Thomas Cleary, Paris : France, Calmann-Lévy, 1999, p. 25
 Tocqueville A..- La démocratie en Amérique, La Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris : France, 2004, p. 519-521
 Shang Yang.- Le livre du Prince Shang, présentation et traduction de Jean Lévi, Paris : France, Flammarion, 2005, p. 89
 Arendt H..- L’Humaine Condition, Trad. de l’anglais (États-Unis) par Marie Berrane, Guy Durand, Georges Fradier et Patrick Lévy. Édition publiée sous la direction de Philippe Raynaud, Paris : France, Collection Quarto, Gallimard, 2012, 1056 p., p. 761-762.
 Vargas Llosa M..- La civilización del espectáculo, México, D.F. : Alfaguara/Santillana, 2012, 216 p.
 Plato.- The Republic, Book II, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 334
 “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 468
 Strauss L., 2010, Op. Cit., p. 44
 Cicero, De Officii, Book III, Paragraph 8, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Officiis/3B*.html
 Vervaeke J., Mastropietro C., Miscevic F., 2017, Op. Cit., p. 76
 Vervaeke J., Mastropietro C., Miscevic F., 2017, Op. Cit., p. 78
 Strauss L., 2010, Op. Cit., p. 53
 Idid., p. 54
 Ibid., p. 55
 Arendt H., 2012, Op. Cit., p. 618
 Arendt H., 2012, Op. Cit., p. 624-625
 Nietzsche F..- The Antichrist, https://genius.com/Friedrich-nietzsche-the-antichrist-full-text-annotated
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 316
 Ibid., p. 328
 Vargas Llosa M., 2012, Op. Cit.
 Vervaeke J., Mastropietro C., Miscevic F., 2017, Op. Cit, p. 33
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 346
 Ibid., p. 446
 Ibid., p. 446
 Eliade M..- Le sacré et le profane, Paris, France : Éditions Gallimard, 1965, 185 p., p. 99
 Tocqueville A., Op. Cit., p. 600
 Eliade M., 1965, Op. Cit., p. 100
 Popper K..- The Poverty of Historicism, Boston:USA, The Beacon Press, 1957, 166 p., p. 128
 Ibid., p. 108
 Ibid., p. 108
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 338
 Ibid., p. 436
 Popper K., 1957, Op. Cit., p. 130
 Ibid., p. 70
 Ibid., p. 70
 Ibid., p. 70
 Strauss L., 2010, Op. Cit., p. 26
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 455
 Ibid., p. 459
 Eliade M., 1965, Op. Cit., p. 166
 Vargas Llosa M., 2012, Op. Cit.
 Popper K., 1957, Op. Cit., p. 64
 Jaspers K..- Origin and Goal of History, Routledge Revivals, 2011, 314 p.
 Strauss L., 2010, Op. Cit., p. 22
 Ibid., p. 18
 Vico G..- La méthode des études de notre temps, 1708, 93 p., p. 58 https://inventin.lautre.net/livres/Vico-Methode-des-etudes-de-notre-temps.pdf
 Ibid., p. 58
 Aristotle.- Nicomachean Ethics, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html
 Vervaeke J., Mastropietro C., Miscevic F., 2017, Op. Cit., p.33
 Arendt H.. 1973, Op. Cit., p. 469
 Augustine.- Confessions, Book XII, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0012
 Eliade M., 1965, Op. Cit., p. 83
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 459
 Tocqueville A., Op. Cit., p. 59
 Plato, The Laws, Book VI, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1750/1750-h/1750-h.htm
 Ibid., Book I
 Ibid., Book V
 Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labour, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html
 Strauss L., 2010, Op. Cit., p. 39
 Plato.- The Republic, Op. Cit.
 Mengzi, Op. Cit.
 Confucius.- The analects, XII.2, Op. Cit.
 Ibid., VI.30
 Vargas Llosa M., 2012, Op. Cit.
 Rerum Novarum, Op. Cit.
 Popper K., 1957, Op. Cit., p. 64-65
 Ibid., p. 65
 Tocqueville, Op. Cit., p. 558
 Arendt H., 1973, Op. Cit., p. 479