When social balance is out of kilter, potentially destabilizing and disruptive groups emerge that can threaten not only a state but also a larger society. Both of these conditions exist in China, Russia and the US today, at the most critical time in human history. In the last generation, extreme wealth has become concentrated in the top 1% of the global population, as the rest of society stagnated and infrastructure deteriorated. Corporate capitalism, has flourished as deregulation, especially in the US, has given it an unobstructed pathway. The captains of industry, driven by unchecked opportunism, have intentionally and unintentionally set up conditions for social collapse by concentrating wealth into the hands of the few and turning everyone else into an unsupported labor class.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first disruptive social event humanity has faced and it won’t be the last. It can be seen as a dress rehearsal for global crisis, and climate change is next up in the cue. The voraciousness behind social imbalance is becoming glaring, and therefore must be addressed in open conversation.
What are the forces behind social imbalance? Well, there are many but for the moment I will talk about is unregulated, global corporate capitalism, which is self-interested and greedy by nature. It is one of the fundamental powers, if not THE major power, that drives economies worldwide; and it manifests negative agency under the rationale of shareholder satisfaction. A case in point is the American company Exxon Mobile. For the last several decades, corporate success (i.e.,greed) has prevailed against looming climate disaster. After analyzing nearly two hundred sources, (including some internal company documents and “advertorials), Harvard authors Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, concluded that “ Exxon officials had embraced a strategy that downplayed the reality and seriousness of climate change, normalized fossil fuel lock-in, and individualized responsibility. These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations—which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms—and onto consumers. This historical parallel foreshadows the fossil fuel industry’s use of demand-as-blame arguments to oppose litigation, regulation, and activism. Exxon Mobile tapped into America’s uniquely individualist (i.e., self-interest) culture and brought it to bear on climate change.”
Institutions and Bureaucracies
The problem with all bureaucracies is that they are vulnerable to corruption and to people that figure out how to game the system. In an open and democratic society, free from elites and outside interests, competent and altruistic people would be the ones making decisions. Greedy people would not hold power for long and they know it. Consequently, they work through deception, lies and fears by gaming the system. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Citizens United, opened the floodgates for institutions and bureaucracies to spend money on, and to directly advocate for, the election or defeat of candidates. This allows for the manipulation of elected officials and the election system so only certain candidates can win. The greedy would rather implode the entirety than lose their position of power.
Since the role of any institution, especially that of government, is to make resources available so goals and philosophies can be carried out, the fundamental fight becomes the public good versus those who are lining their own pockets. This is certainly true in the US as I write this. The elimination of checks and regulations from government has allowed corporations to run amok. The overarching reality becomes the concentration of wealth by the few who use existing institutions (governmental, philanthropies, tax laws, etc.) to gain an unfair advantage. We see this now in the United States, as the Republican Party unapologetically supports the advance of business’ economic interests (tax cuts, etc.) for the wealthy over the interests of the people. That investment in trickle-down theory permits unchecked greed, and empirical evidence suggests it simply doesn’t work. History shows that when the system inevitably starts to collapse, as it did in the Great Depression, progressives, whose main tenant is government for the people, come along and correct the imbalances. Economic correction is one of the key advantages of a democracy over an oligarchy.
Those most negatively affected by system-gamers are successfully controlled through the emotions of fear and resentment. They are often ignorant of or simply don’t have the capacity to grasp the complexity of how institutions and bureaucracies work. This is one of the main reasons why people vote against their own interests.
The systems that comprise modern society are essentially various forms of games. What I mean by that is that all have a set of goals or objectives to obtain desirable outcomes, methods of operation to accomplish goals, and collections of rules that best facilitate the desired result. Effective institutions will maintain order and create a system that incentivizes those behaviors that produce what they want to achieve. Ideally, if everyone follows the rules, everyone does better. But as we are well aware, some individuals learn to game the system by taking advantage of the rules to gain personal power at the expense of others or of the institution itself.
Adding additional rules to prevent gaming usually doesn't work because introducing more rules makes the system more complicated, harder to understand, and less practical. It also introduces more loopholes that create additional possibilities for gaming. Ultimately, gaming the system weakens it, causes it to be less effective and to eventually pass out of existence.
How is it that some people, or corporations, can knowingly perpetuate damage? Greed is a distinctly ill-fated human characteristic. Greed begets more greed, and is ultimately self-destructive. Insatiable and unscrupulous people have no compassion or self-restraint. They set up the conditions for system collapse by dismantling traditional institutions; manipulating information; and using dishonesty, intimidation, confusion and other methods to further their short-term self-interest. They don't care about shared responsibility or consequences. The effect on a democratic country is like letting snakes loose in a room.
The strength of a society and its institutions comes from its capacity to create and use new forms of power. This is why it’s so important that our institutions and bureaucracies be held accountable and true to their original reason for existing. The bureaucrats who are at the helm need to be chosen wisely and held accountable. Greed is not, nor should it ever be, the primary North Star that leads our navigation through changing times. If the U.S., for example, does not correct its dysfunction ( which includes the deterioration of infrastructure, poor public health, education and social service systems, et al) its position to determine global outcome will be significantly reduced. It will no longer be able to protect its interests or to affect worldwide outcomes; nor will it be able to isolate itself from the effects of global warming, pandemics, cyber and terrorists attacks, and other consequences.
This moment is dangerous. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the state of the world is threatened and deteriorating. A traditional security agenda has reemerged, including a revisionist Russia, a rising and more assertive China, and ever more capable hostile middle powers, such as Iran and North Korea. These threats will not manage themselves or disappear; nor can the United States shield itself from the adverse consequences of inaction. History has no pause button -- the world cannot be expected to wait until the United States sorts itself out.