Saturday, October 1, 2016

Venkatesh Rao: How the World Works

[ed. Tech analyst and author Venkatesh Rao recommends five books for a good understanding of how the world works, and why.]

What do you see as the commonality with these books and why do they explain ‘how the world works’?

I have a particular idea in mind when I say ‘how the world works.’ I mean forming what’s known as an ‘appreciative’ model of reality. The distinction I want to make here is between appreciative models and manipulative models — which is a distinction due to urbanist John Friedmann.

The idea is that a manipulative model of reality is something that allows you to do things. It’s based on skills or agency. An appreciative model is simply a satisfying understanding of the world. It may not necessarily allow you to do things—it may not allow you to build big companies or solve important problems like climate change—but it will give you an understanding of the world that satisfies you. That satisfaction, to people who seek knowledge, is very similar to the satisfaction that religious people get from having a religious idea in their head.

So all these books that we’re talking about offer you very rich and interesting and, in each case, somewhat counterintuitive appreciative models of significant chunks of experienced reality.

Obviously there’s no such thing as a single grand unified book that will give you a really satisfying model of every aspect of human experience that you might live through. But each of these books does a good job with a very big chunk of life as we experience it.

What do people do if they live their lives without this type of model?

There are two schools of thought here. One is the famous line that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ There are a lot of people—especially people who are prone to intellectualize things—who sincerely believe that the unexamined life is not worth living. The contrasting sentiment is that the unlived life is not worth examining. I don’t think any particular person has ever said that, but a lot of people like to flip it around and come up with that.

I tend not to be doctrinaire about it. I’m open to the idea that there are different personalities when it comes to this sort of thing. Some people have a great need for having an appreciative understanding of their own lived experience. Other people seem to get along just fine learning how to work the world and get along in it and succeed and make millions of dollars or whatever it is that they set out to do. They don’t seem to feel any particular lack or spiritual angst from not having an appreciative model of the world. I don’t necessarily think people miss out, just that there are certain types of people who are predisposed to feeling a certain angst if they don’t have this.

Let’s start off with the most concrete book on your list — Francis Fukuyama’s two book series on the way institutions and governments work. That’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (2011) followed by Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (2014).

Most of us, when we are first exposed to history in high school, learn an extremely dull, non-analytical version of history which is just one damned fact after another. It’s very unsatisfying. The way we are taught history also typically serves certain regional political purposes. In countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, it might be much more deliberately political. In liberal democracies, it’s a bit more open. History is taught with a genuine intent to foster some sort of critical appreciation and developing a sense of history. But it’s still pretty banal: this king then that king and so forth.

Once you re-engage with history as an adult—and by this I mean intellectually aware, curious people not professional historians—there are very few treatments of all of history that truly satisfy your urge to understand just how human society functions and how it came to function the way it does. What are the variety of ways in which it functions around the world? How is the system in China different from the system in the United States. How did they each get to be where they are? All of these are questions that you could call analytical history.

Francis Fukuyama is best known for his 1989 article declaring the end of history. He approaches the end of history from the perspective of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a precipitating event, but he’s coming from an intellectual tradition that goes back to Hegel. It’s a metaphysical thesis about history that holds together very coherently. His basic argument was that liberal democratic forms, as they exist in the West and certain other parts of the world like Japan and India, represent the end state of political evolution, in a certain sense. It’s not that history itself ends as in stops happening, but that a certain aspect of evolution ends. I like the biological analogy, that in the primordial soup there were a huge number of replicator molecules that could self-produce but at some point DNA became the dominant monopolistic molecule that became the basis of all life. In that sense, history ended when liberal democracy emerged as the global standard for governance.

Over the next 25 years, Fukuyama’s ideas were tested by the unfolding of history. Some people think that the events of the 1990s and 2000s proved him definitively wrong. Others think they proved him absolutely right. I happen to be in the second category. I think that events since he wrote that famous paper and book in 1989 have fundamentally proved him right.

This two-volume book is basically a very extended study of history from that starting point of ‘What happens if you look at history as a convergent evolutionary path that seems to end in liberal democracy? How did we get there?’

There are three basic pillars of liberal democracy that we are familiar with, the legislative, the judiciary, and the executive. He generalizes these into a strong state, the rule of law, and mechanisms for consent by individuals, so accountability mechanisms. He traces the evolution of these mechanisms around the world from as far back in recorded history as we can go and what he offers is a really nuanced story of how different pieces of the puzzle emerge in different parts of the world. For example, the idea of a strong central state with an impersonal bureaucracy and civil service examinations first emerged in China. The idea of a rule of law, as in a body of legal thinking that applies to rulers, just as it does to the ruled, did not emerge in China—a lack that still shows today—but it did emerge in India. And Europe was the first place where all three mechanisms came together for the first time: a rule of law, accountability, and a strong state.

So that is his basic framework. In between, there are very interesting chapters, about what happened in the Ottoman Empire, say. He traces how these three building blocks slowly develop, and how somewhere around the 18th century, in pre-modern Germany, the elements first began coming together in a way that we would recognize today as a modern, liberal democratic state. The first volume deals with that whole story until about 1800. The second volume deals with the story from 1800 to today and it covers all the things you would expect. (...)

What’s the role of the United States in all this?

The contribution of the United States to the evolution of governance is what Fukuyama calls ‘clientelism.’ His sense of the word clientelism is technically different from the way it is normally used, but it’s what we are seeing, for example, in the Trump campaign right now. That form of clientelism was pioneered by Andrew Jackson in the middle of the 19th century, and it has very peculiar characteristics. Unlike previous models of patronage, where elected, otherwise powerful, leaders used to guarantee their own support by handing out favors almost at an individual level, clientelism is the mechanism by which you hand out favors to large segments of the population that work for you in a democracy.

by Venkatesh Rao, Five Books |  Read more:
Image: Five Books