In the Lent 2018 issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Professor David Runciman argues that democracies cannot fail exactly as they did in the 1930s, since we now “live in a world that is much richer, older, more peaceful and more networked” than existed then. This may rule out ‘back-sliding’ to a “time when strongmen ruled the Earth”, but leaves open the possibility that our democracies will instead be hollowed out from within by “heartless, conscienceless, super-capable” corporations and/or machines, using algorithms of power and process that we “lack the power to understand, never mind resist”.
This is all very well, but two questions follow. First, do the new forms and scales of human society truly imply an altered nature, or are we collectively the same old ape driven by the same personal and small-group motivations and vulnerabilities that we always were, easily confused and quick to prejudice, regardless of some extra memes and technologies? And second, does our apparent insulation from nature mean that we can actually afford to ignore the rules of ecology, or do we continue to depend utterly on food, water and environmental security provided by ecosystems that we are systematically destroying, regardless of some extra gimmicks and the reassurances offered by our elites? I suppose what I’m saying is: ‘yes!’ to a study of recent history and the social import of new technologies, but also ‘yes!’ to a much fuller understanding of deep history and ecology, without which the future may be both a surprise and a desolation. Runciman’s new book (How Democracy Ends) sounds like essential reading.
© Julian Caldecott