stability or progress

I’ve just been reading one of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. Why is this relevant? I’ll explain in a moment. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who wrote a series of detective novels describing the cases confronting a magistrate in China during the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD).
What’s interesting is that Van Gulik’s knowledge of Chinese history, culture and jurisprudence was profound. And in his stories there is not the faintest hint of the cult of progress. He describes a society that valued stability and order to an extreme degree. This reflects the view that historians have always taken about Imperial China, although western historians have mostly seen this as a weakness. The Chinese developed a very advanced civilisation and then stopped. No further progress was considered to be necessary and in fact further progress would lead to instability and was therefore a bad thing.
While it might be an over-simplistic view of Chinese civilisation there’s undoubtedly a lot of truth in this view of a society committed to preserving what it already had rather than pursuing the phantom of progress. 
Looking at the world today it’s easy to believe that the Chinese had the right idea. This is especially so when you consider the misery and chaos that followed the overthrow of the last Imperial government in the early part of the 20th century.
The cult of progress is always tied up with utopianism. If we just keep progressing then sooner or later we’ll have a perfect society composed of perfect people leading amazingly happy and fulfilling lives. This is the philosophical view that started to emerge in Europe in the 16th century and it has taken a firmer and firmer hold with every year that has passed since then. By the beginning of the 20th century it was the one unchallenged dogma of our civilisation. Imperial China was dominated by Confucian thought and Confucian thought most certainly did not see things in this light. Medieval Europe was dominated by Christianity and medieval Christianity did not see things that way either. 
The point is that it is possible to have a fully functional and quite advanced civilisation based on the cult of stability rather than the cult of progress. 
The cult of progress is, by it very nature, destructive. To build a new society we must first destroy the old one. Everything that has happened has been an inevitable consequence of this. Whenever utopia fails to materialise it just means that more destruction is needed.
Should we abandon the idea of progress altogether? Surely the cult of progress has brought us many benefits? There is a genuine dilemma here. The answer is perhaps that the cult of progress needs to be balanced by an equally strong force advocating stability and order. Perhaps if progress could be slowed and controlled it might not be so socially destructive? It’s possible, but progress has a way of continually getting out of control.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves exactly what kind of progress is actually useful? Technological progress has on the whole been pretty useful. Social progress on the other hand has brought us to the brink of ruin. We might need to accept the harsh reality that there is no such thing as social progress. We probably should ask ourselves also exactly what kind of scientific and technological progress we need. Do we need ever more advanced weaponry? Do we need faster and faster personal computers? Do we need smarter and smarter smartphones?
One conclusion that logically follows from this is likely to be unpalatable to many people who consider themselves to be right-wing. Taking control of progress would require a very strong government. Almost certainly not a democratic one. Imperial China survived for millennia because mostly it had a strong government. It also survived because those who ran the government, the countless bureaucrats that characterised Chinese government, were educated to believe in stability and order and the tenets of Confucianism. It seems to follow inexorably from this that rigid control of education is necessary for the preservation of civilisation and that dangerous and destructive ideas need to be suppressed. Perhaps that is the price that has to be paid if you want a successful stable culture.

Dr Strangelove, then and now

The first time I saw Stankey Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Today I find I can enjoy it a lot more. The most disturbing thing about it is that this Cold War thriller has more punch today than it had in 1964.

In 1964 the world seemed like a crazy place. A dangerously crazy place. In 2017 that insane world seems positively reassuring. The nuclear balance might have threatened total destruction but at least the Cold War was vaguely comprehensible. We could see how it had happened and why it was going to be difficult to sort out. Can anyone explain the bizarre foreign policy machinations of 2017? Can anyone explain why we still live under the threat of nuclear Armageddon? 
In Dr Stangelove Kubrick had to come up with an extraordinary circumstance to make his nuclear crisis convincing, because he knew that even though the nuclear standoff was dangerous in normal circumstances no sane person was going to push that button. He could make the President of the United States in the film a muddle-headed buffoon but even in fiction, even in black comedy, it would have stretched credibility too far to have the President deliberately and intentionally launching a nuclear war out of the blue. Even the crazy general played by George C. Scott only comes around to the idea of war when it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. To spark the crisis Kubrick had to imagine a middle-ranking officer becoming clinically insane and by a series of accidents being in a position to light the fuse. 
Today we have political leaders in the West who really seem to think that nuclear confrontations are a pretty good idea, and who think it’s an extremely good idea to provoke nuclear powers. And having provoked them, to go on provoking them.
Luckily non-western political leaders are on the whole a good deal more sensible so disaster has been averted so far.
And that’s just the foreign policy madness of today. Domestic policy is even crazier.
Kubrick’s bold decision to treat the subject of nuclear war as comedy paid off because that’s really the best way to treat such objects – pointing out the lunacy of the situation. You couldn’t do such a movie as a comedy today because today’s reality is more outrageously insane than fiction could ever be. Our world is beyond mockery.

why do we put up with terrorism?

James at Nourishing Obscurity asks Why is there no million strong march against the cause? The answer is simple, if depressing.
The way the average Briton looks at it is, if they protest they could lose their jobs. They could lose their families. That insane harpy Theresa May could even put them in prison. On the other hand if they do nothing then a few hundred people, maybe a few thousand at most, will die every year in terror attacks. But the odds are that they won’t be among the victims. 
And besides, they still have their beer and their smartphones and reality TV shows and super-hero movies and they can still download porn from the internet. So really it’s still a great country. Living in a police state isn’t so bad. As long as you remember never to open your mouth without thinking very very carefully about what you’re going to say and you never ever express a genuine opinion, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll be left alone. OK, maybe your daughter will be gang-raped by members of the diverse community but the odds are that it will be someone else’s daughter who suffers that fate. As long as the odds are that it will be someone else’s daughter, or that it will be someone else’s daughter who gets blown to bits by a bomb, why worry about it?
Basically people are engaging in risk assessment. So far they’re confident that the risks to them personally are small enough to ignore. The risks to other people are matters of no importance to them.
Nothing is going to change unless that risk assessment starts to look more worrying from an individual perspective. 
It seems that Maggie Thatcher was right. There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals – selfish, alienated, atomised individuals motivated by short-term comfort and greed.