Monday, 14 December 2015

The Rise and Decline of the West: Why and Whereupon.

The dose makes the poison.


In this article I shall attempt to construct a theoretical model to understand and interpret the major historical developments of the past few centuries in the West, and use this to diagnose the causes of the maladies which I believe are currently besetting the west. In particular I shall posit that egalitarianism, a crucial factor in the meteoric rise of the West, is now a cause of its decline.

Here, the West is defined as the prosperous, industrialized liberal democracies, particularly those of USA and Europe. A substantial amount of the focus will be on England, as developments in England have often foreshadowed many of the defining events of the West.

The primary distinguishing feature of the west, especially England, which allowed it rise from relative obscurity on the periphery of Eurasia to a position of global domination, the reason why this article is written in English and not another language, is the massive advancement in scientific, technological and industrial development that began in England and spread to Europe somewhat later. This industrial prowess, inevitably translated into geopolitical power, allowed the West, especially England, to thrust itself onto the global stage and consciousness.


What caused the industrial revolution to occur in tiny England rather than China or India or Italy with their thousands of years of civilization and huge populations (for the former two)?

Below I will briefly mention my thoughts about factors that led to the rise of the West on the back of the industrial revolution and how the factors behind it may now be causing its decline.

Various causes are mentioned by historians to explain why the industrial revolution (~1750-1850) occurred in Britain and not elsewhere. Among them are natural advantages like the availability of coal, or manpower, or navigable rivers, which, while important, are certainly not decisive, being present at numerous locations globally, not least in China and India and other places in Europe, where no industrial revolution occurred until the precedent of the British industrial revolution. A focus on such circumstantial factors also missed the point that the industrial revolution was primarily a revolution of technology and invention, like the steam engine or power loom, rather than mere marshaling of manpower and materials, a feat at which China is unsurpassed (e.g the Great Wall, the grand canal etc) without undergoing a revolution like that in England.

The crucial factors must predate the industrial revolution and are likely related to society and politics; we see a glimpse of this in the fact that Newton's Principia, (published 1687) which introduced the concept of gravity, the laws of motion and calculus, predates the industrial revolution by several decades. More broadly, the scientific output emerging from Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries, long before the industrial revolution, in the form of works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Leibniz, to name only a few, all greatly amplified by the ease of mass dissemination enabled by the printing press (a Chinese invention, but which is much more compatible with European scripts, due to their fewer characters and linear arrangement, than with the Chinese, or Indian scripts) testify to the development of intellectual firepower in the West far outpacing what the rest were either willing or able to achieve. It is likely that the origins of this process date even further back. This intellectual firepower, when deployed towards industry in the 18th century, led inevitably to the massive strides that characterize the industrial revolution.

The question then becomes; why, after millennia of relative parity between the civilizations of Europe and Asia, did the European ones start to pull far ahead in scientific and intellectual endeavor? And why did this process start in England, theretofore obscure, and not elsewhere in Europe?

Approaching the question from another perspective, if one wanted to initiate sustained scientific and technological progress in society, what factors are essential? In my view, it is evident that these are 1) educated and intellectually curious citizens and 2) empowering these citizens with a conducive, predictable economic and political climate, with rule of law, a free market, property rights etc in which these citizens may exercise their talents without fear of being arbitrarily dispossessed.

The question can then be framed as follows:

1) do we see the presence of these factors in Western Europe, particularly England, while being absent in Asia?

2) do these factors precede the scientific and technological revolutions?


In the case of England, the trend of political power distribution has been as follows. In 1215, the seminal Magna Carta was signed between King John and feudal lords in England, limiting the ability of the king to impose taxes without the consent of the feudal lords, giving birth to an assembly which would become the English Parliament. There followed several conflicts between the parliament and the king, including the English civil war (1642-1651), during which the royalists were defeated and King Charles I decapitated. Within the Parliamentary faction there were even more radically egalitarian factions like the levellers and diggers, who foreshadow socialism and communism of later centuries. This tussle eventually culminated in the Glorious Revolution and the ensuing Bill of Rights in 1689, when the supremacy of parliament was unambiguously established. Parliamentary representation itself was gradually expanded from lords to include prominent commoners. Similarly the Habeas Corpus act (1679) enshrined the principle of lawful detention and the predictable rule of law and fair trial more broadly. These precede by decades or centuries similar developments in other nations.

Thus we see political developments in England, which progressively secure the citizenry and their property, and provide rule of law, preceding the developments of the scientific and industrial revolutions by centuries. Combining this unprecedented "egalitarianization" of political power with an expanded educated class enabled by the printing press, and other secondary factors, it is unsurprising that England was best positioned as the nucleus of the ensuing scientific and industrial revolutions.

These egalitarian expansions of political power continue and even accelerate during and after the scientific and industrial revolutions, possibly as a consequence of mutual reinforcement. The reform acts of 1832 and 1867, the Representation of the People Act of 1884, 1918 and 1928 further expanded the political franchise, first to adult males of some wealth (about 1 in 7 adult males), then to a substantial number of males, then to all men and some women, and eventually to all adults in Britain. Building on this egalitarian trend, in the early to mid 20th century we see the introduction of free education, Welfare, the National Health Service and so on.

The same correlation between political and scientific progress is seen, to varying extents and with varying timelines in different countries like France, Russia, USA etc. Thus we may conclude that there exists a strong correlation between industrial development and prosperity on one hand and the degree of distribution of political power in the other.



Putting these pieces of the jigsaw together, it is likely, in my view, that a combination of an increasing (and increasingly) educated class, combined with favorable economic and political regimes, led to initial scientific and industrial innovations, leading to somewhat broader prosperity. This prosperity (and attendant political power), if suitably disseminated, in turn will lead to greater literacy and higher education, expanding the educated classes which are essential for scientific and technological progress, thus creating further fuel to feed technological innovation, leading to an exponential process which starts slowly but accelerates sharply as a critical mass of educated citizens builds up. In support of this model, the available data shows that literacy in England greatly exceeded that in India or China by centuries. This model is shown schematically below:

This model also cogently explains the slow but steady progress seen during the scientific revolution in the 15th to 17th centuries and then the exponential nature of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the parallel march of technological and political rights growth, mutually sustaining and reinforcing each other. In support of this proposition, we see that England, the first nation to undergo the industrial revolution, also underwent its anti-monarchial revolutions (the Magna Carta in the 13th century and the English Civil War in the 17th) long before similar events in other countries like France (1789 and later), Western and Central Europe (19th century, see events of 1848), Russia (early 20th century), China (between early and mid 20th century) etc.

The mutual acceleration will continue until the incremental productive capacity generated by a given act of power and resource dissemination exceeds the value consumed as the cost of that act. In other words, as long as:

P(act) > C(act); where P is the incremental productivity and C is the cost of implementing that change.

For instance, the provision of free education or public works like sewage treatment plants can be considered to produce a value in terms of more productive citizens, which is generally greater than the cost. In light of this model, it is unsurprising that for centuries, a continuous dissemination of political power and, for related reasons, public services like universal education, healthcare, welfare etc has been the trend in the West.

Thus, for centuries, P(act) has been greater than C(act), and an ever expanding circle of empowerment has been the trend in and habit of the West. However, the psychological mechanism pushing for this expansion is a blind, unqualified sense of empathy. Thus, we see that the seminal leftist ideology of the 19th-20th centuries, Marxism, as well as softer leftist (i.e. power diffusionary) movements do not argue for improved representation or more public services as these become cost-effective owing to greater prosperity flowing from industrial development, but rather construct millenarian schemes depicting eternal warfare between classes. The same instinct manifests itself in modern times as feminism, gay rights, animal rights, etc. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that modern Western empathetic impulse can be summed up as follows, "the underdog is always right". 

This may help as long as P(act) is greater than C(act), but carried to excess by blind instinct, it could easily veer into territory where C(act) is greater than P(act).  

In this, it is analogous to the epidemic of obesity prevalent in many countries today; an instinct to consume and store of excess calories as fat, which was useful during the era of subsistence agriculture, can rapidly become counterproductive when circumstances change (the calorie glut produced by industrial agriculture). To reflect the parallels to obesity, I shall refer to excess, counterproductive empathy as empathobesity.


Thus we see that the history of Western political empowerment has been one of an ever expanding tent; from uncontested monarchy to a group of lords, to wealthy white men, to middle class white men, to all men, to all adults, various welfare arrangements, to the sexual revolution, to mass importation of migrants, to homosexuals and transgenders, animal rights, and perhaps in the near future, legal personhood for chimps and cetaceans (5,6) and so on. At some point however, the constant broadening of the circle can become counterproductive and lead to decline rather than progress. I believe that the West passed this point sometime in the early to mid-20th centrury, and developments since have generally been empathobese and responsible for the stagnant and decaying West we see today.

I discuss some of these developments below.

1) Feminism: Feminism is the notion that women should have the same options as men; the underlying empathobese assumption is that men and women are essentially identical and all differences is imposed by patriarchy simply to oppress women. It is worth noting at this point that it is likely not an accident that matriarchal or matrifocal societies like the Mosuo or Khasi, are few and are confined to inaccessible locations of the globe; these are models of social organization evolutionarily uncompetitive with patriarchy and have only managed to survive competition from patriarchy in these remote places.

In practice feminism has meant complaints about how men are disproportionately represented in desirable jobs like CEOs and legislators, and demands for quotas to rectify the same. Rather less mention is made of the deaths of millions of men in world wars or that workplace deaths, bankruptcies, and most sewage workers or garbage collectors are also men. Feminism has developed during the 20th century, possibly catalyzed by the availability of contraception which freed women from childbearing and has resulted in the mass entry of women in the labor force.

Now, an expansion of the labor force is generally good development, as the expansion of the educated classes was likely a catalyst for the rapid progress seen in the industrial revolution. However, the entry of women into the labor force in massive numbers has inevitably come at the cost of child bearing and is thus shortsighted; after an initial spike in the labor pool, the ensuing shortfall in offspring will lead to a greying and aged workforce with fewer, not more, workers and more elderly dependents.

The birthrate in the west now ranges from barely 1 in the Mediterranean nations to closer to 2 in some like France or Sweden, although how much of this is owing to migrants is unclear. The ensuing shortfall of young workers in the west is predicted to lead to economic decline; for instance, social security in the USA is expected to run out of funds to cover its obligations by 2036 as the number of retirees rises without a sufficient youthful demographic to support them (1). Combined with the economic stagnation that the west has found itself in since 2007, possibly in part as a consequence of the demographic decline, this has led to a sense of deep malaise throughout the West; for the first time, a majority expect that the next generation will be worse off than its parents, reversing a decades long trend (2,3). The west, historically a byword for progress and prosperity, now seems destined to a period of stagnation at best, and more likely decline.

2) Hostile sub populations: By itself, a demographic and economic slump may be overcome eventually; the period of weakness and decay will eventually subside, even if it takes generations. Yet, coinciding with precisely this weak and vulnerable phase, is the presence of hostile, unassimilated and growing populations within the West, especially in Europe. The empathobese dogma here is that all people are the same as those in the West and have no underlying ideological divergence. 

Muslims in Europe form significant percentages of the populations of many of the biggest nations of the West. These sub populations have a history of separateness and even conflict with the mainstream West, as well as a political self awareness different from, and at odds with the traditional liberal West, combined with generally poor socio-economic achievements. 

A rational examination of Islam globally yields the following pattern. In most country where Muslims are the majority, non-muslims are prohibited from preaching to and converting Muslims, whereas the converse is allowed. These restrictions are more severe in countries like Saudi Arabia where Islam is more prominent. Similarly, in many countries where a substantial Muslim minority is present, we see hostility or outright militancy, such as in Australia, Philippines, Thailand, India, China, Russia, as well as Western countries like the UK, France, Sweden, Spain, USA, Canada etc. 

 The Muslim percentage of the population of the UK has doubled in the decade to 2015, and is even higher in the 0-4 years of age demographic (4). The same picture obtains in France or Sweden. 
This year alone, Germany is on track to receive about a million Muslim migrants. Coupled with this increase is the unassimilated and hostile attitude to the West as well as all other non-muslims; the regular occurrence of terrorist attacks in the UK and France, the inability of the authorities to stop these, especially the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the large number of Muslim citizens of Europe heading to the Islamic state, and promising to bring Islamic law to Europe, and the unshakable sense that they just might, gives a foreboding picture of the future of the West. The empathobesity of the West makes it politically incorrect to point this out, let alone act accordingly, and thus the issue is allowed to fester and grow, adding to the sense of impotence besetting the West.

3) Serial military defeats and the stench of weakness:Since the end of the Korean War, the West has been humiliated in all the major conflicts it has entered, Vietnam, Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan. These defeats have not come about due to a lack of firepower or technology but the unwillingness of Western populations to bear prolonged news of casualties, even those of its opponents. Thus, the Vietnam war was lost not in the jungles of Vietnam, where the Americans did not lose any major battles, but on the streets of America where massive anti war protests made continued war untenable. The impression that emerges is one of weakness, irrespective of the merits, or lack thereof, of these wars.

In addition to these sign of dimming vitality (demographic, economic, military decline) is the bizarre and unscientific turn of recent Western policy, such as that of gay marriage. From an evolutionary point of view, marriage is a stable platform on which to rear the next generation. As such, it only makes social sense to confer privileges and subsidies on child bearing couples, for they privately bear burdens of child rearing which will bear fruit collectively when those children become productive citizens. However, the West has bamboozled itself owing to empathobesity into extending these privileges to homosexual couples simply for making sexual contact with each other.

Meanwhile we see glimpses of what empathobesity may bring in the future; attempts to confer personhood on chimpanzees and even cetaceans (5,6), none of which can even comprehend, let alone reciprocate these gestures. Although this seems ludicrous now, so did gay marriage only a decade or two ago. Referring to the equation above, P(act) is now far below C(act).

Thus we come to the quote at the beginning of this article. A sense of empathy and wider dissemination of political power, which helped initiate and fuel the revolutions that propelled the West to the top, applied in excess, in changed circumstances, is now causing its decline. 

What alternative belief systems can replace the empathobesity dogma? I shall discuss this in the coming weeks.

Lastly, if you found the ideas presented here interesting, please consider disseminating them and refer people to this blog.