We have come to think of the United States and Europe as restless democracies. We see them intent on overturning a liberal order that a small majority of their voters seem now to despise. The apparent reasons are that it failed to bring economic equality, mistakenly believed by many to be a feature of democracy, and that it led to unacceptable levels of corruption. A rising personal standard of living, they argue, does not compensate them for being less well off than the richest in their societies. Welfare was a right; wealth is, too. “What you give on Monday, you owe on Tuesday”.
Restlessness about corruption, undoubtedly one of the world’s biggest problems today, would be easier to comprehend if there were not an overwhelming number of individuals personally involved in it. Small corruptions are mostly only small because the opportunity for bigger ones has not yet presented itself or been perceived. Excessive regulation is only one of the causes but it is becoming the biggest driver of entitlement to cheat.
Restlessness is not confined to democracies although that is where it is most visible. Autocracies allow less press freedom, suppress dissent and, even today, manipulate information. It is not therefore possible to know precisely how much restlessness they have. It remains contained until it emerges as revolution when it either overturns the old order or, more usually, gets hammered into submission. For the past twenty years the world has been sliding towards having more autocratic regimes in the name of political productivity. As every manager since Henry Frick knows, productivity isn’t coerced, it is persuaded.
Docile acceptance of an existing order is not a pre-requisite to society’s successful development but reasonably orderly change is. What exists today is the product of centuries of thought – political, social, technological, religious. Sometimes misguided, often wrong, it had a place in the moulding of our specie that was relevant at the time. More knowledge, the propellant of development, itself causes restlessness. There can have been few disrupters as disturbing as Darwin. 158 years after publication his treatise still upsets some people.
Innovation relies on creativity, something that only works when it disrupts. So restlessness is good. A thirst for seeing what is over the hill is what is making humankind. For us to be civilised it has to be balanced with a thirst for a society that is kinder than it economically need be, one that wants fulfilment beyond material acquisition for those who taste a hundred or so years on the planet. For many of them this will, in future, be a time without conventional work and wages. Labour and exhaustion has been a successful antidote to restlessness. We will – indeed do already – need good substitutes for them.
Can we manage our restless society? Ten years ago it was an academic question; today it is perhaps the most relevant question we must answer. Ever shortening timescales of everything except longevity have brought restlessness to a point of incendiary. Diplomacy and compromising muddling through have been discarded in favour of exacerbating raucousness. Politeness is dismissed as weakness. Only the brutal are strong.
A punch on the nose only ever brought blood. Such behaviour denies our aspirations to be better people. We had enough blood through the Napoleonic and World wars. We do not want any more. But we are already headed on a path to even greater bloodshed.
We must, at all costs, stop it now.