Saturday, January 20, 2018

Trump and Berlusconi: harbingers of the coming Seneca Cliff



Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi have many similarities as country leaders. I argue here that they are the symptom of a giant political transition which is reversing the trends that started more than two centuries ago with the French revolution.  Human rights have a cost and this cost has been paid, so far, by fossil fuels (our "energy slaves"). Now that our dark slaves are leaving us, who will pay? Not a small problem and the result seems to be an ongoing "Seneca Transition" catapulting us to a new and different world. 



After one year of Trump presidency, America looks more and more the same as Italy was when Berlusconi ruled it. I am not going to list the similarities between Berlusconi and Trump: it has already been done and everyone knows about the sex scandals, the outrageous behavior, the offensive way of speaking, all that.

For Silvio Berlusconi, this kind of behavior led him to be prime minister for a total of 9 years, over more than 20 years in which he strongly influenced Italian politics. Today, it looks perfectly possible that, at 81, he may become prime minister again with the coming national elections, in March, replacing the fading star of his heir, Matteo Renzi (aka "Berlusconi 2.0").

Donald Trump uses the same methods developed by Berlusconi and he seems to be attaining a remarkable political staying power. Fighting him, the American Left is making the same mistakes that the Italian left made with Berlusconi: demonizing him while aping his political choices. Actually, the American Left is doing even worse: at least the Italian Left never accused voters to be so dumb that they could be easily swayed by the propaganda tricks of a foreign power. A surefire way to win elections: first you tell voters they are morons, nay, traitors, then you ask for their vote.

But there is a method to this madness. The Left is making the mistakes it makes because it operates on the basis of an obsolete political paradigm. Most of the political struggle up to recent times has been based on a principle discovered first by Harold Hotelling in the 1920s (it is called the Hotelling-Downs model): he who controls the center, wins (it works also in economics and with chess).

There is a problem with this model: it works only if there is a political center. As I described in a previous post, that's not true anymore: today there are two centers and the way to win elections is to occupy one of the two, as Donald Trump perfectly understood. Hillary Clinton didn't and her defeat was unavoidable.



Once you take notice of this double-peaked distribution, it is clear why the demonizing of the man at the top doesn't work: the more you demonize him from the left, the more he is seen a hero from the right. This is also something that Donald Trump perfectly understands, but not the Dems, evidently.

And now, what's going to happen? In a previous post, I argued that political polarization is a necessary reaction of society to scarcity. Here I may add that Berlusconi and Trump are symptoms of a giant political phase transition just starting.

The origins of what we are seeing are in the 18th century when fossil fuels - coal at that time - generated a rapid economic expansion. The political response to the newly gained prosperity was the French Revolution, giving birth to the political movement that we call "the Left." The French Revolution introduced the concept of human rights and, traditionally, the Left has emphasized rights while the Right has emphasized duties.

Having rights is nicer than having duties, but the problem is that human rights have a cost and that this cost was paid, so far, by fossil fuels. Now that fossil fuels are on their way out, who's going to pay?

On this point, the Left has nothing to propose but empty promises and people are starting to understand that. That's the reason for the rise of the political Right everywhere in the world. It is a political phase transition that's wrenching us away from the familiar fossil-powered world and catapulting us to a different world.

Phase transitions are normally abrupt and often violent (part of the concept of the "Seneca Effect").  Surely, the French revolution was violent and abrupt and it would be a miracle if all the problems we'll face in the future will be leaders like Berlusconi and Trump and their heirs. They are verbally aggressive but, so far, not so much in physical terms. They are part of the transition, but they are not causing it and the transition will not end with them.

Where the transition will take us, it is impossible to say. What we can say is that a person who has only rights but no duties is a monster while a person who has only duties and no rights is a slave. Neither condition is appealing and, eventually, we'll find a compromise and settle for something in between. But it will take time.


28 comments:

  1. I get the declining net energy, but Trump is still promising the same thing I've heard my entire life from every single politician - more. Jobs, money, stuff.

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    1. Yes, more is promised for sure. He seems to know he must strip away other parts of the edifice to pay for them though.

      Like trade agreements, environmental safeguards, military commitments towards allies such as within NATO.

      Burning the furniture to keep the fireplace going I guess.

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    2. I think there is a profound difference that you see in many examples. I think it shows most clearly in the recent debate on health care. The Left thinks it is a universal right that comes at no cost. Instead, the right thinks people have a duty to maintain themselves in good health and/or provide for health care when they need it.

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    3. The irony, at least in the US, is that almost every leftist I know is working hard to eat well, keep in shape, and working to maintain themselves in good health, while all the rightists are obese porkers popping down the prescription pills.

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    4. The problem here Ugo is that the US health care system generally costs more than twice the OECD per capita cost while having 20% of the population uncovered and generating worse medical outcomes across the board. In short - the total cost of health care is being paid - but it's not being distributed equally. Whatever the issues those within the EU have with health policy and the costs imagine if you were paying twice as much and it wasn't universal!

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    5. Unfortunately, the problem is the same in Europe. The cost of the universal health care system is becoming too high for the state. So, they are cutting corners wherever possible, at the same time downgrading the quality of the service . We haven't renounced to the principle of universal and free health care, but it is becoming more and more difficult to stick to it

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    6. What I find interesting is Jose's statement, which so completely describes the feelings and vitriol of the "left". I know quite a few folks from both the right and the left. Fat liberals are about the same percentage of the population as fat conservatives. Opiate abuse crosses all political boundaries.

      What is surprising to me is that when the "cool kid liberals" get together, what usually happens is something similar to the hate speech so eloquently expressed by Jose in the above post.

      "Rightists are obese porkers popping down the prescription pills."

      Hatred and contempt really doesn't get better than that.

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    7. I supposed Josè's comment was ironic. Was it?

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    8. There's some interesting data on this question here:

      https://extranewsfeed.com/whos-healthier-republicans-or-democrats-21dce4811bfa

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  2. The best piece since Extraction. Critical social theory is seen in the movie, The Shape of water where straight white men, especially Russians, are making the world dangerous for blacks, gays, women and jews.

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  3. Ugo, you claim 'The Left has nothing to propose but empty promises...',is very vague, and obviously wrong if try to make it precise. Labour under Corbyn has many good policies, in contrast to 'New Labour' under Blair, and might well win the next election in the UK. Die Linke in Germany won't win but has even better policies. What is the 'American Left' you claim is 'aping' Trump? Nobody thinks the mainstream Democrats are 'left'. Your remarks about health care are equally off the mark - universal care in the NHS costs less than half of US care,as share of GDP, and delivers much better outcomes, in spite of current Tory under-funding crisis.

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  4. This right-vs.-duty-thing can be turned around: the left is thinking, that you have the duty to help the poor via state mediated transfer of money. The right, by contrast, proclaims the right to help nobody.
    Hugo, could clarify your notion that "human rights have a cost"? Seems absolutely not obvious to me. A cost for whom? And how come?

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    1. You could turn the definition around,of course. But, generally speaking, rights and duties are understood as individual rights. The original idea was "Les droits de l'homme" - according to Wikipedia:

      Les droits de l'homme, parfois écrit droits de l'Homme, également appelés droits humains ou encore droits de la personne, sont un concept à la fois philosophique, juridique et politique, selon lequel tout être humain possède des droits universels, inaliénables, quel que soit le droit positif en vigueur ou d'autres facteurs locaux tels que l'ethnie, la nationalité ou la religion.

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    2. About the cost of human rights, I was making the example of health care. If you think every person has a right to free health care, it is a good thing, but society must pay for it. If that right doesn't exist, it is bad for those who can't afford to be cured, but the cost for society is lower. In Europe, we can afford universal health care because of the energy surplus brought by fossil fuels. No such surplus, no health care.

      Or so it seems to me

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    3. At the most basic level "might makes right", no? For example it is my "right" to take this land from you using my superior force, because I can do so and you can do nothing to stop me since you happen to be weaker..

      There is no further administrative or energetic cost boyond the actions themselves. No court, no laws to spend time studying, no judges or lawyers.

      On the other hand any greater good, any over-arching principle requires a system stronger than the strongest potential agressor. Clearly this more just system takes more energy to maintain than "might makes right".

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    4. Yes. Upon rethinking about it, Democracy has to be more expensive than autocracy.

      For a dictatorship you need a secret service, spy rings, dungeons and gallows, torturers and executioners, some simple propaganda. That's expensive, but let see democracy: you need political parties, activists, a class of full time politicians, their acolytes, lobbies, backhands, corrupted officers, PR agencies, secret PR agencies, lotsa propaganda, and more. And you may still need a secret service and ways for torturing people in damp dungeons. Very expensive

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    5. I am here in hospital undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia... and the waste and expense is incredible. And I was very healthy growing all of my own food organically. now should I just accept death and save the energy wasted?

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  5. There are a lot of good points here, like the polarization that happens late in a political regime, preventing cooperation, and hastening reset. The cost of human rights is one thing paid for by coal and oil, but so is the cost of tyranny. Any new regime will be built ups from smaller, stable, functional units. That used to be family farms. What will it be this time?

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    1. Correct: a tyranny is expensive as a political system. It is arguable whether it costs more than democracy. Surely, the cheapest of all is feudalism

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  6. unless i misinterpreted your point---i can't see how the availability of fossil fuels affected the French revolution

    the viable steam engine wasn't perfected in its current form until 1776---hardly time for its benefits to percolate down to the masses by 1784

    I would have thought that it was of more influence on the European insurrections of the 1840s

    Having said that, the current rise of fascistic politicians owes its direct lineage to those of the 1930s---the hiatus between then and now has been entirely due to the temporary prosperity delivered by fossil fuels
    The wars of that era were the result if resource shortage---now resource shortage is making itself felt , so conflict and insane political promises are with us again

    And of course the great mass of people have no alternative but to believe them---the alternative is too awful to contemplate

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    1. Yes, the industrial revolution was an important turning point, but coal was used much before. In france, it was already extracted during the 17th century and even earlier. Even without steam engines, coal made a big difference for many applications, for instance in metallurgy. Being less expensive than wood charcoal, it freed human power that could then be used in other industries, e.g. textiles, or as military power for foreign conquests. The whole story, in my opinion, starts much earlier than 1776

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    2. i agree---up to a point

      but the steam engine was critical in obtaining deep coal in quantity by pumping water. Before then coal had to be got from shallow seams or drift mines

      Until Darby developed the system of smelting iron using coke, it was impossible to make enough iron to start building iron ships, bigger steam engines and cannon to force our industrial civilisation forward, and create the wealth of it.

      Watts' engine of 1776 was the key factor in doing all that

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  7. An important point of polarization is that it allows you to blame whatever happens on a specific group of people.

    We immediately understand this scapegoating when others do it, but find it impossible to acknowledge when we do it ourselves.

    When we've eliminated the Jews, the Communists, the Fascists, the Bosses, the White Suprematists, the Priests, the Atheists, the Immigrants all will be well.

    But it won't.

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  8. Im in a canadian hospital for a month undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. What I have found was that every one has moved heaven and earth to get me the best treatment. Doctors, nurses, cleaning staff. Yes they are very busy but the attitude is fantastic. Universal healthcare is tough financially but we are doing it. And yes I was a healthy food person.

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  9. "...the Left has nothing to propose but empty promises and people are starting to understand that." <--This statement is without merit, your own argument admits that global use of fossil fuels is coming to an end, however, you fail to admit that newer, cleaner, more renewable energies are coming on line which provide huge economic opportunity for blue-collar workers everywhere in the world. Soon, electric vehicles will surpass petro vehicles, electricity generation will also migrate into wind, solar and batteries of all shapes and designs. Some areas of the world are even using water and gravity to store energy. The potential is a wide open as are the economic opportunities to exploit it. The world-wide switch-over from fossil fuels to ever increasing forms of renewable energy will last for decades into the future providing long-running economic expansion. The "Left" understands this, but the "Right" wishing to remain in power fights against these changes because they represent a new form of economic supremacy. Additionally, the "Left" is very good at providing internet tools (like the one you use for your blog) to the masses at a low cost. The internet itself provides huge economic promise. So, I disagree with the author's conclusions.

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    1. I wish you were right, Joe. And I do think that in the future we'll arrive to something like the world you describe. The problem is the period in between. . .

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  10. There's a pretty big difference between a classical liberal (especially neoliberal globalists) and true progressives these days.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)