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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)