Op-ed: Political behaviour is largely non-rational

When one considers how things have gone in the last decades or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization.

brain surgeryI do not argue from this that the only thing to do is to adjure practical politics, retire to some remote place and concentrate either on individual salvation or on building up self-supporting communities against the day when the atom bombs have done their work. I think one must continue the political struggle, just as a doctor must try to save the life of a patient who is probably going to die.

But I do suggest that we shall get nowhere unless we start by recognizing that political behaviour is largely non-rational, that the world is suffering from some kind of mental disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured.

The significant point is that nearly all the calamities that happen to us are quite unnecessary. It is commonly assumed that what human beings want is to be comfortable. Well, we now have it in our power to be comfortable, as our ancestors had not. Nature may occasionally hit back with an earthquake or a cyclone, but by and large she is beaten. And yet exactly at the moment when there is, or could be, plenty of everything for everybody, nearly our whole energies have to be taken up in trying to grab territories, markets and raw materials from one another.

Exactly at the moment when wealth might be so generally diffused that no government need fear serious opposition, political liberty is declared to be impossible and half the world is ruled by secret police forces. Exactly at the moment when superstition crumbles and a rational attitude towards the universe becomes feasible, the right to think one’s own thoughts is denied as never before. The fact is that human beings only started fighting one another in earnest when there was no longer anything to fight about.

It is not easy to find a direct economic explanation of the behaviour of the people who now rule the world. The desire for pure power seems to be much more dominant than the desire for wealth. This has often been pointed out, but curiously enough the desire for power seems to be taken for granted as a natural instinct, equally prevalent in all ages, like the desire for food. Actually it is no more natural, in the sense of being biologically necessary, than drunkenness or gambling.

And if it has reached new levels of lunacy in our own age, as I think it has, then the question becomes: What is the special quality in modern life that makes a major human motive out of the impulse to bully others? If we could answer that question—seldom asked, never followed up—there might occasionally be a bit of good news on the front page of your morning paper.

However, it is always possible, in spite of appearances, that the age we live in is not worse than the other ages that have preceded it, nor perhaps even greatly different. At least this possibility occurs to me when I think of an Indian proverb which a friend of mine once translated:

In April was the jackal born,
In June the rain-fed rivers swelled:
‘Never in all my life,’ said he,
‘Have I so great a flood beheld.’

Eric Blair in Tribune, 29 November 1946

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Here at World Streets we spend quite a lot of time in trying to improve our understanding of the behaviour, of both politicians and the people who vote for them — See https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/tag/behavior/. We thought that for a weekend read, it might be interesting to see what George Orwell had to say about this two full generations ago.

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to BetterChoices@ecoplan.org .

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2 thoughts on “Op-ed: Political behaviour is largely non-rational

  1. Great succinct assessment of what is happening in Western Australia right now with the state government attempting to force local government amalgamations (see http://ianrker-vincent.blogspot.com.au). Long story but legal action might actually stop this one in its tracks and community pressure has forced some splits in the ranks of the powerful. However, it shouldn’t be necessary (and isn’t always possible) to resort to the courts to curb the excesses of the Executive. Somewhere along the line, the Parliament has lost its way and is now no more than a rubber-stamp for the Executive in most cases.

    My own view is that conventional political parties are 19th century dinosaurs, necessary in their day to achieve some form of consensus when communication was slow and cumbersome. The disengagement of people from politics is reflected in the plummeting membership of political parties (http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do) which, in turn, allows small groups to dominate parties and further alienates the rest of us.

    In the 21st century we have much more immediate and effective ways of influencing decisions (witness the rise of petition websites such as GetUp and Avaaz) than either Parliament or political parties. Until our political system embraces 21st century technology, including social networking, it will continue to move further and further from the ideals of democracy on which western societies are supposedly based.

    Reply
  2. Ian Ker commented on Op-ed: Political behaviour is largely non-rational

    Great succinct assessment of what is happening in Western Australia right now with the state government attempting to force local government amalgamations (see http://ianrker-vincent.blogspot.com.au). Long story but legal action might actually stop this one in its tracks and community pressure has forced some splits in the ranks of the powerful. However, it shouldn’t be necessary (and isn’t always possible) to resort to the courts to curb the excesses of the Executive. Somewhere along the line, the Parliament has lost its way and is now no more than a rubber-stamp for the Executive in most cases.

    My own view is that conventional political parties are 19th century dinosaurs, necessary in their day to achieve some form of consensus when communication was slow and cumbersome. The disengagement of people from politics is reflected in the plummeting membership of political parties (http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do) which, in turn, allows small groups to dominate parties and further alienates the rest of us.

    In the 21st century we have much more immediate and effective ways of influencing decisions (witness the rise of petition websites such as GetUp and Avaaz) than either Parliament or political parties. Until our political system embraces 21st century technology, including social networking, it will continue to move further and further from the ideals of democracy on which western societies are supposedly based.

    Reply

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