Things fall apart: Time for the centre to hold

Mike Berger says Max Price & Co. have bought into the Pandora's box of grievances, only to find that these are infinite

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity..." (WB Yeats)

No, the biggest problem facing South African Universities is not decolonisation - or transformation or racism or sexism or genderism - or even University "arrogance".

The key existential challenge confronting our Universities and the country as a whole is holding the centre. It is maintaining the norms, processes and institutions which make possible the realisation of the dream of the struggle veterans that one day South Africa, under a fully democratic government, will be capable of delivering the social and economic goals of the majority of our population.

It is the simple question "who rules? The mob, the latest warlord or the democratic State, under the rule of law as implemented by its appointed officials and its institutions?

Most South Africans who have managed to remain relatively uncontaminated by the flood of fashionable ideologies understand that. Yes, within their ranks there are some stupid or repellent racists. Yes, there are degree of arrogance and complacency amongst many whites. But the majority, possibly the vast majority, are open to the new demands and challenges entailed by a full, non-racial democracy which was the foundation on which the new South Africa was founded.

But Dr Price and many of our commenteriat have lost the plot entirely. They have bought into the Pandora's box of grievances and demands of the demagogues and, to their astonishment and horror, they find that it is infinite. They cannot keep up with the populist meme-machine which spews out new issues always one step ahead of their confused reactions.

This challenge is not peculiar to South Africa or to Africa; it is universal: how to regulate productively the restless, tribal nature of the human species in such a way to deliver the fruits of cooperation. How to beat the logic of the Prisoner's Dilemma in order to derive the greatest good for the greatest number

Yeats, a poet, not a political theorist, understood that intuitively. The lines opening this article were written in 1919 following the devastation wreaked on Europe by the "war to end all wars". Yeats was a part of the "Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority that had controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland since at least the end of the 17th century". In short, he was part of ruling class who established the norms and the institutions which regulated Irish society for at least 100 years.

Europe itself at the time consisted of separate states at different stages of political development with disputed borders, different histories and cultures, all compounded by the devastation caused by WW1 and the sharp economic downturn of the late 1920s. Not surprisingly, it became an incubator for radical and totalitarian ideologies which set the stage for the next devastating global conflict, WW2.

But the major totalitarian ideologies of the early-mid 20th century were defeated and out of the cauldron emerged a pluralistic, universalist, free-market, human right-based democratic order which was so successful that it appeared to some to be the only game in town.

It delivered huge advantages. Innovation, health and wealth increased exponentially. The domain of security and cooperation widened dramatically making humanity the most social of all species, surpassing even the special case of the social insects according to Peter Turchin. The earth became flatter and smaller and the Western model of democracy seemed king amongst amongst pygmies. A democratic peace reigned over Western Europe, Scandinavia, Great Britain and its erstwhile colonies, including the USA.

But no sooner had optimism become reasonably acceptable, ominous clouds appeared over the horizon. They came in various shapes and sizes. Climate change and the general havoc caused by irresponsible industrialisation and over-population soon assumed truly frightening dimensions.

And there were many others: Jihadism, tyrannical and failed states, pockets of dire poverty even in some relatively wealthy countries, greedy, corrupt and incompetent governance, resource depletion, great power rivalry...and so on. The consequences have been drastic. Armed conflicts costing millions of lives lost or blighted, and threatening the stability of the rest of the world.

Even more worrying is the sight of stable, confident democracies reeling under the onslaught of external challenge coupled with serious weaknesses inherent in large-scale democratic societies. The source and nature of these faultlines are still not understood by what I call, with malicious intent,  "the chattering classes", but we need to consider them seriously  

I will consider 3 major, interlocked factors:  the media, the innate tribalism of the human species along with a vast repertoire of emotional-cognitive biases.

Modern communications technology (which we'll call "the media") has fundamentally changed our world in ways which we are a long way from fully understanding. One obvious effect is to covert the world into a facsimile of a global village; "facsimile", rather than the real thing, because we don't share common fates, cultures or histories. And "facsimile" also because all the raw information, good and bad, has been processed by a host of other minds with their own perceptions, biases, constraints and agendas.

Thus the information we get is not even second- or third-hand and, more often than not, has been deliberately and cleverly shaped to control our perceptions and opinions. Given the fact that all humans are especially attentive to threat, conflict and bad news, this constitutes the bulk of what the media conveys.

We do not yet fully understand the impact this has on our psyches but it is reasonable to infer that a constant stream of bad news and conflict increases the collective stress and anxiety levels even of distant populations and promotes polarisation and "tribalism" within society.

For example, the generally safe and secure United States of America is manifesting record degrees of polarisation between fluctuating alliances along ethnic, gender or ideological lines which spills over into actual physical confrontation in the form of riots and violent protests - or deliberate murders. Mostly it takes the form of ideological mobbing as we have seen in the latest election.

I hold no brief for Trump, who as an ultra-predator cannot complain when he becomes the prey, but the behaviour of the mainstream media has been a travesty of ethical journalism.

Such internecine tribalism makes it difficult for the USA, and the West more broadly, to respond rationally and coherently to external challenges, such as Islamism and regional anarchy with  the attendant mass flight of resident populations - along with embedded warriors - into the West. This process remains to be played out and the next 100 years will be "interesting". The same applies to other existential challenges as the global climate and environmental changes.

If even stable democracies are shaken by these human and technological realities, the same applies in spades to precarious developing (aspiring?) democracies like South Africa. Tribalism here has deep roots. Our democracy is new and our surrounding models are bad. Nor is our own history much help. The mythology of violent protest as the essential ingredient to political liberation and power is now becoming increasingly written into our cultural DNA.

On top of that we are the receptacle for the most radical (and often impracticable) ideas of the ever-inventive Western Left. In our fragile context with our immense population bulge of unskilled, angry youth, such slogans are the petrol on the bonfire. Even more disturbing is the facile surrender of much of the South African intellectual centre to the same narratives of the Western Left agitating the fantasies of the youth. As a consequence, our Universities and "chattering classes" have virtually handed moral authority and even temporal power to mob rule.  

No help can be expected from our government which is in an even worse state of moral and operational disintegration. Institutions other than government-based entities are holding up quite well and the broad population has remained relatively resistant to the lures of violent demagoguery. But it is highly precarious.

It is now time for the Universities to enforce, by whatever legal means necessary, the rule of law and the norms of tertiary educational institutions worth the name. It is not only the future of higher education at stake, important though that is. It is the stability of the country. The kind of violent mob politics we are seeing, is the classic excuse for draconian and anti-democratic measures by illegitimate and weak governments.

Before we become trapped between a Mugabe-like dictatorship or the African version of the Arab Spring, can we please have our Universities show the clarity and leadership that we expect from those placed in positions of power.


Mike Berger