Social Catalysts

We might start by simply defining a ‘social catalyst’ as being associated with some significant change in the behaviour of a society. However, when some aspect of social change endures over multiple generations it may also result in a cultural difference that may divide one society from another and, over time, such cultural differences can become perceived as a national identity. While this might provide some initial perspective on the sum total of social change over time that may culminate in a revised national identity, it really tells us little about the actual process by which the social norms of smaller communities bound by earlier history, i.e. language, customs and beliefs, become subsumed into larger ‘empires’ that demanded acceptance of a new worldview, invariably by force. In many ways, we often look back at the social turmoil forced onto earlier communities as simply the price that had to be paid for progress. Today, the evolution of national identity is still in progress, but is now being subject to the pressures of globalisation and the collective change being caused to the wider human ecosystem in all its various facets. Of course, the price that will have to be paid for such ‘progress’ may now appear a little closer to home, as it affects all generations alive today and will undoubtedly continue to play its role into the future.

Is there a pattern in this model of progress?

It might be suggested that all human social constructs, which includes economic and political institutions, appear to becoming increasingly hierarchical and centralised over time, such that the focus of power also becomes controlled by an ever-smaller minority. At this point, we possibly need to better differentiate between authoritarian and totalitarian power, where the former is assumed to only concentrate political power into the hands of a single person or small ruling group, while the latter is assumed to control all aspects of society. Of course, it might be realised that it may not take much for an increasingly authoritarian government to extend its power to become a totalitarian state as in Huxley’s brave new world or, worse still, Orwell’s 1984.

Is this simply paranoia or some future possibility?

Today, globalisation is still a process of interaction between sovereign nation-states, although often subject to international agreements, both political and economic. However, the idea that a few super-powers might effectively control the process of globalisation, often in their own self-interest, has long been recognised. From a historic perspective, we may recognise how earlier European powers attempted to subjugate the Americas for their own national self-interests, but which ultimately resulted in the political union of the states of North America that then evolved to become the dominant economic and military super-power of the 20th century. Today, in the 21st century, the European Union is also attempting to create a unified political and economic super-power, although the issue of national identity is possibly proofing to be more problematic. A somewhat looser union might be seen in the BRICS alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, although this is primarily to promote shared economic self-interests rather than having any obvious shared political or military objectives. So, while some institutions of global governance do now exist in the form of the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), their real power is still limited by the self-interest of the various super-powers as outlined. However, we might consider the on-going process of global centralisation in a somewhat more abstracted form, while making reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Again, based on a historic timeline, only the local layer originally existed in the form of smaller communities, where the majority of the population was primarily focused on ‘survival’ needs, such that only a small minority were in a position to aspire to ‘power’ or possibly benefit from ‘esteem’. Likewise, at this local level, earlier peer rivalry was also localised and invariably orientated towards physical resources, i.e. land, food and water. However, over time, these smaller communities were subsumed into ever larger groups, which have culminated in the national entities we recognise today, where the local level now exists within a national infrastructure.

Note: Just to clarify, the majority of the people still exist at the local level irrespective of the power hierarchy that exists above them and, in many cases, still struggle to survive. As such, only the process of ‘power’ and ‘esteem’ are shown at the national and global levels.

Today, peer rivalry at the national level is clear for all to see, although possibly now defined more broadly in terms of political, military and economic power. While there is no direct global concept of centralised authoritarian or totalitarian power, some will undoubtedly aspire to this goal. However, within the obvious simplicity of the previous diagram, we might still see the essence of a problem associated with centralising power, especially if totalitarian in scope, which we might characterise in the form of a well-known quote by Lord Acton:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.

Ultimately, centralised power tends to put power in the hands of just a few, who by virtue of their elevated status often become divorced from the reality of the majority, even if not simply corrupted by it. Of course, we might hope that the ‘checks and balances’ imposed by democratic governance may curb the excessive abuses so often associated with authoritarian and totalitarian governance. However, this may be more of a hopeful wish than a practical reality, when political governance is so often coerced by economic necessities and manipulated by the power and influence of multinational corporations, which may ultimately only be seeking to serve their own self-interest, and that of their largest share-holders.

But what has this really to do with social change in the future?

As a broad generalisation, if we look back at history, we might realise that the most significant social catalysts have invariably sought to change the status quo of those in power. Naturally enough, the ‘establishment’ in the form of the public and private institutions are usually controlled by the rich and powerful, which history suggests invariably resist any change that might undermine their power and influence.

Note: We might initially characterise the historic nature of institutional power in the form of the church or the various monarchies that sought to protect their power and wealth from most forms of social change. For example, the church has often sought to suppress scientific ideas that dared to suggest a different worldview of creation, while authoritarian monarchies have fought against both democracy and any ideas suggesting a fundamental redistribution of wealth or privilege. In this respect, a social catalyst may be triggered by either an ideology or technical invention, which incites or causes change in society.

However, in a more future-looking perspective, we might need to consider those aspects of present-day society, which might be susceptible to change triggered by mounting pressure across the entirety of an increasingly globalised human ecosystem. Of course, in this wider context, the social change might be in response to economic, political or environmental change, especially if it affects essential resources like food and water. However, at this point, we possibly need to consider whether history really provides a useful model for future predictions. For while mass uprisings of a down-trodden majority have sometimes been successful in over-throwing the repressive power of a small minority, in practical terms, most past revolutions have only really succeeded in changing one powerful minority for another. In addition, future developments in military and surveillance technology may take us closer to Orwell’s 1984 vision of society than we would like, where the minority have such a technical superiority over the majority that it makes the over-throw of the ‘establishment’ from within nearly impossible.

But who will need who the most in the brave new world of the future?

While the previous quote of Lord Acton might be seen as an indictment of men corrupted by power, in truth, such men have often been the catalyst of change by which the modern world has been created. As previously stated, we who are alive today, and have become the beneficiaries of modernity, often dismiss the historical suffering and injustices inflicted on earlier generations as simply the ‘price of progress’. In this context, we possibly need to make a more honest assessment of the contribution made by the ‘majority’ towards the progress achieved, when considering the previous question. While this is a contentious aspect of the discussion, an initial assessment might suggest that the powerful minority have often only needed the larger majority to provide man-power, which historically was provided in the form of slaves and servants. Unfortunately, even today, it is possibly naïve to assume that these older classifications of servitude have simply disappeared even though we might wish to reject such notions on the grounds of evolving human decency. However, while we might want to pursue the idea of a better tomorrow, we possibly still need to consider the previous question in the harsh light of some future world being driven by supply and demand, such that we need to table an even more provocative question.

Will the future need such a large population?

In the previous outlines of technology and economic catalysts, it was suggested that AI and robotic automation could come to have a profound effect on unemployment around the world in both developed and developing nation-states. Without getting into the details at this stage, it is possible that AI and robotic automation could one day dramatically reduce production costs, while increasing both productivity and profitability in many sectors of the economy. Of course, we might then have to question whether GDP would suffer if there was a corresponding reduction in the number of consumers, i.e. the few people with money and presumably jobs. However, it possibly makes more sense to initially consider the implications of this issue in terms of a government’s balance sheet. On one side, the government’s assets are linked to the income based on tax revenues, which we might assume remains proportional to GDP. On the other side, the government’s liabilities are linked to the costs of supporting all those people dependent on the welfare system. Clearly, if assets do not balance the liabilities year-on-year, then public debt will simply increase to some eventual point of collapse. Of course, there is the possibility that AI and robotic automation might maintain, or even increase, the GDP per capita, such that increasing welfare costs per capita can be maintained, although this optimistic outcome appears an unlikely scenario for all nation-states in a competitive global economy. Equally, this optimism does not really address the question above or the issue of what an increasingly large and unemployed population might do within society. However, we shall defer the discussion of such a sensitive issue for the moment in order to expand on the wider nature of change.