5 minutes

Can the West still be saved?

In the excellent book “The Strength of Habit” its author Charles Duhigg cites a famous experiment carried out in the 1960s by researchers from Stanford. They tested the willpower of four-year-olds. Each of the children subjected to the experiment was offered the famous American sweets – marshmallows – with the promise that if they withstand it and they will not eat it until the caregiver returns (in about 10-15 minutes), they will have two sweets to eat. In this experiment, 70% of children of course chose the “I’m not waiting” option. 30 percent could enjoy a double portion of sweetness. But the most important thing about this experience was something else. Well, it turned out that those children who were able to hold back for the required 10–15 minutes fared much better later in life. They learned better, achieved professional success, and achieved higher income.

I was reminded of this experiment recently in the context of the present state of global society, especially in the countries of the so-called West. In my opinion, this society today is such a group of impatient kids. Kids who greedily throw themselves at every sweets put under their noses and try to shove it into their mouths as quickly as possible and swallow. This impatience and violence of desire is a result of the fear that in a moment the person offering the cookie will change their mind and take it away. Faced with such a risk, no one is interested in the prospect of receiving a second cookie in some time. Although the waiting time is objectively short, in relative terms – against the background of the pace of changes and surprises – it seems like an eternity. So much can happen that it’s better not to wait, not to risk.

In sociological terms, this state of the present Western society is sometimes described as “fluid” (Z. Bauman) or “radical” (A. Giddens) modernity. A state in which we believe less and less in order, norms, positions and social roles, and more and more in the fact that the world is ruled by chaos, that formal and informal elements of the institutional order cease to exist. In such a situation, from an individual’s point of view, the strategy of focusing on maximizing gains here and now seems to make perfect sense. At the same time, however, it is devastating for the medium and long term. Why? It opens the way for populists who will always offer the most in the short term. When confronted with them, future-oriented good ideas and programs will, as a rule, fail. In effect.

Can you break out of this vicious circle? Yes, but only when the prescribed treatment addresses the source of the problem, not just its symptoms. This source is the mismatch between institutional solutions that make up the socio-political and economic systems to the requirements of the modern world. To put it simply, the situation today looks as if the manual for the analog landline phone from 30 years ago is still supplied to the latest version of the smartphone. Everything seems to be correct, the instruction is, but basically useless, it only irritates.

The world of rapid and comprehensive changes – technological, climate, geostrategic, organizational, process, etc. – requires completely new institutional solutions. In particular, in terms of the functioning of democratic mechanisms, labor-capital-technology relations, goals and the role of governments or dogmas underlying the functioning of companies. Only new solutions – e.g. in the form of a rewritten social contract – can restore people’s sense of law and order, and thus reduce anxiety and extend their horizon of thinking and acting. Without this, each subsequent “rescue packages” involving huge funds thrown into the economy, whether locally or within, for example, the EU, will end the same: greedily throwing a cookie, briefly raising the sugar level, and when it subsides.

Finally, it is worth asking if there are any signs of a constructive search for a cure for the social problems of the West. Yes, there are the first swallows. Not as part of the so-called main stream. You have to look for the so-called the periphery. The countries of the Wellbeing Economy Governments initiative are a good example. It includes Scotland, Iceland and New Zealand. The aim of the initiative is, on the one hand, to redefine the goals of development (going beyond the dogma of the inherently defective measure, which is GDP, and relying on a broader concept of prosperity), and, on the other hand, to look for institutional solutions constituting the new order.

It is a kind of a new global trend that fresh, constructive currents of thinking come today from countries that until recently would have been difficult to suspect. But this is not the case. New Zealand prides itself on the fact that the University of Auckland is at the top of the World Economic Forum’s ranking of universities that are best prepared to face global challenges. Scotland and Iceland, on the other hand, are examples of countries which, in the face of challenges (Brexit and the financial crisis, respectively), were able to make profound revaluations and changes.
Although there are positive symptoms, there is still no guarantee that the West will be saved. It will depend on how quickly the understanding of the need to establish a new order begins to reach its greatest societies.

Published: Parkiet, 20.07.2020

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