Why not Nationalism?

Politics are strange these days. The Right and the Left seem to see eye to eye ever less frequently. People on both sides become increasingly frustrated with each other. People conclude that others with whom they do not agree are fools for not seeing the obvious. And a lot of people are feeling let down by their governments. They are pedaling faster and getting less. Job stability is evaporating. They watch their lives get harder instead of easier, while those in power seem to make decisions that are ever more opaque.

I feel this too. Acutely. However, my situation is a little different. I have spent the last few years modeling human societies as what physicists would call ‘critical systems’. This was not a deliberate choice for me. I happened to walk into a brief academic job doing this kind of work because of the career trajectory my wife was on at the time. But having been bitten by the social modeling bug, I now cannot look away. I feel that I have seen more, and further, by trying to analyze our collective fate with software than I ever did before, and I would like to share a little of that with you, dear reader, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you happen to fall. I want so share because I believe that we have reached a turning point in history. We either act together to save what we have built, or together we watch it crumble. Our fates are shared whether we decide to cooperate or not.

The first thing I learned is that building models that track human habits requires that I had to accept certain ideas that did not fit with the political ideals I had ingested from the society around me. Unless I put these features in, the models I made didn’t produce output that looked like the real world.

For instance, people work harder and better when they feel like there is something significant for them to personally gain, and something for them to lose. This notion is frequently invoked by the political Right, and it is backed up by neuroscience. When human beings are assessing goals, they look for things that are both doable, and worth doing. This is true whether one is talking about children’s education, career choices, or our smallest scale day-to-day habits. This is because it is determined by how the dopamine system in our brains gets activated. No matter how good our intentions are, or how much we want to believe in the capacity for human compassion, or the power of fairness, this fact is unavoidable.

It is also true that the primary source of stress in human societies comes from the centralization of wealth in the hands of a few. This is a notion that tends to be invoked by the Left, and it is just as unshakable. In fact, it is inextricably linked to the conservative ideal described above. When wealth is centralized in the hands of a few, the wealth gradient for everyone else necessarily flattens out, and there is less reason for everyone else to strive. Having billionaires kills productivity as sure as math is math.

On top of this, there is bottomless evidence to show that people perceive wealth on a comparative basis. Once a group of individuals feel like they have won at life, they will work to make sure that they remain the winners, and in doing so will suppress opportunities for others, consciously or otherwise. Wealth inequality thus suppresses innovation. This too, is written into the fabric of our nature and the inexorable logic of game theory.

Nature, then, does not seem to care who we vote for. It follows its own rules. And when I play those rules out on a computer, here’s what I see.

One: I see that human societies aggregate. It is easier for human social systems to merge than it is for them to split. For instance, it is easier to join the EU than it is to leave it. This is true because once a society becomes connected, people take advantage of the opportunities that such connection affords. And if you try to split a society back up again, you have to break up all the new patterns that have been made.

Two: I see that no society is immune to corruption. Every human society runs on a set of common behaviors, and there is always a way to capitalize on those behaviors for personal gain. And because gain can be had, it will eventually, inevitably, be sought out. It does not matter whether you are talking about the government, or the board of a multinational corporation, or a band of freedom fighters, or a grassroots social movement aimed at improving social justice. No social body is immune. In fact, the more tightly held the ideals of that group, and the more fundamentally cooperative it aspires to be, the faster it lays itself open to distortion from within. This is because as soon as any tightly-held set of social norms become policed by those with their own ends in mind, a utopia becomes a prison for its members. A little mutual mistrust and judgement, it turns out, doubles as an immune system.

There are two key outcomes to these truths I see when I put them into a computer model. The first is that societies that invest effort in preserving equality, and spend money and energy on preventing the centralization of power, outcompete those that do not. The second is that once those societies have merged into a single tightly-coupled system, no matter how benign, it is only a matter of time before it is corrupted, allowing wealth to slide into the hands of a few. And once this happens worldwide, the models say, there is no going back. Globalization is a trap.

Given this, one might look at the popular move to various forms of nationalism that has risen in recent years and see in it a little hope. People have lost jobs. They can see the perils of globalization clearly. So why not close borders and protect their own tribes? In doing so, surely they are not only helping themselves, but limiting the spread of an inevitably corrupting global system. What’s not to like?

The problem is that if these borders are closed whilst a pattern of connected global trade is retained, the situation gets worse, not better. Shutting the borders after wealth centralization is already in full swing only reduces opportunity for those seeking to gain wealth, not those who already have it. That’s because it’s the opportunities for advancement available to everyone except the controlling class that are being removed. This pulls up the drawbridge behind those who are already in control, locking everyone else out. And after that, money is siphoned out of the hands of population even faster. The remaining jobs vanish. Poverty sets in.

Nobody wins in this situation. First, the people who wanted to protect their livelihoods suffer. Then the allies of rich who were hoping to gain advantage are turned upon, because there is no money left outside the castle gates to take. Then the rich compete against each other. The knives come out. And all the while, the entire society gets poorer because innovation has been turned off.

It does not matter how rich your country is when this process starts, or how much one might intend to dominate a global market from a position of national strength. That’s because, if the pattern of locked-in wealth inequality is already established, it does not matter how much national potential you have. You can’t access it because your leaders have no incentive to invite the risks that come with growth. After all, why should they? They have already won.

So what’s the solution? If nationalism is a part of it, then another part is necessarily the removal of all oligarchs from their pedestals. If radical wealth redistribution doesn’t accompany the closing of borders, then there can be no gradient of hope for those wishing to better their lot to climb afterwards. To build a conservative dream, you ironically first need a spasm of raw communism.

I believe that there must be better solutions than this, though I am still struggling to define them. Social idealism does not save us, because idealism only creates cooperative norms that can be gamed. Market forces cannot help, because markets only function when there is relative parity between those who are trading. Putting people on other planets, beyond the reach of money and power, clearly works, but that may cost more than the human race can bring itself to spend.

However, if we do not find a solution, nature will find one for us. There are two ways the model ends. One is with global, existential war and the flattening of hierarchies everywhere. The other is with disease, such as the plague that rescued Western Civilization from itself at the end of the Middle Ages by killing a third of the population. Either we act together to find solutions that can work, or we watch what we have built unravel. It is that simple.

So, in asking yourself whether you want to vote for a populist party promising to bring back jobs by closing borders, ask yourself how much of their own wealth are those populists prepared to set down. If the answer is not ‘all of it’, then chances are they are looking to take whatever you have left. Ask yourself how much more you can afford to lose.