"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Plus Ça Change–The Endless Reconfiguration Of Everything

There is a well-known international development bank in Washington,  famous for its regular and periodic reorganizations.  A new President is inaugurated, feels the need to put his stamp on the organization quickly and firmly, and the entire institution comes to a halt while departments are reconfigured, eliminated, or created.   Divisions are folded into each other – one President sees regional integrity more important than technical coherence; another, a technocrat, sees just the opposite.

While the institution reforms and restructures, little work is done.  Why invest time, effort, and political capital in a Division Chief who may be gone in two weeks? Or why bet on a comer who might be brought down by any one of the influential country Mafias who really run the organization behind the scenes? When the dust settles, and the desks and chairs are rearranged, there are few surprises.  Those who are well-connected have not only survived but prospered.  In one recent reorganization an earlier Balkanization of the South Asia administrative region was overturned in favor of a super-division no divided into sections. 

Not unexpectedly the favorite of the powerful Pakistani lobby, formerly head of his country’s division, was now head of the super-unit.  Nothing else had changed.  Those Young Turks who were always looking for efficiency and ‘relevance’ were happy because they saw in reunification a new geopolitical integrity.  The Pakistanis were happy because this super division was now even larger and more important than that representing China; and the new President was happy because he had put his own imprimatur on the institution.

Once the dust settled, the mid-level bureaucrats peered out of their foxholes to see who was standing, and those who had kept their own counsel through the internecine warfare, who never criticized or electioneered,  received minor promotions, higher grade levels, or significant bonuses.   The institution went back to the way it was.  Nothing had changed.  Business went along just as it had before the reorganization; and although millions of dollars had been lost because of staff demurral and inactivity, by and large everyone shook off the bits of plaster and wall board, and went on with their work.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose goes the French expression.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  So it was with the international development bank, so it is in world affairs, and so it is in everyday life.

In the past few years the traditional configurations of Europe and the Middle East have undergone significant transformative pressure.  ISIS rejects the idea of secular, colonial borders; and instead wishes to establish a religious caliphate – a broad, homogeneous Muslim region where only religious law applies and conservative social mores will replace the corrupt progressive ones of the past.

Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has similarly rejected the concept of the nation-state which he characterizes as a wholly Western invention.  The return of Crimea and Ukraine to Russian sovereignty is fulfilling a destiny far more important than that promised by liberal democracy.   Return will not simply mean a new political environment but one in which culture, history, religion, and economics will once again be unified in a new Imperial Greater Russia.


Separatism is an increasingly powerful movement, and ethnic regions like the Basque and the Scottish demand respect for their own cultural identity and history.  Only separation and independence from the mother country will suffice.

French Muslims are rejecting the principle of  liberté, égalité, fraternité the moral and cultural foundation for France since the Revolution.  We are not all French, they say, twisting the French line back on itself.  No secular law can ever trump God’s law.  We march to his drummers, not yours.

The Arab Spring unleashed fundamentalist forces long driven underground by corrupt dictators; and soon after these religious populist movements had toppled them, the expected and predictable vying for power began in earnest.  However, not only were radical changes national, but regional.   Few in these insurgent militias thought of ‘Syria’, ‘Iraq’, or ‘Libya’.  While few goals or ambitions are clear, it is obvious that the geography of the region will never more resemble what it was.

Underlying much of these changes is an increasing criticism of liberal democracy.  It is not enough to reconfigure regions according to new geo-political, religious, and cultural principles.  One must reject the foundational principle of the West.   Democratically-elected representative governments, rule by secular law, and freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion are no longer considered absolutes.  Western-style governance has had its day, critics in Russia and the Middle East assert, and no it’s somebody else’s turn.

In order to adjust to or confront these new realities, European nations are questioning their former allegiances.  Western Europe rightly considers Russia a legitimate ally against the Islamic radicals of the Middle East.  Eastern Europe, still very suspicious of Russia, is moving even closer to the United States.

The United States under Barack Obama doesn’t seem to have a clue what is going on.  America The Beautiful has always been one nation under God; and that sense of divine entitlement and characters is hard to question let alone change.

America goes through periodic cycles of conservative and liberal governments, both of which intend to put their stamp on the country; and yet little has changed.  The United States is still profoundly capitalist,  still run by entrenched political, financial, and economic interests, and still divided, unequal, and contentious.  Yes, things have changed from the days of John D. Rockefeller and the Robber Barons, but how much?  Powerful industrial corporations still rule the roost, buy influence and favors from Washington, and make money hand over fist.  They have to dodge federal regulators of course, but have become adept at doing so.  For every Enron or Bernie Madoff who are caught, convicted, and sentence, a hundred more pop up in their place.


This is by no means a criticism of America.  Our circuits have been designed, li,e those of the French, Chinese, Russians, or Nigerians  for aggressive, self-protective, expansionist, and territorial behavior.     All societies are competitive and quickly divide themselves according to ability, strength, will, and intelligence.

Plus ça change is a universal concept.  Human nature is ineluctable and permanent.  It knows no national boundaries.

In other words, man’s essential competitive, combative, aggressive, and self-interested behavior drives all temporal change.  However the Middle East or Europe are configured, they will certainly change again after paroxysms of ambition and aspiration. 

What is surprising is that so many observers and critics didn’t see this coming.   There has been nothing but perpetual destruction, reconstruction, configuration, reconfiguration, organization and reorganization since the very first human settlements.

It is another, more restricted myopia not to have seen how the American invasion of Iraq would solve nothing and cause much worse.  It is another thing altogether to be blindsided by fundamental change.   Americans are shocked by the rejection of liberal democratic values which, according to the Declaration of Independence were endowed by The Creator.  How to square this profound assumption of divine intervention with the outright dismissal of anything and everything that smacks of the Enlightenment?

The Law of Unexpected Consequences is a corollary of Plus ça change.  Every structural change that we may promote produces results that no one ever thought of.  The invasion of Iraq which, according to American NeoCons would usher in a new era of universal democracy did exactly the opposite. 
The reorganization of the international development bank which created Super-Bureaus did anything but produce the harmonious operations conceived by management planners.  All it did was to increase resentment, country politics, and re-Balkanization.

The ‘diversity’ so passionately promoted by the liberal Left in the United States has resulted in even more social division and animosity.  Why did these optimists never look to history for a relevant lesson? The more you create individual group identities, the less members of these groups will feel the desire to integrate into the whole, and the more they will defend their newly-won turf.
‘There is no change but change’ goes the popular version of the Buddhist concept of Impermanence.  What is changed is insignificant and without value because it will soon disappear, morphed into something else equally valueless.

A little more Eastern wisdom would help trim some of the arrogant expectations of world leaders, politicians, bankers, and progressive idealists.

The 21st century will be witness not only to the perennial political changes of history; and not only will see the shifting and realignment of political and religious philosophies.  It will see the transformation of the human organism. Genetic modification plus complete mind-computer interface plus bionics will completely transform the structure and nature of the human being.  Yet even this profoundly, millennial, fundamental alteration of being will likely result in the same predictable events of the past.  Human beings with their hardwired human nature will be programming the New Age, so what can you expect?

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