Why our world is so harsh for so many

The world is a complex place and any simple description of it will be incomplete, but I think it is fair to say we are the subjects of an artificial system of theft and oppression that continues to make the world harder to live in.

Look at the sources of power in the world. Look at government, corporations and the media. Laws written for rich people have created a system where it is necessary for us all to sell our labour to the owners of businesses. They own the land, the factories, the offices, the infrastructure. We need to earn money to survive and the best and sometimes only way to make money is to work for a large corporation. We make money for the people who own and run the corporation and they give us back some of it. Next, the government takes its share, claiming it needs it for roads, schools, hospitals, pensions and security, and gives as much as it can (for example through contracts) to corporations. It does not give people a choice to keep that money, decide what to do with it themselves and get what they need through mutual aid (helping each other) like they used to. Some people work their whole lives making others rich and still end up penniless. Why? Because they didn’t work hard enough? Because they were evil in a past life?

The media tell us to consume. The remaining money we have earned, the last bones we have been thrown, we are encouraged to spend on things that make us feel rich: nice houses, cars, furniture, decorations, restaurants, two-week vacations and fancy coffee. Consumers spend their lives working for corporations and giving most of their money back to them. Instead of pursuing their dreams, they work hard in order to spend hard.

I understand people who do not do anything about it. Politics can be pretty boring. I disagree with people who say you should pay attention to politics even if you are not interested in it. You should not be compelled to pay attention to the news and what it tells you the people in power are doing. If they do not have your consent, they should not spend your money or pass laws over you. Moreover, most of the people who expect you to follow politics pay attention to the wrong things. They watch party nominations and election results and contribute to political parties and candidates who never make any real changes. But the media tell us those are the important things. That is how we can make a difference. There are no alternatives, except competing warlords or some USSR/North Korea nightmare. The system works. Stop questioning the system.

Enormous power is thus concentrated in the hands of only a few thousand people, most of whose names you and I have never heard before. A few million or so more wield power on the national level in different parts of the world with some autonomy (think the generals in Egypt) but they have mutually beneficial relationships with members of the upper ranks of the global elite. Look at what the elite do with their power. In the old days, a king would send soldiers somewhere and thousands of people would die. They had power over small parts of the world. Nowadays, power has become global, and as such the crises it leads to have gone global as well. Look at all the (supposedly unintended) consequences of all the wars the US government has been leading, all the people who have been tortured and killed, or who lost their homes and their livelihoods, and continue to do so even after the foreign militaries have left. And yet, consider who has got rich from those wars. Look at the economic carnage from the last financial crisis. Look how many people lost their jobs, homes and all their money, all around the world. And yet, the people who caused it actually made more money from it. And they tell you not to worry, because there will be an economic recovery. Do you believe them? Where is the justice?

Finally, “education” tells us what to think. I’m sure you can think of reasons why the system we live under is the best possible system. You learned it in school, and if you learned it in university like I did (political science major), you have even more reasons why it works best. We need leaders because without people making our decisions for us, society would collapse. We need rich people because without them, who would start businesses for us to work in? We need police to protect us from all the bad people around us. We need hierarchy: all societies have hierarchy, right? All other ways of living go against human nature. Don’t think too much about it: watch TV instead.

As far as I can tell, most people are neither interested in understanding the system nor willing to take the risk of fighting it. Again, I understand and I don’t judge. I just think they should understand it better than they do. If they choose to do something to change it or to change their circumstances, that is their choice and I will support them. I warn you, however, if we do not fight back, one day it will be too late.

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The war on the native

The nation state is a very new invention. It originated in Europe in war and conquest, as armies conquered some tribes and massacred others. It has expanded and grown and continues to do so to this day. The state was forged in war to subdue others. This basic form remains constant, though the scope of the state has grown, along with expectations about what it can and should do.

The nation was shaped by other processes. Benedict Anderson famously explains that print capitalism was the strongest driver of the forming of the nation and nationalism, as it spread a common language within the borders of the state that did not exist prior to conquest. Since then, the idea of a common culture has taken hold and the nation grows more certain of itself. The advance of media technology in the twentieth century continued this trend. Anderson called nations “imagined communities”, because they were huge groups of people who would never meet with a communitarian identity.

From a different angle, Ernest Gellner writes,

nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalised diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomised individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30-Years War (yes, the history of the state is of chaos; it is hard to think one’s idea of “anarchy” could be as bad), effectively baptized the nation state. State borders grew stronger. It was assumed among states that sovereignty, meaning the mutual acceptance of the other’s monopoly on crime within its boundaries, was to be respected. Of course, the urge to use an army at one’s disposal is too great, and the fighting continued until the number of states in Europe shrank and the power of each one to kill grew.

Around 1789, the idea that the state should represent the people, preserve liberty, equality, fraternity, or other revolutionary slogans, caught on. National education systems were erected, inculcating everyone in the logic of the state and the primordiality of the nation. The nation state became timeless, obvious and unassailable. The nation state expanded beyond its borders, as European empires built big ships and conquered the globe. To reach their goals, they killed whomever they had to kill, on any continent they felt like taking.

Ultimately, what the empires left their conquered peoples with was the nation state. The nation state has broken down old social structures and erected new ones. It groups millions of disparate people and assumes they can be represented by a ruling class. It assumes rule by a ruling class is preferable to whatever it has destroyed. It has institutionalised theft and slavery. It has militarised the criminals and disarmed their victims. And even though it legally covers every inch of land in the world, its power over the people within those lines continues to expand. One result of modern state expansion is a war on the native.

Indigenous people all around the world have been persecuted since the inception of the state. They have been forcibly moved so they could be taxed or so the powerful could gain access to land and other resources. They have been killed when they have resisted. Many groups we have never heard of have been wiped out over the years. Others have been decimated and pacified and pushed onto “reservations”. In recent years, much of this wanton violence has been at the request of large extracting corporations. Such corporations, oil and gas concerns, for example, function almost as the right arm of the modern state. The state is a vehicle for accumulating power; the corporation is the most powerful modern tool for accumulating wealth. Heads of state and corporations work together to extract wealth and repress those who challenge them.

Under the nation-state system, the real owner of all land (and thus resources on that land) within the borders of the state is the state. Some states afford a measure of land or property ownership to those not connected to the state, but not many. Even Canada has seen a number of oil spills on supposedly-private land in recent months. Perhaps the people living on the poisoned land will be compensated. But the fact that someone else could ruin their land and they will need to petition the state for restitution is evidence they did not own the land to begin with. Moreover, secession is an option for free members of a federation, but not for citizens of the modern nation state.

Kayapó people being "evacuated"
Kayapó people being “evacuated”

A number of indigenous groups in the Amazon, such as the Kayapó, above, have protested the state’s plan for the Belo Monte Dam. This dam promises to flood a large area of land, dry up other land around the river, devastate parts of the rainforest and hurt fish stocks. Tens of thousands of people in the Xingu River basin are in danger. The locals have protested since the initial proposal of the dam in the 1980s and their demands have been ignored. They are now being attacked and moved. The dam will be built. The people with deep, spiritual ties to this land never had any recourse because those in power did not recognise their claim to the land. The state treats those it can use as tools and those it cannot as waste.

Similarly, in Indonesia, conflict is growing as large corporations have been tearing down forests and erecting palm oil plantations. Henry Saragih, founder of the Indonesian Peasant Union says

The presence of palm oil plantations has spawned a new poverty and is triggering a crisis of landlessness and hunger. Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common. There are thousands of cases that have not surfaced. Many remain hidden, especially by local authorities.

Naturally, no one is ever consulted or compensated when their habitat is stolen from them. Local security forces protect foreign corporations. The beneficiaries of globalisation and economic growth do not need to pay its prices.

Unsurprisingly, some people have resisted with violence. Under modern state parlance, they are called terrorists and insurgents. People who once farmed land in much of India until they were kicked off have formed a loose movement known as the Naxalites, led by Maoist intellectuals. Companies such as South Korea’s Posco Steel have appropriated other people’s land for their own purposes, with the help of local police. A peaceful anti-Posco movement has arisen, but protests have gone nowhere. Politicians are under pressure from the companies they have already promised to let build and the villagers who will lose their land; they make more money off the corporations so they just repress the villagers. The Naxalites oppose the advance of the state, and have killed civilians and security forces alike.

The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate
The Red Corridor, where Naxals are known to operate

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has called the Naxalites “left-wing extremism” and “the single biggest internal-security challenge ever faced by our country”. Bolstered by the advent of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the Indian government has arrested and killed thousands of Naxalites and their supporters in order to maintain its monopoly on crime. On the violence committed by both sides, Arundhati Roy opines

I think you’ve got to look at every death as a terrible tragedy. In a system, in a war that’s been pushed on the people and that unfortunately is becoming a war of the rich against the poor, in which rich put forward the poorest of the poor to fight the poor, [security forces] are terrible victims but they are not just victims of the Maoists. They are victims of a system of structural violence that is taking place.

In some places the Naxalites enjoy popular support. As with other violent, persecuted groups, however, some Naxalites have used violence against unarmed locals, and have been less popular. As with the War on Drugs and countless other cases of aggression, violence begets violence.

At the same time, the Indian government has pursued a hearts-and-minds campaign of offering “development”, such as roads and schools. The simultaneous application of force and the promise of economic incentives has been praised by the Economist and others of similar persuasion. Vandana Shiva, on the other hand, believes “If the government continues its land wars in the heart of India’s bread basket, there will be no chance for peace.” This strategy is bound to fail as it does not address the roots of the problem. Indeed, it has failed. The people are not interested in being absorbed by the nation state. Explains BD Sharma, “[f]or them, development means exploitation.” This should not be surprising. The nation state views incorporation into its ambit a step up, from barbarism to civilisation. The discourse assumes a model of progress from life outside the state, thought of as unhealthy, backward and hostile to life as part of the state, meaning education, health and higher culture. It defends displacing people from their ancestral homes with its offer of schools, hospitals and integration into the wider economy. But the state always achieves its goals with violence.

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed explains the logic of the state and escape from it through the case of the highland people of Southeast Asia. The evidence is strong that many or all of the people living in the mountainous region recently dubbed Zomia are there because some time over the past thousand years or so they have chosen the life of barbarity over forcible incorporation into the state. One of a number of groups Scott considers is the Karen.

Zomia

Many of those we now call the Karen consciously fled the predatory state to escape appropriation of their land and agriculture, forced relocation or slave labour. The Burmese military government has attempted to subdue and incorporate the Karen. They fought back for many years, but eventually, technology caught up and the last major Karen base was destroyed in 1995. The people continue to hold out, however, in small groups. The Burmese military continues to wage its campaign against them. It burns down fields and lays mines there. Soldiers fighting Karen guerrillas, conscripted and paid a pittance, take whatever they want from villages on the front lines, and end up terrorising their inhabitants. Like other persecuted groups of Zomia, the Karen have adopted flexible agricultural techniques, mobility, shifting ethnic identities and social structures that split easily over political, social or religious issues. But the state advances and the Karen get easier to destroy. Scott believes it is only a matter of time before the people of Zomia become tax-paying subjects of the state once again.

Nigeria has also seen terrorism as natives of the Niger Delta have defended themselves against oil companies. The campaign to defeat the locals long enough to extract oil and dump waste has involved police and military, who have done their best to turn ethnic groups against each other. As a result of two decades of conflict, the entire region has militarised. Royal Dutch Shell was implicated in the murder of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. As with other corporate malfeasance punished by a monopolist court system, it cost a trifle and enabled the firm to return to business as usual. Shell is not the only company working the area, as Chevron and Nigeria’s national petroleum company are involved as well. The struggle for freedom from the state in the Niger Delta is not over.

Is there hope in democracy? Under Rafael Correa, the government of Ecuador sued Chevron for billions for the destruction of the environment of thousands of people. Of course, a few billion is a drop in the bucket for such a firm, but at least a symbolic victory is possible. Says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch, Chevron

left hundreds of toxic waste pits. It dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste. And really, the whole time that this trial has been going on over the course of 18 years, the communities continue to live with that legacy, and they continue to suffer the impacts, the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the environmental impacts of that destruction. And so, this is an important day for the communities. It’s just one step; it’s not a victory. But it is very crucial for them. It’s also an important day for the broader struggle for corporate accountability around the world, for broader struggles for environmental justice and human rights.

Perhaps. Will it set a precedent? An example for other indigenous people? The damage has been done. The environment has been wrecked. And it might just leave the same people open to abuse from Petroecuador, which has caused its share of oil spills. And other Andean people are even less fortunate. (See here and here.) The people have been forced to work through state structures, further integrating them into the nation state, and have been lucky enough finally to have someone in the state who will fight for them. None of these things will last if their sovereignty, over their land and their labour, is not recognised.

It is important that we learn the history of both states and nations. On the history of the state, I recommend Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, Martin van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State and Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State. For more on the nation, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner’s Nation’s and Nationalism and Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780 are basics of the canon.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it”

It is an industry worth 15 to 20% of the world’s GDP. It boasts among the most global of operations. We see its results all around us, even in our own homes, without realising it. In these difficult economic times, this sector of the economy is thriving. We are supporting it with many of our purchases and people are dying for it on the streets. The industry in question is organised crime.

Misha Glenny’s book McMafia: a Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld is a fascinating thrill ride that traces the roots of the scourge of modern organised crime. He paints a clear picture of the origins, rapid international spread and possible solutions to the enormous problem of the illegal multinational. He begins in Eastern Europe.

As the communist world was imploding, law enforcement was going with it. In the USSR, state companies, the commanding heights of the economy, were being sold at firesale prices. The new oligarchs, as they were soon to be known, needed protection, and they found it in the ranks of the newly unemployed. (For more on the relation between unemployment and violence, see here.) Mob wars became the defining characteristic of Russia in the 1990s. The oligarchs ran complex corporations where the legal and the illegal were indistinguishable. Thousands of criminal organisations arose to work with them and kill for them. Then, they spread.

Glenny details how organised crime went everywhere in search of black markets to exploit. In Yugoslavia, a war that appeared to be tearing people apart was uniting the mafia across the new borders. Bulgarian gangsters tricked and then pimped prostitutes in Europe, Israel and beyond. He describes it as not only a lucrative business but one that pays consistent dividends. The trade in caviar from the Caspian Sea has enriched gang leaders, corrupted officials (further) and nearly depleted the sea of sturgeon. Dubai’s gleaming buildings belie its status as a hub for money laundering. Sanctions on trade with North Korea have pushed all its dealings under the table, and now a nuclear state is selling weapons to the Taliban. (See here.) British Columbia’s marijuana cultivation brings in 6% of its GDP and ecstasy production is rising and bringing Hell’s Angels with it. Sanctions and criminalisation did not end the trade in these things. This lesson, in fact, is central to Glenny’s thesis.

Innumerable women are exploited as prostitutes. They have no protection from violence or disease. Legalised prostitution would mean they have the law on their side. I have been writing for some time about why legalising drugs is the only sensible answer to the billions of dollars and no end of lives lost to fighting a problem that grows nonetheless. An estimated 70% of the global “shadow economy” is in narcotics.

Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy, put it well in an interview with Glenny when he said the following.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations.” (Glenny, 225)

The idea that something is bad, therefore we must make it illegal means trying to end the economic law of supply and demand. Only market based policies will work. Everything else is doomed to fail. But public pressure is mostly conservative on the issue. (See, for instance, here.) I wrote to my member of parliament, Gary Lunn, to end drug prohibition, and he responded by assuring me that he was adhering to more of the same inept, wasteful policies.

The same simple thinking believes that restrictions on immigration can be effective ways of keeping the barbarians outside the gates. The demand for cheap labour has been rising for years, while barriers to it have been following suit. Many Americans see their country as the destination of poor workers, and while illegal immigrants face various dangers to enter and stay in the US, their counterparts all over the world are doing the same. Millions of people are trafficked to jobs under terribly hazardous conditions to wherever cheap labour is in demand. The criminals running operations kidnap the people and then beat or rape them. The free movement of labour across borders would reduce the risks of being a migrant worker. But being unwilling to embrace cultural change, not understanding interculturalism and scared of losing their jobs, people in the rich world prefer to forget about the problem and watch TV. But more attention to the trade going on under the rug would make our world safer.

The fingers of crime are in every pie, everywhere. Organised crime does not only deal in drugs and prostitutes. It corrupts police forces and governments everywhere. It sells cigarettes. Because of high taxes on cigarettes, cigarette smuggling has cost the UK alone $8b in tax revenue and fueled the brutal conflict in Yugoslavia. It sells diamonds, as we know from the movie Blood Diamond, a gripping, fictional (but true to life) story of a diamond industry that has brought down states and sold millions into slavery. It sells weapons, labourers, DVDs, gold, tin and coltan. Do you know what coltan is? It is a black ore found in almost all cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. Though it is found in many parts of the world, much of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mafia from all around the world have cooperated to exploit the mineral resources of the Congo, and in doing so have been fueling the world’s deadliest war since 1945. (Read more here.)

Though we cannot know the origin of everything we buy, we can choose to stop taking drugs, visiting prostitutes and consuming so much. We can lobby our governments to legalise drugs and prostitution, and loosen restrictions on migration. We can set up regimes to verify the origins of things like diamonds, gold and coltan, like the Kimberley Process has done with some success. It is time to stop standing by and letting criminals corrupt our world when some unpleasant but necessary actions could end their party. I strongly recommend McMafia. You will never look at globalisation the same again.

Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal: Introduction

We all seek meaning in our lives. For some, meaning is simple; for others, we feel a need to prove ourselves. Most of us find meaning in our own achievements. We feel proud when we overcome adversity and act bravely in the face of challenges. Others, however, have meaning forced on them from outside. They accept what they are told are virtues because people around them think the same; and meaning, to such people, comes from the pursuit of other people’s virtues.

Individuals who come to their own conclusions understand that opinions must come from facts, not from fiction. Their identities are based on personal beliefs about what is right and wrong, not on where they were born, what language they speak, what religion they were born into, and so on. They refuse the offer of what Stefan Molyneux calls “the straitjacket of false meaning” because they know it is not where the truth lies, only where soft feelings of belonging are offered. Those who flee the straitjacket are individualists. Those who seek it are collectivists.

Before going any further, let us define the two key terms of this six part series, Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal. Individualism means that the individual is an end unto itself. The individual occupies the highest moral ground. The individual is inviolable, meaning that his or her rights always trump the interests of the group. The individual is not obliged to pay any loyalty or duty to any group he or she belongs to but may pay it willingly. Collectivism, by contrast, means that the group is the end, and the individual is merely the means by which to further the interests of the group. The group could be a nation, a civilisation, a race, a sex, the followers of a religion or an ideology, a club or other any other organisation. To a collectivist, the group’s rights trump the individual’s; and pursuit of the group’s interests is the highest of callings.

The individualist versus collectivist debate is not just an abstract, philosophical one. It is at the core of our legal system, education, culture and the cause of all the world’s most complicated conflicts. Many would tempted to avoid intellectualising on the subject by a la carte reasoning: there are some things I am individualist about and some things I am collectivist about. And yet, when forced to make a choice, most people show their true colours. That choice, as I will show in this series, means life or death, civilisation or chaos, good or evil.

If individualism vs. collectivism makes you think of the divisions between communism and capitalism, you are correct, at least to a point. It would be wrong to say that communism was purely collectivist, nor is capitalism in practice purely individualist. Indeed, some of capitalist countries’ biggest problems stem from problems of collectivism, which we will come to later. But in general, the assumptions are correct. Communist society was planned to consider its members as nothing more than contributers to the aims of the government. The members of the government were the power elites, but even they were replaceable. No one had any rights. Capitalist societies, on the other hand, were not planned, and could go on existing indefinitely because of their greatest strength: each person was an end to him or herself.

The message I bring is one of freedom. It is understandable that many are uncomfortable losing their chains, as freedom can be scary. Where is the security of the old master? At least he ensured I was not killed. He gave me a place to direct my loyalty. Now my identity is at risk of theft, invasion, death. This series will argue that, not only is your identity worth losing, but you grow stronger when you become a true individual.

Individualism is not something that people from all cultures will rush to embrace. It is not something that goes down easily, as it sounds like selfishness, greed, indifference to the problems of others. The myth states that collectivist cultures are more sympathetic to the people as a whole than individualist ones. But to be sensitive to the problems that an individual can have, one must understand the individual. Collectivist cultures, except for very small groups such as bands, tribes and chiefdoms, actually have trouble understanding difference, because they believe that they are monolithic. Your group is not one big unit of people with small, insignificant differences, as you might believe. It is a group of differently skilled, differently creative and different thinking people who could reach amazing potential if they were given their freedom.

Unfortunately, there are many in the world that want to belong. They are driven not by a desire to make themselves better but a desire to do what others tell them to do. These people are the employees, the churchgoers, the soldiers, those who unquestioningly follow traditions and charismatic leaders. They are humanity’s sheep. And some places are full of them.

Because of the danger of being a sheep, this series does not simply attack the most dangerous collective feelings of nationalism, racism and cults. It attempts to bring down all sources of collective identity, including diehard sports team fans, deeply bonded fraternal organisations, loyalty to a political party, town pride, and so on. All feelings of collectivism lead to the abdication of the person in favour of the advancement of the group.

But the problem lies not with an individual’s paradoxical choice to give up his or her individuality. It lies in the fact that collectivism forces itself on others. It is an idea that everyone under its influence is forced to adopt. If one is born in Greece to a Greek Orthodox family, there is little chance of being shown all the nationalities and religions before being told that you are Greek Orthodox and accepting it for life. One is not offered membership but force fed it from birth. One must abide by the collective’s laws, even ones whose purpose we have forgotten, such as that state that pigs cannot be eaten on Wednesdays while praying to the golden man statue that must always be facing north because he protected us during the viking invasion. In this way, collectivist loyalties are a kind of hereditary chain gang: people are born in chains, they labour for the chain gang their whole lives, and attempts to break free could mean death.

An individualist culture, however, is one where people evaluate things based on how they will affect the people that undertake them, not the group. The individualist argument seems selfish because it becomes a fair question to ask, why should I give something up for the group? Why should my son go to war when you do not have to go? If I am poor, why should I donate to the food bank just because everyone else I know is? If I can think for myself, why should I do what everyone else is doing? Perhaps there is a better way.

The good news is that individualist identities are very slowly reappearing. Transnational business, global media, internationalism, anti nationalism, free thinking and the internet are all forces bringing the dangers of collectivism down, one new individualist at a time. This series delights in this trend and advocates the tearing down of all feelings of collectivism to make individualism the norm. It will do so by showing where collectivism comes from and its consequences, while showing why one should and how one can become an individual.

Why globalisation has not ended conflict

When the Iron Curtain collapsed across Europe and the flags of peace, freedom and democracy were waved, many people around the world thought these changes would be permanent. We were told that this was to be a new era of capitalism and prosperity, democracy and freedom, brotherhood and equality, peace and happiness. This was the end of history.

Except that it wasn’t. Certain things flourished. Capitalism will come to anywhere the elites can profit from it, and it will usually trickle down when the masses demand it to. Democracy and freedom were won in the early post Cold War years but both appear to be slipping away again. And peace, far from springing up from the ground, may be even further away than ever.

Globalisation, which helped topple communism and spread wealth to the post communist world, was supposed to have eliminated conflict by making us all interconnected. Trade has spread and deepened everywhere, creating middle classes that governments need to answer to. Countries would sacrifice wealth if they went to war, because it is now far more profitable to trade with each other than build empires. But we do still have war, don’t we? Why is that?

Globalisation has increased the costs of violent conflict but not removed the causes. The causes have always been multiple but now there are too many to count. And the biggest causes of conflict are more prominent today than ever. One is upheaval: big changes. Every person and every culture reacts differently to big changes; and change is fast and furious nowadays. Globalisation charges ahead, and brings with it climate change, inequality of wealth, the spread of ideas, migration and terrorism. And of course, each of these big changes begets more unexpected, unsolicited and, to many, unwanted change. Anything can happen after changes like this, including war.

A second cause of conflict that has increased is racism. Whether we realise it or not, we are still learning that we are different and better than each other. We learn ethnocentrism, intolerance and racism in school, in mass media, from politicians, from parents and from each other. We live in a world that still prizes loyalty to the collective: protect the group at any human cost. These problems still existed during the Cold War, but they were less complicated than they are today. Now, we are searching for meaning outside the left right divide and many do not know where to turn. They turn to their immediate groups. They find that their groups are superior. But again, things are more complicated: there are more groups and loyalties and each is fighting with every other one.

During the Cold War, there were three sides—side A (capitalist), side B (communist) and side abstaining (non aligned). Now, diplomacy is so difficult because sides are so mixed. In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for instance, according to the Economist, “The peacemakers barely know where to start. The old divisions, not just between Israelis and Arabs but also between rival Palestinian factions and their bickering foreign backers, have got deeper. Political rows are already muddling the urgent task of getting aid to Gaza, let alone efforts to secure the fragile ceasefire, rebuild the territory and forge a broader Arab-Israeli peace.” Everyone is arguing with everyone else.

And yet, globalisation has calmed one form of violence. Most war nowadays is civil war, or intrastate conflict. Before and perhaps during the Cold War, it was between countries, or interstate. Globalisation has made liberal democracy the norm in half the world, and though one can argue no end how liberal and democratic these places are, the major benefit has been a reduction in interstate violence. The question is, what will it take to eliminate war?

War, unfortunately, seems to go deep into our nature and satisfy a certain lust for blood. As much as we hate to admit it, many or most or all humans have a propensity for violence (to inflict or watch it), competition (which of course means winning any contest one can win at), a culture that prompts and rewards violence, distraction from more complicated issues, punishment, revenge and cruelty. My guess is that violence among humans will never end, not while we are the humans we recognise today. But war is one kind of violence. What will it take to eliminate war?

For my answer to that question, I will take you into the roots of discrimination, war and the search for meaning in a series of posts by examining the most important philosophical debate in history: individualism versus collectivism.