It's the Institutions, Stupid

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

I leave it to others to critique Steven Pinker’s interpretation of the Enlightenment. Suffice to say, I’m unconvinced that the various Enlightenments (there actually were several distinct Enlightenments, though Pinker seems unaware of this), much as I love them, can really be credited for the huge increase in human material well-being that has taken place over the last couple of centuries. This turns out not to be a trivial critique, since Pinker’s argument that the Enlightenment is what “caused” the material improvement drives his conclusion that the main threat to sustaining that improvement comes from those who he alleges are undermining the Enlightenment, e.g., the so-called postmodernists. This in turn leads to Pinker’s bizarre suggestion that the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche represent a greater threat to our sustained material well-being than, say, Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers. Judge for yourself whether you find that plausible.

In fact, the real underpinning of the material gains of the last two centuries has been more institutional than ideational. This in turn implies that we must scrutinize the solidity of our institutional matrix if we want a real purchase of the sustainability of these gains.

First, there have been numerous civilizations that achieved marked improvement in the welfare and well-being of their populations — at least their upper classes. The Maya, the Romans, and several dynastic episodes of the Chinese achieved such gains. Of course, the gains that industrial modernity has achieved over the last quarter-millennium outstrip all previous improvements. But taking the longer view, the gains of modernity are perhaps less impressive than they seem. Almost all those gains have taken place in the last quarter-millennium, and 250 years, after all, isn’t that long of a run for a civilization. Other historical civilizations have sustained their gains for much longer. The Roman Empire’s eastern branch basked in cultural glory for a thousand years. And even though it’s usually meant pejoratively, it’s no coincidence that the word “byzantine” is a synonym for institutional complexity.

Second, there are reasons to suspect that modernity’s run of material amelioration may be drawing to a close — and may even go into reverse. Broadly speaking these reasons can be divided in two. The first concern biophysical limits to growth. These are enduring arguments that the Breakthrough Institute has done much to illuminate and clarify, so suffice to say that, as a long-term proposition, Malthus hasn’t yet been proven wrong, and climate change presents challenges of unprecedented scale that will only be addressed if there is sufficient collective political will to overcome collective action and free-riding challenges. It’s at best unclear whether we have the global social capital to do so. Put another way: we live in an era of wicked problems.

My own skepticism about whether humanity can overcome these challenges brings me to my fundamental critique of Pinker’s optimism: not only the sustainability of the gains of the last quarter-millennium but also the extensibility of these to larger sections of humanity, as well as the ability to address the growing headwinds posed by anthropogenic climate change, depend crucially on a massive strengthening of our global institutional and governance infrastructure. From this perspective, all the indicators are sharply negative over the last fifty and especially the last ten years.

For nearly fifty years, Gallup has run a series of polls asking Americans about their confidence in various institutions — universities, the media, business, political institutions, and so forth. While the data are noisy, the overall trendline runs inexorably downwards. The decline in confidence is partly the result of sustained anti-institutional propaganda, which exists in both left-wing and right-wing versions. But as I have argued elsewhere, I believe the root cause of this declining trust is the objectively poor institutional performance and a lack of elite accountability. A general feature of late modernity is a declining faith in social authority of all sorts, as ever more individuated and autonomous polities become ever less willing to entrust political agents to do anything. The advent of Donald Trump is merely a symptom of both the failure and the rejection of institutions in the United States.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. The rise of populism across Europe likewise reflects distrust of institutions. The Brexit vote two years ago of course represented a direct rebuke to transnational institutions. More recently, the triumph in the Italian elections of the Five Star Movement, whose calling card was a rejection of political party infrastructure, signaled nothing if not a rejection of institutions. (It remains unclear whether the movement can manage even a small city, let alone Italy as a whole.)

With the United States in the grip of Trumpism and the European Union caught between shambolic national politics and collective dissolution, the primary hope for global leadership seems to be falling by default to the Chinese. Some people have argued that China is filling the institutional gap left by a receding Europe and the United States. Eric X. Li, for example, recently argued that Xi Jinping’s merging of Chinese state and party infrastructure makes sense given that “the party has developed into the most competent national political institution in the world today.” What this bold claim tacitly concedes is that, despite the huge successes the Chinese state has had in poverty reduction over the last 40 years, China’s existing institutions are inadequate to managing the bumpy course corrections that lie ahead if it is to sustain its gains.

Even more worrying than the declining performance of global and national political institutions are the faltering institutional underpinnings of sustained technological innovation — innovation which everyone, optimists and pessimists alike, agrees is essential to any adequate plan for addressing the challenges posed by climate change.

As Mariana Mazzucato has shown, state support for innovation and entrepreneurship has in fact been at the root of almost all major technological breakthroughs of the last 75 years. Specifically, much of this support has taken place through trillions of dollars of state funding for research universities.

But universities today are under unprecedented assault. Variously accused of being hotbeds of leftist indoctrination, engines of neoliberal reproduction, or simply wastes of money, no one trusts universities anymore. (This is the real place where the “postmodernists” have something to answer for: they have both been a primary vector of critique of universities, in effect sawing at the branch they sit on, while at the same time provoking hysteria about the supposed insanity of the humanities, of which Pinker’s book is a characteristic example.) While it seems inconceivable that the United States in particular would flush away the linchpin of its technological, industrial, and soft-power success, the cultural assault on universities today is unparalleled. Non-coincidentally, universities also face a funding crisis of unprecedented proportions, one that is hitting humanities departments first but which the STEM fields are unlikely to escape. All this threatens to cut the legs out from under the innovation engine that is critical to any effort to escape the grim climate reaper.

I don’t want to project excessive gloom; it’s possible these institutional deficits can be closed. But there is no guarantee that they will be. And absent such fixes, it would be foolish to assume that the material gains of industrial modernity can be sustained.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, and more.