Beneath the surface of political systems lies a realm of ideas and theories that seek to make the best out of our collective societies. It is crowded with many ideologies that may be similar in some ways or may be a complete 180. Picture a pie representing a society, while all the pastry chefs want it to be the best pie possible, they usually have different recipes, and they will not easily agree on one. But this must not mean that there is one better than the other, while I like my pie sweet and crunchy, you may like it soft and uncooked. Coming from different backgrounds and possessing divergent secret ingredients, the pastry chefs will fight to make the perfect pie, they will fight on who makes it, they will fight even if they are on the same team… wait they are on the same team, right? Oh never mind, They will fight even if they all want the same thing, they just disagree on the path to get there. Of course, other corrupt chefs may steal some ingredients to go home and make a pie for themselves, but that is something else.
Ultimately, this realm of ideas on how to cook a pie is politics, and it is widely influenced by political philosophy.
First, a quick historical wrap-up. In early human history, there were no societies but rather nomadic groups that would evolve into tribes sharing kinship. During these old times, leadership and decision-making were often in the hands of one person, usually the oldest or the strongest man in the group, just like our cousins the gorillas and their silverback-dominated hierarchy. Later on, as we began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, we could sustain larger populations in one place, leading to the establishment of permanent settlements, and cities. The first cities emerging throughout modern-day Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, India-Pakistan, or China, most of their systems were similar: consensus-based in the less developed cities, and a centralized government, with a king or a council of the elite, in the richer and more developed cities. Considering the knowledge we have today about these civilizations, it seemed to be working, with efficient urban planning and infrastructure, as well as trade and science being core occupations for the population. So why did all the ancient civilizations fall? And why did the Chinese civilization survive?
These two questions bring us to the next historical step in government structure and formation. When building a society, the focus is the development of the well-being of the population. To do so, infrastructure, agriculture, followed by trade, followed by innovation in transport and science are the way. But there is one problem that makes this system inevitably fail. People will become too greedy and start stealing or will become too greedy and would want to “Expand the Empire”. This explains the next entity in the establishment of a society: a military force.
The concept of military, or organized armed forces, dates to the earliest stage of mankind. At first, armed groups were formed with the purpose of hunting, after that armed groups were formed to defend themselves against neighbor rival tribes, ultimately armies were formed with the purpose of engaging in offensives.
To answer the questions raised, civilizations fall because of attacks and conquests that lead to destruction and killing. Babylon fell after being attacked by the Persians, Egypt fell after being conquered by Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Carthage fell to the Romans, the Phoenicians fell to the Persians and the Greeks… With the fall of cities and kingdoms, knowledge is lost, paving the way for innovation and a better life, wealth is lost, and families are killed. And about the Chinese, they survived because, well they were fighting each other. While the Chinese civilization is still alive, dynasties have risen and fallen (Xia, Shang, Zhou, Ming, Qing, PRC, to name the most famous). Even though they were invaded, the size of China made Chinese people stay in China, but many dynasties have fallen, and lots of wealth has been lost.
At one point, in China as well as in Europe, philosophers gained fame with their ideas. Among the oldest philosophers known today are Confucius, Socrates, Heraclitus… but there might very well have been earlier thinkers whose works have not survived. Philosophy (reminder: “Philos” + “Sofia” = love of wisdom) is led by people who are exploring fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, among other topics were the concepts of justice, moral virtue, and the good life. As time has passed, thinkers started to share their ideologies and some of them wanted to apply these ideologies. As of today, there are distinct political systems, theocratic (based on religious texts) like Iran and the Vatican, Capitalism like the USA, Communism like Vietnam or Cuba, State-capitalism like China, or democracy like Switzerland. By the way, the oldest democratic constitution in the world is not Greece. In Carthage, after the king was ruled out, his authority was replaced by two judges called Suffets that served a 1-year term. The closest thing to the Suffets system is the consuls of Rome. The judges (Suffets) were elected by the Senate, which was composed of several hundred Nobles and wealthy people. The judges proposed topics to litigate, and if there was unanimity, then it is the final word. But if there is disagreement among the senate or if one of the judges objected, a vote was taken among the popular assembly of citizens. This system was praised by Aristotle as the Carthaginians did not suffer the yoke of a tyrant nor the common seditions and rebellions in as would Greek democracies. Now back to our point, the rise of political ideologies.
In the past centuries, many philosophers preached new ideas and systems, Marx and Adam Smith are the most influential today because even if they delve into politics, their work focuses mostly on economics. After that, some people like Lenin, or Mao Tse Tung, used their work in their political strategies. In some cases, these ideologies were remixed to fuel political ambitions. These systems are applied today, but they also influenced politics in the past century where governments were socialists or national socialists. Although, it is important to make the difference between communism and socialism. While communism is a system where there is no rich or poor, instead everyone has the same opportunities and the same stuff, socialism places a strong emphasis on social welfare and providing support to vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly, disabled, and those facing financial hardships. Over the last century, some people used the concept of socialism to gain power and implement new concepts. Hitler created the concept of National Socialism to fuel his extreme nationalism, and antisemitism by scapegoating the Jews and other Semitic groups for Germany’s economic and social problems. In the same way, Mussolini created fascism.
So what are the lessons we can learn from the rise and fall of systems, and does this mean that our current system will eventually fall?
We saw that ideas are proposed, rejected, accepted, remixed… and we also saw that most of the powers fall or change: this is our system, this is us, this is our life. Therefore, through external influence or through the internal rise of a powerful figure ready to bring a change, through revolution or a coup, our societies take on these challenges to adapt and at least try to make the best out of it. From every fallen empire and system, we can take lessons, as a leader or as a population. In my opinion, regarding what the future holds for us, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
« The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. »
~ Hannah Arendt ~
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