Nervous States- Democracy and the Decline of Reason

This book, Nervous States – Democracy and the Decline of Reason, 2019, written by William Davies tries to explain the state we are in. The end of truth or the domination of feelings or the end of expertise all come to mind. People perceive that change is so fast that the slow knowledge developed by reason and learning is devalued, while instant knowledge that will be worthless tomorrow like that used by commodity, bond or stock trading networks is highly valued. Davies builds on Hayek and says many things that ring true. In three posts, I will present the main points of Davies’ book, argue with some of the points, and present what Davies says we can do about it.  Devaluing reason is a big deal for decision making.

Davies explains that Hayek sold the idea that intellectuals had snobbery against practical and local knowledge.  Hayek thought that this sort of knowledge was difficult to share or publish, and much of its value derives from the fact it is not generally available. Hayek suggested that practical and local knowledge is what gives successful entreprenuers an edge. Knowledge needs to be respected as a private asset. Thus, efforts to establish agreed upon facts hurts enterprise.  Thus, Davis notes, seeking a common reality threatens to destroy freedom.  I note that Youtube certainly has eliminated the idea that it is difficult to share or publish practical information. A common reality only threatens freedom that never existed. Even entrepreneurs create common realities by standardization of things like bolt and nail sizes and on and on.

Hayek’s critique of expertise and especially academic and government institutions caused him and others to create competing private institutions to create knowledge. Think tobacco, oil, and chemical institutes. These institutes can be good at creating alternative realities where cigarettes do not lead to lung cancer. Davies notes that phony science can be demolished but it takes time. Phony science only has to win over a portion of public sentiment while real science has to accurately reflect the universe.

According to Davies, Hayek saw markets as doing what intellectual elites refused to do–factor in the feelings and instincts of the mass of ordinary people on the ground.  Davies suggests:  “This is where faith in the market maps onto populism and nationalism, for all these creeds see politics as little other than mass public coordination via shared feeling. Reason becomes sidelined in favor of sentiment.”

Evolution provides another market like perspective. Evolutionary advance occurs through freakish mistakes. If we place our trust in Darwinian processes, the pursuit of wealth, power, and truth gradually blend into one. Davies suggests (probably tongue in cheek) “that progress is guaranteed as the rich and powerful are unleashed to redraw the world as they see fit. These latter day Napoleons have proved themselves stronger than the rest and their vast wealth is testimony.”

To live in a Darwinian world is discomfiting for everyone, including the winners. Even truths and great triumphs are temporary. Against this, private empires are built and the previously governmental capacity for violence has shifted to private hands–prisons, defense contractors, security, etc. As Silicon Valley works on creating a global nervous system, human-computer interfaces are becoming less noticeable. So the most important capacity is not to produce a valid image of reality, but to issue or execute a command. Davies suggests then that the main political question is not “can I trust this person to tell the truth, but will this person lead me to my destination?”  Google Maps, for instance, only requires us to have a destination. It will tell us how to execute the plan.

Experts are perceived as not caring about individual people and this can create hostility. Facebook. etc. have made the math invisible so the lack of care about the individual is not visible. Davies says that:

The internet has turned out to be an excellent weapon of sabotage. It offers a selection of war games including against democracy itself. The boundary between politics and violence becomes blurred so that the division between war and peace is weakened.

Elites/experts who seem to deal only in words are out of favor while those tasked with rescuing and protecting us still command respect. Populism speaks to a yearning to change that comes immediately, breaking free of reason. Davies blames the hubris of western science for issues like nuclear weapons, pesticides, climate change, etc. Today few things stand still long enough to generate hard truths. Trust in the scientific establishment still polls well, but has little emotional appeal in contract to nationalism, heroism, and nostalgia. Davies points out that one may recognize facts as valid and experts as credible, but if one suffers a collapse in one’s community, then authoritarianism  and nationalism become more ethically and politically attractive.