For some years I have been warning publicly that we are heading into a third global conflict, and this, at times, led me to feel quite down about the prospects for humanity. This third global conflict is not simply a rerun of the disasters of the twentieth century, for before 1945, however terrible a war was and however many people died, the world would repair itself and in time the population of the world could be restored. With the threat of nuclear war and the reality of climate change, humankind has brought about the very real danger of our own demise.
However, when 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which triggered the Protestant Reformation, I began to see some more positive parallels with our own times.
In those days they had the disruptive technology of Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in the 1400s and spreading challenging ideas, especially when Luther, Wycliffe, and others translated the Bible into the vernacular languages. We now have the disruptive technologies of social media spreading messages that impact our thinking. The amplification of conflicting messages promotes widening splits that undermine community cohesion, and artificial intelligence is also automating the firing of weapons at speeds that make human thinking and intervention impossible. Inexpensive drones and precision weapons reduce the possibility of having any safe space, and computers can mimic human thought so that you cannot tell the difference—disruptive technologies in our time, indeed.
Half a millennium ago there was also a widespread belief that those in authority (princes and bishops) were utterly corrupt and did not have the interests of the people at heart. In our time, too, there is a profound loss of faith in authorities of all kinds because of the justifiable anger about widespread corruption, broken promises, financial disaster, deep unfairness, and the undeliverable prospectus of equality. The result is a rise again in extreme nationalism and populism.
Opposition to the new scientific discoveries of people like Copernicus, Galileo, and later Newton made people realize that the leaders of their societies did not understand what was going on. It is also clear that many of today’s political leaders do not comprehend the complex developments in science and technology or their implications, as was evident in their responses to the pandemic. However, in our time this has resulted in a disenchantment with all expertise, including that of scientists.
These three developments—disruptive technology, deep anger about corruption and unfairness, and disdain for the quality of sociopolitical leadership—led some people to challenge the thinking of their times. I began to wonder if something similar could be happening in our day. Our old forms of understanding and ordering society are dissolving for reasons that are not so different from those faced by our predecessors half a millennium ago. However, they seemed to have had a clearer idea of the alternatives: democracy instead of authoritarianism; the law guided by a moral code; and education and science replacing obscurantist forms of religious authority. But if major paradigm shifts had been possible in their day, surely there are possibilities for us and our children too. I began to think and speak more positively, not because we could avoid the terrible chaos and destruction of global war—I believed that we had gone too far for that—but because I thought perhaps the crises over these three issues and others would force us to take the thinking of humanity forward, so long as we did not allow ourselves to be destroyed by nuclear and environmental holocausts.
At this inflection point in human history, it remains an open question whether global leaders and their followers can put shallow, selfish, short-term political and economic interests aside in favor of global peace, stability, and reconciliation or even the survival of our species, but the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
While we can always see the faults in others, we in Europe and the United States have adopted a deeply flawed approach to foreign policy and conflict resolution that is directly contributing to the catastrophic dissolution into chaotic violent conflict across the globe, and it has been getting worse. People everywhere are turning away from the ideals of rationality and liberal democracy. The liberals of the early twentieth century had to radically revise their understanding of society, and Freud, who declared himself a classic liberal, modified his psychoanalytical theories in the wake of the savagery of the First World War. A century later, crisis and war are forcing us to address unwelcome challenges to some of our key assumptions.
As a young man, I trained in psychoanalysis because I found the rationalistic perspective of the political science of those days unconvincing. It did not satisfactorily explain the violent and intractable political conflict in my own country. However, I could see that psychoanalysis took account of people acting against their own best socioeconomic and power interests. As I explored this in my own community and beyond, it became clear to me that rather than being won over by the offer of mere socioeconomic benefits, partisans in situations of historic conflict were often even more resistant to compromise when offered material benefits but could be open to symbolically significant offers. Revolutionaries and insurgents would often sacrifice everything for their cause, would frequently be committed more strongly to their comrades than even to their families, and often prevailed against overwhelming odds, especially when they were fighting professional armies that relied only on the material incentives of pay and promotion. I asked myself, What is happening in the minds of those who are willing to put themselves in the line of fire for the sake of their cause?
When experiencing existential threat, people may move from being rational actors to being “devoted actors” driven by faith or commitment to defend or advance nonnegotiable “sacred values,” whether religious or secular. Anyone who tries to weigh up the socioeconomic values of faith in God, loyalty to country, or commitment to a political cause will be left bemused, for these cannot be judged by socioeconomic metrics. People in such situations make sacrifices because they believe it is “right,” not because of a cost-benefit call.
After centuries of recurring violence in Ireland, we moved away from rational-actor models that focused solely on the law and political and economic structures and engaged in the analysis of three interlocking sets of disturbed historic relationships between communities of people—Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists within Northern Ireland; the people of Ireland, North and South; and the peoples of Britain and Ireland. We addressed these three sets of relationships in three matching strands of negotiations, and the outcome was three interlocking sets of institutions. Confirmation of the value of this analysis of multiple sets of communal relationships became clear not only in the success of bringing the violence to an end through the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, whose twenty-fifth anniversary was recognized in Belfast in April this year, but also later, when the neglect of them contributed to subsequent problems within Northern Ireland and between the United Kingdom and Ireland after Brexit. These British/Irish problems are linked with the requirements of two other external sets of relationships—with the European Union and the United States. They were only resolved when the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, abandoned the transactional regulatory arguments that had resulted in the standoff and returned to developing a positive working relationship with each other. This was an example of how developing a theory and praxis based on the complexity of relationships of communities rather than on the linearity of rational transactional political theory could produce a positive outcome in a previously intractable conflict.
Are there any indications of what kind of change in our thinking might bring us to the new paradigm I have talked about?
Today, interdisciplinary connections are key. We have to move beyond our professional and academic silos. Physicists, for example, have found they can understand everything about hydrogen and oxygen, but that understanding did not tell them what emergent properties to expect when the molecules were brought together as water. Ornithologists recognized that when trying to understand the murmuration of starlings, there is no point in trying to seek to identify a leader, for they know that no such individual bird exists. These flocks of birds are not led by one or more leaders, nor are they merely a collection of individual birds. As has become apparent in our field of psychology, exploring how people function (consciously and unconsciously) requires a larger and wider appreciation of the impact of culture, politics, genetics, and past generational resilience and trauma. Molecules, birds, and human beings function not on their own but as elements within systems—and some of them are complex adaptive systems. I have been suggesting that we need to move beyond the radical rationalism and individualism of some old-style Enlightenment thinking and embrace the emergence of complexity science, appreciate that our emotions are a part of how we think and are a positive evolutionary advantage rather than a flaw to be overcome in favor of rational thought, and focus on the significance of relationships between individuals and communities rather than simply on the individuals themselves1. These three elements, I am suggesting, may together point toward a path for survival and our next evolutionary way station. We cannot be sure. Indeed, one of the key insights of complexity science is that the resilience of systems brings outcomes that are not predictable. The challenge of moving to a new and different paradigm is significant, and there remains a real risk that we will wipe ourselves out before we can get there. However, if we focus on fairness, cooperation, community, and a radical new way of understanding based on complexity theories and the full breadth of human knowledge and science, might it bring peace, stability, and prosperity? If we expand our perspective beyond the “rational individual actor” to create caring and cooperative “ways of being” in community without losing our concern for the individual; if we can be informed by our emotions as well as rationality; if we can base our understanding on external reality and also appreciate the wishes, fears, and creativity we hold within ourselves; and if we can appreciate the lessons of history and use them to understand the complexity of “large group” relations, might we rebuild our resilience as a human race and stem off the catastrophic destruction portended by a third global conflict? I believe it is possible.
1 Alderdice, John, Lord, “Conflict, Complexity, and Cooperation,” New England Journal of Public Policy 33, no. 1 (2021): Article 9.
- John Alderdice is a member of the House of Lords at Westminster and a former president of Liberal International, the world federation of liberal political parties. As leader of the Alliance Party, he was a key negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, then first speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly and, subsequently, one of four international commissioners overseeing security normalization. A psychoanalytic psychiatrist, a senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, and executive chairman of the Changing Character of War Centre, Pembroke College, Oxford, his special interests are religious fundamentalism, political violence, and problems of indigenous peoples.
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