“Little Brother is watching you,” said no novel or movie ever. Almost every fictional dystopia — 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission — involves a vast and oppressive state, not a failed or ineffectual one. Because the most recent threats to civilisation were Hitler and Stalin, we expect the next one to take the same dictatorial form.
We shouldn’t. The story of our species is mostly the story of disorder, not too much order; of anarchy rather than tyranny. Even now, the state, a recent invention, is patchy and provisional in much of the world.
Western liberals should adjust their nightmares accordingly. Worrying about strongmen will continue to make sense as long as Donald Trump ponders a comeback. But the larger trend of events is towards fragmentation and chaos.
The pioneer is, as ever, the US. In a nation that is not just split but checkmated, neither Democrats nor Republicans can build a lasting electoral hegemony of the kind that allowed the New Deal, the Reagan revolution and other necessary reforms in the last century. Inflaming this governance problem is the large minority of the population that does not recognise, say, the legitimacy of President Joe Biden or the wisdom of public health advice. For a sense of how unreachable some voters are, consider that a third or more of Americans are open to the secession of their state from the union. Even if this is so much armchair bluff, states with as much clout as Florida and Texas increasingly define themselves against the federal government.
There is cheering and distressing news here. Even if a tyrant could seize power in a coup, no country so fractious and ornery would remain under his or her thumb for long. The far more plausible future is an ungovernable America.
If the theme here is entropy, Europe shouldn’t feel left out. In France, the political parties that gave some shape to the Fifth Republic have shrunk at dazzling speed and parliament now brims with radicals. A presidency that Charles de Gaulle designed to be quasi-monarchical in its power has in recent decades known two ineffectual one-termers (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande), a man who gave up on economic reform early on (Jacques Chirac) and the very partial success of Emmanuel Macron. Which is likelier: that all these leaders were fools, or that the nation itself is ever harder to lead?
In France, at least, turmoil is a part of folk memory. The British are less prepared for the decay of political order. They have had as many prime ministers since July 13 2016 as between May 2 1979 and June 27 2007. There is a separatist tug from Scotland, a deteriorating crisis in Northern Ireland and what appears to be the beginning of the end of a generation of excruciatingly hard-won industrial peace. Unwritten ethical conventions have turned into dust under a laughing cavalier of a prime minister. That is a measure of his potential as a demagogue, yes, but also of how little structure there now is in public life. As his 80-seat parliamentary majority proves impotent against unions and Nimbys, it is the flight of power from the centre that stands out, not its ruthless concentration there.
It is customary at this point to say that chaos is exactly what creates the public clamour for a Caesar or Napoleon: for a suspension of democratic niceties. But there is nothing to say that one follows the other. Italy has had messy, reform-blocking politics for much of this century without crossing into rule by personal decree. The US has had four presidential assassinations and a civil war in its history, but no dictator. A relapse into that nihilism is more plausible — isn’t it? — than a model of government that has no pedigree in the two and a half centuries of the republic. Perhaps it is because there is no face or voice to put to it that entropy goes under-discussed, under-dramatised and under-feared, even as it accounts for the greater share of human history.
“It could happen here,” say the prophets of a fascist future, as though the rest of us were discounting the possibility. In truth, the failure of imagination is all theirs. The great dictators of the 20th century have such a hold on western thought as to numb it to other kinds of civilisational danger. If minds as fine as Philip Roth’s and Aldous Huxley’s assumed that a bleak future must be a totalitarian one, it is understandable that my lesser profession commits the same error. But not quite forgivable. True vigilance is the fear of under-government as much as of sinister government.