Tancredi’s Paradox

At the beginning of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), set in Sicily in 1860, Sicily belongs to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, ruled from Naples by a Bourbon dynasty. That kingdom’s security, independence and autonomy are threatened by a movement to unify Italy under the House of Savoy, rulers of Piedmont, based in Turin. There are also other political movements afoot, republican in nature. The novel’s central character, Fabrizio, a Sicilian nobleman landowner, is told by his nephew and ward,

Tancredi, who supports the Savoyards: « Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi. » (If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.) This oft quoted statement is Tancredi’s paradox.

By this paradox Tancredi means that his uncle and he, in order to preserve their lives at the top of Sicilian society, and continue to enjoy the fruits of their property, must choose between, on the one hand, those who would found a republic, abolish the nobility, kill, jail or exile them, and usurp their properties, and, on the other, those, whom he supports, who seek only to change one monarchy for another, slightly more modern. Seeing that change is inevitable, Fabrizio spends the rest of the novel managing those changes, often unwelcome, but which must be borne, so that ‘everything can stay the same’, more or less, at least for another generation or two.

Tancredi’s paradox defines security in a changing world. Security seeks to prevent change. It maintains, defends and perpetuates a given dispensation, of whatever sort. But in a changing world, security means managing change. In an article soon to be published, in the first issue of Modern Security Culture, I show how security depends on culture, culture on nature, nature on matter, and matter on energy. Given ultimate dependence on energy, we live in an ever changing world. Thus we too are faced with Tancredi’s paradox; unless, on the contrary, change is in our interest, in which case security is not, at least until we get the change we want, at which point it becomes so. All that depends on where we stand in the present dispensation, in terms of enjoyment of life, exercise of liberty, and possession of property, and thus with respect to the trends of change. The questions I wish to raise here today are therefore the following:

What are the trends of change in the world today? Where do we stand regarding them? What threats do they pose to us? Are they inevitable, reversible or manageable? Is the present dispensation to our advantage, in terms of life, liberty, and property? If so, is our interest conservative, even if we must accept and manage change, in order to keep some of our advantages? If so, what changes must we accept and manage, given the trends of change? What must we sacrifice, in order to save what of greater value?

Or, on the contrary, does our interest lie in change itself? Are our lives nasty, brutish and short? Are we slaves, debt-slaves, wage-slaves? Do we lack freedom of thought, action or expression? Are we poor, and likely to stay so? If so, does our interest lie in murdering, enslaving or banishing those more advantaged than ourselves, and in usurping their property? Or does it lie in finding some accommodation with them?

In considering these questions, let us keep in mind that there may be several trends of change at once, concording or conflicting with each other, and with one’s interests. Let us also remember that the objects of security, to be defended, or, on the contrary, destroyed, curtailed or usurped, are, in Locke’s formulation, ‘life, liberty and estate’. ‘Estate’ means ‘property’. Let us begin with life, without which liberty and property are useless. And let us focus on a form of life that concerns us all: human life itself.
What are the trends of change in human life itself? Two affect us all. One, resulting from modern medicine, is towards more, longer, healthier lives. This trend is uneven in developed and developing societies. Given economic development, the latter will catch up. But as this trend leads to rising, aging populations, it will strain material, natural and cultural resources. Such resources are already under strain from another trend affecting human life, one inherent in capitalism. While capitalism is the best way so far known to create wealth, at least for many, it is crisis prone, so culturally disruptive, and seems incapable of striking a sustainable balance with nature and matter. Rather, it needs perpetual growth, just to lurch from boom to bust and back. Given our reliance for energy on non-renewable, polluting resources, if capitalism, hitherto confined to the developed world, spreads to the rest, as it seems to be doing, plunder and pollution of the planet, already well underway, will also spread.

There are two threats to human life itself in this combination of trends. The first lies in the relationship of culture to nature and matter, and may affect all humans.The second lies within culture, and may set groups of humans against others. In the case of the first threat, if human economic culture makes excessive demands on planetary nature and matter, man’s habitat may be irreparably polluted or exhausted, and thus rendered incapable of sustaining man. A mix of ever growing population with increasing use of non-renewable resources, on a finite planet, poses that threat. To guard against it there are various possible solutions. Population increase may be slowed, halted or reversed. Reliance on non-renewable resouces may be shifted to renewables. Economic activity may even be rendered sustainable. But such solutions are cultural, and require change. Change will always be resisted by vested interests, and can only be overcome by force, or by persuasion. Force leads to the second threat to human life, that within culture.

Increasing populations confronted with diminishing resources often turn to genocide. Natural or cultural identity, of race, class or religion, casts each performance, deciding who kills whom. In any case, the slaughter slows population growth, till next time. This plot has been replayed over millennia, with many recent episodes, some ongoing now. The resources in question may be material or natural, as in conflicts over land, with its animals, vegetables and minerals; or they may be cultural, as in conflicts over control of a given religion or ideology. The conflict between Jews and Arabs is over land: Israel or Palestine; between Sunnis and Shias over a religion: Islam. Both may turn genocidal, because both involve exclusive claims to the whole of a finite resource.

So where do we stand with respect to the threat to life posed by genocide? The answer differs for different participants in this discussion. It depends on who and where we are, and whether we possess a finite resource coveted by others able to exterminate us. Leaving individual cases for later, one finite resource concerns all involved in this discussion: earth itself. Twice in the last century, claims to world domination by great powers threatened or led to genocide. Hitler tried to enslave the Slavs and exterminate the Jews before taking on the rest of the world. Stalin killed far more Soviet citizens than foreigners, but Khruschchev warned the West, ‘We shall bury you’, and would have done, had he been able. Less ambitiously, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq and Bosnia have recently had local outbreaks of genocide. It lurks, awaiting its chance.

In the past, if genocide affected only one’s adversaries and enemies, it may have been thought good for one’s interests, or at least for reducing population. But globalisation renders such sanguine calculations dangerous, by the law of unintended consequences. With weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of airborne terrorists, the threat of genocide by gas or germs, rather than guns, may arise anywhere; especially so if the terrorists, like Hitler and Stalin, have an agenda of world domination.

At present, only Islamism openly seeks world domination, wholesale or piecemeal. Some Islamists lay claim to Iberia, some to Britain, others to the globe. It is not clear if they plan to enslave or exterminate the current inhabitants, or merely tax them, if they are peoples of the book. If not, they are liable to slavery or genocide. Now one may say that those who proclaim such intentions are a minority of crackpots. But the same could have been said of Hitler and his gang in 1923. Yet only ten years later he was Fuehrer, able to put his programme into practice, with the support of his people. Even so, Islamism is unlikely to succeed, since it is divided, vents as much violence on Islamic rivals as on infidels, and is supported only by its own people. To fuel its divisions, while tempting, is dangerous. Containment is safer. If the struggle can be contained, and its damage limited, it will eventually burn itself out. But that could take a very long time. It has taken Modernity five centuries to tame Christianity, and even now it must contend with holdouts in Northern Ireland and North America.

Another threat to all or much of human life is potential nuclear war. The collapse of Comunism seems, for now, to have allayed that threat. But what if China’s capitalist millions demand more resources? Will not resource rich but people poor Siberia, like Tibet and Sinkiang before them, risk invasion and ethnic cleansing? Climate change may make Siberia warmer, offering the prospect of Lebensraum. True, China has no record of seeking direct rule beyond its present borders. It has, moreover, like Russia, tended to kill more of its own people than outsiders. But then it has never, till now, been subject to such pressures and temptations. Luckily for Russia, a balance of nuclear terror holds China in check, just as Mutual Assured Destruction did the Soviet Union. But such a balance may prove unstable, especially since a similar balance exists between China and India, and India and Pakistan. If nuclear weapons spread to Iran and Saudi Arabia, leaders in the Shia-Sunni conflict, with its cult of martyrdom, one may no longer rely on Mutual Assured Destruction to keep them in check.

The lesson to be learned from these examples is that one cannot discount the threat of genocide, local or global. It arises far too often to be thought unthinkable. Another lesson is that it may be averted by a balance of terror, nuclear or otherwise. This, however, has no effect on the fanatic, willing, indeed eager to die for his cause. A more stable, less accident prone solution would be to address the underlying causes that may lead to genocide: increasing populations with diminishing resources. But this means accepting and managing change. We may be able, but are we willing?

One alternative to genocide, as a solution to population growth, is birth control. Yet as practiced in China or India, it leads to female infanticide, producing too many males, thus more competition. So, since competition is one of capitalism’s most efficient tools, birth control may spur, not slow, economic growth. The mitigating tendency of birth rates to fall in richer societies may not suffice to ease the strain on resources. It could be eased by cutting resource consumption, but whose? And with what effect on that perpetual economic growth on which capitalism depends? These are the hard choices we, like Fabrizio, must face, if we want human life to stay more or less the same, or at least survive. They are, however, more properly addressed in discussing threats to property. We shall come to these after we discuss threats to liberty.
First we must distinguish verbal and actual liberty. Actual liberty is freedom of action. Verbal liberty is freedom of speech or script, and of assembly for speech, not action. Both, in theory, are ruled by law; in fact by force. Next we must distinguish liberty from privacy and secrecy. These are forms of each other. Both differ in dynamics from liberty. Liberty, unchecked, sustains itself. Privacy and secrecy need effort. Interrupted liberty resumes undiminished. Secrets, once exposed, are out forever. So we must distinguish security in law from security in fact. Law may guarantee all three, but in fact, liberty depends on noninterference by law, while privacy and secrecy depend on guns, locks and cyphers. Thus, liberty belongs to all or none; privacy and secrecy to those who can afford them. Privacy and secrecy may conflict with liberty. The current trend is toward growing liberty, and shrinking privacy and secrecy.

Some say that telecommunications surveillance by security agencies threatens liberty. This confuses liberty with privacy and secrecy. If such agencies do not stop one from saying what they listen to, they do not threaten liberty, only privacy or secrecy. In liberal states, verbal liberty, guaranteed by law and exercised in fact, is not absolute. Laws forbid libel or speech spreading hatred, terrorism, racism or Nazism. Limits on verbal liberty may or may not be acceptable in theory, or enforceable in practice. Privacy and secrecy, however, are not so well protected in fact, even if ensured by law. It is easy to breach privacy or secrecy, hard to limit liberty. Limiting liberty demands repression. Breaching privacy and secrecy only needs stealth. Even if laws protect telecoms’ privacy, ease of interception makes them insecure in fact. Also, legal protection against intrusion into private property may not cover public information highways, like cables, servers, airwaves, or cyberspace. And, if assembly turns from speech to action, it may not be protected either. Whether privacy and secrecy should be more secure may be considered, but they are not to be confused with liberty.

Since privacy and secrecy require security, let us now consider them. They do so because telecoms are very open to intrusion, not only by governments, but by hackers, terrorists, enemies and corporations. Given technology, someone can and will collect metadata, read our data, and listen in on us. Given the challenge of stopping hostile or commercial intrusion, should we prohibit surveillance by agencies charged with our security, thus depriving them of weapons to use in our defence? The case is analogous to that with other weapons. To defend our security, a state may keep a standing army, a police force, and an arsenal of weapons. If so, this is granted on the theory that the state uses those weapons in our interests, not against them. If used against foreigners, certain rules apply; others when a citizen threatens fellow citizens. The state may use its weapons against miscreant citizens in the citizenry’s interest. Thus, if telecoms surveillance is a weapon, the state may or may not also be allowed to use it as such.

So the debate over privacy and secrecy comes down to this: Do we trust the state? If we trust it with an army and police force, and their corresponding weapons, why not with a secret service, and its, including telecoms surveillance? If an enemy uses such weapons, may not a defender? Can we expect the state to defend us, if we deprive it of the means to do so? Conversely, if we do not trust the state with information, why trust it with other weapons? We can, in liberal democracies, choose how much to trust the state. We could, like Costa Rica, do without an army, though they stop short of disbanding the police. Indeed we can decide, as some advocate, to do without a state.

In debating the balance between, on the one hand, security, and, on the other, privacy, secrecy and liberty, we must consider the full range of options, and their implications.
I have already noted some restrictions on verbal liberty in liberal states. One part of our discussion therefore focuses on whether, for the sake of security, such liberties as exist in liberal modern societies should be further curtailed, or, conversely, expanded; another, on whether the current trend towards growth of verbal liberty worldwide poses a threat; to whom; and how to respond to it. That trend is driven by information technology: IT. Since IT contributes to economic growth, and economic growth is almost universally pursued by governments of every stripe, the trend is probably unstoppable, and to some extent independent of the political dispensation of its locus.

Thus, to consider first whether liberal modern societies should, for the sake of security, further curtail verbal liberty, the answer is that they most likely cannot. Indeed, such restrictions as they have are crumbling before the advance of a technology that skirts them, and escapes their enforcer’s grasp. This is also relevant to privacy and secrecy. We have seen that it is almost impossible for states or corporations to keep secrets. Whether this is good or bad depends on point of view. Whichever way, it is the case. Not only does once secret information easily become public, but statements true and false, and opinions nice and nasty are publicly expressed, irrespective of laws. As for privacy, if any exists at all, it may only be found far from IT, telecoms and cyberspace. We, doubtless like Fabrizio, were he alive now, may not like this, but we are going to have to lump it. That being the case, how can we turn this trend to our advantage?

If we are liberally modern, and moreover tech and media savvy, this trend is already to our advantage. The damage to our security from hacks and leaks is balanced: on the one hand, by the contribution freedom of information makes to creativity and to initiative, and so to economic growth; on the other, by the likelihood that enemies of liberal modernity, despite curtailing verbal liberties, will nonetheless suffer hacks and leaks, but not reap those economic advantages conferred by a free flow of information. Moreover, while IT is also used as a weapon by liberal modernity’s enemies, they can be outsmarted by those of us who use IT in its defence, so long as we allow them.

If, however, we are enemies of liberal modernity, the current trend is quite against our interests. Liberal modernity’s enemies fall into two groups: religious fundamentalists and secular authoritarians. We note that IT spurs economic growth. Curtailing free speech, script and assembly inhibits it. While religious fundamentalists may gladly eschew economic growth, as irrelevant to righteousness and salvation, the same is not true of most of those they rule, or aspire to, nor of secular authoritarian governments, much less of their people. This may not be so in early stages of development, based on low cost wage-slave labour, but as economies mature, develop middle classes, and become dependent on initiative and creativity, it becomes increasingly so. In any case, authoritarian ability to curtail verbal liberty is incomplete, and shrinking. Information technology is such that their subjects will eventually breach the staunchest firewall.

Thus, to conclude this brief consideration of managing change in response to threats to liberty, it is clear that liberal modernity must try to limit the risk entailed and enhance the advantages conferred by liberty, while fundamentalists and authoritarians must balance their preference for curtailing liberty against the economic cost of doing so. It is to economics that we now turn, in order to consider threats to property.

Let me now adopt a more versatile diction, replacing Locke’s word ‘estate’, meaning private and public property, with ‘prosperity’, and use ‘property’ for legal ownership.

The attentive listener will have detected an implicit contradiction in my earlier mentions of economic growth, in relation to threats to life and liberty respectively. In the case of threats to life, economic growth, leading to prosperity, but potentially involving genocidal competition, pollution, and exhaustion of resources, may be part of the problem. In the case of threats to liberty, economic growth, leading to prosperity, and involving free enterprise and freedom of information, may be part of the solution; at least from one point of view, that of liberal modernity. Fundamentalists and authoritarians do not value liberty, but, since authoritarians do value economic growth, its dependence on liberty is part of their problem.

This brings us to a new paradox, not Tancredi’s but our own. Prosperity is good for liberty, but may be bad for life. The threat from prosperity to life lies in the excessive strain that current forms of economic growth to fuel prosperity impose on the habitat. Were this not so, prosperity could potentially be good for life, as well as for liberty. The way out of our paradox is clear. If we can change current forms of economic activity, so as to strike a sustainable balance with the habitat, our paradox disappears. But Tancredi’s remains. For to strike any such balance means changing our culture. This is because economic activity is a tool of culture, closely linked to every other such tool. Thus, to change our culture so as to strike a sustainable balance with the habitat, we must understand how culture works, and how it relates to our habitat.

I have already set out in writing the theory of culture here deployed, in several articles in New Security Learning. I shall soon add to these in Modern Security Culture. For those unfamiliar with that theory, let me summarise it briefly: Culture is everything man made, material and notional. It is man’s tool for living. Culture is based on nature and matter. Culture’s givens are habitat, identity, consciousness and will. Its goals are survival, growth and pleasure. Security relates to survival, but all culture’s goals and givens relate to each other. By changing any part of culture, one may change all of culture. So if we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.

Our task therefore, is to balance the givens and goals of our culture with the limits and opportunities of our habitat, imposed and provided by matter and nature. To strike a sustainable balance between economic activity and habitat, one must know habitat’s limits and opportunities, and adjust economic activity to both. Till now, most economic activity has been geared to exploiting existing opportunities, or to finding new ones, and conducted in ignorance of any limits, as if they did not exist. The first task, therefore, is to discover, or better, foresee those limits, before they are reached.

The next task is better to understand the role and implications of growth in capitalism. Like Fabrizio with the House of Savoy, we, like it or not, must deal with capitalism. It has seen off its most radical opponents, and faces, for now, no coherent plausible alternative. Like Churchill’s characterisation of democracy in politics, with which it is linked, capitalism is the worst possible economic system, save for all the rest. It is the dominant and growing trend in political economy worldwide, adopted even by its erstwhile opponents. So capitalism may perhaps be reformed, but not easily replaced.

Various adjustments must be made for capitalism to work better than it does. The most urgent in the short term is to curb its culturally disruptive tendency to crisis: boom and bust. But in the long term a way must be found for it to become sustainable: either for capitalism to learn to manage without perpetual growth, or, if that should prove impossible, in theory or in practice, economically or politically, at least for such growth not to involve ever increasing use of highly polluting non-renewable resources.

This leads to considering resources and their role in economics. Three kinds of resources provide the energy for economic growth: material, natural and cultural. Material resources are often non-renewable. They are also, in the case of carbons formed from dead life, highly polluting. Since nature is alive, natural resources, like manpower, or food, are renewable. But since life involves death, and nature works by selection, specific forms of life, including ours and our food’s, are prone to extinction. Cultural resources are, in a sense, most fragile, because dependent on other resources. Culture depends on nature; nature on matter. But one aspect of culture, information, though dependent on nature for conception, on matter for realisation, and on both for transmission, is itself notional. A notion, such as liberty, or money, once formed, can evolve indefinitely, spreading from culture to culture, carried in as fragile a vessel as a single word. So culture is, in another sense, a robust and inexhaustible resource. It also grows far more quickly than oil or diamonds are formed, and than species evolve.

We have already identified one threat to property, or to prosperity, as we now define it: exhaustion of resources and pollution of the habitat. This threat affects us all. Changing economic culture to counter that threat poses new threats to specific forms of prosperity, affecting some more than others. This leads to conflict. In particular, finding alternative, renewable sources of material energy to fuel economic growth theatens those whose prosperity depends on possession and sale of non-renewable resources. They will oppose any such effort, unless they are themselves invested in it. We already see such opposition even to investigating man’s possible role in global warming. But we also see some investment in the quest for renewable alternatives. Regarding natural resources, the picture is also mixed. On the one hand, pollution of the sea, dragnet overfishing, and extinction of coral reefs proceed at an alarming pace; on the other, hydroponic farms in skyscrapers are flourishing. Here, property is part of the solution: since nobody owns the sea, anybody can abuse it. Since someone owns the skyscraper, someone takes care of it, and makes it productive. But it can also work the other way: if someone takes possession of the rainforest, clear cutting may follow.

Clearly, to make capitalism a solution, rather than a problem, the rule of law is needed. So is research into the nature of capitalism, especially into its dependence on growth. This is a cultural challenge, involving economics, politics and international diplomacy.
If diplomacy fails, resort to force is likely, perhaps inevitable. That will pose a threat to everybody’s life, liberty, prosperity and property. This threat confronts us all with Tancredi’s paradox: for everything to stay the same, everything must change. Subject to potential change are notions such as sovereignty, autonomy, liberty and property. So is that of prosperity, which may have to undergo quite radical redefinition. Even our notion of life itself, via debates over genetic engineering, cloning, abortion and euthanasia, all with social, political and economic implications, is subject to change.

So where do we stand in this discussion? What change must we manage to save what? The answer will differ for each of us, depending on who and where we are, what we have or lack, and what we value most. I cannot answer for all of us, only for myself.

I leave you with a question, springing logically from the foregoing considerations: Given, on the one hand, the rapid economic success of modern authoritarian capitalism, as compared to economic crisis in the liberal world, and, on the other, the extreme difficulty democracies have in coming to any decision needed to manage change, is liberal democracy compatible with survival, let alone with prosperity?

I do not know the answers, but I do, however, have a criterion for addressing the questions. My hope is that the culture of liberal democratic modernity itself, guided by its fundamental preferences – for knowledge over belief, reason over emotion, persuasion over force, law over will – may help us find answers to these questions. In this hope, while well aware of the obstacles involved, I am cautiously optimistic. If modernity could tame Christianity, it should be able to master and train capitalism.

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