Stability can be a recurrent fable that we tell ourselves that we have in order to preserve the idea of the ‘good’ life – sometimes at the expense of others.
Stability is a product of a utopian vision but is achieved through the capacity for force and the execution of political and economic will.
Bubbles can burst, as has happened to our long-enduring peace since the Second World War II. During this time, the world has seen its fair share of conflicts, the crash of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and of the belief that democracy and reason (as intellectual tools) will prevail.
In reality, the world is fragile. Fragility is a natural inclination of any system because conscious systems – systems of mind, meaning and vision – seek self-preservation and the exercise of free will, while will tends towards emboldening its own interests, even if these manifest as altruistic endeavours. A system such as this that does not settle is anarchic by nature.
Stability has a paradoxical relation to peace. Peace is a product of the capacity for violence, a theme that is so vibrant in the classical philosophical track of John Hobbes, the Leviathan. He wrote that life can be brutish, short and violent.
History scholar Peter Turchin proposes in his seminal work, Ultrasociety: How 10 000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, that one of the reasons that motivated the formation of larger and larger States is the desire to be protected from one’s enemies.
For Turchin, war drives the creation of larger formations of protection, and human organisation increasingly relies on the State to provide such protection. This may seem odd and against the grain of universal humanity – the idea that, if we just spoke to one another, we could bridge the divide.
That premise holds true only if stability can tame the natural tendency of fragility – where bands of common collective interests that are self-seeking come against others. For instance, there is a thesis in international relations that, in general, the world order is anarchic.
Different aspirations and visions of the future by States pursuing their own interests and seeking to protect themselves from more powerful ‘friends’ and enemies will lead to an increase in anarchy. As the realist theory posits, the international system is less anarchic only because of the prevalence of a hegemon – a single State or a group of powerful States that act as a coalition with others, usually a larger player that is able to use the combination of military, trade, political, economic and cultural power to shift anarchy into some form of order.
A troubled country such as South Africa finds itself on a trajectory where instability and its fractured polity will further contribute to a period of unsettlement. This has two consequences. The first is, psychologically, a place that is not ideal to invest in for the long term, while the second is that an unsettlement of politics has consequences for economic progress because friction retards progress.
Both worsen the vortex of turmoil because indecision on future investments and a fractured politics, like what we are seeing in some of the major metropolitan municipalities in South Africa that are governed by troubled and untrustworthy coalitions, mean that important decisions on service delivery and economic investments are delayed or will never see the light of day.
The consequences are there for all to see, with Johannesburg being a laboratory of the problem of instability. The city recently experienced water-shedding, not to mention loadshedding, which has been implemented at an unprecedented level this year.
It is said that political coalitions are been good thing, as they weaken the power of the incumbent political party, but an incumbent that has lost its privilege of power will do anything to seek ways to grab back the throne of power. Such is the nature of loss aversion that the incumbent will often not let any new power bloc settle in, if its own future is at stake.
The very point of stability is that it is never everlasting. The suppression of fragility is not a guarantee of stability.
The Bronze Age – which is still being studied today – poignantly demonstrates the point being made here. The Bronze Age collapsed around the 13th to the 12th Century BCE, a period during which a constellation of Mediterranean civilisations collapsed as a result of some event. Some suggest a climatic event and the migration of a group of people, the Sea people, depicted on the walls of the pyramids of Ramses III, who are believed to have suddenly descended on the shores of powerful States which had already been weakened by political and economic upheaval. This seems to have been the final tipping point for a polity that thought of itself as somewhat immortal.
We are in an era of controlled anarchy in which the once dominant power has come to realise its own weaknesses and fears. If it does not tame the aspirations of rising great and middle powers, it could find itself in the shadow of a new hegemony – either a rival State or a network of States. It is precisely at such a moment that big gambles will be taken to reassert control over the global order. The consequences of doing so are unpredictable. We are currently at a point of inflection where fragility percolates through the system. It brings unease and a sense that cohesion is disappearing. The tremors of fragility are being felt all over the world.
It will surely reorientate the world as we know it. It has major ramifications for peace and the continuity of civilisation. The continent sits on its own precipice. Africa is not unfamiliar with instability but it may turn out to be a more peaceful place than the rest of the world. Irony has many ways of breezing through our lives.