This was first published at Ynet and is reproduced  here with permission of the author. KGS


Manfred Gerstenfeld

After the massive looting riots spread across England, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared: “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick.” He added that the problem was even larger saying: “There are things badly wrong with our society.”

Can one relate Cameron’s statement on societies gone wrong with sick pockets to all Western democracies? Out of nowhere sudden upheavals emerge, seemingly with increased frequency. Could a large societal event cause lengthy chaos in a post-modern democracy?

Before focusing on aspects of pathology in Western societies, one should analyze a bigger issue: Are these unforeseen upheavals stand-alone, or linked to key characteristics common to many democracies? And as far as Israel is concerned – what do we learn from what happens to others?

The increasing complexity of Western society is one of its major characteristics. This will expand further, partly due to advances in technology. Complexity brings with it more confusion, fragmentation and often polarization. Western societies will become even less transparent and thus more difficult to govern. A growing percentage of the population will have difficulty in coping with the increased intricacies of social order and its rapid changes. Fewer people will therefore have to carry a larger number of marginalized ones financially. In such a general environment, a smaller entity can, in principle, identify looming problems easier.

The European Union is a prime example of a large complex system without proper checks and balances. It is in urgent need of drastic revision rather than further uncontrolled integration. Similarly, the E.U. should not be made into an even more opaque “transfer union” whereby wealthy states continuously finance poorer ones. A better approach would be to determine which countries should leave the Eurozone in order to make it more homogeneous.

Had one understood the disadvantages of increasing complexity a few decades ago, Europe would not have allowed mass immigration of non-Westerners, especially considering that xenophobia is ubiquitous in Europe. To make matters worse, significant percentages of these immigrants are adherents to ideologies alien to the rule of democracy. Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and several others have declared — far too late however — that multiculturalism is a failure. 

Another key characteristic of complex societies is increased vulnerability. Oftentimes a single person or a small group has the ability to cause major damage. In 1995, American terrorist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people and wounded more than 680 in Oklahoma City. Anders Breivik recently followed his example. A small group of Arab terrorists caused the mass murders of 9/11. Even Richard Reed, the failed “Shoe Bomber” made a major impact on society. Due to increased security measures at international airports after 2001, millions of travelers have had to remove their shoes since. The Wikileaks affair is another major example of exposing the vulnerability of complex systems. So are the hackers who create havoc in the computer systems of large organizations.

A third key characteristic of Western societies is the decline of authority. The 1968 Paris student riots and others elsewhere accelerated the breakdown of authority which is another result of increasing complexity in a democracy. This involves governments, political systems, the police, churches, schools, academia and last but not least, parents.

One can also apply this analysis to Israel. It is a complex society, made up of a major immigrant population. This makes it heterogeneous and fragmented, even if most immigrants are Jews. Israel also has sizable minorities, yet it is a relatively small society. The isolation from its neighbors makes Israel more transparent than other democracies. Therefore it should be easier than elsewhere to prevent the build up of internal problems, provided its leadership invests time and thought into it.

Israel’s vulnerability is great however, as it is confronted with existential threats which no European country faces. Its security systems are greatly and frequently challenged by its enemies in unprecedented ways. Yet there is little breakdown of authority in one major field. The Israel Defense Forces have a hierarchical structure and for the whole nation, the unifying character of a conscription army.

In view of its unique situation, Israel needs to develop a more successful system to foresee problems. The recent social protests have amassed without the government having any address to refer to as to what to do to prevent their large-scale growth. There should have been an expert body in existence to quickly assess what was going on, who was behind it and how it could possibly be dealt with.

One useful approach can be establishing a permanent advisory task force, which should be composed of senior individuals as part timers with a proven strategic track record in their respective fields. These people would come from a variety of segments of society. They should not do research themselves, but supervise researchers. Government employees should assist them, but should not take the lead. This is an exercise of trial and error. The task force would gradually gain experience and develop a capability for out of the box solutions. Unforeseen problems will continue to crop up in many areas. In the current absence of better alternatives, such an approach merits a serious try.

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