Our Empty Overlords

“We know of periods in the history of many nations in which profound upheavals in cultural processes led to a surge of the merely talented into leading position in communities, schools, academies, and governments. Highly talented people sat in all sorts of posts, but they were people who wanted to rule without being able to serve. Certainly it is often very difficult to recognise such people in good time, before they have entrenched themselves in the intellectual professions. It is equally difficult to treat them with the necessary ruthlessness and send them back to other occupations.”

Hermann Hesse

The context of this is from the second of three short stories known as “Lives” in Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. The novel if nothing else (and it is something else), is interesting as Hesse wrote these three short stories and poetry as authored by the fictional protagonist of the main story, Joseph Knecht. Hesse wrote the novel during the 1940s while in Switzerland and the immediate thoughts of those who read it will jump to those in power in Germany at the time. Reading it today though, my mind immediately jumped to the current world’s politicians, bureaucrats, media and corporate officials. 

What you can say in defence of the German experiment with National Socialism was that they got things done. The leaders can’t have been completely inept as they rebuilt a ruined nation to war footing and were able to wage a two front war against multiple powerful nations for years before they were finally overwhelmed. On top of that, not everything they built was lost and many inventions created in the chaos of that period remain with us such as the jet engine. There is more nuance involved and other considerations but I don’t think this is unreasonable as a general observation. 

Contrast that with today and technological progress is slowing if not already stopped outside of the Smartphone industry. Most of the inventions we consider important were new back in Hesse’s time such as radiology, powered flight, the automobile and all of these are still have a major focus in technological progress today. The Smartphone itself is really just a telephone and a computer and even the latter even dates back to the same time. All of these inventions have certainly become more powerful, refined and compact but the technology behind them remains fundamentally the same.

This isn’t really about technology but that aside seemed necessary. It is more about the leaders we have today in government and those industries. I could think of examples in earlier times of individuals who fit this description but I believe the near uniform mediocrity of the people in charge today has seldom been seen in history. 

I find it very difficult to follow politics closely today simply because of how limited it is both in what can be discussed and the way it can be discussed. Plenty of politicians are intelligent or at least — not stupid. However, they almost all display an inability for original thought or even just their own thoughts. It is no secret that they are coached on what they should say, how they should respond and even the sort of expressions they should have on any given topic. Many have a practiced chuckle ready when asked an awkward question or a faux look of indignity ready for display when they are told it will play better. And, it basically has been working on the public for a long time because this goes back before I was born. 

Even then, there are still some politicians around that do have their own ideas and can talk without this filter but there are very few left. The most notable example I can think of recently is Craig Kelly who has “resigned” but really has been pushed out of the Australian Liberal party. When you do get someone with a bit of character and some independent thought, they are usually ridiculed as an eccentric uncle figure by the media as well as other politicians. They are closer to normal than those mocking them. Normal people generally don’t have practiced lines for use in public. Normal people make gaffes and mistakes and speak off the cuff. There isn’t anything wrong with this. 

I will admit to falling for this myself. I was quite hostile to Mark Latham when he fought an election against John Howard. The former while certainly pushed within his party, did have his own ideas and had more character traits of a person than a politician. I didn’t then, nor do I now agree with a lot of what he believed but he was at least more authentic than the empty suit I expressed preference for. The way the parliamentary system works mean I didn’t directly vote for either and though didn’t vote for Howard’s party, my preferences still helped. Nowadays Latham is still in politics with the One Nation Party in NSW where he is able to speak far more freely than before. 

This isn’t just about politicians though as it also filters down into the corporate sector, education and any state bureaucracy. The same sterile way of speaking and responding which is deliberately limiting. As with the politicians, the people in leadership here are usually intelligent and capable enough — they are just spineless or cynical people with enough intelligence and the right connections to get by. They are there to rule and not serve though they will insist the latter with many a practiced phrase. 

This has all been a long time coming but it seems to have come to a precipice of sorts. I don’t mean that a fall is coming though I would like to see that but there is at least a halt at the edge. If there isn’t a fall, things will go no further and as with technology there will be a static continuance of what already is. The motions will be gone through whether they be promotions, job applications or elections but things will be as they are and were. The same sort of personalities, the same practiced uniformity. The same empty service at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. This will continue at least for a time with these unimaginative and spiritually empty people but it will come to an end and there will be a renewal. It won’t be easy but it will be good. 

 

 

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