The problem of monoculture

I used to live in one of the most productive forestry areas in Canada. It was the perfect growing environment for trees, especially conifers. And it was, as the expression goes, a “tree farm”. Every forty years the forest owner would come in and cut down hundreds of acres of trees and then, assiduously, replant them. All the trees were of the same species and all were, depending on where they were in the cycle, exactly the same height. Miles and miles and mile of Douglas Firs. The monotony was only broken in the small areas which were set aside either as old growth or as stream allowances. There you’d find cedars, broadleaf maple, arbutus and many other species. But that was only a tiny, less than 1%, of the land. It was a monoculture and very efficient if you were trying to maximize the growth of what the companies call “fiber”.

A political landscape can become a monoculture. Essentially only a limited range of ideas are allowed to flourish, ideas outside that range are suppressed or, more often, ignored. Within a political monoculture you may have a variety of parties but each is limited to the ideas within the range. Preferment – as it was called in a gentler time – is limited to people who accept the limits of the landscape.

This sort of political monoculture can persist for several generations and produce statesmen of varying talents all of whom want to accomplish one or another of the central tenets of the monoculture in preference to the others; but all of whom are in agreement as to the limits of acceptable political discourse. In a stable society this sort of acceptance of the limits of debate can make a lot of sense and create a political world in which the essential stability is preserved. A concept which is philosophically attractive to a certain sort of conservative in the small “c” sense of that term.

There are three threats to the monocultural forests where I lived: fire, blight and economics. Fire is obvious and would be a threat to any forest no matter how diverse. (We’ll leave questions of regeneration to ecologists and foresters.) Blight, whether mold or insect, is a huge threat because of the complete lack of diversity. Economics are a threat because what you planted forty years before may not be in demand forty years on. Fire is a rapid threat, blight a medium term threat and economics a constant threat.

A political monoculture has its own forms of threat but they all come down to a challenge to the stability of the society in which the political monoculture has been operating. The problem for the political monoculture is that, pretty much by definition, the assumption of stability is axiomatic. Asking questions going to the assumption of stability is outside the terms of the monoculture. So those questions and the policy prescriptions which flow from them will either be suppressed or ignored.

What can challenge the assumption of societal stability? A wide variety of things. Demographic decline, the erosion of the society’s economic foundation, runaway economic inequality, external threats or the internal inability to manage problems as they arise all can challenge the stability assumption. So can technology, communications and failures to adapt to changing conditions. If a large fraction of the society is rendered powerless or redundant, stability can be challenged.

The problem a political monoculture has is that it lacks even the vocabulary to address such systemic challenges.

Of which, more, later.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The problem of monoculture

  1. derek says:

    The problem with a political monoculture is the foundations are taken for granted. Stability occurs for a reason. What they are is lost in a monoculture because no one is asking the questions or challenging the assumptions. So as the political assumptions move, as they inevitably do, everyone moves without anyone daring to question.

    Much of the turmoil happening right now is the political monoculture has no foundation. Inertia and hysteresis allow things to stand for a while, then when some foundation is required due to events there isn’t any.

  2. Philip Jemielita says:

    Jay – interested to hear further what you have in mind. It seems to me our time has unusually diverse opinion holders – very unlike the Roman republic or some Chinese dynasties, which seem more “monocultural”.

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