The news headlines are dominated by war, weapons and financial divides. Overwhelming global issues such as the desperate refugee crisis, America’s relationship with guns and the threat of ISIS require action, but do we understand the deeper issues enough to solve them?
In a bid to find solutions, we plunged into some of the most important books ever written to see what history’s greatest thinkers would suggest.
1. Wealth inequality
The world is an increasingly unequal place. Globally, less than one percent of the world’s population holds 45 percent of the world’s total wealth, yet 71 percent of adults have less than $10,000 in wealth assets.
The rich are getting obscenely richer, while the poor get endlessly poorer.
The solution according to Piketty: a tax on wealth
Superstar French economist Thomas Piketty argues that people who have assets will always get richer faster than regular people who have to depend on salaries alone. In his 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he states that the rate of return on capital (assets including money, land, and investments) always outstrips the growth rate of the economy, and shows how, over time, these inequalities become greater.
Piketty’s solution? A tax on wealth that will effectively lower the rate of return on capital and reduce the inequality that, he says, occurs naturally with capitalism. And with his recruitment to British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s team of economic advisors, he might just be able to put his idea into practice.
The solution according to Rawls: “fair” inequality
In A Theory of Justice, American philosopher John Rawls presents a vision of a just society where individuals are protected and wealth is distributed as equally as possible. He accepts that it’s OK for there to be differences in the distribution of goods and services — as long as they benefit the worst-off in society. But there can’t be “have-it-alls” and “have-nones.”
2. Weapons and what to do with them
In 2013 the US spent $637 billion on its military, China spent $184 billion and Russia $88 billion. For China and Russia, this represented an increase in military spending. For the US it represented cuts. So while America still spends the most, that gap is decreasing fast.
Some commentators argue that US defense cuts are “reckless” and leave America “vulnerable.” Are they right?
The solution according to Morgenthau: weapons = power
In Politics among Nations, the German-born political scientist Hans Morgenthau that for all the chatter, international relations are driven by the desire to accumulate power — especially military power. According to Morgenthau, the stronger a state’s military, the greater its influence.
Surely he would argue that by reducing its military spending, America risks its influence and seeing its reputation as a world power starting to decline. Like Morgenthau, the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong believed he needed weapons. “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun,” he said.
The solution according to Hobbes: weapons = power and peace
In Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes offers a bleak view of humans as naturally murderous, only doing what is to their own advantage. Hobbes argues that there is only one way this human brutality can be kept in check: by a leviathan — that is, a powerful state — keeping the peace. Right now America is that leviathan. But it will only stay that way if it can consistently prove it is stronger than all other states.
The solution according to Foucault: invest in surveillance
French philosopher Michel Foucault believes that mind control is even stronger than brute strength. In Discipline and Punish he argues that real power is the ability to define what people do, rather than forcing them to do what you want. One way of exerting this control is to put people under constant surveillance.
So maybe it’s in satellites, rather than submarines, that America should be investing its GDP.
3. The refugee crisis
Violence in the Middle East and North Africa has displaced millions, leading to one of the biggest refugee crises the world has ever known.
Some newspapers and politicians have said that to receive migrants is to open the door to terrorism. Is this irrational and, if so, how do we rationalize a fear so deep-rooted in society that it can be used to seal the fate of millions?
The solution according to Said: understand the root of our feelings
Orientalism, by the Palestinian American thinker Edward Said, analyzes the origins of those mental shortcuts the West uses to get a grip on “Oriental” (Eastern) cultures.
Said shows that many Western ideas about the culture and peoples of the East became fashionable in the 19th century, when we judged these people as inferior to justify colonialism. We believed we were better than them, and so felt duty-bound to take over their lands to help them “improve” themselves. The fact that these ideas have been part of our culture for so long can perhaps help us understand the feelings of those who are unnerved by refugees, and start to address those feelings in a realistic way.
The solution according to Allport: encourage contact between groups
In The Nature of Prejudice, American psychologist Gordon Allport discusses the human fear of the “Other.” He shows that we all use mental “shortcuts” such as stereotypes to assess the people around us. While this behaviour is deeply ingrained in human psychology, it can also lead to prejudice, mistrust and fear.
Could Allport’s theory that contact between groups is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice — known as intergroup contact theory — hold the key to minimizing the mistrust and fear aimed at modern refugees?
4. America’s race issues
A shocking analysis carried out by The Washington Post found that in the first half of 2015, 24 unarmed black men were shot dead by the police. That’s one killing every nine days.
Why does black oppression still exist, 150 years after the 13th Amendment? And how do we stop the killing?
The solution according to Du Bois: education and civil rights
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal.”
Early 20th century American sociologist W. E. B Du Bois agreed: he saw slavery as the root cause of racism in America. In The Souls of Black Folk he described a “veil” that separates blacks and whites, stops them from knowing and understanding one another, and so clearly undermines equality. Du Bois hoped that education and civil rights would help bridge the divide. Yet here we are another century on, and the stats aren’t hopeful. Today 9.8% of black Americans over the age of 25 have a degree (compared to 14.4% of white Americans). And 75% of white Americans only have white friends.
The solution according to Fanon: independent identity
In Black Skin, White Masks, Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist Frantz Fanon offers an analysis of colonial racism’s effects on black colonials’ identity, self-perception, and mental wellbeing that is strikingly familiar to modern issues. He roots out deeply entrenched European beliefs about black inferiority and argues that disorder arises because black people come to believe they are inferior, but can do nothing to rectify the situation.
Fanon asks a question we’re still asking today: “If you are constantly told you are inferior, how do you form a positive identity and go on to lead a good life?”
5. Murder in the Middle East
The Middle East is a region scarred by conflict. ISIS has murdered its way through Iraq and Syria. Israel and Palestine are locked in a seemingly endless conflict. Old rivalries still fester between Iran and Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But what lies at the heart of these clashes — and is it, in fact, the West that is to blame?
The solution according to Batatu: understand the area’s history
Palestinian historian Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes helps us make sense of the tragedies unfolding in modern-day Iraq and Syria. Batatu argues that Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 1914 altered the country’s social, political and economic structures. This led to instability and eventually revolution in 1958.
That conflict tore the country apart, leaving scars that run impossibly deep and still feed tension in the Middle East today.
The solution according to Mamdani: let societies evolve naturally
Like Hanna Batatu, Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani believes it’s what colonialism did that is at the root of present-day conflict. Mamdani’s work focuses on Africa, but his ideas are important to the Middle East — and currently Syria in particular — as conflict again erupts along religious and ethnic fault lines. In his book Citizen and Subject he discusses how colonial powers deliberately politicized ethnic and racial differences in the societies they colonized, leading to social division that has lasted until now.
These societies have not been allowed to evolve naturally. We are seeing the devastating effects of that today.