Paul Kriwaczek

Author of Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation

Paul Kriwaczek

Paul Kriwaczek was a historian and producer of British television. He joined the BBC full-time in 1970 and for twenty-five years wrote, produced, and directed. A former BBC World Service head of Central Asian Affairs, he has been fluent in eight languages including Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi and Nepalese....READ MORE

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Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established - often god-prescribed - ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world. Such people are not known for their sense of humour and lightness of touch; they rarely break a smile. To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people's understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.

For a patrimonial state to be stable over time, it is best ruled with consent, at least with consent from the largest minority, if not from the majority. Instinctive obedience must be the norm, otherwise too much effort needs to be put into suppressing disaffection for the regime's wider aims to be achievable. Consent is, however, not always easy to obtain. The collective view of most societies is rather conservative: in the main people prefer to see the social arrangements of their youth perpetuated into their old age; they prefer that things be done in the time-honoured way; they are suspicious of novelty and resistant to change. Thus when radical action must be taken, for whatever reason, a great burden falls on the ruler, the father-figure, who has to overcome this social inertia and persuade his subjects to follow his lead. In order that his will shall prevail, he needs to generate huge respect, preferably adulation, and if at all possible sheer awe among his people.

A hugely complicated, centrally planned, social and economic system can only be kept on the rails for as long as people believe in it.

But belief in a system cannot be sustained for ever. Empires based solely on power and domination, while allowing their subjects to do as they will, can last for centuries. Those that try to control the everyday lives of their people are much harder to sustain.

Assyria soon discovered a painful truth: empires are like Ponzi schemes: financial frauds in which previous investors are paid returns out of new investors' deposits. The costs of holding imperial territory can only be underwritten by loot and tribute extracted by constant new conquests; empires must continue to expand if they are not to collapse.

Anyone who has ever watched children amuse themselves will recognize that the scientific and technological face of civilization is precisely the result of play in its purest form. Just as children are constantly exploring, experimenting, testing and trying things out, for no conscious purpose except the sheer enjoyment of the game itself, so pure science and applied technology play with ideas and toy with the principles and substance of the world; all the time wondering ‘just suppose…’ and asking ‘what happens if…?

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