Take Russia for example. The collapse of undemocratic state communism ought in theory have been very much to the benefit of the ordinary Russian. Several million people had been sent off to be worked to death in the camps and the economy was in a very poor shape. It must have looked like things couldn't get much worse and that there had to be a better way of running their country. Certainly virtually every 'expert' in the West convinced themselves that Gorbachev's attempts to rip up the old system and establish a brand new one virtually from scratch were bound to be successful. The actual result was over a decade of chaos, a dramatic decline in the standard of living, the takeover of the country by oligarchs and criminals, the destruction of the vast majority of useful welfare provision and a deep distrust by the Russian people of the 'democrats' who put them through all that. It proved very easy to dismantle the old system. It was much harder to construct a working replacement. Incredibly the mass murderer Stalin is now a popular figure. The country is now ruled by an autocratic capitalist - hardly an improvement on autocratic socialism but viewed by most of its citizens as massively preferable to the chaos they had lived through for over a decade. Idiotic free market zealots who didn't understand the complexity of what they were dismantling and naively believed markets would solve every problem caused immense damage.
Even clearer examples of the real horrors caused by dismantling stability without much idea of what you are going to replace it with can be seen every night on the news when events in Libya or Syria are reported. In theory it ought to have brought great benefits to ordinary people to remove a horrible dictator from control of all of Libya and half of Syria. Unfortunately too many people focused on the easy job of destroying the old corrupt regime of the torturers. Little or no thought was given to the difficult issue of how to establish a well run efficient replacement. It was assumed that ideals would be enough. Few people in Libya would now argue that the Arab Spring had worked out well for them so far. Even fewer people in Syria would say that the last few years have been the happiest of their lives.
There are two possible conclusions to draw from this. One is that no matter how bad the government is you really ought to put up with it because change might be even worse. Bizarrely that seems to be the conclusion that a lot of people on the left have come to about Syria. Apparently they will all be so much better off if they just agree to shut up, go back to work and let that nice Mr Assad get back to pulling their finger nails out whenever he feels a touch paranoid. This is not a school of thought that I find very inspiring. It is a counsel of despair.
The other alternative is that if you are seeking change that you should think carefully about what it is that you intend to achieve and how to achieve it. You need to know not just what you want but how you are going to get it. If the West had applied that simple principle to its actions in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen then the people in those countries would have been saved from the consequences of years of instability and chaos.
When you apply these simple criteria to the major events in Britain or the US in 2016 then things don't look too good. No matter how skilfully someone tries to spin Donald Trump there is no getting away from the fact that his economic policies are unclear, untried and untested. If what he says is anything to go by then he has lots of grand ideas but very little idea about what the impact of doing them will actually be. We simply do not know what the result will be of massive tax cuts, major public infrastructure projects, increases in defence spending, and rigorous control of the money supply. And we certainly don't know how all those can be achieved at the same time by anyone other than a magician. Huge increases in government spending at the same time as cuts in government revenue don't normally add up. No one knows how much of this wild fantasy will actually be put into policy. Or what the outcome will be. Or how the poor in the US will react when they are asked to pay for all this via welfare cuts. Stability is not the word I would use to describe a country led by someone unstable and insecure entering with such determination into a wild economic experiment. Especially when he is doing so with the help of some deeply odd advisors who are completely convinced that they have the solutions to all our problems. Always a bad sign.
Much the same uncertainty surrounds Brexit. Whatever you think of the policy of leaving the EU one thing is clear. There is no consensus on what the UK is seeking to achieve and how it is going to achieve it. We don't have a single clear well understood plan of how the UK is going to compete economically in its new circumstances. We don't even have any real knowledge yet of what those circumstances might be. Ahead of us lies considerable chaos and uncertainty. We know that the old system will be dismantled. We don't know what will be put in its place and it is extremely unlikely to see how the UK government can come up with a plan that wins the acceptance of half the nation. Or indeed the acceptance of enough of May's ruling Conservative Party for that policy to go through Parliament. The UK's current ruling party cannot agree amongst themselves what they want to do and how they are going to do it. On almost any other topic you care to name, whether it is farm policy or regional policy you will find sharp divisions. We have promises aplenty but we have no certainty of anything other than a period of confusion.
There are times when chaos can be highly creative. I remain unconvinced that this particular period of chaos is going to prove so. I like to know what someone is trying to create before they tear down what has already been constructed. Destroying the old consensus is easy and fun. Constructing a new more positive reality is a lot harder. A lot depends on whose vision of a positive future we are attempting to create.
As I see it there is only one way to ensure that what we get is either better than what we leave behind or less bad than it might have been. That is for every single proposal for the future of the UK put forward by Theresa May to be rigorously tested and challenged by a cynical and unconvinced electorate. I look forward to a new year in which that is exactly what happens. The time for platitudes about red, white and blue exits is over. The next year is going to be about forcing the government to reveal its plans and then taking it to the cleaners about how weak and divisive and negative those plans are.
If that happens then 2017 promises to be a lot more fun than 2016. I wish you a very Happy New Year!