Geopolitical storms

Published: May 2017

This 2005 hit song was about a night out in Leeds, UK but the lyrics could just as well have been written about today’s global political landscape. Many are under the spell of populism, nationalism, isolationism, and various other worrying isms. Incessant social media rants polarise and add fuel to the fire, as does the focus of the media on negative events and developments.

The truth is that on average the global population has never had it this good. People live longer, are richer, healthier, and better educated than ever before. At the same time, large sections of the population view the world as an increasingly scary place. Numerous ‘first world people’ are turning towards inward-looking movements, freaked out by today’s frightening mix of declining truth, declining western values, declining order and increasing uncertainty.

The ruling elite and its cosmopolitan globalisation ideals are under a lot of pressure. Populists are tapping a bountiful reservoir. After all, what characterises this era is a deep-seated belief that the times are getting worse. Many voters think the elites will do little or nothing to make things better. This thinking is known as declinism. In fact, we have seen this declinism in America for a number of decades and even under presidents that one would not immediately associate with such an attitude. For instance, Bill Clinton would refer to REstarting, REnewal and so on. His theme was social decline and he would be the one to turn the tide. Even Obama alluded to deep-seated fears that decline was inevitable.

Trump’s MO is essentially a generic step-by-step plan for populists: encourage declinism, squarely put the blame on the establishment, and present yourself as the solution. Declinism often goes hand in hand with apathy towards politics – “why would I vote, nothing will change, and I do not have any influence”.

When it comes to Europe, politicians have a lot to explain to their voters. Europe has not delivered. Citizens were left with the impression that whereas the banks were saved, young people and workers paid the price for the financial-economic crisis. Plus, the European ‘community of values’ could not put a stop to the authoritarian tendencies within Europe and at its borders. It is also evident that many countries and politicians don’t think they need to stick to the EU rules. On the other hand, most voters would like to keep the EU and the euro whereas they think it should be improved.

One thing is certain: Europe will continue to be a thorny business for most national politicians. This is to a large extent linked to the legitimacy crisis facing globalisation. Many people believe that globalisation has nothing to offer them any more.

Dani Rodrik’s globalisation trilemma offers a useful framework. Owing to globalisation, countries are hemmed in between democracy, economic integration, and national sovereignty. These three goals cannot be achieved simultaneously. Democracy can only be combined with national sovereignty if globalisation is kept in check. And if globalisation is the highest goal and the nation state is to be preserved, democracy will fall by the wayside. To achieve democracy plus globalisation, the nation state needs to be abolished and a ‘world government’ is needed.

We are currently seeing a general tendency to focus on nationalism and direct democracy whereas economic integration is going down the drain. The resistance against globalisation is intimately connected to a resurgent inclination among people to protect their ‘own’ culture and the tendency to exclude other groups. Social, cultural and economic changes that are influenced by globalisation and technological progress have simply unfolded too rapidly. Many people feel that their very survival is at risk. And whereas the social contracts between the haves and have nots (and the cans and cannots) are obsolete, a new contract does not seem to be on the cards.

Uncertainty and angst has risen to great heights. Simultaneously, both dissatisfied citizens and populist leaders think the existing institutions will need to be destroyed before they can be ‘saved’. Trump’s main strategist Steve Bannon literally said so. He claims that at the top of Trump’s agenda is “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. Earlier Bannon stated that, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Such messages can easily take root in a world of growing ethnical nationalism, waning confidence in democracy, calls for isolationist security and trade policies, a crumbling international order, and an economic recovery that seems to pass many by. Numerous people think that the social rules of play are no longer mutually beneficial to the elite and to the rest. Worse, they feel the establishment is just circumventing the rules whereas ordinary folk come off worse if they observe the rules. The result is a poisonous cocktail of envy, humiliation and powerlessness.

Voters have a point. As history professor Michael Kazin wrote about America, “populism has had an unruly past… But Americans have found no more powerful way to demand that their political elites live up to the ideals of equal opportunity and democratic rule to which they pay lip service during campaign seasons. Populism can be dangerous, but it may also be necessary.”

Perhaps this is indeed a ‘moment of truth’. Political parties are too much alike. The complications arising from free trade and open borders have been ignored for too long. National politicians often appear powerless whereas national governments have transferred a lot of their powers to international institutions. Unelected actors such as central bankers and multinationals seem to be more important than the democratically elected representatives while the shortcomings of politicians are expatiated upon online and in countless media channels.

So perhaps the time has come to shake up the established political order. The big question is, when will the scales tip toward unnecessary and dangerous torment? Populism, as championed by Trump and Wilders does not just take aim at the political and sometimes corporate elites but is also based on a very narrow (implied) definition of who “the people” actually are. Trumpism may not be automatically anti-democratic but it is evidently illiberal. To quote populism expert Cas Mudde, “The populist surge is an illiberal democratic response to decades of undemocratic liberal policies.”

The ‘moderate forces’ are busily trying to find an answer to illiberal democratic populism (which has turned into illiberal authoritarianism in countries such as Turkey and Russia). The answer does not seem to be available right now. Pessimists can take to heart Leonard Cohen’s lyrics for The Future:

Things are going to slide (slide) in all directions,
Won’t be nothing (won’t be),
Nothing you can measure anymore,
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world,
Has crossed the threshold.

The world is indeed sliding faster than it has done in a long time. Nevertheless, we doubt if the political storm that has blown up is strong enough to topple the EU and Eurozone. However, the dissatisfaction among voters could increase if they get the impression that politicians will view election results in which populists didn’t emerge as number one, as signals that they can more or less carry on in the same old vein as before. There have merely been “riots” so far but unless the establishment pays heed to the electorate’s worries, Cohen’s lyrics could still hold water:

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code,
Your private life will suddenly explode,
There’ll be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road.

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