January 1, 2017 12:00:55 am
2016 was a year when all the auguries of innocence once again vanished. The world is always complicated, defying the teleological claims of “the end of history” or the binary comforts of “a clash of civilisations.” Cycles of reaction and counter reaction, periods of stability and disruptive mobilisation, are, recurring features of politics. But, arguably, no other year in recent memory, exemplified the dissolution of so many fixed points of world order, creating a sense of intellectual vertigo and anxiety. In some ways, the American election was the lodestar of that dissolution. It showed, at one go, the ways in which the complacent certainties of global order, that had provided fixed points since the fall of the Berlin Wall, were now up for deep contestation.
The basic normative frame of democracy, rather than deepening and progressing with a lightness and exuberance of spirit that befits a democracy, seemed to become more institutionally fragile and burdened with resentment. In large sections of the globe, elections were increasingly seen as a contest between a plutocratic incrementalism and a disruptive authoritarianism. And disruptive authoritarianism seemed more attractive, unsettling constitutional settlements in so many parts of the world.
These mobilisations were, to be sure, in some ways deeply democratic, and reflected a sense that existing institutions, had excluded significant sections of the population. This sentiment itself — that large sections were feeling disempowered — put a lie to the promises of the Cold War order. It punctured the claim being held onto with the tenacity of a religious faith that the basic economic order was designed to work for the benefit of all, in ways that would not sharpen distributive conflicts. The idea that growth, employment growth and productivity would all go together now seemed like a fragile assumption indeed. The idea that a globalisation narrative could be sustained, in which the distributive conflicts between developed and developing economies would not come to the forefront, proved to be a chimera. What is more disorienting is there is no agreed diagnosis that can restore confidence in these beliefs. Politics proceeds on the assumption that there are policy fixes to these challenges. The objective measure of this belief is still open for debate. The unemployment rate and wage stagnation in the US or UK signal a problem. But they are not nearly as alarming as the intensity of the revolt suggests. But whatever the other complexities, the revolt suggests a loss of faith in the future, an existential condition much of democratic politics is not used to.
This corrosive scepticism about the future extended to democracy itself. The perception that representative institutions like legislatures or instruments of opinion formation like the media had become irrevocably corrupt created the longing for a form of politics above the ordinary messy and incremental checks and balances of democracy. The prize did not go to those who addressed specific forms of corruption; it went to those who could declare the whole system corrupt and position themselves outside of it. When the laws and the institutions have been declared corrupt and debilitating, there will be greater recourse to a rule of men again. The logic of cleaning up the system, doing things differently, requires the amassing of great power and democracies seem willing to put up with it.
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Once the politics of fear rather than hope took root, all the other guiding values of the post Berlin Wall world fell by the wayside. The idea that increasing globalisation, mobility of labour and capital is a sustainable political project has temporarily bitten the dust. The romantic idea that forms of economic interdependence would reduce the risks of armed conflict in different parts of the world has come under strain. This assumption underestimated the power of “sulking” nationalism, in the defeated powers of Cold War nations like Russia, who have exacted sweet revenge by making the United States look relatively helpless. It also underestimated that globalisation had support only so long as it served the needs of national power. The risks of geo-strategic escalation have probably risen.
Nationalism, that poison and cure of modernity, came back in a more exclusionary form. It was, in part, a consequence of the uneven gains of globalisation. But the urge that is underlying it is deeper. As Svetlana Alexievich suggested in the context of Russia, materialist individualism cannot, for too long, compete with the urge for meaning: a mall is not an ideational substitute for the motherland. In its virulent form, the rise of nationalism reinforced the suspicion of democratic intermediation. It demanded a unity in which every disagreement, every sign of difference was seen as a betrayal. It provided a ready explanation for the loss of hope: foreigners are taking away what is rightfully ours. It raised questions about the tensions between the demands of the cohesive identity on the one hand and diversity on the other.
More sympathetically, nationalism, in its quest for collective agency was a kind of revolt against the fatalism of globalisation. In all their different forms, the populisms and nationalisms breaking out across the world have this in common: they all seek to establish the fact that our economy and culture should be under collective political control, not shaped by anonymous forces.
So, with all the basic assumptions about the economy, international order, and the identity of national communities up for grabs, the sense of anxiety was bound to grow. But what makes this moment fraught is that the inevitable contestations around these issues now seem to have an air of unreality about them. It is as if our consciousness has become not just unhinged from reality, but citizens of different political points of view are becoming unhinged from each other. What is public opinion? We seem not to be confident about how we measure and assess it. Truth is not even split across partisan lines. It seems to have been corroded by a deep culture of distrust. In such an atmosphere, the nature of politics itself shifts; the tools of liberation become tools of bondage. The new dispensation of authoritarian politics, for example, requires more disinformation than censorship, it increases its power of surveillance over us by tapping into our desires, not by repressing them, and it promises to compensate for past failures by spinning new fantasies. Almost every major G-20 leader (Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping) has elements of this style of politics. What new anxieties will emerge from this global complex?
The simultaneous crisis and uncertainty across different spheres of life will make this an age anxious in an unprecedented way. It could concentrate our minds and lead to new forms of creativity. Perhaps, we will be shocked out of our complacencies. But, it is also equally likely that the outcome may be more fraught.
As Auden wrote about a different, deeper age of anxiety, “Lies and lethargies police the world / In its periods of peace… life after life lapses out of/ Its essential self and sinks into/ One press-applauded public untruth/And, massed to its music, all march in step/ Led by that liar, the lukewarm Spirit/ Of the Escalator.”
How do we get off this escalator?
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