It is practically an axiom that the world from time to time experiences upheavals, sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful: The normative revolt of the young in 1968, the big adjustment after the fall of the Berlin wall, the collective fear after 9/11, the Arab spring (or the Arab fire, as some call it today, disappointed by the fact that the political awakening so far seems to have created more violence than change).
But still, much in the world apparatus looks more turbulent than in a long time, and in a broader way.
The agitation going on may seem incalculable, but one common denominator is, just like before, that power structures are challenged. The difference now is that it happens in so many forms and in so many different contexts at once that it is possible to presage that we are entering a world which will look fairly different a few years from now.
Many pundits are circling in their reasoning about what is taking place, because their intellectual toolbox is old and worn. As you know, if you only have a hammer, all problems look like a nail. They find it difficult to see that the anxiety could have other reasons, play out in a different way and end up in something other than what it did before.
What happens could in effect be that we are leaving the 19th century. It was then that the nation-state based structure we still live in was fully established. It became so strong that it survived two world wars and a cold war and has caused a great deal of us to believe that it is God-given. It is not.
It is not certain that the national division itself will be challenged, at least not initially, but the structure is made up of a whole matrix of decision-making bodies at different levels, an arrangement for how they are set up and various forms of coordination between political and economic entities in society. This matrix is challenged flat out.
The break-out from the 19th century, if that is what we are in fact experiencing, has everything to do with a higher degree of awareness, which in turn is connected with a higher degree of knowledge and enlightenment. One cannot overestimate the importance of, simply speaking, everyone knowing everything that happens everywhere all the time. The world is more integrated than ever before. This has created insights that very much of what we have become used to is not obvious and that authorities are preliminary and have flaws.
There is a lot of confusion out there, but in a historical perspective it is not particularly violent, a fact that is well in line with a long albeit uneven global trend of declining conflict levels.
The confusion is because nobody, not even those who are protesting against power structures, knows exactly what to have instead or have any clear idea of how to organize society in a better way. The spirit of the times is just a very strong sense that ”we can’t have it like this anymore”. This goes for economy and politics as well as social structures.
More and more people feel (think, too, of course, but I believe that what triggered things has first and foremost an intuitive origin) that they are greater and worthy of more than merely being passive pawns in a societal game that they do not even feel they are participating in, other than perhaps at a polling station every few years.
This sense was well described by Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent Erik de la Reguera, who covered the so called yellow jacket demonstrations in France in late 2018:
”Right now the movement is not much more than the sum of the people who take part in it. There is no clear leadership” … ”A sort of ’politics of resentment’ where neither ideology nor concrete policy issues are at the centre, but an emotionally based frustration and deep anger towards an elite depicted as only draining resources.”
The illusion that elites are somehow elevated is breaking apart, not only among those who have less but also among people who are privileged but nonetheless resent hierarchies and corruption. One interpretation, which perhaps is overly benevolent, is that there seems to be a longing for more trust (energizing) and a big tiredness of polarization (energy-draining).
The forceful populist leaders who reach power in many countries do so promising a juster society. If they cannot fulfil their promise they will surely face the disappointment of the people. The old style Caudillo has lost his attraction.
Now, if we look out over the world, this suddenly activated sentiment is expressed not only in some countries or regions but more or less all over the place. It just takes different forms — oftentimes as people against elite, but sometimes as turbulence within the ruling classes.
So, how has this ”something must change” mindset been designed lately? Here is a small selection of examples (from my northern European perspective):
- The election of Trump
- The subsequent attempts to thwart Trump
- The result of the Brexit referendum
- The subsequent attempts to stop Brexit
- The ”yellow jacket” demonstrations in France
- The end game drawing closer in the protracted Venezuelan collapse
- The election of Bolsonaro in Brazil
- The election of López Obrador in Mexico
- The street protests against Algeria’s and Sudan’s despots (the Arab spring delayed)
- The street protests against some of Africa’s last ”dinosaurs”, for instance in Lomé, Kampala and Addis Ababa
- The first open challenge to the male repression in Saudi Arabia
- The popular protests against men’s violence against women in India
- The steep downhill trend for traditional political parties (primarily the Social Democrats) in large swathes of Europe in favour of new parties
- The completely re-painted political landscapes of France, Italy and Spain
- The completely unpredictable political landscapes of Eastern Europe, where voters can lean either towards right-wing populism (Hungary, Poland), EU-friendly liberalism (Slovakia, Serbia) or an anti-political maverick (Ukraine)
- The defections from both Tories and Labour and the formation of an independent group in the British parliament.
- The dissolvement of Sweden’s decades-old two-block politics
- The unprecedented fall of the Finnish government
The resentment against elite rule is also directed towards banks, online giants and other huge corporations. At the community level — above national boundaries — we still live in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, which also at the individual level has made millions of women (and some men, surely) think ”this isn’t working any more, I am not allowed to become the best version of myself”. And #metoo has been followed by a student-led anti-gun movement in the US and a global Greta-inspired movement to save the climate, among other collective initiatives.
The men (and the occasional woman) of power will doubtlessly do what they can to cling. It is evident in the way leaders of authoritarian countries react: they tighten the thumbscrews on opposition figures and display old scapegoats in front of an ever less convinced domestic audience.
But which tendency is the stronger?
I think it would be difficult to convince people around you that ”most people continue to let themselves be ruled by authoritarian rulers, they accept shrinking individual freedom and they show indifference to the use, and abuse, of power from states and big corporations”. Not even Donald Trump’s electoral base want to be ruled by Donald Trump. They voted for him because they saw him — on extremely bad grounds, for certain — as someone who could liberate them from the oppression of various cultural, political and economic elites.
Wait a minute, didn’t we learn that the wave of right-wing populism stems from a conservative and authority-believing counter-movement? Yes, on one level it is a correct analysis, which the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the British journalist and author David Goodhart have shown. But even the large group that by a broad definition could be called conservative and which sees the world in a different way than liberal minded people — the ones who for decades have had the privilege of formulating the problems of society — are of the opinion that ”something must change”. In their case this means seizing the initiative of formulating society’s problems and slowing down the pace of liberalization. At the same time, it must be remembered that a ”conservative” person in 2019 is considerably more liberal minded than a conservative person in 1950 or even in 1980. Many liberal reforms are taken for granted today.
Studies of long trends verify this. In his book Freedom Rising, political scientist Christian Welzel points out that we humans are once again, after a long epoch of subjugation, embracing ”emancipative” values and emphasizing the importance of free choice and equal opportunities. The driving force behind this liberation process is the prime source of democracy, according to Welzel. It vitalizes civil society, nourishes humanitarian norms, enhances happiness and helps our modern civilization to approach a sustainable development. It is the same mental, or spiritual, transformation that makes fewer and fewer people in mature democracies want to die for their country, something Welzel notes in another study, written together with Ronald Inglehart and Bi Puranen.
Each storm moves the dunes. When the sand settles in a few years we will look out over a changed landscape, as always when paradigms shift. It may belong to a world where less will be determined by the decisions of governments and more by the decisions and actions of individuals, organisations, companies and ad hoc groups. Chances are that these decisions and actions will be based less on ideological templates and more on the factual reality we live in: What is actually needed to enhance life?
If so, we will be well on the way to leaving the stupidity and paralysis of polarization, and once out of that we will be able to solve our basic, even existential, problems — to the surprise of those who have got used to interpreting the world through the filter of news and political gambit.