Are We Heading Toward Global Autocracy, Ecological Collapse, Political Malaise?

By Richard Falk, June 29, 2016

What follows are preliminary reactions to both the BREXIT vote and the world according to Trump, but also a commentary on the related alienation of large segments of the public that are being badly served by both the established elites and their demagogic adversaries. The failures of neoliberalism, the successes of digitization, the scourge of random violence, and more broadly, the dilemmas posed by late modernity are among the root causes of this global crisis of legitimate governance, which is deepened while being mishandled by unprecedented ecological challenges, extremely irresponsible geopolitical leadership, and a variety of ultra-nationalist backlashes against the encroachments of economic globalization.

Imagining the World After the Cold War

After the end of the Cold War there were various projections that tried to anticipate the likely future of the world in broad interpretative strokes. Three of the most influential conjectures by three prominent American authors received attention in the public sphere: those of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.

Fukuyama challenged conventional political imagination with his provocative claim that with the collapse of the Soviet version of state socialism and the triumph of capitalist liberalism the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ It was also somewhat dubious that Fukuyama validated his views by reference to the Hegelian contention that history is made by the march and interplay of ideas rather than through the agency of material forces. In this respect history came to a supposedly glorious end because there was no grander possible political vision than that of market-based constitutionalism, epitomized by the American political system. Even the most casual observer of the global scene must have noticed the befogged Western optic through which Fukuyama saw the world.

Huntington, no less provocative or biased, although less comforting for the West, anticipated a ‘the clash of civilizations’ as the sequel to the Cold War, especially stressing the confrontation between the liberal West and the non-West or simply ‘the rest.’ His suggestive emphasis was on blood-soaked fault lines between states, civilizations, and peoples associated with Islam and the Western polities descending from the Enlightenment tradition as it unfolded in Europe, taking root in North America and elsewhere.

Kaplan, also punctured the Fukuyama triumphalist tone of geopolitical serenity, by writing of ‘the coming anarchy,’ the breakdown of order at the level of the state. His views were shaped by perceptions of decolonization leading to ungovernable and essentially non-viable political spaces, particularly in Africa where he regarded many of the post-colonial states as incapable of achieving minimum order within territorial space.

25 years later it appears that each of these authors saw part of the elephant, but none of the three managed to capture this imposing animal in its majestic totality. Fukuyama was importantly correct in positing market-driven liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of the global future for decades to come, and especially so with respect to the ascendancy of the transnational private sector as shaped by financial flows in a borderless world. The universalization of the liberal international order was devised by and for the West after World War II with the overriding goal of avoiding a return of the Great Depression and retaining as many of the benefits of colonialism as possible in the aftermath of its collapse. This globalizing arrangement of economic and political forces proved robust enough to generate sustained economic growth, as well as to crowd out rivals, thereby making itself into ‘the only game in town.’ That this phase of globalization was grossly uneven in the distribution of benefits and burdens was generally overlooked, as was its predatory character as viewed from the perspective of the economic losers.

At the same time, the idea of reaching an endpoint in history even if conceived in Hegelian terms of ideas seemed rather absurd, if not grotesque, to many from its moment of utterance. Given the ideological assault on modernity that has been mounted from the perspective of religion, drawing into question secularism and rationalism, the liberal vision was indeed being challenged from a number of angles. In this regard, transnational terrorism viewed in isolation is a less radical repudiation of Fukuyama’s blueprint for the future than are the various associated challenges to Westphalian territorial sovereignty that have been mounted by Islamic leaders, articulated clearly by both Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. Both insisted that the territorial sovereignty was not the primary legitimate basis for political community, and indeed put forward less convincing claims to political community than were the organic identities that had been shaped by centries of religious and civilizational traditions and devotional practices.

ISIS added its own version of this world order stance in a less reflective modality. Its leaders gave voice to the view that in the Middle East, in particular, armed struggle was undoing the harm done a hundred years earlier. ISIS bluntly repudiated the territorial legacies and authority of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 had carved up the Ottoman Empire to satisfy British and French colonial ambitions. Such European hubris had cast the region adrift by creating governance zones that were, at best, artificial political communities that could only be held together by the iron fist of state power, which if removed would lead to chaos. The effect of giving over the fate of the peoples to the mercies of European colonial powers fractured the natural community of Islam and did away with the more ethnically constituted units (or millets) established by the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to be confident about whether the peoples of the region as of 2016, if left free to choose, would prefer the distortions of imposed Westphalian states or opt for boundaries that better reflected the existential sentiments and values of the current national majorities among those living in the region.

The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right

Perhaps, more fundamental in its implications for the future, is the shifting ground shaking the foundations of the edifice of ideas and interest upholding neoliberal globalization. That the ground is shaking has been revealed for most crisis deniers by the surge of populist support that allowed Trump to crush a wide field of Republican presidential aspirants with mainstream party credentials. This astonishing outcome has been strongly reinforced by the electrifying vote by Britain in June 2016 to exit the European Union, so-called BREXIT, and what that portends for Britain, the EU, and even the world.

We can also throw into the new mix the Sanders Phenomenon, essentially a youth revolt against what the man from Vermont kept calling ‘a rigged system’ good for the 1%, horrible for the other 99%, and especially for the bottom 40-60%. We will not grasp the full meaning of what has occurred for years to come, and surely the November 2016 American presidential election will either be a restorative moment for the established socio-economic order or a death warrant portending that radical, most likely disruptive, change is on its way. Should Hilary Clinton win, especially if she wins decisively as even most of the Republican leadership fear and some even wish for, it will quiet some of the voices on right and left calling for change, but only temporarily, and this is the point as the roots of the crisis are far deeper than this or that election or referendum result.

An Establishment Out of Touch

What strikes me most forcefully, aside from these unexpected outcomes, is how out of touch liberal, urban elites seem to be with the sharply alienated mood of the populace as a whole. This first struck me while visiting Cairo in the months after the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011 when Egyptians across a wide spectrum welcomed change, and were naively expecting the political transition to be managed according to the will of the people by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The political analogue to this trust displayed by the leaders of the uprising in the military wing of the former oppressive regime was the widespread expectation that Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and once the Foreign Minister under Mubarak e would overwhelm opponents in the promised presidential elections.

Many in Cairo voiced their personal doubts about Moussa’s suitability, complaining of his complicity with the prior regime and wondering whether he had a genuine willingness and capability to push through a liberal agenda of national reform and manage an economic program that offered some hope to the poor and marginalized Egyptian masses. What representatives of the Cairo establishment and even its critics didn’t disagree about was the near certainty of a Moussa victory in the scheduled 2012 presidential elections because no other candidate had comparable name recognition or possessed elite credibility. As it turned out Moussa, despite his acceptability to urban elites, ended up with less than 12% of the vote in the first round, disqualifying him from competing in the second and final round of the electoral process that surprisingly pitted an undisguised Murarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafek, against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. There has been much commentary on this sequence of developments, but what I want to stress is how out of touch the Cairo policymakers and media were with ‘the people’ of Egypt, especially the poor and those living around the country outside the two urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

Losing it in America

The utterly unanticipated success of Trump, Sanders, and BREXIT left those who earn their livings by telling us what to think and what will happen in an apparently shell shocked. Because policy wonks can lose their relevance quickly, and maybe their jobs, if they are honest enough to dwell upon their mistaken judgments, they tend to shift the conversation to what these unexpected developments tell us about the vagaries of mass public opinion. They continue to write with the same old assurance and command over details, articulating anew as (un)knowingly as ever their views about what is to come, earning them invitations to influential talk shows and the like. They have no shame. At this moment the prevailing wonk consensus is that Trump cannot possibly win in the national elections next November, and will probably lead the Republicans to a devastating national defeat leaving the party discredited even among its most faithful followers. This scenario has become the latest American version of the liberal wet dream.

What is so far missing, or almost so, from the public discourse is a soul searching assessment of why the underclass anger, why the magnetic appeal of political personalities who are ‘outsiders,’ and why the loopy defensiveness and seeming irrelevance of those who speak softly, wrongly supposing that the voice of reason and moderation will win out. Even now there is little discussion of how best to account for this ‘revolt of the masses,’ why it is happening now and not earlier, as well as what can and should be thought and done.

Sanders alone pointed to the relevance of acute inequality as discrediting the prevailing political order and what the two political parties were offering the American people. He was sensitive to social dislocations caused by this inequality being closely linked to the declining real incomes of the middle classes and the poor. He also recognized that such a downward spiral is further aggravated by a dysfunctionally expensive health system, intolerable burdens of student debt, and a bipartisan willingness to sacrifice the fundamental wellbeing of workers in a deindustrializing America on the altar of free trade. In effect, Sanders was putting before the American people a sharply critical diagnosis of the ills besetting the country together with a laundry list of social democratic correctives.

Trump, despite being himself a major economic predator, has enjoyed this surge of fanatical backing due to his diabolical talent for blaming ‘the other’ for the failures being experienced by large disaffected sectors of the American people. From this paranoid standpoint it becomes almost logical to threaten China with a trade war, to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a high wall that keeps illegal Latinos from coming across the Mexican border as well as getting rid as rapidly as possible all those who managed to enter illegally in the past, and to accomplish this massive dispossession through the medium of cruel and indiscriminate deportation. All of this negativity is given a smiling face by the catchy, yet vauous, Trump slogan “to make America great again.” Such a heartwarming slogan makes Trump into a kind of political alchemist transforming the base metals of xenophobic negativity into the glow that will follow from recovering a lost never existing American positive exceptionalism, which if decoded simply promises to restore a social order presided over by white men.

The Global Landscape

Looking around the world is a disquieting complement to myopic readings of these potentially earth shattering recent developments as happening only in Anglo-American political space. What seems evident is that there are throughout the planet converging trends reflecting some widely shared societal grievances coupled with a mood of disillusionment about the purported achievements and promises of democratic forms of governance. It is difficult to recall that after the Cold War a major aspect of American triumphalism was the confidence that the political embrace of American style democracy (what was then being called ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’) would spread to more and more countries in the world, and that this trend should be welcomed everywhere as an irreversible sign that a higher stage of political evolution had been reached. Bill Clinton liberals were forever talking up ‘enlargement’ (the expanding community of democratic states) while subscribing to the tenuous and vague claims of ‘democratic peace’ (the Kantian idea that democracies do not make war against one another).

Later George W. Bush neocons more belligerently pushed ‘democracy promotion,’ being impatient or distrustful of leaving the future to the workings of internal political dynamics and the flow of history. They held the geopolitically convenient, yet totally ahistorical, belief that military intervention would be popularly received as a liberating gift even by peoples newly freed from the shackles of European colonialism. In 2003, this commitment to coercing a democratic future was put into practice in Iraq, failing miserably and in an incredibly costly manner. Again what should be a cause for reflection is the misperception of the historical circumstances by the American establishment. This belief is abetted by the accompanying false assumption that if democracy is formally established, ex-colonial societies will docilely accept a prolonged foreign occupation of their country while continuing to endure high levels of chronic unemployment and mass poverty, a situation inflamed by national elites wallowing in luxury, having often gained their wealth by rapacious levels of corruption, rewards for serving the foreign occupiers and associated representatives of global capital.

‘It’s the System, Stupid’

If democratization seemed the wave of the global future as seen from the perspective of the 1990s there are now different horizons of expectation that darkly dominate the political imagination with a blending of fear, rage, and despair. What has so far emerged is a series of drastic political moves in a diverse group of countries that is cumulatively leading national governing processes in inward-looking authoritarian directions. Each national narrative can offer its own plausible explanation of such developments by focusing on the particularities of the national situation without paying much attention to external factors.

Yet the fact that such diverse countries share this experience of diminishing democracy and increasing authoritarianism suggests that wider systemic factors are at play. To some extent, this disturbing set of developments is disguised in the constitutional societies of the West where these trends are being validated by popular forces, that is, in full accord with the discipline and legitimacy of what might be understood as procedural democracy, that is, free and fair elections as supplemented by rivalry between political parties, a seemingly free press, referenda, legislation, judicial action, and executive initiatives that appears respectful of the constraints of the rule of law. These authoritarian outcomes should be interpreted mainly as failures of substantive democracy as obscured by the persistence of procedural democracy. This reality is beginning to be perceived by large portions of the population, especially those struggling with poverty, joblessness, and declining standards of living, although it is not articulated by reference to the substantive shortcomings of contemporary democracy. What makes this context so confusing is this tension within democracy between its procedural and substantive dimensions.

These substantive democratic failures of equity and performance are not generally experienced by those leading comfortable lives even if unlike earlier generations, expectations about the future at all levels of society are far less hopeful than during the last decades of the 20th century. Gone are the days when it was widely believed that children would almost certainly fare better than their parents. Those who are experiencing this sharp downturn in expectations are just now awakening to insist upon answers, and the easiest place to find them is through scapegoating. In this regard, the influx of foreign cheap labor is believed, and not always inaccurately, to exert downward pressures on wages and cause disquieting increases in the local crime rate. It also tempts many to regard the present challenges to homeland security as the work of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ while the widening gap between rich and poor is depicted as a mixture of corruption and free trade that pushes jobs out of the country to foreign labor markets with low wages, weak or no unions,lax safety and environmental regulations, and bribery as a way of life.

Although this shift from democratization to autocratization is being mainly experienced as a national phenomenon or as a series of distinct national dramas, the systemic aspects are crucial. An essential part of the socio-economic mixture of causes is the replacement of human labor by machine labor, a process that is accelerating via automation, and likely to increase at a geometrical pace for many years to come. As a result, a new source of chronic unemployment affecting all classes is occurring. Another aggravating feature results from migration flows escaping from war torn regions or from ecological collapse brought about by climate change. Further, the rise and manipulation of transnational terrorism and counterterrorism gives priority to the security agenda, lending support to a vast expansion of state police powers at the expense of societal autonomy and personal freedom.

What such developments portend is the presence of large numbers of desperate people within most national spaces who are blocked in their search for a decent life, are made to feel unnecessary and unwanted or treated, and are regarded as a burdensome democratic surplus by the established order. All that most of these persons want is social change and a recovery of their sense of societal worth, creating a frightening vulnerability to the siren calls of demagogues. Such a pattern is already visible on the global stage, although it tends to be blurred by relying on this still dominant optic of state-by-state developments that suppresses the reality of systemic pressures, and diverts attention from the kind of radical political therapy that is needed.

Current global trends exhibit two equally devastating approaches, which are in some settings combined. The most prevalent tendency is to mandate the state to impose order at any cost involving increasing levels of coercion, reinforced by intrusive surveillance, seeking its own legitimacy by claiming fear-mongering alarmism and through scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, and all outsiders, those ethnically and religiously ‘other.’ A complementary tendency is associated with the demagogic arousal of populist masses that also mandate the state to carry out similar kinds of order-maintaining policies. In effect, the somewhat more cosmopolitan middle is being squeezed between the elites seeking to withstand anti-establishment politics and the aroused masses eager to smash the established order. Both sources of anti-democratic pressure favor closing borders, building walls, and deporting those whose very existence assaults nativist conceptions of the nation.

As previously assessed, procedural democracy is not currently much of an obstacle in the face of various populist embraces of proto-fascist political appeals that is offering aspiring demagogues a field day. The advocacy of extremist, simplistic, and violent solutions to complex problems is on the rise, and yet we should know that the present agenda of concerns cannot be effectively addressed until a structural analysis is acted upon and the neoliberal underpinning of the status quo is significantly adjusted. A correct political diagnosis would emphasize the alienating shortcomings of substantive democracy given the degree to which neoliberal capitalism is seen as responsible for accentuating inequality, corruption, and downward standards of living for the majority leaving many without adequate material security as it relates to employment, shelter, health, and education.

Overall as the world confronts such challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and nuclear weaponry that are cumulatively threatening humanity with catastrophe, this emergent reality of global autocracy may be the worst news of all.