When the longer term turns into unpopular

Issues crumble; the centre can not maintain;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

W.B. Yeats

In 2016, the Wall Road Journal reported that W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ had been quoted extra typically within the first seven months of that 12 months than in every other 12 months for the reason that Eighties. It started trending on Twitter after the Brexit referendum, however went off the charts when the US elected a ‘tough beast’ as president.

Political apocalypticism has lengthy been the area of reactionaries. However abruptly, it appeared as if the temper expressed in notions of Eurabia, the Nice Alternative, nationwide suicide and cultural decay was spreading. Even progressives had been speaking in regards to the loss of life of democracy, the tip of the liberal order, the return of fascism and post-truth. Doomsayers thrive at explicit historic moments, as Europeans found in 1918. When crises are piling up, when one shock is adopted by one other, some embrace the tip moderately than attempt to climate the storm. Tapping into the aftershock of the Nice Warfare, Yeats’s 1919 poem describes this fatalism.

Isn’t the ‘disaster of democracy’ outdated information? Completely. It’s as historical as democracy itself. Nonetheless, current circumstances increase the query as as to if we are able to stay up for a time after the disaster. What does it imply to be ‘forward-looking’ in instances like ours? The concern that drives a lot of up to date political tradition is brought on by the disruptions that world complexity and a destabilised planet introduce into what was as soon as known as the physique politic. Trying right into a horizon of approaching world collapse, we’re obliged to have interaction with eventualities for which we lack the mental sources to grasp. Confronted with a cognitive monstrosity, our political system lapses into its personal ‘postfactual’ regime, as politicians and companies proceed to vow progress, progress, and enterprise as ordinary.

San Francisco, September 2020. Creator: Christopher Michel; supply: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s assume that the present crises and common revolts – all of the anti-establishment protests of varied color – are certainly ushering in a brand new period. Perhaps that is the second when it dawns on us what the twenty-first century goes to be about. Among the many plethora of actions that assault the system, probably the most profitable have supplanted visions of utopia with what Zygmunt Bauman known as retrotopia. As the longer term looms ever darker, we search refuge in bygone days. Nostalgia turns into an alternative choice to hope. If what lies forward is large-scale collapse, why not retreat to a golden previous, the place notions of sovereignty, management and id are irrefutably embodied in an ethnically homogenous nation state?

Such reactions are makes an attempt to evade the complexity and inherent contradictions of our time, and they are often very harmful if transformed into politics. Monetary disaster, refugee disaster, pandemic – that is just the start. We will patrol our borders and construct increased partitions, however there isn’t a escape. Even contained in the sturdiest fortification, we are going to really feel the results of world heating, marine air pollution, useful resource depletion and mass extinction. We are going to really feel the bottom we name house inevitably disappearing below our ft. It might very effectively be that the longer term as such will grow to be more and more unpopular.

Progressives can be suggested to start out recognising the ‘nostalgists’ as real opponents – as a political motion that’s not merely going to fade, however prone to foster novel and complicated constellations throughout the acquainted left-right divide. Progressives have habitually brushed apart something that appears ‘reactionary’, assured that historical past is on the facet of progress. As if the course of historical past had been inevitable, they’ve casually dismissed the ideological relics that the left-behinds couldn’t assist clinging to. However one query will impose itself with rising urgency: what does it imply to take a progressive strategy to mounting challenges with no obvious options?

This touches upon the time period ‘progressive’ itself. To be progressive implies that historical past is shifting in the direction of a greater state of affairs – that we have now the company to repeatedly enhance society. Forms of this religion crop up throughout the entire spectrum of progressive concepts, be it in revolution, humanism, enlightenment, free commerce or expertise. In the end, it’s religion in secular redemption, typically envisaged as a state of affairs through which shortage has been outmoded.

One problem the progressive ethos faces is the best way to retain a dedication to universalism, equality and the politics of redistribution and recognition in a world the place shortage is rising. Progressives should put together for his or her most detested concepts – together with eugenics and social Darwinism – to filter again into the mainstream. What’s now thought-about right-wing radicalism can, in a flash, achieve a foothold amongst ‘respectable’ politicians. If this kind of politics continues to win common assist, it’s not as a result of the individuals are incurably racist. It’s as a result of the worldwide village is beginning to undergo from incurable shortage. Many will discover the battle to protect their sources extra empowering than the battle to outlive with much less.

Politics with out alternate options

Over the previous 4 or 5 a long time, the rich a part of the world has been formed by the dual processes that within the Nineties social scientists dubbed individualization and globalization. These have superior private autonomy and enabled escape from the shackles of conventional authority. However amongst massive majorities, they’ve additionally contributed to a sense of powerlessness, exacerbated by the palpable results of systemic hyper-complexity and a collapsing biosphere. Now that limitless progress and prosperity for all is shedding credibility, we encounter the flipside of those processes.

What emerges is the perverse side-effect of what was as soon as celebrated as ‘deregulation’: immense and rising inequalities coincide with unprecedented freedom for the rich few to sequester from the various. Neoliberal globalization could have began to disclose its true face within the development amongst post-national oligarchs to bunker up in luxurious, at a secure distance from the drowning and combating plenty.

An enormous problem for future democracy can be to mix the fragile steadiness between liberty and equality with the sweeping renunciation of privileges essential to avert catastrophes. The gilets jaunes motion, which fashioned in response in opposition to gas tax, was a hanging portent. Pundits couldn’t agree on whether or not the yellow vests must be considered progressive or regressive, revolutionary or reactionary. As a result of privileges are so unequally distributed, the various who obtained the uncooked finish will expertise any ‘common’ cutback as a direct affront.

It doesn’t assist that environmentalism has grow to be twisted up in client alternative, id and life-style. The gratification offered by ecological consciousness can hardly be distinguished from the sensation of superiority over each the poor and the wealthy. Any forward-looking environmental democracy will run up in opposition to ferocious resistance, even when it had been capable of win all of the scientists and consultants over to its facet. This isn’t as a result of the plenty are silly, or as a result of they’ve been fooled by evil manipulators. Slightly, the sensation of being affronted provokes a heretic urge to contest official truths. By no means earlier than has this urge had such ample alternative to gas collective defiance as within the age of digital and social media.

An inherent contradiction of the neoliberal period is {that a} robust emphasis on particular person freedom has been accompanied by an equally robust emphasis on a scarcity of political alternate options. ‘Modernization’, that magic components, signified a technocratic mode of governance that aimed to adapt complete populations to the requirements ostensibly engendered by intensified globalization. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous phrase ‘there isn’t a various’ referred to measures that economists claimed to have deduced from market legal guidelines.

Thatcherism might be debunked as pure ideology, however maybe the approaching democracy shouldn’t shy from comparable rhetoric. Sooner or later, the bravest politicians could also be those that dare inform voters that there isn’t a various, however with out promising extra particular person freedom in return.

The collective mission forward

The coronavirus could possibly be considered an agent of what the outdated left used to name ‘critique of the system’. Abruptly, all the things that neoliberalism had been telling us about what was obligatory turned out to be invalid, in gentle of extra dire requirements. The solutions to pressing questions of collective survival can’t be structural adjustment applications and austerity measures. When the physique politic suffers an exogenous shock, immense inequalities and low belief within the institution will fan the embers that may flare up into civil conflict and state brutality.

Within the collective mission forward, democracy’s survival will rely upon its capability to placate these harmful tensions. Rising planetary challenges will feed the forces threatening democracy from inside, inciting concern and paranoia. The fragmentation of the general public sphere enhances the potential for mobilized paranoia, as conspiracy theories go viral and achieve immunity from logic. Planetary disruption (consider all of the land that’s changing into uninhabitable; all of the dormant coronaviruses that may unfold as habitats are destroyed) will pave the way in which for a specific type of indignant politician. With loyal conviction, this type of politician will have the ability to translate complexity right into a dichotomy between buddy and foe.

Politicians, networks and actions backed by capital pursuits will for the foreseeable future pose the loudest resistance to calls for that we abandon privileges for the sake of the planet. But the most important impediment is probably not the deniers, however the moderates who preserve that every one might be salvaged with out sacrifice. The political triumphs of an environmental democracy will come within the type of renunciations that get hold of common legitimacy by aligning with notions of honest distribution.

The query of honest distribution will get extra difficult when thought-about on a worldwide scale. A world through which shortage is on the rise will hardly facilitate the worldwide cooperation that necessity calls for. Rising shortage is prone to supply rising political resonance for misanthropy, anti-egalitarianism, tribalism and – finally – warmongering.

Some could dismiss such speak as reactionary. However it’s moderately an try to determine the best way to react to reactionaries. In spite of everything, there’s something to study from them: their capability to ‘fan the sparks of hope up to now’, as Walter Benjamin put it. Perhaps reactionaries are proper in believing that the previous might be restored within the current.

If that’s true, it could be excellent news for everybody who appears to be like again on the hard-won victories of the social and environmental politics of the 20th century. We have to work out what it means to be progressive in a world that gives no redemption. How can we stay trendy amidst rising shortage? That is the problem going through the democrats of the twenty-first century.


This essay is an abridged translation of the epilogue from Eirik Høyer Leivestad’s guide Frykt og avsky i demokratiet (‘Worry and loathing in democracy’), Vagant 2020, out now in Norwegian.

Leave a Reply

Back to top button