Pankaj Mishra writes: … as a polarised intellectual industry plays catch-up with fast-moving events that it completely failed to anticipate, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that our search for rational political explanations for the current disorder is doomed. All of the opponents of the new “irrationalism” – whether left, centre, or right – are united by the presumption that individuals are rational actors, motivated by material self-interest, enraged when their desires are thwarted, and, therefore, likely to be appeased by their fulfilment.
This notion of human motivation deepened during the Enlightenment, whose leading thinkers, despising tradition and religion, sought to replace them with the human capacity to rationally identify individual and collective interests. The dream of the late 18th century, to rebuild the world along secular and rational lines, was further elaborated in the 19th century by the utilitarian theorists of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – and this notion of progress was embraced by socialists and capitalists alike.
After the collapse of the socialist alternative in 1989, this utopian vision took the form of a global market economy dedicated to endless growth and consumption – to which there would be no alternative. According to this worldview, the dominance of which is now nearly absolute, the human norm is Homo economicus, a calculating subject whose natural desires and instincts are shaped by their ultimate motivation: to pursue happiness and avoid pain.
This simple view always neglected many factors ever-present in human lives: the fear, for instance, of losing honour, dignity and status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives: vanity, fear of appearing vulnerable, the need to save face. Obsessed with material progress, the hyperrationalists ignored the lure of resentment for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood. [Continue reading…]
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Roger Cohen writes: The long wave unfurled at last. Perhaps it is no surprise that the two societies that felt its furious force — the United States and Britain — are also the open societies at the hub of globalized turbo-capitalism and finance. For at least a decade, accelerating since the crash of 2008, fears and resentments had been building over the impunity of elites, the dizzying disruption of technology, the influx of migrants and the precariousness of modern existence.
In Western societies, for too long, there had been no victories, no glory and diminishing certainties. Wars were waged; nobody knew how they could be won. Their wounds festered. The distance between metropolis and periphery grew into a cultural chasm. Many things became unsayable; even gender became debatable. Truth blurred, then was sidelined, in an online tribal cacophony.
Jobs went. Inequality thrust itself in your face. What the powerful said and the lives people lived were so unrelated that politics looked increasingly like a big heist. Debacle followed debacle — the euro, the Iraq War, the Great Recession — and their architects never paid. Syria encapsulated the West’s newfound impotence, a kind of seeping amorality; and, in its bloody dismemberment, Syria sent into Europe a human tide that rabble-rousers seized upon.
And so the British voted to quit the European Union, symbol of a continent’s triumph over fascism and destructive nationalism. Americans voted on Nov. 8 for Donald J. Trump, who used much of the xenophobic, fear-mongering language of 1930s Europe to assemble an angry mob large enough that he triumphed over a compromised Hillary Clinton. Neither victory was large, but democracies can usher in radical change by the narrowest of margins. To give the Republican president-elect his due, he intuited an immense disquiet and spoke to it in unambiguous language.
A quarter-century after the post-Cold War zenith of liberal democracies and neoliberal economics, illiberalism and authoritarianism are on the march. It’s open season for anyone’s inner bigot. Violence is in the air, awaiting a spark. The winning political card today, as Mr. Trump has shown and Marine Le Pen may demonstrate in the French presidential election next year, is to lead “the people” against a “rigged system,” Muslim migration and the tyrannical consensus of overpaid experts. The postwar order — its military alliances, trade pacts, political integration and legal framework — feels flimsy, and the nature of the American power undergirding it all is suddenly unclear. Nobody excites Mr. Trump as much as Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin, who is to democracy what a sledgehammer is to a Ming vase. Strongmen and autocrats everywhere — not least in Egypt and the Gulf states — are exulting at Mr. Trump’s victory. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: When Julia Jones arrived at her office in Santa Monica at 8 a.m. — by Hollywood screenwriter standards, the crack of dawn — she found Stephen K. Bannon already at his desk, which was cluttered with takeout coffees. They were co-writers on a Ronald Reagan documentary, but Mr. Bannon had pretty much taken it over. He had been at work for hours, he told her, writing feverishly about his political hero.
Today, with Donald J. Trump, whose election Mr. Bannon helped engineer, on the threshold of power, the 2004 film “In the Face of Evil” has a prophetic ring. Its trailer has an over-the-top, apocalyptic feel: lurid footage of bombs dropping on cities alternating with grainy clips of Reagan speeches, as a choir provides a soaring soundtrack. The message: Only one man was up to the challenge posed by looming domestic and global threats.
“A man with a vision,” the trailer says. “An outsider, a radical with extreme views.”
The Reagan presidency has been a recurring touchstone for Mr. Bannon since 1980, when as a 26-year-old Navy officer he talked his way into Mr. Reagan’s election night celebration. It was at an early screening of “In the Face of Evil” that he met fellow Reagan admirer Andrew Breitbart, the budding conservative media provocateur.
Breitbart.com’s scorn for Muslims, immigrants and black activists drew a fervent following on the alt-right, an extremist fringe of message boards and online magazines popular with white supremacists, and after Mr. Bannon took control of the website in 2012, he built a raucous coalition of the discontented.
More quietly, Mr. Bannon systematically courted a series of politicians, especially those who share his dark, populist worldview: at home, a corrupt ruling class preying on working Americans; globally, “the Judeo-Christian West” in a “war against Islamic fascism.” They were views that placed him closer to the European right than to the Republican mainstream. [Continue reading…]
Nick Cohen writes: You may not like conservatives. But you know where you are with them. Or, rather, you knew. Now, Trump, Brexit and the global rise of populism have created a crisis in conservatism across the west. You can tell a crisis is real when the men and women caught up in it duck hard questions. Today’s conservatives don’t want to say who they are and what they mean. They have become shifty operators who hate being pinned down. As Boris Johnson admitted, in one of his occasional moments of honesty, modern conservatives want to have their cake and eat it, too.
When it suits them they remain pragmatists, but that pose does not last for long. Everywhere you look you see conservatives sniffing the air and catching the scent of the radical right. It tempts them with the most seductive perfume in politics: the whiff of power. In Hungary, Poland, Turkey, South America and now, with Trump’s victory, North America, populists, who despise the checks and balances of liberal democracies, are taking control and giving every indication of holding on to it.
Conservatives have learned from Trump that they can break the old taboos. They can abuse women, damn whole races and religions, assault the constitutional order and repeat lie after lie without barely a pause for breath. Far from punishing them, the electorate will reward them. Trump’s victory is a dark liberation. Their suppressed thoughts, their guilty private conversations, now look like election winners. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Back in May, when Donald’s Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election seemed the remotest of possibilities, a senior European official took to Twitter before a G7 summit in Tokyo to warn of a “horror scenario”.
Imagine, mused the official, if instead of Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, David Cameron and Matteo Renzi, next year’s meeting of the club of rich nations included Trump, Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson and Beppe Grillo.
A month after Martin Selmayr, the head of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s cabinet made the comment, Britain shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union. Cameron stepped down as prime minister and Johnson – the former London mayor who helped swing Britons behind Brexit – became foreign minister.
Now, with Trump’s triumph over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, the populist tsunami that seemed outlandish a few months ago is becoming reality, and the consequences for Europe’s own political landscape are potentially huge.
In 2017, voters in the Netherlands, France and Germany – and possibly in Italy and Britain too – will vote in elections that could be coloured by the triumphs of Trump and Brexit, and the toxic politics that drove those campaigns. [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: Look at photographs of Geert Wilders in the Dutch parliament, and the camera often shows a figure seated behind him: Martin Bosma, the polemicist of the Freedom Party (PVV).
A former journalist, whose side-swept brown hair keeps him a youthful 52, Bosma is often described in Dutch media as the PVV’s ideologist. “He’s the brain. He invented the PVV,” said Geert Tomlow, a former parliamentary elections candidate from the party.
Bosma’s ideas are bearing fruit at just the right time, with the PVV leading in the polls five months from a general election that could see the party double in size in the parliament. He and Wilders have helped push the center-ground of Dutch politics to the Right and mainstreamed positions once confined to the fringe.
Since entering parliament a decade ago, Bosma has published two books, each released to a flurry of television interviews and controversy.
The autobiographical “The Fake Elite of the Counterfeiters” takes aim at a left-wing clique he accuses of taking over cultural institutions and allowing immigration in an underhand coup to achieve radical aims by stealth.
“Minority in One’s Own Land” turns to South African history. Bosma argues that the predominantly Dutch-descended settlers, the Afrikaners, became outnumbered by black South Africans and subjected to “cultural genocide” and “Apartheid 2.0” in events he warns could foreshadow the fate of the Netherlands. [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: Almost half of the adults in 12 European countries now hold anti-immigrant, nationalist views, according to major new research that reveals the spread of fringe political views into the mainstream.
BuzzFeed News has been given exclusive access to new data from YouGov, which polled more than 12,000 people across the continent to measure the extent of what it termed “authoritarian populist” opinions – a combination of anti-immigration sentiments, strong foreign policy views, and opposition to human rights laws, EU institutions, and European integration policies.
The YouGov findings are the first to capture the political attitudes that are both fuelling, and being fuelled by, upheaval across Europe and beyond – from the continent’s refugee crisis and the Brexit vote in Britain, to the burkini ban in France, to the rise of Donald Trump and the radical “alternative right” in the US.
In Britain, the poll found authoritarian populist attitudes were shared by 48% of adults, despite less than 20% of the population identifying itself as right-wing. Three months on from the EU referendum, prime minister Theresa May has responded this week by appealing directly to disaffected working-class voters with a promise to crackdown on immigration and reassert British sovereignty. [Continue reading…]
Thomas Meaney writes: For decades, the German far right has been a limited force, with easily recognizable supporters—nicotine-stained ex-Nazis in the sixties and seventies, leather-clad skinheads in the eighties and nineties. [Alternative für Deutschland leader, Frauke] Petry is something different, a disarmingly wholesome figure — a former businesswoman with a Ph.D. in chemistry and four children from her marriage to a Lutheran pastor. During a month I spent with her this summer as she drove around Germany giving speeches, she drew connections between politics and laboratory science, sprinkled her speech with Latin phrases, and steered discussions about German culture toward the cantatas of Bach.
Petry is not a gifted orator. Her speeches tend to be dull, with ornate sentences and technocratic talking points, and she is more comfortable citing economic studies than discussing the lives of ordinary people. Her manner belies the extremism of the AfD’s views. At the start of this year, Petry said that, in the face of the recent influx of refugees (many of them fleeing the war in Syria), the police might have to shoot people crossing the border illegally. In April, the Party said that head scarves should be banned in schools and universities, and minarets prohibited. Party members called for a referendum on whether to leave the euro; for the expulsion of Allied troops, who have been stationed in Germany since 1945; and for school curriculums that focus more on “positive, identity-uplifting” episodes in German history and less on Nazi crimes. Most contentious of all was the declaration “Islam does not belong in Germany.”
By American standards, especially in the age of Donald Trump, contemporary German politics is decorous and understated. But although Petry’s crisp style is in many ways the opposite of Trump’s, her rise has similarities to his. She, too, has come late to politics and relishes her outsider status. Like him, she often works by insinuation, fanning right-wing conspiracy theories not merely to stir up grievances but to bind members together with a sense of shared beliefs. Like him, she has been accused of financial improprieties. Like him, she castigates the media for liberal bias but also thrives on media attention. Petry and her colleagues have mastered the art of dominating the news cycle, to the point where a visitor to Germany listening to the radio or reading the newspapers could be forgiven for thinking that the AfD is the party in power. [Continue reading…]
Angela Merkel’s CDU is having a tough time of late. The latest blow came via the Berlin state parliament election, where the party managed to cling on to second place but was dumped out of the city’s government.
This was the CDU’s worst ever performance in an election in the German capital. It took a meagre 18% of the vote (down from 23.3% in 2011).
The Social Democrats (SPD) also lost votes (down from 28.3% to around 22%), as did the Greens (from just over 17% to around 15.5%). The one consolation for the SPD and Greens is that they are likely to be key players in the next Berlin government – even if as part of a rather broad and unwieldy left-wing coalition alongside the Left Party.
The main winners, as had been widely predicted, were the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD was nowhere in sight in 2011, but took around 13% of the vote this time round. A heavily anti-immigration (and particularly anti-refugee) rhetoric has chimed with parts of the electorate beyond Berlin, and the party now sits in 10 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments. It is almost certain to add Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, Northrhine-Westphalia and the federal parliament to this list in 2017.
Natalie Nougayrède writes: Two very different women hold Europe’s future in their hands – and neither of them is Theresa May. The battle for Europe’s soul is being waged between Angela Merkel and Marine Le Pen. This is a clash of personalities and visions: Germany’s chancellor v the leader of France’s Front National, the largest far-right party in Europe. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, the Franco-German dimension of the continent’s destiny has arguably never been so important since the end of the cold war. What is at stake is momentous: whether Europe can survive as a project, and whether fundamental principles such as the rule of law, democracy and tolerance can be salvaged. The battle will play out nationally in 2017, in key elections in France and Germany, but it concerns all Europeans.
It may seem strange to reduce Europe’s existential crises to just one personal confrontation. Merkel has been in power since 2005 and is trying to remain there, while Le Pen may dream of being in office but has never approached it (last year her party failed to take control of a single French region in local elections). Some may ask: why would a French opposition figure count more than the man currently sitting in the Elysée Palace? But François Hollande has become so weak – even more so with this week’s resignation of his economics minister, Emmanuel Macron – and terrorism has transformed French politics to such a degree that Le Pen’s prospects now stand out as a key defining factor of where France, and Europe for that matter, may be heading.
It is only partly reassuring to say that Le Pen has little chance of becoming president next year (the French electoral system makes that difficult). The trouble is, in recent months, her brand of anti-Muslim, xenophobic and nationalistic politics has spread across the French mainstream right like wildfire. Le Pen is fast capitalising on this summer’s burkini episode and on the national trauma left by jihadi terrorism. It’s hard to see which French politician or movement can find the authority and strength to push back against her ideas, or counter their appeal among the French suburban middle classes as well as in rural areas. Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to win primaries in November, but his whole strategy hinges on imitating rather than disputing Le Pen’s line of thinking. [Continue reading…]
As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, “Demons,” written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages – largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos – resonate in our present political climate.
To show his readers just how bad things could get if they didn’t pay attention, Dostoevsky linked his political nightmare to unhinged impulses and the breakdown of civility.
A passion for destruction
Dostoevsky was as addicted to newspapers as some of us are to social media, and he often plucked crises and violence right from the headlines, refashioning them for his fiction.
Russia during the 1860s and 1870s – the heyday of the author’s career – was experiencing massive socioeconomic instability. Tsar Alexander II’s Emancipation of the Serfs freed Russian peasants from a form of class bondage, while the subsequent Great Reforms aimed to restructure the executive and judidical branches, as well as the military, tax code and education system. The reforms were supposed to modernize the country by dragging it out of the caste-like system of estates and legal privilege. But it didn’t do much to improve the economic lot of the peasant.
It was a reversal of America’s present political landscape. While today there’s simmering discontent from the right, in 19th-century Russia it was leftists who were enraged. They were angered by the reforms for not going far enough and had lost hope in the government’s ability to produce meaningful change.