When the long run turns into unpopular

Issues disintegrate; the centre can’t maintain;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

W.B. Yeats

In 2016, the Wall Avenue Journal reported that W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ had been quoted extra typically within the first seven months of that yr than in another yr 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 impulsively, it appeared as if the temper expressed in notions of Eurabia, the Nice Substitute, nationwide suicide and cultural decay was spreading. Even progressives had been speaking concerning the dying 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 reasonably 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’ previous information? Completely. It’s as historic as democracy itself. Nonetheless, current circumstances elevate the query as as to whether we will sit up for a time after the disaster. What does it imply to be ‘forward-looking’ in occasions like ours? The worry that drives a lot of up to date political tradition is brought on by the disruptions that international complexity and a destabilised planet introduce into what was as soon as known as the physique politic. Wanting right into a horizon of approaching international collapse, we’re obliged to have interaction with situations for which we lack the mental assets to understand. Confronted with a cognitive monstrosity, our political system lapses into its personal ‘postfactual’ regime, as politicians and companies proceed to vow development, progress, and enterprise as typical.

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

Let’s assume that the present crises and fashionable revolts – all of the anti-establishment protests of assorted 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 long run 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 identification 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 only the start. We will patrol our borders and construct larger partitions, however there isn’t any escape. Even contained in the sturdiest fortification, we’ll really feel the consequences of world heating, marine air pollution, useful resource depletion and mass extinction. We’ll really feel the bottom we name house inevitably disappearing underneath our ft. It could very nicely be that the long run as such will turn out to be more and more unpopular.

Progressives can be suggested to begin recognising the ‘nostalgists’ as real opponents – as a political motion that isn’t merely going to fade, however more likely 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 transferring in direction of a greater state of affairs – that we now have the company to repeatedly enhance society. Kinds of this religion crop up throughout the entire spectrum of progressive concepts, be it in revolution, humanism, enlightenment, free commerce or know-how. Finally, it’s religion in secular redemption, typically envisaged as a scenario during which shortage has been outdated.

One problem the progressive ethos faces is learn how 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 form of politics continues to win fashionable 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 assets extra empowering than the battle to outlive with much less.

Politics with out options

Over the previous 4 or 5 many years, the rich a part of the world has been formed by the dual processes that within the Nineteen 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 development and prosperity for all is dropping 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 might have began to disclose its true face within the development amongst post-national oligarchs to bunker up in luxurious, at a protected distance from the drowning and combating lots.

An enormous problem for future democracy will likely be to mix the fragile stability 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 gasoline tax, was a placing portent. Pundits couldn’t agree on whether or not the yellow vests must be thought to be progressive or regressive, revolutionary or reactionary. As a result of privileges are so unequally distributed, the various who bought the uncooked finish will expertise any ‘common’ cutback as a direct affront.

It doesn’t assist that environmentalism has turn out to be twisted up in client alternative, identification and way of life. The gratification supplied 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 in a position to win all of the scientists and consultants over to its facet. This isn’t as a result of the lots are silly, or as a result of they’ve been fooled by evil manipulators. Somewhat, 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 gasoline 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 options. ‘Modernization’, that magic formulation, 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 any different’ 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 mustn’t shy from related rhetoric. Sooner or later, the bravest politicians could also be those that dare inform voters that there isn’t any different, however with out promising extra particular person freedom in return.

The collective mission forward

The coronavirus might be thought to be an agent of what the previous left used to name ‘critique of the system’. Unexpectedly, every little thing that neoliberalism had been telling us about what was crucial 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 depend upon its skill to placate these harmful tensions. Rising planetary challenges will feed the forces threatening democracy from inside, inciting worry 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 best way for a selected sort of indignant politician. With dependable conviction, this type of politician will be capable of translate complexity right into a dichotomy between pal 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 largest 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 acquire fashionable legitimacy by aligning with notions of honest distribution.

The query of honest distribution will get extra sophisticated when thought-about on a world scale. A world during which shortage is on the rise will hardly facilitate the worldwide cooperation that necessity calls for. Growing shortage is more likely to provide rising political resonance for misanthropy, anti-egalitarianism, tribalism and – in the end – warmongering.

Some might dismiss such discuss as reactionary. However it’s reasonably an try to determine learn how to react to reactionaries. In spite of everything, there’s something to study from them: their skill to ‘fan the sparks of hope previously’, 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 will be excellent news for everybody who appears to be like again on the hard-won victories of the social and environmental politics of the 20 th century. We have to work out what it means to be progressive in a world that provides no redemption. How will we stay trendy amidst rising shortage? That is the problem dealing with the democrats of the twenty-first century.


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

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