Giovanni Stanga | What is going on the world? Why is all of this happening right now? What’s next? These are undoubtedly the most recurring questions echoing in my mind, and in that of many others I suppose, in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and inexplicable current global events and their tremendous impact on the society. The ‘democratic’ Western world seems to be powerless and short of antidotes against the recent wave of populism, which led to events such as Brexit and Trump’s election. From the 1990s onwards, the world witnessed the imposition by the Western politico-economic elites of the universal economic model based on international trade and the creation of the global market: an overarching entity for which politics, social relations and culture are to be subdued to the economy and its hyperrational thinking.
The shortcomings of Western rationalism
In the 19th century, a long-bearded guy from Germany named Karl Marx believed that the economic system represents the key through which one can understand the mechanisms of the world: the political, social and cultural structures. Through his critique of the rising economic model, which was widening the social disparities in the industrialized countries, he displayed the inner contradictions of the Western world. He was not alone. Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, who together with Marx had been called by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur ‘masters suspicion’, also criticized the ‘false myths’ of the Western civilization. While the latter, through his psychoanalytic method, emphasized the irrational needs of our mind, the former claimed that human morality should be distinguished in that of the powerful, who dominates the weak, and that of the loser, who in turn develops resentment, envy, anger against their oppressors.
As everything seems to (unfortunately) depend upon economics, one is capable of interpreting the world’s most controversial socio-economic and political phenomena through these lenses. Populism and nationalism, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, colonization and immigration all constitute unpredicted social backlashes against economic globalization and West’s perennial strive to establish its uncontested dominion over the rest of the world. According to the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam), the 1% of the richest world’s population is as wealthy as the remaining 99%. The people’s hopes of ameliorating their conditions have been frustrated, and the widening of the world’s markets have only benefited the multinational enterprises and the corporations’ interests.
As a result of this harsh reality which we seemingly live in, social discontent, resentment and anger have ceased to be latent among the masses, which progressively lost faith in the democratic institutions and their ability to equally distribute wealth. These irrational feelings, which did not (apparently) represent a driving force in people’s political decisions, gave way to the rise of populist political movements that gained political ground all around the Western world by attacking the politico-economic elites, targeting minorities and advocating the defence of nations’ ‘true’ cultural identity. This has caused a social earthquake that has radically changed the current political scenarios. The worldwide rise of populist parties, especially in countries such as France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands, have radically shaken the current political spectrum. Not only have these political formations merged the left-wing with the right-wing, they have done so by subtly exploiting people’s most hidden and instinctive emotions.
From the 18th century onwards, the Enlightenment and its core values, centred on human rationality and eternal progress, have become predominant in the Western industrialized civilization, particularly in Europe, fuelling the idea of a rational and calculating human, who pursues his economic self-interests and contributes to the good of the whole society by doing so. However, the Western conceptualization of man uniquely as a rational animal seems to be contradicted worldwide by the explosive volcano of social dissatisfaction, discontent and exclusion, coming to threaten the very existence of the (seemingly) immovable pillar of Western civilization: democracy.
The 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economic science, Daniel Kahnemann, has conducted a study which scientifically proved the double functioning of the human-decision making process. Within this decision-making system, Kahnemann and his colleague Tversky demonstrated that people under certain conditions do not behave in the way that economic models have traditionally assumed. This study additionally distinguished the human thinking into “slow” and “fast” thinking, respectively represented by system 1 and system 2. Whereas system 1 is impulsive, quick, associative, automatic and unconscious, system 1 is reflective, conscious, deliberative, educated and educable. These systems are not physically present in our cerebral cortex, but are a representative model which helps to better understand our cognitive process. Theoretically, every system could operate according to its own sphere of influence, but it’s not always like that. The interaction and non-interaction of the two systems can cause wrong decisions. Nonetheless, the majority of our mistakes consist of intuitive interpretations of system 1 which are not filtered by system 2: products of smuggling. If system 2 remains passive, one tends to believe in false first impressions which subsequently play an important role in our everyday life’s decisions, as a result of the pivotal role played by system 1. This behavioural model profoundly counters the traditional capitalist economic model, for which the socio-economic actors are rational and omniscient agents.
As rationality displays structural limits, seductive demagogues are capable, with their leadership, of successfully exploiting the people’s lack of consciousness and understanding with respect to the globalized world and the place occupied by them in it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the consequent dominance of the capitalistic system, based on a global market devoted to an endless progress and economic growth, has been fiercely resisted. The comparison between the present day and the period after WWI, when dictatorships and authoritarian regimes took over almost all Europe, is striking. Like one hundred years ago, a time of deep social and economic uncertainty, in the current course of events strong authoritarian leaders have been to (re)establish a closer link with the masses. Indeed, they started to promise the ‘losers’ and those discontented of globalization (back then the War) economic and social protection from enemies both outside and inside the nation like immigrants and potential terrorists (back then the Jews and Communists), as they have been both depicted as a social threat in the popular imaginary. Additionally, just like the present day, a harsh critique was addressed to the liberal-democratic institutions, incapable of effectively dealing with issues such as unemployment, social unrest, rising inflation and the distribution of income among the population.
Populism, religious terrorism and the immigration crisis are threatening democracy, the most ambitious and far-reaching political project of the Western civilization. The bottom line is: to which extent should politics and economy be entangled to each other? The chief miscalculation of the Western world was to let pure capitalism, in the form of economic liberalization and deregulation, prevail. The Western world is highly responsible for the global (dis)order we are witnessing nowadays, and it has to answer for the consequences of its economic and geopolitical decisions in the past.