2019 – The Crisis of Western Democracies and Our Autodestruct Mechanisms: How Can We Turn Things Around?

Picture: Ship of Fools (painted c. 1490–1500) by Hieronymus Bosch.

When I left Germany for Asia in the 80s, our nation was still composed as a fairly orderly and clearly defined world. We had a total of three public TV-channels, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (CDU and SPD, analogous to Democrats and Republicans in the US) fought things out as major political rivals, enjoying a wide following within the population, while the EU-Integration was still in its infant stages and limited to few key players. Politicians were abiding, at least to some predictable degree, by honour codes. Regardless if one was progressive or conservative, everyone clearly knew his or her position within the political landscape. Newspapers, public TV-channels and face-to-face activism served as the central means 1.of social and political discourse and protest. Life was neither better nor worse, but it was notably simpler.

Today, this orderly world has gone. The CDU/SPD great coalition government (or ‚GroKo‘) in Germany since 2005 left Germany without a sensible opposition. In the following years, both parties became, in the perception of many of their voters, indistinguishable. Mrs Merkel opened Germany during the refugee crisis in 2005 (instead of closing borders such as many conservatives demanded), led Germany’s exit from nuclear energy after Fukushima and introduced homosexual marriage, despite her disagreement on a personal level. Her political moves alienated traditional conservatives.

Mrs Merkels biggest weakness was the lack of concept, starting from the Greek financial crisis (which still remains unsolved, leaving generations of young Greek indebted to the EU for the next 60 years) and the uncontrolled, amateurishly managed influx of refugees. Until recently, there has been no immigration law, no clarifying definition of the conditions and requirements to live, work and stay in Germany. The lack of a legal framework, combined with mismanagement such as housing refugees isolated in rural areas, overwhelming locals, contributed to the rise of right-wing sentiments (‘The government treats refugees better than their own people. They get everything, we get nothing‘). The situation is no different in other EU-countries.

Despite a flourishing economy, the country struggles with an eroding middle class, fueled by a zero interest rate (by now negative interest, this means people paradoxically have to pay for their money) of the European Central Bank, ECB. Mario Draghi keeps on printing cheap money. Bankers may argue that this is good news for those in debt, or ‚negative assets‘ as it might be called in the speak of a post-orderly world. The fact remains that the accumulation of humble wealth for the middle class has stalled. What is there to look forward to once members of the middle-class live from hand to mouth like paupers? The infrastructure and pride of the nation stem from better days. Although many Germans are not poor, as compared to most other EU-countries, they feel belonging to an endangered species. The felt threat, the imagined decline, powers the new German Angst – the anxiety of losing all wealth at the top of success. Once having arrived at the pinnacle the only other path, given environmental anxiety blurring clear thought, appears downwards.

Education, the judiciary, care for the elderly and infrastructure, such as the ailing railway system, lack of school teachers or geriatric nurses, have been notoriously underfunded for the past decades. Still, the government refuses to invest in the future of the country. Germany’s dysfunctional and backward digital infrastructure has become an international laughing stock. 

1. Digitisation has been limited to consumerism. Its emancipatory potential remains greatly unexplored

Digitization has complicated things further. Not only has it led to a growth of unqualified and poorly paid jobs, but also have digital overlords such as Amazon conquered the market, effectively eliminating local and regional competition while expanding into supermarkets, postal services, health insurance and financial transfer portals. Amazon does not dominate the market, it seeks to replace it. Regarding the economic and social effects of digitization, Cathy O’Neil’s ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ is a brilliant reflection on the role of invisible algorithms starting to rule society. Facebook, likewise, has demonstrated a corrosive effect on democracy, not only since Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg appears to have lost control of his creation, similar to Goethe’s ‚The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘ (Der Zauberlehrling) or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein ‚The Modern Prometheus‘: Social groups radicalize in filter bubbles and echo chambers, neighbours turn into Nazi activists, so-called alternative facts replace truth, beliefs replace facts, feelings and attitude count more than integrity and good arguments. Most disturbingly, the broad consensus about a shared common good, collective thinking, ethos and responsibility, have largely vanished as uniting values and have been replaced by digital tribalism. Facts are interpreted in the light of conspiracy theories. Impartial, bipartisan analyses have become the exception of the rule. Welcome to the ship of fools: In the new ‘anti-social media’ of Facebook, previously unsuspecting citizens of Western societies radicalize while genocide on the Rohingya in Myanmar, at the other end of the world, is openly supported by providing platforms for hatred. Needless to say, Google, Amazon and Facebook hardly pay any taxes for consolidating their dominance of the virtual world.

Picture: Pro-EU ‘Remainders’ protests in Britain in 2016. Image by i24TV. One trait of failing democracies is the simple majority rule, driven by group-egoism, not taking into consideration the severe consequences for everybody else.

2. The conservative backlash: Dreaming of regressive simplicity within a challenging, complex world

The consequences of political monoculture, favouring the wealthy and industry, combined with the digitization of society can be observed in public life. The once mighty political parties in Germany have shrunk significantly, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), a small right-wing party associated with numerous Nazi organisations, has entered parliament as the Green party (Die Grünen) are on the road to becoming a new ‚Volkspartei‘, merging conservative goals, such a preserving nature, with more progressive social policies. The diversification of audiences has, quite logically, led to diversified representation which has, in return, fostered the notion of inadequate representation. Democracies appear to fail their voters since no single party has the power any more to turn mandates into clearly visible policies. The temptation is big, to opt for so-called strong leaders instead.

Authoritarian populists and declared enemies of modern democracies, such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Duterte or Putin thrive in an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. Brexit would not have been possible without fear-mongering and social media support either. Many of older ultra-conservative white men (Michael Kimmel’s explicit analysis ‘Angry White Men‘ provides great insights here) have little to offer rather than the hatred of past generations against all others, irrational nationalistic sentimentalities (‘We want our country back‘) and abundance of prejudice. They feel empowered by right-wing movements and feel emboldened to stir up hatred against women, LGBT communities, minorities and foreigners. They dwell in nostalgia and feed on uncertainty. Arguably, young Britons have been the biggest loser in the chaotic turn of events in 2018. The rise of nationalism on a global scale, including Brazil, Eastern European countries as well as China’s recent rise to a superpower, plus throwing a declining planetary eco-system into the mix, leave a younger generation with very few if any hopeful prospects. Unlike the baby boomer generation, who still believed in social progress and advancement, millennials are facing a scenario of global doom and gloom. We are setting fire to the only spaceship we are living on. This is how behavioural- and policy changes pose a central challenge in social change management.

Picture: The drought in Europe in 2018 as seen from the ISS. What should have been green, turned brown. Photograph by Alexander Gerst on Twitter.com (Aug. 6th, 2018)

Again, there are those who rise up to the challenges of the time and those who don’t. Digitization has, at least up to this stage, predominantly represented consumerism. Instant gratification with the touch of a button has become for many the last predictable factor in an otherwise unpredictable world. It has become acceptable to surrender privacy and personal data for being rewarded by the care of digital overlords. Consumerist submission structures itself as a process of voluntary enslavement in the role of a new global precariat. Privacy and freedom in exchange for material care. Marx would have had a field day looking at digital monopolies in a neo-feudal society 4.0.

3. Paths towards solutions: Regulating digital overlords, fostering democratic forces within Europe, moderating religion to endorse multiculturalism, supporting a free press, focussing on international cooperation, investing in education

Is there a way out of this global chaos? From a problem-solving perspective, there certainly is. Like the finance sector, large digital infrastructures require regulation. It might be a long fight, but one worth fighting. Elizabeth Warren’s similar experience with Wall Street, which she reflects in her book ‚A Fighting Chance‘, serves as encouragement.

Secondly, the EU has to sort itself out. The uncontrolled expansion for merely economic gain has led to a decline in quality when it comes to human rights or prospects for the younger generation. Currently, the EU represents primarily economic interests. By comparison, emancipatory values seem of little concern. Countries such as Hungaria or Poland have no argument benefitting from the EU monetarily but cheekily abandon democracy at the same time, replacing it with authoritarian one-party regimes. Italy has embarked on a rather shaky nationalistic path as well. Scandinavian societies, in stark contrast, enjoy the largest degree of individual freedom under the absence of religiousness, according to German political scientist Christian Welzel at Lüneburg University.

Thirdly, immigrants, like anybody else, are neither better nor worse human beings. In the end, all depends on the individual and us offering those, who make a sincere effort to integrate to society, a fair chance and lending a helping hand. Living in multicultural societies, so my experience after three decades living in Asia, can be a rewarding and very beautiful experience. The ethnic diversification of globalized societies is a fact, inclusion is our choice. In this context, the ‘Inclusion Imperative’ formulated by Stephen Frost provides an exemplary framework. There is also no room for religious extremism and exclusivism in this picture. Asian belief-systems are not based on monotheism and fare far better in terms of tolerating others as e.g. compared to Islam. A weird sense of political correctness does not permit a sensible critique of religion in Germany. However, preachers that promote hatred in German mosques, funded by money from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are a sad fact, and so is the denunciation of moderate, modern Muslims by fundamentalists and the Turkish secret service. In this light, we expect from our Muslim friends to draw a clear line. There is no place for religion in politics in free, secular, pluralistic societies. Christianity has not been innocent either. Neverending scandals in 2018 about paedophile priests in the Catholic Church worldwide have questioned its integrity and contradict the claim to a morally enlightened view on life. To the very contrary, religions of all faiths have established parallel societies that circumvent the rule of law, escape criminal persecution and deny their followers basic human and civil rights such as, e.g. women to become priests, Pope or share prayers in a mosque with men. Honour killings as a response to apostasy or marriage to non-believers are still tolerated. A concluding hypothesis states that in order for open multicultural societies to work, monotheist religions cannot stay rigid and need to become more permeable.

Picture: The Panama Papers. There are strict laws for ordinary citizens and tolerated lawlessness for the top 1%. Illustration by Süddeutsche Zeitung. The revelations were just a tip of the iceberg.

Next, we can support our free press. We still have great newspapers and courageous investigative journalists (a good example in 2018 were the Panama Papers) who put their lives on the line. Dictators and authoritarian leaders will always target the free press first to suppress inconvenient news. They will vigorously seek to replace it with state-sponsored propaganda. Rather than talking about the free press, we should become a part of it. Contributing, supporting, valuing sincerity, professionalism, truthfulness, multiple perspective-taking, good argumentation and independent fact-checking. Without a sound and reliable coverage of events by a free press, rational public discourse comes to a standstill as the door to ideologies opens wide.

Lastly, even as global warming causes extrapolating social hardship (2018 presented a sneak preview of things to come), we do have a better chance returning the planet to a sustainable level within the next hundred or two hundred years by rational decision-making and cooperation, rather than ignoring science. The latter would have truly horrific consequences. It is not the problems that pose the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge seems deeply buried in human nature. To this extent, investing in education yields the biggest long-term benefits.

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