Worlds apart - RSA Comment - RSA

Worlds apart


  • Democracy and governance

Professor Frank Gaffikin examines the ‘human paradox’ that sees an increasing need for global collaborative responses just at a time of fragmentation through growing authoritarian populism.

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We are currently faced with key controversies in politics and economics, including resurgent nationalism, populism, culture wars, identity politics, immigration, ‘wokeism’ and an economy dominated by high finance, great inequality and alienation of those left behind. 

Within this tumult, the concept of ‘cancel’ refers not only to arguments about ‘cancel culture’, but also: wider issues of identity politics and populism; the way communities are ‘cancelled’ from society by being left behind in terms of inequality and exclusion; the risk of cancelling ourselves as a species in terms of losing sense of our evolutionary human nature or moving to self-extinction; and, finally, the prospect of ‘cancelling’ our humanity with artificial intelligence (AI), and the worst de-humanising features of social media and online abuse.

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Unfortunately, instead of fostering human solidarity, culture wars, deploying militarist idioms of ‘treachery’, ‘coup’ and ‘surrender’, embolden adherents of nativism and nationalism to erect borders and boundaries against their perceived threat from a more globalised world. The traditional contest between left and right has been intersected with other binaries about identity and nationality, thereby splintering political allegiance into a more complex composite that can be internally contradictory. 

Autocratic impulses

Within this pattern, the influence of ‘angry white guys’ on the rise of the populist right, while over-simplified, has some purchase in explaining a global pattern. This is reflected partly in the macho-politics of people like Vladimir Putin. His assault on liberalism chimes with autocratic impulses far and wide. These are incarnated in domineering male figures, but not exclusively so. Sarah Palin, Kari Lake and Marjorie Taylor-Greene in the US; Marine Le Pen in France; Giorgia Meloni in Italy; and Alice Weidel in Germany all show that far-right politics is not restricted to a patriarchal chauvinist ideology.

A key paradox underpinning this rancorous politics is that people’s economic impulse to shelter inside a big trading bloc in a pitiless world economy is offset by their political impulse to recapture self-determination from distant ‘bureaucrats’ in those very same blocs. 

In an age where politics seems more devoted to addressing competing identities based on nationality, gender, race and sexuality, the issues of growing wealth inequality, inequities around gender and race, and between global north and south, are being neglected. In turn, these disparities are linked to the prevailing model of world economy. Have culture wars about diversity displaced class wars about inequality?

The traditional contest between left and right has been intersected with other binaries about identity and nationality.

Emeritus Professor, Queen's University Belfast Frank Gaffikin

High-tech harvesting

New technological drivers of this inequality abound. Across the world stage, titan monopolies like Google, Meta and Amazon generate enormous profits that escape proportionate taxation, and ‘big brother’ surveillance capitalism has transformed the very nature of production, whereby consumers of many high-tech services essentially produce privacy data that is harvested by these companies to make their money.

Amid this churn, democratic discourse has been compromised, leading some to fear a 'backsliding' even in long-standing democracies. Within this concern, questions can be raised about the extent to which free speech can be 'cancelled' by political correctness, or to what extent is use of the term ‘political correctness’ a deliberate ploy to imply illiberal tendencies on the part of those advocating rights and protections? 

Also important here is the way attention-grabbing in the busy age of the 24-hour news cycle can reduce complex issues to simplistic appeal, particularly through exploitation of the provocative and controversial, not to say sheer disinformation. This creates echo chambers of counterfeit exchange that seek affirmation rather than examination.

Loss of trust

Specific shocks such as the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crash, the 2015 refugee crisis and the UK’s EU Referendum can cause dips in democratic legitimacy. But, over the last quarter of a century, there has been a more durable loss of trust in the capacity of democratic institutions to deal with corruption, economic crises and the climate emergency.

There is some sense that democracy isn’t working for many people; that the world of big business, high finance, distant government, ‘spinning’ media, unregulated markets, trimmed social protection, digital divides and greater people migration is one that leaves sizeable populations voiceless on the margins. In turn, this can induce revolt against conventional politics in a surge for a more authentic and representative form. Equally, it can produce disaffection, apathy and fatalism. 

Beyond any such disenchantment, there is a basic dilemma in Western democracy. In many countries, the long-standing choice between social democracy and conservatism has been replaced by either semi-permanent managerialist technocracy, or what some conspiracy theorists see as the enduring ‘shadow government’ run by Goldman Sachs.

More than a decade after the financial crash, those who caused it have seen their wealth and status largely reinstated, while those who bore the cost in terms of austerity have seen their wages largely stagnate, and work conditions deteriorate, as part of a general transfer of wealth and power from labour to capital. Whatever the supposed hegemony of neo-liberalism, there has pertained a prevalent economic model that elevates the market over the state and accepts inequality and uneven development as the price of efficiency and reward for enterprise.

In addressing the confused, chaotic and crisis-ridden state of the world, we have to go back to the basic question; what does it mean to be human? The Ukraine war has reminded us that we are a species of both feuding and fellowship. For millennia, humans attained more understanding and control over natural disasters – such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and various diseases – to, at least, mitigate their worst effects. Now, we’re faced with myriad threats of our own making, such as the climate emergency, nuclear proliferation and food insecurity. 

An uninhabitable Earth

Paradoxically, just at a time when humans have the means to live longer and stronger, does human abuse of the planet show a subconscious death wish?

Do we face an increasingly uninhabitable Earth? The crisis is one of environmental justice, whereby the poorest parts of the world will be most negatively impacted the quickest. Yet, some of these same populations in places like China, India and Africa seek to escape their poverty through rapid industrialisation that strains the planet’s viability.

Alongside this pressing issue, we have the realignment of geopolitics, with persistent ethno-nationalism, growing powers like China seeking to extend their sphere of influence, the resurgence of militarist Russia, and many more countries seeking security shelter in nuclear weapons. Consequent instability, not helped by the apparent erosion of authority in bodies like the United Nations, augurs a different kind of existential threat.

As with climate change, these big risks can only be abated by a new system for international cooperation. In turn, this presupposes a world that sees a common interest and destiny. Yet we have pushback against this mutual perspective, with the rise of identity politics that polarise and balkanise.

While offering to network and connect us as a species, the ‘smart’ age of big data also holds the potential for exploitation in the short term and radical redefinition of what it means to be human in the longer term. In one area, we have seen its role in disseminating disinformation and promoting surveillance, both posing a severe threat to democracy. The very technologies explicitly designed to ‘bring the world together’ have been adapted by populists to advance national, not to say xenophobic, agendas over global connection.

Yet these vexed issues about individual privacy rights prevail in an increasingly surveillance society, facilitated by the internet. Every time we undertake a Google search, Google probes us. Some argue that the net holds a mirror to human nature, and reveals starkly its range from the caring to the cruel. But can it refract rather than reflect human nature? 

We are at the cusp of an historical transformative technology, whereby smart machines may be created to have superior intelligence to humans. In developing a more cultivated understanding of the world, this hyperintelligence may bypass human cognition and, in effect, demote humans. We have no precedent for a species creating a higher form of intelligence to its own.

Just at a time when humans have the means to live longer and stronger, does human abuse of the planet show a subconscious death wish?

Emeritus Professor, Queen's University Belfast Frank Gaffikin

Human paradox

These multiple and linked issues are addressed in my book: The Human Paradox: Worlds Apart in a Connected World, (published by Routledge, June 2023). It tackles key societal challenges in these troubled times, which witness the confluence of growing inequality, identity politics, culture wars, authoritarian populism, climate emergency, nuclear proliferation AI, distorted social media and the domination of high finance. In doing so, it joins the dots among these acutely contested global issues, examining what it means to be human and whether we can escape the delusional appeal of human centrality in the natural world.

Its core argument is that we are at an inflection point as a species. The core ‘human paradox’ is that just when we need global collaborative responses to the compound impact of these common concerns, much of the world is fragmenting into forms of tribalism, accentuated by authoritarian populism. A series of other ‘paradoxes’ attend contemporary discourse. For example, just when we need clarity and focus to address the urgency of the moment, we are caught in the confusion, uncertainty and indecision that come with today’s social complexity. 

Just when we supposedly live in the Anthropocene (the Human Age), when humans are thought to be in greater control over the planet than at any time in history, many social events seem to be beyond human control.

Frank Gaffikin is Emeritus Professor in the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast. This article was first published on Circle, the RSA’s community platform.

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