21st century monsters: Trump and the shape of things to come

#USA2016

We must break the shackles of fear that have accompanied globalisation and ensure that the 21st century is a time of humanity

Adlène Meddi's picture
Monday 21 November 2016 12:31 UTC
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“What happened tonight in the United States is not the end of the world, just the end of a world.” That declaration on Wednesday 9 November by Marine Le Pen, the president of France's far-right National Front party, rang out like a grim prophecy.

These monsters spring forth from deep fears and anxieties that societies are experiencing in the face of a globalisation that is overwhelming them

It is a sentence that echoed the words of Antonio Gramsci with chilling sharpness: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born - now is the time of monsters,” wrote the Italian political theorist.

The purpose of this piece is not to give full vent to the demonisation of the 45th president of the United States but rather to reflect upon the upheaval that is marking the early part of the 21st century, of which one of the most striking consequences is the massive resurgence of atavism all over the world.

This atavism takes various forms, from populism and protectionism to racism and religious extremism: these monsters spring forth from the deep fears and anxieties that societies are experiencing in the face of a globalisation that is overwhelming them and reprogramming the software of entire nations.

Warnings have appeared all over the place, notably in Europe, where the uninhibited far-right is riding the wave of popular fear at the disappearance of borders and the “diktats of nasty Brussels bureaucrats”.

From the remotest, economically devastated French rural areas where people curse globalised markets to grey Scandinavian suburbs where people dream of militias to smash immigrants with baseball bats, there is a shared sentiment of being fed up.

A short-term world that is moving too fast

But this sentiment, in fact, stems from one of the biggest and most traumatic of misunderstandings in today's world.

For nearly five decades after the massacres of World War II, cultural and political elites peddled the idea of a definitive world driven by massive consumerism and borders that were imaginary for some but insurmountable for “others“: a world, in other words, in which daddy-states, especially in the West, supposedly looked after the well-being and wealth of the planet with a benevolent shrug of the shoulders and a raised eyebrow, and supermarket stalls would overflow and people could retire to the moon, if necessary.

We had apparently reached “the End of History” - and therein lies the misunderstanding: the hope, foisted by force, of a sanctified "ideal state" in an unalterable, static world.

But republics, kingdoms and conventional economic networks – like mafias or nebulous terrorists - have not been able to hold firm amid the frantic march imposed by stock exchange traders eager to make money rapidly, military leaders who want to conquer quickly (without losing too many soldiers) and politicians who want to convince fast (without being reminded too often of their broken promises).

This world is moving faster. Too fast, in the opinions of the people who voted for Trump and will soon vote for Marine Le Pen, and even in the opinions of activists struggling for a better world.

The world is moving faster than people, faster than their pace of living, working and even thinking, as they are hurried along by the enslaving immediacy of social networks where you have to react quickly and have scarcely any time to reflect. 

Speed and mass extinction

This world moves faster than the gentle music of humanity and pollutes and exterminates animal species on a bigger scale than at any other time in the history of the audacious creatures known as homo sapiens.

A knock-on effect of this speed, augmented by relentless marketing pressure to go faster still, is that the bulk of Western populations, and also those of the so-called emerging nations who have claimed their share of the comfort and "speed" in recent decades, have succumbed to the charms of globalisation and its weapon – communication technology.

The misunderstanding referred to above is encapsulated in the fact that the centre (the economic and political decision-makers) has sold the idea to those on the fringes (the rest of humanity, basically) that the “secure” post-WWII world will become even safer thanks to globalisation and universal acceleration.

The tricky thing is that this approach has genuine merit: the risk of worldwide conflict has declined, and so too has infant mortality; new technologies make it possible to devise new economic models, notably collaborative and ecological ones, and foster stronger inter-cultural connections. 

Science, medicine and organised or spontaneous empathy continually develop all around the world thanks to these global and "subjectivised" means of communication, so much so that we often surpass the most optimistic scenarios described by Alvin Toffler (the American writer and futurist who devised the theory of “development waves”) and get lost amid countless new waves. 

But the fact is that Westphalian nation states, especially in the West, and their "followers" spawned by decolonisation, have been overwhelmed by these accelerations, whether negative or positive, and have frequently reacted in hotchpotch ways (in France, for example, there are calls to tax both the "nastiness" of world finance and Airbnb rentals). They have never elaborated an “idea of state” that fully assumes the good and bad sides of this over-vilified or over-celebrated globalisation.

This abandonment of any effort to educate or inform people – for essentially that is what we are talking about - increases the “popular” sentiment of being fed up, frustrated and hostile to the establishment, the “elite” (whether in Hollywood or Paris, hipster Berlin or the towers of Beijing).

Inverting the power pyramid

The sentiment is amply sustained by the “they are all corrupt” rhetoric beloved by voices at either end of the spectrum in Europe – far-left and far-right – and also of Donald Trump in the United States, just as it was by Muammar Gaddafi. And it is at climatic moments – elections – when the misunderstanding is expressed loudest, violently and without reticence.

Voting has become a way of taking revenge against decision-makers who thought they are still in the Middle Ages signing the Peace of Westphalia in 1648!

Suffrage, direct or not, has often been a concession made by the centre (power in the widest sense of the term) to the periphery (the electorate, the famous “people”) in order to channel mass opinion, to give, very temporarily, power (or the feeling of having it) to the ”mass”.

But today the power pyramid is inverted, or rather flattened: the centre is buffeted by ebbs and flows from a periphery that no longer needs official channels to express itself. Voting has become an act of censure, a way of taking revenge against decision-makers who thought they were still seated at a walnut-wood table in the Middle Ages signing the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Sisi, Trump, ErdoganPutin, soon Le Pen in France, and so on, the advance of fascist parties all over, are demonstrations of dismay that we cannot condemn without thinking deeply. 

It is this dismay that pushes the most extreme and least empathetic people - racists, populists and religious extremists - to prefer policies of the basest instincts to politics itself, since politics has been discredited by the “elites” over more than 60 years of (relative) global peace.

The death of utopias and ideologies that was announced after the fall of the Berlin Wall was not as fast as a summary execution: it has been a slow and painful decline that risks doing down our vision of a world that is possible without these monsters that stalk us from all sides. 

Citizens of the world, we all must break the shackles of fear and make sure that the 21st century is the time of humanity and not atavistic fears. 

- Adlène Meddi is an Algerian journalist and writer. Formerly the editor-in-chief in Algiers of El Watan Week-end, the weekly version of the most influential Algerian French-language newspaper, he also writes for the French magazine Le Point and has authored two political thrillers about Algeria and co-written Jours Tranquilles à Alger (Riveneuve, 2016) with Mélanie Matarese. He is also a specialist in domestic political issues and the Algerian secret services.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Illustration used by David Duke, the founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in a recent tweet praising the future president of the United States, Donald Trump (Twitter/@DrDavidDuke).