The “strong man” cult, control of the economy, surveillance of private individuals… The State is back in force, hence the urgent need to re-invent democracy.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that history was a succession of knots. There was one in 1914 with the Great War, which laid down the blueprint for the 20th century; another in 1917 when the Bolshevik Revolution give birth to totalitarianism; another in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash that initiated the Great Depression; another in 1979 when the mullahs seized power in Iran and triggered the rebirth of political Isam and theocracy; and another in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the end of sovietism.
The end of the 2010 decade is without any doubt another of these knots. The 21st century started out under the banner of globalization, but the integrating forces of capitalism and information technology that had dominated since the 1980s were blown away in 2008 by the brutal return of nationalist and religious fervor. We are now in an era of divergence, polarization, and confrontation between different economic models, societies, powers and values.
Global instability can be explained by the fact that four historical cycles came to an end at the same time: the monopoly of the West over the course of history since 1492; the leadership of the USA, which began in 1917 and ended in 2016; the world order set up in 1945; and liberal globalization, which took shape in 1979 and imploded in 2008. The disintegration of the world order has left a vacuum behind it and has engendered fears that violence feeds on. History has begun again, with all its crises, wars and revolutions. Any illusions we may have had about the coming of an international civil society inspired by John Locke, or perpetual peace as envisioned by Immanuel Kant, are fast disappearing. World history is now more to do with Hobbes’ Leviathan, Marx’s class wars, Nietzsche’s heroes’ desire for power and Max Weber’s inexpiable war of the Gods.
The State is back in force, and this includes its freedom-killing aspect, with the cult of “strong men“, control of the economy and investment flow, and the surveillance of private individuals – as in the case of the program set up in China for electronic surveillance of the population. It is an era of a forced march toward the re-nationalization of regulations, finance and strategic assets.
2019 will be a decisive year in terms of whether or not we get the risks under control. The slowdown in global activity is unavoidable because of the trade war that puts commercial exchanges into major regional blocs. This could result in another crisis if the Chinese recovery plan were to fail or, even worse, if the increasing instability of financial markets, under the effects of a return to rising interest rates, were to lead to another crash. Such a shock to the system would be especially difficult to contain since 250,000 billion dollars of public and private debt have been accumulated, all room for maneuver in budgetary or monetary policy has been exhausted, and any joint strategy now seems out of the question. Above all, democracies are in crisis and American strategy seems to have lost its sense of direction – at the mercy of Donald Trump’s varying moods. All this could encourage the démocratures [a démocrature being a combination of democracy and dictatorship] to speed up their expansion: China in the China Sea; Russia in Ukraine and the Sea of Azov; and Turkey in the Middle East – a possibility strengthened by Saudi Arabia’s ostracization.
Europe is entering this critical period from a particularly vulnerable position. On the one hand, it is going to have to face the challenges brought about by Brexit, the European elections in May (which threaten to result in a plebiscite for populism), the succession of Mario Draghi to the presidency of the ECB, and the trade war between the USA and China in which Europe has become the adjustment variable. On the other hand, the European Union is paralyzed by domestic crises within its principal member countries: in Germany, there is the rise of the AfD and the question of who will succeed Angela Merkel; in the UK, there is the chaos caused by Brexit; Italy is hostage to an anti-system coalition that is about to send it into recession; France is living under Emmanuel Macron’s stillborn five-year term of office and is seeing the “Yellow Vests” bury any hope of modernizing the country and reforming the European Union.
The central issue of the 21st century is political freedom yet again. A speed race is going on: the renewal of our democracies is being pitted against their deconstruction by populism and the rise of the démocratures. It is vital for the democracies to pull themselves together, by learning from the lessons of their failures in the 1930s and their successes during the Cold War. Let us hope that 2019 marks the beginning of their renewal with the blueprint of a new economic and social pact, the revitalization of public life, and the reassertion by free nations of a common destiny and common values. As in the case of all knots throughout history, it is the people who will decide.
(Column published in Le Point, 20th December 2018)