With increased intensity and a change in its very nature, violence is proliferating throughout society and is becoming an end in itself.
Violence is the greatest threat to the freedom and dignity of humankind. It is a cancer that spreads throughout the nation and society, destroying everything: economic development, the workings of government, citizenship and trust in democratic institutions.
Contrary to the illusions current after the collapse of the USSR that there would be market-led democracy and perpetual peace, violence is making a big comeback. It has gained in intensity and changed its very nature; it is being radicalized and becoming an end in itself.
On the international front, there has been a return to a war dynamic, accelerated by the disintegration of the 1945 world order, which has come under fire from Donald Trump. We see a trade, monetary and technological war being waged by the USA against China, with collateral damage suffered by Europe, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico – the USA’s closest allies. We see a war between power-based nations with an increased risk of conflict in the China Sea, including the area around Taiwan; with unending carnage in Syria where there is a burgeoning confrontation between Israel and Iran; with pressure from Russia and Turkey on the frontiers of Europe. We see a war of religion with Jihadists pursuing global influence from Nigeria to the Philippines and turning Islamic state into a form of social media operating at the very heart of democratic societies. We see civil wars turning into genocide, as in the case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
But violence is also proliferating within our democracies. Jihadist strategy is built on the salafization of Moslem communities; by attacking them, the aim is to tame them and trigger a train of thought leading to civil war. Anti-Semitism is raising its sinister head once more – a meeting point between Islamism and the illiberal democracies of Eastern Europe. Public opinion is becoming polarized and radicalized, carried along by the awakening of strong feelings about national, social and religious identity. Young people are leaning toward the far right and the far left. Deeper trenches are being dug between social classes, communities, generations and regions.
The rise of violence has its roots in the wayward behavior of democracies after the fall of Sovietism – they have indulged themselves in the dizzy heights of bubble economies and in excess. The middle classes, destabilized by globalization and the digital revolution, have been ravaged by the 2008 crash. The crisis and increased inequality have had an atomizing effect on individuals, delivering them into the hands of collective emotions stirred up by populists. The fallback on identity issues, exacerbated by social media, is fostering hate: individuals and communities are each finding specific human elements that legitimize the exclusion – even the purge – of outsiders. The relativism of values, contempt for the law and discredit of the common good all give legitimacy to violence – the only factor that can managing to bring individuals together in a wide assortment of causes to be fought for. Public debate is crumbling under the impact of fake news, which is exacerbating the polarization of public opinion, sapping representative democracy and giving rise to instinctual democracy where might is right. Violence is even more radical being nihilistic – it continues to cultivate the revolutionary myth but is disconnected from any credible plan to build a better world.
Democracies have no choice but to stop being in denial and combat violence, not only by containing its effects but also by annihilating its causes. The means must not be confused with the end, i.e. freedom must not be sacrificed. The “strong man solution”, which consists in using force to respond to violence, is purely illusory. Unlimited power and repression in no way guarantee people’s security; they inevitably result in poverty, anomie, oppression and despair.
However, within the framework of the rule of law, it is high time that our democracies prioritized their main raison d’être, i.e. security and public order, without which society returns to the law of the jungle. In order to combat violence, democracies have no other choice than to make a new citizenship pact. They must rearm – not only militarily, but politically, intellectually and morally. This is the job of their leaders but, above all, the duty of their citizens. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said something about totalitarianism that is still valid today: “The man who is not inwardly prepared for violence is always weaker than the one who does violence to him.”
(Column published in Le Figaro, 7th May 2018)