The Long Read: The seismic events of 2016 have disclosed a world in chaos and one that old the notions of liberal rationalism can no longer explain
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the biggest political earthquake of our times, and its reverberations are inescapably global. It are completely revealed an enormous pent-up fury which had first become visible in the mass acclaim in Russia and Turkey for pitiless tyrants and the electoral triumph of bloody strongmen in India and the Philippines.
The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of province: wars in Ukraine and the Countries of the middle east, rebellions from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts , not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with disgust and maliceare ubiquitous on old and new media alike.
There is much dispute about the causes of this global disorder. Many observers have characterised it as a backlash against an out-of-touch establishment, explaining Trumps victory in the words of Thomas Piketty as primarily due to the explosion in economic and geographic inequality in the United States. Liberals tend to blame the racial bitterness of poor white Americans, which were apparently aggravated during Barack Obamas tenure. But many rich men and women and even a small number of African-Americans and Latinos also voted for a compulsive groper and white supremacist.
The Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted on the night of Trumps victory that people like me and probably like most readers of the New York Times truly didnt understand the country “were living in”. Since the twin shocks of Brexit and the US election, we have argued ineffectually about their causes, while watching aghast as the new representatives of the downtrodden and the left-behind Trump and Nigel Farage, posing in a gold-plated lift strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.
But we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual notions and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces.
In the hopeful years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the universal victory of liberal capitalism and democracy seemed assured; free markets and human rights would spread around the world and lift billions from poverty and oppression. In many styles, this dream has come true: we live in a vast, homogenous global market, which is more literate, interconnected and prosperous than at any other time in history.
And yet we find ourselves in an age of indignation, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities. What used to be called Muslim rage, and identified with rabble of brown-skinned men with bushy beards, is abruptly manifest globally, among saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar, as well as blond white patriots in Germany. Violent hate crimes have blighted even the oldest of parliamentary republics, with the murder of the MP Jo Cox by a British neo-Nazi during the venomous campaign for Brexit. Suddenly, as the liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff lately wrote: Enlightenment humanism and rationalism can no longer adequately explain the world were living in.
The largely Anglo-American intellectual hypothesis forged by the cold war and its jubilant aftermath are an unreliable guidebook to todays chaos and so we must turn to the ideas of an earlier epoch of volatility. It is a moment for intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, who cautioned in 1915 that the primitive, savage and evil impulses of humankind have not faded in any individual, but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again. Surely, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment a whole tremulous realm of subterranean retaliation, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.
By contrast, the fundamental premise of our existing intellectual frameworks is the assumption that humans are basically rational and motivated by the pursuit of their own interests; that they principally act to maximise personal happiness, rather than on the basis of fear, jealousy or resentment.
The bestseller Freakonomics is a perfect text of our time in its notion that incentives are the cornerstone of modern life, and the key to solving just about any riddle. From this view, the current crisis is an irruption of the irrational and disarray and bewilderment are widespread among political, business and media upper-class. The commonly stolid Economist has lately careened from dubious indignation over post-Truth politics to the Rip Van Winkle-ish declaration of The New Nationalism. Many other mainstream periodicals now read like charades of New Left Review, as they attend belatedly to the failings of global capitalism most egregiously, its failure to fulfil its own promise of general prosperity.
We can now see, all too clearly, a widening abyss of race, class and education in Britain and the US. But as explains proliferate, how it might be bridged is more unclear than ever. Well-worn pairs of rhetorical opposites, often corresponding to the bitter divisions in our societies, was again been put to work: progressive v reactionary, open v shut, liberalism v fascism, rational v irrational. But as a polarised intellectual industry plays catch-up with fast-moving events that it entirely failed to anticipate, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that our search for rational political the purpose of explaining the current disorder is doomed. All of the opponents of the new irrationalism whether left, centre, or right are unified by the presumption that individuals are rational performers, motivated by material self-interest, enraged when their desires are thwarted, and, hence, likely to be appeased by their fulfilment.
This notion of human motivating deepened during the Enlightenment, whose resulting thinkers, hating tradition and religion, sought to replace them with the human capability to rationally identify individual and collective interests. The dream of the late 18 th century, to rebuild the world along secular and rational lines, was further elaborated in the 19 th century by the utilitarian theoreticians of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and this notion of progress was embraced by socialists and capitalists alike.
After the collapse of the socialist alternative in 1989, this utopian vision took the form of a global market economy dedicated to endless growth and consumption to which there would be no alternative. According to this worldview, the dominance of which is now nearly absolute, the human norm is Homo economicus , a estimate subject whose natural desires and instincts are shaped by their ultimate motivating: to seek happiness and avoid pain.
This simple view always neglected many factors ever-present in human lives: the anxiety, for example, of losing honour, dignity and status, the distrust of change, the appeal of stability and familiarity. There was no place in it for more complex drives: vanity, fear of seeming vulnerable, the need to save face. Obsessed with material progression, the hyperrationalists ignored the entice of bitternes for the left-behind, and the tenacious pleasures of victimhood.
And yet modern history provides enormous proof for the persistent power of unreason. It was not so long ago in the early 19 th century that French pretensions to a rational, universal, and cosmopolitan civilisation first provoked resentful Germans into the militant expres of what we now call cultural nationalism: the assertion of authentic culture rooted in national or regional character and history.
One revolution after another since then has demonstrated that impressions and moods change the world by turning into potent political forces. Anxiety, anxiety and a sense of shame were the principal motive of Germanys expansionist policy in the early 20 th century and it is impossible to understand the present upsurge of anti-western sentiment in China, Russia and India without acknowledging the role played by humiliation.
Yet a mechanistic and materialist route of conceiving human actions has become entrenched, in part because economics has become the predominant means of understanding the world. A view that took shape in the 19 th century that there is no other nexus between man and human than naked self-interest has become orthodoxy is again in an intellectual climate that views the market as the ideal sort of human interaction and venerates technological progress and the growth of GDP. All of this is part of the rigid contemporary notion that what counts is only what can be counted and that what cannot be counted subjective feelings hence does not.