Many people today believe that democracy is at risk. Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the UK “Brexit” vote (and its aftermath), the shadow of Marine Le Pen in France and the general rise of populist movements across Europe, are taken as signs that support for traditional liberal democratic values is declining. Other data points seem to suggest a similar trend.
An ultimate fight seems ready to be staged between so-called “New nationalists” and liberal “internationalist” elites:
“Let’s call it the New Nationalism: a bitter populist rejection of the status quo that global elites have imposed on the international system since the Cold War ended, and which lower-income voters have decided — understandably — is unfair.” Politico
I share these fears, but there is another scenario that receives much less attention and which is equally disturbing. What if the biggest threat for democracy didn’t come from the populists and nationalists but from the opposite side?
Last weak I wrote a short story to show how that might happen. It was a deliberate exercise in fiction, very aware that anything of that kind is highly improbable.
Improbable, not impossible.
The threatened minority
My short foray into fiction shows how the global minority of internationalists could tip over to the temptation of using its power (economic and technological) to stop the rise of nationalists and their policies.
Dystopian fiction consists in taking certain visible signs of the present to their extreme consequences. Like solving a labyrinth backwards, it shows the path to a specific end. Except that here we are not trying to get there.
Polarisation and weakening of national ties
We have rarely been so politically polarised. When this happened in the past, it didn’t turn out well. Polarised societies can stick together when a strong underlying sense of unity survives. That sense of “oneness” is weakening today under the impact of technology and international mobility which makes the internationalist class less attached to national values than in the past. People in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Copenhagen feel closer to each other than to their fellow countrymen in the periphery.
The more we look at the political debates, and at the discussions on social media, the more the opposite poles seem far apart. We might still speak the same language and cheer for the same team when national football is on TV, but we understand each other less and less and we show worrying signs of contempt toward each others.
Within the context of a polarised nation state, internationalist are almost everywhere a minority. They feel now hostage of an angry mob that can use its electoral weigh to push reactionary policies. Manifestations in London after Brexit and in NY after Trump could just be the beginning.
Two more factors add to the feeling of impotence. Many internationalists are not citizens of the countries where they live and work, and therefore don’t enjoy any political representation (the real disenfranchised). In addition, there is a widespread feeling that facts and objectivity have lost importance. The vaccination debate is emblematic in this sense, socialmedia-reinforced beliefs are so strong that even the most obvious facts seem impossible to push through. Civilised argumentation feels increasingly futile.
Watch this clip below for a similar example.
While in the national political arena internationalists are increasingly marginalised and xfrustrated, their economic dominance has never been greater.
Nationalists have always found an easy target for their propaganda in the “global financial class”. In the past, however, this group had relatively little influence in the economy. Fascism in particular was able to gather the bulk of the economic forces behind its banner, with the promise of industry-friendly protectionism and anti-union policies.
Today, national economies are much more dependent on global trade and finance. Cities, and the internationalists that inhabit them, have a disproportionate economic power, despite their political status of minority.
Even more important is the role played by technology, and technologists, the vast majority of which are within the internationalist ranks.
This is the defining element of this clash. A potentially marginalised minority (at political level) controls the ultimate levers of our society, across culture, media, retail and even military.
The recent fake news debate and the call on Facebook and Google to impose a sort of censorship on them shows how explosive this situation could become. Only recently people in technology have been waking up to a situation where their job is not only neutral to some of the most problematic developments in society, but it’s likely causing them (or at least accelerating them). We have seen the first defections, on a personal level, and more might happen.
Exit vs voice
A way to look at how the situation might evolve is through the lenses of “Exit” and “Voice”. A few observers, among which Balaji Srinivasan, believe in “exit” as the likely choice for internationalists.
Over the next decade, internationalists will lose control of the state to nationalists. They will then turn to global technology instead.
— Balaji S. Srinivasan (@balajis) June 25, 2016
Strengthening individual freedoms, facilitating international mobility and, in general, allowing people to “vote with their feet” is always a good thing. But the possibility of exit as a realistic scenario is questionable. Physical exit (actually moving) remains a difficult choice for many (assuming there is even a country that wants you). Technology exit (individual freedom through technology) is an interesting idea, but in the present state of affairs a bad government can still ruin your life regardless of the fact that you have the internet. Too much of your life is still offline.
The issue with exit, in addition, is that it often leads to an even worse situation for those that stay behind. It is a legitimate choice, but a selfish one.
The alternative to exit is voice, and with the electoral way potentially barred for a long time (remember, this is a pessimistic scenario) violent voice is not to be excluded a priori. Especially when we consider that only 19 of millennials in the US believe it would be illegitimate for the military to take over if the government is incompetent.
A new Chile?
It is interesting, at this point, to turn briefly to history and compare the present situation with similar ones in the past. Can we find examples of progressive minorities abandoning democracy to protect their status? And if not, why?
The ascent of New nationalism is often compared with the early years of fascism in Italy and nazism in Germany. Also then it all started with an anti-establishment protest, targeting a minority of cosmopolitan and internationalist “elites”. That minority, though, simply didn’t have sufficient economic and cultural leverage. Economic power was firmly connected to the land (and the people) and it didn’t take much to align national interests with business interests.
More recently, and on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, populist movements in Venezuela and, partly, Bolivia have also failed to provoke a violent reaction from the democratic opposition (although a coup was attempted in Venezuela in 2002). While in this case economic power was clearly opposed to the ruling majority, the possibility of “exit “(mostly to the US) provided a real alternative to the use of “voice”.
Digging further, the only case where a democratically elected anti-elite movement was met with a violent un-democratic response is probably Chile in 1973. The difference here is that Allende never had the support of the majority of the population. On the other side, it is also difficult to argue that the social base behind Pinochet was democratic in the first place.
This entire post (and the short story that inspired it) has been a rather theoretical exercise, exploring the possibility of a violent, undemocratic, reaction from the internationalist elite to the growing populist wave.
It is obvious that such a scenario is unlikely, as we have not even reached the point where a New nationalist victory can be ascertained. Even in its remote likelihood, it provides another good reason why we should do all we can to prevent slipping further down the black hole of a complete nationalist take over.
I’d like to conclude listing just a few tweets that kickstarted my fantasy and brought me to think of this. Nothing to worry about, it’s just a few isolated anecdotes…