Throughout history, the pendulum of political conflict has been swinging between two points: we either fight about society, or we fight within society. When empires advance, or when civilisations clash, the fighting is about what model of the world should dominate. Once the dust settles, the battle moves to what version of the winning model should prevail. That’s where we have been in Europe since the end of WWII.
People living within a stable period tend to find it difficult, if not impossible, to question the foundations of their world. It usually takes a shock - the encounter with a barbarian civilisation, a new religion, an unexpected visitor from across the sea - to throw us off balance. Lately, technology has often played this role.
In her Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, Carlota Perez dedicates one of the closing chapters - the one most people seem to skip - to the political context accompanying each new technology wave. As she points out, the installation of a new paradigm breaks apart pre-existing political and ideological groupings. Within each group, “a new line is drawn between those who look back with nostalgia, trying to hold on to past practices and those who embrace the new paradigm and propose new institutions to fit the new conditions”. Understanding, and adapting, to the new political geography is key if we want - as she writes citing Hobsbawm - “prepare for the next war, not for the last”.
From Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.
We are now in one of such periods. Whatever political confrontation we have experienced in the last 70 years, it was primarily - with the inevitable local differences - a clash within a system. What we have in front of us, is a confrontation about which system we will establish next. This observation has profound implications for our willingness to participate and put something at stake in the realm of politics.
A good way to look at this is through the categories of ‘voice’ and ‘exit’. When times are (relatively) calm, the cost of exit - understood here as temporary distancing oneself from the political arena - is low, and the payout possibly high. These are times when the majority of the population can safely dedicate itself to the pursue of financial and other private objectives. But when the stakes are high, when the ‘prize’ is the shape of the world for the years to come, the balance tips. The cost of silence is too high; the risk is too large. It is time to drop the comfort of isolation.
The movie Darkest Hour - the account of Churchill’s early days as prime minister in the midst of Nazi Germany’s seemingly unstoppable advance across Western Europe - masterfully depicts the importance of understanding the nature of a conflict. Members of the British cabinet who advocate a negotiated peace with Germany make the mistake of confusing WWII with WWI. WWI was a conflict within a system, each camp’s objectives ‘limited’ to territorial gains and marginal adjustments to the balance of power: the wartime equivalent of a heated election or a clash about a significant political or social reform. WWII, instead, is about the system. Paradoxically, the trauma of a war that should not have been fought almost leads to retreating from the one that must be won.
Today, we can be grateful that England and the United States, two countries who would typically be content with minding their own business, managed to convince themselves that staying on the sidelines was not an option.