Table of Contents
What US election 2016 was about
Darwin was right
Liberalism at peril?
Democracy and the market: a flawed relationship
From Emmanuelle to Fifty Shades of Grey
Conclusion: centrist consensus
As a professionally trained historian I am inclined to permit some time to pass before writing about contemporary events. A historian is better able to analyze what has actually happened and in what direction the world is moving with a more reasoned perspective than that available immediately following an event.
In 2016, the election of Donald Trump as the US president generated a plethora of analytical articles explaining the outcome. The overwhelming majority of mainstream media was not only surprised by his unexpected victory in the presidential campaign, but was equally appalled that populist rhetoric pregnant with ethnic and religious bias, accompanied with bald sexist comments, found such support in a country which for the last hundred years purported to lead the democratic world and exhibit exceptional moral superiority.
Though my initial reaction was also one of shock, once I considered this outcome in relation to other global trends, my surprise became muted. In fact, what I am going to argue is that the forces which led to this outcome in the 2016 US elections, to radical Islamist groups in Middle East and to ultranationalist forces in Europe, has common ground and is caused by similar human characteristics, the deconstruction of which might be explained by natural and social evolution: a synthesis “mash-up” of precepts from Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell and Michael Foucault.
As my fellow colleague historian, and archeologist, Tobias Stone argued, that we should zoom out to understand one particular event, I want to stress that a deeper analysis of human behavior requires a multidisciplinary approach – biology, psychology, social anthropology, international relations and several others.
I should also declare that I am a centrist, and as such my analysis is not directed against either a left or a right cause. Rather, as a historian, I try to put the issues into larger historical context. I believe that liberal democratic ideals remain valid, though they should be buttressed with healthy portions of conservative traditionalism and fiscal discipline. Yet, masquerading under the mantle of liberalism, lately we have witnesses the promotion of the interests of lobby groups, developments that have caused massive discontent and, consequently, the rise of populism.
What US election 2016 was about
The underpinning issue of the past two-three elections in the US was a desire for change – not just a change of the administration but for a radical shift of policy and direction. Some of the same people who voted for Obama in 2008 favoured Trump in 2016, in both instances their votes a protest against the established agenda of the elite, government, and big corporations, rejecting the “hypernormalization” – a term coined by BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis - of societal dysfunction, an artificial world created by technocrats, bureaucrats, financiers and other professionals which is run by tycoons and kept stable by politicians, more and more ordinary citizens are rebelling. However, the desired outcome for change varies according to the different segments of the population. Many whites want their power back, while blacks and other minorities hope for better protection and equality. Throughout its history, American society has been dominated by whites, and they greatly benefited from the cheap (and even free labour) of blacks, Chinese, Hispanics. As overall social conditions improved, those marginalized groups obtained access to healthcare and welfare benefits. Whites felt the increased competition, and in a quite populist sense have come to believe that those previously marginalized groups are abusing privileges and become “parasites”. Whites also feel angry about the loss of jobs to Mexicans, even though statistics shows that only 15 percent of lost jobs have been due to the cheap labour in Mexico or China; the other 85 percent was taken by mechanization using robots.
The masses rarely listen to experts. Instead, they trust easily available judgments: on the street they see more Hispanics, and on the shelves they find more and more products manufactured in China, India and Mexico. The fundamental problem with the “White Christian Rural America” is precisely described in “An Insider's View: The Dark Rigidity of Fundamentalist Rural America”. This sizable segment of the American population remains deeply religious, racist and ignorant. They live in a bubble of misperceptions and as such are susceptible to the propaganda of conservative groups and evangelical ministers. The same is true in other societies, mostly traditional rural ones across the planet: France, Poland, Egypt, Bolivia, etc. Islamic or Christian fundamentalists, they all believe in a very closed and limited set of dogmatic ideas which deny any sort of open-minded discussion. Hillary Clinton once called this type of American people “deplorable” (pejoratively termed ‘red-neck’ by popular media), but later apologized. She was actually right, it is a deplorable group and such stratum can be found almost in any society; they vote for populist demagogues who promise to return to a traditional romanticised version of a glorified past that never existed. In Great Britain these people, voting for Brexit, were nostalgic for a pure Imperial White England.
To be fair, the American people had legitimate doubts about Hillary Clinton as a “true liberal.” She has never been one. In the 2016 election, the Democrats shifted toward corporate rich America, while the Republicans embraced even further a deeply religious evangelical fundamentalism. People both on the right and the left felt deprived by the current wave of globalization. Certainly, global trade privileges countries that manufacture consumer goods the cheapest; it is a law of economics which results in the loss of jobs in nations such as the US.
Darwin was right
For the last 50-60 years, North America and Europe have enjoyed peace and prosperity. Although this is very short period of time in the history of the humankind, these three generations of prosperity have fostered a false assumption about the progressive and improving nature of human animals. We need to recall human’s fundamental instincts – and perhaps at this point I can be termed a Social Darwinist. As with other species, human animals compete for food. This is the inherent nature of all living organisms. While plants can produce the energy required for living through photosynthesis, animals must consume other living creatures. Humans have throughout history fought for food, mates and dominance; as resources grow scarce, this fight can become severe.
In 1971, Stanford University conducted a prison simulating experience, which was designed to study the behaviour of one group of people (guards) assigned to control another group (prisoners). Originally planned for two weeks, the experiment was cancelled on its sixth day due to the degrading actions on the part of “guards” towards “prisoners”. While scholars expected to study the influence of institutionalized confinement on people’s psychology, this experiment instead demonstrated how good people can be turned to evil once they acquired power and dominance. Quite recently this study was cited in connection with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American militaries committed numerous acts of humiliation and torture of prisoners. As Lord Acton famously pronounced: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Whether society is democratic or authoritarian, individuals possess inherently aggressive characteristics. The 1971 Stanford experiment conducted in the United States proved this. Democratic societies tend to limit abuses of power, but they cannot fully eliminate the primordial characteristics of individual humans. When society experiences distress due to economic hardship and stronger competition, for example, from inflow of migrants, some people begin to encourage violent actions to preserve their dominance and share of resources.
I happened to observe a relatively minor example of this in the perfectly peaceful environment of Canada. In most circumstances, Canadian drivers are perhaps the most well-mannered in the world. But during the Christmas shopping season drivers, losing all good manners and restraint, rushed to take scarce parking spots and fiercely argued with each other over incidents that normally they would otherwise overlook.
Some scholars argue the contrary, that human genes do evolve and change the instinctive behavior of homo sapiens. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, maintains that people’s conduct has improved. Modern states maintain the rule of law, which makes people act lawfully, and that over several generations their aggressive and delinquent features diminish and even disappear. At the same time, characteristics such as our intellectual IQ as well as some physical characteristics like height have increased and enlarged. Whether this will entail further improvement of human civilization on our planet remains at question in light of the increased nationalism in recent years.
I still believe that many primordial instincts continue to prevail over recent more altruistic ones. Tobias Stone argues that humans from time to time enter a circle of destruction, a self-inflicted “stupid season”. Perhaps we might be entering such a period after the relative triumph of the “end of history” following the Cold War.
For many experts, current developments are troubling. The West wasted good “capital” when America enjoyed the “unipolar moment”. By showing off its muscles and disregarding international law, the U.S. made many leaders outside of the West firmly believe that offsetting military power remains the best response to American domination. The U.S. failed in Afghanistan, Iraq and generally throughout the Middle East. Their policy of toppling inconvenient regimes left a vacuum in those areas gleefully filled by Islamic extremists.
Liberal values were expected to spread worldwide. Yet, despite the fact that liberal countries tend to perform best in terms of economic and social development, other models, such as the Chinese, attract many people in Third World countries.
Stephen Walt questions – then answers: Would the United States and the world be better off today if the last three presidents had followed the dictates of realism, instead of letting liberals and neocons run the show? The answer is yes.
Realism in international relations is about the proper assessment of military might measured against policy wishes. This school argues that military power is essential to ensure both domestic and international security. Realism acknowledges the enduring nature of nationalism and religious identity; therefore, a realist approach would question – and likely dismiss - the idea of remaking the world into a one-size-fits-all model.
Liberalism at peril?
Despite the growing number of voices highlighting concern over the fate of liberal world, people have the firmer belief in the Western type of liberalism as compared to other forms of political-economic models. Firstly, Western democracies (here I include not so geographically ‘western’ Australia and New Zealand but politically so) have better life expectancy, medium incomes, social welfare and all other data which unequivocally confirms that they are much superior than other ‘alternative’ paths. Secondly, entrepreneurs are much more confident to invest in the Unites States or UK, or any other Western European countries, than to Russia, Asia or the Middle East. Thirdly, people from other countries still prefer to migrate to liberal democracies rather than to controlled societies. Even the children of non-Western leaders and high officials opt for life in New York or the Netherlands rather than in places where their parents have power. Powerful Middle Eastern or Asian stars remains inward looking with many rich investors preferring Canada and Australia as a safe place for their children to study and to deposit their earnings.
The system of check and balances imbedded in most democracies can limit sharp fluctuations in domestic and foreign policy, which means more stability and predictability of state and societal development. Despite many campaign promises made by Donald Trump with regard to NATO, trade wars, travel bans and healthcare, they have not implemented to full extent. However, some of issues raised by Donald Trump such as the safety of borders with Mexico, unfair trade and the protection of intellectual property in China are legitimate concerns raised by his predecessors who were not attacked by liberal media.
In the meantime, as most historians point out, democracies possess potential destructive forces which can be unleashed by populism and nationalism. The most often evoked example is Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Perhaps, populism merged with nationalism remains the lurking threat in most countries, including in the West.
Another kind of danger comes from ochlocracy, or simply ‘mob rule’. Described as early as in Ancient Greece by Polybius, ochlocracy is considered as bad as tyranny. When white supremacists vote for a populist, they want the return to the glory of slavery, the savage rule of brute power over morality and human decency.
That opens up an intricate question over how much we should trust the conventional western system of democracy. Perhaps we should impose some restriction in terms of protecting basic freedoms against the tyranny of ignorant people. Brexit might serve as one example of ochlocracy. Speaking about Britain, I cannot help but recall an episode in the movie The Remains of the Day about the life of butler James Stevens. Mr. Spencer, British aristocrat and a friend the butler’s master, Lord Darlington, asks the butler about a few foreign policy issues which the butler fails to answer due to his unawareness about domestic and foreign policy. Afterwards, Mr. Spencer makes a strong point that ordinary people could not decide the fate of the country through elections. The only problem with this using this episode as a salutary example is that Lord Darlington, a fine snobby British aristocrat, is a Nazi sympathizer and moves within a similar circle of like-minded friends.
More directly tuned to current developments in some western democracies is the movie Idiocracy, depicting a dystopian future of a Western world negatively influenced by commercialism and anti-intellectual development which has resulted in dysgenic human beings. As a result, people are unable to perform even slightly sophisticated duties. For example, in the movie we see a receptionist at a hospital trying to locate a button next to a picture which corresponds to a patient’s problem. This movie raised so many uncomfortable questions that the producer, 20th Century Fox, opted out of its theatrical release.
We should remember that democracy is a relatively new system of governance, barely one hundred years old. Philip Coggan in The Last Vote warns that complacency, voting apathy, and the internet - which was perceived as a promoter of free speech but seems to be also a platform for false news and extremism - endanger democracy. In the hands of uneducated and ignorant masses, extremist and populist ideas might easily result in mass violence.
Between elite aristocratic rule, represented historically by kings or autocrats, and the tyrannical power of masses, for example, the Bolshevik one, both representing un-democratic systems, fragile democracy exists on certain incomplete and, I would argue, unfair principles.
Democracy and the market: a flawed relationship
Democracy, at risk from the threat of populism, is equally fragile against the forces of the market. First, we should acknowledge that the market economy has proven to be a much better economic system than either socialism or communism. The examples of the Soviet experiment and the fate of the two Koreas – one authoritarianism while the other a superbly innovative economic power - speaks for itself. Recent attempts in Latin America, such as Venezuela, which always had a number of politicians sympathetic to a socialist model, manifest another example of the failure of alternative models to the market economy. However, we should keep in mind few factors behind the development of the market economy along with democracy. First, democracy as a political concept was developed in Ancient Greece. While the system granted many privileges to Athens’s citizens, it tolerated and even fostered slavery. Likewise, the first Western democracies, such as Britain and France, justified colonialism. Fathers of the theory of democracy like John Stuart Mill believed that inferior ethnic groups and cultures should be dominated by superior ones. “ Liberalism is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood… For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its non age ”.
Despite the fact that democracy was meant to provide opportunity to deprived members of the society, the system itself appears to work best in economically advanced countries whose wealth mostly accumulated from the exploitation of other nations. The political economist Benjamin Friedman compared the current Western model of Democracy to a bicycle whose balance is kept only if it keeps spinning. Should this motion stop, the bicycle falls. Friedman’s claim that rising living standards improve society’s morals crosses Pinkerton’s argument about better modern humans. However, the benefits accrued from the accumulation of wealth has limits: inner resources are not enough. In previous centuries, countries enslaved people and conquered territories. Today, thriving consumerism in the West functions thanks to cheap products manufactured by cheap labour in China and elsewhere in Third World countries.
“Germany could return to authoritarianism if the economic conditions were to seriously worsen in the country”, said Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank the governor general of Nazi occupied Poland during World War Two, warning further: “As long as our economy is great, and as long as we make money everything is very democratic,", but "if we have five to 10 years heavy economic problems the swamp is a lake, and is a sea and will swallow again, everything”.
Since the invention of the modern science of Economics, the market economy has been based upon the thought of Adam Smith, who believed in the “invisible hand” of the market, which regulates itself in the best possible way based on human self-interest. His concept evolved into “laissez-faire” capitalism – an economic system which protected the operations of individuals and businesses from government intervention and with the minimum of taxes, regulations and subsidies. Extending Adam Smith’s theories, another British economist, David Ricardo, advanced the theory of labour value and the idea of free trade.
Countering the trend in favour of laissez-faire capitalism, Karl Marx asserted that an unfettered market privileges those with wealth and facilitates exploitation of the poor, which causes class struggle. To resolve this problem, Marx recommended removing wealth from the relatively small number of owners and distributing it among all people. His theories made a tremendous impact on the global development, but the political result of his doctrines was the command economy with its dead-end in the collapse of the Soviet system, jettisoned today by the majority of political economists.
The Great Depression of the 1930s shook the edifice of the free market, and in response yet another British economist, John Keynes, developed a theory for measured and appropriate state interference into a market economy. Keynes advocated the use of various monetary instruments and employment policies to mitigate the negative effects of a depression. There were ultimately adopted by the majority of capitalist governments.
However, in the 1970s when many Western capitalist countries faced with sharp stagnation, political leaders like Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain ushered a new era of “laissez-faire” economics, labeled as neo-liberalism. American economist Milton Friedman criticized “Keynesianism” and offered as an alternative the regulation of the economy monetary policy. Friedman favoured minimalistic intervention by government and large-scale privatization. For him, a certain level of unemployment was healthier for society and the economy rather than zero level, which was targeted by Keynes. The end of Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent victory of the free market gave additional impetus to the principle of unfettered competition. International trade agreements like NAFTA and European common market followed the trend. Those who could not do well in the free market were termed losers and lazy.
Euphoria with the free market economy lasted until 2008, when a deep financial crisis broke out. The expert community voiced their collective concern over unregulated market forces. Even before this, the Asian crisis of 1998 and many corporate frauds should have raised concerns about the weaknesses of insufficient regulation.
Neoliberal scholars had blinded themselves with their own narrative of scientific progress and the “end of history”. On paper, the fundamentals of the prevailing economic theory, with its elegant supply and demand curve, rules of competition, comparative advantage, free trade, etc. look ideal. However, the world is not ideal. And reality is quite different from neo-liberalism’s idealistic picture. On the wave of the credit crisis Marxism was revived – somewhat – as people recalled his writings about cruel capitalists exploiting the poor. This led to the formation of the “occupy” movement.
People’s self-interest dictates that they compete for resources and income, and, if they can, they make every effort to enhance control over desirable resources and diminish competition. In lawless places, companies and individuals remove competitors by force, while in countries with a strong rule of law there are legally approved methods to “kill” competitors. American history witnessed the rise of Rockefeller who ruthlessly destroyed business competitors, practices which led to the inaction of the Sherman Antitrust Law.
A short survey of the history of modern capitalism would give us a better idea how market and competition worked – whether it was always fair and benefited people with the best quality and morality.