The intervening period of transition, which we may have entered, could be chaotic, destructive and violent to a degree that no one born after 1945 in the industrialized countries that constructed the post-war order can imagine.
The great battles of the era now underway or emerging are not those which dominated the late 20th century — left versus right, east versus west, communist versus capitalist. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, these binaries have had less and less relevance. It is the dark forces of nationalism and religious sectarianism that now drive global politics, fueling the rise of a crude, xenophobic populism in the advanced capitalist world that we have not seen since the 1930s.
Trump is the most vivid manifestation of it, but we see it everywhere we look in formerly stable social democracies — Germany, Denmark, the UK, France, Greece, even Australia, where the demagogue Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party was returned to the Senate in the recent election. Appeals to nationalism and fear of the “other” are replacing notions of collective security, common interest and the moral duty to care for those in need such as asylum seekers.
The internet destabilizes
“Its roots,” I wrote then, “lie first in the destabilizing impact of digital communication technologies … Not only is there more information out there, the speed of its flow has increased. The networked nature of the online media means that an item posted in one part of the world immediately becomes accessible to anyone with a PC and an internet connection, anywhere else — linked, signposted, rapidly becoming part of the common conversation for millions”.
As a consequence, I argued, established elite power was leaking away, becoming more porous. As 9/11 showed, we had entered a world where affluent, stable democracies were vulnerable as never before to disproportionate disruption by terrorism. A world where policy — as in the case of the EU and the current migrant crisis — was driven not by rational calculation so much as the power of testimonies, narratives and images captured and shared on digital media.
No one doubts the humanitarian impulse underpinning Angela Merkel’s decision to offer open house to millions of refuges from the Middle East. This policy was fueled by distressing, globally networked accounts of desperate people drowning in Mediterranean waters, and pictures of children dead on the tourist beaches of southern Europe.
But if it contributes to the rising influence of anti-immigrant party AfD and the rise to power of its equivalents in France, Italy, the Netherlands, it will come to be seen as having hastened the fragmentation of the European Union; to have been an ill-considered response to a crisis amplified and intensified by 24-hour, always on, real time news and social media culture.
Notwithstanding the huge benefits brought to people and societies all over the world by the internet, then, it also presents challenges to the capacity for the good governance and rational decision making on which our collective wellbeing depends. In a world where information of all kinds — nasty as well as nice, false as easily as true — travels faster, further, and with fewer possibilities for censorship than ever before in human history, authority and the exercise of power are uniquely precarious.
If power is built on knowledge, and effective democracy requires that citizens be informed about their environment, the age of digitalisation has also been one of global democratization. It has made popular challenge to authoritarian rule easier to organize (if not necessarily to succeed). Cultural chaos, like chaos in nature, can be a constructive as well as destructive force.
Fear is contagious
This media environment sees isolated events which would once have been of mainly local importance, such as the Lindt Café siege in Sydney (a “lone wolf” terrorist attack in which two people were killed), become global in their impacts through the immediacy and visceral nature of their media coverage. But it is also an efficient way to disseminate anxiety, panic and fear.
Donald Trump understands this, and uses Twitter like no other presidential candidate before him. He is able to further stir up his already enraged constituency with simplistic, authoritarian solutions to complex social problems like illegal migration and global terrorism.
IS, like al-Qaeda before it, understands it. Jihadi John cuts off the head of an American or Japanese journalist, and the uploaded, socially networked video becomes a weapon of mass psychic torture, spreading virally.
Some Britons voted for Brexit because they had seen those videos, or heard about them. They believe they can be quarantined from radical Islamism by rejecting Merkel’s humanitarianism and closing the doors on the continent.
One crisis feeds into another. Trump’s success fuels French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. The UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage encourages Putin in his dream of winning back Ukraine and the Baltic states. And as the mass murderer of Nice follows the attack at Ataturk airport, both outdone by the atrocity of Bataclan, we enter a period of cascading, interconnected crises, where “black swan” moments become part of everyday life, and the unthinkable becomes mainstream.