The Seven Trends behind the Global Rise of Populism

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The anger against globalization is, in no small part, a reaction against its triumph, and a testament to how profoundly it has changed our world. The world changed fast, so fast that our social and political institutions have been struggling to keep up, and it feels like nobody is in control...
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This article was originally written in 2016, immediately following the election of Donald Trump, for our Islam & Liberty platform. Since then, the topic has received significant scholarly attention, with much data from different countries and regions supporting and opposing various arguments contained. We still believe it to be relevant to the debate on the global rise of authoritarian populism and the perceived failure of liberalism, and so are choosing to republish it on the Arab Tyrant Manual.

Introduction

Every once in a long while, an event occurs that is so momentous that, decades later, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when it happened. We know immediately that what just happened is truly historical, and that the world will never be the same again. In my generation, it was 9–11. In a previous generation, it was the JFK assassination.

***

It’s been eight months, but I still remember it like yesterday.

On that November 8th, I met Toby Mundy, my literary agent, for lunch in Oslo. The polls in the US hadn’t opened yet. The world seemed orderly, and Hillary was a clear favorite to win. I would soon board a long flight, headed towards Kuala Lumpur.

Twenty hours later, I was fidgeting with my phone while waiting for my turn at the passport control at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. As soon as I connect to the airport’s Wi-Fi, a flurry of messages streamed in. I sent a message to Ahmed Gatnash, my co-writer. “Just landed”. Ahmed responded with a curt but ominous: “Check the news out”.

Ahmed’s next message predicted our dilemma. “So. Now what?”

***
Ahmed & I are Islamic libertarians. A few months earlier, we had proposed a 16-month project titled “Islam & Liberty” — a series of articles and events — to Norway’s Fritt Ord Foundation. Our stated mission is to present a Muslim case for liberty, and to counter illiberalism, authoritarianism, and radicalization in the Arab & Muslim worlds. The project was offered a home at Civita, Norway’s liberal think tank.

It was still sinking in, but it was already clear that the context in which our work is to be done, from here on, has changed. We’re now in the unenviable position of talking about Islam and Liberty in a global context of resurgent authoritarianism.

The world’s most stable liberal democracy is now led by a right wing extremist, who campaigned and won on an openly illiberal agenda.

The world’s prime superpower will be led by an openly illiberal team for the next four (or eight) years. His presidency will energize and normalize illiberalism worldwide — be it of the same strand that he represents (figures like Putin and the European far-right), or the opposite extreme (organizations such as ISIS, who were quick to welcome his victory).

We had to take a step back and reassess. This project just became more important, and deserves to be told in context.

Why is authoritarianism rising globally? As it happens, we’ve been studying this — and warning against monocausal explanations of it — for years.

Here’s the story, in seven trends:

1. The Triumph of Globalization

The world has changed fast. Very fast.

I was born and raised in the Arabian Gulf — my Palestine-born father having moved there from Egypt in the mid 1970s, to take a job as a doctor in the newly formed United Arab Emirates. The rapidly modernizing country needed — and lacked — skilled professionals. At the time of its founding in 1971, it was home to under 300,000 people. By the time I was summarily expelled from the country in 2014, the population stood at 9.2 million. While the native Emirati population doubled several times, most of the population growth was driven not by natural birth but by immigration.

Demographic transformation doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Economic growth brought new people, and new people brought with them their cultures, languages, and religions. Literacy rose rapidly, and a revolution in communications technology brought an unstoppable inflow of new ideas.

A people and a society were completely, deeply, and irreversibly transformed. Today the UAE is home to nearly 10 million people, from over 200 countries. A country of fishermen, farmers, and merchants was transformed into one of businessmen, bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, and technologists.

It is difficult to capture in a few lines the impact that globalization has had on our world. Few countries were as dramatically transformed as the UAE — yet it is in a way a microcosm of the deep and irreversible transformation that played out all over the world over the past 40 years. Our societies have had to contend with an inflow of new immigrants threatening a previous homogeneity, new ideas threatening old traditions and customs, and new technologies disrupting old institutions. The world is almost unrecognisable from that of our grandparents.

The anger against globalization is, in no small part, a reaction against its triumph, and a testament to how profoundly it has changed our world. The world changed fast, so fast that our social and political institutions have been struggling to keep up, and it feels like nobody is in control. Zygmunt Bauman, who left us earlier this year, expressed it ominously. “What has been cut apart cannot be glued back together. Abandon all hope of totality, future as well as past, you who enter the world of fluid modernity.”

2. The Loss of Anchors

“In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and as effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change — as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again.”

This is how Zygmunt Bauman described the uncertainty of social life in a post-globalization world. The transformation that our societies underwent has wreaked particular havoc with our sense of identity. Systems of belonging that had existed for centuries have eroded, or even disappeared. The meaning and structure of community — be it religious, national, or even the family — have transformed deeply. We went from extended families to nuclear families to the post-nuclear family, often in the space of no more than two generations.

In many places, new generations are growing up with values starkly different and even opposed to those of their parents. This shift in values is perhaps most stark in the most insular societies, which modernity crashed against in wave after wave over the past few decades — the American “Bible Belt” for example, or the Arabian desert plateau of Najd. Would a Saudi mother in the 1970s even imagine that her daughter would not only demand the repeal of the traditional male guardianship system, but make a music video about it? What was a generation ago “normal”, is today not only challenged, but often mocked.

What’s fueling the worldwide rise of identity politics is, then, a worldwide identity crisis. Much of the conservative backlash that is expressed by religious fanatics, or the nativist backlash that is expressed by ethnic hate groups, is at its core a reaction to this loss of traditional anchors. And identity politics, with its emphasis on differences and otherness, happens to lend itself more to an authoritarian, top-down structure than a flat, bottom-up structure.

In times of fear and uncertainty, people tend to fall back on their group identity for security.

Let’s not go too far, though — this sense of uncertainty is widespread, but these “radicals”, who embrace what they perceive to be “original” values and seek a return to an “authentic” social state, stand out precisely because of the stark contrast against their own peers who seem to be comfortable in their own skin. Let’s not forget that, had the young had their way, then Trump wouldn’t have won and the Brexit vote wouldn’t have passed. And the Arab Spring, perhaps, would have succeeded.

3. Economic Transformation

The economic transformation brought on by globalization has been deep. Some professions all but disappeared; others moved overseas, as economies became more interdependent and hence more specialized. In developing economies, embracing market reform and free trade has led to the greatest upward socioeconomic move in history — with millions pulled out of poverty, many eventually finding their way into a new middle class. This is most visible in large economies such as China and India, but can also been seen in Turkey, South-East Asia, and many African nations.

Graph title: Who has gained from globalisation. Subtitle: The global 1% and the Asain Middle Class. Graph, compares Asain Middle Class and US and Western Lower middle class.

But while poor countries caught up with the rich world, lifting millions out of poverty and onto the economic ladder, the differences between the richest individuals and the poorest individuals in the world increased with an ever widening gap.

While billions of people were lifted out of poverty outside the West, billions of dollars flowed to fewer and fewer Western capitalists. As German economics professor Christian Kreiß renders it — so long we have compound interest and no cap on personal wealth, we will always end up with a situation where more and more capital flows to less and less people. The trend is only increasing.

Who was left out? Closer examination of the dramatic graph above reveals much needed nuance, but the point stands that while everyone’s income grew, this growth was uneven. While the lower middle class in most developed economies are not, in absolute terms, doing worse, it could seem that everyone else has been doing far better. A demographic that was once confident in economic progress, and trusted that every new generation will do better than the previous one, now feels anxious about its future.

Those who had benefited from a previous economic order now see themselves as victims of change. For a time, the world seemed to be tailor fit for them — but now, they have to contend with a new, unfamiliar world which feels unfair and in which they feel unsafe. Political leverage depends not upon absolute power but relative power. To the previously privileged, equality feels like a step down — and given the confluence of other trends and factors, the white working class voted with their ethnicity.

In 2014, Nick Hanauer, an American venture capitalist and a self-described “0.01 percenter”, gave a sinister warning; “If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us”. And on November 8th, 2016, we saw what it looks like when the pitchforks come.”

4.Obsolete Nationalism

Ethnic nationalism once energized and ordered the world. It championed a state model that emphasized the sovereignty of the pure “nation”, and went on to inspire millions and to remould the world’s map. In the process, it precipitated countless disasters and gave rise to some of the most brutal totalitarian regimes of the past 100 years.

Our new authoritarians are confirmed and passionate ethnic nationalists. But the model of nationalism that they believe in — and the state model that it envisions, is obsolete.

It was always built on fantasies, but it did give the comfort of clear answers: Who “the people” are, what their origin was, and what their language, culture, and customs are. But as our societies became more mixed, with citizens often hyphenating their identity (Somali-Norwegian, Pakistani-British, Algerian-French), the very reality of the pure ethnic state has eroded. Modern states today are no longer defined by an imagined ethnic homogeneity.

But while ethnic nationalism as a system of belonging eroded, in many countries no alternative form of nationalism rose to replace it. It has long been acknowledged that a civic nationalism can arise, as an “open” nationalism defined by membership in a society, emphasizing a shared destiny rather than an imagined shared origin. But the weight of history has made many countries slow to attempt to build it as a serious alternative.

Worse, our clinging to an obsolete vision of nationalism is contributing to an identity crisis among minorities, who feel neither “of here” nor “of there”. There is a limit to how much someone can assimilate, even if they want to — but there’s the other question of whether it is humane or even desirable. Diversity is supposed to be a boon — but we are proceeding from an outdated concept of nationalism that sees it as a threat.

Identity — “who am I” — is among the deepest questions there is. In the absence of an effective system of belonging, individuals will not give up on identity — they’ll snap back to the most familiar identity they know, regardless of its usefulness or appropriateness. Hence the dizzying snap-back to outdated closed nationalisms in an age where our societies are more diverse than ever.

Tragically, the one country which had offered the greatest and most inspiring example of an open nationalism — the United States of America — ended up electing to office a team of ethnic nationalists. And this has been, in no small part, a result of a political failure.

5.Political Failure

The trends we’re describing have converged at a time of notable failure across an entire political spectrum. While this played out very differently in the US than it did in Europe, there seem to be some broad undercurrents fuelling this political failure.

Politicians seem to have drifted away from principled leadership to managerialism, focused on small, almost cosmetic fixes to a system that many feel has let them down. Take economics, for example. Whoever was in power, the basic facts of the economic system remained more or less the same. The minor policy tweaks, differing taxation levels and differences in rhetoric did not conceal the lack of a vision for the future of society that takes into account the enormous global changes.

Some think that the political establishment is unresponsive because of a deliberate plan among the elites to usurp more power and render increasing areas beyond normal politics, towards a certain “liberal” political agenda of theirs. But I find it more likely that what’s behind this is a lack of vision. Perhaps more things are being put on bureaucratic auto-pilot not because of a plan but because of the lack of a plan. Maybe the “elites” are also winging it.

The perceived sluggishness of the political establishment was in part rooted in a lack of ideological innovation — a host of similar solutions continued to be espoused in various form. In many a European democracy, political parties became undifferentiated, gravitating towards the centre to win the highest number of voters. Political parties that never actually put ideas into practice gave ideologies the illusion of meaning — leading eventually to ideology becoming a tired, almost useless term.

When “ideology” failed to innovate and became distrusted and discredited, many people snapped back to the familiarity of identitarianism. The Left’s failure was particularly damaging — when they shifted towards the center, they ceased to represent many of the marginalized among whom they traditionally had strong support. Feeling unrepresented, many turned to their identity, fueling both far-right populism and religious extremism, depending on which identity they subscribe to.

In the United States, the political system was arguably even more dysfunctional. The rise of identitarianism led to increased polarization and in-fighting. The fact of special interest groups holding more sway than ordinary citizens led many to view the political establishment as opaque, unresponsive, self-serving and unconcerned with their pain. “Career politician” became a derogatory term.

When “politicians don’t change anything” becomes a widely held sentiment, and when trust in politicians crashes in the midst of an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety, a loud-mouthed, abrasive, authoritarian “outsider” who promises to “drain the swamp” can quickly gain a groundswell of support. Trump was the “human Molotov cocktail” his supporters could throw at a political system that failed them.

6. Social Media Broke Our Public Sphere

It is difficult to envision what globalization would be without the internet. It erased borders, democratized access to information, and undermined censorship by authoritarian regimes. But then came social media.

As early as 2006, Jurgen Habermas, the world’s leading thinker on the public sphere, weighed in on what the internet would mean for democracy:

…the rise of millions of fragmented chat rooms across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics. Within established national public spheres, the online debates of web users only promote political communication, when news groups crystallize around the focal points of the quality press, for example, national newspapers and political magazines.

The “public sphere” is that domain of our social life in which public opinion is formed — it is, Habermas tells us, essential to the health of a democracy, and must be inclusive, representative, and marked by a respect for rational argument.

In his 2006 warning, Habermas expressed two primary concerns. First, he said, discussions on the internet are too fragmented — instead of having a single public sphere, we’re ending up with several non-overlapping ones. Second, he noted, the democratization of expression will increase, rather than reduce, the need for “quality press” of “national newspapers and political magazines”.

Graph showing the decline of printed news . Graph title: 50 years of growth wiped out in a decade. Subtitle: Newspaper advertising in the United States from 1950 to 2012.
        Source: Statista.com, Newspaper Association of America, Carpe Diam

What Habermas referred to as “the fragmentation of publics”, we today call the “filter bubble”. When we can choose who to connect (or not connect) with, we tend to connect with people with views similar to ours. Social media are, by design, built to allow us to do exactly this. “Filter bubbles” worsen polarization, making us live in our own online echo chamber, accessing only opinions that validate rather than challenge us.

Habermas’s warning also emphasized the role of “quality press” for a healthy public sphere — and with “fake news” making the headlines, we’d all nod in approval. How’s our “quality press” doing, then?

It’s not a pretty picture. The newspaper industry initially benefited greatly from the rise of the internet — until social media and search engines changed the rules of the game. By giving marketers a clearly superior advertising tool, search engines and social media led to enormous loss of advertising revenue for news media.
The internet gave news establishments wider distribution than ever before — but it also cut off their income source, and the industry still hasn’t figured out a viable alternative. Underlying our fake news problem is a business model problem in the news media industry, and until that’s fixed our public sphere will continue to suffer.

It is tragically ironic how the greatest democratization of expression in history led to the breakage of our public sphere — and it just happens that a failing public sphere has a symbiotic relationship with demagogues: Desperate news establishment, in their search for ratings, subsidize demagogues, whose outrageous rhetoric is in turn, well, “good for ratings”.

7. The Unravelling of the Middle-East

With so many powerful trends tugging at it, the world order was bound to rip. And it ripped first, fastest, and deepest in the Middle East.

Decades hence, 2011 will be seen as a pivotal year in modern Arab history. A year earlier, the Arab “order” seemed largely stable, with complex but largely predictable power dynamics. Then 2011 happened.

It was as if Arab history was on pause for decades, and then God pressed the “play” button.

The painful story since has been retold countless times. Arab youth shook their regimes in 2011, but by 2013 were left to their own fate as two counter-revolutionary axes tried to roll back the tide — one led by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, and another led by Iran and its regional allies. But in their attempts to fight back change, they only managed to break the region.

The Arab Spring was an enormous wasted opportunity — had it had a soft landing, it would have led to a new stability based upon wider popular consent, and perhaps a period of strong economic growth that would have benefited the West’s ailing economies. But instead, by 2014, the Arab Spring had turned into a Jihadist Disneyland.

The Syrian civil war was particularly catastrophic — it gave rise to ISIS, caused an enormous wave of refugees, and exposed a global political failure. Opportunistic players such as Russia found the perfect conflict to exploit to destroy the “liberal world order” — cynically and skilfully using it to erode international norms in the name of “fighting terrorism”. Putin couldn’t throw missiles at Europe — so he threw waves of Syrian refugees at them.

Can we realistically separate the resurgence of authoritarianism in the West from the unravelling of the Middle East? The issues of refugees and terrorism have been among the greatest factors feeding support for the new populists.

The Arab Spring had represented a confluence of undercurrents, many of which were more global than “Arab” — demographic maturation, communications globalization, economic inequality, failing regimes, an ossified political elite, a misguided “war on terror”, a lack of global leadership, and an outdated foreign policy paradigm. The story of its failing captures all these trends combined.

Conclusion: The Trump Effect

It is no wonder that the authoritarians are winning — they are riding not just one wave, but several. Rapid global change that seems beyond anyone’s control has brought uncertainty and anxiety. Fear warps our decision-making and makes us more accepting of “strong leaders” offering to “protect us” from the dangers out there.

But I am confident that the authoritarians will not deliver. Their resurgence will be short lived.

Already, the “Trump effect” has been a mixed bag. While it initially energized right wing populists world-wide, the Trump administration’s bumbling incompetence seems to have scared voters straight — after their initial euphoria, populists were dealt defeats in the Netherlands and France, and have lost support in the UK and Germany.

(The “Trump effect” has had a different effect on the Arab world — certain Arab regimes who have for decades followed America’s lead now felt like they had Trump in their pocket, and their final masks came off. But that’s another story.)

The right wing populists want to solve intractable problems through exercising and asserting the sovereignty of the state (in their imagination, a “pure” state for a homogeneous people). But this is fantasy. You cannot apply nation-state scale solutions to global-scale problems. The challenges we face — terrorism, migration, the economy, climate change — are intractable precisely because they are global in nature, and hence beyond the ability of any individual “sovereign” state to fix. Neither can you “unmix” our societies after generations of immigration and intermixing. That imaginary “pure” nation-state to which they want to return is gone forever.

They seem to be standing within a broken paradigm, promising to rebuild it. But it is long shattered. If we are to borrow from Thomas Kuhn on the subject of paradigms, then the breakage of one only predicts the rise of a better one.

Our world today is riddled with broken paradigms — of which the trends we described above are only a reflection. But we cannot go forward by going backward. You cannot undo globalization, you can only improve it.

We happen to be stuck in the limbo between the breakage of an old paradigm and the rise of a new one. We aren’t witnessing the return of the paradigm championed by right wing populists — we are witnessing its death. In the words of Antonio Gramsci, “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth. Now is the time of monsters”. And monsters do not die quietly.

Epilogue

It’s my turn at the passport control counter. I step forward and present my passport. I fumble a bit — passport controls always give me anxiety, not least because I spent 26 days stranded in this very airport back in 2014, following my extrajudicial expulsion from my former country. My statelessness makes me fall between the cracks of this world order, and this perhaps helps me see what others take for granted.

The next message I receive is from Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a Canadian-Iranian human rights activist. “Trump is good for human rights”, she says. “Just like Ahmadinejad was good for human rights”.

I immediately understood what she meant. There’s mercy when an ugly system has a loudmouthed, abrasive, ugly face to it. Trump’s victory is a rallying cry for the defenders of liberal democracy and human rights across the world. Trump has jolted many out of complacency, to a dogged determination to fight for open societies.

As fate would have it, for the next few years, we will be working on countering radicalization and illiberal authoritarianism in a global atmosphere in which they are empowered. We will be working on popularizing democracy, human rights, and open society values in a world in which they are imperiled. Trump’s rise, in a way, validates our worldview — illiberalism is rising worldwide for lack of more of our kind of work. A Trump presidency increases the demand for our work, the market size for our ideas, and their urgency and relevance.

Trump’s win was alarming, but it is also energizing. The threat is more real and imminent than ever, but I can see the silver lining.

As I’m writing these lines, Ahmed sends me a brief message with a link. “I’m keeping a running list of paradigmatic problems”. A “paradigmatic problem” is how, in our conversations, we refer to stubborn, seemingly intractable problems that defy solution because those trying to solve them are proceeding from the very same paradigm that produced them — like trying to push a box whilst sitting inside it.

Perhaps it’s time for this tiny team of Islamic libertarians to contribute to the defense of liberty, not only in the Muslim world, but worldwide.