2018 - The Year of Insecurity

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

The statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to his coattails as he marches past. ~ Otto von Bismarck

We have gone through a year of many facets and bounced from one to the other: from threats of fire and fury, to filial handshakes; from asylum seekers drowning at sea, to  leaders who grappled with clashing conflicts of populism and morality; from fear stricken communities and societies sacked by armies and terrorists to leaders who looked the other way with feckless insouciance; from populist marches to rising authoritarianism; from innocent women whose privacy was abused and eroded by oppressive technology, to their vain attempts at protecting their “secret places” from marauding thugs; from  mendacious big wigs who were impugned, to government shut downs; from parliaments in aggressive discord, to parliamentary decorum being violently abused by peoples’ representatives, resulting in bloodshed.

The insecurity spawned by these events has threatened democracy and encouraged populism, inequality and the deleterious aspects of the information revolution.  The ensuing chaos renders lessons from history – from the vicious hatred that followed the introduction of the printing machine causing witch hunts of innocent women, to fake news of the modern age catalysed by social media.  This cocktail of trends is further aggravated by economic decline and the sense of social insecurity faced by many around the world.  Ronald Inglehart, Professor at the University of Michigan writes in Foreign Affairs that: “The immediate cause of rising support for authoritarianism is immigration (and in the United States, rising racial equality). That reaction has been intensified by the rapid cultural change and declining job security…”  This trendline is dangerously close to the rise of fascism in the 1930s caused by similar circumstances of social insecurity and racial hatred.  Professor Inglehart suggests that political coalitions should emerge representing the 99 per cent of the people affected by the phenomenon of their own insecurity of sustenance, which, in a manner similar to post World War II when the axis powers were defeated, infused new hope in the people of the world and brought to bear a strengthened world democracy.

Liberal democracies are the result of modernization brought about initially by industrialization. This brought a certain sense of equality and security to society, which has been eroded over the past few decades where the rich have become richer and the poor, poorer.  Rosenbluth and Shapiro, in their book Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself   quote history when they say:

“A new gilded age has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra rich and decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis caused millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who caused the mess”.   As a panacea, some of the wealthiest Americans advocate higher taxes for the rich and increased inheritance taxes that would help alleviate the exponential rise of inequality.  Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in The Twenty First Century says that “the importance of wealth in modern economies is approaching levels last seen before the first world war” where fascism raised its head. Piketty goes on: “inequality began to rise sharply in the 1970s and 1980s, which brings us to the present where half of the population of the world owns nothing; the poorest 50 % own less than 10 % of national wealth and generally less than 5 %. The richest 10 % of the world command 62 % of the total wealth while the poorest 50 % own only 4 %. The basis for this trend is the equation r>g (where r represents the rate of return on one’s capital and g represents the growth of the economy).

In December of 2016, in my essay “What did 2016 Bring”? I said: “Populism grew because of rising inequality which has been identified as the defining feature of our times. This exponential rise in inequality has in turn been attributed to two decades of failed liberal governance where western governments have been boosting the markets instead of developing and pumping money into economies”. This seems true today as well.

Niall Ferguson, in his book The Great Degeneration – How Institutions Decay and Economies Die speaks of Western civilization and institutions in the context of four “black boxes” which he “opens” in his book. They are: democracy; capitalism; the rule of law; and civil society. These four boxes”, in my view, form the bulwark of successful government and governance, which should drive the implementation of a political agenda of a government which was touted before the people before being elected. They also should apply to any democratic or purported democratic government, be it in the west or east. Ferguson goes on to quote Francis Fukuyama who says that the three components of a modern political order are a strong and capable State; the State’s subordination to a rule of law and government accountability to all citizens.

Social insecurity is prodded on by the lack of accountability of governments and the erosion of the social contract. The social contract is between the State and the individual where, in exchange of empowerment at democratic elections by the people, a government promises to protect its people and future generations from injustice and inequality. An erosion of this theory or breach of the contract would annul the legal legitimacy of a State. 

As we approach 2019, I would like to end on an optimistic note.  True, we must be aware of history and learn from it.  At the same time, we must not forget that we have come a long way. Steven Pinker, writing to the Economist’s The World in 2019 says: “ …the 1970s and 1980s saw double digit inflation and unemployment, gasoline lines, a nuclear standoff between America and the Soviet Union, communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, fascist ones in Spain and Portugal, military ones in Latin America and East Asia, Marxist and secessionist terrorist brigades in Europe, civil wars throughout Africa and an Iran-Iraq war that killed more than half a million people”.  Pinker refers to the gradual rise in literacy and life expectancy and the decline in global poverty in modern times with the share of people living in democracies rising from 1% to 33%.

Wars are rarer now than before, but as long as inequality and social insecurity dominate the world, we are still under threat.  Those in power should recognize that nations should be known for their compassion rather than their achievements and the measure of our humanity to one another.   


Post a Comment