An era of political reaction

Voters everywhere are desperately turning to leaders from outside the political establishment, demanding bold action to rescue their countries from the incompetence and indecisiveness, the corruption and complicity, of conventional politicians.

This clamor is encapsulated by slogans like “Take back our country” or “Save the next generation.” From what?  In America’s case—from a myriad of perceived threats: financial predators from Wall Street, China’s factories, radical terrorists, immigrants and economic refugees, and bad policies crafted by past administrations. In the Philippines’ case—from drug traffickers, addicts and criminals, narcopoliticians, corrupt and incompetent government officials, and crony oligarchs who profit from the use of public assets, don’t pay correct taxes, and destroy the environment.

The substantive issues chosen and the enemies targeted vary from country to country.  But the form assumed by this political reaction cuts across diverse national settings. Let’s take a look at its essential features.

It feeds on latent mass resentments.  It draws fervor from the blunt rhetoric of strongmen who willfully defy the norms of statesmanship.  It shows no appreciation for the complexity of the phenomena that trouble societies, equating analysis with paralysis, and favoring bold action over thoughtful deliberation.

It is populist in that it thrives on direct appeals to the people, to their unexamined instincts rather than to their critical reason. It promises to bring the nation to greatness, or to restore it to its old glory, appropriating sentiments reminiscent of nativism.  In so doing, it instills a default skepticism for the motives and behavior of the political class, and the capabilities and commitment of public servants. It doesn’t think twice about challenging the authority of established institutions, seeing these as complicit in the overall conspiracy to swindle the people.

Today’s political reaction cannot easily be characterized as Rightist, for it does not seek a simple restoration of the status quo ante.  Indeed, it draws part of its appeal from the emancipatory impulses of early anticolonial and anti-imperialist movements, and seeks common cause with those who have waged a sustained struggle against inequality, elitism, and class exploitation.  In this, it echoes classical themes from the socialist movement.

But, neither is it Leftist. It does not call for the overhaul of the property system of society, nor does it advocate the nationalization of private assets.  Indeed, it bears no resemblance either to European social democracy, where the state played a major role in fulfilling the people’s basic needs. The economic policies of Trump and Duterte remain market-oriented and neoliberal.

How do we account for this sudden explosion of political reaction worldwide?  What has triggered it?

What we are seeing here, I think, is a reaction to the dysfunctional consequences of modernity and the globalization that accompanies it.  The reaction draws its motifs and energy from the varied situations of nations. Its triggering mechanism, however, is the same everywhere—the exponential rise of social media as a platform for opinion formation. Let me elaborate.

Modernity, writes the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, is characterized by the existence of specialized and autonomous domains of communication that have evolved in response to the growing complexity of social life.  These bounded spheres—law, politics, economy, science, education, mass media, art, family, religion, etc.—each operate according to their respective rationality and code. Try as they might, not one of them can speak for the whole of society. Not even the state.

But more than the absence of a suprarational center that can coordinate the affairs of society, what we call society has itself spilled beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.  The new society is a world society parceled out into various functional domains that are unevenly developed.  Thus, we may speak of a world economy, a global mass media, a global science community, but we cannot speak meaningfully of a world government, and not even of a universally binding legal system.

The failure of the modern world economy is most evident in its inability to end mass poverty and correct the unjust concentration of wealth in a few countries and in a small elite.  It can also be seen in the unabated destruction of the environment by economic entities driven solely by the profit motive. Existing national institutions are no longer adequate to handle these global problems.

When drug traffickers go global, no single country can stop them. Crossing national borders with impunity, they buy their way into any territory, corrupting every sovereign authority that stands in their way.  The addictive scourge they spread cannot be stopped by short-circuiting the rule of law, or by killing its victims. Global problems require global solutions.

In the face of this barely-understood complexity, the allure of strongmen capable of bold corrective action becomes magnified in the eyes of resentful publics. Democratic processes and practices—the evolutionary achievements of modernity—lose their legitimacy as an era of political reaction sets in.

There have been previous ages of reaction in history.  The one we currently face is, however, different in its reach and intensity, thanks largely to social media, which has unleashed and empowered humankind’s deepest resentments. That said, it is an arena that also offers enough space for enlightened resistance and hope.