Gosh, isn’t modern politics weird? Here’s a scary thing that just happened in Austria: they elected a far-right group. It bears an uncanny resemblance to movements happening elsewhere in the western world, like Trump, for instance. (Anyone else here bored of hearing the word ‘trump’?) Here’s a nice NY Times article talking about the trend.
The NY Times article frames the apparently sudden rise of the far-right as something a bit puzzling. But I don’t think it’s hard to understand. Here’s another nice article pointing out that the patterns of democratic collapse have been at least partially understood for thousands of years.
As an SF author, I find that watching modern politics is like trying to shout through the insulated window of a spacecraft at people tinkering dangerously with the nuclear engine inside. I can see what’s happening, but I can’t be heard. Who cares what a serial fantasist has to say? Surely politicians and journalists and academics know more.
But as a writer obsessed with the future, I’ve put a ridiculous amount of effort into trying to figure out what’s going to happen to us next. I suspect I’m not the only SF author who feels this way. Being a complex systems modeler who’s tinkered with simulations of human society only makes that feeling more acute.
So what do I think come next? Well, first we have to know what’s going on. The New York Times says this:
We struggle to explain the rise of the far right in its various guises. Immigration is important, but the dynamics predated the refugee crisis. The euro crisis has not helped. High unemployment is crucial in France and Austria, but not an issue in Britain. Chaos in the Arab world, following the fiasco of the American-led invasion of Iraq, fuels new Middle East wars and terrorist attacks in Europe, adding to feelings of insecurity. Globalization, the loss of middle-class jobs, the rise of inequality and anxiety over the European social model have left immense frustration. Everywhere, anger toward ruling elites and mainstream institutions is patent.
So their answer seems to be: a bunch of things are responsible. My answer is just this: panic. Why are people panicking? Two simple reasons.
One: Wealth inequality has limited their personal freedom and they’re feeling the social constraints in their wallets.
Two: They’re being constantly manipulated by the media and politicians, who never hesitate to give people reasons to be afraid. That’s because people who’re scared pay attention and are easy to manipulate, and we have more media in front of us now than ever before.
So of course the traditional media itself is going to struggle to articulate an overarching cause to the mounting tide of panic. Because they’re a part of the problem. Ditto social media. Urgent political shouldisms propagate faster online than cat pictures.
The mechanics of what happens next is simple. If you constantly cheat and scare people, they get tribal. (Go look up research on oxytocin and testosterone.) At the moment, some of us are more scared than others, so when we look at the people who’re freaking out, they look weirdly non-rational to us. Their anger looks like plain old bigotry. But panic is contagious, and nobody thinks of themselves as politically irrational or self-centered until it’s way too late. And nobody is immune. We are fools if we imagine otherwise.
So what’s coming next? More demagoguery. More inequality. Shuffled steps closer to saber-rattling, xenophobia and eventually war.
Is there a way out of that trap? I see three:
One: Coordinate broadly to reverse the social trends that have brought us to this place. That means banning privately-owned media organizations that aren’t cooperatives. Introducing a strict code of journalistic ethics. Banning short-selling. Banning off-shore tax havens. Introducing harsh penalties for white-collar crime. Putting publicly accountable legal controls on social media. Mandating transparency in government spending. Closing legal loopholes that protect the rich. Removing the legal notion of corporations as people. Banning private donations to political campaigns. Ban gerrymandering, etc.
Two: Precipitate a small social cascade sooner rather than later, perhaps in the form of a market meltdown or minor war. That way, society has easier access to the tools it needs to spontaneously reorganize, despite the attached costs.
Three: Wait for the environment to precipitate a social cascade for us.
Option one seems incredibly hard to execute, and one that nobody will pick because of the implied loss of competitive advantage. Option two strikes me as dangerous and unpredictable. And option three strikes me as madness, particularly as option three and war are likely to appear as an entangled pair.
What’s my solution? In the short term: vote for Bernie Sanders, who I see as something between a step towards options one and two. (I like Hilary, but for her to be able to pull of Option One in time while maintaining the political status-quo would need a superhuman, not a policy wonk.)
In the longer term: we build ourselves an Option Four. How? By encouraging everyone we know to be more informed and less afraid. We refuse fear. We look for new ways to socially organize. We disbelieve in the power of elites, because their wealth only exists in our minds. We show them our pity, because pity is the correct response to anyone mentally ill enough to obtain more wealth than they can use. We look after our planet. We put people somewhere other than our planet. We start being honest about human nature and how it works. We look at the man behind the goddamned curtain that lurks in our own minds and recognize that rationalism is the foundation for sustainable compassion and not the other way around. We keep trying. We never give up. We forge the New Enlightenment now, before nature forces it upon us.
Can we do it? I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t think we could.