Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Power of the Powerless

In October 1978 a then obscure Czech playwright named Vaclav Havel published an essay called The Power of the Powerless. It was a tragic time for those in Central or Eastern Europe who believed in freedom. The Soviet system had made advances across the globe and seemed to be as solid and enduring as it was soul crushing and brutal. Yet, as history shows, appearances can be misleading. Within only a few weeks the election of Pope John Paul II began a process that lead to tumult across the Soviet World and the eventual downfall of Communism. Havel's moral manifesto became the root of a political renewal which still shapes European society today.

Today there is a new struggle in Europe and across the world. It is a battle between those who seek an open, free and global society and those who oppose that vision. A nascent planetary consciousness is emerging as information becomes ever more accessible and the possibility, indeed the necessity, of debate more urgent. The creation of a global market is being made possible by the adoption of international standards and the wholesale reduction or abolition of tariffs and taxes. Global corporations are now emerging, but this economic integration is not being met with a global political response. Regulation is piecemeal and unfair. Justice is not in the hands of the many, but the few. Unsurprisingly there is a strong backlash against globalization, both from certain states and from civic society within others. Yet those, like Russia, who seek to opt out of the global community risk decline and permanent weakness if they are not able to access the opportunities that the emerging global market now affords. Although brutal and violent, the major feature of the Daesh campaign against globalization is that it is certain to fail. The contrast is China, still ruled by a narrow Communist elite, but has preferred to make a cautious bargain with the global market rather than to reject it, and the consequence has been the flowering of the Chinese economy and the emergence of an educated middle class. China chooses a global outlook, Russia a nationalist one, while Daesh is a mediaeval death cult. These are not unbeatable enemies. 

Yet globalization also challenges democratic states at least as much as it does authoritarian states. The corruption that haunts China also exists in democratic states. The power of wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, and a political-economic nexus often subverts democratic institutions and defies the democratic will. Meanwhile the politics of identity- the direct enemy of global consciousness- continues to be stubbornly persistent. It is easy to mock the SNP's campaign to boycott Tunnock's, but such futile and childish gestures can still have profound effects.

The fact is that the greatest threat is an ignorance about the process and an indifference as to the direction of travel. Although globalization advances all around us, there is little understanding of its impact and even less coherent discussion of what kind of social and economic outcomes would be beneficial from the process. The passion and energy that might be used to shape the future on a planetary scale is simply the preserve of angry declinists like Donald Trump or outright rejectionists, like the Front National in France or the SNP in Scotland. Meanwhile the suspicions grow that globalization is a corporate conspiracy to subvert democracy on a global scale rather than a merely national one. 

Yet the ideas of Havel also provide at least a partial answer. The dissident idea of moral civic engagement can provide a platform to voice a global economic, political and above all an ethical agenda. The nascent ideas of "sustainability" suggest a way that a dissident, liberal agenda might emerge in a political forum based on global communication rather than 19th century debating chambers. 

The old politics, like the old economy, is focused on geographical space, but as cyberspace expands and engages economic and political power, it will render many of our convenient political fictions irrelevant. Cyberspace brands- Skype or Uber or Airbnb- are, by definition, global brands. As commercial power based on cyberspace becomes greater, so will social and political engagement on a global scale become greater. Unless another global war engulfs the planet, the transition will become permanent. The ecological problems humanity is creating can only be tackled on a global scale and if the effort to overcome these challenges is successful, then we will have the foundations of a Planetary society. Identity will seem less intrinsic and more a matter of choice, engagement will be more diverse and like minds will meet regardless of geography- and in many ways this process is already well advanced.

For Democrats, the opportunity exists to stake a claim to shape the coming global society, but the principles that will be required will still need to be discussed and enacted. In a world of the Powerless it will be those who understand the process and who can shape it who will inherit greater control. Authoritarians like Putin may have a global vision of their own, but only those who believe in Freedom have the flexibility to maximize the opportunity.

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