Monday, September 19, 2016

Fighting the Culture War

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a raft of new liberal and democratic states in 1989 and 1991, the argument about the values of the open society went into a kind of stasis. The debate was deemed by many to be closed, and the virtues of liberal democracy self-evidently triumphant.

25 years later that "end of history" seems at best more nuanced. At worst, the closed authoritarian model seems to have made a spectacular come-back.

This blog references Cicero, and in previous posts I have explained why. I have feared for a long time that the values and virtues of democracy are being eroded from within and without. The fact is that mass societies can be manipulated and subverted. Vladimir Putin spends billions of dollars on propaganda, and while much of this is to persuade Russians not to challenge his regime, equally his purpose has been to undermine confidence in the states of Europe and North America that he deems to be his enemies. He is achieving a remarkable success in promoting closed, right-wing models of society. His admirers are a rogues gallery of anti-democrats: Marine Le Pen, Diane James, Geert WildersDonald Trump, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and many members of the Cinque Stelle in Italy.

The weakness that this subversion is demonstrating should give all of us some pause for thought. The fact is that both our media and our education system have already let us down severely. 80% of the UK print media is in the hands of foreign or off-shore ownership, with an extreme right-wing agenda. On my recent visit to London, I was staggered how many people read the Mail and the Express- two newspapers who seem to have given up on the truth altogether. The fact is that in a world of post truth politics, our general education level seems simply too low to challenge the false narratives that the biased and self-serving media is promoting.

When people ask me why Estonia is so much more successful than, say, Russia. I generally reply by pointing out that Estonian culture so strongly promotes education. It is a history of Lutheran respect for education, combined with strongly rooted values of hard work, discipline and openness. It is next to impossible to beat a bright kid with a good work ethic. Yet even in Estonia, I see signs of a culture being assailed. The astonishing growth in graffiti in recent months is one example, the rise of EKRE- an unpleasant and intolerant right-wing nationalist party- is another. Of course both are still much weaker than in the UK, but the fact that they even exist in Estonia is reflective of possible problems ahead.

In the end, across Europe and North America, the heartland of the West, it is our values, our culture and way of doing things that is being challenged. Some of this is the subversion of openness by the enemies of the open society, but we must also admit that we have made too many mistakes. The promotion of the Bush-Blair war agenda, against strong internal resistance was, in retrospect, the beginning of a crisis of confidence in democracy. Cynical politics has created a cynical society. Amoral decisions have contributed to a climate of moral indifference which is highly corrosive of the open society. The result has been the growth of an alienated and angry electorate. The result has included the economic, political and moral mistake of the Brexit referendum result.

As we contemplate the challenge of Putin, and indeed the coming challenge of Brexit, it seems to me that we will need more and more to renew our national political cultures. The cheerless and backward-looking managerialism on offer from Theresa May already looks dated, and such values as she offers- a return to the 1950s- are hardly robust enough to meet the demands of the new century. Although Taavi R├Áivas, the Estonian Prime Minister, offers a younger face, he remains the captive of older figures, and Estonia too needs to renew its political culture. The party-list electoral system is too closed for the increasingly open society that Estonia wishes to be, and the three ring circus of the current presidential election has shown just how locked-out the voters are from the process. 

In both countries a voice that reiterates the values and virtues of openness is much needed. The complications of a tolerant and free society must be explained, and that is difficult enough in thoughtful and educated Estonia, never mind the shrill and poisoned atmosphere of British politics. However, if we do not renew our culture and reinforce our values, I fear that all the gains of the global society could be rolled back and the locust years will be upon us. It is not just a question of economics, it is a question of ethics and morality. It is a question of good and bad. 

Cicero lived at the time of the death of the Roman Republic. The Republic had existed for 500 years in turbulent vigour. Cicero was instrumental in defeating the first conspiracy against the Republic- the Cataline conspiracy- but though he knew the Republic needed reform, he could not provide the leadership to thwart Caesar's coup d'etat. Within a very few years Rome was the prisoner of its Emperors and the power of the Republic was broken. Cicero, and his ally Cato had failed and the decadence and corruption of the Empire lingered in place of the vigour of the Republic. 

Is that to be the fate of the West?  In the end we could fail and with the failure of the global society a smaller, weaker, more violent world could come. Instead of creating a more open and integrated planet we could fall back on the failures of the past, possibly not excluding war and the eventual use of nuclear weapons.

Thus it is not for small stakes that we must fight. The renewal of our values in a world where virtually limitless data or information is free, but knowledge and understanding just as difficult as it ever was cannot be easy. Yet now- in a world of surveillance, both overt and covert-  we need to set the limits of power more than ever. It comes down to renewing our philosophy and living rigidly to our values. We must not let political compromise become moral weakness. Whether the challenge comes from Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or our own media-political complex, we have to understand the scale of the problem- and the terrible price, if we fail. In the new cultural war, we cannot afford to fail.  

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