In the last decade I saw the organization in which I worked move to the left and the country in which I lived move to the right. It provoked the following thoughts about Left and Right, especially in western societies. Don’t take them too seriously, or too lightly.
If you want to please the Right, tell them that:
climate change isn’t man-made, and it will save them reconsidering their life style;
migrants undermine our job security, and it will save them expressing some solidarity;
Islam is a threat to society, and it will save them investing in appreciating Muslim citizens;
the West needs protection from the rest, and it will save them fixing its flaws.
If you want to please the Left, tell them that:
capitalism is evil, and they will feel good about consuming without a peace of mind;
we are facing catastrophe, and it will give them a purpose in life that makes them thrive;
we need to stand up for the poor and oppressed, and they will ignore any progress to not ruin their anger;
it’s all about speaking against injustice, and they will love their own clarity of right and wrong.
In short: Want to please the Right? Ease their conscience. Want to please the Left? Stir their conscience.
The Right sees in any Muslim a potential terrorist, in any migrant a potential criminal, in any call for tolerance or equality a conspiracy of Cultural Marxists.
The Left sees in any Muslim a victim of Islamophobia, in any migrant a victim of oppression, in any free market defense an exploitation of the weak.
In short: the Right sees too many perpetrators, the Left too many victims. It gives the Right a continuous right to protect, the Left a continuous right to accuse.
Both wings cannot stand the temptation of making the world look clearer than it is. For the Right, everything looks like a threat that requires self-defense. For the Left, everything looks like injustice that requires solidarity with the oppressed. The latter sounds more noble than the first, and so the Left doesn’t hesitate taking the moral high ground in debates. The Right, on the other hand, accuses the ‘multicultural’ and ‘egalitarian’ Left of destroying ‘Western’ (if not ‘Christian’) values and traditions. And so, Left and Right feel morally empowered to fight each other in a never-ending trench war.
How to combine the positives in both
Without pretending that this trench war can be ended easily, here are a couple of ways in which Left and Right can move towards more unity:
The Left needs a deeper recognition of western achievements, if it wants to connect with the protecting attitude of the Right.
The Right needs a deeper recognition of western flaws, if it wants to connect with the correcting attitude of the Left.
The Left needs more celebration and self-criticism. It is so obsessed with fighting injustice, that there is hardly space for celebrating past achievements and recognizing the limitations of their own understanding.
The Right needs more compassion and solidarity. It is so obsessed with self-protection, that there is hardly space for seeking the well-being of other nations and the entire planet.
Sounds all good ‘on paper’, these recipes for unity, but profound mentality shifts are usually not a matter of the will but of necessity, of circumstances that demand a radically different response. Let’s hope that Left and Right will read the ‘signs of the times’ in time and need only ‘mild’ circumstances to acknowledge the necessity of overcoming their differences and pursuing a united and sustainable way forward.
Speech I recently gave for the Koninklijke Industrieele Groote Club (www.igc.nl) in Amsterdam.
Brexit, Border Wall, Catalan separatism — western countries are absorbed by their own sovereignty issues. As a consequence, a much bigger issue is not addressed: how to sustain the West itself? Precisely when the West as a whole is losing influence, it is trapped in internal division. Instead of reflecting on a future-proof and non-imperialistic role for the West, (too many) western politicians are wasting precious time fighting each other and bullying the rest. The result is that they catalyze precisely the kind of marginalization they try to stop.
On 2 February 2019 I wrote that if the GDP projections of PwC are correct, not a single European country will sit at the table when the G8 gathers in 2050. Yet precisely now, nationalism is thriving and entire nations manage to grossly overestimate themselves.
As a Dutchman I live in the midst of this turmoil. At the same time, I crossed the globe in the last 10 years, speaking with social actors on all continents about sustainable solutions for social issues. Based on this experience, below 3 urgent recommendations to western politicians if they want the West to play a viable role in the years to come.
I. Stop being in denial
Stop disguising the present
In this critical time of shaping our planetary future, facing major threats like cyber crime, nuclear risks, pandemics, global terrorism and climate change, the West cannot afford misleading politics: presenting ‘alternative facts‘ for electoral gain, hiding costs and difficulties when promoting solutions, and creating a false dichotomy between nationalism and globalism.
Stop idealizing the past
As the West needs to respond to new issues (like its loss of power and the need for global solutions to global issues), it cannot afford a nostalgia that makes people only yearn for times that won’t come back. Above all, western countries need to overcome their post-imperial stress syndrome in which they only weaken their position by behaving as if they are still calling the shots. Brexit is currently the most dramatic example of this. It painfully shows that the United Kingdom is in no position to negotiate with 27 nations on an equal footing. Ironically, only a supranational entity like the EU can make this kind of equal dialogue possible. Leaving the EU means: falling back on the old law of the strongest between nations. Separatists in Scotland and Catalonia will bump into the same reality if they ever face negotiations with the UK or Spain.
Stop blocking the future
Reform is gravely needed to make international institutions more suitable for global dialogue and collaboration. The longer the West waits with giving up its disproportionate power in the UN Security Council, World Bank, IMF, etc., the bigger the chance that non-western nations create their own entities (like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). This weakens not only the western-controlled entities, but also the world’s ability to solve its joint issues.
II. Secure your Western values
Secure your activism
400 years ago, the West started embracing a mentality of not accepting human suffering, but always seeking “to relieve and benefit the condition of man” (Francis Bacon, 1620). This mentality is inherently optimistic, as it persistently believes that it is worth seeking solutions for whatever challenge we face. The current doom and gloom attitude of the West threatens this spirit. Time to breathe new life into it and make the whole world benefit.
Secure your democracy
200 years ago, the West started embracing the idea that every human being deserves equal respect and equal opportunity to participate in civil and political life without discrimination or repression. This idea is currently under pressure, with politicians disqualifying entire groups in society based on religion or ethnic background, with income inequality rising again, freedom in decline worldwide, and even EU countries leaning towards authoritarian types of governance. Time to re-affirm the meaning of universal human dignity.
Secure your solidarity
100 years ago, the West started embracing a welfare system in which the state protects and promotes the economic and social well-being of its citizens. After World War II, this system got expanded in Western Europe in response to Fascism, Nazism and Communism. It had become painfully clear that people who have nothing to lose become prone to extreme politics. In this time of new uncertainty and discontent, the West can draw from its past a powerful incentive to invest in solidarity again. Globalization, automation and robotics will disturb the labor market to such an extent, that a growing group of unemployed people cannot be retrained in time and stay unemployed. It will be up to us to decide, whether we want to further humiliate these citizens by treating them as a ‘cost item’ to society, or invite them to show their value in other ways.
III. Start valuing your assets
Value your allies
If China can openly reject western democracy, Russia openly annex Crimea, and Turkey openly censor the media, western countries better start valuing their like-minded allies. This is the worst moment for the West to be internally divided, as it directly undermines the strength and credibility of western ideology. Building and preserving western partnerships, even at the cost of national sovereignty, may be the only way for the West to keep the critical mass that it needs to sustain what it holds dear.
Value your culture
In 2030, Asia will represent 66% of the global middle-class population and 59% of middle-class consumption. Economic power means cultural power: the world will see more eastern-oriented products, adapted to the preferences of the biggest market: Asia. The West will have to decide where it draws the line in adapting to this culture shift. Not for superiority reasons, but to maintain a western sense of home and preserve the cultural assets with which the West can complement other nations.
Value your planet
All of the above becomes irrelevant if the West cannot preserve the biggest asset it shares with all nations: our one world, with its global issues and vulnerable ecosystems. Before sustaining itself, the West needs a plan for the planet, for “there is no planet B”. The planet does not care about East or West, North or South. It only feels the weight of 7 billion people and eagerly awaits the moment in which all unite around one vision for the one earth we have.
In short, we urgently need western politicians who don’t give in to polarized debates but boldly manage to do both: preserving our assets with western nations as our contribution to the common good and our sense of home in the world, and preserving our planet with all nations to have a home at all.
What characterizes Western populism ? Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, gives the following answer:
In the aggregate, national populists oppose or reject liberal globalisation, mass immigration and the consensus politics of recent times. They promise instead to give voice to those who feel that they have been neglected, if not held in contempt, by increasingly distant elites.
Given the rise of populism in the West, what is so attractive about this opposition to liberal globalization, mass immigration and consensus politics? Some very basic human needs. And although one would expect every politician to address these needs, populists somehow manage to be more convincing to a growing group of people. Here they are:
Populists tackle people’s cultural need to come home somewhere.
Populists show that they realize that unlimited globalization leads to homelessness. A world that only facilitates free movements of people and ideas across the globe, makes people feel lost in their own country, city or street. ‘The world’ is too big and too diverse to provide a local neighborhood that feels safe and familiar. To feel at home somewhere, we need to understand the language of our neighbors, appreciate a common set of customs and attitudes, and share some basic values and convictions. Without these, a society becomes socially disintegrated and culturally perplexed.
Populists tackle people’s social need to be seen and economic need to be protected.
Populists show that they realize that people on the losing end of globalization, automation and robotics cannot keep hearing that these changes are unavoidable. They need politicians who can make them feel that they actually care about the ‘forgotten ones’ in society, and are willing to take an uncompromising stand in protecting their well-being.
Populists tackle people’s political need for clarity and leadership.
Populists show that they realize that people who are not trained to deal with complex issues can feel more and more lost in a world that gets more and more complicated. This group is not waiting for academic reflections on the uncertainty and ambiguity of things, but for a clear description of both the problem and the solution, and robust leadership when it comes to pursuing this solution.
So, here is the good news about Western populism: it raises awareness of some basic human needs that are currently insufficiently addressed, forcing other politicians to respond as well. The solutions that populists promote, are, however, not without a price:
Populists promote nationalism at the cost of global collaboration.
Protecting national cultures and economies won’t solve issues that still require international collaboration (cyber crime, nuclear risks, pandemics, international crime, global terrorism, climate change, etc.) It also won’t stop the dependency of countries on international trade. Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in combining all three: securing people’s cultural homes and securing international trade and securing the planet’s future. A juggle as difficult as it is unavoidable.
Populists provoke disappointment by over-shouting themselves.
In their effort to respond to people’s need for clarity and leadership, it is tempting for populists to bring a lot of misery in society back to one enemy or cause. Build a wall, leave the EU, stop the immigrants, fight Islam, and most will be well. This simplicity won’t last. One day, reality will reveal the true complexity of things – and who will people then believe? Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in offering a clear vision to people who deal with uncertainties, a vision that secures people’s well-being and keeps everyone participating, but without hiding unavoidable costs and difficulties.
Here are 2 lessons for Western politics we can draw from the above:
Don’t make people choose between nationalism or globalism, but invest in both a cultural home and collaboration across borders.
Don’t make people choose between compelling simplicity or realistic complexity, but invest in the clarity and leadership that is required to keep everyone on board in a transitioning society.
If you have a spare hour, enjoy the video below in which I take you around the globe, summarizing the major positive and negative trends in today’s world. In 2018, I held this lecture for senior leaders of major corporations in Sydney and Melbourne (companies like Perpetual Limited, QBE, Deloitte, Karrikins Group, Oxford University Press, Worley Parsons and Pearson) in my role as Chief of Vision within World Vision Australia. This video was recorded by QBE in Sydney.