Throughout the world, it seems, crisis is gripping national politics. In election after election, voter turnout has hit historic lows. Politicians are universally reviled. Mainstream parties, desperate to remain relevant, are caught in a vice, forced to choose between pandering to extremism and the risk of being overwhelmed by populist, anti-establishment movements.
Meanwhile, not since the end of World War II has money played such an important role in politics, trumping the power of ideas. In the United States, for example, the sound of billions of dollars flowing into election-campaign coffers is drowning out the voices of individual voters. In parts of the world where the rule of law is weak, criminal networks and corruption displace democratic processes. In short, the pursuit of the collective good looks sadly quaint.
The trouble began at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of a bankrupt communist ideology was complacently interpreted as the triumph of the market. As communism was discarded, so was the concept of the state as an agent around which our collective interests and ambitions could be organized.
The individual became the ultimate agent of change — an individual conceived as the type of rational actor that populates economists’ models. Such an individual’s identity is not derived from class interests or other sociological characteristics, but from the logic of the market, which dictates maximization of self-interest, whether as a producer, a consumer, or a voter.
Indeed, economics has been placed on a pedestal and enshrined in institutions like central banks and competition authorities, which have been intentionally separated and made independent from politics. As a result, governments have been confined to tinkering at the margins of markets’ allocation of resources.
The 2008 global financial crisis, the resulting recession, and rapidly widening income and wealth inequality have punctured the glib triumphalism of economics. But politics, far from rising to take its place, continues to be discredited, as mainstream leaders — particularly in North America and Europe — call on economic theories to justify their policy choices.
The pursuit of individual attainment is the hallmark of our time, eclipsing the collective dimension of human destiny. And yet the deep human need to be part of a group has yet to disappear. It lingers, but without a credible outlet. National projects ring hollow, and the so-called international community remains an abstraction. This unfulfilled desire for community may be felt particularly acutely by young people — including, for example, young jihadists.
Indeed, nationalist politicians and religious leaders have been the first to spot the vacuum, and they are rapidly filling it. Pope Francis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and French politician Marine Le Pen have little in common.
But they share one insight: There is a deep longing for the creation of communities defined by shared values, not functional needs.
The crisis of national politics has consequences that echo far beyond the borders of individual countries. National chauvinism and religious fundamentalism are here to stay, and with them the terrorism that extremists of all stripes embrace, because both phenomena are ideally suited to the age of the individual: They provide imaginary answers to personal angst, instead of political answers to collective challenges. These movements’ amorphous nature — often channeled through charismatic leaders — allows each individual to project onto them his or her dreams, making them difficult to counter within the framework of traditional politics.
But this strength can also be a weakness. When tasked with managing territories and governing populations, these movements begin to face the same bothersome logistical and organizational constraints as their rivals. As a result, bureaucracy is constantly at their heels, leaving them in perpetual need of upheaval and renewal.
If politics is to retake the field of values from the fanatics, the charlatans, and the economists, it must be rebuilt from the ground up. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and any political renaissance must counterbalance the appeal of vast virtual communities with resilient urban societies. Citizens must become reengaged with the political process, educated in public affairs, and provided with real (not merely virtual) platforms to air their differences and debate alternative views.
Furthermore, institutions that provide bridges between states and the global community, such as the European Union, must be strengthened and refocused. In particular, their technical functions must be clearly distinguished from their political roles.
But, above all, politicians must stop trying to shore up their diminished credibility with the pretense of economic science. Politics begins where contemporary economics ends — with ethics and the attempt to create a justly ordered society.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former under-secretary-general for Peacekeeping at the United Nations, is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group and the author of the forthcoming book “The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century.” © 2015 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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