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Three visions of politics: Europe in the millennial world

About the author
Ian Christie is a writer, researcher and local government policymaker. He was joint head of environmental and economic policy at Surrey County Council.
When working at the Henley Centre for Forecasting in the mid-1990s I developed a set of three scenarios based on an analysis of changing values and political faultlines. All three scenarios (or better, summaries of political outlooks and cultures) amounted to clusters of attitudes and political positions that would be powerful features of the millennial world in the west.

The scenarios were these:

A "high stakes" model of development (United States-dominated, depending on liberalised markets, economic growth, aggressive development of science and technology, and diffusion of American products, services and commercial values).

A "shared values" model (broadly social democratic – under pressure from the "high stakes" approach to global market development; a model of politics and economic development emphasising social capital, tolerance, multiculturalism, consensus and limits to social and economic inequalities).

A "natural orders" model – covering Greens, fundamentalists, localists and communitarians of left and right, and also neo-fascists. "Natural orders" covers the protesters against the latest wave of the Enlightenment and Industrialism i.e. globalisation and European Union integration.

The third, "natural orders" cluster spans both left and right in the traditional classification of political alignments: it contains protests by local and national interests against the homogenising, top-down capitalist forces that are shaping the values, tempo, environments and organisation of modern societies. What links all of them is the non-Enlightenment view that there are natural limits or imperatives that science, progress and secular rational humanism cannot ignore. Some see these as purely environmental; some – on what we have always called the right – see them as social and cultural, or even racial as well.

Greens, anti-globalisers – which side are you on?

The demise of socialism and communism has made the world open up to the latest wave of top-down universalising industrialism from the west. And it has revealed anew the older faultlines in the Enlightenment – tensions that run through whole societies, cultures, political parties and also individuals.

These are the tensions between the light and dark sides of universalism, embodied in a number of key oppositions:

Between the ideal of global human rights and democracy, and the flattening of local communities by more homogenised national and cosmopolitan cultures; between the benefits of scientific and technical progress (longevity, better health, better mobility) and the cultural, social and environmental drawbacks; between the tempo of commercialised, competitive life and that of more sociable communities; between the disrespect of modernity for tradition, and the deep attachment to older forms of community and identity; between the benefits of secularisation (tolerance, rational governance) and the drawbacks of the fading of religious culture in the west (triviality, rootlessness, the risk of nihilism and personal meaninglessness).

Most of us are uneasy hybrids of rationalist and romantic – a tension resolved so far in the west through the unheroic medium of consumerism, but one that is always liable to disrupt personal or social equilibrium.

These tensions have always cut across simple left and right divisions ever since the Enlightenment and the rise of Romanticism, but they were obscured in large part by the cold war. The rise of environmentalism has revealed these tensions in a new light, as has the wave of globalisation since the mid-1980s.

Environmentalism is split between green modernisers, who hold to varieties of pro-Enlightenment positions, and "deeper" Greens whose localism, spirituality and anti-capitalist stance can locate them simultaneously in places associated with the far left or right. Similarly, anti-globalisers occupy a spectrum from those concerned to humanise capitalist globalisation, to those resisting it in the name of localism, self-governance, religion or varieties of socialism.

The world we are in is one where a struggle is occurring within the Enlightenment-Industrial tradition, between the present American "high stakes" culture and the broadly (but not exclusively) European ‘shared values’ perspective – what I have also called the struggle between a "frontier" view of progress that now dominates the US and global capital, and a "chastened" view of the Enlightenment "project" that is most credible in the EU and among a minority of corporations. This struggle is complicated by the intellectual and political guerrilla warfare being conducted on its fringes, and sometimes in its heartland, by "natural orders" cultures – from deep Greens to Jean-Marie Le Pen, from al-Qaida to Adbusters.

For the struggle for "natural orders" cultures is not just against their obvious adversaries in the cosmopolitan world system, but against each other’s attempt to claim this perspective for themselves. Thus, George Monbiot is horrified that he is being cited by the far right, but his "natural orders" perspective on globalisation is far from the only one, and in many ways the straightforward "blood and soil" line peddled by the hard right in France looks like a more coherent position than Monbiot’s.

Monbiot’s sought-for position is in many ways a very desirable one – but like democratic socialism it takes a lot of explaining. There is no doubt that some ecological themes could yet be taken up by far-right groups, just as Pim Fortuyn’s movement has managed to appropriate some liberal ones and connect them to an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant message. The force might yet be with the simplifiers in the natural-orders world – fundamentalists and local reactionaries – and we may yet see more conflict between varieties of Green radicals and the far-right movements. The killing of Pim Fortuyn by a radical animal-rights protester is – one hopes – an isolated incident. But it can be seen as a grisly illustration of what could happen if the "left" elements in the natural-orders cultures on the margins of modern politics see the banner of opposition to a corrupt, short-sighted and complacent political establishment being seized by the reactionary and racist ones.

Beyond "left" and "right"

One perspective on this whole complex of issues is to argue that the major faultline in 21st-century politics is the one emerging between cosmopolitans and communalists/localisers, and that for right and left alike this is a baffling and deeply disquieting situation.

The pro-Enlightenment cosmopolitans are divided between neo-liberals and social democrats/environmentalists, and the "natural orders" spectrum is divided between neo-fascists, religious fundamentalists, communitarian democrats such as John Gray, and varieties of radical environmentalists.

Thus, adopting a pro-Enlightenment cosmopolitan position can bring one into alliance with people one doesn’t want to support (e.g. free trade neo-liberals and GM food barons); and being a Green anti-globaliser now seems to involve having common ground with the likes of Le Pen.

These tensions, always present in modern politics, are coming out in force now that the big left-right confrontation has faded away. Arguing for a locally sensitive, pluralist and environmentally sound cosmopolitanism (a "shared values" scenario) can be extremely hard to do in straightforward terms when up against the "natural orders" arguments of the localist right – who are now finding new "modernised" ways to get their message over to the proponents of the "high stakes" and "shared values" cultures.

And as Anthony Barnett has argued, this is not just a problem for social democrats: the pro-market corporate right (favouring the "high stakes" scenario) is in some ways more threatened by the localist/nativist "natural orders" hard right than it is by the left.

It is now widely accepted that some serious attempt must be made to make globalisation more humane, environmentally responsible and less threatening to local community and identity. But to achieve this aim could be described as the greatest challenge of the era.

There is no escaping the fact that political universalism and economic progress have combined to produce not only many benefits but also a less diverse set of societies and cultures, and that the homogenising process seems set to continue. How does the recognition and reassurance of the best in local identities fit with the cosmopolitan projects of the European Union and the "international community"?

The failure of the globalising elites to address this issue is now plain for all to see. The European Commission, the G8, the World Trade Organisation and Nafta have all given ample ammunition to the worst as well as the best of the "natural orders" cultures, which now have to be taken with the utmost seriousness. One might add that we need powerful arguments to be rehearsed in academe for "chastened universalism" and for ways to reconcile Enlightenment values with desirable local diversity – a task neglected while many supposedly progressive thinkers have indulged in "postmodernist" Enlightenment-bashing and celebrations of cultural relativism.

But that said, is there really any scope for "natural orders" scenarios to dominate our future? Surely their role in modern societies is simply to challenge and harass the leading cultures – the American "high stakes" model and the kinder, gentler "shared values" model – whose hegemony is assured? Surely the governments of the future will be dominated by varieties of these political cultures?

A fourth position: after the EU?

The answer to these questions is a probable, but not certain, yes. Only probable, because the upsurge of anti-globalisation sentiments in so many forms should give pause for thought.

Consider this. One scenario for 2020 that no-one has been taking seriously is the disintegration of the EU as we know it, and the emergence of a right-nationalist alliance of states. Yet this looks like a possible outcome of the following confluence of events:

 

  • more Islamist terror in the West (very likely)
  • more pressure for illegal immigration from a more turbulent Middle East/Maghreb (very likely)
  • more communal conflict in EU cities with large Islamic/black populations (likely)
  • at least one big economic recession (possible) and severe pressure on the Euro (possible)
  • and major problems of unemployment and inappropriate interest rates across EU regions (likely)
  • strengthening of far right and knock-on influence on mainstream right politics (possible)

As the sociologist Peter Berger has said, the modernisation process – which never finishes – exacts a high price in terms of human meaning. It is immensely disruptive of settled identities and communal bonds, and of the relationship between past and future.

The millennial commercial globalisation we are living through is the latest wave of modernisation, and perhaps the most disruptive yet. Rather than being surprised by the upsurge of varieties of "natural orders" resistance, we should wonder that it took so long for them to hit out after the end of the cold war and the worldwide offensive of triumphalist frontier capitalism.


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