“The beams of light in the dark include social movements like the women’s movement – notably the #MeToo movement – youth groups, groups of gay, lesbian and transgendered people, environmental groups – these offer a glimpse of hope and the possibility of nurturing new values for the future.”
“We can’t trust the political system we have been building. Liberal democracy is not working. There is a breakdown between governments and citizens. It’s a crisis of the model.”
This is the opinion of Donald Gordon STIAS fellow Prof. Manuel Castells, professor of communication, technology and science at the University of Southern California and winner of the 2012 Holberg Prize,who presented a public lecture entitled: Rupture. The Global Crisis of Liberal Democracy: Trump, Brexit and Beyond. This lecture summarised the findings of his book to be published by Polity Press in September. Castell’s focused on the conditions leading to the election of Trump and on Brexit as key examples of current developments.
“We live in a world engulfed in multiple crises,” he said. “Financial volatility, rampant inequality, global terrorism, moral uncertainty, climate change, widespread racism, sexism, xenophobia and geopolitical tensions. Yet, there is a more fundamental crisis: the crisis of liberal democracy. This is collapsing worldwide – because institutions only exist if they live in people’s minds. Today the large majority of people do not feel represented by their governments. While they believe in democracy they do not believe they are living in democracy.”
“The ideal of democracy is dying,” he added.
He pointed out that over two thirds of citizens do not feel represented by their governments or political parties, and 80% think politicians work only for themselves.
“Politicians are universally despised. The media is not trusted,” he added. “Established churches are in deep crisis – especially the Catholic Church. Evangelical churches are emerging as a key force (Brazil was 98% Catholic 20 years ago, now its 78% evangelical). In times of uncertainty people go back to religion but not necessarily religious institutions linked to the state.”
“People are more interested in politics than ever before but we don’t trust the people who get our votes and manage our money.”
Castell’s believes that recent political developments show that people are ready for alternative political option with which they can identify, regardless of its moral standing. He believes this explains the rise to power of Trump, Brexit, the neo-fascist governments in Italy and Eastern Europe, the collapse of Brazilian democracy, and the crisis of legitimacy in Latin America, together with the persistence of corruption in most African countries.
“All of these reflect the political crisis of the last 5 to 10 years,” he said.
“Currently the most effective systems are in countries that are authoritarian not democratic. China and Russia don’t even pretend to be democracies.”
And South African has not been immune to these global developments.
“South Africa is no special case,” he said. “Only 15% of the population trust the government. There has been a loss of legitimacy; the collapse of ANC control; resignation of the president under pressure; and, the rising influence of parties like the Economic Freedom Front particularly among young people.”
“Luckily,” he added, “South Africa has a good judiciary and media.”
The Trump movement
“When it comes to Trump we have to analyse how it happened,” said Castells. He pointed to some of the factors he believes were important including Trump’s openly anti-globalism rhetoric; his outright condemnation of Mexicans “describing them as rapists, criminals and traffickers”, Russian collusion particularly regarding email hacking and social media; and, Trump’s extremely savvy media strategy – “The most important thing in the media is to be in the media. Trump is outrageous but the world talks about him. He governs by twitter and we are all waiting for the next juicy statement.”
“Trump turned himself into a movement – he gave the anti-establishment a face.”
“But, in the end, the interesting thing is who actually voted for Trump,” said Castells. “This was largely less-educated whites – 75% of whom voted for Trump. The white working class, especially in the rural mid-West, was mobilised. They are the group who perceive themselves to be most affected by globalisation. Older people, marginalised by globalisation and technology, against the cosmopolitanism of the elite, threated by invasion – so called ‘strangers in their own land’.”
“The election was dominated by the politics of identity,” he continued. “And Trump was able to mobilise the identity of white males.”
“He also said what many Americans were thinking but wouldn’t openly declare.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “Hillary Clinton did everything she could to lose the election despite having more money and resources at her disposal.”
“Even 52% of white women voted for Trump.” he added.
Since taking over, Trump has introduced conservative economic policies including cutting social programmes and making tax cuts “all of which is okay with the white working class who voted for him,” said Castells. “The Democratic Party, by contrast, is in disarray – seen as supported by ethnic minorities and increasingly in contradiction with the white working class.”
Increasing US isolationism and the loss of power and influence in the world means that countries like China are filling the void especially in Latin America.
Castells believes that similar forces led to the Brexit decision in the UK.
“The referendum was an election promise made by David Cameron – he was confident he would win and the issue would be finally settled. All three parties were in favour of remaining in the European Union and did not predict the outcome – 60% of Conservatives and 40% of Labour voted for Brexit – 51.9% in the UK as a whole.”
Castells pointed out that again it was older, less-educated people who voted in favour of Brexit.
“People over 65, working class – many of whom don’t feel prepared to compete in the global world and feel left behind by globalisation.”
Among the factors he highlighted as influencing their decision was opposition to Europeans coming to the UK perceived as being in competition for jobs, social services, education and housing; the lack of a common European identity; questions about the legitimacy of the EU bureaucracy; and, opposition to austerity policies led by Germany.
“The vote was seen as an opportunity to take back control of their lives.”
Castell’s mentioned other concerning developments in Europe: “Countries like Italy, Poland, Hungary and Austria are all being led by openly nationalistic leaders. Italy has closed its borders to refugees describing them as ‘human flesh’; Hungary has imposed a 25% tax on NGOs that help others in the world; even Scandinavian countries – usually a beacon of hope – have seen some rise in support for more nationalist parties.”
“The EU may not survive,” he continued. “There is no common European identity and policy.”
He highlighted the new kind of politics in the world which uses big data to manage proceedings; extensive media politics; is based on the personality of the leader; and, destroys the opposition by destroying trust.
“You can find enough dirt to destroy anyone,” he said. “The media co-operates because scandals sell. Not using these tactics means you are beaten.”
“Politics today is also very expensive which means leaders need to accumulate large amounts of capital – opening themselves to corruption.”
“Social networks have expanded citizens’ participation in politics but everyone also has the ability to spread fake news – leading to increased uncertainty.”
“We literally do not have methodologies to predict or understand the future,” he continued. “We do not have any instruments to manage the multiple crises threatening our lives.”
But Castells ended on a positive note.
“We are in a crisis of legitimacy but there are embryos of hope in social movements and in alternatives being presented by some governments like France and Spain. We need to nurture these different values. Reconstruction is possible but needs to start from social movements and work upwards.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan