Extremist leaders taking reins from the liberals have frozen ice in global diplomacy leading to social and economic losses which is wrongly hid in the name of slowdown
By Chandan Kumar
They believe in hyper-nationalism, prefer protectionism to free trade, are not very well disposed towards immigrants and take pride in deriding the erstwhile ruling elite. They are the strong leaders the world is faced with, right wing when it comes to cultural ideas but left-of-centre, according to conventional classification, in their economic views. From Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to Donald Trump of the United States, they are called the new democratically elected sultans. Have they gained traction and continue to do so because of growing Islamophobia? Careful analyses of the makings of these strong leaders, however, suggest otherwise. Erdogan has been one of the first of such strong leaders to have entered the world stage and the so-called Islamophobia did not play any role in his rise.
It would be a serious error to interpret the authoritarian drive in Turkey through a cultural/civilizational lens: it is not an extreme move by a power-crazy dictator, still less the finally unveiled predictable outcome of political Islam’s strategy. It is not the result of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the secular West, in the sense of Samuel Huntington’s apocalyptic prophecy. The current conflict in Turkey is not a battle between secularism and religion, but one between dictatorship and democracy. The authoritarian drive by Erdoğan is disastrous news for everyone struggling for freedom, democracy, and social justice: atheists, Muslims or Christians.
Erdoğan’s right-wing authoritarian move, allegedly in response to the 2016 July coup attempt, is not an isolated event, but part of a surge to right-wing authoritarianism in world politics. Similar developments include the rise of the far right across Europe, razor fences covering Eastern Europe’s borders reflecting growing xenophobia and fear of the other(s), militant Hindi nationalism in Modi’s India, Shinzo Abe’s campaign for ‘national revival’ in Japan, and the militaristic tactics of Duterte in the Philippines. This right-wing authoritarian surge is not rooted in the personalities or psychology of Trump and Erdoğan or other similar political leaders. Nor is it simply a device by various right-wing populist politicians to exploit voters’ simmering dissatisfaction with the existing economic and political order and use it for their own political benefit. Such calculations are of course present but underneath such political manoeuvres, long-term historical factors are at work, factors affecting the changing power balance in the world. Trump, Erdogan and others in the ‘ring of autocrats’ are less the creators than the outcome of protracted economic, social and political processes.
Western right-wing authoritarianism has adopted sometimes a Christian and sometimes a secular form, but both are equally anti-migrant and anti-Islamic; Turkish right-wing authoritarianism has adopted anti-Kurdish and Islamic forms. But this should not deceive us about what is really at stake. In both cases, the right-wing authoritarian drive is based on repressive social conservatism” quote=”the right-wing authoritarian drive is based on repressive social conservatism that legitimises dangerous paths against democracy, individual rights and social justice. All such right-wing shifts are the results of an increasingly more volatile and chaotic international situation, which is the direct consequence of a process of what Arrighi called ‘Hegemonic Transition’ within a period of systemic chaos. The late twentieth-century saw renewed great power rivalry, system-wide financial excesses and bursting bubbles centred on the declining US hegemon, and the emergence of new loci of power, in particular China and India. So, the core logic of this right-wing move can be analyzed properly within the context of major global structural changes which have been affecting the world system for the last 20-25 years.
When the authority of a major power or global superpower is on the wane, this affects the entire world order and leads to instability. According to many experts, the US is facing a decline that has grown ever more noticeable since the end of the Cold War. Even though the US still represents the largest and strongest economic and military power in the world, it is nevertheless struggling with severe weaknesses resulting from low economic growth and the protracted decline of its industry. The most important, structural transformation that took place in the US-led global economic system after WWII was a massive crisis in manufacturing manifesting itself as stagflation (economic stagnation accompanied by double-digit inflation). The decline in productive capacity and the ever-widening gap between productive and financial accumulation lead to recurrent financial and economic crises in every corner of the world. The global chain of extreme financialisation and speculative profiteering broke in 2007-09, only to be transplanted into the eurozone via the over-leveraged banking sector.
In parallel to this decline in the overall weight and influence of the US, the last two decades have witnessed the emergence of other economic powers pushing themselves to the top position, with, as a result, the global power balance altered in a fundamental shift towards a multi-polar world system. New centres with global influence have emerged in Southeast Asia, in particular China and India. Other states of medium size, regional or emerging powers, have also increased their influence in the same period.
The rise of the new emerging powers was not, and will not, be linear, mainly due to the major differences between countries and the exceedingly inconsistent domestic situation in many of them. Economic growth, the size of the population and the country, do not automatically confer regional, let alone global, leadership. The criteria are set far higher: reliability, trust of one’s neighbours, soft power capability, and provision of public goods for the region and beyond.
The US-centred world we have known is fast losing its predominance and being replaced by a new international system shaped by the arrival of these new actors. This is basically what causes the breakdown of the global order and the turn of the ruling elite in many countries to unconstrained economic and political nationalism. The West, collectively, noticeably does not have the means to back up its policies in the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia. The new emerging powers, on the other hand, aspire to a new order of global politics, but, lacking any real leadership capacity, are not yet in a position to impose their will upon various regional and global conflicts. There are global and regional governance gaps fuelling many ongoing conflicts from Syria to Ukraine, from a range of Latin American countries to the eurozone. The US is more and more losing its ability to take the lead and govern, and the newly emerging countries have serious intentions to fill the vacuum, but are not yet ready, nor powerful enough to lead. Therefore, leadership, order, and regional and global governance are no longer assured.
The world is currently in a fragile imbalance as the global hegemon’s decline continues, described fittingly by celebrated Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf: US power has retreated both geo-politically and economically and we are living, ‘once again, in an era of strident nationalism and xenophobia’. Rising levels of inequality, unemployment, frustration and anxiety in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 have created conditions much more favourable to the more recent expansion of pseudo-conservative movements and the intensification of the authoritarian aspects of their rhetoric. In the long history of global political economy, crises come and go, as do the focal points around which they form. To understand the dynamics of the current process of right-wing authoritarian shifts we must also understand the history that gives it volume and reach. The victories of Trump in the US, the ‘Leave’ campaign in Britain, or Erdogan’s authoritarian move are but epiphenomena of momentous shifts in the global political economy and international geo-political alignments that have been taking place more openly since the end of the Cold War.
BREXIT, TRUMP, LE PEN
Is there really an international wave of a hard-right populism? Are the masses rising up around the world to topple corrupt elites? Or is talk of this colossal political shift just jargon, guff and cocktail chatter concocted by analysts searching for patterns when the victories of Donald Trump in the US presidential election and Britain’s decision to leave the EU – to name the two most significant results in the West – could just be unconnected blips?
A year ago, the evidence for a global phenomenon was weak. Hungary and Poland had elected rightist, anti-globalization governments, and France, the Netherlands, Sweden and a few other European nations had hard-right parties that were beginning, maybe, to look like electoral contenders. The UK Was heading for a vote on its EU membership, but few people thought a majority would vote for Brexit. At that point, Trump seemed to be just a whacky sideshow in a Republican primary.
The evidence of an international populist surge has grown since then. Trump’s victory has made it harder for centrists to close their eyes and hope nationalism will just disappear. His triumph was a shock in many ways, but one of the most sobering aspects of it is his warmth towards prominent authoritarian leaders and foreign politicians with frankly alarming views. Trump’s counterparts in Europe, long confined to the margins of politics, will watch with admiration as the billionaire, soon to become the world’s most powerful person, takes office on 20 January.
The 45th US president will have a growing amount of like-minded company at marquee meetings like the G20 and the UN General Assembly, where the power players have, in recent years, been centrists like President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If the Front National’s Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election in May, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council would be led by Trump, Le Pen, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Britain’s Theresa May, who is ushering the UK. Out of the EU (even though she campaigned, tepidly, for it to remain). With the possible exception of May, none seem thrilled about how the world has worked since the end of the Cold War.
In the two pieces that follow, we look at what’s happening in Eastern and Western Europe to try to understand what’s behind this populist revolt. The last time the world saw a spike in nationalism – the early 1990s – the cause was fairly clear: the end of the Cold War had allowed many long-suppressed national desires to violently erupt, often along ethnic lines. So what’s behind the current tumult? No single political upheaval has shaken the world – and by many measures, people are generally richer, healthier, better educated and living in less violent societies than ever before.
But the world today is also far more divided between rich and poor than it was a quarter of a century ago. The 10 wealthiest people on the planet collectively hold $500bn (£400m), more than most countries produce in a year, according to Forbes. There’s also an increased sense that the very rich buy political influence, perhaps more than ever. Increased migration has revealed how many in the West remain hostile to outsiders – from Syrian refugees to Polish or Honduran immigrants; champions of globalisation had assumed that sort of animus had waned. And social media and information technology have accelerated our ability to form closed, like-minded groups – and to get very angry at one another in public without apparent consequence. As defined, populism – ideas intended to give ordinary people what they want – seems beneficent. But is what the people want now as violent as their leaders’ rhetoric? And with insurgencies mounting from east and west to throw out the elites in cosmopolitan cities like Paris and Amsterdam, which side will prevail?
HIT ON ECONOMY
Turkey had an average inflation of 75 percent in the 1980s and 50 percent in the 1990s. Years of political uncertainty – the country had had a new government every nine months since World War II – slowed down the economy considerably. Turkey’s 1982 constitution had “established the military and the courts as protectors of the secular state”, writes Ruchir Sharma in his book Breakout Nations.
This was the background to the rise of Erdogan, a leader considered culturally right in an otherwise deeply secular Turkey. Just a year after its formation, his AK party swept the parliamentary polls in the country in 2002 and Erdogan became the prime minister a year later. He has won all elections since then.
Armed with the majority that voted for him in the recently concluded referendum in Turkey, Erdogan can potentially rule the Eurasian nation for another 12 years. This will make him the country’s longest-serving head of state, taking him past Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and hitherto the foremost leader of modern Turkey.
Ironically, Erdogan stands for everything that Ataturk used to debunk. Erdogan was once reportedly jailed for four months for publicly reading out a poem that said, among other things, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
A Turkey modelled on Ataturk’s principles imposed secularism from the top. Secularism, therefore, was elevated to the position of a new religion “dedicated to protecting Turks from Islam”. Erdogan, however, was shrewd enough to opt for the middle path, at least in his early days. He neither supported freethinking secularism nor did he endorse radical Islam.
He adopted moderate Islam as his political philosophy and had a passionate desire to pull the nation out of the quagmire of a potential economic breakdown. He did not promise more or less Islam (he was not required to raise the bogey of Islamophobia as Turkey is a Muslim-majority country).
He promised an economically powerful Turkey and delivered. Now that the country’s economy has begun to falter, he is increasingly turning towards radical Islam – an outcome that is evident in other parts of the world, including South Asia. Incidentally, a victory in the recently held referendum notwithstanding, Erdogan does not enjoy the kind of support he used to a few years ago.
EFFECT ON INSTITUTIONAS
It has been found that as and when right wing leaders took over, institutions that have been serving for long starts wilting. Recently, we saw this at the UN when the US envoy threatened to curtail its contribution for not behaving like its beck and call organization on the matter of Jerusalem.
“The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in this assembly. We will remember it when we are called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution to the UN and when other member nations ask Washington to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit,” said US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley just ahead of the voting at the UN on Jerusalem. Rather accepting the UN resolution Haley went on to add, “This vote will make a difference in how Americans look at the UN and this vote will be remembered.”
Similarly, we have been receiving news of Election Commission succumbing to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s might and not allowing any of Putin’s critics to run for Presidency of Russia. In Europe, right wing leaders have shown that their personal ego is above the interest of whole union. As a result, nobody is ready to break the ice and try solve the Catalan issue through a strong European Union platform as Spain is under a leader who believes in extremism and not ready to accept results of the plebiscites if not the public mood. Whole EU has been a mute expectators in this entire episode which is not good for Europe.
CREDIT TO PUTIN
Vladimir Putin assumed office in Russia around the same time as Erdogan, in 2000 to be precise. The kind of changes he brought in his early days – consolidation of banks, cutting red tape and bringing income tax rates to 13 percent – led to a consumer boom never seen before. The per capita income, as a result, shot up from $1,500 in the 1990s to $13,000 around 2010, as Breakout Nations points out. In this case too, fixing the basics of the economy added to Putin’s popularity; everything else was incidental.
A conclusive analysis of the rise of Donald Trump will have to wait for a while. Suffice is it to say that Trump benefited substantially from the devastating impact of the severe economic crisis the US faced after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
While the Obama years saw a partial economic recovery, fuelled largely by extremely high dosage of liquidity injection by the Federal Reserve, growth remained mostly jobless for years. For a generation of jobless Americans, Trump perhaps managed to sell his idea of “making America great, again” (whatever that means is immaterial).
So, in short, right wing leaders taking reins from the liberals have frozen ice the global diplomacy that has led to social and economic losses which is wrongly hid in the name of slowdown.
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