Age of Emergence
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Age of Emergence

A Crisis of Leadership — Part 2

Reflecting on the civilizational narrative

Mural by Shilo Shiv Suleman

The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
~Jeremy Lent, Coronavirus spells the end of the neoliberal era. What’s next?

Today, we are facing a leadership crisis. Globally. Trust in national leaders is at an all-time low. And this is true for countries in the global North as well as in the global South. A slew of demagogic, strongman leaders have risen across the globe — the likes of Modi, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Erdogan, and such. The current, overarching civilizational narrative, which I have written about here and here and here, have hollowed out the foundations of our countries, of our economies. The more-than-500-year-old civilizational arc of imperialism and colonization followed by neocolonialism in the form of deregulated capitalism and ‘free market’ have destroyed the institutions and bulwarks of nations and societies.

This narrative arc founded on a hegemonic, Eurocentric narrative of progress and development propagated faithfully for decades by media, academia, think tanks, businesses, governmental and non-governmental bodies, and upheld by politics and policies have led to profound inequities and injustices around the world. The façade of free market capitalism — underscored by deregulation, privatization, and austerity — has been successfully used by a nexus of nations, politicians, and powerful corporations to strengthen the stranglehold of a few individuals and industries over politics, policies, and processes at global levels.

I won’t delve deeper into these economic programs here but highly recommend the following books by Jason Hickel, The Divide and Less is More, for a deeper understanding of how these neoliberal policies have the world in a chokehold. Also, how powerful nations are using these policies to maintain control in the post-colonial period.

The notion of the market as a stabilizing force has obviously not worked out. It is evident not only in the poorer countries like Africa and India, but also in the so called ‘developed nations’ like the USA. In a rich nation like the USA, 17 out of every 10,000 people in were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2019 during HUD’s Annual Point-in-Time Count. Projections based on a recent analysis by researchers at the United Nations University (UNU) show that, in the worst-case scenario, 104 million more people in India could fall below the World Bank-determined poverty line of $3.2 a day for lower-middle-income countries. At present, 60 per cent of India’s population, or an estimated 812 million people, live below that poverty line.

The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few — where the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%, says Oxfam — have led to an inequitable, unjust, and a fractured world. A nexus of politicians, corporations, and influential interest groups (big pharma, big oil, and big tech) have constantly lobbied for further deregulation in the name of free market, which has abetted the rise of authoritarianism and oligarchy, and a further concentration of profit, power, and privileges. The outcome is visible for all to see. Anand Giridhardas’ recent article, Warren Buffett and the Myth of the ‘Good Billionaire’ is an illuminating piece on the toxicity of a system that allows obscene wealth accumulation.

The 2020 Credit Suisse Global Wealth report makes for stark reading. Released at the end of October, it revealed that the top one percent of households globally own 43 percent of all personal wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own only one percent. ~Top 1% of household own 43% of global wealth

Evidently, the ‘progress and development’ narrative hasn’t worked for billions. It was never really meant to. It is worth remembering that this was Point 4 of Harry Truman’s speech made essentially for impact. It was pure PR activity without any foundation whatsoever. The subsequent narrative was a façade concocted by the powerful to re-claim power and dominance over vast resources across the planet — natural and human — which they feared losing in the post-colonial age.

The usual tales of progress in technology and science are touted as success stories of the free market, neoliberal era. Yes, indeed there has been progress. Technology enables me to put my thoughts out to the world. Technology allowed millions to work from home amid a raging global pandemic. Nonetheless, the ill effects are overriding the benefits as is evident from the ecological crisis and impending sixth mass extinction, the wars, the genocides, the rising poverty, and now, the pandemic. To quote Otto Scharmer, “We have collectively created results that nobody wants.”

All in all, our current civilizational narrative based on five denialsof nature, of human limits, of our inextricable interconnectedness, of our humanity, and of other worldviews (the Eurocentric one has been imposed for centuries as part of the project of colonization as the only legitimate one) — have brought us to this point of civilizational collapse. As this narrative has increasingly frayed and revealed the brokenness of the world beneath, whitewashing it has become more and more difficult. The pandemic finally became a point of rupture and discontinuity that ripped apart the veneer and revealed all the sordidness underlying the myth of progress. The beneficiaries of neoliberalization — the rich and the upper middle class have not been spared either. Covid shrunk India’s middle class by 32 million, pushed 75 million into poverty in 2020: Pew. The neoliberal dream has collapsed. It never worked for all. And now it has ceased to work at all.

Neoliberalism, by concentrating vast wealth in the hands of a few, have created a splintered, polarized, unbalanced, and unfair world. Deregulation has been used to further push people into depths of poverty by removing all checks and balances on corporations in the name of ease of doing business. When vast majorities lead lives of constant insecurity, frustration, misery, and bitterness, despair takes over. People are consumed by hopelessness. Workers get barely sustainable wages and have no means of redress. CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978. Typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time.

This flawed narrative has not only created a broken and unsustainable world but has also destroyed the underpinnings of leadership. The metaphor of the world as machine gave rise to organizations as machines where individuals were mere replaceable cogs. The drive for evermore power, profit, and productivity stripped work of joy and meaning. More perniciously, this narrative divested leadership of true meaning and significance. Qualities like aggressiveness, arrogance, ruthlessness, decisiveness, and hyper-competitiveness came to be seen as hallmarks of a strong leader. This led to oppressive, command and control organizations and the rise of authoritarian leaders in nations-states. Business schools conflated leadership with administrative abilities thus creating further dissonance and generations of misguided ‘leaders’.

Thus, after decades of treating organizations as machines, humans as replaceable cogs, nature as the provider of raw materials, poorer global South countries as suppliers of cheap labor and resources, and leaders as those who can extract and exploit the most, we have collectively created a world that is broken. Fractured. Polarized. Hurting. Traumatized. And leadership across the board has failed spectacularly.

As the void of hopelessness grow, people fall prey to all kinds of manipulation and machinations. Hence, the rise of strongman leaders is simply a symptom of the deeper malaise beneath. Adept at manipulating collective public sentiments and deep-seated insecurities by deflecting blame onto a fictitious ‘Other’ — immigrants, Muslims, people of color, Asians, and anyone else who can be used for deflection and distraction strategy — authoritarian and demagogic leaders obfuscate the real issues. Their sole aim is to direct anger and scrutiny away from the actual challenges towards an ‘Other’ who can be conveniently blamed for the current malaise.

A malaise that has risen from the civilizational narrative running the show for centuries. A narrative and an economic structure that puts exploitation, extraction, expropriation, and exclusion front and center. An economy that strives for infinite growth on a finite planet and is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone that stands in the way of endless, insatiable accumulation. This narrative has stripped our civilization of all values that make life meaningful — generosity, compassion, collaboration, beauty, grace, dignity, and meaning. It has rendered the world soulless; separated humans from all that is good.

Unfortunately, despairing people cannot critically reflect. They are trapped in a daily grind for mere existence. They fall prey to such leaders who profess to be their saviors. And it suits such leaders to keep the populace feeling desolate, isolated, and anxious. A desperate person will accept bare minimum wages in the face of joblessness and starvation. Frantic individuals will lash out at those even weaker than themselves to protect the crumbs they have. It does not occur to them to question, “who is reaping the benefits of their labor?” And the vicious cycle repeats.

Hence, we get a growing class of leaders like Modi, Bolsonaro, Johnson, and Erdogan who rise on the ashes of people’s desperation and pain. Their words, intentions, and actions are meant to mask the truth from the common citizens through propaganda and various forms of oppression and suppression. In India, for example, the Modi regime has been indiscriminately incarcerating dissenters like students, activists, academics, journalists — basically anyone who threatens to reveal the truth and has the gall to question the government. Mainstream media has become a propaganda arm of the government with the sole purpose to misinform and disinform the public, create confusion, and deflect honest scrutiny from the actions of the government.

However, against this backdrop of fracture, fragmentation, and failed nation-states, there is an ever-growing rise of grassroots voices across the globe. These global movements signify a deep discontinuity, a growing incoherence in the present narrative that is being felt by a vast majority of the world’s population. The first decade of the 21st Century was literally a decade of movements. This foretells that the current world order is not working for the majority. The spell is broken. People are rising across the globe to claim their rights — a dignified, meaningful, secure life and livelihood.

The rise of movements and dissent from #Occupy Wall Street to #Extinction Rebellion, from #FridaysforFuture to #FarmersProtest, from #BlackLivesMatter to #DemocracyforMyanmar show that common people have seen through the façade and have stepped up to reimagine a different world — a world that works for all. The desperate attempts to keep the old show running is only resulting in unrest, upheavals, and uprisings. And these are not restricted to a couple of countries. They are now worldwide — in the Global North and the Global South.

While the movements appear to be disconnected, they are not. They are bound together by a set of values and beliefs that are life-affirming, regenerative. Some of the connecting themes as I see them:

1. The rise of grassroots voices from the margins are the unheard, unseen, unacknowledged voices that have been delegitimized for centuries by the dominant narrative running the show today.

2. These voices herald a new world order — a new civilizational narrative founded not on the hegemonic voices of a few Europeans but on the plurality of voices rising from the margins spanning the globe.

3. This ‘movement of movements’ is cutting across national, societal, and communal boundaries demonstrating our inextricable interconnectedness.

4. If the civilizational narrative running the show today emphasizes ‘survival of the fittest,’ ‘winner takes all,’ and ‘let market forces prevail,’ the movements are indicating a future that is founded on compassion, equity, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. A world that works for all.

5. Most importantly, the movements are giving rise to ‘facilitative leadership’ from all spheres of society proving the innate ability of humans to self-organize and lead themselves (and eliminating the need for strongman leaders).

One crucial point to note is that the existing hegemonic narrative was dreamed up by a handful of privileged white men. The counter narrative that is rising across the globe is pluriversal. It is rising from the grassroots, from many voices, from myriad sections of societies — students, farmers, housewives, activists, journalists, and even children. Increasingly, it is becoming evident that the old world is dying, and new is being born. It is taking birth through many voices, many dreams, many aspirations, and many hopes. The change is sweeping across countries.

The pandemic — a point of discontinuity and disruption — forced the cogs of old world to pause. The economic juggernaut, once considered unstoppable, was forced to judder to a halt. The markers of privilege crumbled in the face of the pandemic. Yes, the rich were still better able to meet the crisis, but they were no longer unscathed. As the pandemic swept across nations completely disregarding borders and disrespectful of class, color, and caste, the inextricable interconnectedness and fragility of life became apparent. It showed us that fractured and inequitable nations cannot survive and emerge victorious.

While policies, politicians, and plutocrats proudly tout globalization and boundarylessness of the 21st Century world, invisible ‘boundaries’ have always existed — between rich and poor nations, between rich and poor people, between citizens and immigrants, between upper class, upper caste and the opposite. They still exist and will not be wiped out so easily. However, the pandemic revealed the disparities with brutal honesty forcing us to rethink our civilizational narrative and the qualities of leadership that have for centuries propagated a myth of progress and development that constantly benefitted a few at the cost of billions.

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Sahana Chattopadhyay

Sahana Chattopadhyay

Speaker | Writer | Story Seeker | Reimagining a world that works for all | Exploring emergence, sensing patterns, creating narratives for a regenerative future

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