Uniting nations

Could a turn inwards provide us with the weapons we need to combat global threats?

The RSA
The RSA
May 28, 2020 · 12 min read

by Anatol Lieven

If the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic does indeed turn out to be the worst in peacetime since the Great Depression of the 1930s, then we need to start thinking very hard about what will make it possible for western liberal democracies to survive it. After all, for anyone with the slightest historical awareness, there never really was any excuse for the ‘end of history’ belief that wealthy liberal democracies are immortal and invincible.

In the 1930s, the New Deal pulled the US through the crash with the social basis of its democracy strengthened. In France, democracy fell into a state of embittered polarisation, paralysis and cynicism that paved the way for the collapse of 1940. And in Germany and elsewhere, the combination of mass impoverishment with deep social, cultural, economic and political faultlines resulted in fascism.

If we can pull ourselves together to meet the current crisis successfully then, terrible though it is, the pandemic may even be seen by future historians as having had a longer-term positive effect. For in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that, if left unchecked, climate change on its current trajectory will produce a global catastrophe in the next century. And, long before that, the effects of climate change in certain parts of the world (often places that are already struggling due to a number of factors) will produce economic change and subsequent mass migration that will result in life-threatening crises for all states, including western democracies. Our response to the pandemic can and should prepare us better to meet these future scenarios.

The end of laissez faire?

In Europe at least, the pandemic is already bringing about a return to ideologies and programmes of social solidarity (especially support for the unemployed and semi-employed) and moves away from the laissez-faire capitalist ideological consensus that has reigned for the past 40 years. Even before the crisis, debate was growing about the possible future introduction of systems of state-funded Universal Basic Income (UBI), because of the threat that automation and artificial intelligence will destroy huge numbers of jobs or turn them into part time and insecure ones. The pandemic is likely to intensify this process, as firms discover that they do not need so many people in the office. What governments also need to look at (as in the New Deal) is massive programmes of state-supported job creation to rebuild infrastructure and transform cities along ecological lines.

Without such programmes, enormous numbers of people will sink into economic misery and despair, leading to political upheaval. Who would have thought at the start of 2020 that only three months later a British Conservative Party dominated by heirs of Margaret Thatcher would take responsibility for paying the wages of millions of British workers? In this sense, the Covid-19 crisis resembles the Second World War, the aftermath of which converted many former free market liberals to a form of social democracy.

However, for these new measures of social solidarity to be effective in strengthening our societies against inevitable future disasters, they need both to be made permanent and to be linked to two other things: a massive programme of infrastructural renewal and technological development, and a national aspect focused on the mutual responsibilities of common citizenship and commitment to the collective interest. The US New Deal is an important source of inspiration in both regards. This time around, the programme should be directed above all at reducing carbon emissions and weakening the extent and threat of climate change. It should also involve the promotion of energy conservation throughout the construction sector. Along with programmes that promote social solidarity, this has been dubbed the Green New Deal, and it has been gaining traction in both the US — where it was the core of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020 — and Europe, where several Green political parties are trying to develop a similar programme.

State interests The pandemic has also reminded us that it is only strong nation-states that have either the physical power or political legitimacy to demand great sacrifices from people. International institutions have at best been able to play only a coordinating and advisory role. International agreements like the Paris Agreement on climate change are vital, but it is states that have to implement their provisions — or not. The same is true of international protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. They are necessary, but necessary in order to pressure states to act. And states act principally in their own interests (or rather in some combination of collective and elite interest). It has long been miserably apparent that populations and governments simply will not engage in massive transfers of resources to other states unless they perceive their own national security to be immediately and vitally involved (as with the US’s Lend-Lease policy and its Marshall Plan).

The EU, the only international body with quasi-governmental powers, failed in this regard during the economic crisis that followed the 2008 financial crash and is failing again now. Germans and Dutch will not help Italians and Spanish in the way that they are willing to help poorer sections of their own populations. All efforts to get western states to radically increase their economic aid to poorer parts of the world have failed (in part because of a well-founded belief that a great part of any aid would be stolen by corrupt elites in the recipient countries). Fortunately, in the struggle to limit climate change, by far the most useful thing that western states can do is in their own hands. By moving to carbon-free energy, wealthier states will not only help save the world overall from runaway climate change, but can also promote their own technological and economic development.

Collective effort

But even with new measures of social protection, the pandemic will probably mean that the greater part of most societies are likely to experience a sudden and steep decline in their material wellbeing. Such economic crises have a proven tendency to increase social, political and ethnic tensions. It is therefore of both moral and political importance that sacrifices are seen to be shared. It will be politically and financially essential to restore high levels of progressive taxation, coupled with introducing rigorous and punitive measures against tax avoidance and money laundering. The well-founded perception that the financial elites who caused the financial crisis of 2008 did not pay any share of its costs and continued to prosper immoderately afterwards compared with the rest of society was as politically damaging as the crisis itself.

Everyone is going to have to get used to austerity. And this, by the way, only anticipates by a generation or so what we were going to experience anyway once the effects of climate change really began to kick in. Are western societies and political orders still capable of this kind of collective effort? Much evidence from recent years would suggest not. There are frightening indications, especially in the US, but also in parts of Europe, that we are approaching a situation where large sections of populations have such radically opposed ideas of the fundamental national identities of their countries that, in the short term, the state becomes largely paralysed, and in the longer term truly free electoral democracy becomes impossible. For how can the basic identity and nature of a state swing to and fro every few years depending on the result of an election? This is the syndrome that helped to wreck hopes of Middle Eastern democracy after the Arab Spring.

As in Iran or Turkey today, a qualified form of democracy is possible in these circumstances, but it is one where a permanent authority lays down strict limits and absolutely prohibits any changes to the basic cultural and ethnic foundations of the state. In the UK, the centre right and centre left both share responsibility for the decay of the national consensuses that after the Second World War created welfare states and guaranteed two generations of democratic stability. Taking its cue from Margaret Thatcher’s grotesque statement that “there is no such thing as society” (grotesque because she herself was the product of a very specific form of English provincial society), the centre right abandoned truly conservative positions in favour of a wild free market capitalism stripped of morality, social responsibility and national allegiance.

The centre left accepted much of this package, but gave it a progressive colouring with empty fantasies of international governance. Both came together in blind adulation of globalisation, open borders and mass migration. The disenchantment of large sections of the electorate with this programme, and the sense of having been ignored and abandoned by both sides of the political establishment, have already produced a string of electoral disasters. As worked upon by economic disaster now and climate change later, they have the potential to kill off liberal democracy altogether.

In recent decades, progressive opinion in the west has turned the promotion of ‘diversity’ into an intellectual and political dogma that ignores much of the evidence of history. The experience of the US suggests that diversity can contribute immensely to the vitality of a society, but only if it is combined with a strong civic nationalist ideology and a sense of common citizenship and common national purpose. Where diverse societies have split into clashing identities without a sense of common allegiance and citizenship, the results have all too often been paralysis, dictatorship, or civil war.

As historian Prasenjit Duara has written, “no movement of major social change has succeeded without a compelling symbology and affective power”. The strengthening of national identities and civic nationalisms is necessary both for practical reform and for wider national resilience. In democracies, the kind of changes that will be required to withstand the effects of Covid-19 in the short term and to reduce the danger of climate change in the longer term cannot be achieved by narrow ideological parties with small electoral majorities. Sufficiently strong senses of common national purpose will be required; civic nationalism (or patriotism, which comes to the same thing) is needed. This is what American geographer Jared Diamond, in Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, defines as national “ego strength”.

Like the creation of the New Deal in the US and welfare states in Europe, for these changes to be effected and sustained will require not just sweeping electoral majorities, but a new consensus that will be shared by all the major political parties; just as Republican administrations from the 1950s to the 1970s continued New Deal policies, and Conservative and Christian Democratic parties in Europe continued and extended the welfare state. A situation in which every election leads to a reversal of the previous government’s policies will doom any effective reform programme. As environmentalist Jon Rynn, one of the Green New Deal’s supporters, has said, successfully combating climate change will require long-term projects that do not show results immediately.

More broadly, a sense of common national identity and purpose is necessary if the immediate strains of the pandemic crisis and the longer-term pressures of climate change are not to lead to increasingly bitter competition from different parts of divided societies for their share of a shrinking pie. This scenario could lead to societies eventually accepting authoritarian rule not out of positive cultural identification with authoritarianism but because it seems the only way to end political paralysis and allow the government to actually get things done. There is nothing fantastical about such a scenario. It would continue a pattern of democratic collapse observable since the city-states of ancient Greece.

Tread carefully

Of course, one should be fully and constantly aware of the dreadful forms that nationalism can assume and be careful to guard against them through the promotion of civic not ethnic nationalism. But then, every human ideology is more or less Janus-faced. Religion can take the form of the Inquisition or Islamic State. Socialism can become Stalinism or Maoism. Liberalism can become a cover for elitist egotism, exploitation and kleptocracy. Conservatism can become a cover for stupidity and wilful ignorance. No reasonably objective person would say that these possibilities in themselves invalidate entirely the good parts of these ideologies, or their capacity to learn from each other for the common good.

As a journalist in the Caucasus in the 1990s I witnessed the dreadful side of ethnic nationalism and its capacity to cause conflicts and atrocities. As a journalist and researcher in Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, I have also witnessed how the absence of strong state nationalism cripples the ability of a country to pursue successful development; and in the worst case can destroy a state altogether. As Paul Collier writes in The Future of Capitalism, there are no prosperous societies in weak or failed states. I am in agreement, and this perception has been strengthened further still by recent years spent in the Middle East, watching (this time from a safe distance) the collapse of Syria, Libya and Yemen, all of them torn apart by competing tribal and ethno-religious identities.

The greatest source of a state’s strength is not its economy or the size of its armed forces, but legitimacy in the eyes of its population; a general recognition of the state’s moral right to authority, to have its laws and rules obeyed, and to be able to call on its people for sacrifices in the form of taxes and, when necessary, conscription. Without legitimacy, a state is doomed either to weakness and eventual failure, or to becoming a ‘fierce’ state, ruling by fear. Such states have the appearance of strength, but are inherently brittle, and liable to collapse if people cease even for a day to be afraid of them; as several Middle Eastern rulers discovered in 2011. The basic weakness of the EU compared with its member nations is that it has never achieved real legitimacy as a quasi-state authority in the eyes of most Europeans.

Over the past 70 years, democracy has been an important source of legitimacy, leading to the toleration of failures by elected governments and the acceptance by minorities of majority votes (or, remarkably, in the US, the acceptance by majorities of minority electoral victories). But, as a whole range of democratic and semi-democratic states have discovered over the past century, democracy alone will not preserve a given state over time if that state is deeply divided internally and fails to achieve what the population sees as vital goals. For this, a deeper source of legitimacy is necessary, rooted in a common sense of national belonging. In the modern world, the greatest and most enduring source of this feeling and this state legitimacy has been one form or another of nationalism.

Nationalism’s ability to project its thinking into the future is closely related to its ability to draw upon the past (whether real or re-imagined); what British historical sociologist Anthony Smith called the “national myth-symbol complex”. This is, in turn, largely responsible for nationalism’s ability to inspire effort and sacrifice. This aspect of nationalism — in an entirely positive and unaggressive way — was vividly displayed in the Queen’s speech to the British nation in response to the pandemic, in which Her Majesty’s appeal for resilience, solidarity and optimism was permeated with indirect references to the experience of the Second World War. It is interesting that this speech drew great admiration from certain Russian liberal intellectuals of my acquaintance; partly because the sacrifices of the war remain an immensely powerful image in Russia, and partly perhaps because this was a powerful nationalist appeal free of the aggressive chauvinism and cynical political manipulation which have too often characterised such appeals by Russian governments.

In the longer context of the struggle to mitigate climate change, nationalism is the only force (other than direct personal concern for children and grandchildren) that can overcome one of the greatest obstacles to serious action: namely that it requires sacrifices by present generations on behalf of future generations. In the words of author Milan Kundera, “A man knows that he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life.” The central purpose of nationalism is to prolong that life as far as possible into the future. Sacrifices to ensure the future survival of the nation are legitimised, indeed, demanded, by the fact that previous generations have sacrificed themselves for this purpose. That is the spirit on which western democracies will need to draw if they are to survive this and future crises.

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.

The RSA

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We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.

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