Comment on Swedish Radio's Sunday show, Godmorgon världen, November 20, 2016
The End of the End of History
It’s hard to imagine today, but not long ago, in the wake of the crumbling Berlin Wall, the debacle of Communist ideology, the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, it was seriously discussed whether History was about to end.
“The end of history” didn’t signify the end of human events of course, on the contrary, but it was said to signify the end of the two major conflicts that hitherto had driven human history; the struggle for material survival and wellbeing and the struggle for human recognition, or human value if you so wish. The first conflict would be resolved by triumphant globalisation which would satisfy the quest for material well-being, and the second by triumphant liberal democracy which was the ultimate political system to satisfy the innate human quest for recognition.
He was wrong of course, Francis Fukuyama, the American thinker who ignited the discussion with a much publicized article and a subsequent book, although wrong in an interesting way, one might say.
I also believe he was right about the conflicts that drive history.
Not least about the human quest for recognition, by which he meant the specific human desire to achieve respect and assume value in the eyes of society, an idea to which he was inspired by the Russian-French Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève.
The problem was that neither of the two conflicts were about to be solved.
The globalized economy and technology didn’t only create the conditions for global material well-being but also the conditions for sharpening global divides and injustices. And liberal democracy, apart from not being as triumphant as expected, seemed unable to handle the new divides and injustices, since the forces creating them were increasingly global, while democracy remained stubbornly national and local. Democracy could thus not satisfy the desire for recognition of people who felt that they had been run-over by globalization and abandoned by politicians.
Recognition is an elusive notion since it is ultimately a matter of perception and personal emotion, but I believe that a lack of recognition, and its corollary, a lack of self-esteem, far more than a lack of material wellbeing, is what may trigger frustration, anger and ultimately hatred.
The hatred against something to name and to blame and to deal with.
This is how I would explain why millions and millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump.
It was to their lack of recognition he spoke. To their wounded self-esteem which he turned into hatred by providing it with something tangible to hate; Hillary Clinton, Muslims, Mexicans, the rigged democracy, the dishonest media, the international cabal of bankers with Jewish names. In short, against “the elite” populating “the swamp” which was to be drained by Donald Trump personally.
As he would personally see to that “crooked Hillary” was put behind bars.
With the electoral victory of Donald Trump, and his imminent ascent to power, there is now a tendency to normalize what he said. That he only said what ordinary people already had thought and said, that Trump only gave voice to what was already out there.
But this is not necessarily true.
Whatever was out there, it was not a given that it would express itself in the hateful language of Donald Trump, in his outrageous lies and his authoritarian claim that only he possessed the strongman-qualities to make America great again.
It would have been fully possible for an American voter to feel run-over by globalization and disappointed by democratic politics, without having to succumb to the world-view of Donald Trump, and even less to his voice.
No, “ordinary people” didn’t necessarily say and think as Donald Trump before Donald Trump made his voice heard.
The voice of the classical demagogue.
The democrats of Greek antiquity feared the demagogue more than anything else, since they very well knew what the unscrupulous voice of a demagogue could do to democracy – namely undo it.
There are explanations to why the voices of demagoguery are rapidly gaining a hearing in our democracies.
Most importantly, I believe, the impotence of national democracies to deal with the adverse effects on our societies of a rapidly globalizing economy and an incessantly border-breaking technology.
And thereby, the growing gap between what politicians say and what they do, between the procedures of democracy and the sovereignty of democracy.
And as a consequence, the growing inability of democracy to satisfy that quest for recognition and self-esteem and human value which in my view remains the foremost argument for democracy.
With the electoral victory of Donald Trump we have witnessed how a weakening trust in the institutions of democracy prepared the ground for the politics of demagoguery, and thereby ultimately for something other than democracy.
History is certainly not about to end.