Dollar worship spurs on extremism
Dollar worship spurs on extremism
Finland's FM Pekka Haavisto on the Ukraine War, European Security and Peacemaking Elsewhere
Finland's FM Pekka Haavisto on the Ukraine War, European Security and Peacemaking Elsewhere
Op-Ed / Global

Dollar worship spurs on extremism

Throughout the world, crisis grips national politics. In election after election, voter turnout hits historic lows. Politicians are universally reviled. Mainstream parties, desperate to remain relevant, are caught in a vice, forced to choose between pandering to extremism and the risk of being overwhelmed by populist, anti-establishment movements.

Meanwhile, not since the end of World War II has money played such an important role in politics, trumping the power of ideas.

In the US, for example, the sound of billions of dollars flowing into election-campaign coffers drowns out the voices of individual voters. In parts of the world where rule of law is weak, criminal networks and corruption displace democratic processes. The pursuit of the collective good looks sadly quaint.

The trouble began at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of a bankrupt communist ideology was complacently interpreted as the triumph of the market. As communism was discarded, so was the concept of the state as a hub around which collective interests and ambitions could be organised.

Instead, the individual became the ultimate agent of change — an individual conceived as the type of rational actor that populates economists' models. Such an individual's identity is not derived from class interests or other sociological characteristics, but from the logic of the market, which dictates the maximisation of self-interest— whether as a producer, consumer or voter.

Economics has been placed on a pedestal and enshrined in institutions like central banks and competition authorities, which have been intentionally separated and made independent from politics. As a result, governments are confined to tinkering at the margins of markets' allocation of resources.

The 2008 global financial crisis, the resulting recession and rapidly widening income and wealth inequality, have punctured the glib triumphalism of economics. But politics, far from rising to take its place, continues to be discredited, as mainstream leaders — particularly in North America and Europe — call on economic theories to justify their policy choices.

The pursuit of individual attainment is the hallmark of our time, eclipsing the collective dimension of human destiny. And yet the deep human need to be part of a group has yet to disappear. It lingers, but without a credible outlet. National projects ring hollow, and the so-called international community remains an abstraction. This unfulfilled desire for community may be felt particularly acutely by young people — including, for example, young jihadists.

Nationalist politicians and religious leaders have been the first to spot the vacuum and they are rapidly filling it. Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Marine Le Pen have little in common. But they share one insight: There is a deep longing for the creation of communities defined by shared values, not functional needs.

The crisis of national politics has consequences echoing far beyond the borders of individual countries. National chauvinism and religious fundamentalism are here to stay, and with them the terrorism that extremists of all stripes embrace, because both phenomena are ideally suited to individualism: They provide imaginary answers to personal angst, instead of political answers to collective challenges. These movements' amorphous nature — often channeled through charismatic leaders — allows each person to project onto them his or her dreams, making them difficult to counter within the framework of traditional politics.

But this strength can also be a weakness. When tasked with managing territories and governing populations, these movements face the same bothersome logistical and organisational constraints as their rivals. As a result, bureaucracy is constantly at their heels, leaving them in perpetual need of upheaval and renewal.

If politics is to retake the field of values from the fanatics, the charlatans, and the economists, it must be rebuilt from the ground up. More than half of the world's population now lives in cities, and any political renaissance must counterbalance the appeal of vast virtual communities with resilient urban societies. Citizens must become re-engaged with the political process, educated in public affairs, and provided with tangible (not merely virtual) platforms to air their differences and debate alternative views.

Furthermore, institutions that provide bridges between states and the global community, such as the European Union, must be strengthened and re-focused. In particular, their technical functions must be clearly distinguished from their political roles.

Above all, politicians must stop trying to shore up their diminished credibility with the pretense of economic science. Politics begins where contemporary economics ends — with ethics and the attempt to create a justly ordered society.

Podcast / Global

Finland's FM Pekka Haavisto on the Ukraine War, European Security and Peacemaking Elsewhere

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Pekka Haavisto, Finland's Foreign Minister, to talk about the war in Ukraine, the future of Europe’s security architecture and peacemaking in the Horn of Africa and Middle East.

In this episode of Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto for a wide-ranging discussion on topics ranging from the war in Ukraine to peacemaking efforts in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. They talk about Western support for Ukraine and the danger that Russia uses nuclear weapons. They discuss the role of diplomacy and prospects for a mediated settlement to the war. They also look at how the Ukraine war has affected popular opinion in Finland, the country’s application for NATO membership and the war’s impact on Europe’s security architecture more broadly. They discuss its global reverberations, including on peacemaking efforts elsewhere and how Western capitals have competed with Russia and China in their efforts to shore up support in the Global South. They discuss crises in the Horn of Africa, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s role in the region and prospects of peace in Ethiopia and Somalia. They also talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict and European policy in the Middle East. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the topics discussed in this episode, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our website.

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