Global Society in the Modern World
Is inequality a solvable issue?
One of the key current trends in global politics is the gradual shift from ‘pure’ geopolitics and the hard/soft power of sovereign states to global problems (environmental, resource, demographic and social). The past decade saw the term ‘global problems’ itself crystallize into a new concept, the Global Commons, understood in a narrowly environmental and a broader social sense. It is discussed both at the UN in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and at various international venues. In the narrow sense, the term ‘Global Commons’ is understood as the environment, including the air (and the climate), potable water, arable land, biodiversity and so on. In a broader sense, it comprises the common social heritage of human society at the planetary level, including access to healthcare, the minimum (and later high protein) food basket, a comfortable urban and social environment, etc. The most radical and expansive interpretation treats the Global Commons as the planetary, i.e. trans-border, unity of the human race.
The crumbling of the world order and the old system of international relations and unions, as well as the increasingly real prospect that the world will plunge into total chaos, affect both politics and global society. This, in turn, influences relations between the society and the government in individual countries as well as world trends. As a consequence, the feeling that social change is of global importance is reflected not only in political practices but also in the domain of values and ideologies. A case in point is the evolution and expanding value of the Global Commons. While previously this value was understood primarily in the environmental sense as the need for a global commitment to nature and climate conservation, today there are increasingly frequent calls for a social understanding of the Global Commons as a universally shared basis for a harmonious global society in the coming decades.
The point of departure for this change was the alienation of elites from society that occurred in all leading countries of the world. While in previous decades, protests against this alienation, though taking bizarre forms in the anti-globalization movement, failed to move the general public, the situation today is different. At first, the economic crisis at the turn of the century turned consumer society into a civic society. The feeling of civic responsibility and of belonging (and the demand that the authorities feel the same) led to powerful street protests and the emergence of new left progressive movements that refused to recognise the old elites and the old order (l’ancien régime of sorts). In some countries, they managed to achieve important electoral successes.
Nevertheless, this was not the end of the story. Their open criticism of not just individual officials or party coalitions but the entire existing political system lifted taboos on protest thinking in even deeper strata of society—ordinary people in the neutral sense of the word. These segments of society were not prepared for serious political self-organization and street rallies and, unlike the progressive movements, they did not attract the attention of the left liberal media. They could voice their discontent only by voting in elections.
The prevailing sentiments in these strata are evident in the recent electoral success of outsider forces on the right, an outcome that shocked the old elites but was quite logical in reality. Their conscious rejection of political correctness and displays of populism on the campaign trail were only a means, not an end in themselves. As a result, we see a growing sense of an accelerating democracy deficit on both the political right and left. Thus, the changed relationship between society and the elites is growing stable and qualitatively different both in the West and on the global scale. Consequently, real democracy as a feature of a global common good (as opposed to the habitual electoral reproduction of elites in consumer societies) is emerging as a matter of key importance for the future socio-political dynamics of the world.
Yet another serious challenge is the ‘toxicity’ of international relations spilling over to public opinion in many countries. The current situation is distinct from before in that the sides consciously reject whatever remained of the Cold War ethics against utterly demonizing the rival. Hence, the new terms—’toxic relations’ and ‘toxic war’. In this context, there is again a great need for a media image of an external enemy, in part as a convenient pretext for deflecting attention from domestic problems and crises. The resulting picture is revealing: an election (or a referendum) is lost because of a ‘toxic’ external enemy’s meddling rather than by dint of societal disappointment with the elite. Naturally, this approach requires special (if not total) information and media support. Now, for the first time in decades, the public in leading countries has been directly targeted by government manipulation of the media. This strategy has proved somewhat effective in the medium term, it must be acknowledged. The new phobias transmitted to society by the media have the effect of changing public opinion, making it less susceptible to open and self-critical discourse. By drastically curtailing the right to freedom of thought, it also serves as yet another accelerant of the growing democracy deficit mentioned before.
The information war between the West and Russia is clearly the main, if far from the only, example of this approach. Just reading what the UK press writes about the European Union and its leaders is enough to demonstrate that this media demonization and ‘toxicity’ trick is widely employed in West–West relations as well. The progressing deterioration of US–European and US–Chinese relations is also amplified by media support. Once used, it is tempting to keep on using a forbidden trick ad infinitum. Therefore, Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’ remark is not just an emotional retort but also a rule of information policy in leading countries that is transforming society in a major way, regardless of whether people believe or reject the news in question. This raises the question of whether information freedom is a feature of the Global Commons, both in individual countries and globally as part of a newly-appreciated common inheritance.
The global migration problem has only grown more urgent in recent years. A prime example is the migrant crisis in the European Union that has led to the collapse of European solidarity. Right-wing forces from outside the system are openly exploiting xenophobia for political purposes and their electoral successes prove that these views are resonating in society. The Trumpism phenomenon is mostly based on opposing immigration. Trump’s wall has come to symbolise the desire of a wealthy global elite to fence themselves off from the rest of the world. It has also brought into the present the debate on the gap between North and South and raised the very urgent question of whether solidarity with migrants should be viewed from the perspective of values as an element of global ethics and the Global Commons, or whether migrants are a threat that demands an appropriate response.
Projecting the migration problem into the future, it fits into the broader ideological context of human unity on a planetary scale. The key premise in this respect is the universal right to equal access to resources (where ‘universal’ encompasses both individual countries and the world as a whole). Generally, this meets no objections (the imperative of global ethics), but, in fact, the situation is much more complicated. The developing world’s political ideology is exposing neocolonialism and its various forms (environmental, demographic, educational, technological, and more). Political scientists are coming to the conclusion that the West/North is using various pretexts to deny the Global South its right to development, when during their own industrialization, the advanced countries were unconcerned about the environment or labour protection and felt no scruples siphoning resources from their colonies. Paradoxically predicated on concern for the Global Commons, this neocolonialism will only grow stronger in the future. This is why, the Global South countries will never reach the same level of development as the West/North. As such, the global right to equal access to resources will remain a figment of the imagination.
Under these circumstances, migration appears to be the only path to securing this right. According to this logic, migration figures as an inalienable right rather than a despair-driven forced move. After all, if everyone has the right to a better life (which is not contested under the imperative of global ethics), it is but a tiny logical step from there to saying that everyone has the right to live where life is better. If a hypothetical Germany is a better place to live than a hypothetical Eritrea, then residents of Eritrea have the right to migrate to Germany. Here, the motto of ‘Germany for Germans’ underlying German sovereignty becomes outmoded and clashes with the right to development, with prosperous Germany emerging as the property of both its citizens and the rest of mankind—property that everyone has the right to enjoy. A new motto (and value), ‘Germany for everyone’, is coined and this eventually leads to potentially the tensest and most explosive situation where the right to migration is perceived as a global common good. Clearly, such global socio-political dynamics are an extremely serious challenge to sovereignty (and the state as an institution) and can cause fundamentally new types of conflict that will differ in kind from traditional geopolitical disputes.
The migration crisis, the proliferation of right-wing ideas from outside the system, and the current trends in the Islamic world have, each in its own way, highlighted yet another problem inherent in the global social dynamics, the issue of identity. In this area, there is also a growing challenge to the stereotypical perception of globalization as a tool for the inevitable erasing of differences between people at the planetary level. Understandably, this is accompanied by politically correct talks about ‘unity in diversity’ or how all ethnic groups will still sing their folk songs. However, this does not change what the trajectory of development is. Paradoxically, the anti-globalization movement of the past decade did not decry the trajectory, focusing its criticism solely on corporations and global financial institutions and posing as ‘alter-globalists’ rather than anti-globalists.
Today, however, the right to identity (religious, cultural, historical, behavioural, etc.) and the even more dramatic right to defend one’s identity everywhere (both at home and away) and under all circumstances are drawing increased scrutiny. In this way, the identity issue is being transformed into the right to reject globalism as a global common good. Brexit and the Eurosceptics have shown that even West–West integration projects are perceived as an unacceptable threat to this perception of identity, and this goes double for relations between the West and non-West.
Perceived as non-globalism, individual identity is actively defended by states that put forward typologically similar arguments in favour of their right to defend their sovereignty and perceive external political pressure applied for the sake of global values and the Global Commons as a threat to their own ‘sovereign identity’. This is preparing the ground for the rise of concepts such as ‘sovereign historical memory’, ‘sovereign environment’, ‘sovereign democracy’ and the like.
The debates around social globalism/identity are spawning more and more politically incorrect and often dangerous arguments to support the moral superiority of some groups over others. For example, Western demands that migrants obey the host society’s rules often degenerate into open racism and Islamophobia. It is here that ‘Western moral supremacy’ comes through most strongly. As should be expected, the response is one of rejection. On the one hand, migrants claim the right to their behavioural identity in any place as a global value and demand respect for this right of theirs. On the other, they insist (often with good reason) that their religious and cultural values are superior to the godlessness of the Western host society and that they feel better grounded morally than the Westerners with all their pretences to Western moral supremacy. This fragmentation of globalism is rapidly turning into a tug-of-war based on just one question: who is better? Naturally, this leads to increased hostility and extremism on both sides, and effective attempts to reconcile these incompatible stances have been few and far between.
As a consequence, the destruction of the world political order is accompanied by a serious deformation of globalization’s social systems. The controversial and occasionally provocative views that are currently taking shape in regards to social perceptions of the Global Commons are emerging as a challenge not only to the ‘old order’ of relations between elites and society in the sense of l’ancien régime but also to the traditional perception of sovereignty and the state as a whole. Will this lead to a surge of new global conflicts at various levels (society vs elites, poor vs rich, South vs North, and others)? This rhetorical question can help flesh out our conception of the ‘typical’ geopolitical conflicts we can expect in the future world after the breakdown of the old order.