Why we need an honest conversation about polarisation to tackle our big problems like climate change and shape the next paradigm.
We kicked off 2020 thinking this would be the decade when we had to find and implement real solutions for the climate and wider ecological crisis. It also seemed clear that this would only be possible if we successfully reversed the spiral of polarisation in Western democracies (and elsewhere) and avert the very real danger of authoritarian nationalist regimes becoming the new normal in Western societies.
Now, in the middle of April, this all seems far away. Everyone’s attention and all public discussions seem to be focused entirely on the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this moment in time nobody knows when we will be able to return our attention to other things, yet it is remarkable how quickly many activists have declared that the world post-coronavirus is going to be fundamentally different to the one we had before. While some of these commentators certainly fear that China will emerge from this as an even stronger and more dominant global power, or that nation states will maintain some of the restrictions on civil liberties even after the crisis, many others see a huge window of opportunity opening before our eyes to fundamentally change the economic system and to create the post-growth and post-neoliberal world that could solve so many of the world’s social and environmental problems.
Doesn’t the economic lockdown as a result of the corona crisis show how easily we could eliminate most of the global ‘unnecessary’ air travel and industrial activity? And how simple and much better life could be as a consequence?
My impression is that most of these proposals are based not on serious analysis and reality checks but on wishful thinking, ideas assembled from the ideological toolkit kept in the drawer for just such an occasion. They don’t seem to account for the high risk of massive unemployment, social unrest and human misery that a transition to a degrowth economy poses.
Even the more serious models and proposals for a post-growth economy are based on many assumptions about human behaviour that are highly uncertain. For example, the introduction of a universal basic income could have many positive effects and redirect human engagement towards all kinds of socially productive activity, but it could also have important negative effects on the work ethic of a segment of the population. We just don’t know yet which effects will carry more weight. The discussion would benefit from much more honesty and transparency about these uncertainties.
The world is highly complex, and many uncertainties are at play. I don’t doubt that many changes could follow this crisis, but I’m sceptical of the current contest of ready-to-use post-corona utopian solutions. We don’t even know yet what will happen over the next few months and how bad things will get. We need a more humble approach to start this conversation and we need to take honest stock of where we were before all this started.
To start with, we could take a look at the effects past pandemics had on world affairs. What change stemmed from the Hong Kong flu in 1968, with more than 1 million dead? And what about the Spanish flu with up to 50 million dead? Ben Gummer, who researched the Black Death pandemic of 1347–51, came to the conclusion that it didn’t ultimately change much, and that those changes observed in subsequent years “all began long before the Great Death, whose effect on each was at most to accelerate an evolution that was already taking place”.
Those who believe that the pandemic offers a huge opportunity to fundamentally change the economic system should at least consider that human cultures are sticky and usually evolve slowly as long as environmental conditions don’t change fundamentally. Humans can switch into crisis mode and switch back post-crisis. Only long-term environmental changes induce cultures to adapt. Human nature, however, will remain constant over very long periods of time.
The most obvious and likely short- and medium-term effect from this crisis will be a severe global recession, possibly leading to a global depression and very high unemployment in many countries. The severity of the economic crisis is highly uncertain and depends on the duration of the lockdown as well as government response.
The more severe the economic crisis becomes the lower on the political agenda climate protection will be. Governments will put all their energy into getting the economy back off the ground.
A potential long and deep depression poses another risk: the possibility of a surge of authoritarian and nationalist forces and parties that have already gained strength in many countries in recent years.
However, if it’s true that a pandemic like COVID-19 can accelerate trends that were already underway, then there are some obvious candidates this time around.
What COVID-19 might accelerate
In the last few weeks there has been much talk about Europe and North America’s dependence on Chinese production for many pharmaceutical products and protective equipment like face masks. Calls for more self-sufficiency, especially in critical segments like antibiotics, are getting louder in Europe, joined by louder calls for de-globalisation more generally.
This is partly because there is a sense that our highly connected world and accelerated trade and tourism make us more vulnerable to pandemics and their economic effects, but it’s not a new sentiment. Globalisation was already at a turning point: in 2019 global trade fell by 0,4 %. Trump isn’t the only one in the US who wants to bring part of the supply chains back from China — it’s becoming part of a new national consensus.
One of the most influential charts in modern economics, the so-called elephant curve, clearly demonstrates how the lower- and middle-income earners in rich countries have lost out the most on globalisation, with zero income growth between 1988 to 2008, mainly because manufacturing jobs moved to countries with lower wages. These economic effects of globalisation, including the pressure placed on salaries by low-paid immigrants, are one reason for the spiralling polarisation in Western democracies in recent years, and in turn for the rise of authoritarian nationalist parties and leaders.
It seems that a certain level of de-globalisation is inevitable, either promoted by nationalists who come to power or as a result of a democratic compromise to reduce societal tensions.
The economist Dani Rodrik has been arguing for years that social safeguards should give governments a claim on trade authorities that a restriction on trade is necessary to maintain the domestic social contract.
A more balanced approach to global trade could also help reduce CO2 emissions and help uncover more ecological solutions for our economy. The environmental movement has been demanding this for years.
COVID-19 might provide a push to a de-globalisation that was already dawning in the past few years. We might see supply chains become shorter and national resilience more important on the political agenda in the coming years.
Another candidate for acceleration by COVID-19 is a revaluation of the need for shared values and norms and responsibility for the common good.
These days under quarantine we often hear that we are rediscovering the importance of solidarity and social cohesion which we appear to have lost in the individualistic society of the past few decades. Be it the solidarity with our elderly neighbours who need our help, or the appreciation for nursing staff, or that everybody has a responsibility to flatten the curve, we’re revaluing the common good that had long been devalued.
Here again, if the revival of the common good sticks as a long-term trend, it won’t be a direct effect of this pandemic. The cracks in our individualistic culture were already visible in recent years.
In his seminal book The Society of Singularities, the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz describes how in late modernity our Western societies place more and more emphasis on the singular and the unique. The industrial societies of the early 20th century produced standardized products, cities, subjects and organizations which tended to look the same, but in our late-modern societies, we value the exceptional — unique objects, experiences, places, individuals, events and communities which are beyond the ordinary and which claim a certain authenticity. Industrial society’s logic of the general has been replaced by late modernity’s logic of the particular.
In the liberal society of large cities and metropolises especially, anything goes as long as the law allows. Differences in identity (e.g. sexual) and culture (e.g. immigrant cultures) are praised while the defence of common values and shared norms are low on the agenda.
But the worldview and lifestyle of the cosmopolitan class that has dominated the culture for many years has increasingly come under attack by those more traditional parts of society, mostly residing in rural areas and small towns, and who feel culturally devalued and politically ignored.
The political polarisation and the rise of authoritarian far-right populism is a rebellion that is only partly against the economic effects of globalisation. It is at least as much a rebellion against the effects of the dominant cultural liberalism. Authoritarians and nationalists are on the rise precisely because a growing part of society now believes that liberalism has too many downsides: a fragmented society with weakened shared norms and values.
If after the coronavirus crisis we see a long-term trend towards a stronger sense of individual responsibility for society as a whole and a renewed culture of reciprocity of rights and responsibilities, balancing one’s individual rights and responsibilities, it will not be primarily because of the pandemic but rather will have been strengthened and accelerated by it.
All this can still play out in many different ways. It depends largely on the question of whether we can find democratic ways to tackle polarisation and prevent authoritarian nationalists from destroying our democracies.
The rebellion of the somewheres
One could argue that the societal polarisation of recent years will cease to exist after this pandemic. After all, we’re not hearing much noise from the culture wars at the moment, governments have high approval rates in many countries and in Germany the far-right AfD has lost considerably in recent polls during the crisis.
There are many scenarios that might prove this hope unjustified, the most obvious one being that authoritarian and nationalist parties could very well benefit hugely from the severe global economic downturn that is inevitable. It will take considerable skills from governments (and solidarity for example within the EU) to prevent unemployment and misery from turning into political disruption.
However, the main reason I think it’s unlikely that polarisation will evaporate after this crisis is that the underlying causes will largely remain intact. The resentments against the political and cosmopolitan class that have been building up over many years will most likely require much more than a pandemic to dissolve.
Reckwitz argues that this political conflict line divides the old middle class, traditionalist and conservative, largely residing in small towns and rural areas, and the new middle class, that mostly lives in metropolitan areas. British journalist David Goodhart refers to the old middle class as the somewheres (people who are more rooted in a local community and place) and to the new middle class as the anywheres, who have become the cultural and political leaders, with their liberal and post-modern values, cosmopolitan worldview and often academic education.
The post-industrialisation of the economy since the 1970s has fundamentally changed a number of things. All Western countries experienced a massive decline in industrial sector employment. This has led to an increasing disparity in incomes: on the one hand an expanding knowledge economy for highly qualified people and on the other the new service sector for simple services. With this economic divergence, the social structure is changing. An emerging academically educated middle class stands in contrast to the precarious class, the service class. And the traditional middle class continues to exist between them. For the new middle class, it is no longer sufficient to simply work for a living. Post-material values such as self-actualisation are now important aspects of the work sphere, and the attractiveness of the profession is often more important than the paycheck.
However, the old (traditional) middle class (the somewheres) hasn’t changed much. They haven’t benefitted much from post-industrialisation, their education, jobs, and income all resting at mid-level. It is important to note that the gap that is widening between the new and the old middle class is less economic than it is cultural. The way of life of the old middle class that was formerly the normal way of life for most people is no longer worth much. A good example of this is the issue of health, where the new middle class (the anywheres) has generally asserted its values on smoking and fatty foods, core elements of the classic working-class lifestyle that are now frowned upon.
The traditional model dividing the homemakers and breadwinners of the old middle class has also lost prestige in face of the now dominant societal ideal of emancipated professional women. Conversely, the modernisation of gender relationships has shaken the identity of men as breadwinners, eroding their self-confidence.
While university education expanded rapidly over the last decades and politically the goal was to move towards the knowledge economy, the societal status of non-academic professions typical of the old middle class, including craftspeople and technicians, diminished.
Parties and parliaments in liberal democracies today are mostly controlled by professionals who graduated from university and share a cosmopolitan, liberal worldview (anywheres). Increasingly, somewheres have felt that politics hasn’t been working in their interest. They don’t feel represented by parties and political decision making.
Prominent among broader concerns about rapid change is immigration. The consensus across the political spectrum over the last few decades had been pro-immigration, mainly because it was seen as good for the economy and for economic growth. From 1990 to 2015, 44 million people migrated from the global South to the global North, with the United States receiving the largest number but Germany and Sweden receiving more immigrants relative to their population. Precisely because Western birth rates are very low, immigration changes these societies very rapidly. While anywheres generally welcome the cultural diversity that comes along with immigration, it has become increasingly unpopular among somewheres. Most importantly the latter feel that this big change in society has been imposed on them and that their views on the issue have been ignored for too long. Most somewheres are not hostile to immigrants or to some lower level of immigration, but they perceive mass immigration as a threat to their collective identity and culture. Anywheres don’t usually have the same sense and attachment to society as somewheres, which is a source of conflict.
Unfortunately, most attempts to describe and analyse the dynamics of polarisation are shallow or even entirely misleading.
The dominant view held by the political and media elite in Western societies is that the somewheres’ concerns about immigration are almost entirely constructed and normalised by far-right demagogues, i.e. without their hate speech narratives, these beliefs would barely exist.
The main problem with this view is that it strongly overestimates the power of narrative, almost as if reality didn’t matter, as if the only thing that counts is excluding wrong thoughts, ideas and words from public discourse to prevent their normalisation. Instead of discussing issues and presenting positions, the political and media rhetoric is all about pushing back against right-wing narratives and not ceding an inch to the populists.
However, as political commentator David Frum argues, “demagogues don’t rise by talking about irrelevant issues. Demagogues rise by talking about issues that matter to people, and that more conventional leaders appear unwilling or unable to address.”
Unfortunately, not addressing these very real concerns and issues has the opposite of the desired effect. It continuously signals that the liberal establishment is unwilling to discuss the real issues and it pushes people who didn’t hold racist or xenophobic views to begin with further towards extremist parties.
Few anywheres seem to realise how dominant cultural liberalism, and therefore the new middle class, have become in recent years and how important a role this has played in driving polarisation. What was once a truly liberal stream of political thought (liberalism) in recent years has often shown rather illiberal tendencies, suppressing opinions and views outside the liberal mainstream in the name of political correctness.
The polarisation of climate politics
The politics on climate change fall right along the dividing lines of the polarised sides. In 2019, climate change and its most visible movement actors like Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion became part of the bigger picture of political polarisation across Western societies. Greta Thunberg reached quasi-saint-like status on the one side and became a hate figure on the other.
We can see the effects of climate polarisation in Germany, where in 2019 only 243 new wind turbines were installed, more than 80% less than in 2017 and the lowest total in more than two decades. Resistance to wind turbine installations has reached unprecedented levels. It’s the somewheres who are resisting the decisions — made mostly by anywheres — to plant wind turbines on the doorsteps of their houses in small towns and villages, far away from where the anywheres live.
Many somewheres feel they are being forced to pay the price for the carbon-intensive lifestyle of a metropolitan class. It might be a paradox, but the people living in large cities with very pro-environmental attitudes and who are supportive of the climate movement show high personal carbon footprints.
Historically, the climate movement developed its strongest roots within the academically educated cosmopolitan class and lacks representation and role models among rural and small-town society. However, these lines of conflict are not natural. Conserving the environment is deeply conservative, and not just etymologically. In principle, it seems logical that people with traditional values, who want to preserve traditions and social structures that they cherish, also want to keep the environment healthy, including the very climatic conditions that nature depends upon, and even more so as many people who live in rural areas work in agriculture and are directly impacted by the changing climate.
On some level, it might seem like there is a conflict of interest that fuels the current polarisation: somewheres who live in rural areas often depend on the car as their main mode of transport, and they also often work in old industries (automotive, steel, coal…) where jobs will likely disappear as a result of a transition to an ecologically sustainable economy.
However, assuming that our societies ultimately develop fair strategies for dealing with the climate crisis, the metropolitan anywheres with their high carbon lifestyles are the ones who will have to change their way of life the most.
The current polarisation of climate politics is therefore less a conflict of who has the most to gain or lose from the transition to a climate-friendly economy, and it’s also not about a division of values and morality. The case is rather that the somewheres see climate politics as just another policy area that is imposed on them, without their involvement in the political process.
My assumption is that we will only be able to tackle climate change and transition to an ecologically sustainable economy successfully if we reach a broad societal consensus. It won’t be possible to enforce such significant change against the will of a considerable part of our societies. Only a deep and empathic understanding of the dynamics that led us to the current societal divide will allow us to lay the foundations for renewed trust and a new social contract.
The much-needed conversation, whatever happens
The pandemic might accelerate processes that were already well underway in recent years. Trump, Brexit and the rise of far-right populist parties across the West signalled the beginning of a bigger paradigm shift which will mark the end of a double (economic and cultural) liberalism that has dominated the world over the last three to four decades.
The pendulum might swing to the other extreme, towards authoritarian nationalism, similar to the path Hungary is taking, with Victor Orbán practically dismantling Hungary’s democracy. There is a frighteningly real risk that in Italy, amidst a deep post-corona recession, Matteo Salvini and his Lega Nord will win the next national elections and Italy will leave the EU — with all the domino effects this would entail.
However, the outcomes of this change of paradigm are not predetermined. Liberalism itself has taken various shapes. The UK under Thatcher and the US under Reagan showed us the most neoliberal version of liberalism, whereas in Germany, France and Scandinavian countries, economic liberalism played out as much softer versions in which the State and public services were under stress but not dismantled.
The coming years will be fundamental for shaping the new paradigm. To paraphrase Churchill, the pandemic is not yet the end nor even the beginning of the end. But it will be, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
It is exactly this crisis and end of paradigm that offers big opportunities for those who accurately assess the situation and the causes of polarisation and want to embark on a collective search process to build the pillars of the next paradigm.
But if we want to develop useful approaches and solutions, we need to abandon our echo chambers and ideological bubbles.
Our own cognitive biases, most importantly our tendency to search for and favour information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs (confirmation bias), distort our picture of reality. We need to bring a much broader set of ideas of good faith into our discussions, including from people who hold different values from us.
Before we, the anywheres, try to convince everybody that the world after coronavirus should be based on de-growth or should become an eco-feminist economy, we should leave our metropolitan home offices, our Zoom chats and our feel-good bubbles and really learn to understand the lived reality of the somewheres. We need to recognise the full role that cultural, not just economic, liberalism has played in polarisation.
And foremost, we need to stop moralising and stop believing that any worldview and value system that operates outside our narrow moral system is evil.
Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt finds that the deeper problem behind the current political situation is a conflict not between good and evil, but between different moralities, where each side is convinced that they are fighting for a good cause rather than out of self-interest. In fact, we know that the psychology of Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) people is fundamentally different to the psychology of the rest of humanity, including people with more traditional values in European societies. Haidt, who studied the moral diversity found across many cultures, argues that all moral foundations have been essential tools that enabled the success of human civilisation.
The paradigm that follows liberalism — we might want to call it post-liberalism — should have the potential for a new societal consensus, and should appeal to both the new and old middle class. This is why authoritarian nationalism is unlikely to become a democratically stable paradigm: it would have to be enforced against strong opposition from the new middle class, which in a country like Germany is about 30% of the population.
Economically, the new paradigm is likely to be a progressive counter-answer to neoliberalism, with potentially a stronger state role in infrastructure investments and re-distribution of wealth in order to reduce inequalities and revitalise impoverished or disconnected regions and towns. It will re-prioritise resilience over efficiency and — as discussed above — therefore de-globalise parts of current supply chains. It will have to find new creative instruments to counter the job-destroying effects from the digital/AI economy, for example, via a universal basic income.
Culturally, the new paradigm will require some stronger elements from the conservative toolbox. This will likely mean a renewed emphasis on shared values and norms, on solidarity of community and the importance of place and roots. The multiculturalism that was once celebrated has failed, because societies can’t function without a certain level of cultural assimilation, necessary for trust and cooperation. A better balance between diversity and sameness will have to be found and immigration policies will have to be adjusted accordingly.
The most ambitious members of the new middle class might do some soul searching and conclude that the continuous search for self-actualisation and for the unique and special experience is exhausting in the long run, and some dose of conformity and relaxation might make the mix of approaches in life more satisfactory in the long-run.
We will need to find ways to make the somewheres feel like important members of our society again. During this pandemic we have seen positive signs in the discussion and the continuous appreciation shown by many towards all care professions. In the long run, higher-paid care professionals is an important part. But more in general, a revaluation of societal status of non-academic professions, like craft professions, might help us go a long way towards depolarising our society. In addition, we will have to improve participation of somewheres in political decision making, for example, by increasing the number of members of parliament who are not academics and don’t come from the same anywhere milieus.
Ultimately, we will need broad societal conversations about all these questions. This will require lifting a whole range of taboos that liberal society has imposed on itself, for example, on aspects linked to immigration.
I firmly believe that in order to tackle the big societal transformation towards an ecologically sustainable society and economy, we need to find solutions to polarisation and re-establish a minimum level of trust and mutual tolerance between the somewheres and the anywheres.
Now that a deep economic recession is practically unavoidable and our societies are at new risk of falling apart and becoming prey to authoritarian demagogues, this honest dialogue will become even more important.
Before the pandemic became obvious, we (the Smart CSOs Lab together with partners) were determined to organise a big European conference in 2020 on the issues discussed in this essay. Now it is increasingly likely that we will have to postpone any bigger events to 2021. However, we will continue to fundraise for such an event and longer-term project and would be grateful for any concrete ideas about funding sources that you (the reader) might know.
In the meanwhile, I’m happy to talk to anyone who is interested in these questions and see what emerges (michael [at] smart-csos.org).
I would like to thank Viki Lafarga for reviewing and proofreading this text.