There is something that ties together nationalist leaders the world over: from US President Donald Trump to the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, from India’s PM Narendra Modi to Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban. Yes, they all share a penchant for authoritarian government and a general contempt of liberal democracy. And yes, they are on the whole xenophobes who scapegoat minorities to justify political failure. But there is something far more disturbing than that: What if they were the only visionaries around?
Let’s take a step back. Few expressions have more effectively captured the hubris of a historical epoch than Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay on “the end of history”. For three decades that expression seemed to hold true.
The world was on a slow course to convergence, a contradictory, bumpy path, but one whose direction appeared clear. However long it would take for Chinese peasants to transform into a middle class and demand democratic reform and however long it would take to reshape the Middle East, the endgame was just one: neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy for all.
That conviction cracked under the weight of its own pretences. Extreme levels of inequality exposed the neoliberal promise of prosperity for all as a sham.
The liberated financial system added instability to injustice, triggering accelerated crises around the world and a near-miss global implosion in 2008. Western foreign policy, under the pretence of exporting democracy, was exporting war and extremism. And the developing countries that actually developed – China, above all – did so in total disregard of the neoliberal recipes of the IMF.
That world is now dead in the water. But for too long, mainstream politicians formerly known as “the establishment” – have been trying to keep it alive and well past its due date.
Take former US President Barack Obama. A few days after his first election in 2008, the magazine Newsweek wrote candidly that his task would be “to lead the conceptual counterrevolution against an idea that has dominated the globe since the end of the cold war, but is now in the final stages of flaming out: free-market absolutism”.
Obama came to power shortly after the financial bubble burst, on the back of an extraordinary wave of public participation. Many expected he would seize the opportunity and break with a system in crisis.
But he chose the old path. He appointed Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to the Department of the Treasury, the same individuals who, during the Clinton administration, had enthusiastically removed the last obstacles holding back the financial sector. This was no moral drama of penitence and redemption, but the reproduction of the same financial privileges that had brought the world to the edge of the abyss in the first place.
And so while centre-left and centre-right parties alike kept on demanding adherence to neoliberal precepts, despite growing economic misery; while their hollow voices kept on ringing an increasingly unconvincing cry of “there is no alternative”, despite widespread protest, some begged to differ.
These included many of today’s “populist” leaders who offer a mix of authoritarian rule and exclusionary politics repackaged as a vision for a brave new world: walls in place of globalisation, muscular diplomacy in place of multilateralism, “my country first” in place of free trade and protectionist or even social-nationalist measures to tame neoliberalism.
And so, after years in which voting seemed to have become an impotent choice between identical products, for many it was finally right-wing populism that restored weight to the electoral ballot.
Let there be no mistake: Their revolutionary rhetoric is a sham, too. Right-wing populism is out to shovel up popular discontent to make it subservient to the interests of economic elites. It is no coincidence that Trump’s tax regime disproportionately benefits the rich, that Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s Turkey or Orban’s Hungary are turning into oligarchic kleptocracies, or that Austria’s xenophobic government is on a quest against social welfare.
But the enthusiasm and conviction are palpable – and contagious. The narrative is often heroic. As Beppe Grillo, comedian and founder of Italy’s governing Five Star Movement, has put it : “We are the true heroes! .. it is those who try, with obstinacy, the barbarians, who will bring the world forward. And we are the barbarians!”
Two years after Grillo pledged to take the world forward, Italy’s puppet prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, flew to Washington to meet Donald Trump and expressed his solidarity with the following, telling words: “We are very close: we are both governments of change”. Trump, the president who nearly destroyed the G7, a kernel of neoliberal globalisation, with nothing more than a tweet, nodded approvingly.
And while European progressives are in shambles, and often flirting with left-wing nationalism as they renounce any conviction in their power of changing the European Union, the far-right has an ambitious spin. Asked whether he would leave the EU, Matteo Salvini, who has pledged to bring a revolution to the heart of Europe, answered defiantly: “No. I will change Europe from within”.
It is hardly coincidental that Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has decided to set up a new foundation, ambitiously called “The Movement”, to support far-right parties in advance of the May 2019 European Parliament elections.
This will be a litmus test for the state of democracy worldwide, touching nearly 500 million people in 27 democracies. The plan is simple. Turn the European elections into a confrontation between enthusiastic supporters of a new world order and tired defenders of the bygone world of yesterday: the strategy that worked so well in the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
There is only one way to respond. And that is to finally formulate an all-encompassing vision for a new world beyond the demise of neoliberalism. We need a visionary blueprint of change touching some of the most pressing global issues of our time with the sort of disruptive ideas that would have been deemed unthinkable in the old system: policies like universal income, job guarantee, technological sovereignty, closure of tax heavens, a common international asylum system, ecological transformation and redistribution within and between countries.
Who should break the spell? During the peak of the first phase of globalisation, at the turn of the millennium, a great movement for global justice organised and fought from Puerto Alegre to Mumbai.
Today, against the nationalist international of the dystopians, we need a new humanist international of the utopians – one stretching from the democratic socialist movement in the United States to progressives in Mexico City and London, from European movements like DiEM25 to climate defenders, migration and tax justice activists the world over. We need a movement of ideas able to shape public debate, inspire artistic creation, and run for office.
Why not begin already in November, when the G20 will be having its yearly inconclusive leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires? And why not jump on the occasion offered by the transnational European elections to present a common programme of change across 27 European countries?
Sounds far-fetched? That’s just as well. There is an old adage that Angela Merkel is allegedly very fond of: “Whoever has visions, should see a psychiatrist”. This disposition might explain why the German chancellor has unimaginatively presided over a lost decade of European crises.
We can no longer afford such complacency today. As far-right dystopians are winning the world over, we cannot allow them to remain the last visionaries in town.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.