Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled ‘Inside the Whale’. The basic premise is that, like the Biblical character Jonah, stuck inside a whale, the average person could live through great storms on the outside, terrible wars and great world events, but remain relatively unaffected in their own lives. The ‘whale’ or outside world could swim through the terrific storms and all kinds of tribulations, but deep inside its belly Orwell, like Jonah heard only faint echoes of them.
Now Orwell himself experienced more than most. By the time he wrote ‘Inside the Whale’, he had just come back from the Spanish Civil War, where he had gone to fight fascism, been shot in the throat and then nearly been arrested by his own side for belonging to the ‘wrong’ left wing faction.
But recently, metaphor of living inside the whale, in our cosy western bubble has been recurring in my mind. Our lives go on as before and yet we can see around us, as Orwell did in the 1930s and 40s, our world descending into crisis, with dysfunctional politics, the rise of a new authoritarianism and impending environmental catastrophe.
And even inside our ‘whale’ we are beginning to be buffeted by the storms outside.
Who can go to France or Italy or Spain and not see the thousands of African or middle eastern migrants on the beaches and around the train stations; products of the obscene inequality between Europe and their home countries and the zone of war that stretches from Iraq to Chad?
Who has not seen or heard, just beneath the surface, the anger of European populations at what some regard as an ‘invasion’? Or noticed how the far right; the Front National in France, the AFD in Germany, and others have become mainstream parties? Ireland felt only the faintest echo of this recently in surprisingly large electoral vote of presidential candidate Peter Casey.
Who, who has met any Turks or Russians, can fail to see how they will no longer speak about politics in public, afraid of the consequences of saying the wrong thing? The same does not yet apply to Brazilians or citizens of the United States, but it might in the near future.
And who above all, can fail to notice the radically changing pattern of our weather? Even in Ireland in the last year we have had a hurricane, numerous storms, a freezing winter and a scorching summer all in 2018.
And yet all, apparently goes on as before. The whale is swimming into an oil spill. I will not pretend to have any solutions, but I will suggest some causes.
First, the world we have created is one of unparalleled complexity. The human population has grown to a level never before seen and it is consuming resources faster than ever before. At the same time, the almost instant passage of information makes the poor more aware than ever of their plight and determine to live in the ease to which the rich are accustomed.
This makes the management even of developed countries increasingly complex and difficult. In part, I think, the rise of authoritarianism is due to frustration at a world that is increasingly difficult to understand, increasingly full of uncaring ‘others’ who get in one’s way and full of apparently intractable problems.
Where the growth of this kind of society has outpaced the state and its law more rapidly, and where inequality has been sharpest, as in, say Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines or South Africa, it has also seen an explosion in crime and murder, as well as corruption. The desire for a strongman, a Duterte or a Bolsonaro, or even a Trump to provide simple, violent solutions to such problems is a powerful siren call.
Historian Timothy Snyder describes this phenomenon as ‘sado-populism’ whereby leaders such as for instance Vladimir Putin in Russia or Victor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayip Erdogan in Turkey, are unable to really solve fundamental problems like massive inequality or corruption, so instead offer their followers consolations in retreating to religious tribalism and nationalism and offering them victories over outside ‘enemies’.
Even in western countries, such is the complexity of a modern economy and so skewed are its rewards that many long for powerful simple solutions to strike at their perceived ‘enemies’ – immigrants, ethnic minorities, the underclass – and solve their problems.
I want to make one more point here, however. The rise of right wing authoritarians, now as in the 1930s is not caused by people becoming more stupid or more prejudiced. It is caused by the objective failure of liberalism – which I will define here as an economic system allowing for free movement of capital and unregulated labour and a political system based on individual rights and freedoms to address these problems.
Brazilians are not wrong to be worried about crime and corruption. Nor are Americans wrong to worry that working class jobs can no longer buy a house or health care. In all probability neither Trump nor Bolsonaro will solve these problems, but and this must be emphasised, neither did Lula or Obama.
Secondly, at the same time as hyper consumption and production has been globalised, the planet simply cannot cope. Humans are consuming and otherwise destroying resources faster than these can be replaced. With an ideology of ‘economic growth’ that actually demands that we increase the level of consumption every year, this is set to continue and if what we used to call the Third World is ‘developed’ the process will accelerate even faster.
While scientists inform us that we have a mere twelve years to avoid catastrophic climate change and that we have killed about 70% of natural wildlife in the last fifty years, nothing changes.
How does this relate to the rise of authoritarianism? One way, is that authoritarianism is western countries is very largely being driven by hostility to mass migration. And that mass migration is in part being caused by rising temperature making parts of the world uninhabitable.
In another way, the new authoritarians are a driver of this impending disaster. Trump has disbanded the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Bolsonaro threatens to allow unrestricted logging in the Amazon. These are more complex impediments to ‘our riches’ as Bolsonaro has said that must be removed.
But again, the likes of Angela Merkel, Barrack Obama and Emannuel Macron have also failed to really address this, the central issue of our time. I say this not to relativise the dangers of climate change or the irresponsiblity of the new authoritarians, but to point out that tackling it requires changes much more fundamental than mainstream politics is prepared to carry out.