A New Dark Age?

03/16/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015
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The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, science and technology, and the acknowledgment of the individual's rights vis-à-vis the state (Western values) has dominated the world for 500 years. Over the last 200 years it took form of an Anglo-American worldview introducing the age of economics: industrialization, liberal representative democracy, colonization, and economic growth sponsored by innovation. These elements coalesced into economic globalization.

The seismograph now registers something more sinister than cracks; the needle indicates underlying challenges to virtually all fundamental elements.

The alpha male of the world order, the US, is neither willing nor capable of defending the steering system. It has ceased being the indispensable nation. The streak of idealism has disappeared, forcing the US to fall back on raw power despite the talk about soft power. Moral authority has slipped away, no longer available to support and substantiate US policies and interventions.

The malaise starts at home. The Americans no longer trust their own model and no longer express willingness to "export" it. Inequality is growing. The family, important for raising children, is gradually being sidetracked; single parent children have less experience of living together with other people. Together these societal "earthquakes" annihilate coherence and commonality, thus undermining common purposes and consensus. Around the world the US model -- as the ultimate objective or a blueprint to be adopted albeit with adaptations and adjustments -- has lost its allure. The American way of life is still attractive, but neither the US political system nor the economic model evokes similar feelings.

Absence of moral authority has opened the door for a flurry of new ideas, new ideologies and new models, all of them tampering with, picking holes in, and contesting the existing world order.

Economic globalization is being challenged by economic nationalism. Economic globalization has worked wonders and still delivers higher economic growth than any other palatable model. There are several problems, though.

Almost ex definitione economic globalization rips into people's cultural identity rooted in nationalism, regionalism, religion, and family culture perceived as norms for daily life. People have so far been willing to sacrifice a part of their cultural identity because the rewards through economic globalization were large and tangible. With falling global growth it is not so any longer. Policies to keep it going proliferate in the shadow of lower growth, crowding out many national rules and in the process alienating people from political control of the economy -- feeling the system is not theirs, but set up, run, and controlled by 'somebody.'

The concentration of capital and consequently control of the economy has taken a dramatic turn over the last two decades. The number of financial institutions, including banks, has decreased, giving fewer institutions -- and implicitly fewer people running these institutions -- a power over the global economy never seen before. 147 companies control directly or indirectly 40 percent of global business transactions.

The link between the entrepreneur and the workers both living in the same community and meeting each other does not exist anymore. Ownership becomes more and more impersonal and non-transparent through funds whose ownership is blurred with an agenda of short-term profit -- playing the game of financial wizardry -- and uninterested in building a long term genuine business activity providing jobs.

It is disturbing that surveys unequivocally show a deliberate policy to avoid taxes and, if that's not possible, to shuffle revenues and profits around to minimize taxes; many nations see no tax revenue from multinational companies operating there at full throttle.

The degree of inequality is growing. Recent analyses disclosed that globally the 138 richest people possess higher wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest people. Another survey revealed that soon the one percent richest people's wealth would be higher than what the rest of mankind possessed.

The citizen comes easily to the conclusion that if higher growth goes to the already wealthy persons an economic model with lower growth more equally distributed may be better for him or her.

Extremism versus compromise and consensus may not be new in an historical perspective, but from 1945 until a decade or two ago compromise and consensus reigned largely unchallenged. The fanaticism giving birth to Nazism, Fascism, and Communism may explain why the Western worldview moved fast and strongly in this.

It may be this dominance -- this success -- that gave rise to opposition rallying around extremism often using (abusing?) religion. From a Western point of view it took the shape of Muslim fanatics, but it is not a phenomenon unique for Islam. Wahhabism is the driving force behind much terrorism ascribed to Islam yet counts less than 10 million people. Christian fundamentalism rejects the evolution theory and thus science and technology as cornerstones in modern societies. Not to kill and non-violence are central to Buddhism and yet news comes out of Buddhist monks instilling hatred against Muslims. Hindu extremism (nationalism) is a force to be reckoned with in India. It is hard to escape the observation that religion is hijacked by extremism.

Urbanization has produced a class of social losers. They find it difficult to accept their new conditions and even more difficult to admit that it may be due to an inadequate education system and petrified economic structure resisting the combination of modernization and development. Instead they blame foreigners and the Western economic model. From there to seek refuge in religion -- at least for some of them -- is not a big step. The next one in the form of violence as defense of identity requires justification, which is offered by religious fanatics quoting religious texts -- often out of context.

Three swing factors explain why this cause-effect is more visible among groups of Muslims than for other religious groups. First, the Muslim world is geographically close to Europe. For centuries Christianity and Islam have confronted each other. Since industrialization a large part of the Middle East and the Arab world became part of the British and French Empires. The once proud times with opposite roles were not forgotten, explaining growing animosity and anger looking for an explanation; and even more important, how to reestablish a more equal relationship. Second, the Muslim world and Islam are special: almost all other cultures welcomed the Western culture or aspects thereof. Islam was left as the only theocratic "worldview" fundamentally different from not only the Western worldview but secularity. Muslims felt that they and their religion had a special role. Third, Muslim immigration into Europe now accounts for between four percent and almost 10 percent, respective on which country is observed; this has been a game changer. These immigrants constitute a link between the European (Western) cultures and their home countries and the culture there. The integration does not go smoothly partly because of lower economic growth, turning many of them into social losers who blame their new home countries. They float around without identity being torn between their new home and where they or their parents came from. Social networking offers ample opportunities to connect with others in similar situations searching for answers. They want an identity.

Some of them are seduced by fanatics convincing them that the grievances they nurse are justified. Violence against the oppressors (economic globalization and the Western worldview) are preached by extremists as the only way to solve the dilemma. Successful attacks proves the point that the Western model is decadent and impotent, thus giving credence to the message of the extremists. The response of the West by invading Muslim countries adds fuel to the flames, offering the extremists the gift of referring to the Crusades and the Colonial Era.

Terrorists use (abuse) religions to justify violence and move the world into a cognitive vacuum, void of values and norms, which raises the specter of a depraved mankind.

Social networking may enhance segregation. At a first glance social networking may improve mutual understanding among people and respect for values, but a closer inspection discloses a serious risks to tolerance and mutual respect.

People using social networking tend to communicate with those of analogous culture/behavioral values. They reinforce each other in their beliefs, promoting non-compromising attitudes, solidifying views that "we" are right and "they" are wrong. These networking groups withdraw into their castles, hoisting the intellectual -- or rather mindset -- drawbridge. Before the internet information quality control weeded out incorrect or culturally offending communication. It was the responsibility of the Editor in Chief. In a worst case scenario he/she could be held accountable -- legally or ethically. Today anybody can post the most preposterous statements on the net. The danger enhances when the net is used for information that looks serious and factual, but is in fact deliberately misleading.

In today's world the individual is exposed to pressure of impression through the overwhelming mass of information and constant invitation to communicate by the web and networking. Similarly, economic globalization through the market and a vast array of goods and services force the individual to make choices in daily life, which may seem terrific, but embeds risks and uncertainties not hitherto known. Taken together, well-known identity in local communities and established cultural norms are under massive attack. The individual reacts by moving back to basics: Who am I?

The response has been to look for joining groups anchored in common and shared values. Social networking makes this accessible for the majority. A worrying effect is a deeper segregation of societies with value walls arising inside nation-states dividing groups according to culture -- values.

Formerly the nation-state acted as service provider for the population offering human, economic, and social security. The lower growth in the slipstream of the economic downturn deprives nation-states of the financial means to fulfill that role. People fall back on groups outside the state framework to supplement or outright replace the state as service provider. That being the case they become captive of the group having stepped in to provide the services they need. A lower social and geographical mobility follows.

In some cases groups formed by extremists prevent members from leaving, and if necessary by applying their own jurisdiction detached from the state or local community. It becomes an all or nothing. Parallel societies flourish, but are sometimes difficult to detect as they do not openly challenge the state. The result is no loyalty to the state and no identification with citizens of the same state.

Religion is an obvious candidate for group values, but far from the only one and maybe not the strongest value connecting people. Culture in a region or similar geographical or political unity as seen in the old European regions (Scotland, Catalonia, Bavaria, and Lombardy to mention a few examples) resurface after two hundred years in the shadow. Various lifestyles (e.g. motorcycle gangs) work in the same way.

Technology is crowding out human interaction, taking us into a world of communication and interaction among humans, but with actually very little human contact. People, especially young people, spend more and more of their time separated from other humans, but "linked" to their PC or whatever device they use for communication. Their world is becoming something like a comic strip where neither the person nor those he/she communicates with sense or feel the consequences because what they see is images or texts, but not genuine human beings. The world of downloading and games convey the impression that it is possible to undo what happened and start anew. Disasters, pain, and even death befalling others are not felt because people captivated by the device world do not know what the real world is.

People enrolled in this non-natural world becomes insensitive, even callous, confronted with fellow human beings' suffering. Violence, cruelty, and terrorism to others do not matter and cannot be judged in a human perspective. They apparently do not feel any inhibition to undertake actions that hurt fellow human beings. There is much talk about robots and artificial intelligence surpassing human beings, relegating them to "slaves." It seems more urgent to look at how human beings turn into clones of machines without feelings eroding fundamentals of humanity.

Fundamental rights of freedom have gained ground over the preceding decades even if it may not look like that reading mass media, mainly in the Western World, lamenting the state of affairs in countries rarely analyzed throughout. A mix up of fundamental freedom with human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy penetrates almost all writings blurring the issues.

Fundamental rights of freedom can be defined as the citizen's right to define his or her own cultural profile vis-a-vis other human beings and vis-à-vis the state -- no human being lives in a dome of a cheese-dish so the question is what can be done and what can be said provided a person wants to continue living in this society, community, or group? The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) stated that freedom presupposes self-discipline. Individuals going too far force a collapse of common and shared values without which the group or community cannot hold together. The will of the strongest takes over from values. Freedom becomes the victim. The individual will be without protection from either fellow citizens through common values or rule of law with everybody equal to the law.

The task to find the limits and thereby defend fundamental rights of freedom rests with the individual. Neither the group nor the community/society can solve the conundrum. Group behavior and common values diminish (ideally remove) the need for enforcement. The less deep seated or inbred common values are, the more likely it is that enforcement escalate into supervision and control -- actually turning into autocracy violating fundamental rights of freedom.

Freedom of expression is embedded in fundamental rights of freedom provided that self-discipline is incorporated in behavioral patterns, but if not these two ideals risk being irreconcilable. As events over the preceding decade have shown, freedom of expression inside groups or communities, even nation-states, neglecting outside values raises the question of what freedom of expression means. If the reaction of groups with different values becomes too strong, the state intervenes to prevent conflicts. If the state does not intervene, outside groups may take it into their own hands to signal that their values have been violated. In both cases there will be limits -- written or unwritten -- for freedom of expression, however much it is denied. "If you use your freedom of expression at my expense do we then both have the same degree of freedom?" is a counterargument.

The concept of human rights suffers from the weakness that it is difficult to define and globally seen as a Western phenomenon. For cultural groups and nation-states not wishing to adopt the Western societal and political system this link makes human rights unpalatable, even if many of its elements are integrated in their societies and thrive well. The West would have done wisely in telling other nations and cultural groups about the virtues of human rights as practiced in the West instead of teaching and trying to "export" the model, not realizing how long it took to strike roots in the Western world and the vast differences between cultural backgrounds in the West and other cultural spheres.

The perception is that freedom cannot be achieved without democracy. There are several weaknesses in this point of view. In many non-Western countries there is skepticism about democracy as seen in the West and the position that freedom cannot be achieved under any other political system is not accepted. The vast majority wants fundamental rights of freedom, but is disposed to give another political system a try before jumping on board alternative political systems of which they know very little. What happened in Iraq does not exactly entice them.

Most countries in Asia and Africa are multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic. In these countries the state protects the minorities. Democracy with free elections may deliver a parliamentary majority constituting a government uniquely composed of one of these cultural groups, opening the door to exercise cultural imperialism, or even worse to oppress the minorities. Supporters of democracy and free elections have not been able to square this circle and explain why democracy promotes fundamental rights of freedom under such circumstances. In established democracies voters cast their vote according to political parties' performances -- at least a sufficient number to change the majority do. Not so in most multicultural countries with a voting pattern fixed by cultural identity.

Illiberal democracies are emerging as a strange hybrid. On the surface they look like democracies, but in reality they violate most democratic principles at the same times as fundamental rights of freedom are under attack and in some cases barely exist.

There is, however, a distinction to draw between illiberal democracies in countries close to or belonging to the Western circle of culture (let's label them monoculture countries) and countries outside the Western circle.

For the second group of countries illiberal democracy may be seen as a step in developing a political system, be it democracy or something else, and groping to find the best way to deal with fundamental rights of freedom bearing in mind the "constraints" of multiculturalism. In some cases the status of fundamental rights of freedom may be better than a decade or two ago.

For the first group of countries the picture is different. For them illiberal democracy may be and often is a retrograde step ruling out genuine democracy and seeing illiberal democracy as a cloak for autocracy, even dictatorship. As most of these countries are geographically close to Western democracies they turn into battlefields for societal systems, as Ukraine is a clear example of. If Ukraine succeeds as a genuine democracy combined with economic prosperity, the pressure on Russia and its leaders to change the political system will grow. If Russia succeeds in preventing Ukraine from embarking on this course, the pressure on a number of Central and Eastern European countries will rise; adjacent nation-states to the east running a much less liberal and less open system will not be "nice" neighbors.

Unfortunately for Western democracies, especially for the U.S. Congress, a new phenomenon, which may be labelled oligarch democracy to borrow from abroad, is gaining ground. In 1986 winners of a seat in the House of Representatives spent $360,000, skyrocketing to $1.6 million, in 2012 -- an increase of 344 percent. For the Senate the corresponding figures (all adjusted for inflation) are $6.4 million and $10.4 million -- up 62 percent. Add to this the amount spent on lobbying. Over the last decade oil, gas, and coal lobbied for around $100 million per year with the overwhelming part going to the Republicans; over the two years 2008-2009, during the financial crisis, lobbying by the financial sector has been calculated at more than $800 million. It takes a brave person to maintain that under such circumstances the political system and individual politicians have managed to wriggle themselves free of influence exercised by donors and lobbyists. It questions the very character of liberal representative democracy expected to reflect the social strata of the population; the money factor rules that out.

Xenophobia albeit in a milder form is becoming more widespread and creeps surreptitiously onto the political agenda as something everybody knows, but few admit. It is more and more difficult to get into other countries to work; several countries are introducing schemes requiring proof that a national cannot do the job before admitting a foreigner; limits or quotas surface.

The main worry in a "philosophical" sense is the tacit acceptance that human beings are not equal. Broadly speaking, until a decade or so ago it looked like the world was moving in the direction of equality, but the restrictions for immigration and work permits may be the first shots in a coming conflict about values centered on discrimination of human beings according to culture, race, and religion.

History provides examples (e.g. the interwar period in Europe) that if this door opens, in whichever way it happens, escalation into outright discrimination justifying oppression followed by maltreatment and cruelty may be next. Those in power (maybe the majority) feel entitled to adopt such policies because other people are not their equals. Many Germans who in 1930 would never have dreamed about killing Jews did so ten years later under the pretext that Jews were not human beings like them. You cannot get a foothold on a slippery slope!

The elite versus the majority. The values used to be set by a comparatively small number of human beings -- the elite and well-educated strata who possessed a lingua franca facilitating communication among the members of this select group. This has changed with exponential speed over the last quarter of a century.

The global elite has turned to English as a global and common language, but they still think and act according to their original culture, giving the same word different meanings: A common language at the expense of a lingua franca! The Anglo-American culture does not any longer reign supreme; other cultures and religions have re-emerged from hibernation.

Values and the sharing of values across borders have slipped out of the elite's control; millions, maybe even billions, of people use social networking to contest reigning values and the role of the elite. The global communication takes place on separate levels with insiders (the elite) and outsiders (the majority) communicating independently. In a long-term perspective this division overshadows economic inequality as a threat to globalization. It may not be politically correct to say so, but the non-elite do not have the same upbringing and education; it tends to be more nationalistic and less interested in the many facets of globalization. The non-elite act more by intuition and automatic response steered by emotions and "near to me values," making its members easy prey for seduction, supporting snap decisions, and favoring short-term solutions often at the expense of "others." They are less critical and more emotional. The more time-consuming and laborious way of proceeding by rationality and logic, applying critical analysis inherited from the enlightenment, is brushed aside.

This may not be totally new, but the scale is. Lessons from history and what we have seen over the last quarter of a century indicate that the elite may be capable of dealing with such movements provided that the economy is good, there is confidence in the economic model and the political system is highly regarded -- in short, the elite delivers results. This is precisely what has been lost over the last 10 or maybe 15 years where the "global model" did not deliver and misled the voters by skirting the truth, losing credibility in the process, and in many cases turning events from bad to worse and inviting alternative thinking to the surface.

The question is whether civilization as we know it can survive a transformation from values laid down by a few (the elite) to a global auction offering different and often conflicting values and perceptions. With luck a kind of benign global civilization may emerge. The alternative is conflicts born out of values justifying violence and armed conflicts against those who think otherwise -- the easy way.

People's power may look wonderful, but it is dangerous to overlook that it opens the door for values kept under lid and control when perceptions were shaped by those able and willing to incorporate repercussions on others of their actions. Populism lurks around the corner.

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) pondered about this dilemma.1 Democracy is the most reasonable form of government; for in it "every one submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason; i.e., seeing that all cannot think alike, the voice of the majority has the force of law." The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity into power; and there is no way of avoiding this except by limiting office to men of "trained skill." Numbers by themselves cannot produce wisdom, and may give the best favors of office to the grossest flatterers. "The fickle disposition of the multitude almost reduces those who have experience of it to despair; for it is governed solely by emotions, and not by reason." Thus democratic government becomes a procession of brief-lived demagogues, and men of worth are loath to enter lists where they must be judged and rated by their inferiors. Sooner or later the more capable men rebel against such a system, though they be in a minority. "Hence I think it is that democracies change into aristocracies, and these at length into monarchies"; people at last prefer tyranny to chaos. Equality of power is an unstable condition; men are by nature unequal; and "he who seeks equality between unequals seeks an absurdity."

A new system. The world is passing through one of these rare but tumultuous phases where an existing order is unable to accommodate changes. Possibly the age of economics will be recorded as an interregnum to build the materialistic foundation to take humanity into an age of non-materialistic values as was the case for many ancient cultures. If so, it is unlikely that the shift emerges in the US having been so committed to economic thinking.

A resurrection of Asian values subdued over the last 250 years -- indeed culturally oppressed and crowded out by Western values -- can happen. Asian religions and philosophies offer an alternative anchored in a less materialistic worldview, a better and deeper acknowledgment of interactions between God, nature, and human beings, and a stronger role for the collective versus the individual. In some, maybe even many respects, traditional Asian values stand for the opposite of the Anglo-American value system. An example of this is the low ranking in the traditional Chinese hierarchy of the merchant and the high ranking of the farmer. Money did not exercise the same leverage on societal order as was the case in industrialized countries.

Such a new worldview depends largely on the Asian countries ability and willingness first to build mutual trust and second to lead.

Reconciliation between China and Japan is the first step; otherwise the animosity between these two countries will act as a spoiler. China and India need to move closer together. A deeper understanding of common values is imperative. In Europe, Christianity, despite its various editions, served that purpose, but there is no similar philosophy at hand in Asia.

Asian history and in particular Chinese history reveals a lack of ambition to lead and offer its model abroad -- the Great Wall radiates Chinese psychology. There seems to be a kind of inhibition when faced with leadership outside one's own cultural sphere that may block any "globalization" of Asian values. Obviously another element may be whether other cultures are attracted by Asian values -- of which no signs yet.

It is very much up to Asia to step forward. Without much doubt many traditional Asian values -- philosophy and religion -- resonate well with underlying trends emerging around the world questioning the era of economics. So far Asia has bought into the Western model serving as a platform for fast economic growth. Consumerism is visible in many Asian countries. Enormous investment in infrastructure is also on the agenda. This cannot, however, be seen as Asia buying into the Anglo-American world of economics. Building physical infrastructure and capacity for production and consumption is necessary for moving beyond economics to an era of non-economics highlighting other values. Without satisfying basic needs such a jump would not be possible.

If Asia does not respond to this challenge we must look at two alternatives.

The first one is a divided world where globalization gradually gives way to regionalism with Western values, Asian values and similar values defined by cultures or geography. Samuel Huntington talked about a clash of civilizations, but a model with divergent worldviews is feasible inside a functioning global economy, albeit less strong and less coherent than what we have seen and been led to believe would continue. It would be manageable. What would be missing is global governance but isn't that what we have seen over the last ten years? Maybe we are already there!

The second one is falling into the abyss of a new dark age where nationalism, populism, and xenophobia rules the world order in a sinister combination of fanaticism, ignorance, and anti-science.

Unlikely? No. This is what happened repeatedly in China, with dynasties collapsing to be followed by precisely such chaos void of values. The Roman Empire was succeeded by more than 600 years of dark ages waiting for the Renaissance to emerge.

The frightening observation is that however much it is repulsive to conclude most omens point to the last scenario without many of us realizing it and fewer stepping up to prevent it.


Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore; Adjunct Professor at Singapore Management University and Copenhagen Business School; and an Honorary Alumnus of the University of Copenhagen.

[1] Here summarized after Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Chapter IV Spinoza.