Donald Trump is to democracy what 2008 was to capitalism: a profound wake-up call reminding us that the system is broken and in urgent need of an “upgrade” that will bring it up to speed with the challenges of our time.
Has capitalism changed since 2008? Not substantially. We still face the same issues and structural disconnects – but we face them with a different consciousness. Today almost everyone knows that the economic system is rigged and cannot be sustained. In fact, that deeper knowing was part of the wave that swept Donald Trump, among others, into office and that allowed Bernie Sanders to collect more youth votes than Hillary Clinton and Trump combined. Viewed from that angle, we can see 2016 as the year of the third disruption—after 2008 and the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Disruption in Three Acts
As I see it, the age of disruption has unfolded in three acts.
ACT I: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001— GLOBAL TERRORISM. The On 9/11, the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania constituted a brutal opening act. Then came attacks in Bali, Mumbai, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and many more places around the globe. Since then, groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have moved from fringe networks to central players dominating international politics and public attention. While terrorism existed long before 9/11, these attacks, characterized by their unique blend of local terror with global online amplification, are designed to spread fear, hate, and prejudice at a massive scale.
Over the years we have learned that the making of this toxic social pattern has a lot to do with our own history in the West. The founding generation of these terrorists were trained and equipped by Western intelligence services (the CIA, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan). Their recruitment has been boosted by the hopelessness that our economic and political systems have delivered for young people, particularly in the Middle East. Their deadly actions have been fueled and animated by a fundamentalist ideology that—courtesy of our Saudi partners—is bankrolled with our own oil money and is being exported to all major cities worldwide in the form of Salafist and Wahhabist teachings. Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters are the logical embodiment of these teachings by putting them to work. From this perspective, we in the west are complicit in the rise of global terrorism. When we look for the root causes of global terrorism, we must also look in the mirror at ourselves. Still, how should we understand the deeper essence of fundamentalist teachings – whether they appear in strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or other religions? Fundamentalism is, generally speaking, a mindset that sees reality in terms of:
- ONE Truth (one invisible God);
- ONE Collective body or sense of Us vs. Them (us vs. infidels), and
- ONE Fanatical will (that gives us permission to inflict violence on others).
Fig. 1: The Mindset of Fundamentalism: One Truth, One Us vs. Them, One Fanatical Will
Figure 1 shows these three principles as a closing of the mind, the heart, and the will. It also shows the five behavioral characteristics of a dysfunctional system that arise from these principles: denial (not seeing), de-sensing (not empathizing), absencing (disconnecting from one’s highest self), blaming others (unable to reflect), and destroying (inflicting violence on others and on oneself).
ACT II: 2008—THE ECONOMIC DISRUPTION. In 2008, along came the second disruption—and the second wake-up call—in the form of the global financial crisis. As discussed in the previous column, at the root of the 2008 meltdown and the deepening social-economic divide is an ideology called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, in essence, is an economic fundamentalism that conceives of the economy and society according to the following three axioms:
- ONE (invisible) coordination mechanism: the market (“one god”). Everything else (government, civil society) is not only not necessary but leads to a suboptimal allocation of resources (”thou shalt not worship any other god before me”).
- ONE language: Money (“one collective body”). All social and economic activities are governed by the language of monetization (creating a huge disconnect between internalities and externalities, that is, the massive problem of social and environmental externalities); and
- ONE ego-driven will: i.e., the assumption of given preferences (aka, homo economicus).
Just as the behaviors that arise from cultural-religious fundamentalism tend to be defined by blinding, de-sensing, absencing, blaming, and destroying, we see very similar characteristics when we look at the behavior of a social system that is driven by market fundamentalism aka neoliberalism: it is blind to environmental and social externalities; it is insensitive to the cruel effects on those who are weak and in need of help; it absences or disconnects vast numbers of people from their true sources of creativity; it blames the victims of these structural issues; and it destroys the ecological, social, and cultural commons without which no society or civilization can operate.
ACT III: 2016—THE TECHNO-POLITICAL DISRUPTION. Then comes 2016: Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the far right. In Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, governments are openly undermining core democratic institutions. In Asia, Philippine President Duterte and other governments are gravitating in the same direction. It also seems no accident that the two countries in the West that were spearheading the neoliberal “Reagan-Thatcher Revolution” in the 1980s—the US and the UK—are now the first ones experiencing pushback from their disenfranchised grassroots working classes, thus giving rise to so-called “outsiders” like Donald Trump and the far right.
Yet it would be a mistake to blame this profound shift solely on economics. Look to the Netherlands, which has a perfectly working welfare state and yet a similar rise of the far right led by Geert Wilders. We see similar phenomena in Scandinavia. It's a reminder to open our eyes to the non-economic roots of the political disruption. What are they? What is this third wake-up call really about?
There have long been problems with governance and democracy. Special interest groups have hijacked the political process in many places, not only in Washington, DC, where vested interests move the Founding Fathers’ vision of one man, one vote toward one dollar, one vote. Europe, as usual, feels somewhat superior to the political paralysis in Washington, without, however, delivering better results. Meanwhile China, whose system is much less democratic according to Western standards, has somehow been slightly more focused on actually addressing some of the big challenges, such as climate change.
That’s the old problem of democracy as we know it. With that problem still unresolved, we now have an additional issue at hand. The rise of Trump in the US and the rise of the far right globally has put on display another key vulnerability of our democracies—namely, that any democratic system is only as good as the political discourse that comes with it. In 2016, the political discourse—the public conversation—took a sharp downward turn, as if in a race to the bottom. The problem is, in two words, social media. Did Mark Zuckerberg enable Donald Trump to succeed? To some degree, yes. It’s true to the degree that we see the rise of a tech fundamentalism that has some astonishing parallels with neoliberalism as it operates on the following axioms and principles:
- ONE (invisible) algorithm that gives rise to amplification of fake news and the so-called post-truth politics. For example, the US presidential campaign virtually completely ignored substantive policy issues and was dominated by fake or semi-fake news designed to amplify prejudice, anger, hate, and fear. Towards the end of the election, the facebook engagement of the top 20 fake news sites outperformed the top 20 real news sites.
- ONE filter bubble that shields us from disconfirming information and—through the massive use of micro-targeting, dark posts, and social “bots”—creates an echo chamber that reinforces our abstract sense of “us. vs. them.” A study at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute found that computer bots are responsible for a fifth of all tweets about the US election.
- ONE autocratic (or oligarchic) will that uses media, social media, and public conversation as a tool to build tech empires for global dominance (in the case of tech giants like Facebook or Google) or as a tool to build propaganda machines that effectively manipulate the masses rather than promote dialogue, fact based journalism and public discourse (as in the case of Turkey, Russia, China, and the recent US election, just to name a few).
The crisis of democracy and governance is apparent at all levels of our societies today. Symptomatic behaviors, to use the US as an example, include denial (climate deniers, who will be running the Environmental Protection Agency starting next month); de-sensing (building a wall between “us” and “them,” amplified by our virtual echo chambers); absencing (showing no interest in the catastrophic impact of our collective actions on the whole); blaming others (the accumulated toxic impact of talk radio, fake news based social media platforms, and other mechanisms that operate on propaganda as their main business model); and destroying (eroding the very foundations of what used to keep our communities and societies together).
One Mindset—Three Fundamentalisms
So here is my larger point. Over the past 15 years we have seen three disruptions that gave rise to three problems and three forms of fundamentalisms. All three share the mindset that there is One Truth, One Collective Body, and One Will. They are:
- the cultural and religious fundamentalism that is fueling direct violence (terrorism);
- the social-economic fundamentalism of neoliberalism that is fueling structural violence (unemployment, inequity, poverty);
- the techno-political fundamentalism of giant tech companies that shape our lives using invisible algorithms (Facebook feeds, Google searches) and that refuse to accept accountability for denying basic digital rights to citizens and communities worldwide.
What Are We Called to Do Now?
It’s true that we live in a difficult moment. We know that the years ahead will bring chaos, conflict, collapse, and confusion. And the question is this: What are YOU going to do? Are you unintentionally becoming part of the amplifying-chaos-and-confusion machine? Or are you willing to rise, to face reality with curiosity, compassion, and courage whatever it takes—while keeping your eye on the future that you believe wants to emerge?
Fig. 2: Presencing and Absencing—Two Mindsets, Two Social Fields (Source: Theory U)
The gift of Donald Trump in 2016 is to confront us with that very personal question. If you contemplate your answer, you may very well be able to ground yourself more steadfastly in your life’s and work’s deepest intention. Nothing less is required now.
In 2017, Anything is Possible
Experience is not what happens to us—but what we do with what happens to us. It’s that inner doing—that inner choice—where the future of this planet and the future of our evolution is battled out. In 2016, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, I have seen various examples of subtle personal-political awakening and activation of grassroot networks. 2017, I believe, will be a key year—anything is possible, anything can happen, good or bad. If you want to be an active participant in co-shaping where the future takes us, here are five concrete actions to consider:
- Adopt a practice of intentional stillness—a moment of 5–15 minutes every day when you tune out everything that isn’t essential and focus on your true intention, on what matters most to you.
- At least once a day, listen deeply to someone who is very different from you. The more different, the better.
- Create a circle or holding space with a few of your closest friends or fellow travelers in which you support each other in these difficult times. The more disruption we experience, the more we need each other’s support. A small number of people (5–7) meeting in person is best; but in the u.lab we have also found that meeting virtually (via Skype or Zoom) can also be very effective.
- Co-initiate new bottom-up public conversation spaces that bring together a diverse group of citizens who are concerned about the future of their community. Use dialogue and new techniques like social presencing theater to shift the consciousness from a silo view to a systems view—that is, from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness.
- Find ways to link your networks with platforms that promote dialogue and function as a network of networks. Doing so will help to align your efforts on a larger scale.
One such large-scale undertaking is the u.lab platform created by MITx, edX, and the Presencing Institute. The u.lab is an online-to-offline platform that is designed to help change-makers by building collective capacity to shift ego-system to eco-system awareness (Figure 2, cycle of presencing). During the first two years of its existence, the u.lab has attracted more than 90,000 users from over 180 countries; they have formed approximately 800 Hubs worldwide. This amazing response has led to the birth of an ongoing multi-local, global community that has convinced us that around the world there probably are countless individuals and communities just waiting to connect to each other around their highest intention of serving the evolution of the whole.
The intention of the u.lab core team is to launch a new 2.0 version of our platform in April 2017 as civic media and global public conversation space that facilitates free monthly global live-streamed sessions. These sessions will link change-makers in business, government, and civil society to their peers both in person and virtually. Each session will put the global spotlight on some of the most inspiring living examples of profound innovation in educational, economic, and political systems. Both the narratives of these cases and their tools will be accessible to all participants. This free innovation infrastructure will also provide manifold spaces for deep dialogue and peer coaching support in ways that facebook and other platforms cannot.
The monthly 90-minute sessions, starting in April (every second Thursday of the month), will focus on upgrading the three types of institutions in crises as discussed above: economic institutions (”economy 4.0”); democratic institutions (”democracy 4.0”); and educational institutions (”education 4.0”). Please join our mailing list if you want an invitation to these conversations.
Sleepwalk or Shared Presence
Whatever your commitment for 2017 may be, keep in mind that experience is not what happens to us—but what we do with what happens to us. We already know what to expect: chaos, confusion, and occasional collapse. Most of these events are already out of our control. So what do we control? We control how we respond. Will we amplify the problem by closing our minds, hearts, and wills? Or will we open up by suspending our habits of judgment, accessing our empathy, and summoning our courage to let go of the old and lean into the new?
There has never been a generation on this earth whose collective actions—the stuff we choose to do or not do in 2017 and beyond—will have such a profound impact on the future of our children and our planet. Let’s not sleepwalk into this year, where so much is at stake, as the leaders of Europe did a hundred years ago when they launched into World War I. This is our moment to wake up to our real intention, to be calm, compassionate, and courageous in environments that will be full of dispute, despair, and delusion.
The root of the word leadership means “to cross a threshold.” That threshold now is right in front of us...
Are we ready to rise?
Thanks to Adam Yukelson for helpful comments and to Kelvy Bird for her amazing drawings!