With each day that passes the conflict and animosity between the conservative reactionary forces and the global movement for progressive change becomes more acute, uglier and increasingly dangerous; wherever one looks in the world the battleground between groups on either side of the divide rages. In essence it is a battle of values and ideas, of what kind of society we want to live in, but as the extremes, particularly those on what is commonly called the ‘right’, assert themselves, the space for rational, open debate is being crushed and a febrile intolerant atmosphere fueled.
Decades of systemic failure, environmental vandalism and social injustice have caused widespread discontent and anger among people in many countries, injustice made more severe by policies of crippling austerity following the 2008 banking crash. Among the 38 members of the wealthy OECD nations it is said that 50% of the population feel disenchanted with the political-economic system.
Consistent with the times we are living in – times in which the forces of the past are receding and the energies of the new are increasing in potency, the reaction to such discontent has been polarized. While large numbers of people recognize systemic change is needed and are calling for greater levels of cooperation between people and nations, others, in many cases equally great in numbers, blame external forces and immigration, and retreat into a narrow form of nationalism, seeking security.
Antagonisms have been enflamed by politicians who either fail to understand the impact of their poisonous rhetoric or simply don’t care what effect they have. The resulting political divisions are acute and, in many cases, compromise between groups on either side of the debate appears impossible as, for example, the government shut down in America and the Brexit deadlock demonstrate. Brexit has become the burning issue of conflict in the UK, fueling fractious, volatile political debate and entrenched national divisions. As one pro-EU protestor told The Observer, “this is civil war without the muskets…it is appalling.”
Throughout Europe and America a huge increase in hate crimes against immigrants and other groups is one of the consequences of these tensions, as is distrust of the mainstream media and the abuse of MPs, particularly of women: a report (surveying 55 female MPs from 39 countries) from the Inter-Parliamentary Union reveals that 44.4% of all women elected to office have received threats of either “death, rape, beatings and/or abductions.” In Britain, the BBC relates that, “Labour MP Jess Phillips said in one night she received 600 rape threats and was threatened with violence and aggression every day.” Other female members of parliament in the UK, especially those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, have consistently been the victims of such disturbing attacks, and on the 7th January online abuse spilled on to the streets when MP Anna Soubry, a pro-Europe member of the Conservative party, was verbally attacked and physically intimidated by a group of far right activists who support the UK leaving the European Union. The men surrounded her outside the House of Commons, called her a ‘Fascist’ and a ‘Nazi’, and blocked her way as she tried to enter Parliament; these men are “not protestors” said Soubry, “they are thugs.” And, as the murder of the MP Jo Cox on 16th June 2016 so tragically showed, in the hands of such people, vile words can easily become violent actions.
Such intolerance and hate flows from fear and ignorance, both of which are constantly agitated by misinformation. People increasingly live in like-minded bubbles, their views – no matter how extreme – are constantly reinforced by what they choose to read and watch and who they listen to; alternative positions remain unheard, balance denied. As one right-wing protestor, who supports a plethora of conspiracy theories, told the Observer, “I find news the way I need to find it…if I can get it from a family member then that’s it…The country should prepare for riots,” he says. “They can’t expect the people to be law-abiding citizens when government is as corrupt as it is. All them people in here [inside Parliament] are getting paid backhanders all the way through the system.”
This level of suspicion makes discussion, cooperation and compromise impossible, divisions inevitable, leading potentially to conflict. Walls are erected, some constructed from steel or concrete, others, perhaps even more dangerous, made up of prejudice and distrust. Both strengthen isolation and deepen divisions, nationally and globally, which makes dealing with any type of global crisis, e.g. a pandemic or economic crash, a greater risk than would otherwise be the case.
The polarization of politics and large numbers of the public has come about as a result of the enormous resistance to fundamental change that has been consistently shown by weak politicians of all colors; this inability to respond to the demands of the times has created great uncertainty. The longer change is resisted, and the ways of the past are perpetuated, the more intense the divisions and insecurities will become.
It is the conservative-leaning political parties, institutions and corporations of the world that are most firmly attached to the existing systems and modes of living. And despite the fact that the prevailing socio-economic order has fueled unprecedented levels of inequality, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population and trapped working class people in economic uncertainty and in many cases poverty, it is this very demographic that is energizing the reactionary groups that are working to maintain the status-quo.
The toxic movement towards isolation, intolerance and division is a crystallized fearful response to the unstoppable current of change that is sweeping the world, and the determination by those who have benefited from the current systems to resist change at all costs.
Every age has its own specific qualities; the last two thousand years or so have seen the emergence of individuality on a mass scale, of which tribal nationalism is an extreme and negative form of expression. Individuality is a most valuable and positive quality, but when, as is often the case, it is expressed as selfishness, and self-centered activity it becomes destructive. In order to breach the prevailing divisions and overcome the various crises facing humanity the strengths of the individual, the diversity and beauty of people and nations needs to be placed at the service of the wider community, and not simply used for the benefit of the individual or the particular country.
Building on from the achievement of mass individuality the key ideals of the age that stretches before us are unity, cooperation and tolerance; such qualities necessitate and encourage a shift away from a narrow ‘me first’ approach to living to an awareness and responsibility for society more broadly and the natural world. Sharing is the essential element in the manifestation of such Principles of Goodness, by it expression trust is cultivated, and where trust exists barriers break down.