From the Atomic Age to the Age of Atomization: a tentative history of the 21st century

Essay written in November 2015 for a contest organized by the Fountain Magazine.

During the summer 1989, a few months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and with it, of an ideology and a geopolitical scheme that had structured the world for almost half a century, Francis Fukuyama argued in his famous essay “The End of History?” that we may have reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”, that is “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

This somehow optimistic vision of the 21st century has been repeatedly mocked, especially after the 9/11 attacks. For Fukuyama’s opponents, they are indeed the symbol that far from being on the way to become universal, the Western model of liberal democracy is still facing enemies and that for millions, if not billions of people on Earth, alternative sets of values and forms of government remain not only possible, but also preferable.

Maybe one of the sources of this dispute can be found in the type of object taken for analysis. In his article, Fukuyama painted a landscape mainly composed of nation states, but a closer look at what has been happening inside them reveals a different picture, where Western liberal democracy has been increasingly criticized even within the countries that are its historical birthplaces.

True enough, one of the key features of this model is its ability to deal with internal “contradictions”, for example through peaceful mechanisms of political changeovers which do not fundamentally question the rules of the game. Yet in the course of this essay, we shall argue that due to the very success of the liberal democratic undertaking, as well as disruptive technological changes, the relatively stable structures which have been underlying the Western liberal democratic order are becoming more and more fragmented, threatening the edifice standing on it.

In order to understand how these processses, being themselves the products of Western liberal democracy, are devouring their father, we shall first look back at history and recall the main goals, steps and achievements of this centuries-long enterprise.

Though the birth of the Western liberal democracy model is generally associated with Revolutions, be they Glorious, American or French, which defined who was to rule (the People, understood as the Nation) and how (through elected bodies and within the boundaries of the rule of law and civil rights), one should not forget where this power was to be exerted. The answer to this question had been provided a few decades earlier, when in 1648 the Treaties of Westphalia set the principle of states recognizing each other’s sovereignty and as a consequence, restraining themselves from interfering in their neighbours’ domestic affairs.

Put together, these bricks form a fairly coherent system in which a plurality of states should be able to coexist peacefully next to each other but in an independent manner, so that decisions taken in one state should be only binding for its people and on its territory, and should be adopted by a single organ – first the Monarch, then the Parliament – which together with the government enjoy a monopoly on power and its most extreme instrument of enforcement, i.e. violence.

Education and Constitutions check power

As later events showed that this ideal-type was unable to deliver on its promises of peace and prosperity, additional mechanisms had to be find out to improve the model. Concerning who should rule, the initial intention to include every single man – gender here matters – in the “People” quickly appeared illusory in regard to the low literacy levels prevalent at that time. From this perspective, the fight for universal, free and compulsory education, mainly carried out by Liberal politicians – with a capital letter – during the whole 19th century should be considered as an integral part of the Western liberal democratic model.

Yet after the experiences of authoritarian, or even fascist regimes from the 20s to the 40s of the 20th century, liberal democrats – referring this time to a wider group of politicians and intellectuals than those explicitly labelled as such – came to the conclusion that educating masses did not provide a sufficient guarantee against “bad government”, and that tyranny of the majority, though in a certain sense expressing “the people’s will”, is no more desirable than tyranny of one.

The way how to rule has therefore become enshreated in Constitutions, so that even a majority could not be allowed to do anything they like, in particular with rights deemed as fundamental such as the right to life, property, voting and minority rights. Such “supra-legal” rights, which preserve a minimal sphere of autonomy for individuals and minorities against potentially abusive state intervention, have been designed to ensure that a majority which gains power cannot change the rules of the game in a manner that would render political changeover impossible in the future.

Last but not least, the territorial definition of public authority, that is where it is expected to produce effects, has had to be revised. This has been primarily caused by technological progress, especially in the fields of transport, communication and industrialization in general. Before the invention of the steam machine, the railway and the telephone, human actions could only have a limited, local range, thus hardly able to generate cross-border or even far-reaching effects with the potential of running amok.

Throughout the 20th century, the examples of nuclear accidents, Internet and climate change, to mention only a few, have illustrated that how state sovereignty has become virtual and ineffective in dealing with global issues, whose origins as well as consequences are disseminated all around the planet. In other words, states no longer have the option to ignore what is going on not only behind their neighbour’s border, but even in any point on Earth, since it can potentially host a terrorist base, a tax haven or the source of a new pandemic that can affect them more or less directly.

The necessary redefinition of the territorial scope of political power, deriving from growing material interdependence at the global scale, has not yet delivered a solution which would be at the same time effective and acceptable for a majority of states – still at the core of the international public order – and people(s). Worse, the globalization process is reopening the questions of who and how to rule, as the increasing density of international law more and more often challenges the supremacy of national legal orders, including constitutional provisions.

This is for example visible in the European Union, despite the fact it represents the most deeply integrated supranational form of public authority in the world. It still lacks a lot of legal competences to tackle contemporary problems, from tax evasion to border management, while at the same time its power is considered as nondemocratic in realms where it actually has some decision-making capacity, for instance trade or asylum policy (cf. debates around the project of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or the Commission’s proposal to dispatch Syrian refugees throughout the EU-28).

This dilemma is even more serious at the international level where integration, understood as the propensity to play in a cooperative manner, pooling decision-making power and relinquishing veto rights for the sake of maximizing collective gains, is in general weak or non-existent, except for a few cases like the World Trade Organization.

Waning middle class

The political feasability of setting up global democratic structures which would be able to take up planet-wide challenges is all the more doubtful that certain characterics deemed as essential to the proper functioning of “classical” Western liberal democracies, at least within the boundaries of nation states, are disappearing. One of these pillars is a large middle class.

Since the outbreak of the 2008 financial crisis, the theme of socio-economic inequalities, which had been discarded during the 30-year domination of Reaganomics and other variations of neoliberal policies, has made a major comeback on the intellectual scene, and to a lesser extent in public policies. In academia and in the media, this has been the enormous success of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century – over 1.5 million copies sold, a record for a 700-page economic publication – while in politics, the shift can be noticed in Barack Obama’s recent speech about “middle-class economics”.

Generally speaking, unfair fiscal policy has for sure contributed to deepen the gap between the rich and the poor, but is only one part of the explanation. Structural factors, such as increasing capital and labour mobility, the superstar effect and automation, permitted by technological developments in the fields of transport, communication and computer science, have played at least a comparable role, if not bigger, in eroding the middle-class from both ends to lift a happy few and suck the rest down to the bottom.

The middle class is also disappearing from a sociological point of view. For example, before the Internet era, a few TV channels and press titles dominated the media landscape, providing to their audiences a relatively coherent vision of the world shared by the vast majority of people. The multiplication of available sources of information on the Web has on the one hand made this landscape more pluralistic, but has on the other hand contributed to fragment societies into small and unstable “communities” with more and more polarized opinions due to the lack of common language and experience with other groups of the traditional, national community.

Paradoxically, the quest for authenticity and the “true self” has also been facilitated by the Liberal achievement of universalizing public education. The general rise of educational levels, which was aimed at supporting liberal democraties with “enlightened” citizens, has at the same time contributed to undermine all forms of authority, be it political or “technical” such as that usually enjoyed by doctors, lawyers or teachers.

The gap reduction in education between traditional notables and the masses, democratization of political power through the extension of voting rights, easier access to knowledge – for instance thanks to the Internet – and the spread of relativist theories have given birth to an “opinion-based democracy”, in which statements can no longer be falsified against an “objective” truth but are only a matter of personal opinion and therefore, are all equally acceptable.

Illusion of sovereignty

In terms of power distribution and exercise, the distrust of large fractions of the population towards traditional elites and their aspiration to directly decide their own destiny, encouraged by liberal individualism, may indeed mean the realization of the liberal dream, but by further fragmenting societies instead of integrating them more closely, they may hinder the possibility to properly address global challenges.

This is for example visible at the United Nations, where the number of state members has never been so high, making global agreements all the more difficult to adopt, while in front of the growing complexity of problems, from tax fraud to climate change adaptation and cyber crime, the reality is that a large part of these states, though formally maintaining an illusion of sovereignty, do not have the capability to fulfill even basic duties like a minimum level of security against armed aggressions, internal disorder and natural disasters.

Even “old nation states” such as Great Britain or Spain are being torn apart by centrifugal forces like the awakening of regional identities (Catalonia, Scotland) and the failure of central authorities to fully compensate for the effects of today’s economic geography, which tends to concentrate wealth and activities in a few hubs intensively interacting with each other but with little or no positive spillover on their traditional hinterlands.

Though this fragmentation process could in theory be balanced by a reintegration at a higher level, be it regional (in the sense of supranational) or even global, the contemporary reality shows a gloomier picture where atomization goes unchecked.

This could lead to a world dominated by very large cities, extremely well interconnected thanks to airlines and Internet. However, unlike today’s international system, which covers the whole planet with sovereign state entites (minus certain exceptions like Antarctica), in the future the integrated part of the world would, territorially speaking, only consist of these huge metropolies, while the rest of the globe would be left on its own and would fall into a sort of permanent anarchy.

This breakup may be encouraged by the aggravating consequences of climate change, which will render a lot of regions inhospitable for human beings and will force people to concentrate their adaptation efforts on a few dozen spots secured not only against floods, storms and droughts, but also against epidemia and “undesirable” individuals allegedly originating from non-integrated lands.

In the 20th century, the Berlin Wall was the symbol of the division of the world in two blocs, already now we are witnessing the building of walls and fences on state borders (Mexico-United States, Israel-Palestine, Hungary-Serbia-Croatia) and in the future, such barriers are most likely to “protect” cities themselves against “external” threats, like in the European Middle Ages or nowadays in certain South American countries.

Thanks to further technological progress in terms of renewable energy and recycling, the circular economy will become a reality, but will cut off material interdependence between cities and their hinterlands. The industrial model of massive nuclear power plants or farms distributing their production all around will be replaced by decentralized grids of small energy producers and urban farmers grouped in cooperatives more or less coordinated.

Travelling and communicating between these secured hubs will be fairly easy, as the enclosure of cities will allow public authorities to regain control over their territories and populations, however it will be very difficult to go outside this network, and it will be even more difficult, if not impossible, for “outlanders” to get in.

The loss of spatial continuity will probably not cause much sorrow. Already in our decade, highly educated elites born in New York, Lagos and Singapore may have more in common than with their national or ethnic fellows. They share at least one language (English), have the same cultural references shaped by Hollywood and the Grammy Awards, might have attended the same Ivy League universities and work for the same global corporations.

These people may be able to form a new basis for a coherent political entity, and we might see in the future more and more transnational actions such as the Occupy movement. Yet they will appear as a map of interconnected spots rather than nation-wide “surfaces”. In this perspective, even if some polity inspired by Western liberal democrat values and principles emerges at the global level, it is very much unlikely to become truly universal as it will only cover a few dozen cities in the world, and not the entire planet and mankind. The inevitable tensions that such a system will create incline us to think that even in 85 years’ time, the “end of history” will remain an attractive idea, but still to be implemented.