In a beautiful book entitled “The measure of the soul. Because inequalities make societies more unhappy “, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett deal with the issue of inequality not from the economic but sociological point of view, the analysis of the phenomena connected to it, namely the growth of unhappiness, violence and social rancor.
It is evident, in fact, that social inequality weakens democracy, strengthening the power of money which alters the principle of citizens’ equality.
This is an analysis shared by many, both, for example, by a progressive economist like Joseph Stiglitz, who writes: “We are moving from a democracy based on the” one head one vote “principle to a system based on the” one dollar one principle ” vote “”, both by a conservative thinker like Domenico Fisichella, who wrote a nice book on “plutocracy” where it shows how the power of money is altering the democratic balance in the countries of the West and questioning the effective exercise of fundamental political rights.
There is no doubt, in fact, that the decisive weight of the media, the growing cost of electoral campaigns, the elimination of forms of public funding push towards a privatization of politics and an increased dependence on economic and financial powers.
Added to this is the effect of new technologies. The network certainly creates new forms of social relations and participation, but inevitably also determines new mechanisms of manipulation, control and direction of opinion.
The enormous concentration of power in the hands of large transnational groups such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon is also underlined by the fact that the wealth accumulated by these companies largely escape any form of national taxation.
This also affects the quality of democracy and the social pact: the combined effect of social transformations and new means of communication is the progressive weakening of the intermediate bodies that had formed the backbone of democratic systems.
A form of atomistic individualism tends to prevail in which consensus is built through the direct relationship between the leader and the group of individuals.
But while the parties, trade unions and associations were able to give structure to the consensus and to project it in the medium term on the basis of a shared vision of society and its development prospects, the consensus that is generated in the populism of the network has instead an unstable and volatile character.
The result is a sort of neurosis of the political systems, a condition of instability and fragility of the leaderships who are driven to seek, through media referendums, a consensus that is renewed day by day.
In this condition, democracies appear weak and, in a world characterized by global competition, authoritarian systems seem to be more effective in guaranteeing stability and better selection of the ruling class.
What Amartya Sen had argued by analyzing the experience of India, namely that democracy was a more favorable condition than other systems for human development and promotion, is questionable today if we compare India’s performance with that of China.
But this is not so much the merit of dictatorships, but rather the result of a crisis in the functioning of democracies.
On the other hand, this crisis is confirmed by the fact that the process of expansion of democratic systems that had developed in the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have stopped. While, on the contrary, dangerous authoritarian and illiberal tendencies are growing within democratic regimes.
Ultimately, the two pillars of western hegemony have weakened. On the one hand, the market economy, where deregulation and ultra-liberalism have prevailed with globalization, does not seem able to guarantee balanced development and to measure itself against the great challenges of social inequality and the development-environment relationship; on the other hand, democracy appears partially emptied of those elements of participation and civil and political passion that had guaranteed its vitality and appears to be less effective in governing the great economic and development processes. Hence the loss of attractiveness of the western world.
The perception of this crisis of the role of the West is reflected in American politics and the major European countries. There is an element that is common to politics throughout the West and is an evident sign of its loss of hegemony and its retreating on itself: the fact that foreign policy appears increasingly dominated by domestic policy needs.
When this happens it is always the symptom of weakening the role of a great power. This is particularly happening in the United States of America, which with Trump seem more than ever to renounce the ordering role that has led them in the past to sacrifice some of their interests in view of a more general strategic objective.
Over the past decades, Americans have taken on a generalized need for security and have played a role that Europe has certainly benefited from.
Today it is evident that this situation is experienced with a growing impatience. Just think of the harshness with which Trump asks the allies for greater participation in NATO’s maintenance costs.
The proponents of “America first” are now living with annoyance the forms and burdens of that complex multilateral governance system that Washington has promoted. America today seems to prefer assertive bilateralism aimed at obtaining immediate advantages rather than strengthening its leadership role.
These choices also find strong opposition within the United States. It is a question of whether the Trump era represents the beginning of what has been called “the post-American century” or whether it is a withdrawal from which a new administration can impose an internationalist change and recovery.
In the face of the American renunciation of continuing to play the ordering role it has had for decades, we are witnessing the growth, in various areas, of the attractive force of other powers.
In the Middle East, for example, Russia’s weight has increased significantly. In Africa, especially on the economic front, China’s role appears fundamental today.
None of these powers, however, is able to replace the United States in exercising a stabilization function similar to that assumed by Washington after the Second World War.
Faced with this American trend, Europe appears disoriented. Without US leadership, a fundamental element also for European unity, Europe – as happened for example in the face of the war in Iraq – is divided.
At the same time, the return to a world dominated by power politics and the reality of a multilateralism in crisis find a Europe unprepared and essentially unable to react.
The only reasonable reaction would be to make a qualitative leap in the process of political integration, because united Europe could still stand out in the world as a great power capable of dealing on par with Washington, Beijing and Moscow. But in reality what is being determined is, in several countries, a retreat towards forms of nationalism that would make Europe as a whole not only more divided but also, inevitably, marginal.
The most serious risk that the West runs is to live an ungenerous and grudging old age and, in an effort to reaffirm its power challenged by facts, to act by denying its own principles and values.
In a satire of Juvenal it is said that the injury of “propter vitam vivendi lose causas», That is, to deny their reasons for surviving. Such would be the condition of a great liberal power that defends itself with tariffs and denies the values of the free market.
So it would be, for countries that have their roots in the Christian message, to deny the value of life and human solidarity, hospitality and brotherhood.
The western world should instead take note of the new pluralism of forces in the field in a reality in which we will no longer have a dominant role and, at the same time, relaunch those values of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights which are an important heritage for all humanity and not only for a part of it.
The West has a lot to give to the globalized world, especially if it is able to take on a strong culture that can help civilize globalization.
From this point of view, we could also find reasons to be proud of what we have done in Europe, for example, in terms of environmental protection, protection of human health, affirmation of freedoms and human rights.
A great pontiff, John Paul II, sent an exhortation to the new generations which should be a valuable indication for today’s Europeans: “Do not be afraid”. From here the West should start again.
Do not be afraid of a world in which we are no longer dominant and have faith in that patrimony of ideas and values that are rooted in our civilization. This could be the basis for a new role within a changing world.
from “Great is the confusion under the sky. Reflections on the crisis of the world order “, by Massimo D’Alema, Donzelli Editore, 2020, 13 euros