My last article for E-International Relations for who didn’t read yet
My last article for E-International Relations for who didn’t read yet
The new American presidency at international level
The international shift from cooperation to conflict that the Trump “business” administration of America has made already, in just the first week, is based on the continuation of the former administration path but with opposite means. America keeps retreating in its isolationism because of the global disorder, but now with a conflicting attitude instead of a cooperative one, being led by a businessman after an educator. This at first sight seems dangerous and possibly causing an escalation of conflict against the US and even among states. Nevertheless in the longer view could also open space for the world actors to build individual paths and new alliances independently by the US hegemony. It is hard to be optimistic in difficult times but is when we most need.
From Mexico to China, from the EU to the Middle Eastern countries non-aligned with America, the US is saying today: I will reduce the collaborative relationship with you following only my interest, now you have to make the move if you want to compete with me or you are by yourselves. Mistrust and “prisoner dilemma” is what is expecting us: defection will get more result than collaboration in the protectionist and nationalist world that Trump wants to recreate. This is what we will see from Mexico reactions to the wall, to China retaliations to the possible trade war, from EU reactions to the American attacks (Trump defines the EU as the “consortium”), to Middle Eastern retaliations after the rejection of immigrants from the seven states that US consider “sponsors of terrorism”. Actually in reality these states instead of supporting Salafi and Jihadist terrorism (that is supported mostly by the Gulf monarchies) have been challenging the American model both politically and economically…that is why they are in the list even if intermittently since decades. So besides discriminating on religion and fomenting Islamophobia, it is evident that the ban is not at all for defending American territory as ISIS has a big presence in many other states, like Nigeria for example, and is not present at all in some of the seven states, like for example Iran.
This new process of conflict competition and aggressivity could escalate conflict with the US and even among countries themselves, not having the hegemonic presence of America that provide “public goods” like possible protections or “public threats” like possible attacks. But it could also open space for new actors to rise and fill the power vacuum in a competitive way and in new geopolitical trajectories: “If US is not there anymore, also because of its decline, we can do it by ourselves” will say the countries with world aspirations. China and India as leaders in Asia, Mexico and Brazil as leaders in Latin America, Iran and Turkey as leaders in the Middle East, are natural developments when the hegemon is not there anymore and so regional leaders for regional cooperation and integration could represent the next steps after the failure of globalization. Canada for example already step in as possible substitute of the US as leader of the democratic world, accepting the refugees that the US is rejecting and fighting against Islamophobia, and for that has been suddenly attacked by a white nationalist killing in a mosque.
So let’s see the bigger picture. After WWII the liberal order was guaranteed by the US and NATO, also thanks to the stability of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War the new instability and the multipolar (or zeropolar) world made the liberal global order impossible to retain, given the risk of imperial overstretching. Today we are witnessing the end of the Pax Americana as we are on a new path in this transition towards a new order: the US, together with the UK (being the two that created that order) are ending the liberal order, weakening international institutions and norms that they themselves created, pushing the international system back to its traditional “anarchy” and the nation states back to its traditional “power”, as major agents of international politics for its own interests. In political science, from the constructivist theories born in the second half of 20th century to understand modernity and postmodernity we are having today a revival of the traditional realist-rationalist approaches. But if we look closer this is not only the realist approach in international relations, it represents the extreme capitalist free market ideology applied to international politics: competition over cooperation. The ideas is that if you allow different actors to compete among themselves in an anarchic and conflicting system their talents, merits and capacities will come out and the system will grow consequentially. This is true but problem is that, in the international system as in the market, with a completely free competition without rules and norms protecting from the extremes, the strongest can crash the weakest, or to say it with Thucydides still valid after two millennia: “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”
So what we are witnessing with the new populism, nationalism and “conflictism” of Trump and also Teresa May, it is not only a political, economic and cultural shift, it is also an ideological and paradigmatic one: from cooperation we are passing to conflict as a legitimate tool of international relations, similar to the economic-materialist concept of Marx and Schumpeter of “creative destruction”. The creators are destroying what they created in order to reborn as new leaders in the future chaos. If this will have more positive or negative results in the long run it has to be seen. Much will depend if someone will take the lead in the meantime, in the creation of a new modern global order while the US and UK are busy destroying what remains of the old one. Hopefully if this will happen will be someone with cooperative and inclusive attitudes, because if history can teach something is that the belief in only the realist-rationalist-materialist approach, with conflict as “the great equalizer” and war as “continuation of politics with other means”, produced the most violent and inhumane century of humankind.
The new American presidency at domestic level
As we know the Roman Empire failed, as all the other great powers in human history, from implosion before than from invasion, from internal dysfunctions more than from external ones. So domestic situation is more important than the international one. Also Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay, 2014) famously argued that liberal democracy’s future is cloudy because of its own internal problems, not competition from any external opponent. Therefore today the US, coming out from a century of world supremacy, should recuperate its internal strength in order to keep this supremacy, not only at economic level but also at cultural and social level. And this is the discours of Trump, making America great again “for all Americans”. But in reality this discourse hide a manipulation of the disenfranchised people that will keep things as they are for them, or even worst at economic, political and social level. Much has been said about economic so let’s concentrate on social and political levels.
The social strength of a country is called “social capital”. In political science the social capital is one of the bases of democracy: it represent the level of networking, participation, reciprocity, cooperation and trust that make a society act together for the common good. Tocqueville noticed two centuries ago that in America the social capital was at a high level, because Americans were meeting at as many gatherings as possible to talk about politics, more than the people in the old continent. This increased the levels of transparency, participation and trust and so the social capital, which in turn allowed for democracy to work better. At the end of the day those were the times when the creation of the country was still fresh, two or three generations before, and so people were still eager to participate and fight for to the Res-publica, the “public thing”. But almost two century after the social capital is in a different situation in America. Already Putnam explained how isolation and lack of civic engagement reduced social capital in America, and a recent article on the last issue of the Journal of Democracy present that showing that not many people believe in real democracy in this country and act as a consequence anymore.
If we look deeper in this concept we see how the scholarship define three types of social capital, all needed for the good work of democracy: Bonding, that means inside a social group like family, friends, neighbors, race etc.; Bridging, among different groups, like cross-ethnic association, interreligious groups etc.; and Linking, among people and their government representatives, local authorities etc. While Obama was strong in creating Bridging and Linking social capital, Trump seems to wish to reinforce the Bonding social capital, inside a particular group of people. These people are not only the “descendent of the original pioneers”, the so called WASP, “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”, that are more traditionalist (with God, family and nation values of the Jacksonian tradition) conservative, uneducated and isolated, and that once were the “elite” and now feel threatened as an endangered species in the US because of the new immigrants, the new educated-intellectuals and in general the wave of progressivism during the last decades. They are also represented by the people (mostly WASP but not only) that have been “downgraded” and “declassified” either from a high income middle class to a lower income middle class or from a high income labor class to a lower income (or even unemployed) labor class, becoming in these way the antiestablishment disenfranchised people, the nourishment for populist and demagogues of all times and places. These are the same type of people that are causing the populist surge in the Western world. The Trump administration, respect to the Obama’s one, is here exactly to channelize this anger of people that from quite rich became less rich and that are living in what Pankaj Mishra defined “the age of anger”, to show in a post-deliberative post-intellectual democracy, and against professional politicians, what really means to deliberate and act fast and simple, even is synonym of superficial and divisive. The problem is that trying to unite only one part of population with the bonding narrative and without the other types of social capital, the bridging and linking ones, democracy doesn’t work, as democracy needs inclusiveness and trust in representation, while the bonding social capital create a tribal-clanistic democracy, in reality an oligarchy closed to the world and to the future, that is what America increasingly seems to have.
And here we come to the second point of this administration at domestic level, besides destroying the diversity of social fabric favoring only the bonding social capital of a “relative small” group. While the listening to the people could represent the “healthy populism”, to bring people back to politics, overcoming the risk of popular rebellion against the democratic institution, the fact that in reality Trump doesn’t listen to “all” people and doesn’t seem to have effective programs to reduce inequality and so address that anger, and instead is putting the administration in the hands of family, corporations and crony capitalism, is quite worrying. The reality is that the Trump administration is manipulating that anger in order to divide the 99% of people that have less than the 1%, breaking its possible social movement, eroding the political power of their representative and making the economic sphere stronger and with less control, without “problems” like climate change, critic press or international norms to disturb its business. Trump attacks politicians and state institutions, which are people’s representative, saying “people will retake their power” but what he really means is that “economy will retake its power” over politics and even the state. This is confirmed by his nominations of many business people in its administration, who come from Exxon, Goldman Sacks and other corporations or financial powers, and by the antidemocratic alt-right ideology of his senior counselor Steve Bannon. All this could lead to the final destruction of political and state power versus the economic one, with a stronger neoliberal uncontrolled economy and so more inequality.
But this process could lead also, as a reaction, to a grassroot bridging social capital with an alliance between classes, the poor and disenfranchised labor class, the excluded and not listened minorities (including women, latinos and blacks) and the middle class of professionals, scientists and intellectuals, that is only possibility for any successful “revolution”. Also, the erosion of democratic insitutions, again as a reaction, could lead to a grassroot linking social capital between citizens and their representatives, that could join forces to recuperate the democratic norms and the institutional political power over the economic one. Already the recent Women’s march and the protest against the immigrations ban as well as the institutions refusing to follow Presidents decisions (like the federal judge in Seattle who temporarily blocked Trump’s immigration order), represent signs in that direction.
So we don’t know yet but in a relative short time, that means in this year 2017, we will see where US politics and society is headed. We will see soon if democratic institutions, besides social capital and political sphere, will be eroded to a critical point of autocracy and social division like it happened in Venezuela or Turkey. We will see soon if the final assault of unregulated market and neoliberal forces will increase the inequality or there will be as a reaction a more “European” America, with a welfare state balancing that inequality. And we will see soon if there will be an American decline on the international arena and the final end of Pax Americana or an American Renaissance, may be together with China or even Russia. Remembering two famous sentences of the worst times of our human history we will see soon if the Americans will still be able to say, as the 1935 political novel by Sinclair Lewis, “It can’t happen here”, or will instead say, as Martin Niemoller recited during Nazism, “First they came for the socialist, but I was not a socialist…”
Italians voted no to the proposition of institutional and constitutional reforms, which was agreed by the Italian Parliament for the first time after almost 70 years since the “Costituente”. The Italian Parliament was following the strong acceleration of a post-ideological modern Government, again the first of such governments in Italian recent history. But in a time of increased transparency, empowered individuals and bottom-up democratic tools (first of all the use of referendums) the confidence of some Western leaders to appeal to popular support in order to increase their legitimacy has turned to be a big mistake. From Cameron to Renzi, leaders European leaders believed that they could bring the people on the ship of their vision for the future. But they forgot about one thing: the deep culture and identity of their societies. Exceptionalism for British people and conservatism for Italians. Who will be next? We hope no Merkel even if we are not so sure (Hollande avoided such risk with his recent decision to not seek re-election).
Italians don’t like change, they live in open sky museums, adore their traditions and have a culture of self-governance and “make do” that survive better in government instability than in the opposite scenarios. Italians, even if they always criticize the politicians for being corrupted and not wanting to change, prefer weak corrupt governments that keep the things as they have always been (that’s why Berlusconi reigned for around a generation) than strong stable governments that could really change the things, including asking the citizens to behave. Besides that, Italians have always been afraid of Communism, before with Fascism demonization and after with the one of Christian Democracy, making a left or liberal government, almost impossible to survive for long time in the country. That, together with the economic stagnation and the manipulation of information in a post-truth, post-fact society, fueled by opposite politicians with a hate narrative rarely seen before, made the result of referendum. But how Italian referendum result enters in the long run of Western liberal democratic crisis?
As said in the previous article on the US, the three “Ps” are very evident also in Italy: increased Poverty, with inequality and intellectual unemployment (involving in particular the middle class); extreme Polarization, in particular between nationalist and cosmopolitanists (not much between Leftist and Rightist that is not anymore the real division of the socio-political spectrum in Western democracies); and spread Populism, or anti-establishment feelings (in particular distrust for corrupted and distant elites). These phenomena are growing in the Italian society since almost a decade. Since more less the Euro consequences (in particular the raised prices) started to couple with the economic crisis, the migration crisis arrived, and the social media technology started to empower individuals and at the same time polarize them. The populist feelings in particular against the corrupted party system in Italy, the “casta”, started to be channelized in particular by the 5 Star Movement, a bottom up movement that is using Internet as E-democracy already since 2005 with the blog of a Comedian, Beppe Grillo, and the use of Meetups (using the American born Meetup idea) and arrived to be the first party voted in the Parliament (even if not the first represented because of the electoral law, another degeneration of the electoral system, like in the US)
Besides these “first layer” reasons the democratic crisis in Italy can be seen also as an identity crisis, as said in the article on US, because of increasing immigration, women empowerment and international integration. Italy, like the rest of Western rich countries, started to be afraid of having to share the wealth with poorer people, first of all economic migrants but also refugees, and risk its identity dilution with the creation of a melting pot society (and in the last 3 years the number of immigrants in Italy increased exponentially with the Middle Eastern refugee crisis). Italian men, ruling the country, its families and its society since the Latin times (similarly to the rest of Europe) started to be afraid of having to share the power with women (and this actually was the first government that among other things had 50% of women). And the Italian nation state in itself, existing since 4 century (since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) started to be afraid of having to reduce its sovereignty with new supranational actors, first of all the EU (this was one of the most pro-EU governments, accepting the decisions from the EU even if using the rhetoric of anti-austerity) reducing therefore its ontological security.
Therefore in Italy as in the US we are on the right track towards the democratic natural crisis. We need to see how we use this crisis for the good and not for the bad, not only in Italy but in Europe. Even in the worst case scenario that the EU will fail and disintegrate in the next decades what is important is to know who will take the lead for future new alliances and integration processes. We will not have a pre-WWII scenario because of economic integration and because Russia will always be there to make European continent cohesive (hopefully with the constant support of NATO). But as a recent article on Foreign Affairs said: “Populism is gaining ground. Around the world, economic hardship and growing unease with globalization, immigration, and the established elite have propelled such movements into power, leading to a groundswell of public support for parties and leaders viewed as capable of holding the forces of cultural and social change at bay.”
What we know is that strong leaders will not make a democratic renaissance against the establishment, as they promise, on the opposite they will deepen the democratic crisis, gradually eroding the liberal elements of our countries, as expert populists around the world from Chavez, to Erdogan to Putin, showed. This is the risk in our liberal Western democracies crisis too, at least until the citizens will not take back the lead of the future in their hands through their civil society, with new associations, movements, parties and organizations at grassroots level, and not lead from top-down. The political establishment has to be checked and controlled by these civil society associations to reduce corruption and increase vision, even if cannot disappear as representative democracies needs politicians. But these politicians can be more “representative” of the people, more “spokespersons” like the 5SM try to build. Otherwise we will have fake democracies with strong leaders, that will hide what they really are: autocracies, or as Plato said, new tyrannies.
 Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz. How Democracies Fall Apart. Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy. Foreign Affairs, December 2016.
Eric Hobsbawm defined the 19th century as “The Long Nineteenth Century”, starting in 1789 and ending in 1914, and the 20th century as the “The Short Twentieth Century”, from 1914 to 1991. In reality also the 20th century could be considered a “long century”, at least in its conception and its heritage: we can say that it started in 1865, with the civil war and the end of slavery in America (the strongest democratic step since its independence for the most powerful country of 20th century) and ended definitely in 2016, when an American President visited Cuba, 88 years after the last one, and Fidel Castro died, almost 60 years after its Cuban Revolution. These events marked the final end of the ideological cold war, the planetary confrontation between capitalism and communism, which represented the history of the second part of 20th century.
All people under oppression appealed to a liberation ideology for a revolution against the status quo since the beginning of times. Revolutions bring dignity and self-determination to people, and they have been liberating people from oppression in every corner of the planet. But revolutions in their aftermath has difficulty to realize the dream of a idealistic society and they risk to even distort the original ideals (sometimes as a need to defend from external attacks) and build authoritarian regimes, as history shows from French revolution with Napoleon dictatorship to American Revolution with black slavery, from Iranian revolution to the Arab Spring. Fidel Castro, like all the revolutionaries, was a freedom fighter for his people, and actually he declared just after the revolution that he would have started finally a democracy in Cuba (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjpnfDwWd7Y) but then became another Prince, the enlightened tyrant who believes in the utopia that a society can be guided from top down for the good of the people. Actually while many Cuban policies had good effect, like high levels of public education and health, the development of the country for the end of people poverty failed, in particular after the end of the Soviet Union. So today the Cuban regime needs to find a new model, may be the Chinese one with state capitalism, if it wants to survive.
The revolutions are important for the self-determination of people in the short term but they are not enough for their democratic and economic flourishing in the long term. As we political scientists knows, it is the constant and progressive reforms towards an inclusive and empowering economic and political system that brings real human liberation in the history of humankind. Gorbacev attempted to reform Sovietic communism to make it more legitimate, efficient and sustainable as ideology and system, and even if he failed he opened the space on the right track. When Putin will die (as it seems that he will not leave the power before that) that path will have to be retaken if Russia wants to go towards real modernization and development. Same for Cuba after the end of the old guard, or Iran, after the end of Ayatollah regime, as well as the other countries that failed to democratize with the Arab Spring or are still monarchies like Saudi Arabia.
This doesn’t meant though that all countries have to follow exactly the Western style liberal democracies for a future of “End of history”, as Fukuyama believed. Actually culture matters and also the liberal representative democracies of the Western world will need reforms to survive and flourish anyway. Democracy and human liberation, equality and inclusion are never ending processes, as we can see from the Roman Republic two millennia and half ago to the election of Trump in a divided democratic American society. And, most important, democracy and human liberation has to be authoctonous, coming from an internal evolution of a country, with its traditional systems, cultural elements and historical approaches. There is no one solution fits it all, as the “one person one vote” of the universal suffrage is an historical evolution of European individual rights against the old tyranny of the nobility, but other geographies and histories have to develop their own way of social contract and political representation, that could be more communitarian than individualistic.
As Castro said once “ideas don’t need arms if they convince masses” and also “who doesn’t believe in the human being is not a revolutionary”. So we need to have faith in human beings to change the status quo for a better future and to do that today we don’t need arms if we have ideas: armed revolutions are a tool of the past, when people had less power of today, when we can use education and technology, as we saw with the Arab Spring and we can see in Cuba already with the arrival of internet. Today what we need are new unarmed revolutions, that is “revolutions of ideas”, both in democracies and in autocracies, to face the fast and complex globalization and the risk for the human societies to become more divided, unequal and chaotic. Inequality and exclusion are the cancer of democracies as well as autocracies and to overcome them we will have to make in Western democracies as in non-Western autocracies many political, economic and social reforms, to reach a higher civic education, a more inclusive development, and a more effective governance. We need new ideas and forms to reduce economic inequality, minorities’ exclusion and extreme polarization. We need to fight the risk of populism and make democracies more efficient and sustainable in the long run and autocracies more open societies in a globalized world. We need new leaders and new intellectuals, but also empowered masses, for revolutions of ideas more than armed revolutions.
If Hobsbawn might have been wrong in the definition of “Short Century” he was right on the risks for the future. As he said: “If humanity is to have a recognizable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or the present. If we try to build the third millennium on that basis, we shall fail. And the price of failure, that is the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.” (The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, 1994).
Will the United States show again that is still one of the healthiest, besides one of the oldest, democracy in the world? Will be able to reform its too old institutions and reconcile its too polarized people, in a society that destroyed many moderate spaces of discussions in the public sphere, from education to media? The prospect of the new elected President doesn’t seem enlightened. Bill Clinton had to move his party to the center, to win two elections. Trump moved the party that hijacked to the extreme right, after the Tea Party and beyond the Alt-Right. Electing Trump the American democracy just chose to take a stop in leading the planetary future. After the first black president of its history, the US didn’t elect its first woman president and instead went towards the most macho chauvinist joker and ignorant president could find, because in the post-modern liberal democracies leaders don’t guide masses: they mirror them. The US went towards a cultural reaction that could reverse the country, and also the West, to a past of racism, nationalism, sexism, and many says Fascism. So apart all the issues on economy, anti-politics and fragmentation these elections have been also about culture, identity and post-modernity.
At a superficial level it seems that three main processes are happening today in the US but also in Europe and so in general in the Western liberal democracies: increased inequality, spread populism and extreme polarization. These trends are caused mainly by three factors: unregulated market and banking systems together with economic globalization as degeneration and contradictions of neoliberal extreme capitalism (see “Capital in the Twenty First Century” by Piketty); focus on technical and scientific education abandoning the liberal arts and humanities (see on this “Not for Profit”, by Martha Nussbaum); and the information technology transformation, including biased private news outlets and uncontrolled, instinctual, post-fact and post-truth social media information (see on this “The Filter Bubble” of Richard Sennet).
But at a deeper identity and cultural levels, and inside a longer historical view, four reactionary processes in reality are happening in the US and the West against the very fast progress that we lived in the last decades: sexism, nationalism, racism and religiophobia (mostly Islamophobia as Islam is the world religion with most impact on the daily life). These identity trends, present in particular among people living isolated and not used to socialize and so create trust, in rural areas more than urbanized centers, represents our ontological insecurity reaction to four changes: the starting of end of patriarcate, nation state, monoethnic and secular societies. We are starting to live in the post-modern societies (not only “Post-modern States”, as Robert Cooper defines the West) with a more equal relationship between men and women, a more broad sense of belonging to an international community, a mixing of races with increased migrations and a return to religion as a political tool. The last one is happening first of all with Islamism but also, as a reaction, with the Christian right wing political stands (especially in the US) making us starting to live in post-secular societies (as defined by Habermas) that fight between religion in politics and religiophobia.
To use the words of Thomas Kuhn, we are living in a “paradigm shift”, not so much in the sciences (that evolve when society evolves) but in the society, in particular in the creation of a new planetary society. Our human nature is struggling on the tension between fear and mistrust on one side of its spectrum and love and trust on the other (see “Love and Hate” by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the founder of Human Ethology). It is natural and it is good we could say. We cannot only progress going forwards otherwise only chaos will be in our future. The arch of history is always bent towards justice, as Marti Luther King said, but it progresses going forwards two steps and going backwards one. Now we are in the backwards one. The risk is that if we don’t control it, it could be a step back so big that would represent a giant leap towards darkness. An epochal crisis of our civilization. We don’t want that, but human nature sometimes has been ruled by irrational behaviors, and cycles of history repeat themselves, making arise and decline of societies and civilizations. As Plato’s five regimes teaches us after Aristocracy, Timocracy and Oligarchy there is Democracy, but after Democracy we go back to Tyranny and the cycle starts again. So we need to ask us today: which culture we want to choose for our future generations, the one based on liberal values or the one based on authoritarian values? Do we want a Renaissance or do we want to open the doors to a new “Middle Age”, the age in the middle between the enlightened times.
“An ignorant people can never remain a free people” said Thomas Jefferson. “We will give you a Republic, if you can keep it” said Benjamin Franklin. But to keep the ability to manage a Res-publica, the “public thing”, we need to fight ignorance, as ignorance breed polarization, populism and finally authoritarianism. This is one of the deepest crises of American and Western democracies: the increasing ignorance of a fast consumerist but slow (and superficial) thinking society that produced a lack of real knowledge, culture and so wisdom. All the rest comes as a consequence. Therefore to chose the path of evolution we need to go back to read books and travel, instead of googling everything, we need to go back to talk to each other’s in the streets, instead of staying closed inside our houses and cars, and we need to recreate that social capital and human trust that is the foundation of any functional society, in particular a liberal democratic one.
Post-modernization and global/glocal-ization contributed to create this superficialization. It is a physical law: if you go horizontally you cannot go vertically, if you expand you become more superficial. There is a superficialization in many spheres: there is a reduction of general power (see “The end of power” by Moises Naim); there is a reduction of the “public sphere”, as Habermas called the space for social life (instead we created superficial, fragmented and polarized networks); there is a reduction of the importance of the mediation of elites (with anti-establishment sentiments against the casts of politicians, the oligarchies that became our democracies); there is a reduction of differences (from languages dying every day to ethnic mixing); and there is a reduction of active political life respect to economic and social automatism and conformism (see already “The Human Condition” by Hanna Arendt).
Also, post-modernity and globalization destroyed the organized and clear life we had in the past creating a life based on thousands of possibilities but also contradictions. We can, but more “we have”, to choose everything in our life, from the type of morning coffee to the health treatment for our lives, from deciding to marry or not (and at which age, with who, for having children or just for having a life in two and so on) to should I answer to this message or not. So our time is constantly interrupted, our space constantly disturbed, our identity constantly recreated in a process of choices, including political choices that resemble more and more a gigantic shopping mall instead of a reflected decision for our future, because we are living in a post ideological society. But this doesn’t make us happier, on the contrary worsen our satisfaction, as we cannot have the pleasure of surprise or calmness, the “creative idleness” (otium) of the ancient Latins, and we rise expectations and alienations with more disappointments and frustrations (see the TED talk “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz).
Our post-modernity is living in constant change, constant crises. Zygmunt Bauman calls our society the “liquid society.” Antonio Gramsci, last century, called the social crisis we were going to live the Interregno “Inter-kingdom.” He argued that the crisis of change consisted precisely in the fact that the old was dying but the new could not be born; in this phase a great variety of morbid symptoms and chaos appear. We know from where we escape but not where we are running. That is what is happening to the US and Western world right now: we know from where it escapes from but not where it is running. Nevertheless as again Latins said: dium vitam et sursum corda, long life and lift up your hearts! As the evolutionary trend of the human specie is what makes its survival. And the optimist trends of modernization and improvement of human life around the planet (from increasing literacy to reduction of extreme poverty, improvement of health and individual empowerment) are there to demonstrate it.
My last piece on Fikra Forum
“At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Mexican President Peña Nieto declared after their meeting. We don’t know if a wall will really be built between the US and Mexico any time soon, assuming the rare case that the elections in November will be won by the American tycoon. What we do know is that no walls will be able to block the integration of a continent such as America, whose populations are destined to meet and cohabit as Europeans did, even if after centuries of divisions and wars. How, then, can we accompany and facilitate this process? How can we work for mutual understanding among the nations of America?
At the end of the 17th century, young wealthy people, mostly men from England and other Protestant Northern European nations, started a tradition called the “Grand Tour.” The idea was to visit Continental Europe, especially France and Italy, in an educational trip aimed to learn from the past and the cultural roots of Western civilization. Many of those aristocrats not only visited the ancient sites of Greco-Roman civilization but also visited the cradle of the Renaissance, Tuscany, containing my wonderful city of Florence. These young aristocrats on their tour were immersed in the local cultures, learning from the people how they were living, including learning some language skills, in a type of rite of passage to understand and experience the “European life”.
Those travels, we could say, represented the embryonic beginning of the creation of a European identity. Through an exchange among people of different cultures, meeting for the first time not through trade, war, or politics, as in the past, but through journeys of pleasure and learning, contributing to the social construction, not merely the economic or political construction, of a continent “united in diversity” as goes the present day EU’s motto. It is ironic and sad to see how today instead the UK is distancing herself from Europe. Unfortunately though, the Grand Tour was only for the elites, as poor people certainly could not afford such a journey of exploration; that’s why Thomas Cook’s founding of the first British travel agency in the middle of the 19th century enabled many more people to afford travel, and so began the era of mass tourism.
Today, almost four centuries after the Grand Tour tradition started, it is time to balance modern mass tourism with a new wave of cultural, historical, and ethical tourism. This should happen not only in Europe, but also in the Americas, helping the United States to do with Latin America the same that the UK did with Europe: facilitating the first social seeds of a unified American continent, that will be created in the centuries ahead, in one way or another.
This doesn’t mean that mass tourism should stop, as it is still useful for the economy and society in their entirety. However, it could be accompanied by a new form of travel: American travelers should start to go not only to hotels and tourist resorts that are often a false way of being exposed to a foreign country, but also to local communities, authentic villages, and family homes, in order to become (even if only for few days) part of the local life – learning from their different cultures, their indigenous civilizations – and why not even the Spanish language, that will become, probably one day soon, the second language of the US.
This would have many side effects besides the start of grassroots integration of the continent. First of all, racism towards Latinos that is starting to accompany the racism towards African-Americans in this country would start to decline when people travel to Latin America and see how people live there, often in humble conditions.
Second, avoiding brand-name chain hotels would allow money to flow directly to local people, helping grassroots development as well as being cheaper for the tourists.
Finally, this type of travel could also, indirectly, help to reduce drug production, drug trade, and drug consumption between the US and Latin America, with beneficial consequences for the economies and security of Latin American countries. A new form of ethical and cultural tourism will not only help the peasants to have an alternative source of income that reduces the need for drug cultivation, but it could also play a role in the reduction of demand for these drugs in the US too. By visiting the countries that produce drugs (such as Mexico), staying with local people, experiencing what is an authentic community life, a warm approach to relationships or a good simple meal, this could reduce the alienation that can make many US citizens prone to drug abuse in order to resist the daily stresses of life today. Coming back to their country these people will not only be authentically refreshed and recharged, but will have a new appreciation of the small things in life, helping them to fight the solitude and the consequent need for intoxicants.
Obviously, security issues should be taken into consideration when planning such travel. In particular, there is the risk of international terrorism, and otherwise it can be difficult to travel to non-tourist places or remote areas due to safety reasons. However, a little bit of risk has always been part of real travel – not mass tourism but the real exploration of foreign places – and today this would be less dangerous than in the past, and could even be less dangerous relative to mass tourism which often provides targets in the form of crowded tourist spots. Thus, travelers should not pay too much attention to exaggerated media reports, and even take the travel warnings of the US government with a pinch of salt, as they often don’t mean that one should not go to a country, but just exercise caution.
It is unclear if the new US President that will be elected in few months will build bridges or a wall at the southern frontier. One thing is sure, however: a wall will not block the migration and the natural encounters among different people. New bridges will allow people on different sides of the border to meet on more equal and open terms, like “individual ambassadors” for cultural exchange and grassroots diplomacy. This is the real foreign policy that the US should pursue to increase soft power and pursue a new American century. It is time to “make America open again” if we want to really live together and learn from each other in this continent. As in the words of Senator Tim Kaine, the probable next Vice President of the United States: “Bienvenidos a todos en nuestro país, porque somos Americanos todos.”