There is a basic shift under way in global politics. Due to changes within the global hegemon of the United States, politics is increasingly shaped not by rational debate but by glib assertions of moral rectitude. The most obvious manifestation of this shift is the rise of religion, especially of the fundamentalist variety, as an overt influence on political debate. But we rejected authoritarian religion as a means of social control over two centuries ago, and with an environmental crisis looming and high-technology violence threatening, we simply cannot afford to make the same old mistakes over again.
The world’s de facto leader is the US President. He was recently re-elected by something less than a third of the US electorate in perhaps the most divisive election since World War II. The current incumbent is a “born again” Christian who reads very little, is usually capable of only banal utterances on any subject, and has lied again and again in regard to various immensely important matters. He heads an administration made up of ideological extremists, which has just dumped its one restraining voice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, despite his being right about the war in Iraq when the others were wrong. This administration - the most unilateralist in recent times - is destroying 60 years of work to build an international relations system based on negotiated agreements.
Despite all this, the Bush administration sails blithely on, largely because the President thinks he is on a mission from God, and that he knows right from wrong and what to do about it. He has, he thinks, an infallible moral compass to guide him thanks to his personal relationship with a man who lived 2,000 years ago.
Two thousand years ago the world was dominated by a small number of brutal empires that behaved much as anthills do. Morality and life itself was cheap. Then, in Europe and the Middle East, new religions arose based on a clear moral sensibility. As they became popular these religions gained temporal power for their church officials. And because they became powerful when other forms of social organisation were weak, these church-based religions then firmed into totalitarian social control systems. This was particularly true for the Christian Church which was arguably the most powerful single institution on earth for over 1,000 years. Then, despite the Church’s best efforts, the rise of science, capitalism and new ways of thinking and creating art, finally undermined the pre-eminent role of religious authority. This change crystallised in what we call the Enlightenment.
The men and women who generated the Enlightenment, often at great personal risk, were religious, or at least steeped in religious tradition and practice. They knew exactly what religion could and could not do. They knew that better ways of doing things were possible. In particular, they wanted freedom from the existing rigid hierarchies that controlled every aspect of life. The first coherent political idea to emerge from this effort, Liberalism, reflected this desire. Liberal ideology was an intellectual response to material changes in the conditions of wealth generation and techno-economic development.
The conceptual children of Liberalism were the great political ideologies of the modern era. Conservatism was a reaction to Liberalism; socialism was the extension of certain principles within it, and communism a further extension again; and, fascism was an extreme reaction to liberalism, socialism and communism. With the exception of fascism, based as it was on certain romantic but racist notions, all these were rational ideologies. The basic differences between them lie mainly in assumptions about human nature.
The essentially (fundamentalist) religion-based politics now on the rise (a perfect mirror image of the fundamentalist terrorist project) is an attempt to return to the very same forms of society, authority and thought that the Enlightenment arose to supersede. A social order in which women hardly counted, in which authority was total and unchallenged, and in which people died for daring to disagree with that authority.
The implications of such a development are profound. Perhaps most importantly, the creation of an international relations system in which the major players do not even agree on basic reality is one pregnant with disaster. In particular, simplistic notions of “good versus evil” are absurd when dealing with such problems as nuclear weapons or climate change, just two of the techno-environmental threats facing humanity.
Nuclear weapons - ever more prevalent thanks to technological change - are a huge problem. They are the key issue in relations with Iran and North Korea, a constant point of irritation in relations between the US and China, and also in relations between the west and the Soviet Union (which is intending to embark on a nuclear modernisation program in response to the US missile shield). Symbolising this shift away from a policy of managing nuclear weapons through negotiation, the US has just about ripped up the sanest international treaty of all, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This treaty, we should recall, was intended to end the spread of nuclear weapons and obligated the existing nuclear powers to give up their own weapons.
As for climate change, if there is a “bad guy” in this mess, it is the rich, fat, energy-gobbling west, especially the US and Australia.
Electorates, terrified despite living in the most secure and prosperous times in history, seem incapable of electing governments that can and will act providentially to deal with climate change and defuse the growing high-tech weapons threat. Voters jump this way and that, desperately seeking simple solutions to complex problems.
So where do we go from here? Can mass politics revitalise itself to produce functional governments, and thus a viable global order? Or will the corporate sector - which is ultimately reliant on the maintenance of highly complex technological, training and monetary systems - turn its abundant resources to “normalising” politics? After all, whatever its ideological druthers, global business relies above all on sociopolitical stability, and the growing animosity between the US and the rest, and within the US itself, is bad for stability.
Oddly enough, in this emerging conflict between widely divergent ways of seeing the world, all the legitimate ideological children of the Enlightenment - liberalism, conservatism and socialism - find themselves on the same side. What they depend on is open, rational debate and the necessary compromises of politics. As flawed as this approach to world order is, it is essential if we are to avoid the looming spectre of destructive high-tech warfare and environmental catastrophe. As we face the challenges of the future, the one thing we simply cannot do is revert to the tried and failed ideas of the distant past.