For as long as there has been representative democracy in western Europe there have been complaints of the need for political change. While most demands for serious political change have either been ignored, watered down, or simply petered out, some have gone on to materialise some of the most dramatic events in European history. The truth is that politics, and everything that politics touches, is exceptionally stubborn, and consequently very difficult to adjust in a convincing way, or at a satisfactory speed. So slow is the progress of political reform that for most it slips by unnoticed, fomenting more scepticism and disrespect for the political system. The supposed inflexibility of the political system, and the unimaginativeness, or even wretchedness, of those involved in it, are bemoaned the world over, not only by those who made recommendations for reform in the past but also by those too disappointed to complain at all.
Some political movements and parties that have demanded change have presented easily recognisable platforms. Members of the public who are politically minded are more likely to be aware of these platforms than those who are not, and to support one of these platforms at some point in their interactions with politics. But for the majority of the population politics has been, and will likely remain, an obscure and pointless part of life, and they refuse to trust any suggestion by a politician that they are sincere about change.
What we do know is that for these people the desire to see politics transformed is very strong. What sort of change they want is never precise, and almost never coincides with the kind of reforms suggested by politicians themselves or those politically minded members of the public.
Political change is elusive, growing more out of a feeling that politics does not serve a useful function than out of an investigative assessment of how politics can be improved.
What the public is looking for cannot be exactly known, because people no doubt envisage very different things. But the central themes of this discontent are well known: a feeling that politicians do not understand the public, a feeling that politics is connected in an undesirable way to wealth, a feeling that politicians become politicians to fulfil personal ambitions.
The popular caricature of a politician is someone who will only say what helps them get elected, who breaks promises, and who accumulates a suspicious degree of wealth the further they rise up the political ladder. Undesirable traits these are to be sure, but no one among the people has so far been able to articulate what precisely it is that must replace the existing political structure.
No one, it seems, wants politics to remain as it exists today. But few can say what they actually want from politics.
The recent referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU gave the public the chance to change politics- and they took it. But the public still want answers and they still want to see things done differently.
The United States provides another example of how the population, sickened by what they see in politics, are seeking fresh approaches to existing political questions, questions that regular political theories and ideas have, in their eyes, failed to answer.
The phenomenon of President Donald Trump proves how strong that sentiment is. It remains to be seen, however, how successful and how satisfying Trump’s changes will be, but for those on the left of the western political spectrum, Trump does not represent part of the solution. Indeed, one young American activist views Trump’s politics as yet another outgrowth of the western political system that engendered general political disillusion in the first place.
Zena has never voted, but was for some years instinctively sympathetic to the Democrats. While withholding her vote from the Democrats, she saw in them the potential for radical left-wing reform in America. Their approach to issues such as taxation, social equality, economics and spending, in contrast to the alternative, appeared “reasonable” and trustworthy.
On the other hand, the Republicans, in Zena’s view, always embodied the political hermit outlook, of defending and living according to established beliefs. What she saw as the strong nationalist and Christianity-tinged worldview of the Republican movement, its voters and its leaders was equally unattractive, if only due to the limitations she felt these qualities imposed on Republicanism.
Whether Zena or the Democratic Party has changed over the last few years is open to debate; but certainly her inclination to regard them as the steady, non-dogmatic party has disappeared.
The glorification of social minorities, the consequent fragmentation of American political dialogue, and the controversy surrounding Americanism and Islam, have all contributed to Zena’s disappointment, indeed, disgust, with modern politics. Where many commentators and activists have accredited social movements with the empowerment of African Americans, women, the LGBT community, Mexicans and others, her example being Black Lives Matter, Zena regards the very creation and expansion of these movements as the weakening of a higher collective empowerment.
Black Lives Matter, she argues, concentrates solely on what society mistakenly believes are ‘black issues’, in the same way, for example, LGBT rights groups campaign solely for LGBT issues. In this way, Zena argues, millions of politically and socially alert people, whose intelligence and ambition might otherwise be combined, are distracted from the issues affecting every American and find themselves competing with each other for the supremacy of their causes, all of which, in Zena’s view, are dwarfed by the scale of the task facing American society as a whole.
Zena defines this fragmentation as “Identity politics”, because it divides the population into social identity categories (black, female etc).
Her eventual rejection of the Democrats was prompted by their positive recognition of the possibilities of identity politics. Of particular concern was the Democrats’ “defending Islam” and being “hypocritical when it came to racism and sexism”. Multiculturalism in America governed by the Democrats, she argues, was unhelpful not only because it facilitated an upsurge in “divisive” identity politics, but because it sheltered a religious “ideology” that demands unquestioning “submission…theocracy…and patriarchy”.
From Zena’s descriptions of identity politics and Islam, it is clear that while they have very different origins and purposes, they have similarly disadvantageous consequences for society. While Islam is understood as a severely conservative, authoritarian social structure, identity politics is similarly recognised as the means for a social minority to seek priority over the rest of the population; where Zena believes Islam would prioritise men, she argues identity politics gives anyone and everyone the chance to lord it over their neighbours.
The element of Islam that Zena defines as the “theocracy”, by which people are forced the live their lives, is related to the high-handedness of identity politics. This assumption of superiority, she feels, enables some to feel they can dictate social and cultural priorities which suit them to the general population.
A common theme so far has been division, the ability of movements in identity politics to divide people into those who fit into a certain category and those who do not. For example, identity politics allows some to place ‘blame’ on other social groups and, quite often, the vaguely defined “establishment”. Islam supposedly imitates this persecution-like behaviour with “victim-shaming and slut-shaming”, punishing small numbers of people for the ills afflicting wider society.
More importantly, however, Zena highlights what she sees as the oppressive aspect of both identity politics and Islam. Both phenomena stifle the combined political will of the population through coercion, intolerance of different opinions and rigid imposition of puritanical ideology.
That the Democrats came to endorse these ideas, which to Zena were so insupportable and misleading, led her to “re-evaluate” politics as a whole and her place within it. Like the Republicans, who were negatively associated with, and rejected because of, their conservatism and nationalism, so now were the Democrats dismissed for their association with identity politics.
Zena has since embarked on the development of a new political theory, which she hopes will eventually serve as the constitution of a new political party. Her theory is based on the need to build sound political consensus on economics and social questions, moving away from the “self-centred” individualism of identity politics and the exploitation of capitalism. Zena’s theory deals not with the mathematics of currency or exchange, or with political ideals, but with the balance of pleasure and pain in a “global society”.
The idea of creating a “global society” in which people are “working together and not taking advantage of each other” has echoes of Marxism. This aside, however, Zena believes she is proposing a “new economic theory” which would give small groups of individuals “social ownership” over the “means of production”. The economics of this theory- the exact distribution of ownership and rights of production- are not fully fledged, but the principle inherent in this theory, and in Zena’s political life, is that the global community of individuals secure for themselves the advantages of their natural environment and physical abilities.
Essentially a rejection of capitalism on the basis of its tendency to concentrate wealth, rather than distribute it, this theory is also grounded in what Zena sees as morality, a common sense/common good argument about how politics and economics should “maximise pleasure” within a common global population.
We already know that Zena had resisted what she viewed as the nationalist arguments of the Republicans in America, and the fragmentary effect of identity politics; it should be no surprise to learn, then, that Zena hopes her theory can convince the global population of the benefits of communal self-government in a borderless world.
A possible model to learn from is the EU. Continuing to describe the EU as a successful example of a politically united super-state is no longer tenable in the aftermath of Brexit, the rising temperature of Euro-scepticism in the Netherlands, France and Germany, as well as recent dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of the economy in southern Europe. But we should not mistake the failure of the EU to perfectly agglomerate every member-state as proof of its complete failure as a unifying entity. That there has been peace between Europe’s major powers for the past seventy years is often accredited to the EU. But in bringing us back to our present subject, Zena continues to see the EU as a potential “stepping stone” to the borderless global society.
The obvious obstacle she has to overcome in the argument for the EU leading us into a global society is Brexit.
Brexit demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about the global society. For as long as nation states exist nothing can prevent them from prioritising their indigenous populations and swerving precipitously away from a collective global goal. Whatever explanation we offer for Brexit, or for the rise of Euro-scepticism elsewhere, the fact that closer economic and political integration has been cast aside in favour of fuller autonomy in the UK proves that existing national cultures and traditions persist and cannot be easily eclipsed by ideals of continental unity or global equality.
Individual populations can choose to advance the cause of a global society, or they can choose their national identity. And for those who can be described as nationalist or conservative the global society has little to offer.
The question this poses back to Zena is “if people can chose not to join the global society, how can she persuade them that the global society is more advantageous than what already exists?”
Zena admits that her theory is still being developed, but looking ahead, she must consider how the global society can not only inspire those thoroughly disgusted by politics, but also those who are indifferent, those who appreciate the established politics, and those who value cultural distinctions between their own and other countries. In other words, to make the global society an idea that people can gather around and actively support, and not just pine for in private, Zena needs to construct a compelling economic case for how the global society would make people better off than they are now and how people could retain their national characteristics in a world without borders.
If the global society is to achieve this and be genuinely benevolent and inclusive then it must avoid the mistakes of the theories it rejects (Communism, Imperialism and Nationalism among them) of compelling unwilling populations to adjust to unwanted cultural and economic circumstances. Identity politics in America, so Zena believes, is a failure because it committed exactly this error. She must avoid doing the same if the balance of pleasure and pain is to weigh in favour the global society.
So far, however, it is difficult to see how the global society idea could be attractive to the majority of people living in capitalist economies.
It seems Zena even concedes that the entity she saw as the precursor to the global society, the EU, was itself responsible for the mistrust and doubt which led to the UK’s vote to leave. Even more importantly, though, on the basis of her remarks, Zena does not feel regret over Brexit and insists she can sympathise with British Leave voters in their rejection of “insane EU multiculturalism and import of Islam”, the latter referring to the rise in immigration from the Middle East since 2015.
The EU, she feels, followed in the American Democrats’ footsteps in advocating multiculturalism, a synthetic political tool because of which “harmful” belief systems are not only sheltered but assisted by the state. In other words, the net of multiculturalism, in Zena’s view, has been cast too far and fails to distinguish between desirable cultural interaction and undesirable cultural interaction.
British voters were justified in voting to leave a super-state in which this brand of multiculturalism prevailed. Significantly, though, Zena believes that if British voters voted Leave on the basis of nationalist arguments, such as those Zena is familiar with in the form of American Republicanism, then these voters were taking “a step backwards”. She draws a critical distinction between the motivations for Brexit (nationalism or anti-multiculturalism), viewing almost as irrelevant the outcome of the vote and the eventual settlement for the UK by 2019.
In her criticism of UK nationalism, single issue movements and pro-Islamic democratic parties, Zena is entirely consistent with her criticisms of American politics. Having never embraced the Republicans for these reasons, and having turned away from the Democrats some time later, Zena’s scepticism about President Trump’s America-First rhetoric and Brexit Nationalism follows a well-established pattern of her recognising the limitations of one-nation solutions to political problems. The global society, Zena hopes, can solve the problems of every nationality and state without disrupting the equilibrium of any individual state or forcing any culture to accommodate unwanted outside influences.
In addition, the election of Trump as U.S. President has not caused Zena to feel regret for the fate of Hilary Clinton. She retains her disappointment with the Democrats and continued to abstain from voting in Presidential elections, even to thwart the ambitions of a man she acknowledges is “nationalist and protectionist”.
In terms of the theoretical side of Zena’s politics, there is still some way to go before the global society becomes a fully-fledged argument. There are numerous questions that her theory needs to answer which it cannot yet do. The difficulty in overcoming numerous existing political ideas which already command respect in western politics, millions of followers, and organised political parties to fight for them is but the first example demonstrating the scale of her task.
The global society argument must, as we have said, persuade people to adopt it; Brexit proves that if the case is not persuasive enough there is nothing to stop whole nations rejecting it. But how can an argument for global society possibly contend with well-established political ideologies like nationalism, socialism and capitalism? How can the global society even distinguish itself from what we know as multiculturalism? Some might be inclined to differentiate them solely on Zena’s insistence that she would “never accept Islam into the global society”. Excluding oppressive or “theocratic” entities would certainly be one way of marking the global society out from other political theories. But this raises the question of how global the global society can be if it excludes one of the most numerous religious groups in the world.
Furthermore, the global society, in the form which Zena expresses it, undoubtedly undermines what we understand to be the nation state, and it would be the interest of every western government to make the global society as unattractive to their electorates as possible. How Zena’s ideas, untested by history and the difficulties of modern politics, could contend with the determination and resources of nation states remains to be seen.
What Zena does have in her favour, however, is consistency.
In rejecting all flavours of nationalism and identity politics, Zena has established for herself and for others firm guidelines for what the global society should embrace and what it should reject.
It has also been commented upon by western political commentators and politicians that there is an enormous appetite for political change, for new ideas. Zena is not the only person to have decided politics does not function as well as it could. This widespread appetite means that she will not have to formulate the global society alone, as others who feel troubled by what they see in western politics will come forward also looking for new answers to old questions.
Zena’s mission to create a political theory that encourages cooperation within mankind tells us a great deal about the politics of the western world. Firstly, and most significantly, her mission sends a positive message about politics. Zena has recently been disappointed by both the major political parties in her country of origin. She has seen the “stepping stone” to a global society set back by the departure of a member state. Meanwhile, modern nationalism is, she feels, pulling western society “backwards”. But Zena has refused to give up political activity altogether, and has embarked upon her own personal political project, hoping to make a positive contribution to western and global politics.
This demonstrates how politics as a whole, and democracy especially, always offers individuals the opportunity to try. Zena still believes that there is a cause worth fighting for and that politics, whatever its flaws, can embrace change.
That such drastic change is desired, indeed craved, by so many, however, offers a different lesson. As we have discussed, western politics is widely mistrusted. The advantages of how the economy and politics work, some feel, are unfairly distributed. This is perhaps the most common grounds on which desire for change is based.
Zena feels this desire for redistribution just as keenly as many before her have felt it. In the course of a single remark concerning how wealth and property in the global society will be distributed, Zena makes an analogy with which many in both America and Europe can identify: “One person can’t own all of Africa and have the Atlantic as their swimming pool.”
Obviously an exaggeration, this statement nonetheless brims with frustration at the perceived elevated status of a very small number of people and the extent of global inequality. It contains within it the belief, often unsubstantiated, and often expressed resignedly, as though it were inevitable, among ordinary people that the wealthiest members of the human race own and control virtually the whole planet, and that the vast majority of the human race will never have a share of that potential wealth.
That so many people still identify with these complaints tells us that the meaning of politics, the very word ‘politics’, is almost irretrievably dirtied by its failings. That politics is so easily associated in the public consciousness with negative human conditions like poverty, inequality and lying, as though politics could be offered as an explanation for why all of these things exist, is a warning to politicians across the west of the dangers of complacency and negligence.
Whether the global society can challenge both the perception and the reality of global inequality rests in part on how many others who feel like Zena are prepared to take action to begin the process of redistribution. This also depends on the actions of the political establishment, who are directly responsible for the welfare of their respective populations.
To them falls the challenge of fending off the ideal of a global society; to them falls the challenge of using existing political theories and economics to make the changes that their people want.