Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading The Runes: the times, they are a changin'

Recently read an article from "The Economist" talking about the changing face of politics in much of the West: the main point was the gradual disintigration of traditional, mass political parties as people turned away from them. Either they turned to fringe parties (as in Europe), or have become more disconnected from the political establishment than ever (as in the USA).

The evidence is all there:

In the USA the number of people who call themselves "Independents" (as recorded in a recent Gallup Survey) is higher than those who call themselves Democrats or Republicans; this has never been the case before. In other words, a two party system exists where one-third of the population no longer supports either main party. The result of this? The growth of the Tea Party, although it attracts the wilder element of the Republicans, also attracts a fair number of Independents who see them as seperate from the mainstream establishment, especially when Tea Partiers talk (rightly or wrongly) of going back to the purity of the Constitution and see governmenet bureaucracy as the source of America's malaise.

In the UK, with the rise to shared power of the third party, the Liberal Democrats (happening due to the deadlock of the other two main parties) sees a possibly permanent shift away from the old FPTP system with a referendum of voting reform chalked in for next May. That said, this is complicated by the fact that since "going to bed" with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems were cajoled (tricked?) into making painful (for the party members, infuriating) compromises and policy shifts that has badly damaged their legitimacy as a "third force" in UK politics. For this reason, the former governing Labour party has quickly benefitted from this, though all three parties now face different kinds of credibility issues with the economy and other issues. This puts the state of UK politics in an uncertain time; like in the USA, a portion of the population may feel that the established parties no longer reflect, and deal with, their concerns.

In Europe, the trends here are towards (usually right-wing) fringe parties. In Holland the nationalist racist Geert Wilders now shares power in a coalition; in Hungary, the same can be said of the racist "Jobbik" party; Belgium, due to the unsolvable linguistic political divides, hasn't had an effective national government for years. Of the larger countries, Italy's Berlusconi is already well-known for his increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric, and shares power with the racist Northern League (who want the Italian north seperated). France's Sarkozy has been trying to shore up his increasing unpopularity by turning Gypsies into an easy target.

Only Germany bucks this trend slightly, in that the Greens are quickly becoming the voice of the left (due to the German system, they have a lot of say in state politics, and were in the former SDP coalition government) and may well even eventually overtake the SDP as the rival to Chancellor Merkel's conservative CDU coalition with the more economically-conservative FDP.

Why is all this happening? Short answer: the fallout from the financial crisis. People in all the USA and Europe see a failure of the political establishment in reacting to (and predicting) the meltdown of the financial industry. Everywhere, there are stronger and stronger shades of anger, unemployment and general financial hardship. People blame the politicians and the banks in equal measure, then see the collusion over how the crisis was dealt with by the same politicians and bankers.
No wonder then, that people are either turning to the extremes (as in Europe) or becoming more and more disillusioned (as in the UK and USA); though this disillusionment can easily turn to extremism also, given time.

This is all nothing new, of course. It happened after the last global financial crisis happened; the Great Depression. And right now, many people in the industrialised West are feeling there own kind of great depression, turning on the streets to great frustration and great anger. Where (and when) can it all end? Well, we all know where it ended last time. The economic and political circumstances are not so much different now. Of course, things never repeat themselves exactly. But a real danger is that the USA and Europe could become immersed in their own difficulties, creating a geo-political vacuum that other powers and rising powers can easily exploit. Although, perhaps this was inevitable anyway.
China is rising unstoppably (though historically this was always just a matter of time); Brazil is fast learning how to apply her increasingly useful position in the world; Russia has always been there; India may be in the future (given a decade or two). Then there are other forces to be reckoned with or respected: the Gulf States, though small in terms of population, possess great economic power with their oil and strategic location. Nations like Turkey, which hold a great strategic position, are bound to have even more influence as deal-brokers between the larger powers, and to their own benefit.
This leaves other regions, frankly, to be fought over for influence by the Great Powers: Africa is resource rich (although, tragically, dirt-poor); Central Asia is also rich in fossil fuels. These are the two main areas of contention geographically stuck between various larger powers. That leaves the seas and oceans (and the Artic is already being carved up in advance for future oil exploration).

If this all seems depressing, it shouldn't be. Not because what I'm describing is good, but it all seems inevitable as part of humanity's great game. It's an inevitable part of humanity's progress to the next stage. Where we are all heading after these issues have all been resolved depends on us.

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