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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1754 posts for Gwynne Dyer

Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

A European Germany, Not a German Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago on Saturday, was one of the best parties I ever went to, and certainly the longest. But when I finally sobered up, it was also quite frightening, because nobody knew what was coming out of the box next.

There had been scary moments in Germany during the Cold War, of course, with Soviet troops in the eastern part and troops from practically every Western country in the western part, but a divided Germany had become part of the landscape.

For many people on both sides, in fact, it was a quite satisfactory landscape. As François Mauriac once said: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

For the older generation of Europeans, Germany had always been the problem (two world wars), and the post-1945 division of the country was a kind of solution, since it kept foreign troops in both parts of Germany. They weren’t formally occupation forces any more, but they served as a sort of guarantee nevertheless. And now, in November 1989, that solution was collapsing.

On a brief visit to Moscow just weeks before the Wall came down, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader: “We do not want the reunification of Germany. It would lead to changes in the (post-1945) borders that would undermine the stability of the entire international situation.”

Indeed, Thatcher added, Gorbachev should ignore any statements to the contrary by the West. The NATO alliance might have to make pro-reunification statements to keep its German partner happy, but the other members didn’t really want to abandon the post-war settlement and “de-communise” Eastern Europe. But she was wrong about that.

Most of the senior politicians in what was not yet called the European Union understood that German reunification was a risk that had to be accepted. There was a new German generation in charge, and you had to trust them.

Western Europe’s other leaders also understood that ‘de-communising’ eastern Europe might finally deliver the free and democratic Europe that should have followed the victory over Hitler in 1945, and they had the steady support of the senior President Bush in both those choices. But it really was a gamble, and it might all have gone wrong.

A reunited Germany could once again have used its wealth, numbers and central position to seek domination over Europe, as it had done under both the Kaisers and the Nazis. The countries of Eastern Europe, freed from Russian rule, might have ended up as a string of squabbling tinpot dictatorships, as most of them did when they first got their freedom after World War One.

The main reason it didn’t all end in tears was the European Union, a more comprehensive version of the existing European Economic Community that was negotiated in 1990-92 and declared in 1993.

Creating the EU (and giving it a common currency, the euro) provided a structure big and strong enough to contain a united Germany and not be dominated by it. It also saved the former ‘satellite’ countries of Eastern Europe from a potentially ugly fate.

The EU countries had all the things that Poles, Slovaks and Bulgarians longed for: prosperity, personal freedom and democracy. And although it is not a charitable institution, the EU decided to let the Eastern European countries join, provided that they also became law-abiding and relatively uncorrupt democracies. So that’s exactly what they did.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not led automatically to the benign reunification of Germany. It created the opportunity for positive change, but making it happen took clear thinking and hard political work. The happy outcome in Eastern Europe was not some quirk of fate either. It was the product of social engineering on an international scale.

There is no ‘German question’ today. It has been solved. The economies of Eastern European countries are far bigger than they were 30 years ago (four times bigger for Romania, six times for Poland), and average incomes are catching up. In 1990 Poles earned only a quarter of what Germans did; now it’s almost two-thirds.

There are some problems with populist/nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary at the moment, but it’s still far better there politically than it ever was before 1989. It’s better everywhere – so why is the United Kingdom, the second-biggest member of this organisation that has put an end to centuries of war and tyranny in Europe, now planning to leave the EU?

Because the English don’t get it. Britain is an island that hasn’t been successfully invaded for almost a millennium, so they don’t realise that the EU is primarily about preserving democracy and keeping the peace. They think it’s just an economic deal, and a lot of them believe (mistakenly) that they can get a better deal elsewhere.

They are, as Napoleon allegedly remarked, “a nation of shopkeepers.” (Actually, it was Adam Smith who said it first.) A nation of shopkeepers who haven’t even noticed that their shops are closing down.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“For…them”; and “On a brief…about that”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ambazonia

Sometimes Donald Trump gets it right. In February he cut off US military aid to the central African country of Cameroon because of its appalling human rights record (and didn’t even offer to restore it if the Cameroon government dug up dirt on his political opponents at home). Last Friday he acted again, dropping Cameroon from a pact that promotes trade between sub-Saharan African countries and the US.

OK, it probably wasn’t really Trump’s idea. There’s still a few professionals left in the State Department, and it was probably one of them who pushed it through. The appeal to Trump may just be that he is punishing a country that is expanding its trade with China – but the human rights abuses in Cameroon really are off the scale.

Cameroon’s main claim to fame until recently was its ruler, Paul Biya, the oldest and longest-ruling dictator in the world (86 years old and in power for the past 42 years). But Biya wasn’t all that bad, apart from the usual corruption and the occasional political murder, until the downtrodden English-speakers started protesting seriously about two years ago.

The ‘anglophones’, as they are known in majority French-speaking Cameroon, have been pushed into a corner basically because they don’t fit the mould. A century ago hardly anybody in the region spoke either English or French, but the vagaries of colonial policy put some of the locals into the British empire and some into the French – and then independence brought some of them back together again.

More than four-fifths of the 25 million Cameroonians live in French-speaking parts of the country. Only one-fifth live in the anglophone region – but that region is right up against the border with Nigeria, where around 190 million people use English as their lingua franca.

That shouldn’t have been a problem if Cameroon had respected the rights of its English-speakers, but having giant Nigeria right next-door made the country’s francophone ruling elite uneasy. Predictably, but very stupidly, Biya and his cronies saw separate institutions for the anglophones as a potential cause for division, and started eliminating them.

They unilaterally changed the country’s federal structure into a unitary one, ending anglo self-government. They replaced English-speaking judges and English common law with francophone judges and French law. Government jobs automatically went to ‘loyal’ francophones even in anglophone areas.

Every step they took to erase the differences between anglos and francos only deepened the divisions between them. Finally the anglophones began publicly protesting – and when their representatives were all jailed, more radical protesters began demanding independence for the anglophone region, which they dubbed ‘Ambazonia’. They got arrested too, and the next wave of protesters turned to violence.

It wasn’t very effective violence at first, because they lacked weapons, experience and organisation, but you can always buy the weapons in Nigeria or take them from dead regime soldiers and police. For the rest, you just climb the learning curve – and by now, two years in, it’s a full-scale insurgency, so both sides are behaving with extreme stupidity.

The regime should be making the kind of concessions that would reconcile its anglophones to being Cameroonian citizens, but it’s doing nothing of the sort. The thugs have taken over, and its soldiers and police are acting as unpaid recruiters for the rebels, killing young anglo men at random and burning whole villages where some local resident is suspected of being one of the ‘Amba-boys’.

The rebels are equally devoted to self-harm. They have closed down all 6,000 schools in the anglophone region because the national curriculum requires the students to be taught French. Not taught IN French; just taught to speak French. If the teachers try to keep the schools open, the rebels burn them down. Sometimes they kill the teachers too.

The original blame for the breakdown rests almost entirely with the Biya regime, but the rebels are catching up fast in the stupidity stakes. It has become a classic guerilla war, in the worst sense of the word, and it could blight the lives of an entire generation.

What makes it even more bizarre is that it’s not even about genuine ethnic, religious or linguistic differences. Cameroon has enough of those: many different tribes, Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, and around 250 different languages, some spoken by only a few thousand people. But this war is about which FOREIGN language people speak!

It is a mercifully rare problem in Africa, because while most African states contain many languages, they have kept the borders that the colonialists imposed. Everybody living inside those borders has therefore inherited the same colonial language, usually French, English or Portuguese, and uses it to communicate with their fellow-citizens whose home language is different.

It’s an arbitrary solution with its roots in tyrannical oppression by foreigners, but there’s no other way that large numbers of Africans could share a modern state together. Most of the linguistic groups are too small. And Cameroon shows what is all too likely to happen, human beings being what they are, if that situation does not prevail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“OK…scale”; and “It wasn’t…stupidity”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Protests Everywhere

Journalists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they’re writing this week is endless pipe-sucking ruminations about what’s driving the seemingly synchronised outbreak of protests in a large number of very different countries around the world. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

You will doubtless have seen a few examples of this fashion recently. If you lived in the belly of the media beast, like I do, you’d be seeing dozens a day, as journos try to explain the phenomenon with varying degrees of success. Varying from zero to about 1.5 out of ten, in my opinion, but there is clearly something trans-national going on.

A group of young Catalan nationalists, walking out the highway to occupy Barcelona airport two weeks ago, were chanting “We’re going to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t, actually. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-nationalists, in the sense that they are defending their freedoms against a regime in Beijing that wants to smother them under a blanket of conformist Chinese nationalism. But the tactics are the same in Catalonia and Hong Kong, and the emotions are too.

A striking thing about the tactics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non-violence that characterised would-be democratic revolutions from the mid-1980s until the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow-jackets) in France who began their protests almost exactly a year ago, down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong today, the majority are still non-violent. However, they cannot control (or maybe just don’t want to control) the minority who throw bricks and flaming bottles at the police.

The police, of course, use violence too: tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes guns. People have been killed – in small numbers in most places, but in the hundreds in Iraq and in Sudan. Even bigger blood-baths are possible in Hong Kong (if the regime in Beijing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if September’s protesters return to the streets).

Another common denominator is that the trigger that sets the protests off is usually something small. The bread price went up in Sudan; metro tickets got more expensive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Lebanon; the price of gasoline rose not very dramatically in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month – and the next thing you know, masses of people are out on the street.

Moreover, when the government backs down and cancels the offending law or charge, as has generally been the case after a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their demands have expanded to include things like full democratic rights (Hong Kong, Algeria and Egypt) or an end to a corrupt system (Iraq and Lebanon) or action on huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just taxonomy, not really analysis. It doesn’t explain why this phenomenon is happening at the same time in such different countries. It doesn’t explain why it’s happening now, not last year or in 2022. And it certainly doesn’t tell us where it’s going next.

Nor do I have answers to these questions, and I can’t bring myself to make the usual trite remarks about global media and imitation, or the lingering and unresolved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41% of the world’s population is under 25. However, these events are showing us one important thing: we really do have a global society now

You could see it taking shape even three decades ago, in the way non-violent revolutions flashed between countries, bringing some form of democracy to the Philippines, then South Korea, Thailand and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the target then was just crude dictatorships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about economic and social inequality as well as political oppression, and increasingly it’s also about generational inequality. Obviously the injustices are more blatant and extreme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not really very different and the young know it.

Never mind the nationalists and the populists, who are just playing the same divisive old tunes as always. What we have here, despite the multiplicity of languages, religions and histories, is an emerging global society with shared values and ambitions, especially among the young.

There are millions of angry dissenters from this evolving consensus, but for the first time ever we really are becoming one people. That is a comforting thought as we head into the millennial storm of climate change. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“You…on”; and “A striking…ago”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.