Welcome to Eurasia Strategy & Communications (ESC) and our site www.explaining-eurasia.com.
Although previously focused mostly on Eurasia, we are expanding coverage to take into account the rise of populism across the West and “unexpected” events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Like millions of people across the West, many of us in the ESC network are deeply worried by the direction politics has been taking across the West in recent years, but we have also become appalled at amateur academics, businessmen behaving badly, juvenile journalists and puerile politicians – adjectival alliterations that highlight how each of these elite groups has contributed to our present state of Denmark.
We are even more shocked by the quality of “analysis” purporting to explain the rise of populism and “unexpected” events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon long familiar elsewhere:
Analysis increasingly, I’m sorry to say, takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.
Mark Galeotti, Clinical Professor in Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, NYU School of Professional Studies, New York University.
2 March 2015
Our 2016 series Before Fake News therefore drills down into trends which in some cases go back decades or even centuries to the very beginning of European modernisation to provide more insight.
We have also added a new rubric on Junk Education as an occasional critique of the staggering amount of bad thinking, emotion and often appalling general knowledge now regularly offered up by even “respectable” and “reputable” organisations and publications:
The discussion is the barest introduction to issues that deserve and have received innumerable longer and more detailed discussions — as well as brief and terrifying uninformed and opinionated ones in the mass media.” (our emphasis)
Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, 2012, pp. 978-9.
Professor of Politics, Princeton University 1988-1996 and 2010-2014
Professor of Political Theory, Oxford University 1996-2009
Visiting Professor, Stanford University, 2014-15
Elected Fellow of the British Academy, 1986
The earlier principle of mastering the subject from all sides rarely applies nowadays:
You do not possess “perfect knowledge,” until you are able to answer, with unfaltering promptitude and consistency, all the questions of a Sokratic cross-examiner — and to administer effectively the like cross-examination yourself, for the purpose of testing others.
George Grote, Plato, And The Other Companions Of Sokrates, Vol 1. A New Edition, 1885
The Oxford debating tradition does possess one great strength, drawn indirectly from the Symposium. You are supposed to be able to give an honest account of an opposing or different worldview, and even as an exercise to be able to present it as if you believed it yourself.
Christopher Hitchens, Moderation or Death, London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 23, 26 November 1998
Disastrously, however, Junk Education, combined with emotion, have become part and parcel of the wider political and social “discourse” and now vitiate understanding and solutions.
If the above caveats apply to Western domestic politics, they apply a fortiori to the rest of the world, and especially to Islam and Islamism. Nearly two decades after 9/11, Western ignorance of Islam and the Muslim world does indeed remain astonishing, but is often wrapped in pronouncements of near papal infallibility.
As Germany’s leading expert on Islamism points out, however,
… These regional and specific political and cultural processes [in the Muslim World] remain fully closed to Europeans and Americans, who think in globalized categories; some of them persistently refuse to understand them.
Bassam Tibi, Die fundamentalistische Herausforderung. Der Islam und die Weltpolitik, 3rd Edition, 2002, pp. 43-4.
Bassam Tibi is a Syrian-German scholar, Emeritus Professor, International Relations, Göttingen University and has been Visiting Professor at Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, Princeton and Cornell. He is Germany’s leading expert on Islamic fundamentalism and as a hafez has memorised the Koran.
Several of us at ESC have lived and worked for years in various Muslim-majority countries in the Arab Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey and written on their politics and development based on our practical experience.
There are two main elements to governing a consensual society:
- Politicians have to take the people with them. When large numbers of the electorate disagree vehemently on values, rather than on simply who gets what and dividing up the cake, culture wars arise – or worse.
- In the BBC’s excellent TV comedy series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby said that government was about keeping the show on the road.
Western elites have failed on both these counts and are now thoroughly discombobulated.
But instead of fundamentally reassessing their views and assumptions, it is more of the same.
Even well into 2017, months after Trump’s election victory on 8 November 2016 and after the UK’s formal notification to Brussels on 29 March that it was triggering Article 50 to leave the European Union, they still largely believe the Marxist idea of “false consciousness” – that electorates in the United Kingdom and the United States voted against their “real” economic interests.
And yet, it is surely not necessary to be religious to know that man does not live by bread alone.
Dostoevsky explained one crucial aspect of human nature that many “educated” people have overlooked completely in their astonishingly naive fixation on, and narrow definition of homo economicus.
But let me repeat to you for the hundredth time that there is one instance when a man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic.
He will do it in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things and not be obliged to have only sensible wishes.
But what if a quite absurd whim, my friends, turns out to be the most advantageous thing on earth for us, as sometimes happens?
Specifically, it may be more advantageous to us than any other advantages, even when it most obviously harms us and goes against all the sensible conclusions of our reason about our interest – because, whatever else, it leaves us our most important, most treasured possession: our individuality.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 1864.
Talk to ordinary people, or analyse the interviews they give to mostly uncomprehending journalists, and it is precisely themes such as individuality, dignity and respect which occur repeatedly – and which repeatedly trump “pure” and “rational” economic interests.
Millions of people across the West now believe that uncaring, incompetent, self-serving and corrupt elites have foisted values, assumptions and policies on them to which they never agreed and indeed strongly reject as being counter-productive not only to their own personal interests, but also inimical to their nation and the West as a whole.
They have therefore taken the opportunities offered by Brexit and Trump to vote against elites, and will do so again in the elections due in France in April 2017 and in Germany in autumn 2017.
The only questions are how many will vote thus and whether this will be sufficient to displace the incumbent elites?
Western elites, however, are now far too heavily invested educationally, intellectually, emotionally and financially in their own ideologies to understand, let alone counteract current developments.
The outrage and ad hominem attacks on their populist opponents and supporters do not constitute political arguments or solutions, and indeed exacerbate the polarisation.
In 2012, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was dismissive of the 47% who were not paying federal taxes and would vote for Barack Obama “no matter what,” only to be followed by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s contempt for the “deplorables” in 2016.
The result is not just a dangerous weakening of Western and international institutions and democracy, but also of the internal cohesion of Western countries themselves. Numerous analysts have long since feared that this process and other trends are now irreversible.
ESC looks at the reasons behind this failure in a series of articles on the media, the academy, politics and business.