As we approach the end of August and politicians are getting ready to get back to work, maybe it is time to reflect upon an issue that could prove to be the biggest challenge of our political generation: the social and economic identity crisis of the western world.
The term « identity » has become recurrent lately, and the different crises that the western world encounters shows signs of a tension that leads people to radicalize their ideas, their thoughts, and as a consequence their actions. Nearly all political actors rush before the cameras to repeat that they have heard the message, and that they are working hard to meet people’s expectations. Do they however, and do we, actually understand what is unfolding before our eyes? Do we understand the rise of extreme right-wing parties and the increasing popularity of ideas that we thought to be gone, the migrant crisis, Brexit, Donald Trump’s election to the White House, or the general distrust of people towards their governments and society as a whole? Do we ask the right questions, those that would allow our leaders to aim right in their quest for change and renewal?
In Europe, the notion of identity is confined by right-wing extremists to the unprecedented inflow of migrants coming from the Middle-East and Africa, who by essence share a different cultural heritage than that of the average European. Radicals use this tragic phenomenon as a means to exacerbate people’s fear – the only real source of their popularity, and the only reason of their growing presence on the political scene. Demonization campaigns of migrants – even though they aren’t new – have been used repeatedly during the last few years around the old continent. In the United Kingdom, Brexiters used gigantic posters on which they showed exhausted migrants walking along European roads, supposedly in direction of Great Britain – like invaders coming to rob the good Englishman of what he is entitled to: a good paying job. In France, Marine Le Pen and her party constantly use false statistics on the arrival of migrants in order to scare the country. Even though Le Pen’s poor performance during the presidential elections of 2017 drew her closer to the end of her political career, the legacy of French right-wing radicals, embodied by her niece Marion Maréchal, is quietly getting ready for the future – and we might soon have to count her in to face Emmanuel Macron.
Demonization tactics – either visual or rhetorical – are being used almost ordinarily now in Europe: in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and more recently in Italy where the new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, did not hesitate to display both xenophobia and cruelty towards migrants who cross the mediterranean at the peril of their lives, and often arrive in Italy. The point is not here to neglect the huge effort conceded by Italy to welcome all those who fled war and misery during the biggest period of the migration crisis. It is however important to underline the popular rise of Mr Salvini, he who did not wait for the massive arrival of migrants on the seashore of his country to display features that are uncharacteristic for a man of his position, and which remind us of Italy’s darkest hours. This phenomenon of identity crisis seems to be traveling fast – not stopping at European borders.
In the United-States, the champion nation of capitalism, Donald Trump’s approach to the identity crisis is twofold. First, he has crystallized the idea of identity in his slogans “Make America Great Again” and “America first.” These catchphrases, that he uses as if he was still on the campaign trail, are set to oppose the American economy to those of China and Europe who, according to him, prevent America from prospering. Trump perceives them as obstacles to the free expression of the productive and dominant identity of the United States in the world. The President also projects himself as the sole protector of the good hard-working American, who pays his taxes and dreams of more buying power, against the South-American immigrant – often Mexican when listening to Trump – who comes to take advantage of the country, commit crimes, and rob Americans from job opportunities originally intended for them – arguments that we hear frequently in Europe too. Second, Donald Trump has gone further than European extremists in his conception of the identity. The 45th President of the United States has managed to designate anything that is foreign – not only the individual – the heart of all America’s problems, and the reason that justifies any action taken at the national or international level – no matter how controversial. Trump may verbally attack illegal immigrants, German cars that represent an abusive and non-trustworthy Germany, as well as China and its low-cost products that flood the American market. According to Trump, anything that is nor stamped “Made in America” and does not follow his narrow conception of an obedient world economy is a danger.
All these events could indicate that a fear of what is foreign – people and goods, but mostly people – is settling everywhere in the west. However, what if instead of seeing these phenomena as indicators that nationalism and xenophobia are rising, we decided to see them as indicators of an economic and social tension that people cannot bear anymore ? If we accept to say that the closing of borders, markets, and minds advocated by some is not the solution, and that it must be avoided, then we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. What is the prevalent condition that could justify all these crises? Several factors arguably contribute to and exacerbate these phenomena, but is there one in particular that could link everything together? Do people fear to see foreigners coming into their country because they are too scared of what is different, or are people simply too uncertain of what the future may hold for them and fear that a massive inflow of foreigners might make this future even blurrier and scarier?
It seems obvious but human beings are not born xenophobic or nationalist. These ideas are either transmitted by education or cultivated in a conducive environment – sometimes both. The evolution of the western world during these 70 last years has ensured that racism and xenophobia would not be taught like it used to be in school, and it has been rather successful in most cases. Globalization, the melting-pots of many western nations, and the opening of the world as a whole have favored acceptance and a more tolerant environment for people to live together, no matter the culture or ethnicity. This means that it is therefore the environment that pushes people towards fear, nationalism, and narrow-mindedness. But what environment are we talking about?
It seems that the identity crisis we are facing lies more within the deep malaise caused by the difference between western people’s expectations and the reality of a system that projects itself as being fair and open, but which too often is not. Today, no western leader has found a solution to guarantee that his or her citizens would never endure poverty – something against which many still battle daily. A form of more or less liberal capitalism, along with globalization, are the tools that our governments have chosen to lead the after-war policies that brought us towards always more competition and openness. To be sure, these two phenomena have offered unprecedented opportunities, and allowed to raise the quality of life of most people. However, haven’t these tools also showed their limits? Praising globalization and highlighting the benefits of competition without addressing the unequal environment that it has fostered is exactly what haunts people. Inequality is by now so deep that the tension it creates is not only theoretical, it is tangible and translates in the polls. The average salary of western citizens remains low, and they struggle to save a capital that would protect them from need. The minimum salary is barely enough to survive in a world where prices constantly increase, and where the digital space accentuates the phenomenon of contrast between those who have, and those more unfortunate who only dream to possess – that in turn does not cultivate the idea of merit but of injustice and envy. Deep and harmful stress has become a common feeling for a growing number of people who feel forgotten, threatened, and who by consequence ruminate and ask themselves some serious questions about their economic situation – present and future.
The Welfare state refers to a system where the government plays an essential part in the guarantee of its citizens’ well-being through economic and social measures. The heart of the identity crisis resides in the malfunctioning of this Welfare state, materialized by political decisions made without anticipating what is happening – all despite a good number of economists and experts who have warned against the inevitability of this crisis if nothing was done. This misreading, and sometimes even negligence, were demonstrated prominently by the then surprising vote of Brexit, and by the shocking election of Donald J. Trump. Although, this has nothing to do with the fear of others that populists relentlessly seek to magnify, because they benefit greatly from it. People started being fearful a while back. First they fear to lose everything, then they fear not leaving something behind for their children. The notion of fear being already present, it is easy for opportunistic politicians to manipulate these modest people and direct their anger towards foreigners, and the system as a whole.
Only the guarantee of a stable and sustainable quality of life far from poverty can appease minds, and as a direct consequence silence extreme right movements that can only flourish in a context of crisis, not having any constructive idea to develop. How can we forget the rise of radicals before the Second World-War, which followed an economic context that people could not cope with anymore, and rather similar to that of today? An individual whose capital guarantees him to never sink into penury would not care about immigrants, legal or not, coming into his country; to the contrary, abundance often leads to sharing. And if dreams are possible, maybe then in a context of general appeasement, would we pay more sincere attention to those third-world countries and help them to grow economically, so that maybe their inhabitants would not feel so desperate as to risk their lives to come to the west – a dream that seems far away at the moment.