The shifting sands of multi-polar politics

The world is changing. Old ideas and institutions are being seriously challenged while new forms of expression and dissent emerge. John Samuel discusses how in a time of flux, new imaginations, new possibilities and a new politics are inevitable

The world is no longer the same. Words and images have become fleeting. Everywhere, perceptions are changing. A multi-polar world and multi-polar perceptions create multiple fluxes in politics. The way power is acquired, managed and exercised is changing. Multiple shifts create multiple imaginations, interpretations and responses. Shifts in modes of communication, modes of living and modes of organisation create new predicaments and new reactions. 

When such substantive shifts occur, those used to established ways of managing power cling to tradition and the world view they have imbibed in the past. Despite the generational shift, they want to hang on to the power matrix that gave their private and public spheres meaning.

Many of the ideas and institutions that emerged after the Second World War are being seriously challenged though they have yet to disappear completely. And new forms of politics are taking shape. This in-between phase creates a crisis of perception and politics. The Kiss of Love and Occupy Wall Street movements, and protests in Cairo and the Arab Spring are all signifiers of change, harbingers of emerging political possibilities.  

The following trends in international politics indicate the possibility of deep shifts in the international order.

The demise of the Washington Consensus

There is no longer any consensus in Washington. Not merely because of changing political equations wherein the republicans have captured both Senate and Congress, but also because American hegemony in the international world order is on the decline. The American Dream is struggling to survive in a multi-polar world where the epicentres of knowledge, innovation and economy are moving away from Washington. America’s unilateral policy, political and military powers have been overextended in the last 25 years, as a result of which it finds itself unable to exert an influence through military and economic might alone.

The Washington Consensus was symbolic of the hegemony of a policy and knowledge framework operated through dominant knowledge and policy institutional networks. With a shift in the political economy of international relations, trade, aid and debt, the Washington Consensus is fast becoming history.

The international political matrix organised around the two major power blocks that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War began to falter with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the political dispersion of the USSR in 1989-90. With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the socialist power block, there have been substantive shifts in terms of the international power order and notions of ‘international community’ as well as in the role of the United Nations. These shifts happened at the level of ideas and policy framework, international trade, new militarism and power blocks and the dominance of multinational companies as drivers of the economy and politics of many countries.

The fall of the USSR and economic liberalisation in China created a crisis of socialist models in countries, politics and policy framework as erstwhile socialist countries moved towards authoritarian politics and liberal economic policies. The dominant knowledge framework of socialist discourse retreated to academic discussions and debate inside universities.  

Meanwhile, the combination of neo-conservative politics and neo-liberal economic policy that emerged during the Reagan-Thatcher era received unilateral backing through the Washington Consensus to liberalise the world economy and force post-colonial countries in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world to open up their markets and embrace the new policy framework marketed primarily through the World Bank, the IMF and bilateral funding for ‘development’ of the so-called ‘Third World’.

While the Washington Consensus may have been a sort of new capitalist manifesto for the neo-liberal policy framework, the neo-conservatism of George Bush Senior opened up military aggression in the middle-eastern world. The international world order from 1989-2007 was primarily driven by the ruling ideas of the neo-liberal economy framework and neo-conservative political framework at the national and international level. This hegemonic framework was primarily driven by the unilateral power matrix controlled by the United States and its Anglo-European subsidiary network. The corollary economic globalisation and military aggression prompted multiple reactions.

The economic crisis and consequent political crisis in the US in many ways exposed the unbridled free-market ideology of neo-liberalism. Shifts in the power dynamics of multilateral and bilateral donors, and the emergence of powerful economies outside the Euro-American world further undermined the Washington Consensus. The emergence of China, India and Brazil as donors for international development also meant that the hegemonic role of donor countries organised under the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD diminished over time. While many European countries are in the grip of a persistent recession, relatively stronger economic growth in Asian, African and Latin American countries meant that the role of international development funding in influencing policy in the emerging countries of the Global South was substantially reduced.

Multiple discourses on democracy and development

Anti-globalisation movements in many parts of the world found expression in responsive politics as well as reactionary trends. The fall of the Soviet Block unleashed the third wave of democracy, with many countries opting for electoral democracy. Multiple streams of resistance to economic globalisation, increasing inequality and poverty found expression in a new phase of civic politics and resistance at the national and international level. New aspirations for democratic governance induced the United Nations to play a mediating role in managing dissent and resistance through a series of United Nations summits on the environment (Rio 1992), human rights (Vienna 1993), women’s rights (Beijing 1995), social development (Copenhagen 1996) and against racism (Johannesburg 1999). While the human development approach as well as the new discourse on the environment, human rights, women’s rights and against racial discrimination offered a parallel discourse to manage dissent and resistance against the neo-liberal economic globalisation, it also gave rise to a new civic politics to challenge and change the unequal and unjust economic globalisation and its consequences on the poor and marginalised.

There were three parallel policy and political discourses in international politics for around 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The dominant hegemonic discourse (neo-liberal economic policy, neo-conservative politics and new military aggression) on politics, trade and militarism was primarily driven by the US and its Euro-Anglican allies; the second discourse to bring a ‘human factor’ to the power relationship was led by the United Nations and the international ‘development’ community driven by the OECD; and the third was a resistance discourse by the new civic politics attempting to challenge and change the unequal and unjust power matrix. While the third civil society discourse drew from the second ‘development’ discourse, the primary inspiration and premise of civic resistance politics come from a history of non-conformist politics as well as politics of dissent at the national and international level. The discourse of human development and of dissent against aggressive economic globalisation found a voice at the World Social Forum and was an expression of emerging civic politics in the age of information technology and communication.

Politics of militancy

The fourth discourse was primary driven by military aggression and ‘counter-terrorist’ aggression. It was fuelled by the political economy of the oil and military industries in the so-called ‘developed’ world. The most reactionary and militant form of discourse against the bulldozing mode of militant cultural globalisation was seen in the violent Islamist politics that propounded a militant form of theocracy. The neo-conservative politics and its corollary of aggressive militarism by the US and its allies, primarily in the oil-rich Arab world, created a huge backlash from reactionary Islamist politics accompanied by a new militancy that resorted to terror attacks across the world, most notably the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. 

The Islamist politics and ‘talibanisation’ promoted by the US and its allies as an antidote of sorts to communism morphed into violent forms of Islamist politics fuelling attacks all across the world. While in the short run, the American economy benefited from the neo-liberal economic globalisation and neo-conservative militarism, in the long run it exhausted both the economy and the politics of that country. This overextension of unilateral power in international politics, and war fatigue, brought about an economic as well as a political crisis in the US. The ascent of Obama, in many ways an ‘outsider’ to the established hegemonic power matrix of the US, signalled a shift in politics at the national and international level.

The prolonged war in Iraq and military aggression in Libya, and various economic as well as political crises in Syria and other parts of the Arab world have unleashed new and destabilising forces in the region. One of the reasons for the emergence of the many armed militant Islamist networks is the unrelenting military aggression that destroyed the traditional power networks of tribal societies and their ‘social contract’ with respective nation states. This created both political as well as economic flux in the region.

Shifting equations of international politics

The economic ascent of China and economic growth in Asia and Latin America served to undermine the unilateral hegemony of the US. China emerged as the largest economy in the world, pushing the US to second place. Among the top five global economies three are in Asia (China, India and Japan) and only one in Europe (Germany). New emerging economies (India, Brazil, South Africa) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) highlight the emergence of a multi-polar world; they also herald a decline in the influence of the traditional OECD countries. The shift is not only in the sphere of economic resources but also increasing knowledge networks and cooperation at the regional level. The European economy is going through a prolonged recession even as the American economy is struggling to keep up with the American Dream. 

Meanwhile the United Nations, formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, continues to be driven by the international power matrix of the ‘winning’ side. In a multi-polar world with a new power configuration and new forms of assertions, there are growing calls for reform within the United Nations; a call to go beyond the five permanent members of the Security Council. These calls are being met with resistance, raising questions about the efficacy of the organisation in terms of democracy, development and human rights.

Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, democratic and civic spaces across the world are continuing to shrink. There may be more conferences and discussions on human rights, but there are simultaneously growing violations of human rights all over the world. Greater violations, new forms of exclusionary politics and new instances of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in many countries are unleashing new forms of violence.

Shifting discourse on democracy and development

In most countries, political parties are reduced to electoral networks that capture power either through subversion or through propaganda. The social and political role of political parties has been annulled; they are now traditional establishments driven and populated by ‘professional’ career politicians in search of power. Most political parties today are conformist establishments driven by ‘interest networks’ and ‘identity networks’, managing and seeking personal or institutional aggrandisement of governmental power to maintain the socio-economic-political status quo. The dominant political parties and discourse often tend to silence the opposition through cooption, consensus, collaboration or coercion. Paradoxically, the rhetoric of democracy is often used to kill off democratic space or to ‘de-democratise’ society and politics through annulling opposition political spaces and parties and annihilating the politics of dissent.

The unprecedented urbanisation and multi-dimensional inequalities within societies and countries, and among countries, will have political consequences. Increasing economic and social inequality and identity politics could unleash new cycles of violence and criminalisation in urban areas. All these are indicative of a crisis of politics at both the national and international level.

With the emergence of neo-conservative political forces in many OECD counties, the nature and character of bilateral and multilateral funding will change. So too will the international development framework that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and through the Marshall Plan, and bilateral funding for development in the erstwhile colonies of the European countries. Prolonged economic recession in Europe and the resultant ascent of neo-conservative politics in several countries have already meant cuts in bilateral international funding for overseas development. One of the outcomes of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda framework will be a cumulative reduction in bilateral and multilateral funding for development and poverty-eradication. 

The international development framework, in many ways, was the outcome of the post-Second World War economic and political order. The post-colonial development model, wherein the erstwhile colonial power sought to patronise and influence the international politics and trade policies of their former colonies, are no longer valid. Many former colonies have now become middle-income countries, regional power blocks, with stronger economies and greater influence than their erstwhile colonial powers. 

The substantial reduction in bilateral funding for international development will adversely affect many fund-dependent non-government development organisations and also United Nations agencies. As a result, international development NGOs may have to merge in order to survive, or develop new business models. With cuts in funding by traditional European donor countries, many United Nations agencies will be forced to become leaner.

We are seeing the emergence of neo-conservative politics in Europe, in different parts of Asia as well as in the Americas. Also, growing social fascism and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. Many countries are witnessing a new economic-politic-media-elites nexus.

Ecological crises, multidimensional inequality, the rise of new militant identity politics, new forms of social fascism and changes in international politics all reveal a deep crisis in national and international politics. However, they also signal the emergence of a new political theory, perspective and political action in the 21st century. In a time of flux and crises, new imaginations emerge; so too do new possibilities and a new politics. Even in times of despair there is space for a new political imagination and a new politics of rights, justice, fairness and a sustainable future for human beings and the environment.

Infochange News & Features, February 2015