Patterns out of chaos

Mon 19 Jun 2017

In these times of turbulent change and unexpected outcomes, it is natural to take comfort in patterns. Which is why surprise elections, mass movements and the rise of authoritarian but popular leaders in the past few years have sparked a flurry of books worldwide.

Some writers have found the pattern to be about politics, others have tried to study leadership styles, and some others have turned to history to try and understand just what is happening.

There are books like Hillbilly Elegy , J.D. Vance’s riveting account of social and economic strife in the U.S., that seek to find purely American reasons for the Donald Trump victory. But a host of others ask if there are global threads we can draw. Is the anti-globalisation plank of Mr. Trump in America or Viktor Orban in Hungary linked to the platform of Nigel Farage or the Brexiters in U.K., or Marine Le Pen in France? Is discomfort with civil society organisations a factor that brings Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte together? Are the religious nationalisms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India part of a pattern?

Populism vs. pluralism

One of the best places to start is Princeton professor Jan Werner Muller’s What is Populism? In his treatise, Mr. Muller strips down the current wave of ‘populist movements’, both left-wing and right-wing, to their basics: Populism, according to Mr. Muller, is a “rejection of pluralism”.

An equally important body of work has come from Ivan Krastev, who has followed his bestseller Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest (2014), with a well-timed book called After Europe , almost presaging the recent NATO spat between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Trump.

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics , by John N. Judis tries to draw explanations from history, as do a series of books trying to trace the roots of today’s authoritarian leaders to 1930s Germany: Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ulrich and Becoming Hitler by Thomas Weber (out later this year).

Two Indian authors have contributed significantly to the debate this year. Basharat Peer’s comparison of the politics of Mr. Modi with that of Mr. Erdoğan, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen looks at the phenomenon of anti-liberal “elected autocrats” worldwide. In The Age of Anger , Pankaj Mishra, who clearly experiences much of that anger, dissects the many ‘isms’ of our time: religious extremism, nationalism, revivalism, majoritarianism… and yes, cynicism.


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