The new year has not ushered in a fresh political start. The problems and divisions of 2018 have carried over to 2019. Brexit in the UK and the government shutdown in the US provide little optimism for either compromise or genuine change.
But beyond the headlines and scandals lies an even deeper problem. Both the left and the right are clinging to troubling political fantasies which ignore social and economic realities. They are offering a false political choice whereby fighting for radical social transformation means embracing nationalism rather than internationalism. What is needed instead are new revolutionary fantasies of shared global progress.
It is commonly lamented that modern politics is driven more by passion than reason. Populism is criticised for ignoring evidence and pragmatism in favour of rage and idealism. Yet it is absolutely reasonable to demand radically new approaches for combating rising inequity, climate change and political corruption. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to do so given their threat to human welfare and even survival.
Fundamentally, no politics is ever purely rational. They reflect shared desires for personal and collective progress. They are fantasies of a perfect society linked to dominant ideologies. They psychologically shape how we view reality and ourselves.
Before the 2008 financial crisis, for example, right wing values of trickle down economics and privatisation were legitimised through fantasies of the free market. Individual aspiration and socioeconomic prosperity were linked to attractive cultural discourses of personal wealth and corporate powered GDP growth. These were ideals to constantly strive for. They were utopian dreams that secured our identities and made sense of our unpredictable and often absurd world.
But in the wake of the crisis, new fantasies have emerged to take their place. Globalisation, once considered inevitable, is now seen by many as the enemy and cause of all our social ills. Popular movements from across the ideological spectrum have railed against international elites. They promote fresh dreams of national renewal and sovereignty.
Competing with this radical vision is an altogether different political fantasy which emphasises global order and democratic norms. This admits that some reforms are necessary but prioritises above all else preserving the established liberal system against fascist and populist threats. While often rooted in national political parties, it extols the virtues of transnational institutions like the EU, NATO, and the IMF.
The appeal of each of these fantasies is completely understandable. The first promotes our existential freedom to reinvent our society – or at the very least tear down our current corrupt one. The second offers the security of stability in times of upheaval – even if that security is ultimately built on rotten foundations. But each also politically and psychologically traps us in an unsustainable and undesirable reality.
A false political choice
While they appear opposed on the surface, these fantasies in fact politically reinforce one another. Their focus is not so much an achieving their (unrealisable) utopian dreams but rather on their chosen “enemy” who is preventing this from occurring. Present politics, in this respect, is entrenched in the struggle between desires for domestic revolution and preserving the global status quo.
Indeed, any appeal to globalisation is almost immediately rejected as compromising the radical possibilities of national renewal. Similarly, all demands for revolution are feared as simply calls for anarchy and the witting or unwitting dissolution of our cherished democratic institutions and international order.
The refusal of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour to forge a progressive Remain position on Brexit exemplifies these failures. His recent public endorsement of a “socialist Europe” was meant to solidify his internationalist credentials. How these parties could concretely influence policies or foster transnational governing institutions outside of the EU, however, remains at best vague and at worst painfully ill considered.
By contrast, the ridicule expressed by those in the political centre for those who are critical of the EU is just as problematic. The satirical “biblical” twitter rant by J.K. Rowling right before Christmas, in which she attacked Corbyn for promising to create a “bollocks” jobs first Brexit, revealed how frustrated mainstream opinion is of those on the left, as well as their complete failure to honestly engage with their critiques. The blind embrace of the EU by those in the political centre also fails to acknowledge its serious flaws or propose how it can genuinely be reformed.
Each of these fantasies thus derives its enjoyment not from producing alternatives for a different global order but via the demonisation of their enemies. Ironically, this serves to reinforce the very global and national elites they claim to be passionately struggling against.
A new fantasy
It would seem that many progressive politicians have realised this political trap and are already making it their new year’s resolution to craft a more global message. Leading US democratic socialist Bernie Sanders proposed late in 2018 to foster a shared internationalist politics to combat the common threat of “global oligarchy”. Likewise, leftist commentator Aditya Chakrabortty declared that if remain were to win a second referendum it would need to reframe itself as a subversive politics directly challenging the national and international status quo.
This is certainly a step in the right direction. Yet concrete connections and opportunities for this transnational solidarity are also needed. It means going beyond words and the fear of elites, creating radical yet pragmatic short term alliances across national borders, reinventing existing global institutions and creating new ones.
A good example is the digital World Social Forum, which brings together thinkers, activists and civil society leaders from across the world to challenge prevailing ideas and present more emancipatory alternatives for envisioning and implementing global progress. Or the new trans-European political Party Volt, which seeks to use digital technologies to build solidarity among people from across the continent to find the best solutions for all.
If 2018 was the year of political resistance and stalemate, 2019 must be a time for transformation and possibility. Required is a new fantasy which combines a global perspective with a radical desire for change.