In the 2015 WorldPost Year-End Roundup, we observed that we were then “on the cusp of a tipping point” in the race between a world coming together and one falling apart. In 2016, we have indeed tipped over into a new era.
The profound upheavals of this year were anticipated in an essay we published in March titled “Why the World Is Falling Apart.” In that piece I wrote, “The fearful and fearsome reaction against growing inequality, social dislocation and loss of identity in the midst of vast wealth creation, unprecedented mobility and ubiquitous connectivity, is a mutiny, really, against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature. In this accelerated era,” I continued, “future shock can feel like repeated blows in the living present to individuals, families and communities alike.”
Revolt Against Global Elites
Economics and technology forged the worldwide convergence we have seen with globalization over recent decades. But as people lose any sense of control over their fate in this process, culture and politics engender the opposite ― a divergent search for shelter in the familiar ways of life that register a dignity of recognition among one’s own kind and constitute identity against the swell of anonymous forces.
The determination to “take back control” across the Western democracies among those dispossessed by change was explosively expressed in 2016 in a widespread revolt against the elite custodians of the status quo through Brexit, the Trump victory and the ongoing anti-establishment insurgency in Europe.
The “Great Reaction of 2016” may well have been justified because of the decay of democracies captured by organized special interests. Too many were left behind by unresponsive insiders. Yet the populist character of this political awakening threatens more chaos ahead rather than fixing what ails today’s vexed societies.
“Populism appeals to the ‘will of people,’ Julian Baggini wrote in a piece for us last year, “but is actually profoundly undemocratic. Democracy is about the negotiation of competing interests, the balancing of different values. Populism, in contrast, is a kind of mob rule. Where there is complexity, it offers simple solutions. Instead of seeking common ground, it looks to exaggerate the differences between them and us. The unquestioned righteousness of its own cause and means to its ends leads to the demonization of those it opposes.”
The Turn Toward Autocracy and Nativism
The close cousin of populist politics is the affinity for rule by strongmen who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people. In the wake of the coup attempt in Turkey earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tightened the screws in the place once thought to be the model of democracy with Islamic characteristics. In an interview right after the failed coup, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak lamented the new course of events:
“There was already a rise in illiberal democracy in Turkey. There was already a rise in authoritarianism. The country was already sliding backwards and now this! The ballot box in itself,” she said in words that apply to the West as well, “is not enough to render a system a ‘democracy.’ A true democracy needs separation of powers, rule of law, freedom of speech, women’s rights, LGBT rights, free and diverse media and independent academia. Without all these institutions and values you can only have ‘majoritarianism.’ And majoritarianism is not the same thing as democracy.”
Writing from New Delhi, Shashi Tharoor placed a similar slide in India toward autocratic rule, intolerance and nationalist assertion in the global context:
“The global backlash against the forces that have defined the first decade and a half of the 21st century has taken on a nativist hue everywhere,” he said. “In Europe and America, this has involved racist hostility to immigrants and minorities (whether ethnically or religious defined). In India, too, the ruling party rose through demonizing Muslims and stigmatizing political and social dissenters. Since such negative messaging requires a positive counterpart, nationalism has filled the breach, as a majoritarian narrative has sought to subsume each country’s diverse political tendencies into an artificial mandated unity masquerading as patriotism.”
Social Media, Russian Hacks and Surveillance Capitalism
The newfound prevalence of social media has been part and parcel of this year’s momentous shift. As we reported in our 2016 Global Thought Leaders analysis, the passionate political environment of 2016 appears to have marked the inflection point when the influence of individuals sharing information with their peers on social media surpassed that of established media platforms.
“This shift matches the inversion of the old pyramid in which the authority and influence of elites in both society and the media held the most sway over the majority of the population,” we noted in early December. “The separation of authoritative knowledge from influence in a world where the social medium is not only the message, but the route to power,” we continued, “is a menacing turn for society.“
The internet activist Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook posts helped spark the Arab Spring in Egypt, concurs. While social media did not create the passions behind hate speech and intolerance, he said in a WorldPost interview in October, “there is no doubt that the algorithmic structure of social media amplified and abetted the turn to mobocracy. The internet has empowered the masses and introduced a more decentralized medium for communicating with each other.” But,” he asked, “is this so-called ‘liquid democracy’ without any form of meritocracy that sorts out the wheat from the chaff a good thing for society?” For Ghonim, the spread of a post-fact discourse of peer-driven mobocracy creates a new challenge. “While once social media was seen as a liberating means to speak truth to power,” he said, “now the issue is how to speak truth to social media.”
A related, and equally menacing, facet of the incoming era is the emergence of a new “code war” that reached fresh heights this year through Russian influence meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Writing from Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov reflected that the U.S. is just now getting a taste of its own medicine after intervening in other countries, including by trying to influence democratic elections, for decades.
Zbigniew Brzezinski has no doubts Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in seeking to influence the U.S. election since he is in absolute control of the state, including the intelligence agencies. While acknowledging the U.S. has meddled for years in other democracies, Brzezinski nonetheless recognized that, “The new methods give activities of this sort a wider scope than ever before. And thus they are indeed more influential and effective than ever before. That is new and, of course, deeply troubling.”
Toomas Ilves, the former president of Estonia, expects more cyberattacks from Russia as elections loom in Europe in the coming year. “The conundrum that Europe will face,” he wrote from Tallinn recently, “is whether or not to use illiberal methods to safeguard the liberal state. … Because of cyberattacks and fake news, we can already imagine the problem all democratic societies will face in future elections: how to limit lies when they threaten democracy.”
Oliver Stone, who is preparing a new film based on his conversations with President Putin, has his doubts about Russia’s involvement. But he, too, agreed that we are now embarked on a “digital arms race” due in his view to the first use by the U.S. of offensive digital weapons, like the Stuxnet virus that disabled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. In a WorldPost interview in September that focused mostly on his film “Snowden,” the Hollywood director worried as much about the invasion of privacy by the private sector as by the state.
“Companies like Google profit enormously from data mining of your personal searches, behavior and habits,” he said. “There is more money in selling that data than in selling a product. It’s surveillance capitalism. It really is a new kind of totalitarianism.”
AI, Algorithms and the Religious Imagination
Another game-changing development in technology that continued to advance rapidly in 2016 is artificial intelligence, or AI. In April, the Berggruen Institute gathered top scientists and philosophers in Palo Alto to discuss the promises and perils of AI. While many saw enormous benefits in the short term, for example through the diagnostic capacity of big data for health care, the longer term was more concerning. Bill Joy, who helped develop the “Java Language Specification” software, warned, as but one example, that sophisticated new gene editing technology has the potential to “eliminate genetic diversity.”
Sapiens author Yuval Harari followed up this theme in an interview we published in May:
“The whole of science is converging on this master idea of processing data in an algorithmic way, and this will cause the whole of economics and politics to converge on the same idea,” he argued. “The whole of biology since Darwin can be summarized in three words: ‘Organisms are algorithms.’ Simultaneously, computer scientists have been learning how to create better and better electronic algorithms. Now these two waves … are merging around this master concept of the algorithm, and their merger will create a tsunami that will wash over everything in its way.”
In a reflection on the peril to the person from these developments, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio vigorously resisted the idea that being can be reduced to an algorithm. In a related essay, I pondered how scientific advances are resurrecting the religious imagination. “The more scientific discovery reveals,” I wrote, “ the more we realize it can’t answer the great existential questions.”
Interdependence Works Both Ways
2016 also demonstrated just how connected the world really is. We saw how China’s economic slump is testing Brazil’s democracy. The deep recession there due to slack demand by China for the South American nation’s commodities exposed the political cracks in the system, illustrating that the interdependence which giveth can also take away. As the revered former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, wrote in the wake of the now-ousted President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the cracks in the country’s democracy result from the same causes as in the advanced nations.
“At the core of this crisis is the widening gap between people’s aspirations and the capacity of political institutions to respond to the demands of society,” he wrote. “It is one of the ironies of our age that this deficit of trust in political institutions coexists with the rise of citizens capable of making the choices that shape their lives and influence the future of their societies.”
In another example of how what happens in one part of the world impacts others far away, the recapture of Aleppo by Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies in December after years of horrific civil war coincided with the Christmastime attack in Berlin by a suspect who was believed to be an asylum-seeker with ties to Islamist terror groups. This tragic event likely tipped the scales decisively in favor of anti-European Union and anti-immigrant political forces which have been gaining momentum in reaction to the massive refugee influx, including of Syrians fleeing the carnage at home. As a WorldPost editorial summarized the situation:
“The European idea, which has been losing luster for years, looks to be the latest and most consequential casualty of a world in turmoil that stretches from the rubble of Aleppo to the World War II memorial ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church, near where the Christmas market attack took place in Berlin.”
Where Hope Remains
The temptation to blame refugees for Europe’s woes must take in the broader picture, Pope Francis told our outgoing Vatican correspondent Sébastien Maillard, in an interview. He called on Europe to “rediscover its capacity to integrate” plural cultures. But the Holy Father didn’t mince words about the dynamic he sees behind terrorism and the refugee crisis. “In the face of Islamic terrorism,” he told Maillard, who is also an editor of Le Croix, “it would therefore be better to question ourselves about the way in [which] an overly Western model of democracy has been exported to countries such as Iraq, where a strong government previously existed. Or in Libya, where a tribal structure exists. We cannot advance without taking these cultures into account. As a Libyan said recently, ‘We used to have one Gaddafi, now we have 50.’”
When politics divides instead of unites, walls off instead of embraces, spiritual authorities like Pope Francis and artists or musicians like Yo-Yo Ma step into the breach to sustain our humanity. As we wrote in June, highlighting the release of the Silk Road Ensemble documentary, “The Music of Strangers,” the famed cellist is the pope’s spiritual cousin in this cause, sounding the healing chord of fellowship instead of enmity. More than a musician, he, too, is a guiding spirit who rises to the challenge of a world unraveling.
“To be able to put oneself in another’s shoes without prejudgment is an essential skill,” Yo-Yo Ma once told The WorldPost. “Empathy comes when you understand something deeply through arts and literature and can thus make unexpected connections. These parallels bring you closer to things that would otherwise seem far away. Empathy is the ultimate quality that acknowledges our identity as members of one human family.”
Finally, this year we celebrated Charles Taylor, who was awarded the 2016 Berggruen Prize for ideas that shape the world, as the “anti-xenophobe philosopher.” In an overview, Berggruen Institute president, Craig Calhoun, summarized the key works of the Canadian philosopher. And in a related editorial we wrote about how the man is an important figure for our time, and indeed, for this year:
“It is Taylor’s thinking on the recognition of irreducible diversity in an interdependent world of plural identities ― and how societies can cope with this reality ― that gives him urgency in this era of Trump, Brexit, the burkini ban and the rise of the anti-immigrant right in Europe.”
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