Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The dangers of polarization

Last year, The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett made some (although not enough) impact on the Swedish pre-election debates and campaigns. About 6 months earlier, Tim Jackson's report Prosperity Without Growth surfaced as well, regrettably without making almost any noise over here. In April of last year, the Gulf of Mexico was hit by disaster on a major scale with the BP oil spill, and for half a century there's been an on-going oil spill - dwarfing what happened in the Gulf - in the Niger Delta. Add to this a massive global financial crisis, two Iraq wars, the Afghanistan invasion, the Darfur genocide in Sudan and countless other catastrophies as well as a global climate change escalating out of control. At the same time, we are witnessing a severe social, economic and political polarization. This all ties together.

I just watched a segment of, where Naomi Klein (author of "The Shock Doctrine") talks about the danger, not only of a climate change that is very much real, but also of the polarization of political and social debate. Basically, what she argues is that the reason "belief" in climate change has gone down (from 71% among Americans to roughly 50%, in just a couple of years - a trend which is unfortunately global, in countries with polarized political debates) can partly be found in this polarization. What happens is that climate change has become a "partisan political issue" - it is no longer to do with science, but rather to do with ideology. "Climate change" is turning into an identity issue, along with pretty much the entire environmental movement. The people identifying themselves with the right now consider "climate change" a "socialist plot to redistribute wealth".

There might, however, be at least some truth to the question about redistribution of wealth. I've argued before that an unequal distribution of wealth - and, in fact, the entire current economic system - is also a question about ecology and ecological sustainability. Klein also suggests something along these lines, claiming (rightly, I believe) that the solutions to climate change and our global ecological disaster are at odds with current right wing policies. What Wilkinson and Pickett say about equal societies having a positive influence on health and general well-being of the people living in those societies, also apply to the environment. Basically, an unequal society, a society driven by competition for resources erodes not only trust and health but also the environment.

Closely linked is the issue of growth, as measured in GNP. A system, such as the one we currently operate, based on indefinite economic growth seem to presuppose scarcity, overlook detrimental ecological effects (the BP spill, for instance, would generate quite a lot of GNP), add to economic inequality, accumulate resources "upwards" while sucking in resources from the bottom. At the same time, it is claimed that the current system would somehow be able to counter inequality, or at least raise the living standards of everyone - even if it raises the standards more for those at the top. This is simply not true.

It would only be able to raise everyone's living standard if we had infinite resources, since the system functions by siphoning resources upwards in a pyramid structure and eventually we run out of resources. A counter argument to this is that everyone has an equal opportunity to reach the top, which again simply is not true - and even it were true, we are still talking about a pyramid structure here, there can be only a limited number of people at the top at any one given time.

This might be thought to be an argument in favour of socialism, and I guess depending on your definitions it might well be. But I would ask you to keep in mind that the pyramid structure - which is really a facet of dominator societies - can be, and often has been, present even in socialist societies. And it is the pyramid structure I would argue against.

Tying this to the question of polarization, what we see is a polarization of society versus individual and the false dichotomy between the two. This false dichotomy is effectively blocking our way forwards. As it is, the political debate tends to revolve around either increased governmental control or increased individual freedoms. We see this in the Swedish debate, perhaps primarily from the neo-liberal Center party and the highly conservative Christian Democrats who both argue for increased individual freedoms and contrasts this with governmental control. There is a lot of talk about the "limits of politics". Yet this argument is only valid if you make a clear distinction between the two.

And here, once again, the polarization comes into play. There are people, primarily on the right, who identify themselves not only with the belief that climate change is a hoax, but also that it is a (socialist) governmental conspiracy. Added to this is the firm belief that "the government" is some far away, mysterious and shadowy entity out to do them harm. Now, rather than opting for policies of increased transparency and an increased political commitment, they want to do away with government as much as possible. But why?

The government, and by extension society and politics, is what we make it. If we fall into the belief that the government is some other entity, distanced from us, then that is what it will become. This exact same reasoning is behind xenophobia, racism and the dismantling of both civil rights and social welfare systems. It is polarization and alienation between individuals. Looking at our environmental crisis, we find the same thing. We consider ourselves apart from nature, rather than a part of nature, we objectify nature and make it out to be a controllable, static "other" - which it is not. The distinction between "man" and "nature" is at the core of the dominator mindset, along with the Cartesian distinction between "body" and "mind".

Looking again at Swedish policy, it is worth noting that unemployed, immigrants, sick and marginalized people are all bundled together into an undefined group of "outsiders". The people who are not "us" and who wish to take what we have. This same message bombards us daily, through news, television shows, movies and other media. I would say this is a logical conclusion to extreme individualization, where the only acceptable community is the one which seeks affirmation and confirmation from within, from looking towards what sets us apart - rather than from looking outwards towards what unites us - with each other as human beings and ultimately as being part of a greater web of life, spanning the planet in it's entirety.

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