Dramatically, the Arab world has been swept by a revolutionary spring, though one that is rapidly becoming a chilly winter. Indeed, for the most part, the new regimes are combining the old authoritarianism with Islamism, resulting in further social stagnation, resentment, and instability.
Even more remarkable, however, are the grassroots demonstrations that are mushrooming in Western societies. These protests have two major causes.
First, social inequality has grown unabated in the West over the past 25 years, owing in part to the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its threat of expansionist communism. The spectre of revolution had forced Western elites to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth and nurture the growth of loyal middle classes. But, when communism collapsed in its Eurasian heartland, the West’s rich, believing that they had nothing more to fear, pressed to roll back the welfare state, causing inequality to rise rapidly. This was tolerable as long as the overall pie was expanding, but the global financial crisis in 2008 ended that.
Second, over the past 15 years, hundreds of millions of jobs shifted to Asia, which offered inexpensive and often highly skilled labour. The West, euphoric from its victory over communism and its seemingly unstoppable economic growth, failed to implement necessary structural reforms. Instead, Western prosperity relied increasingly on debt.
But the economic crisis has made it impossible to maintain a good life on borrowed money.
Governments now have to implement reforms that will hit the majority of voters hardest. The minority that has benefited financially over the past two decades is unlikely to give up its advantages without a fight.
Western capitalism’s model of a society based on near-universal affluence and liberal democracy looks increasingly ineffective compared to the competition. Authoritarian countries’ middle classes may push their leaders toward greater democracy, as in Russia, but the Western may also become more authoritarian.
We must find ways to prevent the political polarisation that gave rise to totalitarian systems in the 20th century. Fortunately, this is possible.
Communism and fascism were born and took root in societies demoralized by war, which is why all steps should be taken now to prevent the outbreak of war. This is becoming particularly relevant today, as the smell of war hangs over Iran.
Many people look increasingly supportive of a war with Iran, despite – or perhaps owing to – the need to address the ongoing global economic crisis and failure of international governance.
Paradoxically, today’s global changes and challenges offer the potential for both peaceful co-existence and violent conflict.
• Sergei A Karaganov is Dean of the School of World Economics and International Affairs at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics