Waiting for a new Humanism

I’ve made this argument before but, after the Trump election, it bears repeating. A Clinton presidency might have given us four more years (and an unforeseen event might have turned the tide), but it’s now over.

Humanism, or political Liberalism, is dead and will not resuscitate. An ideology of hate is taking over, and will remain in place for a long time. People who prefer love to hate and reason to instincts face tough choices. This is my roadmap for the rest of my life, which I’m sharing in case someone finds it of interest.

Needless to say, I hope I’m wrong and darkness will only last a few years.

The collapse of society

That’s it. They won. The success of Trump will galvanize the far-right across Europe. Our only hope is that we might have a refuge until 2021 if Germany holds until then. Other countries will fall to the far-right, either because of new faces (Austria, Italy) or because old ones converted (United Kingdom, France). You need to accept this and move on.

The forces that led to the triumph of the far-right are not new. It’s not Facebook or free trade. It’s the dereliction of the institutions that were the skeleton of our societies. These institutions have been trimmed so thin they cannot hold society together and, quite naturally, society collapsed. To have a society, we need to have a common understanding of basic facts that are shared by all members. The very word society comes from Latin socius, which means companion. You cannot have a companion that calls a color white if you call it black. In the United States and Europe, we have reached the point where different groups hold beliefs so different that calling our countries “societies” stretches the concept too far.

In 2000, when internet was a side concern, Spanish political scientist Juan Linz warned that the neoliberal policies that targeted democratic institutions would eventually damage democracy itself. Since then, the United Nations were humiliated by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, education has been turned into a market service, elderly care had become a nightmare for families and patients and a goldmine for investors, bridges are crumbling faster than we can repair them, researchers are treated like a nuisance, unions have been discredited and the government in general has been told to act more like a company. Because a public administration is not a company, this did not go well. And, indeed, trust in every institution, public or private, inexorably went down (the army is an exception)1. With trust at rock bottom, self-confidence even lower and a general lack of resources, these institutions slowly stopped to provide the framework needed for a society to function.

The institutional meltdown is the root cause of the growth of the far-right because the far-right provides a solution to this dereliction. The solution is to use a new set of values to replace the previous, failed ones. But unlike previous periods in history, there is no alternative to the ideology of the far-right to stitch our countries back together and resume life as societies.

The far-right ideology of hate

The ideology of the far-right is one of hate. The hate you hear in the speeches of Trump or Le Pen is not a means to push for ideas, it is an ideology in itself. If you think the far-right has a political platform and a vision, imagine the following. Imagine that all the main policy objectives of the far-right have been achieved. What would happen? Would the far-right stop its hate campaigns? Or would it find other, random reasons to be hateful? Of course, it would go for the second option.

This has already happened. Many of the demands of far-right parties have been fulfilled in the last few years. The Schengen treaty is all but dead, the supranational character of the European Union has been killed2, the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees has been abandoned3, the British government has pushed for measures that even the far-right Ukip considered worthy of being called fascist4… the list could go on. Did any of this reduce the appeal of the far-right? No.

Usually, when the ideas of a political party are taken by the others, the political party struggles because it has nothing to offer. Greens, for instance, grew strongly up to the point when their ideas where recycled by all other parties. Politicians of all stripes now pay at least lip-service to the environment. This consequently removed the uniqueness of the Green parties and cut short their growth5. The far-right, on the contrary, keeps growing even as its ideas become more and more normal.

The ideological program of the far-right is not a set of policies or even a vision. It is pure hatred. They see the world as a constant fight between them (be they whites or Christians or “the Occident”) and others. For them, the sense of life is to take part in a struggle between them and their opponents. The opponents are Muslims now, but they could easily be Jews or Freemasons or witches. Because they live for hate and for struggle, and not to implement any kind of policies, the nature of the opponents matters little as long as they are there. If this sounds familiar, it’s because that was precisely the ideology of the Nazis6.

This is why those who elected Trump will keep loving him even if he does not lift a finger for them. In Russia, people whose lives were destroyed by the policies of the Putin administration would not vote for anyone else. There is nothing preventing the same from happening in the United States or in the European Union.

Once the ideological underpinning of the far-right is understood, you realize that no change in policy or in the material conditions of voters will change their views. Hate and struggle give a sense of purpose that no consumer welfare can match. Once you revel in hate, you can’t go back. This is why the current domination of the far-right is unlikely to ebb away.

The failure of Humanism

Humanism or political Liberalism is, roughly speaking, the ideology that supported the institutions that organized political life in Europe and in the United States since the late 18th century. Its founding phrase could be a sentence from the American Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal”, that they are endowed with “unalienable rights” and that these truths are “self-evident”. The self-evidence shows that the aforementioned equality is an act of faith. If we start to ask questions regarding the dogma of equality between individuals, the whole construct of Humanism falls apart. In this sense, it is no different from other faith, such as Christianity (where you need to believe that Jesus died and lived again) or the far-right ideology (where you need to believe that you face a struggle for survival against other groups).

Very few people are still able to believe in the Humanist dogma today, because Humanism has two huge problems: racism and climate change.

Racism

Most researchers agree that racism, like Humanism, appeared in modern era, in the the 17th and 18th century7. I argue that this is not a regrettable coincidence but that Humanism itself produces this racism.

Consider this first situation. If we are all equal and I’m a failure, it means that I am personally responsible for my failure. This has been marketed widely by the neo-conservative movement since the 1980’s to push for policies that diverted funds from programs helping the poor to programs helping the rich. Do note that this abject responsibilization of the ones least able to succeed is a pure creation of the neocons. Liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek explicitly warned against it and called for a minimum of living that included comprehensive social security8.

Now consider this other situation. If all persons are created equal and that some do not live on an equal footing to others, there can only be two explanations. First: Humans are not really equal and the institutional setup created by Humanism does not work. Second: The ones who aren’t equal are not really humans. The second explanation was and still is preferred by most. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, the very author of the sentence on the “self-evident truth” in the Declaration of Independence, was a passionate slave-owner and justified his practice by the fact that Blacks were more like children than actual humans9.

The idea that the people we treat as unequals are really not humans was central to slavery and to colonization alike. It did not stop with these policies. I was in Tunis in 2011, for instance, right after the fall of dictator Ben Ali. There, a personnel from the French embassy told me that we had to teach Tunisians how to behave in a democracy, that they were “like children in need of a helping hand.” I’m ashamed that I did not have the courage to end the conversation at that point. A large part of the population and of the political elite still justify the discrimination against Arabs, Blacks, Roma people, women and others by their innate characteristics, by the fact that they are less worthy of being called humans than white men.

It follows from the two cases exposed above that a personal situation of inequality can only be explained by a personal failure to make use of the opportunities that were available to an individual or by the appropriation of these opportunities by people who are not equal to you (because of their sub-human character) and should not have access to them. In other words, the central tenet of Humanism - equality - is itself the cause of the hatred that is destroying it10.

The effects of this hatred were not strong enough to destroy Humanism in the past 200 years because it was also responsible for exceptional improvements in living conditions. After all, if your life gets better and the lives of your children might be better still, you’re probably not a failure11.

Climate change

The second failure of Humanism has to do with science and the concept of progress in general. To oversimplify things, Humanism went hand-in-hand with capitalism, and both enabled rapid economic development and the Industrial Revolution. It was clear from the start that progress was dirty. The air, soil and water were polluted by the first locomotives and factories. But there were solutions. Most large cities in Europe were much more polluted in the 19th century than they are today. Large challenges, like the depletion of the ozone layer or acid rains were solved by political means and quite efficiently so12.

It became clear in the mid-2000’s that climate change was another story. Despite the magnitude of the threat, governments have not been able to find a solution to keep hydrocarbons in the ground and prevent, or at least manage, climate change. The direct consequence is that progress, arguably the main tangible evidence for the superiority of Humanism as an ideology, failed us. What good are healthy and hunger-free lives if we expect the planet to stop being able to sustain human life in a few decades?13 Could a life of hunger and 50% infant mortality with the certainty of continuity be better?

Because Humanism is directly responsible for the racist hate that overwhelmed it and for the destruction of the planet, it cannot be a serious alternative to the ideology of the far-right.

Waiting for a new Humanism

We’re now at a time when the flaws inherent to Humanism pushed it into irrelevance. The only other set of values available to give meaning and organize society is the hatred offered by the far-right. A state-organized pursuit of harmony, Chinese-style, might compete. In what may be unfortunate, China does not seem, for now, willing to export its ideology to the world.

Hatred seems like the only option. But many people might not want to replace Reason with Hatred in their set of values. Others simply cannot because they are in the hated groups. I wish I could say that I’m in the first category, but much of my thinking is led by the fact that, under the Nuremberg laws, I wouldn’t last long14.

For us, it is futile to fight the ideology of hatred, because we have nothing better to offer. We can try to slow down the speed with which our ship is sinking, but this will probably reduce our chances of survival once the ship is fully sunk. Instead, we should preserve what is dearest to us and wait for brighter thinkers to create a new, positive ideology that will fight and overcome the current ideology of the far-right. No one can currently imagine what such an ideology could be like. I don’t believe that we can sufficiently challenge the values we grew up with to come up with something good enough to replace them. Instead, we should make sure that the next generations, who were born after Humanism was discredited (I put the cut off mark at 2003 and the Iraq war15), can build upon the work of Humanists.

Before digitalization, a tyrant who wanted to remove a book from the face of the earth had to find every single copy and burn each of them. Today, a tyrant who wants to do the same can place a phone call to Apple and Microsoft and say “Can you make sure to include a program in your next update of Windows or MacOS that looks for this specific piece of content and deletes it?” 16 If you liked Humanism, you should concentrate on making sure that this cannot happen. We need to safely store the intellectual creations that are the essence of Humanism before it’s too late.

Libraries and universities should have worked on it. To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t. For them, because they are financed mostly by governments, it’s already too late. No director of a major library in her right mind will take the risk to use government money to fund a program that explicitly shows distrust in that same government.

I don’t expect to see the day when a new humanist ideology is ready. (Though I still hope to die of old age!) I’ll try, however, to act to the best of my abilities to safeguard the novels, films, articles, essays, songs and values that the ideology of hate will seek to destroy. Our duty is not to preserve Humanist institutions, we’ve lost this battle already. Instead, we should preserve the idea of Humanism and pass it on to the next generations.

Newsletter

In case you want to read my next essay in your e-mail inbox, type you email below and you'll be all set.

Notes

1. Here’s a survey, but there are many sources that point in this direction: Trust in Institutions Drops to Level of Great Recession.

2. I wrote about the failure of the European Union earlier in 2015 in Living Without the European Union. The arguments I made there are still valid.

3. With the Turkey agreement, the member states of the European Union are deporting people who are entitled to refugee protection to an unsafe country, which turns the Geneva Convention on its head. Read this for the details.

4. I’m referring to the plan to list foreign employees. The source is this article.

5. Another example of a party that ran out of steam after its platform was fully implemented were Radicals in France in the early 20th century.

6. Read the first chapter of Black Earth, by Timothy Snyder.

7. There is suprisingly little work on the history of racism. A very good introductory book is Geschichte des Rassismus by Christian Geulen. To get an idea of how bad the situation of research on racism is, imagine that one of the most quoted books on the topic, Une histoire du racisme by Christian Delacampagne, does not even mention colonization or racism against Blacks and Arabs. It seems like most research has focused exclusively on antisemitism.

8. Read ‘Two Kinds of Security’ in The Road to Serfdom.

9. Read for instance The Monster of Monticello at the New-York Times.

10. What about tolerance? you might ask. After all, tolerance is also considered to be a Humanist value. Values can be ordered by importance. I do not know of any government based on Humanist values that fought a war for tolerance. However, a great many wars were fought to keep human beings in a condition of inferiors to white men.

11. There might be a contradiction with the second part of this essay, which stated that there was no coming back from being a hater. I believe that there isn’t, because switching from Hate to Reason cannot happen during a lifetime, though the opposite is true. French colonists in Algeria, for instance, kept their deeply-held racist views long after they emigrated to France. Similarly, many Germans kept adoring Hitler well into the 1950s and 1960s. The only way to prevent their ideas from spreading is to offer their children a more attractive, alternative set of values.

12. The depletion of the ozone layer was addressed by the Montreal protocol of 1989 and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution addressed issues such as sulfur emissions, one of the main culprit of acid rains.

13. If you still do not think that climate change will make the planet unlivable, maybe this illustration by XKCD will help.

14. If you like infographics, this 1935 chart by the German governement will be of interest. The Nuremberg laws might not come back in this form, but the antisemitism of Trump and the European far-right is a tangible threat.

15. This marks the moment when the institutions of the postwar era, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were the proof of the victory of Humanism, became visibly impotent. In 2003, their main funder and hero, the United States, ruined their credibility by ignoring them.

16. Yes, it’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.


Comments

Want to raise an issue about this post? Please open a new one on Github or make a pull request directly, but make sure to read the rationale behind this blog first.