„Personalism is on the rise worldwide“ noted a recent Foreign Affairs article titled „The New Dictators.“ After all, since 1988 the percentage of authoritarian regimes ruled by a single strongman has increased by 17 %, from 23% to 40%. Could this be yet another result of the hypercomplexities of globalization?
Globalization has many faces. Some think of big, transnational companies, others of eased travel restrictions, global trade in goods and services, improved means of communication, and so on.
What is clear is that globalization and everything we associate with it is a hypercomplex phenomenom. That is why it is so easy to blame more or less every grievance on globalization. Everyone has different assumptions and associations. We may use the same words and yet fail to understand each other. Let’s agree to disagree, even if we are not aware of it. Some say it’s a blessing with an unjustifiable bad reputation, for others it’s a process leading to increased poverty in the world’s poorest regions and among the global middle class. Some emphasize its inevitability, many others want to halt or even reverse it.
The complexities of international organizations, global agencies, administrations and bureaucracies, accompanied by the parallel rise of big companies necessarily lead to confusion. Who is responsible, who can be blamed for the discontents of globalization, to borrow a catchphrase coined by Joseph Stiglitz?
And here lies one of globalizations core problems, if not its most pressing one: No one. Everyone can shift the burden and declare that someone else should have done this or that: Some other state, the UN, the EU, the WTO, a different state department, and so on. „Wasn’t me“ is the answer to all the pressing questions, not 42. Hannah Arendt has identified bureaucracy as the most gruesome type of government exactly for this very reason. In the past, as bad as it may have been, people at least had someone to put the blame on. Someone to punish at the ballot box, someone to send to prison, someone to hang (Tyrannicide).
The problem of responsibility is further aggravated by the jungle of global and, as a result, domestic laws, rules, and regulations. Even if a government wants to change something, it may turn out that this is (almost) impossible to achieve. Often enough, it may be necessary to amend a treaty, to conclude a treaty, to leave an international organization, to join an international organization, to pass legislation at EU level. Global governance ultimately means that if everyone governs, no one actually does.
This is where the new strongmen step in. While the state is merely an artificial person, they are real and actual human beings (except if you believe in some wicked conspiracy theories, then they’re reptiloids). They give people the impression of being able to „get things done“, they are someone to relate to – „the face of a nation.“
This is also the reason why media coverage focuses on the private lives of politicians in general and when it comes to strongmen in particular: Their biography, including past relationships and their place of origin, their lifestyle (where do they spend their holidays, what are their hobbies, who are their close friends and allies), their character. Every piece of information is absorbed, we want to get as much as possible. Laws, statistics, diagramms, are abstract, the face of Wladimir Putin is something we can relate to.
Obviously, these informations are often enough false or manipulated. The image counts, not reality. We want to believe in the strongman as a quasi-super human being who provides stability in times of insecurity.
Globalization has many side effects. It is a dialectic process, opportunities come with uncertainties, challenges with threats. „The world has become small“ says a book by Otto (von) Habsburg. Upon closer inspectio, however, the global village is more of a global jungle. Moving closer to each other may end up constituting a threat itself.
Now here comes the big question: Will globalization also lead to the rise of strongmen in „Western style democracies“? Is Donald Trump just the beginning? Are western societies just as prone to long for the sense of paternal leadership impersonated by a strongman as autocracies?
Hard to say. Obviously. What can be said is that politicians adressing all those negative feelings associated with the process of globalization can count on votes and get quite far, much further than many would have guessed when they started getting involved in politics (yes, I am thinking of Donald Trump again). A few decades from now we will know for sure whether they end up as early warning signs or grabbing the steering wheeles themselves.