Reimagining the social fabric

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters take part in a protest march during a women's 'Gilets Jaune' (Yellow Vests) between Place de la Bastille and Republique, in Paris, France, 6 January 2019. [Ian Langsdon/EPA/EFE]

Popular protests and political upheaval across Europe and the US suggest that the fabric of society is eroding and must be rebuilt, argues Antoine Ripoll.

Antoine Ripoll is the Director of the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington DC

America is obsessed by competition from China, a country that might well unseat the US as the world’s top superpower. Fear of this economic and cultural earthquake is so strong it makes people forget the reason why Chinese growth in the long term seems invincible and inexorable: the absolute power of an authoritarian and liberticidal regime.

China is asserting itself on the international scene and loudly promoting its “regional model” as antithesis to the principles of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, whose universality it rejects. In doing so, China readily takes advantage of attacks against the post-war international order, carried out by some of the very same who bravely fought to build it over the course of decades. The nature of geopolitics quite obviously abhors a vacuum.

Besides this duopoly, there are those aspiring to become “poles” in tomorrow’s multipolar world, namely Europe and India, and there are those who remain entrenched behind a purely defensive attitude, like Russia, busy with maintaining its sphere of influence. Then there are all the other unclassifiable actors, trying to position themselves as best they can in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Equality gaps

We are also living in times of profound gaps between the haves and the have nots; between the urban and rural worlds; between the top 1% and the others; between internationalists and nationalists.

Each camp has its champions who just seem to talk over each other at the G7 and the G20 and struggle to agree on joint declarations.

The yellow vests denounce Paris’ taxation choices, small town America despises the liberal media, Brazilians speak out against unusually high levels of corruption, Germans reject an opening of their borders they deem uncontrollable, the British believe Brussels has taken away their sovereignty.

Behind the diversity of these revolts is a sense that the social fabric is unravelling and a feeling of despair in a world where there is increasingly little to dream about.

In this context, we have seen a slew of improbable and unforeseen electoral victories of simplistic populist solutions. Each one feeds and justifies the next; each one will likely lead to an impasse and to even greater disillusionment and despair.

Those who speak out in favour of simplistic solutions — protectionism, national preference, rejection of the foreigner— are communications champions and know better than anyone how to take advantage of an unexpected political niche, an acutely dismaying one.

What is the solution? How can society as a whole find once more its sense of purpose, how can balance be restored, or better yet, how can new equilibria be found? It is by far easier to agree on a diagnosis than its cures. Situations are too diverse for common remedies to dispel the general malaise.

Recovering optimism 

What appears to have become a global disgruntlement— even in China, where social unrest is on the rise despite Beijing’s denials— seems to have a commonality in the feeling of being caught up in an inhuman and inexorable mechanism that nobody can contribute to any longer.

The middle class justifiably feels that it pays a disproportionately large share into the common welfare. A fairer fiscal policy and a better balance between shareholder profits and employee protection might improve things.

Weaving a new social fabric that is more cohesive and allows individuals’ talents and creativity to make a difference, however small, is probably the key to recovering a sense of optimism and confidence.

One should also not underestimate people’s ability to bounce back. In the United States, the mid-term elections showed the emergence of a counterweight to the White House’s policies. In Italy, the budgetary arm wrestling with Brussels finally led to a reasonable outcome. In France, after weeks of social unrest, the newfound relative calm and the national debate instituted by President Macron could lead to new ways to allay the discontent.

Our planet is facing challenges so complex that we should feel humbled. This very same humility might even make us rediscover the importance of humanity, at times forgotten in the whorls of globalisation.

Winston Churchill used to say one could always count on the Americans to do the right thing once they had tried everything else. Apparently they are not the only ones.

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