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A united future begins as a tangled mess

In trying to explain Donald Trump’s stunning election as U.S. President, Stephen Harper – in his latest book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption – identified a divide between “those who live somewhere” and “those who live anywhere”.

The ‘”somewheres,” on the one hand, are the typically common folk in society. They fix boilers, grow food, and drive buses or taxis. They are the ‘locals’ who keep communities ticking over.

The “anywheres,” on the other hand, do not rely on any given place. They work for international businesses, or have university degrees which give them freedom to choose from a pool of nations where they can make their living. Their work, in the long run, helps to integrate nations into the growing global community.

Somewheres, according to Harper, make up the majority of the population in Western countries; but he claims the anywheres have been dominating politics – that is, until the recent shift in political trends, resulting in Brexit, Trump, Boris Johnson, Le Pen, Doug Ford, etc.

Harper believes ‘somewheres vs. anywheres’ (an idea borrowed from British journalist David Goodhart) is the new divide in present day political fault-lines; and he advocates populist conservatism (which, he confesses, is really just conservatism) as the solution.

In regards to policy, he writes:

Conservatives should remain pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalization, and pro-immigration at heart. Going in a completely opposite direction in any of these areas would be a big mistake with serious ramifications. But being pro-market does not mean that all regulations should be dismantled or that governments should never intervene. Being pro-trade does not imply that any commercial arrangement is a good one. Being pro-globalization should not entail abdicating loyalty or responsibility to our countries. And being pro-immigration should never mean sanctioning the erasure of our borders or ignoring the interests of our citizens.*

In short, being pro-something is not an excuse for ideological tangents.”

With all respect to Harper – I genuinely think that his observations are astute – he seems, contrary to his stance of anti-ideology, attached to his conservative values.

Proposing conservatism as our solution is akin to a commercial with no relevance to the product it is supposed to advertise. 

Here’s a fictional example: a Zen master speaks beautifully about what it takes to become a guru; then it is revealed that he is eating a Big Mac.

Similarly to that commercial idea (I’ll be expecting a cheque, McDonald’s!), there is real wisdom in Harper’s reflections; but conservatism, like the Big Mac, is not the answer.

The somewheres vs. anywheres situation feels, to me, like a struggle between the old world and the new world – between the comfortable nostalgia of the past and the potential grandeur of the future.

In resolving this division, it is important to first recognise that somewheres and anywheres actually need each other. 

Somewheres need anywheres to provide the Western ideals, and the promise of a brighter future; anywheres need somewheres to keep everyday society going.

There is, then, importance in Harper’s beloved conservative values: in striving for the ideals of the future, we shouldn’t forget where we’ve come from.

In the same way that a flower cannot grow without its roots, our future, globalised society won’t grow without our (already established) foundations. Tearing our roots apart – no matter how tangled and distorted they have become – will create more problems than it solves.

Nonetheless, we are experiencing what is, arguably, the greatest revolution in the history of civilisation: the digital revolution. 

The lifestyle – and potential – of the human race has evolved enormously in a miniscule amount of time … and the changes we have seen could yet prove to be the tip of the iceberg.

The new, seemingly infinite world of the internet, and the rapidly improving technology at our disposal, is not something that can be governed by the traditional nation states that populist conservatives are so fond of.

And while Harper acknowledges the need to be pro-globalisation, he is also dismissive of the global community’s relevance, describing it as “a mere notion.” But, similarly, all nation states also started out as abstract concepts; and in a world where the internet/social media are so relevant, the global community is more real than ever.

There must have been something in pre-historic times that forced tribes to work together; and our current situation as separate nations mirrors that in a number of ways.

These circumstances hold the potential to deliver an exciting future; but they also hold the potential of a frightening one. For that reason, it is vital that such delicate times are dealt with intelligently and carefully. There is no point of reference in history for how we might fare in this digital/technological age, so traditional conservatism alone is not the answer.

We need an eclectic, innovative approach. It’s true that we should conserve and protect our roots; but we should also actively nurture our global community, because there are too many problems that nation states cannot solve alone.

Still, these divisions stand stubbornly in the way of such sensibilities. It is becoming increasingly important for people and countries to listen to each other: but are humans capable of that? I’m still not sure.

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Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption (2018).