What history and context can teach us about populism

I first heard the phrase “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history” during a class in international relations. The quote is by German philosopher Friedrich Hegel who argued that nations and governments never learn from their past actions. As a student suggested in class that day (adding that she is a realist), we cannot understand the present or the future based on past actions, because history always repeats itself.

I remember that day well because I thought about it for a long time, asking myself why someone would be so pessimistic about the future and all the progress we have made throughout the years. Obviously things are not perfect now, but they are certainly better than they used to be, especially when I think about my dad telling me he did not have enough food to eat as a child. In some ways, we have come a long way.

If we cannot evaluate the presence based on the past then what can we relate it to?

Everything can be comparable in the short-run: my house burning down is an extremely bad experience for me, but in relation to someone who lost a child in a fire, it almost seems insignificant. Our realities are comparable to us and our context, but in the long-run we can see how things have developed in a broader spectrum and we can evaluate the effects.

The world is a better place today for most people on this earth, and if you do not believe me, then let me introduce you to one of my favourite organisations and their work: Gapminder. It was created by one of my idols, Prof. Hans Rosling, who used Gapminder as a tool to visualise statistics and show us just how good the world really is; despite many remaining inequalities and challenges. Before fake news became an international phenomenon he tried to tell us the ‘truth’, and I strongly encourage everyone to follow his link above to learn more.

The most interesting part about Rosling’s lectures was that he showed how unaware most people are about the advantages made in eliminating poverty and how it can help us reduce population growth in the long-run. He also proved that university students were amongst the ill-informed, despite any assumptions that students are generally more knowledgeable.

So how come we are so ill-informed about the world’s progress?

Well, media is partly the villain in this scenario, but that does not offer us the whole ‘truth’. Instead, the truth is like a double-edged sword, because aid recipients are dependant on this ‘negative’ understanding of the world and its development, while the developed world should be informed in order to target the aid better. In other words, aid recipients need us to know just how horrible their reality is compared to ours, but at the same time people should be informed about the progress made. The news that the media reports become comparable and context-driven instead of informative.

Some might argue that this is wrong because we should be more aware of the contribution that aid has in the developing world, but if the media only reports on the progress instead of all the challenges, then the incentive for international aid will most likely diminish significantly. This would in turn affect any future aid negatively. Media’s role in this case is more about reporting the comparable ‘truth’, suggesting that we are not doing enough, even if it is not the whole story. Governments, however, and the educational system should be the source of such knowledge, because it is not inherently media’s or society’s role to educate us about the ‘truth’. Instead we need children that can reflect around these issues and find the right information on which to base a decision on once they become adults, similarly to what I have previously discussed in another post. Another obstacle to targeted aid is the disagreement of division between countries and how we measure progress in the developing world.

Populism is based on the idea that the world is bad and that we have to change something to fix a broken system.

The effect of medias’ portrayal of the world as bad also has implications for populism, because it is a pattern that constantly repeats itself throughout history. Our knowledge of the world is therefore very important when discussing populism, because it is the base on which populism grows from. For example, knowing that the world is a better place than previously thought can be very uplifting for most, but the privilege upon which the developed world has grown from creates further challenges. Especially in a world where resources are scarce and economies vulnerable. The division between the developed and the developing world is exactly why populism works, because it wants to keep that division alive. Only when a crisis becomes imminent enough can it resurface and continue to thrive on that fear until it becomes idle; waiting for the next crisis.

In a world where inequalities exist amongst people, the fear of loosing what we have becomes a naturalistic battle of self-interest and survival.

We need history to put our understanding of populism in context because everything is working against time, including diminishing resources, slow implementation of technological advancement and a fast growing population. The creation of fear for the time yet to come allows populism to thrive, even if the recipients of that disadvantage changes. Society divides people into citizens and non-citizens, but it can also try to exclude certain citizens because of their faith or other similar traits that are different from the mainstream. It creates a feeling of entitlement among citizens towards the state, expecting it’s limited resources to be used for citizens or group members only, not on ‘the others’.

This fear of ‘the others’ is not unfounded and the feeling or entitlement is not foolish; it is a survival instinct and it works to protect us and the people we care about. But we need to be careful about what information we base this belief on and how much of a threat the unknown really is. A European survey from 2016, for example, shows that people’s three biggest fears are immigration, terrorism and the economy, in that order. According to statistics, the number of deaths from attacks have increased since 2012 across the world, which is potentially alarming, but when we put this information in a historical and global context we see something else. We see that Western Europe has actually had a decline in deaths since the 1990s, and even though there have been more attacks recently, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. The fear might not be unfounded or foolish, but we still need relativity and context to understand the bigger picture.

A good example for this is Sweden, a country that has had a large inflow of immigration for the past two years and a low rate of terrorist attacks.

According to the Swedish Government (a trustworthy source last time I checked) 1.5 % of the population, or 140 000 people, are members of communities with Muslim faith. In 2015, nearly 163 000 people sought asylum in Sweden, primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which suggests a lot of people moving into Sweden and a considerable amount of them assumed to be of Muslim faith. The amount of migration has stagnated since 2016 and the economy is strong, showing a financial surplus in 2015 expected to continue. Although there are roughly 140 000 individuals with Muslim faith in Sweden, we have seen one terrorist attack in 2017, killing four people, and one in 2010 where only the perpetrator killed himself. With an increase in terrorism around Europe, the fear of ‘the other’ or in this case Islam is not unfounded, but it is exaggerated for other purposes than delivering the ‘truth’. Putting things in perspective is therefore important for us to realise that populism is not the answer.

Why should we fear a world that is better? If anything, we should fear nuclear weapons, not Islam.

Hans Rosling taught us that the world is not only better, it is wealthier, and as mentioned in my previous post about redefining the state, most countries will most likely benefit from technological advancements, boosting state wealth. Humans will not end up in mass unemployment (against all odds) and the population growth will eventually slow down. Certain ‘trends’ like populism will still repeat themselves as long as we have inequalities, but that does not mean we never learn from history. On the contrary, context and relativity should always be a framework for understanding development.

Remember when we were being dramatic teenagers and our parents told us that the world does not revolve around us and our realities? This is the lesson we need to learn.

Populism growing across the world and in Europe is part of a long history of populism and it will never stop until we really understand it. One example of the history of populism is found from the similarity between Donald Trump and Denis Kearney; a drayman and a labour organiser in the late 19th century in California. Like my friend told me recently, their stories are much alike, almost like history repeating itself. Kearney was known for having radical views, and this gave him great power as he often gave speeches against capitalism and Chinese immigrants. He gained a short-lived but influential career in politics, passing an anti-Chinese law with his Workingmen’s Party before the American economy grew in the late 19th century, diminishing his power. In many ways this is similar to Trump’s campaign: Make America Great Again, because it targets ‘the others’ and creates fear. It insinuates that making the country great again will happen through eliminating ‘the others’ altogether; be it the Chinese or the Muslims.

History repeats itself and we cannot stop it, but we still learn something every time. The real question is, what do we learn from it?

Fear spreads when there is a threat and the economy is bad, but the villain is different depending on the time and the type of challenges societies face. Today Muslims create fear due to extremism, but only yesterday Asians threatened the American economy. The story is the same, just different objects. Information spreading, education and reflection around historical context can be used to eventually break the cycle of fear, but when times are bad, it will most likely resurface again. It will happen because fear is not unfounded, it is simply human, and although the world is a better place today, we will always fear the unknown or the threat of losing the privilege we have. This fear of the unknown is only combated through knowledge of familiar patterns, patterns that show how populism works in bad times, and better information about how progressive our world is, not just our comparable context. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we might be able to break the cycle.


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