The Rise of Right-Wing Populism
The Rise of Right-Wing Populism
Abstract: The international political system is often described as “anarchic,” “chaotic,” or “order-less.” However, though other complex systems are analyzed using complex systems theory, this is less often true for the international political system. According to complex systems theory, events that unfold within systems or environments in which many actors and variables interact do not follow simple cause-and-effect patterns of behavior. Rather, there are four salient features of complex systems: self-organization, non-linearity, openness, and co-evolution. In this paper, I first demonstrate that the international political sphere can best be understood through such a model. Using principles of complex systems theory as a framework, I argue that emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) have changed the nature of labor and systems of economic organization, disrupting key elements of the complex international system. In particular, the “New Economy,” with its associated technologies has shifted the types and locations of available jobs, and altered social and cultural relations. The inability of many people to adapt to this new paradigm has in turn given rise to right-wing populist political movements around the world. Finally, I argue that more scholarly and critical attention should be given to understanding these trends’ potential implications for the future from a complex systems perspective.
For many, it was unthinkable that the brash, politically inexperienced candidate could ascend to the highest office in the country and arguably the most powerful position in the world. Yet for others, his ultimate electoral victory seemed inevitable. Without diagnosing all of the specific conditions that led to his win and Hillary Clinton’s defeat—and there are, of course, many—it is possible to recognize Trump’s success in the context of a wider trend taking place throughout the Western world.
Every generation imagines itself particularly historically important—of being a unique period of growth, strife, or development. But it would not be inaccurate to claim that the transformations currently underway in our society in terms of technological growth and globalization are indeed unprecedented. The advent of information and communications technologies (ICTs) over the last few decades has eliminated barriers to international communication and exchange, fueling the rise of a globalized economy and political system. This new globally interdependent system, as well as the ICTs that both enabled its spread and that arose from its existence, are changing the nature of labor and work, and in turn, fundamental social conditions. Such rapid change has had incredible economic and social implications, sparking subsequent political reactions from those who see themselves as negatively impacted by these developments. In particular, the West—defined narrowly here as Europe and the U.S.—has seen an emergence of populist, nativist, protectionist, and anti-globalist movements, notably among right-wing factions.
In Western countries, this globalized economy and increased innovation have facilitated the loss of manufacturing jobs, the automation of jobs, and the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries. In addition, Western countries have experienced a change in the types of jobs available, the hollowing-out of the middle class, the rise of immigration (particularly from non-Western nations), and fundamental changes to society’s value systems and cultural capital. These trends are not necessarily new—with every technological innovation comes the death of certain industries and significant cultural change, and society adapts—but the speed at which these changes are occurring carries serious implications.
The international system, characterized here as exhibiting complex characteristics, experiences far-reaching and unintended consequences as the result of changes within it. One such monumental change has been the emergence and spread of ICTs. By changing the nature of labor, including where and what kinds of jobs are available, and by altering existing cultural and social relations, ICTs have facilitated a political backlash in the form of right-wing populist (RWP) movements around the world, and particularly in the West. These trends emerged out of a complex system, and their potential effects going forward should also be analyzed from the perspective of a complex system. I offer some speculative thoughts on possible systemic transformations, but emphasize that ultimately a more rigorous approach is necessary to fully understand this emerging phenomenon. For the sake of scope, this paper only examines Right Wing Populist movements in Western countries, though RWP has also established footholds in the political mainstream of other democratic countries including India, Japan, Turkey, and Russia.
To understand how the international system fits into a complex systems framework, it is important to first define complex systems theory. On the most basic level, complex systems theory, also known as complexity theory, is an emerging approach to thinking about how systems work. It emphasizes the importance of the interactions between many different variables, typically in a nonlinear fashion. Complexity theory arose out of the study of the natural world—physics and biology in particular—but has recently been adapted to the social sciences to understand how convoluted systems with many actors produce particular outcomes. According to Emilian Kavalski (2007), an expert on complex systems, “…complex systems are identified by the multitude of their components, and the numerous interconnections among the subsystems of a complex system” (p. 438).
When analyzing complex systems, it is not individual actors or even “subsystems” (smaller collections of actors within the whole) that are the most important units of analysis, but the interactions and relationships between them. On a fundamental level, there are four major features of a complex system. First, they exhibit self-organization (or emergence), meaning order emerges from the interactions between localized parts of the overall system, not an external agent. Second, they are non-linear, meaning we cannot use simple cause-and-effect models to explain events. Third, they are open, which means they fluctuate between order and chaos to strike the right balance between the two. And fourth, they can co-evolve, meaning that the system and its various parts are constantly adapting and changing to the environment, such as in feedback loops (Glover, 2016).
How does the international political system fit into this conception of complex systems theory? To start, the global system self-organizes, evidenced by the economic sub-systems that have arisen from the interactions between actors across the world and their effects on commodity prices, stock markets, and other financial indicators. This is not to say that all actors have equal power in the meta-system, but that there is no singular external pressure pushing all actors in the same direction. The international political system is also non-linear, but rather is characterized by what Edward Lorenz calls the “butterfly effect,” wherein not all actions necessarily have obvious or proportional consequences (Lorenz, 1963). For example, when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2010 to protest the Tunisian government, his action sparked a series of protests throughout the Arab world—but another person self-immolating at a different time and place would not necessarily have had the same widespread effects. According to this principle, small events can have enormous consequences, large events can have minimal consequences, and the same action can have vastly different kinds of consequences depending on its context (Glover, 2016).
In contrast to much of international relations theory, complexity theory rejects the idea that states of equilibrium or regularity can genuinely be achieved for any significant amount of time. Instead, the international political system is seen as vulnerable and fallible—alliances change, multi-lateral organizations stumble, and nations go to war. Finally, the international system co-evolves in the sense that its many composite parts are not rigid in their function or trajectory, but constantly change. The most obvious and striking example of this is when countries engage in an arms race—one country builds up arms, which triggers another country to build up its own arms for potential defense, and so on in a feedback loop (Glover 2016).
When a particular set of interactions within a complex system form a pattern, the trend can have widespread political implications. The rapid emergence of ICTs is one such trend and exerts significant influence over social, political, and economic factors. Over the past few decades, government investment in science and technology has led to an acceleration in innovation. This includes the field of ICTs, which have greatly reduced the cost of communicating across long distances. Professor Charles Weiss identified four mechanisms through which ICTs exert influence on the global system: (1) by changing the architecture of the overall system, including its structure, relations, and organizing principles; (2) by changing the system’s operating procedures, including how it conducts war, diplomacy, administration, commerce, finance, and communications; (3) by creating new issue areas and constraints on action; and (4) by changing security perceptions (Malik, 2012).
With the collapse of communism and the subsequent opening up of markets, we have seen trade, investment, and business spread between countries at an unprecedented scale, bolstered by these new technologies. Most importantly, the birth of the Internet provided the ultimate link between people around the globe, improving network computing, integrating markets, and opening channels of cultural exchange. These technologies also increased labor productivity in the United States, improving the growth of output per hour worked from 1.4% per year before 1995 to 2.5% between 1995-2000 (Pohjola, 2002, 135).
This emerging sub-system has been called by many names, the most all-encompassing being “the New Economy” (Pohjola 2002, 134). Walter W. Powell and Kaisa Snellman (2004) describe this sub-system (which they refer to as “the Knowledge Economy”) as having “production and services based on knowledge-intensive activities that contribute to an accelerated pace of technical and scientific advance, as well as rapid obsolescence,” with “a greater reliance on intellectual capabilities than on physical inputs or natural resources” (pg. 201). Richard Freeman (2002) simplified this definition, stating that the New Economy is “broadly defined by the extension of information and communication technologies…particularly the Internet, to economic activity” (1). As ICTs lowered barriers to communication, and as ICT prices dropped due to improved production, a greater share of people entered global markets, social movements and communities, and political processes (Pohjola 2002, 139).
These new technologies have accelerated the process of globalization, creating a positive feedback loop. With electronic trading, computational technologies that apply mathematical models to financial products, flexible production, and easier coordination and logistics practices, firms were opened up to, quite literally, a whole new world of markets for both products and labor. As these new markets entered the New Economy, their economic development allowed them to contribute to ICT innovation, reinforcing the feedback loop. This is not to say that such a process was an inevitable result of the forward march of ICTs—in fact, the rise of these innovations was paired with a conscious effort on the part of Western governments and institutions to de-regulate, privatize, and liberalize trade and investment (Castells, 2009). As capital could easily be moved around the world, the centers of production shifted from the more-developed (and higher-cost) West to less-developed (and therefore less expensive) East Asia (Short 2016). The ensuing globalized economy, with its many interdependent nodes, became an emergent sub-system. It became extremely costly for any specific node to leave the web, as it would lose out on internal flows of capital. In this way, we can see how ICTs were a necessary factor in the process of globalization, and how the ICTs that result from and constitute globalization play a role in maintaining the system.
When a society experiences changes to the way it produces capital and value, how its people communicate with one another, and how it interacts with other societies, there are bound to be significant transformations to its organization as well. With the shift of advanced economies towards a basis of information, cultural production, and communication, there has been a greater role for decentralized, non-market social production and exchange in the economy, challenging property- and market-based forms of production (Benkler 2007). As the economic structure of society changes, social relations will adapt, transforming an industrial production model to a network-based model. We can already see this transformation beginning, emboldened by ICTs, as people start getting their news from social media and their information from Wikipedia, start-ups crowdsource investments from Kickstarter, and services like transportation and housing are outsourced to the “sharing” economy (Uber and Airbnb, respectively). Some of the traditional barriers to production may have been lowered, but the shift to network-based chains of value means that people outside of these networks find themselves of increasingly less value in the market. What happens when people start finding themselves increasingly on the exterior of these value chains?
These emerging trends have very real consequences, as these emerging trends in labor and social relations present flashpoints for conflict and instability. As Manuel Castells (2009) observes, “…there has also been an accentuation of uneven development, this time not only between North and South, but between the dynamic segments and territories of societies everywhere, and those others that risk becoming irrelevant from the perspective of the system's logic” (2). Countries losing out on working-class jobs and lacking strong social safety nets or government investment in jobs, like the U.S., can experience a severe backlash against these developments (Short, 2016). At the same time, the emergent network economy, whose linkages between different populations engender and favor socially progressive values like inclusiveness and multiculturalism, has challenged traditional notions of power and authority in Western nations. The entrance of women into the workforce, and the increasing acceptance and protection of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities has begun overturning a system in which these groups have traditionally been marginalized. This presents a challenge to sectors of society that see these changes as a loss of their own status, fostering greater polarization and a strong sense of resentment (Inglehart and Norris 2016, 7-8).
This is not to say that this is merely cultural resentment without any genuine economic grievances. Nor is it to say that economic and social and cultural troubles are not linked—they are. In fact, the effect of particular ICTs and the globalized economy on certain economic classes in the West has been severe, and may continue as such. In the U.S., manufacturing employment has fallen by almost 40%— about 6 million jobs—since the 1960s; this just represents the net losses—if we look at data specifically from during recessions over this same period, we see that factory jobs fell by 10 million (Thompson, “Robots”). One of the most obvious explanations for this trend is the increasing development and adoption of automation—technology that has been programmed to complete physical and cognitive tasks typically assigned to humans. This poses a threat to workers in certain fields—in particular manufacturing, clerical work, retail, driving, and other routine jobs—because over time automation is cheaper than paying living humans. It has been estimated that 47% of jobs are susceptible to automation, which means that while right now the problem primarily affects lower-skilled workers—and, particularly, men—it will soon affect wide swathes of society (The Atlantic 2015).
According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2011), technology is destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, which might explain stagnating median income since the 1970s. Advanced technologies increase productivity, without actually increasing employment, because humans are not needed to produce the additional wealth. This leads to economic growth and an influx of capital that is not invested back into employees, further exacerbating wealth inequality. Not only is this innovation changing the number of jobs available, but the types of jobs available as well. As computers begin adopting more advanced tasks, replacing traditionally middle-class jobs, the workforce becomes more polarized (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2011). People with the skills to attain higher-paying jobs (typically those requiring education and computer training) and people who are low-skill whose jobs cannot yet be easily automated (such as janitors or home health aides) will continue to find employment. Meanwhile, the middle class is “hollowed out.” Labor market polarization has been linked to a plethora of social ills, from breakdowns in family structure to increased risky behavior among young men, creating another positive feedback loop that perpetuates economic decline (Autor, Dorn, and Hanson, 2017).
For other jobs that are not or cannot yet be automated, ICTs and the globalized economy—along with complementary government policies—allow firms to outsource jobs to workers in other countries, where the cost of labor is lower. For example, American companies have been exporting manufacturing jobs to China for a couple decades—in fact, it has been estimated that this accounts for about a quarter of U.S. manufacturing decline (Brynjolffson and McAfee 2016, 85). This generates more wealth for firms, redistributes wealth from high-income to low-income countries, and helps grow the world economy overall. However, it also increases unemployment in Western countries where jobs are lost and laborers struggle to re-integrate back into the workforce (Short, 2016). Even if these outsourced jobs were, somehow, to be “brought back” to Western countries, they would most likely not be in the form of human employment. To save money, firms would automate as many of these “returning” jobs as possible. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee put it, “off-shoring is often only a way station on the road to automation” (2016).
Of course, society has undergone dramatic changes in labor and economic organization in the past. In 1900, 41% of Americans were employed in agriculture, compared to only 2% in 2000 (Rotman 2013). History has shown again and again that job markets can recover after one industry is wiped out and others pop up. But what happens when a massively disruptive event like the diffusion of advanced ICTs affects not just one industry but many? The best-case scenario is that, over time, job re-training programs help workers adjust their skills to match the requirements of the New Economy. But new models of organization might not play out like that, and even if they do, we still face significant issues regarding middle- and working-class employment.
In addition, immigration from less-developed countries to more-developed countries in the West has increased, as laborers move to areas of greater economic opportunity. Liberalized policies encourage this movement of people, as migrants are typically willing to work for lower wages than natural-born citizens. This helps firms save on labor and grows the economy, but can also entrench economic inequalities between those who can make the jump to high-skill, high-wage jobs and those stuck at the bottom, immigrant and native alike. Whether or not immigration is ever actually as significant, or has quite the consequences, as native populations tend to believe, this remains a flashpoint for potential conflict. This is especially true since immigrants tend to live in major metropolitan areas, which increases their visibility, paired with the aforementioned change in values towards a society that prizes diversity, multiculturalism, and equality (Castells 2009). These changes can become important factors within cultural and economic sub-systems, exerting pressure on the overall political system.
Large-scale economic and social phenomena don’t happen in a vacuum. In times of upheaval there are often far-reaching consequences, as systems struggle to adapt and maintain order. Often during these times there is an opening for political movements and leaders who can harness the passions and frustrations of the populace. These impulses are particularly strong among those who perceive themselves to be losing out on prevailing societal trends, compared to others or compared to their prior situations. In Western countries, this has manifested itself in the concurrent ascendance of both left-wing and right-wing populism. The former, exemplified by Occupy Wall Street and the current popularity of Bernie Sanders, emphasizes economic equality while using decidedly anti-establishment rhetoric. The latter, exemplified by the Tea Party movement, the “alt-right,” and Donald Trump, may have some similar concerns about the working-class and a similar contempt for the establishment, but with an additional essential focus: nationalism and/or ethno-centrism. Both movements broadly conceive of an “us versus them” narrative, with an established “ruling class” (be it “the media,” “big banks,” “the establishment,” “academia,” “the swamp,” or any such “elites”) pitted against “the people” (Greven, 2016).
How one defines “the people” is key. In right-wing populism (RWP), this is usually a narrow definition, limiting the people who deserve to be protected by the government to only those who fit into a pre-determined category. It assumes a culturally homogenous nation of people, often based on ethnicity, race, or religion, who are being oppressed by a ruling class of elites. These elites are said to be favoring an imagined “other” within society—typically racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or national minorities—at the expense of the “real” members of the nation. Thus, the major issue in RWP campaigns tends to be immigration, as immigrants are easily targeted as “others” within the national identity, and scapegoated as economic burdens (whether it’s “taking our jobs” or “taking our benefits.”) (Greven 2016).
The economic changes resulting from the New Economy helped lay the groundwork for these movements. With the accumulation of wealth within Western societies came conversations about how to re-distribute wealth via social benefits and about who, exactly, should be allowed to partake in this redistribution. At the same time, growing economic stratification, also facilitated by New Economy technologies and subsequent policies, led to widespread economic grievances. As wealth redistribution had already focused the populace’s attention on matters of national identity, it then became easier to blame immigrants for such grievances (Thompson, “Robots”). Add to this the cultural ascendance of minorities—a product of an emergent progressive value system that challenges entrenched traditional power structures—and you have segments of the population who see their societal “value” advantage diminishing at the hands of “others.”
The election of Donald Trump may be the starkest example of rising RWP sentiment in the West, but it is certainly not the only one. Earlier this year the British public’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) signaled popular resentment of global, liberal political institutions, which some believe perpetuate the economic changes that RWP movements abhor. The general wave in much of the rest of Europe has also been towards RWP. In France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party will seek the office of the President in elections next year, emboldened by Trump’s win in the U.S. In Austria, the far-right Norbert Hofer and the Freedom Party lost the most recent presidential election, but still received 46% of the vote (Oltermann 2016). In Germany, Frauke Petry and the Alternative for Germany Party will seek to unseat Angela Merkel, who has come to represent global liberalism (now a dirty word) to many Germans, next year. Other examples include Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, and Golden Dawn in Greece. Part of the RWP appeal is its anti-establishment message, but becoming part of “the establishment” may not necessarily harm these movements’ momentum, as the Law and Justice Party in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary—both currently in power—have proven. Regardless of where these movements are headed, the fact of the matter is that throughout the Western world, RWP has found a foothold due to the unique set of economic and social changes in part associated with the rise in ICTs (Greven, 2016).
It is difficult to untangle the many threads that are relevant when thinking about the motivations of people who are taken in by RWP, as they are varied and intersectional, and the movements themselves often include a range of ideologies. This complexity is evident in one of the most visible arguments among Democrats and generally left-leaning people in the time since the American election: the disagreement over whether Donald Trump’s success could best be described by segments of the populace feeling forgotten economically (the “economic anxiety” argument, which includes the social ills accompanying economic deprivation) or by his appeal to their explicit or latent racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, or anti-immigrant views (the “bigotry” argument) (Thompson, “’Economic Anxiety’”, 2016). Of course, this is an inherently false dichotomy—one need not be studied in complexity theory to understand that political views, on both an individual and group level, are incredibly complex. It may be impossible to ever really know peoples’ true motivations for voting for Trump, as pre-election opinion polls even failed to recognize his widespread appeal, and the likelihood of voters admitting they voted because of “bigoted” views (whether they regard them as bigoted or not) is fairly low.
Linking this to ICTs, both the “economic anxiety” and “bigotry” explanations for the rise of RWP recognize that the world is changing in significant ways, and fast. ICTs fueled the emergence of globalization, and hastened a transition from an industrial economy to the New Economy, bringing with it a shift to post-materialist values like multiculturalism. They changed the nature of labor in terms of the kinds of jobs that are available and where they are available, favoring information and services over traditional manufacturing. They enabled the kind of quick, easy communication that initially bolstered global institutions, cross-cultural sharing, and cosmopolitanism. They made known voices that had previously been excluded from public dialogue, empowering those who have been historically ignored—as well as those who want to keep those voices unheard. Regardless of whether you believe the “economic anxiety” argument, the “bigotry” argument, a combination of both, or neither, ICTs have helped create vast structural changes in Western society in a relatively short amount of time, prompting a reactionary movement that has resulted in the rise of RWP. This trend, when placed within the context of the complex global political system, may have serious implications for the current world order.
The philosopher Karl Popper (2002) once said we can only make long-term predictions about systems that are “well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent” (457). Modern society, it turns out, is no such system. The many parts that make up the international system are neither isolated, stationary, nor often recurrent, making the task of projecting big-picture trends into the future rather difficult. The international political system, with its web of alliances, trade agreements, multilateral governance institutions, and other such relationships, most resembles a complex system, and complex systems require specialized analysis. Political scientist Robert Jarvis (1998) said of the complex international system, “we are dealing with a system when a set of units or elements are interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system, and the entirety exhibits properties and behaviours that are different from those other parts” (570). This is particularly true in our modern globalized world, in which an increasing number of actors partake in an increasing number of interactions with other actors, and the nature of these interactions is constantly changing (Cindea 2006).
From a complex systems perspective, human history is “part of the life of the world organism,” as Halford Mackinder (2004), the godfather of geopolitics, noted. The realm of politics does not lie separate from and above all other aspects of human life—but is, rather, intertwined with the many conditions that shape our world (Kavalski 2015). This means that changes in economic or social conditions, even relatively minor ones, can have an impact that reverberates throughout the entire system. International politics is a complicated web of actors (including states, companies, NGOs, and others), motivations, sub-systems, and exchanges, exhibiting unique characteristics at the macro-level that are not visible at any specific point in the system. As mentioned earlier, this manifests in complex behavior such as the emergence of economic systems, the non-linearity of symbolic events (for example, the sparks that ignited the Arab Spring protests), the co-evolution of political powers (such as in the Cold War, or current tensions between India and Pakistan), and feedback loops in arms races.
The ways that ICTs have diffused throughout society fits within the framework of a complex international system. The rise of RWP, among other large-scale political movements and trends within the global system, is one manifestation of the effects of a confluence of factors within such a system—notably, and in this example, the spread of ICTs and their accompanying forms of organization. Understanding how these technologies have already affected the global order from a complex systems perspective gives key insights into their possible implications in the future. Thus, more critical and scholarly attention should be given to applying the principles of complex systems theory to understanding how the spread of ICTs interacts with the ascendance of RWP movements in the West, and, specifically, how RWP movements will exert influence on other actors and processes in the complex global system.
Keeping in mind that more rigorous analysis is necessary for understanding these potential effects, I would like to offer some initial speculative thoughts, based on a conception of the international sphere as a complex system. Perhaps most obviously, RWP movements generally look unfavorably upon free trade agreements and international institutions, preferring unilateralist, protectionist frameworks. Global institutions like NATO and the UN arose from an understanding of complex systems, the goal being to manage the chaos and volatility of an anarchic world by fusing together the interests—whether economic or strategic—of various state actors in a complicated tapestry of interdependence. These agreements rely on a delicate internal balance of power, so that the possibility of an actor reneging on their promises vis-à-vis the group’s purpose increases the likelihood of other actors reneging, and so on at an exponential rate (Newman 2007). The growing popularity of RWP movements threatens the existence of these global institutions, which can act as de facto protections against any number of aggressive inter-state actions. It is possible RWP movements will hasten a rapid breakdown of such institutions, leading to global political instability and, perhaps, a proliferation of conflict.
On the other hand, another aspect of complex systems is that they contain emergent properties, and what may be interpreted as the dissolution of the world order, in the form of crumbling multilateral global agreements and institutions, may actually signal the emergence of a new set of relationships. The tides of globalization that are already underway will continue despite protectionist sentiments within some countries, and instead of an “exodus” from the system we may actually see a re-aligning of interests and allegiances. Already, some elements of Western RWP movements have expressed support for Putin’s regime in Russia, breaking with tradition in mainstream conservative factions, like the Republican Party, in the U.S. This could draw the U.S. into closer relationships with Russia’s partners like Iran and the Assad regime in Syria, signaling a shift away from alliances with the Gulf States. This coincides with a RWP preference for domestic as opposed to foreign energy sources, making the U.S. less reliant on the Gulf States for oil, and potentially weakening their alliances. Assuming the Iran nuclear deal holds up—and it may not, given RWP pushback—there is a chance the U.S. may be closer to Iran than Saudi Arabia in a number of years (DiChristopher, 2014). In terms of trade, the hostility towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—among RWP as well as left-wing populists—has pushed the U.S. out of the agreement. The lack of a U.S. presence opens a political power vacuum regarding economic and environmental regulations that China is eager to fill, allowing them to set the agenda potentially at the expense of the U.S. and its allies (Rosenfeld, 2016). In the chaos that ensues from rapid global change, a new set of alliances and institutions may emerge.
On a more fundamental level, the complex international system may have one of two reactions when exposed to the shock that is the rise of RWP movements: a negative or positive feedback loop. In a negative feedback loop, the rise of RWP movements would trigger opposing reactions once their level of “power” or influence reaches a certain point, challenging their ascendance and re-stabilizing the system. In this conception, RWP grew in popularity, due to a confluence of factors, and the threat posed by RWP to other powerful interests in the system will force changes back in the opposite direction (Ormand 2016). Possible evidence for this trajectory comes from the fact that far-right Norbert Hofer lost the re-vote for Austrian President by a considerably wider margin than he did the original vote. One potential explanation for this is the election of Donald Trump between the two votes mobilized voters against Hofer (Oltermann 2016).
Conversely, in a positive feedback loop, the success of RWP movements could portend the success of other similar groups. In this conception, a contingent of powerful Western democracies “leaving” the liberal international order and erecting protectionist policies might incentivize other countries to do the same (Ormand 2016). Potential evidence for this trajectory is the shocking success of Trump in the American election, which some believe may have gotten a boost from the success of Brexit earlier in the year. There is also evidence that Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National has seen increasing popularity, perhaps emboldened by the growing success of RWP movements in other parts of the West (Kanter 2016).
What happens in either of these cases? Again, the incredible complexity of the international system makes it difficult to predict. As political scientist James N. Rosenau (2006) said, “And so he [the student of world politics] embarks on a search for certainty, only to find that it lies in such phrases as ‘apparently,’ ‘presumably,’ and ‘it would seem as if’” (52). Applying complex systems analysis to the study of international relations may provide a wealth of new, nuanced insights, but it also brings a shade of uncertainty. Its application in the field is also relatively recent, and thus lacks the depth of scholarly attention it should receive in the future. As knowledge about complex systems grow, so too will the insights it provides into the study of human interactions as they play out in the field of international relations.
One thing is certain: the rise of RWP movements in the West will have far-reaching consequences around the global system. This could take different forms. One example is the ensuing rise of a counter-movement against RWP that brings competing visions of the future into conflict with one another. Other forms include a global exodus from the international system as nations “tighten” their boundaries at an exponential rate or the emergence of new alliances and international institutions as old actors leave and new ones enter. In this last case, there could be an “alignment” (of sorts, in a paradoxical way) between anti-globalist RWP-ruled nations on one hand, and between emerging economies like China and their industrializing trade partners in Africa on the other hand. This would mirror the original Western transition to the New Economy, with countries like China and India shifting their production to other, less-developed countries as their economies grew. Perhaps there would even eventually be a similar demographic crisis and subsequent turn towards RWP. Only time will tell, as the many threads underlying the global system play out.
To summarize, RWP came to prominence in Western society within the framework of a complex international system. The rapid growth of ICTs allowed for a level of innovation and disruption that is unprecedented in history. They gave rise to globalized economic and political systems, changing the nature of labor in terms of how we work and where jobs are, and in turn fundamentally altered existing social relations. Subsequently, a backlash against globalization developed within Western countries, taking the form of ascendant RWP movements that synthesized economic and cultural anxieties, particularly among traditionally-advantaged groups who saw these changes as threatening their relative status. It is also within the framework of a complex international system that the rise of RWP will exert influence on other actors and relationships within the system. Finally, it is important that more scholarly attention be devoted to analyzing and understanding the system-wide effects RWP may exert on the international sphere in the future from a complex systems perspective.
Jameson Spivack is a first year student in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology Master’s program. He previously worked in marketing for an international development nonprofit, and holds a B.A. in Government & Politics from University of Maryland with a minor in International Development & Conflict Management.
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