The world’s most powerful nation states are flirting with catastrophic conflict. Whether it is in Europe, Asia or the Middle East, for the first time since the 1960s we are facing a real possibility of nuclear confrontation. With nation states distracted, the threat of irreversible climate change also looms large.

Global anxiety is feeding the growth of nationalist movements, emboldened by the drum beat of populism. Anti-immigrant and anti-establishment parties are capitalizing on public disquiet, gaining footholds in political systems across the planet. But as alarming as all this sounds, there are opportunities to head off potential disaster.

One of the most powerful antidotes to populism is right in front of us. Many of the world’s cities are busily re-imagining politics, economics and environmental action from the bottom-up. Some of them are constructing a positive, inclusive and plural vision of the future, even as nationalist leaders peddle fear, close borders and build walls.

We have seen the merger of ultra-nationalism and right wing populism before. It did not end well. The world is again entering a period that is easily recognizable as pre-authoritarian and fascistic. And the stakes could hardly be higher. The future of liberal democracy hangs in the balance as it did in the 1930s. Nationalistic populism surges during times of economic volatility. This latest wave is a by-product of the appalling excesses of financial capitalism, culminating in the housing disaster of 2008 and its aftershocks that continue to this day. The political backlash is now being felt. While globalization has brought benefits to some, the accelerated exchange of people, goods and ideas has also eviscerated jobs and contributed to extreme inequality. Those left behind have seen their wages stagnate and deeply resent the elites who they hold responsible.

Populism is not only fuelled by economic anxieties, but also cultural tensions. By its very design, globalization threatens essentialist identities. The 24-hour news cycle aggravates these fears. Urban and rural populations are increasingly world’s apart when it comes to values and priorities. Social media is dramatically amplifying the polarization between various groups. What distinguishes the present moment from the past is scale. Economic, social and technological processes are speeding up and shattering the boundaries of what individuals can absorb and understand. The temptation to retreat to simplistic solutions offered by charismatic strong men is understandable.

Misha Glenny

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