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Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal – author of the book “Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization” ...
2021-04-14 09:00:00

A Time of Revolt
An Interview with Nadav Eyal

Nadav Eyal. Source: Channel10israel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A Time of Revolt
A Time of Revolt

Voices of anger and resistance are heard all around the world. What do desperate American miners, bankrupt Greeks and Islamic terrorists have in common? Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal – author of the book Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization – thinks that they are all participants in an ongoing revolt, and listens to them with hope.

Read in 21 minutes

Paulina Wilk: I feel like I’m one of the people you write about in your book. The world is falling apart and I’ve no idea what to hold on to. When did this crisis of confidence start?

Nadav Eyal: It’s impossible to point out precisely. That’s not a comforting answer, I know. But if I were to choose a single event, I’d point to September 11, 2001. It was a moment of reckoning: in just one moment, we all understood that Francis Fukuyama’s narrative about the end of history, about the victory of liberalism and democracy, was only a fantasy. We saw that some forces in this world are determined to disrupt the liberal global order. For the West, that event was like a black cloud obscuring the sky. Beliefs that the whole world will embrace modernity and secularism, that it’s all going to be dandy, fell down just like the two towers.

Does this mean that ideas die when we stop believing in them?

There were always people advocating for resisting global liberalization. Take, for example, Jean Baudrillard or Abdullah Yusuf Azzam [a Palestinian theologian, co-creator of the theory of global jihad; he also had a hand in the creation of al-Qaeda – ed. note]. However, the middle classes in various parts of the world were infatuated by a vision of prosperity, by all these slogans coming from Washington. Only when wages stopped rising did people suddenly understand that the promise of progress and happiness wasn’t going to be fulfilled. After 9/11, the Americans lost their long-standing feeling of security. The US participated in two world wars and many other conflicts, but up until 2001 no American child was, say, scared to go out to a shop and buy herself a Popsicle, even if her father was at the very same time fighting in France or in Vietnam. In Poland or Israel, it was a different story – here, children knew what it meant to fear for one’s life. 9/11 brought fear to America, and fear drives politics.

You write that with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers came the end of the ‘age of responsibility’ – the end of an era shaped by the generation of leaders who lived through World War II and wanted to build a secure, stable world. This ‘new order’, begat by fear, but also by hope for a better tomorrow, is now coming apart and will not survive. But was it at all rational?

I don’t know if it was rational, but there was an attempt to introduce rationality into the public sphere. Unlike many historians, I don’t see many differences between the leaders of the Western and Eastern Blocs. Both sides had seen the war; they had seen the world being destroyed. And both sides believed that they were the ones who were right. They accepted rationality and dialogue as a basis for their politics, they saw themselves as champions of progress, as the descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, for many years we thought that it’s all about determining whether the West or East is right. Then the Eastern Bloc collapsed and it seemed that the issue was settled.

So what was it really about?

There are two mutually exclusive approaches: open and closed. The first one is all about connecting, the second is about separation. The discussion was and is about that. Do we want to create a global community, to bridge ethnic and religious differences through forging a union? Is human flourishing possible only through global cooperation, or is it always a very narrow, local and traditional thing? That has been the real issue all across history, ever since the first empires and the first acts of resistance towards imperial powers. My people, the Jews, tried resisting the Roman Empire a couple of times, and they were crushed by it, forced into exile. They had wanted to keep their identity separate, to have their own land and to enjoy self-rule, so they hadn’t been willing to surrender to the Empire. But most Romans would say: render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. There was this perception that you can be yourself, you can worship your gods and follow your values, but at the same time, you can also be a part of something bigger. Is this really possible? And if so, how are we to do that today? What power structures are needed? I feel this is the question we’ll be grappling with for the next hundred years.

Do we even have that much time? The climate crisis won’t wait for the answer.

You’re right, it is precisely because of the climate crisis that this question is so urgent. It is clear that we don’t have the proper tools and institutions that would be able to tackle such big global issues.

The World Health Organization should have the authority to question the Chinese, investigate what happened, and deal with the repercussions. Now we are struggling with the pandemic, last time it was the Syrian civil war, which resulted in the global refugee crisis. And before that, in 2008, it was the financial crash, which started in the US and then spread across the world. Why? Because neither the International Monetary Fund nor the World Bank were able to say: “Hey, guys, why are you selling those toxic assets? Don’t you understand that it’s going to spread like a virus in our financial system?” Nobody has the authority to do that. Therefore the global crisis happened and many people lost their lives, for example, due to scarcity of food.

How can we build robust institutions, since all that we have created so far – all of those large organizations and international treaties – seems faulty?

We need a new narrative about the world we all share. Nobody believes in the global village anymore, we can’t all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”. Also, nobody will buy into the other narrative, the cruel one that is all about the economy, about supply and demand. We need a new, realistic approach; we need to take into account that liberalism shouldn’t be all about listening meekly to every voice, but also about saying ‘no’.

When the British came to India, they encountered the tradition of sati, of burning a widow together with her dead husband. They banned it because they thought it was a cruel practice. Liberals mustn’t be shy. At the same time, they can’t only be forceful. They should also be able to describe to people that the world will not get better if you don’t safeguard certain values. For years, people in developing countries were told: if you want to get rich, if you want your children to have nice stuff, then you need democracy. That relationship worked once upon a time for the US, but is it necessarily true for everyone else? Take Singapore: it’s not a democracy, it’s not a total dictatorship, but it’s a very successful and rich country. Nowadays people know that prosperity is possible without freedom and they can choose to have one, but not the other. So here’s our challenge: we have to convince them to strive for both, and we have to do it in a smart way, through conversation and explanation, not through violence.

In your book, you point to our generation – the thirty-somethings and forty-somethings – as the one that is responsible for the future of the world. But do we, children of globalization, have any common set of values? Do we have anything to give to the world?

Every generation is important for some reason or other. We are important because we carry the memories of the analogue era. We were born in an age when people used landline telephones with rotary dials, we remember the world before the internet. Therefore we can bridge the gap between the previous generations and the next ones. We can explain the brave new world – the Huxley world, as one might call it – to our parents, who find it challenging and difficult.

Because we have first-hand experience of globalization, we can come between the Greta Thunberg generation and the Davos generation and help them get along?

Yes, and I hope we will. When Greta Thunberg is speaking in places such as Davos, for her it’s a serious thing. But the people she is talking to don’t understand her, so they just give the impression of doing things without doing anything. I worry about two interrelated dangers: about biodiversity loss and climate change. There are examples of civilizations crumbling because of overuse of resources. We’ve seen it in the past. So we really need to get our act together. Otherwise, there will be a clash between a young generation that says, “This is serious, why aren’t you doing anything about it?” and an older generation that says, “What are you talking about? Those are imaginary problems.” We need to bridge that gap.

How?

Through political power. I’m not interested in being just or being correct. I want to achieve power in order to be able to change stuff. As Barack Obama’s presidency exemplified, you compromise and compromise and compromise until you win. I call myself a radical mainstreamer. This is a way of solving even the most difficult problems, and it has nothing to do with forcefulness, with feeling right or superior, with charging at your opponent. What matters is doing the right thing in the right way in order to get power, because if you get power, you can slowly bring the change.

Do you think our generation has learned something from the experience of globalization? Can we build upon this experience?

I have a friend in China: Michael. We’re the same age; he grew up in a very small flat divided among a couple of families. There wasn’t a table, he showered in a public bath every two weeks. But during his lifetime there was this rapid growth in China, as well as technological development. We both discovered BBS at the same time. It was a sort of proto-internet, a simple network for sharing data and playing games online.

Me and my friends from India were falling in love with MTV and jeans at exactly the same time.

There you are. We have things in common we can talk about, things we can all relate to. We laugh at the same jokes. Because of that, a global consciousness arises, similar ways of thinking emerge. Before COVID, I was participating in many international conferences. Nobody goes into an event like that and says: “Oh, we Germans or we Pakistani, we do this or that.” Nobody defines themselves through their national identity or cultural distinctiveness. We don’t treat our national traits as something that should dictate our behaviour.

In this way, globalization has brought radical change. That’s a threat for old institutions such as nation states, because they don’t grasp that people’s consciousness is becoming more global. Theresa May once said: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” She clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on today. I’m a straight Jewish man descended from Russian Jews, Polish Jews and Arab Jews. My identity is complex. All identities are. And actually, many people who see themselves as citizens of the world are at the same time deeply patriotic. According to research, more people than ever before define themselves first and foremost as global citizens.

What else has changed?

Less and less people need religion, especially of the institutionalized kind. Over 30% of Americans say they ‘don’t have any religion’. That’s amazing, because the American president goes to church every Sunday and each banknote states: ‘In God we trust’.

So then you suddenly understand why Christian fundamentalists are so panicked. They fear they will become like those lost tribes in the Amazon. That’s why their project is so aggressive – they want to force their religion upon everyone and to marginalize those who don’t obey.

But don’t you think that globalization can be a threat to our individual identities and rights? Sometimes it seems like the whole world is encroaching on me, forcing certain ideas upon me, shaking my identity.

Of course. That’s why my book is about a revolt and rebels with whom I deeply empathize. I understand why they feel threatened. I understand why those coal miners in the rural US voted for Trump in 2016. They thought that they were choosing between two liars: him and Hillary Clinton. In my opinion, they were wrong, but I get why they were thinking that. And I can understand a Hindu father when his daughter comes back from a cinema one day saying: “I’m in love with a Muslim guy and I’m gonna marry him.” I have a real respect for people who don’t like ideas imported from the West, people who don’t buy into the Hollywood mantra that love is the most important thing in the world. When you’re faced with ideas that are against your values and principles, you feel threatened. That’s why many people rebel. We need to take this revolt seriously so that it doesn’t turn into a full-scale assault on progress.

You claim that despite their overwhelming plenitude, all forms of rebellion – be it embracing populism, nationalism, radical ideas, attitudes and behaviours, or rejecting facts – are essentially the same. An Islamic fundamentalist, a German neo-Nazi, a Syrian refugee, or a Greek protesting against the financial crash all fit into the same category. Still, it’s hard to believe that those people have anything in common.

They’re all participants in a process that I label a revolt. Each one of them feels that power structures do not serve them, because they are hollow, corrupt or unrepresentative. So people seek a replacement. The revolt is more about destroying current power structures than about building new ones. Researchers talking to millennials often hear: “Democracy is not that important.” This does not mean that millennials want a dictatorship. They don’t want anything – they’re just saying that democracy is not essential. The revolt is not coherent; it’s leaderless. It’s a revolt of our age.

By lumping all those attitudes together, you’ll enrage many people.

I’m not saying that everything is morally on the same level. However, the process is always the same. People are revolting against different aspects of globalization, my definition of which includes not only economic issues, but also culture and the liberal order. They want to replace it with something else, something that they cannot describe. That’s fine because we’re at the early stage of a new era. Previous generations remembered what it was like living during World War II, they experienced the fear of nuclear weapons, and because of that, they were really careful. Those generations are now dying out. Their physical memories cannot be retained. It’s not something you can turn into a PowerPoint presentation. Therefore, people are asking essential questions about their lives, their communities. Add to this the huge technological progress, which makes old power structures completely irrelevant. Everything’s opening up again. It’s not going to be a rerun of anything else. Don’t look for a new Hitler. It can get much better or much worse – it’s up to us.

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Let’s go back to the very idea of revolt. Why did you chose this term? Why not revolution or protest?

As a reporter, I’ve covered all kinds of stuff. The Mumbai terrorist attacks, Marine Le Pen and the rise of the extreme right in France… I kept asking myself: what’s going on here? It’s not a revolution, because with a revolution you have certain organizing ideas and you want to turn society upside down. Also, it’s not a coup, and it’s definitely not a protest. Take Brexit, for example. It was not a grievance, but a revolt against two parties that were basically saying: you need to vote to stay in the EU. People revolted against that.

Does that mean the revolt is essentially negative? A loud ‘no’, without any plan?

In Hebrew, the word ‘revolt’ is not necessarily negative. I wanted something that’s merely descriptive, because I’m not interested in making judgements. I was hugely influenced by Ryszard Kapuściński. I’ve read almost everything he wrote, and I thought that the best way of making sense of revolt is to tell the stories of people that I’ve encountered along the way, to put together a mosaic out of their experiences. Incidentally, this approach – weaving together stories from disparate places and having a narrative emerge – is less natural for people outside Europe. My American critics don’t always see how all those voices are turning into a new picture of our world.

In Poland, ‘revolt’ is a very romanticized term. If you revolt, you have courage, you fight for some greater good. However, in your book revolt is often quite ugly. It can mean creating fake news, cynical racism, political extremism.

Historically speaking, revolts were never pretty. If they were successful, the victors would leave us some romanticized narratives. Reality is different. Some people in the US are saying: ‘Defund the police’. They consider it racist, corrupt, untrustworthy. Do they have an alternative plan? Do they know how to replace the police? Some do, but their plans are probably unsustainable, or nobody is going to vote for them. I know of many environmentalists who have a plan, and that plan is: stop using fossil fuels. It’s a plan, all right, but not a viable one, so people won’t be convinced.

So, that’s bad, right?

Not necessarily. I think that there is something very healthy about people trying to change their societies, even if their attempts lack coherence. It’s better than if all those frustrations were to be suppressed until violence erupts. My book sort of calls upon us all to make use of those sentiments. Revolt is an opportunity for change. Politicians try to convince us that they can control the spread of the pandemic, that they can control the financial markets. But we all know it’s not true. They have no power over, let’s say, the South African variant of the virus. They can’t have their own interest rates, because it’s really dependent on the Fed in the US. Power structures give us only the illusion of control. That’s what people are revolting against. They want real solutions. We have a chance to harness that sentiment in order to make some course correction. To do that, we need to defend progress. That’s what I’m worried about. It’s under fire from all sides. Politicians try to use the revolt to get elected, and because of that, our discussions are not based on fact anymore, only on sentiment, which is dreadful. If we don’t take leadership on this issue, progress is going to be even more viciously attacked by the anti-vaxxers, by charlatans, truth deniers, nationalists, populists, racists… Who knows, maybe Stalinists will rise again somewhere. I could list a lot of zombies who are attacking progress. That’s what happened in Washington with the storming of the Capitol early this year.

You said there won’t be any reruns, but aren’t we in danger of, symbolically, going back to the Middle Ages?

On the face of it, progress appears to be very powerful, but it’s actually really fragile, and always dependent on the resolve of leaders to fight for it, to defend it. At its foundation lie rational discussions between leaders and their communities. The world will not necessarily always move forwards. True, our world is better than the world of our grandfathers and great grandfathers; that’s just a historical fact. We owe that to the hard work and efforts of previous generations. However, we can walk back into darkness.

Societies, unfortunately, have done that before. You can argue that’s what happened in Europe in the Middle Ages. Remember also, that most people in the history of the world lived under the impression that time is circular, and that if you want to have a good life, you ought to do as your ancestors did before you. A blacksmith’s son would become a blacksmith. Then came the captivating idea that your children’s lives should be better than yours. It has a sword that wins all the battles. That sword is success.

I thought that ‘success’ is an empty word.

People want progress not because of noble Enlightenment values, but because it works. It succeeds. I’m taking the COVID vaccine because it will protect me. If hanging garlic over my head worked, I’d go with garlic. But it’s modern medicine that gets the job done. Science can prove its worth. Therefore success is the fuel of progress. That’s why I think in the end progress will triumph.

Why are people who revolt trying to shoot themselves in the foot? Is it because of some self-destructive tendencies?

It’s because neither the Enlightenment nor progress are intuitive. The idea of growth, of progress, comes from the upper echelons of society and then trickles down. It has never been a grassroots thing. That’s the historical truth.

Do you think the global revolt is open to everyone? Can people from favelas in Brazil take part in it? Or the victims of armed conflicts in Sudan?

Today, the revolt comes from the middle classes. I focus on them in my work, because history teaches us that it’s usually the middle class that determines the fate of revolutions. To revolt against globalization is a privilege of those who have the means to afford it. The very poor are busy trying to survive the day.

Is resistance always conscious? Let’s imagine a person who doesn’t trust his government, who boycotts the meat industry and likes to read fake news instead of proper media, but at the same time doesn’t identify with the revolt. Maybe revolt is merely something that happens to us?

Only a handful of people make conscious decision about revolting. Usually, there’s some trigger, some feeling. To revolt is to react. I’ll give you a personal example. In 2011, we saw the biggest ever protests in Israel. One night we had something like 10% of the population in the streets. Those protests were about the social and economic situation. In a relatively wealthy country, people were revolting, because they couldn’t afford rent despite having jobs and salaries. A few months earlier, I’d published a series of articles about how our political elites are ‘locked in’. It’s always the same people who have power. I was asking questions about the price of milk, about the connections between politicians and corporations. Those articles, consciously or not, played a small part in the protests. I think many of us – again, consciously or not – see that things around us are broken.

The crisis of trust in power is accompanied by a sense of overwhelming hopelessness. We feel unable to bring about any changes. What can I do when faced with powerful, transnational institutions, and with pervasive cynicism? Maybe anger and revolt are the only reactions possible?

Imagine a person being handcuffed. A couple of big guys are restraining him, they got him on the ground. What can he do? He struggles, he tries to fight back, he feels all this is unjust. But he doesn’t know what to do, how to escape. All he wants is to be free. That’s the sentiment of revolt. The more aware we are of the injustice of today’s world, the more we care about it, the less agency we feel we have.

You say we are where we are because of globalization. In your view, it is full of paradoxes and contradictions, all-encompassing, complicated, neither good or bad. So what is it exactly?

Our current globalization is a political project that came into being in Washington during the Cold War. The basic idea was that global cooperation – mainly economic, but also cultural – would lead to the amplification of Western values and would make America more prosperous and more influential. Thus, it would help defeat the Eastern Bloc. However, now globalization is out of control. All the processes have become complicated and tangled. It’s like a space rocket that has millions of parts built by the lowest bidders. Therefore the events and decisions seem irritatingly arbitrary. Nothing is simple anymore, even our internal worlds. We have so many varied experiences, associations, information.

Can this process of everything getting more complicated be stopped? Maybe the pandemic can be a sort of a break.

Partly. Some things have stopped. Take tourism, for example. It’s very important for the process we are talking about, not because of the economy and GDP, but because it’s one of the greatest pleasures of the globalized world. You can go to other places, see new things, be a foreigner. Still, despite the pandemic, the markets still work and demand still drives the circulation of goods.

Is deglobalization possible? Can we turn the tide?

Economists call it ‘slowbalization’. And it’s happening in the world today. Yes, of course globalization can stop. You can, for example, measure it by analysing how much of the gross world product comes from international trade. Even a complete abandonment of globalization is possible. During the belle époque, the world was pretty open, but then came the devastating war.

When I think about the borders closed due to the pandemic, or about grounded aeroplanes, I can’t help feeling that governments are happy to have a pretext for introducing restrictions.

I have a similar reaction. Back in February 2020, I read an article in Wired that very accurately predicted the changes we are now witnessing: lockdown after lockdown. The table was set before it all began. At the time, it made me furious – I couldn’t accept how serious the situation was; nor, seemingly, could our politicians and most of the media. Interestingly, the global East dealt with the virus most efficiently. Look at Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, even China. Despite being an authoritarian country, China has managed the spread of the virus quite well and now its economy is growing. This is telling us something important about the West, about its deficiencies and its broken, irrational decision-making processes.

Since we’re talking about the quality of leadership, why is the 21st century so bad for imagination? After all, you can’t build a better world without imagining one. Where have all the dreamers and the visionaries gone?

It’s a terrific question. Maybe for too long we were convinced that everything was great? Waxing lyrically about the golden age, making people nostalgic about the past is a speciality of those who want the keep existing power structures in place. We know that politics as we know it must go, but we find it difficult to imagine a world without it. It’s like a blender made in, say, 1942. It doesn’t work anymore, but at the same time, you can’t use new recipes until you throw it away. That’s why I really like listening to the voices of the revolt. We need radical, bizarre, wild ideas and demands.

Do you think that those new ideas will come mainly from young people? Many leaders task the younger generations with changing the world.

No, no, no. Bright ideas rarely come from really young people. That’s the truth. Especially if we’re talking about ideas that are feasible. Praising youth just to show the world how great you are leads nowhere. I love working with millennials, because sometimes it’s good not to understand stuff. It’s a challenge. But basically, it does not matter where a good idea is coming from. If it’s good, it will work. It can come from anywhere, from some niche place, from a social media post. Today, you don’t ask whether the person who came up with it has proper credentials or not. A good story will get by on its own.

You’re counting on forty-somethings to fix the world, but can we really do that?

Truth be told, we don’t have much choice. We’re in the middle of a global crisis and we’re in deep trouble. The die has been cast. We lived through the age of responsibility, we were lucky to watch our grandparents being so meticulous about life, so careful, and we got a good starting point. Now everything’s fluctuating around us. Everything shifts. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re entering a long era of stability again. Donald Trump was just the beginning, a clown who opened up the door for big changes.

You say that the generations who experienced two world wars were very careful about life. Will we be able to appreciate the experience of the pandemic? To recapture a respect for life’s fragility, for the reality of death?

The pandemic is global, but the consequences are local. It’s about your children, your town’s mayor, your shops and schools. All those things are on the line. We’re no computer avatars and the world is not a video game. So I think the answer is: yes, the virus will change many things. We are learning to appreciate the life that we have, to cherish simple things. When historians write about all this, they’ll say that scientists rose to the challenge and they gave humanity the vaccine in record time. Scientific progress is unquestionably a big part of this story. But the historians will also say that we were let down by our leaders, everywhere, perhaps apart from New Zealand. When the worst is over, we’ll count our dead and then the reckoning will start. After a pandemic comes rage. That’s the story of the Reformation and of Europe after the Black Death in the 14th century. It can end up with a coup, with storming the prince’s castle, with hanging him on a tree branch. Or the anger may bring about change. We must therefore channel it, make sure to avoid the darker angels of our past.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Nadav Eyal. Source: Channel10israel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Nadav Eyal. Source: Channel10israel (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Introduction translated from the Polish by Jan Dziergowski

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.