You can blame Jeremy Corbyn for Boris Johnson, and Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump. You can blame the Indian challengers for Narendra Modi, the Brazilian opposition for Jair Bolsonaro, and left and centre parties in Australia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Turkey for similar electoral disasters. Or you could recognise that what we are witnessing is a global phenomenon.
Yes, there were individual failings in all these cases, though the failings were very different: polar opposites in the cases of Corbyn and Clinton. But when the same thing happens in many nations, it’s time to recognise the pattern, and see that heaping blame on particular people and parties fixes nothing.
In these nations, people you wouldn’t trust to post a letter for you have been elected to the highest office. There, as widely predicted, they behave like a gang of vandals given the keys to an art gallery, “improving” the great works in their care with spray cans, box cutters and lump hammers. In the midst of global emergencies, they rip down environmental protections and climate agreements, and trash the regulations that constrain capital and defend the poor. They wage war on the institutions that are supposed to restrain their powers while, in some cases, committing extravagant and deliberate outrages against the rule of law. They use impunity as a political weapon, revelling in their ability to survive daily scandals, any one of which would destroy a normal politician.
Something has changed: not just in the UK and the US, but in many parts of the world. A new politics, funded by oligarchs, built on sophisticated cheating and provocative lies, using dark ads and conspiracy theories on social media, has perfected the art of persuading the poor to vote for the interests of the very rich. We must understand what we are facing, and the new strategies required to resist it.
If there is a formula for the new demagoguery, there must also be a formula for confronting and overturning it. I don’t yet have a complete answer, but I believe there are some strands we can draw together.
Don’t expect Johnson’s government, or Trump’s, to inoculate people against their own lies. But this need not be a government initiative. This week, the US Democrats published a guide to confronting online disinformation. They will seek to hold Google, Facebook and Twitter to account. I would like to see progressive parties everywhere form a global coalition promoting digital literacy, and pressuring social media platforms to stop promoting falsehoods.
But this is the less important task. The much bigger change is this: to stop seeking to control people from the centre. At the moment, the political model for almost all parties is to drive change from the top down. They write a manifesto, that they hope to turn into government policy, which may then be subject to a narrow and feeble consultation, which then leads to legislation, which then leads to change. I believe the best antidote to demagoguery is the opposite process: radical trust. To the greatest extent possible, parties and governments should trust communities to identify their own needs and make their own decisions.
When you try to control nature from the top down, you find yourself in a constant battle with it. Conservation groups in this country often seek to treat complex living systems as if they were simple ones. Through intensive management – cutting, grazing and burning – they strive to beat nature into submission until it meets their idea of how it should behave. But ecologies, like all complex systems, are highly dynamic and adaptive, evolving (when allowed) in emergent and unpredictable ways.
Eventually, and inevitably, these attempts at control fail. Nature reserves managed this way tend to lose abundance and diversity, and require ever more extreme intervention to meet the irrational demands of their stewards. They also become vulnerable. In all systems, complexity tends to be resilient, while simplicity tends to be fragile. Keeping nature in a state of arrested development in which most of its natural processes and its keystone species (the animals that drive these processes) are missing makes it highly susceptible to climate breakdown and invasive species. But rewilding – allowing dynamic, spontaneous organisation to reassert itself – can result in a sudden flourishing, often in completely unexpected ways, with a great improvement in resilience.
The same applies to politics. Mainstream politics, controlled by party machines, has sought to reduce the phenomenal complexity of human society into a simple, linear model that can be controlled from the centre. The political and economic systems it creates are simultaneously highly unstable and lacking in dynamism; susceptible to collapse, as many northern towns can testify, while unable to regenerate themselves. They become vulnerable to the toxic, invasive forces of ethno-nationalism and supremacism.
But in some parts of the world, towns and cities have begun to rewild politics. Councils have catalysed mass participation, then – to the greatest extent possible – stepped back and allowed it to evolve. Classic examples include participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Decide Madrid system in Spain, and the Better Reykjavik programme in Iceland. Local people have reoccupied the political space that had been captured by party machines and top-down government. They have worked out together what their communities need and how to make it happen, refusing to let politicians frame the questions or determine the answers. The results have been extraordinary: a massive re-engagement in politics, particularly among marginalised groups, and dramatic improvements in local life. Participatory politics does not require the blessing of central government, just a confident and far-sighted local authority.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist