Argentina provided the most startling but not entirely unexpected political news of the week when right-wing, frequently unhinged firebrand Javier Milei won a decisive victory in the presidential election. One commentator cited by The Guardian summed up the logic of the result. “This vote just reeks of desperation. A lot of Argentines voted knowingly against their economic interests because they recognise that the status quo is catastrophic.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
According to the belief system that sustained a world order that defined international politics for centuries prior to 2023, the unique motivating factor driving democratic elections and democratic decision-making.
To achieve even a modicum of stability, every civilization at every moment of its history must find a way of imposing a system of fundamental beliefs about social and economic relationships that are so widely shared they are beyond debate. No member of the civilization can dare to question them in public, not because they will be punished for doing so but because they simply will not be understood. Religions have traditionally played the role, offering instruction and guidance on a wide range of behaviors. But so have educational institutions alongside oral traditions, embodied in legends, literature and, perhaps most powerfully, proverbs.
The advent of modern democracy, which populations in the West now assume to be a universal norm, changed the way the persistence of value systems could be perceived. The law, established through the agency of elected representatives, superseded tradition and religious teaching, without abolishing either. Proverbial wisdom disappeared from daily language. The nation-state, as the dominant source of authority, encouraged theoretically shared values, such as “liberté, égalité, fraternité” in France or “liberty and justice for all” in the US. Separation of church and state became accepted as a norm, which meant that a variety of value systems regulating other than civic forms of behavior could coexist without interfering with a sense of the community’s unity.
Given the multiplicity of loyalties that different groups of people may intimately feel, the stability of such systems is never ensured. For most of the past century, national identity — the belief that the political system equitably embraced the interests of the population and recognized the pre-eminence of a majority that made a serious effort to tolerate minorities — proved to be a largely sufficient factor of cohesion. Tensions could arise on the part of impatient minorities, aware of their diminished rights or unequal treatment, but the idea that the nation’s institutions could find ways of reducing those tensions through democratic debate permitted national communities to avoid fragmentation and generalized civil unrest.
This relatively stable situation within nations has been compromised in recent decades by a major shift in the way nations interact. The trend towards globalization over the past half-century has meant that the quest for a single common denominator acceptable to all nations and all cultures had to be found. In a world marked by the diversity of cultures, this was not an easy task. But for a short while the global community seemed to have found a solution.
The solution was born from the two powerful historical forces that set the tone for world affairs in the second half of the 20th century. The first was the domination of the US dollar as the global reserve currency; the second was the frenetic development of increasingly sophisticated communication technology. The dollar’s domination came into being as the direct result of the chaos the industrial world outside the US found itself in at the end of World War II. The dollar’s dominant role served to fund the militarization of the US economy. This in turn led to the extremely rapid development of new generations of technology, destined first for military purposes before being shared, for profit, with the expanding consumer marketplace.
At the end of the 20th century, the world seemed to have reached a certain point of stability. It wasn’t utopia, but the nations of the world appeared to be confident in a bright future. Economic prospects looked good as trade was burgeoning and technology spreading across the face of the globe.
We are now witnessing the end of that period. Future historians may see 2023 as a major turning point in the history of the world. Argentina’s election provides a small but significant example of that shift. And the perception of economic interest in our decision-making will constitute a major factor in that change.
Until somewhere around 1980, as the Cold War was drawing to a close, the integrity of the internal value systems of nation-states remained the major source of internal stability for nations across the globe. But three major sources of instability between value systems were still present. The first was the idea at the core of the Cold War that capitalism and communism were incompatible and irreconcilable within any democratic framework. The second was religion in those nations where religion could still be the major factor in people’s sense of identity. The third was ethnicity in a post-colonial world.
Nevertheless, for a short while, a solution appeared to emerge. The powerful symbolism conveyed by the Soviet Union’s collapse made it possible to put forward and celebrate a unique common denominator shared by populations conditioned to interiorize the culture and value system of their respective governments, whether capitalist or communist. The name of that new universal value was quite simply economic interest.
The notion was provided by the tradition of capitalist theory dating back to the 18th century, a moment in European history in which the diversity within the Christian religion, having produced nearly two centuries of war and permanent tension, led to the marginalization of the moral authority of churches within the body politic. This was true even of nations that retained a clearly dominant church, whether Catholic or Protestant.
As economic theory took over some of the tasks churches had once assumed, alongside the new religion of capitalism and in reaction to it, socialist thinkers emerged, eventually spawning the materialist religion that came to be known as Marxism. Two value systems in the West entered into a rivalry that exists to this day, despite all kinds of transformations.
Capitalist culture elevates individualistic competition to the status of a behavioral ideal. Communist culture, as elaborated by Karl Marx, places collective cooperation and the self-effacement of the individual at the summit of its moral system.
Finding common ground between these two worldviews, which battled during most of the 20th century, might have seemed as challenging as squaring a circle. But, miraculously, a new principle emerged that everyone ended up embracing. From Democratic President Bill Clinton to Communist Chairman Deng Xiaoping, the idea began to dominate that economic interest can serve as the foundation of human morality. On the capitalist side, the economic interest of each competing individual provided the model. On the communist side, nations captained by visionary leaders were empowered to define that interest.
Globalization consisted not just of connecting supply chains and multiplying the means of communication across nations, linguistic and ideological borders. It also meant adopting this new belief in what united humanity: alignment with perceived economic interest.
How did that play out? The value of anything became synonymous with its price … in US dollars, of course. The sense that anything we as consumers were invited to consume was attached to a particular culture, region or people began to fade as standardization became the key to efficiency.
All seemed to be well for nearly a decade, but then cracks in the system began to appear as the world discovered that economic interest does not solve all problems. 9/11 changed the mood completely. Though the trouble initially arose from a religious tradition heavily distorted by political motivation related to “historical interest” rather than economic interest, it reflected an uncomfortable idea that had been proffered two millennia earlier as a Christian truth: “Man does not live by bread alone.”
Today’s pundits, analyzing democratic elections, invariably fall back on the wisdom of Bill Clinton’s adviser, James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That still holds generally true. But as Argentina has shown us, “sometimes it ain’t.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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