You are here

Fear or hope. Or the Geopolitics of Emotion.

Political science offers various explanations about the complex relationships and the conflicts around the world. According to some analysis the tensions between countries, or regions, or entire continents are mostly caused by economic inequality. According to others, the main reason are the religious and cultural differences. In this context, the analysis by Dominique Moisi in a book called "The Geopolitics of Emotion" is a challenging, interesting and unusual work. He sees the current conflicts and trends through the prism of three emotions - fear, humiliation, and hope. The founder of the French Institute of International Relations believes that the political dynamics of the modern world can be properly explained only if we understand human emotions. And they, just like cholesterol, can be both good or bad...what really matters is the balance between them.

His thesis is quite provocative. Most faculties of politology usually take it for granted that the serious analysis is always quantitative, based on statistics and devoid of cultural explanations or other irrational factors. But Moisi thinks that if we rely only on the quantitative political science, we will miss some key tendencies in the development of the world. Probably in the beginning, the reader will be both fascinated and disturbed by these arguments. How do we define the emotions of entire nations and even regions? And what particular emotions we should analyze so as to not indulge into cultural determinism?

According to Moisi, what describes our contemporary reality are three feelings: hope, humiliation and fear. And the choice of these is not incidental. They all have one common characteristic - they are tied with the feeling of confidence, and the idea about confidence is a crucial factor in how nations and people solve the challenges that they face and how they relate to each other. "Fear is the lack of confidence; hope is an expression of confidence; and humiliation is undermined confidence". Confidence is so important to all nations, civilizations and people because it allows them to shape their future, to realize their abilities and even surpass them. Although it is controversial, Moisi's thesis is presented with eloquent logic, and without the claim of being a universal theory of everything. On the contrary, according to the author, the book is only trying to "be a corrective to all the simplified theories that dominate the public discourse. It is a mix of emotions and of all the shades of gray, which however quite accurately pictures the world today.

The West is often considered to be the main driver of the process of globalization. However Moisi defines globalization as a phenomenon consisting of two different phenomena - cultural Americanization of the world, alongside the economic advance of Asia. "Effectively, while the cultural influence of the United States throughout the world is all-pevasive and unprecedented, economically the West is beaten by Asia". This situation is essential because the main players in the world differ not only in power and influence...they also have dramatic differences in their views about the world. While Europe and America are focused on universal values, India, China and Russia seem to be more interested in their own regional and global standing. So how should we decode this and put it on the map of world emotions? Moisi argues that "the primary reason that the world is now an ideal breeding ground for the flourishing and even the explosive development of 'global emotions' is that globalization causes uncertainty and raises the question of identity. In a world where information is everywhere and the images of the rich societies and wealthy individuals are flooding the social imagination, and the poorest regions of the world are suddenly experiencing an infusion between their reality and the global one, often along with a shocking comparison between these different realities and traumatic transformation of their value systems...all this inevitably leads to tensions and confrontation.

But do we measure the emotions of entire nations? How do they change the geographical concepts that we have been used to working with? How do we outline behaviour patterns and explain what is going on in world politics? On this issue, Moisi is not so convincing... He thinks "emotional mapping is a way to outline trends in the behaviour of nations. It incudes elements such as surveys of the public opinion (what is the people's attitude towards themselves, their present and their future), the statements and promises made by the political leaders, as well as cultural events - films, plays and books, architecture". But doesn't the colourful picture which we are getting with all these proposed means for mapping the emotions miss some important elements...or just on the opposite, it could not be detailed enough and most tendencies could be lost into the multitude of facts?

But despite these doubts, the author applies the proposed matrix and highlights some interesting key trends in the modern wold. The continent which carries hope is Asia. Why is Asia so successful? Along with the familiar economic growth, big financial resources and positive work ethics, we can notice another imporant feature - adaptability. "The hybrid nature of the Asian identity seems much more adaptable to a world full of conflicts and therefore it is more favourable than the relative homogeneity of the western world. Since we in the West are still seeing ourselves as being the 'center' of the world, we are more worried and destabilised in our core identity than the Asians. Somehow they manage to remain who they are, while still becoming like us". This observation, athough it is very generalising, shows his proneness for using paradox. The majority of the world falls into the category of "various shades of gray"...while Asia is a continent of enormous progress, it has a very young population ready for change and for new opportunities for the millions who still live below the poverty line.

Emotions are important for the development and the fate of a given society, because "they reflect the degree of confidence that this society has in itself. This confidence in its turn determines the ability of said society to recover after crises, to meet the challenges and to change itself and adapt to the changing circumstances". This is one of the explanations why countries like India and China are emerging faster out of the current economic crisis. Apparently China is again a rising empire with a sense for time and historic continuity which is immeasurably longer and deeper than ours (of the West). And although the economic success so far has not lead to political reform, the author believes that this should not change the rational approach in the West's relations to China. Through the centuries, wealth has been more important for China than the democratic institutions...and the sooner we accept that it is their right to decide this for themselves, the faster we will achieve better mutual benefit from our relationship with them. The combination of economic reforms and political stagnation will exist in China until 'hope' remains China's primary emotion. Similarly, India is mobilised by hope and economic progress despite a paralysing corruption. The challenges facing both China and India are very similar - poverty, environmental crisis and a gap between the society and the politicians. These challenges are familiar in the Western world too, but in Asia, hope presents a strong incentive to seek solutions rather than fall into despair and quarrels.

Humiliation, on the other hand, characterizes many countries in the Muslim world. Moisi argues that Islam can no more be characterized as a single, homogeneous phenomenon, and undoubtedly, "politically and emotionally what dominates the Muslim world today is a sense of political and cultural humiliation and an intensive quest for sources of honour".

In their turn, being clung to their fears of everybody else, both parts of the West - America and Europe - albeit to varying degrees, are similarly captured in the third key emotion - fear. Fear of immigrants who are both needed to sustain their economic development and their way of life, yet entering 'our personal space', taking our jobs and living alongside us, presenting what many of us see as a threat to our established customs and way of thinking. The decision of the EU member states on the question whether they should accept Turkey into the union is probably the key and most symptomatic moment that would define the future of the West to a very large extent. Will it open its doors to an economically and politically stable, secularized country from the Muslim world, and thus allow it to become a bridge between the Middle East and the West... or will it reject its 'different' neighbour (but important partner) and thus inevitably push it toward religious radicalization?

The book ends with two interesting scenarios for the future - a grim one and an optimistic one. Which way we would go depends on whether 'hope' or 'fear' will prevail over the other 'shades of gray'. Although these scenarios are too general to be taken as reliable projections about the future, both outlooks are equally important because they provide the opportunity to make a choice and seek change. And change, the author thinks, is key: "Self-preservation means change - the status quo is untenable". And change is only possible if we turn this fear and intolerance into acceptance and understanding. Only then will the West, and especially Europe, avert the danger of becoming just a 'museum' that people from other continents visit and explore with admiration for its past, before returning to their countries full with dynamism, energy and development...where the prevailing emotion is hope.


On a slight tangent there is some excellent resources on the psychology (especially psychoanalysis) or war.

The following is particularly appropriate in the context of the above review



Meteorologists do not include in their reports whether or not, at 6:05pm tomorrow, a little swirl of wind makes its way down your street to tousle your hair to the left for 15 seconds. They're concerned with modelling larger scale atmospheric trends. The vast array of chaotic details will eventually become important, but in the short term, it's amazing how far they can get with gross approximations.

Similarly, I'm about to talk about humans en masse. So I will now, just once, make this qualification: whenever you talk about a group of people, you're making a generalisation. As it's impossible to discuss each of the 6 billion odd humans now alive, individually, some nuance will inevitably be lost. Deal.

Now, meteorologists have discovered that the usefulness of their models depends upon identifying critical factors. That is to say, you can get away with modelling some things more approximately than others. How do they figure out which is which? They do science: they make all kinds of models, measure them against real world observations, and adjust their models accordingly.

It seems to me that economic and political theorists rarely do this. They tend to construct a model that suits their purposes, and then identify real world observations which support their model, happily ignoring or marginalising inconvenient data which could falsify it. This is fashion, not science!

When a scientific approach has been taken to modelling economic and political activity (usually by scientists of various persuasions rather than economic or political theorists), striking correlations can be seen between mass human behaviour and even quite simple models of herd animal behaviour.

This surprised many scientists, but, by and large, they prefer to let reality inform their models, however difficult it is for them to accept. In the fields of economic and political 'science', though, the reaction seems to be downright surly, declaring the animal behaviour models irrationally simplistic.

How is it, then, that these simple, empirically derived models, consistently outperform more complex, rationally derived ones? Perhaps the simple models have included critical factors which the complex ones ignored? And this, finally, brings me to my point: the herd behaviour models do often include emotional states.

What's the deal with emotions? Why the intellectual taboo? I'm left gobsmacked, for instance, in discussions about the current Terror War, when people will rebuff my arguments as "emotive" - no, not that I've become so swept with emotion that my arguments have become incoherent, but simply that my arguments concern likely human emotional responses. Tell me: If the subject is "terror", how are emotions not involved?

We're encouraged by our culture's Age of Reason mindset to view emotions as irrational and therefore somehow wrong. However, as much as we like to rationalise our decisions after the fact, on reflection, wouldn't it be more honest to admit that most of our decisions occur on a more primal level than that? Realistic models of human behaviour must take this into account.

All this has been a roundabout way of saying that I think Moisi's theory has some merit. As ridiculously simplistic as it is to represent the human emotional spectrum with just three impulses, as a model of humanity, it'll probably do better than ones which don't include emotional states at all.

(As an aside, I'll recommend this book I've read, on the subject of modelling humans: The Social Atom by Mark Buchanan.)

That's not saying much, however. Overall, I do not find Moisi's theory all that useful, not because of the level of complexity in itself, but because it fails to identify certain critical factors in the current structure of the human race, without which any model will fail. (Admittedly, since I've haven't read Moisi's book, my assessment depends upon the skill of our esteemed reviewer in representing it.)

The first missing factor is the effect of scale. One thing we can learn from herd behaviour models is that, above some optimal number, the larger the group, the less adaptable it is to change. If we consider the herd as a single organism, then the larger the Beast, the dumber it gets. It has a larger momentum to overcome when turning. As its nervous system expands, it gets slower to react. It represents a greater commitment of resources to one strategy. It gains only the advantage of brute power.

So it's odd that Moisi ignores this, while making a big deal out of the idea that a culture's adaptability is one of its main sources of hope. In any case, let's take his emotional trinity of hope/humiliation/fear, and bring it down to the evenly primal peg of desire/anger/fear, given that we're talking about very large, stupid Beasts indeed. Let's do likewise with the motives ascribed to each group: the desirous don't have stuff, but believe they might just get some, the angry don't have stuff, and aren't likely to get any, and the fearful have stuff, but could lose it somehow.

A second missing factor concerns the vehicle of transmission of emotion (amongst other information) across cultures. Let's label this "mythos" and describe it as a culture's worldview, and reasons for holding that view. The story that people tell to themselves and each other, to explain why they're doing the things they are.

The striking thing about human mythos over the last 6000 years or so, is that the story's been told by fewer and fewer people, and transmitted over larger and larger groups. It seems to me the model requires a fourth group, an extreme version of the fearful, since they've got an extraordinary amount of stuff. We could call them paranoid delusional sociopaths, or perhaps just thieving arseholes, or even the global elite, but let's stick with Moisi's emotional style of categorisation: the hateful. The ones who've hijacked the mythos for their own selfish gain.

So: desire/anger/fear/hate. As a model of the current society, it's looking more realistic already! Globalism, in this context, isn't some grand clash of civilisations or nations; it's nothing more than an attempt by one small group to spread one mythos over the entire population of the Earth. It's pantheon includes such deities as "Money/Tax/Interest", "Authority/Goverment/Corporation", "Title/Law/Contract", "Subject/Citizen/Employee". The story is all about stuff - what shall be made, who shall make it, where it may move and who ends up owning it. It's a program for a machine, not the tale of a society!

The haters succeed in this global con by the ancient method of divide et impera. By playing the other three groups off against each other, we are distracted from our real tormentors' game. Gender, race, religion, nationality and so on, are tools used to manipulate us into attacking the wrong target, fracturing our communities and leaving us prey to colonisation. By lending credibility to these constructs, Moisi misses another critical factor, and confuses his own argument.

Alternatively, our modified model brings us to the obvious question: The manipulators, who are They? And, after much reflection, I've come to the conclusion that Them is Us. After all, those arseholes were always there and always will be, a part of human nature, as they say. Why are They in power though? The power hungry simply head for a vacuum of power. That is, a place where people are willing to give up their personal power, and to depend on some higher authority for making all those difficult decisions. Power structures are built of our laziness, fear and complicity. Weakness raised the pyramids! Infants are awed by ziggurats! Economics and politics are nothing but the large-scale manifestations of our value systems, and they currently take the form they do because of our selfishness.

Next obvious question: What to do about it? Moisi, using a model missing certain critical factors, has nowhere to go with his argument. It devolves into a new-agey mish-mash, arriving at the usual challenge to choose between Good and Evil, or, in this case, Confidence or Lack of Confidence. I suppose this is appropriate phrasing for our market-driven times, but I'm sorry, it's not bloody good enough. I'm sick to death of mindless dichotomies. Reality calls for a little more subtlety in it's appreciation.

People can feel confident if they have a reason to be, some possible plan of action which they can believe will lead to an improvement in their circumstances. Without that, it's just false confidence. The Asians can be as hopeful as they like, but if business goes on as usual, they'll end up with the same fear as Westerners.

Allow me to explain: The haters must have realised, by examining history, that empire-building is a dead-end game. Exponential growth, finite resources. But the traumatic cycle of rise and collapse doesn't bother them so much as the prospect of rulers getting toppled during the collapse phase. Their solution? Globalism. Divide the human race in three. One group you allow to grow - desire. The second group you harvest - fear. The remainder lie fallow - anger. With this crop rotation, the rulers need never lack.

So the Asians are willing to work hard for low wages, having known the deprivation of the angry, to get to all that stuff promised in the mythos. And they will get their house, and the TV and fridge and so on, hence their confidence. Along the way, though, they'll be acquiring debt, which is where money comes from. Through interest on debt and other mechanisms, their excess labour will be stolen.

Westerners are already full of debt. When they can't believably take on any more, they'll be dropped, the way a corpse is dropped by a vampire once the last drop of blood has been drained. They'll collapse into bitter civil warring, soon to join the ranks of the angry.

And so the great cycle continues, like a global mexican wave. As Asia's used up, the Middle East and South America will be where Asia is now. China and India aren't 'winning' the race, the corporations are, and they'll continue to do so, unless we do something different.

You can't kill a corporation by assassinating its CEO. They're just a figurehead, and in any case, another CEO will take their place. Even in the unlikely event that the entire human race revolts, and builds a power structure larger than corporations, that structure would simply become our new ruler, if people still believe in the mythos of power.

Power fantasies won't save us. The only way to stop a corporation is to stop working for it and stop buying its products. The way to reduce our dependance on corporations is by working for ourselves and making our own products. This also provides a seed for community to grow around, so the behaviour can spread. When I feel the support of a vibrant, functional community around me, then I'll have reason for confidence.

And this is where associations like the Isocracy Network can help. Not by calling for revolution, but by causing evolution. By weaving our own mythos to challenge the one handed to us. Before our species can do anything to meet the challenges facing us this century, social change is needed. If the stories we tell here are useful to other people, they'll spread and join with other common causes. If people can imagine a different worldview, that's the first step to making a different world.