Our Town: Are you ready for World War III?

Our Town: Are you ready for World War III?

The biggest news of 2022 is that we’re on the brink of World War III. The recent attempt by Mother Russia to retake Ukraine is proof that mad authoritarian states are alive and well around the globe.

Rigid control by authoritarian regimes has been in vogue for centuries and is still seen in nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Freedom and democracy are seen in only 50 percent of the world’s nations, including the United States, Japan, Australia, and most of Europe. According to the Freedom House report, there has been a 30-year global trend toward more authoritarian regimes due to growing feelings of widespread insecurity, anxiety, fear, instability, diversity and economic decline.

The report suggests that people are attracted to authoritarian leaders during times of anxiety. This was exemplified with Donald Trump’s election victory, which was largely based upon his use of the Wall metaphor designed to keep all the chaos out as immigrants flooded the southern border.

And it’s easy enough to blame Putin, oligarchs and authoritarian greed to explain why he invaded Ukraine, but let us explore the recent rise of authoritarian rule and why it remains as a dominant force in world politics and is the inevitable counterbalance to democracy and individual freedom.

A theory that explains our current problems was developed by the Frenchman Emile Durkheim, the world’s first sociologist. He worked in the early 1900s and observed that as fast-paced modernism, emerging technology and the growth of science began to ascend, the former more solid and time-honored social systems like religion and nationalism began to disintegrate.

In its place came what he called the Cult of Individualism and the wish for unbridled freedom, unreasonable gratifications and what he liked to call “froid moral,” or loose morals.

Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe the end point of this psychological state, including aimlessness, lack of connection, depression and alienation. Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” is a perfect demonstration of this state. In this novel a man attends his mother’s funeral, feels no remorse, leaves the funeral home, gets involved in a senseless murder and is arrested. The prosecutor cannot understand why the man committed the murder and why he seems to have no feelings.

Being a stranger in a strange land is what we mean by anomie and remains a remarkably common state in today’s world. Many of my patients complain of feelings that their life has no purpose and that they feel depressed and even suicidal about it.

Today more than ever we live in a disconnected world where we increasingly interact with computers and not humans. Civic involvement has all but disappeared. This is unhealthy, unnerving and unsettling. To be human means to be involved with oneself but also to be embedded in society. Rampant individualism cannot sustain a person forever.

So, when people are caught in a whirlwind of change, feel disconnected, alone, anxious, stressed and depressed, anyone who offers some structure and meaning will ascend to power. Thus, authoritarian rule becomes attractive and is why we have seen this trend both in European nations and even our own.

COVID exacerbated our anomie with all the isolation that it caused. We saw the explosion of deviance, crime, social unrest, and unhappiness last summer as the discontented took to the streets in social protest. This same unrest and anomie are with us today and now it’s Russia’s turn to act out the misery with this insane attempt to take over a neighboring country.

Anomie is caused by a lack of moral structure and a lack of boundaries. This strange state of confusion is perfectly demonstrated by Mother Russia. Emile Durkheim would tell us that we give up our traditional social institutions at our own peril. Progress is inevitable and we are all forced into change as a result. But as our former institutions disintegrate and as we fail to replace them with better holding environments, then people become anxious and confused and the world turns into an even more unpredictable and dangerous place.

Around the time Durkheim was developing is theory of anomie, the American historian Henry Adams, a descendant of two presidents, wrote “A Law of Acceleration” in 1906. He worried that if science continued to develop too rapidly, mankind might not be ready to manage all the changes. This has now come to pass.

Science has produced nuclear bombs and the internet and modernism and post-modernism have overwhelmed most of us to the point of confusion and frustration. And as COVID recedes from our lives, what comes into view now is a madman who has a nuclear arsenal of bombs and is ready to push the button. Who could have predicted all of this?

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