Terrorism feeds off outsiders in a shallow and fragmented world

Over and over again we hear about alienated young people signing up to ISIS because they crave “community”. In this post I try to explain that phenomenon by reference to changes in technology and the economy. Warning: this is speculative and hand waivey.

They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster.   

The quote comes from a 24 year old French man on his decision to join Jabhat an-Nusra, a Syrian terrorist group. He touches on themes that repeatedly come up such accounts: a sense of low status and alienation from a world of shallow conspicuous consumption.

A major driver of terrorist recruitment is, in my view, social isolation caused by the atomising effects of today’s individualistic hyper-competitive mode of capitalism. It’s also influenced by a decline in respect and dignity for those at the bottom of status hierarchies. It’s not surprising that such people look for community and respect where they can find it.

Extremists are becoming specialist online recruiters of this demographic. ISIS is providing a sense of deep community in an increasingly shallow and fragmented world.

In Western liberal societies all kinds of relationships are increasingly short-term. We see this from Tinder to uber, to hyperglobalisation and robots taking our jobs. People are more replaceable. It becomes less rational for employers to make long-term investments in employees, and as a consequence, the converse is also true. It’s even become a thing for employers to mass dismiss their workers by text message.

By cutting search costs, the new model of human contracts is arguably efficient. Corresponding with increasing capacity to measure performance (think online rankings), the new model facilitates the constant reassessment and replacement of our fellow humans. But this is brutal on those who fail to make the cut. We are more likely to end up with an entrenched class of losers.

At the same time, there’s more conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure (Facebook holiday pics) and all-round status-flaunting. Society is splintering into a world of winners and losers.

Nicholas Gruen points out poll results showing the increasingly materialistic nature of college students. When asked of the importance of “being very well off financially”:

The latest data from 2013 for entering university students here in the US, 82% say that that is an important life goal. And back in the late ’60s and early ’70s only about 45% said that was an important life goal.

This is something of an anomaly because real incomes for college graduates have increased, so you would think they have less to worry financially. So why is it the opposite?

I propose:

(1) risks in the marketplace have increased due to disruptive competition and a less secure employment relationship (and we are loss averse, i.e. fear losing ground even if we have become richer);

(2) risks have increased outside the marketplace because social insurance has become more conditional;

(3) society is more monetised, so what you get depends more on how much you can afford to pay (other forms of resource allocation like queuing/first in best dressed provided ad hoc redistribution);

(4) within-country inequality is rising – people can see greater wealth around them, spurring a sense of indignity;

(5) norms against flaunting status have broken down – check out a rap film clip [One day I want to do a quantitative analysis of song lyrics over the past 60 years. Hypothesis: fall in pro-social themes and growth in narcissism and egoism];

(6) the institutions in which people traditionally found meaning and fulfillment outside the marketplace – like mass mainstream religious organisations, unions, scouts etc – are declining (marriage is also declining for all bar the rich and highly educated);

(7) there’s less social empathy (see here) and respect (see here and here ).

I suspect all seven contribute to health problems and unhappiness, but 3-7 are the most important for terrorism.

There are two main groups that will be disaffected by the rise of short-term relationships, decline of mass organisations, and emphasis on status:

(1) Those who just prefer deep loyalties, thick identities and intense communities. Some people more than others get stressed out by risk and insecurity (economic competition is stressful and damaging to mental health). Some people more than others crave meaning and deep fulfilment.

(2) The people who slip through the cracks, the “losers” in our cut throat society. Before they had an all-encompassing institution that would take them in, they would receive empathy, and could rely on respect for being a good citizen, union-member, church-goer etc. Now what do they have? Just their own individual deficiencies, apparently.

Both of these overlapping groups are prone to recruitment by extremist groups, offering a sense of community and something to believe in. These communities can provide a sense of honour and dignity to those who have been left behind. As one American boy who joined an online ISIS group was quoted in the New York Times:

For the first time I thought I was not only being taken seriously about very important and weighty topics, but was actually being asked for guidance.

It’s hard to imagine a move back to either long-term safe jobs or mass movement organisations because they are being killed by changes in the economy.

The future employment prospects look particularly grim for low status men. Throughout human history, they have been able to make a living from manual labour if nothing else. But the robot revolution will do away with much manual labour. Jobs increasingly depend on social skills. But gender norms have not caught up. To some extent, they still prime boys for interacting with things and girls for interacting with people. Marginal men are precisely the ones we see falling for terrorism (and many other socially destructive behavior).

While the economic causation of the fall of job-for-life manufacturing is obvious, the economic basis for the destruction of mass movement organisations is more subtle. The great development economist Dani Rodrik suggests that the rise of mass movement politics – vital for establishing good institutions – was in fact facilitated by production line manufacturing. Manufacturing brought people of different ethnicities and religions together on the job. In such a situation, workers could easily see they had shared interests (eg working conditions from the boss, civil liberties from a state that wanted to clamp down on striking rights etc).

Rodrik worries that, with the decline of manufacturing, developing countries may never undergo such a process:

The political consequences of premature deindustrialization are more subtle, but could be even more significant. Mass political parties have traditionally been a by-product of industrialization. Politics looks very different when urban production is organized largely around informality, a diffuse set of small enterprises and petty services. Common interests among the non-elite are harder to define, political organization faces greater obstacles, and personalistic or ethnic identities dominate over class solidarity. Elites do not face political actors that can claim to represent the non-elites and make binding commitments on their behalf. Moreover, elites may prefer – and have the ability – to divide and rule, pursuing populism and patronage politics, and playing one set of non-elites against another. Without the discipline and coordination that an organized labor force provides, the bargains between the elite and non-elite needed for democratic transitions and consolidation are less likely to take place. So premature deindustrialization may make democratization less likely and more fragile.

Unfortunately, in our increasingly atomised, uberised service economy, we lose sight of shared interests. It’s easier for reactionary forces to play divide and conquer between rival religious and ethnic groups.

It’s in this context that we see mass organisations like mass religious organisations and unions being replaced by networks of tribes that target particular demographics or specific opinions rather than a sweep of society. Aided by internet anonymity, this seems to encourage feedback loops of inter-tribal rage.

We live in a society that demands individual success but discriminates based on group membership. We demand people make their own way and accept disruptive risk but when they fail we lack institutions to pick them back up again. We demand hyper-discipline, with every aspect of performance increasingly measured and ranked, but this same society has more capacity to tempt and tap into weaknesses. That’s the downside of liberalism and technological progress.

In a more stressful world, temptation goods that enable people to self-medicate have never been more readily available thanks to rising real incomes and technological progress. I don’t think it’s any surprise that the unprecedented fall in longevity for American middle aged whites (who have been hit hard by hyperglobalisation) is driven by temptations: alcoholism, over-eating, drug-overdose.

For another demographic, the temptation is to slide into an alternative universe online and potentially fall for the siren song of extremism. In this case, the toxic medication offers a fickle sense of self-worth, belonging and power.

I wish I had the answer to this, but it seems wrapped up in the forces of contemporary capitalism.

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