Hegel once wrote, "The history of the world is none other than the spirit's pursuit of freedom." The German philosopher believed that reason was the engine of progress and that, for that reason, the world would someday overcome contradiction, and a society would emerge in which the state allowed individuals to reach their highest level of self-realization.
If we open our eyes and look round us, we can realize Hegel's mistake: The state has abandoned its obligations to regulate the market, and its citizens are powerless in the face of irrational, destructive forces.
The ideals of the Enlightenment, which Hegel saw as the incarnation of "absolute knowledge," have crumbled. Nothing remains of the legacy of the French Revolution, from which we have inherited a model for the state which is experiencing a profound crisis. Until very recently, values like liberty, equality and fraternity meant something. But today, these concepts have lost their meaning in a universe of identities where what matters is belonging to a tribe, be that religious, political or ethnic.
By giving up on defending the idea of the state as one in which all citizens, regardless of their particular condition, are equal in the eyes of the law, populisms and nationalisms encourage individualistic sentiments which divide and catalog people. Wherever we look, be that in the United States or in Europe, the individual is valued over the collective, the part over the whole, the specific over the universal, identity over equality. From the grand utopias which used to mobilize younger generations, the world has splintered into thousands of causes that confront humanity and diminish it.
Hobbes' Leviathan embodied an absolute power which crushes the individual. But the contemporary state, trapped in political correctness, has come apart by serving identities which are unable to see farther than their own selves.
This is neither an abstract theory nor discourse for an academic debate; rather, it is the sad conclusion that we can draw from a political environment dominated by demagogy and populism. This environment leads us to gaze at our own navels and to blame others for the wrongs for which we ourselves are responsible.
Throughout the course of history, men have fought for ideals and causes that are worth fighting for. But now, they glory in the conquest of small-mindedness and banality which is the calling card of third-rate leaders who tell the people what they want to hear.
The worst thing about Trump is not that he is a liar, but that he is a cretin. His success is proportional to the idiocy which comes out of his mouth. But his discourse is effective because the principles which have sustained the exercise of traditional politics have been destroyed. The word "utopia" has become meaningless, language has been contaminated, rhetoric serves only to manipulate, and spectacle has displaced hope.
Ideas like God, revolution, and nation were once great. They were causes one could die for. But now, we find ourselves fighting for a selfie or for five minutes of popularity. As Bauman* says, reality is volatile, changeable and liquid. We care more about whether or not they fix the sidewalk in front of our house than about the drama of refugees fleeing from Syria. From so much staring at the ground, we have lost the habit of contemplating the heavens. Hegel was wrong: History is not the progress towards rationality, but rather, the progress towards nothingness.
*Editor's note: The author is likely referring to Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist and philosopher who died on Jan. 9, 2017.