In a dystopian society in the near future, people have become so fed up with banks and financial institutions that they’ve taken matters into their own hands. Battles are fought on Dronning Louises Bro in Copenhagen, the parliament building is under bombardment, and bankers are a dying breed – literally.
This a future envisaged by Kasper Colling Nielsen in his novel, The Danish Civil War 2018-24, which is set to premiere as a play this autumn at Nørrebro Theater – just a stone’s throw away from where the fictional action takes place.
“We live in a society where people have become disillusioned and don’t feel like they are being taken seriously. This creates enormous social unrest, which we can see all over Europe,” he says.
It’s the economy
Nielsen is opinionated and articulate about the problems facing Denmark and the world. The novel is a direct commentary on the society we live in and its potential to run aground. It’s political literature, depicting a time when people turn against financial institutions after the collapse of the economy and the welfare state.
While he believes economic uncertainty will most likely massively disrupt our lives in the future, it’s an issue that is rarely discussed.
“Even the debate about the climate crisis has disappeared. Instead, issues like whether we should serve pork meatballs in kindergartens become the focal point of our societal worries.”
The political landscape is to blame, he argues. The middle of the spectrum is dominated by a number of parties whose policies are practically interchangeable. Their focus is two-fold: increasing competitiveness while reducing the cost of the public sector. This lack of political vision has strengthened fringe parties, which have pulled voters away from the status quo of the centre. The centrist parties have responded by co-opting the extreme rhetoric and policies of the fringe parties, thereby legitimising a new, extreme, status quo.
Refugees and migrants are often the targets of this rhetoric, particularly in the wake of the refugee crisis last year. Nielsen doesn’t believe the new arrivals pose much of a threat to Europe – “granted there are problems with immigration, but the way in which they are being addressed is way out of proportion” – but the issue of immigration and refugees now serves as a major marker for how you define yourself politically. The reason for this, Nielsen argues, is that at least with immigration, you can see the effects of policy, whereas no one seems to have any real solutions to the economic problems we face.
Nielsen doesn’t worry that European culture is threatened by immigration, despite the fact that Europe has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. But while immigration-inspired xenophobia is not a new phenomenon in Europe, he worries the situation is reaching a fever pitch. The toxic rhetoric used by right-wing extremists will only continue to grow, and Nielsen argues it can only be fought one way – by closing Europe’s outer borders.
“There are so many threatening voices in Europe today and I feel like it is only a question of time before the violence escalates. If you take Brexit, for example, one of the key arguments on the ‘leave’ side was that the EU is not able to protect its borders. So closing borders would have a neutralising effect on the xenophobic discourse.”
The West is no longer the best
Populism is rising across the West. Donald Trump has won the Republican presidential nomination; in Austria, the pistol-carrying Norbery Hofer stands a good chance of election in October; and Marine Le Pen will undoubtedly make the final round of the French presidential election next year.
Central to their rise, argues Nielsen, is the sense that the West is losing its power. We are no longer the best, the smartest and the most skilled in terms of production and global trade. The geopolitical power balance has started to shift as global markets open up. These global markets have increasing power to shape the conditions of our existence and they create instability due to our inability to effectively regulate them. There is no longer a geographical centre of power – the world is becoming a neo-liberal free for all.
“The countries that benefit most from the truly free market are those that pollute enormously and lack most in terms of human and worker’s rights. This has an effect on all of us in the West and the EU in particular. We’re obviously not as competitive as the Asian countries, China especially. We’re not only more expensive when it comes to the manufacturing process, but we’re also not as good. Asia has overpowered us.”
Nielsen argues that we in the West are come at a crossroad, both economically and morally, and we need to figure out which way to go.
“Do we want to be competitive or do we want to be responsible?” he asks rhetorically.
“If we want to be better – export more and manufacture faster – then we’ll have to adopt the standards of the Asian countries. This would mean letting our agriculture make a bigger environmental mess, lowering taxes, getting rid of some of our worker’s rights and eventually even our democratic rights,” he says, adding that this perspective is represented in the Danish parliament, primarily by the libertarian party Liberal Alliance.
If we commit to being more competitive, we risk the deterioration of our Western values, Nielsen argues. Instead, we ought to protect the rights of workers as well as the labour, trade and manufacturing regulations we have spent decades developing and maintaining.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into developing these – in our view – universal values and it would be a shame to see them disappear,” he says. “So when we fight for the rights of workers in the developing world, we need to keep in mind that we’re also fighting for our own rights – even here in Denmark. We need to realise that we as individuals have to change what the market demands. If we buy t-shirts that cost 15 kroner, then we strengthen a totalitarian regime. We need to support positive forces through our consumption.”
Avoid the race to the bottom
Nielsen does not think the future is as bleak as he makes out in his book – there is certainly no civil war looming in Denmark. He does, however, foresee a strengthening uproar against the political and economic system out of frustration, unemployment and a lack of a positive narrative about the future.
“I think there will be vast social problems as well as violence explicitly expressed in the streets, all arising from economic developments – fascists who don’t like dark-skinned people, leftists who don’t like the banks and so on,” he says.
He finds some comfort in the rise of pan-European movements that have set out to increase transparency in the EU.
“If we just demand more from our governments – both in Denmark and in the EU – things could look different. People don’t relate to the EU, nor do I. We have no idea who is in charge there, which creates a divide between EU citizens.”
Rather than pull out of Europe, Nielsen believes the solution to the challenges posed by globalization is more international cooperation to strengthen human rights and protect the environment.
“When people feel like they can’t make a difference, they turn to nationalism. But in order to change something, Denmark needs to get organised and be even more international. There is a need for global, international agreements, which are normative and political – and which are concerned with more than just free trade.”
His novel is a warning, however, of the risks of not taking people’s concerns seriously. While he’s not interested in making sure the upcoming play is loyal to the novel – having given the producers total artistic freedom – he hopes it will spark a reaction from the audience.
“I want it to be serious, political theatre, and I hope that people will respond to it.” M