Tuesday, July 05, 2016

So, this is where we find ourselves...

Populism triumphs by telling barefaced lies to large sections of the population that have become vulnerable to such mendacity through bitter disenchantment with existing social and political power arrangements.

In the past couple of decades it has become the scourge of the developing world, particularly Latin America, where it undermines or infiltrates traditional two party arrangements based on class identity, borrowing from the rhetoric of both and adding its own nationalistic hyperbole that resonates within communities disconcerted by globalised neoliberalism. 

Now it has taken hold in the so-called rich world, thanks in no small part to the burgeoning wealth disparities within it worthy of the under-developed rich-poor world. 

The ideological extremists of the last century taught us that it was ultimately handier to tell big lies than little ones. Crucially however, they then acted as if they had come to believe many of their own audacious whoppers. 

Not so with the modern demagogic populists. Whether or not Trump's primary audience believes that there will soon be a big wall along the border paid for by Mexico, it is almost painfully obvious that HE does not believe it. Ditto Boris Johnson and the £350m that was going to be redirected to the NHS after Brexit. 

Populism has been most successful — and ultimately calamitous  in countries where the movement has been fronted by charismatic manipulators capable of transcending the political system which brought them to power. (Such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.) 

In Britain however, having engineered a political and constitutional crisis of historical magnitude, the populists have apparently lacked the courage of their lack of conviction; Boris in particular, looking, as one wit put it, like the dog that caught the car.

Meanwhile, the two main traditional parties have the appearance of rusty old hulks torpedoed beneath the water line. Both also seem far more concerned about patching themselves up than imaginatively engaging with the crisis unleashed by the cynical —  or some would say purist —  populist insurgents on their back-benches. 

It would appear that the current Conservative government will survive in some sort of reconfigured form, at least in the short term. Decisive leadership, of the sort the country now needs, is unlikely to result from this process. 

Indeed, murmering platitudes about 'the will of the people' it seems likely that our current political leadership-without-leaders will, out of a misplaced British sense of civic duty and a polite unwillingness to offend, proceed to consummate the catastrophe initiated by those irresponsible elements within who decided not to face up to the consequences of their words and actions.

It is highly likely that when we take into consideration both the younger demographic that didn't come out to vote in such large numbers and the growing number of people who are coming to realise just how badly they have been scammed (or at least abandonned by their scammers), 'the will of the people' is a dynamic phenomenon and there may well already be a small, underlying majority in favour of remaining in the EU, at least in terms of current opinion in a very fluid situation. 

Whatever happens now will set a dangerous precedent for our political system and leave roughly half the population with a sense of having been cheated by democracy. There is no hiding how damaging and dangerous this will be and how it will probably take at least a generation to fix, if at all. 

Dominic Lawson wrote in the Sunday Times this week that any failure to 'respect' the democratic will of the people, as expressed by the June 23rd plebiscite, would result in 'tanks on the streets'. Welcome to Venezuela.  

Those, like Lawson, with a long-term commitment to the abstract notion of Brexit before all the lies were deployed to bring it about, are showing signs of nervousness that only the irrevocable invocation of Article 50 will now dispel. 

They will have intuited that the ground is already shifting again, that the leaders of their movement are already dispersing, and that the bulk of Leave voters are just too old to come out and defy the (almost certainly metaphorical) tanks. 

If the Conservative government is likely to press on with the task of sailing into the storm out of fear of on-board mutiny should their new captain even suggest hauling the sails down, Parliament as a whole would probably favour turning around. 

Knowing that you will inevitably piss off half the country, it makes sense from a pragmatic perspective to elect piss off the half that is older, more used to being disappointed and losing momentum fast. 

Yet there's also a set of more high-minded arguments for disregarding the referendum result. Firstly, the moral one. Election fraud is usually taken to mean fiddly diddly at the polling station, but in this instance the chicanery and swindle took place at the level of the hustings and the basic propositions presented to the electorate. 

Secondly the constitutional and ideological objections. The referendum was called for highly expedient reasons which immediately posed an existential threat to the world's oldest parliamentary democracy. 

Some have tried to dress it up rather insincerely as a triumph of popular democracy, but these sort of consultations are actually a travesty of our age-old democratic process, as they expose us all to the dishonesty of demagogues. 

And, as I noted in a post earlier in the week, our parliamentary system has evolved to allow us to transcend our localised viewpoints —  to be more than the sum or our parts —  whereas these referenda pander to the sort of partial perspectives that the populists feed off. 

Anything other than prevarication is however unlikely in the short to medium term unless a return to normal service can be signalled via the calling of a general election.

In the meantime, Britain may itself become a mere sideshow in the hollowing out of western discourse: the emergence of the kind of 'donut politics' that results when the centre collapses as voters are drawn to the extremes. 

Across the pond Trump started with Mexicans, moved on to Muslims and now has Jews in his sights. The Brexit result suggests that nobody can afford to be complacent now about his chances of victory in November. (Anyone who wants to know what Trump really thinks about the uneducated proletariat should watch Anthony Baxter's 2011 documentary You've Been Trumped, which tracks the Donald's campaign to displace the 'horrible' plebs presenting a potential eye-sore around the fringes of his elite golf resort near Aberdeen.)

As well as giving a sense of renewed empowerment to our native xenophobes, the Brexit referendum result may further encourage insurgent politicians across the continent, which could mean that our own modest efforts to shore things up over the next couple of years are rendered irrelevant. 

The next big test would seem to be the French election in 2017. Spain's most recent stab at resolving its own political crisis —  a repeated general election which took place in the immediate aftermath of our referendum —  did seem to offer some cause for optimism as the populists failed to surge as expected. Perhaps the UK is already functioning, as Charlie Brooker puts it, as the world's leading cautionary tale

Nevertheless, populist engagement with ignorance and jingoism is a dynamic, catalytic process, creating ever greater shallowness and moronic disregard for facts wherever it operates. 

The more reticent, reasonable politicians of the centre have been written off as compromised and corrupt and the lessons of the last century —  the very rationale for open-minded, middle-of-the-road policies and complex, transnational institutions like the EU —  are rapidly being forgotten. 

That said, the hole in the middle of our donut may be as much opportunity as threat, and law-makers around the developed world urgently need to explore the potential for creating a new kind of knowledge-informed politics before things destabilise further.


norm said...

The enfranchisement of the masses means that the elitists have to take the vote of the masses into consideration. The free market, low tariff economic system has left at least a third of the masses, the voters, with less than they had before and little improvement in sight . That 30% is told to suck it up, retool, get smarter but let's face it, there is always going to be that bottom third on the Bell Curve. Our elites have basicly told a third of the population to suck eggs. The last US GOP presidential candidate got caught saying something snarky about the bottom 47% being parasites in a meeting of elites that he was hitting up for funds for his campaign. It was arguably the difference in the election.

We have put Thatcher and Reagan on some kind of pedestal, yet they are both best known for ripping the unions to bits. What other big organizations do we have that speak for the clock punchers? We end up with the likes of Trump and Boris leading the clock punchers , a plan that is sure to not go well.

What is next? My guess is a whole lot of sandbagging. The Tories will put up some ambitious person who will do their best to stall the exit and Labor will be doing the same. The fly in the ointment may be the rest of the EU deciding to give the Brits more than just a gentle push. Not too likely.

What Clinton and whoever rises to the top in the Labor party must do is address the damage free trade and globalization has done to the living standards of those people who make their living making things one can drop on their toe. My suggestion would be to install an import tax equal to whatever those metal bashers have to pay in employment tax. Someone wants to bring something across the border and sell it, they need to pay at least what the clock puncher has to pay to make the same thing . Start there.

norm said...

And I go on: The idea that someone can be called a temporary worker for years on end and the state is good with it, is just too much of a wink and a nod. Part time work, when three fourths of a firm's workers are kept under 40 hours to cheat them out of benefits. We just had a tussle here in the states over calling grunt workers , management and chiseling those people out of their legal overtime. The legislature failed to step up, they left it to the outgoing executive to put a stop to that dodge. Just making employers treat their employees in a manner that common understanding of words mean. A temporary worker is just that, I've family that spent years working at firms that classified them as temporary. The government in too many cases is co-oped by business. We wonder why so many voters are ready to run the whole gang out of town.
In my union leadership days, we had a warning to miscreants, We would tell the hard case that if they did not straighten up, we would "Turn our head" . Let the company do what they would. The government seems to think that is the first action rather than the last, hence the advance of populism. The manual labor people have no one to argue their case. Sanders wants that job, Trump would have us believe he wants to fight for the average worker.
The idea that less than 1% of the voters can control better than half a nation's wealth is not going to sit well with at least half the voters. We are looking at an era when the 1% had better bend a little or they will end up being done to rather than done with.

Inner Diablog said...

Thanks as ever for your thoughts Norman. I think you are right - that the Reagan/Thatcher rhetoric that worked in the earlier phases of neoliberal globalisation has been exposed by Trump and in Britain's case by an ill-conceived plebiscite that was essentialy became a grand poll on the status quo. It is said that the countries with more equitable systems are less torn now by the issues thrown up by globalisation. My worry is that the road back to fairness may not be entirely affordable for many societies that were run by boomers burning up their children's futures through the 70s and 80s. And in some ways it may also be too late for the sort of redistribution required as globalised wealth has escaped the confines of the nation state.

norm said...

I'm no better at solutions than the average politician, seeing the problems and the causes is an easy game. My friend Beach wrote an essay the other day about knowledge and intelligence being so very different. His point was that intelligent people are too fast with solutions and not cogent of consequence. Universal franchise is not going away, populism is always going to be a major factor, we need to tweak our system before it implodes under popular mandate.

norm said...