Friday, 11 November 2016

The Brexit-Trump Regression

2016 is the year of the UK’s European Referendum and the US’ Presidential Election. To lose one contest may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both certainly looks like carelessness.

A new industry has sprung up to explain the victories for Brexit and Trump, so dramatically snatched from the jaws of countless opinion pollsters. On the surface, there is much agreement. Millions of people are frustrated and angry. For decades they have been told that corporate freedom and liberalised trade would help everyone become better off. Year in, year out, they are sold the line that they must be more flexible as workers to help improve productivity and competitiveness, which will in turn bring prosperity for all. Yet while they have worked longer hours, taken on more part-time roles, agreed to unwelcome shifts, things just got worse.

Wages became stagnant; jobs more insecure; public services were repeatedly cut; and the prospects of a home for their children, care for their parents, adequacy of their own pensions, were all fading fast.

But why then did people not give their political backing to someone who would deal with the causes of these problems? Why did they not support those who would ensure there are fairer remuneration policies with worker participation, tackle tax avoidance and evasion that cost billions of pounds and dollars, invest in health and housing to give everyone a greater sense of security, stop banks gambling irresponsibly with savers’ money, promote multi-stakeholder cooperatives that deliver greater economic and environmental benefits?

The short answer: no one has come forward with such a political platform. Corbyn in Britain took control of the Labour Party but then has not managed to engage the wider public with any clear vision or convincing policy proposals, leaving him the most unpopular leader of the Labour Opposition since polling began in the 1950s. Sanders in America came closer to formulating a coherent alternative, but the Democrats picked Hillary Clinton instead to run against Trump.

Into this regrettable vacuum came the likes of Farage and Trump, peddling a simple spell for salvation: blame it on foreigners – who were imposing bad trade deals on us; coming over here to take our jobs; cheating their way through our border control by pretending to be refugees whose lives were at risk; encroaching on our culture with their alien customs; claiming benefits and using our cash-strapped public services.

Never mind the lies and distortions that were concocted to feed these allegations. The underlying strategy is to divert the despairing and the furious from the real causes of the problems, and turn them to vent their feelings at scapegoats who ‘don’t belong here’.

It’s hardly a new tactic. Tribal nationalism has been around since the emergence of democratic politics in the 19th century made it impossible for the power-hungry to take over as rulers by force or through deals with the elite in society. So tribal nationalism was adopted as a populist tool to win votes. And it worked in France in the mid-19th century and Germany in the early 20th century, until it brought those countries to their respective ruin.

The Brexit-Trump phenomenon should be seen for what it is – not some unprecedented anti-establishment movement, but a regression to the old tribal nationalist formula which targets the vulnerable, gratifies the lowest common denominator among the disaffected, and serves the demagogues pulling the strings and anyone in the establishment willing to collaborate with them.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is this: tribal nationalism inevitably brings intimidation, the spread of hatred and prejudices, and violent conflicts; but if no one will come forward with an authentic agenda to tackle the problems we face, it will continue as the list of ‘others’ grows and persecution becomes the inescapable norm.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dr. Frankenstein, I presume

When the wealthy elite were looking to gain more political power in the 1970s, they realised that since they were a tiny minority, unless they gambled on bankrolling a military coup, their best bet was to come up with something that a large enough majority of the electorate might fall for.

Along came the creators of the New Right and their idea of political fusion. In short, they proposed to gather together motley parts from the electoral landscape and fuse them into an irresistible force. What these ideological Frankensteins set about cobbling together, with the financial backing of the superrich, was a political creature who would vote for anyone prepared to denounce all the horrid threats against ‘traditional values’, and never ask a single question about why the people they elect would make them poorer while helping the superrich get even richer.

So what are these threats against the ‘traditional values’ so beloved of the ‘moral majority’? Homosexuality, compassion for the poor, foreign customs, immigrants, any religion other than Christianity (or worse, no religion at all), women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies, the evil of taxation, any preference for diplomacy over wars, scepticism about capital punishment, and additionally, in the US, any form of gun control.

Press the right buttons, and the progeny of the New Right will rise, shout down anyone presented as posing or backing one or more of the above threats, and vote without a second thought for the candidates financed by the plutocrats to enrich themselves further.

But while it worked up to a point for the Thatchers and the Reagans, everyone knows that Frankenstein experiments don’t tend to end well. So in the 2010s we witness in the campaigns that led to Brexit and Trump becoming the Republican Presidential nominee, signs that things are getting out of control.

Establishment Tories and Republicans identify above all with the interests of big business, and they have only gone along with the stoking of bigotry because it helped them win elections. But the monster they tactically unleashed, fuelled by ever more hatred and anger, was no longer following its master’s tactics.

As the economy is endangered by reckless demands, vital investment jeopardised, the contributions of migrant workers rejected, and the business environment undermined by extreme political uncertainties, New Right leaders in Westminster and Washington are beginning to get worried. Yet as the whirlwind of prejudices and rage wreak havoc everywhere, they are too afraid and incompetent to do anything.

In the UK, the Brexit vote emboldened bigotry and hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the EU referendum [Note 1], accompanied by the pound sinking to a 31-year low as confidence in the British economy dissipates [Note 2]. In the US, Trump (vocally backed by Farage) not only endorsed violence perpetrated by his supporters, but actively promoted the notion that the Presidential election is rigged, leading to many of his followers openly discussing violent rebellion against Hilary Clinton [Note 3].

Many of us would indulge in a little schadenfreude given the self-inflicted plight of the New Right’s very own Dr. Frankensteins, if not for the fact that we too are afflicted by the chaos and misery they have brought about.

Note 1: Hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the Brexit vote compared with the previous fortnight:

Note 2: Drop in the value of sterling post-Brexit vote:

Note 3: Trump’s talk of rigged elections and his supporters’ reactions: