There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better. In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.
Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in. They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.
For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds. It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started. Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.
But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.
Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other social considerations.
Whatever the timetable, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.
Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt. Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all. But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.
This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.
It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.
All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism. Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.
Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.
To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly, because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.
The same in the UK. It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.
These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?
One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address. For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’ to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.
For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’ These fears are manifold. Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’. Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability. Fear of open borders.
Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.
On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage. Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.
Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness. Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.
In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.
The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse. There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.
This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance. We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.
This doesn’t mean aping the right. You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves. You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.
Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.
Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many of the ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security. They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.
But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place. ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.
That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it. To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash, and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.