Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Guest post: Living in the Last Days of Liberalism

I, like many, have wondered where to start in writing about Brexit and the wider geopolitical implications. I've struggled to come to terms with the idea that a majority, no matter how slim, and no matter how misled by the agendas of a few super-rich oligarchs, could seek to undermine a hard-won lesson in cooperation. That Europe could survive two of the bloodiest, most destructive wars in history and still come to the conclusion that working as individuals - or as individual nations - was preferable to working together is anathema to me.

We rightly laugh at the tale of a young woman on a bus, speaking a language other than English, being confronted with the comment 'You're in England, you should speak English', only to be told that the woman was actually in Wales and speaking Welsh. However, we don't properly recognise, in this comic situation, the regression our society has undergone in recent times.

I recall a childhood, as an Irish person born in England, in which I was vilified as 'the enemy'. Assumed to be an IRA sympathiser because my name was Murphy. Bullied from school to school, by pupil and teacher alike, and leaving at a ridiculously young age, driven by fear, and never fulfilling my potential, all because of some jingoistic assumptions about my loyalties. The really funny thing is that this attitude toward me is the main reason I still think of myself as Irish, even all these years later. How could I, somebody born and largely raised in England, possibly consider myself a native of my home while others insisted I was a foreigner? And that's as a member of a nation largely responsible for building the infrastructure that makes Britain work. 

Most of my family who lived here (almost all have returned to Ireland now) came to build the motorway network, the famous 'boys from the black stuff'. Dad was the foreman on one of the early Manchester shopping centres, a brilliant and stifled intellectual with far and away the best spatial awareness of anybody I've ever known (he could look at a wall 500 yards away and not only tell you which bond had been employed, but the dimensions of the wall and how many bricks had been used).

I'm a rare case, only because I always loved to learn, so I continued my education on my own terms, but I know of many who fell by the wayside, not always for the same reasons, but mostly with the same effect. I'm also acutely aware of where the huge gaps in my knowledge and understanding are and how, had I managed to stay in school, I might have achieved much more.

I was also lucky in having chosen a course in which lacking a formal education didn't necessarily equate to a massive disadvantage. I never reached the pinnacle of my profession, but ho-hum.

That's all by-the-by, though. The real point here is that, in the time since the vote, people are experiencing prejudice and racism on a scale not seen since I was young and experienced it myself. I recall tweeting as the first post-referendum reports came in that I was waiting for people to realise that I had an Irish name. People who were born and grew up here as productive members of society are being treated as pariahs by a regressive right that must have been bubbling away for some 30 years, many of them experiencing blatant racism for the first time, with comments such as 'go home, we voted you out'. 

I saw with disgust the first banner with the National Front logo on it only a couple of days after the result, and hate crime has ramped up to 500% of previous levels, according to police reports.

I had mistakenly thought, in the time since that difficult childhood, that Britain had become a pluralistic society, making slow progress toward really being a player on the world stage. Indeed, I had defended the nation of my birth, insisting that we were somehow more than the sum of our history, and that we could lead the world in being a tolerant, accepting and, above all, diverse society. To find out that this was all a delusion is possibly the most troubling realisation in the shattering of my naïveté.

Anyhoo, after all that waffle, I want to cede the floor to one of my dearest friends. He's among the most intelligent people I've ever known, and a beautiful person to boot. An Australian deeply read in philosophy, history and economics, he worked for some years in the city in London, until he saw the writing on the wall.

Ladles and jellyspoons, the brilliant Tim Goodacre.

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2016 will go down in history as a major turning point for humanity. And not, I fear, for the better. It is the year that many a chicken has come home to roost. The future, as always, is opaque, but the signs are far from encouraging and there is a good chance that we are entering a dark phase of history. The recently unthinkable is not only now being thought, but is being enacted by opportunists, and cheered on by many, many more. Not in seven decades has there been so much dry tinder in the world: a spark could easily set off a conflagration that will be out of our control. At this moment dozen of major problems are at breaking point, each with the potential to catalyse the others, setting off unpredictable chain reactions. Parties of the far-right are growing in popularity in the UK, US, and in many parts of Europe, while the leader of Russia, nostalgic for the good old days of Pravda and the KGB, looks on in delight. History is absolutely clear on where all of this leads. Pure emotion is driving a lot of the politics right now, and reason is not the currency of discourse. Nevertheless, it is important to try to understand where we are, how we got here, and to look at some of the places current events may take us.

Whatever else they may be, the events of this year represent a long-developing crisis of liberalism. Liberalism means many things – it means human rights, democracy, tolerance, freedom of choice, autonomy, and peaceful cooperation through shared institutions. It has also come to mean free trade, global capitalism, privatisation, deregulation and corporatism. This latter set is seen by its advocates as the perfect manifestation of freedom of choice and autonomy, a moralised vision of markets that free people from the tyranny of government, harking back to liberalism’s Lockean anti-monarchic origins. This strain of liberalism – neoliberalism, or classical liberalism – was strong in the US and UK in the 19th century, diminished in the twentieth century, and has resurged to become globally dominant again since the mid-1970s. Between these visions of liberalism – human rights, tolerance and democracy on the one hand, and capitalism on the other – lie deep contradictions.

The resolution of these contradictions has been in favour of the neoliberal vision. The consequences have been social upheaval, disintegration of communities, economic insecurity, the neutering of democracy, and a massive rise in inequality. Human rights have suffered under the bonfire of deregulation as they came to be seen as intrusions into the rights of property holders, and whose provisions have increasingly been privatised or made subject to voluntarism. Democracy, likewise, has come to be seen as an unwarranted intrusion by the tyranny of the majority on the rights of individuals and the spontaneous free order of the market: nowhere is this clearer than in the current negotiations to institute international trade agreements that give multinational corporations the right to sue governments for any regulations that may harm their business interests.

The most significant effect of the neoliberal era is the extraordinary growth in inequality. Accompanying the anti-government tendencies of neoliberalism is a belief that these inequalities are morally unimportant and that the incentives they create benefit everyone: among the most devout advocates, these inequalities mark out the worthy from the unworthy. The “trickle-down effect” – that unbridled benefits to the best off produce benefits for everyone else – is held as dogma, despite all evidence to the contrary: median wages have remained stagnant where neoliberal policies were most aggressively pursued, with the gains being concentrated in a very small number of hands. These inequalities have translated into democratic inequalities, granting inordinate influence to large corporations and wealthy individuals on regulation which has only served to reinforce both their position and the neoliberal movement itself. Inequality directly undermines democratic decision making while simultaneously transforming citizens into customers of government. It also undermines the underlying conditions of democracy. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau fruitfully observed two-and-a-half centuries ago, inequalities – of power, of opportunities, of resources – breed domination. People who are dominated by forces they feel powerless against redirect their anger against those they can reach, kicking down against those weaker than themselves, ossifying the hierarchy of domination by oppressing the most vulnerable. This creates immediate costs to individuals. They are driven to protect their relative position while at the same time to actively harm others in attempting to do the same in a game where no one, or at best a tiny few, can win. Insecurity, fear, and the fruitless quest for the unobtainable create the conditions for populism and demagoguery to emerge, and for unscrupulous leaders to feed – and feed off – the dissatisfaction of the masses. The individual desire to feel some power results in coalitions that transpose their fears onto other groups: it doesn’t matter much who is in that group – a religious group, or an ethnic group, or a foreign country – just so long as they are more or less powerless to respond. Such a situation, Rousseau predicted, will likely produce war. With the inequalities produced by the market, the twin liberal goals of democracy and tolerance die.

This dynamic that translates economic insecurity into populism played out in Europe in the events leading to the Second World War. The economic sanctions following the First World War created the social conditions for Nazism to rise (so admirably predicted by Keynes). The great depression (that grand failure of the earlier neoliberal experiment) reinforced this, while creating similar conditions in other countries. The result was a war that engulfed the entire world, with tens of millions of deaths and unprecedented suffering.

The astute observer might see a very similar dynamic at play today. Four decades of neoliberal policy culminated in the financial crisis of 2008, plunging the world into economic recession. Nothing substantial has been done to address that crisis, and in many ways it is ongoing. What little has been done has been to the benefit of the best off, with the rest subject to harsh “austerity” programs. We are not yet near war and we may still avoid it. But the stage of populism and demagoguery is very much upon us. In the US, Trump has run a remarkably successful presidential primary campaign based on populist fears and fabrications. Far-right parties are growing rapidly across Europe. Austria very nearly elected a far-right president just weeks ago, and may still do so as the original result has been annulled, requiring the election to be re-run.

A stark example of the Rousseauean dynamic was given a little over a week ago by the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. That the EU is in need of serious reform is undeniable and I return to this below. But for the moment I want to focus on how the UK’s decision played out. The “Brexit” vote has had significant immediate implications. The UK has been hit by economic turmoil with sharp implications for other countries, both major political parties in the UK are engaging in the most Machiavellian kind of politics leaving the country leaderless, there has been a stark increase in racial hate crimes, the UK itself stands in danger of dissolving, and extremists across Europe are using the vote result as rallying cry. The referendum was “advisory” rather than binding on the government and it remains an open question as to whether it will come to pass (not carrying the vote through carries its own set of social dangers). But whether it does so is not the main issue. What matters is what is tells us about the world today.

The UK could have had a serious debate about European reform, and thus led the way. This is not what they did. What in fact happened was a combination of political opportunism by self-interested politicians looking to gain advantage, a fanatical and fact-free campaign, and a press dominated by an oligopoly. When I left the UK three years ago, the government was actively engaged in a rhetoric of divisive scapegoating, at that time of the poor and the unemployed, cheered on by much of the press in what often crossed the line into hate speech – this was one reason I left. The quality of public discourse in the Brexit debate makes that time look like sunshine and goodness. Campaigners on both sides opted instead to simply fabricate facts. In the Remain camp, rather than explain the importance of Europe, they chose to focus on the negative consequences of leaving (some was fantasy but, in fact, many of these predictions now look to be understatements). On the Leave side, the campaign was largely focussed on scapegoating immigrants on the one hand, and appealing to a narrow notion of patriotism on the other. The issues involved are complex and people voted for diverse reasons, but two headline issues were the focus of by the Leave campaign: national sovereignty and immigration. I’ll talk a bit about these.

Reclaiming sovereignty was one major theme in the referendum. This is, at least at first glance, a legitimate concern. But to locate the source of the loss of local control within the EU is a serious mistake. The foundation of the present woes of many Brits is to be found not in Brussels but in Westminster. It is the consequence of deliberate domestic policy over the last four decades. Thatcher’s proclamation that “there is no such thing as society” was less a description than an ambition, one that has been largely realised today, as attested to by the divisions revealed by the referendum. The UK was always a leader on the matter of free trade, deregulation, and privatisation. The neoliberal zeal that is now omnipresent finds its roots there (and in the US): the contagion spread to Europe from the UK, and not the other way around. The Leavers may have reclaimed a limited sort of formal, hollow sovereignty. The UK may be once again be politically autonomous, in a very limited sort of way. But for most people, this just means that they have passed control to a more local group of elites, no more accountable, and perhaps less so, than those they believe they have rejected. The sovereignty they have reclaimed is a hereditary monarchy, an unelected upper house, and a lower house run by Etonians, all of this within a class system that has resurged under neoliberalism’s lead. National sovereignty under these conditions cannot give the personal control over their lives that people desire. It will not give personal security or flourishing. The material and democratic sovereignty that they yearn for was privatised and sold off four decades ago to the lowest bidder, a process that has been enthusiastically reinforced by subsequent governments. With the EU and its pesky and “onerous” regulations out of the way (including worker protections, and protections of human rights), Thatcher’s destructive project can now move to completion.

The jingoistic nationalism pales into insignificance compared to the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration. While obviously many who voted to leave were not driven by racism, the Leave campaign deliberately chose to make this a central issue, tapping into social fears that, one suspects, they barely understood the force of. Whatever may be said of the voters, the campaign itself was overtly racist. It relied heavily on scaremongering about a Muslim invasion coming in from Turkey (which is never going to happen), combined with vibrant imagery of EU citizens, particularly eastern Europeans, queueing up at the border to take away jobs. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, it is said. This is likely to have serious ongoing consequences – for the safety of many people in the UK itself, but also for the ongoing quality of discourse. The demographic breakdown of the vote tells a fascinating story on immigration. Those who voted to leave consistently come from low immigration areas, while remain voters were largely from higher immigration areas. Moreover, UK immigration is relatively low compared to other OECD countries. On the other hand, leave voters were predominantly from areas with economic deprivation and unemployment, residents of those parts of England that were allowed to fall into decay from the 1980s onwards. It is here that we find our story – the disenfranchised who have been subjected to forces outside of their control, and furious at whoever presents a target.

So while the referendum was superficially about issues of immigration and sovereignty, it is clear that these concerns are distracting surface symptoms rather than the underlying problem. Like Trump’s rise in the US, and Austria’s yet-to-be-determined presidential election, the referendum is, more than anything else, a measure of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was a referendum where one question was asked and a set of very different ones answered. A marginalised and voiceless people, finally offered a chance to speak, but with a vocabulary of only two words, spoke with a terrifying roar. The phenomenon of “regrexit”, where people who voted to leave didn’t believe it would happen and used the referendum as a form of protest, attests to the limited voice that people believe they have.

What then of the EU? The union is facing serious existential problems. The Euro currency has been a disaster for many member countries, removing from their control the ability to address their domestic economic problems through interest rates and debt. The fundamental (and very neoliberal) mistake is in failing to recognise that economies are political units. The European Central Bank is loathed by many: a wholly unaccountable body that sets the baseline of so much European interaction (central bank independence being another neoliberal legacy). The lack of fiscal policy to manage differentials between the countries and compensate for the lack of domestic fiscal authority lies at the heart of many of the problems in Europe. Should we conclude that the EU is over? For centuries, Europe was the bloodiest and most bellicose place on Earth. The monarchical and imperial wars of earlier centuries mutated into the most deadly nationalistic wars of the twentieth century. The EU and its predecessor’s first goal was to prevent that ever happening again. Through interdependence would come peace – a very liberal goal. Measured by enduring peace, the European Union has been a remarkable success. Seven decades without war in core Europe, France and Germany coexisting on good terms, and the European satellites of the Soviet Union more recently integrated. But with that peace has come forgetfulness. With forgetfulness has come a yearning for a return to a Europe of petty nationalism, and a return to the risks of the past. It is a serious prospect now that countries like France and Austria might leave the union, and may do so under far-right governments. No sane person would accept this as a desirable outcome. Europe needs serious reform. It needs to resolve its internal liberal contradictions. It was built on states that, with the fresh memory of war and its causes, created social structures to protect the most vulnerable. These structures have been undermined by the overlaying of neoliberalism onto Europe. Political accountability needs urgent attention, done in a way that properly unifies Europe with a true democracy that recognises the voices of the weaker states as much as those of the stronger ones. It needs to become a proper federation and not just another glorified neoliberal trade agreement. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Where to next? The best possible outcome right now is that, free of Britain’s fanatical neoliberal influence, Europe will wake up and embrace the necessary progressive social reforms, reconstructing the essential social frameworks that have been eroded, and move forth in a new chapter of the European project. This seems to me hopelessly unrealistic at the moment. The task of a political reform that accounts for more than individualistic economic concerns is made immeasurably more difficult by the current emotional mood. The cancer of neoliberalism has deep roots in the European establishment. The worst case is that countries like France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany hand over their democracies to their far-right politicians, Europe returns to the petty and vicious nationalisms of the past with all the trailing consequences that this implies, and the rest of the world follows down this dark pit. If so, then we are truly living in the last days of liberalism. We cannot predict the future but we should have absolutely no doubt as to where we are right now. The shit, as the saying goes, just got real.

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Real indeed. I leave you with the words of Edmund Burke:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.Tim Goodacre's own blog can be found HERE.

His marvellous music can be found HERE.