POST-TRUTH (or post-factual) politics is term of the year according to Oxford Dictionaries. Sceptics might question when politics was ever about truth while history shows that the ascent of every totalitarian ideology, right or left, was accompanied by big lies. But the term does sum up in an appropriate way the contemporary global rise of authoritarian, right-wing populism.
It seems to have taken many people in positions of influence and power by surprise, a surprise in itself. After the financial crash of 2007 –2008 there were puzzled comments that ‘no one saw this coming’. The fact that the banks were breaking the basic laws of their trade developed over several centuries and paid an inevitable price was apparently a surprise. Or, to put it more bluntly, taxpayers paid a price while banks’ top executives continued to rake in the bonuses.
The anger generated by financial collapse and consequent austerity was eminently predictable, but widely ignored. One of the safety valves was almost certain to be grassroots nationalism and the only surprise is that it took so long to generate real political traction as it has done this year in the Brexit referendum result and the Trump victory. That political reptile, Nigel Farage, is unfortunately probably correct when he predicts more of the same in Europe in 2017, with France perhaps the litmus test.
The outcome is noxious, but the upsurge of nationalist populism is both easy to interpret and, to some extent, understandable. Its origins are inevitably complex but can be readily summarised: globalisation and the digital age. The first, reflective of the turn-of-the-century’s vacuous ‘end of history’ thesis has made the rich richer and many people across the world comfortably-off for the first time. But in the developed world it has left a trail of economic and social destruction as jobs have followed the free movement of exploitative capital. Where a limited amount of labour movement has been permitted to follow in the wake of capital migrant labour has often been bitterly resented by the local population.
Technology reinforces this dominance of capital even for skilled workers. Developments in robotics mean that humans are rapidly being replaced by machines in many jobs such as mining. The only secure employees in the future will be those in positions that require intellectual activity; in other words the relatively well-educated elite. Opportunities for formal employment are shrinking fast for most people.
Such developments have encouraged a wave of nostalgia that has taken on serious political meaning. Many people, especially those of advancing years, dislike the modern world. They do not want to be part of a global village, a multi-cultural connected world; and prefer to conserve their neighbourhood. They pine for the perceived certainties of the past – secure employment and cultural homogeneity. Much of what they look back towards did not exist, except in selective memory, but that is irrelevant. These are not just post-truth, post-factual politics, but the politics of emotion. And the emotions are hardly edifying: resentment, anger, philistinism, negativity and, above all, xenophobia and racism.
However, even well-balanced people may identify with some of the dissent. In many ways what we are witnessing is generational conflict. Put simplistically, grandparents are voting against the attitudes, lifestyles and aspirations of their grandchildren. The former see this as a last chance to stem the tide. They do not accept the end of history; in common with extremist religious fundamentalists, they want to reverse it. (There is another version: parents and grandparents have lost hope in generational progress.) Either way these are the emotions being exploited by elitist political charlatans such as Trump and Farage who claim to be the saviours of the disadvantaged and damaged. Simon Jenkins perceptively noted in The Guardian recently that it is no longer realistic to divide an electorate into left and right (although that presumably still applies to political policy): voters from across the old spectrum now categorise themselves as the aggrieved anti-establishment. But democracy cannot be reduced to their tactics, shouting loudly about prejudices and half-baked ideas.
The greatest victim of attempted historical reversal will be the freedoms associated with liberal democracy. This, in part, will be a failing of the political establishment. It has become complacent, self-serving and inbred. Farage is correct when he says that there are far too many career politicians without broader experience. There is an easy solution to that, but the trend is a growing sneering contempt not only for those in mainstream politics but also for anyone with opinions and expert knowledge that appear to contradict a populist line. It is a new form of peasants’ revolt, that of the poorly educated and ill-informed. This may explain why opinion polls have been underperforming: if they are seen as part of the political machinery, respondents may feel justified in misleading pollsters.
Those who took to the streets in response to Trump’s electoral college victory on a minority popular vote with a relatively low turnout have good reason. The rhetoric of authoritarian populism in the near future threatens the rights of all minorities. But in the long term it has implications for the liberties of entire populations and presents a challenge to the culture of human and civil rights that has made the globe a more civilised place since the end of the great wars of the twentieth century. It is a sobering thought that the writer George Monbiot believes he may see a major war between nuclear powers in his lifetime; in other words during the next 25 years.
Probably this is a product of exaggerated pessimism, but there are disturbing similarities between our times and the nineteen-thirties. Who, in 1920, imagined another world war within a generation? This is clearly a moment in global history when there is a desperate need for a convergence of those many strands of political thought that ultimately support the virtues of liberal democracy.
Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 51, 14 December 2016