2016 will be remembered as one of those break-point years when an old order started falling apart. The worrying thing is that there is no sign that any better new order will be born.
Still, 2016 had its uses. The series of victories by what had been unlikely personalities and movements — Rodrigo Duterte winning the Filipino presidency, Brexit, and of course, the Donald Trump victory, have been cathartic. Some good commentary in various media have followed as a result, full of soul-searching and self-criticism.
There is an emerging consensus that this moment was the comeuppence of neo-liberal capitalism. We had seen for decades a widening income and wealth gap. The signs of a stagnating and frustrated middle and working class had been accumulating. The celebration of anti-intellectual ignorance had gone on too long. Read this article: How a TV sitcom triggered the downfall for Western Civilisation
What we’re seeing here is the revolt of the non-elite. And yet, this is where things start getting even more worrying. Throughout history, we have rarely ever seen a revolting non-elite take proper charge, and work a path to a better future. Instead, they tend to get consumed by their own rage, turn heady over their initial success, and become self-destructive. This was as true of the French Revolution as of the Arab Spring.
However angry we may be about the elite that has taken us down this dead-end road, we will need an elite — maybe the same but wiser one, maybe a different corps – to chart a path to a new future. But where are they?
As yet, they’re nursing their wounds, or they’re still in denial. That said, having seen some very good commentary in recent months, the seeds of new thinking are perhaps germinating.
One thing I have found unsatisfactory, however, is the way we continue to treat two aspects of the revolt as separate issues. The two are the economic and the social (read: racist). I suspect this is because we are too accustomed to speak of these issues within their own spheres.
Also making it difficult to speak of the two issues together may be the fact that there are two different culprits. Economic grievances can be traced to the behaviour of multinational business and their henchmen, the neo-liberal school of economists, who have largely captured state machinery and state ideology in many countries. Social grievances are probably reactions to the leftist liberals who have dominated the conversation about the social agenda and human rights in Western countries.
Business and leftist liberals are an unlikely duo. Each often sees itself in opposition to the other. But I will argue here that they ended up reinforcing each other and jointly antagonised a broad swathe of ordinary folks.
It’s like this: At the heart of the issue today crisis of security. By that I mean security at a personal level – or lack of – as felt by the non-elites. Economic insecurity has lately been much discussed, with fingers pointing to globalisation, technology and capture of the state by the wealthy and big business. The indicting facts are pretty solid and I don’t need to dwell further on this.
Social and cultural insecurity is still being spoken of as moral failing. The racism and xenophobia exhibited by substantial numbers (but I stress: not all) of the revolting classes are still seen as character defects of the ignorant and unemployed. Doing so absolves the leftist liberals from having to do their own soul-searching.
But when I start referring to it as ‘social insecurity’ rather than ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia’, I offer a lens by which to examine the issue that is not so tinted with condescension.
The average person doesn’t always see security as divisible into parts. Economic insecurity cannot be firewalled from social and cultural insecurity. When the middle and working classes come under stress, they naturally look for causes (‘scapegoats’, if you like), and it goes without saying that globalisation has been one of the more powerful and visible ones. Globalisation means both exporting jobs to foreign countries – big business loves this – as much as importing cheap labour into home countries. The latter phenomenon we call migration which leftist liberals tend to embrace in the name of cosmopolitanism, world peace and the global village. Migration also happens to serve the interests of big business very well, and here you see their interests coinciding.
Liberals care about much more than migration, of course. They care about human rights generally. But they have too often forgotten that liberalism requires a generosity of spirit. We need to be able to remain unperturbed when someone else says offensive things in the name of freedom of speech; we need to be accommodating of people with different dress codes and food habits. But when people already feel pinched economically, and have come to view the Other as the personification of the hated globalisation and the reason for their loss, it will take herculean effort for them to feel generous.
Worse, the liberal and human rights rhetoric has lately been demanding that we bend over backwards to serve and accommodate foreigners and minorities, giving rise to the charge that we are expected to treat them better than our own. One extreme strand of liberal discourse, drunk on cultural relativism, dismisses the value of national cultural norms and implicitly opposes the call for migrants to assimilate and fit in. This strand is particularly threatening. It stabs at the very heart of people’s sense of community.
Here again can be seen an interlocking of neo-liberal capitalism and leftist liberalism. The former treats humans as economic commodities to the exclusion of social sensibilities; the latter dismisses social longings as atavistic and unsuited to the modern world.
There’s a lot more of rethinking to be done, but this far, I think three lessons are becoming clear. Let me list them:
If we value liberal democracy, we must not lose sight of a simple fact: people must feel secure enough to be generous in spirit. Neither liberalism nor democracy can survive if society is under stress and people feel it’s a winner-take-all system.We will need to keep progressivm at the centre of any new economics we develop. Equally, we must keep economics at the centre of liberalism. We must be careful not to speak of human rights and freedoms divorced from issues like social mobility, competition and basic provisions. As much as economists need to be more cognisant of sociology, liberal champions need to be more cognisant of economics.
The next lesson is more uncomfortable. Liberal democratic societies may need hard walls. It’s all very well to work towards a world where liberalism and democracy flourish everywhere, but the reality is that they do not. It may not be possible to have open borders – and by that, I mean open to capital movement and trade as much as open to migration – and still preserve liberal democracy in a society.
Controls over people movement are easily understood as necessary even if we disagree as to the appropriate degree. We know that uncontrolled migration creates enormous stress for society, importing as it does people and cultures that can be vastly different and who do not share the liberal and democratic ideas we hold dear.
Controls over capital and trade made need more explanation, but it shouldn’t be difficult to understand. How much can a society withstand the loss of investment and jobs to another country and not suffer social stress as a result? How much can local manufacturers be undercut by imported goods made in countries with exploited low-wage labour and no environmental standards, before they go bust, throwing citizens out of work? So long as we cannot tame the wild forces outside our borders, should we be married to ideas about open borders?
The third lesson may be this: In the long road back to sanity, we will need to compete with demagogues proferring easy solutions. Good solutions for running a society and economy are often complex, nuanced ones. They are hard enough to sell in ordinary times, even harder when whole populations have been brought up to turn their backs on knowledge and intelligence. Alas, that may be what is happening. Our elites have been much discreditted by the pain they have wrought on so many, and since they had claimed a monopoly on knowledge and thinking, these too have been discreditted. It’s going to be a hard slog rebuilding respect, yet it has to be done, for there is no foundation for a better society to be found in nostalgia, ignorance, falsehoods, and reflexive stupidity.