May You Live in Interesting Times

“More and more, people don’t trust their elites. They don’t trust their economic leaders, and they don’t trust their political leaders,”. This was the lament of Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble at an IMF meeting.

With the Brexit vote in June, coming less than a year after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the elites were delivered a rude reminder that the world had changed.

This world is now marked by polarisation and volatility where events can change at debilitating pace, sometimes turning on a sixpence in a matter of hours.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage celebrates winning EU referendum campaign

Astonished by events

Seeing as they are often intimate with the events leading to upheaval, it’s remarkable how little awareness journalists, politicians and state agencies have of impeding crisis.

Take two very different examples.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor in setting fire to himself in protest at arbitrary police harassment became a trigger for the so called ‘Arab Spring’. The police behaviour was an ingrained habit, they were completely unaware of the part they were playing in the accumulation of bitterness, resentment and hatred towards them and the regime.

However, the warning signs were under the very noses of the regime and its allies. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 revealed that:

“…Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behavior. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia’s high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.”

The election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 is another example of the establishment being caught out by events.

Tony Blair, in his despair at the Corbyn phenomena, admitted:

“You just don’t get it.” I confess they’re right. I don’t get it, but I’m trying hard”.

“But people like me have a lot of thinking to do. We don’t yet properly understand this. It is about to transform a political institution we spent our whole lives defending. But it is part of something much bigger in politics.”

Rising discontent

Since the 1980s workers across the advanced economies have experienced wage stagnation and increasing inequality. They have also been witness to the devastation of traditional high wage high skilled industries which have brought in its wake low skilled insecure jobs. The 2007/08 financial crash introduced large sections of the middle classes to the same job and financial insecurity. Add to that, for the first time in generations young people will be worse off than their parents.

The rapid changes experienced over the last three decades have placed enormous stresses on ordinary people. All the old certainties of a stable career, a house, a family have gone. This is why the call to ‘take back control’ found such a powerful echo in the EU referendum campaign.

Greece protests
Greek protests against austerity

It’s not only the ruling classes that are being rejected, it is the political classes generally. Traditional left organisations adopting austerity policies suffered as they were seen as complicit with the establishment. This found its most stark expression in the annihilation of Greece’s PASOK, who were swept away by Syriza.

In the UK the culture and history of the mass party of Labour differs from its continental counterparts with its Trades Unions links and deep roots into almost every community in the country. In common with its continental counterparts though, its entwinement with the establishment has resulted in challenges from the SNP and UKIP. It’s premature to talk of Labour’s irrelevance or decline at this stage, to do so is nothing more than hubris.

Protest crystallising around Labour

While there have been protests, these have been around single issues such as student fees, Iraq war, fracking and so on. But when there is generalised political discontent, when the motive force behind protest causes all the strands to combine into a unified movement it tends to find its expression in the Labour Party. The more shrewd representatives of the elites can see the embryonic form of this in the massive surge of Labour membership. This is what is behind the daily vitriolic attacks on the left.

Tops of the trees sway first

There’s a saying that the ‘wind sways the tops of the trees first’. It begins with the ruling classes realising that they are reaching an impasse. Economically and politically the usual methods break down. Splits appear over the way forward. The EU referendum was fought very much on the battle ground of the elites. They disagree over the best strategy in the face of increasing competition and stubbornly low productivity. They also fear for the UK’s world position at a time of the rapid rise of China and a more assertive Russia.

Instability and the strategically illiterate elite

The EU referendum was a reflection of the disagreements of the ruling classes being fought out in the Conservative Party. The referendum result, coupled with incidents such as the Libya intervention which degenerated into chaos, characterises sections of the ruling classes and their allies as strategically illiterate.

There’s no doubt they’ll lead us into more fiascos and there’s no doubt ordinary people will pay the price for their failures.

The stage is set for more dramatic events and greater convulsions. Instability and polarisation will become the ‘new normal’ with the much vaunted centre ground[1] disappearing.

The ‘Chinese’ curse “may you live in interesting times” was coined as a way of wishing trouble on others. This seems, after the misery they’ve have heaped on ordinary people, a rather apt curse to wish upon the elites…

Gary Hollands – October 17th 2016

Notes and references

1. It’s worth dwelling on appeals to ‘occupy the middle or centre ground’. Many commentators seem to hold what is a mechanical outlook, viewing the political spectrum as something static and fixed width. In this schema the left and right occupy clearly defined positions from the extreme to the desired ‘moderate’ centre ground.

This is clearly a faulty analysis; firstly the so called centre ground not a fixed point. The middle ground, and what is left and right, changes with time and place. Thirty years ago Jeremy Corbyn would have been regarded as ‘soft left’ and in line with the main stream of the Labour Party. Many of his policies would be viewed for instance in Germany and France today as uncontroversial.

Secondly; There is an inherent flaw in trying to move to the centre ground, the centre is always shifting and it’s inevitable that one chases events only to end up looking at the backside of history.

Thirdly it’s a fallacy to treat the political spectrum as some sort of fixed width phenomenon with a percentage assigned to the right here, a percentage belongs to the left there and the remainder is the centre.

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