Dec 162016

Global events have been very difficult to follow in recent months, and undoubtedly the situation has changed a great deal in the last ten years. The true, yet unsuspected depth of this change has only revealed itself recently via democratic processes, whereas it usually remains hidden, thickly covered by the manipulations and deceits of party politics in the richer countries.

But there is an underlying sense to much of this, and we must accept that a gestalt change or even a ‘renversement des alliances’ is underway all over advanced societies and the wider global structures they have built. Fukuyama was right, but he was also very wrong. What has come to an end is not history, but the bipolar conflict, bequeathed by the Second World War, of a global liberal left against a global hard left.

Many groups, states and ideas emerged defeated from that war, but the most egregious losers were the nation-loving nationalists of the old style. What followed was the formation of a large number of supra-governmental creations, and a drive to defang the nation states that had given us a century of competition, conflict and war from 1848 to 1945. Welcome UN, NATO, EU, and all the other regional clubs.

In the Cold War that ensued, the liberal left eventually beat the hard left all over the world. The struggle against communism, both ideological and military, came to an end. But in labelling this as a terminal event Fukuyama was wrong, as he was about so many other things, which any pupil of Samuel Huntington was always likely to be.

The liberals beat the communists with economics. Hands down. And the national varieties within that victory revealed themselves as -isms preceded by names from Reagan to Blair. But economics was not enough for some, and there was always a grumble about culture underlying the liberal social agenda, with its tenderness to minorities, the unfortunate and the feeble. The anti-freedom agenda – seen as anti the right of the strong to exploit the weak – was fiercely resented, and mercilessly parodied all over the West, especially in North America.

Now we have a new game, in which the globally victorious left cannot beat the locally based right with economics, for two reasons. 1 Wealth was never enough for the right in its cultural, traditional or conformist strands. 2. The left-liberal project eventually ran into trouble over public debt and private speculation, leading to grand busts in the 2010s, of the Eurozone and the world’s banking systems.

And here we are, still living with political systems that were posited on historic left and right viewpoints – which certainly still exist – but which were built around party polarities that do not currently reflect the nature of public debate. And indeed an international community set up to combat various common threats upon which we no longer agree. The right have peeled away increasingly from the old liberal view of the world. Putin is now our friend. Why? Because he wants to fight Islam more vigorously than western governments. And for some he is a better national role model – strong, anti-gay, patriotic, decisive and so forth. Patriots within western countries now feel more able to support Putin, and his aims and methods, than their own governments. Patriotism has been redefined as a partial, conditional thing. My country is different from my government. I can hate my government, I can happily believe it is run by traitors, and I can wish it ill, while somehow wishing well on my country.

All across the left, the new dispensation has been embarrassing. The British Labour party has always found its left fringes in sympathy with terrorist groups, from the IRA to Hamas – because they were viewed as national, ‘people’s’ movements opposed to the capitalist west. But the current, Corbyn-led Labour party can produce little in the way of coherent policy toward the Middle East, because all the players there – religious extremists, hereditary monarchs. anti-democratic dictators – are all anti socialist. But some of them are also anti capitalist and anti western. ideological lines have become impenetrably tangled. The result has been a drastic bout of irrelevance for this kind of thinking, especially as the Levant has dissolved into complicated overlapping dyads, triangles and quadrilaterals of conflicting interests, covert and overt, the existence of which has removed the option of clear and logical side-taking, especially as all the participants are morally compromised in a variety of disgusting ways. Welcome, then, the return of medieval warfare, where the fight is dirty, the sides are fluid and the end result is never clear.

Result – most of what we have known is currently irrelevant, and party systems have not adapted. Donald Trump – the first non-party politician to rule a western democracy – will struggle to run a complex entity like the US with so few beholden friends, but meanwhile, both home and abroad, he can select his allies at will, untrammelled by previous alignments that all seem mired in old fashioned and inappropriate interests. So, at home his counsellors are his family, and his minions are star businessmen and military figures of a completely traditional, right wing, can-do type. And abroad, it’s down with China. a power that does matter, and up with Russia. a power that doesn’t.

Now, the prime conflict is not between liberal left and hard left on a global scale, it is between left and right in single, local arenas. The old arguments have not gone away, they have come back with renewed relevance and unrestrained vitriol. Alarmingly, the bitterness of this revived division has led to the abolition of most of the old common ground, while its eschewal of received norms has rendered all news sources, including national intelligence services, suspect. Facts are the first casualties of the renewed hostilities.

Welcome to the new bipolar, left-right world.


 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Dec 102016

The general reaction to current events seems to be bafflement – a stunned acceptance that nothing makes sense and that everything is changing. Respecfully, I disagree.

An important initial point is that all the current dislocation did not start with Brexit, but was well under way by the time Corbyn was elected in the UK. In fact. there was a lot of discernible movement after the 2008 crash, and it is possible to see all sorts of global disruption long before that. What we are seeing is the dismantling of the post-1945 consensus on a number of issues, an important harbinger of which was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The collapse of the USSR has had numerous other long-term, profound effects, and all that we are seeing now can be traced to that event in various ways.

But on the plane of political thinking, the situation is not as unclear as many seem to be willing to concede. For a start, the idea that left and right in politics has disappeared is not correct. These two general outlooks are alive and well, and will continue to thrive among their respective devotees. This familiar division is real and persistent, because it relates to so many important issues across the span of human affairs, particularly the levels, types and degrees of organisation we prefer, and those in turn are related to profound and real differences in human temperament that are activated in different circumstances. Our current modes of expression have changed, or evolved, but the fundamentals on which they rely are still in place.

The big revelation – the one that has thrown the commentators off axis – is that working class people still exist, and that they are quite capable of holding right wing views. This has never been a popular idea in left circles, but Disraeli built a career on it, and perhaps things haven’t changed quite as much since then as many had believed, or at least hoped.

Thus what we should be telling ourselves is not that left and right are dead or defunct, or that one is particularly dominant or well-placed to sustain a long-term dominance. Corbynism is a rehash of 1980s radicalism, and Trumpism is small-man populism from the 1930s rebranded. What has happened is that our party system has been revealed as out of kilter with the fundamental popular perceptions of our times. It is the politicians and their well-schooled machines – and pet projects – that are out of step, not the people or any traditional range of political philosophy.

Most interestingly, the brigade of political columnists are trying to place all this in various views of historical context – which decade are we in again? – but this is missing the point. We are in the 2010s, and, of course, everything is a bit different, and nothing is identical. We are certainly at a moment, like the 1830s, when the party political system makes an ill fit with social realities, and the political class – yes, there is one – will have to make concessions, or find itself out of employment, supplanted by a new cadre that better understands popular concerns. After the 1830s the artistos did fall; the liberal middle classes did take over the show. Something similar may yet happen in our lifetimes, with power moving away from the current cliques – the nexus of bankers, financiers, media moguls and hereditary super rich – to the tech barons or the petty bourgeois rabble rousers.

Internationally, the old bi-partite, Cold War world has gone, and Trump will not restore it. Bad news for the USA there. More revealingly, what is happening at the moment is a massive popular backlash against the political idealism of the later 1940s, and the social idealism of the later 1960s.

High art began to fragment in the 1950s, and popular culture caught up shortly afterwards. Uniquely propitious times were afoot – with a population explosion among the young, and a huge increase in global consumer spending power – two sonorous booms with enormous impact. What followed was a massive rise in the concept of individualism – social and cultural expressions of the self across the board, from religion to sex, via food, music and fashion. The two distinctive social expressions of that period, the rock band and the commune, were both radical attempts to recast social relationships and cultural endeavour, combining individuals in new, supposedly equal and more fitting ways. Old associative structures, particularly class, race, nation and denominational religion, were rejected as too confining, too rigid, and above all, too old. This was fine for the relatively privileged, better educated among the new global youth, who tended to be white and male. As this group was avidly disaggregating itself, a parallel restructuring was going on in several traditionally overlooked and under-organised groups, who could not wait to throw on the garb of collective identity. These included blacks, gays and women, all of whom began to organise in new and more vociferous ways.

This is the consensus that has been overthrown recently. We are back to desiring what is old and avowedly collective. The less educated white males of the West have rejected the power grab by the ‘minorities’, and have expressed a wish to reinstate what amounts to sexism, racism and homophobia. If you don’t believe me, read the comments, look at the banners. Nation is back, but sadly, with none of its inherent contradictions, absurdities and injustices resolved. Au contraire, they have been reemphasised, but dressed up in a newly selective idea of democracy, one in which small majorities (or even a minority in the case of Trump) are enthroned as unassailable and omnipotent. This ‘nu-democracy’ opens up a fresh prospect for our collective lives, in which new applicants cannot appropriately join an old, white, island nation. The new orthodoxy is that multiculturalism ‘doesn’t work’ – a fact now, proved and passionately believed. Make war not peace. Bring back mining.

Doubtless all of this will shake out in due time and we may eventually go back to nice, middle of the road politicians promising us life a little better than it is. The sad thing is that so many people seem to be about to get fooled again. What the Reagans, Clintons, Blairs and Camerons did was to over-promise for too long while not addressing a lot of the social and economic friction that a massive rise in the older population and a massive drop in consumer spending was wreaking across the wealth-hungry West. This has not been addressed in public culture at all, which has swanned on in a bubble of affluent aspiration. The Trumps and Brexiteers of this world, who have double over-promised, will not be able to deliver anything like the goodies they have sold us in advance. What they can deliver is a return to monoculturalism. And we all know where that leads – to stagnation and oppression.

So be careful what you wish for, people. Trumpism is the oldest kind of politics, but founded on bigger lies than anyone has seen for a while.

 Posted by at 7:43 am
Nov 132016

Astonishing developments. Uncertain times.

Several topics have emerged in the UK press after the US election, with hysterical handwringing on the left and absurd triumphalism on the right.

Amazingly, there is confidence among some Brexiteers and Trumpistas that liberal democracy ‘doesn’t work’, and that various things, including political correctness, welfareism, and mass migration are now over, near buried or dead.

Not quite.

For a start, the fact that majorities have appeared for certain candidates and causes – the loud, passionate ones – should indicate that liberal democracy works very well, which the (largely) peaceful acceptance of majority decisions confirms. Meanwhile, most of the virulent, undemocratic language has actually been deployed by majority cheerleaders bewailing any attempt to question any aspect of the two narrow victories concerned.

One thing, however, has again been made clear – that liberalism does not possess much of a sense of urgency about it. But it never did have. and this is not news. Ideological causes always possess a central sense of pressing necessity. Liberals have never suffered from such a sense, and liberalism is the very definition of gradualist belief. Nor does it possess specifics of time and place to force it into action. So at times of stress and danger, the vague generosities of liberalism have never suited the bill.

Thus the announcement of the death of liberalism and its associated soft-heartedness should not be trumpeted just yet. Those on the newly invigorated right should be careful what they wish for. Every political liberty and entitlement they enjoy is a liberal bequest.

The crisis to come will not be the temporary failure of liberal governments to deal adequately with the end of the Cold War and the crash of 2008, it will be the impending right wing crisis of heightened expectations and internal contradiction.

Neither Brexit nor Trump will deliver what the manifestos promised, not least because there were none and enthusiasts all wrote their own. Nations, if we now somehow have them back again, will still have to choose between prosperity and conformity.

There is no new politics on offer. Just the old, old, old kind.


 Posted by at 2:48 pm
Aug 142016

I have just spent a fairly lazy morning dotting about on YouTube, letting its helpful sidebar of suggestions lead me where it will. I ended up watching a few of dozen, entirely US, clips about impending world apocalypse, meaning US apocalypse, meaning the collapse of the dollar economy.

I remain unpersuaded except of two things. One is that it is always really difficult to get independent financial advice. All these people are either nakedly politically biased, or they are promoting ‘How To’ books on how to survive the imminent collapse of civilisation (by wise investments!), or they are running a non-mainstream media platform that makes them money. None of this sets us up for level-headed, dispassionate analysis. My one take away, is that it is not a good idea to fix the worst credit crisis in history by creating an even bigger credit bubble.

One other thing that strikes me is that the US-based discussion seems to be a passionate civil war between rival right wing camps. There is far more left-of-centre commentary available in Europe, it seems, or maybe I am living in too small a space, thanks to the many constricting factors in my alleged liberty to consume opinions – like guided choice sidebars, for instance. So much of what seems to be at issue, even Clinton vs. Trump, seems to be an argument pitched very far to the right of anything I grew up with. Any arguments between free marketeers and cultural conservatives seems not to be resoluble in a left-right frame, and is about clashes of priority – what those on the right used to call ‘values’ – and can only be settled by re-articulating what those values are. Freedom vs. what? Cultural homogeneity? Someone has to sort this out in plain language.

And to go with the right wing civil war, I am surprised that so many of the US commentators seem completely unable to understand the Middle East. They all seem to think that conflicts must have two clear sides, and that the US has to be on one, and that that side will be ‘right’. Sigh. Just because the CIA backed the mujahideen in the 80s against the USSR doesn’t mean that Obama backs ISIS, or created it. It really doesn’t.

The whole ISIS phenomenon is the product of a multi-stranded civil war within Islam. Most of the figthers are Muslims, most of the casualties are Muslims, the backers of ISIS, such as they are, are all Muslim, as are most of their enemies. The war with the West is a distraction and a false trail. To fall for the Islamophobic rhetoric of demagogues is to do more damage than we need to, both here and there.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Jun 242016

So, the people have spoken. Or rather they have mumbled, because nobody knows what they really voted for, because the Leave offer was all about passion and sentiment, not detail. In the end we have had the biggest by-election in our history that has garnered the most massive protest vote ever seen. Good-bye EU, and probably UK too.

Is Farage the new messiah? Or just a careless, irresponsible gadfly who has amused himself for years without threat of responsibility. I hate to think that he is really the man most in tune with the mood of modern Britain. We should be careful what we wish for.

We must now live with our new freedom, and maybe some good will come of it. But what, and how? What if the 52% do not actually get what they want out of this? In voting for greater security and higher living standards, they may well have made both less likely. Smashing up the UK and the EU might not look like such a good idea in a minute. And if they do not get what they want, what will they pull down next?

 Posted by at 10:14 am
Jun 222016

The one we are having, and will have for a while – either way.

Referendums are not a good thing on the whole , and they are awful if they are close. A close vote and no one is happy. Plus we may well be in a position where we have a House of Commons that is pro Europe and an electorate that isn’t. Commons versus people. Where does that leave our lovely sovereignty then?

I am also troubled by the whiff of consumerism here. We the voters have been given a switch and told that if we press it we get what we want. No mediation, no grey areas. In out. us them, freedom slavery – whatever. But the world is not like that. Politics gives us our world, and allows us infinitesimal adjustments and adaptations to circumstances. Referendums don’t do this. Governments – human beings, that is – do.

Worse, the current divide is posited on the idea that we, the British, would be better off spared the need to interact with foreigners – they are unreliable, malign – and all in collusion against us, led by this weird unelected Illuminatariat in Brussels. Well, our bureaucrats aren’t elected either. Nor are our judges, and they sometimes strike down the decisions of our government. Just ask Michael ‘Sovereignty’ Howard.

My point is that we are all condemned to a life dominated by politics, unless we opt for dictatorship. And this whole referendum scenario has assumed that we are not.

I am not sure that the exit camp will actually get anything like what they want. I would cheer if the EU reformed itself. But if it does so without us in it, or breaks up into nation states again, how will we be more secure? And do they want to kiss Ireland and Scotland goodbye on their way to a new, freer future?

Exit say the world has moved on, that the EU is outdated and restrictive. Perhaps. It is certainly protective, but so will we be if we get out. Outers just want a smaller circle to defend. History may not be on the EU’s side, but I find it hard to believe that every serving British Prime Minister for fifty years – that means people who actually exercised responsible power – are all wrong and Nigel Farage, a man with no responsibility to anyone or anything, is right.

Personally I believe that we need small political units for democracy and large units for peace. Farage claims that it is NATO that has kept the peace, but with the EU in place it is inconceivable that there could be war in Europe.

We will have to do politics, among ourselves and with our neighbours. We can do it in a club, or out. But it is a very bad idea, historically, to antagonise one’s neighbours. I said it about Scotland, and at least for the sake of consistency I have to say it about Europe. I fear that both local and long-distance politics will be a lot harder after leaving.

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Jun 202016

This has all become a terrible mess. We are having a referendum for no particularly good reason, it has hit democracy on all of its weak spots and degenerated into such a cavalcade of misrepresentation that it is hard to see anything good coming out of it.

Its origins lie in the run-up to the last general election, and it has continued as a knife fight among the present cabinet. Most obviously it is the child of a serious split on the right of British politics, and it is more about the deep fissures between capitalism and nationalism than anything else.

As a result we are essentially having a general election by proxy, and the British public appear to be about to elect the hardest right government we have had in generations, something it would never do at any national poll. The issues have been skewed so badly that the moderate right pitch about prosperity has been entirely swept away by the hard right fear of immigration. Well done boys, break my country why don’t you?

Referendums are a very mixed blessing. They should be about simple issues, like the voting system, where arguments can actually sway people, and office is not at stake. Here we have a disproportionate amount of passion on one side and a limp hope for the better on the other. That’s not clever in politics. It’s also dumb to put up an issue that doesn’t need to be decided now, and is of such complexity that it should be taken by a government. All the other decisions about the European project have been taken by Prime Ministers in cabinet – all of whom since Macmillan have been pro-European, and none of them stood for election on that specific issue. The European project has never been a high priority for any of Britain’s voters, except those at the fringes of left and right who have always seen it as a conspiracy of some kind.

Now in the middle of a global revolt against elites, we are asking an apparently simple question to an electorate that is so riled up that it can’t disentangle entirely unconnected issues, and is being encouraged to conflate them by deliberate spin-doctoring – so that the NHS and Premiership football have moved into questions about international relations.

So, the reasoning, the question, the timing, and the conduct of this campaign are all bad in their ways. And we can see again, exactly as in the Scottish event of two years ago, that the whole idea of optimism is being abused. One person’s optimism is another’s delusional, hyperventilating fantasy. As with Scottish independence, leaving will solve almost nothing. We will recover economically either way. But what will be lost is harder to see, as is persuading people of its value.

Last thing. If Brexit wins, if the optimistic, confident, patriotic pitch is persuasive, if we smash up so many things at once, is it reasonable to assume that all the pieces will fall where we want them to?

 Posted by at 6:23 am
Jun 032016

There is an intelligent debate to be had about Britain and the EU. Unfortunately it’s not the one we are having.

Take back control! What a good slogan – and one that is difficult to get past to consider anything else. But we should ask: control of what, and from whom?

Instead of a debate about issues we are now locked in something very like an election, where each side is making its ‘offer’. But we are not electing a government. The same Prime Minister, leading the same government, will see the sun come up the day after we stay or leave. Point being – realistic or fantastical, can Johnson and Farage, neither of whom holds office, deliver any of their promises about anything? Furthermore, this is a constitutional debate about the functioning of our legal system and democracy at least as much as it is about short-term economic goodies.

Democracy is a blessing and a curse, in that it winds people up and inflames passions sometimes to little good effect.

 Posted by at 7:41 pm