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.