Friday, 4 March 2016

We live in the age of the ignorant

This is not a good time to be in the punditry business. It's as well to recognise the fact: none of us has a clue what's going on.

Donald Trump? How did that happen?

Europe's unprecedented migration crisis? Who saw that coming?

And of course no one, apart from Samantha, thought that David Cameron was going to win last year's general election.

All of which, frankly, makes me a little bit scared. If the people who are meant to understand what's going on around us plainly don't, then where does that leave us? Thrashing around in the dark, trying to find the door marked Exit?

Perhaps there's nothing new about this. I was reminded a couple of days ago of how the New York Times reported on a new political figure who was making his mark in Germany back in November 1922: 'Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organisation is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.'

Which sounds uncannily similar to what some commentators have been saying about Mr Trump's apparently unstoppable campaign to be nominated as the Republican party's candidate for the US presidency in November. I just hope they're not as wrong  as the New York Times was about Mr Hitler 94 years ago.

So why are we all at sea? While acknowledging that I'm as likely to be wrong about this as everyone else is about everything else, here are some suggestions. First, because since the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism in Russia and eastern Europe, and the development of a global economic system with the free movement of capital, none of the old assumptions about political and economic balances work any more.

Second, because since the near collapse of the global banking system in 2007-8, our confidence in the people who are notionally running the global economy has been shattered. We live in daily fear of it happening again. And third, because when people who are already scared see unprecedented numbers of foreigners heading for their shores (or in the case of Germany in the 1920s and 30s, are told that an alien presence in their midst are to blame) they become seriously frightened and latch on to anyone who claims to be strong enough and brave enough to do something about it.

It's a shame that more people don't take Italian politics seriously. Because if you want to understand Trump ('a phony and a fraud', according to Mitt Romney, who was the Republicans' candidate four years ago), you need look only at Silvio Berlusconi: a billionaire tycoon who effortlessly filled a political vacuum when the old elite crumbled into irrelevance. Like Trump, Berlusconi was a braggart, a liar, and a demagogue. In office, however, he achieved virtually nothing, except to fend off a never-ending procession of legal cases against him. The Italian economy stagnated and unemployment soared. The saviour of the nation ended up saving precisely nothing. American voters, take note …

Like Trump, Berlusconi was mocked mercilessly by his country's intelligentsia. How could Italy, a country that produced Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and Puccini, end up being governed by a former crooner with dyed hair, endless facelifts, and an apparently uncontrollable libido? But mockery is never an effective response to fear -- or to anger, when voters decide that they have had enough of ineffective political leaders who have taken them to the brink of financial ruin. And while it is easy to dismiss as deluded those who rally to the demagogues' banners, it is hard to argue that the traditional ruling classes have a proven record of superior wisdom.

So when Europe's chatterati tut into their prosecco (yes, I've done it, too) at the stupidity of the American voters who are flocking to support Trump, they need to look closer to home, at what the American publication Businessweek calls the 'Euro-Trumps'. They are the ones, in nearly every country of the EU, whose emergence 'has been driven by the growing importance of immigration as a political issue, nurtured by a feeling that the European Union has become unresponsive to the will of the people … nationalist politicians [who] have been pushed into prominence by the long economic stagnation that’s followed the 2008 financial crisis.'

What is interesting -- and deeply worrying -- about the Euro-Trumps, and it applies equally to The Donald himself, is that they are not necessarily extreme conservatives or neo-liberals. Those of them who bother to spell out their economic policies sound much more, and I'm sorry about the inevitable historical resonance, like nationalist socialists. As Roger Cohen put it in the New York Times: 'Europe knows how democracies collapse, after lost wars, in times of fear and anger and economic hardship, when the pouting demagogue appears with his pageantry and promises ... As Europe knows, democracies do die. Often, they are the midwives of their own demise. Once lost, the cost of recovery is high.'

As it happens, and despite all of the above, I do not believe that all is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds (with apologies to Candide).  Crime rates have been falling dramatically in all the world's richest countries over the last couple of decades (although no one is quite sure why); global literacy rates are at record levels; and child and maternal mortality rates have fallen sharply. Polio has been totally eradicated in all but three countries -- Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan -- and over the past 15 years, deaths from malaria have fallen by nearly half. For many hundreds of millions of people all around the globe, life is better now than it has ever been.

Even so, politics in both the US and Europe is getting ugly. So here's another suggestion: let's put teachers and doctors in charge. They could hardly do any worse than the current lot.

1 comment:

Robbo said...

Dear Robin,

A very good piece, thanks.

I think a lot is down to the poor - mediocre - quality of our most politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. They nearly all seem to come from one or two similar backgrounds - wealthy and privileged or union and think tank. There seem to be no politicians who hail from the 'real world'; who have real understanding of ordinary people's lives or anxieties. Almost no-one who has actually done 'real work'.

They all speak the same, sound the same and pretty much say the same. And they all seem to chase one hare brained scheme after another - whether it is continuous instruction to the masses that Europe is good for us; that we must topple the latest despot without any concern for what comes next, that we must welcome unlimited migrants no matter that health, housing and most other social services are swamped and overwhelmed already...etc etc... And, yes, I know you are from a family of migrants and without many migrants the health service would probably collapse.

But the malaise in political life and the reasons why people in the US and here vote for people like Trump - and others on the more extreme before him, to use your analogy, is because the supposedly 'mainstream' politicians do not seem to listen to ordinary people or take note of their real concerns.

Even now, over Europe, are any of the leading politicians - or the press - actually properly explaining the full pros and cons of remaining in Europe or leaving; explaining clearly how the Commission or the Presidency works, what role the EU parliament has and how these institutions relate to each other and to Britain?

Of course not - all we hear are claims and counter claims about how well or otherwise we might all do in or out; no proper support to the arguments or reasoned debate.

In the US over the last 7 years you've had the two houses of Congress at stalemate, bickering over the health care reforms that President Obama wished to introduce whilst abroad there were major countries like Egypt and Libya and of course Syria failing and disintegrating into chaos whilst most senior leaders were busy with their own infighting.

The future doesn't look bright on either side of the pond.