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2016, In Memoriam

As a lover of film and music, this year has been a deeply sad one, as the pantheon has been decimated. But for me as a political animal 2016 has been disastrous. It has left me drained, rattled, angry, doubtful and uncharacteristically speechless. I have been trying to write much of what follows below since the US election but the magnitude of it all has had a paralysing effect on me. But here goes…

The events of the year defy cataloguing, but a short list must include the Brexit referendum (and the subsequent and ongoing state of uncertainty that has followed), the US election which was not only a resounding victory for populism but also sees the Republican party seize control of every lever of government including the Supreme Court, a narrowly avoided election of a far-right president in Austria (twice!), rapidly growing discontent across Europe, the related growth in popularity of politically extreme parties and candidates globally, and increasingly unstable political situations in many other places.

In 2016 we entered the full-on Bizarro world of “post-truth politics” and fake news (rapidly weaponised as fake fake news, the next great escalation). Welcome to the cacophony of tomorrow’s social Pravda, wherein facts are privatised and democratised – he who shouts loudest shouts last, and Orwell wept. Reason redefined to make room for its opposite while squeezing out the original; toleration contorted to justify bigotry and silence compassion; being a “social justice warrior” becomes the far-right’s favourite term of condemnation and contempt, as if caring about anyone but yourself, just on the basis of their humanity, were a cardinal moral failure. There is nothing new in this, of course. Media and interested parties have thrived on misleading for as long as they have existed. Some have suggested that post-truthhood is just what we used to call lying. There is something to that. But this misses its main characteristic: beyond the mere purveyance of falsehood, post-truthhood is about receptiveness to the falsehoods, a deep desire to make facts conform to one’s mood, reversing the immortal relationship between world and person. And it’s here that the real danger lies. People want to feel strong, even if it means embracing lies, even if it means embracing monsters.

Progressivism lies in ruins, and much of it is their own fault. After the US election I noted that the Democrats had died from their own smugness. The party elites’ support of Clinton in the primaries, and their incomprehension of the forces driving the election highlights the cognitive distance between the political class and their constituents. And not just the Democrats – there is a malady of elitist incomprehension that pervades modern self-described progressive parties (I’m talking to you, New Labour, but this applies equally in many countries, like my own). For forty years, the political left has failed their constituencies in too many ways, of which I will mention just two. First, they capitulated fully to conservative economic thinking and bought wholesale into the corrosive narrative of free markets and the trickle-down effect (the financial collapse of 2008 was as much a product of decisions by progressive politicians as of the conservatives who they emulated). Second, having lost the unifying body of the working class, they engaged in the divisive and polarising pursuit of identity politics. This is not to say that the various issues of identity politics aren’t important – of course they are. But by focussing on small specific groups, the left has failed to bring it all together into a unifying and inclusive vision. This has made them vulnerable and ineffective, and instead we now face the prospect of a very different and dangerous kind of unified society. The task facing progressive politics is immense.

Through all this, I’ve watched the theory that I’ve been engaged with for so long fail to find a response. For much of this I have watched the political science department at my university look bamboozled by the various outcomes – this just does not make sense, with a quizzical look. They managed to somehow miss the central point: politics is not driven by rational choice – it is driven by emotion, never more so than in times like these. The dominance of rational choice theory is undone, even though it will likely dominate thinking for many years to come (see the failure of economists to adapt, post 2008). Political scientists, like the economists they emulate, are too chained to the mathematical tractability that comes from rationality models. Such are Kuhnian paradigms. More’s the pity, especially if, like me, you view this as an abdication of social responsibility. Meanwhile, well-meaning and intelligent theorists have responded to the year by resurrecting arguments from as far back as Plato to show the impossibility of democracy. Liberal staples such as free speech, especially in forms such as that propounded by John Stuart Mill, are similarly the subject of retreat. These are not unreasonable responses under the circumstances, but I reject their conclusions. In both cases, as I’ve argued for years now, their success is a problem of background conditions – democracy and free speech are only as good as the societies that feature in them. This has been, and remains, the bedrock of my egalitarianism.

All in all, then, a pretty appalling state of affairs. It is a natural emotional response to want to bracket these happenings to the year, and hope for it all to go away as soon as January clocks in. But, of course, political events do not recognise the arbitrary boundaries of the calendar. While the absolute best we can hope for is that 2016 is remembered as an exceptionally bad year for the world, it is more realistic to understand the year as the start of a very bad period (and even as the next evolution of an ongoing period including, at the least, 2008). In any case the year will be remembered in history as a turning point for the worse, with all its attendant historical déjà vu. I’m not a fortune teller but there are some predictions I feel comfortable (even while alarmed) in making. The world is now a much less safe place than it has been in decades. The momentum of the far-right will certainly continue, as it gains courage from its successes. Critical elections next year will decide the future of Europe. Small but dramatic events can easily tip the balance. The world will become, for the time being, a narrower, less open, less tolerant, and more hostile place, and the most vulnerable will bear the worst of this. Fighting back will be harder than ever. We have to struggle with this new reality in which the space of possibility has dramatically contracted. We need to find new ways to move forward.

Which brings me to me. For the better part of a decade, I have engaged deeply with political thought, philosophy, and history. Two things have driven me down this path. The first is the strong suspicion that the economic and social structures that the world has embraced for four decades contains the potential to produce a very ugly and dangerous kind of politics, reminiscent, however different in detail, to world of the 1930s. Those who forget the past etc. Seeing the sharp movements in this direction over the last year has brought me no comfort – and I have to confess here to having thought such things were a long way in the future, an attitude that now seems hopelessly naïve. The second is the belief that reasoned, fact-respecting argument can make a contribution, however small, to averting this future. This belief has taken a firm beating this year as I have had to accept the realities that the post-truth world presents. I am less confident that argumentative rigour will be at all effective in the days to come, and the focus on avoiding the worst no longer feels relevant. Part of me wonders whether the world need to go through the crucible of whatever is to come, however awful it will be, however many people will suffer, in order to find a new and better place to start again (if is that even a possible outcome). But against this is the belief that bad things happen when good people stand on the sidelines. So I will continue doing what I have been doing, no matter how futile, and I will search for new ways to work in this changed world. What else is there?

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Categories: Politics
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  1. January 22, 2017 at 9:32 am

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