Monday, November 21, 2016

The Revolt of the Elites

The current mood in Europe can be summed up as Waiting for Le Pen. If Brexit was shocking, and Trump's victory was sobering, that Le Pen will triumph in May is something to be expected. It was indeed always in the realm of possibility - Michel Houellebecq was almost there till he conjured up an even more dystopian possibility - but in a space of last few months, a Le Pen presidency has become an unremarkable trend event.

However, such expectedness should take away nothing from the consequences of such events, that they mark the end of business as usual. The global system of international relations and internal politics of nations are both breaking down, opening up all sorts of new possibilities and unforeseen dangers. Civil Rights and Democratic systems are at risk, and the new leaders may indeed leverage unprecedented powers of surveillance and of control to create new, terrifying, possibilities. 

But this post is not about what could happen. There is already enough of that in the media, and besides, such predictions are perilous business. I wanted to write about what really is happening, causing this shift and creating a new political landscape. There is a very deliberate misrepresentation that lies at the heart of the current commentary pretending to make sense of these events, and, I believe, any future effort to reclaim democracy and protect civil rights needs to start with a busting of this myth of the 'popular revolt'.

A recent news item, that Oxford English Dictionary named 'Post-truth' as the word of the year, captures this claim rather succinctly. And, it tells a story which appears logical: My morning-after feeling of Brexit was indeed a revulsion about Direct Democracy. The narrative that a new breed of politicians are harnessing the popular revolt against globalisation to win elections and drive their agenda even with a very odious kind of politics made sense then, and later events only extend and confirm such feelings.

Not so fast, however! There are a number of hidden statements in this rather obvious claim, promoted as 'truth' by the media and political establishments as the bad news kept coming, which may not stand up to closer examination. First, the idea that a majority can be misled and the democratic process can be subverted, the essential idea behind 'post-truth', gives a clean chit to what came before. Indeed, a Trump administration can make anything that came before look good, but canonisation of Bill Clinton or George W Bush, or for that matter, of David Cameron, needs to be questioned. The invention of 'Post-truth' itself is a post-truth affair, if we care to step back and sober up. Second, the narrative that what we are seeing is a revolt of the masses is just as flawed as the 'othering' of the elite. There is nothing more discordant than when Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, two middle-aged, very wealthy, white men, photograph themselves in a lift made of gold, and claim that they have successfully battled the 'elite'. Third, the other side of this narrative of popular revolt is that democracy and republicanism are tearing themselves up, nothwithstanding the fact that it is the structure of the events - Cameron's bid to bypass a newly elected Parliament, or disruptive political strategies of Republican Congress in the Obama years - decided among the political leaders, by the political leaders and for the political leaders, which has ushered in the events as they are. 

There is indeed an alternate, and consistent, explanation of all that happened in 2016. What we are seeing now is not a popular revolt against globalisation, but rather a revolt of the elites, as Christopher Lasch foretold. This is the renunciation of the post-war consensus, made possible by the sobering realisation of the dangers of unabashed industrialism, built around a series of adjustments and concessions to minorities and underprivileged within each societies, and a system of national sovereignty in the international arena. This moment is not just post-truth, but more accurately, post-politics, a return to a system when a cosy global elite wants to a bigger share of political decision-making, which should enable them to suspend 'unnecessary' civil liberties and concessions for environment, drive production efficiencies and unequal trading relationships to shore up the rates of profit, and create a new international system of dependencies and deprivations. 

The explanation that this is all a shocking development that people, through democratic means, unleashed on an unsuspecting, benevolent, ruling class, is part of this revolt of the elites. All the little parts, like immigration, fits neatly into it: The idea of bribing the indigenous working classes into creating national societies that would feed the military and create a system of domination to maintain unequal trading relationships, can not work without limiting the access to that privilege. All that Trump said was not crazy, but meaningful, from this perspective; and indeed, this shift of perspective would even make Theresa May or Boris Johnson look like geniuses. And, this revolt is not an unexpected development - this was always brewing in the background and these doctrines and ideas are old - it is just that this is an unique moment of fragmentation of the alternative opinions. Among many, a particular factor behind these spectacular wins of these demagogues is the waning of the radicals, as a result of the opportunistic take-over by career politicians that undermined left movements across Europe, and their guilelessness in the face of the revolt of the elites.

I have no prediction to offer about how this will go. At this time, a sensible political conversation may, should, steer away from the business of prediction simply as so many things are up in the air. However, even when suspending the verdict, one must make an effort to understand what is happening, and particularly to dispel the myths. The current narrative, that democracy and common man are working against collective interest, is part of the elaborate strategies of the revolt of the elites, and is indeed the precursor of things to come. 

 

 

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