Brexit and Trump were massive global political tremors. I don’t think they were earthquakes, but they’re proof that the political tectonic plates are anything but stable. Although this fact is now widely recognised, it was not prior to 2016, even though many commentators outside of mainstream academia, punditry, and media have been arguing for years that the foundations of the world order were rapidly disintegrating.
My first reaction to Brexit and Trump was that politics was now finally playing catch-up to the dual socioeconomic disruption of the digital information revolution and financial-economic dysfunction the past 20 years, and I still think this is basically the key takeaway from 2016. You can’t run economies into stagnation, pile up insurmountable debts to state-protected banks, raid savings, and keep insulating inner circle elites from the prospect of failure in a rapidly advancing information age without eventually incurring political blowback. Perhaps with hindsight, the only real surprise is how long it took for political volatility to better reflect financial and economic volatility. One of the eerie features of the social landscape after the 2008 financial crisis and through the fatiguing European economic malaise and tepid, debt-soaked global fauxcovery, was how little consequence any of it seemed to have on the smile-and-wave political establishment that presided over it all.
There were political changes in the wake of 2008/09 – brash Bush for hopey changey Obama, UK Labour centrists for UK Tory centrists, Sarkozy for Hollande, one set of colourless Italian and Spanish technocrats for another set of colourless Italian and Spanish technocrats – but this was a shameless game of musical chairs among ensconced elites of the same hue.
John Gray summed it up neatly in his excellent piece after Brexit:
“The stabilisation that seemed to have been achieved following the financial crisis was a sham…The error of progressive thinkers in all the main parties was to imagine that the discontent of large sections of the population could be appeased by offering them what was at bottom a continuation of the status quo.”
And with a bit of time, voters figured out the scam. The canary yellow crayon in the box was probably Greece circa 2014/15, which showed that pushed long and hard enough, people won’t keep colouring inside the lines marked for them by career bureaucrats. Onlookers generally thought Greece was a wayward exception rather than an emergent political prototype, but there’s now been a similar revolt by the irate demos in Austria, Italy, Colombia (FARC referendum), and of course most shudderingly in Britain and the United States. One or two can be chalked off as a glitch. Six or seven is a political machine seizing up.
But understanding that a massive global economic crisis and the inevitably deep yet often veiled disaffection is finally having political consequences far beyond what most imagined is now the easy part. If you didn’t know it twelve months ago, 2016 was your teacher. The much tougher questions are, what are people so pissed off about and how can they be placated in a meaningful and lasting way?
This, of course, is where the great debate of our age now shifts, a battleground that will define the emergent political epoch for better or worse. The satisfaction I felt over the Brexit-Trump upsets was because the Brussels-London-Washington ‘stasis quo’ is a chronic, terminal illness. A system designed to maximise debt, plunder savings and protect an inner circle from risk necessarily leads to ever larger and more menacing crises until it is forced into painful rehab or perishes. To the extent 2016 was the first glimmer of the hope of rehabilitation, it was an extremely exciting year.
The obvious danger is that political antibodies deploy in a dysfunctional way, targeting healthy economic cells that are not responsible for the virus. That’s the problem with the anti-free trade ideas of Donald Trump or some of the more parochial anti-immigration ideas bubbling to the surface on both sides of the Atlantic. But equally, Trump’s instinct on the need for financial, energy and healthcare deregulation, auditing the Federal Reserve and dialling back foreign military aggression, or Brexit voters’ revulsion at submitting to sovereign emasculation by nanny staters in Brussels, targets at least some of the systemic malignancy.
The dissatisfaction with the present order, contrary to George Soros and the Davos elites, is not evidence of the failure of ‘unbridled cowboy capitalism’, but rather the opposite – a failure of hyper-managerialism of our lives, as I explained half a decade ago in The Capitalism Delusion. The post-Soviet era has not been one of progressively freer markets but one of constrictive state technocracy barricaded from the strictures of reality by gargantuan fiscal deficits and audacious money printing – cowboy policy, if you like. And the only thing unbridled has been the proliferation of laws, rules, regulations, statutes, ordinances, codes, compliance directives and all manner of incessant nannying, spying, meddling and rigging the rules of the game by residents of The Capitol.
As Brendan O’Neill put it in his brilliant contrarian piece, Five reasons why 2016 was the best year in ages:
‘You Can’t Say That’ was the guardian of TINA – There Is No Alternative. This deadening notion…became enshrined in the Third Way of the Blair/Clinton years, an explicit eschewing of the polarising political battles of old in favour of managerialism. And it became the defining feature of the EU. This vast bureaucracy is a technocratic suppressant of the unresolved questions of history, whether on sovereignty or democracy, nationhood or class. The key message of the EU is that society isn’t something to be argued over, far less transformed; it’s something to be managed.
And the more complex the technocracy, the more a special class of technocrats are ‘needed’ to ‘manage’ it, for in creating it, only they understand it. Consequently, they know how to game it for money.
As Nassim Taleb explains in the excerpt, Inequality and Skin in the Game:
Currently, a civil servant can make rules that are friendly to an industry such as banking — and then go off to J.P. Morgan and recoup a multiple of the difference between his or her current salary and the market rate. (Regulators, you may recall, have an incentive to make rules as complex as possible so their expertise can later be hired at a higher price.)
So there is an implicit bribe in civil service: you act as a servant to industry…and they take care of you later on. They do not do it out of a sense of honor: simply, it is necessary to keep such a system going and encourage the next guy to play by the rules.
O’Neill and Taleb articulate what we could call Technocratic Socialism: effective control of the means of production and concomitant privileged, riskless profiteering through bureaucratic and regulatory asphyxiation. Unlike the old Bolshies, today’s Marxists are far shrewder. Why actually own the means of production and run a bloody slave system like the vodka-drenched dictators of Soviet Russia when you can exercise as much or more control by burying your subjects under a million pages of industry rules, reams of product regulations, quotas, wage and price controls, licence requirements, a labyrinth of legislative sticks and carrots and then subject them to taxes, levies, fees and fines.
Technocratic asphyxiation and the added sclerosis of chronic, endemic indebtedness is a quagmire from which many citizens now want, nay need, to escape ASAP. Their votes for Trump or Brexit or whatever else are less about policy minutiae and more about hitting the escape button. Sure, there is a level of naivety in that, but it also has the air of, dare I say it, draining the swamp. The great irony is that those who thrive under Technocratic Socialism – revolving door cronies, career politicians, compliance officers, lawyers, government clerical lackeys and the like – are today’s real conservatives. Their goal is to conserve their privilege, their comfort, their present mode. It’s rebelling voters who are today’s progressives. They want to move somewhere different, even if that destination is not fully and uniformly defined, or perhaps especially because it is not fully and uniformly defined.
As O’Neill astutely observes:
We now know that everything the political and media class has said about the public in recent years – that we’re fearful, innately conservative, desperate for dull stability – is truer of them. For this year, voters took risks. They overturned establishment ideas and taken-for-granted outlooks. And it’s the elites who freaked out. They were consumed by fear, warning of the end of decent life, perhaps even of civilisation. It’s they who long for the comforts of conformism and predictability. The public, by contrast, seem newly unafraid, confident even. In 2016 they issued a quiet but brilliant cry: ‘Hey, let’s try something different.’
Or, as John Gray so devastatingly puts it:
The contradictions of the world-view shared by progressive thinkers and established elites are becoming acutely evident. There is constant talk about being in a time of unprecedented change. Globalisation is connecting the world as never before; our lives are being continuously transformed by disruptive technologies; old ways of life and hierarchies in society are fast dissolving . . . these are the ruling clichés of the age. What is striking is that they are deployed to prop up a failing ancien régime.
All this being said, Brexit, Trump and any of the other surprising political turns in 2016 are nowhere near enough to deal with the extent of the modern state’s systemic sclerosis. Until the dark heart of the failing system is ripped out, progress will be piecemeal, messy, fraught. That dark heart pulses on fiscal corrosion and monetary corruption, supporting a system of debt addiction, legalised plunder, cronyism-by-design, and incessant war-making.
2016 was not a year of earthquakes, it was a year of tremors. But anyone who’s lived near a fault line knows that tremors are often dress rehearsals for something bigger. I think 2016 is just the beginning of a multi-year political upheaval in not only Western but also global politics.
The ultimate tension to be shaken out is that citizens will shrug off overbearing Technocratic Socialism, and the technocratic socialists will fight hard to conserve their privilege. Sociopolitical progress has always been thus – the masses exerting their will as a slow but powerful force, and chameleon elites scurrying to new turf for legitimacy and a share of the spoils of the new order.
The digital information revolution has dramatically magnified the unnecessariness of the state in many areas of modern life. If knowledge is power, then technological progress is making ordinary people powerful on an awesome scale. This revolution drives decentralisation and global connectivity, inexorable trends that the traditional state is unfit to manage, control and contain. Many coordination functions of the state are now glaringly obsolete, while the efficacy of state propaganda has whittled to nearly nothing. Lame lamentations over ‘fake news’ are, at root, lamentations by former gatekeepers of information that their monopoly in that realm, and the power and licence it afforded them, is being crushed.
Fifty years ago, the demos would have swallowed global warming hysteria, inequality phobia, and make-war propaganda like a slippery little sugar pill. Today, there is push-back from the uppity commoners. They’re now marshalling their arguments and contesting spaces once solely the preserve of the gilded classes. One only has to behold the hateful vitriol of some Remain and Democrat voters or brainless insults like ‘climate denier’ or ‘racist’ over perfectly debatable ideas to see that they aren’t taking kindly to this contestation.
In short, what happened in 2016 is that a fissure opened up in the seemingly impenetrable rockface of stultifying Technocratic Socialism. That is unequivocal progress, but it’s also only the beginning of what is going to be a long, uneven, and probably messy global realignment. But looking at humanity’s propensity for progress over the past 5000 years, I’m betting this ends well.