The election of Trump, and Brexit is symptomatic of a global decline and regression, shaped by the West itself. Post-industrial revolution, post-British Empire, and its chaotic transition onwards throughout the United States empire has seen a cultural shift that juxtaposes the hegemonic and underlying economic ideology of the last 30 years.
The United Kingdom has often shown itself to be an interesting microcosm of the United States. In both cases, the Right, far-right and moderates have had a whale of a time hijacking the post-2008 narrative – exploiting others’ prejudices by furthering the cultural shift towards intolerant illiberalism, successfully shielding anyone from the obvious economic trend that landed the West into this mess.
How did we get here?
From the 1960’s onwards – culturally-speaking – liberal values had won over. An acceptance of the rights and freedoms of others, an acceptance for the further clarion call for social justice, and the empowerment of the powerless was seen as mainstream common sense. Along with this, the inevitability that was globalisation carried with it one more component: liberal values were juxtaposed with economic policies that abide by a market-decides-all, winners-take-all and almost social Darwinist philosophy; whereby blame and shame is placed on the poor and the powerless of all backgrounds for their own circumstances.
It is difficult to pin down for the entirety of the Western world, but these two components were typified by the two inseparable and absolutist principles of the European Single Market: the freedom of movement and freedom of capital.
These two distinct ideological components of the era remained fixed in place, courtesy of the Washington Consensus, the formation of the Bretton Woods system, and a focus on monetarism and economic liberalism. Despite privatisation drives, de-industrialisation, and relatively tough economic predicaments throughout the western world during the latter half of the 20th century, there appeared to literally be no alternative outside of these accepted rules. Then came 2008.
Global Financial Crisis, 2008
The global financial crisis of 2008 was a monumental point in the history of the West, both in terms of the legitimacy of the pre-2008 consensus and the hegemony of the West as it continues to follow it. In the United Kingdom the Big Bang – yet again mirroring the United States and the repeal of Glass-Steagall – deregulated and gave those with power carte blanche to create ‘wealth’ based on fraudulent and incredibly risky lending practices. The increased dependency of states on this ‘wealth’ created by the financial markets meant that neoliberalism and its winner-takes-all philosophy led the economic system to implosion.
Those with power – as anybody with privilege would be – were obviously committed to doing all they can to avoid responsibility and keep things as they were; those in the Labour government who depended on this ‘wealth creation’ who had an equal degree of responsibility of the crisis, obliged. The losses were paid for by the public as the banks were nationalised, and yet the profits were privatised – through banker bonuses, sales of shares held for the banks made for losses to the exchequer, and the potentially distortionary monetary practice of quantitative easing.
In the aftermath, the right, far-right and moderates shaped the narrative at whim: the Labour government was said to have ‘spent its way into a global financial crisis’. Furthermore, by completely ignoring the Keynesian logic of spending and investing your way out of economic hardship meant that austerity measures then destroyed the economic recovery.
Due to a major sustained decline in living standards and real wages in the United Kingdom, there is palpable anger. After the neoliberal policies of the 1980’s onwards, the 2008 financial crisis, and austerity, it thereby turned out that the winners-who-take-all in this case are an ever-smaller group of people that can afford to play their cards in a game of gruesome individualism. Others saw equality of opportunity diminishing, slipping through their fingers. Through these circumstances, an equally gruesome amount of rage began to be conserved.
In the United Kingdom, the ‘establishment’ and ‘ those in Westminster’ are simply viewed with disdain. Those in the European parliament were generally equated with this group of representatives that were ‘out of touch’ and working against ordinary people’s interests. Brexit happened almost solely due to this sentiment. Nonetheless regardless of the European Union, the Conservative party and the Labour party fundamentally sharing the same agenda for the majority of this era, in the general political discourse of the United Kingdom no connection was made between those who have power and their responsibility for this status quo.
For those who believe that culture is the primary driver behind the status quo, their rage is aimed at the liberal values of freedom of movement, tolerance, the acceptance of rights and freedoms of the powerless. This encompasses the majority of Brits. For those who believe that economic circumstance is the primary driver, their rage is aimed at the second component of globalisation such as the freedom of capital, neoliberal economic policies and the powerful.
At the moment, Britain is now a hotbed of precarious service sector employment, with its dependence on the City of London’s financial services reaching peaks that have never been seen before. Employees have almost no amount of power over their employers. Competition between job applicants is farcical, yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find an in-demand job vacancy with greater than 10% of applications from migrants. Even so, the consensus seems to be that it has been the freedom of movement of people that has undercut wages and living standards. This sentiment even being most prevalent in areas with the lowest rates of migration.
Through a spotlight on the powerless, the Right and far-right – with some help from the self-ascribed ‘moderates’ – have succeeded in shaping the general political consensus towards culture as the primary driver of the status quo. Through this they have opened Pandora’s box of the ominous and sinister aspects of British culture: unashamed historical white-washing, colonial aggrandisement, British exceptionalism, white supremacy, and nationalism.
How is this happening?
As a rule of thumb, it is known that fascism rises to the surface in tough economic circumstances. In these tough economic circumstances, nationalist-at-best cultural tropes have rose to the surface with a vengeance. Those that align with the right and far-right have made the most of it; moderates have aided it.
First of all, historical whitewashing is a vital component to this process. It begins in early education, and continues as a vicious cycle through the whole of people’s lives; as stories that counter prevailing narratives are not told and are blocked out of the everyday mainstream folklore and ‘common sense’.
Similar to how Howard’s Zinn and his ‘People’s History of the United States’ is banned in several Red States in the US, historical education in the United Kingdom is a woefully ignorant affair. A ‘People’s History’, or any single lesson of the sort in the United Kingdom is censored by omission. Those who do not choose to study history further than is mandatory – the vast majority of students – leave school unaware of some of the most momentous and significant parts of history in their own country. Regardless of what school you may go to in the United Kingdom, a civil historical education is absent.
Mostly a focus on trivial aspects of monarchy during the middle-ages, a glorified picture of the Victorian era, Industrialisation, the Roman Empire, a myopic depiction of the first and second World Wars that leaves out the ideological underpinnings of especially the latter World War – presenting it merely as a battle between competing nations – leaves British pupils inept in critically examining prevailing orthodoxies and dangerous ideas.
This is also the case in regards to class. In a society where the two-party political system was entirely founded upon class differences, a lack of awareness of this concept meant a lack of clarity on issues plaguing the country that have a historical context, are systemic and are complicated. The Labour party during its ‘moderate’ phase won three elections. Although the party’s focus on individualism and individual notions of ‘aspiration’ during these fifteen years of power meant that the concept of class became stigmatised. When the ownership class came with its repackaged neoliberal agenda dressed as austerity, this earlier ‘moderate’ approach nullified any opposition that should have otherwise came from the Labour party; a party that was created to represent the antithesis of the ownership class: the working class.
To speak generally, in a society that has been based on absolutist individual responsibility for the best part of 30 years, it is therefore incredibly difficult to persuade others that their economic circumstances are not entirely their own fault; that those with more institutional power, influence and resources may bare some responsibility.
After experiencing pressure from others, an internalised shaming is therefore regularly visible in those that perceive themselves to be failing in providing a ‘productive’ measure of their life to capital. Working in any kind of measure for any employer regardless of the job or benefit for the employee is better than nothing. Those that do ‘nothing’ (including the homeless, disabled, mentally ill) are ‘scroungers‘ and ‘scum‘. This division has been regularly made by the right.
A society that is based on absolutist individual responsibility is a society lacking empathy. Thus, it is even more difficult to persuade those that the economic circumstances of others that have less power and influence than you do, (migrants, refugees) may not be entirely their own fault either. Those that come from elsewhere are ‘scroungers’ and ‘dangerous‘. This division has been regularly made by the far-right.
The Great Negotiators
What we see here, is the right and far-right acting as great negotiators within political discourse. Negotiations generally proceed at the beginning as the party with the demand sets their aims much higher than they realistically expect to achieve. In British political discourse, the far-right makes this demand, the right’s stance suddenly seems more acceptable, while the moderates accept this shift to the right as the inevitable ‘centre’.
An example of this is the case that in British society you could be working 40 hours a week paying only for bare minimum subsistence and still be incurring losses at the end of each month. This is a reality for a staggering number of people reflected in rising household debt. According to the right, the burden is always on your shoulders for failing to make ends meat. According to the far-right, the burden is always on someone else’s shoulders with less influence and power than you do. The far-right’s proposal gives leeway for the right’s proposal over a period of time to seem more like common sense, ‘centre’-ground politics. The moderates see this as inevitable and capitulate, losing further ground to the Right.
For this to work as effectively as it does, the ‘centre-ground’ in politics is presented as a fixed notion. In reality the exact opposite is true. Movements, principled people throughout history have gained a foothold in the mainstream, in the ‘centre’, by simply taking a stand and fighting back. The battle over whose ideas are common sense and accepted is a constant struggle, throughout history, and is relative to historical context. Progressive change comes from the bottom-up in a democratic fashion.
As Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history‘ showed immense hubris prior to the 2008 financial crisis, the notion of a fixed ‘centre’ normalises and legitimises the stranglehold that the Right and the far-right has on British political discourse. This is usually coupled with equally false notions ‘modernity’ in the same way as the ‘End of History’. Neoliberalism is seen as inevitable, irreversible, the ‘modern’ way, and progress is equated with political and economic measures that fit the neoliberal mould. A clear example of this is how the Right insists that a ‘debate’ needs to occur within the narrow terms of the possibility of including more private provisions in the NHS. The NHS is more cost-effective and efficient on pretty much every level when compared to most other G7 health care systems. As a proportion of its GDP, the United Kingdom invests much less than most other Western European systems, while a majority of the problems in the NHS are due to this underfunding. Nevertheless, the NHS is relentlessly targeted by the Right as an ‘out-of-date’ system, in need of ‘modernisation’.
Due to the fixed notion of ‘modernity’ and the political ‘centre’, the far-right shrieks about and blames the ‘effects’ of immigration on our health system, while the right’s stance of taking away people’s right to health provision regardless of income suddenly becomes more of an accepted consequence of a ‘modern’ economy.
As a testament to the usefulness of these notions and especially of the fixed ‘centre’ for the Right, a drastic shift to their terrain has occurred gradually during this period of 30 years. Post-2008 and June 2016 has seen a complete explosion of this gradual shift. The far-right’s demands and the ‘acceptable’ Right’s proposals have become synonymous.
Triangulation – the preferred electoral tool for moderates – shows a similar hubris as its methodology also works upon the assumption that the centre-ground is static, and unmoveable. The method extrapolates polling data and forms a manifesto based simply on its findings. It leaves political parties unable to counter arguments based on principle, and in an effort to represent everyone, it leaves parties representing and being trusted by nobody. If the centre-ground is truly unmoveable, why bother proposing anything to anybody on principle and engaging in a ‘battle of ideas’ at all?
With such an inadequate counter-weight to the work that the Right and far-right have done as negotiators of political discourse, there is no reason to bother. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll end up with nothing and worse. You cannot fight something with nothing. The Right and far-right need their equivalent counter-weights, their equivalent networks and institutions to halt this shift to the right. The moderates, unable to comprehend this simple phenomenon are in the end, complicit.
Britain’s print press holds an incredible amount of power over the national political dialogue. Comprised of only a handful of companies which serve entirely the same agenda, this state of affairs would quite rightly violate laws of competition in any other nation that claims to be democratic; apart from the United States. The narratives that the overwhelming majority of the print press abide by, are of the far-right and the Right. This over-saturation leads to yet another distortion in the political discourse. As these points of view are the only views available in the print press, these angles are presented as the ‘centre’ and of ‘common sense’; reflective already of ‘what the public are thinking’.
In terms of the print press and subsequently of the news media, what is on the agenda and how the agenda is presented, are both vital in shaping the national dialogue in a fair manner. Considering this profession is purported to have a duty in speaking truth to power, it can have a devastating effect when this duty is reversed
Since Brexit, there has been a sharp rise in hate crime. Aside from a simple survey of British attitudes to race, this sharp rise explains the unleashing of white supremacy; and British-Exceptionalism where xenophobia is concerned. As the centre-ground has shifted further to the right these attitudes have become normalised. Attributable to an educational system increasingly overt to critical thinking, more individuals are outspoken and undeterred about their historical white-washing and colonial aggrandisement. It is even not out of the norm to see those being more outspoken about their tendency to defend Britain’s colonial legacy as a variation of the ‘white man’s burden’. Educational deficiencies aside, there is no controversy even in a Conservative MP openly defending Britain’s colonial legacy, in terms which can only be explained as a ‘civilising mission’.
Amongst this, it has become completely acceptable in mainstream dialogue to hear tropes such as “we have to bring down the numbers”, “we are full”, “we should look after own our first” go unchallenged as statements of a new ‘centre’, and of a new ‘common sense’; despite the falsity of the first two claims – immigration to the UK has no discernible effect on the wages of the working class; and the inherent nationalism, false-superiority and hypocrisy of the latter – human beings are human beings and should be treated with an equal amount of dignity regardless of their origin.
On the extreme sides of the Right and in the majority of the far-right is the concept of “cultural-Marxism”. Cultural Marxism is seen as an ideology responsible for a cultural ‘regression’ away from ‘traditional’ behaviours and away from the Right’s brand of nostalgic superiority. Additional to the Right’s easily digestible concepts and slogans, this is classed as their academic justification for placing culture ahead of everything else; a narrative for those on the Right seeking to look a little ‘deeper’.
According to this conspiracy theory, the responsibility for “cultural-Marxism” lies with a movement which included a group of mainly Jewish, Leftist academics that migrated to the United States, naming themselves the ‘Frankfurt School’, and eventually influencing the entirety of Western cultural change from those days forward. It cannot be ignored that this concept is a direct reflection of “cultural-Bolshevism”: an ideological, anti-Semitic boogie-man that was much used by the Nazi party.
Ominously mirrored in this is – this is what ‘making Britain “Great” again’ means: a resurgent reversal of the cultural consensus of the previous century. Back to empire, white, British superiority. Reverse emancipation for anyone other than those who were born through the lottery of birth in the ‘centre of the world’. This narrative of “cultural-Marxism” places the onus on the cultural atmosphere of the latter part of the 20th century; “we’re in this mess because people have generally lost connection with traditional values”. The economic agenda of the very same era is either conflated with this cultural ‘regression’, or completely glazed over.
Despite the necessity of those under strain to ‘re-evaluate’ their worth through a focus on national identity spurred on by the Right and the far-right, when things are viewed in proportion, the anger which is the cause of this cultural shift from liberal principles to illiberal ones misses the point. Poor economic practice is the root cause of the status quo, and failure to address the root cause of people’s material conditions will not fix the problem, it will worsen it.