This post in many ways follows on from the previous one and indeed a series of posts recently where I have circled around issues of nostalgia and populism. These issues seem to me to be at the core of current politics, and central to understanding contemporary organizations within that politics.
Yesterday, the Mail columnist Peter Hitchens wrote an extraordinary and I think noteworthy opinion piece. Hitchens, for those who don’t know him, has for many years been a provocative right-wing journalist. Younger brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, he is by no means predictable in his views and although I mainly find them objectionable he can’t be dismissed in the way that one might, say, dismiss those of right-wing controversialists like Richard Littlejohn or Katie Hopkins who also write for the Mail.
In his piece, Hitchens laments having fallen for the free market politics of the Thatcher era, which he now sees as a "con that ruined Britain". In particular he bemoans the consequences of privatization, deindustrialization and globalization remarking, to quote just one sentence:
“How I miss the old names of trusted brands, and the knowledge that these things had been made for generations by my fellow countrymen.”
Similarly, Hitchens remarks on the loss of secure employment and stable communities that accompany this transformation.
Well, it’s rather late in the day for him to be expressing buyer’s remorse. After all, it’s not as if the consequences of the policies he endorsed were not warned of. But I am struck by how close his views now seem to some of those expressed in my own book, for example:
“One of the many organizational consequences of all this [neo-liberalism] is to break the connection between businesses, places and communities” (p. 105)
But after listing a wide array of formerly British brands now sold off or disappeared, I go on to say that this is not a nostalgic, nationalist lament; whereas I think that that is exactly what Hitchens offers. What he seems to hanker for is the world of his 1950s childhood, with the apparent certainties it contained (but which, perhaps, only seem so in the way that childhood at any period does).
What I think is significant about this is the way it derives from a fissure that was always present in Thatcherism between nationalist traditionalism and free market globalism. They are necessarily contradictory because free markets inevitably corrode social traditionalism whilst, of course, globalism inevitably corrodes nationalism. Both Thatcher and Regan managed to hold this contradiction together for a while, but its consequences are now glaringly apparent.
They are apparent in the EU Referendum debate, about which I have already written plenty on this blog, but especially in the current wave of support for Donald Trump in the US. This has been described as a kind of cry of agony of the traditional US working and middle classes, for whom the security of the post-war consensus has been eviscerated. And what is so important to understand is that this comes in large part from the same segment of the population that, like Hitchens, so enthusiastically supported Reagan (and, in the UK, Thatcher) to pursue precisely the policies the consequences of which they now lament.
So what we are now seeing is the long-term consequences of the incoherence of the neo-liberal political narrative (i.e. not simply of neo-liberal economics) and it is almost bound to turn nasty as the nationalist and traditionalist strand of that narrative becomes dominant. Remorseful buyers want their money back but, alas, it has already been spent and so remorse turns to anger, but an anger misdirected at foreigners, immigrants, refugees, the disabled and so on. True it also blames ‘elites’, but in an incoherent and contradictory way, shown not least by taking as its champion a figure such as Trump who so obviously belongs to an elite, by any reckoning.
Of course in both the US and the UK (and elsewhere) there is a left-wing version of this which is more coherent in its analysis and more progressive in its solutions, but likely in both cases to struggle to achieve electoral success (though I may be proved wrong about that). Indeed, in the European context, it is this which makes the EU so important, as a regional, rather than nationalist or globalist, response to a situation which whilst certainly implicated in neo-liberalism also offers some potentials for social democracy. These potentials, which the recently launched Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (Diem25) seeks to realise, offer some kind of hopeful response to the calamitous unwinding of the neo-liberal experiment.
At all events, Hitchens’ dream of a lost and mythical England is not the right response, any more than is Trump’s sloganizing about making America great again. At best these can lead only to another fit of buyer’s remorse in which their supporters suffer the further disillusionment their inevitable failure would bring. To what extremes would they then turn?