Tuesday, 27 December 2016

New times?

This blog, at least, is now living in new times since regular readers will have seen that there has been a complete revamp of the site design, to reflect the new edition of my book. As well as the new imagery to match the fourth edition cover there are new sidebars showing followers (and do click on the follow button if you would like to), numbers of readers, a listing of the most read posts, a new search facility, a cloud of post labels and enhanced buttons at the end of each post to share on social media. Plus, there is now a new title: a fairly interesting and completely free blog about organizations.

On a rather grander scale, there seems to be an emerging consensus that we are living in new times, with 2016 having marked the end of the hegemony of global free market ideology – what I call the new capitalism in my book – that has held sway since the 1970s. Beyond, but associated with, that are notions from commentators on the left and on the right of a post-liberal era, a post-truth era, an age of anger  or an age of populism.

This analysis, born largely of the votes for Trump and Brexit, is tempting, and it’s one which to some extent I share. But I think there is a need for caution, too. In my book I discuss (pp. 93-95) reasons for scepticism about claims of the new era of globalization, and there are similar reasons for scepticism about its demise.

In relation to Trump’s victory I’ve pointed to the fact that he received support from many who were by no means the losers from globalization, and also to the continuity of many of his policies with those of the traditional free market right. That has subsequently been underscored by many of his appointments at least four of whom are alumni of investment bank Goldman Sachs, the high priests of the globalist order. Is this really a rupture with the elite establishment or with the neo-liberal hegemony? Similarly, if the Brexit vote was a rejection of globalization then the news hasn’t reached Brexiter ministers like Liam Fox who take it to be an endorsement of “the glorious joys of free trade”.

Perhaps what is in prospect is a sell-out of the voters and, for sure, it is clear that those who voted Trump or Brexit in anticipation of an end to globalization and free market economics are in for a very nasty shock. But I think that what is more to the point is that the votes in question had enormously mixed motivations, and they cannot be read as the neat story that commentators are developing as the new political truth.

In relation to Brexit, I have read or heard in conversation all kinds of reasons for voting to leave the EU. These have included a belief that heavy industry would return (which is closest to the anti-globalization narrative); hostility to immigration (which might in part be seen as part of anti-globalization sentiment, but which certainly pre-dates the neo-liberal period) including non-EU immigration (which would not be affected by the vote); a desire to give the government a good kicking; the idea that it would be interesting to see what happened; the belief that the remain side would win anyway so it was just a protest vote; the hope that it would mean more money for the NHS (presumably based on the Leave campaign’s headline slogan); the sense that ‘things aren’t going to well’ so it’s time for a change; the belief it was a vote against ‘austerity economics’ and so on and so on.

I don’t necessarily mean by this that those who voted leave had any worse reasons for doing so than those who voted remain (for example, I heard one remain voter explaining that he did so in the (erroneous) belief that that English football teams would not be able to play in Europe if we left the EU). The point is rather that the heterogeneous motivations to vote leave do not give licence to a homogenized analysis and explanation of the outcome of the vote.

To put it another way, both the Trump and the Brexit votes were very close; and in the US case, Trump actually lost the popular vote. So the outcomes could easily have been completely different, and if Clinton had narrowly won, and Remain had won 52-48 instead of the other way around, then commentators would be oh-so-wisely saying ‘when it came to it, people voted for the status quo’. Yet the politics and sociology of the vote would have been virtually identical: a few percentage points the other way. In those circumstances, we would be saying ‘nothing has changed’; as it is, we are saying ‘everything has changed’.

Those few percentage points matter hugely, of course, in terms of practicalities. Trump’s election and Brexit will have major consequences in the US, the UK, and around the world. But those consequences flow not from a seismic shift in society but from the way that a whole agglomeration of voting decisions can in certain voting systems have an effect. We mistake effect for cause if we imagine that the outcome of those particular and peculiar voting systems has a single meaning that adds up to the proposition that we are suddenly living in new times.

History does have patterns, which stand out sharp and clear, almost as banalities, in long retrospect; close up and immediate ascriptions of historical change are – almost inevitably – mistaken. Perhaps we should not be too impatient for meaning. The actress Carrie Fisher who died today aged 60 provided the quote that I used to introduce the chapter on contemporary capitalism in the second edition of my book: “instant gratification takes too long”. We may or may not be living in ‘new times’: time will tell.

Happy New Year.

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