Sunday 6 November 2016

Trumping rationality

This week will see the outcome of the US Presidential election, with the possibility of the victory of Donald Trump. If this occurs it will have profound consequences not just for the USA but for the world. It is hardly worth me adding to the many voices that view the prospect of a bombastic, ignorant, vicious narcissist in the White House with alarm.

But whether or not he is elected, Trump’s popularity has a significance as part of the wider rise of a nationalist populism (very evident in Brexit Britain) which can be read as the illegitimate offspring of four decades of neo-liberal globalization. Those decades, as I argue in chapter five of my book, are both the condition and consequence of much contemporary organizational practice. A key theme of nationalist populism is an angry backlash against the loss of secure employment and against immigration, both of which can be ascribed to globalization.

Hence Trump rails against NAFTA, just as Brexiters rail against the EU. At the same time, the very evident crisis of neo-liberalism that has been ongoing since 2008 has not only born down hard on employment and public spending but also opened up a profound sense of injustice and inequality. Allied with this is the idea that powerful elites – corporate, financial, political and intellectual – are profiting at the expense of and unaccountable to the people.

Something like this has become a fairly standard analysis of nationalist populism from the liberal-left (and elements of the right as well), and it clearly captures something of what is going on. However, I feel increasingly unpersuaded by it, for several reasons. Not least because under the guise of understanding, it exhibits a kind of patronizing liberal guilt: ‘those poor little people, left behind by neo-liberal globalization, of course they are angry’. That patronizes because it absolves nationalist populists from responsibility for their choices and actions. There is no reason why their reaction has to be one of vicious denigration of immigrants, for example. Nor is there any reason why it should lead to making choices which will not improve, but worsen, the lot of the left behind.

The liberal-left are often associated – by nationalist populists especially, as it happens – with ‘political correctness’, but there is a new political correctness associated with nationalist populism in which it is unsayable to call out stupidity. Because to do so is just another sign of elitism. We are ‘the people’, and you cannot question the ‘will of the people’ or you are ‘the enemy of the people’. But we are all people, and we are all equally capable of stupidity, and all equally challengeable as to the basis of what we do and think. There are not special rules for those people who proclaim themselves, and only themselves, as ‘the people’.

Nor does it make much sense to think that nationalist populism is confined to those left behind by globalization. In the US (and the UK) it seems as if something like half the electorate is willing to vote for nationalist populism. So many of them are well to do and by no means ‘left behind’ (for some fascinating data on this, see this report showing that Trump’s supporters are actually better off than most Americans). Equally, the other half of the population can hardly be described as ‘the elite’ – or if it can, that’s a hell of a big elite. And in both the US and the UK the populist leaders are themselves very obviously members of the elite, Donald Trump being an obvious example with his inherited wealth and massive business empire.

Beyond all that, nationalist populism long precedes neo-liberal globalization. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate in the 1964 Presidential contest, with whom Trump is often compared is an obvious example. So is McCarthyism, perhaps the most shameful element of Twentieth century US history. Both these comparators relate to the period of post-war US prosperity and progress whose loss is supposed to account for the nationalist populism of Trump. Going further back we can see in the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh very similar political positions. In the UK, it can be seen in Powellism and Thatcherism.

So nationalist populism has long been with us, and whatever the failings of neo-liberal globalization we should not hesitate to say that it is the wrong answer, even if to the right question. But that proposition runs into trouble for a reason which is perhaps new. The philosophical underpinnings of right and wrong answers have been substantially battered by the intellectual climate of postmodernism that is more or less coterminous with neo-liberalism. That is to say, the critique of rationality that has dominated recent decades of intellectual debate has found an unhappy partner in the ‘post-truth’ politics of nationalist populism. So evidence, expertise and rational debate can themselves be dismissed as just another way that ‘the elite’ tries to put one over on ‘the people’. It is a rich and bitter irony that the rarefied intellectual salons of 1970s Paris are being channelled to the American Rust Belt and the former mining towns of Britain. The more bitter since those Parisian salons were also where the Enlightenment was in some part born, and which had so profound a part in the formation and constitution of the United States.


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