Friday, June 24, 2016

The Lessons of the Brexit Vote

Yoni Appelbaum:
If there is a regnant consensus among the men and women who steer the Western world, it is this: The globe is flattening. Borders are crumbling. Identities are fluid. Commerce and communications form the warp and woof, weaving nations into the tight fabric of a global economy. People are free to pursue opportunity, enriching their new homes culturally and economically. There may be painful dislocations along the way, but the benefits of globalization heavily outweigh its costs. And those who cannot see this, those who would resist it, those who would undo it—they are ignorant of their own interests, bigoted, xenophobic, and backward.

So entrenched is this consensus that, for decades, in most Western democracies, few mainstream political parties have thought to challenge it. They have left it to the politicians on the margins of the left and the right to give voice to such sentiments—and voicing such sentiments relegated politicians to the margins of political life.
According to Appelbaum, elites have failed to effectively oppose the new ethno-nationalism because of weaknesses in both empathy and imagination:
To oppose rising nationalism, political elites turned to fear. They compared Trump to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. They warned Brexit would plunge Britain into a black hole. They evoked the specter of Europe’s bloody past. These tactics barely worked in Austria. And they narrowly failed in Britain. It is an open question whether it will succeed in the United States.

This was the failure of empathy. The economic benefits of globalization are diffuse, it turns out, and its costs highly concentrated. For the worker whose factory has shuttered, cheaper T-shirts offer scant consolation. And the costs of cultural dislocation, although more difficult to quantify, are equally real. It is no coincidence that cultural discontent increases in the U.S. and the U.K. as a direct function of age—the further removed voters feel from the culture into which they were born, the more alien they feel in their own lands. Instead of addressing the pain many voters felt, politicians spent years telling their constituents they were wrong. Not just wrong, in fact, but dangerously ignorant.

Compounding this is a profound failure of imagination. Trump wants to make American great again; the Brexit campaigners promised to make Britain great again. They offer a false nostalgia, an illusory promise to restore a vision of national greatness that never truly existed in the first place. But it is a promise of change, a promise that things will be better once more. . . .

The Western political establishment is inclined to dismiss such reactions as bigotry that should not be dignified with a response. Instead, they deploy slogans of the status quo: Remain, Stronger Together. These are intended as dark warnings of the costs of change, and intimations that those who vote for it are motivated solely by prejudice and ignorance.

And here is where the failure of imagination proved catastrophic for the established elites. They failed to paint a vision of a better, brighter future. They failed to offer a persuasive account of how much their people had gained. They failed to address the real concerns of their constituents, or to acknowledge that the interests of different constituencies sometimes diverge. They looked at those who pointed to the flaws in the global consensus—from Bernie Sanders to Nigel Farage—and saw only ideologues making outlandish promises.

They audaciously gambled that by presenting a stark choice, an all-or-nothing vision of globalization, they could persuade their voters to go all in. They seem not to have seriously considered that voters would embrace the alternative.
This gets at something I have long felt about our political economy: nobody really likes the current system, but nobody has a convincing alternative. I think the Obama/Hillary platform would help, but it would not be in any way revolutionary and it would leave in place the things that most offend the disaffected. I agree with Appelbaum's elite straw man that Sander and Farage are ideologues making outlandish promises. So far as I can tell there is simply no available alternative to the mixed ("neo-liberal") systems used by all the world's advanced economies. People who long either for the past – the lifetime highly paid factory job – or an anarchist future without exploitation or drudgery are simply doomed to be disappointed. But they can vote a lot of trouble in the meantime.


David said...

I find myself very ambivalent about all this. On the one hand, it really is true that a lot of the opposition to the new economy is driven by the bigoted, the xenophobic, and the backward. It really is. And I'm pretty unashamedly closed-minded about that kind of thing.

On the other hand, there's something high-handed and cold about the attitude that, "sure, there will be painful dislocations along the way, but we'll all be better off in the end!" More empathy about the pain is in order, I think. Especially since most of the pain is about management and capital finding ways to wring more efficiency out of the system. How chuffed should a person be about losing their job because someone in another country will do the same work for less?

Morally, socially, and psychologically, the idea that jobs exist to provide people a secure living makes perfect sense to me. The alternative, that a job and its attendant pay happen because at this exact conjuncture, it suits the interests of capital, and tomorrow's conjuncture may be different, so toughen up and stop complaining--well, what's the point? I'm reminded of the feminist who recently commented, "If feminism means getting to sleep under my desk at Google, then screw it." I suspect that's at least part of what Tony Judt meant when he pointed out the moral vacuum at the heart of much of the modern order. But, like John, I have trouble imagining an alternative.

pithom said...

A simple look at the Guardian correlations:

would be more informative than the above.

I'm increasingly doubtful globalization has in any substantial sense hurt the first-world poor. Paul Krugman had some good pieces on this in the 1990s when he gave good indications to think that the rising inequality of the time was not something that seemed trade-related.

Brexit did turn out to be a referendum on rule by highly educated unelected blokes in Belgium. Obviously, the highly educated supported Remain, and the less educated supported Leave. If the referendum was on rule by uneducated unelected blokes in Boston, the highly educated would have supported Leave, and the less educated Remain.

And no, I don't believe Manhattan is the future. I despise Clinton's way.

pithom said...

BTW, Brexit: The Movie was pro-free-trade and free-market. What Clinton is proposing is Modern Quincy Adamsism.

G. Verloren said...


I agree that more empathy would smooth things, but what would that look like? Wouldn't politicians who attempted to display empathy be dismissed by many as being condescending mother-hens who are simply talking down to people? Wouldn't saying, "I'm sorry for your loss and misfortune" ring hollow and meaningless to people who are struggling but not also receiving help or guidance from the government?

Surely instead of empathy - or even better, in addition to it - we should institute social programs that are designed to help people transition from old to new?

Industries come and go - that's just a fact of life. When the railroads moved in, they killed off the steamboat trade. Within a few short years, a wildly thriving industry vanished entirely and left behind many highly specialized workers whose experise no longer had any value, and who suddenly had no means to support themselves, much less afford to seek out a new set of skills for a new vocation. Sure, the railroad itself became a new wildly thriving industry and did a lot of good, but in the meantime all the steamboaters were simply left out to dry.

What we need are government programs that offer assistance to people caught in the gaps of technological and social progress. When someone's job skills become obsolete or noncompetitive, they need to be given job placement assistance to help them figure out if they can transfer their extant skills to a different field, or if they have to be retrained and learn an entirely new trade and set of skills. And if it turns out retraining is necessary, then they need affordable, accessible options for receiving that training. And all the while, they need general financial assistance to ensure they can keep paying their bills and minimize their suffering while they make the transition.

One part of the problem is that our capitalist tendencies compel us to sit back and do nothing, blindly trusting in "the market" to correct things over time. But even if the market corrects on its own or with minimal guidance, there are often still millions of people caught in the middle as the system adjusts, and they suffer terribly.

And then there's the issue of societal cynicism and hypocrisy. Everyone wants the government to be there to help them when things get rough, but no one wants to pay taxes to give the government the money which will make that possible. Many people who are doing well for themselves simply don't want the government "robbing them" of their "hard earned money" to pay for assistance for some other person who has fallen on hard times - especially since anyone who struggles is often immediately viewed by much of society as "lazy" or "greedy" or "selfish" or "immoral".

But of course, once the shoe is on the other foot and the people who are against government assistance find themselves in a pickle, they very quickly change their tune and complain about how the government is ineffectual and doesn't meet their needs. Stop giving money to those other lazy, greedy, selfish, immoral people, and give it to me instead! They don't deserve that money - I do! They're all vile and worthless parasites - but I'm a poor innocent victim of circumstance! Heck, it's taxpayer money anyway, so it's actually mine to begin with! They don't even pay taxes - or at the very least, they don't pay a big enough share of them!

So how do we create government programs to help people in times of need if society at large isn't willing to fund those programs? How do we fix the problems people are complaining about if they won't let us do the things necessary to fix them?

How do we fix our government when our culture refuses to allow that to happen? And how do we fix our culture without first fixing out government?

David said...

I stand by what I said.

David said...

To elaborate: @Verloren, by all means, let us have government programs like job training, relocation, etc., etc. I have absolutely no quarrel with that, or with the taxes needed to pay for them. But I was trying to point out what I see as a moral, social, and psychological hollowness at the core of contemporary western society. Programs such as you describe can absolutely alleviate circumstances and pain. But I don't think they address the hollowness I see.

I would point out that I am by no means the first to make such observations. For one thing, as I understand him, @John has made similar points many times. In fact, to my mind I was simply riffing off John's "nobody really likes the current system, but nobody has a convincing alternative." I think, even if critics can't point to a convincing alternative, the critics nevertheless have some legitimate points to make that are worth taking seriously, and I was trying to give voice to one or two of them.