Making Sense of 2016

Dear reader, please accept our apologies.

2016 has been a complete disaster so far, and we have failed to prevent this from happening. It has made for some pretty depressing reading, and from our point of view, some pretty depressing writing.

We’ve tried hard to find a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re now pretty sure that the light is in fact an oncoming radioactive train, with massive gold-plated letters spelling out the name TRUMP. And it’s about to tear down whatever social fabric and post WWII order we have left.

So yeah, sorry about that.

Between Brexit, the dismal state of the Labour Party, terrorist attacks all over the world, the spectre of Trump, the most right-wing government in living memory in the UK, the purge in Turkey, the bloody mess in the Middle East, Boris Johnson getting a government job, and the rise of populist, demagogue parties all across Europe, 2016 does feel like the beginning of the end. Like the part you read about in History books and think “How the hell did it ever come to this?”

Not only does it feel apocalyptic, it also feels very confusing. It has been impossible to predict anything this year, despite a wealth of experts, data, opinion polls, and sacrificed chickens. Only in the minds of the most dedicated conspiracy theorists can this all make sense: it’s the CIA! The Free-masons! The Bilderberg group!

It’s no wonder 2016 has been such fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. If there is one thing that motivates them even more than established order (by the Jews!), it is chaos (because of the CIA!).

But we all know the world is an inherently chaotic place, run by incompetent and drug-addled children in suits, who only care about how their actions will affect their future career. These people can’t even organise a sustainable banking system, a functioning police force, or even a fucking Brexit. Is it any surprise we’re in such a mess?

The first challenge for us progressives, as we watch the world our grandparents created fall to pieces, is to try and make sense of it all. When the dust settles, when millions have died because Trump pressed the nuclear button whilst trying to call the elevator, future historians will look back on this new gilded age, and wonder where it all went wrong.

Perhaps we can help them.

Singer Katy Perry raises arms with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the end of the Hillary Victory Fund "I'm With Her" benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall in the Manhattan borough of New York City, March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Katy Perry, the sensible choice for Vice President

The second challenge is to create and communicate an inspiring vision and narrative of what a progressive society should be. Because at the moment, the only groups with a clear and coherent narrative are those hell-bent on destroying the established order. This is partly why they are winning.

On this front, however, it’s going to take more than just Refractory. But we’ll give it a shot.

There are three concepts which I think help understand the mess we are currently in. They are:

  • Economic systems unfit for purpose;
  • Sweeping cultural changes (mainly engendered by technology);
  • and a complete lack of long-term vision or sustainability.

All three go a long way towards explaining what we are seeing, both in the West in terms of Trump and Brexit, but also in the Middle East with Syria, ISIS, and Turkey.

 

Economic systems unfit for purpose

The economic model we currently subscribe to in the West is fundamentally flawed. We have written about this many times before, about the absurdity of trickle down politics, about wealth inequality, about the fact that money has seeped into every facet of modern life, and turned everything into a commodity which is then exploited.

It’s obviously not just us. Nobel-prize winning economist such as Joseph Stieglitz, Thomas Piketty and Paul Krugman have written extensively about this topic, identifying flaws and proposing remedies.

The financial crisis was perhaps the nadir of this unsustainable economics model. But nothing changed in its aftermath. The system is still completely rigged towards the rich, as the panama papers have shown. The dogma of ‘maximising shareholder value’ as the only goal of a company has created short term imperatives that have promoted asset stripping over sustainability. Zero-hour contracts, part-time jobs, agency work, and the Uberisation of the economy has created a system whereby employers have no duties towards employees, and where employees are not invested in the company they work for. This creates a dissonance which cannot be bridged, despite numerous corporate away days at the Milton Keynes stadium.

The hold that international finance has over national government is stronger than it has been for a hundred years. It means that governments are locked in a race towards the bottom in order to attract FDI and multinationals, who don’t pay their taxes anyway.

It means that countries such as a post-Brexit UK have to become low-tax, deregulated, off shore corporate havens if they are to attract capital. What else does the UK have to sell? It has already sold off most of its state assets. Its energy policy is run by the French and the Chinese. Its railways are an expensive private mess. Its schools are “independent”, its NHS slowly being privatised, swathes of London has been sold to Dubai and Qatar, there isn’t enough housing, and its infrastructure is crumbling due to decades of under investment. And post Brexit economics mean that the austerity we had to endure for the past 6 years is all for nothing. We won’t plug the deficit. We won’t have a budget surplus. We’re about to have more QE. 6 years of suffering and cuts, for nothing.

The system is broken and unsustainable. Wealth inequality keeps increasing. Workers’ protections keep diminishing. The environment is still being destroyed, resources are being depleted, and our energy policy is incredibly short sighted. No one has any appetite to take on the powerful vested interest that profit from this system.

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If this pattern, which is re-created in more or less the same way all over the Western world, wasn’t scary enough, the worst element of it all is probably the lack of hope. No politician has any credible plan to turn this around. The right-wing parties are driving us to this economic dystopia where money controls everything, and is itself concentrated in the hands of a very super rich individuals. The left meanwhile, want to take us there too, but just a little bit slower. Perhaps so we can enjoy the scenery on the way. One last time.

Maybe the facts bear repeating.

FTSE 100 CEOs are paid approximately 183 times the average UK worker. Not the lowest, the average. In 1998, that figure was “only” 47. And yet, despite average CEO pay of nearly £5 million a year, only a quarter of FTSE 100 companies are living wage accredited.

In the US, the picture is, if anything, worse. Their ratio between CEO wage and average wage is 201. In some firms, that figure is 1000. In 1965, by contrast, that ratio was 20-1.

And even then, wage figures are misleading. Anyone who has spent any amount of time studying the topic knows that the real issue isn’t income, it’s wealth. And there too, the picture is similar: wealth gushing upwards, and remaining there. In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans had more wealth than half of all Americans combined.

This staggering inequality has been getting worse for a few decades now. And the problem isn’t with a few individuals the media likes to hound every once in a while, they are just the convenient bad apples whose purge legitimises this unsustainable system. The problem is the system itself, and no one in thirty years has done much, if anything, to fix it.

It’s not sustainable, and today we see the kettle exploding in the way things always explode: randomly, violently, and without any concern for who gets hurt in the process. Until we address those deep structural deficiencies in the system, the door will be wide open to demagogues, populist rabble-rousers, and fascists in suits. It’s all there in the history books. People need to feel like the system they work for works for them too. They need to identify with it. If they don’t, trust in public institutions will break down, the social fabric will tear itself apart, and violence will erupt.

 

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And while this is all relatively subtle in the Western world, it is blindingly obvious in the Middle East. Their economic system is even worse, even more sclerotic, even more rigged and corrupt than ours. Countries with a young, energised, dynamic population are unable to offer them any prospect. It’s worth remembering how the Arab Spring started in Tunisia. It was an economic revolt as much as political one. We talk wistfully about secularism in the Middle East, but what did 30 years of Mubarrak do for the poor Egyptians? What is Algeria’s military government doing for its own population? How can you ask young people to care about a system that offers them no hope, no prospects, no identity?

Our economic systems, which should really be about efficient distribution of resources, are horrendous at doing this. They allocate resources extremely poorly and inefficiently. Mainly, they seem to allocate resources to themselves. No wonder people are pissed off.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush (2nd R) walks past a security guard with a sidearm and a tattoo of the start of the preamble to the U.S. constitution, "We the people," after a town hall meeting with employees at FN America gun manufacturers in Columbia, South Carolina February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Sweeping cultural changes driven by technology

Does any of this explain why a young person brought up in a suburb of Brussels suddenly decide they belong to a medieval barbaric fundamentalist gore-fest group stuck in the middle of the Syrian desert? I think in parts in does. But this isn’t the whole picture. There is something else at play here.

Our skewed economic system, and the apathetic political system that follows it, have undeniably created an identity dissonance amongst the citizens they are supposed to support and represent. Marx talked about the alienation of the worker, and he would recognise many of the practices we are seeing today: the uberisation of the workforce (no pension, no annual leave, no insurance, no sick pay, no maternity leave), the zero hour contracts, the slow death of unions, the precariousness of employment, the delocalised call centres, the extensive and obscure supply chains built on slave labour, the absurd asymmetry of wealth and power, and the meager wages which only just allow subsistence.

Very few people today find their identity through work. It has become, like most other things in our society, a purely transactional exchange. Even respected professions aren’t respected at all anymore: journalists, lawyers, politicians, bankers, are all reviled by the public. Companies are international behemoths that only care about ‘returns for shareholders’. Public sector jobs, indispensable to the functioning of a country, are all paid a pittance: try living in London on a nurse or a primary school teacher salary. Try buying a house.

And the vestiges of past identities are dying too. Nationalism, which has been the prime builder of identity in the West since the 1800s is kicking and screaming all the way to the retirement home. Politics, since the fall of the soviet union especially, is much less of an identifier too. Sure, some of us are left wing or right wing, but not to the same extent as before. Few of us would pick up a rifle and decamp to Spain to fight the fascists. Don’t get me wrong, nationalism and politics are still factors in creating an identity, but they are much less powerful than they used to be. This is partly because of globalisation, partly because of the internet, partly the end of the cold war, and partly because of the breakdown in trust in institutions.

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 12: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets people during a campaign rally at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on February 12, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. The process to select the next Democratic and Republican Presidential candidate continues. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s not easy being black at a Trump rally

On the whole, though, the real driver is technology. Geography (the basis of the nation state) and proximity (the basis of common cultural references) are becoming increasingly irrelevant. People find their identity across borders, across continents, and outside of the traditional, physical spaces of discourse and interaction.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Identity used to be mostly pre-determined. If you were born a factory worker in Lancashire in the 1870s, it’s unlikely you would identify as an internationalist feminist zionist. Identity was mainly settled at birth. You died for Queen and Country, or for the Republic. You were Christian, and English, and hopefully not of Irish descent, and that was that.

But today, all these constraints have exploded. If you’re born into a working class family in Lancashire today, you can be whatever you want to be. You can join ISIS. You can become a skateboarding Buddhist. You can become a banker. You can shave your head and join the BNP. You can live as rogue Goblin in World of Warcraft. And your neighbour can do the exact opposite, and you’ll never even chat to him to find out.

Identity is changing, and fluid, and in many ways organic. It is liberating. But it also means that, coupled with economic deprivation, some kids will join ISIS.

Or that some white guys in the US will vote for Trump. Because their economic situation is so precarious, because their political situation is so paralysed, and because the world around them is changing at an ever faster pace, they retreat to their basic identity: Male. White. Christian. American.

Just like some kids from Birmingham will decide that their core identity, in these tumultuous and precarious times, is the warm embrace of the Ummah, or whatever fucked up version of it they read online.

Just like some kids from Baltimore will join #BLM. And who can blame him when half the country is defending the indiscriminate murder of innocent black men by the police? What else would you have them be?

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It is fear and insecurity that is driving these kids and these Trump voters to retrench into those basic identities. It is a cold, mechanical economic and political system that is blind to their hardship and deaf to their cries. It is the impossibility of identifying with the principles of our system. Partly because our system doesn’t represent anything other than economic growth. Values and principles and ideals have been outsourced to the religious groups and universities, and all that is left is creating value for shareholders. I don’t blame the kids, or the oldies, for not identifying with this system. I certainly don’t.

But in the long term, these retrenchments are dangerous. They will create, foster, and reinforce existing divisions. They create echo chambers in which opposite views don’t exist, or exist only to be ridiculed. It creates a perpetual victim mentality. It also, sometimes, dehumanises the others. Trump, Brexit, the National Front in France, Golden Dawn, the Social and Justice Party in Poland, we are seeing the perverse effects of this identity crisis all over the Western world.

And not just in the Western world. The removal of Saddam also quickened the death of pan-Arab nationalism as an ideology. If we think the Western world is under stress, how must the citizens of the Middle East feel?

And while we can’t directly control these factors, we must understand that none of this is sustainable. It will erupt, like it has erupted previously during the London riots, or in the suburbs of Paris, or the Arab Spring, or during any Trump speech if a black dude shows up.

We have to recognise that technology is changing the world at a faster pace than ever before. It is a feeling which can be overwhelming, especially if one feels left behind by these sweeping changes. But it is a reality nonetheless, and one which will only speed up. Technological change isn’t going away, and we need to understand the earthquakes it is causing.

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The power of the flag, still

 

Sustainability

If we had to sum up the problems that afflict our modern world in one concept, it would be probably sustainability. Or rather, the lack of.

Whether in economics, politics, the environment, or even just for our societies as a whole, our systems are simply not sustainable.

And that which isn’t sustainable, won’t be sustained.

Our economics is a perfect example of this. Resources in the world are finite. You can’t grow to infinity. And growth for itself is meaningless. There has to be an end game. A vision. I really struggle to see what the end game of our model is. If we continue on current trends, with a few people getting ever richer and the rest struggling, what is the best possible outcome? To ensure the sustainability of super yacht providers?

Surely economics should be constructed around an end game, around the people. For example, to ensure that everyone has a decent start in life, that economic prosperity is meritocratic, and that no one has to go hungry, homeless, or cold. The real economic indicators we should be tracking when judging the success of a nation or a system should be the employment rate, the number of food banks, the number of homeless people, and the cost of basic living. Maybe a happiness index. Our challenge should be to achieve those aims in a way which is sustainable for the environment, and for the rest of the world.

NASHUA, NH - FEB 8: 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to attendees during a campaign event at Daniel Webster Community College on Monday, February 8, 2016, in Nashua, NH. (Photo by Landon Nordeman)

Bernie got it

In a similar way, companies should aim to develop, train, retain and promote staff. It’s in their long term economic interest to pay their share of corporation tax, so that they have access to a healthy and educated work force. Or to invest in the development of their own staff and the salaries of ordinary workers. Even Ford, the ultimate capitalist, understood this.

But if all we care about is quarterly return to shareholders, then obviously these things are a waste of time and money. Sell assets, sack staff, cut down on pay and benefits, and hire agency workers.

It’s all about the end game.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in politics.

Democracy, in spite of its benefits, is inherently short-termist. Elections have to be won, regularly. The news cycle is only 24 hours long, if that. There are no penalties for lying, but plenty for telling the truth.

Just look at the “War on Terrorism”, or the “War on Drugs”. The perfect examples of short term strategies with no end game. They look and sound impressive at first, with their bombastic rhetoric and promises of determined pursuit. But you can’t wage war on concepts. Both “wars” have been catastrophically expensive failures that have caused far more harm than good. But they are politically expedient, so no one dares to drop them.

In the case of terrorism, Iraq, and Syria especially, our failures to have any kind of long term strategy is painfully obvious. You can draw neat lines joining all the Western failures in those regions, starting a hundred years ago as Western powers partitioned the remnants of the Ottoman empire according to ill-conceived imperial bargaining between the World War I victors. The period of western colonisation that followed was arguably even worse, as they pillaged those countries of resources. And when those countries finally got independence, the West supported brutal dictators like the Shah and Saddam. Just to protect their short term financial interests. And when they stopped playing ball, like Saddam, the West removed him. And when the people removed the dictators themselves, like with the Shah, the West imposed sanctions.

But in all these cases, the question was never posed: what is the end game? When they removed the Caliph and dissolved the Ottoman empire, did anyone wonder what would replace this void? Did they not think it might create a power vacuum which, a hundred years later, various groups are still desperately, bloodily trying to fill?

You can see this today in Syria. The West says it wants to destroy ISIS, but has no clue how to go about it, or what to offer instead. So they drop bombs from the sky, because it’s quite cheap and it doesn’t kill their own soldiers and by now they’re pretty good at it. But what’s the end game in Syria? In the Middle East? Even Russia just wants to keep Assad in power, to protect their base, but they don’t really have a clue what to do next either. And they are just at risk of terrorism as the West.

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And finally, we have the environment. The ultimate acid test in how well we understand sustainability, and in our ability to effect change. Because that’s what it all comes down to in the end. The management of resources, natural or otherwise. Good management leads to prosperity and progress. Poor management leads to war and destruction.

Our societies are changing quite radically, and the challenges are enormous. Unless progressives everywhere articulate a compelling vision of what this change should lead to, what the end game is, others will do that for us.

And as we’re seeing with Trump, Putin, or ISIS, it’s not going to be pretty.

So how do we get the fuck out of this mess?

We obviously start with the economy. There are some great ideas out there about how to improve the system. These range from the relatively simple, like a basic universal income, to the pretty complex, like regulatory and structural changes to the way financial markets operate. But it’s all out there, and some countries have even tried putting them into practice with positive results.

The challenge is that it is very difficult for one country to do this on its own. Finance and corporations are international, and they can easily bully nation states that try to change the rules. Perhaps if we could create a coalition of progressive, liberal, functioning economies that would unite economically and politically to counter the power imbalance that international finance has, we would have a chance. A kind of Union of European countries that could take on Microsoft, and Google, and impose a financial transaction tax, and… ah well, never mind.

So fine, it won’t happen through the EU for now. And anyway, the top-down approach on its own isn’t enough. We need a European grassroots movement of liberal progressives, fighting for elections under common values, ideals, and narratives. Greens and lefties and social democrats and Podemos and Syriza, there should be a lot more cooperation and communication between these groups. Perhaps if we had an organised an efficient Labour Party in the UK, we could… ah well, never mind.

So fine, it won’t happen through the Labour party for now. But still, we must rethink the role of unions in our modern economy, what their purpose is, what they can offer. They must modernise and understand the challenges that workers today face, rather than those of the 1970s. There is some good reading emerging from the US on this. Perhaps if they elected a socially aware and economically literate candidate we could… Ah well, never mind.

So fine, it won’t happen because of the US. But despite the recent events, and future ones, there is still some hope on the horizon. Partly because most of the issues we mention here have moved from the political wilderness into the mainstream in the last few years. Partly because the message of people like Bernie Saunders and Corbyn and Podemos is slowly filtering into the centrist political narrative.

When the Prime Minister of the most right wing government in living memory starts to talk about ideas that we were once too radical for Labour, we know we are winning the rational argument.

And who knows, 2016 might buck its own trend and Trump might not win.

Stranger things have happened this year.

4 thoughts on “Making Sense of 2016

  1. What a great and precient article. Progressive is the way forward but electoral systems in the UK & US certainly stymie any chance of political movement. In general most people are inherently conservative so will not back real radical shake up of systems (see Podemas failure in Spain). So we are stuck with waiting for the main centerist political parties to see there is a potential electoral win in it – a long slow drawn out process!!

  2. To the author:
    I’d agree with part of what you write, but in my view, you fall too easily for the leftist meme “the underdog is always right” and its corollary “the topdog is always wrong”.

    In particular, Islamic jihadism long precedes capitalism or European colonialism.

    What if, like the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day, you believe what you believe out of peer pressure or because it feels good?

    What is needed is a rational framework on the basis of which to answer the most basic, yet disputed question: what is morality? What is the moral thing to do in a given context and why?

    I’ve tried to answer this question from a rationalist perspective at tarkmarg.blogspot.com in a post from April 2016 titled “Polestar of Morality”, and followed up with a post in September 2016. I’d appreciate it if you could take a look.

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