Monday, November 28, 2016

Behold our Western democracies

            Alarm bells are ringing in, the Western world. An intruder armed with malice is on his way to the White House. Each of his moves draws a torrent of ill-favoured comment; every cabinet appointment offers further proof of malign intent. Tub-thumping increases in volume as the usurper’s enthronement draws near with media stars, academics, journalists, many of them blessed with the gift of eloquence, belabouring us daily with the idea that populism has triumphed over common sense and the common good. Too many Americans have been hoodwinked by lies and demagoguery; and for that matter too many Brits - those who voted for Brexit - have been duped by extravagant promises and chauvinistic appeals to self-interest. An overwhelming question forms on every dissenting lip: what must be done to stop all this. So runs much of the background noise.
            What lies behind the shock results of these two plebiscites? Why do firebrands like Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon, Trump himself - or ridiculous figures like Alexander “Boris” Johnson, Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg  - appear to have gained traction among people they like to call “ordinary”?
            Perhaps we should remind ourselves that demagogues find no nourishment where there is contentment, nor where, even in the face of difficulty, the majority feel understood and respected by their representatives. They thrive in fields left fallow and neglected by government, where the privileged few wallow in superfluous wealth while the many must live where hope is in short supply, and insecurity and privation have become the wages of democracy.
            People who voted for Trump and Brexit are not simple-minded malcontents prey to any rabble-rouser with a microphone. They have simply reacted to economic injustice, lack of adequate status, a sense of injury and indignation that those in whom they have entrusted their welfare and that of their children have ignored and betrayed them.  Perpetrators of that betrayal have been successive governments operating in cahoots with the captains of finance and industry. These are the true inmates of Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables,  of which she, too, is a member.
            Deepening inequality is perhaps the clearest evidence of the social divisions that have produced Trump and Brexit  in their respective domains. In his final state of the union address, President Obama lamented the rise of inequality and the desirability of an  “…economy that works for everyone.” - words that Theresa May echoed from the steps of No.10 in her inaugural remarks to the nation as UK Prime Minister. Obama recently told a Greek audience that inequality is the greatest threat to democracy, a Damascene revelation that he took two full presidential terms to articulate and then only in the wake of Donald Trumps electoral victory. Laudable sentiments from both leaders no doubt, but they beg the question of why, during Obama’s eight years in the White House and May’s six years in Cameron’s cabinet, they presided over an increase in what they now pretend to deplore.
            Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz noted in a recent report that governments are perfectly capable of counteracting the growth of inequality - and its handmaiden poverty - if they will; but their policies have actively promoted the opposite - a conclusion supported by Professor John Weeks’ recent piece in Open Democracy. Whether by neglect, design or sheer incompetence they have fostered unfairness, deprivation, and misery - and where the old dispensation survives, as in the UK, they plan to continue doing so.  Trump suggested during his campaign that the US electoral system was rigged; but what has truly been rigged is an economic system geared to rewarding the already wealthy and making the poor pay for downturns.
                        Inequality and marginalisation are not the only beefs against the political class. On both sides of the Atlantic, voters are repelled by State activities that are not just unpopular but repeatedly show up decision-making incompetence and a lack of moral judgment. Here are some:
-        A  determination to commercialise public life and to submit social welfare to the vagaries of competition;
-        Genuflection to big business and finance - with political office functioning as a route to personal enrichment;
-        Military interventionism - led by the US but with the UK as lieutenant - in which modern weaponry is deployed against stricken countries, and innocent victims are anodised as “collateral damage”.
-        Foreign policies towards countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Ukraine that are marked by ignorance, dithering and bewilderment;
-        In the UK, a government and opposition embarrassingly lost in a fog of confusion on Brexit; in the US, a similar confusion about international trade deals that effectively leaves big business and labour at loggerheads;
-        A potentially dangerous cold war with Russia, and possibly with China in the South China Sea;
-        Refusal to face up to the challenge of climate change and protectionism towards industries that damage the environment;
-        Wavering incoherence towards the growing problem of human migration;
-        Persistent, bare-faced lying to the electorate - nowhere more evident than in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election campaigns.

            Plenty of flak is being hurled in Trump’s direction - but so far, at least, his sins are largely of word rather than deed. Those of the political class, by contrast, are part of our lived experience and they have been demonstrably unpleasant, disabling, divisive, careless of the welfare of citizens in their own and in other countries, and in some cases outright dangerous.
            Born into an impoverished working-class family,  I am a life-long left-winger. My education I owe entirely to the UK welfare state. I am reasonably well-read in the literature of the left and have more than dipped into that of the right. I am an unabashed admirer of the brilliant figures who spearheaded US independence from Great Britain and who wrote the US constitution. My political heroes include Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton,  Clement Attlee and, of course, Fidel.
            During the US election, I asked myself how I would vote if I were a citizen of that country. I thought of Trump’s insulting outbursts against Mexicans, against Muslims and against women, his vile mimicry of a disabled person, his airy dismissal of climate change, his egomania and brittleness. The foulness of his campaign, however,  could not erase in my mind the callous and venal record of the Obama years. Nor as a lifelong student of Latin America, could I overlook the outgoing administration’s incessant interference in that region, not least Hillary Clinton’s support for the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted President Zelaya, and the absurd designation of Venezuela as an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”  My answer, disagreeable to my own conscience, is that I would probably abstain, but that if I had decided to vote, it might well have been for Trump if only because he, at least, had not yet betrayed the people and thus offered a smidgin of hope that he might modify his extreme opinions under the constraints of office. Clinton, on the other hand, offered only more of the same and thus no hope at all. Repentance would assuredly have followed, no matter which of the three alternatives I chose. If I had put my cross against Trump’s name, my subsequent sense of shame would probably have discouraged me from admitting it - even more so after his ignorant and menacing response to the death of Fidel Castro. There were no good options. France’s forthcoming presidential election may present French citizens, those on the left at any rate, with a similar dilemma next year. Meanwhile, the UK is governed by a Prime Minister the people haven’t elected, running a government programme for which no one voted, and who prefers the royal prerogative to parliamentary sovereignty.
 Behold the state of Western democracy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trumping from Right to Left

-->            From time to time throughout history, prophecies of doom have warned us of the approaching apocalypse. Most religions have an end-of days component in which the world as we know it will be swept away either to be reborn with suitable moral improvements or, as in the Theravada branch of Buddhism, to be finally destroyed in a conflagration. Some bold prophets have even ventured to predict the date of our extinction. Pope Sylvester II assured the faithful that they and everyone else would expire on January 1st of the  year 1000; while one of his successors, the aptly-named Innocent III settled on 1284. Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus, Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame), and Isaac Newton, are among the better-known apocalyptic sooth-sayers, Jim Jones and Charles Manson among the most sinister, while New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather and Herbert Armstrong (founder of the Worldwide Church of God) figure among the most indefatigable - happy to revise their predictions when their chosen extinction date passes without incident and they find  themselves still alive on the following morning. A modern variation on the theme was the widely-believed prognosis of computer meltdown on January 1st 2000; and we have been assured by a newspaper as respectable as The Guardian that interstellar detritus will soon put paid to us, although the most recent extinction attributable to outer space is that of an Egyptian dog in 1912.
            Latest in the long human saga of dire forebodings is the electoral victory of Donald Trump on November 8th 2016 - an event that has unleashed a torrent of alarmist rhetoric from prominent members of the commentariat. Historian and media star Simon Schama, an inveterate anti-Trump tweeter, angrily told a BBC Newsnight audience that Trump’s election was akin to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. On the BBC’s Question Time on November 11, Professor Sarah Churchwell, a US citizen, was barely able to contain her fury at the prospect of Trump becoming president and confessed that she no longer understood her own country.  Senator Joe Manchin is currently squabbling with fellow Democrat Senator Harry Reid over the propriety of hurling expletives at the president elect. The New York Times, having spent uncountable column inches demonising the Republican candidate, is suddenly fearful of losing its subscribers and issues an apology through gritted teeth for having persistently denigrated the new leader prior to the election. Protests erupt in cities all over the United States at the news of Trump’s victory. Students at Cornell University stage a “cry-in”, though they are consoled in their grief by supplies of freshly-brewed coffee courtesy of a sympathetic barista. More energetically, but with an equal display of cerebral distinction, Columbia students march around the campus screaming “Fuck Donald Trump”.
            Not to be outdone, newspaper columnists in the UK are fulsome in their expressions of outrage that a “racist misogynist” has won the White House.  “Don’t for one moment let the horror of the Trump election become normal”, urges Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, while fellow journalist Owen Jones tweets that “55% of white women voting for Trump is one of the most horrifying statistics I’ve ever seen”.  The Mirror goes even further with a headline predicting the end of civilisation.  Canada’s immigration web site crashes on US election night, overloaded with inquiries from Americans wanting to escape Trump’s America and presumably believing that terminal implosion will occur only south of the 49th parallel.
            Adopting a slightly different but no less partisan approach, a furious Glen Greenwald turns his ire not on the electorates that voted for Trump and also for Brexit, but on the political class that has failed to concern itself with the welfare of citizens while watching complacently as “…elite circles gorged themselves on globalism, free trade, Wall Street casino gambling, and endless wars”. As an exercise in angry polemic, Greenwald’s piece is as good as it gets.
            What is meant  by the political class?  Essentially, the phrase refers to an inner circle of elected representatives and their advisers who belong to political parties that have a proven ability to achieve power. In the United States there have only ever been two such parties; and despite recent fragmentation, the UK currently still has two - although some might contend that the number should now more realistically be one and a half.
            Serious attempts at the US presidency have required adherence either to the Democrats or the Republicans. From time to time, independents like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have thrown their hat into the ring, as did minor-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein this year; but to no avail. If a fresh face is to appear, it must do so from within the main party stockades. For the Democrats, Obama managed it in 2008 and Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, nearly did so in 2016.  In their different ways, however, both have ended up toeing the party line.
            From the outset of his presidency, Obama has arguably remained on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. He selected his first cabinet from the political-class rule-book: several Clinton stalwarts - including Hillary as Secretary of State, a sprinkling of Republicans including Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and bank executive Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary when the choice might have fallen on more progressive figures such as Nobel prize-winners Paul Krugman and Joseph Steiglitz either of whom would have brought added distinction to the cabinet table.
            In the end, despite his high intelligence and winning personality, Obama has had little or nothing to offer the blue-collar Americans who voted him in. Rust belt states have remained rusty, wealth and income inequality have continued to increase. Foreign policy, meanwhile, has continued in an expensive and vainglorious mixture of confusion and belligerence: the failed “surge” in Afghanistan, aggressive incoherence in the Middle East, bewilderment on Russia and Ukraine, frustration in trade negotiations with the EU. Obama’s conservatism is nowhere more evident than in his administration’s coolness towards left-wing governments in Latin America where policy has ranged from meddling in Venezuela, sanctioning a coup in Honduras, quietly applauding the impeachment on false charges of Paraguay’s left-wing President Lugo, and showing approval for Argentina’s new right-wing government with a presidential visit.
            Even a cursory glance at Obama’s record demonstrates why, in the world of politics, appearances often prove deceptive, hopes turn out to be illusory, and progressive rhetoric ends up sounding like vacuous sloganeering. All parties claim to be for the people - the right a little less so, the left a little more so. But in recent years, they have all occupied the same policy landscape, the one laid out by Reagan and Thatcher. They are neoliberals to a man and woman.
            Party nonconformists, meanwhile, are usually either squeezed out like Bernie Sanders, or struggle to achieve credibility like Jeremy Corbyn. Neither of these has succeeded thus far in engaging the people they claim to be addressing. During the primaries, Sanders had virtually no traction among African Americans and very little among Hispanics; Corbyn has scant following in the deprived areas of the north of England and the Midlands, and none at all in Scotland. Sanders in the end compromised his principles by supporting Hillary for the sake of the party. Corbyn and his colleagues fall back on the vocabulary and thinking of the 1970s when unions were strong, manufacturing still a major component of the UK economy, and the financial sector didn’t rule the roost. The Democratic Party reined in Sanders, and though the electoral result may unleash him again, time is not on his side. Corbyn’s vocabulary remains firm, but thus far he enjoys limited credibility among those he most needs to convince. Sanders’ followers are largely young, idealistic students and middle-class intellectuals, and so too are Corbyn’s. Both are fluent in the requisite progressive vocabulary and they doubtless use it honestly; but they mainly reach those who think they know the answers to the problems of the poor, the unemployed, and the disadvantaged, among whom they themselves were never numbered.
            Enter Trump and Farage from the outfield - the true disrupters of convention. Both have picked up on widespread public disaffection and moulded their language to suit - Trump, one suspects by instinct and Farage by calculation, though the result is the same.  It is Trump, of course, who matters; and what is interesting and instructive about some of his prescriptions for addressing blue-collar anger in particular is that they are fundamentally left-of-centre. Whatever one may think of his xenophobic outbursts, his crude sexual boasting, his transparent vulgarity, these may fade into insignificance beside his stated desire to revamp America’s economic profile and the role of the state - ambitions, incidentally, that could put him at loggerheads with a Republican congress. Three policies, in particular, might prove ground-breaking.
            First, the hostility to free trade deals - including the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Trump has understood than free trade is never free. As soon as the ink has dried on the parchment, the signatories to trade deals find themselves obliged to open their borders to each other’s exports regardless of the interests of employees, communities, and even whole regions and sectors of activity. Tariffs reduce or disappear, but competition does not. Companies free to operate within a free trade area can move to where costs are lower - not only labour costs but also those related to energy prices, taxes, exchange rates, environmental standards and so on. Rust, decay and unemployment in regions thereby deprived of economic activity are among the less happy consequences, accompanied all too often by neglect from officialdom.
            Where formal trade deals do not exist, companies may also shift production to lower-cost countries, but governments at least remain free to implement countervailing policies without being dragged before a tribunal. Free trade deals, by contrast, bypass democratic accountability as the Canadian government learned when it tried to ban the importation of a toxic fuel additive from the United States.They are set in stone. They oblige the signatory countries to submit to their wording regardless of changing economic conditions. They can and sometimes do prevent governments from acting in the national interest. By minimising production costs - but not necessarily prices and certainly not profits - they also help to concentrate wealth in the hands of capitalists and senior executives, and thereby to increase inequality. Trump’s hostility to trade deals may or may not prove advantageous, but it is far from indefensible.
            Second, Trump’s team is beginning to outline a tax plan that is again more coherent than may first appear; and though it may look thoroughly right-wing, the corporate tax element has more to do with common sense than ideology. At present the US has the OECD’s highest corporate tax rate, One consequence is that instead of repatriating their overseas profits, US companies operate abroad from low-tax jurisdictions like Ireland (tax rate 12.5%) and stash much of the rest in tax havens like Bermuda and Cayman Islands. Lowering the US corporate tax rate could be a means of inducing US corporations “back home” - bringing jobs and  investment with them as well as revenue to the government.
            Third, Trump is proposing major investment in infrastructure. Unlike many politicians, he understands the difference between capital  and operating expenditure; and he knows that investment by the state in, for example, highways, airports, educational facilities etc. not only increases employment, it also has the long-term effect of reducing operating costs. Compare the UK’s so-called PFI initiative by which clever Labour and Tory chancellors sought to save public money by getting the private sector to finance capital projects. PFI’s signal achievement has not been to save public money, but to put hospitals into the red and excessive profits into the hands of corporations, while adding to the deficit.
            In summary,  some of Trump’s most significant economic policy proposals are ones that would not or should not seem outlandish if they were to come from Sanders or Corbyn. Much left-wing commentary would have us believe that Trump’s elevation signals the end of days. But the poor, the unemployed, and those many who feel marginalised by the relentless march of neoliberalism may beg to differ. Even if voters find some of Trump’s opinions distasteful, when it comes to putting bread on the table, they will choose to feed the kids. While the media are fretting about the Mexican wall and the deportation of illegal immigrants - policies already softening and destined in time to become footnotes - they are forgetting Bill Clinton’s celebrated aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!”.