There are a large number of things happening that seem unusual, unsettling and unpredictable – and it all appears to be taking place more rapidly and in more widespread ways.
It seems that a set of disconnected events come rushing at us. This can simply be accepted as the way things are in contemporary society, part of the world we live in these days, but all these things can be traced backwards (uncertainly ie not in the sense that A caused B – just in the sense of the social world changing shape over time). The roots of these fast-moving current events lie somewhere in things that have been building up over time.
Attempting to understand what is going on, at the macro- and the micro-scale, is not straightforward. There are at least a couple of dozen shifting influences that feed into the changes in current society and these are interdependent and uncertain.
Thinking about recent events in UK politics and US politics throws up a number of things. Different people will have their own views about what has brought us to this point, and where it might be leading.
What follows are some simple musings to see if I can explain any of it to myself. These are a somewhat-disjointed (and no doubt over-simplified) surface skim over a few influences on the world I grew up in, and a loose application of these in order to try to get an understanding of recent political events in the UK.
In the years after 1945 there was austerity but there was also some form of broad, if still contested, social settlement around what society was about. For some, the decade and a half after 1945 provided times to look back on as a society transformed by heroic, wartime action; and a replacement of old aristocratic outlooks by modern trading outlooks; and a chance to be optimistic of playing a leading role in post-war world political arrangements. For others, the same period provided a time to look back on as a society transformed by shared hardships; the breaking down of old barriers; and the chance to be optimistic of carrying society forward through new communal, national and international ways of organising things.
In the 1960s politics moved from the hands of the old guard into the hands of youth (Kennedy, US) or those believing in economic planning and the power of technology (Wilson, UK). Across this 20-30 year period there were difficulties but also some optimism.
Each decade brought its own challenges. One such time of difficulty, at least in the UK, was the 1970s period following the global rise in oil prices. This led to the three-day working week and sudden power blackouts, immediately attributable to over-powerful unions but also with the sense that it was due to world events. Many of the difficulties that followed were seen as more home-grown political ones and thus far more open to challenge.
By the mid-1980s the hopes and ambitions of youth/planned economies were being replaced by Thatcher/Reagan economics; with progress being seen as in the control of ambitious individuals operating in an overall freed-up market atmosphere. After some large-scale industrial struggles, the broad UK voting public rejected moves towards more trade union power and the central control of the economy. ‘Society’ was drifting towards ‘individuality’. Traditional working communities were losing old rationales.
On occasions there were increasing challenges to authorities arising from the frustration, anger or defeatism felt by large sections of those former traditional-industry areas, where people began to feel written off, politically and socially: Who controls what; who speaks for whom; who gets a say; who has a voice; who gets listened to; and what values are worth promoting?
In the same post-war period European leaders were keen to establish different political, economic and identity arrangements – firstly through the establishment of a European Economic Community across six countries; then establishing the European Union, in 1993, putting in place a number of institutions and setting out mechanisms for a common currency.
These were followed by an increase in the number of countries signing up to treaty-membership of the European Union; the adoption of the same currency across countries with different economic structures; the strong adoption of neoliberal economic models that later became viewed as misplaced, seeming to support corporate interests as high numbers of young people were unable to find work; and an increasing perception of the institutions as not really helping to create a stronger, more equal and more united Europe. ‘Europe’, for some, became a political problem rather than a social goal.
In the period from the mid-1990s to around 2008-10 there appeared to be resurgences of youthful hope but these were building on (rather than unravelling) the new settlement around neoliberal economics. There was to be no going back to large-scale narratives of the Cold War or of the class war. In domestic policy the old basis of industry, class and solidarity was, by the 1990s, substantially replaced with an increased emphasis on gender, race and sexual identities; and large-scale class politics replaced with smaller-scale identity politics.
A legacy of this still continues in those values and attitudes in which more emphasis is put on notions of individualised, personalised, responsive, autonomous, independence etc, and less social weight attributed to things as mass-produced, collective and communal.
A background to much of the above was the increase in globalisation: the decline of traditional industries (mining; manufacturing; ship-building; mill-working etc) as costs were reduced by exporting jobs abroad; an increasing automation of everyday life; the ability of organisations to operate with little regard to geographical boundaries; the rise of service economies and financial services; and the spread of world-wide instantaneous communications.
Deindustrialisation led to growth in service sectors and then to the emergence of higher levels of temporary working, self-employment and internet-based trading. The mass experiences of workers gave way to more atomised experiences of individual operatives. This had consequences for their sense of continuity, of place and of tradition.
Within these upheavals, wages fluctuated, old skills ceased to be valued, and new forms of communication emerged. Some people flourished in these changes, arguing for more modernisation, more internationalism, and more change. Others were left feeling that they, and the places they lived in, had been left behind. The things that had once given them access to significance no longer existed in the same way: consigned to history, or looked on as a past heritage. For some, past solidarities of mass employment disappeared and they turned to things like an idealised national identity to give them the same sense of significance and belonging.
Little explanation filtered through, into affected communities, to show how unrestrained finance and world-wide free-market mechanisms were being consistently used to undercut the traditional ways of doing business. Things came at people in piecemeal ways and were dealt with in fragmented ways.
People no longer fitted into lifelong determined categories. Groupings (Labour, Conservative, Liberal) ceased to maintain older meanings. Things were becoming modernised – new ways for a new world that was much more consumerist, transient, celebrity, polarised, media-savvy, managed-by-numbers, customised and so on. Ultimately this would lead to the detachment of people from traditional political loyalties, to produce more free-wheeling, variable, unpredictable ways of bringing social and political attitudes together around specific issues.
At the level of national debate there was a more centring of The Economy: everything was to be assessed in terms of its economic impact (rather than its public impact). Large, and almost incomprehensible, figures were thrown into debates on the national GDP, debt, growth and so on. Community-level activity was rated in terms of productivity, economic gain and inward investment. Any considerations of value for money seemed to be driven more by a focus on money than any attempt to understand value.
One key issue was the balance between levels of taxation and public spending. In the face of increasing inequalities and greater local geographical disparities, there was an argument for increased state spending but instead of direct (nationalised) provision this was more often through a range of privatised arrangements. Services were increasingly seen as able to be financialised and monetised ie seen as sources of profit rather than as necessary support expenditures. Things were more overtly operating in the interests of the few rather than the many, and the wealthy rather than the most disadvantaged. Where the State was still seen as having clear direct roles, these were in basic healthcare, basic education or around social control and surveillance at a number of levels.
Even with this focus on economic issues, little was done to make explicit the connections between economic and social policy issues. The market approach relied on growth in the economy. Declining population, or an aging population, in a number of Western countries meant that they were unable to sustain growth, production and services without immigration of new, younger workers. Growth in the economy and issues of immigration were usually seen as separate concerns.
Since the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent UK push for deficit-reduction and increased financial austerity, there has been a sustained reduction in public-service funding; increases in basic housing costs (whether as rent or as starter-prices); reduced support for direct welfare payments; and a more obvious set of mechanisms for wealth extraction by those already financially advantaged.
Almost inevitably, there was a mistrust of the kind of economics (and economists) that described the market as working in ways beneficial to all – when that market seemed geared to finance, wealth-accumulation, and growth at the expense of wages and spending on public services.
Increasingly, the thirty year experiment in financial neoliberal economics was being seen as having failed to deliver on its promises. In contrast it brought more inequality, more uncertainty and more mistrust of those in decision-making positions. Even in the US there was a growing belief that global trade agreements no longer served the best interests of the country. Things were going wrong with accepted ways of being and ways of doing things.
Even after this financial crisis, it took some time before there was widespread belief that the unregulated banking and financial corporation arrangements were largely at fault. This fed into the growing public mistrust of elitist, exclusive and unequal ways of governing society – a mistrust easily channelled by what were promoted as ‘outsider’ political voices, putting forward an anger against the status quo and calling for new ways of doing things. Although there were undertones of what would once have been called Class, the resurgence of this was now detached from production issues around labour, unions or workplace and linked more to issues of consumption, social structure and the casualisation of employment in service industries.
When things did go wrong in this new world, the blame was rapidly deflected: onto workers (for low productivity), onto centre-left governments (for high state spending), onto those not working (for unsustainable welfare bills), onto immigrants (for being present in too large numbers, or for cultures that were judged as too different).
What people had been asking for was captured in words such as transparency, reality, understanding, fairness, honesty, integrity and leadership. What they had in response was, too often, more floppy and self-interested than that. Where there might once have been an over-deference to organisations, authorities and politicians, there was a creeping in of contempt and calls for new ways of doing things.
There was a view that politicians and social leaders in general were out of touch with life beyond their own immediate experiences, and that those experiences were increasingly removed from the experiences of ‘everyday people’. Part of this was that those in public power, at least in the UK, increasingly seemed younger, educated via a select number of routes and often part of a connected clique operating in their own bubble, feeding each other’s views well away from ‘real life’.
For some, therefore, part of the problem was perceived as the growth of a cosmopolitan, multicultural, socially-liberal elite as a new establishment ready to embrace change. One reaction to this was from more traditionally-minded members of the establishment who felt that things were being modernised too far, too quickly. More radical reaction came from an increased support for anti-establishment campaigns, movements and political parties.
Even so it felt as if any debate was constrained. Repeated refrains helped consolidate a new middle-ground around which much debate was focused. One consequence of this focus on a narrow belt of conservative-value contested-middle was that the new Centre looked very much like the old Right, and that the new Right had much in common with an old ultra-right that was once seen as extreme.
The managerialist trend in politics led to a narrowing of areas of things down to a few centre-ground issues that were felt acceptable to the electorate. Political parties can have endless processes of policy reviews in which party members identify things such as climate change as key policy issues, but then policy managers ruled that such issues are not vote-winners. People’s real-life issues got downplayed if they are not vote-able by swing voters in marginal constituencies.
A further consequence of over-managerialism in society was the use of technologies, bureaucracies and targets to try to control an unpredictable world. People were persuaded of predictability and that progress is possible if rational planning can reign supreme. This requires ambiguities and emotions to be kept out of thinking ways forward but this removes the humanity from the complex human situations trying to be planned and progressed.
Politicians became more aware of the media pressures created by modern technologies, and were more inclined to hold back, shift position, oversimplify or distract when a full exploration of the complexity of things might be seen as a sign of weakness.
The population at large might look for some deeper understandings but, at the same time, wanted simple narratives (even where these didn’t exist). In such contexts, anyone seeming to offer a simple message, or to ‘say things as they are’ with little concern for so-called political correctness, came across as fresh and attractive.
In contrast, middle-ground politicians came across as staid and conciliatory, wanting to sustain economic and social models that were rapidly falling out of favour with the bulk of the population. This made them easier to sweep aside by those tougher voices offering prospects of radical breaks with globalisation, existing foreign policy approaches, the perceived weakening of social values, and capitalising on generalised feelings of decline in status and significance.
A strand of politics adopted pragmatic approaches to things rather than a holding on to clear principled stances. The mode of operation became more easily one of back-tracking and U-turns to go with the public mood, if that sustained staying in power even if not in the best long-term interests of the country.
Pragmatism is, of course, a valid social and political approach with a long history. This might be thought of as Sincere Pragmatism – pragmatism undertaken for sincere reasons as part of doing politics. What was increasingly evident was a form of Insincere Pragmatism – a playing politics via a casual approach to honesty, reliability and sincerity. Part of this insincere pragmatism has been a casual attitude to knowledge and information.
The political use and misuse of the dominant media of the day is certainly nothing new. Over the recent 30 year period, however, there has been a professionalisation of media operations: a focus on PR; a concern with image over substance; the quick sound-bite for rolling news consumption rather than slow considerations in depth; and the banging of opinions back and forth for public entertainment (alongside the growth of reality TV shows that had inbuilt audience engagement/viewer voting).
There is a new casualness about the truth, an easy use of delusion and illusion; a feeling that information can best be dumbed-down for public consumption; and an acceptance of the slipperiness and relativity of beliefs. At a time when there are more and more media outlets wanting to grab the latest news more quickly, there is more scope for sound-bites, slick words, repeated slogans, confrontations and a bluntness of tone. There is less space for complexities, considerations, and ‘thinking in long-hand’. Anyone wanting to pin things down is likely to be labelled a nuisance, a bigot, a fundamentalist or a threat.
Within the mix of uncertainties, ambiguities, shiftings, fragmentations, slipperiness and mendacities it has not been easy for mainstream civic leaders to project clear social messages that resonate with majority groups in the population. In the absence of such apparent unifying certainties it becomes that much easier for fringe, more divisive leaders to emerge with simple, factional slogans – usually around border controls, putting one’s own country first, regaining past glories, and so on.
As part of the above, more emphasis has been put on approaches that are anti-expert, anti-adviser, anti-consultant, anti-specialist, and anti-clique. It is easy to see why this has arisen. It is equally easy to see the inherent dangers in discounting any and all expertise. For one, it allow the populist politician to talk more easily about ‘What everyone knows’ (meaning ‘What we want everyone to believe’). An extension of this is the claim that we now live in a post-factual, or non-factual, world where any story told is as good as any other, and where believability counts for more than any grounding in facts.
In the run-up to the UK ‘Leave/Remain in the European Union’ referendum the parliamentary Select Committee complained that the public debate was being poorly served by the inconsistent, unqualified and potentially misleading claims being made by both sides. There was some political anger at the way the British people were maybe being misled, whilst a group of academics noted that the level of misinformation was uniquely large enough to call into question the democratic validity of the whole process. Contrasts were made with referenda procedures in other countries in which information was scrutinised and treated less politically.
In the UK referendum, large numbers of people (on both sides of the arguments) voted and were clear about their vote but, after the event, were uncertain about the precise detail of what had been voted for.
At the turn of the century there were feelings that language mattered. There were sensitivities to be taken into account. There were implications to be considered. Where there were inappropriate words or actions, the response was to apologise (‘We are profoundly sorry.’ being too readily trotted out) or to claim to understand (‘We get it.’).
In the new networked, short-tweet, communications-always-on context, language jars more readily but can be more easily moved on from. It seems more about headline-grabbing; with disregard for established rules of political debate, particularly where short pithy repeated slogans create an air of certainty and credibility.
The speed of communication and the 24-hour news reporting has created a world of immediate responses, quick rebuttals, things being trivialised by endless repetition. It has also given rise to open-source information, YouTube citizen broadcasting, off-the-cuff tweets and blogs. It seems as if almost everything is viewed more personally and more individually (rather than in terms of class or community). Every small thing can seem important and become imbued with values and emotions. Social media is all-too-easy to blame for everything, but it has changed behaviours. The rapid tweet and the vote-now talent shows have encouraged the click-and-swipe immediate do-it-now responses with reduced longer-term concern for actual outcomes.
This is particularly so in a society more characterised by emotions – banks of flowers in tribute, buildings lit up in solidarity, hashtags and bracelets for the cause of the day. This taps into a different version of solidarity that is based on gut responses, telling it as it is, individual anecdotes; taking personal frustrations, sorrows and angers and channelling these into an outpouring of memorable phrases and symbolic gestures. A twisted version of this gets adopted by public figures who the more extreme they are the more admiration they get. This is politics based on the stretching of emotions rather than on rational arguments. It is the politics of culture rather than the politics of fact. The terrain has shifted. Whilst the old ways argue things out in round-table discussions the new ways can be out rabble-rousing.
There is certainly a shift away from the recent focus solely on the economy – How politics affects the pound in your pocket – to include a recognition that politics is also about how people feel. There is a related recognition that politics can sometimes turn out to be about the realities of emotions generated by people’s day-to-day experiences, whereas it has too-often appeared to solely be about the interactions of people in high places within the political arena. There are signs of a growing backlash against austerity measures for their own sake (if not against the whole neoliberal project of the past thirty years). Weighing the value to society has to be more than cutting costs. It has to be about the kind of society we have become and whether or not this is good enough.
Things have been presented as a crisis in political and social language, with gaps between claims made (re globalised inequalities, finance and budgets, immigration and asylum) and the lived experiences of affected communities. Many people have learned to believe the tales being told by technocratic, self-styled experts and managerial politician, whilst still holding contrary views at the day-to-day contact level.
A potential leader with little of the traditional expertise, experience or credibility can still secure large support by portraying themselves as a character, a celebrity or an icon. This sidesteps old politics, with its established views of what things are all about, and taps into deep senses of rage, grievances and the loss of roles and entitlements. It separates intellectual, established and cultured sets of traditional politicians from populist, new-way, mass-appeal upstart ones.
When there are newly-emergent mass-movement leaders there is always the possibility that momentum can be created by endlessly talking only to their own supporters, getting a more cut-off and extreme sense of what is possible. At some stage this has to be tested with the wider public that includes enemies as well as friends.
Uncertainties such as these led some people to question the validity of the democratic process overall, certainly in the form that relies on simple majority voting, first-past-the-post elections, party-based systems.
All parties have had similar issues but recently there has been an added feature for those who were anti-austerity, anti-elite, anti-bureaucratic and who came across as anti-everything, which is rather less compelling than being in favour of one or two simple things. It fails to connect with the those still on the look-out for any sign of potential success, significance or progress for people like themselves – those wanting a thread of hope in their lives. This was not going to come through incomprehensible philosophical ideas put forward by some, nor through piling on more misery and fear and anti-ness. It needed a better story, told in a better language and in ways that connected with people’s deep-seated feelings.
In summary, then, it appears that there are substantial changes underway: substantial enough to represent a shift in social, political and economic outlooks; and substantial enough to create additional uncertainties, anxieties and ambiguities about the future. These changes are not simple and linear but are complex and fragmentary. Within these changes, social leaders, these days, might be seen as having a public persona put together from various characteristics which, at the extremes, might include fragments of:
- Being bureaucratic: Focused on procedures, programmes, arcane rules. Managed, controlling, centralist.
- Being sincere: Standing by personal points of principle. Moral viewpoint, focusing on universalities. Concern to redress wrongs.
- Being human: Everyman, everyday, one of the crowd. Guileless, politically clumsy. Telling it as it comes. Non-expert, likeable/loveable as a character/celebrity (verging on being taken as a joke).
- Being strong: Offering leadership and direction. Dealing with the disasters and set-backs of life in ways that contribute to image-building
- Being egoist: Seeking ways to power, positioning, connected. Self-promoting, concerned with image. Politically astute/ruthless.
- Being populist: Isolationist, protectionist, walls/borders/barriers. Beliefs promoted as natural/common-sense. Language of We/Us/Our.
Many of these things are not new: they simply appear to be more strongly emphasised and more polarised. These, and other trends, have had impacts in a number of ways. At the same time the power of pension funds, investment banks, corporate CEOs etc is always there in the background. The threads are ongoing and will spool out further over the next few years – in ways that may well continue, for some, to be unusual, unsettling and unpredictable.