Some final thoughts before the end of the year

I spent New Year’s Eve last year in Seville. At the stroke of midnight we drank wine and ate grapes – twelve are required to do it properly. Not sure we quite managed that. Maybe that is why the year has struggled to live up to its potential. I’ve always been a shade reticent with “celebrating” the new year; not only is time – as Douglas Adams would say – “an illusion” (in particular with reference to lunchtime) and hence not particularly meaningful, but also it was clear that 2018 was going to be a disappointment. I certainly had no expectation relating to the competence of the British Government to deal with Brexit, and so it proved. Celebrations for 2019, therefore, are likely to be strained as, once again, the expectations are low. Even lower.

That does not stop me from trying to understand what is going on. We are being assaulted in so many directions and not dealing with it. As I write, drones are disrupting the operation of Gatwick Airport. It is an attack and the “authorities” are finding it very difficult to deal with it, despite the resources at their disposal. Moreover, last evening I read that a senior, well published and prize-winning journalist, Claas Relotius, working for Der Spiegel amongst other mainstream news outlets, has been faking his stories for 8 years without editors noticing. These stories and investigations have been covering important issues, but it turns out to be fake news. These are supposed to be the people that we rely on to inform us. Undermining to say the least.

But how do I understand Brexit and the rise of the Right? I have turned to the work of Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (above left) in my ongoing book reading – which is one of the positives of 2018 after I committed to buying books from a local independent bookshop rather than buying from the destructive behemoth, Amazon.

It is not easy reading, despite being written in the classic, accessible style of Pelican Books. It is not easy reading because there are some truths that are demonstrated empirically that prick the bubble that I live in, working in a university as I do. First of all, populism and fascism are not the same thing. However much I want to label Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, a fascist, he’s not (currently). He is a national populist, the distinctions are real and important.

Equally disturbing is the realisation that liberal democracy is not the norm and not necessarily desirable (certainly not for the majority who are not particularly well-served by it). I recall after the Brexit referendum a series of short talks by intellectuals on BBC radio reflecting on the causes of the result. I remember John Gray providing a particularly troubling insight making this very point. Human history is not defined by liberal democracy and is not humanity’s end point.

Eatwell and Goodwin also provide a useful history lesson of the 20th Century. In particular, they trace the development of the EU from its initial foundations, expansion (for example, the UK in 1973) as the EEC, the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and further deepening with proposals for shared foreign policy and possibly armed forces. What is clear from this history is that the people, the citizens, did not get much of a say in the key decisions and treaties. In just six cases were referendums held, and even then, they provided only tepid endorsement. Elites have indeed run the EU. The European Parliament, we must remember, does not initiate legislation. Not surprising then that it has been held in contempt by national electorates when its members are chosen every five years.

Hence the backlash from the disenfranchised, goes the argument, was inevitable. Aided and abetted by some rather opaque finance being spent by avowed racist populists using social media platforms, the outcome is lose-lose apart for the very few who specialise in disaster capitalism and bigotry. Moreover, the calibre of politicians that we have in a time of crisis such as the British in particular are in, is risible. Liberal democracy is culpable here. On the one hand it is the democratic form that underpins capitalism. It is – possibly counter-intuitively – captured by elites and perpetuates the inequalities that are currently tearing societies apart.

I read on. No grapes this year, as I will not be in Seville. The weather is looking good, though. Happy new year!

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1 comment so far

  1. […] here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there […]


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