Brexit, Trump and Godwin’s Law
A blog such as “Forbidden Music”, dealing with history, music and freedom of expression cannot allow the election of Donald Trump in the wake of Brexit to pass without reflection. There are already so many analyses that I hope this one offers another perspective. In some ways, the very purpose of this blog is to raise Godwin’s Law sooner rather than later in the hope that events as devastating as The III Reich don’t happen to enlightened democracies again. As I wrote in a previous posting, Mark Twain made the apocryphal remark that “history doesn’t repeat, but it DOES rhyme”. Trump and Brexit came as the unexpected pinnacle of what looked to be a mass movement of liberalisation and social enlightenment. The Guardian journalist Andrew Rawnsley reminds us that it’s the “black swan” of the age, an unexpected event that essentially changes everything. It recalls Harold Macmillan’s famous quip dismissing political dogma as the means of implementing policy: “Events dear boy, events!”
But let’s fulfil Godwin’s Law right at the start and remind ourselves that Hitler too arrived at the pinnacle of social progress coinciding with financial disruption inflicted by international forces beyond national control. When Wall Street crashed in 1929 and called in its debts from a still recovering Germany, it occurred at a time when society was undergoing rapid change. What really bothered the stolid burgers of Weimar Constitution Germany were the facts that their Kaiser was gone, skirts were short, dances were lewd, music was foreign, women were given the vote, boys were copping off with other boys and girls with other girls. Rather than halting such post-war licence, an unregulated commercial environment of media, clubs and venues appeared actively to encourage it. Somehow, Wilhelmina and Victorian exploitation of women as prostitutes never quite entered into the same moral arena of outrage.
Moving from an age when the mere suggestion of a woman’s ankle was enough to initiate embarrassing tumescence in men’s trousers to an age where women’s skirts were short enough see “right up the river”, was shocking. Giving women the vote and opening their path to financial independence were the last straws– at least this is what they thought until their daughters announced they weren’t marrying but moving in with girlfriends. Social change, liberalisation and opening up (in every meaning of the word) were long over-due, but as with today’s globalisation, nobody had any plans laid out for those at the blunt end of such developments. It was assumed they would simply “get used to change and adjust accordingly”. The Wall Street Crash and the calling in of German debts were therefore merely the equivalent of the starting pistol that unleashed a race to roll back “deplorable” social developments. The liberalisation of Weimar Constitution Germany did not make people sexual but merely acknowledged the sexual nature of people. They did this by ushering in a degree of gender equality – a Bolshevik innovation if ever there was one! It was the age’s equivalent to our legalisation of same-sex marriage: something most agreed with, but few politicians were prepared to support for fear of the reactionary backlash. Having struck out on this “dangerous” new path, they knew the backlash would come sooner or later.
The unemployment of Germany in the run-up to Hitler was shocking, with 44% of the available workforce out of a job. Compare this with Greece’s rate of 25.6% in 2015. Inflation was threatening again and this was the beast everyone thought Gustave Stresemann had tamed in the mid-20s. Memories only a decade old, of wheelbarrows of cash required for a loaf of bread terrified the public. Unfettered and uncontrolled international finance, the means by which nations and individuals grew wealthy imploded. Germany found itself on the “blunt end” of events, and Hitler’s National Socialism appeared in a country that had only recently removed its autocratic Kaiser while watching social developments whirl out of control. Hitler seemed the answer and a surprising number of assimilated, conservative Jews thought so as well.
Bookends of history also offer intervening chapters, and the bookends for these reflections are 1917 and 1989. The brutal tabula rasa coming out of the Bolshevik Revolution was the context of all political debate post 1917. Democracy was being defined as a choice between the dictatorship of the proletariat or a more equitable form of social democracy that took as much from the Bolshevik Revolution as could democratically be accepted. Yet at the same time, post 1918, the Church remained in a powerful position and by the 1930s, it had succeeded in creating Catholic theocracies in Spain and Austria. To ruling Catholics, Socialism in any variant was just as dangerous as Bolshevism with Social Democracy merely the “thin end of the wedge”. Twenty years after the First World War, the choices were no longer between democracy and Bolshevism, but between dictatorships of the left or the right. By 1938, only France and Czechoslovakia remained as continental democracies, and thanks to Neville Chamberlain, France would soon stand alone with a confused and ambivalent Britain off its coast. Post-1945, democracies were restored in Western Europe in such a manner that inhibited totalitarianism taking control. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, the two competing systems merged into a starry eyed neo-liberalism that saw open borders, unfettered free trade and lax immigration as the key to a prosperous “post-history” co-existence.
Post 1945 in the United States, the Christian Right, Moral Majority and whatever else they called themselves made slow but steady progress. They lost many battles, but one of their most surprising and to me, most nefarious victories was the change from America’s motto “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust” in 1956. A nation founded on the principal of religious freedom as well as the freedom from religion, changed its motto to suggest the very opposite. Indeed, it was a motto that made no mention at all of religion, but rather, it underscored its belief in the equality of all citizens. That the change took place the year after Rosa Parks was thrown off of her bus is probably no coincidence. In the fight for Black equality, it was better to “trust in God” than believe in the unity of the many. But this motto change also heralded the start of something else, which was a conviction of American God-given “exceptionalism”. Doris Day and the repressed homosexual Rock Hudson defined the sense of recovered virginity, while in post-war Germany, enthralled by all things American, Peter Alexander and Waltraut Haas offered a similar view of girl-boy attraction minus sex. This delusion of security, purity and near maniacal cheerfulness was the context in which baby-boomers were born. In America, many of this generation have tried desperately to hold on to this white picket-fence view of childhood with “white” being the operative word. But if post-1918 the march towards sexual equality was acknowledged, post- 1945, laws started to enshrine them into the Constitution – along with the removal of all racial barriers.It’s possible to discern a “moral” nostalgia for an age that never truly existed, but became engraved into the psyches of earlier generations. It became too easy to take the view that sexual deviance from heterosexual wedded monogamy was the root to everything going awry. Removing America’s Apartheid laws undermined the definition of America as essentially an outpost of Europe.
Rolling back these developments became an easy answer – a far too easy answer – for those who were suspicious of progress of any sort. But as in Weimar Constitution Germany, if social progress was the ticking bomb, the fuse was international finance. Buying and selling money or the promises of money as bonds, insurance, options or derivatives had become a means of manufacturing artificial goods that made a small number of people extremely wealthy. Such wealth was dependent on the production of real goods being created elsewhere, but where the values of real goods were fluctuating from place to place, finance found it necessary to “liberalise” and expand its reach globally. This manufacturing of artificial goods by gambling on the success of real goods suddenly brought in lots of real cash to national treasuries and governments felt this was a legitimate means of creating national wealth. If such gamblers actually became far wealthier than even the most successful producer of real goods, it didn’t matter, since everyone was growing richer in the process. But crashes happen and bubbles burst, and when this happens, entire economies are devastated. In 2008, the value of derivatives exceeded many times the value of the world’s entire economic output. Any fool should be able to tell from the name “derivative” that it simply can’t be larger than that from which it is derived. Tulips crashed markets in 1637 followed by “bubbles” in the Mississippi and South Seas right through to the first “Black Friday” on 24th September 1869 followed by the crash in Europe in 1873 that ultimately led to the eventual collapse of “Liberalism” in the 19th century. It’s why post-1989 the term “neo-Liberalism” gained common currency: a revival of something that broke down in the past, but now presumably, with its malfunctioning bits repaired. If only.
The problem with financial crashes is that they are global. Finance invests in far-away mines and in new and frequently, crazy ideas across the planet. At the same time, they are supposed to be the conduits of finance for domestic output. When finance works, it makes nations rich, but when it crashes, it brings disaster. Yet no degree of total devastation appears ever to occur as to remove the memories of previous riches. Finance is like the gambler who won $100 on a single race but lost $500 in an attempt to get it back. People, and above all governments keep remembering the wins, while doing little towards damage limitation for the losses: “Pick yourself up and start investing again” will always be the unwritten principal of governments and financiers and frankly, it’s the same guiding principal of any inveterate gambler. Investors frequently speak of ten ideas that come to nothing, but one idea that takes off and allows them to recover their losses. But what happens when that final money-making idea doesn’t show up and the other investments simply exhaust the money supply? Financiers would simply answer that they keep borrowing and investing ever further afield until the one glorious money generating idea is found. With luck, central bankers can print more money as needed.
And here we start to come to the crux: finance is by its nature international and global. People aren’t. People have little to call their own, but what they do have is identity. When local economies go belly-up and vast regions become financial wastelands, identity remains the only thing left. What makes up identity is complex and frankly changeable. Its main components are language, religion and nationality. The formation of nation states that came out of World War I would only shore up the nationalist element. Language became the most obvious marker with newly formed Czechoslovakia and Poland becoming linguistically chauvinistic. It only resulted in a reaction of linguistic chauvinism among minority languages, predominantly German, which still inhabited regions within newly drawn Czech and Polish borders. A sense of shared national, indeed biological sameness, (these were Darwinian times) gave rise to the view that friends, neighbours and colleagues might still be “different” – even if they happened to share a common language. Jews may have looked and sounded totally German, Czech or Polish but they practiced a religion that historically originated in a distant corner of “the Orient”. Millennia may have passed, but to citizens of new nation-states, founded on strict definitions of national identities, “foreign” was anyone who was different. Being Jewish became, in the words of the diarist Viktor Klemperer, “not a question of religion, but one of zoology.”
Common to our own age and these inter-war years, nearly a century ago, was the beating heart of national identity in conflict with the global reach and influence of finance. When international adventures exhaust the resources of national interests, patriotism turns inward as “identity” becomes the fall-back position of hardship. An impoverished, unemployed American probably needs to feel advantaged over the wealthiest of Mexicans. If finance invests in companies that move production away from America to Mexico, it only adds to the sense of self-worth of the recently unemployed being offended. Globalisation has always taken the view that new jobs would be found and opportunities emerge that would fill the gaps where old industries had died out. But what if they don’t? What if the vast freedom of capital and people merely results in the now infamous “rustbelt” with hordes of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s without qualifications? Will Hutton in the Guardian tells us that automation and the introduction of robots would have resulted in unemployment regardless of whether factories were relocated or not. He offers no solutions to what happens to the redundant. Is that somebody else’s problem? What exactly is supposed to happen to them? Liberals may shrug their shoulders and suggest that this is where social-security should kick in. But receiving hand-outs is both costly and demeaning and goes against the sense of national self-worth. In rustbelt regions across Europe and America, it has also resulted in generations who know of no other existence. The income of local impoverished treasuries is low. This results in poor schools, resulting in a lack of qualifications and feeding an apparently endless cycle.
A certain pattern emerges from the 19th century onwards: Globalisation creates a very small number of big winners and an even larger number of losers as the collateral damage of redundant industries. Without the means of relocating or acquiring new skills, they become besieged and inevitably turn to nationalism based on the identities afforded by nation-states and religions. Yet state and religious leaders are themselves beholden to the few big winners who have profited from globalisation. This unholy alliance results in a coalition of extreme left and extreme right. The right exercises entitlement through its place in national establishments, whereas the left exercises entitlement to national exclusivity. When the notorious anti-Semite, Karl Lueger, a member of Austria’s Christian Social Party was elected mayor of Vienna in 1897, he promoted militant Catholicism and kicked out the international owners of the city’s utilities and transport. His anti-Semitism was based on anti-global finance and he exploited every stereotype going. On the other hand, (a minor consolation) a Jew was no longer a Jew if he or she converted – preferably to Roman Catholicism, but in a pinch, Protestantism would also do. There was nothing racial about his anti-Semitism, it was purely national. Christianity was Austria’s national religion and it followed if you wished to be accepted as a citizen with equal rights and privileges, you needed to convert. Austria’s Christian Social Party, eventually led by the dictators Engelbert Dollfuß and Kurt von Schuschnigg from 1933-1938, was the perfect coalition of extreme right and extreme left. So was National Socialism with its aggressive nationalism and investment in infrastructure, paid for by confiscating the wealth of its “cosmopolitan” (Jewish) citizens. As proof that this dangerous view still resonates today, refer to some of the first words uttered by Britain’s new prime minister, when she stated that people who think of themselves as “citizens of the world” were actually “citizens of nowhere”. This conflation of “international”, “global”, “cosmopolitan” etc. recalls implicitly the anti-Semitic slurs of Karl Lueger and indeed, Adolf Hitler. Godwin’s Law, as I mentioned at the beginning, is therefore fulfilled. But I’ll go one further, Trump was elected by a coalition of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, just as Hitler was elected by Germany’s 44% unemployed and the country’s leading industrial families.
Is there a way around this unnatural but unavoidable coalition between extremes of left and right? Liberalism in the 19th century and neo-Liberalism post- 1989 have much in common. Who doesn’t feel like it’s the right of every individual to purchase peas and avocados year round at the best possible price regardless of where you live? As Will Hutton goes on to write, free trade brings many benefits to huge numbers of people and generally liberalises the world. As wealthy economies trade with poorer economies, standards of living increase, societies grow more progressive and women’s rights improve. So, isn’t it wonderful that technology that used to cost thousands of Dollars, Pounds and Euros now costs at most a few hundred? But what if this is possible because things are manufactured in economies that pay slave wages with poor conditions and no protection? And if Cambodians and Bangladeshis are being paid slave wages, what about the people who used to manufacture these goods now being paid no wages at all? Will Hutton admits that free trade creates losers, which accounts for the current rise of the exreme right. But what he doesn’t do is offer a solution from the left. So far, the Left agrees with the Nationalist Right and opts for Isolationism. This is where danger lies.
The crash of 2008 was devastating though not as disastrous as the crash of 1929. Yet there are further differences as well. There is not a humiliated former partner and neighbouring nation, defeated in war and reduced to penury. It may still happen if the Brexit government has miscalculated. The UK could very well find itself chilled out of markets that turn ever inward with the United States placing its own interests before those of the British. Expect to see friendly US concessions on tea and marmalade described as “major”, with huge tariffs imposed on other UK goods, services and pharmaceuticals. As the EU barricades itself against renegade nations also wanting “out”, trade with the UK will no doubt grind to a halt while British negotiations with 3rd and 4th World nations break down over agreements as to whether the price for Indian technology is the importation of India’s caste system and Desi religious conflicts, or the price for Kenyan produce is the importation of Pokot and Samburu hostilities. I can hardly wait to see the faces of UKIP supporters who objected to Polish plumbers, Slovakian physiotherapists and Bulgarian car-washers!
The echo-chambers of social media are also a difference, though I suspect less than one would think. I noticed already in the Brexit debate that every claim – extravagant or modest – was instantly disputed with equal authority from the other side. The same applied to an even greater degree in the US election, though instead of pros-and-cons of Brexit being debated, platitudes were spouted and accusations made against opposing candidates. People chose to believe what they wanted to believe. Their personal echo-chambers amplified what they wanted to hear and trivialised the rest. When in 1903, the pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was launched across Europe by the Romanov secret police in an attempt to purge Jews from public life, most chose to reject it as transparent propaganda. Those who already harboured anti-Semitic views chose to swallow it whole. Conspiracy theories flourish like wild-fire on the internet, but then again, so do their rebuttals. With both Brexit and the US election, the plethora of wild stories allowed individuals to pick and choose whatever they were most inclined to believe.
In both cases, the arguments were reduced to one side calling the other “stupid” and “uneducated” while the other side responding with the accusation of “traitors!” The concept of “traitor” does not exist outside of the idea of some sort of national bond that has been broken. Progressives and liberals being labelled as “traitors” along with calling those who resist change as “stupid” and “uneducated” are practices that have been around since the dawn of civilisation. But what emerges from this ceremonial stop and start is the need for careful consideration of those who are victims of change. Equally, there are victims of stagnation. The brave new world of open markets and free trade leaves the retrenched old world unemployed and driven into the arms of nationalistic isolation. The old world that refuses to progress, either drives away or jails its most capable and talented.
When Jonathan Pie hilariously rants that Liberals and progressives are responsible for Brexit and Trump because rather than argue its corner, it closed down debate with name-calling and a squeamish need of “safe places” where different opinions are not tolerated, he only exposes part of the truth. The biggest is that the left offers no solutions. Yet make no mistake: the real people who are responsible for Brexit and Trump are the wide-eyed free-market fanatics who only think of potential gains while ignoring inevitable costs. By feeding our insatiable appetite for cheap technology, cheap food, cheap entertainment and barrier-free travel we, as my brother wrote following the Trump victory, “ignored the ignored, and they’ve now stormed the Bastille”. It about sums it up.