Sunday, 24 December 2017

The kingdom of the blind

As a political campaigner I spend most of my time where I can usefully reach the most people. These days that's Twitter. Though it is an ecosystem of diverse people it has its own unwritten rules and its own narratives, and in a hypersensitive environment one finds oneself treading on eggshells and self-censoring. Whether you know it or not you are gradually conditioned to that particular domain.

Consequently there is a cultural drift where my everyday political discourse detached from ordinary people for whom politics is a less obsessive activity. This is most noticeable on my annual Christmas venture back to my hometown where I realise I'm far more politically correct than I imagine myself to be - and for the rest of the time, I'm talking about concepts which are generally not debated in the public sphere. Certainly none of my drinking companions have WTO level trade disputes as part of their political lexicon. I would sincerely hope they have better things to do.

That then begs the question as to whether I'm out of touch with politics or whether they are. Keeping on top of the issues is a full time job and over time my priorities will drift from theirs. In some respects I have become part of the political bubble I have always warned about.

I am also reminded that people don't change much. Very often people's politics don't really evolve in adult life. People tend to form their world view in their early twenties and the narratives therein gradually become a part of their identity. This is why it's so difficult to get people to change their opinions.

Generally, people seek out like minded people and form communities and parties based on identity. Politics and identity are virtually indivisible. Should a person change their minds about a fundamental belief then it means breaking with all they have ever known - and for the most part, people don't want to. It's too much hassle.

This is the power that narratives hold over people. Everyone has their tailored idea of who the victim is and who the oppressor is. People also like to keep it simple. They don't want complications and if a comfortable narrative works for them then they will resist any new information which complicates it. In my experience very few people have the curiosity to keep evolving politically.

I suspect this is a natural behaviour, but I also suspect there are degrees of it. In the UK it is particularly bad as narratives are passed down through the generations. It is a product of political stability and certainty. We are used to the comfortable notion of the USA as the world hegemon and the dominant military and cultural power. From there flow all the pub bore narratives about Western capitalist cultural imperialism.

This foundation has always formed the basis of the worldview for the working class counter culture which in part explains the preference on the left for the European Union. For whatever it may be, it has the one virtue of not being the USA. If forced to choose the left prefers the "social democracy" of the EU to the capitalist US. This is a narrative almost as old as me, but was reinforced by the US invasion of Iraq which became a posterchild for US corporate rent-seeking.

The reality, however, is considerably different now. In the same way that the Falklands was the last British righteous victory, Iraq was the US expending the last of its moral authority and military power. Since then the tides of power have shifted. The US is now outspoken in the UN General Assembly, increasingly isolationist in trade and regulatory affairs, and in the global trade race China is sweeping the board.

Were it not for America's cultural exports through Hollywood, by now people would start to notice that the USA is no longer the global superpower it once was. It's drowning in debt, its infrastructure is failing and it now has third world levels of poverty. The American dream is over all bar the waking up.

In more ways than one the West has failed to notice the march of globalisation. Our political narratives are at least twenty years out of date. Here in the UK our Conservatives think leaving the EU means deregulation as though globalisation of regulation never happened, Labour want to reinstall post war era socialism, and the counter culture still believes the USA is the Great Satan.

We are, however, in a new age, where the lines are no longer clear or convenient and nobody really knows who the true enemy is now. We're in the age of cyber warfare in a global battle of ideas where political forces are loyal to no country or bloc. Our establishment politics is no longer equipped for it and we lack the lexicon to even adequately address it.

All these years I have been writing about how our political elites are aloof and out of touch but it turns out that the people are not really all that in touch either. The more complex it gets the less they want to know.

I am, therefore, troubled by what lies ahead. Collectively we are in a deep slumber while our political machinery is broken. A vital political muscle has atrophied and all the warning systems are dysfunctional. Through Brexit most certainly is a wake up call of a sort, the debate is still Brusselscentric and still bogged down in all the classic dogmas. The debate we are having now differs little from that which we were having in 1975.

As we leave the EU we are rejoining the world, but that world looks very different from the one we knew. A question mark hangs over all of the twentieth century norms from trade to employment, money and wealth. Many of our assumptions are being eroded and our inherent sense of entitlement looks increasingly unsustainable.

In this I can't help thinking that Brexit is becoming its own self-absorbed little bubble failing to take account of the seismic shifts in geopolitics where we a no longer able to meaningfully influence events from inside or out of the EU. Britain's geopolitical impotence is not the product of Brexit, rather it is a decades long trend that couldn't even be arrested by EU membership.

Whether or not Brexit delivers the wake up call we hoped it would remains to be seen. There is certainly no guarantee of that. It may be that we have simply added yet another distraction and yet more noise and our political elites will continue to hide from reality. Without being alert to the gargantuan shift in global tides, Britain risks being a passenger of events and rudderless in a storm.

Throughout the Brexit campaign I sought to bring attention to the explosion of global governance and the privatisation of lawmaking. Shifting the Overton window to deal with this is no easy feat. Our establishment is habitually fixated on Brussels and has no concept of anything that lies beyond. Just as my Bradford drinking pals on a foggy Christmas eve don't want to know, nor do our corps of political correspondents. From the top to the bottom of society we luxuriate in settled and comforting narratives. That, not Brexit, will be our downfall.

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