Saturday, 26 November 2016

Some thoughts on Trump and Brexit

The kind of face you send to a desperate older man on anonymous internet dating forums, indicating quite clearly that you are not actually a single Ukrainian 19 year-old aspiring model who wants a British visa, having just convinced him to send you intimate photos while dicking about with some of your friends. Almost a metaphor for the election and Brexit - these two are arguably the greatest trolls in history.

The last few months have been an extremely interesting time to be alive – just when it looked as if everything was pretty much settled and I could look forward to a tranquil, if rather boring, lifetime of political moderation, the establishment consensus in both America and Britain was kicked to death in the space of a few short months by an assorted army of green frogs, Russian trolls and the general left behind. By way of a disclaimer, I do feel qualified to voice an opinion on American politics – not because I lay any special claim to understanding it, but simply because almost every American I hate had a very strong, albeit normally shitty and ill-informed, view on Brexit and I feel that as such, a retaliatory strike is justifiable.

For me, the crux of the results can be summed up as follows: if people are having a crappy time, they will seek a radical adjustment of the status quo. If entire communities are having a crappy time, they will turn to identity to seek a radical adjustment of the status quo. If the status quo and all who represent it double down on themselves and seek to contain the insurrection by denigrating and insulting the people who are having a crappy time, lauding the policies that are perceived by the former group to have totally ruined their lives while also trying to start a cultural identity war off the back of meaningless, unrelatable quackery which only makes sense when you have three PhDs in pseudo-Marxist post-modernism, then you get Trump and Brexit.

Yes, I know that there were plenty of wine-swilling free-traders who supported Brexit and a lot of well-off country club Republicans who supported Trump, but the decisive factor was the revolt of northern workers in the former case and the blue collar vote in the Rust Belt in the latter. Yes, I know that the Stronger In campaign was run by a semi-literate man-child and that the Democrats nominated the most overtly corrupt sack of shit that the Anglosphere has ever propelled to high office, but the overturning of the establishment is a momentous pivot in itself that must be explained by the longue duree.

I am trying to write from a relatively objective standpoint about why Trump and Brexit occurred – not to refight the campaigns. For the record, I supported both Trump and Brexit, both for a variety of reasons. For a start, I do not believe in the establishment consensus – I don’t have fanatic beliefs of my own to put in its place, but I hate the lack of debate and I fear for the effects which this will have on the health of the body politic. Given the abysmal record that Western establishments have had over the last decade on everything from foreign policy (especially Middle East and Russia) to economics (2008, Euro, new emerging crisis), boasting about the success of these ideas is starting to look more and more like a cock crowing from the top of a dungheap. It has become increasingly clear that a hell of lot of rethinking needs to be done – for that to happen, the consensus has to be viscerally annihilated.

Rubbish joke: 'Why is the French national bird the cockerel?' 'Because it is the only animal that stands on a pile of poo and is still proud.'

More specifically, I supported Brexit for three main reasons. Firstly, the Euro, which will either bring the whole structure crashing down or will marginalise/isolate Britain to the extent that our interests are best served outside. Secondly, the EU is not a viable geopolitical structure. The conflicts between the EU and the states paralyse it in the face of any major challenge. This was not so important when the world was stable and debt was irrelevant a decade ago – it is urgent now and will only get more so. The EU is a rudderless ship that is powerless to shape events because its decision-making structures are so compromised.

Thirdly, democracy and sovereignty – while the trade and cooperation is very positive, history shows that being in a smaller, united polity with an executive, representative political structure is infinitely superior to being in a larger and richer yet hopelessly divided confederation with no clear executive structure and no mass cultural affinity, both in terms of domestic stability (which is far more likely to prevent aggressive nationalism than the EU even can) and the ability to quickly adopt appropriate, proactive policies.

To use historical analogy, the Holy Roman Empire failed because it had strong states and weak central authority – hence, it got the crap knocked out of it by much smaller countries regularly until it remedied the issue by becoming Germany (long story short but Sweden once managed to take over the whole northern half of Germany). The EU will not unite as Germany did, however – cultural diversity on the level of the EU’s can never be united under one powerful, centralised political structure without the domination of one group, either national, economic or, God forbid, military. To use another historical analogy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire failed because it was an ethnic mess – far from a source of strength, this meant that it was unable to deploy resources effectively and disintegrated whenever it came under pressure. The reason I used these examples is that they are constantly deployed by Europhiles theorising about the golden age a USE would create. None of the positive traits demonstrated by these examples is really that important to 21st century Britain or exclusively a competence of the EU.

I supported Trump for four reasons. Firstly, Clinton’s economic and social policies would likely created a much, much nastier populist movement than Trump in 2020. Trump’s mere election lanced this boil. He’s an idiot but he will not harm the fabric of the republic and counter-intuitively social relations will probably improve – ‘white militias’ which have exploded since 2008 will likely decline, as they have under previous republican presidents, and the radical left will be left isolated as it slowly dawns on African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT people and women that they are not going to shipped out to death camps in Oregon. As a challenge, name one thing that Obama or the democrats have done for Black communities (genuinely, I would be interested to know – giving hope doesn’t count) because every metric suggests that their lot has declined over the last eight years and the Dems have not even made an attempt to deal with this.

Secondly, and purely selfishly, I don’t want to die over the Donbass, lovely as I am sure it is. Euro-Atlanticism has been over-extended in Eastern Europe (to the extent that we have compromised the integrity of NATO while utterly predictably provoking Russia into confrontation) and Obama’s foreign policy has marked a massive Western decline in the Middle East. We are going to have to face the fact that we have lost to Russia in Syria, Russia in Ukraine and Iran in Iraq – through exceptionally poor and domestic-leaning leadership by the Obama administration. Attempting to double down on both fronts, as Clinton indicated she would, would in my opinion have been extremely reckless. I support a big stick when it comes to Russia, but only from a defensible position. Syria was one, as was Iraq, until both were given away by Obama’s isolationist tendencies, while Ukraine simply wasn’t. The Baltics are, however.

Absolutely gorgeous - but not quite worth dying for

Thirdly, Clinton is a seriously questionable human being. While Trump is deeply flawed and would normally have been disqualified for some of the comments he has made, his defects are mainly of a private nature and probably will not impact on how he would run the country (multiple allegations of sexual assault) whereas Clinton’s especially concern public office. Moreover, Trump, as an outsider, will be contained by Washington, whereas I suspect that Clinton would not have been, because the nature of her corruption has lent itself to the subversion of the capital’s power structures. There is enough evidence in the public domain already (and has been since early this year, even before she destroyed files under subpoena, gave classified documents to her maid to print out and the rumours of FBI collusion surfaced) to ‘lock her up’ for years for mishandling classified information, almost certainly leading to severe intelligence breaches by foreign powers. Moreover, the collusion with the DNC during the primaries that shafted Sanders and the intimate collusion with huge swathes of the US media during the general are deeply worrying and anti-democratic in themselves.

The 1st amendment is meant to protect the media, and hence the population, from tyrannical government by guaranteeing a free press. I’m guessing that the founding fathers never envisioned an eventuality whereby the ‘free press’ and government would combine in large part against the population’s right to a free, well-informed democratic choice. The reason for the explosion of the Alt-right and alternative media was the vacuum left by the majority of credible reporters who made it their mission to elect Clinton. Similarly, Hillary’s collusion with Wall St. cannot be in the interests of the American main street – I refuse to believe that investment banks were paying Clinton 6 figure sums simply for the pleasure of hearing her words (especially given that she struggled to attract 4 figure crowds at her free rallies later).

Then, there is pay-for-play. There are serious questions over various mineral concessions, to name one example, granted under Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State – e.g. uranium and Iranian oil – and it is also telling that various governments (Norway and Australia being the latest) have stopped all donations to the Clinton Foundation following her electoral defeat. This is all without even going into serious tin-foil hat territory (e.g. pizzagate). Corruption must not pay.

Fourthly, Trump is much more likely to be conciliatory regarding Brexit than Hillary would have been. The GOP are noticeably more anglophile than the Dems and Trump has already pledged ideological allegiance.

Oh, and it will be funny.

One mere example of how a Trump presidency will be much funnier than a Clinton one.

Anyway, I am getting sidetracked. When the French revolution happened, people did not just pass it off as a result of the incompetence of Louis XVI’s foreign policy and his wife’s lack of common touch; neither did they focus on the Utopian lies of the Girondist faction. Similar to both Brexit and Trump (I never understood why this was not branded ‘Trumph’ as in ’Triumph’ – someone somewhere really missed a trick), people were revolting against a system because they hated it and their lives had deteriorated, not because they had conducted a rational analysis of the alternatives.

The state of affairs that existed up until about 2.00 am on 24 June was eminently hateable. I, for one, was sick and fucking tired of being run by utterly unqualified politicians who only got their seats because either they were right-wing but had regional accents or because they had been involved with unions for a decade. With the greatest of all possible respect to those involved, joining the Labour party ‘to save ‘t’ local hospital’ and suddenly finding yourself on the green benches does not make you an expert on foreign policy and political economy. Similarly, being prominent in the Conservative Association of a West Country spa town, whose only real role is to organise a good booze-up at Christmas, is no guarantee of competence.

The Emperor’s state of undress was revealed during the referendum debate to a painful extent – the Leave side MPs stumbled through factual error after factual error like blind men down a coal mine and the Remain MPs were almost entirely reduced to meaningless platitudes that were not lies simply because they did not assert falsifiable claims. As far as intellectual cases went, the former were supported by a genuine bunch of swivel-eyeds and the latter camp was underwritten by the prestige of international institutions (like the IMF) that people simply do not believe any more. This is not post-truth politics or the decline of the expert. This is the direct result of giving guru-status to people whose record of success is probably worse than that of medieval plague doctors.

'At least we are not economists - then you would be really screwed.'

Moreover, to demonstrate by example, an expert telling people that all immigration is an unremitting success sounds ideological and hence leads to distrust. Generally, immigrants are a positive influence (including the vast majority from the EU – if anything our country could do with more of them) but packaging French bankers with unemployed unemployables from the 3rd world as an average and then using that as grounds for arguing we indiscriminately accept both because the mean immigrant in between adds to the exchequer, notoriously ignoring the social effects of mass immigration on certain communities, utterly destroys credibility with the electorate. The same can be said of financial reports which put a distinct figure on post-Brexit recessions up to 2030 – coming from the industry that has never yet successfully forecasted a recession in advance, no one will believe this.

The politics of the soundbite and media appearance, whereby every interaction with the public is damage limitation (including the selection of MPs) rather than a confident espousal of principle and argument, has done far more to undermine public confidence in the establishment than 100 Nigel Farages could ever do. As has the shrinking of the Overton window to keyhole size, policed by a ferocious battalion of sycophantic journalists and screeching hordes of zealot anti-…ists whose ideas, through generational/geographic ignorance, have served to make them the most hideous example of how out of touch the metropolitan caste is.

I live in the north and I can probably the count on two hands the number of genuine racists under the age of 50 that I have met in my lifetime. Even over the age of 50, there are not that many. I definitely can, however, take a trip down the A500 into downtown Stoke and witness the poverty and general desperation/lack of opportunity there. It is the kind of place where you can spot drunks fighting next to cash machines over benefits money at 10am (I am not exaggerating at all – I have seen this and it is only one example I could give you). Petty theft and homelessness are the only real growth industries for great unwashed. You can buy entire rows of terrace houses for £1 apiece – you only need to evict the heroin addicts first. It came as no surprise to me, therefore, that Stoke overwhelmingly (more than 2-to-1) voted for Brexit despite traditionally returning pro-EU labour MPs. The status quo was/is deplorable in Stoke and other northern working-class towns.

Much the same can be said of the plethora of rural counties that gave Trump the necessary swing states to seize the White House. A few years ago, I went travelling around North-East America. For a short stretch (from Boston to Toronto), I was by myself and I shared the journey up to Buffalo with someone who was almost the textbook definition of a blue-collar worker.

He was about 50, a White catholic of Polish/German descent, lived outside Buffalo and made a modest income as a handyman. His town (or what Americans call a town – to us, a collection of fast food joints and a Walmart) had been reliant on the car industry and he had been a mechanic. He had lost his job doing that in the 1990s as the factory closed and had been patching up people’s houses for them ever since. His town had been wrecked – jobs left, drugs arrived to fill the vacuum. Religion, long a final bastion against the social degradation of these communities, was being corroded as well. He was worried about Muslim immigration but was very clearly not a white supremacist neo-Nazi and was not bothered about, for instance, an increase in Latinos living in America. He had voted for Bush in 2000, felt betrayed by 2004, voted for Obama in 2008, felt betrayed by 2012 and said that he was a centrist. I strongly suspect that he would have voted Trump this election – not because he wanted Trump, but because he wanted change. People like him swung the election in those key states.

His tale of economic woes made quite an impression, especially as ghost-town after ghost-town passed outside the window and we crossed rusting bridges from the 1930s which spanned silted up canals. The further we got from the East coast, the worse everything looked. Buffalo itself was in a very sorry state. Allegedly, this had once been one of America’s most prosperous cities in the 19th century, building its wealth on the trade of the Great Lakes. Two years ago, it was full of very assertive tramps, needle-marks visible on their arms, and unattended roadworks. The streets were filthy, the shops and offices empty or for sale, and only a small area around the downtown felt vaguely metropolitan – or even safe. Having come from picture-perfect Maine through Hipster Boston, arriving in Buffalo, even the parts which were meant to be nice, was like travelling to a dystopian version of Stoke. Arriving in well-groomed Toronto was (literally) a breath of fresh air.

The city, in New York State, voted strongly for Clinton, as most inner-cities with majority non-white populations do, but the Democrat lead for Erie County (containing Buffalo with many white working/middle class suburbs) had fallen from 15% in 2012 to less than 5%.

There are several reasons for this decline, mostly economic. The first is globalisation. Free trade is generally a good thing, but the benefits to ordinary people tend to be more evenly spread and more incremental (cheaper, better products) whereas the costs are massively concentrated geographically. The manufacturing sector of the Rust Belt has been slaughtered by a combination of NAFTA and mechanisation working in tandem. Employment-wise, the benefits of the free-trade area have gone to affluent, well-educated cities capable of supporting globally competitive service industries or high value-added production. This has been exacerbated by brain-drain from bad areas into these globally competitive cities. The end result for Rust Belt towns is that the manufacturing jobs have left, the service industry jobs have also left because the lack of manufacturing jobs stifles demand and hence anyone who is economically productive also leaves.

I am not arguing against deals like NAFTA. I am not ever going to read them and to be honest, it is irrelevant whether they are a net gain to a country or not. The cogent point here is that these free trade deals have cut a bloody swathe through flyover America – and this was utterly predictable at the time they were signed (by the likes of Ross Perot and James Goldsmith, to name but a few). The state had a responsibility to mitigate the awful situation it had played such a large role in creating for tens of millions of Americans (e.g. by retraining, education, new industries). It didn’t, and so it is hardly surprising that 100 million Americans are now on food stamps, the middle class has cratered, shanty towns have started to reappear and, by extension, that Trump won.

All of this was exacerbated by the 2008 recession and government reaction to it. The recession obliterated Middle America, which had been living up to its eyeballs in debt and mortgages for a while. The recovery has been uneven at best and is non-existent in many places. Quantitative easing and low interest rates have spurred recovery among some large corporations, asset holders and globally competitive cities, but few other places. Elsewhere, decently-paid full-time jobs have fallen off while state benefits and the ‘gig economy’ have exploded (whereby people work part time on multiple low-paying jobs). Housing, encouraged into another speculative bubble by the eager Federal Reserve, has become unaffordable. The stock market has risen off the back of stock buybacks (considered less than forty years ago to be financial fraud), central bank purchases and low interest rates but very little of this has translated into help on the ground. Life is just a bit crap really for everyone else.

Purely hypothetically, imagine that your area has become a depressed dump since the 1990s, you lost your permanent job in the 2008 recession and have since scraped by working 3 part-time jobs, selling (or losing) your house to rent instead and taking on credit card debt, your daughter has gone to college but cannot really afford her student loans and you cannot afford to help her, one son is an unemployed, unemployable meth addict and the other is suffering PTSD from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Obamacare is going up by 50% next year yet your wife has a form of cancer which is not covered, infrastructure is crumbling and your area is rife with crime. You cling nostalgically to patriotism and religion – the church is where you go to socialise and patriotism gives you common identity with the people around you who are undergoing the same processes (especially as seen in contrast to the globalist other of the status quo).

This is extreme, but combines elements of what many Americans in these states are facing. Now imagine two presidential candidates come along. Put them in front of a camera. One, Clinton, promises the same old shit for four more years and is widely (quite rightly) considered corrupt herself. The other, Trump, promises to jail Clinton, jail a lot of people like her, salt the earth after them, end or renegotiate trade deals, rebuild infrastructure, rebuild the military as a source of American pride, dick on Muslims as a source of American pride, build a wall on the southern border to stop drugs and illegals, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! You probably are not going to care that he has been accused multiple times of sexual assault. Screeching Democrats are not going to be persuasive at this point, especially given that two of their greatest heroes have been sexual predators (Kennedy and Bill Clinton). Incidentally, smarmily asking ‘when has America ever been great?’ is also a very weak point with which to challenge this type of voter, given that they are literally living in the burnt-out corpse of the American dream, the industrial heartland that propelled America to global economic hegemony in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It rings almost as hollow as Hillary’s official response, that America is still great.

Now take the scenario one step further. Clinton, far from seeking to maintain the status quo, actively attacks you. Her campaign tells her that she has raise the turnout of minorities and women to win and so she turns to radical doctrines propounded by intersectional pseudo-academic neo-Marxists. White people have engrained privilege, men have engrained privilege, straight people have engrained privilege and the people who do not have privilege are being persecuted by those who do. If there are clear examples, such as police shootings, then a larger narrative involving all white people, all black people, slavery, the civil war and western imperialism must be invoked – if there are no clear examples, then just fucking blame them anyway for all minority problems and call it structural racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Do not pay the slightest bit of attention to the plight of the white working classes of the Rust Belt – they will vote Trump anyway – and when they try to claim attention, accuse them of racism, sexism and homophobia in order to try to win over minority/women votes. Works 100% of the time, 60% of the time.

Almost exactly the same processes have been present in Britain although to a much lesser extent. The north has been a knacker’s yard since Thatcher in the 1980s (although her policies were definitely good for Britain as a whole, some attempt should have been made at sorting out the north – although arguably the patient had to die to kill off the unions) and the post-war decline beforehand. The north (meaning anywhere not London) was again hit hard by the recession. Because Britain is much more adept at transferring wealth regionally than America is, recovery was not non-existent, but life there remains tangibly worse than people’s expectations – especially given the rise of the uber-wealthy metropolitan districts.

These divides have led to a sharp divergence in socio-political attitudes. As congruent with every other demographic in history that has done well for itself, affluent southerners do not much care for cultural identity in any meaningful sense. There is a tendency to self-identify as a ‘global citizen’, a mark of solidarity with other similarly affluent elites in other countries. People who do care for cultural identity out in the provinces are viewed as hunchbacked swamp-dwelling peasants. Some undoubtedly are but the bulk are not.
 
Southerners taking a trip up north
Outside London, cultural identity has been rising for years as a result of culturally-filtered economic distress (among other factors). Scots have turned to Scottish nationalism, many Muslims have turned to radical Islam in poor inner-cities and the working classes turned to Euroscepticism of a very non-academic bent. All three of them hate Westminster as corrupt, self-serving and/or Satanic imperialists. The Gentleman’s Club Eurosceptics were horrified at having to share a bed with the latter group but UKIP was not. Cameron, naively expecting a referendum in which every vote counted to be containable like an election in which many votes did not, offered a country (with all of these undercurrents starting to rise to the surface) a free chance to drive a train over his balls. The working classes, with a pre-existing powerful coalition of Eurosceptics, gleefully got to work warming up the engine. Hence, Brexit.

It is important to note that radical shifts in cultural identity do not have to be that big to have a sizeable effect on a country’s politics. Even the Nazis barely got over 30% of the vote despite having run a very competent election operation in the midst of a colossal economic crash (on a side note, it is interesting that Creditanstalt, the Austrian bank that collapsed in 1931 putting the ‘Great’ in depression, was torpedoed by the French in an attempt to stop the creation of an economic zone between Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria – God help us if someone like Putin were to gain similar leverage over Deutschebank… oh, wait). Similarly, the Communists were never close to a majority in Russia or China. Cultural movements that lead to seismic changes are much more about tipping points and other human contingencies (e.g. lesser of two evils or ‘I kind of like Hitler’s autobahn policy and that will affect me more than the annexation of Poland so I think I’ll vote for him’) than wholesale conversion of a majority or plurality to an ideology.

When researching for one of my last university essays, I came across an anthropologist, commenting on African development, called James Ferguson. A very prescient point that he made regarding Africa is that globalisation normally creates internationalised islands within countries rather than internationalised countries or populations.

For example, a bauxite mine in Guinea would probably employ hundreds of locals. A few hundred more would probably be dependent on the mine community. The senior positions would all be foreign, probably Western, the skilled positions might be Indian/Chinese migrants and the whole series of compounds would be guarded and patrolled by hired mercenaries (probably also largely Western/South African). The owner of the land probably lives in the capital city and probably retains ownership through connections within the political class while the company that owns the mineral rights will probably be based in Paris or Toronto. Outside the patrolled fences, life goes on as normal and the local population will see none of the money that the mine generates after the politicians get their cut – yet the mine shows up in trade figures and contributes to official GDP, while not positively enriching many people. As such, the mine is utterly self-enclosed, an economically global island which shares far more with, for example, a uranium mine in the Congo than the village over the next hill whose inhabitants are subsistence farmers. The subsistence farmers do not like this state of affairs, understandably, but get normally get shot when they try anything drastic.
The real divides of this election were between rural and metropolitan America 

To a surprising degree, this model of globalisation has blown back on the West. We now have affluent globalised enclaves and sullen, poorer hinterlands. The patchwork of towns and cities that once dominated the landscape has been out-competed by the by similar patchworks of towns and cities in countries with cheaper labour, whereas the larger cities have never been wealthier or more affluent. In Britain, the effects are more subtle – fiscal transfers backed up by an orgy of government debt and the welfare state have managed to mitigate the worst effects (although this in itself is problematic in the long term). In America, a much larger country with a different attitude to welfare, very little effort has been made to sort these places out. The ideal, of course, would be for some kind of second economic wind that means these areas do not need subsidy. Neither Trump nor Brexit will fix these enormous issues (although I doubt they will make them much worse once the dust settles simply because most of these people have little to lose) – but at least the elites who caused these problems so blindly yet so predictably, without making any serious attempts to mitigate the effects of the policies they were signing off on in areas where they would have a negative effect, have been told to fuck off.

Summary:
               
1)      When whole communities are suffering, they turn to cultural identity as a means to radically redress the status quo

2)      The underlying cause of both Trump and Brexit was a shift in cultural identity caused by the effects of globalisation and the Great Recession

3)      Globalisation, while not necessarily a bad thing in overall balance, has hollowed out geographical areas causing an immense amount of harm to the people who live there – as such, it is hardly surprising that politics, dependent on geographical areas, has been strongly affected

4)      Many people and companies were tipped over the edge by the Great Recession, the effects of which are still omnipresent in those regions/areas/demographics – the recovery is largely non-existent there, having disproportionately been channelled into asset owners and globally competitive cities

5)      The outcomes of elections in Britain and America are based on demographic tipping points (swing states, swing voters) – the above trends led a strong swing in key areas to cause Trump and Brexit

6)      All of this was exacerbated by the state of politics in both Westminster and Washington – Clinton was hopelessly corrupt and sought fights with the white working class regarding immigration and minorities (trying to amplify their issues despite their not being that important any more); our parliament contains an alarming proportion of morons brought in to help media image


7)      All of this was exacerbated by the state of the ‘mainstream media’ (I hate that phrase) which sided very firmly with the establishment