by Emrys Westacott
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
I suspect there are many who feel that this Dickensian paradox applies to their own life and times. I certainly do. If you’re fortunate enough to have a sufficient income, a comfortable home, loving family and friends, decent physical and mental health, and plenty of interests to pursue, then life is good. But then a lying, narcissistic, cynical, conman like Boris Johnson is ensconced in power in the UK for five years, and things are not good. One dwells in the Slough of Despond.
This odd disconnect between the relative pleasantness of one’s own circumstances and an appalled sense that, on so many counts (poverty, inequality, political corruption, news media, environmental damage…..), the world is heading in the wrong direction, has become a familiar, ever-present condition for many of us.
Interestingly, the disconnect seems to be not only experienced by people on the left. The median household income of Trump supporters during the 2016 Republican primaries was $72,000 (compared to a national median household income figure of $56,000). Historically and geographically speaking, $72K is a decent chunk of change which for most people should make possible a fairly comfortable lifestyle. And in fact, a 2017 PRRI study concluded that Trump supporters were not so much motivated by dissatisfaction with their own economic circumstances as by fears about cultural displacement (of whites by minorities and immigrants). For most of them, too, their fear, anger, and dissatisfaction concerned the state of the nation rather than their personal circumstances.
There is always a positive aspect to anger and sorrow over the state of the world, whatever the cause: it at least means that people care about something beyond themselves and their immediate circle. There are, of course, impersonal issues that it would be better if people didn’t concern themselves with. Why should it matter to anyone, for instance, that some strangers somewhere are enjoying gay sex? But on the whole the world doesn’t suffer from too many people being excessively involved in public debates about what is best for society at large. On the contrary.
But why the disconnect? Why is it that so many of us who, in many respects have never had it so good, are so critical, even at times despairing, of the way things are?
Now I imagine that some readers may immediately jump all over the claim that “many of us have never had it so good,” viewing it as smug, complacent, callous, ignorant, and blind. But (a) the qualification “in many respects” is important. Noting some of the ways in which our lives have improved, even over the past few decades, doesn’t imply that everything is getting better all the time. Thanks to the computer revolution, family members and friends living far apart can now talk to each other as often as they please. This is a non-trivial improvement over the way things used to be. Pointing it out isn’t to deny that the computer revolution has had some negative consequences, such as rampant cell phone addiction.
And (b) recognizing that millions of people live relatively comfortable lives obviously doesn’t imply that everyone is so fortunate. Scandalously, in rich societies like the US and the UK, there are millions who live in poverty and suffer all its associated consequences, and millions more who, even if not impoverished, experience insecurity, anxiety, exhaustion, or depression due to the character of work and life in a constantly changing capitalist society with inadequate public services.
Nevertheless, few would choose to live their lives in a previous age–certainly not before anesthetics and antibiotics! And even when it comes to the past few decades, it’s easy to overlook or underestimate improvements in the way we live. (Consider, for instance, the advances in gay rights, or the greater involvement of fathers in childrearing.) One reason for this “negativity bias” is that we are more keenly attuned to alarming intelligence rather than to good news, a trait that in nature has survival value and in the modern world is exploited by news media to sell their product (“if it bleeds, it leads”). Another reason is nostalgia, which seems to be an almost universal human trait, the evolutionary value of which has not yet been determined.
But all that being said, feelings of anger, fear, disappointment and despair over the ascension to power of people like Johnson and Trump world are not prompted by delusional misrepresentations of reality. Anxiety is in order. There really does seem to be a trend in favour of cynical authoritarian rulers: Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Bolsonaro in Brazil; Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary, al-Sisi in Egypt, Salvini in Italy. These autocrats largely operate with the same playbook: nationalism; racism; hostility to vulnerable minority groups (immigrants, Muslims); willful disinformation; favours for oligarchs; anti-democratic measures that lessen accountability; highly partisan legal appointments. In some cases, most obviously that of Trump, buffoonish behaviour helps to serve as a distraction, while the rich feed at the trough and the further corruption of politics and democratic norms becomes normalized.
When did this trend begin? It can seem to be fairly recent. After all, less than ten years ago Barack Obama was president with both houses of Congress under Democractic control, the Labour party was in power in the UK, Lula was president in Brazil, and the Arab Spring was getting underway in Egypt. But I suspect that historians of the future, when they look back on this period, will identify the beginnings of the trend about forty years ago. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in Britain, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan won elected president in the US. Both embraced a fairly libertarian political philosophy, the outlook given scholarly credentials by theorists like Friedrich Hayek and popularized more widely by Ayn Rand. And the growing influence of this philosophy in powerful sections of the anglosphere has had global consequences.
Those committed to this philosophy oppose government intervention in the economy as both inefficient and morally misguided. Thus Reagan, in his first inaugural address, declared that “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The outlook is thus highly individualistic. What matters above all is the right of individuals to engage in business without restrictive regulations, regardless of the consequences for society; for according to this view, as Thatcher famously remarked, “there is no such thing as society.” (Conservative politicians often present this philosophy in more general terms, as a defence of individual freedom. But their willingness over the years to outlaw such things as homosexuality, gay marriage, recreational drugs, and gambling indicates that what really matters to them is the freedom to make money and not be forced to share it through taxation and public spending.)
Forty years ago, then, American and British capitalism began a campaign against the sort of communitarian values that had characterized their post-war societies: the sort of values that underpin the welfare state, and are found par excellence in trades unions where solidarity is placed above self-interest. This is not to idealize the way things were back then. There was, of course, plenty of prejudice, discrimination, exploitation and selfishness in those days, too. But there was also even among the ruling class, a less callous attitude toward the least well off, more faith in the power of public institutions to do good, and greater respect for democratic institutions and norms. One way of putting it would be to say conservativism then looks like social democracy now.
A glaring consequence of the libertarian shift is the tremendous increase in inequality, not just in the US but in many other countries too. This has certainly provoked some anger: witness the Occupy movement. But the Murdoch media and other enablers of the autocrats have clearly had some success in deflecting the dissatisfaction of those who feel left behind against false enemies––immigrants, refugees, ethnic minorities, the unemployed, progressive activists, liberal “elitists,” the EU. The individualistic ideology advanced by conservatives over the past forty years has prepared a fertile soil in which this displaced–misplaced–hostility seems to thrive. Practical policies, such as weakening unions and selling off public assets, have served the same end.
From the standpoint of anyone committed to communitarian, egalitarian, and democratic values, the shift described has been disastrous. As noted above, one’s material circumstances may have improved, largely thanks to technology, but the political culture one inhabits has become ugly and dysfunctional almost beyond belief; the social environment in many places has been impoverished; and prospects for the natural environment–about which the autocrats seem to be utterly indifferent–are not great, to put it mildly.
Societies often take on some of the characteristics of their rulers, In the age of Johnson and Trump, this is a dispiriting thought. Yet there is a further paradox, different from the one mentioned at the outset, in which there perhaps lies hope. It’s an odd but true fact, in my experience, that there is often a disconnect between a person’s politics and the way they relate to their fellow human beings. A socialist can be an overbearing, domineering father. A Trump voter can contribute generously in time and money to a charity for refugees. Individualism, and the indifference to the wellbeing of others that it can foster, has natural limits.
H.L Mencken said that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who deserves to be ruled by the likes of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. Normal people are nicer than that and deserve better.
 On this point, see Greg Easterbrook, The Paradox of Progress.