2016 – A Review
Somewhere or other (you don’t get proper footnotes at this time of year) Karl Popper urged anyone masochistic enough to be reading his stuff to guard against the fashionable disease of our time, viz.- the assumption that things can not be taken at their face value, that an apparent syllogism must be the rationale of an irrational motive, that our choices necessarily conceal some self-seeking ghastliness. It’s a reasonable guess that this warning was part of his well-known criticism of Freudian psychology as bad pseudo-science, and in the year of Brexit and Trump it assumes a particular relevance, as the usual carnival of commentators, analysts, pundits, think-tankers and other ‘experts’ queue up to add their own fluid ounce of pseudo-science to the already deep and sulphurous ocean of jejune rationalisations which, we suppose, keeps them and their kind in lucrative employment.
The British voters wanted to leave the European Union, and their American cousins wanted Donald Trump to be president. Just that. They were not expressing a complicated series of half-understood emotional responses to globalisation or economic change or multiculturalism or anything else – emotions which, lest they fall easy prey to something called ‘populism’, call for urgent analysis by credentialed social psychiatrists who have brought themselves to believe that observing and analysing their fellow citizens like specimens in a vivarium is somehow a legitimate form of intellectual inquiry, as opposed to (a) a bloody impertinence and (b) a manifestation of precisely the kind of social order which is being emphatically rejected.
In other words, the process of making lofty, top-down analyses of society and using them to formulate complex public policy prescriptions, and then to enact those policies through a pretty much incomprehensible series of international institutional mechanisms, is itself part of that world order which has gradually accreted over the last thirty years and more, and which has become less popular as it has become more visible, in more or less direct proportion. Particularly since the financial crisis of 2007-9, it has become impossible even to pretend not to see it, and it should really be no surprise that, pari passu, there is a revolt against it.
Although most would not be able to describe the new order very accurately, partly because they would need to spend several years getting a doctorate in order to make a decent go of it, voters know perfectly well that the political establishment no longer comprises (a) elected representatives who (b) make laws which are (c) interpreted by judges in courts according to (d) a familiar and accepted legal system. The elected representatives, laws, judges and courts still exist, but this simple flow-chart of governance has now been replaced with such a bizarre and serpentine maze that there is no possibility that any of these institutions can be held accountable by the voters. Rather, the politicians, rules and courts are part of a Byzantine international organisation whose principal elements are:
- Global mega-governments: Washington, Brussels, the various UN institutions, G8, G10, G20, IMF, WTO, World Bank, the various central banks, the IPCC, and the whole tin of alphabet soup making up those numberless international bodies which concern themselves with everything from reserve capital requirements to food safety standards and from renewable energy targets to sports administration.
- Global mega-corporations: the only private organisations large enough to engage and keep the attention of the mega-governments, or to be able to claim sufficient systemic importance to warrant a voice at the table. They have deep pockets to spend on bribes lobbying and to retain armies of permanent staff whose only function is to interact with and influence global mega-governments. They are perfectly comfortable with 18,000-page regulations for all the usual barriers-to-entry reasons.
- A hieratic body of public policy professionals: mostly economists, those nude emperors of the current world order, but also lawyers as well as every variety of academic whose field has even a tenuous connection to political determinations, from geologists and climatologists to historians and anthropologists, and who enjoy a kind of revolving-door career trajectory between a certain kind of university, quasi-private think-tanks, government bodies and private corporations, particularly investment banks. Speaking of barriers to entry, being demonstrably unable to predict wet weather in Belfast is apparently no obstacle to such a career in professional prognosticating.
Together, these form a kind of Blob (to borrow from British political parlance), which determines public policy by negotiation and informal discussion at places like Davos, whereupon the attendees return to their own countries and hand down the decisions to their national law-making bodies for enactment. Indeed, it is an argument both for and against Brexit that the only change will be that these decisions will now be handed directly to the British parliament for legislation instead of going to Brussels to be enacted on Britain’s behalf. In cases where a treaty is required, domestic government simply becomes a legalistic branch of international law. In any case, at no point does this policy-making flow-chart interact with what voters actually want except by rare coincidence.
Interestingly, in defending this new system of government against the objections of the voters, 2016 was the year the political Left had a very public psychotic episode, finding itself espousing such traditional socialist positions as:
- Wealthy, educated people know what proletarians need better than they do themselves, and so the plebs should be guided by their social superiors.
- If a politician is popular with the working class, that is prima facie evidence that he is up to no good.
- Reducing the flow of unskilled labour into developed economies is bad because it would force employers to offer higher wages.
- We should be seriously concerned when global investment banks and other capitalist organisations raise fears about their margins, and should adopt foreign policy positions which defend their profits.
- Judges are fine, upstanding pillars of the establishment and should never be criticised, especially for undermining democracy.
- Russians! Russians everywhere! They stole the election and shot Harambe and ate my homework. Vote status quo or the Russians win. That Joe McCarthy feller was really onto something.
As far as can be gathered from the infantile and impenetrable stream of consciousness which the modern Left uses for setting out its political philosophy, the position appears to be based on the following sophisticated intellectual analysis: one-country-equals-hitler, therefore lots-of-countries-equals-nothitler. To be fair, at least this is more advanced than many of their other attempts at reasoning (“climate change is racist”, etc), so kudos there to the Anglosphere’s undergraduates.
Nevertheless, we venture to assert that there are also sane approaches to the subject of politics and globalisation, perhaps the most important of which is learning to appreciate the fact that, just as membership of a Kafkaesque, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dog’s breakfast of a treaty organisation is not the only way to participate in European civilisation, it is perfectly possible to imagine that there are ways to ‘do’ internationalism other than handing control over our lives to a more or less self-selecting group of megalomaniacs who, apart from anything else, are largely useless and incompetent: from the financial crisis to the migration crisis, these people have consistently shown themselves to be unable to find their own backsides with both hands and Google Maps. Indeed, it is worth quoting the following paragraphs from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game in full, so pertinent are they to the year just passed:
“What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.
“But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the ‘intelligentsia’ can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.”
But even if modern government were being carried out by a network of irreproachable geniuses, we would be perfectly entitled to dispense with their services without being accused of rejecting globalisation – as if a single Brexit or Trump voter were seriously opposed to the concept of taking out a 24-month contact with a European telecom company to buy and use a smartphone designed in California and assembled in China with British microchips using Singaporean code made of rare earths dug up in Chile and Mongolia and processed in Japan.
In reality, globalisation is an old, even an ancient, process, and people are merely rejecting what happens to be the most recent political response to it. Archaic globalisation saw diasporas, ambitious kings, pilgrims and crusaders, merchant adventurers, and supranational religions claiming authority to transcend national boundaries. What might be called proto-globalisation in the early modern period involved the slave traffic, settlement colonies, mass consumption of alien commodities such as tea and coffee, and the diasporas of South and South East Asia. In the great Victorian era of free trade, Richard Cobden and his supporters sought to bring together the whole human family through mutually beneficial laissez-faire commercial exchange. This gave way in the 1870s to a kind of imperial globalisation, with a few Great Powers carving out dependent territories in each economic region of the world, and making each of their capital cities the hub of a separate inter-regional trading system. Post-colonial globalisation from the 1950s is usually associated with regional integration, the rise of inter-industrial trade, and Americanisation.
Why should the current, post-Cold War version of this same globalisation process – technocratic, elitist, legalistic, corporatist, micro-managerial – not be expected to join the previous versions in the dustbin of history without bringing globalisation to an end? Perhaps, for example, the next iteration can be predicated on the information age’s annihilation of distance, allowing networks of cultural affinity to connect geographically disparate countries and promote their cooperation in mutual security, trade and political activities. It is our hope here at the JWC that, as the estimable James C Bennett sets out in his recent work A Time for Audacity, the CANZUK nations might be the pioneers in this next stage of globalisation, and that a newly self-confident United States might on the same principle build its foreign policy on deepened economic and security ties with the CANZUK group, as well as India, Singapore and any truly like-minded countries on a voluntary, people-to-people basis.
It is genuinely unlikely, however, that all those powerful and privileged people who made noises like cats being fed into a wood-chipper throughout most of 2016 will be capable of understanding this. They know very little of history beyond the twentieth century and thus of the vast continuities which their ambitions and assumptions are disrupting or simply obstructing, and have almost no appreciation of the cultural norms and motivations of anyone outside their tiny tribe (they make up perhaps a few hundred thousand people worldwide, and probably fewer), and like all ignorant people they fear and despise what they fail to understand – and what is frightful and despicable must be suppressed if it can not be ignored.
As we move into 2017, then, we ask them in the words of Oliver Cromwell, that mighty force for change, to do the one thing they seem least capable of: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”