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Leading Us Where?, by John Hinkson

Political leadership for our times: after Brexit, Trump and Hanson

While many commentators have expressed relief that the financial dust has settled after the decision of UK voters to withdraw from the EU—stock markets fell but have now rebounded; there are no signs of a Lehman Brothers–type event—there is reason to think they relax too soon. Certainly in terms of immediate political effects the shock waves in the United Kingdom are catastrophic, with any ‘solution’ to which either of the main parties might turn likely to have an unravelling effect. On the one hand, there is a basic loss of trust within both parties; on the other, the implicit perspective that held together general political strategy—a shared sense of positive development, of what is a desirable future—has been punctured. The two aspects reinforce each other.

The obvious casualty of the decision, the EU, is greatly weakened. This comes at a time when many regard it as no longer workable, crippled by a radical underdevelopment of institutions—financial and social. The institutionalisation of the open market combined with the open movement of citizens will not work in difficult times without the creation of an umbrella state, as found in federal state structures like Australia or the United States. But any inclinations in Europe towards super-state formation have long gone. Hence the chaos in the face of adversity, in turn generating the disaffection that brought on the Brexit shock. While the EU is in the first line of casualties and is now entering a further phase of disruption, its threatened demise by no means captures the deeper meanings of Brexit.

As it moved beyond its initial exploratory structures the EU was always a particular expression of that larger development: globalisation, a set of structures within a larger global setting that encouraged not only open markets but the distinctive global market. While Brexit can be said to puncture the shared sense of positive global development that existed, withdrawal from the EU is not the main issue. Rather Brexit points to the need to ask what it is that repels many people about their political leaders’ embrace of the global order as such. There have been a few comments in the press taking up this theme, but they have not dug deep.

There is little real awareness of globalisation being a unique and singular social emergence. Global tendencies of course are not new. They have existed since the rise of monotheism and the universalistic Church, and moral philosophy as such. They have been enhanced by the explosion of universalising intellectuals since the nineteenth century, and then in the twentieth century with the emergence of new media that push towards a global culture increasingly separated from regional concerns. Even economic globalisation had significant expression in the nineteenth century, as Indigenous peoples around the world could testify. But what can be called a more intense economic globalisation, the globalisation of economies supported by high technology, only came into existence in the 1980s.

People in various settings know what the immediate expressions of techno-globalism mean to them. Bankers have a clear understanding of its novel financial possibilities (to the point where they shamed themselves in the GFC of 2008). Mass global tourism, emerging from all sectors of social life, simply lives it. The tourist does not necessarily think of their activity as an expression of globalisation; it is enough to respond to the lure of cheap airfares. The manufacturing worker who finds his or her industry disintegrating and leaving them, their families, and local community members without jobs, not to mention a viable local culture, knows that the opening to global trade and free trade agreements has undermined their possibility of survival, but typically this has not been viewed by them as a phenomenon associated with a global order. Even the university worker, who has seen university jobs and the conditions of intellectual engagement fundamentally altered, typically does not put this down to globalisation as a social institutional phenomenon, one that is replacing a previous social order.

But it is a social order that is taking shape, especially around economic globalisation, and it is affecting all ways of life in most regions of the world. It combines the market supercharged by the computer and communications technology in an institutional strategy called deregulation, which cuts away all restrictions from the old order that protected and administered regional institutions, in favour of the regulations of a broad global order—what our leaders today refer to as a rules-based order.

But it is misleading to normalise this emergent rules-based order by referring to it in neutral language. This is not a change simply in terms of a shift from one set of rules to another. For the emergent rules are based in constant movement, by definition hostile to all settled conventions and institutions. Its emblematic fluidity takes the form of a radical individualism that pushes aside communities of place structured in social relations organised around the generations and with a significant emphasis upon face-to-face sociality. It is a fluidity structured by the global market. As such it cuts a swathe through any culture that is unwilling or thinks itself unable to protect itself.

Recently, economic researchers within the IMF have declared that global markets have inherent flaws that are producing global disorder—in the form of increased inequality and excessively mobile capital flows. While only a limited conclusion, it is an acknowledgement of great significance because economists are typically seduced by the unfettered global market. When joined with that other great disruption of globalisation, the GFC, which continues to wreak havoc among global economies, we might begin to see a break opening up in the dominance of global ideology and practice. Brexit is a further nail in the coffin. It was led by voters who have not only experienced the loss of jobs and industry but crucially have seen their social world, especially the social institutions associated with local ways of life and cross-generational relations, dissolve. While jobs are part of the story, the loss of such life-worlds strikes much deeper into their sense of the possibility of existence.

This experience of the Brexit voters is, in varied forms, a global experience. It is clearly at the heart of those who, for want of developed political leadership, affirm politicians like Donald Trump in the United States and Pauline Hanson in Australia. These are developments commentators insist on reducing to economic phenomena. They suggest a put-down—older white males have lost their jobs!—but they are unable to go beyond that to address the crucial issue: why these people and many others have lost, or fear the loss of, much more, their everyday social reference points and deep social commitments now dissolving under the logic of high-tech economic globalisation.

A broader frame of reference would allow these same commentators to come to terms with why we have the largest refugee crisis at least since the Second World War. Certainly many of the refugees come out of war zones, but they also emerge from failed states, failed economies and imploding social orders. And no institution generates these effects quite like global markets. Even the war zones can be argued to be related to the effects of these markets. And as the logic of globalisation asserts itself further and the 80/20 society takes shape, do we think that things will improve?

It is only thirty years since our political leaders took the advice of global economists and decided to go down the path of high-tech economic globalisation. This was a case of the blind leading the blind into a singular order about which both parties knew nothing, apart from a vague prospect of greater economic growth. Yet any resistance to this form of economic globalisation is viewed as an attack on a reality that must not be questioned.

In the media much has been made of how resistance to globalisation is a product of populist reaction. Here ‘populism’ has gained a new meaning. Pretending to explain something, it targets anyone who is disaffected with political leaders who have encouraged this global consensus. This use of populism as a negative marker is a form of denial. It is a form of reaction in its own right, a way of ignoring the valid and deep concerns of ordinary citizens.

Lacking representation of their concerns, citizens, who have sometimes been brutalised by their experience, turn to non-conventional politicians who are arguably ignorant and simplistic, not to mention cleverly manipulative as well as socially and politically dangerous. Having access to little more than gestures, these ‘leaders’ are by definition reactive. They gesture in directions that may sometimes be worthwhile, but they are not backed by perspective or policy development. The momentum of politics in this mode can only be maintained by building such gestures one upon the next. It is a road to civil conflict and even war, as some are beginning to say. There are undoubted resonances here with the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, even though the circumstances are significantly different.

There is no reason to feel self-satisfied or superior to those who turn to populist and dangerous political expressions, for the source of the political crisis lies elsewhere: in the attempt to normalise the transformations we have experienced. One source is obvious: the unwillingness of leaders and fellow citizens to take the reality of many people’s experience of contemporary globalisation seriously. They are left without any developed political leadership because our leaders don’t want to countenance the possibility that they made a terrible mistake in choosing the high-tech economic globalisation route. Certainly the large political parties are unable to look beyond their stultified assumptions, completely unaware as they are that changes in practical policy like institutional deregulation over time cause serious social turmoil. But this political failure is reinforced by another source of failure: a simultaneous intellectual failure.

This second source of political crisis is the new quietism in the intellectual culture, ever since it changed its spots and became embroiled in the renovation of capitalism itself—not its ideological justification only, but at the level of this form of capitalism’s material building blocks. Globalisation is the product of intellectual practices being tied to capitalism since the high-tech revolution of the 1980s, which led to the transformation of the institution of the university. To critically evaluate it requires an evaluation of intellectual practices in the world today. There is no developed critical narrative to support politicians who might wish to formulate alternatives to high-tech globalisation.

It wouldn’t be hard to refer to many leaders and thinkers, on the Right and the Left, who have failed us. But when especially insightful commentators like the popular Waleed Aly declare, after Brexit, that there is no choice but to accept globalisation, this is especially disappointing, and can only be viewed as an illustration of the crisis of intellectual work in our current situation. It is an assertion, not an interpretation.

The world can pull back from its reckless decisions of the 1980s. Some serious retraction is necessary to stabilise what is clearly a social and political crisis that goes to fundamental issues. It is certainly a failure of cultural and political imagination to think that it is not possible. There is no denying that any such decisions would entail significant disruption. But a decision to merely gird our loins and march forward would be the most disruptive of all. It would be tantamount to advocating escalating civil strife, if not creating the conditions for war, as fearful populations turn their sense of despair outwards.

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