The central problem of world history remains—and must remain—the processes that have brought Homo sapiens from the Paleolithic era to the age of the internet…it has succeeded in transforming itself by transforming its environment…[That t]his process has undergone such a brutal acceleration…of social mutations since the middle of the twentieth century strikes me as being far and away the most striking historical phenomenon of our epoch. [This is of far greater significance than] the wars, massacres and revolutions of the same period.
As it begins to sink in that a political earthquake has occurred in the United States the question is how is this to be understood. Every second commentator declares that we live in momentous times, and this is not to be doubted. But how to register these times beyond the rhetorical statement is the proper question. Not that such an exploration will predict elections, but it may give insights into why the world has lost its predictability and the degree to which people are deeply distressed. Hopefully, it will also give some direction about what to do.
It is true that the media got the US election wrong in much the same way it was wrong about the Brexit vote. On the day before the election all the pundits, including those on the Right, vented their certainty about a Clinton victory, not reflecting for more than a moment on the unpredictability demonstrated in the Brexit vote and what that might mean in relation to Trump. Wrong in the first instance, they chose to assume that Brexit had simply been an aberration. More importantly, they made this assumption because they had no way of reflecting upon the earthquake in everyday life that is the real context of the current upheaval in politics in the United States. Can we continue to assume ‘politics as usual’ when after these elections we have the equivalent of One Nation at the helm in Washington? Is this going to be taken seriously, or is it simply business as usual?
Contrary to the way the mainstream media typically made sense of Trump, it was not a victory for him as a personality. Trump the personality was vicious and his retorts to critics usually below the belt. Through such means he was able to make media impacts. And that was the only Trump the media wanted to know, or were able to know. He sold good media. I don’t mean that there was another Trump the media ignored. While that may be true, Trump was representative of a much deeper fault line. His personality both helped and hindered representation of this underlying set of circumstances. It certainly helped him to isolate the Washington leadership—the ‘swamp’—and also to form a movement by resort to disdain, if not hatred, for various identity groups. It also nearly brought him undone, with his inarticulate bluster and alarmingly erratic behaviour on many matters. However, ultimately it was the ‘fault line’ that won him the presidency.
The media ignored these underlying processes. Not only did it have no interest in them, it didn’t know where to start in giving that fault line a narrative—one that could have facilitated serious debate. The media’s emptiness allowed the emergence of ‘leaders’ who could do no more than emit emotive support for those many Americans in despair about their life prospects.
Even the question of whether Trump is in some sense a contemporary fascist was reduced to his apparent racism and his tendency to play with possible violence. The circumstances that gave support to historical fascism and how they may compare to contemporary circumstances were ignored by the mainstream. No doubt an analysis of Mussolini the person when he first emerged as a figure in the early twentieth century would have provided insight into his future politics, but such an account, devoid of any analysis of the social setting of his time, would not have got very far. The challenge of the working-class socialist movements to ‘civilised’ capitalism was not discussed. Nor were the crises of the nineteenth-century global empires or the crisis of capitalism generally after the cataclysm of the First World War. Similarly, we were not introduced to parallels today with the deeply felt need in the 1920s and ’30s to find a ‘third’ way, in part shaped by the new possibilities of technology and speed, which were central to the grip of the fascist movements across Europe and elsewhere. Are there equivalent circumstances today? Don’t look to the mainstream media for assistance!
The closest the media came to addressing the concerns of growing numbers of US citizens was the reference to how white unemployed males, especially older working-class individuals, were supporting Trump. This sectional reference was spoken of with relief, because this group could never in itself generate a Trump victory. The best of the commentators in Australia—Paul Kelly, for example—did refer more broadly to globalisation (grudgingly, however, because of his deep commitment to it), but not with any serious attempt to explore what it might mean for politics. In any case, such references to globalisation usually pointed only to the global economy, open markets and free trade. That these phenomena are carriers of more complex existential meanings and may represent a larger problem never got an airing.
That these political developments are being handled in this way is code for mainstream media and politicians hoping that business as usual is still possible. In this view, the shock of the Obama/Clinton years coming to an end, when joined with unacceptable attitudes towards political convention, calls for an adjustment. But otherwise we are urged to go forward and take advantage of the new opportunities. The Australian has already begun to count the positive outcomes of the Trump presidency for the federal Budget. It also reports that various ministers are elated at the job prospects of a massive defence expansion under Trump, unconcerned about what this will mean if the expansion is focused on China or the Middle East.
In both Europe and the United States (not to mention many other parts of the world), the change disturbing voters is far more general and runs deeper than the loss of industry or the exporting of jobs. While such losses are real and very disturbing in their own right, globalisation also brings the deeper consequence of the dissolution of tangible life-worlds, which leaves families and communities bereft. This is the real fault line underlying support for the emergence of a Trump.
To give this proper recognition we must come to terms with how social relations shifted profoundly in the second half of the twentieth century, and especially since the 1980s. Social relations that previously relied on tangible, face-to-face relations, carried in intergenerational relations and predominantly tied to place, have now significantly shifted.
Inhabiting more loosely associated, more abstract networks of fleeting association, we are increasingly ‘liberated’ from place and generational relations as sources of social meaning. Technological change—the computer, mobile phone and Internet, and, more recently, social media—exemplifies these new conditions. The result is a radically ungrounded from of social life where individuals need to repeatedly assert themselves though screen culture to gain any sense of connection to the world.
When commentators refer to global markets they think of exports and free trade. They don’t usually take into account how such markets set in motion all the stable arrangements that local economies and industry provide. More to the point, these markets have impacts in everyday life and core aspects of the life-world are set adrift. The replacement of manufacturing with image production and service industries brings with it a culture of precarious work, and rapid obsolescence. The ground through which a sense of meaning and security could be found in work or community dissipates.
This upheaval in everyday worlds is deeply disturbing—even for those who deny it and announce that they love innovation. It is not just a matter of social change. It is that these changes to the social carry deep-going cultural contradictions in their progressive abandonment of structures that have always formed us as human beings.
The transformation of social life referred to by Hobsbawm above is linked to this transformation of life-worlds. If capitalism has been at the centre of the transformations of the last two centuries, in the late twentieth century it moved into overdrive. To understand these developments we need to look to an institutional revolution that again few discuss or see as related to politics—one that took hold of capitalism and launched it onto another level after the Second World War. The institution that makes the difference is the university, renovated by high technology.
The expansion of the university system comes with a new focus on the intellectually trained and a commitment to techno-capitalism. The privileging of certain sectors in the university—the techno-sciences over the sciences, the media industries over the humanities—is indicative of a transformation where knowledge is only valuable to the degree it can directly contribute to the economy. At the very time when critical reflection is most needed, the university has largely shut down the areas that could play such a role.
Instead the university is committed to a capitalism supercharged by the revolution of intellectual technique, giving birth to a new world. Among other things, by the 1980s high technology had reshaped the market into an institution of a significantly new kind: the global market, which reconstructs the world we have taken for granted through a renovation of all our institutions, including those that ground our humanity. It similarly has renovated the media, making possible the media personality that is the Trump we now know.
There are many ways of registering the broad transformation that I am discussing here. Will Steffen and his colleagues at the Australian National University and elsewhere have been tracking what they call the Great Acceleration. In a series of remarkable graphs, they show an enormous take-off in human activity dating from the 1950s. Their focus is the environment and climate, but they are pointing to a process they cannot explain, only plot. ‘It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force’ leading to what they believe should be called the Anthropocene: a geological era typified by its human-constructed components. All the graphs tracking varied systems point to the same thing: ‘After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes become directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system’.
This is far from an aberration; we can account for it as a systemic process, one that is gaining momentum. Crucially, it is a function of an institutional revolution, evident in the emergent capacities of the high-tech sciences arriving out of the Second World War, and then in the capacities of the global market that emerged in the 1980s, which propelled Thatcher and Reagan into their novel phase of politics.
A ‘planetary-scale geological force’ is one way of talking about it. It is helpful in grasping just how profound the planetary crisis is. But the other part of the story is the nature of the social relations that have emerged and effectively structure this geological alteration.
As it has been argued, it is these new social relations that eat away at the foundations of our humanity. Ordinary people look around and increasingly cannot see a recognisable social world. Distressed, they turn against those political leaders who are undoubtedly in part responsible for carrying them here. In despair and sometimes brutalised by their experiences, they mistake the likes of Trump and Hanson for true leaders, even though these populist politicians have no insight into what has caused the earthquake in everyday life. At best they do no more than mirror the pain of those around them and then clutch at a grab bag of radical policy choices. Meanwhile, mainstream media make no contribution because they are the children of, and committed to, the world that is being rejected. As agents of it, they simply assume it and its values.
Fascism is an ugly word with embedded historical meanings. Nonetheless it is important to take account of some of the similarities between the social circumstances that supported historical fascism as an institutional order and those that have emerged in recent times. The historical actors clearly are different, given the demise of working-class movements and the failures of historical socialism. But the depth of the crisis of social meaning associated with rapid technological and social change, signs of emergent thuggery, and also the novelty of new media itself overlap the circumstances of a century ago. However, the personal crisis is undoubtedly greater today if one considers the institutional revolution.
A number of people have said that the Trump victory is a step into the unknown. This is undoubtedly true in one strong sense. Media-savvy Trump—formed by and in turn exploiting the fleeting messages of the media—has lost all relation to the truth. Truth is constituted and reconstituted by him from one situation to another, while ordinary people are losing the social ground that stabilised their sense of truth. A step into the unknown in this sense is actually, through its unpredictability and lack of regard for what is needed to sustain meaning and decency, a support for a potential fascism.
In respect of the institutional revolution and its crisis points, this is a more straightforward step into what can well be predicted. A trade barrier may make some difference to how commerce and industry work. But if you take into account one important product of the relation between the university and capitalism—robotisation—it is possible to outline how an 80:20 society (80 per cent in no or highly precarious work) will bear on levels of distress present in communities.
From this point of view the combination of the institutional revolution with Trump’s ignorance and erratic nature, together with his knack for building coalitions via media strategies, could well usher in a form of political life comparable to twentieth-century fascism. Twentieth-century fascists were not born fascists; they were formed in processes and through practical responses. We will find out soon enough how Trump measures up, but the signs are surely not good. Meanwhile, and crucially, the fault line in contemporary society is not going away.
A substantial shift away from the globalisation model is justified. Arguably the need to radically modify globalisation has been the case at least since the Global Financial Crisis, which still hangs over us, leaving the world economy constantly on the brink. We need not only to downplay trade in the new circumstances but also to support attempts to renew and strengthen life-worlds via non-commodified sectors of the economy—sectors such as home building and food production—built around the principle of reciprocity and free from the logic of the global markets. Over time these could become sectors available for expansion in the face of further crises. This would have an economic impact, but it also would have crucial cultural impacts.
Any strategy of this kind, however, would entail enormous upheaval. While necessary, it should not be entered into lightly. It requires leaders with knowledge, social imagination, bravery and a complex grasp of when to be cautious. If what is needed at a minimum is a rounded, further developed Franklin Roosevelt to manage the conflicting forces, Donald Trump, self preoccupied and formed through reality TV, will not do.
To know that people are deeply distressed may be a sign of empathy. It may also simply be an opportunity, the first step in a process of seizing power. Or, in a process over time, the first can become the second. With its combination of ignorance and unpredictability, Trump’s administration will easily run out of control. We are dealing with the world’s only superpower. The stakes are high and feelings volatile. This is where we are now.