The daily Brexit spectacle in this country grows ever more surreal. Since Theresa May had her EU leaving agreement ground into the tarmac like a discarded cigarette butt by MPs last week, and then narrowly avoided a vote of no-confidence launched by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the complexity of the situation has exploded exponentially.
Politicians have had the best part of two years to find a solution to walking away from the European Union, which is what a majority of people voted to do, but now find themselves set back to square one. This time however there’s only 10 weeks left on the clock, which perhaps explains all the headless chickens running around.
Politics at the national level is usually mostly froth and can be safely ignored while more interesting pursuits are followed – after all, during the good times, aren’t politicians merely surfers catching the waves of popular opinion? Remember, these are the good times, for now.
But then there are times when serious underlying stresses in society and the economy have built up to a point where they threaten to cause devastating earthquakes. This is when politicians are put to the test – and usually found wanting. You expect them to solve serious national problems, but all they can do is spout platitudes and sound bites. It’s as if they are simply not designed to do the right job – like buying a dishwasher and expecting it to heat your dinner; what you get instead is a blocked outlet pipe and no dinner.
The political and social phenomena that arise at these times of stress have two aspects, that is they are both important and unimportant at the same time. I see them as being ‘unportent’.
Brexit, for example, is unimportant at face value. It is simply a country reconfiguring its trading arrangements into a more efficient format from the point of view of its people. True, there will likely be a period of adjustment when some prices of goods will be higher and some services could be unavailable, but demand and supply will iron out these problems in the medium term, like they always do. These are minor issues; Europe isn’t physically going anywhere, Britain isn’t going anywhere either, we’ll still be able to drink French wine and eat Italian cheese and go on holiday to the Alps … what’s the problem?
In fact, compared to the real crises of out time, such as the insect apocalypse, decaying infrastructure, mass mental breakdown etc. Brexit is hardly even worthy of consideration. Of course, the media have ways of amplifying the trivial and ignoring the important, so the whole situation may seem like a catastrophe if you get your information from those sources, but that doesn’t actually make it so.
At the same time, while it may not be important from a whole systems point of view, it can be important to the people within the system affected. For instance, given that the EU is both undemocratic when it comes to the important policy decisions, and a consolidator of centralised power, it matters a great deal to Brits whether or not their children will be conscripted into some future Euro army and forced to fight Russia for its resources at the behest of ‘chicken hawk’ politicians in Brussels, Paris and Washington.
Thus the whole Brexit saga is both unimportant and important at the same time i.e. unportent. I suspect unportent things will crop up with greater regularity as humanity continues to slide down the depletion curve of easy-to-get at energy sources.
Governing parties not fit for purpose?
It’s curious that Europe has seen the rise of a wave of new populist parties either swept into power, or finding themselves in prominent positions in coalitions over the last handful of years, and yet Britain still clings to the two-party tribal warfare system.
Italy has the 5 Star Movement, which is now forms a partner in government, and Germany has the AfD (Alternative for Germany) which has stolen support away from Angela Merkel, while Sweden has the Sweden Democrats, which were just yesterday denied a place in central government despite coming within a whisker of doing so. All of these so-called populist parties are derided in the mainstream media and described in varying tones of invective.
It’s true that most of them are right-wing, driven primarily by concerns about unchecked immigration, but there’s no particular reason why they couldn’t be left-wing populists (apart from the fact that left-wing parties are currently preoccupied by issues of ‘social justice’ and are unable to coherently formulate policies that people might vote for).
Britain, of course, has UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) whose raison d'être was to force a vote on leaving the EU – something it can be said to have achieved. But due to the ‘winner takes it all’ system of democracy over here it was never destined to achieve great power. Instead it merely managed to exert enough political leverage to shift the Conservatives away from their cosy relationship with big business and extract the promise of a referendum. The fact that David Cameron thought British voters could be railroaded into voting to remain in the EU turned out to be a critical error on his part.
But, for the main part, British people are either Labour or Conservative voters, and these two parties have enjoyed a joint monopoly on power for over a hundred years, if you set aside the National Government of the inter-war years.
America is in a similar situation, with the Republicans and the Democrats the only two parties worthy of consideration for the majority of voters. While the two-party system gives an advantage in terms of stability, it is looking less suitable in the modern age with all its myriad power struggles and fragmented constituencies. Indeed, perhaps there's some kind of Anglo Saxon ‘two tribes’ mentality playing out here.
So what gives? Both parties in both countries are internally conflicted, with the neoliberal element in each having had the upper hand for the past four decades, which coincidentally I’m sure, is the same time period over which the financialisation and globalisation of the world economy took place.
During this period, money has dominated politics, because parties could woo big business with the promise of rewards in the form of contracts, reduced regulation and a lower tax burden … just as soon as they got into power. They could easily do this because, once in power, governments in industrialised countries have had the privilege of being able to create money out of thin air without somehow having to earn it.
This worked well, up to a point. After conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and the real economy stopped growing, it became an awful lot harder to service all the debt that had been built up, leading to the financial heart attack of 2008. Since then, the global economy has been kept alive as ‘first responder’ central bankers performed CPR and mainlined dizzying amounts of ‘money’, i.e. debt, into the languid white arm of the economy in the hope that the corpse would get up off the floor and start walking again. So far, apart from a few twitches and convulsions, it’s still lying there.
With dismal growth, the spoils of financialisation and globalism have become a lot scarcer. Those with access to what remains are fleeing to their citadels and pulling up the drawbridge behind them, while the vast majority of us are left as ‘tax donkeys’, working two or three jobs and dealing with hidden inflation, punitive regulations and reduced prospects. Life just ain’t the same as it used to be.
Instead of an easy life we get Donald Trump, Brexit and the Gilets Jaunes – all manifestations of ‘the people’ of industrialised countries trying to claw back some of the wealth and resources they feel are theirs. Can't we just back up a little and go back to simpler systems that redistribute the wealth a bit more evenly?
It turns out, however, that there is no reverse gear in over-developed financialised economies. They are built on the concept of exponentially expanding economic growth – something that is neither possible nor, arguably, desirable. To stop growing is to die and consolidation of financial power is a one-way kind of thing.
Perhaps this is why the political classes are doing everything in their power to overturn Brexit and to impeach Trump and fob off the Gilets Jaunes with delays to tax hikes. They may well be successful in all of their attempts but it doesn’t change the dynamic forces behind the scenes that led to the popular rebellions in the first place. As one Gilet Jaune protester succinctly put it "We don't want Macron's crumbs, we want the whole baguette."
But are ‘the people’ right?
Most people in these damp islands have a vague and confused idea about the EU. Like Marmite, you are supposed to either love it or hate it. Those in favour of it generally have a ‘rainbows and unicorns’ vision of a benign distant force for good that occasionally arrives on our shores to disgorge its cornucopia of cash, and give our crooked politicians a well-deserved kick up the backside. Others have the polar opposite view, imagining Brussels to be a nest of villainous meddlers who spend day and night concocting schemes to straighten bananas, ban toasters and forbid the use of feet and inches.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, the EU has had some success in forcing Britain to clean up its beaches and make it easier to study abroad, and the last time I checked there were still bent bananas in my local grocery store being sold by the pound.
Fans of the EU also like to point to various initiatives and projects that are funded by the bloc, claiming that these would never have been undertaken without EU funding. While this may be true, many of these projects could be considered ‘white elephants’. Not long after the EU has built them, cut the ribbon, erected their large blue “This project was funded by the EU” signs and buggered off, it’s usually the local community that is forced to pay for their upkeep and eventual decommisioning with their local taxes.
One such example is an industrial heritage mining site near where I live in Cornwall that was part-funded by the EU and given World Heritage status when it opened in 2012. Not only have I never visited it, I’ve never even heard of anyone visiting it, and looking at its website today the ‘Latest Happenings’ section hasn’t been updated in nine months. Its Wikipedia page is four sentences long (by comparison, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat entry has 8,000 words) – to be honest, it’s not even very good at being a white elephant.
However, mention the EU to some of the locals around here and they won’t talk about prestige projects like the Heartlands Heritage Mining Centre, they’ll talk about how Brussels devastated the local fishing industry and destroyed their children’s future. They will tell you how an army of trucks awaits at the docks at dawn each morning to load up the contents of the fishing boats and immediately ship it off to continental Europe, while their own families are forced to shop at Poundland and eat frozen fish fingers. It’s narratives like this that may have had a hand in Cornwall’s decision to vote ‘No’ in the referendum, although they were roundly mocked for doing so, called ‘stupid’ and other less than pleasant names.
The kind of disconnect between two entirely different versions of reality throws a sharp light on the struggle between the winners and losers in the globalised economy.
As I finish off writing this, it’s Sunday morning and the newspapers are saying that a group of MPs is planning either to sabotage the Brexit process and keep the UK in the EU, or to push through some kind of dismal deal that will effectively sell off the country for a fistful of euros. It would be a mistake to do so. The forces that have been unleashed are not about to meekly get back into Pandora’s box and agree to shut up.
EU elections are coming up in May that will likely see a populist right-wing ‘anti EU’ bloc forming at the very centre of political-power, and with Eurozone industrial production and growth plummeting it won’t be long before Europe enters a steep recession – and by then it won’t be just France that goes up in flames. To try and prevent this, ECB president Mario Draghi is doing the only thing he knows how to do – cranking up the money printing press – just in time to feed the thousands of moribund ‘zombie’ corporations dotted across Europe that can only survive if free money is hosed their way.
The banking industry isn’t looking too stable either, with German banks – led by Deutsch – losing most of their value, Italian ones already starting to implode and Denmark’s biggest bank implicated in one of the biggest money laundering scandals in banking history …
Meanwhile, EU figureheads Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are both spent political forces, the latter unable to show his boyish face in public, preferring instead to address the hordes of angry left-behinds from his golden Élysée Palace. Italy’s deputy PM, Matteo Salvini, is openly trolling permadrunk EC President Jean Claude Juncker, and Hungarian pariah PM Viktor Orban is the kind of political ghoul who must give the Euro power elite nightmares.
Will the UK be able to break away from this sinking ship in time before the acrid smell of smoke from burning capitals wafts across the English Channel to London, polluting the rarefied air of the political bubble in Westminster? Perhaps the smell will simultaneously put the virtue-signalling Islington Guardianistas off their flat whites and the money-grubbing City speculators off their glasses of Chablis?
Who knows, stranger things have happened.