Fear and Loathing in our Western World – The Inevitable Rise of Populism

 

2016 was a good year for populism in our Western World. The UK referendum on EU membership became Brexit and Trump’s election to the highest office in America left us reaching for the dictionary – populism, what? We all know that when America sneezes Europe catches a cold, so rest assure, populism will continue its winning streak throughout Europe in 2017.

In the wake of what should be “The Wake-up Call of the Decade”, mainstream media (corporate media) and equally mainstream political parties, on both sides of the Atlantic, have dropped the ball, lost their heads and closed ranks in a united front against populism. Populism is suddenly everywhere around us, and it is presented to us as the new ultimate evil of our time, (besides Putin and Russia, of course).

I google ‘populism’. It reads ‘support for the concerns of ordinary people… Populism proposes that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite… populists can be left, right and center (on the political landscape), and its goal is to unite the “little man” against the corrupt dominant elites.’ Fair enough, it sounds like something every democratically inclined politician would sign up for. Masses still mean votes, right? But oddly enough, instead of mainstream politicians trying to become more populist, the financial, media and political elites of our Western World have gone into defensive mode, and like a cornered cat it’s all nails out and scratching wild.

Thinking back, it appears that all kinds of civil movements once stood up for the rights of the ‘little man’ and ‘little woman’, be it in the name of democracy, communism, unions, environment, anti-war, gender or any other cause that pinned the masses against oppressing rulers. So, why is populism finding such good traction among the electorate in our time, in a time of democracy, relative peace and prosperity, at least in our Western World? It does not make sense.

Well, of course it does make sense. Actually, it makes perfect sense to the large majority of people in our Western World who have seen and are feeling their living standards fall, and they have been falling for the last 30 years now. Add to this the realization that the pain of falling is not equally distributed throughout society and anger will be brewing. The growing inequalities in our Western societies are well-documented, and a reality that lives on outside of the mainstream media, and is something no mainstream politician will ever recognize, let alone address. To kick the proverbial can has become mainstream policy. 2016 was the year when the neo-liberal, elitist bubble broke, and the real human costs of predatory capitalism, globalization and weak states began to trickle down to the masses.

In America, a democratic socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, led the way, hammering away at the elite’s version of the world order, with the message that the top 0.1 % and the bottom 90% of U.S. households now own the same share of all the nation’s wealth. In any other context, a state with such oligarchical tendencies would be branded Banana Republic! Bernie, who as a presidential candidate gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money, cemented his stature as populist supreme in America, and of course, as the true populist in America, according to Obama, let’s be honest with ourselves, Bernie would have beaten Trump hands down. Michael Moore, the working class’ film-maker and the man of the rust belt (btw, part of Hillary’s famous fire-wall), was very explicit about it. (Now, close your eyes and imagine a press conference with Bernie as president)

The mainstream media’s reaction to the Bernie phenomenon and movement is equally well-recorded. Total lock-out! For example, ABC World News Tonight devoted 81 minutes to Trump on the campaign, while close to nothing, 20 seconds! to Bernie. Wikileaks made it clear beyond any doubt that Bernie, as the populist (popular) candidate, in challenging Hillary, the presumptive candidate, was equally obstructed by the Democratic National Committee, representing the democratic party elite. Again, the oligarchical elite in the US, including Wall Street, Washington DC insiders and corporate media joined forces against a populist attack from the left, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Bernie, including efforts to brand him as a ‘communist’, the ultimate American political bogeyman.

But why this ferocity to bring Bernie down? Simple. Because Bernie, like the little boy in H.C. Andersen’s fairy tale “Emperor’s New Clothes”, called out the Emperor (American capitalist and political system) as naked (unable to deliver well-being to the majority of Americans) and consequently threatening the very core of values on which the corporate-political-media elite had built its fortune and power. And this time, in the year 2016, the American people were receptive to the fact that the American Dream was perhaps not achievable for everybody and that a dose of democratic socialism would not ruin America as we know it.

The average American has not had an increase in pay in 15 years, but things have cost more in the market places, he has been in recession for 15 years…”. This is not Bernie Sanders speaking, this is Asher Edelman, the corporate raider of the 1980’s and inspiration for Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street. For Edelman, Bernie was the better candidate for the economy, addressing the ‘shrinking consumer base and shrinking velocity of money’ through a combination of ‘fiscal stimulation and banking rules that would get the banks to generate lending again as opposed to speculation…”  Does Edelman represent a populist attack on the system from the right?

In fact, during the last 30 years, the American economy has been rigged against the average worker. Professor Robert Reich explains, in his book “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few”, how the elite transformed their financial wealth into political power through funding of political parties and politicians, and used their newly acquired political power to bust labour unions, lower their own taxes, deregulate Wall Street (during Bill Clinton’s presidency), negotiate trade deals that may have lowered the sales price of your flatscreen TV, but most likely will have destroyed your factory job. Does Reich represent another populist attack on the system, again from the left but dressed in academic clothing?

Donald Trump campaigned as a populist, always portraying himself as the political outsider, driven by a concern for the falling living standards of ordinary Americans, and eager to be the flag-bearer in the fight against the political elite in Washington. In the eyes of the majority of people in the rust belt of America, Trump was the change candidate, while Hillary represented the same old, same old, for the benefit of the very few at the top. As President, Trump turned around and filled his cabinet with bankers and other billionaire contributors to the Republican party. To what extent these representatives of the corporate elite will put middle and lower class Americans First in their policies is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, populists, such as Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, just to mention the most famous three, are on the march, boosted by Brexit and Trump. Mainstream parties, left and right, that over the years converged in the middle of the ideological spectra (Blair’s New Labour), and allied themselves with the corporate elite, mainstream media and technocrats pushing for the EU’s Federal Project, rather than with the ‘little people’, now find themselves on the back heels, and losing public support. What a surprise.

While American populism is about economics and losing out on the American dream, populism in Europe is about national identify, sovereignty and democracy, besides economic despair and income inequalities. The European political elite, shaped by and blindly committed to a Federal Europe, operate through an armada of bureaucracies and faceless officials, with limited concern for transparency and democracy, has shown itself incapable of projecting empathy to a suffering population. Yes, people in Europe, especially in Southern Europe are not happy these days, caught as they are in the vice of austerity.

Youth unemployment in Greece is 44.2%, Spain 42.9% and Italy 40.1%, compared to 6.5% in Germany! Yes, competitiveness matters in the euro currency union. There is literally nothing Greece, Spain and Italy can do to boost employment, locked as they are in a currency union with Germany, and with no access to the money printers, but swallow the neoliberal magic pill called austerity and cut back the state, shrink the national budget by cutting pensions and salaries of public administration, cut social services, fire civil servants and sell off public assets. Add to this an aging population and increasing youth emigration and the future does not look bright for Southern Europe within the euro zone.

In the years leading up to the crash of 2008, the Greek economy grew without any significant growth in productivity, population or employment. How was that magic possible? Loans, borrowed money, leading to a well-recorded massive debt. But where somebody borrows too much, others must be lending too much. And that logically brings us to the corporate banks. Yes, the Greek crisis is not only about the ‘lazy’ Greeks spending more than they could afford, it is equally about the ‘thrifty’ German and French banks lending out in an irresponsible fashion. Now why would they do that? Didn’t they know better. No, they knew best! They knew what no politician would admit and that is that the euro, set within in a flawed currency union, is linked by the hip to the Big European Federal Project. No politician in Bruxelles or EU capitals who strive for a United States of Europe (USE) would allow the euro to fail, because that would mean the end of their dreams of a European superpower, out there on the seven seas matching the US, Russia and China any day of the week. The private bankers knew, that Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt (head office of the European Central Bank) would always rescue them, and do all it takes to preserve the euro, because together they, the banks, had become too big to bail. Nobody describes better the predicament of Greece and the euro than Mark Blyth, the author of the book “Austerity – The history of a dangerous idea”. Enjoy!

The price to pay for saving the euro, until now, was poverty and misery in the periphery EU member states (Greece, Spain, Italy), something that the political elites of Europe could easily ignore by placing the blame firmly on those extravagant Southern Europeans (read: lazy Greeks, again), their poor policies and clear lack of self-discipline. Consequently, for a thrifty and ultra-competitive Germany, with all their right policies and stealth self-discipline, the future looked exceptionally bright. This all began to change with the emerging migration crisis of 2014, then got worse with the Paris attacks, followed by a disastrous open door policy to immigration in 2015, culminating with the Berlin Christmas market attack in 2016. Suddenly, the hopeful Federalists of Europe found themselves fighting fires on five sides all at once. One, austerity was destroying the lives of millions of Europeans throughout Southern Europe, pushing the electorates towards anti-euro ‘populists’ parties, such as (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Five Star Movement in Italy). Two, a back-lash against uncontrolled immigration from non-European countries and its perceived negative affects on the national identities in Europe, which is the basic message of the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Sverige Demokraterna in Sweden, among other ‘populists’ parties on the right. Three, the growing unease among some national governments and movements about the EU’s federal, technocratic and un-democratic tendencies, and its relentless mission to replace nation-states, and national identities with a European identify, flag and national anthem, something that the new democracies in East Europe have personally experienced earlier in the USSR’s unsuccessful drive to create the New Soviet Man. Four, the UK, a major European power, decide to leave the EU club. Five, the new President of the USA declared that Europe should pay its fair share for the defence of its own territory. Which EU country can afford to spend more on the military these days?

Against this contextual background, in a reality deep fried in uncertainty, lack of coherent political leadership and economic stagnation, populists on both side of the Atlantic feed off two strong, yet consistently under-estimated emotional streams that run straight through our Western World today – Fear and Loathing.

For the first time, we fear that our children will live in societies that are worse off than our own. We are coming to realize that unregulated markets create a predatory capitalist system that favours oligopoly over competition and entrepreneurship, stimulate globalization that pushes worker’s salaries down or labour out of work all together, bails out Wall Street and leaves Main street to pay for it all. Add to this the economic, social and human costs of austerity and mass immigration, and fear is to be found all across the European continent.

While fear makes Europeans receptive to the populists’ message, the loathing turns them into loyal followers and finally voters for the populists parties. This is the point where the neoliberal, corporate political elites, mainstream parties and media in Europe and America could have slowed down the populist avalanche, by showing some recognition and compassion for the daily struggles and fears of the ‘little man’, but instead they dug down their heels, and ridiculed anybody and everybody who challenged the status quo, branding them as everything from racists, deplorables, nazis, communists, nationalists, and yes, of course, populists, while they themselves always claim the moral high ground. Again, the loyalty of the corporate-financial-political-media elite is foremost with itself, and not with the people. President Obama, if he really did relate to the struggles of a disappearing middle class and poor people in America, he could perhaps have chosen a more modest tourist spot than the private West Indies island of British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson. Fredrik Reinfeldt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, who told the Swedish people to open up their hearts to uncontrolled immigration, while he resigned and took a job at Bank of America Merril Lynch, while the former head of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso took a job with Goldman Sachs. Over in America, 13 Democratic senators recently voted against a bill that would allow for the import of prescriptions drugs from Canada, significantly reducing the cost of medicine that is essential for the very survival of American citizens. It comes as no surprise that these 13 senators are big receivers of financial support from the US pharmaceutical industry.

The revolving door principle, where politicians decide on austerity for some (read: us mortals) and bail-outs for others, and then get good jobs with the ‘others’, and when the politicians blatantly vote to accommodate the corporations’ profits, not the well-being of human beings (citizens), well yes, it’s anecdotal evidence, but it’s somehow easy to imagine that these anecdotes are part of a pattern of elitist behaviors that maybe, just maybe, explains why people now loath the political elite in our Western World. Ask any taxi driver, he or she will give you three more anecdotes, on the spot. There is something reoccurring in Ebba Grön’s punk rock hit from the late 70s “Staten och kapitalet”. (Get a Swede to translate it for you!)

The system is broken when people fear and loath. The populists recognize that there is pain in people, while the elite is incapable of even recognizing that there is any pain at all, let alone addressing it, because that would mean accepting that there is a flaw in the system, accepting that the same neo-liberal, trickle-down economics system that lifted them to the top and kept them there for the last thirty years is not delivering the goods anymore. The elite just cannot do that, and that’s why, as long as the democratic principle of One citizen-One vote is still around, the populists will keep on winning until the mainstream parties get off their high and moral horses, and start addressing the every day fears and pains of every day people, even if this will require a complete re-think of neo-liberalism, austerity, the euro, a federal Europe, globalization and mass immigration.

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About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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