What if you believed that people you know, or meet on the streets, or live next door to, are actively plotting to steal your handbag, improve their lives at your expense or occupy your space? In my recent visit to Britain (I am currently typing this on the plane on the way home…. Air New Zealand now offers wifi so I will be able to send it off to Bomber as well – amazing!), I was shocked at how both public and private discourses now operated on low-trust models.
Is there even a name for this? If you believe that everyone is out to get you, then that is usually called paranoia and may indicate a mental illness. If you believe that only people like a pakeha ‘us’ can be trusted, this is called white supremacism and its associated replacement theory (people are motivated to take your privileged place). A shortcut term is Trumpism. Whatever the name, the thing that seems to be going on in modern Britain (and I must emphasise that there are plenty of good people who entirely reject these discourses) can be characterised politically as end-times neo-liberalism.
Antonio Gramsci explained a century ago that the problem for political elites was that the ruling ideas were at any time the ideas of the minority, but that the masses had to be persuaded to support them. The task for the elites (in the absence of pure dictatorship, of course) was to shape the political terrain to gain support from other groups – to get people to support political programmes that are not in their interests. This inevitably involves obfuscation and downright lies.
Thatcherism, Rogernomics and other neo-liberal movements are all based on some variation of the same basic lie: that by making the rich richer, and by removing the state in favour of private interests, everyone would be better off. What I mean by end times is that, once the neo-liberal lies are exposed so massively, by the rich becoming oh so incredibly much richer, while most of us (90% according to Max Rashbrooke’s analysis of inequality in New Zealand) continue to be worse off, there is little space for the truths about neo-liberalism to hide.
Enter Trump and now his mate Boris. While it was once possible to at least debate these effects, albeit in a political space shaped by the mantra of ‘There Is No Alternative’, every debate is now constituted within the terrain of ‘fake’ or ‘true’ news. There is no longer a need for political elites to defend the indefensible – they can just label the very premises of any debate as fake.
I was interested in the wide political coverage over the past week of a speech made by Trump which was fantastical, crazy and almost unhinged (especially the ‘I am the Chosen One’ comment). It did occur to me, not for the first time, that his mad speeches are very useful in deflecting attention away from what his administration is doing (neo-liberal and anti-conservation stuff) towards millions of column inches about his personal mental health. So, is he a master strategist or simply crazy?
Britain is in am interesting situation. It is reasonably obvious that Boris wants a no-deal Brexit (there are profits to be made amidst the chaos) but every day reports are emerging of the food shortages, petrol shortages and partial collapse of the business sector that will occur, not to mention a hard border across Ireland.. The only viable option is for diverse political forces against this (a small majority of Parliament) to club together, vote no confidence and work together to set up a government of national unity. This will probably not happen because some of the groups will not swallow the ‘dead rat’ that is Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. But given the state of the place, I cannot imagine any leader getting such support.
All of these politics reinforce the discourses of low trust that permeate the country of my birth. I am now on the way back home. While there are plenty of political issues in New Zealand, we can at least rely on most politicians saying what they believe most of the time, being prepared to debate a little and even (so rare elsewhere) say some sensible things.
I cannot count the times that people at my conference begged for a loan of Jacinda to sort out their politics. However, Jacinda would not be effective, at the moment, in either the USA or UK. She is, speaking broadly, a product of a country that (at least in terms of the majority) wishes to be relatively united, that wants to heal the rich-poor divide, that is actively looking for ways forward. But she needs to take some warnings from elsewhere: if the wellbeing reform agenda fails to heal the gaps, we are at risk of a much more divisive political future.
All in all, I am delighted to be coming home and away from the incredibly difficult political environment of the UK. Also, I am so sick of the crowds wherever I went – far too many people. But the history and culture is riveting. I saw the first steam train (and the first railway station), the industrial art of Lowry, the new Globe Theatre (‘As You Like It’), Van Gogh in London, the Tate Modern, Greenwich, Cornwall and so much more. I found out how cheap groceries are in the UK and realise we need a lot more competition in the supermarkets. I have enjoyed travelling on long train journeys and have fallen in love again with good public transport.
Tessa the cat will be pleased to see me home.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.