Are you scared? I am.
When you look at the news – Aleppo, Trump, Putin, the Conservative conference, the crazy weather – do you get a sinking feeling? I do.
Do you wonder if there’s actually anything you can do about it all? I do.
Here’s the bad news. I think that fear is probably justified. I think the coming years – decades, really – are going to be all kinds of horrible. Whatever the outcome of specific events like the US election, it might be time to recognise that authoritarian populism (Trump, hard Brexit*, Le Pen et al) is not a contingent blip or a protest vote or a lunatic fringe but one of two blocs of more or less equal power that will struggle to define western society for at least a generation.
One bloc – call it Open – prioritises openness, rationality, empathy and change. It values free movement, free expression, human rights and cultural plurality. It aspires to equality for all and values evidence and argument.
The other – call it Order – prioritises order, static group identity, deference to established power and continuity with the past. It values tradition, emotion and the affirmation of power over outside groups.
In the west, the Open bloc held sway from, say, 1945 to 2008 – a period during which living memory of the consequences of mid-century fascism, moderately well-distributed prosperity and largely functional civic institutions left relatively little purchase for the Order bloc, whose true believers were smaller in number with few opportunities for mainstream political expression.
Those factors are now failing and the Order bloc is resurgent.
If the YouGov data used in this Buzzfeed article are reliable, there’s no reason to think the resurgence of Order will falter any time soon.
Underlying structural factors like popular disengagement from a professionalised political class (‘elite’/’experts’) and the hardships associated with rising inequality (including those connected to armed conflict and climate change) are unlikely to improve. Many who value Order will continue to perceive a deficit in the areas of ‘greatness’ and ‘control’ and welcome political platforms that claim to identify others who are responsible for this and ways to redress the supposed imbalance.
What will change – has already changed – is the willingness of mainstream politicians to adjust their platforms to appeal to those who value Order, not least because many of them have not historically voted at all. That’s why it matters that the Conservative conference promoted so many ideas of divisive othering, and why it doesn’t matter that some have since been given up. The rhetoric itself is a form of action, an assertion that the party is open to considering such ideas. This could prove hugely electorally beneficial to Order values.
This doesn’t mean Order will defeat Open, though. The Open bloc is still very strong in many ways: politically, culturally, socially. But it can no longer take its preeminence for granted. Those who care about Open values must finally and decisively shed their identities as consumers and become civically active in defence of those values.
This is often very hard under neoliberalism. The material conditions of working under neoliberalism today don’t leave a lot of time, energy or resources for civic engagement that sits outside economic markets. But we have to do it all the same.
And here’s the good news. We totally can do it. (I’m unabashedly using ‘we’ to address people who, like me, believe in Open values.)
We can keep Open values alive and on top. We can do it in four particular ways: making connections, making arguments, taking action and taking care.
The power of Order is largely derived from divisive othering. One example is the way those who voted for Brexit have already begun describing those who voted against it as ’48ers’, whose negativity (‘sneering’) will be blamed for any negative economic and social consequences of Brexit. Instead of divisive othering, those who cherish Open values must consciously cultivate empathetic connection.
We have to keep making connections with others who cherish Open values, in our neighbourhoods, across and between our cities, around the world. We have to work together to keep expressing and rearticulating Open values in ways that work for today. We have to make art that wins hearts and arguments that win minds.
We have to be forthright in using those arguments to oppose injustice. (Structures of civic power do remain accountable to evidence and argument, for now.) But we have to be careful that we target harmful ideas and harmful actions rather than demonising individual people with ad hominem attacks – whether those people are on the Order side or with us on the Open side.
One of the biggest challenges of the coming struggle is that we need to get much, much better at disagreeing without attacking each other. The current dysfunction of the UK Labour party is an excellent example of the damage this can have on the viability of a conventional political progressive-left opposition to resurgent Order rhetoric.
We have to take action – to protest and campaign and strike and vote and more. We have to keep identifying where Open values are under threat and what practical, material tactics will serve to defend them given existing conditions. We have to be proactive in defending the things closest to our own hearts and supportive of those defending things in which we have a less direct but no less real stake.
It’s particularly important that those who hold certain advantages because of their location, social status, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or health status amplify the voices of those who are disadvantaged for those reasons and use their privilege to bring about change.
We also have to take emotion more seriously. This isn’t wishy-washy, touchy-feely stuff. On the level of individual lived experience, neoliberalism has been terrible for our emotional welfare and we all need to be kinder to ourselves and one another as a matter of basic decency and survival. The decline of empathy and respect is tearing our society apart.
But emotion is also important at a political level. For generations, we have been encouraged to think that emotions are properly invested in the nuclear family above all, and perhaps also in nostalgia, patriotism and our relations to consumer goods.
Emotional investment in people we don’t personally know is seen as soppy and impractical. And emotional investment in politics has been deemed downright suspect, the realm of the loony left and swivel-eyed right.
This has resulted in a huge emotional vacuum in our political culture. We are nearly all alienated from the civic structures that shape our lives. Politics, we have been told, should be left to the professionals. This is detrimental not only because it turns people off voting and supposedly opens up a rift between “the people” and “the elite” but because it is a civic abdication. As well as valuing evidence, argument and critical thought, we really should feel emotionally invested in politics because it shapes our lives and those of all we love and care about.
The resurgence of Order is partly down to the fact that it gives alienated people a way of becoming emotionally reattached to civic society. Tragically, even as this reattachment is rewarding for those who experience it, it encourages and enables jingoism, scapegoating and violence. But it is still a success of a kind – a kind that by its nature is resistant to rational persuasion.
So it is foolhardy to bemoan the fact that many who value Order seem indifferent to evidence and argument without also acknowledging that those who cherish Open values have too often neglected or rejected the need to connect with people’s emotions.
Post-truth politics is a reaction to post-feeling politics.
We need to find ways to make engagement with Open civic values emotionally rewarding too. That’s not a cop-out. It’s an overdue correction. Emotional investment is the core of the human experience. It is right and proper that we should take care of our society just as we should take care of each other.
In addition, we have to recognise that, despite what I’ve written here, Open and Order do not stand in simple binary opposition, are not Good and Evil. We all have elements of each within us. We have to accept nuance, complexity and even contradiction as real and valuable parts of life.
These four things – making connections, making arguments, taking action and taking care – can be done at all levels, from the kitchen table and the bus stop to the parliamentary chamber and the police cordon. They make a real difference. And cumulatively they have great power.
So if we look to the future with concern, even fear, we needn’t look to it with despair.
In this country, all the evidence that suggests Order is an ageing state of mind. Some data suggest that the young people of the UK are overwhelmingly Open – more so as a proportion than in any other country in this YouGov survey.
In two or three decades, they will be in charge here. Perhaps they will have drifted towards Order by then. The challenge for all of us is to come together now to defend and fortify Open values so they remain robust and resilient and part of our lived experience while that demographic shift takes place.
It won’t be easy. It won’t come without cost. But it can – and must – be done. And we can all help do it.
*And no, I don’t think everyone who voted for Brexit is an authoritarian populist. But the evidence supports a link. This post from University of London professor of politics Eric Kaufmann suggests the strongest correlations with a Brexit vote were not economic concerns but support for tougher policies on national security and immigration, the death penalty, traditional marriage and corporal punishment for sex offenders. I have drawn on Kaufmann’s term ‘the order-openness divide’ to formulate this post.
Image: Daniela Munoz-Santos