The state of democracy in this country is worse than I thought.

I know I should stop screenshotting the metro-lib tantrum happening all over Facebook, but this image – with multiple shares among my acquaintance – genuinely appalled me.

referendum

Though I don’t know the source, the table is clearly taken from a book critical of the EU, as it shows the number of times referenda in EU nations have been ignored by the EU institutions, or routed round by other means.

And yet it is being shared excitedly, hopefully, by Remain voters delighted to see that the EU institutions they love so much have form for ignoring referenda. This is a good thing! The people know not what they do! Wiser, more powerful heads will prevail. Teacher will step in and adjudicate. Everything will go back to normal.

These are normal, decent middle-class people, with whom I thought I shared basic values, among which was an appreciation of the importance and power of democracy. You win some, you lose some, but you engage and campaign and argue your case. And the majority wins, and if that’s not your side then you campaign again and maybe you carry the day next time. That’s how democratic politics is supposed to work. And its power is supposed to lie, ultimately, with the electorate.

Are these people really, truly, not the slightest bit troubled by the idea of a set of political institutions willing blithely to ignore the will of the people if it returns the wrong result? To keep holding referenda until they return the right one? Is their understanding of what democracy is, how it functions, its importance truly so debased that this track record of indifference to fundamental democratic principles is actually seen as a sign of hope?

For decades now, our elites have increasingly sought ways to insulate their decision-making processes from democratic scrutiny. Though it is not the root, the EU has been a paragon of this process. While retaining the formal appearance of democracy, it has used treaties and bureaucratic rulemaking progressively to narrow the Overton window across its territory, until national governments are so constrained in the policy options they are permitted to put to the people that our electorates have, rightly, lost interest in democratic participation as ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘nothing ever changes’. In so doing, it has debased the popular, public appreciation of the power and importance of democratic participation to the point where it is estimated that only 36% of young people bothered to vote in this epoch-defining referendum. (Though those that did reportedly plumped 3 to 1 for Remain, while even those that did not are now howling with rage at the awful oldies who did bother, and whose votes for Leave carried the day).

oldies

These young people learned a harsh lesson today: when you’re doing democracy properly, everyone’s voice really does count. When real, serious, important issues are up for discussion and a democratic vote,, instead of being locked away in smoky back rooms as the subject of horse-trading between unelected technocrats, then voting really can change the world. This is how it’s supposed to work – scrappy, argumentative, passionate, engaged, powerful, world-changing – not the etiolated simulacrum of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ we’ve been increasingly fed since long before I voted in my first General Election, the year Blair swept to power.

And yet, rather than seeing the excitement, the power and potential of this transformative event that has seen democracy enacted in the United Kingdom for the first time in decades, people of my acquaintance are pointing to examples of the European Union’s disregard of similar such events as a beacon of hope. Hope that the stifling centrist consensus can once again be re-imposed, hope that choice can once again be narrowed to a consequence-free wavering between mobile phone contract types or holiday destinations. Hope that teacher will come back in, stop the children rioting and set us all a pre-prepared worksheet. Put us back in our boxes.

This might have been an aberration, posted in haste and without critical thinking by someone in a haze of emotion following a momentous political event. But if it wasn’t, and those hoping for an end to this brief democratic excursus genuinely think it’d be better all round for us to get a pat on the head before business as usual resumes, then we do after all not deserve the democracy I believe our country is capable of. We should hang our heads in shame, apologise for messing up the lesson for everyone else, pick up our pencils and resume colouring within the lines.

The Renegotiation Morris Dance

As Richard North once again wearily points out, Cameron’s ‘tough negotiations’ on EU membership are all theatre. The deal has long been done, and the resulting ‘British model’, also known as ‘associate membership’ and under EU discussion for years, will be trailed until the eleventh hour and then spun as a major victory and solution to all our woes.

In the meantime, this fine performance of the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance sums up perfectly the reality of the performance our broadsheets are lapping up and regurgitating for the public as though it were high drama.

Two ‘sides’ face off against one another. They advance and retreat in perfect synchrony, holding symbolic weapons which they clash at prearranged moments with simulated aggression. Everything is highly choreographed, intended as a performance, and the members of both ‘sides’ are in fact part of the same team.

The europhiles (and make no mistake, Cameron is a ‘phile) would reduce political discourse to the level of shopping-centre Morris dancing, and have us believe that Morris dancing is real negotiation. Don’t be taken for a fool. The deal is already done. We have one chance to salvage our national sovereignty – the referendum – and must not allow ourselves to be swayed by the EU’s bread and circuses.

On the ‘liberal EU dream’ and the ungrateful working class

The working classes of Europe are right to resist the demise of the nation state.

Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.

Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:

The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.

So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.

Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.

The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.

This class division is borne out by the data: a report published  today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?

Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.

The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.

On the Front National, and EU populism

So Marine le Pen’s Front National has won one in three regional elections in the first round. This reflects a trend across Europe. Populist parties on both the right and the left are on the rise and have been for some time. There are a number of contributing factors, but the main impetus is a sort of inarticulate protest by people who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, at the ways in which globalisation is negatively impacting their lives. Things like mass migration, outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, weakening of nation states in favour of regulation at the global level, the widening gap between rich and poor in many countries, the tottering state of social democracy as the welfare state Ponzi scheme starts to come unstuck.

For most people, the willingness to see globalised consumer capitalism as a Ponzi scheme is inversely proportional to how much you expect to gain from the system. That is to say, the more you are likely to get out of how things are, the less likely you are to see anything wrong with it. That’s just human nature. The elites trying to merge the EU as a superstate have everything to gain from continuing as they are; the 50% of Spanish youth consigned to long-term joblessness may take a different view.

There’s also a conflict between the elite view of communities, which sees them as random groupings of people within a specific geography, and that of most ordinary people who experience a nation or their own community as bound by ties of culture, tradition, interpersonal relations and shared practices. That leads to a situation where those in power think nothing of importing a million people from elsewhere – because we’re short of workers and the birth rate is low, so why not? – and those on the ground who feel anxious and threatened by the sudden arrival of large numbers of people with whom they have no shared bonds of family relation, cultural practice or often even language. Then the latter view is demonised, again by the elites, as uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, racist when in fact it’s quite rational on its own terms.

The reaction of many is to look nostalgically backwards to a time when everything was peachy (Even if that time never actually existed) and then to try and reverse-engineer the imagined conditions of that time. This doesn’t work: conservatism after the fact is always doomed. But there’s a real problem brewing in the failure of the elites driving (and benefiting from) globalisation to hear the objections coming from the masses. Ultimately refusal by the ruling class to accommodate the concerns of the people results in civil unrest and even revolution. We’re not quite there yet but the widespread nature of public unhappiness with the direction of travel is very worrying.

Globalisation is happening, whether we like it or not. But what we need is an open discussion about the best forms of social organisation to handle that, and to ensure the interests of ordinary people are taken into account given the huge impersonal forces of global change we face today. The elite viewpoint is that nation states are an obstacle to ‘development’, focusing as they do on the interests of a geography rather than transnational changes or agreements. This underlies the current trend toward neutering and even trying to dismantle nation states; popular resistance to it is demonised as ‘populism’ or ‘racism’, a narrow-minded, uneducated fixation on one nation as opposed to global concerns. But to me, from the point of view of the little guy, dismantling nation states is a major problem. Nation states define a community of interest based in a particular geography; without that definition, how can we have a meaningful electorate, voting for any but the vaguest policies? And without an electorate or proper policies, how can we have any kind of meaningful democracy? The utopian vision of world government looks downright creepy and totalitarian to me, and I’d prefer to keep things a bit messier and small-scale.

I will be very surprised if Le Pen gets anywhere near actual government, at least this time round. But the anti-politics, anti-globalisation, populist trend is there across Europe. Pankaj Mishra argues, in a related theme, that the rise of ISIS is part of the same trend. Though I have concerns about the way these issues get dumbed down into ‘bloody foreigners’ or ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ I think they have a voice that needs to be heard, as they point to a debate that is not being had and whose suppression will result in far worse unrest than we’ve seen yet.

Reading today: overproduction of US elites, the ‘global Calais’, scientific motherhood

Peter Turchin, writing in Bloomberg View, blames rich, overeducated elites for the modern fraying of American society.

Pankaj Mishra argues in The Guardian that ISIS is less an ideology competing with Enlightenment values than a byproduct of the thwarted global desire for convergence with the peace and material comfort visible in the West.

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic writes on what ISIS really wants.

Charlotte Faircloth writes in Sociological Research on the scientisation of motherhood and the use of ‘The Science’ as an accountability strategy for mothers.

The refugee crisis looks quite different if you’re not a beneficiary of globalisation

I’m watching with interest the disparity between the way the migrant/refugee crisis is reported in mainstream media, and the way it’s reported online.

TV and papers shows the volumes of people moving, and depending on which paper you read either huge-eyed children and frail old people or else menacing-looking clusters of young men. The narrative is about resources, political debates within the EU about how to handle the crisis, or about which East European nation is the latest to close its borders.

The internet shows videos of rubbish-strewn campgrounds, refugees torching their tents in anger (say the memes) at being denied this or that, riots in German towns and furious meetings of villagers who have just learned that hundreds of strangers are about to be billeted on them.

I’m not linking to articles or posts because my aim here isn’t to join one side or the other, but to think a bit about what the disparity between them means. The elites – and by that I mean the wealthy, well-travelled, well-educated, internationalist net beneficiaries of globalisation – see  the refugee crisis as an issue of resources and, perhaps, of an ethical stance. A huge influx of people from a non-European culture is seen as a matter of resources and, in the long run, as a benefit to a Europe where birthrates are declining. They will work, earn, pay taxes – what’s the issue? There is also, perhaps more tacitly, a feeling among many that this influx will benefit those recalcitrant patches that still cling stubbornly to cultural homogeneity.

But globalisation has losers as well as winners. Ordinary people, getting by in ordinary jobs, some of which have been outsourced or offshored or rendered obsolete by robots, and for whom ‘a long way away’ is four hours’ drive, not four hours’ flight. The people who see their national flag as a source of pride, and whose identity is found in family, cultural traditions, belonging to a place, and not – as with the winners – a smorgasbord of international tastes, traditions, cultures and practices from which one can pick and choose while flicking through the FT in the BA lounge on the way to the next meeting.

I’m being a bit reductive here, but you get the idea. The former thinks globalisation is great, and isn’t that bothered about the refugee crisis except as a humanitarian disaster about which ‘we should do more’. The latter, when it thinks about globalisation at all, thinks it’s all out of their hands and all the money is going to the billionaires so we’ll just keep getting by, won’t we? And when presented with the outcome of the refugee crisis, namely large numbers of people arriving in their neighbourhoods who look and sound very different, the reaction of this second group is less humanitarian than outraged. Because these new arrivals might be the victims of war and privation and months of misery trudging through Eastern Europe, but now they’re in our town they’re competing with us for resources, funding, space and ownership of the local cultural norms. And we were here first! goes the cry.

Globalisation produces winners and losers. To the winners, the refugee crisis is about logistics, about doing the right thing, perhaps about loosening the bonds of cultural homogeneity. To the losers, it’s about being swamped. And neither side is able to see the others’ perspective with any empathy. It’s either ‘those self-righteous wankers who live in white neighbourhoods and don’t see them raping our women’ or else it’s ‘those knuckle-dragging racists who bring shame on my country with their vile hatred and backward xenophobia’. And meanwhile, the cold, hungry, miserable – and unmistakeably very, very foreign – refugees keep pouring into Central Europe.

To quote Creedence Clearwater, I see a bad moon rising.