Is there Anything to be Said for Disruption and Chaos?
Today’s age, it is often theorised, is undergoing continuous upheaval. In every sphere of life, we are told, life will dramatically change. In economic matters, the outbreak of global trade wars and the threat of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the workplace are seen as dangers to the world as we know it. Politically speaking, recent years are spoken of as having witnessed the return of nationalism and populism at the ballot box. These trends may indeed prove forces for significant change and pose challenges to contemporary political culture. But does that necessarily add up, in the language of 1066 and All That, to ‘a bad thing’?
Following the Brexit vote, the country is undergoing a lengthy and complex assessment of its status. On the balance of negotiations seem to hang the country’s economic stability and (its supporters hope) future opportunities. Much is at stake due to 2016’s referendum, and those who supported the status quo (if there was such a thing) have not ceased warning against the dangers following from that vote’s outcome (thus the name given them by opponents of ‘remoaners’) and still want its reversal. Others, on the other hand, are keen to frame the Brexit vote as an overdue uprising by the ‘people’ against the country’s cosmopolitan or metropolitan elites of politicians and ‘luvvies’.
At the same time, the Labour party appears beholden to something rather like the Trotskyite tendency which it tried so hard to evict in the 1980s and after. The party’s membership continues amongst the highest in Europe whilst it adopts proposals that have not featured in British politics since before Blair hammered a ‘final’ nail into the coffin of post-war socialism. This development radically alters the debate between the two parties: from a tinkering argument on the edges of social democracy to battle about the prospect of structural economic transformation.
It may seem that consensus about Britain’s EU membership and political economy is now over. The architects of a past era may continue to warn the public of the dangers of straying from their advice, but with the breakdown and abandonment of all that Blair and his followers have taken for granted, the times of change demand new answers to today’s questions.
A feature of both the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and the US Presidential and midterm elections has been demographic and geographical splits within the two countries. Between metropolitan and provincial, young and old, graduates and those with only secondary education, men and women, votes to a large extent fell along sides of divides. The very depth of these has allowed each side to stigmatise and delegitimise the other as products of socio-economic backgrounds. Such an approach is corrosive and unproductive. Political events in recent years may or may not amount to populist and nationalist outbursts. But can it be said that disruption equals destruction?
The question policymakers and statesmen ought to ask is not how so many electors rejected their advice, but rather, how a new settlement may be reached whereby a post-Blairite society is united by common aspirations and engagement in the political process? The political alienation and economic stagnation of Labour-voting regions made possible the rejection of EU membership. Through their voting against the wishes of the party hierarchy, countless experts and media outlets, these communities made possible wholesale redefinition of the country’s relationship with the European Union. Can there arise out of the chaos that has overwhelmed one settlement bring a new one that somehow takes into account the wishes and interests of all?
Is this to argue for permanent revolution and the banishing of elite expert-informed discourse from public life? Up to a point. But the corrective strength of an electorate may through a time of chaos remind political actors that communities on the periphery are as important as those at the centre.
Whether it be a perceived excessive or impossible-to-integrate immigration, an economy that works well for a minority, or a distant elite with unpopular social-cultural values, the message of disruption is that redress is required. With voters unwilling to have their loyalty taken for granted, there may be some chance of a renewal in political culture and of a reappraisal of trust. Just as in the past the political world has adapted to the needs of society and shaped policies to fit the age, should we not give a cautious welcome now to disruption that may force shaken elites to pay more attention to the concerns of the masses and of the excluded?