The current time is a crazy time of postmodern politics, where previous certainties and categories are no longer relevant. Trying to make sense of it all is an extreme challenge. But there are ways of understanding the new politics, and of explaining how it all came about. What hope there might be for a better future is less certain.
There are strange alliances now in the public square. And increasingly meaningless labels.
Like “left” and “right”, coined during French revolutionary times and strangely persistent in times where the terms are all but irrelevant.
And unexpected coalitions. See under New Zealand, where there is a government formed by three rabbles who loathe one another.
And bizarre transformations. Who would have guessed in 2004 that Mark Latham would end up as a One Nation leader promoting right-of-centre causes?
And a new form of leader who defies ideological labels, defined not as a big government socialist or free trader. A nationalist, certainly, but above all, a defender of the punters against the ruling elite. One who, unexpectedly and strangely, garners support across the old divides, out there in voterland. Yes, you guessed who.
And conservatives who are not actually conservative, like socially liberal, climate alarmist, big spender Boris Johnson. And the Turnbull.
And labour parties the whole world over who now absolutely HATE the working class, and most certainly do not exist either to advance their interests or defend their values. Who wouldn’t even recognise a worker, let alone approve of him or her.
And governments of all stated persuasions who implement policies they know are not favoured by a majority of voters, who hand policy making over to the unelected Deep State. The coming of mass migration is but one instance. No one EVER voted for this. Or for globalisation with all its tradition busting outcomes which have destroyed communities and outsourced world control to one country. Yes, that country.
And politicians of all persuasions who are there basically to game the system. There are two versions. The Michael Photios type, of very, very modest ability who figures out, through rat cunning, how to make a bucket of money from the system while controlling the whole process at the same time. The second type is the one who parlays high office into a huge money spinner. Think Hillary Clinton, Bob Hawke, and all the other Aussie ex-pollie ChiCommers who made a pile of cash by spruiking a vile communist dictatorship and claiming that this is good for us.
And where politicians will form temporary coalitions with hated opponents to achieve some of the things they want, yet abandon others, while agreeing to support the priorities of their opponents in return. This is called log rolling in the USA. Deal making that defies true democracy. In some extreme cases, log rolling is even the way governments are formed. Again, see under Adern’s New Zealand.
And where activists of major parties continue to spend serious proportions of their time and their lives working unpaid for people they know to be mainly factional front-persons, spivs and try-hards. They defend the indefensible and continue to turn out at elections to hand out how-to-vote cards.
And a system where politicians, their backroom support class, and ideologues more generally, say things they know to be demonstrably untrue. The great Douglas Murray has referred to this, in relation to the increasing propensity of those wedded to identity politics to make claims any rational person would know to be bizarre, and, moreover, easily shown to be bizarre. I myself wrote about this phenomenon some time back.
And, finally, a system where who occupies government is by and large irrelevant since the real power decisions affecting everyday lives are taken by those not in parliament – by HR departments, by corporations, by media, by thought leaders and “influencers”, by marketers and public relations types, by teachers.
This bespeaks a new, unfamiliar and very creepy polity.
New rules altogether. Many of us are politically unmoored. What do traditional, socially conservative, Labor supporting workers make of their party, post Whitlam? They knew and understood why they instinctively hated toffs, bosses and Liberals. Where do Liberals go, after they realise that their representatives in Canberra executed a worthy, first term Liberal Prime Minister with his feet hardly under the desk, and installed a leftist, globalist monster? Then, having mercifully shown him the door, they then install a bland Chauncey Gardiner in his place, who stands for nothing and, by and large, achieves nothing. The “miracle man”, Scotty from Marketing.
Who saw any of this mind bending new politics coming? Who can make sense of it all? Who can explain how it all came about? Who thinks now that “left” and “right” mean anything? Who is remotely cheered by it?
Probably none of us. Yet, I would submit, each and every one of the above statements is demonstrably true.
We live in a time of postmodern politics, with loose and uncertain “rules”, where lip service is paid to ideas and principles without necessary political intent – since principles are expendable – where optics are everything, since the world is now run by marketers, where no politician can be trusted to do what s/he says s/he will do, and where nothing is what it seems.
What we have now are several radical and massively consequential new developments, each with an explanation of the current crisis in politics. And several principles which we might agree on, without any of the principles necessarily explaining the whole thing.
What things might we agree on?
First, while all of the above developments are true, perhaps they are merely white noise that obscures, or distracts from the main game. That game is, I think is the coming to fruition of James Burnham’s prescient theorising eighty or so years ago of “the managerial revolution”, the new rule by the so-called “credentialled elite”, or as the American critic of new urbanism Joel Kotkin termed it, “the new clerisy”. A new “them” and a new “us”. Insiders and outsiders.
Some contemporary observers call this new ruling class the “technocracy”, others the “deep state”. The key thing is, they are unelected, and we the people cannot control them. Think Professor Pantsdown Neil Ferguson in the UK, with his discredited models, and the ubiquitous Dr Fauci in the USA.
And the technocrats have a shared world view. This is the world of “Davos Man”, a term often used by the British columnist James Delingpole referring to the woke corporates and globalists who gather each year in the Swiss snow to denigrate the rest of us and to virtue signal to one another.
This may not explain everything, but it is an overarching reality and it explains much.
Second, as the late Andrew Breitbart so perceptively pointed out, the new reality is that politics are downstream from culture. The real battles now occur in the academy, the bureaucracy, the media, the education system, the corporations, and not in the halls of ersatz power and certainly not in the party branches, where nothing much happens yet where major party spruikers still insist we should sign up, to “make a difference”.
Again, this doesn’t explain everything, but it doesn’t explain nothing either.
Third, there is a new authoritarianism across all political parties, even those with some libertarian pretensions. You don’t need to be a COVID denier (like me) to recognise this syndrome. Yes, Democrats are more likely to favour “larkdown” than Republicans. Yes Lord Daniel of Meldanistan and Anna Stasi of Brisbane are (maybe) more likely to want to keep the clamps well and truly down than Gladys – she who, alas, DIDN’T stop the boats.
Many libertarians and conservatives have termed the authoritarian tendency and its outworkings the Nanny State. Erstwhile civil liberty types on the left, like the sadly persistent Julian Burnside, now favour massive intrusions on individual liberty in the name of a relatively minor, though very unusual, health scare. More ideological strangeness.
Fourth, there is the utterly supine reaction of Australians to the COVID authoritarianism, where politicians who bungle basic health care principles like protecting the elderly, abandoning foundational procedural practice in relation to the borders, never explaining the reasons for, and science behind, their inconsistent, ever-changing dictatorial edicts, are for some unaccountable reason rewarded with stratospheric approval ratings. Go figure.
Supineness catches, in the corporatist, reputation protecting age. Look at the utter capitulation of the bishops of the world in the face of the State’s determining that the Churches would deny to their flocks the Sacraments and even the opportunity for the reflection in the pews. Prayer and thought that are so critical to the comfort of lonely and afflicted souls. Look at the willingness of corporate employees to willingly attend diversity training and unconscious bias sessions that EVERYONE knows are bullshit.
This astonishing popularity is not just occurring in Australia but also in the USA, where New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent at least 1700 citizens to their deaths in nursing homes yet is seriously touted as a late possibility for the Democrat Presidential nomination. Compare Florida with New York on respective performance in protecting public health, and see who wins. Yet Cuomo is king.
The British journalist Peter Hitchens has expressed his utter disbelief in the willingness of fellow Brits to embrace “big brother”. If we are that dumb, then maybe that is an explanation for our acceptance of perennial second best in our political class. It may not explain all, but we can, maybe, agree, it is an undeniable fact that is at least consistent with the unopposed arrival of our widely tolerated, second rate, postmodern non-democracy.
Fifth, the British writer David Goodhart’s much quoted “anywheres” versus “somewheres” analysis of the massive recent shifts in politics has merit and relevance to the new polity. Goodhart divides the new world into those who profess deep commitment to place and to its values and traditions. The late Sir Roger Scruton was a great defender of these commitments, which gives meaning to many individual lives and to our commitments to our local communities, our families and our countries. All very anti-globalist. Goodhart contrasts these “nowhere”, likely to be Brexiteers and Trumpers, with those who profess far less commitment to place and to nationalist values, and who typically regard the “somewhere” as uneducated deplorables, “clinging to their guns and religion”, racists, xenophobes, and much more besides.
This description of the “somewheres” is a pretty good 2020 approximation to earlier versions of it – the Reagan Democrats and Howard battlers. These crossover voters recognised that something fundamental had changed in politics and that their former political safe havens were no more.
Sixth, there is the “Hayek meets Habermas” phenomenon. Let me explain. Friedrich Hayek was perhaps THE economist of the twentieth century, with links to the famed free market Chicago School of economics. Jurgen Habermas was one of the chief theorists of something called the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxists who fled Nazi Europe and set up shop in US universities. What the neoliberal economists and the postmodernists have in common is the utter idolising of the individual and the prioritisation of freedom above all other values. The result is true utilitarianism and the subjugation of the traditional values so important to the common folks.
As the Spectator’s acerbic columnist Rod Liddle has argued, the new fusion occurred and took root in the polity during the 1980s, and has taken off like a speeding freight train since. It explains the appearance of a rich, progressive elite wedded to economic freedom AND cultural freedom. Anything now goes, literally. This means the ideological co-existence of free markets and socially progressive, woke culture, embodied in the modern corporation and in our party politics. Old categories are gone. The writings of Christopher Caldwell, RR Reno of First Things magazine and others provide much greater analytical explanation than are possible here. They bear close reading, and the lessons bear absorbing. Economic deregulation meets cultural deregulation. As an explanation of the strange new political alliances, it isn’t bad.
Seventh, the creation of the current, hopelessly uneducated generation that we have bred is a material condition that explains much of our current political shambles. The young today, and the not-so-young, come to the polity with what Bridget Phetasy of the Spectator USA has termed “factory settings” – a woke default position ingrained through family, schools, universities and the culture more broadly, that equips the young a collection of accepted but seldom thought-through left-liberal talking points that guide them through life. They lack a grounding in history, context and content in their learning, and they are all at sea. They don’t know what they don’t know, and now perhaps never will. Now they run the world. This explains supineness, ideological deformity devoid of reason and a reflexive adherence to positions denying what the late South Australian public intellectual Christopher Pearson termed centrist, “club sensible” values.
Now, these musings do not amount to a comprehensive theory of politics gone wrong. Nothing explains everything that has gone so horribly awry in our politics. But the appearance of these new realities of politics in our world, when taken together, do account for much of the new, deeply scary and disturbing modern way of doing democracy. We put up with second best, perhaps fifth best.
Clearly, there is a massive job for all of us to do. Processing all this and then figuring out the answer(s) to the “what is to be done” question, is, perhaps, a question for further analysis and another article.
Is there any hope for the immediate future? After all, these are powerful forces, combining in whacky ways.
Some, like Scruton, the greatest philosopher of the late twentieth century, see positive signs in the willingness of at least some among the younger generation to question the new consensus and to seek answers in the right places. Rod Liddle thinks we might have reached what he terms, colourfully, “peak wank”. Those like the celebrated, contrarian, contemporary novelist Lionel Shriver, think that we have experienced these madnesses before, as we did in the revolutionary late 1960s and ‘70s, and have recovered to re-discover relative sanity. I am far from convinced, in an age when the world has divided into social media driven echo chambers and beltway bubbles. COVID madness is currently my prime exhibit for utter pessimism.
Meanwhile, enjoy the lockdown and do try and make sense of our crazy, totally postmodern predicament.