Humans are symbolic creatures. We look for the signs in passing details that make sense of larger patterns – news stories, politics, natural events stitched into the narrative of our lives by small, local things. And always, perhaps, a reading of the portents for a prickling sense of threat, dulled but not dismissed by the comfort of the modern.
The farm I help to work is a good place for such reflections. Just recently I took two pigs to slaughter. People say that pigs are the smartest of farm animals, but there are different kinds of intelligence. Meatheads blind to the deceit of the bucket, they trotted obediently after it into the trailer for their final journey. Sheep rarely make the same mistake, endlessly watchful, and always with an eye on the best escape. Getting them where I want is usually a comedy of errors, full of pratfalls and missteps. But in the end I always succeed.
Not everything succeeds on the farm, though. I stump around it most days, talking to myself like a high street mutterer. ‘The lambs’ll need fresh hay; better check that water pipe; when should I coppice those willows; Christ, that shed’s a mess.’ Work gets done or it doesn’t. Nature brings her own designs, full of gifts and challenges. The seasons swing around and the farm year takes shape out of all those little monologues – the things that did or didn’t work, the produce sold or lost, the home, the family, and the comfort that while time moves on, tide washes clean. It’ll all be here next year, refreshed in spring, ready for another cycle – different from how it was before, and yet comfortably the same.
As I stump around the events of the wider world this year, I’m not so sure I can see the bigger patterns from the work that was done, or feel the comfort of renewal. But here, at any rate, are some things I noticed, and an effort to make sense of them.
1. From Blairism to Mairism. On 16 June, Thomas Mair murdered MP Jo Cox. When asked his name in court he said ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. He subsequently entered no plea and gave no evidence at his trial, instead jotting in a pad the names of well-known people he recognised in court. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he asked to address the court, a request refused by the judge on the grounds that he’d already had opportunities to explain himself.
A week after Cox’s death, the British electorate voted to leave the European Union by a narrow margin. I can’t help thinking of the Mair case as a kind of twisted microcosm of the vote, to which it formed a ghastly prelude – not because I think the Brexit voters were all far-right fanatics, but because the referendum gave us a similar opportunity to exercise our sense of everyman self-importance, but with no chance to explain what we’d meant when the vote was done and dusted.
Still, there were plenty of interpretations. On the left, an outpouring of anguish that Brexit represented a seismic shift to the political right, and on the right a gleeful appropriation along the same lines. But if it was a turn to the right, what kind of right? Many of the Conservative politicians at the forefront of the Leave campaign were neoliberal free marketeers feeling shackled by EU membership. They sought a ‘freedom for Britain’ indeed, to double down on its status as a trading nation. Much of the noise in the Leave camp, however, was anti-neoliberal – for local jobs, against immigration and austerity. With the gigantic target of Conservative Party disarray in its sights, the Labour Party chose to shoot itself in the foot instead, possibly signalling its end as a serious electoral force.
Thus, the Conservative government somehow parlayed the failure of its neoliberal politics into a retrenchment of its power. The various pretenders who had gathered around the corpse of the exiting prime minister fell away, leaving Theresa May as the only candidate with the apparent gravitas and bipartisan support to occupy the throne. But with her refusal to stake out a negotiating position, compounded by such mystifying pronouncements as the need for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, it soon became apparent that her crown was empty and May was the Captain Pouch of the Brexit putsch, with none of the magic powers needed to resolve its contradictions. The political blood-letting on the right is not yet over.
Meanwhile, three senior judges determined that, legally, the Brexit decision had to go before the parliament whose supreme sovereignty the Leave campaign had so vociferously championed. The Daily Mail branded their decision a ‘war on democracy’ waged by judges who were ‘enemies of the people’. Around the same time, a Conservative councillor in Guildford initiated a petition to extend the Treason Felony Act 1848 to include the offence of imagining the UK becoming part of the EU, with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
Margaret Thatcher once said that Tony Blair’s Labour government was her greatest success. Blairism, Thatcherism, the ‘third way’ between left and right, the ‘Cool Britannia’ of Blair’s early premiership: it all seemed like a different geological age.
2. Lily goes to Calais. On 24 October, French police cleared the Calais refugee and migrant camp known as ‘The Jungle’. Not long before, pop singer Lily Allen broke down while interviewing an Afghan resident of the camp for a BBC documentary. ‘I apologise on behalf of my country for what we’ve put you through’, she said. Scanning the almost entirely abusive comments beneath the YouTube clip of Allen’s tearful moment, I was struck by one that expressed the hope Allen would be sexually violated and then have her throat cut, concluding ‘White, liberal elites…so fucking out of touch with reality yet making reality miserable for the rest of us.’
Out of touch liberal elites was indeed a major theme of 2016, a year characterised as a ‘revolt against the elites’ by commentators across the political spectrum, albeit not usually accompanied by dreams of rape and murder. It was a year for self-styled ‘silent majorities’ – though they weren’t always that silent, or indeed in the majority. It was, at any rate, a year in which ‘silent majorities’ called time on political correctness, which had gone even madder than usual. And a year in which it became impossible for many of us to agree on what reality is and who’s in touch with it.
But, for the time being, international agreements still require governments to protect unaccompanied child migrants. So just as the 1990s gave us arguments over bogus asylum-seekers, 2016 gave us arguments over bogus children. Conservative MP David Davies called for dental checks to verify the ages of Calais migrants, saying ‘I would like to see genuine children being brought in, but I think we have got a right to raise this question. If we don’t raise this question we allow ourselves to be carried along on a tide of emotion, Lily Allen-style with tears in our eyes. What we are going to end up doing is very quickly exhausting the well of hospitality that exists in Britain.’
The well was already wholly dry for controversialist Katie Hopkins in her response to Allen’s Calais theatrics: ‘Do not apologise for this country Allen, you cretin. This great country prefers to look after its own’.
Three teenage migrants who’d been in the camp spent a morning working on my farm as part of a local programme. They cleared a neglected, weedy plot with astonishing speed. One of them picked up a handful of soil and squeezed it in his hand.
‘Good humus,’ he said, before nodding at the clover ley with distant recognition, and asking ‘Alfalfa?’
It struck me that most UK teenagers would have little idea of how to identify soil humus content or the members of the family Fabaceae, and that maybe we’d be doing a better job of ‘looking after our own’ if they did. Meanwhile, new statistics showed that more than 19,000 UK children received hospital treatment for self-harm in 2015, a 14% increase from 2012.
3. Scary Clowns. In October, there was a brief flurry of news stories in the USA and the UK about scary clowns causing trouble on the streets. The panic ended almost as soon as it began, and I wondered where the scary clowns had gone. When Donald Trump was elected US president and started picking his White House team, it all became clear.
That’s the kind of joke that was widely declared off limits in 2016. For Trump opponents, it played into his hands; for his supporters, it confirmed the sneering superiority of the ‘elites’ that needed taking down. Thus, a new political correctness began to take shape – Trump was the champion of the neglected white working class, which was not to be mocked.
4. Ressentiment. I’m not much persuaded that Trump’s victory was delivered by this class that has so suddenly exploded into the consciousness of political commentators, and I’m not at all persuaded that his presidency will deliver it any benefits. But what’s commanded my attention more is the way the populist turn has meshed with the thinking of my own tribe, which for want of lengthier definition I might label the radical greens.
That voters in the world’s largest economy elected a president on a protectionist platform surely signals neoliberalism and its globalising project turning full circle and beginning to ingest itself. Hardly a surprise to many of us: we knew it wasn’t sustainable, we knew its rhetoric of enrichment for all was at best ill-founded if not a downright lie, we knew the ‘Washington consensus’ and the inherited global order would someday start unravelling. Had Britons voted remain and the US elected Clinton, these things would still be true. So there’s been a certain shrugging of the shoulders in the green movement, perhaps expressed most eloquently by Paul Kingsnorth in the first instalment of this series. The old certainties are broken beyond repair – better to embrace the chaos of the moment and try to wrest the new from it. Others have gone further and seen in the new populism an outline of the politics they seek: local jobs and industries, a turn away from dangerous global power politics towards more workaday concerns, a boost to localism as the centralising grip of the traditional political class weakens.
I can see the logic, but don’t feel it in my bones. Instead I mostly feel that prickling sense of threat, partly because it already seems clear from the early moves of the president-elect – the baiting of China and the Arab world, the cosying with Russia, the oligarchic economics – that it’s unlikely his administration will deliver even any backdoor gifts to an agenda of peaceful, sustainable localism. But mostly because the political momentum behind the new populism in truth has very little in common with anything peaceful, local or sustainable. The nineteenth century thinkers who witnessed the birth of modern mass class society had a name for the kind of politics we’ve seen in the UK and the US in 2016: ressentiment – a resentment or hostility about one’s lot projected onto other groups who are inferiorised as scapegoats. There can be leftist forms of ressentiment, directed at such figures as the kulaks or the capitalists, and some of these shadows have stirred in recent Western politics: Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos, Syriza. But the dominant strand has been of the right, targeting immigrants, liberal intelligentsias, and the ‘swamp’ of Washington rather than Wall Street.
One feature of this ressentiment in the west is a sense that neoliberal globalisation has made losers of us. The truth is the exact opposite – though the west’s global power is palpably waning, the majority of its citizens continue to enjoy levels of material prosperity that far exceed those in other countries, and are entirely unsustainable. In Britain, more than half of those who voted Brexit indicated an unwillingness to be worse off as a result. They’re destined to be disappointed, as will those in the US who voted for Trump expecting local jobs, a return to ‘greatness’ or the draining of the swamp. The question that troubles me is what will happen then.
The answer I’d like to give is that there’ll be a moment of high opportunity for the politics of left-wing agrarian populism that I espouse. People will realise that the global capitalist money pump is exhausting, and that they’ll have to look to the resources of their own landscapes and communities to furnish their needs. Those ‘needs’ will suddenly seem more modest, and the satisfaction of them more rewarding than the wage drudgery of recent history. To meet them, there will have to be a socially egalitarian redistribution of land, and it will be land that provides the measure of the human ‘needs’ that can be satisfied. There will be little ressentiment, because everyone will be in the same boat, and there’s no point scapegoating the fields. It will be a struggle. People will need each other’s help. Politicians will genuinely be able to talk about ‘strong communities’.
But such a vision has virtually no traction in western politics today. It’s more likely that the failures of right-wing populism will be blamed on the fact it wasn’t right-wing or populist enough. The flow of immigrants wasn’t sufficiently stemmed; the judges, journalists and intellectuals were enemies within, impeding the government’s progress; the craven bankers, Euro politicians and international business classes proved a tougher nut to crack than we’d thought. So we need a stronger government to push the programme through. Sacrifices will be needed, certain liberties curtailed in pursuit of the wider interest, but this is the will of the real people of the country.
The word for this is fascism. Perhaps it gets bandied around too much by left-wingers like me, a wolf-cry from reading too many below-the-line comments on social media and articles in the Daily Mail. Certainly, the political noise of the moment isn’t fascism, but it may be the phoney war preceding it. Sociologists used to say that fascism was a pathology on the route to modernisation. But we now know that modernisation isn’t a realised state but an unstable process with pathologies of its own, and fascism is a permanent possibility within it. I watch the screws tighten in Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary. What do we expect the collapse we’ve so long predicted to look like if not like this? The Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran writes that where we are now in the UK and the US is where Turkish civil society was 15 years ago: ‘For 15 years we played chess with the pigeon in Turkey, but now we don’t even have the chessboard. Some of you still have time to shape your future. Use it’.
The shrill, pre-emptive tone of failure and ressentiment already hangs around the Brexit camp and the Trump presidency before they’ve even started trying to deliver on their impossible promises. Already, for the Daily Mail, the judiciary and parliament are the ‘enemies of the people’. I read a lot about ‘getting our country back’ or making it ‘great’. I feel the force of those swelling emotional appeals – so much more stirring than appeals to get back to the farm and grow potatoes. And I find no comfort in the fact that, like many others, I’ve long seen it coming. I agree with Paul Kingsnorth: ‘we write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now’. But I fear that our stories will have the weakness of new-borns facing the muscled narratives of these fascist and nationalist zombies. We’d better tell them well.
I’ve seen more clearly in 2016 how currents of radical green thinking can connive or even align with the alarming political drift. I won’t mention names, but here are some ideas I’ve seen passing largely unchallenged this year from influential ‘green’ writers:
Liberalism is a failed and divisive political project.
Class struggle is a luxury of open societies.
Cultural communities are unities inciting emotional allegiance – identities to ‘give your heart to’.
Identities are place-based.
The nation is a cultural community.
In previous times I’d probably have gone along at least with the first of these – so long as it was widened to include not just liberalism but the gamut of modernist political doctrines from conservatism to socialism. What I’d now say is that, for all its faults, liberalism takes political division and its healing more seriously than just about any other doctrine, certainly more so than the easy unities often sought through notions of place, identity, culture, community and nation. I understand why green thinkers might want to re-enchant them, but such ideas are supremely vulnerable to malign political transformation. Let us remember that almost any story can divide as well as unite, sicken as well as heal, and ponder what elements of the ‘open society’ we might rescue from the past for the benefit of the future. Whatever the defects of liberalism, I’ve come to see how much I and many others who dispute its politics rely on a liberal public sphere.
Doubtless, the dispiriting choice of London/Brussels or Trump/Clinton tempts a focus on more important things. But after this year, I see it differently. The further we progress towards fascism or other points on the compass of authoritarian nationalism the less traction we will have to do anything else that matters. I fear that in the past I’ve spent too much time worrying about climate change, energy crisis and the grand ecological realignments facing humanity, too much time embracing the certain end of the existing order in the abstract, and not enough on giving myself to basic decencies that might see us through to somewhere else. Lofty disinterest made sense while our political economy reached the wild heights of its stalling point, but it won’t serve for the fall.
Some new year’s resolutions:
I will give my heart only to people or places I know, or to stories or songs that move me. I won’t give it to abstractions – the people, the nation, our culture, the community, nature, democracy.
I will lower my gaze. Wolfgang Streeck, author of How Will Capitalism End? said in an interview ‘I am thankful for every passing year that is good and peaceful. And I hope for another one. Very short-term, I know, but those are my horizons’. Like him, I will be thankful for the year. I hope.
I will work for renewal. Farmers can just wait for the spring, but you can’t do that in politics. So I will lend my weight to the grand contradiction of liberalism: trying to be decent in response to other people’s views, while fighting the view that some people’s views or lives don’t matter.
I will try to make my farm a better one, embracing the populist doctrine that there are some kinds of work, like farm work, that are real work. I won’t embrace the populist doctrine that there are only some kinds of people who are real people.
I will be watchful, like the sheep. I fear that some of us will soon turn from the shepherds into the shepherded, and that once the clowning is over we’ll have no control over where we’re going. I’m not sure I can avert that fate, but I can at least remain alert for escape routes.