A Most Surprising Year

istock-502163188-emojis-cropMike Berry takes stock of the unexpected events of 2016.

Who, staring at the clock as it clicked past midnight on 31st December 2015, would have foreseen all that would occur in the coming year? Looking backward from New Year’s Eve a year later, who would not have been gob smacked by all that did occur? 2016 will stand out in our memories as a year of popular uprising against ‘the elites’, variously cast as politicians, business leaders, professionals, academics, pundits and anyone thought to do well out of a system that was demonstrably failing most people. Populism acquired a Guernsey. Popular anger, poorly focused sought an outlet, any outlet. Finally, it dawned on people in the Western democracies that their leaders didn’t know what they were doing – or more ominously, they did and had to be stopped. Everywhere people were throwing open their windows and shouting – “ I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”.

The standout events that cast 2016 as a running performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night were Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. Both these outcomes were confidently pronounced as impossible, before they occurred. Both cases blind-sided the experts. Just as Queen Elizabeth asked leading economists why didn’t anyone see the global financial crisis coming in 2008, politicians and political commentators missed the rumbling of the avalanche that swept many of them away, destroying the triumph of David Cameron’s second term in Britain and Hilary Clinton’s long plotted aim of becoming America’s first women president.

2016 was a year when geography raised its head politically. Brexit was carried by disenchanted and socially excluded voters living in the middle and north of England, where unemployment, social disadvantage and distant memories of better times made people susceptible to the snake oil of right wing nationalist rhetoric. Similarly, across the Atlantic, the increasingly miserable plight of the bottom 90 per cent of the population – middle class, working class, the petty bourgeoisie and underclass – found in Trump a bully who they hoped would use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to wrest power back from the elites in order to ease their pain. It was the loss of the North-Eastern states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that pushed Trump across the line in spite of Clinton winning the popular vote nationally. Of course, in both cases popular hopes will be dashed. Snake oil doesn’t work and once a huckster, always a huckster. People aren’t stupid. They know it’s a long shot. But a long shot is better than no shot at all. The forces of reaction will regroup and reassert control, as in the aftermath of countless popular revolts of the past. However, at least, in the here and now life can be made a little unpleasant for their masters. Revenge may not solve the long term, embedded evils of contemporary capitalist societies – but it does feel good at the time.

Britannia is more likely to disintegrate than rule the waves again

The idea that things can’t get worse that lay behind the recent actions of British and American voters is, of course, wrong. Things will get worse for the very people who voted to leave Europe and install Trump. The inequalities of income, wealth, opportunity and status will intensify, the swamp will not be cleared, Britannia is more likely to disintegrate than rule the waves again. An increasingly isolationist America will not be great again. The dominant class will express concern and profess puzzlement at what has occurred. What they won’t do is accept that they are the problem; nor will they accept that it is their power and privileges that must be reined in.

2016 also saw electoral upsets in other countries. The turnover of governments in Italy is not a new phenomenon. However, the demise of the technocratic Prime Minster Matteo Renzi in the wake of a failed Referendum on constitutional reform paralleled Cameron’s fate in Britain and also reflected widespread suspicion of government and the political class. Italian politics replays Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, as an ex-clown fronts the popular discontent. In Australia, faithfully following the neoliberal path of the US and Britain, a conservative government scraped back into power by a single vote with a Cameron-style Prime Minister captive of his party’s right wing and a disparate bunch of unreliable and difficult to corral cross-bench independents elected on a rumbling protest wave.

Elsewhere in the world, things went from worse to tragic

The wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and the chaos in North Africa drove millions of refugees to flight, creating human misery on a scale not seen since the end of World War II. Non-state terrorism escalated, especially in Europe where the rise of right wing nationalism surged. As we move into 2017, general elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands raise the prospect of victory by rampantly nationalistic parties placing further strain on the viability and very existence of the European Union as its befuddled leaders strive to usher the UK out the door.

And behind the stage on which today’s tragi-comedy is playing out, the remorseless work of climate change proceeds, placing at risk the long survival of everything. Ironically, 2016 finally provided a glimmer of hope on that front. In April 174 countries signed the Paris Agreement in New York, pledging to work cooperatively to limit climate change to two degrees Celsius (if possible to 1.5 degrees) and to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to zero during the second half of the 21st century.

What this most surprising year did was to focus attention with a vengeance on the key challenges to democratic governments and the experts who advise them on the need to tackle the linked problems of economic and social inequality, population and demographic change, social exclusion and political disengagement, and macro-environmental threats. To do so will entail the experts and those they advise to take into account the relevance to public policy of basic ethical concerns about social justice. Nowhere does this imperative hit home harder than in the rarefied domain of economics accustomed to a preeminent position in the halls of government.

Mike Berry is Emeritus Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Australia

His new book Morality and Power: On Ethics, Economics and Public Policy will be published later this year.

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