It’s been an interesting few days and the general consensus among people I have talked to is an air of incredulity and despair. Brexit was worrying and surprising enough, Trump is, to borrow the hipster parlance, next level crazy. How could so many people, on so many levels, have got it wrong. The race, we had all assumed, was Hillary’s to win. The reality of the lack of Trump’s real policies and understanding of the reality of the US situation would become apparent – not just to the intelligentsia in the thin slivers of civilization close to the sea, but also to those deep in the heartland. Sure they were pissed off and angry, we heard, but the misogyny, the hate, the petulance and the volatility would, surely, make people see sense.
What we’re all discovering is that “sense” isn’t a black and white thing. Rather, people are hurting and have felt, for the longest time, that they had no real ability to change the conversation, to impact upon their society, to make macro changes that would make their lives better. We (and I’ll use we more generally in this post since we’re all part of the problem and all part of the solution) assumed, arrogantly, that people were sufficiently on board with the status quo, or at least sufficiently appeased by their big screen TVs and cheap brand-label clothing, that they’d toe the line.
A few weeks ago I sat down with a couple from the UK and discussed their respective on Brexit. This was a professional, well-educated and successful couple – not the country dwelling hicks that Brexit supporters are often portrayed as. This couple, however, had family history in the north of England who, only a generation or two ago, worked in the coal mines or the shipyards. It was fascinating talking to this couple and hearing how they firmly believed that Europe specifically, and the approach to democracy that has been the model since World War II, simply weren’t working. Rampant unemployment, a feeling of desperation, huge inequity and general social malaise were all leading to a massive rumbling of discontent that erupted in the Brexit vote.
Brexit and trump are essentially done deals. However, those who suggest that we, protected by a massive ocean and huge distance from the rumblings of unrest, are insulated from these sort of activities. That is a dangerous and naïve perspective to take.
The same factors that haunt Northern England, the Rust Belt of the US and the other places that unrest is simmering away, also exist here. We have, for the past couple of generations, been running head first down a path pushed by Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the Chicago School of Economics in the latter half of the 20th century. The theory went that we should hunt efficiencies wherever possible – tear down trade barriers, move production to those who can do it at the cheapest rate and strive for growth, growth and more growth at all costs. The theory went that this growth and economic well-being would trickle down so that everyone would benefit from all that lovely lucre floating in the system.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen so strongly post the GFC, all that really happened was that wealth was concentrated to a social, political and economic elite. The 1% that the Occupy Wall Streeters were so angry at. While all that globalization and trade liberalization certainly meant that we could buy consumer electronics more economically here in New Zealand and that it was easy for us to upgrade our cars every year or two to the latest model, it also meant that housing speculation, the massive growth of speculation of every sort, and the incredible hollowing out of the productive sector also occurred.
As an owner of a manufacturing business that, bucking the trend in the apparel sector, still manufactures here in New Zealand, I have seen an utter decimation of the industry. Christchurch, once the major center for the textiles and apparel industry, not to mention a huge number of small provincial towns with their own apparel base (Levin and Greytown, for example) have been decimated. Whereas thousands of people once beavered away behind sewing machine turning out good, solid products, we now import from China, Indonesia, and Fiji at only a few cents in the dollar.
More than a decade ago, when Helen Clark hosted The Knowledge Wave conference in Auckland, I was scratching my head. The idea of the conference was to create a “new economy” one not based on plain old primary production and manufacturing, but one based on design and “the knowledge economy.” What I didn’t understand was the plan for all of those sewing machinists, furniture makers and printers who would all be out of jobs as we contemporaneously jumped into a free market and sourced all our clothing, furniture, and books from the developing world.
So, I’ve been laboring the point but clearly, people are hurting. Not only economically but socially as well – the divide between rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural, educated and not so much, has only grown.
And so, yes, a Trump or a Brexit could happen here. And, while we look at our own (albeit very lightweight) version of Donald Trump, the one, and only Winston Peters, and laugh to ourselves, the reality is that a far more potent and destructive version of Peters could be just around the corner.
But here’s a thought. While radicalism can take the form of extremism, as it has in the UK and the US, and could well do so in France, the Netherlands and many other countries, maybe we can find another way. Maybe we can find a radical solution, that doesn’t reply on extremism and demagoguery. Maybe we, the people, can be heard and can make a change without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The US had its chance – Bernie Sanders was seen as a total outsider but, then again, so too was Trump. And while Sanders may not have been everybody’s cup of tea, it is fair to argue that were he to have been elected, he might well have delivered outcomes that would actually make life better for the disenfranchised who so vehemently put their hope in Trump.
The future is going to be interesting, but particularly interesting for us living in the Shaky Isles, is to look to our own political system, our own comfortable two party system (MMP and Winston peter’s baubles notwithstanding) and our own society and think about how we can use the pain, fear, and unrest to make a change for the better.