In an article originally published on the OUPblog, Professor Matt Flinders looks forward to 2017 with a sense of foreboding
I am not usually a worried man but today – New Year’s Day 2017 – I am a worried man. Gripped by an existential fear, my mind is restless, alert, and tired. The problem? A sense of foreboding that the impact of the political events of 2016 will shortly come home to roost on a world that is already short on collective good will or trust. There is also a sense that games are being played by a new uber-elite of political non-politicians who thrive on the vulnerabilities and fears of the masses – the great non-uber-elite (if that is not too many hyphens and too few umlauts).
And yet to suggest that this new elite thrives on vulnerability and fear is not quite correct. I am doing them a disservice. They do not just thrive on vulnerability and fear: they create and manufacture it.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m wrong?
Haven’t you noticed the new statecraft of ‘divide and rule’ that has arisen across large parts of the world? Have you not noticed the rise of national populism with its simple rhetoric of ‘us’ against ‘them’? When Trump says ‘Let’s make America great again!’ he isn’t just acknowledging the decline of a superpower but he is also implicitly blaming certain parts of society for that decline. When the Brexiteers campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union the debate was viciously polarized to the extent that anyone who dared to even question the benefits of a British departure risked being hung, drawn, and quartered as a traitor. I exaggerate for effect…but only slightly. Across the world there is a more of a hint and a kink of a psychological warfare in which sections of the precariat are pitted against other sections of exactly the same broad body of people who exist in a socio-economic state of uncertainty. These are the workers of the ‘gig economy’ – the apex of Bauman’s liquid modernity – who exist in a hinterland of self-employed temporary employment. Employment protection, workers rights, unions…little more than quaint phrases from a long-forgotten phase of economic development.
It is the precariat – a phrase and focus of analysis originally developed by Guy Standing – who are living dangerously and their numbers are growing. As this slice of society grows from a thin seam to a major layer of the social structure, then so too do the opportunities for abusing the existence of obvious social fears and frustrations. It is easy to divide a vulnerable class, a hopeless class, a hopeful class, and for false prophets to promise the world in return for a vote. Too easy, and this is the problem with democracy that has now emerged.
I don’t want a red cap or a Union Jack. I don’t want to be told there are simple solutions to complex problems. I don’t want to be told that foreigners, immigrants, and ‘others’ – those demonized souls – are the problem when I know that the problem is really one of ‘us’ not ‘them.’ My foreboding is therefore based on a sense that the public (or really ‘the publics’ of the modern world) have been manipulated by false fears that will only generate new fears and isolationism at a historical moment when the fears and risks that really matter can only be confronted through united collective action.
I may be completely wrong. The year 2017 may go down as one defined by a move towards broad sunlit uplands; or one defined by a new dark age made more sinister by the perils of populism unconstrained and misunderstood. So let us brace ourselves for a rough ride and tough times that will go far beyond Trump and Brexit. General elections this year in the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy may lead to significant gains for the Party for Freedom, the Alternative for Germany, and the Five Star Movement, respectively. But it is in France where the real test will come. This is a country where the standard of living has not fallen and where levels of social inequality have generally been kept in check, and yet where the right-wing National Front may also gain significant support in the presidential elections. How? Through the manufacture and manipulation of fears and vulnerabilities.
During 2016 complacent governments around the world created a political void that was quickly filled by populist parties. In 2017 war and poverty will continue to drive displaced peoples towards Europe – the most precarious of the precariat – but national populism will splinter and fragment the shores upon which the tired and hungry collapse. Sand and blood, such an ugly phrase that captures my sense of foreboding….
Listen to my chronicle of a death foretold. Welcome to the year of living dangerously.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom.
This post was originally posted on the OUPblog and is reprinted with permission of the author.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.