Thursday, 10 November 2016

The pace of change ...

As everyone is scratching their heads wondering how we got here (The UK, a large economic power, leaving a single market and the US, the main superpower, having a president who would like to erect walls and impose tariffs) it may be useful to remember the following words.

'Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. [Its] common sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. ... It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down ... so as to safeguard the welfare of the community.'

'The rate of progress have turned the process itself into a degenerative instead of a constructive event. For upon this rate, mainly, depended whether the dispossessed could adjust themselves to changed conditions without fatally damaging their substance, human and economic, physical and moral.' (The Great Transformation, p.37ff)

Karl Polanyi wrote this in 1944. His words remind us of the destructive character of change if we do not mitigate its worst consequences on communities through governmental intervention. Whilst he wrote this about change that came in the wake of enclosures in England, it equally applies to today's transformation by immigration, globalised markets and rapid technological progress. The liberal case for unfettered change depends in large measure on tarnishing everyone who struggles with the speed of change as a reactionary, or worse a racist and xenophob. Karl Polanyi was none of that. But he did recognise that communities cannot survive unless the moral, social and economic fabric is altered gradually rather than being torn apart in the name of economic progress that only benefits a small professional elite.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The agonising choice

If sanity prevails and the pollsters are right then Americans will elect the first woman president tomorrow. By voting for Hilary Clinton, the majority of voters will reject misogyny, overt racism and dog-wistle politics, and instead give a mandate to the most competent and experienced politician who ever stood for office. And yet, they will also have elected a politician with one of the most obnoxious personalities and probably one of the most corrupt one of modern times. I do not envy American voters having to chose between Scylla and Charybdis. With Trump they would elect somebody who makes you worry about the welfare of people. With Clinton they would elect somebody who makes you worry about the welfare of American politics.

Clinton's problem - a lack of honesty
Copyright Washington Post
Despite Trump's best efforts to give the election away to the Democratic candidate, the polls still indicate that the final tally in the electoral college may be close. That is quite an achievement on the side of Hillary Clinton and her team who have been up against one of the least accomplished Republican candidates, someone who failed to get the support of his own party and managed to alienate more than half of the general population with derogatory comments about women and ethnic minorities. In short, pretty much any candidate would have had decent chances against Trump and it speaks of the widely held mistrust against her, that Clinton will probably just about scrape into the highest office.

So, what went wrong in an election that was her's to lose all along? There appear to be reasons that have to do with the nature and history of the candidate as well as some reasons that relate to Clinton's policies. Let's look at the latter first.

The American society and economy never quite recovered from the shock of the 2008 crisis. Whilst the Obama administration showered some industries with subsidies and bail outs, it could not arrest the long term decline of manufacturing that had started in the 1990s. Whatever you think about the forces of globalisation (cheaper consumer prices in the shops; mobility of labour and capital), it left an entire stratum at the bottom of society bereft in a sea of hopelessness. Those who benefited from globalisation were largely the intellectual and professional elites in urban places. Neither Clinton nor the Democratic Party in general ever found a formula to address the concerns of those left behind.

That should not surprise us. Liberals (the American left) are most comfortable with the language of universal rights, unfettered by notions of place and belonging. It is this universalist perspective that prevents them to grasp the anger amongst many Americans with illegal immigration which, incidentally, provide the large Latin American workforce cleaning the houses and mowing the lawns of the country's elite.

It is this vacuum that Trump managed to fill and which, whatever the electoral outcome, politicians on both sides need to find answers to if they want to prevent a repetition in four years time of the dog-whistle politics so successfully championed by the billionaire.

The second aspect of Clinton's candidacy and the deep reservations it evokes amongst Americans is personal in nature. Clinton comes with baggage, not least a philandering husband, and the thought of Bill Clinton roaming the White House to sexually target young female interns fills most ordinary people with horror. Yet, the personality problem extends beyond her husband and goes to the very core of her own character. Hilary Clinton must appear to most Americans as one of the most dishonest politicians of modern times. Lying her way through the Benghazi Committee hearings must surely be the pinnacle of a political career that was marked by deviousness, double-dealing and betrayal. Despite having deleted thousands of official emails, and thereby violated any rule in the book for government officials, her sense of entitlement to the presidency is palpable and must be grating for everyone who thinks that politicians are in office by virtue of the democratic will of the people. Her lies and distortion would be the stuff of comedy (see Saturday Night Live) if they would not have been so serious and contributed so much to the disenchantment of Americans with politics in general.

In the end, it must be the most agonising choice Americans ever faced: to chose between a Republican who is unfit for the office of President and a woman who is a disgrace to her fellow Democrats. One hopes that a majority prefers the corrupt liar over the misogynist.