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8/10/16

Is History Repeating itself?: End of History 2.0, beginning of gloom ?

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied Communist regimes in Europe was hailed as the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy and capitalism. Francis Fukuyama, the American academic, called it the “end of history” arguing that the West had finally—and for good—won the battle of ideologies. Scenes of joy swept Western capitals; darkness at noon had lifted! Hallelujah. Anyone caught expressing scepticism or urging humility risked ridicule and humiliation.

Twenty-five years later, we seem to be looking at another “end of history” episode. Except that this time it is playing out not in Moscow, Budapest and Warsaw but in the heartland of Western democracy and  capitalism – London, Washington, Paris, Rome and Berlin. The same remorseless cycle of ideological boom and bust that brought about the demise of Communism is now paying a visit to the capitalist West. Liberal democracy and capitalism—the two great pillars of self-proclaimed Western supremacy—are in deep crisis, spawning in its wake a politics of rage and hate on either side of the Atlantic.

It’s by far the gravest crisis since the Second World War, and threatens the post-War political and economic stability the West has come to take for granted. Economy is already in a tailspin and political and social stability hangs in the balance. There’s a worrying erosion of public confidence in the political class and democratically elected representatives—in effect in parliamentary democracy itself. Demagogues are taking over, prompting fears that power might be shifting from Parliament on to the streets, reminiscent of the 1930s Germany. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s hard to escape a growing sense of public contempt for mainstream politics and a desperate search for alternatives even if it means plunging into unchartered waters.

It is a culmination of years of pent-up grievances exacerbated by the fall-out of the 2008 financial crash whose worst victims were the poor. But what happened next was like rubbing salt into the wound. While millions of middle and working class people lost their jobs and had their homes repossessed, pushing them further into poverty for no fault of theirs, those responsible for the crash—bankers and their cronies in government and elsewhere—got away with it. There was much hand-wringing, mea culpas, and talk of market reforms. A new 21stcentury brand of “capitalism with a human face” was promised, but nearly a decade later it is pretty much business as usual with obscene salaries and bonuses still very much the norm in the corporate sector.

Meanwhile, globalisation has failed to work for the vast majority of lower, middle and working classes. Its promised benefits have bypassed them while benefitting big corporations and a small urban elite. Globalisation was sold to the public as a bold mission to bring the world closer to the mutual benefit of everyone, by breaking down trade barriers and promoting the idea of effectively a single world market. But it was really always about developed nations gaining access to lucrative new emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere. And about Western companies being able to save labour costs by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries—India, China, Bangladeshi, Sri Lanka, etc. Even Britain's Labour Party’s ultra-Left  leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign T-shirts, which sell for up to £17 a piece, were made by “slave labour” in Bangladesh who were paid just 30 pence an hour.

Globalisation has also led to increased economic disparities and a widening of the rich-poor divide as its benefits have not been equitably distributed; and blue-collar workers especially find its gains outweighed by losses. This has got conflated with anger over other issues like racial discrimination, immigration (the Brexit vote was driven solely by concerns over large-scale immigration from other EU states), and corruption in high places completing the image of a system that is not working for ordinary people.

“A big factor in the anger and frustration that people are feeling today… is the realisation that regardless of who is formally elected, an insular ruling elite is actually in power, pursuing a technocratic agenda that serves the interests of rich and well-connected insiders rather than the public,’’ wrote  Steve Hilton, a former adviser to David Cameron, in The Times.

So, when an insurgent pretender promises to bring “our jobs back home”, bring down immigrant numbers, and crack down on corporate greed, people cheer them seduced by the idea that someone is “listening” to them and speaking their language. (We had a glimpse of it in India in the 2014 elections.) In Europe, the anti-establishment mood has been fuelled by European leaders’ strutting and confused response to the Eurozone and refugee crises—the former resulting in massive job losses and welfare cuts; and the latter igniting xenophobia. Like globalisation, the EU is also deemed as a failed project. Both have had the opposite effect of their intended aim. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has argued, the EU was intended to foster unity and a sense of shared interests but, instead, it has ended up causing distrust and grievances. Ironically, even its poorer constituents (the ex-Communist East European nations) which have benefited enormously from their EU membership by way of subsidies and the right their citizens enjoy to settle and work in other member states are not happy, accusing Brussels of bullying.

But to cut to the chase, trying to find specific causes for the crisis gripping the West is to miss the wood for the trees. The short point is that an exhausted West has run out of tricks in the face of a new emerging global order; and an increasingly assertive citizenry not willing to be taken for granted. There is a feel of decay that it cannot remain business as usual for too long. If someone, somewhere is contemplating an “End of History 2.0” thesis, time to rush it out.

Large swathes of middle-class Americans and Europeans are willing to take a punt on anyone who doesn’t sound like a conventional politician. The Trump-isation of American politics, the Brexit vote, and the increasing appeal of populist right-wing figures such as Marie Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and groups like Alternative for Germany (APD) in Germany are a manifestation of this crisis. According to The Economist, “populist, authoritarian European parties of the right and left now enjoy nearly twice as much support as they did in 2000, and are in government or ruling coalition in nine countries”.  This is no mid-summer madness that has suddenly seized millions of people; nor is there a right or left-wing conspiracy to destabilise the West.

How did it happen?

It is a culmination of years of pent-up grievances exacerbated by the fall-out of the 2008 financial crash whose worst victims were the poor. But what happened next was like rubbing salt into the wound. While millions of middle and working class people lost their jobs and had their homes repossessed, pushing them further into poverty for no fault of theirs, those responsible for the crash—bankers and their cronies in government and elsewhere—got away with it. There was much hand-wringing, mea culpas, and talk of market reforms. A new 21stcentury brand of “capitalism with a human face” was promised, but nearly a decade later it is pretty much business as usual with obscene salaries and bonuses still very much the norm in the corporate sector.

Meanwhile, globalisation has failed to work for the vast majority of lower, middle and working classes. Its promised benefits have bypassed them while benefitting big corporations and a small urban elite. Globalisation was sold to the public as a bold mission to bring the world closer to the mutual benefit of everyone, by breaking down trade barriers and promoting the idea of effectively a single world market. But it was really always about developed nations gaining access to lucrative new emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere. And about Western companies being able to save labour costs by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries—India, China, Bangladeshi, Sri Lanka, etc. Even Labour Party’s ultra-Left  leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign T-shirts, which sell for up to £17 a piece, were made by “slave labour” in Bangladesh who were paid just 30 pence an hour.

Globalisation has also led to increased economic disparities and a widening of the rich-poor divide as its benefits have not been equitably distributed; and blue-collar workers especially find its gains outweighed by losses. This has got conflated with anger over other issues like racial discrimination, immigration (the Brexit vote was driven solely by concerns over large-scale immigration from other EU states), and corruption in high places completing the image of a system that is not working for ordinary people.

“A big factor in the anger and frustration that people are feeling today… is the realisation that regardless of who is formally elected, an insular ruling elite is actually in power, pursuing a technocratic agenda that serves the interests of rich and well-connected insiders rather than the public,’’ wrote  Steve Hilton, a former adviser to David Cameron, in The Times.

So, when an insurgent pretender promises to bring “our jobs back home”, bring down immigrant numbers, and crack down on corporate greed, people cheer them seduced by the idea that someone is “listening” to them and speaking their language. (We had a glimpse of it in India in the 2014 elections.) In Europe, the anti-establishment mood has been fuelled by European leaders’ strutting and confused response to the Eurozone and refugee crises—the former resulting in massive job losses and welfare cuts; and the latter igniting xenophobia. Like globalisation, the EU is also deemed as a failed project. Both have had the opposite effect of their intended aim. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has argued, the EU was intended to foster unity and a sense of shared interests but, instead, it has ended up causing distrust and grievances. Ironically, even its poorer constituents (the ex-Communist East European nations) which have benefited enormously from their EU membership by way of subsidies and the right their citizens enjoy to settle and work in other member states are not happy, accusing Brussels of bullying.

But to cut to the chase, trying to find specific causes for the crisis gripping the West is to miss the wood for the trees. The short point is that an exhausted West has run out of tricks in the face of a new emerging global order; and an increasingly assertive citizenry not willing to be taken for granted. There is a feel of decay that it cannot remain business as usual for too long. If someone, somewhere is contemplating an “End of History 2.0” thesis, time to rush it out.

Read more: End of History 2.0, beginning of gloom

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