Friday, May 08, 2015

The British Election and western politics

The British election is an interesting milestone in the evolution of western politics.  On the one hand, the Tory Party has won a striking victory which will allow it--by the very narrowest of margins--to form a government without any coalition support.  But the Tories achieved this victory more or less by default, and other aspects of the election confirm the trend towards fragmentation which can be seen almost all over the European Union.  Fragmentation in Britain threatens to break up the country as it has existed for three centuries.  The Scottish National policy now enjoys the hegemony within Scotland that the Irish Nationalists did in Ireland before the grant of Home Rule in 1922, and the Labour Party has been virtually wiped out in its Scottish stronghold.  And even the Tory victgory threatens the fragmentation of Europe, since Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on membership in the EU.   Britain's new constituency map shows an extraordinarily consistent pattern, with urban blotches of Labour seats in London, Wales and the Midlands surrounded by vast conservative spaces in the countryside and suburbs.  The pattern is very similar to recent US elections, except that Britain remains much more urbanized than the US, and the Labour areas are therefore much larger than the Democratic ones.  It should also be noted that on many issues, the Tories are still to the left of the Democratic Party here at home.

As Paul Krugman argued today, this is not a triumph for democracy in one sense, because the British people have endorsed failed austerity policies.  They did so partly because they had no choice. Like mainstream Democrats here, the Labour Party did not dare campaign for more government spending to get Britain out of the recession, because virtually the whole nation has been sold on the myth that too much government spending caused the crash of 2007-8.  I would add that the razor-sharp conservative majority hides a deeper, related threat: that the fragmentation of European politics, like our own gridlock, will make it almost impossible for governments to act, and could even open the way for extreme parties to get into power.  That was what happened in Germany in the late 1920s.  The parties of the Weimar Republic--themselves descendants of parties from imperial Germany--were never as strong as the major parties in Britain and the US, but during the late 1920s, even when the German economy was doing relatively well, they lost strength to several fringe groups.  Then in 1929 came the Great Depression, and in 1930 the Nazis suddenly became the largest party in the Reichstag, while the Communists gained as well.  The government began ruling by presidential decree, opening the way for Hitler to take power in January 1933.  Britain will now be virtually the only nation in Europe where one party controls the government--and that party is committed to having the government do less, not more.

And that raises the real question of the fourth great Atlantic crisis which we are now going through.  The first of those crises, in the years 1774-1802 or so, created stronger states all over Europe and in the US, even though the nature and values of those states ranged from nascent democracy in the US, to a strengthened aristocracy in the British isles, and authoritarian, bureaucratic states on the continent.  The second, in the 1860s and 1870s, instituted forms of democracy all over the region, but without strengthening states very much. The third, from about 1933 to 1955, raised the power of the state to new heights, although democracy emerged triumphant.  The government of every major nation had a mission.  Roosevelt proclaimed in 1936 that the United States was waging a war to show that democracy could work, and he turned that into a real war five years later.  The British Labour government was determined to provide widespread benefits to the people (including free medical care) and organize the economy. After the catastrophic failure of National Socialism in Germany, Konrad Adenauer wanted to turn his nation into a full member of the western community again. De Gaulle created a strong French presidency as an antidote to weak parliamentary parties, and that system has worked quite well for France ever since. 

The trend of weaker parties and weaker states is playing out in other ways.  Both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the equally important Great Transatlantic Market that will link North America and the EU, will deny governments many existing rights to regulate industry, and force governments to compensate corporations when regulations reduce their profits.  Here in the United States we still have a two-party system and the Republicans firmly control Congress, but if they also add the Presidency next year, that will only result in a further drastic weakening of the federal government.  Here in the US we often blame the decline of government on the increased role of money in politics, but what is happening in Europe suggests that broader intellectual and cultural changes are responsible.  European politicians, unlike their counterparts here, do not have to spend hours every day begging for money--yet their policies are rarely any less business friendly than ours.

The post-Second World War generation has thrown away much of our parents' legacy, including the legacy of strong, popularly elected governments acting on behalf of the people.  Here and across the Atlantic, the looming question is whether our societies can hold together and function effectively without such states.


1 comment:

Brian Wilder said...

I love your essays, but sometimes an ill-considered aside throws me off. In this essay, you offer this one-liner: "The second, in the 1860s and 1870s, instituted forms of democracy all over the region, but without strengthening states very much."

You are certainly correct that liberal, constitutional democracy had a large advance, but it was also the period, when Germany and Italy (and arguably, Japan) became modern nation-states. Surely, that counts as a great strengthening of the state, considering the palsied principalities displaced.

Even in Britain, the electoral reforms of 1867 and 1884 transformed Party organization, as politicians found themselves popularly accountable. Ireland used popular elections to begin the long process of dismantling the landlordism of the Protestant Ascendancy.

In France, the Third Republic displaced the superannuated politics of three competing monarchical Parties, and despite defeat in war, France gained enormous confidence from the seeming sudden emergence of immense economic power in the country's embrace of modernity.

The Second Industrial Revolution, marking out an acceleration of economic transformation after 1860, added to the raw power of states, but also forced administrative innovation and expansions that served to strengthen states. Mass industrialization was mirrored in states adopting mass conscription and reforming their navies and armies, to adapt the new technologies. At the same time, drab and mundane municipal government was undergoing a transformative growth under the pressure of urbanization, as cities and provinces developed police forces and departments for water supply, street lighting and sanitation. Public health and universal education became state responsibilities. Bismarck invented social security, as industrializing Germany could no longer afford the safety valve of massive emigration, which it had used to defuse the tensions of 1848.

I think you have to see the period after the transformative reforms of 1860-1875 as one that initiated a period in which nation-states grew immensely in strength, power and responsibility, in order to fully appreciate the catastrophe of the First World War, when the old imperial regimes broke and the old reactionary elites were discredited, but not only the old elites, but also the bright promises of liberalism and socialism, of inevitable "progress" and of an ideal of a shared, public interest.

The fascist ideologies that arose between the Wars owed a great deal to the common experience of national solidarity during the First World War, as well as to the discrediting of aristocratic elites. There was a desperation in the experience of many peoples, who had seen ancient institutions fail under stress and collapse entirely in palsied hands, and who had no faith in liberal or socialist promises.

We, today, do not have anything like a sense of political solidarity, nor, really, of institutional failure. We don't belong to anything -- not a church, not a nationality, not a union. We are rootless and unaffiliated to an extent unprecedented since the rural autarky of manorialism began breaking up in the 15th century. The atomism of 21st century society is the product of a long decay, not a sudden cataclysm.

The totalitarianism of the 1930s, in which the individual sought fulfillment in the state and ideologies competed to mobilize everyone, has been displaced by an inverted totalitarianism in which almost no one pays any attention to politics, except as a bizarre form of celebrity entertainment. An immensely wealthy, globalized and cosmopolitan elite drives politics apparently, while politicians remain in the grip of a singular neoliberal ideology, dismantling institutions to create new opportunities for the predatory few to profit at the expense of the many.