Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 31 October 2018

Right-wing ideology on the rise – what is fuelling the discontent that is roiling politics all over the world?

The American dream mentality has long dissipated. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, 43% will remain there, and only 4% will make it to the top fifth. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada, Germany, Sweden and other European countries than it is in the US. This may explain why the rhetoric of opportunity fails to inspire as it once did.

With the election victory of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it beg the question: what’s with this popular rise of right-wing politics all across the world? This is a man mostly known for his streak of racist, misogynistic and anti LGBT remarks, much like Donald Trump.

In a bid to better understand it, I came across a paper developed by Michael Sandel, a political philosophy professor at Harvard University who gives a very good analysis of the right-wing problematique being experienced globally.

He talks about the economy of outrage, and the fact that opposition to Trump needs to prioritise an affirmative political project. What might such a project look like? In answering it he says we must face up to the complacencies of established political thinking that opened the way to Trump in the US and right-wing populism in Britain and Europe.

The hard reality is that Donald Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which mainstream parties have no compelling answer.

Like the triumph of Brexit in the UK, the election of Trump was an angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalisation that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary people feeling disempowered. It was also a rebuke for a technocratic approach to politics that is tone deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind.

Some denounce the upsurge of populism as little more than a racist, xenophobic reaction against immigrants and multiculturalism. Others see it mainly in economic terms, as a protest against the job losses brought about by global trade and new technologies. However, Sandel states that it is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it exclusively as an economic complaint. To do so misses the fact that the upheavals we are witnessing are a political response to a political failure of historic proportions.

Having strayed from its traditional mission of taming capitalism and holding economic power to democratic account, liberalism lost its capacity to inspire, he says.

It made me think of the struggles of the North-South divide, not to mention Africa. Surely the economy of outrage also perfectly fits in this ongoing site of struggle? But let’s return to Sandel.

Furthermore, he continues, the populist uprising in the US, Britain and Europe is a backlash against elites of the mainstream parties, but its most conspicuous casualties have been liberal and centre-left political parties – the Democratic Party in the US; the Labour Party in Britain; the Social Democratic Party in Germany, whose share of the vote reached a historic low in the last federal election; Italy’s Democratic Party, whose vote share dropped this year to less than 20%; and the Socialist Party in France, whose presidential nominee won only 6% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election.

Sandel goes on to say that a fundamental rethink of progressive politics is required. Such rethinking should begin with the recognition that these grievances are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.

Here he provides four themes that progressive parties need to grapple with if they are to hope to address the anger and resentments that roil politics today: income inequality; meritocratic hubris; the dignity of work; and patriotism and national community. I could not help but also notice that all three of the South African challenges are captured within these four – inequality, unemployment and poverty.

The standard response to inequality is to call for greater equality of opportunity by retraining workers whose jobs have disappeared due to globalisation and technology; improving access to higher education, and removing barriers of race, ethnicity and gender. It is summed up in the slogan that those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them. But this slogan now rings hollow. The American Dream mentality has long dissipated. In fact, Sandel tells us that Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, 43% will remain there, and only 4% will make it to the top fifth. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada, Germany, Sweden and other European countries than it is in the US. This may explain why the rhetoric of opportunity fails to inspire as it once did.

Progressives should reconsider the assumption that mobility can compensate for inequality. They should reckon directly with inequalities of power and wealth, rather than rest content with the project of helping people scramble up a ladder whose rungs grow further and further apart.

As for the meritocratic hubris (a much-loved DA argument), the relentless emphasis on creating a meritocracy, in which social positions reflect effort and talent, has a corrosive effect on the way we interpret our success (or the lack of it). The notion that the system rewards talent and hard work encourages the winners to consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue – and to look down upon those less fortunate than themselves. Those who lose out may complain that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated and manipulated their way to the top. Or they may harbour the demoralising thought that their failure is their own doing, that they simply lack the talent and drive to succeed. When these sentiments coexist, as invariably they do, they make for a volatile brew of anger and resentment against elites, which fuels populist protest.

Liberals and progressives have so valourised a college degree – both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem – that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgement it imposes on those who have not gone to university. Sandel indicates that such attitudes are at the heart of the populist backlash and Trump’s victory.

As for the dignity of work, Sandel says the loss of jobs to technology and outsourcing has coincided with a sense that society accords less respect to the kind of work the working class does. As economic activity has shifted from making things to managing money, as society has lavished outsized rewards on hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers, the esteem accorded work in the traditional sense has become fragile and uncertain. New technologies may further erode the dignity of work.

Some Silicon Valley visionaries anticipate a time when robots and artificial intelligence will render many of today’s jobs obsolete. To ease the way for such a future, they propose paying everyone a basic income.

What was once justified as a safety net for all citizens is now offered as a way to soften the transition to a world without work. Whether such a world is a prospect to welcome or to resist is a question that will be central to politics in the coming years. To think it through, political parties will have to grapple with the meaning of work and its place in a good life.

Free trade agreements and immigration are the most potent flashpoints of populist fury, he says. On one level, these are economic issues. Opponents argue that free trade agreements and immigration threaten local jobs and wages, while proponents reply that they help the economy in the long run. But the passion these issues evoke suggests something more is at stake. Workers who believe their country cares more for cheap goods and cheap labour than for the job prospects of its own people feel betrayed. This sense of betrayal often finds ugly, intolerant expression – a hatred of immigrants, a strident nationalism that vilifies Muslims and other “outsiders”, a rhetoric of “taking back our country”.

Liberals reply by condemning the hateful rhetoric and insisting on the virtues of mutual respect and multicultural understanding. But this principled response, valid though it is, fails to address an important set of questions implicit in the populist complaint. What is the moral significance, if any, of national borders? Do we owe more to our fellow citizens than we owe citizens of other countries? In a global age, should we cultivate national identities or aspire to a cosmopolitan ethic of universal human concern?

These questions may seem daunting. But I agree with Sandel that the populist uprising highlights the need to rejuvenate democratic public discourse, to address the big questions people care about, including moral and cultural questions.

How then do we revitalise public discourse? Any attempt to address such questions, to reimagine the terms of democratic public discourse, faces a powerful obstacle. It requires that we rethink a central premise of contemporary liberalism. It requires that we question the idea that the way to a tolerant society is to avoid engaging in substantive moral argument in politics. This principle of avoidance – this insistence that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions outside when they enter the public square – is a powerful temptation. It seems to avoid the danger that the majority may impose its values on the minority. It seems to prevent the possibility that a morally overheated politics will lead to wars of religion. It seems to offer a secure basis for mutual respect.

But this strategy of avoidance, this insistence on liberal neutrality, is a mistake.

It ill-equips us to address the moral and cultural issues that animate the populist revolt.

  • For how is it possible to discuss the meaning of work and its role in a good life without debating competing conceptions of the good life?

  • How is it possible to think through the proper relation of national and global identities without asking about the virtues such identities express, and the claims they make upon us?

These are some of the questions Sandel put to us all. Liberal neutrality flattens questions of meaning, identity and purpose into questions of fairness. It therefore misses the anger and resentment that animate the populist revolt; it lacks the moral, rhetorical and sympathetic resources to understand the cultural estrangement, even humiliation, that many working-class and middle-class voters feel; and it ignores the meritocratic hubris of elites.

Donald Trump is keenly alive to the politics of humiliation. From the standpoint of economic fairness, his populism is fake, a kind of plutocratic populism. His health plan would have cut healthcare for many of his working-class supporters to fund huge tax cuts for the wealthy. But to focus solely on this hypocrisy misses the point, Sandel warns.

The most poignant point Sandel makes in this paper, and I do apologise for quoting so extensively from it, is that for those left behind by three decades of market-driven globalisation, the problem is not only wage stagnation and the loss of jobs; it is also the loss of social esteem. It is not only about unfairness; it is also about humiliation. Mainstream liberal and social democratic politicians miss this dimension of politics. They think the problem with globalisation is simply a matter of distributive justice; those who have gained from global trade, new technologies, and the financialisation of the economy have not adequately compensated those who have lost out.

Conducting our public discourse as if it were possible to outsource moral judgement to markets, or to procedures of liberal public reason, has created an empty, impoverished public discourse, a vacuum of public meaning. Such empty public spaces are invariably filled by narrow, intolerant, authoritarian alternatives – whether in the form of religious fundamentalism or strident nationalism.

That is what we are witnessing today. Three decades of market-driven globalisation and technocratic liberalism have hollowed out democratic public discourse, disempowered ordinary citizens, and prompted a populist backlash that seeks to clothe the naked public square with an intolerant, vengeful nationalism.

He concludes his paper stating that, to reinvigorate democratic politics, we need to find our way to a morally more robust public discourse, one that honours pluralism by engaging with our moral disagreements, rather than avoiding them. Disentangling the intolerant aspects of populist protest from legitimate grievances is not easy. But it is important to try.

And when we look at Africa, where on this spectrum are we? Are right-wing elements also on the rise? A closer examination is certainly required. I’m most fascinated with the apparent praise for the benevolent dictator in Paul Kagame’s Rwanda. It seems most people admire the fact that the country’s streets are so very clean and they praise the fact that his government has recently clamped down and closed 6,000 churches. Something I suspect they want the SA government to do.

I do wonder whether South Africans are willing to suspend their basic rights in order to also experience such admirable deeds. Our liberal sensibilities, I fear, won’t easily accommodate such practices, but perhaps, as Sandel so eloquently puts it, it requires that we question the idea that the way to a tolerant society is to avoid engaging in substantive moral argument in politics, something of which South Africans are too well aware.

Understanding these grievances and creating a politics that can respond to them is the most pressing political challenge of our time. DM

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