When I grew up, liberal democracy was a series of polite fibs. When politicians talked about ethics and human rights, they sold torture equipment to dictators. When they talked about feminism, it was a pretext to invading countries. When they talked about freedom, they were suspending it and declaring a state of emergency.
Still, though, they had to play the game. The trick of Tony Blair’s era, or Barack Obama’s, was to talk the language of civilisation, respect for the vulnerable, and common decency while tearing up those values in practice. That era is finished.
The fascinating thing about today’s “new politics” emerging in the form of the ‘alt-right’, is it’s complete contempt for all the polite fibs that make up liberal democracy. These people don’t pretend to believe in higher ideals or political responsibility; they actively appeal to the meanest sentiments. And figures like Donald Trump, or Boris Johnson, rest their appeal on one main thing: breaking taboos.
Every liberal democracy has some version of this syndrome. Populist, taboo-breaking rhetoric, rudeness, sexism, racism, it’s all being rewarded. Yesterday’s annoying extremists are tomorrow’s cabinet ministers or president-elect.
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump, the absolute epitome of this trend, comes from reality television. From Gordon Ramsey to Simon Cowell, successful reality TV usually features unbearably rude bastards who behave in a truly sociopathic manner, berating people, abusing women, saying the unsayable, dismissing people’s efforts as useless.
This reality TV succeeds because at some level everyone wants to break the polite boundaries of society. Indeed, 1960s and 1970s leftism was all about taboo-breaking, while the Mary Whitehouses of the world defended common decency.
Today, it seems like the right-wing are rude and brash and don’t care who knows it, and they’re painting us into a corner as cringing liberals.
I say, let’s defend some taboos. Some things are non-negotiable. There’s no debating the rights and wrongs of human rights. There’s no debating the obligations of comparatively rich people in the West to help the victims of persecution and injustice. And I’m certainly not debating the alleged excesses of feminism with men over the internet.
But we can’t just defend taboos, we need to break them. Democracy is failing because there are certain things we know but we cannot speak about. Sometimes, it feels like it’s illegal to talk about social class, for example. Equally, there’s a polite liberal consensus that stops us reminding people that Britain is a country that sells weapons to dictators and regularly bombs the shit out of farmers. The same was true of the US election: be polite, and stop moaning about Clinton’s Contras.
The biggest taboo of all is the power of capitalism, the word that dare not speak its name. Yet capitalism is surely the number one threat to our democracy.
Let me give you an example. We all agree about the climate crisis: something must be done. Yet because there’s a consensus that something must be done, it feels rude to talk about the cause of the crisis. This woolly urgency leads to an unwillingness to scare people away from the topic. So inevitably a false pragmatism takes over: the problem is so urgent that, if businesses and billionaires have a role to play in the solution, brilliant – let’s create the biggest possible tent.
But the crisis is inseparable from capitalism. And under capitalism, we can’t reverse it. By playing the big tent game, we might be dooming the planet to extinction. In a more immediate sense, look at the refugee crisis: it’s inseparable from the impact of climate change on Syria. Look at desertification in Spain, etc. Populations are going to move, and the choice will be, change the system or shut the border and shut down democracy. Those are the stakes, but our rhetoric on the subject has fallen victim to a polite, false pragmatism in the name of a misleading urgency to unite with Bill Gates.
Or take the left’s biggest challenge, both in Scotland and the US: immigration and its alleged threat to jobs and services. Our big problem here is to make sure we don’t end up looking like smug liberals who refuse to tell it like it is. Some people responded to the Brexit vote by demonising everyone in Northern England as a thicko who blamed their failures in life on immigrants. I just can’t agree with that picture. Northern England not so long ago was a hotbed of radical trade unionism and leftist ideology. That region has been an ally of progress for most of history.
The same arguments about the ‘rustbelt’ in the States is clogging up my social media feed today.
Faced with the anti-globalisation right, we’re often left defending free trade. I think we should be honest about this. Free trade has failed working class communities. It’s been a disaster. Living standards haven’t moved for decades. It’s terrible that people have been manipulated into blaming immigrants for the problem. But open, cross-border trade has ruined many communities, and desperate people are open to manipulation. Trump is a master of that manipulation. We have to be the people to link this problem to capitalism, because that’s the root of the problem.
In our fragile emotional state today- let’s remember our most important cause: to reclaim democracy. Who stole it? The best answer was offered five years ago by Occupy Wall Street: if we’re reclaiming democracy, it’s because the 1 percent have stolen it. Their dollars buy power. Their riches are stored offshore, beyond democratic accountability. They use 175 times more carbon per person than the poorest in society. They’ve stolen the future, and their existence marks the failure of our politics.
They’ve got a stranglehold over the world in general, and in particular over the 9 percent of us who live in a liberal democracy. We watch their television and read their newspapers, we buy their shit, we slave for their companies, we send our children to fight for their interests abroad. And nobody wants to offend them: when a Jeremy Corbyn or a Bernie Sanders speaks out, there’s an Hilary Clinton or an Owen Smith ready to hall them down and maintain the taboo.
Well, for me, the way forward for the left now is to focus on reclaiming democracy. We need to stand on any makeshift platform we can find, and say these unsayable things. That’s how we seize back the initiative from the radical right. Let’s not cringe and cower. Let’s learn from them, let’s be rude as hell and let’s fight with fighting words.