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22 September 2016

New Times: Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

Existential crisis is the new normal on the left – so it's time to decide what type of existentialism to promote.

By Charles Leadbeater

Existential crisis is the new normal. The only people not suffering an existential crisis seem to be José Mourinho, Philip Green and the serried ranks of the entitled One Per Cent. Everyone else is growing increasingly anxious that everything is crumbling around them. Politics is being driven by these worries. Political leaders and movements will be defined by how they understand and articulate these existential challenges and the answers they provide.

The economy is not working for most people, whose incomes have been stagnant for at least a decade, their jobs increasingly insecure and their future uncertain. Many established companies fear they will soon be disrupted by digital start-ups. The financial system – overly complex, concentrated and self-interested – was only recently saved from catastrophe by extraordinary measures of state support. Political systems are being drained of legitimacy as establishment parties find themselves prey to insurgent populist movements. The European Union is suffering its own existential crisis following the Brexit vote, which also casts in doubt the future of the United Kingdom. All of this is taking place against a backdrop of mounting environmental crisis as the climate warms and competition mounts over critical resources. The sense that everything is falling to bits is compounded by the threat of Islamic terrorism, symbolised by the home-grown devotees of Isis, with their disdain for modern, liberal values of equal rights, democracy and free speech.

With the rise of machines capable of rapid learning, anyone doing routine work faces an uncertain future, even if they have valuable skills and knowledge. To travel in a London black cab, threatened by the rise from nowhere of Uber and soon by driverless cars, is to take a trip in an unfolding existential crisis. Black-cab drivers, once secure in their carefully acquired knowledge of London’s streets, now find themselves fighting for survival. That may be true for more of us in future as we grapple with bewildering questions: what are we for, if not to work, and how will we earn a living if there are no jobs to be done? These are the problems the left should exist to solve.

Indeed, the left should be in prime position to do so, for it is suffering an existential crisis on a grand scale, exemplified by the Labour Party: who and what does it stand for; which problems does it seek to tackle; what tools does it use; and how does it get elected to do so?

The left has to choose what kind of existentialism it wants to promote. There are four options.

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Angry parties will appeal to the very large constituencies, especially of white, middle-aged men, who feel left behind by the decline of routine, industrial work in traditionally masculine communities. Angry parties will trade in betrayal and outrage, with social media increasingly feeding real-world violence. These angry parties will come from the nationalistic, populist right: Donald Trump is a clear example but perhaps the most successful so far is the Danish People’s Party, which has risen from nowhere to become Denmark’s main party. Angry parties also come from the left: from Occupy to the Indignados, Podemos to Five Star, fed by the disenchantment of a thwarted millennial generation. The let-down and the left-out are not going away. Nor is angry politics: if you face an existential crisis, do not go quietly: rage instead against the dying of the light. All change starts with resistance, but this is not a recipe for good government and sustained change.

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Control parties go a step beyond rage, offering to contain the unruly forces that so unsettle people. The Leave campaign was a pop-up control party. Authoritarian populism is in the ascendant from Erdogan’s Turkey to Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. In Europe it is the recipe of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and the Law and Justice party in Poland. Alain Juppé is running to become president of France on the basis of a book called For a Strong State. Control parties offer to put up walls, gates, barriers and borders to create a basis for order. They believe in the state’s power to reassert control of the nation: a place where those who belong, the natives, can dwell in peace. Control parties will be aided by the growth of smart corporate information systems – Big Data – which track every movement, communication and transaction.

A leftist version of the control state – controlling wages, prices, finance, immigration, profit margins, monopolies, strategic investment – would be a logical conclusion of a mounting economic crisis that left most people feeling hopeless. It would take charismatic leadership and a track record for efficiency, which the left in Britain lacks at present, but it is not out of the question; it would be like a wartime state.

Keep calm and carry on parties will help us muddle through. Resilience and grit, endurance and determination are the character traits these parties promote in their citizens and young people as much as their leaders. All over the world the establishment is desperately circling the wagons, trying to make sure that the centre holds. Angela Merkel is the model keep calm and carry on politician: flexible, pragmatic, comfortable with ambiguity and happy to work in a bit of a mess. Hillary Clinton is attempting to become a cross-party keep calm politician by evoking the “don’t panic” spirit of Barack Obama, who has spent the past two years trying to persuade Americans that their country is not going to the dogs but actually doing quite well. In the context of Brexit, Theresa May is a keep calm and carry on politician (albeit with strong control tendencies).

The British left might yet provide the trusted leadership needed for “keep calm” coping: imagine a government combining David Miliband, Alistair Darling and Yvette Cooper with Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown. But that would require a new party.

Breakthrough parties are by far the most attractive option for what the left should become: offering to use the multiple breakdowns we are suffering as the catalyst for a breakthrough to a better kind of society, with a more sustainable, equitable economy and revived democracy. That, however, would require the left to embrace uncertainty and creativity to become a mass movement of collective problem-solving, working with innovators across business, culture and society to create the new models of work, companies, banks, government, energy and waste that we need. We would have to experiment our way out of crisis.

Nicola Sturgeon might be a breakthrough politician. Justin Trudeau has a chance in Canada. Virginia Raggi, the Five Star mayor of Rome, and Anne Hidalgo in Paris could be breakthrough politicians for their cities. Sadiq Khan in London and even Andy Burnham in Manchester might have a go but both are hampered by being products of the Labour machine.

The trouble is that the left is largely comfortable with analysis rather than with devising solutions; intellectually conservative and backward-looking; incurious about the world and how it is changing; generally suspicious of outsiders with new technologies and ideas; uncomfortable taking risks and innovating. All of that would have to change for the left to become a breakthrough political force. 

Charles Leadbeater is an associate of the Centre for London

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.


This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times