Twenty sixteen was the year when the ghosts of liberal capitalism came back to haunt the establishment. After the vote for Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election, the liberal world lies in tatters as reactionaries rise. Trump mobilised the industrial working class that Hillary Clinton took for granted, and his triumph has shattered the consensus at the heart of American politics around free trade, immigration and the worldwide promotion of liberal democracy.
Together, the Brexit vote and Trump have buried the idea that liberal globalisation heralded the “end of history” – the conceit that the Western brand of market capitalism is the only valid model because it produces more winners than losers. Gone with it is the promise of progress for every generation. According to recent studies by the Pew Research Centre, the US middle class is the majority no longer. In Britain, the government’s social mobility commission, chaired by the former Labour MP Alan Milburn, found in its annual “state of the nation” review that the children of the Thatcher generation who grew up in the 1980s are the first cohort since 1945 to start their career on lower incomes than their parents.
New Labour’s forward march to the tune of “Things Can Only Get Better” ended with rising levels of inequality and waves of mass immigration that deepened divisions. Tory cuts since 2010 and a lack of investment after the recession of 2009 have led to the worst decade for improved living standards in seventy years. Brexit and Trump have given the economic losers political victories over the economic winners for the first time since the Second World War, and liberals have been ejected from power.
This crisis is nothing new, but at every juncture liberals have failed to recognise the limits of their world-view. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have exacerbated the threat from Islamic fundamentalists while shredding the West’s moral standing. The financial crisis of 2008 destroyed the “Washington consensus” of free-market fundamentalism, yet the liberal elites rewarded greed and failure by bailing out banks while workers lost their jobs and communities struggled with debt.
Faced with the threat of demagogic nationalism, liberals persist in offering a quick fix of retail policy offers, ignoring the pain of economic dispossession and cultural loss. When Clinton dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, she revealed the contempt in which the Democrats held their own base.
Brexit and Trump are just the latest examples of revulsion against dogmatic liberalism and its apologists – the progressive modernisers on the left and the right who brought us job-exporting trade deals, free movement <span style=”letter-spacing:
-.1pt”>and the deregulation of finance. These liberals patronised or ignored those for whom free trade, open borders and multicultural societies have resulted in economic hardship and unnerving cultural compromises.
Are these new times post-liberal? People are certainly pushing back against market fundamentalism and permanent cultural change in favour of a politics that combines greater economic justice with more social solidarity. Theresa May understands this but her ambition to break with four decades of market liberalisation may be thwarted by Brexit, further free trade and sweet deals for the City of London. This will likely hurt the same working families May aspires to protect with her pledge to build “a country that works for everyone” – and that is besides the threat of a slide into the nativist populism peddled by Ukip and some Tories.
Liberalism faces an existential crisis, caught as it is between market anarchy and the technocratic state. So far, the dominant response is a fusion of plutocracy with demagogic nationalism: think of Trump and his fellow strongmen in Russia and China.
If the left is to avoid permanent irrelevance, it must abandon dogmatic liberalism in favour of a politics committed to family, decent work, contribution, the love of one’s country and an internationalist outlook. The new politics of belonging must not be ceded to the right and far right.
Adrian Pabst is the co-author (with John Milbank) of “The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future” (Rowman & Littlefield)
This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump