Centrists need to take responsibility for the monsters they helped create

Democracy is decaying in the West because, for years, elite politicians such as Jeremy Hunt taught people that it did not matter.

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This week, Britain’s new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt flew to Washington to deliver – in the kind of clear, technocratic prose that always eluded his predecessor – a plea on behalf of a rules-based global order. Hunt’s speech was a reasoned and well-argued defence of globalisation, multilateralism and the rule of law, each of which is doomed so long as Donald J. Trump stays in the White House, and may yet be doomed even once he is ejected.

Though Hunt veered half-heartedly towards critiquing Trump, his failure to clearly do so – and in terms that would be required from any consistent democrat when dealing with this orange, racist monstrosity – dramatised the problem faced by all centrist politicians. The system they built, and which they sold to us as both perfect and permanent, looks like a crumbling and half-abandoned building. Meanwhile, the US President has made himself its wrecking ball.

Yesterday saw the conviction of Trump's ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort in the first of several trials that will, eventually, reveal the full extent of the President’s relationship with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the attorney for Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who also pleaded guilty to criminal offences, alleged that Cohen possesses evidence of Trump’s collusion with the Russian state, and declared his client willing to supply it to the inquiry run by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

In any constitutional democracy the path would now be clear to Trump’s impeachment or indictment on criminal charges. Yet by swapping rational conservatism for what Hannah Arendt called a “temporary alliance of the mob and the elite”, the Republican Party has revealed the US constitution as rickety, decrepit and unsafe.

Trump rails against the investigators pursuing his team, calling both Mueller and the FBI partisan and unprofessional. He is actively sacking and removing security clearance from officials whose loyalty to the constitution looks greater than their loyalty to him.

Ultimately, he retains the option not only to pardon Manafort, Cohen and any of the other underlings being investigated, but also himself. He will, in the process, attempt to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court who believes the President cannot be indicted. Trump’s 2020 re-election bid must be seen not only as the project of a narcissist and sociopath but as a rational course of action to keep himself out of jail.

What’s going on is the destruction of constitutional democracy from within, with the acquiescence of a Republican Party whose remaining technocrats and constitutionalists live in fear of alt-right protests and the wrath of Trump’s grassroots supporters. The President, who could summon a rally in Charleston, West Virginia to bay for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton on the very day his own lawyer accused him of being a Russian agent, has what remains of the centre right on the run.

In these circumstances, British politicians - as America’s historic partner in Nato, as the sharer of a common language, and as part of a political culture heavily intertwined with that of the US - have a duty to do and say more, and more clearly, than Hunt did.

The Foreign Secretary’s diagnosis of the problems facing the neoliberal model was close to being partially correct. In a welcome departure from the view of Johnson, who admired the “method” in Trump’s madness, Hunt identified four, interlinked crises:

·    The collapse of the multilateral order and the rule of international law, as evidenced in Syria.

·    The mismatch between China’s rising economic power and its willingness to shoulder global responsibilities.

·    Fraying support for democracy and democratic values in the developed world.

·    And the persistence of the Islamist terror threat.

But these are symptoms of a bigger crisis, which Hunt and his Foreign Office advisers either chose not to acknowledge or do not understand.

The international order is collapsing because popular discontent is placing in power politicians prepared to pursue national over multilateral objectives. We’ve known this since around 2013, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brutally suppressed the globalist half of his own population, and since Germany smashed Greek democracy and risked the integrity of the Eurozone to get its taxpayers off the hook of an unpayable €300bn debt. Brexit and the election of Trump, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Viktor Orbán in Hungary only confirm the pattern.

China refuses to take global responsibility because the West built a system which precluded it, assuming instead that the unipolar dominance of the US would act as a proxy world government. After Vladimir Putin cut loose from the old order – declaring a “multipolar world” after trouncing Georgia in the short war of 2008 – no section of the global elite showed any interest in designing a new system to accommodate and contain the rising independence of Russia and the rising power of China. The assumption was that latter would remain governed by the same cautious committees of old men, content to treat their own workers as slaves, build an ersatz colonial empire through infrastructure deals, but stay out of world politics. Xi Jinping’s quiet but determined seizure of power has upset that calculation.

Democracy is decaying in the West because, for years, elite politicians like Hunt taught people that it did not matter. Hunt’s entire career testifies that what matters are the desires of media billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and the interests of private healthcare providers like Richard Branson. Vote for a left politician who challenges the status quo and, with the help of Murdoch’s papers and Branson’s PR machine, the Conservative technocracy will try to destroy him.

By reducing citizenship to the status of being a customer for public services, and reducing politics to a game of thrones between billionaires, both centre-right politicians like Hunt and centre-left ones like Blair helped hollow out our democratic culture, creating a space to be filled by figures such as Nigel Farage, Johnson and their ilk.

Finally, Islamist terrorism thrives - among other reasons - because there is no world order, and because politicians like Hunt go on arming brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia, and because parties like the Conservatives refuse to address their structural hostility to Islam – a position that can then be weaponised by terrorists to convince their potential recruits that there is no place for them inside Western democracies.

The blunt truth, which Hunt’s centre-right worldview cannot bear to face, is that the liberal order created its own disorder. Trump was created by perfectly rational corporate interests who concluded that the game of globalisation could not be won, and the game of a rules-based domestic capitalism based on financial and environmental regulations did not suit them. To win, they needed to do something which no generation of US businesspeople has done for a century: form an the alliance of elite and mob.

For certain, mainstream US Republicanism laid the groundwork for this: by racialising politics. During the “southern strategy” of the Reagan era, the party created the exact mental framework on which right-wing populism thrives: there is an otherised racial minority (black people, migrants, Muslims); there is an elite that cares more about them than they do about “us”; and then there is “us” – the tycoon and the biker gang together, the former prepared to use lies and media manipulation, the latter prepared to sport KKK regalia. But the Trump project is producing racism, hysteria and political chaos of a different order.

When Arendt described the original rationale for this alliance of elite and mob, in her description of fascism in the 1930s, she understood something that centrists like Hunt should take note of. To facilitate their power grab, right-wing populist elites must give the mob “access to history” even at the cost of destroying the world order and the nation itself. From Istanbul to Budapest to Charleston, West Virginia, where Trump held his defiant rally, “access to history” is what is being provided: for open racists, fascists, violent misogynists anti-semites and ethno-nationalists.

To prevent them, it is no longer possible, as Hunt acknowledged, to spread platitudes about the “end of history”. History has restarted and is careering towards disorder. In the face of it, nostalgia for a world of Blairs and Clintons, only populated by Macrons, Hunts and Bidens, is not enough. What we need is a break from the economic order that collapsed - a moral and intellectual accounting for why it failed. And, above all, a new model of capitalism based on high growth, high wages and high technology.

Since – as Bank of England studies show – global growth and productivity will be in short supply over the next 30 years – that means above all restoring the dynamism of those economies that possess democratic cultures and institutions. Since, every time I write this, I am accused of having a colonial attitude to the global south, or imperialist chauvinism against India and China and other rising powers, let me make it crystal clear.

The best thing the West can do for China is to deprive its despotic rulers of any further opportunities to game the global system as a cheap labour economy, and to empower its people with the aspiration for democracy by showing them what democracy can achieve.

Both South Korea and Taiwan - flawed democracies though they have been - show that human rights and the rule of law are not incompatible with economic development in Asia. Until politicians like Hunt summon the courage to name the problem in China – economic nationalism, rule breaking on an epic scale and a one-party dictatorship – there is no incentive to solve it, or for the Chinese elite to shoulder its responsibilities within a multilateral order.

To defend democracy we need to stop eroding it by encroachments on human rights; we need to revive citizenship and liberal values by creating a system that works for all; we need an economic model that creates jobs in Britain before it thinks about creating them in Beijing. And we need to attack Islamophobia and all the other racisms that are festering in the hollows. We need, in short, to do everything Labour is committed to doing.

The best contribution Jeremy Hunt could make to resolving the problems he listed in Washington is to vacate power. That said, I welcome his speech. In a single intervention he has gone further than any British politician since Gordon Brown in identifying a systemic global rottenness. I have no doubt that the speech will form part of Hunt’s coming bid to lead the Tory party. But in the present circumstances, I would rather have the Conservatives led by a dithering technocrat than a racist clown.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017.