When underdogs become overdogs, everything changes. They are the masters now, however much they try to pretend otherwise. Their power to change and ruin lives demands relentless and unforgiving scrutiny.
The hangover from the long age of globalisation has hidden the existence of a new elite, let alone the need to hold it to account. The neoliberal order began from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, perhaps earlier with the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979/1980. You have to be in your 50s to remember another time. It ended with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Its death was disguised because no new system stepped forward to replace it.
Now its successor is shambling into view, like a figure from a bad dream you hoped you had forgotten.
It is nationalism. The often demagogic and always deceitful nationalism you saw in the Brexit campaign and see now in the actions and policies of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin. Even the Syriza movement, held up by many as a respectable alternative to the old status quo, was powered as much by a grotesque but authentically nationalist Germanophobia as a socialist programme.
Demagogic nationalism has to be fought. Not only because the promises it makes to its gullible supporters are plainly false, but for a reason many are still struggling to comprehend. Just because the old order left whole classes behind, and promoted inequalities of wealth that offended every moral person, does not mean the alternative will be better. Indeed, we already have evidence enough that the alternative will be worse.
Extremism thrives because of cowardly collaborators
Try arguing that and you are hit with insults that have been repeated so often they have become cliches. Don’t be elitist. Don’t patronise. Don’t punch down. At best, they reflect a worthy desire to listen to and sympathise with those globalisation left behind. As before in history, however, the long period of stasis also brought a gormless ennui. The desire to welcome challenges to “the establishment”, however repellent, led the BBC to build up George Galloway and Nigel Farage and US cable television to give Trump tens of millions of dollars worth of free publicity. Both thought anything was better than the same old “boring snoring” politicians. Both thought wrong.
You see the result when you make the argument that Brexit was an act of gross folly that it will take Britain and Europe years to recover from. You are at once denounced as a metropolitan liberal elitist who treats ordinary people as fools. I agree one must accept that the collapse of European social democracy was caused in part by the failure of narrow, middle-class liberals to understand their fellow citizens. Technocrats thought the fact there was no evidence worth mentioning that immigrants steal jobs or depress wages meant opposition to immigration could be dismissed as irrational prejudice. They did not grasp that most of us, maybe all of us at some point in our lives, value the familiar and the local. New cultures that native Europeans did not understand, and new people whose mannerisms and expressions they could not read, unnerved them.
Meanwhile, the authoritarianism, which has turned left-liberalism into a movement for sneaks and prudes, was always going to play into the hands of the right. Free citizens have stopped listening to those who respond to the challenge of argument by screaming for the police to arrest the politically incorrect or for universities to ban speakers who depart from leftish orthodoxy.
There are good reasons for liberal guilt. There is much to be guilty about, after all. But guilt about “liberal” elitism make no sense. We do not have a liberal elite now. We have a bragging, nationalist and proudly ignorant elite. The “hard Brexit” they are driving us towards will hurt the very workers who voted Leave. With Labour in the hands of the far left, it has, shamefully, fallen to the lone voice of George Osborne to warn that the nationalist elite is about to threaten the jobs and living standards of the very “hard-working” people who so naively believed its promises.
What applies at home applies abroad. The collapse of communism left America as the world’s sole superpower. Even if its foreign policy was consistently benign, resentment of its dominance would have been inevitable. As it was, American power was far from being consistently benign and in the decades since 1989 anyone who questioned it was treated with the indulgence we always grant to Davids who take on a Goliath.
But see where American power stands today. Russia, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah break the Syrian ceasefire. They bomb aid convoys and turn Aleppo into a 21th-century Dresden. Barack Obama and John Kerry do not look like imperious masters of a unipolar world now. They look like what they are: impotent and humiliated has-beens. Russia can do what it wishes in the Middle East. However loudly America complains it has no option but to tag along. For years, some of us have been writing against the immorality of politicians and intellectuals who excused Slobodan Milošević, Islamo-fascism, Saddam Hussein, the Iranian theocracy and the Russian kleptocracy. You get a measure of how deep the rot has spread when you notice that Trump, and the leaders of Ukip and the Front National are Putin admirers. You realise the scale of the corruption on the left when you find the leader of the British Labour party has worked as a paid propagandist for Iranian state television, defended Milošević, Hamas and Hezbollah – and, not to be left out, Putin too. The moral disgust at their collaborations should never fade. But in our new age, moral arguments have a practical urgency. The destruction of Syria is pushing refugees into Europe, whose presence fuels support for the far-right parties Putin sponsors.
Denunciations of American power, like denunciations of “neoliberalism” and “liberal elite”, are worse than simplistic now. Like the twitching of a corpse, they are exhausted responses from a world that has gone. They still have propaganda value, no doubt about it. But in the world as it is rather than was, it is Brexiters who are pushing with a doctrinaire determination to leave Britain poorer and meaner than they found it; the extreme left and right that support the regimes that threaten us; and Russian rather than American imperialism that is throwing Europe into chaos.
Liberal technocrats who “treat ordinary people as fools” neither receive nor deserve a hearing. But show “ordinary people” that their supposed champions have taken them for fools and you have a chance of breaking through. Then, maybe, they will listen.