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Brexit, Hegel and me

34 shades of black, and how Hegel rocks

The decline of democracy is global, and the causes aren’t primarily economic. There are many plausible explanations, a veritable buffet of causality. The German philosopher can explain – liberal thesis, authoritarian antithesis. Next comes synthesis, hopefully a peaceful one.

Synthetic dangers

For me, it all started with Brexit. I should have noticed before the referendum on the UK leaving the European Union, but it was easy and comfortable to explain away each sign of popular discontent with the dominant social democratic, liberal economic and political order. Now I see more of those signs all the time, and I see them everywhere - in my adopted home of Britain, in the United States where I grew up, through much of Europe and around the world. I am still trying to make sense of it all.

Brexit shock

My search for understanding began in the early morning of June 24, when the Leave side was declared triumphant. At first, I remained in denial, quickly announcing that it was absurd to think that parliament would follow through on this narrowly run referendum. Even if the Brits don’t care about European peace, there are thousands of laws which depend on membership, innumerable supply chains which would be expensive to break and more expensive to reconstruct, deep intellectual and cultural ties, and several million people who whose ability to live in the UK or the EU would become questionable.

 It might not be simple to hold back the fanatics, I reasoned, but Remain won strongly among some key groups – the young, the highly educated and the economically powerful. They would surely offer significant resistance to a genuine break, the so-called Hard Brexit. There would be millions of people engaging in mass protests, thousands of business leaders warning ignorant elected officials of an election-losing economic disaster, and a political movement across the traditional parties to ensure that insanity was avoided.

Nothing of the sort happened. There was a little demonstration, some businesspeople moaned a bit, and almost all the MPs presented a disgraceful mix of pointless party politics and brazen cowardice. Nonsense about “the will of the people” was allowed to circulate, and the only a few outsiders spoke out boldly against Prime Minister Theresa May’s blatant disregard of both her party’s electoral promises and the national interest.

So I had to reconsider. My conclusion: the British people, their economic elite and their political system suffered from the social or cultural equivalent of intestinal worms - an infestation which blurred their vision and sapped their energy.

But why? My first thought was to look for a purely British disease. For whatever reasons – geography, history, historical myths or national character – the English had always been diffident Europeans. (The Scots and Irish were much more enthusiastic.) It was distressing to see how many Remainers, especially those over the age of 35, easily found reasons not to regret the decision to leave. 

World shock

The British passivity and the latent xenophobia of the supposedly enlightened elite were infuriating. Sadly, I quickly realised that this problem is not cut off by the English Channel. The fog of liberal rejectionism covers much of Europe, and has settled thickly on the other side of the Atlantic. No nation looked safe from retrograde politics and economics.

Something important was changing. I prepared myself to face more self-destructive popular choices. So I was not surprised when the U.S. Republican Party nominated the obviously dangerous and incompetent Donald Trump as their presidential candidate. The establishment politicians there were repeating the pathetic British response to the dangerous decision to vote on Brexit. Since both parties were almost equally complacent about a looming disaster, Trump’s subsequent election win looked almost inevitable.

Nor was I shocked when Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, both backwards looking nationalists, became the most popular politicians in France and the Netherlands respectively. The rise of self-proclaimed outsider Emmanuel Macron in France is another sign of the new dynamics of political power, as are the flourishing new anti-establishment parties in Italy, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Germany.

What did make me think more carefully was the global spread of this political movement. This is not simply a first world problem. Indeed, the prosperous countries are basically catching up with changes that started in poorer countries a few years ago. Many nations have undergone a decline in democratic dialogue and a rise in nationalist ideology, with a tendency to autocratic rule and poor economic policy. The list now includes China, India, Russia, South Africa, the Philippines, Turkey, Poland and Hungary. Democracy is looking shakier in several countries in Latin America, and is a more distant prospect in almost the entire Middle East.

Each unhappy country has its own story, but these have a lot in common. Populism-autocracy is a rising global tide. It is not the first time that ideas spread fast and far. In the 19th century, advanced technology and bourgeois culture flowed from the West to the Rest. Now it is hard to know exactly where the trends start, but it looks frighteningly powerful.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the new global autocratic populism was the rapid reversal of the global historic trend. It was not so long ago that social democratic and liberal internationalism were in the historic ascendant. Communism collapsed in Europe and military dictatorships ended in much of Latin America. China seemed to be slowly liberalising and democracy was taking firmer root in many countries on all continents.

The Arab Spring, a mere six years ago, was a high water mark. But it failed, and the historic tide turned in the opposite direction.

The 34 shades of black

The trend is fairly clear, but its causes are not. There are many, many plausible candidates for culprits in this mystery of the Great Historic Change. It sometimes seems like everyone has his or her own pet theory. I have found 34 of them – call them 34 shades of black. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

  1. Businesses without a social conscience
  2. Central banks with too low interest rates
  3. Decay of family and other social structures
  4. Decay of religious and ethical values
  5. Demographic pressure from ageing populations and declining birth rates
  6. Disenchantment with liberal idealism and altruism
  7. Economy not providing enough jobs, or enough of the right sort of jobs
  8. Economy not providing enough GDP growth, or enough of the right sort of GDP growth
  9. Environmental stress
  10. Financial system which is too large and corrupt
  11. Financial system which is riddled with incompetence
  12. Globalisation which brings various sorts of alienation
  13. Governments which are too big and intrusive
  14. Governments which are incompetent and inefficient
  15. Governments which are not active enough
  16. Governments which are corrupt and self-serving
  17. Historical forgetfulness which leads to a return of reckless nationalism
  18. Inequality of income, which is increasing and fomenting discontent
  19. Inequality of wealth and of social and political power, which is increasing
  20. Labourers crippled by rapid automation
  21. Migration which creates economic and social pain for host countries
  22. Political bankruptcy of traditional Left
  23. Political bankruptcy of Neoliberal right
  24. Political bankruptcy  of the centre-left and centre-right consensus
  25. Politics which attract greedy, ignorant and mean spirited professionals  
  26. Social challenges from the decline of intergenerational social mobility
  27. Social challenges from the loss of some groups’ traditional status
  28. Social challenges from resurgent racial and ethnic frictions
  29. Social challenges from too rapid shifts in values and lifestyles
  30. Social challenges from the shifting role of women
  31. Social media which lowers the tone of political discourse
  32. Technological change which is too fast (disorientation from rapid shifts)
  33. Technological change which is too slow (productivity slowdown)
  34. Unemployment which is too high

Each of these factors certainly deserves a careful analysis, but that would take forever. It would also be inconclusive. Most likely, many of them are relevant, at least in some countries. It’s quite unlikely that there is only one cause of such a big change. Anyone who says, “It’s this and only this” is almost certainly oversimplifying.

That is true of or the most popular family of explanations, the economic. There are economic problems in the world, of course. There always are. However, those problems are not obviously worse now than when the liberal order was thriving.

The one conclusion I am willing to venture is that this liberal order was a lot weaker in its prime than its many enthusiastic admirers believed. It seemed to be all-conquering, but, like Soviet Communism before it, it collapsed with no obvious reason. Those intestinal worms must have been boring into the liberal body politic, leaving it vulnerable to some subset of the 34 pathogens. 

Hegel clears things up

 The rapid switch from one dominant idea to its opposite reminded me of the greatest organiser of grand historical themes, G. W. F. Hegel. The 19th century German philosopher’s elaborate theory of history can make three contributions to understanding the current situation.

First, both the liberal and the authoritarian models fit into his vision of the direction of history. For Hegel, humanity is always guided by the Spirit of freedom, which gradually works to unify all people under a beneficent State.

The liberal freedom offers ever more open societies, more just economies, helpful democratic governments, free debate and tolerance of dissent. The internet was a good symbol of this Spirit, with its unstoppable flow of free information.

Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Dutarte in the Philippines are also in favour of freedom, but of a different sort. They want to keep citizens free from crime, social disorder and insecurity. They are unwitting followers of Hegel, who believed that the ultimate freedom will be found in a State which expresses that frightening will of the people.  

This authoritarian liberating State may face some resistance, but strong leaders recognise that individuals who are not with the State project are surplus to historic requirements. The internet is also the symbol of this State-led freedom. It allows the beneficent government to control the flow of information, helping to unify the popular will.

This internet turnaround is just a small example of the easy reversal of meanings. The biggest example is the willingness of voters in free and democratic elections, the ur-symbol of the liberal order, to choose autocrats.

Such paradoxes are typically Hegelian. His model of history was based on them. That brings up his second contribution to understanding what is going on. Hegel expected the inadequacies of what he called the thesis, in this case the liberal state, to lead inevitably to a reaction, which turns the existing arrangement upside down. The current antithesis is the authoritarian state.

In the Hegelian model, the next step is a synthesis, which resolves the conflict of thesis and antithesis by bringing into being something new and better than both. Violent struggle was the philosopher’s preferred way to force history forward, because fighting destroys old things that need to be destroyed. That may be right, but it is a terrible thought in the nuclear age.

The final Hegelian contribution is the acceptance of some confusion while the shift takes place. As he put it, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk". The poetic language expresses a powerful truth – wisdom (the owl) is only visible when the historic action is complete (at dusk). So it is too early to know where the Spirit of Freedom is taking us.

Many seemingly clear moves forward turn out to be false starts, or just detours on the road of history. Perhaps the direction really is towards something like the liberal democratic order, and the authoritarian antithesis will only last a few years, or a few decades – not long from the historians’ perspective.

Still, my post-Brexit reflections suggest that the rise of the antithesis to liberalism is not yet over. With as many as 34 issues pushing it forward, and with the opposing liberal forces having lost confidence and competence, it is reasonable to expect much more trouble before a happier synthesis can be found.


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