There is a long tradition in the History of Political Thought of comparing political societies with biological entities and human bodies. My personal favourite is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s detailed portrayal, which presented certain aspects of the economy as corresponding to a human stomach and government as being represented by the head. Today, if we were to invoke the body politic analogy, I think that we could usefully describe Western politics as being dominated by a ‘Sick State.’
At the very least it is in a sorry state, and I feel sick to think about it.
Interestingly, this turbulent time in politics has seen the language of division and fracture become ever more pervasive in countries like Britain and America. This is by no means to say that such language is entirely new to contemporary political discourse. I also suspect that many would agree with me that divisive socioeconomic realities predate this renewed discursive emphasis on political and societal division. At the very least, the emergence of this heightened language of division is itself indicative of a very fraught moment in Anglophone, and perhaps even global, politics.
Theresa May’s recent Tory Party Conference Speech made heavy use of this language of division. May claimed, for example, that:
“[…] within our society today, we see division and unfairness all around. Between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation. Between the wealth of London and the rest of the country. But perhaps most of all, between the rich, the successful and the powerful – and their fellow citizens.”
May has acknowledged the vast array of social tensions that Britain is riddled with in order to position the Conservatives as the political force best equipped to heal these ruptures and to unite British society. Of course, David Cameron had pursued a similar strategy. This is best exemplified by Cameron’s rhetorical reliance, in his own Conference Speeches, on the age-old image of a ‘One Nation Tory Party’. Yet it seems that, since taking over the reins of power, May has been more prepared to unequivocally condemn the socially divisive nature of Britain’s rampant economic inequality.
To a large extent, May has been attempting to draw a line in the sand between her premiership and her predecessor’s. May’s reshuffle of the Government Cabinet, for example, was largely seen as a clear indication that she would be distancing herself from Cameron. The replacement of George Osborne, Cameron’s Chancellor and greatest ally, was particularly significant. It is probable that May is hoping to disassociate herself from the social divisions sowed throughout Cameron’s time in office. Under the aegis of austerity, Cameron justified an assault on the institutions of the British state that entailed demonising large swathes of the population. Welfare claimants, public sector workers and those with disabilities were amongst those targeted by Cameron’s cronies. In other words, people’s attention had to be redirected away from the swingeing cuts to public services and towards public enemies. Many observers argued that this was not about ‘balancing the books’ because of public debt, but an ideological move based on a reverence of free-market economics. For now, it is enough to note that this demonization process inevitably exacerbated social frictions across Britain. Numerous case studies could be highlighted.
Take one example: the increasingly politicised fault-line between the generations, which May mentioned in her speech. In Cameron’s Britain, the younger generations faced worse employment prospects, fewer housing opportunities, a higher retirement age and more debt than their parents or grandparents. On the other hand, it is true that Britain also has a rapidly ageing population due to modern medicine. This has put strains on public institutions like the NHS. Cuts to public services, however, have only amplified such difficulties. A separate example of recent divisions in Britain would be the strife between England and Scotland. Austerity arguably provided the catalyst for the Scottish Independence Referendum, which very nearly brought about the end of the United Kingdom as we know it. Naturally, other factors were also at play. Scottish nationalism has admittedly been simmering away for decades. Nevertheless, Cameron’s contribution to this volatile situation cannot be overlooked. Scottish resentment towards Cameron and English Tory rule added a new dimension to arguments in favour of breaking up the Union. Perhaps most divisively of all, across Britain, Cameron failed to challenge the growing public perception that it was one rule for the super-rich and another for the rest. Whilst Cameron ran the country alongside fellow Etonians and millionaires, granting tax cuts for the wealthy, refusing to punish the banks for the 2008 Financial Crisis and failing to chase tax dodgers, the majority of ordinary working families were left to face the brunt of his austerity agenda. Overall, he was the Prime Minister of a thoroughly Disunited Kingdom.
So, despite having been Home Secretary for the entirety of Cameron’s premiership, May is trying to deny complicity with these failures. Unlike Cameron, May is unable to ignore Britain’s Sick State. Anti-establishment resentment likely boiled over into the result of the EU Referendum. Longstanding Tories like Ken Clarke have even admitted that the result practically amounted to a vote of no confidence in their leadership. This scenario has left May with no choice but to recognise how divided Britain has become and to promise a new direction. In part, therefore, May’s use of the language of division and unification has arisen as a defensive response to anti-Tory sentiment. Part of May’s appeal to her Party Faithful has also been her efforts to heal the divisions within the Tory Party itself. Differing stances on Europe have regularly caused irreparable damage to the Conservatives. Yet, the new Prime Minister’s stance also encompasses an offensive element designed to marginalise the Labour Party.
Returning to May’s Conference Speech, we can find her describing Labour as being “not just divided, but divisive.” Certainly, May seems correct to note that elements of the Labour Party have seemed “determined to pit one against another.” The poorly executed coup against Jeremy Corbyn, after the EU Referendum, plunged Labour into turmoil at a time of national crisis. Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger in the subsequent leadership race, hooked his campaign on the promise of rebuilding Labour’s “broad church” of members. Presumably, this would have meant appeasing the Labour Parliamentary Party by pursuing a more centrist foreign policy whilst making concessions to the left-wing, grassroots movement Momentum. Smith warned that Corbyn’s re-election would lead to “division and destruction” within Labour. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophesy. Undeniably, his challenge generated a bitter trench war between the rival factions. Ultimately, Corbyn fended off his challengers but seems to have realised the gravity of this disunity. In his own Conference Speech, late last month, Corbyn pledged to prioritise “reuniting the Labour family.” Indeed, one of the central themes of his speech was on the importance of the party standing together.
True to the spirit and tone of current debate, Corbyn has countered Tory accusations about the Labour Party being divisive by in turn portraying May’s Government as one set to “sow division by fanning the flames of fear.” Since the triumph of Euroscepticism, the Hard Right of the Tory Party have become ascendant. The latest outpouring of xenophobia was largely spearheaded by Nigel Farrage and UKIP. Tories like BoJo have only intensified this problem by having made immigration so central to their campaign to leave the EU. This political decision seems to have given a platform to those with intolerant attitudes. As Labour is routinely reminding Parliament, assaults on migrants have sharply risen since the announcement of Brexit. Currently living in multicultural North London, I find it deeply saddening to think that rifts are becoming more entrenched in British communities on the basis of race, religion and ethnicity.
Across the Atlantic, a startlingly similar set of circumstances are unfolding. Donald Trump’s demagogic demonization of Mexicans and Muslims has brought him to within an arm’s length of the American Presidency. Hate speech at his rallies has whipped up frenzies of violence in the heart of the United States. In addition to making degrading comments about women and LGBT people, Trump has proposed policies that could also broaden divisions between gender groups if he were to become President. One could also readily interpret his proposed Wall along the Mexican border as symptomatic of growing international divisions, which would almost definitely become enflamed should he make it to the Oval Office. During the Second Presidential Debate, Trump cited rising city violence as evidence that America had become a “very divided nation.” For Trump, such divisions are the result of successive inept administrations. Trump has been keen to present his opponent, Hilary Clinton, as part of a contemptuous liberal elite. Clinton, said Trump, could not be a President for all Americans due to her disdain towards his own supporters and the “tremendous hate in her heart.” Trump’s promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ presupposes that it has become a weak state. His bid for President rests on the idea that only his own rise to power, and his compassionate implementation of extraordinarily right-wing policies, can cure America of its ailments. Therefore, Trump has paradoxically contended that he can not only guarantee American strength but also ensure American unity by identifying enemies and building walls.
Clinton’s plan had been to optimistically assert that the USA had never lost its greatness. For many, this was seen as either tantamount to an endorsement of the political establishment or a denial that America does not work in the interest of the majority. In contrast, Bernie Sanders had vowed to end “the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America today.” This mission statement resonated widely. It made Sanders one of the most successful, self-described socialists in American political history to date. After Clinton had defeated Sanders at the Democrat Party’s Primaries, she assimilated some of his rhetoric. Over the course of the Presidential Debates, Clinton has been forced to concede that Trump’s “hateful and divisive campaign” had revealed that there exists a “divisiveness that sometimes sets Americans against one another.” Thus, in a similar vein to all of the politicians that I have discussed, Clinton is now promising to Americans that she will “heal our country and bring it together.”
Surely, Clinton is correct to say that Trump is offering the USA a “dark and dangerous vision” for the future. Many, many Americans have realised this. Consequently, we are left with a series of difficult questions. Why has Clinton failed to capitalise on the terrifying prospect of Trump becoming President? Why did the more traditional Republican nominees fail to oust Trump before the election race began in earnest? Why did Clinton struggle to wrestle the Democratic nomination for President from Sanders? Difficult questions are rife in Britain too. How has Corbyn so successfully pulled the rug from under the feet of his more centrist-Labour opposition? How have UKIP and the Tory Right determined the fate of Britain’s relationship with Europe?
The beauty of writing a blog about politics from the pub is that I can now afford to be a bit more polemical in trying to answer these questions. It seems to me that all the inexplicable and surprising political events of this year have all been part and parcel of the same phenomenon. You see, the reality is that all of these political actors have come to a common consensus and realised a hard truth. Britain and America are excessively, internally divided. These respective states may struggle to remain stable under the current conditions of dire economic inequality, political uncertainty and social unrest. To put it more metaphorically, these states are sick and their illnesses are on the brink of becoming terminal.
Under these fraught circumstances, a politics that does not offer dramatic solutions or wholescale reform is being dismissed as disingenuous and untrustworthy. So, moderate political forces like the Clintons, the British campaign to remain in the EU, or Labour-centrism have become unsavoury and unpalatable. Radicalisation towards both the Left and the Right are a result of this pattern and language of divisiveness. However, it is the Hard Right that presents the biggest threat by far. Generally, this is due to their aggression, racism and lack of sound reasoning. Figures like Trump the Tumour are the most malignant manifestations of the sickness that I have described. Moreover, although I have focused on Britain and America, Sick States can be found across the continent too.
However, no homogenous or unified movement has arisen either at home or abroad. Without unity or collaboration to remedy the Sick State, I think that even more turbulent times lie ahead.