Navigating dark times

By Martin Vogel

This is the second of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 1 explored the anxiety that political upheaval can evoke.

I am not in denial about Brexit. I am an enthusiast for the intent of the European Union, to work together to overcome nationalism and avoid war, but not for its sclerotic inability to reform itself. I accept that, for now, the Government is obliged to try to make Brexit happen. I could see some opportunity in this if Britain and its European partners were able to enter into negotiations fully engaged in understanding what the Brexit vote has to say to both sides.

But I am alarmed that leaders in public office are conniving with the populist mood to shut down collaborative enquiry as to what Brexit could be. Instead of bringing the nation together in common endeavour, the Prime Minister aligns with those who shout down any expression of scepticism and who inflame fears that the referendum result might be subverted.

I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the status quo ante. It’s long been our contention here at Vogel Wakefield that the socio-economic settlement of the past three or four decades has broken down and we are in the midst of an inter-regnum. The existing order suffered a collapse of trust after the financial collapse. Not just the banks but organisations of all descriptions and across sectors were revealed to be dysfunctional and self-serving. The system as a whole was seen to have been reconfigured around the interests of crony capitalism.

Brexit, Trump and the populist wave in Europe signal a movement against globalisation that has long been apparent on the left. But globalisation remains a potent force for improving conditions around the world. As Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato, explain, it is the political choices around globalisation – the dismantling of social contracts, the unjust distribution of the gains of growth – that have caused the breakdown of support:

“Globalisation and technological change did not need to lead to the hollowing out of skilled jobs and downward pressure on median incomes on the scale that has occurred in the US or UK. It is governments’ ability to shape and create markets, and to negotiate their terms and conditions, that determines the kind of economy that emerges from these global and technological forces. The tragedy of globalisation over the last 30 years is that it has occurred at the same time as the dominance of an economic orthodoxy that saw the state retreat from active economic management. The precise opposite was required: as international trade – which increases national income but brings inequality and geographic dislocation – expanded, what was needed was a more active state redistributing its rewards to develop the productive economy and to ensure fairer outcomes.”

We’ve always argued that leaders, wherever they are, have a role to play in shaping a socio-economic order that works for the benefit of everyone. As long as they failed to do so, it was likely that the shift away from neoliberalism would enter a darker, more troubling turn. That ship seems to have sailed. What has changed in the six months since Brexit is that it’s now clear there’s much more at stake than advocacy for a fairer economy. There is a higher-order imperative to defend democracy and the rule of law.

The strongest indication of this is not the emergence of demagogues and nationalism in the mainstream of the body politic, but a fashionable cynicism about democratic values among those you might expect to be on the side of liberalism. This cynicism ranges from those in the Conservative Government who fail in their duty to defend the judiciary to those of more progressive bent who equate democracy with authoritarianism. I am heartened by the emergence of groups such as More United and Common Ground, who – though fragmented – are trying to build a movement for the revitalisation of liberal values. But, for the most part, the litany of despair is all too reminiscent of Weimar Germany. Making the same analogy, the politics scholar, Martin O’Neill, offers this quote from the philosopher, John Rawls:

“A cause of the fall of Weimar’s constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime to be possible. Its time had past.”

– John Rawls, Preface to the paperback edition of Political Liberalism, 1996

Writing of the predicament facing Americans with President Trump, but applying equally to Britons faced with a government floundering at the scale of the Brexit challenge, Martin O’Neill speaks of the tasks that fall to each of us individually to help democracy pull through:

“Bad government places severe strains on the citizenry to try to go on living in a way that treats democratic values with full seriousness; but that responsibility is not one that can be shirked.Without individual citizens shouldering this responsibility—and where necessary resisting, objecting, cajoling, and speaking out—and thereby collectively navigating to better political times ahead, there is no guarantee of the survival of a legitimate and worthwhile political system. Good regimes can end, and democracies can turn into tyrannies.”

I wrote in the immediate wake of the Brexit vote that if ever there was a time for distributed leadership, this is it. Distributed leadership can take many forms. But the first, and most important task, is self-leadership: steeling oneself to maintain decent values as they come under assault. I don’t invoke this assault as a theoretical contingency. As Nick Cohen describes, an offensive is under way to delegitimise ideas that should be part of public debate:

“Supporters of Brexit shout about ‘enemies of the people’ and denounce ‘Remoaners’ with all the venom of men and women who have lost rather than won the biggest political struggle of their lives. They demand their opponents pass loyalty tests, as if we were living in a dictatorship. They do not allow you to say the referendum result betrayed our country’s best interests. They instruct you to play the hypocrite and pretend to believe what you know to be untrue. Be warned. Refuse to go along with the political correctness of the right and you will feel ‘the people’s’ wrath.”

It’s instructive to learn from those who are familiar with how democracies descend into tyrannies. They are sounding the alarm in the US, prompted by the election of Donald Trump. The advice they consistently offer is to defend your mind against the normalisation of the abhorrent. Sarah Kendzior urges people to take stock now of their sense of self, the better to resist compromise down the line:

“Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today. Write your biography, write down your memories. Because if you do not do it now, you may forget. Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them. Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them.”

Here’s Liel Liebovitz, learning from the experience of his grandfather, who fled the Nazis:

“Refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal. Not now, not ever. In the months and years to come, decisions will be made that may strike you as perfectly sound, appointments announced that are inspired, and policies enacted you may even like. Friends and pundits will reach out to you and, invoking nuance, urge you to admit that there’s really nothing to fear, that things are more complex, that nothing is ever black or white. It’s a perfectly sound argument, of course, but it’s also dead wrong: This isn’t about policy or appointments or even about outcomes. This isn’t a political contest—it’s a moral crisis. When an inexperienced, thin-skinned demagogue rides into office by explaining away immensely complex problems while arguing that our national glory demands we strip millions of their dignity or their rights, our only duty is to resist by whatever means permitted us by law… When the levers of power are seized by the small hands of hateful men, you work hard, you stand with those who are most vulnerable, and you don’t give up until it’s morning again.”

And Masha Gassen offers the following rules for survival:

  • Believe the autocrat: he means what he says.
  • Do not be taken in by small signs of normality: they tend to get overwhelmed by the catastrophe.
  • Institutions will not save you: they are captured remarkably quickly.
  • Be outraged: it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
  • Don’t make compromises: in autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is amoral and corrupting.
  • Remember the future: nothing lasts for ever, and imagining a better future is the precondition for bringing it about.

In short, the advice of these writers is: take stock of what your values are now; refuse to normalise the abhorrent; and work hard to imagine a better future. The last of these is the subject of my next post.

Image courtesy Peter Lambert.