Editor at ReformerMag, Writing on Governance, Institution, and Liberalism.

Privilege, Social Security, and Nationalism

The overwhelming use of divisive politics across this year has been alarming. Even more shocking is the proliferating effect it has had on the overall discourse seen on a basic and individual level. This “trickle down” effect, unlike the one that never came via Neo-liberal economics, has left much to be desired from political rhetoric emerging from both conservative and liberal camps.

On the liberal front, the embroidery of policies and political speeches in character assassination and the appeal to followers on the basis of identity politics, has left a vacuum in the form of no coherent and comprehensive platform for liberals to rally around—leaving no concrete plan of action in the face of social concerns, growing environmental problems, and increased corporate involvement in political discourse. This has translated to the near split of the labour party in the UK and the more than apparent dishonesty the DNC has displayed through its primary election process.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have fully engrossed themselves as the champions of austerity and neo-liberal “Trickle-down Economics”, enforced through a misplaced understanding of national pride. Paradoxically, conservatives have also provided an outward and budding love towards isolationism. From Trumps talk against international trade deals and the removal of regulations — mimicked in the UK through the Leave vote on Brexit — demands imposing protectionism on global competition making it very difficult to understand how, according to the rules of neoliberal economics, these steps will fix the economic challenges they face.

Liberals become the very thing they despise

In today’s world, it would seem that the liberal movement that has been built on the principles of individuality, diplomacy, and freedom of speech, has now become the first to denigrate any outside opinion as “right wing” or dangerous. The movement welcomes refugees openly and keenly looks to integrate outside cultures and viewpoints, as they should, but seems to be allergic to any form of criticism from a domestic or even internal front.

In the context of social issues, liberals are the first to point out the role that privilege has in maintaining unjust social distributive norms, an argument also used to explain sexism. The argument goes that the unconscious power held by those with privilege reinforces cycles of oppression and down plays the legitimacy of the issues being raised by the oppressed.

How ironic it is then to watch liberal student unions use their elected powers, a privilege, to ban speakers and censor things from songs to Halloween costumes. Of course, the argument can be made that within the big pictures these are only micro-issues, but liberals also have a highly convincing argument on the importance of micro-issues so I will leave it for them to deconstruct their own paradoxes.

On a grander scale, this translates to a much scarier image. Brexiters have been branded as nothing more than racist, bigoted, and vacant of intelligence. While as in the US, supporters of Donald trump have been called a “basket of deplorables” by Hilary Clinton, even though she then went on to apologize in her second debate for aiming her frustration at Trump supporters and not Trump himself.

But the reductionist views don’t stop there, and the media is quick to jump on board. And when the very role of the fourth estate to elaborate on the political nuances that politicians are quick to brush away disintegrates, then the public is left with nowhere to turn but against itself.

If liberals wish to continue to stand on a fabricated self-righteous moral high ground speaking down to “white middle class labourers” or “privileged cisgender white males” or any other sort of simplified notion of a sectioned society, how is it that they seek to build a national movement to empower all?

Perplexingly, the ability to have an awareness of social and political issues in a local and global context is a privilege in and of itself. It means that one has had the privilege to be educated in these fields, even if through their own trials of tribulations. It is that very privilege that, to use another favourite of liberal discourse, “empowers” them to sneer at “others” with the label of “stupid” for holding different beliefs based on different experiences.

The threat of this dichotomous relationship with liberalism is not just a danger for national discourse, it’s also a shot in the foot for liberalism itself. For how is it that liberalism is supposed to push for progress if their hypotheses are the only ones given primacy, creating a reinforcing echo chamber?

With this exclusionary and exceptional view, it becomes easy to misplace the basis for liberal arguments against conservatism and even racism and gender inequality. An automatic association is built, yes to refugees, no to war, yes to abortion, no to the death sentence, yes for censorship of unattainable beauty standards, yes to censorship of offensive Halloween costumes, no to censorship of women’s rights to wear what they want. Why these positions are held, and indeed more importantly, a principled answer as to how they should be upheld, is lost on most liberals who find it more than easy to construct models of criticism than models of progress.

Death by society

On the other hand of this equation is the current interpretation of republicanism and conservatism. In the classical sense, American republicanism and indeed conservatism, have always been in contrast with the leftist notion of central governance. The conservative belief being, that it is smaller government that will help produce the optimal venue for personal liberties. In its current interpretation however, conservatism has taken a puritanical and indeed religious form, where small government is a concept reserved to no realm other than that of economics.

This can easily be seen in the current “fear mongering” promoted in Europe and the US where the rhetoric of either preserving or returning to an older, purer, state away from “demographic changes” seems to be the winning card. To achieve this puritanical state, conservatives are more than happy to elicit large government intervention and sweeping laws on security equitable to those presented by dystopian novels.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis this rhetoric was paired with another equally destructive one, austerity. In favour of job creation and the saving of large corporations, especially financial institutions, conservatives were more than willing to cut government support to social systems of support. This, they believed, was entirely in line with conservative interpretations of “small government”, but it also turns a blind eye to what makes a democracy function: a balanced and informed public.

What austerity then created is a disastrous breaking point on society’s balance, a society starved of access to basic needs from health, education, and employment, which robs them of the ability to operate as active, informed, political citizens.

The literal translation of “small government” has led conservatives to forget that an even playing field is not an abandonment of the rules of competition presented by liberal economic theory, but ensures that competition is fair, and displays itself in the healthy way leading to progress. Neo-liberalism on the other hand has come to propagate the nightmarish hypothesis that the free hand will somehow come to fill the vacuum created by the removal of public funds from schools, museums, hospitals, and pensions; an utterly irrational notion especially as the market operates on the sole premise of scarcity of resource.

The removal of social security, through austerity, has removed the very things that propelled progress, individual ingenuity. Without social security to maintain social balance and empower individual merit, creativity, and ingenuity, society has become fractioned between those who, through leveraging wealth, have no need to be innovative and no interest in societal progress, those who are employed and are faithfully fulfilling the role of producer/consumer which through austerity has become the only way to self-maintain, and those who have been left out to dry with no support. With austerity, conservatives have found the perfect way to suffocate the spirit of a nation.

Equally as important as the effect that austerity has on a nation, is how conservative governments were allowed to pass such notions to begin with. To succeed at this they leaned on divisive politics, social security, also known as social safety nets stopped being displayed as a tool to ensure social and national longevity through individual support. Social security became a tool for the unproductive individual looking to leach off of the hard work of other citizens, “nothing comes for free”, “you need to earn it”, these became the place cards of conservative politicians and the message proliferated among their supporters. With this swift move the 2008 financial crisis, and indeed any potential financial issue, stops being the responsibility of the government and in turn the politicians and frees them of any need for accountability. Instead the blame is conveniently placed on those weakest in society—those fired by the companies saved by the government so they can try and meet shareholder targets and pay out bonuses or refugees escaping war looking to integrate.

Ironically, conservatives themselves have noticed the failings of these neoliberal politics. Unfortunately, instead of embracing what FDR realized 72 years ago, the unalienable truth that an economically fragmented society cannot produce human progress, conservatives have turned to protectionism, a leftist notion based in the importance of central government.

The paradoxical nature of the newfound conservative agenda of protectionism, which, if anything, limits the advent of competition and in turn the need for innovation as per capitalistic doctrine, can be seen as nothing but conservatives’ feeble attempt to fix the faults caused by their endorsement of austerity. And just like their initial policy, this one will do nothing but fail.

Misplaced Nationalism

Economic protectionism is not the only thing conservatives are bringing to the table in their manifesto. Nationalism is also in full swing. But this is not like a nationalism we have seen before (or it can be argued that it dangerously is), this nationalism is not built on the strength of our shared humanity and in the ability of a nation to forge practices and systems that propel progress, but a nationalism based on archaic notions of isolation and exceptionalism. And unfortunately it has found its resonance with the people.

Now, conservatives can successfully shift the blame for the failure of their economic policy on globalization and the demonization of the other. In the US it’s a far cry from the republicanism of the mid 40’s and early 50’s were nationalism was built on America’s international role in a post-world war era.

In the UK, Theresa May’s rejection of globalism has seen her go as far as saying “if you are a citizen of the world, then you are a citizen of nowhere”. This rhetoric does nothing but further political divisiveness and silence anyone else with opposing views.

The danger in this exceptionalistic nationalism is that it doesn’t only mean that you need to belong to a nation to be considered a citizen, but that now the state, or its leader, is to become the ultimate authority on who is or isn’t a citizen. In the US we’ve seen this rhetoric applied on those with different religions; in the UK it seems to include anyone who holds more than one citizenship or even consider themselves worldly, worse yet, based on who the government considers worldly.

This rejection of internationalisation is ultimately a rejection of humanity on a global and national scale. It is the crawling back into the shell of autocracy where at a whim, those in power can decide who is or isn’t the enemy, and with a population that would be none the wiser thanks to an austerity that has stripped them of the information they need to understand that ultimately the only enemy that could be, is that of authority.

On a domestic level, this breed of nationalism is even more catastrophic than imperialism, for even imperialism was outwardly facing in that it sought to understand the greater world albeit through conquest. Now the outer-world is to be replaced with whatever limited schema fits the narrative of those who wish to return a nation to its glory of old, a glory not based in rhetoric, not based in the ideal that it is the understanding of what makes us human which makes us better at creating systems of governance and progress.

If there is one thing that this strategy has positively lead to, it is the realization that many of the institutions pointed by the leaders of these “nationalistic” movements are indeed broken. This seems to give these leaders, be it Trump or those who have championed Brexit an allure of credibility and leadership. Of course this would be misplaced, but when compared to the “other option” which is the maintenance of the status quo it becomes easy to see how such movements can garner support. However, scratch the surface and it would be quick to reveal itself that the only things these leaders are pedalling is a-politics, a platform with no substantial drive beyond that of the exploitation of rightful anger in pursuit of self-serving power.

Liberals here are also not free of guilt. For some unexplainable reason they have adapted the stance of nationalism being at odds with internationalism and proceed with automatically dismissing it as a legitimate and important political tool for mobilisation. This dismissiveness not only helps in further entrenching those looking to revive it, however falsely but also ends up creating a sense of distance between their abilities, and duty, to influence change as citizens through local and national engagement irrespective of how outward facing they are.

No love lost

This regressive and divisive nature of both conservative and liberal politics, or lack thereof, is by all means suffocating. Yet, it remains important for us to reject the notion that politics has failed, for politics remains at the end of the day our only recourse to action, it has born its life out of our need to organize and that is a need which will be ever present.

The bleakness of this situation is exacerbated by the fact that it remains difficult to see political movements be reformed from within, a notion providing weight to new nationalistic leaders and fuelling group polarization hardening equally paradoxical stances. If history has taught us anything it is that eventually, these paradoxes will crumble under their own weight, but before, and with that crumbling, an inescapable price will have to be paid by society. Therefore, it remains important that we move to pre-empt this.As such, we must entrench ourselves not in our own points of view, but in classical discourse and debate. We must challenge the standpoints held by those on both sides of the aisle until we are able to crack through the paradoxical rhetoric these camps have set up to protect themselves in isolation. And although this might seem like an arduous task it requires us nothing more of us than to educate ourselves of the facts behind our own arguments. With this we can revive Liberal debate away from its condescension, reinstate the importance of a socially secured and balanced society, and re-find nationalism in purpose built systems of governance with the individual at its centre, a unifying goal sought by conservatives and liberals alike away from the convenient mirage of a-politics.

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