If You Liked Neoliberalism, You’ll Love Nativism

I have finally got around to having a look at the Hansard Society survey that came out a few weeks ago. The audit caused something of a stir because it concluded that the public were sick of parliamentary democracy and wanted an authoritarian strongman to take over. As the Guardian reported:

The UK public is increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament, a long-running survey of attitudes to politics has shown.

Amid the Brexit chaos, overall public faith in the political system has reached a nadir not previously seen in the 16-year history of the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement, lower even than at the depths of the crisis over MPs’ expenses.

Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, the audit’s authors stated.

The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether ‘Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.

The report itself isn’t as striking as the Guardian makes out. There are key phrases that jump out at you – ‘People are pessimistic about the country’s problems and their possible solution, with sizeable numbers willing to entertain radical political changes’, ‘42% think it would be better if the government didn’t have to worry so much about parliamentary votes when tackling the country’s problems’ – but Hansard doesn’t seem to drill down as much as I’d like. I would like to have seen quotes from participants in their own words. What kind of radical changes? How has the country declined compared to say thirty years ago? The report does not say. It’s all a bit vague.

I am reminded of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist, the epitome of American liberalism. In 1964 she took part in the freedom rides where students travelled to Mississippi to help black southerners register to vote. Her book is about the time she spent with working class voters in rural Louisiana. Many were disillusioned with politics as usual and most planned to vote Trump in the 2016 election. Some of Hochschild’s subjects were enthusiastic, others viewed Trump as a lesser of two evils. The main sentiment in Lake Charles was anti government. Taxes were too high. The state should get off our backs. The Louisianans worked hard and lived in very close communities. If you lost your job or fell ill, it was okay to claim unemployment for a while; otherwise, your family and the local church would help out.

Hochschild asked a small businessman named Mike Schaff: ‘What has the federal government done that you feel grateful for?’

‘Hurricane relief.’ He pauses again.

‘The I-10…’ (a federally funded freeway). Another long pause.

‘Okay, unemployment insurance.’ He had once been briefly on it.

I suggest the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who check the safety of our food.

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘What about the post office that delivered the parts of that Zenith 701 you assembled and flew over Bayou Corn Sinkhole to take a video you put on YouTube?’

‘That came through FedEx.’

Hochschild’s book is a testament to the beautiful state of Louisiana and the warmth and kindness of its people. (It’s a quirk of human nature that small-town conservatives often display more compassion and solidarity than virtue signalling liberals.) Much of the story is animated by the various big corporate pollution scandals in local rivers and bayous. Debates rage over kitchen tables over how to clean the lakes. Strangers in Their Own Land is a masterwork of imaginative empathy, by someone who respects people enough to challenge them, and pick at their contradictions.

But my point really is that this kind of self sufficient libertarianism doesn’t exist in this country. Hansard’s focus groups likely had similar complaints to Mike Schaff, Sharon Galicia, Danny McCorquodale and Hochschild’s other friends in Lake Charles. But the British don’t want ‘government off their backs’. They voted for Brexit because they thought there would be more money for the NHS. Tories learned to win elections again through giveaways like Help to Buy. Britons tend to demand state-based solutions, and that raises the stakes so much higher.

My parents’ generation came of age in the postwar settlement when it was agreed that the state would provide. They had the NHS, a generous welfare system, free college education, a raft of entitlements and privileges. I do not envy them and I’m sure they struggled. My generation has more personal liberty and technological advances. British sociology from then to now has essentially been about people adapting from a welfare state communitarian society to a more neoliberal society with free information and entertainment.

It’s something I first noticed in the early 2010s when austerity hit. People had grown up with the assumption that the state will look after them and they find out the hard way that it doesn’t. The public want more council houses, more mortgage subsidies, more GP appointments, more roadworks, more post offices, more childcare, more benefits, more hospitals, more schools, more border guards, more cops, more jails. After all, the authoritarian strongman, the Trumps, the Putins, the Orbáns, they are nothing without the state apparatus of soldiers, police, spies and lawyers in stretching battalions behind them. And yes, these kind of demands tend to come from Britons of a certain age, too young for the war but old enough for the peace dividend (although again, the Hansard Society is maddeningly vague on this).

But there is a danger in wishing more powers for the state. We don’t really get this in the UK because we never lived under a dictatorship. We never lived in the godforsaken parts of twentieth century Europe where you had to bribe three separate border authorities to get a day pass to leave your village. The idea of losing the right to live and work in 27 countries didn’t impact on the Brexit debate. It didn’t feel like a loss.

That’s why people are casual about the idea of expanding state powers. Another frequent demand I noticed in the austerity years was that the state should crack down on one particular group, or take entitlements from another particular group. We are too casual about letting the state intervene in other people’s lives, and like I say, it raises the stakes. It could be that this is the end of the neoliberal age and my generation are going to find out what authoritarianism is. Housing benefit, predator drones – they come from the same place.

Research pollster Matthew Goodwin says all this is alarmist. He writes: ‘When prominent Remainers compare Eurosceptics to Nazis, or modern-day Britain to the Weimar Republic, they are engaging in something that has defined much of our post-referendum debate: liberal ‘catastrophising’ – a cognitive distortion leading them to expect, and become obsessed by, the worst of all possible outcomes.’ I hope he is right – but it’s no comfort to say that we’re not headed to a contemporary Third Reich. A variant on Erdoğan’s Turkey or Law and Justice Poland would be grim enough. A country doesn’t have to go too far into fascism to shatter lives, or make changes that can’t be taken back.

I think politicians and activists of all kinds should be very careful what they wish for.

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