Politics is in bad odour, not just here but also in most other parts of the world where more and more people are coming to the conclusion that its practitioners are only interested in their own personal welfare. This may be unfair; many really do want “to make a difference,” by which they mean a positive one, but even if they do enjoy some success, their efforts rarely have much effect on their profession’s collective reputation. For it to improve, living standards in their respective countries would have to keep rising fast enough to satisfy the habitually disgruntled, but this is not happening anywhere.
Even China is fast slowing down, as did Japan after decades of headlong growth that so impressed outsiders that some went so far as to predict that she would soon overtake the United States and become top nation. While China – whose per capita income, according to the available statistics, is less than half that of Japan which, in any case, now lags behind that of many European countries – could soon recover, her current troubles are adding to the worldwide gloom because Westerners have come to rely on her ability to churn out vast quantities of cheap consumer goods. Without them, making ends meet will be much harder than it already is for hundreds of millions of people.
Confronted by the Covid pandemic, much of the planet went into voluntary hibernation and emerged about a year later far weaker than before. Then came Vladimir Putin’s war, which immediately drove up energy prices, made democratic countries send large packets of aid to the embattled Ukrainians and promise to increase military spending back home. To help people get through the pandemic, most governments had indulged in what is euphemistically called “quantitative easing” – the creation of money ex nihilo – and borrowed billions to be repaid sometime in the distant future. They all pretended to be surprised when inflation suddenly reappeared. An annual rate of 10 or even 20 percent may seem miniscule by Argentine standards, but in wealthy counties it is anything but.
To handle what is happening, governments make out that, after a period of belt-tightening that can be blamed on Putin, things will return to normal. Will they, or rather, can they? Perhaps not. Even before the coronavirus went on the attack, there were plenty of signs that an epoch was approaching its end and that the next one would be very different. Talk about a “fourth industrial revolution” powered by computers, the phasing out of old-fashioned petrol-guzzling cars, the rapid replacement of fossil fuels by windmill farms and solar panels, followed by a “great reset” involving just about everything, may have gone down splendidly in places like Davos, but it sounded downright sinister to people who were worried about their own prospects, and those of their children, if they had any. Fertility rates are nose-diving just about everywhere, which is another sign that something has gone badly amiss.
For understandable reasons, politicians, confronted as they are by a wide range of seemingly intractable problems, feel increasingly inclined to leave them in the hands of alleged experts and then, as they are told they should, do their best to “follow the science,” as they dutifully did when the pandemic went on a rampage and, a couple of months before that, when many solemnly promised to refrain from leaving “carbon footprints” behind them. Few seem to have thought much about the costs of reshaping the international economy to make it more eco-friendly, especially for people who are already living on the edge, but as most of these are individuals such as the French gilets jaunes who evidently have yet to grasp that they are morally obliged to do their bit in the struggle against climate change by going hungry, their objections tend to be overlooked.
Since the middle of the last century, North Americans, Western Europeans, Australians and Japanese have been living in what many have called “the age of the common man,” a period in which, for the first time in human history, men and women without inherited wealth, useful contacts or unusual talents, could reasonably aspire to an unprecedented degree of comfort and security. If this by no means trouble-free but by and large satisfying epoch is about to end, to stay in business politicians will have to choose between going rogue by leading a populist revolt and trying to explain to those liable to be sidelined that what is happening is not their fault, that they too are the victims of changes that are not to their liking but which neither they nor anyone else can hope to prevent.
Donald Trump has shown that there are more than enough people out there who feel their part of the world has lost its way and will vote for anyone who says he can make it change course. Arrayed against him are politicians supported mainly by progressive middle-class urbanites and ethnic “minorities” who have elbowed out the working-class whites who once provided democrats with most of the votes they needed to stay in office. Were blacks and “Hispanics” to come to the conclusion that they have more in common with those whites who have lost ground thanks to globalisation, the Democrat coalition would find it even harder to keep at bay the Republican Party, which in its latest incarnation appeals to the traditionalist sentiments which are shared by many who have recently been impoverished or suspect that they soon could be.
While Trump and others like him will in all likelihood fail to halt the technological juggernaut that is threatening their “base,” they will certainly not be the only politicians who manage to win power by exploiting the fears of those who see it bearing down upon them. Though denounced as extreme right-wingers by those who assume they will not be harmed by the changes coming their way, leaders of movements much like Trump’s have in effect replaced leftists as defenders of the immediate interests of those near the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. In many countries, they have enjoyed a considerable degree of electoral success of late and, the way things are shaping up, will in all probability continue to do so in the months and years to come.