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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-01-2019 09:58

Looking for something really different

“A huge number of very impatient people are frantically looking for an alternative to what they see as an unsatisfactory status quo.”

When the prospects facing the world seem bright, the great and the good flock to Davos to exchange compliments with their peers and, while about it, let commoners know that, thanks to their wise stewardship, humanity’s future is in safe hands. But when the outlook is gloomy, many prefer to give the annual get-together in the town on Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain a miss. In winter, the streets of Davos can be dangerously slippery and it would not be in their interest to be seen doing something that would give their critics a chance to mock them.

Apart from Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe, Jair Bolsonaro was one of the few highranking political figures to turn up. Brazil’s new president took advantage of his moment in the spotlight to inform his fellow potentates and others that Latin America would no longer be dominated by the Left. In the light of what has happened recently in the region, it was an unsurprising prediction. Thanks to the corruption, incompetence and, all too often, the murderous violence that has characterised regimes with revolutionary pretensions, for now at any rate their creed has been thoroughly discredited.

Old-fashioned leftists who have, like their conservative adversaries, always shown a proper respect for civil liberties and freedom of expression, can plausibly argue that Venezuela’s sui generis regime has nothing much to do with the principles they believe in. But while they are fully entitled to feel aggrieved when accused of sharing responsibility for the blunders and worse committed by alleged left-wingers such as Nicolás Maduro and the late Hugo Chávez, they should have distanced themselves from them long before Venezuela went into meltdown.

In any event, though the aspirations the Left has traditionally claimed to stand for – such as less economic inequality and a better deal for people at the bottom of the heap – remain very much with us, the politicians who have best managed to exploit the wave of discontent that has swept over most Western countries are those who, according to defenders of the existing order, should be regarded either as irresponsible “populists” or, if they are aggressive enough, extreme rightwingers. To the indignation of leftists, the newcomers have stolen their clothes.

They have managed to do so because, on both sides of the Atlantic, a huge number of very impatient people are frantically looking for an alternative to what they see as an unsatisfactory status quo. This is why, in the United States, millions who four years earlier had backed Barack Obama choose to support Donald Trump, and why in Brazil people who months before would have been happy to see Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva return to the presidential palace put their faith in Bolsonaro, and why in Europe, former Communists now vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Matteo Salvini’s League or the Alternative for Germany.

Emmanuel Macron was a beneficiary of the almost universal desire to see someone radically different from one of the old lot in power, but enthusiasm for him quickly abated when it dawned on the French that he was just a smoother, more energetic and decidedly more arrogant version of his predecessor in the Élysée, François Hollande.

It is easy to understand just why most Westerners feel the world is heading in the wrong direction. For much of the working class and, what is even more alarming, for more and more members of the middle class, incomes have either remained static for decades or have shrunk. In societies in which it was long taken for granted that, provided you worked hard and obeyed the rules, your own future and that of your descendants would get steadily better, seeing yourself sliding backwards is a traumatic experience.

Such people demand explanations for the unpleasant things that are happening to them, their relatives and their neighbours, but the ones that are forthcoming do nothing to console them. Telling them that they are caught up in a demographic nightmare caused by their contemporaries’ reluctance to have children, are getting battered by headlong technological progress which is rendering them surplus to requirements, or that from now on they will simply have to compete with the famously hard-working Chinese, Indians and others, is not enough to persuade many that there is nothing much the local government can do to better their lot.

All the remedies that are under discussion have their drawbacks. For sound actuarial reasons, current pension schemes – among them Argentina’s – will, as the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde said a couple of days ago, have to be subjected to some drastic reforms because people are living far longer than in the past, but most governments prefer to do nothing for fear of what an angry populace would do to them.

Attempts to plug the gap left by the steep drop in the birth rate by importing millions of, at best, semiliterate young men from Africa, the Middle East and wider afield, many of whom have forthright views about religious matters and proper behaviour, have given rise to a multitude of problems and fragmented once cohesive communities. As for hopes that sending almost everyone to university would enable entire social classes to do the intellectually demanding work that would be available after the ongoing technological revolution had finished off most traditional jobs, they always owed more to wishful thinking than to a serious analysis of what the average person is capable of learning.

This year’s Davos “summit,” like previous ones, saw plenty of warnings from grandees of one kind or another about what would happen unless we “saved the planet” from polluters and faced up to the dangers posed by “populism,” nationalism, the proliferation of “fake news” on social media, trade wars, the slowdown in global growth and much else. Although most of the participants believe themselves to be progressives, their approach to such matters is distinctly conservative; they want to put the clock back to an era in which, they imagine, problems seemed more straightforward than they have become. Unless they come up with something more inspiring, the guerrilla war “populists” are waging against the entrenched elites will get fiercer by the day.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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