Our society isn’t working out well for ordinary people right now. Every politician wants to appear a saviour, a fount of fresh ideas which will solve those problems. Yet this rebellion against the establishment seems to be repeatedly turning towards figures from the top of that existing order. The Czech Republic turned to the ANO party in the weekend’s elections, yet this supposedly anti-establishment force is led by the country’s 2nd richest man, Andrej Babis. The United States famously elected billionaire and TV rich man Donald Trump as President last year, whose campaign was predicated on ‘draining the swamp’, and similar anti-establishment positions. France turned its back on their established parties by electing Emmanuel Macron as President and giving his new party a majority in the National Assembly, yet he had come from a background as a Rothschild investment banker and finance minister in government.
Once in power, these figures have reaped their duly appropriate unpopularity(Trump is at -22, Macron at -20) thanks to continuing the economic orthodoxy, delivering exactly what they promised on the campaign trail. How did these figures manage to dichotomously be both integral to the establishment and seen as fresh opposition to it? I posit that the establishment has been redefined in cultural terms and our deified business leaders have been happy to step in and fight culture wars as a distraction against their advocacy for the status quo.
Politics at the end of history is no longer about politics. The rules of the game have been set in stone – neoliberalism, deregulation and privatisation. With no substantial economic changes considered viable in elections, they must be fought on other grounds. Identity politics and culture wars have filled this void. The coining of ‘political correctness’ by the US right in the 90s was a watershed moment, as defending the status quo was positioned as a rebellious stance.
The Third Way social democrats (Blair, Clinton and the ALP post-Whitlam) conceded to the right on economics, instead campaigning on social issues and what would become known as identity politics. Initially, the Third Way politicians fought for the rights of minorities, a laudable goal. But conservatives again twisted this progressive position into ‘protecting special interests’, and thus specifically white male identity politics were reborn as a rebellion against corruption. So from this, the conservative right staked out rebellious ground by advocating for the status quo, while progressive positions were redefined as establishment orthodoxy.
Politics has been atomised from the rest of society as a spectacle analogous to sports. Party membership is declining, while innumerate editorials bemoan the polarisation of politics – yet as seen above, party positions are closer than ever on many issues. We are now supporters of the red or blue team, rather than engaged with the policy and ideology they represent. As such, political figures are their own branch of celebrity, and anyone coming from outside that narrow church can be seen as against the political establishment. The artificial separation between politics and society has helped figures firmly from the social ruling class appear to be radical outsiders when they step across to the political sphere.
The societal myth of meritocracy necessary to maintain those neoliberal economics has also led to the deification of those at the top of our pyramid. Though top politicians are rightly seen as corrupt and not to be trusted, the businessmen who purchase their favour have escaped this reputation. Successful businesspeople like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are seen as more than just the managers and marketers they are, but instead as visionary leaders.
So when politics provides a dearth of leaders willing to challenge the established order we turn to businesspeople who are happy to fight against political correctness and identity politics, so long as they get to keep corporate tax rates low and carve off a slice of privatisation cake for themselves. Enablers within the media are happy to go along with these ‘rebels’, so long as they don’t represent any challenge to their owners interests. So we get these ‘anti-establishment’ leaders who hold truly conservative positions favouring both the cultural and economic status quo. Yet because they rebel against the paper tigers of political correctness and progressive identity politics, this is seen on the campaign trail as a rebellion worthy of the anti-establishment moniker and their media enablers push conservativism as the new punk rock, to prevent any real punks taking that space.
Once these conservative rebels get into power, it becomes clear that the emperor has no clothes, stopping political correctness won’t change the lives of the precariat in any meaningful way. Being able to call your neighbour a f*ggot isn’t of much use when you still can’t get a decent job. Yet without trustworthy political leaders who are willing to confront the real establishment, this situation will continue to repeat itself. Or maybe the invisible hand of the market will sort itself out and we can get back to the honest beige dictatorship.