The journalistic cliche du jour – ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ – from WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ was quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than any other year in the past three decades. It’s telling that liberal pundits, blind-sided by Trump’s popularity and unable to square him and his message with their worldview, reached for a poem overflowing with apocalyptic imagery about the end of days. In the immediate aftermath of the US election, the unimaginable had become reality: the pussy-grabber had his hands on the nuclear codes. The Trumpocalypse was real.
Naturally, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, but also in the midst of rising proto-fascism is Eastern Europe, an increasingly nationalist India and China, and the fragmentation of traditional political parties and institutions throughout the West, Australian commentators asked: when is this nation’s equivalent moment going to come? This question rests on an understanding of what the moment actually is – something not easily diagnosed.
What is clear, although ignored by many of the cultural warriors, is that there is both an economic and cultural element to the recent political upheavals. One can argue about which came first and which predominates, but they’re inextricably linked and they feed off one another. Whilst these ruptures, particularly in liberal democracies, have a distinct national character that makes no two exactly the same, there are enough commonalities to suggest some underlying causes.
The danger lies in seeing Trump or Brexit as an aberration, rather than a reaction to and by-product of liberalism. The received wisdom is that liberalism is somehow virtuous and inherently good. But this formulation makes it impossible to understand why politicians saying openly fascistic things are garnering wide support in supposedly principled liberal democracies. But, as Ishay Landa has shown, ‘the liberal order significantly contributed to fascism, informing many of its far reaching manifestations‘. Fascism is, after all, essentially an extreme, reactionary attempt to solve the crises of liberalism and save the bourgeoisie from itself.
There seem to be serious questions about whether capitalism, particularly in its current, virulently pro-free market form, can exist alongside democracy. Their respective orientations are diametric opposites: capitalism exalts the individual, whereas democracy is a collective attempt at governing. The myth that democracy and capitalism are natural bedfellows, which has gone largely unquestioned by liberal pundits since the 1970s, now seems fanciful. Yet, its specter remains, and is so ingrained in the way we understand the world that it is hard to think past it – this explains, in part, much of the commentary around the election results that the ‘experts’ didn’t see coming. But it wasn’t all that long ago that the tension between capitalism and democracy was more widely understood, and many politicians thought it incumbent upon them to guard against the danger inherent in the concentration of capital and power.
On 8 May, 1946, Kurt Schumacher, the first leader of post-War German Social Democracy, who spent nearly the entire Nazi period in concentration camps, summed up the lessons of Nazism:
German intellectual history, and German political history and the German economic class interests of the big landowners, have inexorably led to the point, that in the future democracy in Germany must be socialistic or it will be nothing at all. Democracy demands socialism, and socialism demands democracy. For this realisation, comrades, we must fight, and we shall fight.
The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, having grown up in a country that was a latecomer to modernity, approaches the current crisis from a different perspective. It has its origins, he argues, in the Enlightenment, and is best understood via Rousseau, who was alienated from the world of wealth, privilege and vanity that characterised the lives of his contemporary Enlightenment thinkers, like Voltaire. Rousseau – an outsider and rival to the urbane philosophes – was one of the first to understand that, to borrow from Nietzsche, the ‘death of God’ would lead to an inherently unstable state. Power ‘lacking theological foundations or transcendent authority’, writes Mishra, ‘could only be possessed temporarily and it condemned the rich and poor alike to a constant state of ressentiment and anxiety.’ But God wasn’t killed, in as much as he was superseded by ‘the irrepressibly glamorous god of materialism’.
Australian society bears many of the same marks – a growing sense of alienation and anomie, and a pervading feeling that perhaps the future won’t be better than the present. Why, then, hasn’t Australia had its own (for want of a better phrase) Trump moment?
Some of these reasons are unquestionably accidents of design: compulsory voting, preferential voting and the way state electoral funding is distributed based on votes won, which makes it difficult for minor parties to compete with major parties, have meant that Australia’s voting system has been insulated in ways that other countries’ systems have not. But more significantly, Australia was spared the worst effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. The national economy’s heavy reliance on China’s continued importation of Australian minerals meant that while almost all developed economies experienced a significant downturn, Australia escaped relatively unscathed.
What happens, then, if this unprecedented period of growth comes to an end? What happens if Australia experiences a crisis on the scale of the global financial crisis? (It should be in front of mind that, as Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out, crises are the rule, not the exception under capitalism.) There are any number of forcible economic hazards: a housing crash, which exposes Australia’s dangerously high levels of household debt; a rise in unemployment, or, perhaps, a significant slowing in China’s growth (which no one really has any reliable data on).
There’s no reason to believe in Australian exceptionalism – that a financial crisis won’t foment a political one seems, in the current global climate and with the general ineptitude of this nation’s centralist politicians, difficult to believe. Indeed, one can perhaps see the first manifestations of it in the growing support for independents and minor parties, even at a time when Australia remains one of the best performing developed economies in the world.
The government will be hoping, of course, that things don’t fall apart; that the centre canhold.
When commentators invoke Yeats’ poem they do so to warn against extremism; the centre holding is, in their approximation, an unquestionably good thing. But the centre is not fixed; it’s defined by its relation to the Left and the Right. What if, in an effort to hold the centre, it no longer remains a sensible or reasonable position, but one that panders to the worst racist and xenophobic elements in Australian culture?
The darkest moments in Australia’s history haven’t been perpetrated by extremists, but by the establishment centralists, often with broad public support: the Black Line in Tasmania and the genocidal policies of early colonial governments; the White Australia policy; support for the Vietnam War; the Intervention in the Northern Territory and support for the Iraq War, to name but a few.
Today, the national discourse is increasingly toxic: barely a day goes by without a politician or pundit making broad, sweeping, uninformed statements about Islam and Muslims. Many of these self-styled freedom-lovers call for punitive, anti-democratic actions in contravention of the rule of law against people who’ve committed no crime but, largely because of their faith, are considered a threat.
In an increasingly fragmented society, is this what trying to hold the centre looks like? Do some minorities – Muslims, ‘boat people’, foreign workers here to ‘steal our jobs’, etc. – have to be sacrificed to save the majority? Toward the end of An Age of Anger, Mishra writes:
Forcibly confined to zones of abandonment, containment, surveillance and incarceration, the class of the excluded performs yeoman service as the feared ‘others’ in unequal societies. They are both scapegoats for the race- and class-based anxieties of many insecure individuals and the raison d’etre of a growing industry of violence.
The centre may hold for some but, already, things are falling apart for ‘others’.
(This was originally published in Overland on 29th June, 2017.)