Sunday 23 October 2016

Populism, the new victimhood, and the rise of anti-everythingism

The people have spoken. They have given the establishment a wallop, and TV stars rule the world, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

DISCONTENT: Young anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street in London. Photo: PA
DISCONTENT: Young anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street in London. Photo: PA

Does anyone even know how to do a Brexit? Do they know where to start? But more importantly, how far are we going to go with all this? The truth right now is probably that if we put any daft notion up for a referendum and gave equal weight to the nutty option, then about half the people will vote for the nutty option. The people, with their sacrosanct, sophisticated, divine democratic rights have got a taste for giving the establishment a wallop. And the latest developments on that front seems to be that the flaky guy from Have I Got News for You is going to be UK PM and the mad guy off The Apprentice is possibly going to be the leader of the free world. And they're not even the right guys off those two shows. Most sane people would probably prefer Hislop or Merton to be PM and Alan Sugar, or even Bill Cullen, to be president of America.

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The narrative now is one of unfolding revolution. So the era of middle-aged and old, white men ruling the world is apparently over and they are being replaced with, well, different middle-aged and old, white men. The radical revolutionary rump is represented right now in the US by a billionaire who grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and in the UK by a public school Tory toff. The left, which has lost any kind of moral compass, professes to hate these guys but is, in some strange way, on the same side as them. They are all apparently against the status quo. They are all apparently against the establishment. They are all apparently speaking to the apparent common man and woman. They are speaking plain truth to and hearing the voice of the man on the street who is not being listened to by the establishment any more.

Trump is apparently in touch with the blue collar workers of the rust belt in a way that Hillary Clinton, a member of the Washington elite, is apparently not. This billionaire property developer is apparently an outsider while Hillary is an insider. Trump is shaking up the system and sticking it to The Man. And Boris is more in touch with the common man than his fellow Eton toff and member of the 1pc Dave. And Trump and Boris are speaking uncomfortable truths apparently. Trump isn't even bothering to use a dog whistle for his anti-immigration views, while Boris lets Farage deal with the more unseemly side of the Little Englander narrative.

But they are all on the same side, which is a bizarre tapestry of anti-everythingism. It is about presenting as outsiders while blaming outsiders for everything. With Trump it's more obvious. At least Trump is open about it. Blame the Mexicans and the Muslims. Even if the shooter was born in America, blame the immigration policy that let his parents in. Boris and the Brexiteers are more subtle. They haven't quite suggested a giant wall to keep out the Irish rapists yet but they do blame Johnny Foreigner and his crazy laws about straight bananas. Both of them are selling the same message roughly though. They are telling the beleaguered and embittered "victims" of globalisation and migration and the passage of time that they can make their countries great again. They are hearkening back to a past when Brittania ruled the waves and the US ruled the world.

I saw Coldplay in Wembley stadium last weekend. I should say I'm not a huge fan but it was an extraordinary show. And it was the closest thing to a fascist rally since Queen did Radio Gaga at Live Aid. From a perch high up in the stadium I looked down on 80,000 English people, who had all been given bracelets that lit up at appointed times, reliving the glory days of Great Britain. The defining moment was the mass singalong to the song Viva la Vida. Viva la Vida is a rousing string-driven number about a king who has lost his kingdom. The loss of the kingdom was, you suspect, lost on most of the people. They were just happy to be given permission to stand in this most hallowed part of England's green and fertile land and sing:

'I used to rule the world

Seas would rise when I gave the word. . .

I used to roll the dice

Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes

Listened as the crowd would sing

Now the old king is dead long live the king. . .

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing

Roman cavalry choirs are singing.'

It even mentions Jerusalem, a word which has a special meaning for Britons, in an increasingly dogwhistle kind of way. And every accountant from the home counties who metaphorically ripped off his tie and bellowed along about the glory days had a little bit of Brexit in him, even if his rational mind knew it was insane.

Coldplay didn't intend to give this permission. Trump and Farage and Boris are deliberately giving permission. They are enabling the little guy who has had enough of those fat cats in Washington/Brussels/Westminister. Just as social media is. Social media is the echo chamber where these views, which are apparently verboten in old media, resonate. This is where extremists and revolutionaries and bigots find each other. This is where their-long silenced voices get an airing without needing the permission of the establishment. This is where the revolution gets whipped up, where left and right go so far around the twist that they meet each other out there in the new middle ground of anti-establishmentism and anti-everythingism. This is how you get a situation where the hard left in Ireland is at the forefront of fighting for less taxes, for less money to be pumped into utilities like water and waste. This is how you get a situation where the left wants to shut down debate on any issues that are offensive to their worldview. This is also where the supposedly right-on progressive people abuse the hell out of Joan Burton and other politicians. And this is where politicians and the establishment tries to claim victimhood, the only currency left in public discourse.

Because apparently the establishment silenced victims for too long and now they have been given their voice. In her book I Find That Offensive, Claire Fox argues that the only people who are allowed an opinion any more are victims. So everyone, she says, wants to out-victim each other now, to show that they are not part of the old establishment but that they too suffered at the hands of it. And if you are not a real victim, then find something else to be a victim of. Female? Surely you have been a victim of everyday sexism? Part of a privileged elite? Don't worry, that is enough to guarantee you will be subjected to online insults, which means you are being bullied. So establish your victimhood and then find some "other" to blame. It can be men, the establishment or Johnny Foreigner.

Those who voted Brexit are victims of Johnny Foreigner. The middle-class ones are victims of Johnny Eurocrat, who was threatening the very fabric of Britishness, and the working class ones are victims of alleged hordes of dark-skinned migrants who will work for longer and cheaper. And, of course, globalisation and technology are stealing their livelihoods. To which the rational response is to somehow kick against the pricks, kick against internationalism, circle the wagons and make Britain great again. Go back to a time when the dark-skinned ones were the victims.

Despite what everyone is telling you, no one really knows how this is going to pan out. Life will presumably go on, and there will presumably be upsides and downsides. What we are not clear on is what alternative Britain has voted for. The left, the right and soi disant marginalised who constitute the news establishment are so busy smashing the system and so elated about discovering their voice that you wonder if they have taken the time to come up with a coherent plan for what the new system will be.

From what we can tell so far, it's about smashing the rich, about less taxes for the common people but more services. It's about bigger government with smaller resources. It's about perfect healthcare for all, paid for by the 1pc. It's about rights but a lack of clarity about duties. It is about the fact that we are all victims now. We are all hard done by. And our time has come. It is a new authenticity and a new reality. Even some of those who voted for it and championed it seemed apprehensive about what this new reality and new authenticity will constitute. You get the impression they weren't expecting to win, if many of them even wanted to win. But they got caught up in the emotion of taking back control from the foreigners who victimise them.

How long it will all last we can't say. But there's no doubt that at some point the next verse of that Coldplay song will come to mind for this new establishment:

'One minute I held the key

Next the walls were closed on me

And I discovered that my castles stand

Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.'

Sunday Independent

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