Sunday, June 26, 2016

Why All the Surprise?

One of the most perplexing aspects of elite reactions to the UK's Brexit vote has been the widespread surprise that has repeatedly been expressed Over and over again, commentators have referred to the result as "surprising" or "stunning." Whom have these folks been talking with and listening to all this time? People who hang out in Davos?

The same could be said, for example, of the "populist" revolts against some of the fallout from globalization that have overtaken both US political parties this election cycle - to the surprise (and chagrin) of elite opinion in both parties. It's OK to talk with and listen to people who hang out in Davis, but even more important to listen to others besides - especially to those being left behind by all this wonderful progress. One of the most distressing features of our contemporary culture is how the different social classes have so successfully segregated themselves, so that cultural elites largely listen only to others with similarly elite-sanctioned opinions. How else to explain the sudden "surprise" when the occasional exercise in real democracy allows other voices to be heard?

That the economic, social, and cultural changes of recent decades have produced real and tangible benefits cannot be denied. but neither can it be denied that the principal beneficiaries of this whirlwind of change have largely been the well-off and the well-positioned - and that those less well-off and less well-positioned have found themselves largely left behind with diminished economic, social and cultural prospects. For all the elite emphasis on inclusiveness, it is precisely the non-inclusive character of so much of modern progress that has brought us to this current crisis. How different our society would be if many of those who lecture everyone else so tediously about inclusiveness would actually practice more of it themselves!

Historian Steve Fraser, author of The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America (Basic Books, 2016) has captured the consequences of this process of political fracture. "Class," Fraser notes, "which had largely been banished from acceptable public discourse with the onset of the Cold War, returned with a vengeance but was camouflaged." What Fraser calls our "civil war of values" he portrays in all its class-based starkness. Resisting "secular elitists" and their allies, Fraser sees "an everyman army, people of faith, not only the pious, but all those workaday white folks who remained faithful to the way things once were or were imagined to be or were ordained to be."

The point is not that things can - or ought to - be made to revert to "the way things once were." That is neither possible nor in many cases even all that desirable. The point rather is that the modern ripping apart of society has come at an enormous cost, which has burdened the many left behind, while enriching and empowering the few - and that now the bill is coming due. The rise of "populist" demagoguery - whether Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s or Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders today - is one unsurprising result.  Yet we continue to be surprised and so fail to respond in a way which respects the casualties of the social breakdown produced by the predatory global capitalism that has so transformed our world.

Either we have to relearn the art of community and how to be one society again, or we continue down this increasingly fractious road.

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