Where did the Western World go wrong – and how do we fix it?

It’s fair to say that 2016 has been eventful, yesterdays election of Donald Trump being merely the cherry on top of a year that has seen the unimaginable become fact. The western world appears to attempting to turn its back on liberal progress and for many those changes make the future a good deal darker and good deal scarier. So how has it come to this?

Right now within the western world, the average person has it better than their counter part in almost any point in human history. Yes I know you can point to the various inequalities within the western world but they in no way compare to the inequalities found in the past, now I put emphasis on Almost for the reason. A generation ago it was possible to come out of school with few if any qualifications and get a job that paid at least a living wage, go back two generations and a university degree flat out guaranteed employment. This is no longer the case. I know personally an individual who has a first class masters and in her chosen field it does not qualify her for employment, it qualifies her to do a PHD which will then (hopefully) allow her into the field. People who entered the field twenty years ago did so on the strength of simple BA degree. It is now not unusual to leave education tens of thousands in debt – sums that would represent a good deposit for house today or buy it outright thirty years ago – and only be able to find employment that’s pay will not justify that expenditure.

There is also the matter of the inequality of failure. Within the last decade we’ve seen a the banking crisis which involved much of the sector being bailed out. If we look at the top level of these businesses, we find individuals who were being paid sums of money equivalent to decades worth of the average industrial wage per year. Yet when financial institutions started falling like dominoes, many of these individuals kept their jobs or where they did go, did so with another big pay out. By comparison when the recession came, many ordinary individuals found themselves unemployed overnight, harassed for payment of mortgages on properties that were no longer worth anything approaching the outstanding loan amounts. It wasn’t even just the financial industry, here in Ireland the building industry was allowed allowed to run wild and one particularly tragic case a newly built apartment block was judged unsafe because the builder had chosen to skip fire safety features. Owners found themselves still being required to pay mortgages for apartments they couldn’t live in. It was only after one own committed suicide leaving behind a young family, that the government here grudgingly stepped in. While the builder was bankrupted, it is hard to regard this as being equal. In Britain a major department chain recently collapsed leaving the staff unemployed, a pension scheme with a hole so large it practically echoed and a former owner who went off and bought himself a luxury yacht – all perfectly legally.

What all of these thing have in common is that it is placing the middle under pressure. Pay is lower, costs are higher with incomes far from certain; people are facing into a future where they will probably not able to afford a standard of living equal to that of their parents generation. People want what they have had and want to pass on to their own children , something that is becoming increasingly difficult. America rightfully prided itself as being the place where anyone could make it big; it’s now becoming the case that a person born into a middle class family will be doing well just to hold position. Pressure is building and the likes of Brexit and Trump are symptoms of that pressure.

The Political Elite Isn’t Listening

For the last few decades the west’s political elites have pushed an agenda of globalization. Old heavy industries have been allowed to die without being replaced and those who might have been employed by them have found themselves left out in the cold. In the case of EU a federalist, expansionist agenda was pursued. Economic data was fudged, with decisions made because they fitted with ideology rather than facts on the ground. All of which has fed into an anti-establishment groundswell.

Unfortunately so far those who have managed to tap into tap into that groundswell have been far from being White Knights. The very best of them are mere political opportunists seeking a comfortable government job and a good pension. The worst are seeking to push values  more appropriate to the nineteen forties. Either way they hark back to a nostalgic view of past, choosing to ignore those details that don’t fit their version – like the fact that the pay gap between the ordinary worker and business owner was a fraction of what now is. These individuals do not have solutions, what they have are scapegoats, be it gays, migrants, promiscuous women or whatever punchbag of the week is. These people are not going to solve problems because they either have no idea how or flat out no real interest in doing so because it does not align to their own interests. That electorates are listening to these extremist positions is a symptom of an old order that isn’t listening. Hillary Clinton I would imagine would have made a serviceable if unremarkable president – a placeholder notable for her sex and little more but now we’ll never know.

So What Can Be Done

To begin with don’t dismiss those who voted for Brexit or Trump as racists. Yes there are indeed racists in their ranks, people who would march us back towards the worst aspects of the past. But to dismiss them lock, stock and barrel is quite simply an act of surrender. It is the path of least resistance if we dismiss them as racists then we don’t even try to win them back. If we don’t win them back, then the likes of Trump and the Brexiters continue to win.

Next we need to accept that the old order is failing. Offering the same old, same old to people who have already seen its like and been failed by it will not work politically. If the political will is to be re-taken then it must offer an equally bold view, one possibility is a reapportionment of wealth via heavy taxation of the one percent and the closing of tax loopholes that have allowed large multinationals avoid contributing.

Finally as members of the electorate we need to accept there are no simple answers to complicated questions. It is the mark dishonesty to claim that there are. If we take the example above, there would certainly be a capital flight but we must be willing to accept pain for gain. Certainly the next few years are going to be interesting and we must be ready to contest the ground with the extreme right.

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