“We, the People, are taking our country back.” The rallying cry of the American right since at least 2009 provokes as many questions as answers. Taking our country back from whom? Or indeed: taking it back to where and when? When the Industrial Revolution broke out in Europe in the late eighteenth century, it inspired the Romantic era of art and poetry in reaction – a movement which glorified the past and spurned the dirty modernism of the urban manufacturing society. Today’s reaction might have less artistic merit – from Sturm und Drang to Pepe the Frog; from Robert Burns to Steve Bannon – but its origins seem remarkably similar.
Like the Romantic movement, many currents in politics today seem motivated primarily by fear of the future. It is not just middle-aged conservatives who are provoked by the twenty-first century: the world-weary cynicism of Generation X seems to have given way to dystopian gloom among Millennials. We watch television series like Black Mirror and House of Cards, which teach us that no good can come of post-modern politics and society. Our political heroes, instead, are Old Left battlers like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon – reassuring throwbacks to a more secure age.
These politicians want to take their countries back, too. Back to an era before neoliberalism and technocratic governance deprived millions of a meaningful stake in the economy. Back to an era when trade unions gave workers a voice. Back to an era, it should be noted, before many of their voters were born. So why is it that voters on the left and right are clamouring to rebuild the world in their parents’ image? It seems as though the traumas of modernity – of job displacement, disenfranchisement, and debt – have left many voters with a belief not merely that the future will be worse than the past, but that it cannot possibly be better.
So we take control of our lives by not taking control. Instead, we become servants of a rigid ideology seemingly passed down to us by past generations. “Brexit”, an intentionally vague proposal voted for by seventeen million individuals in 2016, becomes a fixed, dogmatic platform – and anyone who strays from it becomes a traitor. We accept passively that the antidote to neoliberalism must be higher taxes, trade unionism, and an all-encompassing welfare state – even though these are the very policies whose contradictions led to the political rise of neoliberalism in the first place.
On top of all this, politics becomes performance. People who have given up fighting for their right to do, instead fight for their right to say, or to be. Stripped of meaningful debate about economic growth and social justice, politics becomes an endless inter-generational culture war, in which words, symbols, chants and labels take on extraordinary levels of significance. A disabled woman in middle America may have no realistic hope of paying her medical bills, let alone working again, but at least she can fight online for her right to say “Merry Christmas”. She can be part of the Trump team, and although she does nothing, she feels a new sense of purpose.
One of history’s most famous crusaders for free speech, Voltaire, had a pithy quote about this: perfect is the enemy of good. Software developers have a term for it, too: analysis paralysis. We might call it overthinking. Any way you look at it, it’s a sign that people believe they are disempowered. Instead of going out and making change in their own lives, or the lives of others, they sit at home and think, and talk, and tweet. (Thereby keeping the webzine in existence, for which I thank you.)
Freedom of speech is a good thing, of course, as is the freedom to establish our own identities, but the fundamental purpose of these rights should be to allow us to take informed action that accords with our values. That’s why freedom of action is so important, and why political leadership today should be about giving all people the tools to create the lives that they want. Human civilisation didn’t reach its current status through endless discussion and debate – it took trial and error. It took people with the courage to do things that other people wouldn’t do.
Doing things, taking initiative, failing and failing better, requires us to start small. Instead of railing against Trump, the EU, capitalism, political correctness or the patriarchy, we could instead take action to solve problems closer to home. In their book about development economics, Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson note the importance of upward spirals – small decisions that lead to bigger positive outcomes later on. Countries that get the small stuff right are more likely to get the big stuff right, too. If we accept that, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that modern politics doesn’t get the small stuff right.
Politics should nurture people because it will nurture innovation in the process. Without the capacity for trial and error, we’re all doomed to live in the shadow of previous generation’s actions. We’re forced to observe other people’s experiments, because we cannot conduct any of our own. Politics and life become spectator sports, and we fall back into the grip of nostalgia, listening for echoes of a time when our voices really mattered. But we can’t afford to let this happen, because the problems of the future will inevitably be different from those of yesterday.
There is very little our parents or grandparents can teach us about tackling climate change, and the population displacement it produces. No, modern problems will require modern ideas and solutions, and people with the drive to find them and put them to the test. People with faith in the capacity of all of us to get the big stuff right. We should devote our own lives, in a small way, to trying to solve those problems, and to ensuring that others can do the same. Instead of taking our countries back, we should put ourselves forward.