So weird to see such similar upheaval in the U.K. and the U.S. and the very strange place that bigotry and resistance to inequality coexist within it. On both sides of the Atlantic we’re seeing the unraveling of established political parties that believed the malarkey of the globally wealthy – that market forces are forces of human nature, that wealth should cross borders but people shouldn’t, that rich people deserve their wealth and poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. That of course we can’t raise taxes, of course private corporations work but public servants are lazy, useless, self-centered bums, that individualism is freedom and caring for others is foolish unless you’re really wealthy and you want to reform something with your extra tax-exempt cash.
Bernie Sanders led an unexpected revolt that almost succeeded. Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader but is too left for the left and is facing a revolt of his own. Trump is Nigel Farage with Boris Johnson’s hair in a hair-sprayed comb-over. The Republican and Tory leadership are bewildered by the monsters they pieced together from parts and animated with economic shocks. It’s alive! Dear god, now what? The markets are in an uproar that’s nearly as cataclysmic as the average person’s battle to pay their bills at the end of the month, something the market has blithely ignored for too long. It’s a mess.
I’ve long wanted people to recognize how absolutely wrong our assumptions have been and how much terrible damage they’ve done to social institutions and to the commonweal. But what’s scary is that this sudden challenge to the system that created enormous inequality feels a bit like overthrowing a dictator. Toppling the statue feels good, but what comes next? Sadly, too often the vacuum is simply filled with hate – hate toward people who are victims of the same oppression, anger and contempt toward those who feel differently, and no practice negotiating common ground because we haven’t had enough power to practice it.
As a liberal academic, I’m considered part of the elite. Fair enough. I have been lucky. Not especially talented or deserving – lucky. On top of that I’m a librarian, and we have values that are suspiciously left-wing: democracy, diversity, equal access to information, a commitment to social justice and the public good. We don’t always live up to those values, and market fundamentalism has warped our daily practices pretty thoroughly. But we still think information is important.
Caring about facts, evidence, and figuring out what’s true even if it isn’t what you want to be true isn’t a property of elitism. It’s a practical approach to the uncertainty that’s inevitable in a world as complicated as our is. Once you decide facts are a matter of choice, that decisions should be based on what your mates say, that hatred is easier than empathy, that anger feels better than making something or maintaining something – well, this is where you end up. The individualism that was so important to the unequal status quo has left us ill equipped to create an alternative to the thing we no longer believe in.
I’m glad that people are challenging the neoliberal assumptions that have caused so much damage and created such inequality. The big question is whether the damage done to social institutions and communities is so great that we won’t be able to come together to make something that works better.
I hope we can. Because the alternative playing out right now – the sudden rise in hate crimes, the murder of an elected MP, the vitriol being hurled on all sides – is too scary and I think fundamentally we’re better than that. We just have a lot to learn about how to function again. Caring about facts and caring about one another is a place to start.
photo courtesy of Julie Dello