The certain road to disaster - RSA

The certain road to disaster

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Donald Trump has been elected President of America. At this point, we can't know for sure what this means. On the evidence of his campaign, it means social and ethnic division in America, the tearing up of postwar Western norms, a rapid reversal of the nascent global response to climate change, and international security, including in Europe, under grave threat. Yes, I'm pessimistic.

Analysis will be in abundance. Before it starts in earnest, I want to point out something quite simple. The rapid return to certainty following Brexit amongst those who are paid to research, write about and analyse politics in advance of this event has been foolhardy. The failure of US political elites to heed clear messages that have been sent for some time was negligent. That foolhardiness and negligence has left us ignoring what has been staring us in the face. Next stop, France 2017.

History is not on the side of the progressive worldview. The quarter century complacency that has accompanied progressive thought and action now has to end. Now. If you believe in a world of equality, continual human development, the ability to come together and solve even the biggest challenges we face and create unimagined prospects for the entirety of this species, then, frankly, the fight is on. Those values are not going to be swept forward by 'history'; they need to cultivated, articulated and persuasive.

History sends few messages that are clear. One that is crystal clear is that it is easier to turn us against one another than to unite us and sustain that unity. Sometimes a wave of hope can come together. But the minute we just surf the wave and forget what created it, then it crashes in fear and division. Hence we have moved from a movement of change in 2008 to a swarm of anxiety and fear in 2016.

So uncertainty is good. It can be powerful. The RSA exists to help people engage with ideas, to mobilise in ways that can lift us all. We retain the optimistic outlook that ideas and change associated with them are not the preserve of elites; they only come to life, make a difference when they become the property of us all. We must have to humility to embrace uncertainty but not let it debilitate us. The experts call it operating in conditions of volatility, uncertainly, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). We are just one organisation amongst many but we want to play our part.

There has to be a better way than this. It will require heavy lifting. In the US, in Europe and the UK civil society is weakening. The ability to resist authoritarianism is declining. We can pass moral judgement or we can imagine and build. That sounds incongruous today. But it is ultimately the only way. And it starts with uncertainty. 

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  • For the second time this year, I hear comments like "I don't like what our country is becoming" (UK or USA as appropriate).  Unfortunately, our society has been like this now for 20-25 years.  All that has changed is that the consequences have become evident.  I don't recognise the 25 years of progress I'm afraid.  While we might have stumbled in the right direction at times (e.g. climate change), we have also seen the biggest wealth gap open up, perhaps in history.  We have seen people left behind, the dumbing down of education (three degrees where one used to do), and entertainment.  Poor people are now on TV for entertainment.  Need I go on?  I do see Trump and Brexit as an opportunity to fight for what we do want, and to remind ourselves that people are altruistic and generous as much as self-interested.  We need a society that better reflects this balance, and we haven't had it since the 1970's, if we ever did.

  • There is a problem though with trying to think the retreat of liberalism entirely from within a liberal mindset.
    Liberalism (as any kind of recognisable project) is linked with capitalism, but we're living, now, the transition from one economic system and ideology to whatever comes next.  This is partly due to long term changes - like the evolution of capitalism in developed economies away from labour to financial exploitation (related to Piketty's analysis of the entrepreneur to rentier change) - andpartly to more recent and near-future factors, like the disruptive effects of the internet, robots and artificial intelligence - and of course the 'neo-liberal' deregulation that led pretty directly to the 2008 world financial collapse.  But even without these changes, environmental crisis would have precipitated the same breakdown at some point.  Politicians of the ‘centre’ - liberals, whether conservative or social-democrat – do not have any answers in this situation because they were, and still are, wedded to the idea that ‘capitalism’ produces wealth, and their job is to enable it to do that – albeit with a little less or a little more mitigation of its worst abuses.  This is the real vacuum that is being filled by more radical alternatives from all sides - Podemos and Syriza in southern Europe, the Pirate Party in Iceland, the incredible spectacle of an avowed socialist almost winning the American Democrat presidential nomination – and of course, on the other side, Trump, and UKIP, et le Front National...

  • Liberal democrats have worked  fervently in the US to improve the quality of life for all citizens of the United States and have achieved striking gains. Now, we need to look for ways to hold on to our gains while searching for new ways to counteract the waves of regression pounding us. So, in this morass who do we turn to "imagine and build"? The answers are with ourselves and our educated young people. 

    We live in a world that lives inspired by materialism. Education is promoted as the way to make more money than achieve a life of honorable achievement and satisfaction.

    Television's most watched shows promote a love of celebrity and wealth here and abroad. Vulgarity has won over civility as a value in politics. Bad manners are accepted as "honesty". Yes, I am passing moral judgement on society and that amorphous collection of us is where we need to begin rebuilding our world. 

    I suspect there are aspects of the "dark ages" encroaching on society. Philosophers, educators, sociologists, economists and leaders of all disciplines, our societal problems go beyond politics. Lead! 


  • OK. Whilst I would not support the election of Trump, I find some of the immediate comments and reactions alarming, bordering on panic. Fuelled by always on social media and a need for exageration. Every problem is 'a crisis'. Every complex issue 'a disaster'. Every referendum, election or comment a sign that we are at best seeing the decline of liberal values - and at worst witnessing the end of times. Really? Also noting that many quick to mock or patronise American voters whilst ignoring that the US elected Obama for two terms but found no love for the Clintons. Yes Trump shows a worrying lack of grace and liberal values. But in my lifetime we have survived the Presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush - hardly all shining lights of honesty, ethics and democracy. Somehow the world kept spinning, alliances re shape and the world settles. Politics is the art of the possible and my take is that Trump will soon reign in his extremes and reckless words and be tutored on Real Politik. No, he is not my choice. Really great ideas such as western liberalism, free markets and progressive social change are rather more enduring and powerful than what will likely be a one term reactionary President...who will be a subject of lots of angst and columns and TV debates, but whom may actually achieve little. A

  • My insights into understanding what's happening come from the same sources as most people, but reading Dark Money by Jane Mayer is also essential to understand how the right - and far-right, libertarian thinking in the US has:

    (a) been heavily, heavily financed in a very secretive organized way by the Koch brothers and a bunch of other plutocrats, for entirely selfish reasons and 

    (b) consciously targeted cultural and ideas change, by creating a host of think tanks and buying university influence to push a very right wing, libertarian, Hayek/Ayn rand view of the world. In this way, they have given it ideological legitimacy.

    Numerically, Trump did not win the election: if the US used a regular way of voting Hillary would have won, and we would not be having this discussion, much as it is needed. Furthermore the republicans have been working hard (using Koch money) to actively redistrict electoral areas to maximize Republican seats in Congress and minimize Democratic, and also to target the electoral college swing states such as Ohio, pumping people's minds full of the kind of ideas that Trump has been pushing. 

    So the lesson for an organized progressive response, as well as all the the usual push back, organize twice as hard, etc that I'm hearing here in North America, is for a far stronger intellectual vision of what the new emerging economy needs to look like; it's not enough just to criticize neo-liberalism and authoritarianism. We have to develop a clear new vision, that will attract people, and enable them to see that it can bring them a better future.

    I've had one go at doing this in my novel Journey to the Future: A Better World is Possible ( , but it needs to be done in an intellectually rigorous way, as well - a perfect task for RSA Fellows!

    Guy Dauncey, Ladysmith, Vancouver island, Canada

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