Rome, Brexit, Trump: Political establishment meltdown?

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Tax issues in Brexit debate far from clear (Image via @GoraudBirch)

Everywhere, people are increasingly hostile towards whoever wants them to vote just for the sake of stability. Francesco Grillo from openDemocracy reports on the meltdown of the political system.

ROME, LONDON, Washington, Vienna: these are different and distant places. Yet it is rather obvious nowadays to connect the dots and read them as just nation-specific symptoms of a worldwide phenomenon. We are witnessing what is increasingly looking like the meltdown of an entire political and economic system, which has governed the developed world for at least three decades.

In Italy, the results of yesterday’s election of local city councils surpassed even the expectations of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. In Rome, the city, which has lived for decades almost exclusively off salaries paid by a heavily indebted and inefficient central administration, only one out of ten electors voted for the Democratic Party of the PM, Matteo Renzi.

Milan looked a certain bet only a few months ago at the close of a successful Universal Exposition and yet the candidate of the PD, the manager of the EXPO, Giuseppe Sala, is forced to fight a neck and neck battle at the ballot box in two weeks’ time to avoid defeat. Renzi has been wise enough to admit that the situation is serious. Nevertheless there is a sense that he might be about to pay considerably for having underestimated the mission he promised to accomplish.

In the event that both the political and economic capital of the country are lost, even the outcome of the referendum on changes to Italy’s constitution to be held in October is open to question. If the constitutional changes proposed by the government are not approved, Renzi has already said he will resign, quitting political life, at which point his promise of change coupled with stability will vanish.

Rome, however, is no exception. Everywhere, people are increasingly hostile towards whoever wants them to vote just for the sake of stability and out of fear of a jump into the unknown.

Notwithstanding a deluge of analyses exposing the economic costs of a Brexit, two very recent polls say that an outcome of the British referendum which may not only endanger the existence of the European Union but also the unity of the United Kingdom – should the Scots break away to re-join the EU – is not impossible.

In the United States, liberal newspapers only talk about Donald Trump, mentioning Hillary Clinton mostly in term of "his opponent", thereby increasing the possibility that the least politically correct politician in history will become the most powerful man in the world.

One glimmer of hope, in fact, came out of the very close presidential elections between nationalists and greens in Austria only two weeks ago: they, however, showed that the only politically strong response to whoever wants to build walls and close borders, is a proposal which is equally strong and in the opposite direction, towards an even more open society.   

Middle ground losers

The real loser is whoever has been in the middle ground, governing complex societies for decades through tactical, marginal adjustments and pursuing stability as the supreme, overarching priority.

This is the meltdown of a political system that has governed the world at least since the end of the Cold War. It is paralleled by an even more worrying meltdown of an economic model were functioning in order to make them deliver prosperity to a sufficiently large number of people.

The centre has disappeared, together with the middle-class that found in that centre (whether alternately leaning towards the left or the right) its natural political habitat.

EXPO 2015 - Milano - Piazza Castello, Expo Gate. Wikicommons/ Stefano Stabile. Some rights reserved.

Incomes flattened

In the last 20 years, literally everything has happened to all the main economic variables but to the median income of an American family — the data of the U.S. Census say that it has been completely flat since the start of “globalization” at the beginning of the nineties.

Productivity is declining, notwithstanding waves of automation. Economic growth continues to stagnate in the west, regardless of the fact that both the cost of money and that of raw materials have never been so low.

The reality is that we are already in the midst of a technology-triggered revolution which is as big as the ones that changed the world when Marx or Keynes tried to make sense of them. Central bankers and mainstream analysts are simply failing to understand this mutation and accordingly, governments as well as traditional political parties seem incapable of controlling its direction. 

It would already be a big step forward if we had the humility to acknowledge that we have a huge cognitive problem, together with the ambition to look for solutions without limiting ourselves to the contemplation of complexity.

Those populists 

In the meantime we should, at least, stop doing what so many mainstream commentators insist on doing — that is, calling the “others”, the ones who we do not understand, dangerous “populists” and “inexperienced” adventurists.

Revolution is by definition an unchartered territory for everybody. It is where different “experiences” count. And what really makes the difference are those who have the vision and the pragmatism which is indispensable, if you wish to engage people in a transformation which is already well under way

This article was originally published in openDemocracy on 7 June, 2016 and is republished with permission.

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