Trump, Brexit, and the dwindling promise of personal fulfilment in modern capitalism

Some radical rethinking is required if we are to counter the forces behind recent political upheavals

Photograph: 'Trump Casino, Atlantic City' by jamvitter/CC
Photograph The now-bankrupted Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino, Atlantic City

Is personal fulfilment, achievable through a combination of professional and romantic success, a realistic goal for the majority of citizens in the Western societies of today? In our atomised and individualistic culture, popular consent for the capitalist structure of our economies surely lies on most people answering “yes” to the above question. This is particularly so for members of the millennial generation, who were brought up in the wake of the crushing defeats suffered by collectivist forces in the 1980s and who came of age during an era when mainstream politicians of all stripes espoused the doctrine of neoliberalism, at the root of which is the belief that fierce competition between individuals ought to be the fundamental basis upon which society functions. In such a world, where one’s success is definable only with regards to the extent to which one is able to outperform others, the prospect of finding meaning through collective endeavour or communal experience is far-fetched for most. Thus the necessity of achieving personal fulfilment, based on individual accomplishment, grows if one is to live contentedly.

Looking to the political sphere, two seismic recent developments – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency – have made it impossible to ignore a hitherto concealed mass discontent amongst the citizenries of the UK and the USA. Each of these cataclysms was a unique occurrence, driven by complex and often differing dynamics. The xenophobia trotted out by Nigel Farage and his ilk, for instance, was generally more of the dog-whistle variety than the open hatred of Mexicans and Muslims fanned by Trump’s merry band of white supremacists. Nonetheless, a common feature of both was clearly widespread and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the status quo: Trump and Brexit were alike in gaining much support from those who have come to be described as the ‘left-behind’ in contemporary society, for whom economic opportunity is in short supply and to whom the prospect of a better life seems remote at present. In a development that would have seemed spectacularly unlikely only a decade ago, these events have propelled us towards something of a post-neoliberal consensus in mainstream British and American party politics, reflected not only on the right by the protectionist and borders-obsessed nature of the May and Trump administrations but also in the resurgent socialism of their most prominent opponents on the left, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US.

These new political circumstances have induced widespread despair and disbelief amongst those on the liberal left. The despair is easily understandable. Both Brexit and the election of Trump have accompanied horrific rises in levels of hate crime, and have empowered and energised the fascist fringes of society. Brexit, if followed by other unlikely-but-feasible occurrences such as the election of Marine Le Pen to the French Presidency in 2017, could conceivably prove to have been the beginning of the collapse of the European integration project as a whole. The Trump Presidency, meanwhile, portends a new, even more fraught phase of international relations with an increased risk of nuclear catastrophe, as well as a potentially fatal sabotaging of global climate disaster mitigation efforts. But why the disbelief and shock, given that both polling and betting markets had been indicating that both events were at least fairly likely for months prior to their actual occurring?

To indulge in some pet theorising, and to return to the theme expressed at the outset of this article; perhaps those experiencing the greatest amount of shock are those who have already achieved, or at least see the prospect of achieving, a degree of contentedness, of personal fulfilment, within the confines of the political and economic status quo. Unless one wishes to paint half of one’s fellow citizens as irredeemably racist, or misogynist, or stupid, then, understanding the Trump and Brexit results means being forced to confront just how discontent and disillusioned millions of the people we share our societies with are with the present state of affairs. Ultimately, what both the Remain and the Hillary Clinton campaigns were seen by many, fairly or not, as campaigns to maintain a reviled status quo. The desire for something, for anything, to change proved to be so great that Trump was able to win despite his evident personal repulsiveness (and make no mistake, Trump remains an unpopular figure across the US as a whole, by far and away the most disliked President-elect in modern political history); and proved to be so deep-seated that a ‘post-truth’ Brexit campaign prevailed despite months of exhortations to the contrary from nearly every senior government and opposition politician, nearly every foreign leader, vast swathes of the business world and much mainstream media.

So what now? Clearly, the politics of the so-called ‘centre’ is proving increasingly inept at countering populist insurgencies of the right; this demonstrates the importance that future left or progressive movements are capable of inspiring mass grassroots support of their own. More than this, however, it is increasingly clear that capitalism itself is to blame for the mass discontent that has pushed millions into the arms of the racist far-right. Over the past four decades in the West, the immense power possessed by concentrated private capital has propelled a process by which wages for the majority have stagnated, while those at the top have hoovered up ever more economic (and consequently political) power. Inequality has ballooned to unprecedented levels, a development which even parties of the supposed centre-left have proven unwilling or unable to combat. Going further, it is increasingly clear that modern Western capitalism is deeply unfit for purpose, namely the purpose of enabling us to simultaneously subsist and seek meaning in our lives.

Our present economic system sees millions of people trapped in low income and low satisfaction jobs, by some referred to as bullshit jobs, feeling utter disconnect from the work they have to carry to out in order to survive; it produces inefficiencies such as, to borrow Paul Mason’s hyperbolic yet resonant phase, the graduate with no future, the highly skilled individual condemned to carrying out unsuitable work, once again in order to experience the basic thrill of inhabiting a position of dignity in our society. It traps multitudes in insecure work with unpredictable working hours, forcing them to live in a state of permanent anxiety and depriving them of the ability to plan meaningfully for the future; simultaneously it takes the already-inadequate number of jobs perceived as desirable and carves them up disproportionately amongst those arbitrarily born into wealth. Perhaps most consequentially of all, modern Western capitalism contributes massively to the destruction of our environment, practically guaranteeing a life of increased instability and insecurity for our children and grandchildren. If this is the status quo which recent political disruptions indicate general discontent with, then the time is ripe for those on the left to get on with the fundamental business of imagining a better alternative. If one thing is certain in these febrile times, it is that the neo-fascists on the march both sides of the Atlantic will fail emphatically in this task.

Capitalism is often characterised as essentially vibrant, chaotic and dynamic, with the implicit assumption that the prospects for individual self-realisation are far greater in capitalist societies than in the drab uniformity of the egalitarian alternative. In reality, the omnipresent pressures and stresses of existing in the dysfunctional capitalist societies of today stifle and contort to an extent we can only begin to conceive of our ability to achieve personal fulfilment, to realise the best potential versions of ourselves. Tragically, con-artists such as Trump who exploit the resulting discontent will only exacerbate this tendency. Those of us who seek to stop the world’s seemingly inexorable decline into reaction and insularity ought to fight tirelessly for a social and economic alternative based on a few key principles.

One of these should be a belief in the power of real, grassroots democracy – the kind which empowers us with the ability to shape the lives we live on a day-to-day basis, rather than the apathy-inducing, utterly compromised democracy of today, with its implicit encouragement for us to vote once every five years and then switch off from paying attention to the power structures which define our lives for the time in between. Another should be a determination that what succeeds capitalism is environmentally sustainable and in sync with the ecology of our planet, so that the blameless many of tomorrow will not suffer at the expense of the destructive few of today. And finally, the successor to the amoral behemoth that is contemporary Western capitalism ought, to quote the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, to be much more successful at providing every person with “the vital concrete possibility… to bring to full development all capacities and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.”

So long as we have the confidence that we can build a social and economic alternative to capitalism in which every one of us is less constrained and compromised in our efforts to achieve personal fulfilment, the Trumps and Farages of today will be the forgotten men of tomorrow – and the hate and fear they espouse will be easily overcome.

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