The Politics of Ugly


Most people will be relieved the US Presidential election is over. It was a process that demeaned everyone embroiled in it. This was an election that produced two ‘winners’ and a giant ‘loser’. One ‘victor’ will forever ride round on claims of a rigged contest, where victory was stolen from the American people. The other will occupy a throne of empty expectations. The loser is a once proud country disintegrating into mutually abusive fragments.

America has mesmerised the world in its slow descent into the politics of ‘ugly’. No other democratic process has given democracy such a bad name.

It will be a long time before any US foreign-policy claim of ‘bringing democracy to the outside world’ will draw other than hoots of derisive laughter. Rarely has a contest avoided most of the big issues of our time, sinking instead into denigration and abuse.

As I write, the tag on my cup of herbal tea informs me : “Life is a flow of love; your participation is requested.” If only herbal teas had reached America.

The Trump in all of us

But if Americans can draw little comfort from electing their second-least-popular President in history, the rest of us have little space for solace either. The painful truth is that Trump is a bigger part of all of us than we care to admit.

This may be easiest to grasp if we look through that quickly-forgotten moment once called ‘Bernie Sanders’. Without resort to racism, greed or vanity, Sanders engaged with the same disillusionment that has grown within an America corrupted and hollowed out by corporate power. Corporate money had bought election after election since the 1980’s Thatcher/Regan love fest .

In this partnership, Britain was always the ‘Bonnie’ to America’s ‘Clyde’; no less brutal, just less conspicuously so. It was the joint US/UK addiction to ‘trade liberalisation’ that threw the world into moving jobs out of industrial societies, wealth out of nation states and banking outside tax jurisdictions. Modern economics then became just one bank job after another.

Anyone challenging this New World Order was faced with supra-national trade agreements; stripping citizens of the right to retain or repatriate assets, and giving corporations the right to sue citizens (and countries) for anything threatening a company’s right to ‘profit taking’.

As a seasoned tax-evader, Trump was part of the tribe he also denounced; just a different kind of bank robber. Trump’s real interest is in messianic power. Blaming everything on immigrants, or Hilary, offered a scapegoat to the country’s woes, not an answer to them.

An economic School for Scoundrels

In the UK, UKIP (and Brexit) followed the same line: denouncing the ‘evil bureaucracy’ of the EU but happily leaving Britain chained to the corporate fiefdom of the WTO. In lieu of real politics, immigrants became the surrogate source of everyone else’s impoverishment.

What Sanders grasped (and explained) is that it was neoliberalism that has sent the world careering towards an ecological and ethical crisis. Sanders knew that ‘democracy’ had been the first thing sacrificed on the alter of the Market. He also knew that troves of economists had forgotten that markets without rules are always amoral.

Only humans bring morality to economic systems. Yet the mainstream political class (in both Britain and America) became blind to an overarching truth, once summarised by Ernst Schumacher as ‘Buddhist economics’. This is the duty to create a world in which our children can grow safely and creatively, our communities thrive harmoniously, and our planet breathe easily. It continues to be our greatest existential obligation

Trump stuck two fingers up at all this; threatening to dump US climate obligations and clean energy commitments. Promising instead to ‘suck soot’ from coal magnates. The American media seemed enthralled by the idea that Trump would grab the planet by the crotch and race after ‘the politics of crude’, just to please US polluters.

Britain has watched this debacle unfold with a salacious interest usually reserved for sleazy soap operas. It offered a distraction from an ugliness of our own; what festers beneath the lid of Brexit and beyond.

‘Cheap as chips’ independence

There were ‘high ground’ arguments for both staying in and leaving the EU. The ‘high ground’ ones for leaving could have been found in setting higher standards/doing things ‘better’ outside. My distain for the Brexit campaign that surfaced was that it never reached beyond the freedom to stand for ‘less’. It was the vision of Britain as a ‘cheap as chips’ society.

UKIP occupy a world of permanent climate denial, not too different from Trump’s. But Britain’s Conservative government are not far behind them. Within the EU, Britain has lobbyied to delay implementing the EU Directive on emissions from coal power stations. Our courts have judged Britain ‘illegal’ in our non-delivery of EU air quality standards. Britain demanded (and got) a right to lower renewable energy targets than the rest of the EU (and will still fail to meet them). We have consistently sought to water down EU-wide anti- ‘tax evasion’ strategies. And Britain blocked EU moves towards a financial transactions tax.

Of course we are not a crude as Trump. Britain’s corruption tries to retain a sense of ‘class’ and ‘breeding’. It is a subtlety reserved for the more consummately dishonest. This was a space the Clintons once thought they could occupy too, but now they can’t. And nor can we.

A politics of hope

America has to find an olive branch to avoid the nation unraveling of a post-election debacle. They may find it if Clinton were to give Bernie Sanders the remit to reconnect ‘lost American’ to the American Dream.

Sanders would undoubtably want to do so within a politics of hope…and redistribution. For ‘left behind’ America this would include the prospects of a decent home, education, job, skill set, wage, health care and environment. It is something ‘the richest country on earth’ can surely deliver. Only the super-rich would scream foul. And perhaps it’s time they did.

Britain could even lend a hand, for it too has a Bernie Sanders option waiting in the wings. Britain’s option is called the Corbyn Manifesto (and can still be found on-line). In the welter of highly personalised accusations around Labour’s Leadership election, scant attention was given to how profound some of the Corbyn promises are; engaging with issues that threaten the planet rather than just parliamentary vested interests.

Theresa May can swan off with her corporate sponsors to promote climate destroying deals. She may endorse airport expansions the planet cannot sustain, and hand seats at the COP-22 climate discussions to lobbyists for coal and oil. But the rest of Britain should be looking elsewhere.

Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘sustainability’ proposals are the only genuinely ground-breaking, earth-saving, hope-building agenda in town. The question is whether we can force discussion onto these bigger issues and away from the daily drivel of Westminster vanities.

If there is a lesson for Britain in America’s fall into the politics of ugly, it is that real, transformational politics is still the only antidote. We are so much better than this…and right now we need to be.

‘Ugly’ is just the default position of the lost.

Alan Simpson

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