We live in an age of problems, or more precisely, of predicaments: that is to say, issues that have no actual solutions, and which can at best be mitigated. To a greater or lesser extent, this has always been so for all human societies, but right now the outlook for industrial civilisation is depressing on many sides. There are shortages of fuels, of minerals of many kinds, of food, of water. Non-human life on Earth is under pressure on all fronts, due to climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and general encroachment by human beings. It’s not going too well for a lot of human beings either, to judge from the upheavals across the world from Sri Lanka to Panama to Malaysia to the Netherlands and goodness knows where else.
It is natural to conclude from this that the people who are supposed to be in charge are not doing so great a job of it as they would have us believe. Certainly there is not much to be seen in the way of decisive action; so far as I can tell, the only thing the US Federal Government can manage to do is to throw even huger sums of money at their military. And yet if there is one thing agreed on by pretty much everyone, it is that Something Must Be Done.
Now, as H.L. Mencken pointed out a century ago, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” In the political sphere, one these well-known solutions has always been the Strong Man. (It usually is a man, incidentally, although why this should be is another conversation.) The Strong Man knows what the problem is, and more to the point he knows who is to blame. He achieves national unity in two ways: on the positive side he enrols the mass of the population into his vision, and on the negative side he disposes of those who object to it.
We don’t need to invoke Godwin’s Law to find numerous examples of this, not only in history but at the present day. But the classic Strong Man with his blaring propaganda machine and his apparatus of violent repression is just one end of the spectrum. All governments try to play the same game to some extent. In the Western democracies, there is no overt state censorship of the media, for example, but there is a lot of effort put into managing the Overton window.
Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously separated from those that are not fashionable, and the latter, without ever being forbidden have little chance of finding their way into periodicals or books or being heard in colleges. Your scholars are free in the legal sense, but they are hemmed in by the idols of the prevailing fad.Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harvard Commencement Address, delivered 8th June 1978.
It is not illegal for me to write this blog, but you won’t find much discussion of many of these issues in the mainstream media, and what there is mostly tries to wave them away, as for example in this NY Times article.
Again, those who criticise – or worse, embarrass – the powers that be may not all be found mysteriously dead in woodland, but they may find themselves on the wrong end of legislation purportedly directed against terrorists, as David Miranda found to his cost, to cite just one example. There is no doubt that much of this legislation is drafted so that it can be used for repressive purposes if necessary. Part of the beef the authorities had with Mr Miranda, as with his partner Glenn Greenwald, was his exposure of the surveillance apparatus available to the state precisely to monitor people like him. And you can be sure that the definition of “people like him” is quite elastic enough to include anyone the government du jour happens to dislike.
These same governments frequently accuse other governments of following the Strong Man model. The usual derogatory term is “populism.” A populist, so far as I can determine, is someone you don’t like who wins an election, or sometimes just appears likely to win an election. The poster-child for this phenomenon was Donald J. Trump, who became President of the USA despite the unanimous disapproval of the Great and the Good. Now I am no partisan of Mr Trump; but it seems to me that a political system which generates a list of candidates for high office all of whom are unfit for it is in trouble whoever wins. (As I write this, we are enjoying exactly the same thing in the UK with the ongoing elections for the leadership of the Conservative Party, which happens also to be for the leadership of the country.)
Anyone who governs must rely on the consent of the governed. This consent may be merely passive, in that the mass of the population isn’t taking to the streets to protest. Recently that seems to be the best that most governments have been able to hope for. At the last general election in the UK in 2019, for example, the winning party got 43.6% of the popular vote, which was considered exceptionally high. This is not the ringing endorsement you might imagine from the size of the government’s majority in the House of Commons, and since then the government’s popularity ratings have dropped like a rock.
Are the West’s political systems capable of offering a useful alternative to business as usual? The answer would seem to be no. Now and again the deck is reshuffled, but the result always seems to be a more or less interchangeable lineup of nonentities in suits, spouting the same old guff without ever changing anything much. There is an old saying involving deckchairs and RMS Titanic that comes to mind.
It seems likely that many, perhaps most, industrialised nations will end up resorting to some version of the Strong Man. Some already have, although we can argue about which ones. And it could most definitely happen here, despite what people fondly imagine. As recently as the 1970s, there were certainly rumours of attempts to remove the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and install a more authoritarian regime. And the waters the UK will have to navigate in the next few decades will make the 1970s look like a millpond.
This is not a prospect I look forward to with much joy. I don’t think it is a phase that will last forever, partly because nothing does, and partly because an elaborate system of political repression is quite resource-intensive and future regimes will struggle to sustain it. But that is likely to be cold comfort for those who have to live through it.
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