Sunday, 31 January 2016

What explains the age of rage?

Whether billionaire sentence-shredder Donald Trump (above) wins this week's Republican caucus in Iowa or not, there's absolutely no doubt that his political rise and success tells us something about the machinery driving public opinion today. The bolts, bands, cogs and wheels are made up of frustration; rage; fear; and a little dash of hatred. The Tea Party movement that's in part fueling Trump's rise. Podemos in Spain. The Five Star Movement in Italy. The United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain. Syriza in Greece. The National Front in France. The first, most striking primary characteristic of all these populisms of Left and Right? Well, we're not telling you anything you don't know here, but it's this: anger. Rage against established politicians. Rage against experienced players on the national stage (especially Hillary Clinton, if you're a Trump supporter). Anger about 'broken promises', everyone in public life being 'the same', average people's apparent loss of power and influence, the movement of peoples, the globalisation of the economy, a lack of secure jobs: you name it, everyone's angry about it.

Which is strange, because in many ways most denizens of the developed West have never had it so good. They fly abroad on city breaks that their grandparents could never have dreamed of. Their children learn more, and can access more, than ever before in the history of the world. They stare at 50-inch plasma screens displaying high definition pictures. They pick and choose what film to download into the home cinema. They monitor their body weight and physical achievements in the gym using applications straight out of science fiction. They drink less. They smoke less. They eat much, much better - and with more choice - than their forebears. Across the world, the numbers living in poverty have crashed downwards. Although wealth inequality has begun to climb again (largely due to the importance of housing wealth), income inequality - at least in the UK - hasn't risen much since its precipitous leap upwards in the 1980s - and actual poverty, especially child poverty, has until recently been on a sharply downward trajectory in large part due to the policies Labour pursued in government. Most people who live in wealthy democracies are even pretty personally happy (and in Britain getting happier), most of the time. The reasons for our outbursts of furious, chest-beating fury are by no means self-explanatory or transparent. We need to explain this strange 'age of rage', so incongruous in a period that's a time of plenty for the majority. Here's a first sketch of what we might be looking at - four reasons for the ragefulness of our times.

Popular segmentation. Yes, most people are doing pretty well - especially in the more dynamic economies such as the United States and United Kingdom, where jobs (even full-time jobs) are fairly plentiful and wages have been on the rise since 2013/14. If you drive anywhere, or you buy a lot of consumer goods, and you've got a job, the last couple of years have felt pretty good, thank you very much. Falling prices (of petrol, for instance) have pushed your purchasing power right up. But there's a problem here. There is a great deal of suffering amidst the widespread prosperity, including a sharp rise in homelessness and rough sleeping. If you have to endure the diktats of - for instance - Britain's increasingly harsh and cruel welfare system, then depression and despair might better characterise how you're feeling right now than anything like the uplift enjoyed by the majority of voters. If you're on the edge - if your employment is very marginal, your wages low, your terms insecure - you're much more likely to look at the majority's lotus eating and get all the angrier. This is particularly true if you're young. In Spain, Italy and Greece the very, very high rates of youth unemployment is a grotesque stain on the European Union, and on the promises of capitalism itself. Even in the UK, where there are jobs, if you're under 35, and you live in Southern England, if you really think that you're ever going to have a property bigger than a shoebox or a pension, you haven't been paying attention. All those young people flocking to Bernie Sanders' rallies, or queuing up to see Jeremy Corbyn speak? Well, it's not as much of a surprise if you look at it like this.

Dizzying change. Imagine you're pretty conservative about social issues - sexuality, marriage, the 'traditional' family, you know the sort of thing. Well, the last few years probably felt pretty gritty for you. The increasingly overwhelming acceptance of gay marriage, for instance, has probably left you gasping for air and wondering what on earth has happened to your fellow citizens. Voters who support Britain's right-wing UKIP grouping tend to be older and less well-educated than other Britons, and to live far away from cosmopolitan liberal areas in towns literally at the end of the road - in seaside resorts, for instance. These voters often feel that they 'can't say what they really want' - that they are constrained by a Politically Correct thought police that censors the views that they, and most of their friends, hold very deeply and dearly. If you look at a map of UKIP support, it basically approximates to where there are very large numbers of British-born white old men with few qualifications, disappointed and angry about the way the rest of the country's seemingly settled social views have rapidly and inexplicably changed.

Social media. Now, let's not be partisan here. Every party and every shade of ideology has got a problem with a deeply unpleasant fringe of shouty activists on social media. Let's face it: their ridiculous posturing is often hard to take. Put up some poll numbers and you get told you're an idiot. Speculate about the sources of economic growth and you're suddenly 'a Tory'. That's not the biggest problem, though. The real problem is the echo chamber that you can get into with only your friends and the like-minded gathered around you on Twitter and Facebook. The recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour's leader originated on social media; paid-for Conservative advertising on Facebook (for the most part disingenuous) helped win them the General Election, because it was targeted at exactly those groups in marginal constituencies whose liking and sharing might push the Conservatives' vote over the top; the Scottish National Party's more (shall we say) committed supporters make a point of seeking out their opponents on social media to have a good old row with them; crowdsourced campaigners such as 38 Degrees do well, for instance heading off the privatisation of the Forestry Commission, by mobilising tens of thousands of clicktivists at a moment's notice. The contribution to our angry new politics of red-faced ranting? You can spend all day scrolling through stuff that agrees with you. When someone with opposing or contesting views happens to stumble into that group, it can feel like they are risking being eaten alive. They are crossing invisible boundaries that we have put up between ourselves, probably without meaning to.

Time-poor voters hounded by complexity. Public life is increasingly complex. It's our job to understand policymaking, especially economic policymaking. You know what? Faced with the increasingly-precarious nature of our pension contributions and its hard-to-understand granular detail, we want to hide our head in our hands. It's not big and it's not very clever, but it's the natural thing to do when faced with a load of contribution bands and yields that apply many decades in the future. The whole thing undermines the sense that one can ever get a handle on everything - pensions, especially, more and more important but harder and harder to understand - and pushes many people back on political verities that just aren't true. So we get a load of blaming: attacks on corrupt politicians (UK politicians aren't very corrupt), immigrants (who actually boost economic growth) and 'immorality' (young people are probably better behaved than their parents) for society's ills. Complexity does two other things, as well: it makes for a governing class which is reluctant to say anything that sounds definite, aware of every tradeoff and shade of grey, thereby slipping further and further away from speaking like 'normal people'. Lastly, who wants, these days, to wait patiently for any argument or debate to unfold? With two children that you're trying to get to and from schools across the city because you've got 'choice' as to where they go, three or four jobs between two parents, and caring for elderly relatives to attend to, who's got any time to be tolerant and take a breath when someone offends your political sensibilities? Try to park in a really crowded Tesco's car park on a Sunday. Then you'll see some rage.

That's our first best guesses list complete: a combination of increasingly assertive groups who have been locked out of the general prosperity, and who have decided that they don't have to meekly acquiesce to it all any more; rapid, confusing, frightening social change; the development of a rent-a-mouth social media that allows people to escape from opposing points of view; and a complex world that's becoming harder and harder to get a grip on. Here are some of the reasons for the age of rage - some of the mechanics behind the rise of Trump. Let's hope that the countervailing forces (and we'll come to them next week) prove stronger than the machinery of fury.