Unhappy New Year

Wherever one looks, there are indications that the prevailing political and economic models have failed, yet there has been no discernible effort to confront these issues among Western governments

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Though the Christmas season is traditionally a period of festivity, it may be hard to maintain good cheer given the ominous portents of 2016. 

In other parts of Europe, it has become impossible to disguise the atmosphere of fear and anxiety in which we now live. Armed soldiers now patrol Christmas markets in the wake of a renewed spate of terror warnings and attacks in Berlin, Zurich and elsewhere. The murder of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey called to mind the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which precipitated a world war.

 Whether or not history will repeat itself to the letter, the world has arguably not been closer to a global conflagration since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. 

Nor is this the only parallel with the troubled start of the 20th century. Last week, Time International was criticised for its choice of US President-elect Donald Trump as ‘Person of the Year’. Yet Trump does indeed embody much that helped to shape the past 12 months. His electoral success is itself part of a pattern that we have seen emulated elsewhere: traditional political and economic models are falling by the wayside. A new period of uncertainty and instability looms.

Mirrored by the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the unmistakable rise of a xenophobic extreme right throughout most of Europe, the US Presidential election placed its finger on the beating pulse of this global malaise. Trump successfully rode a wave of deep-seated anger and resentment among the American population. His anti-globalisation rhetoric – with talk of trade barriers and limitations to freedom of movement – clearly struck a chord in a nation that has seen entire industries relocate elsewhere in search of cheap labour. 

Likewise his populist stand on issues such as immigration – especially his proposal to ban Muslims and to build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants – clearly tapped into a widespread fear of ‘the other’ as the prime cause of all that nation’s current woes.

It is easy to jeer and criticise from the sidelines, but the truth – if such a thing still exists in a ‘post-truth’ age – is that conventional political approaches are no longer enough to convince the electorate: not just in the USA, but in any country. That Donald Trump is such an unlikely champion of the anti-establishment cause only emphasises the extent of the gaping chasm that now exists between peoples and their governments. His election was less of an endorsement of Trump as a candidate (in fact he got far fewer votes than Hillary Clinton) but a rejection of the status quo.

Similar events have underscored the same general message in Europe. An analysis of the Brexit campaign, and also the subsequent voting patterns, strongly suggests that the underlying issues were broadly similar. The main target of the ‘Be-leavers’ was only one of the EU’s four pillars: freedom of movement of people. This also explains why Britain still seeks to retain membership in the single market: the objection was not to trading within the EU, but to the implicit border policies that resulted in large-scale immigration to the UK.

Not since the 1930s have open racism and hostility towards ethnic minorities been felt so strongly. Apart from ill-feeling towards newer waves of migrants, there has also been an unmistakable resurgence of Anti-Semitism in Europe. Religious and racial intolerance seem to be at peak volume. 

Economically, too, the developed world seems to be caught in a vicious cycle that can only aggravate the disparity of global wealth. On this front, one can easily assert that the world has never, in fact, been in a worse state. Not even in the times of kings and emperors was the distribution of wealth so imbalanced. Today, a mere one percent enjoys more access to wealth than the remaining 99% put together. This incredible reality may not be felt by all in the same way, as the vast majority of the have-nots live in extreme poverty in the undeveloped world. All the same, the disparity is affecting even the richest and most prosperous countries. Clearly, it has poisoned the heart of Europe, and other countries we refer to as ‘the West’.

Wherever one looks, there are indications that the prevailing political and economic models have failed. Still under shock from Brexit, the European Union seems reluctant to consider that its own policies may have alienated entire European populations. Six years after the economic crisis, and untold billions in bailouts later, Greece remains a prisoner to austerity policies that can only breed bad blood. Euro-sceptic movements have since gained traction in all Southern Eurozone states. In France – a founding member of the EU – the Far Right may even claim the Presidency early next year.

Yet throughout all this, there has been no discernible effort to confront these issues among Western governments: no acknowledgement that consumerist capitalism, as an economic model, is simply not working; or that the traditional paradigms we are accustomed to are now past their sell-by date. 

Unless mainstream politics finds a way to respond to these pressures, without losing sight of the principles and tolerance and solidarity, 2017 in unlikely to be a ‘happy new year’.