I woke up this morning thinking about the type of people who are thrown up by our political systems and put before us for election. I have spent the last few days mulling over the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid and that alone would have given me reason enough to put this rant down on paper. But the actual spark came from a member of that monument to democracy, the Bush dynasty.
The mantle of political entitlement has now passed to Jeb and he picks up where his celebrated brother left off by completely misunderstanding the world around him. This week he made a few headlines with his outrage at Obama’s plan to extend overtime coverage to managers earning below $50,440 per year (essentially reducing the possibility of lower salaried workers being forced to work additional hours for no extra pay). Jeb was stunned by this frivolity and, on top of claiming that Americans need to work more hours, not less, he showed his finely tuned economic skills by telling us that this new rule would result in less overtime pay and less wages earned. Sensible members of the human race (and a few economists) were quick to point out the many flaws in this reasoning. First of all, by curbing the exploitation of some managers, employers would be forced to use more workers and/or additional overtime to pay to cover the same workload. The argument that companies would cut salaries to compensate for this new rule is just not credible.
In reading about this odd interlude the first thing that sprang to my mind was, surprisingly, neither despair at the sight of another Bush in the race for the Republican nomination, nor amusement at the fact that Jeb obviously shares his brother’s flair for economic detail. The first thing that came to mind was wonder at how so many modern democracies celebrate this type of privileged, uninformed and out-of-touch douchebag. Jeb’s failure to grasp economics is one thing but his failure to be able to see this issue from the point of view of the average member of the public is quite another. How do we keep ending up with politicians so deeply out-of-touch with the majority of the electorate?
Jeb Bush is certainly not alone in being a politician far removed from the electorate, as the circus surrounding Donald Trump serves to remind us. As a member of Texan aristocracy, Bush’s privileged upbringing has allowed him to escape the realities of the job market for most of his life. Aside from a few “entrepreneurial” activities and a couple of finance jobs secured by his father, Bush has spent his working life as a politician. His access to the inner political circles was inherited and he no doubt thanks the lord each night for the fact that he has escaped everyday contact with the public. Small wonder then that his political career been held in thrall to private business interests, with his policies as state governor including Milton Friedman’s trusted old vouchers for private education. For someone who never had to struggle to make ends meet, it must be hard to see social welfare programmes as anything other as communist infiltration. And that’s also why he cannot see why curbing company’s rights to exploit their workforce is anything other than a restraint on business growth. He’s like a 19th century factory owner lifted from the pages of Kapital.
Closer to home, Portuguese elections are approaching and it looks like the Social Democrat’s Pedro Passos-Coelho has at least a fighting chance of hanging on as Prime Minister. While Jeb Bush has probably never heard of Pedro Passos-Coelho he does in fact share one interesting trait in common – both have spent almost a lifetime in politics, built on the back of a privileged upbringing. Passos-Coelho and I have a mutual friend who first met the now-PM as a teenager in the Social Democratic Youth organisation. Even from a young age, she says, he was absorbed by politics and the political process. He was a politician before he was even an adult and so instead of his life experience informing his politics, it is his politics which gives him his thoughts on society. The problem is that when these thoughts are not backed by first-hand experience there is always going to be either an empathy gap or misunderstanding.
For most of us in society, we live our lives surrounded by different demands, pressures, motivations and passions. As we leave education and move into the workforce we have to learn how to live within our means and how these means become factors in how position ourselves in society and relate to others. This personal perspective of social and economic relationships is often the core factor in the development of our personal politics. In this way, those on lower incomes are traditionally drawn to left-leaning parties since they identify greater common ground with their politicians and more hope that these same people will better represent their interests.
In an era of supposedly open democracy in most western countries, surely then we should be seeing a fuller representation of different social classes among the political elite. But instead we still have the professional, lifetime politicians, the political class who know deep down that they were born to rule those who are forced to work for a living. And the reason why the Bushes, the Passos-Coelho’s, the David Camerons, the Gideon Osbornes and so many others are still in the the engine room of global politics is that they have a secret weapon: the secrecy and fetishism of the ‘markets’. For years the political right has told us about an important but temperamental beast called the ‘market’. No one it seems quite understands its true intentions or desires but it must be appeased at all costs. No price is too big to satisfy its wants and keep it from devouring us all. When macroeconomics was still an emerging field, and unfettered capital flows were still an unthinkable fantasy, the economy was a more comprehensible beast and for many people it could be distilled into a single political argument – should taxes be raised to pay for more social service, or lowered to encourage spending and consumption. But times have changed. The jargon and fetishism that surrounds economic debate is now inextricably linked to the ‘markets’ and is largely incomprehensible to the majority. And this is no mistake. In general political debate these ‘markets’ are rarely explained or defined but their appeasement becomes a singular political objective.
Let’s look at the evidence. On the surface, few could surely argue that the Labour Party needs a change of direction. To my mind it seems self-evident that in a time of austerity and neoliberal politics the Labour Party should represent the voice of protest. It seems natural too that the grassroots Labour support should seek to regain the party’s identity by voting for Jeremy Corbyn as the only leadership candidate offering the possibility of deviation from the current political narrative. Surely, ‘market’ worship should be silenced while the party struggles to regain its sole and direction. While Corbyn’s campaign gains momentum among the Labour membership why are so many senior figures in the party so determined to crush his chances, and with it the voice of protest?
The answer, unfortunately, is that the Labour Party as we have come to know it is dead. Its traditional platform of worker’s rights and equality has been swept away due to market fetish and corporate influence. What is best for working people has long since been replaced by what is best for the ‘markets’. The myth that what is good for business is good for the average man on the street has long since been exposed and yet through skilful manipulation of the media, this narrative still dominates political debate. And within the Labour leadership contest we can catch a glimpse of the new political propaganda at work. As voters, workers or human beings we are not meant to understand the modern economy, only appreciate that markets, business, finance, economy and welfare are all magically linked in some sort of virtuous chain. Those who try to question the current system and put individuals and families back at the centre of discussion are ridiculed as uninformed and out of touch. For a masterclass in this approach we can turn to the master of political spin, Tony Blair, and his recent words on SNP policies:
“It is the politics of the first caveman council where the caveman came out from the council where there had been difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said: ‘There, over there. they are the problem.’ It’s blame someone else. However you dress it up it is a reactionary political philosophy”
Ironically, it is Blair himself who is guilty of the oldest political trick in the book – that those not toeing the line are living in the past and unable to contribute to the future. So, of course, when Jeremy Corbyn rightly points out that austerity is a “political choice not an economic necessity”, Blair replies that he is pedalling an “old-fashioned leftist platform”. And here is the crux of the matter – the centre-right policies pedalled by Blair, Cameron, Osborne et al rely on the fact that the public do not understand the economics that underpins their ideas. The functioning of capital markets is made deliberately obscure so that accountability of those in charge is reduced. As long as the myth that a rising tide lifts all boats is perpetuated then conservatives the world over can hide behind fuzzy economics to tell us that appeasing big business is better for society than providing social welfare. It is a tried and tested narrative that underpins neoliberalism.
And this brings me back to the beginning of this rant. When the prevailing political narrative is the same on most sides, there is no space for maverick candidates and new ideas. Politics and politicians emerging with different policies informed by personal experience and based on looking after individuals and families, are painted as being too far from the centre to be relevant. Politics has become subservient to market (and business) appeasement. In this political environment, where politicians are slaves to this narrative rather than their constituents, the most successful politicians will be those who are best placed to claim that they have mastered obscure (and usually erroneous) economic arguments. Being a “safe pair of hands on the economy” is now the ultimate election winner. This is why the establishment is so successful at serving us up political clones who crowd out any dissenting views. A Jeb Bush can claim a political heritage and a mastery of big business that dates back to his childhood; a Hilary Clinton can claim the same due to a life of privilege and political marriage; a Pedro Passos Coelho can show no experience in the real world but plenty of mastering political conservatism; and Tony Blair can safeguard his lucrative connections to big business by deriding the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn and his left of centre views. As Bill Clinton once said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Pretending to understand and worship capital markets and business is more politically important than job creation and welfare.
The success of politicians like the Bush family is testament to the fact there is no popular political left in the USA. Privileged voices of conservatism will always win votes in a political landscape dominated by the corporate agenda. The neoliberal takeover of Europe aims to achieve the same and where this narrative dominates, politicians like Passos Coelho will triumph. In the UK, the new Conservative government has wasted no time in trying to implement its own neoliberal philosophy and if the recent welfare vote in the House of Commons is anything to go by, they will be ably supported by the Labour Party, unless it manages to elect the only candidate representing it’s traditional values. I for one will be supporting Jeremy Corbyn, and those like him from across the political spectrum, as the last defence against austere, neoliberal, conservative forces.