One of the most compelling and lucid accounts I have heard explaining the victory of Trump, the Brexit referendum result and the resurgence in the more extreme ideology of right wing politics, comes, in an interview this year, from my favourite historian Yuval Harari. If you have read Harari’s masterpiece, Sapiens, you will know one of the reasons humans dominate the planet is that we are able to work effectively and flexibly in large groups. No other species can do this although it makes me think that Yuval has never been inside a big company with its associated dysfunctions, egos and uncooperative bastards who always steal the milk. Anyhow, to do so we have to believe in what social scientists call “fictions” or fictitious realities – these could be ideas of the nation state, political ideology, religion, legal systems, money and, yes, even corporations.
In attempting to explain the current flux in European and American politics whilst trying to make sense of today’s political divisions, Harari’s starting point is to remind us of the dominant “story” of liberal economics and its central ideology as the best way to elevate the economic fortunes of populations. A story which was seemingly unassailable with the collapse of the old Soviet Union (the end of history, to quote Francis Fukuyama) and the spread of market reforms and democracy into Eastern Europe and beyond (even Russia). People accepted this version, this story, or this fiction as it seemingly offered the most effective toolkit to organise life, boost prosperity for all and augment successful social organisation.
But increasingly, since the stagnation of wages in the west, job insecurity brought about globalisation or technology and the niggling idea that large tracts of society have not benefitted from exposure to the omnipresent “market”, this has led millions of people to question the efficacy of international driven socio-economic models and seek a different narrative or subjective myth. What this might mean, as Harari argues, is completely questioning the fictitious reality of “internationalism” and instead prioritising a return to the “national”. “America First” is a classic example, but peer behind the slogan and slogans like it, and you always see reference to some unspecified a point in the past when things were seemingly better (like the 1970s or when I was a teenager with more hair).
Such millions of lost souls may or may not have a true insight or understanding of the true dynamics of international trade or free markets or the iniquities or benefits of globalisation, but this doesn’t matter. People on a personal and local level are now looking around and asking themselves how they benefit from this international interlinked system (I am just looking around and asking myself what bright spark thought it would be a good idea for parents of my son’s primary school class to have a dedicated WhatsApp group, smiley fucking never-ending smiley).
And once they start to question this fiction you need a better story to replace it. Either an alternative reality with a nod to the future or a need to dust down the ideology of the past. In Harari’s words it, when one is feeling lost (he uses the idea of a city to illustrate his point) you want to retrace your steps to where you began. In essence, to go back to a place of safety, familiarity and control, immune to unstoppable external pressures which might bring unnerving shifts in social, cultural and economic relations, and a sudden desire to praise German World War Two soldiers.
It is an intriguing thesis and in my mind is the most plausible explanation for a lot of things going on in politics at the moment. So with this in mind, how is this playing out in Austrian political circles as it faces another general election on the 15th October? Equally, does it support Harari’s assertion of a return to the past and perceived greatness? To answer these questions we are going to decode some messages, pick apart the stories and examine the narratives that politicians and their media people are throwing at us with increasing frequency as the election draws nearer.
However, as only Boris Johnson is allowed to write 4000 word opinion pieces about Brexit, global trade and undermining his boss, I have decided to reserve a more detailed analysis of these subjective fictions for a second instalment. Assuming, of course, that Kim Jong-un has not thrown his hydrogen bomb out of his pram and Trump has not fired something.
In the meantime here is a taster of the imagined myths to come (and, no, they are not the track listing for a compilation of crap romantic rock ballads):
“Fairness”, “Zukunft” (future), “Jetzt. Oder Nie” (Now. Or Never), “Es ist Zeit” (It’s time), “Holen Sie sicht was Ihnen zusteht” (Take what you deserve), “Neue Perspektiven” (New perspectives), “Neue Chancen” (New chances), “Gerechtigkeit” (Justice), “Jedes Kind ist sehr gut” (Every child is very good), and perhaps my favourite, “Sei ein Mann: wahl eine Frau” (Be a man: vote for a woman).
Continued here in Imagined Realities
© 2017 RJ Barratt