Wherever one looks, it is evident that the post-war Establishment élites are on the backfoot. They maintain a studied panglossian hauteur. But whether it is in Britain, where a PM seems ready to sacrifice her own party’s future on the altar of maintaining the cosy nexus between big business and Brussels’ smug ambitions to be a global economic player, rivalling the US or China. Or, whether it is Trump’s readiness to put America’s financial system into fiscal and debt jeopardy, in order to keep the cogs and wheels of the Military Industrial Complex whirring and spinning comfortably – at a time when US government over-spending already threatens to break dollar ‘trust’.
Or, whether it is Europe, where the abrupt ECB reversal marks a huge conceptual failure… [i.e. the destruction and transfer of wealth from Eurozone savers, to rescue debtors; and from the general public to the banks, government and large corporations to rescue their balance sheets]. This has contributed materially to having turned the Eurozone into an economic zombie, and having radicalised a large and hostile constituency.
Or, whether it is manifest with the EU’s evident befuddlement upon China’s tectonic ‘landing’ at Rome last month, heralding the shift of the global trade ‘plates’. Maybe the EU leaders do ‘get it’ – that the EU is already on the slipway, gliding down towards ‘new waters’, slipping towards its sibling separation from the erstwhile ‘parental home’ of the trans–Atlantic relationship, to a new life in which a Chinese partner features. But if so, strategic thinking is not evident.
Or, whether it relates to Washington’s foreign-policy Establishment’s surprise at China and Russia’s assertive ‘spanner’ thrust into the ‘game’ of regime change being played-out in Venezuela; or by NATO-member Turkey insisting to buy Russia’s S400s, despite Washington’s threats; or (unimaginably), by tiny Jordan and Lebanon actually saying ‘no’ to the US (over Kushner’s plan to strip King Abdullah of his custodianship of Jerusalem’s al-Quds, or in Lebanon’s case, by declining to wage sanctions ‘war’ on its co-citizens).
The studied ‘front’ persists, but the cracks show. What is significant, and so interesting, is that the resistance now is percolating into the ranks of the ‘Establishment’ itself. (The Establishment was never homogenous, but internal revolt within its ranks was always cauterised easily, and the wound quickly healed-over). Not now – at least not so easily.
All in all, the post-war élites are shaken: the reaction to the Mueller Inquiry outturn (by Establishment outlier Trump), and EU Michel Barnier’s outburst that there are mischief-makers (Nigel Farage in particular), who actually “want to destroy the EU from inside; and others from outside”- are but two symptoms of psychic fracture in an erstwhile, sealed Cartesian mental retort. Core concepts are being challenged on many fronts.
An ancient European war of two ‘visions’ – between old-style conservatives (with a small ‘c’) that are instinctively suspicious of grand, utopian projects, and who prize autonomy and native institutions – is rebelling against the contemporary embrace of millenarianism.
This has re-emerged most furiously with Brexit; with Macron’s Jupiter-like conceit; with the scorn and non-conformism coming out from Italy; and from the undisguised disdain for EU ‘values’ emanating from Warsaw, Budapest, and other Visegrad capitals. Is it truly feasible for the EU to maintain their unbending stance, as challenges proliferate?
Yet, in spite of this catalogue; in spite of all the evidence surrounding us that we stand at the edge of one of those substantive inflection points, we just amble on, continuing as usual – sure that we will muddle through, somehow ‘okay’.
But will we? Why the unfurrowed sanguinity? We may be entering global recession. Yet neither the Fed, nor the ECB, have the weapons to deal with it (as they freely admit), beyond reverting to more money-printing, interest rate suppression and asset purchases. What will be the outcome then, this time? The Central Banks will print (already collectively $1 Trillion this first quarter). In past rounds of monetary inflation, cheap Chinese imports did repress western inflation. We could ‘print’ the cash, with seemingly no adverse blowback. And China effectively ‘lent us’ its growth stimulus, too.
But the adverse blowback was always there, just less visible. The ‘printing’ represented a huge transfer of wealth from one component of the public – to another. Can the fabric of our polity really assimilate any greater inequalities, without tearing apart, without exploding? Are not the Gillets Jaunes flashing a red warning signal? Apparently not. Markets continue to soar away. For sure, the consequences however, to the inevitable (now fully locked-in) monetary authorities’ response to stagnation, this time will be that the 60% will sink closer to the economic ‘cliff edge’, (whilst the 40% fly high) – and the young will become the new long-term unemployed.
More fundamentally, the question is rarely asked: can America truly Be Made Great Again (MAGA), its military totally renewed, and its civil infrastructure refurbished, when starting out from a position today (year to date) where its shortfall of Federal revenue to expenditure is 30%; where its debt is now so great that the US may only survive by again repressing interest rates to a (zombifying) near zero?
And again, is it truly feasible to force manufacturing jobs back to a high-cost base America, from their low-cost, offshoring in Asia – against the backdrop of an America made progressively ‘higher-cost’, through its locked-in monetary inflation policies – except by crashing the value of the dollar to make this high cost base platform globally competitive again? Is MAGA realistic; or will the re-capture of jobs back to the US from the low-cost world end by triggering the very recession which the Central Banks so fear?
And as the post-war élites in America and Europe become more and more desperate to maintain the illusion of being the vanguard of global civilisation, how will they cope with the re-appearance of a ‘civilization-state’ in its own right: i.e. China? How will the EU respond to a Pentagon obsessed with China, China, China, when that China is building its BRI right into Europe? Will it – like America – opt for protectionism, and promote mergers and mega entities to compete with heavy US and Chinese corporations? Is Europe even capable of restraining the US, as the latter builds its military containment of China, and expects Europe to play along?
In Europe, the push-back against an entrenched élite French ‘system’ benefitting the few, and failing the many, threatens to upturn the political coherence of France. In the UK, Brexit threatens to blow the British political party system apart. Differences over the UK’s relationship with the EU have never been deeper, more salient, and more entrenched than they are now. The differences between the urban cosmopolitan élite of London and rest of the country have never been more marked. The question now of whether, and to what degree, Britain should belong to a Europe, which is (in Der Spiegel’s “a dominion … a central power exerting control over many different peoples … and as a German Reich in the economic realm” – has become a fundamental cleavage.
Brexit is becoming bigger than ‘Brexit’. Old party allegiances no longer operate, and are being surpassed. The two major parties are split. Formerly loyal activists are calling their party leaderships treacherous – or worse. The party signifier is no longer class, or historic family adherence: It is ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’.
Tectonic shifts like this, are rare. But when they do occur, they throw up the possibility of profound change and realignment. Many Britons are exiting loyalties and preferences in which they once had lived. New parties and new contenders are emerging. Existing parties are fracturing – or trying to reinvent themselves – as disdain for the parties and their leaders reaches epidemic proportions. All that seemed solid is melting into air, with profound consequences for the political future and even for the system of governance – as the UK parliament turned ‘rogue’, as parliament moved to usurp the prerogative of government.
Normally mild-mannered party members in Britain are saying in the wake of what has occurred in parliament this last week, that only a “political revolution” can restore legitimate governance to the UK. Incredible. Take this as one example:
“We stand agog at the daily, in fact hourly, political machinations of the Prime Minister, Parliament and the establishment. We have witnessed the rewriting of constitutional precedent, a blatant disregard for manifesto commitments, the bending of rules and lies on an industrial scale.
All this to keep the UK a prisoner of the EU system and a milch cow for Germany and Brussels bureaucracy. No heresy allowed in the new inquisition. What is astonishing is the apparent continued belief amongst our superior classes that “ordinary people” aren’t watching and understanding what is afoot.”
From some radical, perhaps? No it is a quote from the former Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, with 30 years’ experience of UK and EU government. Establishment personified. When the resistance start from within the élite, historically it suggests that we must expect a long conflict coming.
It may be satisfying to think that this is an insular British reaction to Brexit, of little wider import. But that would be wrong. We are on the cusp of inflection. Is not similar occurring in the US, with the ‘deplorables’ (as latter day ‘Confederates’) facing-off against the northern urban liberals, much as in the US Civil War?
Is not the stand-off taking place within the EU somehow a re-run of the struggles (by mostly Protestant) nation states, that were precisely opposed to the notion of an European Empire imposing its rigid ‘Lex Europa’ over diverse peoples, by a centralized and aloof, authority?
This is occurring at a moment when the US and European economies are fragile. Why is the inherent risk in all this so difficult to perceive, or acknowledge?
This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.
Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat, founder and director of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum.