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Democracy in Crisis: What Next? Populism or Woke Capitalism?

With inflation up, growth down, and 80% of Britons unsatisfied with the political system, Matthew Gwyther explores a catastrophic loss of faith in our economic system

Democracy in CrisisWhat Next? Populism or Woke Capitalism?

With inflation up, growth down, and 80% of Britons unsatisfied with the political system, Matthew Gwyther explores a catastrophic loss of faith in our economic system

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Sometimes living in Britannia, a land of the free, can feel tough. Especially, as we in the UK discover  the Government we voted for in 2019 has rewarded us with the highest inflation rate in Europe, together with a growth rate predicted to be lower than sanctioned Russia this year. Democratic capitalism isn’t delivering as much as it might to the Brits at the moment.  Enough to make anyone come over all populist. Or even Putinist. 

As a marriage, it may be only a couple of hundred years old, but democracy and capitalism were supposed to go hand in hand together. In theory, they are both about the freedom to choose and develop both our personal and mutual societal interests accordingly.  You don’t like one brand of coffee or a political party? Others are available via the ballot box or debit card. But it’s the fragility of democratic capitalism that Martin Wolf has emphasised in his new book The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism

The 1950s-80s probably saw the apogee of democratic capitalism. And it’s been a long slide downhill since. These days everyone has a good laugh at Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay The End of History which acclaimed the final victory of liberal democracy as the Cold War ended. He foresaw neither the downsides of globalisation nor the unstoppable rise of autocratic China. 

The weakness of the union –  which, actually,  if you count the arrival of universal suffrage in the West, is a mere 100 years old – is that things start to fall apart if a shared trust in the rules of the game being fair are denuded. If a large number of folk feel the game is rigged in favour of an elite i.e, not them. It’s always the “elites.”  

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We go round and round in circles about the wrongs inflicted on the populace by liberal or right-wing elites. The former may control the intellectual zeitgeist – nobody but the truly desperate go to The Daily Express to find out how to interpret a confusing world – but the latter wields the true economic power, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has argued. Gary Lineker and his 8.9 million Twitter followers may hold sway on environmentalism, gender equality, the rights of sexual and ethnic minorities and, more recently, immigration but few, least of all him, think he wields any power to change very much. There isn’t much he can do to sink plans for the Asylum Barge to be moored off Dorset. 

That capitalism has failed far too many of us is made clear by a piece of PEW research that shows a median of 70% of adults across 19 countries think their kids will be worse off than they are.

Capitalism/democracy requires dreams of betterment and comfort to be fulfilled otherwise the ‘strong men’ are called for. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of ‘the American Dream’ and it lies at the heart of the appeal of individuals like Trump and Farage who wish to blow the whole system up – including free and fair elections. 

Delusion and Loss of Faith

However,  most populist movements do very little to cure capitalism. They put up straw men and practice purely cynical politics: passing laws they know won’t work, to solve problems that they know don’t really exist because they poll well.

Thus Georgia Meloni, the Italian PM and member of the neo-Facist Brothers of Italy bans both ChatGPT and lab-grown meat because they threaten ‘The Italian Way’. (A way that has since near zero economic growth for more than twenty years and  69.4 per cent of young people aged 18 to 34 years living with their parents in 2019.)

Meanwhile, one of the weird things about European capitalism is that it’s been steered away from a devotion to nothing but the bottom line and shareholder return. It’s become more liberal, “woke” even.  In the United States a war over “woke capitalism” is proving very bloody indeed. Anheuser-Busch, the company behind Bud Light, recently sent specialized cans of the popular beer to trans activist and TikTok star Dylan Mulvaney, featuring the influencer’s face. And Nike sponsored her leading to howls of outrage. This was described by one ultra-conservative blogger as ” ESG (Environmental, Social and corporate governance) racketeering.” 

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We should expect 21st Century Business to serve liberal democracy and society. It is rightly pilloried if it doesn’t boycott Russia and Iran, invest in skills, levelling up , drive change through its equal employment and well-being policies, take care of its environmental impact and report on all this in great detail.

He may be 158 years dead in the ground but there’s plenty to learn from Abe Lincoln’s appeal to cohesion and a purposeful unity. He wanted government  “of the people, by the people, for the people” and appealed that we use “the better angels of our nature.” 

Angels are thin on the ground in Mar Al Lago and that is the point of its inhabitant –  an immoderate and coarse Caliban. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t Is I know how to curse.”  

Lincoln, above all, wanted us to use our reason. At its extreme , argued a recent Scientific American article, the current lack of dialogue and reasoned argument just degenerates into a “Shared psychosis” aka a “folie à millions” [“madness for millions”].

This “refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person’s symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence—even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.” 

Think of the QAnon shaman guy with the furs and the cow horns who got 41 months for raiding the Capitol building in January 2021.  He had lost his reason as well as his mind.

In Europe, we have got somehow to rediscover our faith in democracy and its processes. We only have to look at Hungary, Poland or even Italy to see what results if we fail to do this. 

17% of people – less than a fifth – in the UK indicate they are highly satisfied with how the political system is functioning these days – among the lowest of 23 countries analysed and on a par with satisfaction in Russia (16%), Mexico (17%) and Nigeria (15%). In China 57% say they’re quite satisfied and 39% are “don’t knows.” 

That should worry us for a whole variety of reasons, not least what might happen if someone openly expresses dissatisfaction under Xi Jinping and suggests voting him out. 

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