It’s become a journalistic cliché to say that we live in times where the unexpected happens. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait on events, argues John Rees
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, twice. The Brexit vote. David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister. Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. The snap general election. The hung parliament which resulted from the last election. These are all events that few, including Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron, Donald Trump and Theresa May, predicted.
So why is it that we live in times where the unexpected happens so regularly that we come to expect it?
One root of the current political turbulence is that two long standing political paradigms are exhausted: neo-liberal economic policy and neo-conservative foreign policy.
Neo-liberalism rose on the ruins of the post-Second World War welfare state consensus, ruins it helped to create. But its Reagan-Thatcher heyday is long gone. A generation of deregulation and privatisation and two signal economic crashes, in 1987 and 2008, have left even true believers bereft of evidence that we all benefit from free markets in which the wealth trickles down to us all.
One driver of current political turbulence is that long-building public disaffection with the neo-liberal model is now at boiling point and is bursting into the establishment political sphere.
Neo-conservatism was the framework of establishment thought which framed the post-Cold War foreign policy of the US and its allies, finding one of its most committed advocates in Tony Blair. In its most right wing variant it was the Project for the New American Century, many of whose advocates came to power in the administration of George W Bush. In its liberal version the excuse for reasserting Western global dominance was ‘humanitarian intervention’, modelled on the supposed success of the NATO war in the Balkans in 1999.
Neo-conservatism now lies buried, in the public mind at least, beneath the still smouldering ruins of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Even the US establishment cannot revive full scale shock-and-awe neo-conservatism as an effective guide to action, as the risk-averse Obama presidency and the would-be isolationist Trump presidency both demonstrate in different ways.
But the current political instability does not lie only in the fact that the two great ruling class ideologies of the post-Cold War era are now discredited. It lies in the fact that the establishment have nothing with which to replace them.
Yes, there are Keynesians around wishing for a return to, or an updated version of, managed capitalism. And yes, there are a myriad NGO thinkers who wish for a rules-based, legally enforcable, UN-policed, human rights respecting, international order.
The problem is that neither of these perspectives has anything like a hegemonic appeal. Most of these nostrums are only held with any conviction by relatively small policy elites at the liberal and left end of the political spectrum.
One reason for their limited appeal is that they seem weak and inadequate in the face of a rapacious and uncontrolled capitalist economy and a chaotic and conflict ridden inter-state system. Millions of people sense that something more radical is needed, even if they don’t know what it is.
In the absence of such a radical programme of course many millions will continue to vote for the most radical option on offer. This sometimes seems to come from the left, but it can also come from the right.
And here is one of the great lessons in expecting the unexpected: discontent is greater than you think, and politics is polarising as a result. This is why the most bewildered people in a bewildering situation are the old centre. Blairites in the UK, Democrats in the US, old entitled liberal political elites everywhere, know that something is happening but they don’t know what it is.
For some on the left, particularly in the UK at the moment, a solution to the crisis of the old order is at hand: the election of a left-led government.
Only embittered sectarians would disagree that this would be serious progress. But that’s not all there is to say, especially if we want to understand the next round of the unexpected.
The UK looks pretty unique at the moment in the strength of its left surge. But actually it's not the only left challenge to the old order. The UK has been preceded by Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and was closely followed by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US.
The UK, albeit specific because the challenge has arisen within rather than as an alternative to a traditional reformist party, is a late developer. And if we want to understand what may be coming around the corner we have to be clear that all of these precursors have either been defeated for the time being, incorporated, or proved much more ineffectual than was first hoped.
In short, internationally we are living in the age of disappointment in the first round of left revival. Anyone who thinks similar dangers are not present for the Corbyn project is likely to be unhappily surprised by the next unexpected series of events.
Politics is polarising, but the current version of that polarisation is absolutely certain not to be the last.
Each round of polarisation opens new possibilities, both for the left and the right. But for the left to take those possibilities successfully, to see the unexpected as an opportunity, it is necessary to revisit some old truths.
And this is another important lesson in dealing with the unexpected. It is necessary to see what has changed, but it is also necessary to see what has not changed.
Here are some important verities: the capitalist economy will remain chaotic and ultimately unmanageable even after neo-liberalism and even if there is a revival of Keynesian regulation; the capitalist state may be bent to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism, but it will be unremittingly hostile to a genuine left government; parliamentary politics corrupts and compromises even the most radical; mass mobilisation and class struggle are the only ultimate drivers of radical political change.
In the end an inability to understand, and act, in unexpected situations results from a combination of not understanding what is new and not understanding what has remained the same. Underestimating what is new means repeating the errors of the past, or repeating what was true in the past in circumstances in which it is no longer true. Underestimating what remains the same means not learning the lessons of history.
Of course the tricky thing is to combine these two insights correctly in any given, concrete situation. For that, as Lenin said, ‘one must always try to be as radical as reality itself’.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.