2017: Fintan O’Toole plays optimist and pessimist

It could be the year of anarcho-authoritarianism – or the world may come to its senses

Victory by Geert Wilders’s far-right party in  Dutch parliamentary elections would mark a turning away by an  EU founding member  from the  core values of the union.  Photograph: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Victory by Geert Wilders’s far-right party in Dutch parliamentary elections would mark a turning away by an EU founding member from the core values of the union. Photograph: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images


Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,

Those overlooked regarded . . .

Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.

– Seamus Heaney

There is not much that could not happen in 2017. It is not that we do not know how things will end – we don’t really know where they begin, what firm assumptions we could use as a starting point after a year in which improbabilities became actual.

Where exactly are we standing when we peer into the immediate future? And where are we looking? We are forced to be like spectators at a tennis match, turning our heads from one side of the net to the other.

There is a pessimistic set of possibilities and a more optimistic one. The year will most probably ping back and forth between them. So even if we outline two scenarios, it is not to suggest that we will be looking directly at either of them. It will, rather, be a year of strained necks as history is spun or smashed from one to the other.

The pessimist’s 2017: the year of anarcho-authoritarianism

After all, things really do fall apart. Systems, institutions, mentalities, regimes often seem indestructible until they are destroyed. In 1914, at the start of the decade whose centenaries we are now marking, almost no one could imagine what was coming.

Ireland was going to settle for home rule within the British empire. The great European empires – British, French, Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian (the Ottoman being the notable exception) – would continue to shape both the continent and most of the rest of the world. A European war was certainly possible but the scale and duration of the cataclysm were unimaginable.

To have suggested that four empires would be swept away and that Europe would be plunged as a consequence into a conflict that would last, in various forms, until 1989 (and in some places like Yugoslavia even longer) would have been ridiculous.

Are we, a century on, in that kind of moment? In a literal sense, of course not. Europe is not going to war with itself anytime soon. But might we be in a period when basic assumptions about the shape of our world will prove to have been illusory? Probably.

It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to see the possibility that 2017 could be a watershed year in which the apparently inevitable progress of liberal democracy went into a long-term reverse.

We know already that two once-improbable things are going to happen in 2017. Donald Trump will take office as president of the United States, at the head of a radically reactionary administration. And the United Kingdom will trigger article 50 to begin the tortuous and deeply unsettling process of disengaging from the European Union.

Unknown knowns

Yet those in themselves are unknown knowns – predictable events whose consequences are utterly unpredictable.

In the immediate term, the biggest threat from both Trump and Brexit may be sheer incompetence. The illusion that Trump would change in some fundamental way if he was elected has long since dissipated. The aura of office will not long conceal what he is: a fraudulent, boorish blowhard who can’t read a book all the way through because he can’t concentrate long enough.

He is likely to be the worst kind of leader: one who swings between bored disengagement and manic, obsessive energy. And he has surrounded himself with people who are either utterly inexperienced or devoted to fanatical ideological agendas or both.

Presidents and cabinets who were far better prepared have found occupying the White House disorienting and distracting and struggled with the basic mechanics of power. There is every reason to think that Trump’s presidency will be as chaotic, rambling and self-contradictory as his own speeches.

And speaking of ill-preparedness, there’s Brexit, a revolution led by people who literally don’t know what they’re doing. The referendum was won by a campaign that, like Trump’s, had slogans rather than policies. Some of its slogans (like the promise of £350 million a week becoming available for the National Health Service) were cynical lies, but some of them were childish delusions.

Boris Johnson being in favour of having your cake and in favour of eating it may be the politics of a fourth birthday party, but it has since emerged that Johnson genuinely believed that the UK could leave the EU but still have a seat on the European Commission. This kind of delusion still infects the approach to Brexit: that the UK can demand all the benefits of EU membership with none of the burdens.


There is every chance that this will make the negotiations chaotic. Even with goodwill on the EU side (by no means a certainty) it is impossible to negotiate with people who insist that you must indulge their fantasies.

The most likely outcome of this incompetence is that the simplest short-term solution becomes the default option – and that’s a hard Brexit. It is the only solution that does not involve compromise, complexity, subtlety and the use of political authority to tell your own supporters (and in this case the rabid popular press) the reasons why you can’t give them what they want.

But there is also a chance that Brexit may in fact come to seem irrelevant. There may not be a functioning European Union to exit from. The EU is not going to sink in 2017 but it could be locked irretrievably on a course for the iceberg.

If victory by Geert Wilders in the Dutch parliamentary elections in March feeds into Marine Le Pen winning the French presidential election in May, two of the EU’s founding members will have turned away from the core values of the union.

Pressure for a general election in Italy could lead to a change of government in favour of a populist and Eurosceptic alliance. A strong showing for the far right in the German elections in the autumn and gridlock in Spain, where a minority government has little authority, would weaken resistance by the traditional European centre right.

The promise of referendums on the euro in Italy and France could itself create a renewed crisis for the currency – all of this unfolding amid the chaos of Trump and Brexit.

It has to be borne in mind that even before the events of 2016 the tide was already running against liberal democracy. It has long since been rolled back in Russia, and China is in the midst of a renewed crackdown on liberal dissent.


The democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring have turned into the nightmare of a bleak Arab winter of disarray, authoritarianism and intra-Muslim sectarian warfare. India is under the sway of Hindu ethnic nationalism. Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, who only a few years ago was held up as the exemplar of a successful combination of Islamist identity politics with liberal democracy, is emerging as an old-fashioned tyrant.

Even within the EU, both Hungary and Poland have authoritarian nationalist governments increasingly confident in their rejection of liberal values. Why should we think that this tide of reaction will be reversed in 2017?

A comforting answer would be that the reactionary movements cannot deliver what they have promised, which is security, dignity and equality for people who have been humiliated and undermined by the effects of neoliberal globalisation. They will be found out for the frauds they are.

But reactionaries have weapons that liberals disdain. Paranoia and scapegoating come naturally to their hands. And the blame game does not require too much reality. The perceived threats on which the reactionary movements have come to power – generally Muslims and immigrants “swamping” our ethnic white culture – are grossly out of proportion to actuality. Which means that their supporters do not necessarily respond to evidence. It is easy to see how, as the reactionaries struggle, they can double down on hatred for the Other without whom everything would be perfect.

It used to seem that anarchy and authoritarianism were opposites, but it may well be that 2017 is the year in which they meld into a new fusion. The forces that are in the ascendant are anarchic – the rise of fake news, the assault on expertise, the rage against governments and institutions, the oligarchic attack on environmental, banking and health protections that is about to be unleashed in the US, the possible unravelling of global trade rules and climate change accords, the undermining of the EU.

But their political trajectory is towards authoritarianism – as they bring the pillars down, they evoke a paradoxical Samson-like strong man who alone can stop the roof from crashing in. Perhaps 2017 will be the year of authoritarian anarchism.

The optimist’s 2017: the year of militant realism

The good thing about 2017 is that it hasn’t happened yet. There is still the possibility that democratic values and institutions can be fought for and that the shocks of 2016 will revitalise a project to place security and equality at the heart of public policy.

In Europe, there may be some breathing space. Wilders doesn’t win in the Netherlands. The French two-stage presidential election system, in which the winner has to ultimately get more than half the vote, proves its worth as a stabiliser and Le Pen loses in the second round. The centre left holds on in Italy and the inertia of which Mariano Rajoy is the master prevails in Spain. Angela Merkel gets a fright but is returned to power with the realisation that the EU cannot continue with its toxic mix of austerity and technocracy.

In Britain, the large centre ground finds its voice and its confidence. The courts rule that parliament must vote to authorise Brexit negotiations and parliament insists on the UK remaining within the single market and the customs union.

Things are bad enough to force a realisation that radical change – democratisation of the EU institutions and a shift towards economic equality – is urgently needed but not so bad that the authority to make those changes is drowned in a wave of reactionary chaos.

In the US, the fact remains that a significant majority of voters did not back Donald Trump. He has no mandate for many of the things his appointments indicate he intends to do – privatise the education system and the very popular Medicaid programme, cut welfare programmes and vastly increase the wealth of the super-rich through huge tax cuts – which would reduce federal revenue by as much as $9.5 trillion over a decade and devastate the capacity of government to help the very communities that voted for him.

Hard Brexit

And in the UK, there is no popular mandate for a hard Brexit. Almost half the voters wanted to stay in the EU and many of those who voted to leave did so on the basis that Brexit would be supersoft and would not cost them money. Surveys since the vote have shown that people do not support a hard Brexit that reduces immigration but takes money out of their own pockets: 62 per cent say are unwilling to pay anything at all to reduce the numbers of immigrants, and would instead accept current levels of European immigration.

Conversely, a mere 15 per cent say they would be willing to accept even a five per cent loss of income to reduce immigration to zero. This pragmatism is not reflected in the political and media debate, but it suggests that even a basic argument about the financial cost of a hard Brexit can sway the majority of voters.

What progressives need to do if they are to fight back is to ask a fundamental question – which of the fears that are driving the great reaction are illusory and which are well-founded? Rational politics can be saved, but only if there is a two-pronged approach: fight hard against the lies but deal with the awkward truths.

In relation to the lies, perhaps the most interesting piece of research is the large-scale study by Ipsos Mori of attitudes in 40 countries (alas not including Ireland), Perils of Perception 2016. It compares what people think is the case with what is really true.

One of the things it shows is just how effective propaganda depicting western cultures as being “swamped” by Islam has been. In France, people think that Muslims make up 31 per cent of the population and that this will have grown to 40 per cent by 2020. The actual figures are 7. 5 per cent and 8.3 per cent.

In Germany, Muslims are thought to make up 31 per cent of the population by 2020 instead of the actual 6.9 per cent. In Britain the figures are a perceived 22 per cent and an actual 6.1 per cent. In the US, it is 23 per cent versus 1.1 per cent.

Distorted perceptions

These grossly distorted perceptions are driving the politics of reaction – the Muslim “threat” has largely replaced anti-Semitism as the driver of visceral hatred. But they are fictions, and as such they can be exposed by hard, aggressive and consistent messaging from democrats. They have thrived because the mainstream has simply dismissed them as falsehoods unworthy of attention. The shocks of 2016 should end that smugness.

But the people who are being drawn to reactionary politics are not merely deluded. It is true that the great paradox of these movements is that hatred of immigrants tends to be in inverse proportion to the actual number of immigrants in your community. There is, though, an explanation for this paradox – the places where there are fewer immigrants and least ethnic diversity are usually the ones that have been left behind economically. The retreat into white ethnic nationalism is a response to real economic distress.

In the US, for example, blacks and Hispanics are heavily concentrated in big cities and have been able to take advantage of the growth of employment in services in these cities. (The jobs may not be great but they offer some hope of having a foothold in the future.)

Whites without a college education, on the other hand, are concentrated in declining smaller cities where new service jobs have not replaced lost manufacturing employment. Whites in the prime working ages of 25 to 54 have lost 6.5 million jobs more than they gained since the end of 2007.

Hispanics in their prime, by contrast, gained some three million jobs, Asians 1.5 million and blacks one million. White ethnic nationalism is an ugly and ineffective response to this reality, but the perception that “we” are losing out to “them” is not plucked out of the air.

There is still time for a coherent progressive response to the wave of reaction, based on fighting the lies, facing up to the truths and offering real hope. If this is to happen, it will be because progressive forces embrace another paradox.

If the reactionaries have anarchic authoritarianism, the progressives must become militantly realistic. Instead of pandering to fears, they have to stand up for reality. That means abandoning their own utopian illusions about untrammelled globalisation and speaking honestly to the discontented about the sources of their discontent.

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