Economism Vs. Culture: Who Wins?
What are the real driving forces of British politics? Reflecting on the Tory victory in the UK’s 2019 general election.
December 18, 2019
Over the past three decades, the ideology of “economism” has captured the West. We have been conditioned to believe that thinking like economists is the epitome of rationality.
According to that doctrine, what matters is the price and cost of everything, the cash one has in one’s account (less so the one in the pocket), the size of a nation’s GDP, the trade balance, the interests of the top 1%.
To some extent, these economic metrics do capture reality. They do identify success for individuals, and success for the country as a whole. But only those who have been converted to the religion of economism also believe that these metrics reflect indisputable values.
Economism vs. nation and culture: The UK case
The UK’s Brexit underscores that economics is not the be-all and end-all. It tells us that there are other values that matter, principally nation and culture.
Britain, for instance, is a relatively old country (England is older still). Its culture has deep roots that, to a vital extent, lie far from Europe – indeed, European nations were rivals and frequently enemies for a thousand years. But even the distrust of the EU and the rejection of EU integration at the cost of sovereignty just addresses the surface layer.
While that distrust resonated widely, especially after more than a decade of anti-EU propaganda systematically produced by the political right in the UK, to most English people Brussels remains a remote presence rather than a big menace. For the most part, it is visible only when some conflict emerges or some new regulation is held up for ridicule.
But the yearning for more national control is not really about a quasi-dictatorial EU that super-imposes itself on all else. Rather, it is about the sharply destabilizing character of modern capitalism, the end of safe middle-class jobs and the rise of the gig economy.
Economists and their “inner Schumpeter”
Economists, discovering their “inner Schumpeter,” love to preach the mantra of “creative destruction.” The astonishing part is that they have completely failed to address the pain imposed by “creative destruction.”
This applies especially to those jobs who are destroyed (not nobly created), and – much more deeply – by the threat of that destruction which is now ubiquitous.
Brexit occurred at a moment when deep unease about loss of control coalesced into a single definitive statement: “No, we do not want to participate.” In the UK’s case, that refusal to participate, mind you, does not apply just to Europe, but — indirectly — to the refusal to participate in modern capitalism as well.
The refusal to participate in modern capitalism
That is the vexing political issue which Boris Johnson now faces. In their despair, voters in Northern England, in that “red wall” of constituencies that had been welded seamlessly to the Labour Party for many generations, have for now thrown in their lot with the Tories.
Johnson and the sponsors of the Tories anti-EU campaign must be happy that their mission to cut the connection between the UK and the EU with its many social standards is being cut. But they must be nervous as well, if they are attentive enough, to see the deep frustrations which these voters express vis-à-vis the market.
Is disappointment inevitable?
For that reason, grave doubts are in place as to whether that new voting affiliation between the English working class up north and the Tories will last. Disappointment is inevitable, but at least the door is open for the Conservatives – if Johnson turns out to be transformative.
That would imply that Johnson really decides to do more for the North. Will he move substantial public funds away from the South and in particular the wider London area? It is a remarkable political opportunity for the Tories and a juicy chance to permanently shrink the Labour Party footprint.
That would lead to a major realignment in British politics. Pulling that off requires that the Tories have the vision and determination to go beyond their long track record as the political manager for the upper classes. Don’t bet on it.
To understand the real driving forces of UK politics, one needs to reflect more deeply on the power of conservatism and the forces of economism, financialism, elitism and globalism.
Over the past three decades, “economism” has captured the West. We have been conditioned to believe that thinking like economists is the epitome of rationality.
The yearning for more national control is not about a quasi-dictatorial EU. Rather, it is about the sharply destabilizing character of modern capitalism.
If Johnson turns out to be transformative and really decides to do more for the North, it would lead to a major realignment in British politics.