Warning: the following may contain traces of nuttiness and wishful thinking but… is there a populist revolution brewing out there?
If you look at both sides of the Atlantic, at Brexit then the angry voices under the banners of Trump and Sanders, it’s pretty clear that the Establishment is for the first time, fully in the sights of the People. It means the politicians who conned us into believing the unbelievable – that There Is No Alternative (TINA) are under the gun unless they change course from their beloved Market.
In media you can see the reactions building in a range of books and films. Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next set the agenda this year. But this time he wasn’t alone, because a French team created ‘Tomorrow’ a Cesar Award-winning documentary which examined the way in which people around the world are now responding in their own ways to globalisation.
Moore’s film is a superb example of show don’t tell and in it Moore visits European countries to see why their societies seemed to be flourishing while American society is bitterly divided by race and inequality. He visits countries like Norway where the penal system is not about punishment but about reform; Finland where children begin school later and initially have limited school hours. As they progress they have no homework – because the emphasis is on learning through play as much as anything else. Finland has the highest rated educational system in the world.
He visits Italy and asks how is it that Italians always look as if they’d just had sex. Simple: they have a lot of time on their hands, with two months paid vacation, siestas and short working weeks. None of it has hurt productivity at some of the country’s major companies, whose aim is to have a happy workforce.
Carrying his American flag, Moore next ‘invades’ France to see what’s on their menu. Well for school children it’s school lunches, some of which would grace any Kiwi restaurant. Moore shows them the unimaginative fare served to American kids, and they react with utter disbelief.
There’s more as he conquers other parts of Europe – finding that in Slovenia college education is free, the way it used to be here before 1984 and Labour’s fatal embrace of The New Right. In short, Moore discovered that many of the virtues he found in Europe were the very ones America (and New Zealand) had abandoned over the past 30-40 years.
On the surface his film seemed almost jolly as he revealed, and revelled in what he had found. But from a stagey beginning, this was a vehicle to demonstrate the failure and the lack of imagination in the dominance of the economic state and free market values. We left the theatre with a deep sense of loss – of commonsense more than anything else.
Six months later a friend sent me a new book by Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Its title: How did we get into this mess?
Well in 289 pages of lucid analysis (with a hefty 53 page index) he explains to readers how in the past 35-40 years we have been conned into believing that the only way is the Market way.
The Market was mean to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness. The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments.
‘Monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward winners and punish the losers.’
All of this is accompanied by a new level of snooping and monitoring fundamental to the neo-liberal model. He quotes Belgian professor of psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaege who has described a spectacular rise in psychiatric conditions like self-harm, eating disorders, depression and personality disorders.
Few among us would attribute this to the neolibs’ ideology we have now normalised. Which is why Monbiot praises those who think otherwise:
‘…if you don’t fit in; if you feel at odds with the world; if your identity is troubled and frayed; if you feel lost and ashamed, it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.
Monbiot’s book covers the damage done to the earth by the Market’s ‘short-termism’ but ‘Tomorrow’, shown at the Auckland Film festival goes further. It documents the action people are taking in mini-revolts against globalisation. Instead of the Market insistence on competition, they found countless examples of co-operation and innovation: A new currency circulating in five small English townships.
People within these areas use their 21 Shilling Pound to buy and sell. It’s a TINA-defying alternative, a kind of hedge against yet another market collapse led by Wall Street; other pioneers they discovered have found new and more efficient ways to grow food and create an active democracy.
What the film-makers found as they explored agriculture, economy, energy, democracy and education was a new vision for a different future. Within each of these sections they found new ideas, more autonomy and a greater sense of freedom. Tomorrow is uplifting because it concentrates on solutions which challenge the fundamentals our society has been based for the past 40 years.
There’s more in the form of books like Who Cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? by Katrina Marcal. It satirises neo-liberal thought charting the myth of ‘economic man’, from its origins at Adam Smith’s dinner table to its adaptation by the Chicago School and finally its disastrous role in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. (Adam’s mum cooked it – not out of self-interest, but out of love).
None of this opposition is coincidence – it’s more a confluence of reactions building up over the years. It may not worry Wall Street but it may bother their handmaidens – the politicians who imposed market ideology on us – without our consent.