It’s not only Mugabe who has failed his people

Gerontocracy means entrenched privilege, hypocrisy and misrule. That is our smug conclusion from Zimbabwe, where a rightly reviled 93-year-old dictator has been dislodged by a 75-year-old, Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose “Crocodile” nickname barely encompasses his decades-long record of ruthlessness. What should be one of Africa’s most prosperous countries has been ruined by Robert Mugabe’s clique of brutal, incompetent crooks, united chiefly by their history as guerrilla fighters in the 1970s.

The pattern is familiar. Revolutionaries become arch-conservatives as they get older. In 1924 the average age of the Soviet Politburo was 42. By the time Leonid Brezhnev died, it was 69. It was the same story in China, giving rise to the joke that the country’s political system consisted of 80-year-olds summoning meetings of 70-year-olds to decide which 60-year-olds should retire. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s liberalising reforms (who stayed as behind-the-scenes leader until his death aged 92), at least urged the Communist Party to promote younger cadres. But his successor, Xi Jinping, has reversed that policy. The newly appointed central committee has an average age of 57, up by nearly a year on its predecessor, and four years older than the one before that, which took office in 2007.

Something eventually gives. The Soviet gerontocracy was brought low by economic failure, opening the way for Gorbachev’s doomed reforms and popular uprisings. In Mr Mugabe’s case, his (much younger) wife’s greed and wilfulness was too much for the military comrades to stomach.

Democratic systems, supposedly, are more resilient. Old people retire gracefully, rather than clinging to power. We share the fruits of prosperity through rising wages and social mobility. Our political systems allow all voices to be represented, and the rotation of power between parties according to their popularity at election times. The rule of law constrains the powerful and bolsters the weak. Outside the formal political system, we have other safeguards too, ranging from the media to self-appointed watchdogs in the form of do-gooders and busybodies.

In practice, all these features of our system are looking a bit threadbare. It would be absurd to say that our country is in the same plight as Zimbabwe. But before luxuriating in condemnation of the thugs and goons who rule in Harare, it is worth noting how unfair and constipated our own economic, political and social set-up has become. Real wages are stagnating. Social mobility has stalled. The legal system favours the rich. The powerful seem to act with impunity.

As the journalist Robert Peston notes in his lively new book WTF, the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election in the US both stem from a widespread feeling that the system no longer works properly. In the advanced industrialised world, two thirds of the population, or 580 million people, saw their incomes before taxpayer-financed top-ups stagnate or fall between 2004 and 2014. Between 1993 and 2005, that figure was only 10 million.

People will put up with a lot of delay, uncertainty and unfairness if they think that the ultimate result is going to be all right. That involves a degree of trust in the system: if the people running things make mistakes, they will be replaced by others. Their age and status should offer no impunity.

But this has not been the way our elites have governed. They have made a bonfire of our trust. They stoked globalisation without making provision for the losers. They fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which were supposed to be brief and successful and in fact proved lengthy and costly, turning Islamist terrorism from an irritant to a menace. They let the bankers blow up the financial system and land the taxpayer with the bill, but with nobody going to prison and almost nobody losing their jobs. And they allowed migration to let rip, with the benefits going to business and the rich, while the costs, in cultural dislocation, competition for public services and downward pressure on wages, all landed on those who were already struggling.

On each of these issues, there are strong arguments to be made in favour of the course we took. The alternatives may have been illusory, or might have proved even worse. But the combination of perceived failures leaves many people feeling that those in charge are at best incompetent, and at worst self-interested. It is hardly surprising that the trust barometer produced by Edelman (a PR agency) this year showed an “unprecedented crisis of trust” across the western world, not only in politics, but in most public institutions, the media and charities.

This trend is costly: low trust corrodes the workings of the economy, society and political system. It makes us vulnerable to attack (for example from Russia), and weakens our efforts in dealing with crises such as Zimbabwe.

Suggestions for reform abound, in restoring social mobility, promoting transparency and strengthening society’s grassroots. But the most urgent positive step would be to show that people in top jobs deserve to be there. The price of failure and misconduct has to be higher (ending the climate of impunity for crooked bankers, lawyers and accountants would be a good start). The net for candidates needs to be cast wider, and competition among them needs to be fairer and more intense. Theresa May could begin with her own government, firing the incompetent old guard, and giving speedy promotion to the talented members of the recent intake currently fuming on the back benches. We don’t need tanks in the streets to deal with privilege, hypocrisy and misrule. At least not yet.

Edward Lucas writes for The Economist.

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