After World War Two, having crushed evil, Western politicians unleashed a deluge of good. Welfare states were created, with healthcare, education, pensions and social services extended to entire populations.
The European imperialists, under the not-so-gentle prodding of the no-longer-imperialist United States, began to pull down their union jacks and tricolors — a process which was both bloody and protracted, but which ushered in, year after year, new states free to rule themselves.
A small group of highly motivated men lobbied for an extraordinary dream to be given substance: a union of the European states, ultimately a federal Europe — and, framing it as a medium for ending Europe’s centuries of war, they won part of their point (a union, but not a federal one).
These changes seemed to be the will of the people. In Britain, Winston Churchill was beaten in the post-war election by his loyal and unassuming deputy in the wartime coalition, Clement Attlee. Churchill, in a graceless put-down, said that the Labour leader was a modest man who “had much to be modest about” — who then modestly pioneered huge social change. Everywhere, including in the United States, trade unions flourished, and were brought in to help to determine much of economic policy.
The push came mainly from the left, but the reforms got a large consensus with the center right — especially with the Christian Democratic parties in continental Europe, infused with Catholic social teaching. These reforms were what are called today “top down”: framed and run by governments and large state institutions staffed by technocrats. When a member of Attlee’s government, Douglas Jay, wrote that “the gentleman in Whitehall (the government bureaucracy) really does know better than the people themselves what is good for them,” there were no calls for his resignation. That was what politicians and bureaucrats were for: to give people what they needed, to make life fuller, less risky.
At a conference at the Flemish Academy in Brussels this past week, the writer Ian Buruma, the Academy’s “thinker in residence,” argued that “postwar” was over. By that he means that the consensus that more or less held between center-left and center-right over social provision, strong states and, in Europe, a movement to closer integration, holds no more.
The “rot began in the 1980s,” Buruma believes, with the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was deepened as the collapse of communism spurred the anti-collectivist mood; and now breaks down entirely, as “Neoliberalism filled the vacuum, creating vast wealth for some people, but at the expense of the ideal of equality” and “the rise of right-wing populism reflects revived yearnings for pure national communities, that keep immigrants and minorities out.”
I think that “neoliberalism” isn’t much help in understanding what’s happening to Western economies, which, even with some cuts, still spend hugely on socialized medicine, education, pensions and social care. In the case of the United States, spending on socialized medicine (Obamacare) has meant a rise in state spending on health. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, spending on health between 2010 and 2014 — the austerity period — has grown in richer countries, albeit by a measly 1 percent. Isn’t neo-liberalism supposed to mean slashing state budgets?
It’s true, though, that quite a lot of the state spending passes through the public health and education bureaucracies to private contractors. For a variety of reasons, there’s still a predisposition to think private enterprise is more efficient. It’s certainly true that the collectivist assumption that organized labor was good for society as well as the workers has shrunk, as unions have.
And it’s even truer that the European Union is in real trouble. Its economy is still weak, its borders, opened under the Schengen Area Agreement of 1995, are closing under the pressure of desperate migrants.
This is the time when gentlemen (and ladies) in governments everywhere don’t just not dare to know better, but really don’t know what’s happening to them. This is the time when populism thrives — in the United States, on the right, where a blowhard real estate mogul leads the Republican nomination race, but also, in a different way, in Europe.
The European populist right is doing well in many states. The National Front in France is now ahead of all other parties in all polls for regional elections happening Sunday. In the Netherlands, the strongly anti-Muslim Freedom Party also tops the polls. In Italy, two populist parties — the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and the Liga — are first and third in the polls. Both are opposed to more immigration. And in Poland, which of all the post-Communist states has done best, its income per head doubling over the quarter of a century, a populist party runs the government, holding up both Russia and the EU as enemies of the true Poland.
The post-war push to slough off imperialism assumed that new, independent countries would produce governments responsive to the will of their peoples. That they would be pushed by newly enfranchised citizens to raise living standards and run more or less efficient and honest governments.
Instead, throughout Africa and the Middle East, governments are bywords for authoritarian rule or corruption or more often both. The resulting poverty and frequent wars power the migrant flows to Europe. The Dutch economist Erik Schlokkaert, who spoke at the Postwar Conference in Brussels, said that “nobody believes that the migration pressure will stop. It is impossible to keep Europe as an island of prosperity in a sea of misery.”
What is to be done?
Actually, a lot.
We can begin by taking climate change seriously and putting pressure on those who pollute. We must work to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combat violent jihadism; revitalize civil societies; assist developing countries in keeping their citizens by cleaning up government and reforming their economies; seek agreements with Russia on Syria and Ukraine; encourage citizens everywhere to hold, not just governments, but themselves to account for their choices and public actions.
On these, people of the left and right could again find a post-post war consensus. On these, political movements can again find causes and the need for renewed energy. It’s a tall order: and it’s not true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, for we have a lot to be fearful about. But we can do nothing other than try to shape up, and tackle the challenges the 21st century throws at us so generously.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.