Let this be a lesson to those who think that Donald Trump cannot win.
The decision by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union is not a rejection of Brussels; most British voters know little of how the EU works and care even less. Nor was it a rejection of Westminster (a good chunk of which supported Brexit), or of the elite (public school boys Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage won the day).
This was something more: Brexit is a rejection of the political community as such.
Two days before the referendum, the journalist Oliver Bullough had this to say on Facebook:
Once this vile referendum is over, whoever wins, Britain needs to start working out how to make our system fairer. At the moment, it is just too easy for the rich to get away with financial skulduggery, because the police/tax authorities are under-resourced, the rules are over-complex, and foreign jurisdictions are unhelpful. We need to start sorting that out, and forcing the ‘big people’ to follow the rules they impose on the ‘little people’, otherwise more outbursts of fury against the elites, the experts, etc will follow just like this one.
The difference between Bullough and the 52 percent of British voters who backed Brexit is that Bullough thinks this kind of progress is possible. A majority of his compatriots do not.
Why am I writing about this in a Russia blog? Because I see this every day when I look at Russia. When Andrew Wilson first wrote about ‘virtual politics‘ – about the faking of democracy in Russia and Ukraine in the 2000s – he was describing politicians behaving exactly the way Farage et al (but also David Cameron when it suited his purpose) do business: invention and dissimulation, spectacle and empty populism. This is made possible not because people are stupid and thus easy to fool, but because they have stopped caring. And they have stopped caring, because they have ceased to believe that the state, as the embodiment of the political community, can do anything for them.
When Peter Pomerantsev summed up Russian political culture with the epithet “nothing is true and everything is possible“, he got it backwards. Three decades of institutional decay and collapse, of social, political and economic dislocation have taught post-Soviet citizens that there is value only in the private, that the state cannot and will not work for them, and so the seeking and finding of commonality – the investment in the public that is required for any political community to function – is a fool’s errand. Because no public future is possible, any private lie can become the truth.
The same day that Bullough wrote about Britain, Alexander Kolyandr, a Muscovite friend of mine had this to say about Russia:
Theft and lying, together with pride – the idea that this is the way everyone does it and so you shouldn’t be a fool – that’s what creates this pervasive corruption and causes it to flower like a tropical rainforest.
One of my friends just couldn’t get her head around the idea that it might be wrong to mooch off of the neighbors’ WiFi, while another – a great lover of Culture and Literature – happily stole from the state budget, because, you know, otherwise someone else would have gotten the money, and she needs it more, after all her parents are sick and she doesn’t have a husband.
The reason why Ukraine lost Crimea and a piece of the Donbas was precisely this, a system of corruption from top to bottom, from presidents and parliamentarians to ordinary citizens, rolling back their electric meters. That, plus pride and lies.
In my understanding, it was precisely this that led to the death of those children on the lake. All of this – I can break those stupid rules, everyone else does it, I don’t want to miss out, better me than someone else, we’ll fix it all on paper.
Theft, lies and pride. Any of the two will create the other. All together, they kill.
In Britain and the US, as in Russia, the critical political watershed isn’t between left and right, between informed and ignorant, between nationalist and internationationalist, but between those who, like Bullough, believe that a different future is possible, and those, like the 17 million British voters who ticked the ‘leave’ box, for whom that belief is lost.
And because it is a matter of belief, no amount of patiently explaining the facts, no amount of rational debate, will carry the day. Faith in the public, in the commonwealth, must be restored. The Soviet Union did not choose to collapse, but the West is now beginning to pay the price for casting its own citizens adrift – a sin of commission for which there will be no easy indulgence. Leaders and citizens who still believe must fight for and win a new, proactive agenda, in which the state builds both public and private prosperity, rather than giving struggling citizens nothing more than a free-market smile and an austere pat on the back.
The alternative is the politics of Putin, of Brexit and, yes, of Donald Trump. Get used to it.