Ennui: The Politics of Discontent
Brian Stoddart comments on a growing global ennui with a professional political class seen to be self-serving and aloof.
As we contemplate the mounting wreckage of the United Kingdom’s BREXIT referendum, rising incredulity at the American Presidential race and the fractured results of a futile Australian election, a common Western public perception about politics emerges. Specifically, we confront increasing scepticism about what is becoming identified pejoratively as the “political class.”
From there, in turn, there is a broadening strand of what is best described as the politics of “ennui”. In its nuanced French way, ennui signifies frustration, dissatisfaction, discontent proceeding from boredom or listlessness brought on by the lack of variety. It is a curious mixture of active separation from the mainstream political process and a desperate turn towards unlikely alternatives.
Put that way, it is easy to see why it can be applied to the Western body politic. It is reflected, for example, in the now solid support for UKIP in the United Kingdom. There is further evidence in the steady swing to the hard right across Europe. Marine Le Pen in France is the most obvious example, but Norbet Hofer very nearly became President in Austria while Jaroslaw Kacynski and Viktor Orban lead rightist governments in Poland and Hungary respectively. The Polish story is all the more evocative given relatively recent memories of Lech Walesa’s radical Solidarity movement and his later liberal Presidency.
That pattern is underscored wonderfully in Canada where it was broken, a rare glimmer of hope for contemporary liberals. Justin Trudeau, son of the iconic Pierre, was raced into power replacing the spectacularly unpopular Stephen Harper. Trudeau’s Liberals rose from just 36 seats in 2011 to 184 in 2015 while Harper’s Conservatives dropped from 188 to 99 on the back of disastrously low approval poll ratings for the then Prime Minister. Like his father, Trudeau junior was elevated via a widespread wish for change and a departure from the old alternatives. But it was as much if not more about the rejection of Harper as the elevation of Trudeau. It was dissatisfaction with the normal as much as an embrace of the bold, and while the Trudeau honeymoon is going well, the real test is yet to come.
New Zealand provides a different version. The right leaning National Party there maintains a slim outright majority. That is unusual now in a parliament returned by the multi-member voting system that for the past twenty years has normally required a minority government to negotiate policy agreements with smaller parties. The politics of negotiation and compromise have become a necessary part of the landscape. Perhaps inevitably, then, despite Prime Minister John Key’s majority, ennui is growing, ranging from criticisms of his personal outlook and attitudes (he is independently wealthy following an earlier finance trading career) through to criticisms of policies in areas like the economy, housing, foreign affairs, youth futures and the environment.
The Australian case is even more compelling. The just-completed election that followed the longest-ever campaign has produced a change for the worse. Malcolm Turnbull, the most recent in a string of Prime Ministers, called a rare “double dissolution” that involved a full poll for the upper house instead of the normal situation where only half the Senate places would have been at stake. Voters rolled up wearily to polling booths to cast a verdict on yet another Prime Minister for whom they had not voted originally – internal ruling party squabbles earlier saw Labor’s Kevin Rudd ousted by Julia Gillard only to return following a brazen undermining exercise. He then lost to the Liberals’ Tony Abbott who himself was then ejected by his own side for Turnbull.
This latest Australian election, then, was an attempt to regain control in the upper house where a rash of single issue parties and independents had snagged the balance of power.
It was a disaster in all respects. Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition lost swag of seats and just barely retained power. The opposition Labor Party won more seats than anticipated but took little of the large swing against the government and returned its second lowest popular vote ever. Its own side cost Labor the government, because a local condition in the state of Victoria saw it lose ground there. The result in the Senate was even worse. A particularist party in South Australia made huge ground, and will be joined in the new chamber by: members of the right wing One Nation led by the infamous Pauline Hanson; a popular media personality best known as a “shock jock”; a renegade survivor of a party formerly led by a self-proclaimed billionaire mining magnate now fallen on hard times; and a right wing individualist.
Amidst this chaos the Greens made no headway at all and, in fact, lost a seat. Once seen as the “clean” alternative to the major parties, the Greens are now tarred with the same brush by the electorate. The fact that the Greens leader was reported to be benefiting from the very housing finance provisions he so vehemently decried in public and the news that he was probably employing a cheap labour nanny did not help.
The main beneficiaries of the swing against both government and opposition were a host of independents running on local issues and challenging party hacks. In South Australia, for example, a former (disgraced) Minister was defeated by a local candidate. These rising votes for minor parties and independents are the best markers of the general dissatisfaction felt by voters whose overall view is best described as “a pox on all their houses.”
At the heart of this is a swelling popular view fixed on what is seen as the self interest displayed by a clearly identifiable political class. Across the West in the past decade or three, we have seen the arrival of the parliamentary member who is a professional politician – completed a degree, worked for the party in some way, then took a seat. The popular perception is that such people are preoccupied with the gaining and holding of power and personal privilege rather than contributing to the national good. Short term gains rather than long term national strategy is seen as the main driver, hence the endless lurching about in search of a position rather than the pursuit of a national plan.
The rise and fall of Boris Johnson is a case in point. What BREXIT and its aftermath have confirmed for liberal thinkers is that the personal has triumphed over the national. The very idea, now canvassed widely, that Boris & Co campaigned for Leave believing that Remain would win narrowly and thereby justify them launching an assault on David Cameron is clear confirmation that the public has become deeply disillusioned about the political process. That has been hardened further by the imbroglio brought on by Prime Minister Cameron’s resignation despite his earlier assurances that he would not resign should the Leave vote win. He is seen to have abandoned the mess that was of his own making. The political class in-fighting that determined his successor has only hardened the public view. Similarly, the Johnson-Michael Gove tussle that threw British politics into disarray also brands Boris as leaving others to resolve the difficulties that he has created.
Across the Atlantic, of course, the on-going and astonishing trajectory of the Trump campaign is further proof positive of a deep public disregard for the mainstream political organisations. Among the most common reasons promoted by Americans both domestically and abroad for supporting Trump is that which says “at least he will shake up Washington.” That is to say, all off the cuff comments about walls, Muslims, the Middle East, guns, gays and everything else will be overlooked because he is taking on the professional politicians including, of course, Hillary Clinton, perhaps the epitome of the “Washington” class. The strong turn towards Bernie Sanders supports this general idea of a discontent with the normal, if it may be put that way, because in a very different way Sanders has been “taking on Washington” inside the Democratic milieu.
That leads a mass of voters into an unknown space. As one American friend puts it, “if you are a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, where can you possibly cast a vote?” That is a clear reflection of a Republican process that produced a host of disturbing candidates who could not connect to a broader constituency.
What is bringing on this broad scale sense of “ennui”? It is the usual potent mix of opportunity or the lack thereof, perceptions about entitlement, economic discontent and a rising sense of intergenerational disconnect rooted in the growing concept of inequality.
It is said, for example, that Trump appeals to an American white male working class that now considers itself a victim of illegal immigrants, an uncaring government that is focused “inside the beltway” and is looking for revenge.
A recent television program in Australia confirms some of this. Titled “is there a war on young people?”, it cast blame for all current ills at the feet of the “Baby Boomers” who, it was suggested, had received a free university education, gained good jobs, bought into property easily and lived a life of unthinking luxury. The “young”, by contrast, faced debt for higher education that gave them no work let alone careers, were excluded from property owning, and faced a lifetime of struggle.
It does not matter that these flawed stereotypes need substantial unpacking. The perception is what counts, and that perception ascribes blame to a political class caught up in self interest so that, for example, in Australia there is deep interest in the numbers of politicians who have taken advantage of tax laws to invest heavily in residential property, the sort of property that the “young” can now only envy.
It is a short step from there to the now becoming dominant theme of “inequality”, stoked by Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century and fed further by the widespread perception that wealth in many Western locations is increasingly aggregated into fewer hands and disadvantaging a wider range of “ordinary” people. Commentary about the “rich kids of London” is a case in point. These kids, of course, are also the ones who go to the “posh” schools and into City financial jobs, thereby feeding further the politics of both envy and enmity. The strength and depth of this perception was reflected regularly during David Cameron’s prime ministership as revelations about his “gang” emerged.
Across the West this general sense underpins the escalating distaste for immigration, a classic marker for economic as much as cultural concern. Le Pen’s right movement in France has fixed on this for years, bolstered by uprisings in the banlieues during 2005 and later. The immigrant is now the focus of discontent. Angela Merkel discovered that early in 2016 when initially she declared all immigrants welcome in Germany during the ongoing North African and Syrian exodus. She had to revert to strong controls as the German electorate told her in no uncertain terms that “open” was unacceptable.
Sadly, across the West this has degenerated into a focus on Muslims as being of particular concern. That in turn has become a proxy for “terrorism”, a rising sense of what is called “nationalism” but is really just isolationism. The outbreak of racist commentary in the UK following BREXIT via the mass as well as the social media reflected the impact such thinking has had.
It all ignores the reality of a global and connected world, of course. One massive result of BREXIT, for example, is that EU academics based in the UK now have rising concerns about their on-going status. It is said that they now occupy one in four new academic positions in UK universities. This is, after all, a UK that has in recent years driven up sharply the number of “turnbacks” amongst Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans as part of the clampdown on immigration. That same policy has also focused on the status and rights of fee-paying international students who, in many respects, pay those fees and in return are harried over their work and healthcare rights as well as in other respects.
This has all been the subject of grass roots rumbling, some of which extends into the field of popular culture. Premier League football in England, for example, has been dominated by EU-origin players for years, and there has been a persistent concern about the impacts of that on “English” football. The “Leave” vote, ironically, could make football one of the first big impact areas of the change, and that will be felt in areas that voted heavily for “Leave.”
That in turn demonstrates another form of myopia in the UK where, after all, the UKIP Party had its main representation in the European Parliament yet still campaigned for Leave. That illogicality can be explained only by this rising sense of “withdraw and regroup”. One of the best mechanisms for cross-European interaction has for many years been the ERASMUS program under which UK students have gone on exchange to the EU and vice versa, setting in train long term relationships and understandings. At best, that is now in very serious doubt and, at worst, gone. That is the level to which this new isolationism may be driven.
What is the solution? In some respects that is in the hands of the electorate and will likely lead to confusion and difficulty in some areas. That is why the American Presidential race now takes on such a critical stance – can Trump possibly win? No-one thought BREXIT would get up, but it did. These voter results are asking for reform - reform of the electoral processes; reform in the ways that parties identify and select candidates; reform in the performance of elected candidates; reform of ideas about accountability; reform in political funding and remuneration; reform in the politics of combat versus the politics of compromise for the common good.
Above all, those voters are looking for reform in the structure of a professional political class that is seen to be way too far above itself vis a vis those it represents. The biggest wish is to get those “inside the beltway”, “in Canberra”, “in Wellington” and elsewhere thinking about the mass rather than the political view. The Trudeau change “in Ottawa” was the first shot in the campaign, others will surely follow.
Brian Stoddart is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia where he served as Vice-Chancellor, and Distinguished Fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne. He is also a higher education consultant internationally, a regular commentator on global issues, and a crime fiction writer.