The rise of Donald Trump to credibly contest for the presidency of the United States is not a phenomenon – it’s the symptom of a phenomenon. Other symptoms include Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Geert Wilders, Podemos, the Austrian Freedom Party, Syriza, Five Star, the Icelandic Pirates, and many others across the western world and beyond. In election after election and in nation after nation we are witnessing an ongoing and growing political revolution.
The phenomenon behind this revolution is the devaluation and destabilisation of labour by automation, the internet, outsourcing, offshoring and financialisation – in other words, the devaluation of labour by technology and globalisation. As technology and globalisation concentrate income and capital in the wealthy, developed west the majority is experiencing rising core, unavoidable costs (especially housing), while incomes have stagnated. The result is mass and increasing personal economic stress and insecurity. The political revolution we are witnessing across the western world isn’t ideological – it’s personal.
The median income here in Ireland is about €340 a week. In the UK it’s around £300 a week. In Germany it’s about €400 a week. * Try paying rent, electricity, waste collection, phone, internet, car tax, insurance, property tax and all the rest from that – and that’s before groceries, clothes, household necessities, etc. And don’t even think about a doctor’s visit, or a sick pet, or a car breakdown. When you live on the median income every emergency is also a financial emergency. Christmas is a nightmare.
That’s half the population of some of the richest countries in the world with some of the most generous social welfare systems in the world. It’s much worse elsewhere – especially in the US, with a median income about $550/wk and far fewer public services. Of course, many people above the median income are struggling too – and many more have a loved one who is struggling. Together, they are the majority.
And this majority is not represented in either politics or media. A large part of the reason for this is that high salaries of politicians and popular media personalities. When you watch a TV political discussion you’re usually listening to a couple of 200Ks, a 150K and maybe a few 100Ks moderated by a 500K in countries with median incomes of only of 15K – 25K. Even the almost exclusive use of the ‘average’ (i.e. the mean) to represent wage and income figures distorts public discussion to make things seem better than they are (because the mean is skewed upwards by higher earners). You almost never hear about median incomes and wages – the incomes and wages half the population actually live on.
Skewed and out of touch coverage and discussion from the bubble of the ‘mainstream media’, combined with the secure, comfortable lives of themselves and their loved ones, is why so many established, ‘status quo’ politicians just don’t get it. They just don’t see an emergency, while more and more of their constituents live in a constant state of emergency. They think small, incremental improvements are enough, and that risks are not necessary. At best they seem useless.
And there’s is the sheer, blatant, clear, obvious and very unfair injustice that the struggling majority see all around them. The bank bailouts, the too-big-to-jail bank criminals, the tax avoidance, the revolving door between government and Goldman Sachs, the corporate subsidies, and all the rest. Again, politicians seem useless in the face of global corporate and financial power. For growing numbers of people it is no longer their system. It is no longer their government.
Essentially, there is a political vacuum. There is a vast and growing political need, and no sign of governing politicians even recognising that need, never mind meaningfully addressing it. Every mainstream political choice seems to be between the lesser of two evils. Not only is there no coherent plan to practically address the people’s pain – there’s not even a coherent theory, idea or ideology within which to frame such a plan. The ship is on the rocks and the water is pouring in below decks, while the fat and comfortable captains fuss about details.
Into this political vacuum has poured two kinds of challengers – ‘Us vs Them’ haters on one side, and rusty Marxist types on the other. Either would be an economic disaster in the real, practical world – as Brexit is. Whatever the solution to the income problem is, it must involve both the market freedom that makes our abundance possible, and the absolute personal and social security and opportunity that makes meaningful social (and market) access possible. After all, it’s hardly a free market if, under threat of homelessness, the only thing you have to sell is minimum wage labour.
The labour effects of technology and globalisation are accelerating, and the losers are beginning to outnumber the winners. Financial disaster continues to threaten as the austerity from the last crisis continues. Growth remains weak despite negligible interest rates. And many hundreds of millions of people continue to lurch from financial disaster to financial disaster with no hope for their future in an unfair system. The present situation is intolerable to far too many, and so it will change. Trump is just one of the options.
* Note: To their great credit the OECD is now requiring and publishing median income figures for member states, which is where these median income figures come from. See http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=IDD for more.