Politicians and the mainstream pundits have a new bête noire: the populists – the people who refuse to toe the line. They no longer respect to practises laid down for them in the past, which coerced them into accepting their “lot” in life. The populist movements that emerged to give the UK Brexit and the USA a mercurial character called Donald Trump as president, materialised for one good reason. The checks and balances that are supposed to ensure social stability have broken down.
Statesmen do not like to admit that it is their failures which caused the uprising of people who have been driven to convert alienation into action. The result is political paralysis in Spain, the threat of a comedian orchestrating power behind the throne in Italy and a left-wing government in Greece.
Society’s checks and balances are the laws, institutions, values and attitudes which, combined, ensure the compliance of the population with the norms of the prevailing culture. For good or bad, those checks and balances sustain “the system”.
Then came 2008. People quickly realised that the power brokers really did not know what they were doing. The Occupy movement was no threat to the dominant interests because the activists who set up their tents on the pavements of cities around the world had no viable alternative model of society to promote. So austerity was imposed on the innocent people who were made to pay for the misdemeanours of those who had cashed in during the good years.
Today, however, corruption (most of it legal) has reached the point where the checks and balances cannot function effectively.
- Trump was not supposed to get elected. But the checks failed to keep him out of the White House.
The Brits were not supposed to vote for Brexit. But the class-based balances were out of kilter: a majority voted to quit the EU.
- The extreme Left and Right parties were not supposed to lead in the opinion polls in France: but the traditional parties have been shoved aside.
- Where mainstream parties are managing to cling to power, it is on condition that they borrow and evoke the narratives of the populists.
- Within the EU, the checks and balances were supposed to enhance democracy. Instead, authoritarian governments have emerged in Poland, Hungary and the Balkans.
Law-makers like the UK’s Theresa May says (and we have no reason to disbelieve her) that she wants to govern on behalf of everyone, not just the privileged few; but she lacks the policies to transform promises into practise.
Chaos reigns, and blaming “populism” is a cop out. No statesman is proposing reforms of the inclusive kind that would restore stability on new foundations. International financial institutions, including the IMF, acknowledge that the economic system creates inequality; but they have no idea how to terminate the systematic impoverishment of whole communities.
HOW LONG can this fragile situation last before someone makes a terrible mistake and creates a confrontation from which there can be no peaceful return?
The analysts of global politics believe that the checks and balances will prevent an unpredictable person like Trump from making a bad mistake. They delude themselves. To admit that the nation-state is out of their control is too hurtful for them to contemplate. But that is the reality.
Power is being dissipated, vacuums created into which tyrants can step. The lessons of the 1930s ought to be recalled. It was the collapse of the checks and balances that emboldened Prussia’s Junkers (the aristocratic owners of indebted estates) to invite Adolf Hitler to be Chancellor of Germany.
It’s only a matter of time before a mistake of similar historic proportions is made. Unless, that is, someone comes up with a blueprint for rehabilitating the checks and balances in ways that deliver peace and prosperity for everyone.