Toxic sentiment in society doesn’t arise from a vacuum. History shows that it tends to follow a perceived threat to a way of live, a reaction to change. You cannot remove the toxicity without addressing the underlying issues. But what are these?
***Caveat*** This is just my opinion based on what I have experienced and read. It may be wrong in whole or part, there may be errors or omissions, or you just may plain disagree. Also auto type on the iPad leads to annoying typos that appear stupid. ***
Many in the UK are experiencing a rise in racism, nationalism and anti-elite prejudice. This by itself is not unusual; such feelings often come in waves in reaction to rapid changes in society. The turn of the 19th century saw a similar expression. You just have to read the novels of Joseph Conrad to feel the tension in the air. The change in sentiment at the moment though seems particularly disorienting, it was only six years ago that Britain celebrated its history and diversity at the Olympic opening ceremony.
So what has changed?
I think the changes can be broken down into two sets: more stable long-term trends and shorter term issues. You can think of this like modulating a radio wave, we have the carrier wave slowly applying change and a signal that flits up and down upon the carrier wave.
The long-terms trends can be split into: globalisation, perceived immigration, aging populations, education and liberalism.
The short-term trends can be split into: the “Great Recession”, wealthier pensioners, the rise of social media, the decline of newspapers and a rise in alternate political structures.
What are the long term changes?
More precisely, an increased ease in physical transport and a greatly-increased ease in global communication.
The container ship allows goods manufactured on one side of the world to be quickly shipped in days or weeks to another side. Modern logistics mean I can order a product online that is built thousands of miles away and have it delivered to my door within 24 hours. It is common for those in Britain to fly to America or Thailand, and for you to see Asian tourists in provincial British university towns. Fifty years ago you could not fly around the world in a day.
I saw this growing up. My family worked making shoes. In the 1980s manufacturing moved from the UK to Portugal. In the 1990s from Portugal to Vietnam and Thailand, then to China. In the 2000s it flitted between East Asian countries following labour costs, skills and infrastructure. No one makes shoes in Somerset anymore.
Physical transport, giving way to phone and fax, and then the Internet and email, means that information can now flow around the world in milliseconds. This makes it easier to coordinate global logistic chains and also means that cultures are merging and converging. We all watch the same Marvel superhero movies across the globe, and I watch Spanish, Korean and American TV shows on Netflix. The tendency has been for the US to be a cultural pole of attraction. But it has not been a bludgeoning of local cultural at the expense of Hollywood, more we are quickly discovering the universals that drive human enjoyment, and then flavouring with local idiosyncrasies.
To many “globalisation” means “immigration”. This appears, at least on the surface, a big part of people’s grievances. However, certain things don’t add up. And the truth is likely more unpleasant, for both sides in the debate.
Firstly, immigration has always been with us. Cheddar man from 12,000 years ago had Finnish characteristics. Neolithic farmers migrated here after the Ice Age 4000 years ago. These were mainly displaced by Belgians around 2000 years ago. These settlers were then supplemented by Romans, Normans, and a huge variety of persecuted groups over the millennia.
Secondly, around 85-90% of Britain is “white” and of “British origin”. This is relatively stable – when recent “increases” in immigration are discussed, we are talking about 1-2% point shifts. This is entirely inline with an increased ease of travel. Hence, “white Britains” are not under threat of “annihilation”, despite the rhetoric. Moreover, nearly every instance of negative sentiment over history is driven by a “race under threat”, which nearly always does not sit with the numbers.
So what is going on?
Let’s break this down. Let’s assume that a perception of increased immigration is real, as this tends to be anecdotally reported by many.
Imagine you live outside the capital of your country (or second/third city or seaboard metropolis). Imagine you are 60. Your experiences of the world are set in late adolescence (~23 according to neuroscience). This means 1981. Now compare 1981 to 2018, what has changed?
First, our cultural horizons have broadened. Local papers, TV news channels and radio stations have all reduced over time to be supplanted by the Internet, and multi-channel Freeview / satellite. The over 60s watch an average of 5 hours of TV a day. A large proportion of these programs are American, which has a different racial composition (60% white, 40% non-white including Hispanic).
Secondly, at least in the UK, we have become much more London-centric. This is true for business, newspapers and TV. London has always been a cosmopolitan city with a much more diverse racial mix. This is now projected onto non-London audience.
Thirdly, the UK media is much better at representation of ethnic minorities, on most channels representation on screen reflects the UK composition as a whole. However, this composition is an average of urban and non-urban environments – cities are normally more ethnically diverse.
This all makes it seem like immigration is rising, even if on the ground there has been less perceived change. Long term trends in globalisation mean that this perception of immigration will not go away, and the move towards a more global culture means that those in more homogeneous areas are going to perceive a greater threat.
People are living longer. Our medical success means 80 or 90 is a realistic life expectancy. However, our scientific power has not been accompanied by a similar cultural change in how we evaluate a meaningful life.
As above, we see that neuroscience suggests that life reference points crystallise in late adolescence. This is why you can remember your first albums and romantic liaisons much better than those in your early 30s. It is also why history tends to rhyme, a generation reaches a position of power in its 40s and 50s, but it’s subconscious references points are 20-30 years ago. Hence, it tries to reinvent an ideal imagined future of its youth. In doing this it clashes with the actual experiences of those in their late adolescence at the time, who are imagining their own future without power.
Ageing populations mean with have multiple generations alive at any one time, all with different reference points for life. Those in their 40s and 50s are likely to have active parents, who may shortly need care, as well as their own children. If global connectivity increases a rate of change of material and culturalprogress, then those different reference points become increasingly differentiated.
Those in their old age are also experiencing a rise in loneliness, as ease in movement disintegrates the geographic proximity of family groups: children often live in cities hundreds or thousands of miles away from their parents. Short of (forced) migration, this is likely at odds with a historical reality. Isolation then fuels more extreme opinions, as integration breaks down and it is not possible for the kindness of strangers to nudge you back to the centre.
Healthcare systems also do not have an answer to ageing populations. Look at any chart of spending and you will see it is heavily weighed to those over 65. Anecdotally, I have heard many stories of a range of diseases in the last years of life, heart bypass, stroke, cancer, dementia, pneumonia (typically post 75 or 80). As families may be distant, the burden of care falls on underfunded councils, care workers and hospital staff. These are not equipped to provide meaning to life, or put trials in context.
People are also living longer because they are not dying in childbirth. Read any 18th or 19th century novel and you will see widowers abound, and short paragraphs skipping lightly over the death of several children. This means that not only are we living longer, but each life seems more certain, and may receive more certain emotional investment. It also means we have fewer skills to deal with tragedy.
We are becoming more educated, and so is the world. Many more people are literate, and can engage in current affairs. The majority of the population are enfranchised in a way that didn’t exist 100 years ago.
Education in the UK though is very much a rationalist exercise. It is designed to produce university academics (or Michael Gove). As the population becomes more educated, those that are not suited to this mould fall further behind. This become a problem as those in positions of power with a “perfect” educational background attempt to use advanced rationalist argument to sway sentiment, which just doesn’t work. Many legitimately struggle to understand, and resent the verbal wordplay that they see allows people to say something and nothing at the same time. How often have you seen a politician lead by action?
The education required to be able to have a successful professional career is also changing. I work with inventors in the field of machine learning. Most have PhDs. A career in industry starts at 30. The gulf between the technical expertise needed to produce cutting edge work and the general population is huge. I feel anxiety at not being able to keep up. Transplant that to nearly every modern field, and imagine what it feels like to those with a good, average education, or those that left school at 15 or 16.
Another point is that “talent” is now global. Most successful inventions are invented by 1) teams and 2) inventors from several different countries (often different to the country they are working in). If you are a business, the government or an organisation wanting the best you are, by the laws of statistics, going to have multi-national teams (your net can be cast over the whole world, not just a 10-mile radius). This also adds to perceived “immigration”, those who are successful are likely to be diverse and cosmopolitan. This drives resentment; people may not see those of diverse backgrounds that are like themselves.
It is also a point that those entering the UK from other countries are better educated than the average population. Again this has generally always been the case (the educated middle classes of a country are often able to round up resources to move or escape persecution). For those entering the UK this is a sore point – they often have higher degrees yet are only able to obtain low paying positions. To those already in the UK this is also a sore point – they are likely to see those of different backgrounds progress much faster (as they are promoted towards the natural level of skill based on their education) and see favouritism.
Over human history it is true that there is a general trend towards liberalism. Slavery, torture, hanging, war, and women as chattels have all predominantly faded from view. At the time they faded, debates were fierce. Opinions allegedly shared by a majority have quickly become minority positions; and those on one side of the political spectrum have crossed the chamber many times. Children, women, those of different races and countries of birth, animals, those without a landed estate have all rightly benefited from an equalising in rights.
A great success story of our modern age is LBGT+ rights. That same-sex marriage got onto the statute books of so many countries and states was a piece of good luck. It appears to have wrong-footed conservatives in many places. However, these victories often historically lead to a Newtonian reaction, as those with more conservative opinions feel under attack (which is not helped by the rhetoric of liberals, who often explicitly seek to attack). Progress is more Hegelian than many acknowledge, with a general net progress hiding in the average a zigzagging backwards and forwards.
For example, it appears from several surveys that around 5-10% of the population identify as LBGT+ (with averages being closer to 5% than 10%). This is fairly similar to the racial background figures seen above. Given these percentages, it is not outlandish to think that a population could have many more homophobic people than LBGT+ individuals. While homophobia is wrong, you cannot simply say that homophobia is wrong and it goes away. Opinions change through gradual and frequent exposure to, and positive interaction with, those in a minority; if that exposure and interaction does not take place, the opinions can persist (see Camus’ The Plague for a brilliant viral analogy). On the other hand, telling someone their thoughts and feelings are wrong, more often than not leads to entrenchment rather than tolerance. It is amazing that even after several millennia, classical liberals often forget this. Conservatives perceive a threat to their stable models of the world, to how they make sense of their lives. As such, we need to plan to support liberalisation of societies and to not dismiss those who feel threatened by it.
What are the shorter term changes?
The “Great Recession” of 2008
This is likely the main driver of recent political upheavals, but probably not directly.
The “Great Recession” of 2008 was itself a result of the longer term trends discussed above. German savers investing in collateral debt obligations for US, Spanish and Irish property nearly toppled a human invention built on mutual trust and belief. There is a criticism that the banking institutions were unfairly supported – this is probably true, there was a “heads I win, tails you lose” mentally, but again without bailouts the system may well have collapsed like a house of cards. It could also be seen as a standard down-cycle event (remember “an end to boom and bust”?). In the background we have countries and households supporting increased spending using cheap credit.
There were other factors at play as well. The “Euro crisis” is now often forgotten but was big on everyone’s minds in the years after 2008. This in turn was down to integration difficulties and overheating in an area with monetary but not political union.
The main contributions to popular malaise are twofold: “austerity” and quantitative easing.
“Austerity” came about as countries used to high growth rates driven by globalisation suddenly found a drop off in tax receipts. Borrowing shot up. It seems quaint after nearly a decade of 0% interest rates, but those in the UK Government feared a spike in interest rates as per the 70s/80s. They were saved by the fact that increased global cooperative and correlation meant everyone was in the same boat. As borrowing shot up (a lack of tax income on City bonus pools perchance), governments around the world attempted to apply the brakes to spending. They were pretty clever in doing this. Most cuts wear performed in the background, and tax increases were hidden in things like VAT and a lack of return on saving. While this may have saved political capital in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it began to bite in the mid-late 2010s, as public services experienced funding shortages, and those helped by the state watch their contributions go down (with one exception as discussed later).
Quantitative easing is really a euphemism for printing money. Although much like the stealth of austerity, it was largely hidden behind an technocratic veneer that few could understand. Quantitative easing involved central banks, like the Bank of England, purchasing bonds, typically its own. Now if you or me need to purchase a government bond, we need to pay some money, say £1000 and we get a fixed percentage for a number of years (the coupon or interest rate). After those years are up we get the principal, the £1000 back. To buy bonds for quantitative easing, central banks basically made up that £1000 (*poof* – there is a magic money tree – it’s just a magic money spreadsheet). So central banks effectively printed money to buy assets. They now own trillions of these assets. And generally don’t know what to do with them (the US Federal Reseve may try to sell them this year or next).
Normal money printing is risky it leads to inflation. Germany tried it after the First World War, as did Zimbabwe. Didn’t go well (imagine wheel barrows of notes just to pay for a loaf of bread). The issue is that you have loads of extra money sloshing around (remember those trillions?), so if that hits the real world, people are able to offer increasing amounts for things that are scare and finite in the real world (like bread). However, the idea behind printing money is that you can re-supply money, to get people to start buying things, if they are scared and hiding money under their mattress.
So what was the result of quantitative easing? Unsurprisingly, things that are scare and finite in the real world became more expensive. A big one was housing. Houses in the South of the UK have increased by around 50% in real terms since 2008. Shares are another. Education and social care has also increased by a similar amount. These are also all things that are finite *globally*. London property and private school places are increasingly attractive to a worldwide audience awash with cheap money.
The mechanisms of quantitative easing are ill-understood even by economists. As a buyer of government debt, central banks depressed yields on bonds, lowering interest rates. People with cash and pension funds requiring a safe return were forced into higher yielding assets (which were riskier, hence the paying of a higher return). This meant property to some extent. Many global parties fought over income, rising prices. Risk became artificially depressed.
What didn’t increase? Food, most material goods made abroad, or salaries. Salaries have on average been flat in real terms. This may be due to the constraining effect of austerity on public sector salaries (17% of UK workforce) and the effect of globalisation pushing down the majority of private sector workers. Food and material goods have also benefitted from globalisation and technology advances. They are not “scarce” as they can be relatively freely traded across the world. In Europe, imports from Eastern and Southern Europe offset potential price rises. Also the “Amazon” effect enabled deflation of many goods by cutting out the costs of the middle man. The problem is the middle man had a job and a family to support.
As food and material goods followed salaries, people were not as angry as they could have been. But the slow squeeze from rents, housing, and care costs were slowly felt by many.
There is one group who have seen steadily rising incomes in the UK since 2008. These are those over 65. This is partly an effect of the “triple-lock” pension (probably over generous in hindsight), the luck of being alive during times of a booming housing and stock market (since 1991) and the last generation to widely experience benefits such as final salary pensions, which are now phased out for most. Tax changes in the UK, such as the rise in the personal allowance have also taken most pensioners out of the taxation system.
This causes several issues. One is that an older generation has an experience of increasing prosperity, which is at odds with other, younger generations. It is thus more confident, while younger generations are more anxious. Another is that the generation that are most likely to feel anxiety from a pace of social change, are the generation that have the time and the means to be vocal about it.
The iPhone, Social Media & the Decline of Newspapers
What has also changed since 2008? The iPhone and later Android handsets. Over 85% of the UK own a smartphone, a device that didn’t exist a decade ago.
This has effectedly enfranchised a large amount of the population. Many more people now have a voice. It seems that many don’t like this voice. This form of elitism is also regularly found in history, see any debate about extending the vote to non-landed gentry, women and ethnic minorities. The bigger issue is probably that there are so many separate voices, and that in this chaos more extreme positions naturally attract attention (who wants to read about detailed boring technocratic schemes that work?).
This cacophony of voices is correlated with a decline in newspaper readship. Who needs a newspaper when you can get your news and opinions online for free in your pocket? This has two effects. One, newspapers become more desperate to boost readship while needing to cut costs. Journalism suffers. Second, rather than supporting an oligarchy of political positions, so that people modulate their own positions into a known group represented by the paper, political positions are more fragmented and contradictory – the group is forced to shift to the individual’s preference.
Alternate Political Structures
The 21st century has also seen an increasingly successful China and a resurgent Russia.
China has been advancing soft power over the last decade through strategic infrastructure investment around the world. The growth of China suggests to some that democracy or complete political freedom is not required. And it is possibly true that recent Chinese growth could not occur outside of the control and mythology of a one-party state. But China started from a low point of famine, totalitarian rule and repression. It is moving in the right direction but is not at an end-point. Outside of China people often miss the corruption, dodgy construction, and rigging of the system that causes resentment for many. The problem is that China is held up as an example of how we can do away with some of our rights and freedoms and still be a successful society.
Putin is another character that wishes to build a society as imagined by himself in the 1980s. The problem is that society is one built on a KGB framework of information warfare and top-down control. There is a question as to the extent and casual power of recent Russian meddling, but it seems likely there has been meddling. Many of the political trends in the UK appear to mirror those in Russia politics, such as the support of both hard right and hard left positions to create a vacuum in the centre ground that can be exploited and controlled. I wouldn’t be surprised if both Rees-Moog and Corbyn had support and help, maybe obliquely, from Russian state sources. Another Russian KGB strategy is to provide such a chaos of conflicting positions that people are drawn to a position of repression for stability. It is always easier to destroy than create.
This is not to say there are not good people in China and Russia, nor are their aims necessarily nefarious (from the other side there are always valid reasons). The state government in the UK is not synonymous with the views of the population.
Political upheaval, and a rise in nationalism, has historically been a way for societies to cope with social change. We have looked above at some of the ways society in the UK has changed over the long and short term. These include globalisation, perceived immigration, aging populations, education and liberalism, as longer term changes, all of them generally positive in the long run, and the “Great Recession”, wealthier pensioners, the rise of social media, the decline of newspapers and a rise in alternate political structures, these having more debatable benefit.
The hope is that we can address the anxiety, fear and anger these changes bring without resorting to fascism, war or increased suffering. I don’t think we can do this through rational argument alone. We need stories that don’t fall back on the easy choice of national identify but that connect emotionally with the reality most people live in. What form these stories take is maybe the next blog post,