Certain Uncertain

  • Derek Roger

This year, 2017, is being described as a time of uncertainty, but when was that not the case?  It is a truism that the one constant in life is change, but it is nonetheless true, and change unfolds into an unknown future.  The real point is that sometimes change suits us, sometimes it doesn't, and because the costs and benefits of change are seen differently by different people, change is almost always divisive.  That need not necessarily be a bad thing: democracy depends on having an opposition to the establishment, which is why everyone in the UK and NZ ought to be concerned about the weakening of the Labour party.

Opposition tempered by reasoned debate is to be welcomed, but when the issues are overwhelmed by blind emotion, reason is discarded.  This is the danger of democracy, which Plato described in his Republic as the second-worst form of government after dictatorship.  What then emerges is the mob: the Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1789, the chaos that accompanied the UK poll-tax riots of 1990.  Uncertainty and emotion provide the ideal opportunity for agents provocateur, whose raison d'être is anarchy.  The question is, how close are we to this state?

What can certainly be said of the time we're in is that Western democracies are divided, and the division is a split into halves of almost equal numbers: both the vote by Britons to leave the European Union and Americans to elect Donald Trump as President were extremely close.  In both cases, those who 'lost' were stunned that the voting should have gone the way it did, but the reasons are not hard to see.  The Haves saw less and less beyond their own interests, the Have-Nots felt disempowered, threatened and left behind.  The key strategy of the 'winners' was to exploit their fears, playing to racism and pitching to older and often less well-educated sectors of the electorate.  The overwhelming majority of young Britons – in other words, the future – voted to Remain. 

Their motives might have been predominantly economic, but many spoke in casual interviews of wanting to be part of a greater whole.  They don't want to be separate, and it is separateness that motivates Brexit.  It also motivated apartheid in South Africa.  The vision and glory of the European Union is that it brought an end to centuries of murder – endless wars in which millions died for the sake of a few acres here or there, or for some ideology or other.  The view of the Haves was summed up by Napoleon: 'a man like me troubles himself little about the lives of a million men'.  And the ideals of the European Union are threatened by more than Brexit alone.  Populism is on the move, and populism provoked beyond reason is the mob.

Populism seeks separateness, and puts nationalism before internationalism.  The consequence is an inward-looking politics, and with Britain and America lighting the way the movement is likely to grow.  If you dislike it, take heart: like most things, political trends are swings and roundabouts, and closedness will inevitably lead to (even cause) a later swing back to openness.  Whatever the current trend, there will be some who like it and some who don't.  Some companies – producers of locally-consumed commodities and exporters – will grow with nationalism, importers prefer the open markets of internationalism.  Probably most companies are a mixture, so as always, the costs and benefits will be equally mixed, whatever trend is followed. 

Convincing arguments can be made for either side, but what is needed by everyone as the world changes is resilience.  And what resilience means is not catastrophising what happens: as we say in the Challenge of Change Resilience Training, 'stuff happens, misery's optional'.  Being resilient means being awake, controlling your attention by not allowing it to be hijacked by negative emotion, maintaining a detached perspective, and letting go of thoughts and emotions that are not useful.

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