The end of the post-World War Two order

December 5, 2015
lepen.jpg

Marine Le Pen, French National Front political party leader and candidate for the National Front in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, addresses French farmers as she campaigns for the upcoming regional elections, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

After World War Two, having crushed evil, Western politicians unleashed a deluge of good. Welfare states were created, with healthcare, education, pensions and social services extended to entire populations.

The European imperialists, under the not-so-gentle prodding of the no-longer-imperialist United States, began to pull down their union jacks and tricolors — a process which was both bloody and protracted, but which ushered in, year after year, new states free to rule themselves.

A small group of highly motivated men lobbied for an extraordinary dream to be given substance: a union of the European states, ultimately a federal Europe — and, framing it as a medium for ending Europe’s centuries of war, they won part of their point (a union, but not a federal one).

These changes seemed to be the will of the people. In Britain, Winston Churchill was beaten in the post-war election by his loyal and unassuming deputy in the wartime coalition, Clement Attlee. Churchill, in a graceless put-down, said that the Labour leader was a modest man who “had much to be modest about” — who then modestly pioneered huge social change. Everywhere, including in the United States, trade unions flourished, and were brought in to help to determine much of economic policy.

The push came mainly from the left, but the reforms got a large consensus with the center right — especially with the Christian Democratic parties in continental Europe, infused with Catholic social teaching. These reforms were what are called today “top down”: framed and run by governments and large state institutions staffed by technocrats. When a member of Attlee’s government, Douglas Jay, wrote that “the gentleman in Whitehall (the government bureaucracy) really does know better than the people themselves what is good for them,” there were no calls for his resignation. That was what politicians and bureaucrats were for: to give people what they needed, to make life fuller, less risky.

At a conference at the Flemish Academy in Brussels this past week, the writer Ian Buruma, the Academy’s “thinker in residence,” argued that “postwar” was over. By that he means that the consensus that more or less held between center-left and center-right over social provision, strong states and, in Europe, a movement to closer integration, holds no more.

The “rot began in the 1980s,” Buruma believes, with the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was deepened as the collapse of communism spurred the anti-collectivist mood; and now breaks down entirely, as “Neoliberalism filled the vacuum, creating vast wealth for some people, but at the expense of the ideal of equality” and “the rise of right-wing populism reflects revived yearnings for pure national communities, that keep immigrants and minorities out.”

I think that “neoliberalism” isn’t much help in understanding what’s happening to Western economies, which, even with some cuts, still spend hugely on socialized medicine, education, pensions and social care. In the case of the United States, spending on socialized medicine (Obamacare) has meant a rise in state spending on health. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, spending on health between 2010 and 2014 — the austerity period — has grown in richer countries, albeit by a measly 1 percent. Isn’t neo-liberalism supposed to mean slashing state budgets?

It’s true, though, that quite a lot of the state spending passes through the public health and education bureaucracies to private contractors. For a variety of reasons, there’s still a predisposition to think private enterprise is more efficient. It’s certainly true that the collectivist assumption that organized labor was good for society as well as the workers has shrunk, as unions have.

And it’s even truer that the European Union is in real trouble. Its economy is still weak, its borders, opened under the Schengen Area Agreement of 1995, are closing under the pressure of desperate migrants.

This is the time when gentlemen (and ladies) in governments everywhere don’t just not dare to know better, but really don’t know what’s happening to them. This is the time when populism thrives — in the United States, on the right, where a blowhard real estate mogul leads the Republican nomination race, but also, in a different way, in Europe.

The European populist right is doing well in many states. The National Front in France is now ahead of all other parties in all polls for regional elections happening Sunday. In the Netherlands, the strongly anti-Muslim Freedom Party also tops the polls. In Italy, two populist parties — the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and the Liga — are first and third in the polls. Both are opposed to more immigration. And in Poland, which of all the post-Communist states has done best, its income per head doubling over the quarter of a century, a populist party runs the government, holding up both Russia and the EU as enemies of the true Poland.

The post-war push to slough off imperialism assumed that new, independent countries would produce governments responsive to the will of their peoples. That they would be pushed by newly enfranchised citizens to raise living standards and run more or less efficient and honest governments.

Instead, throughout Africa and the Middle East, governments are bywords for authoritarian rule or corruption or more often both. The resulting poverty and frequent wars power the migrant flows to Europe. The Dutch economist Erik Schlokkaert, who spoke at the Postwar Conference in Brussels, said that “nobody believes that the migration pressure will stop. It is impossible to keep Europe as an island of prosperity in a sea of misery.”

What is to be done?

Actually, a lot.

We can begin by taking climate change seriously and putting pressure on those who pollute. We must work to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combat violent jihadism; revitalize civil societies; assist developing countries in keeping their citizens by cleaning up government and reforming their economies; seek agreements with Russia on Syria and Ukraine; encourage citizens everywhere to hold, not just governments, but themselves to account for their choices and public actions.

On these, people of the left and right could again find a post-post war consensus. On these, political movements can again find causes and the need for renewed energy. It’s a tall order: and it’s not true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, for we have a lot to be fearful about. But we can do nothing other than try to shape up, and tackle the challenges the 21st century throws at us so generously.

15 comments

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Summary of article:

Post-WWII unity has been fading since the 1980’s.
Society is tearing apart.
There are many problems facing us.
Let’s solve these problems.

Very insightful.

Posted by GitmoreDolluhrs | Report as abusive

Summary of article:

Post-WWII unity has been fading since the 1980’s.
Society is tearing apart.
There are many problems facing us.
Let’s solve these problems.

Very insightful.

Posted by GitmoreDolluhrs | Report as abusive

“In Britain, Winston Churchill was beaten in the post-war election by his loyal and unassuming deputy in the wartime coalition, Clement Attlee. Churchill, in a graceless put-down, said that the Labour leader was a modest man who “had much to be modest about” — who then modestly pioneered huge social change.”

Codswallop. ‘a modest man..’ is one of many things Churchill did not say about Attlee. The establishment of the National Health Service and the Welfare State (at the end of hostilities) were both wartime coalition government policies agreed across parties.

Posted by Bill_Ellson | Report as abusive

Really, evil crushed? No mention of the USA embarking on a decades long CIA campaign of overthrowing democratically elected governments, or supporting brutal dictators for the benefit of American corporate profits ever since the end of WWII and continues to this day. Regan just took the reins off the corporations that allowed them to buy politicians in Washington. It’s all about the money, never was about freedom, liberty, or democracy. Americans have been lied to by many successive administrations. If we took the money factor out of elections, we just might have a chance of regaining control of our government.

Posted by jbdenver | Report as abusive

Desperately sad that Reuters censors comments that highlight basic errors in articles. The Churchill ‘quote’ is fake and the ‘social change’ after the war was as a result of wartime coalition policies agreed across parties.

Posted by Bill_Ellson | Report as abusive

No mention of the population explosion in African and Asian countries that is driving the invasion of Europe? Thought not.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

No mention of the role of america in reviving the idea of global hegemony under a single superpower, replacing the british empire but with increased use of extra-legal military force, and without taking responsibility for outcomes.
Nor the transfer of manufacturing activity to asia which also was concurrent with the period.

Posted by Interdog | Report as abusive

The factors that are driving people to Europe now are pretty much triggered by Western Policies… To keep the never ending flow of Oil we in the west provided, weapons, security and kept a blind eye on the brutality of monarchies, totalitarians and the development of ideologies like that of Wahhabism which was state run by countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. We did nothing when evil was born, we protected the very people to protect themselves financed and encouraged pure evil. We thought those monarchs and totalitarians can keep a lid on this evil powers and now that power is out of control there, murdering, raping and now attacking us in the west.
These refugees must be sent back period..
Now to were, there are moderate monarchies like Jordan, they will take these refugees… build most modern camps there and keep these refugees there…
You want to defeat evil?? Stop supporting Saudi Arabia, ban all oil imports from there. That will be a good and realistic start. As long as this monarchy of Saudi Arabia exists we will not be able to defeat Daesh, AlQaeda or any Salafi/Wahhabi ideology based groups.

Posted by bulldancer | Report as abusive

All very nice except we do not appear to be headed in the right direction. Unless we change climate change will overwhelm us and we could well be headed towards WW3 to begin either in Syria or Ukraine. The military buildup in both zones is quite disconcerting. Leadership especially in the west is sadly lacking everywhere.

Posted by davcha | Report as abusive

The article seems to express what many educated/pragmatic people probably think in Europe. The perspective from Australia/Asia is different. The “post-colonial era” has seen Asian nations progress independently, partly due to the military strengths of Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese in conflicts, and the sheer size of China, deterring neo-imperialists.
At present most are democracies – Japan, India, Indonesia, Korea, etc. All seem to have a nationalistic “center-right” political / social majority/consensus, including China, which is producing social / economic development and rather more interest in trade and investment than conflict. Armed conflict is pretty much only with Muslim groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Xinjiang, Thailand, Phillipines.
As Japan, Korea and now China have shown, the birthrate drops as people become more “middle class”.
Migration to Europe is mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Indians are usually a cheap/exploited/temporary labor force or a braindrain of professionals on a path to citizenship.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Currently most are democracies – Japan, India, Indonesia, Korea, etc. All seem to have a patriotic “center-right” opinionated / social bulk/consensus, as well as China, which is producing social / economic expansion and slightly more awareness in deal and asset than argument.
http://www.clazwork.com

Posted by babbloor | Report as abusive

Hey John, if you think you could have agreements with Russia on anything, you are pretty far from understanding Putin. You are wimp in his eyes, pure and simple, and seeking agreements you show your weakness.

Posted by UkrainianReader | Report as abusive

How about the fact that the EU is governed by very well paid bureaucrats who are accountable to no one? How about the problems caused by Muslim minorities? Your solution is to work on climate change? Seriously?

Posted by reggie245 | Report as abusive

Interesting, but over-simplified.
The socialist policies of national health, education, and infrastructure are NOT under attack. In fact, the populist movements in Europe love them.
Now, easy access to government services for immigrants is coming under attack, and will likely be reduced.
Elimination of the easy access to health and education services for immigrants, especially illegal, will greatly reduce the lure for immigration.

Posted by ckd1358 | Report as abusive

I agree with previous comments: This is an empty article. It is simply a rehash of what has come before, and a pointless bromide about what is needed. There is no insightful solution proposed. And to bring in climate change is an obvious agenda-driven aside that has no place in the direction of the article. More summary: Post-war, we had great ideas to turn the world into a peaceful socialist community. Reagan and Thatcher ruined that. We can fix that by addressing climate change.
About the only truth in this article is “We must work to… …encourage citizens everywhere to hold, not just governments, but themselves to account for their choices and public actions.”
In today’s “blameless” society of entitlement, amen.

Posted by Tintinmilou | Report as abusive