It’s been a tumultuous couple of months in UK politics. After a troubled time in office, plagued by scandal, internal party frictions and much public embarrassment, Boris Johnson exited the stage leaving behind a big old mess for his successor to clean up. An economy in tatters, inflation at record highs and an energy crisis the likes of which this generation hasn’t seen before.
It’s a miracle that anyone in the kingdom could be found that would be willing to assume the responsibility of steering this particular Titanic back to safety, after it has evidently hit the iceberg already. Or at least that’s what any rational human would think, any one of us who is not afflicted by the narcissism required to embark on a political career in the first place. As it turned out, there were more than enough candidates to choose from, a fact that resulted in a bitter leadership race, at times classless enough to be reminiscent of US election campaigns.
During that extensively covered mudslinging match, ridiculous promises were made, attacks were launched and a great deal of barefaced deception was deployed. Uncritically as always, the media focused on the most superficial and sensational parts of all debates and campaign manifestos, mainly being concerned about who said what about whom and who was better at name calling. Not one “journalist” took a moment to ask out loud exactly how inflation would be solved by dropping even more money from helicopters or by pandering to unions and signing off on even more minimum wage increases.
Anyway, after everything was said and was done, and Liz Truss emerged victorious, the focus still remained stuck on the superficial. Global mainstream media obsessed over her every tweet and Instagram photo, as though she was the winner of the latest reality show and not the new Prime Minister of one of the most advanced and influential nations on the planet. “Experts” were summoned to dissect and analyze the most inconsequential details of the new leader’s profile, largely ignoring the “meat” of her policies or her record so far. And as for the party-fanatic portion of the public, small as it may be, they all rejoiced and used the fact that she is woman as further proof that the Conservative party is more enlightened and virtuous than anyone else in the nation – they have after all put forward not one, not two, but three female leaders.
And then, just when we thought all the fanfare would die down and the circus was finally ready to leave town, the unthinkable happened. The Queen passed away. “Unthinkable” indeed, as well as “shocking”, or at least those were the terms used over and over after Buckingham Palace made the official announcement of the 96 years old Monarch’s demise. While it’s hard to fully grasp what was particularly inconceivable about this development, death is always tragic and people grieve in their own ways. Of course, some might argue that one of the most dignified ways to do so is privately.
In any case, after the initial “shock” was overcome, the full impact of the plans that were put in place to help the nation mourn became apparent. An incredibly detailed, protracted and incalculably costly operation was set in motion for the Queen’s “last journey” from Scotland to London, while many businesses closed and thousands are expected to flood the capital for the funeral. As for the outpouring of emotion by everyday citizens we already saw from recent news coverage, if watched on mute, one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking it with footage from the aftermath of a natural disaster that claimed hundreds of lives.
None of this should be construed as a criticism of the Queen herself, though the pros and cons of her reign or of the monarchy itself, can be debated until the cows come home. Neither should the reader understand this commentary as a lack of empathy for her passing. Every life is precious and we should all have compassion for anyone who lost a loved one. However, what we’re talking about here is something else entirely.
It is precisely this kind of largely misguided emotion that we see from the wider public, that is not to be found only in this case, but also in every single election, in every war, in every victory of one tribe over the other. This is what happens when symbols come to life and when people start to confuse their own identity with that of someone “special” or “better” than them. This is the most insidious part of modern politics, even though it is a phenomenon as old as time, and it is actively being harnessed and used by political campaigns, by mass media, old and new, and by any aspiring central planner.
The problem of Left, Right, Above and Below
It is a remarkable phenomenon that the majority of the voting, working and taxpaying population in most Western democracies consistently cast ballots against their own interests. The working class and most members of marginalized or underprivileged communities tend to vote Left and support the very ideas and people who wish to perpetuate their suffering and disadvantage by making sure the stay in their “place”, by setting them against their fellow citizens, demonizing the entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging permanent dependence on the State.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Right promises more economic freedom and pretends to be on the side of job creators and of business. Of course, they have never delivered on these promises, not in recent memory at least, while the social conservatism they promote also strengthens the State and disempowers anyone who is different and fails to conform. At the end of day, they also use the same playbook of divide and conquer, of “us against them”.
The natural evolution of all this is the phenomenon of cult-inspired politics, which we see most commonly in the US, but also increasingly in Europe too. At the core of it, there is this idea of the politician as a Messiah, as an anointed leader who is better and knows better than anyone else. It evokes emotions not unlike the crying masses we saw after the Queen’s passing. The incredible elation and the tears of joy we saw at Barack Obama’s election, or the almost pathological fanaticism we saw at Donald Trump’s are essentially the products of the same psychological dynamics. There are also parallels to be drawn with Stockholm Syndrome.
A great portion of the public saw individuals like these as benevolent, generous, almost superhuman figures, to be admired, loved and revered. They felt somehow close to them, they were grateful to them, even though they couldn’t tell you what for exactly. They just represented grand ideas, like hope, or tradition, or national pride, and they somehow transcended from mere humans like us to a higher plane, they became idols that could do no wrong. But they did, and a lot of it, mainly to the people who worshipped them the most.
That’s the most dangerous part of this kind of herd mentality. Once critical mass is reached, and once enough people start reenforcing the same false narrative not only to each other but to themselves as well, things can really get out of hand. Once they place their “leader”, whoever they might be and whatever ideas they might be flogging, above their fellow man and above themselves even, a point of no return is reached. They are primed and ready to follow any order and to sign up to any worldview, no matter how demented and misanthropic.
Even more importantly, this entire phenomenon is essentially a huge distraction from what is necessary, what is productive and what is fundamental to human progress and to human liberty. The obsession with the superficial and the idea of politics as a popularity contest, as though whole nations were high schools voting for their next class president, means that voters never get told and never think to ask about what really keeps their countries, their businesses and their households afloat. They focus on soundbites and dirty campaign tricks, on the latest tweet of their beloved savior and on the last time they saw them a clip of them saying something clever, looking cool or bashing their opponents – all of it totally unscripted of course.
They forget who actually puts food on their table, even if its actually them who do it for other people too, by creating jobs and paying salaries. And by ignoring anything that has to do with the economy and by never asking a single question about important things, such as how their money is created, they make sure that they will fall into whatever rhetorical trap their rulers set for them.
Today we see a great example of this distraction. The majority of the public still believes that the inflationary pressures they are experiencing are “someone else’s” fault. It’s Russia fault, or the evil capitalists’, or whoever might sound plausible next. Even as they are making painful sacrifices, choosing between food and heating their homes for example, they still expect help from the very people who put them in this position in the first place. Even more worryingly, they applaud the measures those wise men and women have put forward, even though even a child could tell that they are sure to make the problem worse.
This is why, especially in times like these, it is essential for responsible and rational investors, savers and citizens to retain their ability for independent thinking. Even if they feel like they are in the minority, even if everyone else around them believes the opposite of what they can see with their own eyes, they must trust their own judgement and be able to separate the signal from the noise.