A Bonkers U.K. Establishment Drags Everyone Down

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Shortly after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in June, 2016, I wrote that the decision represents a “collective suicide bombing” by an incestuous, big-headed, indulged British elite.

Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have completed this self-destruction, maniacally blowing up whatever shreds of credibility this elite had preserved. As she turned to denouncing the U.K. Parliament last week for failing to pass an EU withdrawal plan while simultaneously resolving not to leave without one, a cabinet aide told the Guardian that she and the people around her “have all taken leave of their senses.”

The judgment reminded me of a line from a secret Pentagon memo that was sent to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 as President Lyndon Johnson pointlessly escalated the bombing of Vietnam: “A feeling is widely and strongly held that ‘the Establishment’ is out of its mind.”

Certainly, Brexit has put a demented establishment on public trial as never before. But indicting pro-Brexit agitators or the toxic culture of a British media doesn't begin to describe the deep structural problems of the British establishment.

Brexit is a symptom, the most ominous yet, of a broader crisis of elite credibility and legitimacy. The ruling class that brought Britain to this sorry pass also, in recent years, helped mess up large parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa with calamitously ill-conceived interventions. And it failed to foresee, and even ideologically enabled, the financial crisis of 2008.

Take, for instance, the Economist, the bible of English-speaking elites globally. The periodical talks every week with supreme assurance about almost everything under the sun, including Brexit, which it fervently opposes. But on a range of important issues, from the war on Iraq (which it fervently supported) to climate change (whose calamitous effects it initially denied), it has been revealed to not know what it is talking about.

In 2006, a few months before heedless financialization plunged the world into economic crisis, an Economist cover story ecstatically praised Goldman Sachs for its mastery of risk, hailing “the development of huge markets in swaps, derivatives and other complex and often opaque instruments.”

This was an instance of what George Orwell once identified as a “major mental disease,” an “instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.”

Such diseases tend to spread during a time of hectic and bewildering change. “Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment,” a timely new book by Aeron Davis, a political communication professor at the University of London, argues that “Globalisation, turbo capitalism, financial engineering and new communication technologies have destabilised and disoriented elites as much as anyone else.”

The upshot is “a new generation of leaders who are struggling to maintain some form of command,” and who consequently retreat, as May recently demonstrated, into bluff and bluster.

Researched over several years and based on scores of interviews with politicians, bankers, businessmen, journalists and civil servants, Davis’s book searchingly anatomizes an establishment that has become “precarious, rootless and increasingly self-serving.”

Certainly, many of its members have become rich despite their ineptitude. For instance, Tony Blair, an avid anti-Brexiteer, whose eager participation in the disastrous U.S. war on terror made him a pariah in his own Labour Party, became a multimillionaire. Nor did his later proximity to Central Asian autocrats cloud his credentials as the moving spirit of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, an organization partly funded by Saudi largesse that is now part of an Anglo-American intellectual-industrial complex of think tanks, foundations and research institutes.

Some comparable sinecure probably awaits even May, as it did her predecessor, David Cameron, who after opening the door to the Brexit vote became a fixture on the lucrative after-dinner speech circuit.

Such triumphant self-inventions of a failed elite confirm widespread suspicions that the system on the whole is rigged, or, as the late Anglo-American historian Tony Judt pointed out in 2010, that the establishment has “no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself.”

There should be no doubt that much rage against this self-perpetuating elite was released into the vote for Brexit.

How then can such an establishment save itself? No society can do without elites. But it is also true that no elite can survive in a democracy without holding itself accountable.

It’s worth remembering how Lyndon Johnson himself responded to his failure to win minds and hearts in both Vietnam and the U.S.: by retiring from the political scene altogether.

It seems strange today, but once upon a time, figures in public life felt shame, guilt and responsibility over their actions, and tended to slink into obscurity, often for the sake of their cohorts.

It’s reasonable to fear that a divided establishment can no longer learn these pragmatic strategies of survival. As its members scramble to protect their self-interest rather than the national interest, what awaits us is even greater public anger and deeper political, social and economic chaos.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

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