The current crises gripping western democracies have shown the ruling class to be brazenly ignorant of the realities facing their people.
One of the telltale signs of a society in crisis is when the elites appear out of touch with the general population to a ridiculous, egregious degree. The myth goes that Marie Antoinette said ‘Let them eat cake’ when confronted with the plight of starving peasants in 1789 – a neat fable for the obliviousness of a ruling class that failed to recognise revolution was around the corner.
That fable seems applicable to the revolutionary climate currently taking hold across western democracies. Britain is in the midst of a hugely divisive and historic national crisis in the form of Brexit; France is dealing with the most extreme anti-government violence in Paris for a decade; and Spain has this week become the latest country to see the Far Right make significant electoral gains.
Amid it all, the traditional, ruling class has no answers to offer. Their impotent response to these crises confirms the sense they are dangerously out of touch with the mood of a febrile public.
The ‘Let them eat cake’ analogy is certainly appropriate in the context of Brexit, where the decision of voters to leave the EU is partly tied to the impact of deindustrialisation and austerity in large parts of the country, and the resultant calls for an overhaul of the status quo. Yet listen to many Conservative MPs, and it’s clear they don’t understand – or simply don’t care about – the alienation and deprivation feeding the nation’s current crisis.
It was telling when on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme last month, Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng was asked about the situation facing a disabled girl and her grandmother carer who were enduring severe poverty as a consequence of benefit cuts. Rather than discuss the case, Kwarteng simply brushed it off as “a sad story” while spouting platitudes about the government’s “strong economic management”.
It was a classic case of substituting meaningless political speak for genuine empathy. Indeed, reporting recently on the extent of poverty in the UK, the UN envoy Philip Alston observed “a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country”. The response of Kwarteng only reinforces this view – in fact, when asked about Alston’s findings on the Marr show, the MP was dismissive of the report, stating he had not heard of the envoy.
This wilful, even bizarre ignorance of the realities facing ordinary people manifested itself at the weekend as a raft of Conservative MPs posed for photo opportunities during a series of apparently coordinated visits to food banks. As plenty of commentators have pointed out, the cynicism of this stunt was something to behold as smiling Tories cheerfully basked in the miserable consequences of their own austerity agenda. The photo shoot was the modern equivalent of ‘let them eat cake’ – in this case ‘let them eat tinned beans’, or something like it.
Another applicable parable for all this blinkered political negligence is The Emperor’s New Clothes, that Hans Christian Andersen story about a vainglorious leader who is told by the yes-men surrounding him that he is wearing the finest robes – only to discover once he appears before the public that he is in fact completely naked.
That fate has now befallen those pompous, aristocratic Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg who have spent the last two years pontificating about the righteousness of Brexit, all the while failing to offer a coherent plan for how it could be implemented. Now the Brexit cause is unravelling in the wake of prime minister Theresa May’s spectacularly unpopular plan, the likes of Johnson and Rees-Mogg appear nakedly exposed, foolishly bereft of a credible, alternative way forward.
The same is true of May herself, who has obfuscated, bluffed and resorted to tiresome clichés in an attempt to push Brexit through. Now her meaningless claim that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has collided with the hard reality of having to deliver on the detail. She is failing spectacularly, as her defeats in parliament this week show. The Empress has no clothes, and apparently no majority for her plan either.
Looking over at France, it seems that President Macron is waking up to the same reality. When Macron came to power in May 2017 he was billed as a political outsider and charismatic reformer who could stem the tide of populism sweeping the western world.
But Macron is also a former banker trying desperately to shore up the existing neoliberal order; a leader who has approved a tax cut for the rich while apparently ignoring the hardship felt by the middle and working classes. The anger that erupted in Paris at the weekend stripped away any pretence that Macron can solve the deep-rooted problems vexing French society with smooth words and stately posturing. Again he appears impotent and exposed, an Emperor with no clothes.
If history really does repeat itself, then today’s leaders should realise that revolutions are impatient, and won’t wait to sweep away what came before. Rather than meet this challenge with powerful, searching answers, though, these leaders seem dumbstruck and frozen, unable to deal with forces they can’t control and certainly don’t understand.