December 25, 2016
In 2010, I staged a one-man show with the Abbey Theatre called Outsiders. We had a wonderful month-long run in Dublin and then toured the show all around the country. It was a fantastic experience, working with some of Ireland’s most brilliant theatre professionals, learning the ropes in the Abbey and then experiencing the thrill of opening night.
Many people asked me at the time what exactly the title meant.
‘Outsiders’, back in 2010, seemed a bit opaque. For an economics-driven, one-man show it seemed almost too oblique.
Why didn’t I call it Austerity, many demanded? After all, in 2010 the country was experiencing the deepest recession of practically any industrial nation and austerity, plus the collapse of people’s personal balance sheets, was the issue.
I explained at the time that a new insiders versus outsiders split was going on and that this battle would frame politics in the future in a war that, ultimately, the outsiders would win. The one-man show was about that coming feud. After austerity, societies wouldn’t split along traditional left versus right lines or even the debtor versus creditor lines that were very topical at the time. The real split would be between insiders and outsiders.
Fast-forward six years, and this has come to pass.
2016 was the year of the outsider. The defeat of Fine Gael in Ireland, Brexit in Britain, Trump in the US and the implosion of Renzi’s support in Italy were all manifestations of the victory of the outsider.
All across the West there is a sense that conventional politics haven’t answered the big questions of nationhood, ethnicity, fairness, opportunity and prosperity
What are dismissed by the established ‘commentariat’ as ‘populist’ parties/individuals have filled this void.
Why were so many voters prepared to take a risk in 2016 that they weren’t prepared to take in 2009?
The first reason is that the policies adopted since 2008/9 have not worked. Unemployment is at Great Depression levels in certain countries, incomes have collapsed, inequality has soared, plus debts have risen and growth has disappeared. At a time of high debt burdens, deflation risks becoming embedded, particularly in Europe.
The second reason that people are prepared to look for alternatives is the way in which we react to economic trauma. Initially, in the aftermath of an ordeal such as the 2008 financial crisis, confused voters want certainty and ‘the devil you know’ seems to make sense. This is why one form of the mainstream was exchanged for another in the last wave of elections all over the West, despite the fact that the mainstream parties were offering nothing new.
In contrast, six years later, voters now appear more willing to take a chance on alternative parties because they see that ‘more of the same’ hasn’t worked.
The third reason and, I feel, the most important insight into voter behaviour, is that the voters have seen through conventional politics with its lazy sloganeering.
This is where the outsider comes in.
An interesting and novel way of looking at politics — the politics of mature, wealthy, deeply democratic societies — is not through the prism of left versus right, rich versus poor, urban versus rural, Christian versus Muslim, conservative versus liberal or young versus old or whatever other face-off we like to talk about.
Insiders versus outsiders is more apposite and the recovery rather than the recession has crystallised the dichotomy.
The insiders are those literally ‘on the inside’. They are the people with influence, with a voice at the table, those with a stake in society. Insiders can either be on the left or the right. They can be traditional public sector trade unions, like those of the gardaí or the teachers who strike because they know they can, or they can be bank bosses who want a bailout because they know they can get it.
Their game plan is to gouge the state and extract as much rent as possible for their members and interests. Insiders are organised. They are part of the process of politics and their concerns are listened to by the state. In short, they have access to power and can influence the way it is deployed.
In a crisis, when growth disappears, the insiders redefine their strategy and go into self-preservation mode. The insiders’ main objective is to make sure their members’ interests are protected from the slowdown in growth and that they get as big a share of the dwindling income pie as possible.
Interestingly, the insiders on the traditional left and conservative right join forces to pass on the costs of recession to the outsiders.
This is why you see the statist left and the corporatist right in power all over Europe from Spain to France and Italy. Sure they might speak the language of left and right, and ham up their ideological differences for the audience, but essentially, they are both in the business of preservation.
The outsiders in contrast, are those with no one to speak up for them. They have no stake in the political process and are thus on the outside. They are the self-employed small business person, the contract worker, the immigrant, the unemployed and, of course, the young.
They are outside the tent, beyond the process and because they are not organised, their concerns are never felt. They too can be on the left and on the right. The small shopkeeper could well have traditionally conservative instincts, while the twentysomething contract worker could well be liberal to his or her core, but they are both outsiders.
Neither has a real stake in society; neither has a voice.
What they do have is a vote. And in the ‘spectator democracy’, which urges voters to give a thumbs up or thumbs down every four or five years, the outsider, normally locked out, has a chance to be heard. Because the outsiders are, by definition, not organised and rarely speak with one voice, in challenging times they are represented by unconventional parties who mix the rhetoric of the excluded with the tribal comfort blanket of the nation; who offer the elixir of low taxes, with the promise of economic growth.
More than anything, these parties and individuals have identified that the mainstream, traditional parties are in cahoots, trying to maintain a status quo, which is simply serving to featherbed the insiders.
These are the people who Trump, Brexit and the Five Star Movement appealed to. These are also the people who voted against the Irish status quo in February. They are not racist, atavistic or deluded. They are simply on the outside.
2016 was the year the outsiders said: “Enough!”