Regular readers of this blog will by now be more than aware that we at Mediolana harbour a deep sense of attachment towards our city of incorporation. Nevertheless, we are not blind to at least some of its darker realities, and the news that the financial, legal and cultural capital of not just the United Kingdom but arguably Western Europe has suffered biological leakage to the tune of over 80,000 people in a single year does not remotely surprise us.
It is all too easy – and logical – to point the finger at the Brexit ‘decision’ and ‘process’ for this decline. But this allocation of blame is ultimately unsatisfactory, and fails to recognise the deeper, structural problems which have needlessly blighted life in London for far too long; in particular, if the following deficiencies continue to remain unaddressed, one of the most iconic urban areas anywhere in the world could slide into a permanent population recession:
- Bad value. The most obvious issue confronting London today is that it offers sensationally awful value for money when to comes to the bare necessities. Specifically, the cost of both public transportation and housing – neither of which are world-class, taken as a whole – is nothing less than an insult to the intelligence. Most people can only take so much of this before they begin to wonder whether there might not be a better way of doing things.
- Zero capitalism. Connected to (1), municipal and city-wide authorities alike have lost sight of the need of industry for reasonably-priced land and buildings. As copiously demonstrated in metropolitan units from Berlin to Barcelona, the manufacturing and creative industries of the future can flourish in unlikely locations – as long as they are not smothered by anti-competitive rent-seekers.
- No time this time. Compounding it all is a profound sense of time-and-motion sickness: in the insane rush to get to wherever it is they think they are going, Londoners – especially, though not exclusively, those in the professional classes – are readily exchanging quality of life for that extra bit of speed and purported glitz. Friendships, relationships and transcendence have been swapped for an even-faster smartphone. But the messages on the screen are getting increasingly contentless.
In recent days, it has become part of the default news narrative to equate the election of reality television star and property mogul Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States with the 23rd June 2016 UK referendum result, by which European Union membership was narrowly rejected: both of these events have been depicted as popular ‘revolutions’ by ‘nativists’ or ‘nationalists’ against a distant and delusional ‘globalist’ elite.
However, on closer analysis of the dry facts, this makes little if any sense. Trump and Brexit are highly distinct phenomena; indeed, the differences between them strongly suggest some paradoxical conclusions:
- The End of the American Dream. As we have written about extensively on this blog – and as a handful of select commentators have also noted – the United States stopped being a fully developed country (on a par, say, with most of Western Europe or the more affluent bits of East Asia) a long time ago. At least since the early 1970s, it has experienced first relative and then absolute economic decline. This depressing reality has been reflected in almost everything – real wages, public infrastructure, purchasing power, quality of life – except standard media depictions of the US, which have struggled to keep pace with the systemic shift. Therefore, the elevation of Trump to the presidency can at least partly be explained as a reaction to crash deindustrialisation, inner-city impoverishment and extreme wealth inequality – a desperate measure for desperate times. The ludicrous and frankly implausible xenophobia which characterised parts of Trump’s campaign can generally be dismissed as a form of clever (if morally indefensible) marketing.
- The Empire Commits Suicide. Conversely, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU – for all it may have represented – could not seriously be defended on the grounds of economic self-interest. Quite the reverse: the global public was treated to the spectacle of Wales – a European Union dependency – deciding to gnaw off practically the only hand which even remembered it existed. Leaving the world’s largest and most valuable single market with no legal arrangements in place to supplant existing trade deals is not a fiscally (or politically) coherent decision. Other explanations – the last manifestation of imperial hangover; an hysterical and constantly-stoked xenophobia; a staggering ignorance of world affairs – simply must be sought. And traditional evaluations about the true sentience of the respective electorates – which have often portrayed Americans as being unaware of broader economic issues – have rarely looked more fragile.