For as long as I can remember, the herbal schnapps Jägermeister has had a reputation for being an old man’s drink. The brand name would inevitably evoke images of a rustic guesthouse where antlers and the stuffed heads of wild boars are mounted on wood-panelled walls; images of bearded men sitting around a heavy wooden table, smoking filterless cigarettes and talking about how the country is going to the dogs.
So when I moved to the UK, I was amazed to discover that here, Jägermeister was considered trendy and ‘cool’ among teenagers. My first thought was that the company must have found some way of ‘rejuvenating’ its product. But no, it was exactly the same Jägermeister as ever, not even repackaged. How did that happen? Sure, clever marketing efforts must have played a role, and I also suppose that the old brand image was never as engrained here as in the company’s home market. But I would also guess that to some extent, the company was simply lucky to find trendy ‘early adopters’, who then became multipliers.
The realm of political ideas, too, follows fads and fashions, and the statism of the 1970s is currently experiencing a Jägermeister effect. For a while, free marketeers were benefiting from the fact that crude statist ideas were simply considered old-fashioned. Price controls, wage controls, public ownership, bloating the public sector, deficit spending, idolising unions, punitive top tax rates, interventionist industrial policy – those terms used to sound so 1970s, even to people who, like me, have no personal memories of those years. They used to stand for the bad old days, for a past that few people wanted back. But like Jägermeister, these ideas have become trendy again without any reworking or even a rebranding. The likes of Owen Jones or Russell Brand do nothing to update the rhetoric of Arthur Scargill, Michael Foot or Tony Benn. They just lend them an air of youthfulness.
There is a slight difference with Jägermeister, though: there is nothing inherent in a herbal schnapps which makes it either old-fashioned or trendy. These are our projections, any of which is as valid as any other. But the previous fall from grace of crude statism was more than a matter of changing fads. It had been the dominant ideology for a long time, and it was tried in many places all over the world, not least the UK in the 1960s and 1970s. The results are well known. Never mind the economic failures: all that power-to-the-people waffling also turned out to be hollow rhetoric. Bloating the powers of the state does nothing to ‘empower’ working people. Statism only empowers the state and its cronies. It would be one thing if those of the Jones/Brand ilk acknowledged those past failures, and came up with a reason why things will turn out differently this time. But what they really do is simply to ignore all past experience with the kind of ideas they are advocating.
Free-market liberalism, in contrast, is quite able to absorb and learn from real-world experiences which are widely seen as failures of ‘neoliberal’ policies, justified or not. There are, for example, excellent ‘neoliberal’ contributions on the causes of the 2008 financial crash, on the problems with British railway privatisation in the 1990s, on the failures of American healthcare, on the chaos and corruption of post-Soviet Russia, on poverty in developing countries that have privatised and opened up to world trade, and many more such issues. Yet watch how Owen Jones or Russell Brand reacts when a moderator has the temerity to ask them about some past failure of statism. Owen Jones will pretend to be annoyed at the moderator for drawing up a ‘straw man’, and say something about ‘redistributing power and wealth to the working people’. And Russell Brand will pretend that he was being picked on because of his past, his style, or his lack of formal education. Boring.
It is rather fortunate that Jägermeister never changed in substance, because it has always been a fine liqueur, long before a travesty like mixing it with an energy drink would have occurred to anyone. In contrast, no matter how ‘cool’ the command-and-control statism of the old left becomes, in substance, it remains as wrong as ever.