These are frightening times. The world order we thought we knew after the Cold War is gone and so are many of its certainties.
For twenty plus years, the western world was driven by an ideology that favoured free trade, that privileged open borders and (relatively) free travel of both people and of capital across the world.
It was an ideology driven by what Francis Fukyama famously called ‘the end of history’. Liberal democratic capitalism had triumphed. It only remained to watch its spread approvingly across the world.
This ideology, combined with massive jumps in technology, allowing near instant communication and quick and cheap transport across the globe, really has transformed the world. The world economy today generates massive amounts of profit by locating manufacturing wherever labour is cheapest and selling where prices are high. Where operations cannot be moved, such as the service sector of developed countries, it favours large scale immigration to ensure a continual supply of cheap labour.
This has revolutionised the world in profound ways. Today London is majority ethnic minority and about 40% non-English born. Britain’s old industrial heartlands – the north of England, the Welsh mining country, cities like Belfast and Glasgow, are economic husks, relying almost entirely on redistribution from the centre at London, that international city state, where finance; the storing, loaning and speculating on capital, represents Britain’s main remaining viable industry.
I use Britain as a nearby example, but the same is true across much of the western world. An economy driven by an internationalised, knowledge-based sector and supported at the bottom by continual waves of migrant labour from poorer countries. The same is true in Ireland, though since we never properly had an industrial revolution, we missed much of the pain of the transition. The same is certainly true in the United States, of which more later.
The above is driven by conviction – that the goal of any society should be to maximise economic growth – and also by interest. By dispensing with nationally protected, unionised jobs, by locating anywhere and everywhere across the world and by ensuring a cheap supply of labour where it cannot move, big business, shareholders and financiers have made enormous profits over the past 20 years. Most businesses of any size are now multinational.
The ideology of liberal multi-culturalism then, should really be seen in this context. It is a strategy to manage increasingly diverse populations that have been created by the needs of capital. Similarly, the advancement of women’s equality has not been driven primarily by idealism, but by a desire for access to an expanded workforce. Those liberals who talk about hypocrisy in not fully implementing racial and gender equality are missing the point. Equality was never the goal.
So here’s my central point. We are seeing a backlash against globalisation in developed countries. We have seen this is in Brexit in the UK. We have seen it the rise of the nationalist far right in Europe – in Poland, in in Hungary in France, in Germany. And now we have seen it in the election of Donald Trump in the US.
The reasons are not hard to find for those who wish to look. These are revolts by those who do not wish to live in societies are constantly being revolutionised by the free movement of capital and the influx of diverse and often alien cultures. Those who profess horror at Trumpism fail to understand its appeal. Trump has promised to ‘tear up’ deals such as NAFTA which allow American companies to relocate to Mexico and promised to ‘round up’ illegal immigrants from south of the border.
Why is it difficult to understand why this would appeal to voters from the so called ‘rust belt’, the centre of deindustrialisation? At the same time as the well-paying unionised jobs have vanished, they now have to compete with very poor immigrants for the remaining low-skilled, low paid, service jobs.
Nor is the revolt simply economic. While the end-of-history school of thought surmised that all cultural and ideological differences would fade away, this has not happened. Particularly in Europe with migrants from majority Muslim countries, immigrants have not integrated. Fueled by Saudi and Qatari-funded Mosques and schools (another product of the free movement of capital) resentful second generations, no longer satisfied with serving as cheap labour, have turned increasingly towards radical Islam.
These are real issues. The turn towards ‘anti-establishment’ right wingers such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen and Orban is the direct result. And throwing up one’s hands and shouting ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’ etc. will not make these issues go away. Globalisation and its benefactors want a globalised society. The voters do not.
So far I have talked mainly about economics. But there is also a political dimension. At the same time that liberal, i.e. free trade, capitalism triumphed economically, liberal democracy was thought to have triumphed politically. Indeed the two were commonly presented as the same thing. We now know that this is false. There can be fast growth, low wage, free trade capitalism in increasingly authoritarian countries. China makes no pretence at being a democracy, Russia and increasingly Turkey are now ‘managed’ democracies, without genuinely free elections, free political parties and a free press. And such examples are spreading.
They are spreading because, when Russia, for instance, in the immediate post-Soviet era, allowed the markets and the ‘oligarchs’ to operate unhindered, the country’s economy, the citizens’ welfare and the integrity of the political system all but collapsed. Putin’s rise is about re-establishing state control and for this most citizens tolerate authoritarianism, control over the media and the occasional assassination.
The national-populist politicians in the West such as Trump may wish to go down these lines, but the systems they inhabit have much more rigorous traditions of the rule of law.
There is one final point here. Riding along on the back of liberal universalism was a desire or stated desire to spread it all over the world. At is crudest, this meant ‘regime change’ as occurred in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria as the US has been trying to engineer since 2011. Without entering into the swamps of middle eastern internal politics, it is fair to say that such interventions suffered both from fantasy and from rank hypocrisy.
The thinking was that overthrowing the dictators Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad would natural result in a liberal democratic order settling peacefully on these countries. And this is false. History was not over. The vengeful Shia majority took power in Iraq, the resentful Sunnis took up arms against them. The end result was ISIS. Similarly in Syria, the opposition to Assad is not democratic, it is Sunni Islamist, increasingly, radically so.
Where the hypocrisy comes in is that US allies – the autocratic, fundamentalist monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others – have not alone not been targets of regime change but have apparently been allies in overthrowing authoritarian secular regimes in the region. The outcome of these wars has not been the spread of democracy but the spread of chaos, religious fanaticism and terrorism.
The citizens of western countries no longer see why they should support such allies and fight such wars – something that again, Trump and the other populists have in common. Once again, I must ask; are they wrong?
Do not take this essay to mean I am a supporter of the likes of Farage, Trump or Le Pen. I am not. I am a supporter of the EU (though not perhaps of its current structures). I am not in favour of racial or sexual discrimination. I am not, as Trump and Farage in particular profess to be, a supporter of deregulation of big business. On the contrary, I think this is the source of the problem.
I believe that climate change is real and even if it were not I think that economic growth should take second place to protecting the environment.
But the post-Cold War fantasy of the peaceful triumph of globalised liberal capitalism is over. What will replace it will be more statist, more nationalistic and perhaps more authoritarian. If we want to prevent its worst excesses we must acknowledge this reality.