We live in a time of change, with a growing chorus of voices questioning the post-war world order. Aspects of Western society deemed sacrosanct are increasingly under pressure to adapt to a changing political landscape, and doubt in the ability of governments to provide for their citizenry as a whole has paralleled this dynamic. Additionally, technological innovations such as the Internet, digital media, and instantaneous communications have played a central role in linking together disparate groups with common political grievances, thus magnified fringe platforms in our global discourse.
What do these developments portend? What should we look for to understand the roots of such discontent, and the rage simmering below the surface? Are their solutions we’re missing?
Atul Singh, the Founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Fair Observer, sat down with IVY Magazine to provide a detailed account of these trends, and his own insights of our current geopolitical paradigm.
Over the last decade, political systems have become more nationalized in terms of their rhetoric and their policy priorities, while the economy has become more globalized. Do you agree that we are experiencing a shift that portends a change in the political status quo, and a redefinition of globalism as we knew it?
Yes, we are definitely experiencing a shift in the political status quo. However, I do not entirely agree that political systems have become more nationalized. In many parts of the world such as the Middle East or Africa, nation states themselves have crumbled or are tottering. In Europe, things have certainly become more nationalized and the same is true for the US. So, I would say there has been a reversion to identity politics. In some places, it is the nation. In others, it could be regional or linguistic or ethnic or religious agglomerations, and some of these overlap.
Syria and Iraq are classic examples of this phenomenon. Both of these artificial nation states are dead but we do not yet know what might take their place. The Kurds have their own enclave. Shia and Sunni tribes now live separately and often war with each other. Sudan has disintegrated into Sudan and South Sudan. The latter is now in the middle of a bloody civil war along ethnic lines.
Political structures that are far removed from people’s lives such as the European Union (EU) bureaucracy in Brussels or even the United States Government in Washington, DC no longer retain the trust of the voters. The complexity of international structures and amorphous collective identities has made people yearn for a simpler era when they were Sunni or Shia, American or English, Hindu or Muslim.
When it comes to globalism or globalization, then we are certainly seeing a major shift. The benefits of globalization have been immense but these have largely accrued to the wealthy. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the influx of a vast labor pool from China, India, and other emerging economies has lowered wages in the developing countries. On June 12, 2015, I pointed out in The World This Week, my weekly column in Fair Observer, that trade is good but not for everyone. The bottom line is that trade has led to some losers and the winners have yet to compensate these losers of globalization. This has fueled anger, populism, and even protectionism. Many of these losers of the current economic system are now voting against globalization.
Besides, a reverse technological trend against globalization is starting to appear. Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker argue that the era of cheap might soon be replaced by the age of the smart. What do they mean by that? Well, soon we might want smart products customized to our needs instead of cheap generic products that throng supermarkets. Developed economies in general and some rustbelts in particular are starting to stage a comeback. These rustbelts have now become brainbelts that are integrating software, hardware, sensors, big data, new materials, and 3D printing to make new products. This could lead to a renaissance of sorts in Europe and the US. In any case, world trade has hit headwinds and the high tide of globalization might be about to recede.
President Trump ran his campaign with the slogan “American First” and “Make America great again.” Similarly, once fringe political groups in Europe recently have increasingly brought into the mainstream calls for closed borders, and a focus on national interest over European ones. From a historical point of view, what do these mean? Can these signals be interpreted as an impetus towards a very particular socio-political trajectory?
Yes, these are certainly alarming trends. To define oneself against the other has been an age-old human instinct. It is done on numerous grounds and nationalism is a recent expression of that instinct that really took off in the 19th century. Now, the nation state itself is not as powerful or cohesive as it once was. In many ways, Brussels is certainly more powerful than national capitals, and Athens can testify to that.
Arguably, global markets are even more powerful than Brussels. Ask any small country or even a large one like the UK where markets caused them to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Naturally, this loss of power of national capitals has been accompanied with much unease. This has come at a time when migrants and refugees are flocking to better places to survive. This is happening all over the world from India to South Africa, Turkey to Germany. In Europe, this is causing greater problems because immigrants of different races and religions have come in. They have values that differ significantly from local populations. This is causing tensions. The sight of burkinis on French beaches has thrown many a mayor into a tizzy. Memories of the Battle of Tours and the Siege of Vienna still run strong in erstwhile Christendom.
From a historic viewpoint, the key question facing Europe is one of collective identity. The European identity is all too real but highly amorphous. The unit of power for the last two centuries has been the nation state. The seat of power is the president or the parliamentary leader of the nation state. After World War II and the end of the Cold War, European nation states were able to come together during times of growth, but these are times of economic peril and growing inequality. So, there is certainly a strong impetus to go back to a more cohesive collective identity and a more equal society. Many seek that within the confines of their nation state, which could lead to the weakening, if not the disintegration, of the EU.
However, a great many realize there are great advantages to the European experiment, to freedom of movement of people, goods, and services, and to cooperation in a global world. Individually, even Germany or France would never be able to gain advantages vis-à-vis the US or China in various negotiations if the EU did not exist. So, the stage is set between those who want to carry on with the great EU project but perhaps reform it, and those who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater to return to an imagined pristine past.
What are our options then? Is it possible to de-globalize the global economy? Don’t you want to keep the mantra of “globalize the political system”?
The options are at the same time both simple and complex. Yes, some amount of de-globalizing the global economy is important. Destroying the Amazonian rainforests for teak for New York townhouses and setting ablaze Indonesian forests for palm oil for McDonald’s are terrible ideas. Similarly, the quest for ever cheaper goods and services has imposed costs on societies that are unjust and might lead to backlash. Of course, it is not only globalization but also technology to blame for some things. With increasing automation and artificial intelligence, jobs are hard to come by.
The globalization of finance is perhaps the most destructive of all phenomena. Such is the complexity of markets that few understand them. The derivatives that melted during the financial crisis were more often than not mumbo jumbo based on arbitrary and flawed assumptions. Today, hot money flows from one asset to another, and stock markets arguably lead to efficiencies, but they also lead to speculation and tear apart social fabrics. More and more money now operates in dark pools. Private equity players sit on a record wall of money and public markets are shrinking. So, we are certainly seeing a global elite emerge that is operating in the shadows. For instance, the Ambanis invest all over the map and so do the Trumps but they do not reveal their tax returns.
A class of super rich plutocrats has emerged that has disproportionate power over institutions. For instance, the court process in the US is so expensive that an average citizen has little chance of getting justice. No wonder, one in three black men end up in jail once in their lifetime. Similarly, the children of wealthy Brazilian, Chinese, and American parents who go to elite schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, find their careers fast tracked. Many become the Davos jet set at preposterously young ages. We live in an era where social mobility has fallen dramatically as income, wealth, and educational inequalities have increased spectacularly. So, rage against globalization is justified, and there is a strong argument to have more vibrant local economies where people produce instead of just consume.
Your point about globalizing the political system is dangerous. With over 7 billion people on the planet, that would be disastrous. Democracy does not work on a big scale. If a member of parliament or a mayor has to represent too many people, then he or she would rely only on advertising. There would be little connection with voters. A bureaucracy would emerge and, eventually, people would turn apathetic. I repeat what I said earlier: unlike Facebook, democracy cannot be scaled up. It has to retain its local roots. However, local units can have close relations with similar units in other parts of the world.
A big challenge for humanity is to reform political systems that have come to be dominated by interest groups, become sclerotic, opaque, and often corrupt. The American political system may not involve Congressmen taking cash in brown paper envelopes as in Italy, or in jute sacks as in India — but money still makes elections go around. It is an open secret that Congressmen spend much of their time fundraising. Drafting legislation or grilling members of the executive is no longer on top of their agenda. Over time, this makes democracy dysfunctional. This has happened in many countries. Therefore, it is unsurprising that voters are putting their faith in strongmen around the world. Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump are two classic examples.
Democracy needs reform. It has to reconnect with the voters. It needs to function at a scale where voters have a real relationship with their representatives and feel they have some control over their lives. Globalizing the political system at a time of record inequality is the last thing we need right now.
Over the past 75 years, many Western nations moved steadily toward cooperation and interconnectedness as their shared economic and political interests converged during this period of globalization. But the political winds have shifted, and the signs are clear that populism and nationalism are affecting the Western world. Do you think this development could eventually undermine post-war security and unity?
Absolutely! Populism and nationalism are savage forces that have caused wars before and can cause them again. Right now, there is no threat of war, but if these forces continue to gain momentum then security and unity will certainly be at risk. The specter of homegrown terrorism in Europe is very real. If nationalism rises, then minorities will find it difficult to fit in. If populism rises, then more politicians will bash immigrants to gain votes. The vicious cycle is easy to enter but difficult to escape.
Europe’s post-war security and unity is a unique historical experiment. If anyone had suggested that the EU would exist in its modern form in 1940 or even 1945 then people would have assumed him or her to be stark raving mad. Yes, the postwar economic miracle was helped by the Marshall Plan but the common market helped Europe immensely. Security and unity in Europe have enabled countries to have strong social welfare systems because they do not have to spend as before on panzers, guns, and fighter planes. Nationalism and populism would most certainly weaken security and unity.
Populist and nationalist narratives have always been part of historical political discourses, but they seem to have gained effective traction in the present. Why is that, and what reasons have made it easier for these ideas to take hold? Were there any prior indicators we missed, that foreshadowed this?
Last year, I gave a talk at Google on the global rise of the far-right. I mentioned three reasons for the phenomenon. First, the multiple failures of elites have caused disillusionment among the masses. These elites have become narrow, technocratic, opaque, wasteful, and selfish — if not corrupt. They have not demonstrated noblesse oblige in the manner of postwar elites. For instance, carried interest enables private equity players and hedge fund managers to pay tax at a much lower rate than teachers, firemen, and secretaries. It is important to note that Warren Buffet still pays tax at a lower rate than his secretary.
It is not just those with money that have checked out. The so-called intellectual elites have become decidedly anti-intellectual and run away from ideas. In the post-1991 market triumphalist firmament, education has become instrumentalist and mercenary. Top graduates from around the world make a beeline for McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. Most lack any sense of public service. They are clambering over each other’s heads for ever fatter paychecks to become the service class to the plutocrats.
Second, the well-chronicled rise of wealth, income, and educational inequality along with falling social mobility has also led to popular anger. I have spoken about this already and will not belabor this point. All I want to say is that plutocrats did not get wealthy simply because of the sweat of their brow or the brilliance of their brains. They have profited among other things from quantitative easing. The de facto printing of money has made those who own apartments in New York and shares of Facebook laugh all the way to the bank, leaving those who don’t own assets by the wayside.
Third, the dilution and, at times, loss of collective identity is also a factor. Suffice to say that people are looking for solidarity and identity at a time of extreme individualism and wanton consumerism. Some find it in churches, others in movements, and many others in online groups. Plato’s adage that man is a social animal still holds true. The social contract is broken and there is a new marketplace for those who offer alternatives. That includes the crazies of the Islamic State as well as Trump, the Pied Piper of the US.
Were there canaries in the coal mine for this tidal wave of populism? Absolutely! Far-right movements have been increasing vote share for a while. In the case of the US, the Republicans have been locked at the hip with evangelicals since the days of George W. Bush. He inaugurated the era of American hyper-nationalism. There was a pushback when Barack Obama won, but the sprouts were there. Bush unilaterally killed the Kyoto Protocol and went to war in Iraq. He also stopped funding stem cell research and called Jesus his favorite philosopher, which went down very well with evangelicals.
Prior to that, Ronald Reagan, the great god of Republicans, began his election campaign in none other than Neshoba County. This was the country in Mississippi where three white men were lynched during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when they were fighting against segregation. The film, Mississippi Burning, was made on this incident. Politically, Reagan was playing dog whistle politics to get the white vote in the South. The Gaffer was affable, charming, and polite. So, no one really felt too bad about Neshoba or his support for apartheid, but remember — Trump belongs to the Reagan tradition of appealing to the white vote.
Similarly, Marine Le Pen is the successor of her father. Remember, Jean-Marie Le Pen lost to Jacques Chirac and made it to the second round just like his daughter. When it comes to the UK, Theresa May is arguably a modern day Roundhead, a successor of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell.
The point that I am making is that too many took Francis Fukuyama’s end of history proposition a bit too seriously. The Taliban started coming up soon after Fukuyama came up with this idea. To borrow a phrase from the late Congressman Charlie Wilson, “the ball keeps on bouncing.” History never ends. It is just that we invariably get caught up in the mumbo jumbo of the zeitgeist and forget to look at forces that may have been dormant for a while but never quite die.
Have national and international media sources played a role in promoting some aspects of nationalistic and populist ideologies?
Well, the media is like an endangered species. As per the Pew Research Center, there are five jobs in public relations to every single job in journalism. Investigative journalism is dying. Explanatory journalism is rare. Global coverage is rare in national news. So, I would not blame national and international media too much.
I will certainly blame Facebook, Twitter, and the internet. Facebook has enabled people to live in alternative universes. The scarcest resource people have is time. The genius of Mark Zuckerberg is that he sucks up people’s time. Like Sursa, the mythic monster in the great Indian epic Ramayana, his mouth keeps growing. Twitter can be a useful tool but is far too noisy and people get caught up in 140 characters. Social media has certainly caused a diminution in attention spans. Also, people are now trapped in self-reverential circles and only hear what they want to hear. This makes for a rather toxic phenomenon.
Furthermore, the internet allows anyone to publish anything. It allows you to claim that Mahatma Gandhi was a Nazi, that Obama is a foreign-born communist, and that Mexicans are rapists. The deluge of information at people’s fingertips was supposed to inform and educate but, instead, it allows people to confirm their prejudices and to conduct sophisticated propaganda. Possibly the best two examples of these phenomena are Fox News and Islamic State. The former feeds a constant dribble of diatribe to millions of Americans, while the latter reaches out to potential recruits using websites and social media.
For many, even basic facts are now in question. This allows for the fake news phenomenon. Of course, media itself is a bit to blame by chasing eyeballs and reducing complexity into soundbites, but I would desist from hanging them on the nearest tree. The profit-driven media model that I have damned in the past is far more to blame, as is social media.
Populist movements and parties ultimately lost elections in France and the Netherlands. Has the pushback been successful, or is populist appeal still large enough that we will see a resurgence in the near future?
Look, the appeal of populists is very much alive and well. If the leaders of The Netherlands and France fail to bring in reforms, then expect the populists to be back. Before the French election, I argued that Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic was failing to tackle the challenges facing la grande nation. Since 1974-75, France has not had full employment. It is in many ways a socialist country but it has little social mobility. Make no mistake, France is in crisis and Marine Le Pen is here to stay.
The long-term success against populism will hinge on a very simple fact. Can we push through reforms that address the challenges of our age before les sans-culottes mount the barricades? Eventually, we will have to change the economic model we follow, reform political systems that are no longer working, and rewrite social contracts that are outdated. Perhaps that is too much to ask in a planet of over 7 billion people, but then perhaps not. The future depends entirely on how we think and act.