In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western leaders made a series of lofty claims about the benefits of globalisation.
“The global economy is giving billions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity,” Bill Clinton remarked during the final months of his presidency. “The problem is not [that] there’s too much of it,” Tony Blair told the Labour party conference in 2001. “On the contrary, there’s too little.” “I want globalisation’s children, the coming generation, to enjoy the vastly increased opportunities it brings,” Gordon Brown evangelised a few years later.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – which cost seven million jobs in the developed world alone, and in Britain inaugurated a decade of austerity cuts and stagnant wages – these claims don’t just look absurd, they look delusional.
After the Cold War, policy elites in Europe and North America were so dazzled by the ‘dynamic power’ of free-market capitalism that they completely lost sight of its flaws. As a result, in a frenzy of neoliberal reform, anything that could be deregulated or sold-off, from the banking industry to higher education, was, whether it should have been or not.
The political consequences of that frenzy are only now becoming clear.
In his new book, Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism, Ian Bremmer – the editor-at-large of Time magazine and founder of the Eurasia Group, a think-tank and political consultancy firm – explains the current rise of populist politics, from Donald Trump and Brexit to the Front National in France, as a response to the economic upheaval created by globalisation.
Bremmer believes that populist movements will continue to gain ground as states struggle to meet the challenges of workplace automation and mass immigration, and as the gap separating those who succeed in the international marketplace from those who don’t grows ever wider.
This problem will be particularly acute in countries, like Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil, that are growing quickly but lack the resources and infrastructure of the West. “There’s a larger crisis coming,” he writes. “Not just in the US and Europe, but in the developing world too, there will be a confrontation in each society between winners and losers.”
Rather than retreat into nationalist protectionism, however, Bremmer’s solution is for governments to invest in education, experiment with ambitious welfare initiatives like the guaranteed basic income, and reduce inequality by raising taxes on the ultra-rich. He also sees a role for the private sector in rebuilding public trust and – astonishingly – even cites Facebook as an example of how market innovation can help meet “the evolving needs of citizens.”
The general arc of his argument is bleak but his conclusion is relatively upbeat: “Survival requires that we find new ways to live together … this principle can work in any country where a positive political consensus is possible.”
There are, though, some sizeable inconsistencies in Bremmer’s thinking. As the book’s title suggests, he considers populism a bad thing; a dangerous ideology that seeks to divide voters along class or ethnic lines by appealing to their tribal instincts. “People who are afraid for their livelihoods lash out,” he says.
And yet, the policy platform he himself advocates contains a strong populist element. New taxes on wealth, a citizen’s income, an expanded social security net: these are radical ideas that only a government of the far left, led by someone like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, could realistically implement. Problematically, Bremmer views Sanders – whom he accuses of stirring-up public anger towards Wall Street and the one percent – as the leftwing equivalent of Donald Trump, and therefore well beyond the limits of political respectability.
Another significant failing in Bremmer’s analysis is his assumption that all populists are against globalisation. That might be true of Trump and Sanders. But what about Brexiteers? Many Conservatives see the UK’s exit from the EU as part of a broader (pseudo-imperial) project of global re-engagement; one in which Britain ditches the bureaucratic constraints of the European single market in favour of a laissez-faire ‘Anglosphere’ bound together by reciprocal trade agreements between the US, Canada, and other ex-British colonies. So Brexit is both populist and globalist (as well as being uniquely and disastrously British).
This brings us to the chief weakness in Bremmer’s narrative: his definition of populism is far too vague. Indeed, he applies the label to any movement that doesn’t adhere to the liberal shibboleths of representative democracy, bipartisan political cooperation, and private enterprise. Consequently, he overlooks one crucial fact: liberals can be populists, too.
New Labour is the perfect case in point. On the international stage, Blair and Brown were staunch supporters of the global economy. They championed free trade, the free flow of financial capital, and deregulated labour markets. Yet their domestic rhetoric was often aggressively nationalistic.
From Blair’s claim, made during his prime ministerial resignation speech in May 2007, that the UK is “the greatest nation on Earth” to Brown’s racially-charged demand, just four months later, that “British jobs” should be reserved for “British workers,” the New Labour project was always heavily invested in the notion of Britishness, even as it opened the UK economy up to global market forces.
Clearly, that’s a legacy we are still grappling with today.
This article is a review of Us Vs. Them: The Failure Of Globalism by Ian Bremmer.