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Globalisation Has Supersized Inequality -- Backlash Politics Was Bound To Follow

14/07/2016 15:25 | Updated 14 July 2016

To add to the full-blown working class revolt against global capitalism -- already stoked by the rapid rise of inequality, free trade deals, stagnant wages, trickle-down economics, and tax regulations skewed for giant corporations and the elites -- we now have Britain's rejection of the EU's single market, an institution that has been in place for decades.

The discontent morphs into various forms. Across the Atlantic it has produced a season of unpredictable, almost unbelievable presidential primaries. The surprise successes of both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left are fuelled by a rampant sense of betrayal and a simmering distrust of the elite. Trump and Sanders present fundamentally different analyses of what's wrong with America, but both draw support from constituencies that feel alienated and angry over the threat of globalisation and perceive a corrupt economic system rigged against them.

Hillary Clinton is a capable candidate; But a bank account swollen over the years with speaker fees from Goldman Sachs only defines her as a candidate of continuity and a creature of the establishment. Perhaps this is the reason that Clinton has so far underwhelmed younger voters, who constantly feel they are being stiffed and are instead drawn to the promises of radical change offered by Sanders.

There are similar feelings -- of being unheard or excluded -- behind the rise of the Brexit movement, which convinced fifty-two per cent of the British electorate to vote to deliver a massive kick in the teeth to the world's political and financial establishment, a historic move that will undoubtedly plunge the United Kingdom into uncertainty for years. From now on, the narrative of the EU project will be framed around backlash and disintegration, not integration.

A study published by Working America interviewed over 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The study found support for Donald Trump ran strong among people who were fearful for their economic security and their place in the new global economy. The survey "confirmed what we heard all the time: people are fed up, people are hurting, they are very distressed about the fact that their kids don't have a future" and that "there still hasn't been a recovery from the recession, that every family still suffers from it in one way or another."

American political philosopher Michael Sandel said in a recent interview that "A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture. The sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by ... globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, [and] the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties." A lot of the energy animating Brexit, said Sandel, was "born of this failure of elites."

The parallels between United States and European politics are greater now than in many decades because societies on both sides of the Atlantic face similar predicaments -- the same detachment of political elites from public opinion. This in turn breeds a political and regional disruption in which technology accelerates the scope of globalisation, offshoring millions of jobs and disintegrating societies. According to a Brookings Institute Study, technology in the context of globalisation has had a "polarizing" impact on the US work force -- it has made the professional class at the top more productive and better paid but has had little effect on the "hands-on" jobs at the bottom of the labour force while hollowing out opportunities and secure jobs in the middle.

Which brings us back to the real source of the chaos.

When mainstream politics fails to deliver, populism inevitably thrives. The financial collapse of 2008 and the austerity regime that followed with impunity explain the fast rise of Podemos in Spain and the landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party.

Then there is nationalism, whose genius lies in its mobilization of emotions, a unifying force that exploits the resentment of economic and demographic upheaval to achieve political goals. On the European right, Marine Le Pen and her National Front in France, as well as other extremist parties across the continent, draw support from anti-immigrant and anti-globalisation sentiments.

In an age of broken politics and financial calamities, it is refreshingly simple to attract passionate voters channelling the nationalist mantra with anti-immigrant nativism. And it is much easier to blame immigrants for stealing jobs than it is to help workers adopt new skills in a fast-changing world.

What the fuming politics of the United States and other advanced countries show is that the current trends are untenable. Another decade or two of trust in neoliberal globalisation to deliver sustainable economics will lead to social breakdown, the triumph of chauvinism, and perhaps further fragmentation.

The French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote that "history can be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all."

Those words were written many decades ago, but they are strikingly valid today. History is accelerating swiftly right before our eyes and it could veer in any direction. If this wave of massive realignment of the political order can be viewed positively, it is as a clear warning that something is decaying at the core of our political system and desperately needs to change.

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