Harari- Globalism v Nationalism- the new political divide?
Israeli Historian Yuval Harari says people make sense of the world, including politics, through stories.
He says that for the last 20-40 years the most prevalent story in the West has been that economic globalisation and political liberalisation would lead to Nirvana.
From at least around 2016, says Harari, large numbers of people in Western democracies stopped believing that globalisation and political liberalism would deliver for them.
So there is widespread discontent in Western democracies.
Harari says that the old 20th century political divide between right and left has been displaced with a new fundamental divide between globalists and nationalists.
Globalists and nationalists exist in political parties of both Right and Left. The lack of belief in any future vision or narrative means people look to the past- Trump’s narrative is to make America great AGAIN. Brexiteers seek to take Britain back to a time BEFORE it was a member of the EU.
But Harari says this kind of nostalgic laced nationalism cannot solve at least two major global problems- climate change and technological disruption. These are only amenable to global solutions.
It is obvious that no single state can successfully tackle climate change on its own. This is why there is a high correlation between nationalism and climate change denial. If your dominant ideology cannot lead to the solving of a problem, then the most convenient thing to do is to deny the problem exists, or to pretend that the situation is not an emergency.
On the other hand, the problem of technological disruption barely rates a mention in the political agenda.
Donald Trump does not try and scare anybody by saying their job might be taken by a robot. But Harari says that over the next 10-20 years artificial intelligence will likely push 100 of millions of people out of jobs. In the US robots and algorithms will take more jobs than China or Mexico.
As for computers, the world is now so complex, with so much data, that the instances in which the human brain alone can process all the relevant information is reducing. Only algorithms can. So decision making will continue to pass from human beings to algorithms. Already if you apply for a bank loan, at least the initial decision is likely taken by a machine.
Right wing and left wing versions of national sovereignty
Anti-globalists, who wish to reassert the economic authority of the nation-state, exist on both the Left and Right of politics.
There is little if any difference of opinion between right and left anti-globalists on the causes of deindustrialisation and disenchantment in the West.
Both agree that economic industrial and financial elites, supported by social democrats as well as centre right governments, have been complicit in the deindustrialisation of the West through the abandonment of the major instruments for national state intervention in the economy: tariffs and other trade barriers, capital controls, currency and exchange rate manipulation, and fiscal and central bank policies. Left criticism also includes privatisation and deregulation. Though globalisation has been portrayed as inevitable, the process has actually involved policy changes at the level of the nation state.
Former Trump adviser, and Breitbart editor, Steve Bannon is perhaps the most articulate of the right wing economic nationalists. Bannon says Western elites, both financial elites and big corporations supported China’s growth as an industrial power attracted by bigger profits to be made from its cheap labor and access to its market. In this, the US Marxist economist, Richard Wolff agrees.
Bannon says that between 1946 and 2000 the average economic growth rate in the USA was 3.5% per annum. From 2001 and China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, and gaining of most favoured nation status, the average growth rate in the US declined to 1.9% per annum. Bannon concedes there is more than one factor involved. But the principal one he says, was China. De-industrialisation hit hardest in the Upper Mid West ‘rust belt” of the USA- precisely where Trump made critical gains in the election. “Instead of access to a billion Chinese consumers, the United States lost more than 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.” says Bannon.
But if Bannon and Wolff agree on the fundamental causes of China’s industrial rise and US industrial decline they part company in their description of it.
Bannon describes the shift as an “economic war” waged by an expansionist China on the US and other industrialised countries over the last 30 years. At the centre of this war are “forced technology transfers; intellectual property theft; cyber intrusions into business networks; currency manipulation; high tariff and non-tariff barriers; and unfair subsidies to state-owned enterprises”.
Wolff, on the other hand, sees the shift of manufacturing from the US to China as just a natural manifestation of capitalism’s imperative to maximise profit and seek new markets. The shift to China was essentially the result of a deal done by Deng Xioping and US corporations in the 1980’s. Deng decided to allow US companies to enter China both through private enterprise and joint ventures. He offered cheap labour and access to Chinese markets. In exchange China would receive access to technology and assistance in accessing the US market. Walmart was a big part of this access giving Chinese based business an instant distribution network.
Left critics of globalisation
William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi are left wing critics of globalism. They say that neoliberalism’s war against the power of the nation state has now resulted in a backlash whereby national sovereignty is becoming the “master-frame” of contemporary politics. They say that neoliberalism’s global economic project has aimed to insulate its policies from democratic challenge.
They give the example of European treaties that embed neoliberalism into the fabric of the European Union, effectively outlawing Keynesian polices that were commonplace in previous decades. These treaties prevent currency devaluation, demand-management policies, or the strategic use of public procurement. They they place tight curbs on more generous welfare provisions and the creation of employment via public spending.
The treaties make it impossible for the basic economic policies of the EU to be democratically amended by citizens. The only thing individual states can do is repudiate the whole structure. Hence…Brexit.
The election of the left wing SYRIZA party in Greece, initially on an anti- austerity program, demonstrated the democratic deficit. The president of the European Commission himself, Jean-Claude Juncker, said at the beginning of SYRIZA’s mandate in Greece, ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’.
As societies have become increasingly divided between well-educated, highly mobile, highly skilled, socially progressive cosmopolitan urbanites, and lower skilled and less educated peripherals who rarely work abroad and face competition from immigrants, Mitchell and Fazi say that the mainstream Left has tended to consistently side with the former. They consider that the split between the working class and the intellectual-cultural Left is one of the main reasons behind the right-wing revolt currently engulfing the West. They say that if the alternative to the status quo offered to electorates is one between “reactionary nationalism” and “progressive globalism”—then the Left has already lost the battle.
Mitchell and Fazi say that the Left needs a progressive economic program that rejects the notion that governments are powerless to implement egalitarian economic policies in the face of globalisation. The two main policies they advocate are the adoption of modern monetary theory and a the re-nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, or, at least of the financial sector. Neither of those measures appear imminent or likely.
But they also say that a socioeconomic program is not enough to win over the hearts and minds of the people. They say the Left needs a story reflecting that most people’s sense of citizenship, collective identity, and common good is intrinsically and intimately tied to nationhood. The Right today is winning because it is capable of linking narratives of collective identity with national economic sovereignty. Progressives must provide “equally powerful narratives and myths, which recognise the human need for belonging and connectedness”.
There might be some subtle distinction between economic nationalism and left inspired “powerful narratives and myths” around national sovereignty. But in the end both are a form of identity politics because both rely upon strong identification of the citizen with both nationhood and the state. So how would right wing and left wing narratives around national sovereignty differ?
Most identities are reinforced not only by the group with which people identify but also by the identification of those who are outside the preferred group. This is so for both a chosen identity such as religion or a more innate identity such as gender (although some now argue gender is a choice).
Thus, if one identifies as Christian, one also identifies oneself, either explicitly or implicitly, as “not a muslim”. If one defines oneself, in Marxist terms, as working class, then one is not part of the bourgeoisie. But is also true that identities do not provide a direct line to values which is the key ingredient to politics. For example, two women may identify strongly as women. But one may be a radical feminist and the other a nun. Similarly, communists, fascists and centre right or left supporters are all capable of identifying with nationhood.
The identification of an enemy, or oppositional force to one’s identity, heavily reinforces the importance of that identity. The more one clearly defines an enemy to one’s own identity, the more one can overlook the possibility of lack of uniformity of values within one’s own group. The most important unifying factor becomes that you are not part of the enemy.
Thus, right wing nationalists typically do more than harmlessly love their country. Their nationalist identity needs to identify an enemy. And preferably more than one. Both right wing and left wing narratives around sovereignty can call for return of national economic levers to the nation state. But it is in the identification of the enemy where right and left wing narratives about economic nationalism or national sovereignty seem bound to part company.
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign came laced with enemies- illegal migrants, muslims from designated countries, invaders from across the land border, so-called allies that had failed to pull their weight and, of course, the number one enemy- the “economic rapist”– China.
But a left wing narrative around national sovereignty cannot come laced with these enemies and still be left wing.
Scott Morrison, for the time being anyway, seems to have no need or inclination to identify as many enemies as Donald Trump has. But he already shows signs of hopping onto the economic nationalist bandwagon having identified the United Nations as the multilateral institution responsible for pursuing “negative globalism”. This because it wants Australia to increase its ambition on carbon emissions reduction.
So how might a progressive narrative around national sovereignty differ from the right wing economic nationalist narrative?
Mitchell and Fazi call upon the Left to “abandon its obsession with identity politics” and follow this almost immediately by stating that this abandonment should not be in “contradiction with the struggle against racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression and discrimination”. They say that the narrative around national sovereignty should “aim to reconstruct and redefine the national state as a place where citizens can seek refuge “in democratic protection, popular rule, local autonomy, collective goods, and egalitarian traditions” rather than in a culturally and ethnically homogenized society.”
But this is not a narrative. It is a vague description of the need for a narrative. It names no enemy. And this means it is probably less likely to be able to compete effectively with right wing economic nationalism.
The obvious enemy for the left to include in its narrative is the economic elite of the domestic society and the international economic elites. Interestingly, this is the same elite as are identified in Bannon’s view of economic nationalism. The right does not shrink from identifying an elitist enemy or listing its sins. But the Labor party will now tip toe around even mild criticism of any economic elite. It is to abandon its stupid and vague term “the big end of town”. This term never clearly identified who this group was, or anything that it did wrong, anyway. It never explained why it is not good for the economy or for democracy that the top 1% of Australians own 23% of the wealth and more wealth than the bottom 70% of Australians combined.
The term is to be dropped, not because it is dumb, but on the basis that it is divisive, anti-business and contrary to the aspirations of working Australians. If large numbers working Australians actually think that they might want day be part of the 1% maybe the Labor Party should advise them otherwise. Or is that anti-aspirational?
We seem a way from seeing a convincing left wing narrative on national economic sovereignty that will compete effectively with right wing economic nationalist rhetoric. And, in any case the Left, including the Centre- Left, remains deeply divided between nationalists and globalists.