One would be forgiven for thinking western politics is in utter turmoil.
Britain voted to leave the E.U., European countries are seeing radical parties earning more ground, and a gaudy businessman is corroding the core of the Republican Party in America.
Could the current tumult in our politics be the delayed response to globalisation?
In broad terms, globalisation is the process of building stronger connections between different parts of the world. It is the extent to which a nation opens itself to the outside world, and the International Monetary Fund identifies four core features of globalisation: trade, investment, migration, and information exchange.
The arc of history has broadly tended towards a more globalised system: from exploration of the New World, to the establishment of the Silk Road that connected China to the Mediterranean, and the development of truly global empires. However, the acceleration of globalisation increased in the twentieth century, as technological developments in travel and communications greatly reduced the barriers of geographic distance. Instead of purely localised events, the past hundred years have seen world wars, a world wide web, and global warming.
Economic globalisation arguably has very positive impacts from a humanitarian point of view. East Asian countries that have integrated into the world economy have seen a steep decline in poverty, and economic mutual reliance is believed by some to encourage cooperation between nations, instead of antagonism.
However, in the context of western nations in particular, globalisation seems to have produced a divide between winners and losers to the new system.
Winners and losers
The benefits of globalisation are quickly evident to anyone living in a large western city like London, New York, or San Francisco. These urban centres have become global cities, culturally enriched by a diversity that is evident in their cuisine, culture, and demographics. Driving these cities are economic engines that benefit from increased opportunity to trade with China, invest in Africa, or import goods from Latin America.
These businesses are hiring a cadre of internationally minded workers who can enjoy cheaper, and a broader variety of goods. Meanwhile, the middle class urban and suburban populace has adopted an international palate when it comes to tastes and expectations, and thrives off the ability to do business with countries half way around the world.
Globalisation and the removal of international barriers has been particularly advantageous to financial sectors. As a result, cities like London have drawn in tremendous amounts of wealth that has subsequently fostered a range of small businesses around its urban core.
However, the shift away from nineteenth century economies towards primarily service based, modern western economies has not benefited all. In ‘outer England’ and the old industrial bedrock of America, globalisation is almost synonymous with local decline.
The cold reality of a more interconnected and interdependent world for these areas is the closure of the local manufacturing plant, waves of immigrants moving into their towns speaking other languages, and a sensation of fear surrounding international terror. Western manufacturing and industry has suffered through competition with Asian markets, where labour laws are less stringent and production costs far lower.
To make matters worse, these people still feel powerless to control their future when an economic shock half way around the world causes local markets and exchange rates to tumble, and their savings to be at risk. So while towns in West Virginia or Lincolnshire seem removed from the international economy, at least at a glance, their economic futures are still tied up to world markets.
Added to which, some believe there is an ethnic component that further complicates the debate, whereby poorer whites are less certain of their socio-economic position in the new globalised system. There is thus the unfortunate pattern that those most disaffected by globalisation have blamed the impact of migration for their economic woes, and as a result have been characterised as bigots by media, politicians, and strands of popular culture that benefit from a more mixed, open society.
Though subtle, the changes wrought by globalisation have quietly exacerbated the perception of some western nations into bodies of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. In the years to come, 2016 might be remembered as the year when these simmering tensions between the beneficiaries and victims of globalisation boil over.
The end results has been a gulf in our societies. The pro globalisation elements of societies – the international businesses, liberal minded voters, and urban cosmopolitans – may disregard the complaints of their counterparts, deeming them racists and nativists while ignoring the long term deprivation of their local economies. This is not to say that America and Great Britain were not socially divided before the recent changes of international trade: by all means, it is often the pre-existing significant divisions already etched into the socio-geographic contours of these nations that have been exacerbated by recent changes.
Presented with little political help and feeling left out of mainstream popular culture, the recourse of the disaffected has been ‘change bombs’. The logic of the change bomb follows that since the political system is so unresponsive to their needs, a dramatic change is needed to shake the system into action. There is an element of this logic behind both the candidacy of Donald Trump, and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
In Britain, interviews with Leave voters reveal hopes that their exit from the E.U. would revitalise traditional industries, or revert the country to an earlier state. In America, votes for Trump symbolise a protest against the globalist agenda that has accepted economic restructuring and ethnic pluralism.
The next issue: computerisation
Sadly, the current division among western societies may only be a precursor to greater challenges ahead.
The development of computers and advanced technology offers incredible new opportunities and is perhaps one of the most positive trends in recent history. However, as with any great change there are potentially great consequences. In particular, the development of computers and systems opens the door for the computerisation of labour.
Hypothetically, for example, driverless cars in ten, twenty or thirty years may make the need for taxi drivers all but obsolete. Or the growth of commercial drones could massively undercut the jobs in delivery services. For the consumer, this sounds great: cheaper, more efficient services and goods. However, while the consumer thrives, the employees who used to fill those jobs now taken by advanced technology suffer.
Could those taxi drivers and delivery workers retrain and become the engineers for our new computerised labour force? Perhaps, but judging from labour shifts following deindustrialisation in the west there is no certainty in this theory. Instead, the computerisation of labour threatens to further divide nations into haves and have nots: if you have a job and steady income, you will be enhanced as a consumer. For others, the creep of technology threatens to make their jobs redundant and reduce their economic security. If this happens at a large scale without an adjustment to political economy, western societies may face further division.