The rise of a reality show host to the U.S. Presidency set the cat among the pigeons, causing shock and horror to the U.S. establishment. It was not dismay at his policies alone, some of them admittedly alarming, but the mere fact of the cultural phenomenon Donald J. Trump represented. Yet, it might be noted that he had argued for the policies and sentiments he espoused two decades before he was elected. But his election was nevertheless a post-war political watershed.
He was repudiating a broad political consensus, which had earlier united the U.S. political establishment and its elites after the Second World War. Even the radical economic policies of Ronald Reagan, spurring globalisation, greater financialisation and marketisation were within the spectrum of a broad political consensus. It was Donald Trump who has sought to tear it all up and cast the extant consensus and its bearers to the wind.
Similar political and social phenomena are alleged to have overtaken countries as far removed as Hungary, Italy, Turkey, and India and rearing its reputedly ugly head in many countries of Europe and beyond. The reasons for this unfolding reality are complex, but some critical underlying factors seem to inform them all. There is undoubtedly a growing mobilisation of hitherto relatively quiescent voters who appear to be asserting long-harbored sentiments and emotions of discontent and others more contingent and immediate. In emerging market economies like India, there is undoubtedly rising political consciousness that rejects a faltering status quo and also asserts a growing sense of national identity. In the economies of the West, the post-war settlement of a welfare state and continuing well-being of the skilled working class and the middle class have been challenged since the 1970s by globalisation and historic constraints that periodically disrupt capital accumulation and economic growth.
The discontent among vast segments of the population accounts for the increased questioning of an open world economy. It identifies alleged and real unfair trade practices in the international order, the chief manifestation being the mercantilist policies of China that foregrounds national political goals over economic welfare through predictable consumption patterns as incomes grow; it’s all about the enforced national savings ratio. At the same time, some of the hallowed certainties of the traditional international theory that date back to David Ricardo, Hecksher-Ohlin, and Stolper-Samuelson fail to account for economic activities dominated by oligopolies and quasi-monopolies. And subsequent economic analysis highlights a more ambiguous situation that justifies a policy response of greater complexity rather than unquestioning economic openness.
Of course, the politically-motivated reaction to uncertainty and negative outcomes for important sections of the national polity may only worsen the situation since the solutions that could address the anomalies are not readily apparent. The resentment has inevitably spilled over into racially-charged anger against immigrant populations perceived as competitors in the job market and responsible for impacting wage levels negatively. This sentiment is the rationale for Britain’s Brexit vote and the Trump’s Great Wall of China to interdict migration through Mexico.
A broader movement of socio-political and technological change points to transformative historic forces that will now dominate future outcomes across the global regardless of where they first originated. The comforts of parochial familiarity have been abolished and the interweaving of the fates of nations is now an inescapable reality. The post-war socio-political consensus had produced a cultural regime in the media and entertainment dominated by an elite that emerged from identikit universities. For them, culture was, at some important level, a consumption good that people of similar background and tastes shared. This was, as it also had to be, informed by an ethical vision in order to aspire to durability that was, at the bottom, Christian, as the popular historian Tom Holland recently argued. This is the post-war Liberal-Left order which wanted to kiss all the evils of life goodbye through sustained welfare spending and soothing lullabies celebrating difference, however incongruous the ensuing diversity. When a militant Islam began to test this unlikely reverie to death, it manfully sought to brush everything under the carpet, by an unspoken resort to the relativism of Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida. But it chafed under the weight of its own insuperable contradictions as the political revolt across Europe is illustrating.
The unstoppable surge of the Internet has in fact brought about the democratisation of discourse that has swept over the dominant elite discourse like a veritable tsunami. Countless millions, earlier sitting at home excluded and enraged and only able to rant to hapless grandmothers and retired uncles in their immediate vicinity, were suddenly empowered. They now bestride the airwaves confidently, wielding proverbial Trishuls triumphantly like intercontinental ballistic missiles and terrorise the status quo. The sophisticated custodians of culture, good taste, manners, dress sense and of course timeless truths suddenly found their elegant redoubts being splashed from the gutter by those they hitherto had not deigned to notice, leave alone engage with.
They found their elegant undergarments being pulled down by the unwashed millions every time they committed a faux pas to purvey a self-serving deception, egregious untruths in other words. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, the barbarians had arrived and they didn’t give two hoots about cute French metaphors or highfaluting philosophical verities. And the custodians of culture and truth were evidently permanently disempowered and had nowhere to hide their long-held pretentious cosmopolitan certainties.
But the Internet democracy, more portentous than the ballot box in many respects, also introduced something powerfully destabilising, which was to increasingly repudiate all truth-claims, not just self-serving ones. The era of expertise of the masses had arrived and everyone had acquired proficiency on all conceivable subjects. And from the stability of self-serving expertise that had long empowered the few a growing universal disorder has become the emergent norm. Any opinion expressed on any subject, in which genuine knowledge and expertise may exist, is liable to be instantly assassinated by a well-aimed Tweet and a three-line quote from an otherwise unread six-hundred-page text, which sought to qualify the sentences used to commit the Internet assault. The meek insinuation of doubt and hesitancy against assertions of absolute and incontestable Internet conviction as existential truth, which even the hapless grandmother and retired uncle used to resist, is now unacceptable. This is the downside of popular democracy, forever haunted by the threat of descent into mobocracy.
The travails of the world economy are unlikely to end anytime soon with every likelihood of the most severe setback to the world economy since the 1930s. How the political class will contend with attendant popular discontent and rage is a moot and vital question. The angry retreat into national fortresses will prove forbiddingly difficult and unconscionably costly, but widespread socio-economic distress will require dramatic policy responses. Inequality has grown enormously since the financialisation of economies that gathered momentum in the 1970s. Traditional sources of work and income are less able to sustain populations in the richer countries as economic activity has moved to lower-cost locations.
The multi-dimensional levels of technological change afoot do not yet indicate how they will impact daily life in different parts of the world. During the transition to an uncertain destination with unpredictable outcomes and consequences, politics is likely to be volatile and dangerous. Economist Angus Deaton points to the unprecedented rate of suicides among underprivileged U.S. whites and they may find someone more radical than Donald Trump to represent them. In the meantime, the Internet army marches on unstoppably. It may have broken the improbable antecedent socio-cultural mystique but it threatens to replace it with something sinister that does not respect truth and decency and only fuels mob sentiment against what it cannot comprehend.
The author has taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science.