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Niall Ferguson says a backlash against a globalised world is seeing populists gain ground, but the phenomenon is not without precedence and there may be hope yet
They should have cancelled United Nations week in New York as soon as the news broke that Angelina was divorcing Brad. Did any family more perfectly embody the hopes of that nebulous but uplifting entity, the international community, than theirs?
Angelina Jolie: goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Brad Pitt: founder of Not On Our Watch, which seeks to “bring global attention to forgotten international crises”. There is a Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which has disbursed tens of millions of dollars to “numerous humanitarian causes around the world”. Even the Jolie-Pitt kids are a microcosm of the UN: between them, they have adopted a Cambodian boy, an Ethiopian girl and a Vietnamese boy. Their three biological children were born overseas, in Namibia and Nice.
I pass over the reasons for this latest divorce, her third and his second. To me, the end of Brangelina is the stuff of history, not gossip. I had not fully appreciated until this week that the era of globalisation was coming to an end. The Jolie-Pitt split caused the scales to fall from my eyes.
The word “global” appeared 18 times in US President Barack Obama’s tiresomely sanctimonious farewell address to the UN General Assembly. This is what happens to speech-writers after nearly eight years of bromide production. What begins as aspirant internationalism ends as “globaloney”.
The disconnect between the president’s sermon and the real world could scarcely have been more stark. Yet more terrorist attacks – this time in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota – by yet more Muslim immigrants. Yet another cyberattack – this time affecting 500 million Yahoo accounts – by yet another “state-sponsored hacker”.
Globalisation seems finally to have gone haywire before our very eyes. According to The New York Times, “improperly released goldfish have spawned, swollen to the size of footballs, migrated, interbred with other species and become an ecological nightmare in places ranging from Australia to Nevada.” Symbolically, the Jolie-Pitt tipping point appears to have been a blazing family row on a plane flying over Minnesota. Picture knife-wielding jihadis and supersized goldfish down below for the nightmare to be complete.
The conventional wisdom these days is that the rising probability of a Trump presidency is the death knell for globalisation. But, at this rate, the liberal global order – based as it has been on the ever freer movement of labour, goods and capital – will be lying in fragments long before he delivers his inaugural address on January 20.
If Hillary Clinton tries to defend globalisation, she will lose. All the talking points in the world will not persuade a rising proportion of voters that the stagnation of their incomes, the increase in inequality – and everything else they don’t like about their lives – are not direct consequences of globaloney.
When all is said and done, this rage against the global is why Trump could win this election. It is why Brexit happened. It is why populists are gaining ground wherever free elections are held. The trouble is that populism is a toxic brew as well as an intoxicating one. Populists nearly always make life miserable for whichever minorities they choose to scapegoat, but they seldom make life better for the people whose ire they whip up on the campaign trail.
Restricting immigration, imposing tariffs on Chinese goods, penalising firms for investing abroad: such measures, if adopted by the US government in 2017, would be almost certain to reduce, not increase, growth, jobs and incomes. That has certainly been the Latin American experience – and few regions of the world have rolled the populist dice more often.
What else can we learn from previous backlashes against globalisation? Many people draw comparisons between our own time and the 1930s, but that seems to me the wrong analogy. Better to look back further, to the populist wave of the late 19th century. After 1873, as happened after 2008, the world economy went from a financial crisis into a protracted period of deflation. Economic activity was much less impaired than in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the sustained decline in prices inflicted considerable pain, especially on indebted farmers, who complained (in reference to the then prevailing gold standard) that they were being “crucified on a cross of gold”.
Populism took myriad forms in the 1870s and 1880s. Then, as now, the principal targets of the demagogues were immigration, free trade and high finance. In the US, laws were passed to prevent the Chinese from immigrating. In Bismarck’s Germany and the French Third Republic, populism was anti-semitic while, in late Victorian Britain, it was anti-Irish. On both sides of the Atlantic, populists did achieve significant reductions in globalisation in this period: not only immigration restrictions, but also higher tariffs. Yet, they did not form many national governments, and they did not overthrow any constitutions.
We would do well to remember that the first world war broke out during the progressive not the populist era. Populists are not fascists
Nor were populists much interested in starting wars; if anything, they leaned towards isolationism and viewed imperialism as just another big business racket. In most countries, the populist high tide was in the 1880s. What came next – in many ways as a reaction to populism, but also as an alternative set of policy solutions to the same public grievances – was progressivism in the US and socialism in Europe. Perhaps something similar will also happen in our time. Perhaps that is something to look forward to. Nevertheless, we would do well to remember that the first world war broke out during the progressive not the populist era.
Populists are not fascists. They prefer trade wars to actual wars; border walls to military fortifications. The maladies they seek to cure are not imaginary: uncontrolled migration, widening inequality, free trade with unfree countries and political cronyism are all things that voters have good reasons to dislike. The problem with populism is that its remedies are, in practice, counterproductive.
What we most have to fear – as was true of Brexit – is not therefore Armageddon, but something more prosaic: an attempt to reverse certain aspects of globalisation, followed by disappointment when the snake oil does not really cure the patient’s ills, followed by the emergence of new remedies. The populists may have their day then. But they will end up yielding power to progressive types who will be more congenial to educated elites, but potentially just as dangerous.
Brangelina is dead. Still, something tells me that the Jolie-Pitt view of the world will make a comeback – after Donald Trump has plumbed populism’s jolly pits.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University