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What's Next After Globalization
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The world is at a turning point similar to the fall of communism. Then, many focused on the collapse itself, and failed to see that a bigger trend, globalization, was about to take hold. The benefits of globalization–through the freer flow of money, people, ideas, and trade–have been many. But rather than a world that is flat, what has emerged is one of jagged peaks and rough, deep valleys characterized by wealth inequality, indebtedness, political recession, and imbalances across the world’s economies.
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Brexit, Trump, Noise, and Disruption
THAT OUR WORLD IS CHANGING AT A TECTONIC LEVEL IS CLOSE TO UNDENIABLE, yet we often do not seem able to see beyond headline-grabbing events of recent years—the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and new governments in Mexico and Italy, to name a few. These events simply represent the smashing of the old order; they are the detonators, the wrecking balls of the system that has grown up since the fall of communism.
The Levelling is about how the center of gravity in our world, societies, and economies is changing, the confusion those changes create, and the ideas that will help bring new structure to what is a disordered world. At the time of writing, the debate in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and Brazil is focused on uncertainty and the breakdown in well-established ways of doing things. Many people feel that their countries have strayed off the path to progress, and many more feel that the road ahead is an uncertain one.
My aim is to provide the frameworks and ideas that can help breathe new life into politics, policy making, and economic growth. They are not magic bullets but simply ways of focusing attention on fundamentally important issues, such as what makes a stable society and how to think through important political issues of the twenty-first century, including the role of intangible infrastructure in generating economic growth, the demise of international institutions, the rise to power of central banks, and the legal aspects of genetic engineering. The world we live in today, be the reader in Shanghai or Santiago or Stockholm, is very different from that of any other point in history. Forms of human interaction like social media didn’t exist before. In economics, central banks have never before exerted so much influence on the world economy. In markets, the United States used to be the locus and architect of stability across emerging markets, either through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the US Treasury Department; now it is the provocateur of volatility. This time, as they say, is different.
There is also a sense that the cycles of the rise and fall of nations are repeating themselves and that, as over the past four hundred years, we are again grappling with basic issues such as the quality of public life, equality, and the workings of democracy. As a result, history can help prod today’s debate in the right direction. It also provides ammunition for many scaremongers, and warnings—with some reason—that the world will soon revisit the bleak 1930s are now commonplace.
There is plenty in our history books to both inform and mislead us as to what might happen next to our societies. However, one period I am drawn to is the middle of the seventeenth century and its momentous events. The end of the Thirty Years’ War through the Peace of Westphalia gave rise to the concept of nation-states as we know them. It was also a moment when laws and institutions were formed and began to be respected.
In England and, later, the United States and France, the first stirrings of democracy arose, along with the notion of popular rule. My own country, Ireland, is bounded by these three Atlantic powers, and much of its history has been determined by its relationship with them. I have spent my life moving between Ireland, England, America, France, and Switzerland and am naturally biased toward this corner of the world and its heritage. One thread that runs through all four Atlantic-facing countries is the idea of the republic. In simple, modern terms, a republic is a state that is run by its people, with equality among them. I would add strong institutions and laws to this mix.
The echo of this idea still courses powerfully through the twenty-first century. In France, the currency of the “republic” is still strong and prominent. In America, the institutions and checks and balances created by the Founding Fathers are still working and relevant. One of those Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, will make a guest appearance later in this book.
The American and French Revolutions represent the explosion into life of democracy and what we understand as the republic, but their seeds were sown a century earlier, in the mid-seventeenth century. A hidden gem in English history—which gives its name to this book—is a good basis for the repair of politics, economics, and finance today. Later in the book, we will discuss this gem in full, and at the risk of perhaps sounding a bit like the writer Dan Brown, I will take you on a tour of old churches, missing manuscripts, and historical intrigues.
To give a quick glimpse, the inspiration for this book came from running alongside the River Thames, frequently passing St. Mary’s Church in Putney. Having heard of the Putney Debates, which took place there in 1647, I eventually stopped to explore the church and, by extension, the Putney Debates. The debates have recently been acknowledged as one of the most important moments in English history and as the crucible of modern constitutional democracy. More than a year earlier, King Charles I had lost the English Civil War—a conflict fought over how England would be governed—to forces led by Oliver Cromwell. The debates took place between the officers and the rank and file of Cromwell’s New Model Army to discuss the future constitution of England following the imprisonment of Charles.
The largest group involved in those debates, the Levellers, crafted arguments for equality and constitutional democracy, arguments that they framed as the “Agreements of the People.” Those agreements resonate today as the first popular, written expressions of constitutional democracy. With democracy now under attack, it is to the Levellers we must turn for inspiration.
As political ruptures occurred across Europe during and after the eurozone crisis and as the 2016 US presidential campaign intensified, the Putney Debates and the Levellers who inspired them kept coming to my mind. One of the first texts on the Levellers I read was The World Turned Upside Down, by the historian and former master of Balliol College Christopher Hill. In it Hill tracks the emergence of radical political groups in mid-seventeenth-century England as they played a formative role in the emergence of democracy as we now know it. It is hard not to draw comparisons between the Levellers’ demands and the strong desire by many people in many countries today for more satisfying political choices and more balanced economic circumstances.
The Levellers’ story and the agreements they crafted deserve to be dusted off and reexamined. Their aims, their sentiments, and the forces that propelled them are relevant to the world in which we live and provide an apt starting point for processing and ordering the many changes percolating through the international political-economic order today. Their achievement was to set out a contract between the people and those who represented and governed them. Today there is little sense that such a contract is in place.
In fact, today the contract people thought they had with politicians, governments, institutions, and potentially each other is disintegrating. If anything, the order of the last thirty years is crumbling. Across politics, economics, finance, and geopolitics, the world has been and is increasingly dogged by a series of strange events, puzzles, and rising tensions. In economics, for instance, we have growth with low productivity, high profit margins but tepid wage growth in the United States, and record indebtedness at the same time as odd, multicentury lows in interest rates in countries like France and Spain. Wealth creation and wealth inequality are both at all-time highs, though many business leaders and politicians don’t seem to mind this contradiction. These phenomena are rare historically and have tended to be followed by social, political, and economic crises. Predictably, I can cite the late 1920s as an example.
Additionally, central banks, now more powerful than governments, own enormous pools of assets, which they bought in an effort to keep the side effects of the global financial crisis at bay. As they unwind these holdings, this will make financial markets more jumpy and fragile economies more vulnerable.
In politics, there is Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the emergence in Europe of new, mostly right-wing political parties that are starting to disrupt traditional parties and politics. The rise of radical politics is spreading to emerging nations, notably Brazil. Voter volatility, apathy toward established political parties, and distrust in politics have risen to levels not seen since the Second World War. Gravely, democracy as a political choice looks as if it has peaked. More countries are now veering toward rule by strongmen, or to be more polite, toward “managed democracy.” Other countries no longer see democracy as an indispensable part of the road map of progress and development.
In geopolitics, the rise and fall of nations is playing out at a seemingly accelerated speed. The election of Emmanuel Macron now gives France a leader with the ideas and energy to lead Europe, at a time when Angela Merkel’s domination of European politics draws to a close. Internationally, the United States is no longer seen as a leader, and some places see it as an aggressor. Syria has used chemical weapons, there are calls for Germany to have nuclear weapons,1 North Korea has fired missiles over Japan as part of its “path to disarmament,” and the internet has entered the arsenal of warfare.
If Crisis or War Comes
Smaller countries are not immune to this upheaval and are perhaps emblematic of the new fears and geopolitical threats that nations face today. For example, in May 2018, Swedes were issued a booklet entitled If Crisis or War Comes.2 They have not had such an alarming communication since 1961, when the fear of a nuclear war was very real.3 The aim of the booklet is to teach Swedes how to respond in the event of total war (cyber and propaganda attacks as well as military conflict), terrorist attacks, and extreme climate change. Sweden, alert to risks from Russia, has increased military spending, introduced conscription, and begun holding full-scale military exercises.
Beyond Europe, one of the world’s other megatrends is the Chinese Dream.4 China’s quest is to regain the level of economic and geopolitical power it enjoyed up to three centuries ago and “make China great again.” However, it is likely to face a reality check over the next five years as its economy slows, its citizens begin to desire more social and political self-expression, and America’s elite seeks to check China’s geopolitical progress. There was a time when emerging markets like China would sit quietly while Western nations and institutions told them what to do, but in the post-global-financial-crisis world, the West is no longer in a position to do so.
The sense of topsy turvy is not restricted to economics and international relations. The structure of our everyday lives is more volatile than ever before. The way we use our time and socialize has been utterly changed by social media. Obesity is now a significant health issue for nearly one in three Americans. More broadly, in a number of developed countries, the level of what the United Nations calls human development (e.g., life expectancy and education) is stalling and in some cases reversing. To cap it all, sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000.
Though my intention is not to be pessimistic or to scaremonger, there is plenty of scope to heap more misery on the outlook for the future. What is astonishing is that so many of these trends are ignored. To brush them off ignores some very deep undercurrents—such as lack of political accountability, inequality, rapid social change that fuels a profound dissatisfaction with the political class, the diverging fortunes of large corporate actors and households, and the slowing of globalization*—and barely recognizes the concerns and issues that everyday people now grapple with and express through increasingly contorted political choices.
As at other turning points in history, many policy makers act as if a continuation of the glorious and happy past is the only way forward. A large number of politicians, academics, policy makers, business consultants, and writers still believe that globalization as we have experienced it over the past decade or so will persist in more or less the same fashion, or better.
For instance, recent work from the McKinsey Global Institute points to soaring digital globalization and stable financial globalization, but in my view, finance and technology will soon run into the reality of a more fractured, multipolar world. For example, China increasingly controls its internet space, partitioning it off from the global internet.
Many politicians and commentators still dismiss voter behavior as populism while failing to recognize that ordinary people feel increasingly confused and uncomfortable about the world they live in. Their consensus attitude might be summed up by a quotation attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Already, the example of the Levellers looks apt—the key social division in their day was that between the elite (the Grandees) and the ordinary people (the Levellers), which chimes with political debate today.
The same complacent mind-set sees financial markets thriving despite many structural economic risks. It also presumes that the liberal democratic order will continue to act as a beacon to emerging nations. It is in the interest of many politicians and commentators to believe that nothing will change.
This book sets out a different view, one of the world entering a new era, a fundamental transition phase. On almost every vector, the world is turning away from globalization and toward a multipolar order. This process is undercut by many risks—debt is too high, humans are less productive, trade and military tensions are rising, to name a few.
The exciting and challenging element of the new era is that it is one where new political templates and parties are either in the process of being created or will need to be created, a world in which a new framework for organic economic growth will need to be discovered, and a world where many artificial stimulants to growth—such as indebtedness and central-bank asset purchases—will need to be pared back. In this emerging multipolar world, many of the international institutions of the twentieth century will become redundant as new formations of nations and new institutional arrangements spring up.
In this “levelling,” Brexit and Trump are the first catalysts. More signs will come, and we will be less and less able to ignore them. We are at a turning point similar to that of the late 1980s, when many people focused on the fall of communism itself and few saw that a bigger trend, globalization, was about to take hold. In today’s world, what initially appear as isolated events are beginning to form a pattern breaking down what we might call the old order.
An Interconnected World
It is important to understand how interlocked and connected the spheres of economics, politics, finance, and geopolitics shaping the changing world are today. The economic crises of the past ten years demonstrate that the world is not siloed and that actors in one area (e.g., politics) do not have the luxury of isolating themselves from the impact of other fields (such as finance).
This interlocking and connection happens in many fascinating ways. Technology is a good example. For instance, it complicates diplomacy through the rise of cyberwarfare and what could be called diplomacy by tweet, and it accelerates economic change and changes the way central banks look at inflation (what could be called the Amazon effect of apparently driving retail prices lower). Then, the sheer size of technology companies like Facebook and the pervasiveness of technology in society is one of the new challenges to law and philosophy (biotechnology is another). In financial markets, new data and algorithmic trading are changing the ways in which markets operate.
The Levelling will fully illustrate and synthesize the transition going on in world politics, economics, finance, and international relations. It will also show that as globalization falters and gives way to a more multipolar form of world order, the relative power between countries and regions will level out, and then new constellations will emerge.
At this juncture, some readers might comment, This is all very interesting, but what has it got to do with me? Most people can be forgiven for thinking that terms like “globalization,” “quantitative easing,” “trade protectionism,” and “international diplomacy” have little to do with their everyday lives. In fact the opposite is true. Our mortgages and pensions, the stresses on our working environments, what we are pushed and pulled to view on the internet, the prices and quality of the goods and services we consume—all are driven by these factors. The trouble is that they are presented and discussed in technical and abstract ways, partly, I suspect, to hide their true impact.
This also opens up the possibility for the misuse and abuse of these terms. Though a politician might fail to win many votes with a call for “more globalization,” he or she might do better with a demand for “China to give us back our jobs.” The distance between the technical aspects of some of the tectonic changes in our world and their impact on our lives is large. Climate change is an example. We feel it happening, but most of us do not understand the complex science behind it. That gap also helps explain why some people apparently tire of experts who don’t speak the language of everyday people. Equally, the tenor of public debate and of policy discussions on social media is at times appalling and, for many people, uninspiring and demoralizing. The divide between expert and layman is also a challenge for political leaders, who often struggle to bridge it. What we really need to ask is, Are the forces acting on our societies and economies good or bad? And what can constructively be done about them?
In this sense, the goal of this book is to jump to the next stage in the debate and to set out some ideas and frameworks that will help tease out how public life will evolve in the next fifteen years, what kind of society people in developed and developing countries really want, and how their wishes can be better represented by their elected leaders.
One of the most prominently discussed policy fault lines is inequality, together with a broader sense of a world divided between insiders and outsiders. The extent of income inequality and its social and economic implications are increasingly well understood, but wealth inequality is perhaps a more serious issue. Wealth inequality means that many people are cut off from the positive effects of rising property and asset prices, in a way that makes their social standing and the opportunities they enjoy (or not) permanent. Many other markers of the way we live now are also stretched. For example, sugar, artificial foodstuffs, and drugs have permeated our diets and have changed our behavior and health to such an extent that they have provoked a global crisis of obesity (eight of the twenty countries with the fastest-rising obesity rates are in Africa) and declining health.5 Furthermore, aging and demographics will have complex effects on growth and investment. Older populations consume less and work less, demonstrably lowering the rate of economic growth and placing a burden on younger generations. “Gray” generations also invest more conservatively.
The World Turned Upside Down
There are other elements of “the world turned upside down.” The West appears to be in decline and the rise of liberal democracy is slowing. The component parts of globalization—the flow of ideas, people, and money—are retreating, and the United States is now erecting barriers to trade with Europe and Asia. At a more sinister level, technology—which was once regarded as an outright positive—is breeding more-sinister threats in cyberspace and in new forms of warfare, such as cluster drones.
Many of the extremes now evident across technology, economics, and politics mark the end of a period in history, or even bookend a period in history. The last thirty years have been kind in terms of growth and progress (advances in technology and human development are just two areas of development). The average level of economic growth has been much higher than the historical norm, poverty has been eradicated in many parts of the emerging world, and there have been no major wars. The next thirty years, however, will not be so kind and easy. There is great complacency about this, and many politicians, consumers, and investors seem to assume or internalize the prosperity of the last thirty years and expect it to be reproduced.
There is plenty more. Imagine if political dislocation, extremism, and volatility become the norm. If racism becomes more overt and more accepted. If productivity plunges because of triple crises in obesity, poor education, and drug dependency. If wealth inequality grows and if, for many, unfunded pensions turn retirement into purgatory. If protectionism rises, not only in the realm of trade but also in the sense that the flow of ideas and internet access between countries becomes more bounded. If, in the emerging countries, governments become more authoritarian as growth slows, more dismissive of the West, and more dangerously innovative in the areas of internet censorship, military adventurism, and genetic engineering. This kind of nasty end to globalization has happened before, in 1913. It was followed by world war, depression, financial crashes, and political extremism. Although the probability of disasters of this magnitude is still low, very few consumers, investors, or politicians are attuned to the long-term implications of the changes facing the world.
Four Challenges Ahead
I would like to strike a different, more constructive note. There are at least four problems that need solutions if we are to avoid the darker scenarios that threaten the world we live in. Each represents a way of levelling out the many imbalances that face our world, and they provide new ideas that form the basis for future political-economic structures.
The first problem relates to political discontent, expressed initially through Brexit and then in the US presidential election of 2016. It is now cropping up in Europe in the form, for example, of the rise of the right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany (not to forget the rise of Aufstehen on the left); the Catalan independence movement; high political turnover in Australia (where the style of politics is especially brutal and which has now had six prime ministers in ten years); battles against corruption in African countries, including Kenya and South Africa; and the general rise in aspirations toward more political openness in emerging markets.
There is a broader crisis of democracy in that voter turnout is dropping, voters are more fickle, and elections seem to be less predictable. The rise of social media as a political tool and the accompanying voter polarization are among the underlying currents here, as is the reality that lower economic growth and the aftermath of the global financial crisis have had a delayed, disruptive impact on politics. Much of this is now well documented. What is less obvious is how positive, grassroots-based solutions can be found to overcome discontent and produce a better form of politics.
This is where the Levellers come in. They were a key part of the Putney Debates, held in order to discuss what a new, modern British constitution might look like. Remarkably, ordinary men (and notably in some cases, women) were allowed the chance to express their views on what a new, less unequal political system might look like, which makes the debates one of the most important episodes in the history and development of democracy.
The Agreement of the People
The Levellers will strike a chord with many people who are disenchanted with politics and world affairs. For one thing, they were ordinary people, soldiers and tradespeople, men and, remarkably for the period, women. They were angry at a world where Parliament had lost touch with the people, where the law was applied differently to the rich (“Grandees”) and the poor, and where there was little sense of fairness in social and economic affairs. Unlike in much of the political debate on social media today, the aim of the Levellers was a tangible, constructive solution to a political problem. Their methods would also be recognized today. They canvassed opinions across society and used pamphleteering in the same way we use social media today.
Their great contribution was the Agreements of the People. The agreements (three of them evolving from 1647 to 1649) set out the remedies proposed by the Levellers to the problem of what we might call political-democratic recession.6 The agreements are recognized as the first popular attempt to craft democratic constitutions. The agreements called for elected officials to be more responsive and responsible to those who elected them, the simplification of the law in plain English, an end to onerous indebtedness procedures, suffrage for most males, religious freedom, and political and electoral reform. They demanded an end to corruption in politics and within the judiciary.
The Levellers wanted a political system that fostered responsibility to the people on the part of their leaders, a system where these leaders or representatives were accountable, and a political-legal environment where there was no uneven distribution of outcomes. Imagine then, if, using the Levellers as an example, an “Agreement of the People, Twenty-First Century” were to be struck across countries through social media. Imagine the way it could frame the responsibilities of political leaders. Imagine the ways it could make for a more positive, focused political debate that will be led by new parties and new political blood. Imagine the way it could help structure principles that could guide how societies and governments approach indebtedness, trade, diplomacy, and economic development.
Running Out of Steam
The second challenge is economic growth. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, economic growth worldwide has been running out of steam; only stimulants in the form of very high levels of debt and aggressive central-bank action have kept it going. This does not stop politicians, however, from promising a return to prosperity or, in more glorious terms, pledging to make their country great again. The Trump administration is a case in point, demanding, as the basis for its economic model, large tax cuts for corporations and high earners rather than reskilling and education for workers threatened by the rise of technology.
My strong view is that countries (and companies too) should focus on stable, organic growth—growth that comes from factors such as the skill base of the labor market, innovation and technology, intangible infrastructure, and the system of laws and institutions that form the backbone of a nation. A truly great country is a resilient one that does not need to bully its neighbors in order for its economy to grow. Neither does organic growth come from accounting tricks, the ramping up of large levels of debt, or spurious tax breaks that cause economic imbalances. The next recession will lay this bare in a very bleak way.
- "Michael O'Sullivan chronicles a 'world turned upside down' in this fascinating new book detailing the twenty-first century's seismic shifts in technology, the global economy, and the balance of power. His call for a revival of democracies under siege in Britain, the US, and elsewhere is critical for the stable, productive, and peaceful world we all seek."—Nicholas Burns, professor, Harvard University, and former US Under Secretary of State
- "With a generous nod to the work of previous authors and experts, the author offers a solid synthesis of prognosis and practical solutions... the concept of O'Sullivan's Levelling presentation is fresh and thought-provoking."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- May 28, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages