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A recent article by Lídia Brun and Mario Ríos about the false dilemma between neoliberal globalisation and nationalist protectionism got me thinking about the emerging patterns of right wing politics, the dominant narratives of our time, the challenges the left is confronted with and, more generally, the direction capitalism seems to be taking.1 It is indeed easy to fall into the trap of being distracted from what really matters. Simplistic, binary thinking greatly diminishes the quality of the public debate. It hampers any effort to formulate a more eclectic, considered position. Nuance is lost as the extremes become louder. Important information and the details of policy are largely ignored as controversies centre on headline issues. Hence the ease with which demagogues manage to muster the voting strength to influence the agenda.
The Trump presidency, Brexit and the exaggerations underpinning it, the rise of ‘illiberalism’ within the European Union—with ‘illiberalism’ being a euphemism for legally refined fascism—, the strong presence of the extreme right in France. The narratives that define right wing politics, and by extension the public debate are shifting. Nationalist sentiment is on the rise, even if the model of the Westphalian nation-state is no longer as relevant. The neoliberal paradigm of the second half of the 20th century is giving way to a world view that deviates from classical liberalism even in form.
Neoliberalism, despite its egregious corporatism and tacit colonialism, had some sound guiding ideas: societies that are open to the world or outward-looking, and a global institutional architecture based on the rule of law (notwithstanding the major flaw of American exceptionalism). It was a paradigm that even well-meaning social democrats and moderate leftists were willing to tolerate and be a part of: open borders, tolerance, and [the phenomenality of a] world citizenship are, after all, cherished beliefs among progressives.
New rhetoric, old practices
Neoliberalism’s vision of the open society is becoming a relic of yester age. What we are now faced with is an altogether different mindset. The right wing is reorienting itself. It is tracing its roots to tradition. On the economic and social front, the typical mixture of generous tax breaks and business friendly [de-]regulation is being complemented by notions of moral integrity: fiscal discipline, aka austerity, which practically is the rationalisation of the attacks against the welfare state. As for all the other items on the agenda, these tend to be reduced to predicates of national self-image. They are treated as a function of a sense of national identity and presumed greatness. Restoring or supporting that means addressing them. In some cases the implication is to strive to relive a largely chimerical past—such as to “make America great again”. In others, it is the longing for the times of imperialism-the end of a “global Britain” by means of ‘Little England’ parochialism. For others still, it is a combination of anti-leftism, social conservatism, and mistrust towards anything that is remotely ‘foreign’. Whether these actually solve any real problems becomes irrelevant, for the overarching binary thinking forces societies to choose whether they are ‘patriotic’ in this twisted sense or not—as always, the thinking is that “there is no alternative” to the conservative juggernaut.
On the face of it, the emerging tendency and what connects these threads, is a reaction to the neoliberal status quo, at least insofar as its globalist facet is concerned. Upon closer inspection though, the phenomenon is best described as a visceral hatred for what is depicted as the establishment. Some scapegoat is paying the price for the perceived decline. Voters turned to Trump seeking protection from the rest of the world, as if that was ever a real threat to the American way of life. What they will most likely get is overt racism, closed borders and hostility towards victims of injustice, such as refugees and poor migrants coming from the South. Corporatism will continue to reign supreme. The surveillance state will further suppress civil liberties. Standards pertaining to privacy and data protection will be weakened even more, enabling the incumbent technology giants to exert greater control over Internet users. In short, the much-vaunted ambition to become “great again” is but a fleeting dream.
Similarly, Brexit was framed as a resurgence of national will-formation, of taking control back from the ostensibly omnipotent and overreaching apparatus of ‘Brussels’. What seems about to happen is for London to remain a haven of the financial elite. Social welfare will suffer so that non-Brits may be kept out of the country. Business will continue as usual. Tabloids will still mould public opinion to their liking. And so on. The British Empire is not coming back, though British citizens will certainly feel the chilling effects of a certain brand of imperialism: that of unbridled crony capitalism.
As for illiberalism and nationalists of the Le Pen sort, they do share some traits with the Anglo-Saxons but differ with regard to their priorities. They oppose the fiction of a world order that seeks to undermine national identities by a variety of means, including the ‘engineered’ resettlement of refugees or whatever conspiracy theory. Their midpoint is the politics of negation, such as being anti-Islam (or anti ‘Islamiphication’) or anti-‘globalist’. What they certainly are not, is anti-capitalist. Throughout its history, the extreme right has often found it expedient to blend its views with superficially leftist rhetoric about ‘the people’, such as the syndicalist state of Mussolini, so as to ultimately support the agenda of a totalitarian state that would always stand behind domestic big business in the name of the national interest. Today is no different.
The changing face of conservatism
Though there are a number of factors involved, this evident shift in the drivers of right wing politics is an indication of the evolution of capitalism. That world view about personal agency, governance, and the distribution of resources is not to be superseded by something else. Its core tenets remain constant. Though the apparent opposition is against elites and ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, the barbs are actually turned once again towards the weakest in society. Those fleeing war, impoverishment, and natural disasters. The ones who rely on essential public services to make ends meet. University students who only see the obstacles to decent education increasing exponentially.
Unlike the romanticised concept of an unfettered free market guided by the invisible hand of the harmony between competing self interests, neoliberalism advocated openness for everything with the proviso that there would always be a big state whose interventionism would be reserved for operations promoting the general interests of big business (neoliberals have never actually been minarchists, even though some think of themselves as such when quoting Milton Friedman or F.A. Hayek). Whereas modern conservatism casts that view in a new light. It stands for openness only insofar as the movement of capital is concerned, while restricting migration and public goods to a bare minimum. Furthermore, and just like the neoliberals, modern conservatives oppose any concerted effort to introduce international fiscal standards such as restrictions on tax havens and the relevant exchange of information.
What we are witnessing can be perceived as a new understanding of capitalism. The contemporary version of an age old ideology. Capitalism is a function of effective technology. Differences over time are to be expected. Early modern capitalism developed from mercantilism-colonialism into its industrialised variant by leveraging the relevant advances in science and engineering. Mass migration was necessary to support the labour intensive industries of the time. Similarly, modern capitalism is defined by the innovations of our age. Digitisation and robotisation inter alia provide the capital holders with the means to further suppress labour’s demands. Workers lose their bargaining power to the impersonal entities that carry out an increasing number of the world’s jobs. By extension, the establishment in modern capitalist societies does have the ability to beat the xenophobic, nationalist drum, restrict migration, reinvigorate its offensive against public goods and the welfare state, turn education into a lucrative business for the financial industry and a luxury item for those who can afford it, expand the powers of the surveillance apparatus, all while preserving—indeed expanding—the core businesses of the super rich.
The archetypical early modern capitalist venture was heavy industry. That of modern capitalism is the Internet giant: multi-national corporations like Google and Facebook. Those behemoths do not trade in physical goods nor does their main business require significant labour intensive work. They mine data algorithmically, trace patterns, build profiles of their users and audiences, and sell it to advertisers. What they need to get things done is a relatively small group of computer engineers and the necessary infrastructure to support their software (and an army of shrewd lawyers and accountants to operate across a multitude of jurisdictions). Behind those giants is a host of smaller corporations and start-ups with a similarly unfavourable model for workers. The tech industry provides a blueprint for the near future. Labour finds it virtually impossible to syndicate and to put forward a coherent set of demands. The capitalists’ preponderance is undeniable.
Other industries are following along with cutting labour costs. Aviation, for instance. One can buy a ticket from an app, go to the airport and check in with their phone, and take off without much interaction with any person from the aviation company. Similar story with the financial sector and heavy industry. Repetitive tasks are withdrawn from the domain of labour activity to become standard operations for robots and specialised software. The convenience for the end user is obvious, as are the implications on the balance of bargaining power between capitalists and workers. Great gains for the former. Precarious living conditions or persistent unemployment for the latter.
This is not so suggest that the lump of labour fallacy is actually false. There always is work to be done. The key insight is that the changes we are witnessing over who or what gets to work have far-reaching social and political implications. Large corporations can achieve economies of scale at the expense of domestic and international workers’ interests, while national governments are faced with the futile task of regulating with national means a capital that has gone global. But such eager governments are few and far between. The latest trend is conservatism that favours open borders for the flow of money and barbed wire for the movement of people.
Sovereignty can still be used for the general good
As Lídia Brun and Mario Ríos forcefully argue in their afore-referenced article, nationalist protectionism is not a real alternative to globalisation of the neoliberal sort. What we really need is to appreciate the interconnectedness of our societies and to struggle for what has always been a major objective: control over the means of production and governance.
Participatory and deliberative decision-making, democracy freed from corporatism, is the only reliable instrument people have against the machinations of capital owners. The public space is where purposeful collective action can deliver tangible results in the interest of society at-large. The community of citizens, rather than a handful of oligarchs, must take control over the parameters that affect quotidian life. In practice, this implies a positive re-appraisal of national sovereignty as the enabler of—or conduit to—internationalism. Indeed any kind of cross-border governance is contingent on inter-state cooperation. And, as the case of the European integration process demonstrates, a layer of political processes at the supranational level is the only means by which international cooperation can escape the confines of technical trade agreements.
The answer to the new conservatism must involve a more nuanced take on the themes of globalisation and the nation state. Globalisation is a phenomenon that has been taking place in large part because of nation states and international covenants. Some areas of policy are being withdrawn from the purely domestic domain, while others remain firmly rooted in it. Similarly, protectionism is not necessarily a drive against globalisation, for it all depends on what exactly is being given a global dimension. Capital will retain its cross-border fluidity, while its influence will only increase if the few pieces of international rule of law are dismantled. If so, the effects of globalised capital, such as inequality between countries, will continue to cut through national jurisdictions.
The European Union, in spite of some evident neoliberal attributes, can be seen as a starting point of how to proceed with multi-faceted action from the local to the global level. The EU encompasses politics of national, intergovernmental, and supranational relevance. It also has the clout to act as a leader on some of the world most pressing issues, such a climate change. This is achieved by a combination of the pooling of national sovereignties, the establishment of supranational political processes, and the creation of institutional arrangements that facilitate cooperation between national governments. The key is to get people involved, so that (i) big business lobbies are not allowed the free space to realise their ambitions, and (ii) the system is made to work in accordance with the highest standards of democratic self-institution.
Nation states are not becoming irrelevant. They just need to be treated as a force for good, for purposeful democratic action across borders. Internationalism is contingent on the nation state, while supranational affairs are either complementary to or supersets of national debates, as the French presidential elections have just shown. As for globalisation, it is a phenomenon that can attain a variety of forms. A positive among them, would be the globalised alertness to the problems we face as a planet, or some concerted action to contain the destructive tendencies of big business. In this regard, it would be a mistake to think of the new conservatism as merely ‘nasty’ or isolationist. Much like its intellectual relative—neoliberalism—it still wants to provide pampers to big business. That necessarily involves measures with pernicious cross-border ramifications.