Thursday, March 2, 2017

The tragedy of populism

To understand the present rise of populism in Western democratic societies we need to understand five global trends, that have been slowly building up over two centuries and are accelerating:

  1. The ever expanding role of technology diminishes the need for simple work.
  2. More and more people concentrate in ever larger cities.
  3. The international mobility of people is still increasing.
  4. The international mobility of business and money is still increasing.
  5. Developing countries are finally catching up, including the giants China and India.

Urbanization and  internationalization create a network of megacities with growing interaction between them, while the integration with the rest of the countries they are in lags behind. Metropolises like London, Frankfurt, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo are increasingly part of one international network.

Less visible, but more fundamental: ever more people are unemployed. In the US only a quarter of all non-working adults are in the unemployment statistics. The others don’t try anymore. The dropouts from the workforce are an ever growing poor leisure class. With growing passivity goes growing drug abuse, including pain killers and antidepressants. Read for example 'Our miserable 21st century' by Nicholas N. Eberstadt in Commentary, Feb. 15, 2017 explaining why Trump shouldn't have been a surprise.

These work force dropouts are no longer necessary. Above they are supplanted by technology, sideways their work is supplanted by laborers in the developing countries, and at the bottom of the labor market they are supplanted by immigrants, either legal or illegal who are willing to do the work they feel is below them. The only economic function of the work force dropouts is consuming. There will be always simple and honorable jobs, but not in sufficient numbers.

UK farmers are worrying: who has to help with the harvest if Brexit becomes a reality? In Finland, the annual harvest of swamp berries is done by Vietnamese flown in. Till the Vietnamese can earn the same money in their own country. In the Netherlands the unemployed refuse to do menial jobs in horticulture, they stopped doing the heaviest work in factories already forty years ago. The difference between them and foreign people who are willing is simple: what for many immigrants is up, for them is down. And down is unpalatable when the general development is still up.

Those left behind in the this international and technological dynamic are not conservative, they are reactionary: progress is threatening, they want the conditions of yesterday to be restored.
They are the ones who elect the populists: unreliable and sometimes unsavory characters that can’t solve their problems. They will rather worsen them. The disappointed people will be in for more disappointment.
They will not see the dynamics in society, they will see conspiracies by the rich and the smart.  By the elite, a concept once more en vogue. (Excuse the elitist expression.)
Like with most problems, there is no solution without starting to acknowledge the problems and their underlying dynamics. Who should acknowledge and understand the problems? Primarily the well-employed and well-earning. Out of compassion; out of enlightened self-interest.

One of the few ideas around that will,  if not solve, at least lessen the problem is a simple basic income for everybody, no strings attached. The hard working will cry wolf, but populism and fascism are an immensely worse perspective. But what will that do to immigration?
The outflow of failed states is threatening the whole international system. This is already putting pressure on national sovereignty. That pressure will only increase. We are in for more multinational institutions, not less. But that is anathema to the populists. Catch 22?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Hans, covers it all and so well written. We agree on all points! Wish more people had your intelligence, insight, awareness and ability. Ever think of running for political office???? That is if you could tolerate interacting with the bozos who are already in political office. Sigh...