The populist backlash against globalization

The globalization of economies and of mass media, climate change, mass migration, terrorism, pandemics, the global trade in narcotics, failed states—these are only some of the most intractable problems we face in today’s world.  Many of them are interconnected, thus creating greater complexity.

But, all over the world, nation-states can deal with these only according to their existing differentiated institutions, specialized practices, and fragmented memory.  In the face of cultural heterogeneity, they have no recourse to easy ways of achieving consensus.  Gone are the old repositories of discernment and nobility that can stand above narrow interests and attend to problems in their totality.  The modern state is unable to play this role.

The result is a deep disenchantment that is hard to appease.  People everywhere feel insecure, betrayed, abandoned, and resentful.  They blame their governments, the politicians, the Establishment, the oligarchy, and the mainstream media. They begin to believe there is a conspiracy foisted on the whole nation by the rapacious few that control the levers of power, wealth, and communication.

This is a worldwide trend that is hospitable to extreme measures. In another era, it would have been the perfect moment for the radical Left to intervene. But the Left, too, has been effectively marginalized.  And even where it has won elections, as in Greece and in some Latin American countries, socialists have been struggling to keep their increasingly enfeebled grip on government.

As a rule, leftwing parties have not done very well in the face of this global crisis in leadership. They have not been able to connect with publics that are more likely to draw their activist ardor from racist and religious bigotry rather than from a shared experience of capitalist exploitation and oppression.  They could not respond to the populist quest for charismatic strongmen who would steer society out of a world system that citizens no longer understand.

The practical expression of this revolt varies according to a society’s existing organization—in particular, the resilience and durability of its institutions. Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump are worlds apart in a lot of ways, and so are the United States and the Philippines.  But, there are common elements we can point to that permit us to put Trumpism and Dutertismo under the same category.

First, as ironic as it may seem, what we are dealing with here is a revolt against modern politics itself—its parties, its conventions, its self-descriptions, its rules and rituals, its modes of representation, its courtesies and nuances. Trump’s stunning victory in the recent US presidential election is as much a repudiation of the Republican Party that grudgingly nominated him, as it is of the Democratic Party that gave America its first black president. The moving force behind this phenomenon is populism—the same kind that propelled Rodrigo Duterte, a political maverick with no real party, to the Philippine presidency this year.

Second, this revolt is neither intrinsically Left nor Right. Indeed, insofar as it is not guided by any coherent ideology, it can spew progressive and reactionary rhetoric in the same breath.  It is, without any doubt, authoritarian. It sees in the willful strongman a tool to break the gridlock that afflicts modern constitutional democracies. In the face of what it perceives to be a state of emergency, it has little regard for legal technicalities, bureaucratic requirements, and indeed, for the kind of rational policy planning that has been the hallmark of modern governance.

Third, it is myopic.  It denies not just the reality of climate change but, indeed, of the global scale and interconnectedness of humanity’s problems.  It refuses to be bothered, for example, by the humanitarian catastrophe of refugees and migrants desperately fleeing from war-torn and failed societies—forgetting how the rest of the world has been complicit in their failure.  All that this populist reaction sees is the urgent need to keep terrorists and potential terrorists out of the nation’s borders.

Trump campaigned against the export of jobs abroad and pledged to bring them back to the United States, forgetting how American consumers themselves have benefited from cheap goods and services made possible by the exploitation of cheap labor abroad.  Not surprisingly, the slogan that sums up this inward-looking politics is “Take back our country.”  This is not nationalism as we know it; this is nativism—a deluded wish to restore the nation to its imagined precolonial or preimmigration state.

This romantic populism has been around for a long time. Its heyday in Europe saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But in the postwar era, it has largely been consigned to the periphery, the sport of eccentric figures who cannot break the self-producing circularity of modern societal systems.

What has made all the difference in recent times, I think, is the rise of social media. For better or worse, the internet has empowered populism.  It has created righteous publics that imagine themselves in possession not only of the one correct view of reality but also of the power to act on it because of their instant reach.

The triumph of Trump, the emergence of Duterte, and, not least, the recuperation of the memory of Ferdinand Marcos, the ultimate strongman, are all symptoms of a populist backlash against a complex globalized world in which ordinary people find no security.