Rise of a new fascism

GUESTXCOLUMNAcross the world, people seem to be rejecting globalization for a new authoritarian nationalism. That’s dangerous.

The Brexit referendum in the UK was not just about Britain leaving the European Union. It was an emotional rejection of globalization: i.e. of a world increasingly interconnected by trade and investment; of a world culturally centred on the original liberal project of a common humanity based on the values of respect for human rights, tolerance and democratic freedoms.

Globalization is not new. But the current phase of globalization is unique in that it is facilitated enormously by the digital revolution in information technology, and is based on the idea that we all share a common human dignity.

The opposition to globalization comes from both the left and the right: aptly illustrated by the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US.

Sanders and his followers criticize globalization and the free trade that is at the heart of it for allowing corporations to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth at the expense of workers; for the loss of industries and jobs; and for leading to extraordinarily high levels of economic inequality. They therefore call for the state to be active in the creation of jobs, the reduction of inequality and the provision of a strong social safety net.

Trump and his followers’ rejection of globalization is more reminiscent of the fascism that tore Europe apart in the 1930s, when demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler exploited the anger of the aggrieved masses to carve their way to personal enrichment and dictatorship and engulfed the world in war.

The right’s opposition to globalization takes the form of a virulently xenophobic nationalism embodied in an autocratic leader who will define and unite the nation if the people grant that leader extraordinary power. As Trump said: “I am your voice; I alone can fix it.”

While globalization has indeed brought many benefits to the world, it has also left many communities impoverished, and most national governments have done little to help those communities. They are now paying the price: fascism is on the rise.

Fourteen years ago, in his keynote address to the International Labour Organization in Geneva,  Prime Minister Owen Arthur, while praising the international integration that globalization brought, presciently warned of the dangers of a globalization that is not managed but is allowed to run amok with disastrous consequences:

“The new global economy also requires rules, instruments and institutions to mitigate the worst effects of unfettered market forces, and in so doing to ensure the widest and most equitable distribution of the benefits of an efficient and dynamic global economy.

“Across too wide a band of economic activities, the ends of production are now set in the context of maximizing shareholder value only.  And the shareholder-value driven global corporation has come to enthrone aggressive cost reduction strategies, focusing on layoffs, pay and benefit reductions and a peripatetic approach to living and growth as their essential elements.

“As if all of this were not bad enough, the incessant flow of capital globally has led financial markets to new propensity for booms and busts, which because of their global scope and power, have become the new modern destabilizer.  And it is sadly workers everywhere who are bearing the brunt of this destabilization, in the form of job losses, dislocations, and community and family breakdown.

“Our world needs a new, sensible and sensitive balance between the market and the public interest, and the needs of the people whom the public interest serves.

“This matter is truly urgent because perhaps the most dangerous element in today’s world, characterized by the rapid globalization of markets and production, is the conspicuous absence of a meaningful international agenda for social development and upliftment.” How prophetic!

But the answer is not to reject the integrationist impulse that is at the heart of globalization, and return to isolationist war mongering a la Trump, but to ensure that the benefits of free trade and integration are equitably shared, and disadvantaged groups are compensated for the dislocations they suffer. To retreat from this is to return to the dark ages of xenophobic nationalism that can result only in war, this time on a truly global scale.

Of course, while accepting the principle of closer integration, we have to examine carefully the forms in which it is couched. Even the staunchest integrationist must recognize that the EU is guilty of a certain overreach, especially in respect of the powers conferred on the European Commission.  Hopefully, the Brexit vote will lead to reforms in the EU.

The other disturbing phenomenon associated with the rise of the new fascist populism is the notion that plebiscitary democracy is more authentic than representative democracy. But just look at the Brexit referendum.

It is now a classic example of people voting on a highly complex issue based on an emotional response to inflammatory rhetoric and outright lies and distortions. Now many are having buyer’s remorse. Of course that referendum is not legally binding. Only the British parliament can authorize withdrawal from the EU.

What is called for today whether in Europe or Barbados is deepening and widening representative democracy by creating mechanisms for ongoing citizen participation rather than replacing it by plebiscitary democracy.

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker magazine has recently written a brilliant analysis of fascism, in which he observes that,

“What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners.”

That is Trump writ large.

(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ ambassador to the United States)

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