Across the world, reactionary forces are on the march. In America, Donald Trump is intent on closing US borders to history’s latest ‘other’ – Muslims. Meanwhile, the UK is now embarking on a ‘hard Brexit’, putting as much political and economic distance between ourselves and the continent as possible. And on the other side of the English Channel, the leader of France’s Front National, Marine Le Pen, has launched her presidential campaign by pledging a “crackdown” on globalisation.
What do all of these political movements have in common? Put simply: they stem from denial about the progress of history. Globalisation is here to stay. Pretending otherwise is about as useful as giving the order to fix bayonets in the face of an onrushing tsunami. Had I lived in that unfortunate era endured by the Luddites, I would have had every sympathy with their cause; but I hope that I would not have tried to give them false hope that they could prevent the loss of their jobs simply by smashing up the machines which had replaced them.
When we launched Labour Vision at the end of 2016, one of the economics gurus enlisted by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to help shape Labour’s economic message, Ann Pettifor, took us to task for asserting that globalisation could not be reversed. I’ll admit, I found this slightly daunting at first, because I’m not an economist. I am, however, a historian. And it is generally historians who understand the progress of history best. If you disbelieve me on this, consider the fact that not one economist predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet Russia. It takes a historian to predict such phenomena.
I will explain in a moment why I believe globalisation is not only irreversible, but about to accelerate inexorably. Let me stress first, however, that there is little to be triumphant about when considering the globalisation which we have seen in the last 30 years. True, globalisation has helped to lift some parts of the developing world out of poverty, and this should be welcomed and furthered. Yet, in the countries which have principally driven globalisation, the benefits of growth have been shared between fewer and fewer people. So much so, in fact, that even the so-called ‘middle classes’ throughout the western world are now, in many cases, actively participating in the sorts of open, albeit democratic, revolts which have led to the recent victories of the populist right.
Rather than passively accepting the inevitability of ongoing globalisation, however, Labour should be trying to shape its parameters. As has been the case with Labour, and social democrats more generally, ever since the advent of monetarism forty years ago, we seem able only to react to globalisation, rather than to be proactive about plotting its course. Hence the current voguish desire in certain Labour circles to chase after and to own right-wing rhetoric on immigration. Accepting and engaging with the reality of voters’ justified concerns about immigration should not mean that we attempt to outflank UKIP and advocate pulling up the drawbridge. Somehow, we must find a third way…
As to my certainty about the continuing ubiquity of globalisation, this deserves some explanation. Globalisation has a number of pillars, but perhaps the three of the most important are: 1) the increasing ease with which information is sent around the world, 2) the decline of traditional industries in their importance to economic growth and their replacement by financial services et al and 3) the decreasing need for jobs to be carried out by human beings. The ongoing centrality of the Internet in all of our lives, and the coming acceleration of automation, together mean that globalisation is not going to be reversed. Rather, it is going to accelerate.
In the face of this naked truth, Labour has two choices. It can either turn its back on reality, retreat ever further into its comfort zone and long nostalgically for the glory days of heavy industry and trade unions whose members were defined by their literal muscularity. Or it can do right by the people it is supposed to represent – the 99% who have been left behind by globalisation – and whose plight will get far, far worse if the ascendant forces of the political right are permitted to cast onto a bonfire the workers rights and human rights for which previous generations toiled so hard and so long.
The outcome of this test will determine not just whether Labour survives, but whether it deserves to survive. Politics is rapidly realigning along open vs. closed boundaries. The upcoming presidential election in France will be the first battle in the long war that is to come. Those interested in the revival of social democracy should watch closely to see how Macron and En Marche perform against the rabid right. And if Labour has any interest in being on the right side of history, it had better get on with finding a programme around which to shape globalisation for the many, not the few.
Otherwise, the revival of social democracy – when it comes – will not come from within Labour, but from without. The tragedy encased in that looming possibility is that it may come too late to save the hopes and dreams of the millions of men and women who are counting on us to fight for them in this new age of extremes.