The Fires Of Populist Rage: Pointing to Brexit and Trump, the opponents of globalisation prophesy the imminent demise of free trade and the collapse of the entire neoliberal experiment. The status quo, they assure us, is being driven straight to hell in a driverless car. But if the consequences of globalisation have awakened the West’s inner Viking, it must also be observed that the populist backlash is coming just a little late.
ALL ACROSS THE WEST beacon fires are burning: springing from hilltop to hilltop; nation to nation. Tongues of flame warn of dangerous strangers from afar, calling the blade to the whetstone and striking sparks among the tinder.
Or, so the alarmists would have us believe. They point to Brexit, to Trump, and prophesy the imminent demise of globalisation, free trade, and the entire neoliberal experiment. The latter has incurred their particular wrath. Neoliberalism is accused of setting free the collective Ego: of creating societies in which the gratification of individual desire is deemed the highest good; a moral universe in which solipsistic narcissism effortlessly defeats empathic solidarity. The status quo, they assure us, is about to be driven to hell in a driverless car.
But if globalisation and massive inward flows of migrants have awakened the West’s inner Viking, it must also be observed that all of his frantic fire-starting and horn-blowing is coming just a little late.
The English, for example, turned out in their millions to put the boot into Johnny Foreigner. On 23 June, boot-boys (as was) still swathed in their red-cross flags, exchanged knowing winks with red-faced gentlemen farmers from the shires – and their good lady wives – in a cross-class alliance of xenophobic bigotry that no longer even tried to hide its ugly face.
How they celebrated when the British electorate voted in favour of leaving the EU. “We have taken our country back!”, they cried. But what did they mean? That they had magically transported England back to the days of empire, when the might of the white-skinned races always saw them right? That would certainly explain why, in the hours after Brexit, well-integrated immigrant families became targets for every racist with a spray-can from the Scottish borders to Land’s End.
Then again, “taking the country back” might have represented nothing more than a refined way of describing England’s one-fingered gesture to all those Brussels Bureaucrats who had dared to tell the nation of Henry V, Sir Francis Drake and Winston Churchill what it could and could not do. Brexit, at its most basic, was a simple and powerful reaffirmation of the English people’s determination to be the masters of their own fate.
Except that the people of the United Kingdom have precious little sovereignty left to reclaim. Since the 1980s, the history of Britain has been one long garage-sale of everything that makes up an independent nation. The English people no longer possess their own banks, major manufacturing industries, water reticulators, electricity generators, railways, airlines, newspapers, or indeed anything much of genuine economic significance in the whole of the British Isles.
Even those quintessential expressions of Englishness, the great city football teams, were long ago hocked-off to the highest bidder. American tycoons, Russian oligarchs, it matters little: not when the players themselves are about as English as a Nigerian sunset or a Brazilian rain forest. Unbelievably, the English invented a beautiful game, turned it into phenomenal money-spinner and … sold it.
And yet the English people look at their country, watch their football, and see nothing but “England”. Globalisation may have begun on their football fields, but they refuse to acknowledge the transformation they’ve wrought. Nor do they appreciate that free trade counts for little if the factories in which “English” goods are made; the ships that carry them; and the outlets from which they are ultimately sold; all belong to Johnny Foreigner. The days when “trade followed the flag” are long gone.
What is true of England is also true of the whole of the Western World. Twenty-first century capitalism acknowledges no borders and views patriotism with disdain. When Donald Trump advances “Americanism” against “Globalism” he is merely demonstrating his profound ignorance of the world he arrogantly believes himself capable of controlling. When Winston Peters condemns rising levels of immigration to New Zealand, he should also, at the same time, condemn his country’s failure to adequately educate and upskill its workforce.
We live on a single planet that long ago became a single market for money, goods – and labour. Those who would make this a better world must start from where we are, not where we were. The breath of the angry masses may fan the flames of nationalism high into the night sky, but they illuminate nothing. We lit them too late.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2016.