Globalisation Has Lost It’s Social License
To say that the Western world is undergoing a bit of a revolt against globalisation these days is a bit of an understatement. From Warsaw to Washington DC we are witnessing the rise of populist insurgencies railing against open borders, free trade, and the decline of national sovereignty in favour of supranational organisations. Additionally, it has become almost a cliché to observe that the driving force behind this backlash we are seeing is often those who have lost out most from our increasingly global and mobile world; those who formerly would have been considered the blue-collar upper working/lower middle class who have seen their economic and social positions slowly erode.This revolt against globalism has caught its most ardent adherents rather flat-footed, as we have seen the much maligned elites and creative class types flounder against it. Sometimes, as most recently we have seen in France and the Netherlands, they have managed to see the would be insurgents off and on other occasions, such as the triumph of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump to the American presidency, they have failed (to their utter horror). In all cases though, there has been a baffled inability to comprehend how exactly this state of affairs have come about. Who, after all, could look upon this charming modern world with its Thai fusion restaurants and cheap Sony televisions and not be pleased?
A term that has become quite popular in Canadian politics of late is “social license”. It primarily relates to the debate over new oil pipeline routes, and essentially refers to the idea that local communities effected by pipeline construction need to give their consent before the project in question can proceed. The local residents are the ones who will be effected, therefore if the energy companies want to reap the commercial benefits of their pipeline project they first need to satisfy their concerns. If social license is not sufficiently obtained, than the project can not go forward.
What has happened in recent years is that globalisation has lost its social license. Its advocates have become so utterly convinced of its self-apparent goodness (rather easy given they have accrued almost all of the benefits while being insulated from nearly all of its ill effects) that they have simply stopped making the case for it. The very idea that someone could be opposed for reasons of legitimate principle has gone so far outside their conception that the only possible explanation for such a divergent point of view automatically must be something sinister or malicious, so if you’re opposed to globalism it must be because you’re a fascist or a racist or a basket of deplorables.
And of course, once this attitude sets in it becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop. No one ever has been persuaded of anything by being told how horrible they are for thinking otherwise. If your opponents are all Nazis and sexists and other despicable persons they’re beyond redemption and not even worthy of your attention so you can ignore them in good conscience. If you’re simply ignored and your concerns are swept under the rung, then those concerns easily turn to resentment and then anger. On and on it goes until the ignored are willing to follow anyone who simply appears willing to lend an ear to their concerns (even if he’s a twice divorced, foul-mouthed reality television star).
This is the mess that has been made of things, and if we’re to bridge the divides that have riven us apart some things are going to have to change. The status quo of simply calling those opposed to open borders, and offshoring, and ever greater economic displacement racist rubes and other unspeakable names while ignoring their issues and concerns will no longer do. Advocates of globalisation must realise they will need to once again start making the case for what they believe in, while also recognising that their opponents have legitimate grievances that they must both listen to and make some effort to address.
The new normal of our globalised economy has been very good for creative-class types, and financiers, and tech entrepreneurs of all stripes, and it is undeniable that it has created unprecedented global wealth and lifted hundreds and millions out of poverty across the world. There have also been many who have lost out, and it goes far beyond the fashionable examples to acknowledge such as Bangladeshi sweat shop workers. Whole towns have been hollowed out by de-industrialisation and offshoring. Entire sections of the population have been fated towards nothing but precarious work and endless job churn. Communities have been left disoriented by the rapid pace of social and economic change.
Globalisation must regain its social license if its advocates wish to see it continue to proceed. This will require acknowledging those who have fallen behind from it. It will mean finding a place in the economy for those of us who are not suited to be computer programmers or investment bankers or technology start-up founders. It will also mean assuaging social concerns of those who are worried their way of life and identity is in danger of being lost in some new global, mutlicultural soup. Above all it will mean actually engaging globalisation’s opponents in respectful dialogue and discussion as equals. The left behind and forgotten are not evil, and should not be treated as such, but instead must be engaged.