Catalyst editor William McKenzie and Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, discuss the disaffection of the U.S. losers from globalisation.
McKenzie: You have written about working-class Americans, especially white working-class Americans. Why have so many of them pushed back against the forces of globalisation?
Dreher: It doesn’t make sense to talk about overall economic gains to the American economy when so many of those gains have aggregated towards the top. You can also talk about how much cheaper globalisation makes everyday consumer products, and how much that benefits the working class, but that does not compensate for the loss of meaningful employment, versus service-sector jobs that pay less and have less dignity than what they replaced.
It is true that globalisation has helped hundreds of millions around the world out of grinding poverty. But they are an abstraction to working-class Americans who have been made to bear a far disproportionate amount of the burden from policies that benefited foreigners – and well-to-do Americans.
M: I could throw a bunch of statistics back at you about how automation has actually changed the job place more than global trade or how globalised production helps working families by keeping the price of products like cars and jeans lower. But I think what you are describing is a fear of losing what was. So, if you think it is important that America not retreat from the global economy, how do you reach people who feel the way you describe?
D: You’ve hit on one of the defining political issues of the period into which we have now entered. It’s one in which the familiar ideological stances of left and right don’t offer much help.
People feel in their guts that something has gone very wrong – and they’re not wrong. I don’t believe that Trump has the slightest idea how to get the economy back on track, but who could possibly have confidence that the neoliberal establishmentarians of the Democratic and Republican parties do?
The economy cannot be easily separated from the rest of life. It matters a lot to the sense of self-worth of workers that their labour is meaningful. Cheaper cars and jeans cannot compensate for the loss of work with dignity.
I grew up in a working-class home in the 1970s, and despite the economic travails of that era, my generation was raised with the confidence that we would be better off than our parents.
It didn’t hit me till the other day that I don’t know anybody who believes that anymore. Most of us, in my experience, believe that our kids will have to fight hard simply to hold on to what we have.
We can argue over the extent to which globalisation has caused this widespread economic destabilisation, but I think we can agree that it will be politically impossible to return to the status quo. Brexit and Trump show us that. In the future, politicians of the left and right across the West will have to find a way to rein in market forces for the sake of social stability.
Pope John Paul II said that the market was made for man’s flourishing, not man for the market’s. Before the present moment, one might have considered that to be religious idealism. Now, it’s political common sense, and leaders who don’t understand the wisdom there are going to be swept aside. Greater automation, though, is going to make the job of politically managing the decline of manual labour even more difficult.
What I don’t hear too many people on the left or the right talking about is the role that moral libertarianism plays in the unraveling of our society. I’ve been reading an advance copy of Move Fast and Break Things, a hard-hitting book by Jonathan Taplin, director emeritus of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.
The book’s title was Facebook’s motto for a while, meant to express Mark Zuckerberg’s ethos of disruption, which is what they call “creative destruction” these days. Taplin writes about how the form capitalism has taken in the digital age has tremendously negative consequences for democratic self-government. His book goes into detail about how the Silicon Valley ideology of “techno-libertarianism” – Taplin’s term – has come to exercise outsized power in post-industrial America.
What I find so fascinating about the book is how the economic libertarianism Taplin talks about has developed alongside an equally powerful moral libertarianism – one that cannot help but have serious social and political effects. Put simply, radical individualism is powering the digital economy and dissolving old forms of doing business, just as it is powering social change, and dissolving old customs and forms.
Social critics have been talking about the loss of community since the end of World War II. Now we are seeing the family falling apart. A professor at a conservative evangelical college told me not long ago that he doubted whether many of his students would ever form stable families. When I asked him why, he said, “Because so few of them have ever experienced one.”
M: Must globalism and nationalism be at odds?
D: A full retreat from globalism is not possible. We’re not going to return to mercantilism. The only realistic path is going to be some sort of pragmatic, limited retreat from globalist ideals.
In the same way that FDR (Roosevelt) saved capitalism through the New Deal, which reined in the market to socially beneficial ends, these rising nationalist politicians may – may – save capitalism in our day by imposing limits on it.
I do think, though, that there is a fundamental irreconcilability between globalism and nationalism. Globalism is the ideology of our American elites.The nation – its borders, its history, its customs, and its peoples – are not as important to them as the free flow of goods, money, and people as they wish. Nationalism, at its best, says that the elites in society ought to feel some sense of allegiance to their own flesh-and-blood people, not universalist abstractions. It’s a matter of solidarity.