Saturday, October 1, 2016


283. What answer to populism?

There is a pressing need to give an answer to the rising populist revolt, in Western countries. There are legitimate grievances behind it, and when left unanswered, they make society vulnerable to a takeover by demagogues that destroys justice and democracy, and is beginning to reek of a new brew of fascism. So, what can we learn from populism?

In my view, this revolt has the following grounds.

First, the lower paid and educated classes feel that they have suffered more setbacks than benefits from globalized trade, in large contrast to the increase of income, wealth and power of higher paid and educated classes. This injustice is not addressed, and seems to be excused as the inevitable side-effects of the blessings of free trade.

Second, people are angry that multinational firms successfully press national governments for extending advantages (in taxes, exceptions to regulation, e.g. for protection of the environment, energy subsidies, premiums for locating businesses, etc.), on the threat of locating activities elsewhere. In particular, the EU is seen as being there for the sake of markets rather than for justice for the people. This also contributes to distrust of  markets and free trade.

Third, people feel that they have no grip, no influence on what is going on, and consequently lose their faith in democracy. They also feel a loss of social coherence and shared cultural identity. This provides a breeding ground for renewed nationalism.

To address these grievances, I have three proposals.

First, concerning the inequality of benefits from global trade between the lower and the higher paid and educated, the lesson is not, in my view, to abolish international trade, but to compensate for the inequality of its effects.  

Second, build countervailing power regarding multinationals who take nations hostage. There are also other issues that require bundling in supranational integration, as in the EU: concerning foreign policy, defence, refugees, the environment, security (anti-terrorism), and international crime.

Here also lies an opportunity for the EU to regain acceptance and allegiance by proving it is there not only for the market but for the people. The going of this will be tough, against present ill feeling against the EU, partly as a result of its one-sided focus on facilitating markets. The EU is already making moves in this direction, in its policies concerning banking and taxes.

Third, as I proposed in the preceding item in this blog, utilize present opportunities from technology and higher levels of education to decentralize many decisions and designs in policy and projects to the local level of communities, in towns or city quarters, for local debate on ethics and morality, in closer, more personal contacts for building trust and mutual understanding and tolerance in collaboration.

These proposals entail that the grasp of nations becomes less, in a surrender of competencies to on the one hand supranational collaboration, as in the EU, and on the other hand decentralization of initiatives within nations to localities.

A complication is that release to local initiatives will not only profit from local variety but will also generate inequality of outcomes. Maintaining a demand of strict equality everywhere will kill variety and space for local initiative. A second complication is that release to local initiative may generate local clientism and corruption, with power concentrating in local bobo’s and their entourage.

Here, there remain tasks on the national level, not only for issues and projects that transcend localities (jurisdiction, security, transportation, ….), but for preventing excessive inequalities and local clientism.     

All this is needed as an answer to the present populist revolt in Western countries.