No one could call globalization a failure: To the succession of the hottest years ever must now be added the achievement of a distribution of wealth in which eight men (six of them Americans) own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity. And yet the idea, which sailed under the flag of “neoliberalism,” that unbridled speculation could permanently restore the postwar prosperity shaken by the crisis of the mid-1970s, has lacked the force to become reality. As Pavlos Roufos observes in his important article in this issue of Field Notes, the ongoing depression introduced by the Great Recession of 2008 is, like all previous similar episodes in the history of capitalism, producing a turn from globalism to nationalism, visible in political developments around the world. Seen in this context, events like the Brexit vote or the Trump victory, so puzzling in themselves to a variety of pundits, fall into place with similar developments in countries as different as Israel, Russia, Sweden, and France.
Since the world economy remains a global one, it’s hard to believe that the nationalist turn will provide more of a solution on this occasion than did similar impulses in, say, the 1930s. Trump complains that the Germans don’t buy American cars while Americans like a nice Mercedes. But of course the Opel sells well in Germany and that Mercedes might well be made in Alabama. If the politics are more nationalist, corporations remain multinational. And the dominant problem for all of them remains the need to restore the profitability of capital investment, the key to renewed prosperity, by further mechanization—with the attendant displacement of workers—and further downward pressure on working-class conditions of work and life. If America is to become great again, along with France, Italy, and the rest, wages will have to fall, social services disappear, and jobs be taken by robots. Weaker companies will have to go bankrupt, so that the stronger can survive. Someone will have to be blamed for all of this, of course—who better than foreigners, including the foreigners who live with us (some, in the American case, for hundreds of years)? It’s a grim outlook—a grimness already experienced, in spades, by the migrants in refugee camps around the world, or even stay-at-home victims of restructuring like the Greeks or Appalachian ex-coal miners. Though the political world undoubtedly feels different, the fundamentals, as the economists say, have not significantly changed.
What has altered is that the true state of affairs is more in the open, despite Trump’s vocalized concern for the “middle class” and his patriotic ranting: the subordination of the state to the immediate interests of this or that business; the absolute readiness to sacrifice the material interests of the working-class majority—not to mention humanity as a whole, in the case of climate change—for the short-term interests of a handful of rich people. Those who want transparency in government should be pleased by this at least.
The fact that millions of people took the moment of Trump’s ascension from @realDonaldTrump to @POTUS to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with present-day politics was cheering in its international character. But any movement to actually alter things will have to move beyond the electoral focus (“We need to take back the Democratic Party,” Michael Moore told the crowd in Washington), the demand for rights no one is going to give us, the cute pink hats, the assertion of “resistance,” and even the stoning of banks and Starbucks. The people who run the world are not kidding around—things are really too serious for that. Resistance will mean more than marching on this or that inauspicious occasion. It will mean finding the force, the means to wrest social power—real power, the power over making things and getting to enjoy them—away from those who hold it now.
It’s long past time to start thinking of alternative solutions to the problems we have allowed those eight men and their junior associates to foist on us. Field Notes hopes to provide a forum for discussion of such solutions, along with a clear-eyed understanding of the problems, in the year to come.