MAENNER: Populist forces continue to gain strength in West
Opinions Column: Maenner's Musings
Symbolized by the demolition of the expansive Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War Era marked the completion of the global power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. No longer was the world divided between NATO and the Warsaw Pact or democracy and communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not just erase the partition that cut Europe in half and separated West from East, but it also marked a new age in world history — one less defined by borders and more focused on international commerce. As Thomas Friedman puts it in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization," “the Cold War was a world of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies.’ The globalization world, by contrast, tends to turn all friends and enemies ‘competitors.’” Contrary to popular belief, the fall of the Soviet Union was not so much a triumph of freedom and democracy, as much as it was the anointing of free-market capitalism as the dominant ideology of this new globalized age. But due to the global-skepticism that has taken shape throughout the west on both the left and the right, the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism is now in question.
Existing throughout the 20th century but not taking root until the demise of the Keynesian welfare state in the 1970s, neoliberalism proposes that the free market — not government intervention — is the solution to all of society’s ills. Throughout the reigns of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s all the way into the turn of the century, deregulation was the flavor of the period, with mergers occurring at record rates, manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas for cheaper labor and profits soaring for those on top. But with this sea change also came questions about the sovereignty of nation-states. The lowering of tariffs and the borderless nature of multinational corporations has led to the homogenization of cultures in the post-Cold War Era, resulting in McDonald’s locations sprouting up throughout Asia and the appropriation of cultural customs with the main driver being profits.
While products have become cheaper thanks to the advent of internet commerce and large chains like Walmart, this beckons the question of at what cost to the average citizen? Robert Reich refers to this dichotomy as a “Faustian bargain,” because “today’s economy … can give consumers deals largely because it hammers workers and communities.” This era of neoliberalism has triggered a “race to the bottom,” defined by the Financial Times as a “situation in which companies and countries try to compete with each other by cutting wages and living standards for workers, and the production of goods is moved to the place where the wages are lowest and the workers have the fewest rights.” In the United States and around the developed world, this race to the bottom has caused the hemorrhaging of the middle class, as jobs are lost overseas and wages continue to stagnate and fail to keep up with the rate of inflation. The result has been a growth in the popularity of populist movements on the right and left, as the common person continues to feel more and more forgotten in this new globalized age. Even though the plan of action differs depending on which side of the spectrum you are dealing with, the goal remains the same: accentuate the elements of the nation-state in response to the assault it has undertaken in recent decades.
Although the election of President Donald J.Trump, the Brexit vote and the rise in popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France have been the most well-publicized victories for anti-globalist forces, other notable victories include pluralities for far-right parties in the parliaments of Austria, Hungary and Poland and the success of the pro-Brexit UK Labor Party in the snap election held earlier this year. Even in Germany, the Alternative for Germany Party became the first far-right party to enter its federal parliament “in more than 60 years.” In the United States, the rise of Trump has less to do with the man and more to do with the societal insecurity of creeping global forces. Despite media claims to the contrary, Trumpism is not so much an ideology as it is the incoherent ramblings of an insecure and belligerent man. But in the grand scheme of things, Trump is not seen by his supporters as an end but rather a means to an end.
As we continue on the road of globalization, this anti-global end is becoming closer to a reality. Even as establishment political figures like George W. Bush and John McCain speak of the dangers of “nationalism distorted into nativism” and a world “where our leadership and ideals are absent,” these words come off more like pleas for the continuation of neoliberal hegemony, as populist forces gain strength throughout the west. As to what comes next, we will have to wait.
Hunter Maenner is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in criminal justice and political science. His column, "Maenner's Musings" runs on alternate Mondays.
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