It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
As the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama told us more than 25 years ago in The End of History and the Last Man, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist bloc and the Soviet Union was going to usher in an eternal age of capitalist economics and liberal-democratic politics. Not all at once or everywhere. But the general direction of future political and economic trends was clear.
Much of what then happened in the subsequent decade seemed to confirm Fukuyama’s analysis. As capitalism advanced in the post-Communist countries and in parts of the ‘Third World’ that had long been protectionist, cross-border exchange expanded rapidly. This process was fostered by all manner of agreements to liberalize goods and services trade, notably by the creation in 1995 of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which China joined in 2001. New or stronger regional organizations also buttressed this trend. The strongest of these, the European Union (EU) enlarged north- and eastwards and, as illustrated by the adoption of the euro and the creation of the borderless Schengen area, also became politically more integrated.
1989: Liberal democracy as the ‘only game in town’
Politically, liberal democracy looked set to become the ‘only game in town’. Large-scale armed conflicts became rarer and less bloody. Of course, former Yugoslavia collapsed violently, at the cost of some 140,000 human lives, but this was one of those regions still trapped in history, as Fukuyama wrote. Ditto parts of Africa. By the beginning of the new millennium, ex-Yugoslavia had been pacified and stabilized by liberal-Western military intervention and set on a path to join the EU like most other post-Communist European countries west of the former Soviet Union.
Admittedly, this apparently powerful process of capitalist democratization encountered some very stubborn obstacles even at its peak. The suppression of the protest movement at Tiananmen Square crushed the possible seeds of political liberalization in China, where, while making a very successful transition to a capitalist economic system, the Communist Party maintained its monopoly of political power.
In Russia, the chaotic privatization of the economy that took place in an institutional and legal vacuum after the collapse of Communism created a new class of wealthy oligarchs, but did little to foster adherence to liberal-democratic values and free-market capitalism among Russians, many of whom felt humiliated by the loss of the Soviet ‘empire’ and rallied to the nationalist agenda of Vladimir Putin, all the more so, as, with rising natural resource prices, the Russian economy prospered under his leadership in the early 2000s. The Middle East was still dominated by repressive – either military or monarchical – political systems and – in as far as they did not benefit from plentiful natural resources – stagnant economies, fuelling the rise of radical Islamist politics.
2003: History – and war – begin anew
Two events since the turn of the century undermined if not destroyed the process of capitalist democratization initiated by the end of the Cold War. The first was the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, a reaction to the 9/11 attacks and, indirectly, to the first Gulf War, after which, in opposition to US intervention in the region, Al Qaeda had been founded.
The fabrication of the ‘evidence’ to justify the invasion by the Bush administration de-legitimized the war and undermined support for future such interventions in the West. Democratic stability could not be engineered by external military force. The ascension of the Shiite community to power in Iraq sharpened the Shiite-Sunni conflict in the Middle East, pitting Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies against each other, further de-stabilizing the entire region and culminating in the meanwhile six-year-old bloody civil war in Syria.
By far the largest number of Syrian war refugees remained either in the country or in neighbouring states. Enough – more than a million in 2015, including refugees or migrants from other countries – nonetheless made it to Europe to provide a huge boost in popular support for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and/or anti-EU parties in Europe.
2008: Deregulation sparks a global financial crisis
The second event – in 2008-2009 – was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the product in part of the comprehensive deregulation of the financial sector for which politically powerful, especially American, financial firms had very successfully lobbied in the preceding two decades.
Worldwide, post–Cold War trade liberalization had been a boon for a huge number of inhabitants in the former Communist and Third worlds – as well as for predominantly Western-owned multinational companies. Cross-national income disparities diminished. For inhabitants of the old democratic capitalist world, however, this process was a more mixed blessing. As consumers they benefited from the lower prices of goods produced more cheaply abroad. As employees, in any case confronted with labour-saving technological changes, they had to contend with the threat of lower wages and/or reduced job opportunities. The ‘hollowing-out’ of the middle classes gathered pace.
Post-Cold War, the distribution of income in the ‘old’ democratic capitalist world had thus already become more unequal – even before the GFC struck. Now, to forestall financial and economic collapse, governments in many countries had to spring in – very visibly – with taxpayers’ money to bail out financial firms, leading to exploding budget deficits and irresistible pressures to pursue fiscal austerity. From those who had relatively little was taken. To those who had caused the crisis and had a lot was given.
2011: Popular protest from the left and right
None of the heads of the firms that precipitated this crisis was subsequently pursued by the law, just as the regulatory changes introduced to avert a re-run of the crisis were for the most part modest. The widespread popular indignation at the crisis and how it was managed – most visibly expressed by such movements as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘We are the 99 per cent’ – was therefore perfectly comprehensible. Financial and political elites alike were increasingly discredited.
Discredited elites. Growing income inequality. Fiscal austerity. The threat – imagined or real – of large-scale immigration (with its associated fears of growing competition for jobs, wages and access to public services, let alone those concerning culture, religion and language). Increasingly numerous terrorist attacks. Add to these factors the perceived inability, even unwillingness of mainstream political parties of the Left and Right to confront and manage these issues effectively and you have the conditions for the perfect populist political storm that has hit the North Atlantic region in the last few years.
If anything the stage was better set for a populist takeover in many European countries than in the US. Under incessant German pressure for fiscal austerity, the Eurozone as a whole has struggled harder and longer to recover from the GFC than the US, where the Federal Reserve intervened much faster and more aggressively to rekindle economic growth.
The worst-hit Eurozone member, Greece, did actually fall to the radical Leftist Syriza. But, under the proportional-representation electoral systems in most European countries, populist movements elsewhere were unable to win governmental office, except – exceptionally – as junior partners in coalition governments where, as in Finland, their influence has hitherto been contained and their support has receded.
In contrast, the US political process – with primary elections to choose party candidates and first-past-the-post elections for public office – was more vulnerable to conquest by a populist candidate.
2016: A billionaire shall lead them
Enter Trump, who could run on the ticket of one of the two dominant American political parties and inherit the loyalty to the Republican Party of a large proportion of American voters. A multi-billionaire real estate magnate might seem to be an improbable tribune of Americans on ‘main street’. Trump nonetheless succeeded in re-awakening historically deeply-rooted isolationist and protectionist sentiments in the US and mobilizing all the fears relating to globalization, immigration and terrorism – the economic, social, cultural and physical insecurity – that had waxed over the preceding two decades.
The populist counter-revolution may now begin. It will not be pleasant. Its effects will be felt far beyond the United States. From the United Nations and NAFTA to NATO and the EU, many of the international institutions that have facilitated peaceful international cooperation and exchange – will be in Trump’s line of fire. International politics are likely to become more anarchic, conflictual and violent.
Continue reading with ‘Trump: Where We Might End Up’.