For years, people have been warning that inequality is growing. Now we are beginning to see tangible political consequences. There is no reason that populist anger must devolve into right wing nationalism. The opportunity now is so much greater than that.
Since the 1980s, when we fell in love with deregulation and the promise of the global free market, economic inequality has been steadily on the rise. This rise was mirrored to varying degrees in countries around the world. Globalization, which pulled down trade barriers with the promise of economic efficiency, accomplished that efficiency just fine; the problem is that it had the effect of creating broad swaths of winners (poor workers in nations that attracted jobs, and corporations and investors) and losers (middle class workers in developed nations who saw their jobs disappear). Even as free trade gave the world cumulative gains, those gains were not spread evenly. An increase in average national GDP does little to help an auto worker whose career, city, and opportunities have all been wiped out by multinational corporations following the pitiless logic of capitalism.
Free trade makes sense, in theory. Global institutions make sense, in theory. The problem is not “globalization,” which is merely a realistic reckoning with the nature of our modern world. The problem is inequality. If the economic gains that came from the more efficient systems that globalization produced were shared equally, people would not be so angry. But they have not. Instead of making plans to protect the workers who were on the losing side of free trade, our government shrugged. Real wages have barely budged for the vast majority of American workers in decades. Meanwhile, the richest people—the investor class—have seen their wealth explode. This is very simple, really. We’ve allowed all of the gains of globalization to go to a tiny few. The rest of the people—the majority, who have seen almost no gains, and a significant minority who have seen their way of life destroyed—are mad. And rightfully so. This is the source of all the “populist anger” we have heard so much about. It is no longer theoretical. It is here, and it is potent.
And what do we have to show for this populist anger, so far? Brexit and Donald Trump. Two bad ideas. The underclass in America, in Europe, and around the world have suffered as a direct result of a very specific set of capitalist policies that have served to concentrate great wealth in the hands of a small minority of people and leave nothing for the rest. These policies were supported by business and put in place and protected by politicians, who are themselves supported by business. There is a specific remedy to these policies, as well: Socialism. By that I mean simply the sharing of the gains of globalization. The workers who have lost out need a viable safety net. Society as a whole needs health care and child care and transportation and Social Security and affordable housing. Poor people sometimes need assistance in the form of cash or food. These are the common sense policies of democratic socialism that we could have been paying for with the gains that have instead gone to build great fortunes for billionaire industrialists.
Populist anger seems to be amorphous. It is rage at the nature of the world, and it often seeks the nearest plausible outlet. So far, the most alluring outlets have been hatred of foreigners and hatred of vague, powerful institutions that many voters don’t really understand. Populist anger thus far has been successfully co-opted by the right wing.
That is sad. And it does not have to be the case. The left has responses to our age of inequality that are not rooted in xenophobia, and racism, and fear of the unknown. There are real ways to make our society more equal and to help people at the same time. We can tax the very rich; we can fund progressive social programs that help single mothers and needy families and poor people and the homeless; we can expand health care; we can create jobs programs rebuilding our national infrastructure to put those who have lost their jobs back to work; we can change the way our political system is financed to make it less responsive to moneyed interests; we can change the way elections are held and the way districts are drawn to make sure that our leaders reflect the makeup of the population. We can take from the rich and give to the poor to bring inequality under control. And we can do it without banning immigrants or destroying international alliances in misguided fits of rage. Angry people, turn your anger towards those who are responsible for your plight! The immigrant fleeing persecution and poverty is your brother. The rich man pointing fingers at the immigrant is not.
The left needs to make its case to the angry people. I admit this is easier said than done. But it needs to be done nevertheless. This is bigger than Bernie Sanders or any other political candidate. This is a historic opportunity to gather broad public support for the kind of socialist ideas that can help prevent us from getting back to this point ever again.
Many people in power are now truly scared. That, by itself, is a good thing. If we allow the situation to progress to the point where populist anger just tears down institutions and lashes out at The Other for pure catharsis, that is a bad thing. That is how wars and persecution and all forms of social evils begin. We all seem to agree that a small class of political and financial elites have brought this anger upon themselves. Now, we can either fix it, or just burn everything down. If we burn everything down, the elites will just escape in their yachts while we’re left with the ashes. So let’s fix it.