We have been in trouble for some time before things took a turn for the worst this year. I’ve been reading the book Identity by Francis Fukuyama which traces the progress of identity and concludes unless we forge a universal understanding of human dignity, we’re doomed to unending conflict.
We have seen in America with the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” and in the UK with the Boris Johnson slogan “Get Brexit Done” there is a growth in nationalism. This is not new but today it is a growing culture in many countries across the globe.
Nationalism was born from industrialisation when people who lived and worked in the rural economy had to confront the realities of the industrial revolution. Many who migrated from the countryside to the cities left behind a life of certainty for a life of uncertainty.
The rural way of life that had been established over generations with the young living in the same house as their parents and grandparents, they married those found to be acceptable by their parents and continued working on the same plot of land as their fathers had done before them.
For the young men who left for the cities the stability of their past lives where friends and relatives who knew them best would provide the needed support in times of sickness or a bad harvest no longer applied.
The fear and uncertainty back then have not disappeared, and it is greater today than it has been in decades with a rise in populism and political leaders who are classed as populist. This is changing the way we vote with leaders being voted into power with more authoritarian and xenophobic values.
Support for populist authoritarian parties is motivated by a backlash against change and the main common theme of populist authoritarian parties on both sides of the Atlantic today is a reaction against immigration and cultural change.
Authoritarian populist support is concentrated among the older generation, the less-educated, men, the religious, and the ethnic majority. These groups hold traditional cultural values and older voters are much likelier than younger voters to support populist leaders.
This reflects the fact that in recent decades, a large share of the population of high-income countries has experienced declining real income and job security along with rising income inequality and growing insecurity. Additionally, a large influx of immigrants has arrived in rich countries.
For most of the twentieth century, the working class in developed countries voted for left-oriented parties, while middle and upper-class voters supported right-oriented parties. Governments of the left tend to bring redistribution and income equality, largely through their influence on the size of the welfare state. Parties of the class-based left successfully fought for greater economic equality.
Since 1991, the real incomes of not only the less educated, but even those of college graduates and people with post-graduate educations have stagnated. High-income societies are now entering the stage of Artificial Intelligence Society. This brings substantial economic gains but inherently tends to produce a winner takes all economy in which the gains go almost entirely to those at the top.
In this society the key economic conflict is no longer between a working class and a middle class, but between the top one per cent and the remaining 99pc. To deal with this change government intervention will be required to reallocate a significant portion of resources into creating meaningful jobs in infrastructure, environmental protection, health care, education, research and development, care of the elderly, and the arts and humanities.
We must restore dignity and a quality of life for society, rather than blindly maximising GDP.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]