The irresistible features of Western populism

What characterizes Western populism ? Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, gives the following answer:

In the aggregate, national populists oppose or reject liberal globalisation, mass immigration and the consensus politics of recent times. They promise instead to give voice to those who feel that they have been neglected, if not held in contempt, by increasingly distant elites.

Given the rise of populism in the West, what is so attractive about this opposition to liberal globalization, mass immigration and consensus politics? Some very basic human needs. And although one would expect every politician to address these needs, populists somehow manage to be more convincing to a growing group of people. Here they are:

  1. Populists tackle people’s cultural need to come home somewhere.
    • Populists show that they realize that unlimited globalization leads to homelessness. A world that only facilitates free movements of people and ideas across the globe, makes people feel lost in their own country, city or street. ‘The world’ is too big and too diverse to provide a local neighborhood that feels safe and familiar. To feel at home somewhere, we need to understand the language of our neighbors, appreciate a common set of customs and attitudes, and share some basic values and convictions. Without these, a society becomes socially disintegrated and culturally perplexed.
  2. Populists tackle people’s social need to be seen and economic need to be protected.
    • Populists show that they realize that people on the losing end of globalization, automation and robotics cannot keep hearing that these changes are unavoidable. They need politicians who can make them feel that they actually care about the ‘forgotten ones’ in society, and are willing to take an uncompromising stand in protecting their well-being.
  3. Populists tackle people’s political need for clarity and leadership.
    • Populists show that they realize that people who are not trained to deal with complex issues can feel more and more lost in a world that gets more and more complicated. This group is not waiting for academic reflections on the uncertainty and ambiguity of things, but for a clear description of both the problem and the solution, and robust leadership when it comes to pursuing this solution.

So, here is the good news about Western populism: it raises awareness of some basic human needs that are currently insufficiently addressed, forcing other politicians to respond as well. The solutions that populists promote, are, however, not without a price:

  1. Populists promote nationalism at the cost of global collaboration.
    • Protecting national cultures and economies won’t solve issues that still require international collaboration (cyber crime, nuclear risks, pandemics, international crime, global terrorism, climate change, etc.) It also won’t stop the dependency of countries on international trade. Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in combining all three: securing people’s cultural homes and securing international trade and securing the planet’s future. A juggle as difficult as it is unavoidable.
  2. Populists provoke disappointment by over-shouting themselves.
    • In their effort to respond to people’s need for clarity and leadership, it is tempting for populists to bring a lot of misery in society back to one enemy or cause. Build a wall, leave the EU, stop the immigrants, fight Islam, and most will be well. This simplicity won’t last. One day, reality will reveal the true complexity of things – and who will people then believe? Somehow, the ‘art of the deal’ lies in offering a clear vision to people who deal with uncertainties, a vision that secures people’s well-being and keeps everyone participating, but without hiding unavoidable costs and difficulties.

Here are 2 lessons for Western politics we can draw from the above:

  1. Don’t make people choose between nationalism or globalism, but invest in both a cultural home and collaboration across borders.
  2. Don’t make people choose between compelling simplicity or realistic complexity, but invest in the clarity and leadership that is required to keep everyone on board in a transitioning society.

This last point I will pick up in a later blog.

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Europe has a simple choice: be the world’s 4th giant or a bunch of glorious dwarfs

If the GDP projections of PwC are correct, not a single European country will sit at the table when the G8 gathers in 2050. Germany can still join the G8 in 2030, but not the country that is currently most absorbed by defending its sovereignty: the United Kingdom.

Source: PwC (2017)

Of course, projections like these should be taken with a substantial grain of salt. But it sends a crystal clear message to Europe: now is the time to make up your mind! What do you really want? Be the 4th giant in the world – next to China, India and the US – or settle for glorious dwarfness by prioritizing national sovereignty over European unity?

Economically, the EU is already a giant. It is the world’s second-largest economy by GDP. But as long as the EU doesn’t grow up as a political entity (with one democratically chosen leader speaking on behalf of all EU members and citizens), we will continue to see a mind-boggling contradiction t between the EU’s strength as economic power and weakness as political leader, illustrated by the survey below:

Source: Pew Research Center (2017)

Below PwC’s ranking of the top-32 economies in 2016, 2030 en 2050. Europe is rapidly losing ground in the market place. Time to make up its mind. The current EU-approach is neither fish nor fowl, with for example a G20 containing both leaders of individual EU-countries and a representative of the EU. The more the rankings below become a reality, the more European countries will have to decide: splendid isolation as sovereign nations or significant participation as united EU.

Source: PwC (2017)

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18 of the last 20 centuries China and India were the biggest economies

Source: Michael Cembalest, Angus Maddison (2008), updated by Visual Capitalist

A quick look at the above chart and you may be surprised to see that China and India were by far the biggest economies in the first 18 of the last 20 centuries. Sure, it is all based on estimations and using different time intervals on the x-axis is actually not done. But nevertheless, we can draw some valuable insights from this chart.

Until 1800, economic progress was largely linear and linked to population growth. The more people, the bigger the share of GDP in the global economy. Hence the leading position of China and India. Already 2000 years ago, 60% of the world’s population lived in these two countries (thanks to a growing amount of tea, cotton and rice).

Source: Derek Thompson (2012)

But then the Industrial Revolution changed the game altogether: suddenly, productivity started determining a country’s share of GDP in the world’s economy. Europe and the United States could produce way more wealth with their factories than the size of their population would indicate. It gave them a head start in economic power, which they unashamedly translated into military power. China and India faced severe humiliations from the West in the last 2 centuries.

But things are changing dramatically again. China and India are catching up, with China behaving like a petrol engine and India like a diesel engine (needing more time to warm up). The leverage of the West is diminishing, their head start disappearing. And this time, China and India can combine their industrial power with their immense population. Once both countries are ‘up to date’ and ‘up to scale’, their huge work force and internal market will allow them to go above and beyond. China may have reached this point already, India is on its way.

Once all of the catching up is done, we will see an economic world order that shouldn’t surprise anyone: a world order that existed already for 18 of the last 20 centuries and only got disrupted for 200 years.

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Pick whatever empire; it started with successful farmers (2/2)

No urban achievements without agricultural achievements. On 14 December 2012 we saw how this was true for the Egyptians and Maya. Now let’s take a look at the Greek, the Romans, the Asians and the Northern Europeans.

The Greek
Greece has never been blessed with a lot of fertile soil. In Ancient times, less than 20% of the land could be used for farming. So, as soon as the Greek had figured out how to follow the Phoenicians in building reliable ships (around 800 BC), they started sailing the Black and Mediterranean Sea, establishing some 500 colonies in fertile areas. This marked the beginning of a flourishing civilization with city states building a powerful culture on food that was shipped from other places.

greece

The Romans
Like the ancient cities of Greece, there would not have a been a big and powerful Rome without a steady stream of food supplies from other parts of Europe. According to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, North Africa supplied Rome eight months of the year, Egypt the other four.

So, feel free to build your metropole anywhere you like, just make sure you have some friends that are able and willing to feed you on a daily basis.

The Asians
In Asia we see a pretty clear pattern: cultivate rice and empires arise. Behind the power and cultural achievements of the Gupta dynasty in India (320-535), the Tang dynasty in China (618-907) and the Silla dynasty in Korea (668-935) lies a massive investment in new rice fields. The same can be said about the powerful states of Java and Sumatra in the same period.

Northern Europeans
It wasn’t much fun being a farmer in Northern Europe before the heavy plough arrived in the Middle Ages. Until then, ploughs couldn’t plough deep enough to turn over the heavy clay soil. But the heavy plough made it possible, and around 1000 AD the land between the Loire and the Elbe had become a patchwork of grain fields. And as clay soil was more fertile than the lighter soil types of Southern Europe, this caused a major power shift from the south to the north. Professor Thomas Barnebeck Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark:

The heavy plough turned European agriculture and economy on its head. Suddenly the fields with the heavy, fatty and moist clay soils became those that gave the greatest yields.

The economy in these places improved and this sparked the growth of big cities with more people and more trade. The heavy plough started an upward spiral in new areas.

My point may be clear: no urban achievements without agricultural achievements.

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