Goodbye, Davos man

Pundits haven't realized it yet, but the age of economic globalization is over

Published May 1, 2012 2:57PM (EDT)

Robert Rubin      (AP/Cliff Owen)
Robert Rubin (AP/Cliff Owen)

Now and then there are moments that clarify major trends in politics. Such a moment occurred recently, when François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, agreed with the French far right on the need to further limit immigration to France:  “In a period of crisis, which we are experiencing, limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential.” For his part, Hollande’s opponent Nicolas Sarkozy criticized immigration in his first electoral run and as president of France has denounced deregulated markets.

This is not just a French phenomenon, nor is it limited to immigration policy. In most of the world’s advanced democracies, the egalitarian left and the nationalist right are growing in strength among voters. After three decades in which apostles of financial deregulation, offshoring and immigration liberalization dominated the capitals of major Western countries, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.

You would never know this from the prestige press, which is owned by billionaires and populated by upscale journalists, many of whom were able to begin their journalistic careers as unpaid interns thanks to affluent parents. According to the consensus in the elite media, history runs in one direction toward the merger of national economies in a single global free market, the elimination of borders for labor and the relaxation of restrictions on the free movement of capital. Any moves in the opposite direction represent dangerous backsliding that can only be motivated by racism and xenophobia and that threaten to produce new Hitlers and Mussolinis and trade wars leading to world wars.

But the voters of the industrial democracies are not listening to the elite transatlantic chattering class.  The late political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Man,” after the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, to symbolize the post-national, anti-populist global elite. Davos Man still exists, but he is in danger of going the way of Neanderthal Man. The Davos vision of a dawning post-national free market utopia was cracked by the al-Qaida attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and then shattered by the global financial crash of 2008. Free market globalism continues to be the  orthodoxy in elite economic and journalistic circles, but in politics it has been in retreat for years. It is increasingly clear that libertarian globalism was never the wave of the future, but merely a temporary blip in history between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the twin towers in 2001.

Consider the case of immigration policy. In every advanced nation, including the United States, governments under pressure from voters have moved to tighten up surveillance and control of immigrants, for reasons of national security and protection of the wages and cultures of their citizens from real or imagined threats. Parties of the center-left as well as of the center-right have adopted positions on immigration that would have been considered far-right in the globalist 1990s. America’s Democrats and the Labour Party of Gordon Brown have been forced by voter sentiments to carry out tough immigration policies that elite pundits of the left, right and center have denounced to no effect.

In the world economy, the major trend of our time is the rise of nationalist state capitalism, not the disappearance of national economic boundaries that was predicted by the prophets of globalization like Thomas Friedman following the end of the Cold War. When the world economy collapsed in 2008, leading industrial countries rushed to bail out national firms like America’s GM and Germany’s Opel, giving the lie to the claim that major corporations no longer had national identities. Instead of liberalizing its economy as it developed, China has made its state-owned companies more rather than less important. Most of the world’s energy companies, and a number of major shipping and aerospace industries, are state-controlled. The response in the U.S. has been growing economic nationalism, which is tapped by presidential candidates like Obama and Romney who call for defending and promoting American industry — at least when they are running for office.

It is true that protectionist policies have been limited during the Great Recession, compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. But this arguably reflects the interests of working-class voters rather than the triumph of libertarian globalist ideology. A dwindling majority of wage earners in advanced industrial countries work in manufacturing industries that can be offshored to other countries. Most work in the nontraded domestic service sector. Only a few of them need to worry that their jobs will be sent abroad, but it is rational for many to worry about immigrant competition within their own countries for local service sector jobs. At the same time, the working class in Western democracies benefits from low prices for imports. It is perfectly rational, therefore, for working-class Americans or Europeans to be more concerned about immigrant competition than about trade. On another front, the deregulation of finance, the centerpiece of Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s global economic strategy, is being slowly but inevitably reversed, in the aftermath of the global crisis to which financial deregulation contributed. Unwilling to wait for global agreement on financial regulation, nations are unilaterally re-regulating the financial industry within their own borders. The result will be to reverse much of the financial globalization of recent decades and replace it with a patchwork of different national financial systems.

The Balkanization of global finance along national lines will be accelerated in the decades to come as many governments choose to deploy moderate inflation to burn away much of the public and private debt built up during the Great Recession, as the alternative to politically unpopular spending cuts and tax increases. What is known as “financial repression” — forcing national banks and, through them, national savers to accept government bonds whose value is being eroded by deliberate inflation — is a policy that is helped by a degree of segregation of national banking systems from the world economy. In the future, countries pursuing debt reduction by means of moderate inflation will find it attractive to partly re-nationalize their financial systems for this purpose alone. Most retirees in advanced industrial nations depend primarily for their retirement income on inflation-adjusted public pensions like Social Security, not on private savings. As a result, financial repression will hurt economic elites the most, while doing little harm to the working-class majorities in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Even as nationalism further fragments the global economy along national and regional lines, populism will redraw the map of domestic politics in one country after another, including the United States. Nationalist populists who break with the elite libertarian consensus, even those who, like Ross Perot, are centrist rather than far-right, are routinely demonized by the pundits of the mainstream press, whose moderate libertarian orthodoxy reflects the values and class interests of the owners of the media. But while populist outsiders are marginalized in the media and usually fail at the ballot box, their issues are often co-opted by mainstream conservative and progressive parties, the way that populist opposition to illegal immigration has been co-opted by establishment parties throughout the West in the last decade.   

Votes clearly count, even in plutocratic America. If American public policy reflected the objectives of the 1 percent, then long ago there would have been relaxation of border enforcement and amnesties for illegal immigrants, the privatization or means-testing of Social Security and Medicare and further deregulation of finance. On all of these issues, however, the oligarchic consensus is losing at the ballot box, if not in the editorial pages.

Davos Man is not dead, but he is on life support.  The libertarian globalist moment in world history is over. Free market globalism peaked in the late 1990s, before the rise of al-Qaida and Chinese-style state capitalism, when it appeared briefly that the Reagan-Thatcher version of capitalism represented the future. Most of our politicians and pundits are still living in the mental world of the 1980s and 1990s, but the future has arrived and it is not what libertarian globalists predicted.

Here and there, trade and immigration liberalization will continue, when it serves the interests of particular nations or particular pressure groups. And it will always be important, even in a partly renationalized world, to resist nativist bigotry and misguided forms of protectionism. Even so, the fading vision of inevitable progress toward the free flow of money, goods and labor across national boundaries was never anything more than a utopian fantasy, like the Marxist dream of international fraternity in a socialist world.  Capitalism in some form, partly private and partly statist, will endure. But less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, libertarian globalism has joined communism on the dust heap of history.

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

MORE FROM Michael Lind

Related Topics ------------------------------------------