The Abdication of the Left

RONDA, SPAIN – As the world reels from the Brexit shock, it is dawning on economists and policymakers that they severely underestimated the political fragility of the current form of globalization. The popular revolt that appears to be underway is taking diverse, overlapping forms: reassertion of local and national identities, demand for greater democratic control and accountability, rejection of centrist political parties, and distrust of elites and experts.

This backlash was predictable. Some economists, including me, did warn about the consequences of pushing economic globalization beyond the boundaries of institutions that regulate, stabilize, and legitimize markets. Hyper-globalization in trade and finance, intended to create seamlessly integrated world markets, tore domestic societies apart.

The bigger surprise is the decidedly right-wing tilt the political reaction has taken. In Europe, it is predominantly nationalists and nativist populists that have risen to prominence, with the left advancing only in a few places such as Greece and Spain. In the United States, the right-wing demagogue Donald Trump has managed to displace the Republican establishment, while the leftist Bernie Sanders was unable to overtake the centrist Hillary Clinton.

As an emerging new establishment consensus grudgingly concedes, globalization accentuates class divisions between those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t. Income and class cleavages, in contrast to identity cleavages based on race, ethnicity, or religion, have traditionally strengthened the political left. So why has the left been unable to mount a significant political challenge to globalization?