This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Edoardo Campanella, an author and Future of the World Fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change of IE University in Madrid.
Project Syndicate: You argue that the logic of Brexit was shaped by nostalgia for a past that never existed and the loss of a distinct English identity. Now that the United Kingdom is out of the European Union, will the false promise of Brexit be exposed? Or will UK leaders manage to sustain a sufficient base of emotion-driven support, as US President Donald Trump has, despite pursuing policies that run counter to many of his voters’ interests?
Edoardo Campanella: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the hardcore Brexiteers within his inner circle, continue to leverage history to exaggerate the UK’s true power, deluding citizens into believing that restoring a modern version of the British Empire is within reach. Johnson will probably manage to sustain this fantasy for quite some time, especially if Trump is reelected and provides a trade lifeline to the UK.
But, like all emotions, nostalgia tends to dissipate over time. Before long, the British will no longer be able to ignore reality: a glorious past cannot exist in an ordinary present. That lesson will be taught partly by how difficult it will be for the UK fully to substitute the deep social, political, and economic ties with the European continent that it is losing – a process that will take at least several years. In fact, the UK may never reach any semblance of equivalence on this front.
Challenges to the UK’s own political integrity will reinforce this realization. Scotland and, to some extent, Wales are increasingly considering secession. They harbor far more nostalgia for the EU than they do for the British Empire.
The final threat to Johnson’s support base emerges from within the ranks of the Brexiteers. A silent majority of Leave voters dream of an inward-looking Little England rather than the outward-looking Global Britain Johnson proposes.
PS: Addressing inequality, you have written, requires that we “restore meritocracy to a system that now perpetuates undeserved privileges.” For example, while private donations to top universities should be welcome, legacy admissions of applicants who lack the academic credentials should be banned. But would-be legacy admissions are still likely to possess far more social and cultural capital – powerful family and friends, the “right” accent and manners, and so on – than those from poorer, less educated, or more provincial households. So they would still have an undeserved economic advantage. Is this unavoidable, or are there steps governments could take to level the playing field further?
EC: Unfortunately, establishing a fully meritocratic system is possible only in theory. Even the most egalitarian society will always have to tolerate some degree of socioeconomic injustice. Democratic governments should invest in ensuring that all people – not just those who are able to pay to attend elite schools – can access high-quality education. But even the best public education will never completely offset the disparities arising from family backgrounds. Kids whose parents know how to navigate the system will always have an advantage.
That said, it is important not to demonize those kids, or dismiss all of their achievements as the result of undeserved privileges. It is tolerable to see a kid from a rich family being admitted to a top university, not because of a generous donation, but because the parents fostered and cultivated their child’s talents.
And if it is not tolerable, what is the alternative? A process of socioeconomic purification at birth would be reminiscent of that pursued by communist regimes, whose aspiration to create a society of equals ended in misery, poverty, and death.
PS: In virtually every economy, small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) account for the lion’s share of employment. Yet the overwhelming majority of these firms do not function at the technological frontier. Last year, you wrote that, because “[a] sustainable technological transformation requires widely shared benefits,” helping these firms is “just as important as enabling the innovators to thrive.” What measures do you propose?
EC: The debate about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is highly biased. Most of the predictions about the future of work are based on surveys in which large global corporations – which represent a tiny fraction of employers – are significantly overrepresented. As a result, public debate on the topic is also biased.
This skewed approach induces policymakers to set educational and employment priorities that serve the interests of the minority on the technological frontier, ignoring the needs of the overwhelming majority – the laggards that are still operating within the framework of the Third Industrial Revolution. For these laggards, technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality are not priorities.
What can governments do? For starters, they should begin surveying smaller firms, in order to gain a clearer picture of where those firms stand on the technological spectrum. This is particularly crucial in the West, where the gap between technological leaders and laggards is widening fast.
Moreover, with the support of business associations, governments should implement training programs for SMEs, aimed at expanding awareness of emerging technologies. And when innovation suddenly disrupts an industry – a relatively rare occurrence – policymakers should introduce some form of light regulation to buy time for small entrepreneurs to adapt and react, thereby staving off massive employment losses and preventing a populist backlash.
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We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Campanella's picks:
by Mark Honigsbaum
I had this book on my bedside table for a while before the coronavirus outbreak piqued my curiosity, and I finally started it. I’m glad I did. Honigsbaum reviews the pandemics that have plagued humanity over the last century, from the Spanish flu that killed 50 million people in 1918-1920 to more recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks. He reminds us that predatory pathogens are always lurking around us, waiting for the right moment to attack. And, as we are witnessing with the coronavirus, despite massive scientific advances, each epidemic poses new challenges
by Ben Macintyre
Officially a senior KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky was actually the most senior Soviet spy for MI6 – and by far one of the most intriguing and influential figures of the Cold War. For more than a decade, he passed to the British valuable intelligence from the KGB’s London bureau, which he led. A death sentence for treason awaits him in Russia. Based on interviews with Gordievsky himself, Macintyre’s book reads like a John le Carré spy story. It is a masterpiece.
by Krishan Kumar
Empire is usually synonymous with greed, brute force, and oppression. Kumar tells a different story. Focusing on five of the most successful imperial endeavors in history, he depicts empires as sweeping experiments in multinationalism and multiculturalism. At a time of receding globalization and rising nationalism, the book offers refreshing insights into how to manage and value diversity within a common political space.
From the PS Archive
Campanella explains why Joseph Stiglitz, Jean Pisani-Ferry, Harold James, and other leading thinkers are so worried about youth marginalization. Read the long view.
Campanella calls attention to Europe's slow-brewing poverty crisis, particularly among the young, for which no quick fix exists. Read the commentary.
Around the web
In an article for Foreign Policy, Campanella described the UK as a "diminished nation in search of an empire." Read the commentary.
In a piece for VOXEU, Campanella and co-author Daniel Vernazza explained why a banking crisis in China may be unavoidable. Read the article.