As Europeans flocked to the polls this May, elections for the European Parliament had never seemed so momentous. The idea of Europe is under siege all across the continent. The once-United Kingdom has gone furthest in repudiating Europe, although its main political parties are so riven by the issue that it looks increasingly likely to leave without agreeing to terms of separation. Europe is discredited in its southern periphery by the disastrous handling of the Euro crisis, in its eastern marches by a corrosive mistrust of democracy and liberal values, and in its West European core by populist rejection of globalization and Syrian refugees. The outcome of the EP elections was much less grim than forecast and was not immediately disastrous. The European Parliament plays a key role in governance of the EU, but a mainstream coalition can still be cobbled together that will allow it to function, and the disparate nationalists who will become the newest MEPs will more likely be noisy than coordinated. It is not, in any case, nearly as important as Europe’s national parliaments.
As a harbinger of things to come, however, this election was grim. Nationalists, populists and fascists of every stripe voted in record numbers. On the positive side, turnout was higher than it has been for many years, and pro-European voters finally woke up from their complacency to resist a populist take-over, but the parties of the center-right and center-left that have traditionally run European politics were routed. Greens and liberals made some gains, especially in Germany, but the key result was that the main, established parties were rejected across the board. Even the populist upstart Five Star movement, which had seemed to reshape the landscape of Italian politics as recently as last year, was swept away by another nationalist party, the League. As in global stock markets, so in European party politics, the new watchword is volatility. Parliamentary democracies lack most of the checks and balances that stabilize American democracy, so they depend heavily on the established identities of their political parties. As voters become increasingly disillusioned, that bedrock is eroded, and it becomes a real possibility that democracy can be voted out of existence. Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland are moving to the right and consolidating power, and in both countries their parties swept the European Parliament elections. Europe appears to be taking another lurch to the right, and away from its core democratic values.
The fact that the same thing is happening on every continent gives one pause. National populists are ascendant in Russia, Turkey, India, the Philippines, Australia, Brazil and the United States. There are special features in each case, but is there a common cause?
A factor that has profound consequences everywhere is the accelerating pace of globalization. Globalization is the continuation of a process of economic transformation that began in Europe around the year 1200, a time when almost the entire population of Europe was engaged in subsistence agriculture on a very small scale, using very primitive technology. The process began with the reestablishment of long-distance trade, which had broken down after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The development of trade made possible specialization, investment, urbanization, and technological change. The results overthrew the feudal economic and political order of Europe, and eventually spread and transformed the entire world. This process of technological, economic and social change has accelerated in the modern era.
The United States gave a substantial impetus to globalization after the conclusion of the Second World War by creating a network of multilateral institutions that facilitated broad cooperation in international trade and finance. Nations became interdependent in unprecedented ways. Everyone, everywhere, became dependent upon global markets for their livelihoods. Living standards rose at rates that had never been seen before, but the risks of interdependence rose as well. Technological change devastated whole industries, and fluctuations of commodity prices and exchange rates devastated economies.
Three features of globalization have become defining characteristics of our time. I think of them as the transformation of the developing world, the transformation of time, and the transformation of the natural world.
The transformation of the developing world has proceeded by fits and starts that were punctuated by wars and slowed by the policies of bad governments. In its broad sweep, however, it was more or less inevitable. Vast masses of humanity could not remain untouched forever by the technological change sweeping the rest of the world. This is how we should think about the rise of China, India, Brazil, and numerous other countries. Countries with very large, very poor populations need only raise their living standards from absolute immiseration to relative poverty in order to achieve tremendous economic growth. Rise, though, is an inadequate way to describe the massive social and economic dislocations brought about by development, and does not begin to hint at the unmet needs and simmering conflicts within developing societies.
Time has been transformed by the acceleration of technological, economic and social change. The sleepy pace of change that used to be the norm in isolated communities is now the exception, and comfortable ways of thinking no longer apply. It used to be the case that a parent could confidently instruct a child in how to live a comfortable and prosperous life, but what worked in the past is no longer a reliable guide to what will work in the future. Children will not be able to follow in the footsteps of their parents. They will no longer be able to work in the same industries or for the same firms, live in the same places, or engage in the same kinds of activities. They will need completely different sets of skills to be productive in the modern economy, and they will need to change their professions much more frequently. In the course of two generations the majority of the American population that lived on the land and engaged in agriculture had to find other occupations. In the coming generation, almost all manufacturing jobs will be replaced by automation, and all of those workers will be displaced. It will become increasingly difficult to be a member of the middle class with only a high school diploma.
The transformation of the natural world is the most challenging crisis of our time. Economic development has now reached a stage where continuing along our current path will be unsustainable. Climate change threatens to wipe out much of the biodiversity on which our ecosystem depends. Global food and fresh water supplies will be disrupted, and we face the prospect of vast numbers of climate refugees. I recently returned from Zambia, where the growing season has shortened by two months because rainfall patterns have changed. Zambians call the dry season the hunger season. The pace of climate change, in turn, is accelerating.
Populists would like to reverse the process of globalization, and somehow turn the clock back to a more comfortable era, but globalization cannot be reversed at any acceptable cost. The current world population of 7.7 billion people cannot be sustained without an interconnected global economy. Our current level of interdependence will only increase, and meeting global challenges such as climate change will require global efforts. This brings us back to Europe, and to the challenge of populism at home, because if we cannot restore a degree of predictability to politics in the world’s leading democracies, the window of opportunity to contain climate change within acceptable bounds in the next ten years may close.
Randall W. Stone is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies.