The financial calamity of 2008 laid bare ugly problems in the global economic order. The mess has now festered into a political crisis that jeopardizes the link between market-driven economies and representative democracy.
So argues Martin Wolf, the most influential living British economics writer, in a Wednesday column for the Financial Times titled “Capitalism and Democracy: The Strain is Showing.” Fixing the economic norms most English-speaking people refer to as “capitalism,” Wolf argues, will be difficult. But a first step requires rethinking what elites have referred to for three decades as “free trade” or “globalization.”
“Those of us who wish to preserve both liberal democracy and global capitalism must confront serious questions,” Wolf writes. “One is whether it makes sense to promote further international agreements that tightly constrain national regulatory discretion in the interests of existing corporations. My view increasingly echoes that of Prof Lawrence Summers of Harvard, who has argued that ‘international agreements [should] be judged not by how much is harmonised or by how many barriers are torn down but whether citizens are empowered.’ Trade brings gains but cannot be pursued at all costs.”
The global economic order of the past three decades has privileged a few elites ― who have seen their incomes and political power expand ― at the expense of a far greater number of working people ― who have seen their incomes stagnate and their political influence wane. Global economic rules allow jobs to be offshored and capital to be reallocated in ways that do not benefit the vast majority of people who vote in elections. The idea that markets promoting individual choice are compatible with democratic forms of government has become an open question, according to Wolf.
These words are an intellectual assault on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ― two major international pacts spearheaded by President Barack Obama. Public controversy surrounding TTIP is largely constrained within the European Union at the moment, but the TPP has become one of the most important issues of the 2016 U.S. presidential election ― though it rarely receives coverage on cable news.
The TPP is modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization treaties that preceded it. The deal would grant corporations the right to challenge the laws and regulations of sovereign governments before a secretive international tribunal. Labor unions, environmental activists and other representatives of civil society would not be afforded the same privilege. The agreement is widely viewed as an effort to give multinational corporations greater influence over political decision-making.
Wolf and Summers are not revolutionaries armed with hammers and sickles. They are deeply respected by and embedded within the global economic elite, so much so that both are viewed with skepticism ― and in Summers’ case, often outright hostility ― by American progressives.
Most of the millennials who searched in vain for jobs during the Great Recession are too young to remember the 1999 riots in Seattle, in which thousands of protesters briefly took over an American city to voice opposition to the WTO ― which, despite their efforts, became a foundational piece of today’s global economic architecture. At the time, protesters argued the WTO would degrade working standards, decimate labor unions, pollute the environment and harm public health. Above all, it would undermine democracy, replacing the judgments of democratic governments with those of an unaccountable international body.
For at least a decade afterward, these protesters were mocked as ignorant Luddites incapable of understanding the complex benefits of international trade. Wolf ― who authored the 2004 book Why Globalization Works ― now appears to be cautiously taking up their cause, though not their methods.
Wolf outlines two frightening, burgeoning alternatives to resetting the current system of elite-driven international capitalism. One is a globalist plutocracy where, “as in the Roman empire, the forms of republics might endure but the reality would be gone.” The other option emerging on the world political stage is one of “illiberal democracies or outright plebiscitary dictatorships, in which the elected ruler exercises control over both the state and capitalists.” A less polite word for this form of government is fascism.
It is not hard to see shadows of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Wolf’s thinking. Donald Trump has run a fascist campaign, to which the Republican establishment has responded with impotent hand-wringing. The Democratic establishment, meanwhile, has spent the past year defending Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and the influx of money from rogue dictatorships to the Clinton Foundation. Their arguments ― that accepting dirty money is not evidence of quid pro quo corruption ― sound an awful lot like the logic behind the Supreme Court’s unpopular Citizens United ruling, which found that the appearance of corruption is not an issue that democratic societies need be concerned with. There is more than a whiff of globalist plutocracy in these defenses.
It is not unusual for market economies to face political crisis. They did so in Europe after the First World War, and around the world during the Great Depression. Europe responded with a shrug resulting in what Wolf refers to obliquely as “the 1930s.”
But the New Deal in the United States and a similar reshaping of European economic policy after the Second World War re-democratized economies around the world. The same could be done again today. Rejecting the existing global economic order does not require rejecting markets outright. Money “is a measure of political power that has been stored for later use,” as Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets program at the New America Foundation wrote in his book Cornered. Markets are not ungoverned, freewheeling independent physical forces. They are shaped by political rules, and democratic peoples can set standards on their markets that have democratically beneficial political results.
As Wolf writes: “If the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few.”