I am one of the lucky ones. The forces of globalization have been very good to me. By all reasonable standards in an increasingly unreasonable world, I am privileged and well-off. I have the pride to believe that I earned it through hard work, but also the humility to recognize I was offered opportunities along the way that have allowed me to have come from a humble background to leading this life.
When I travel and visit my less well-off family in Belgium, Spain or Switzerland, far from the fancy neighborhoods of our insanely expensive capitals, living from pay check to pay check in run-down dwellings or semi-permanent trailer parks, my heart sinks. In places like these, all over the developed world, hidden from the spotlights, even the hope of the younger generation has been taken away. They have been clubbed down under exploding student debt and neglected by a general lack of state investment, condemned to become “white trash”. Unintegrated minorities are not doing any better. Collectively they form an underpaid renter generation forced to live with their parents rather than change the world.
This is the result of the self-serving policies of a ruling class that is no longer, but for rare exceptions, the best among us, of a leadership vacuum that feeds ever growing levels of dysfunction. A majority of increasingly incompetent and corrupt Western leaders, publicly scrutinized for their private sex lives rather than their ability to govern, keep selling out the future, granting extraordinary rights and privileges to a few rent extractors at the expense of the many. Blinded by greed, the “ruling elite,” ignoring the common good, fails to even recognize the resulting cost and pain.
We have reached a tipping point. The implosion of our political system and societies has become all too real a possibility, if not the likely outcome. The derided dissenters, now immune to elite opprobrium, have started to publicly express an unarticulated nationalist anger, surprising even themselves by their audacity to challenge the established order and discovering, in the process, that they are the majority. Yet this volatile rejection of the status quo has so far been unable to produce cohesive rational solutions and could ultimately make things worse.
I believe the populist insurgents, contrary to the impression given by prevailing media coverage, are largely correct about what has gone wrong, but, dangerously, know far less about how to make it right. I believe we should listen respectfully, to acknowledge that the populists have a valid point, that they are not just simpletons nor backwards, racist xenophobes. I believe it is time to reflect on what policies would restore some necessary balance, a renewed role for core government and a renegotiated, reinvigorated, social contract.