In many Western democracies, right-wing populists, energised by self-proclaimed victories over "establishment elites", are doubling down on the claim that globalisation lies at the root of many citizens' problems. For those whose living standards have stagnated or declined in recent decades, even as political leaders have touted free trade and capital flows as the recipe for increased prosperity, the argument holds considerable appeal. So it must be addressed head on. Of course, economic grievances alone do not fuel anti-globalisation sentiment; populism has emerged even in countries with low unemployment and rising incomes. But such grievances provide the kernel of truth that populist leaders need to attract support, which they then attempt to secure with distortions and exaggerations.
There are two important electoral events in Britain and Spain in the coming weeks that show how afraid we are of "populism". While these elections concern very different matters - the British are voting on whether to stay in the European Union and the Spaniards for the national elections - the accusations of populism are common to both. Conservatives, socialists, and liberals in both countries accuse Nigel Farage, of UKIP, and Pablo Iglesias, of Podemos, of being dangerous demagogues appealing to popular sentiments instead of rational arguments. The problem for the political establishment is not that the former is a racist nationalist politician or the latter a leftist progressive leader, but rather that both will probably do well at the polls. This ongoing panic over the so-called return of populism in Europe is an indication not only that something has ceased to work among traditional parties but also that their strategy is to generalise a political phenomenon that spans different stances.
Last year's political upheavals in the Anglo-American world continue to reverberate. Whether they support or oppose the U.S.-led international economic, financial and military order, or whether they think of themselves as politically moderate or neutral, people around the world continue to ask a common question: What happened, and why? The upending of establishment politics has especially shocked political and business leaders in the global elite. Whether in the cold, crisp air of the World Economic Forum in Davos or in the conference rooms of international think tanks, the world's strongest supporters of the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit status quo gather to assess the damage to their power and credibility, and ponder whether what they see as an international wave of populist revolt could wash up on the shores of whatever country their own passport has been issued. Like the characters in Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel about a populist revolution in the U.S. that leads to fascism, Japanese establishment figures rush to assure international bankers, mainstream business journalists, ambitious academic courtiers and titans of global industry that it can't happen here.
Much of the discussion of the fourth industrial revolution relates to the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, and big data on the world of work and business. It could lead to huge gains in productivity, wealth creation and human happiness. Equally, it may kill millions of jobs, fuel social tensions, and widen inequality. Civil society's place in this massive societal shake-out, reckons Andy Haldane, is relatively unexplored – but it will be profound. Haldane, the Bank of England's chief economist, is regarded as a "maverick" thinker among central bankers on account not only of his views on banking and financial regulation, but society more widely: from poverty ("scarcity of money reshapes your brain and reshapes your decision-making") to the importance of trade unions.
The internet age made big promises to us: a new period of hope and opportunity, connection and empathy, expression and democracy. Yet the digital medium has aged badly because we allowed it to grow chaotically and carelessly, lowering our guard against the deterioration and pollution of our infosphere. We sought only what we wanted – entertainment, cheaper goods, free news and gossip – and not the deeper understanding, dialogue or education that would have served us better. The appetite for populism is not a new problem. In the ferocious newspaper battles of 1890s New York, the emerging sensational style of journalism in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal was dubbed "yellow journalism" by those concerned with maintaining standards, adherence to accuracy and an informed public debate.