French economist Thomas Piketty used a century’s worth of data to show two terrifying things:
- The return on capital is higher than overall economic growth, so the rich tend to get richer and society becomes increasingly unequal over time.
- Only one thing quickly and reliably reduces inequality: war (or its near-relative and frequent progenitor, revolution).
Can our finance-driven, globalized hypercapitalism be tamed enough to make it compatible with democracy? Maybe. If we don’t figure out how, we’ll lose our comfortable Western democracies and the already shaky international liberal order they both model and support. We have maybe 20 years to save democracy and secure a progressive planetary order for the next century or two.
In my previous piece, I showed how we’ve tackled medium-sized clusterfucks, like acid rain or HIV/AIDS, using focused action on multiple fronts over a decade or more.
We need to apply that problem-solving skill to the systemic threat facing democracy.
Democracy’s two extinction-level threats in the United States and the UK are economic inequality and the quite rational political alienation it drives. Both countries are in the throes of a legitimacy crisis. Nothing feels right, for anyone. We have collectively lost faith in our future. Brexit and Trump showed that it’s not just economists who’ve noticed the system isn’t working.
A bit like the archetypal white working man each country imagines as its essential self, the UK and United States are both uniquely privileged yet manage to feel exceptionally hard done by. Leaders of each cultivate a “snowflake sovereignty” that believes cooperating with other countries is just another way to get screwed.
We have a substance problem, not a marketing problem. The answer is not to shut up about identity politics because it offends Rust Belt Man or, in the UK, True Labour Voter (also male). We won’t win by segmenting the audience and selling it a new version of the culture wars.