The White House, the shrine of neoliberal capitalism, has become the latest and by far the biggest victim to globalisation, or its discontents – to be specific. Donald Trump, in his victory speech, called his election campaign a movement. And a movement it was. Though just one of the hundreds of movements shaped by discontent to globalisation worldwide, this uprising is so spectacular because it has happened not in some distant outpost of the empire, but in Rome itself.
The poor rising against the rich makes the perfect narrative in journalism. Storytellers are keen to portray every uprising as an insurrection of the wretched of the earth and every coup as a revolution. Even serious analysts can make the mistake of confusing material discontent to globalisation with the reactions created by ideological or cultural reasons.
In March this year, the Atlantic magazine tried to make sense of Trump’s following. According to the magazine: “The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree….Although white men without a college education haven’t suffered the same historical discrimination as blacks or women, their suffering is not imagined.”
The magazine referred to findings by The Hamilton Project that found that the full-time, full-year employment rate of men without a bachelor’s degree fell from 76 percent in 1990 to 68 percent in 2013. “While real wages have grown for men and women with a four-year degree or better in the last 25 years, they’ve fallen meaningfully for non-college men”, the magazine quoted an expert working with the project .
In December 2015, the Economist conducted a survey of “Europe’s Little Trumps”, populist leaders who are gaining ground across the continent. The Economist noted that “support for xenophobic populism is strongest among those who are older, non-university educated, working class, white and male.” The opposition to these leaders, according to the Economist came from younger, educated, working in service and professional jobs, and comfortable with diversity. Similar demographics were observed in the case of Brexit voters as well.
However, this is only half the story. As Nate Silver, a statisticians and Special Correspondent of ABC News observed: “As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter… in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. It’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.”
If we combine the two analyses, it is clear that Trump supporters are a section of American population – albeit a very large one – who are better off but are feeling left out from the gains of globalisation and want to stem the tide of global movement of goods, services and people. For supporters of big Trump and little Trumps, movement of people, causing threats to identity, is as threatening as movement of goods and services that poses threats to jobs.
As Fareed Zakaria observed: “But it’s not just about economics. The most disruptive element of all has turned out to be not the free and fast movement of goods, services, and information across the planet, but of people. The migration of people in and out of countries has produced an emotional backlash against immigration, refugees, and indeed the entire idea of globalization. Economic issues affect the head; identity issues hit the heart.”
Economic growth that aggravates inequality has been a perfect recipe for uprisings in the modern age. In 1962, James C Davies presented his J-curve theory. The theory states that revolutions are most likely to occur when periods of prolonged improvements concerning economic and social development are supplanted by a period of sharp reversal.
According to Davies: “Revolutions do not usually occur in impoverished societies. The reason is that when people are preoccupied with their physical survival, the community-sense and consensus on joint political actions goes down and thus also the likelihood for revolutions to occur. Even though physical deprivation is to some extent present at the onset of revolutions, it is seldom the primary cause.”
In our part of the world, the uprising against Shah of Iran happened after the ‘White Revolution’, a historic period of prosperity ushered due to oil exports. In Pakistan, a movement against Ayub Khan was shaped towards the end of the ‘Decade of Development’, a period of unprecedented growth and rising inequality.
Starting from the beginning of history, uprisings have been a norm rather than an exception, both in democracies and dictatorships. While in dictatorships, uprisings can result in serious violence and widespread disruption, in democracies they result in accommodation and re-adjustments. In fragile or new democracies, however, uprisings can also result in the reversal of a democratic experiment.
It is clear that very often uprisings are not staged by those who find themselves at the bottom of the heap. The backlash from the relatively privileged to turn the tide is even more likely due to their relative social power. Another important point to remember is the fact that humans not only fight for power and material resources but also for identity and symbols.
In India, democracy gave lower castes a chance to gang up against the upper castes. Through caste politics, they have been able to extract sizable concessions from the state and have also been able to rule a number of states through their representative parties. Using religion and identity as an emblem, upper castes and well-off classes have been able to stage their own insurgency against the lower castes via the BJP, though Muslims are seen as symbolic outsiders of this brand of identity politics.
Pakistan, soon after its creation, went into the hands of the salariat who ruled it with the help of their client crony capitalists and local electables. The PPP’s uprising against Ayub’s dictatorship was backed by the classes that had been left out by the arrangement. However, the ruling salariat soon had its revenge and ‘normalcy’ was restored by Ziaul Haq after the PNA movement.
In Pakistan, peasants and small farmers have been harmed the most by globalisation. However, due to lack of education, it is hard for them to make a logical link between their misery and globalisation. They also lack a political platform as all major parties conveniently ignore them.
The discontent to globalisation has been mainly articulated by the religious groups and the educated middle class, mainly for identity reasons. This discontent has also brought them together under the PTI’s banner in an amusing manner, making Western-educated men and women share the dance floor with bearded Taliban supporters.
Will the success of big Trump be followed by the triumph of our own little Trump? Reading tea leaves has become an arduous business after the failure of the survey industry in the US.