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Moving forward in a fragmented world

The last fifty years has seen the most astonishing progress in humanity’s entire existence; more people lifted out of poverty than ever before; more children reach maturity; public health aims to eradicate infectious diseases altogether, not just contain them; according to some estimates, more people die today from eating too much than not having enough; and deaths from reported suicides exceed deaths from war, terrorism and crime combined.  All these have been achieved in a world underpinned by the twin progress of global economic integration and cooperation, and the rise of liberal democracy. And yet growing numbers of people in many parts of the world are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the status quo, feeling angry and aggrieved, and believe that the political elites have neglected them or treated them unfairly, and are now supporting populist politicians on the far right, captivated by promises to roll things back to a better past.

This may appear at first glance puzzling, but upon reflection, may be not be so surprising. People think less in terms of data and analysis, but in stories which resonate with their direct experiences. The traditional liberal narrative that accompanied the past fifty years of social and material progress consists primarily of two mutually supporting story lines: globalization delivers economic wellbeing and democratic liberalization delivers political wellbeing. Recent events like Brexit and the US election indicate that either a significant number of people never believed in this liberal narrative, or stopped believing in it at some point. Much of the rise of far-right populism focuses on negative impacts on jobs and income of certain segments of the population in the US and Europe, as a result of globalization, trade and changes in technology. Some observers also highlight the disastrous social and economic dislocations caused by the 2008-09 global financial crisis. Yet others point to the trend of rising income inequality in many parts of the world as the key to understand growing public disenchantment with the political status quo.

All these are factors that contribute to this alienation, which in turn undermines the credibility of the traditional liberal narrative. However, at a deeper level, I believe it failed because it never resolved the tension between diversity and communality, i.e. over past decades diversity has been embraced as an intrinsic positive value, meaning economic and cultural openness, as well as equality for all. Yet, side by side with this march of diversity is also the reality that many people continue to live their lives rooted in their communities that are very much local, often tightly knitted through traditional ties and shared cultural backgrounds, ethnic identities and experiences. This sense of communality satisfies people’s need to feel that they belong, and being dignified in their belonging.

"This tension between diversity and communality has been exacerbated by the divergence between those who benefit from diversity and those who feel disadvantaged by it."

At the risk of over simplifying, those who are better educated and with transnational skills have found it easier to be socially and geographically mobile, hence more able to take advantage of new opportunities opened up by diversity. There is no surprise that well-educated people with strong human capital are precisely those who can confidently thrive in open competitive systems; rightly seeing traditional prejudice and protectionism as impediments to progress.

In contrast, the less educated and less mobile population segments feel threatened and disadvantaged by the increasing diversity that they see happening around them.  As liberal political elites seek to enshrine equality, the more communally oriented began to feel besieged, believing their community-based identity to be eroded. A divergence has grown between those who feel secure in an increasingly borderless and fast-changing world versus those who feel secure within their traditional communities.

Why Tacking to the Far Left Is Not the Answer

A knee-jerk reaction to the rise of right wing populism is to tack to the far left, i.e. to raise fiscal spending on social welfare and income transfers. But tacking to the far left is not going to work. Providing the disenchanted losers of globalization with better social security benefits will not address their anxieties about globalization, immigration, and diversity. The fact is, at least in Europe, social democrats have been consistently pushing public policies that objectively offer better material benefits to the middle and lower middle classes, particularly the blue-collar workers, for decades, and yet it has neither helped to shore up their electoral support, nor prevent the rise of the far right. Tacking to the far left appears to be a losing strategy because it ignores the fault line in the traditional liberal narrative.

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A New Narrative of Progress

I am convinced we need a new narrative of progress that is meaningful and compelling to ordinary people, especially those who have been intimidated, frightened, and angered by globalization. Knowing how to advance inclusive growth more effectively is one thing, but it is even more important manage globalization as a force for good, pursue open exchanges as positive sum games, and advance economic integration that delivers win-win outcomes. In other words, we need a new narrative of progress that can inspire confidence about the future and satisfy the need for fairness in the sharing of responsibilities and sacrifices.  To succeed, this new narrative of progress has to acknowledge honestly the fault line between diversity and communality, and find a way to reconcile the interests between those who could ride the global waves to succeed and those who fear that they would drown in them. Above all, this new narrative of progress has to reflect an emotionally more intelligent liberalism.

The more globalized our society, the more we need to take the notion of a community seriously. We all have our own community imbued with a sense of shared values, culture and history. Newcomers from very different backgrounds are welcomed and can be absorbed into the community, while retaining their distinctive heritage. Yet we need to ensure the pace of change is not too fast or the community could fracture.

We need to recognize that adherence to dogmatic political correctness could do more harm than good. In a world of increasing complexity, a more nuanced approach is needed, which seems to me to be a task beyond any individuals or academic disciplines; the challenge is too vast and complex for just a few experts.  We need knowledgeable people coming together, each bringing unique expertise, to address this challenge collectively.

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