Radical Populism, Global Poverty and the New World Order

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By Tunji Olaopa

Today’s global world is a space dominated by the ideological energy of the neoliberal capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history and heralded the ideological dominance of the neoliberal capitalist mode. And almost everywhere, from the bastion of capitalism itself—the United States of America—to Europe and even the third world. The dominant economic story that mediates the reign of the market is the Washington Consensus. And its mantra is simple: liberalize, privatize! Unfortunately, however, the neoliberal complacence is already bursting at the seam. One immediate and tragic response has been the brutality of political Islam and its fundamentalist outcry that sees America as the Great Satan, and its neoliberal market strategies as the worst of modernist excesses. And today’s world is currently facing the culmination of a capitalist market economy—climate change and its terrible reconfiguration of our collective world.

More strident intellectual voices have however started chipping away at the concepts and ideas that form the core of capitalism and its laissez-faire philosophy. First, Joseph Stiglitz has mounted a consistent attack on the meaningfulness of the idea of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To what extent can we say that the GDP measures what fundamentally matters when we talk of social progress? Stiglitz asked two fundamental questions: “Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity?” These questions, Stiglitz argues, enable us to undress the GDP and its capacity to disguise deep global inequality. Dudley Seers’ attack was on the Gross National Product (GNP). In an appropriately titled essay, “What are we trying to measure?” Seers demonstrates how a gross attention to the GNP leaves the critical issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality hanging.

Thomas Piketty is capitalism’s most formidable opponent to date. He has the stature of Marx himself. Indeed, he has been said to stand Marx on his head. Both are agreed on the relationship between capitalism and obscene global inequality. In summary, the globe’s richest 1% (0.7% of the world’s adult population) own more than half the world’s wealth. This has kept increasing from 42.5% in 2008 to 50.1% in 2017. While Karl Marx attributed inequality and the class structure of the human society to economic and technological factors, Piketty insists that it is essentially a function of politics and ideology. Inequality, according to Piketty, is a social phenomenon that derives from the dynamics of human institutions. When, for instance, governments ban unions, that is a political decision which in effect gives rise to more practices that promote inequality through policies that further undermined the disadvantaged in the society.

Global inequality raises the horrible spectre of global poverty. And the political scientist wants to track its dynamics beyond its economic valence. I am thinking about the utility of global inequality to reinforce Marx’s class structure on a global scale—a world of the super-rich and the super-poor. In Capital, Karl Marx not only critiqued the political economy of capitalism, but also predicted the proletarian revolution that will undermine the bourgeois foundation of inequality in ways that will eventually lead to the dismantling of the class structure. Unfortunately, the complexities of the emerging global and its socioeconomic frameworks have undermined Marx’s prophecy. The proletarian revolution has failed to materialize; and capitalism has grown into global and meaner proportions.

But this has not obviated the perspicacity of Marx’s analysis and observation. First, politics all across the world has become elitist. In other words, politics has become a huge concession to the educated and wealthy voters. Electoral politics, from the United States to Nigeria, requires big money and even bigger influences. Second, even democratic politics has become complicit in the rise of political elitism. Thus, it is not a strange fact that the top 1% that owns 80% of the world’s wealth are located in the world’s democracies—North America and Europe. Education and wealth have both become the marker of class distinction in today’s world. Given these facts, one would then expect that populism would be a function of poverty and the rise of the disadvantaged across the world. If Marx were to be alive, populism might have featured in his analysis as a proletarian reaction against bourgeois global wealth acquisition. And this would be a normal expectation. Populist fight backs ought to be against the consequences of capitalism and its gross inequalities that consign so many to a ghettoized life.

All across the globe, there are rising consolidated reactions to inequality. One of the most fundamental is the turn to religion as an alternative worldview that promises a better life in the hereafter. Salafism responds directly to the intellectual complacency of modernity and the dominance of neoliberal capitalism and its technological and glamorous contents, with a call for a spiritual retreat to the “pious predecessors”, the salaf, as a means of escaping the “sins” of the modern world and achieving basic necessities of life through spiritual supplication. While the quietist Salafism retreat into the practice of Islam and spiritual cleansing, political Salafism surges into the political spaces on behalf of Islam and its perception of well-being and welfare. This revolutionary strain becomes the populist vision of a new world order that will displace the “American Caliphate” and replace it with a new Islamic worldview.

The same worldview attached to the phenomenal rise of pentecostalism in postcolonial Africa. The failure of the state, and all its neoliberal development paradigms, has led to the reorganization of the postcolonial states on colonial principles, especially of repression and suppression in the absence of good governance. Prosperity Christianity channels the energies of its adherents towards the willingness of God, and his riches, to transform the lives of the believers. While pentecostalism in Africa does not yet have a radical populist version, it defeats Marx’s perception of the capacity of inequality to generate a radical and revolutionary response to poverty. It might well still be the opium of the masses, but it is an opiate that works for millions who have dosed themselves on it. It is an opiate that has challenged the intellectual complacency of the almighty capital.

Unfortunately, populism is not just so straitjacketed. And a most obvious instance is the election of Donald Trump into the White House. This spells an uncomfortable relationship between elitism and populism. With Trump we see an uncomfortable relationship between elitism, populism and a most noxious right-wing politics with a xenophobic nationalist content. From Brexit to the rest of Europe, right wing politicians are toeing a nationalist path that is reconfiguring the multilateral basis of the world order. One significant implication is that the populist trajectory is badly fragmented in ways that Marxists and neo-Marxists would find disappointing. Within the Marxist class analysis, injustice, oppression and inequality, backed by humongous impoverishment, ought to raise a common revolutionary flag around which the masses would match against capital, their oppressor. This is what Piketty would want—a deep-seated reaction against those social and political institutions that facilitate the global inequality he has been analyzing.

Yet, the rise of right-wing nationalism seems to have taken the sting out of left-wing assessment of what a new world order should stand for. No one would ever believe there would be a resurgence of fascist nationalism that tore the world apart during the Second World War. But with the election and possible re-election of Donald Trump, we have the materialization of a world of ideological extremes, from fascism to populism to religious fundamentalism, with no clear-cut means of appraising their implication on global poverty and inequality. Trump’s foreign policy is a mess. He is systematically dismantling the firm basis of a multilateral world order that has prevented war for many decades. Boris Johnson’s Brexit triumph is also doing the same, with the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.

The climate change tragedy, and most currently the coronavirus pandemic, calls for the truth of the principles of the indivisibility of interest and diffuse reciprocity around which the multilateral arrangement stands. There is no way the climate change predicament would be resolved if the United States and China, to take two great industrialized examples, remain attached to their skepticism about the climate. Refusals to honor global multilateral conventions and treaties further threaten the globe and its climactic dynamics. With the COVID-19 scourge, the situation of a shattered global multilateral framework becomes ever more dire. Political isolationism that right-wing nationalism of the Trumpian sort cannot win against the coronavirus.

Karl Marx would likely be highly disconcerted at hi Highgate Cemetery in London. It is at the British Library that he wrote some of his most famous works challenging global capitalism. Yet, the United Kingdom, one of those places where capital took flight, has failed to toe a revolutionary path that would have clipped the wings of capital. Rather, the masses are acquiescing in a populist romance with their oppressors. With Karl Marx’s confusion goes the end of a dream of a normative dynamic for global governance. It would seem that, for now, we are all confirmed to Dante’s inferno where even Piketty cannot lead us out.

*Prof. Tunji Olaopa is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)