The election of Donald Trump was a rude awakening from which many people in the US have still not recovered.
Their shock is similar to that felt by UK progressives, Greens, and those on the Left following the Brexit referendum.
In both cases, the visceral reaction was heightened by the barely-disguised racist and xenophobic messaging underpinning these campaigns.
Before these sentiments grow even more extreme, it’s vital that we understand their root cause. If we simply react in horror and outrage, if we only protest and denounce, then we fail to grasp the deeper ramifications of their votes.
For the defeat of both the Clinton campaign in the US and the Remain campaign in the UK can be explained by their inability to address the pain endured by ordinary citizens in the era of globalisation.
By failing to focus on the reckless profiteers driving the global economy, they allowed their opponents to offer a less truthful and more hateful explanation for voters’ social and economic distress.
In order to move forward, we need to give those who voted for Trump and Brexit something better to believe in. And we can. Because in both countries, voters emphatically rejected the system that has inflicted so much social and economic insecurity: pro-corporate globalisation. And that is the silver lining to the dark storm clouds we see.
Late lessons from early warnings
Before the Brexit vote, we warned that the gigantist, pro-growth rhetoric of most of the Remain side was utterly alienating to many small-c conservatives and to people who have been harmed by the uncontrolled movement of capital, goods, services and workers.
And we pointed out that neither side was painting a big picture that corresponded to the brutal reality of successive trade treaties, including those within the EU itself, that have put ordinary people in permanent competition with each other. It was against that system – and against the elites that alone have benefitted from it – that many millions in Britain voted, in some desperation and anger, to Leave.
Much the same applies to the US election. While many voters saw Hillary Clinton as capable, they did not see her as an alternative to the neoliberal status quo. Bernie Sanders would probably have beaten Trump, precisely because he firmly and explicitly rejected the pro-free-trade, pro-corporate ‘consensus’.
We need to learn from the Brexit and Trump votes that the far-Right thrives because it has a populist answer to the vicious impacts of globalisation. Voters want fundamental change, and the ‘reforms’ sought by mainstream progressives, Greens and those on the Left – like job training programs for displaced workers or voluntary safety standards for Third World factories – are simply inadequate.
Instead, we need to offer an alternative to globalisation itself.
How globalisation drives racial tension
Globalisation and market-driven centralisation actually drive the increase in xenophobia and racism that we have seen, by forcing people from every part of the world to compete against each other in a vicious economic race that only a handful can win.
One of the authors (Helena Norberg-Hodge) was a first-hand witness to this process in Ladakh, a region of India in the western Himalayas known as ‘Little Tibet’. For more than 600 years, Ladakhi Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried.
But over a period of about 15 years starting in 1975, when the region was first opened to the global economy, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly: by 1989 they were bombing each other’s homes. One mild-mannered Buddhist grandmother, who a decade earlier had been drinking tea and laughing with her Muslim neighbor, told me, “We have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”
How did relations between these two ethnic groups change so quickly and completely? The transformation is unfathomable, unless one understands the complex interrelated effects of globalisation on individuals and communities worldwide. These included
+ the undermining of Ladakh’s local economy through the import of ‘cheap’ but heavily subsidized products;
+ the centripetal pull of urban areas where jobs and political power became centralised;
+ the consequent breakdown of village-scale cultural and governance structures;
+ and the creation of unemployment and real poverty (problems that were preciously unknown in Ladakh).
In combination, these factors led to rising hostility against ‘the other’. (Norberg-Hodge has described these connections more fully in her book Ancient Futures, and in the documentary film The Economics of Happiness.)
Ladakh’s experience is not unique: all over the Global South, cultures have been impacted in a similar manner beginning with the era of conquest and colonialism; so have the UK and Europe starting with the Enclosures. But in recent decades, during the modern era of globalisation, the process has accelerated dramatically.
Destroying jobs, reducing wages, undermining conditions of work
By allowing corporations to move unfettered around the globe, ‘free trade’ treaties put workers throughout the industrialised world in competition with those who will accept a fraction of a dollar per hour.
For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) resulted in a net loss of 680,000 American jobs, and the Permanent Normal Trade Relations deal with China led to a net loss of another 2.7 million jobs. And it’s not only the disappearance of jobs that leads to impoverishment, but the threat that jobs can be easily taken elsewhere if workers don’t accept lower wages or fewer benefits.
At the same time, the infiltration of big business throughout the global South – most often with the support of national governments and backed by international financial institutions – has eliminated many of the livelihoods that local economies in those countries once provided.
With locally-adapted ways of life systematically undermined by economic policies geared towards the big and the global, millions of desperate people in the South find themselves with just two options: to accept minimal wages and appalling working conditions in industrial metropolises, or to migrate.
It is estimated that, as a direct result of heavily subsidized corn flooding the Mexican market under NAFTA, 2.4 million small farmers were displaced, and subsequently funneled into crowded urban centers or across the border to the US. So the loss of jobs in the North and the migrant crisis in the South are two sides of the same coin. But people have been steered away from looking at the flawed rules of the global economy that are behind both problems.
Although philosophically opposed to government regulation, the Right is now exploiting a situation – the cultural, economic, and psychological insecurity of vast swaths of the population – that is a product of the systematic deregulation of big business. Rather than allowing them to pull this sleight of hand, Left and Green voices must present a cogent critique of globalisation, and a coherent alternative.
We must show that it is not real progress to force every culture to commodify their commons, to subject every policy decision to the ‘discipline’ of monopolistic markets, to transform citizens into mindless consumers, and to lengthen supply-lines endlessly. The world has become dominated by a neoliberal ideology that makes all of this seem natural, desirable, unavoidable. It is none of those things.
In fact, voters are telling us that the age of David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and Francois Hollande is already over. The question now is: will it be succeeded by the age of Farage, Trump and le Pen. Or will we instead offer a viable green set of alternatives to globalization. If it is to be the latter, then our best option is localisation.
The solution: going local
Essentially, localisation means reducing the scale of economic activity – it’s about bringing the economy home. That doesn’t mean pulling up the drawbridges and retreating into isolationism. Nor does it mean an end to trade, even international trade.
But it does mean a fundamental change of emphasis: away from monoculture for export towards diversification for local needs. In a time of human-induced climate chaos and dwindling energy supplies, we need to reject out of hand the absurdities of the global marketplace, in which countries across the world routinely import and export identical products in almost identical quantities. The subsidies and other supports that currently make such practices ‘efficient’ and ‘profitable’ need to be reversed.
By reducing the scale of the economy, the environmental impacts of economic activity shrink as well. But the argument for localisation goes beyond the environment. Among other things, localisation allows us to live more ethically as citizens and consumers.
In the global economy, it’s as though our arms have grown so long that we can no longer see what our hands are doing. By contrast, when the economy operates on a smaller scale, everything is necessarily more transparent. We can see if the apples we are buying from the neighbouring farm are being sprayed with pesticides; we can see if workers’ rights are being abused.
We can already catch glimpses of localisation in action. Across the world, literally millions of initiatives are springing up-often in isolation one from another, but sharing the same underlying principles. The most important of these initiatives relate to food – which is important since food is the only thing humans produce that we all require every day.
From farmers’ markets to community supported agriculture, from ‘edible schoolyards’ to permaculture, a local food movement is sweeping the planet. But there are also projects underway to localise business, energy sources, banking and finance, and other needs.
Seeing the big picture
The UK decision to leave the EU is a risk, in that it might lead the UK to seek to race even faster to the bottom, in particular by abandoning hard-won environmental protections. But it is also a great opportunity. We could choose, now, to disentangle ourselves from a fragile, resource-intensive and utterly-destructive global economy, in favour of re-embedding ourselves back into the Earth and our localities.
Similarly, President Trump is likely to serve up an incoherent mélange of protectionism on the one hand and deregulatory, pro-corporate policies on the other. Localisation, by contrast, represents a coherent and comprehensive shift in direction – it protects not only our countries and workforces but also the Earth, future generations, and the poor.
Relocalising would radically reign in the invisible Right of corporate domination, and would reverse the rising tide of the more visible Far-Right. But this can only happen if we see the bigger picture. It isn’t enough to defend immigrants against bad treatment if we fail to act against the system that drives the breakdown of community and of civility, that pulls people out of their own cultures and economies.
If we do not relocalise – if we continue to throw people into ruthless competition with each other while making local communities unviable – then we are watering the seeds of further anti-immigrant sentiment, and worse. But if we embrace localisation, then we sow new seeds of cooperation and international understanding.
Relocalising won’t be easy. The forces that promote globalisation control most of the avenues of information to which people have access, and their propaganda saturates the media, including the Internet.
It is going to take a linking of hands internationally – among labour and environmental groups, small businesses and family farmers, educators and students, religious groups and peace activists – to put new political leaders in place who do not ratify treaties that devastate our present and our future.
Instead, they need to collaborate to create treaties that protect the local, everywhere. And it will take determined effort in localities everywhere to restore local food and energy systems, and to rebuild local knowledge and local democracy.
Perhaps you are already part of that determined effort. If you are not, we hope you decide to join us in this vital work.
A version of this essay originally ran in The Ecologist.