Zeitgeist

Liberalism’s Failure

April 28, 2017

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Liberalism’s Failure

The first round of the French presidential election is done, and the results are monumental. A new president hasn’t been decided, but the political realignment launched by Brexit, expanded by Donald Trump, and brought to the fore by nationalist uprisings all throughout Europe came fully into being when French voters entered the polls.

National Front leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron emerged the winners. Both are outsiders; neither is a member of France’s two major political parties that have dominated the country for half a century. Macron is an ex-Socialist and pragmatist heavy on optimism and light on solutions. Le Pen is the fiery culture warrior determined to keep France French.

The new battle lines are drawn: nationalism versus globalism; populism versus technocracy; provincials versus urban dwellers; God-and-country patriotism versus allegiance-less individualism.

France’s electoral results make this all too clear. Le Pen predictably bombed in the cities, but made up for it in the country’s faltering rural areas. A recent dispatch from Roger Cohen of The New York Times captured the existential angst felt by Le Pen’s rural army. Socially immobile and invisible to the global economy, France’s working class is feeling the squeeze of modernity’s hypercapitalism. “In the shopping malls the cashiers are lined up like cattle for the slaughter,” said a sommelier by the name of Thierry Corona. “And immigrants arrive and they immediately get handouts!”

“The West has been beset with a bad case of liberal fatigue.”

That attitude is by no means exclusive to the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The West has been beset with a bad case of liberal fatigue. The open borders, open trade, open society model inspired by the Enlightenment, honed by the U.S. Constitution, and codified by postwar governments and international institutions is beginning to sputter.

Society is as rich as it has ever been, and yet we’re more miserable than ever.

What happened? The promises of globalism have all been delivered. Free movement of people and capital has been a boon for hedge fund profits and stock prices. Yet the prosperity hasn’t stopped anxiety from inching upward, or plain people from stupefying themselves with drugs. “Why is neoliberalism failing?” is the great question of the 21st century.

A new article by James Meek in the London Review of Books may provide the answer—or, at least, an answer—to liberalism’s struggle.

Tracing the story of a Cadbury chocolate factory’s move from England to Poland, Meek details the decline of morale that follows the loss of local expectations. For nearly a century, residents of Keynsham knew that their local Cadbury confectionery plant was a source of employment. Then, on Oct. 3, 2007, it all changed. The word went out that the factory was to shut down and move to Skarbimierz, Poland. Just like that, come 2011, one hundred years of history were rubbed out thanks to a closed-boardroom decision. As Meek writes, the factory’s leaving meant the loss of “highly paid, permanent, solidly pensioned jobs…not because [the workers] had done anything wrong, or because their products weren’t selling, or because the factory was unprofitable, but because their Polish replacements could do the same job for less than one fifth of the money.”

The people of Keynsham didn’t just lose a stable source of employment. They lost a piece of their shared history. This is something free marketers miss when they extol the virtues of Ricardo. While finely lubricated trade keeps the engine of commerce pumping, it can also leave behind a void. It’s a cruel fact that businesses shutter all the time. That doesn’t make the erasure of their memory any easier.

Man is not homo economicus alone. A high living standard rendered by improved production is a blessing. But there is a limit to what the relentless pursuit of higher gross domestic product brings. From far enough away, investors, executives, and money managers can easily move capital like pieces on a board game without consideration of the human toll. In the Cadbury example, Meek writes, “They’d programmed it to seek only one thing—efficient production—and accordingly, when the machine set about its task, it attacked the largest obstacle to efficiency, the wants of its human components, blind to the fact its programmers depended on these same human wants to validate its construction.”


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