If your doctor misdiagnoses your disease, you’re probably not going to get any better. The same problem will arise for people in the UK who voted to leave the EU because of assurances from Brexit campaigners that they could ‘solve’ globalisation. Similarly for Australian voters who chose the Hanson or Xenophon treatment, attracted to the anti-free-trade-deal rhetoric, which promises to reverse the ill effects of globalisation. And of course, Trump’s supporters could find they have opted for the wrong prescription if he wins the US election.
The patients in this metaphor share similar symptoms of wealth inequality: they’ve seen their stable employment disappear in the industries their families relied on for generations – like automotive, whitegoods, steel production and fabrication, coal mining, clothing and footwear manufacture. They feel resentful that the ‘establishment’ political process has left them to fend for themselves. They never wanted to be reliant on government help, which makes them even more resentful of needing it. They’re not educated in the professions which would allow them to take advantage of a changing global work landscape. They feel priced out of their local job market and often blame unions for pricing them out. They’ve seen full time, ongoing positions degrade into casual, unstable working environments, leaving them constantly anxious about the future. Their fear of change is sometimes scapegoated to a fear of people who don’t look like them, the immigrants who they see as living-next-door representatives of the new world order that has caused all their problems. They are told by right-wing politicians it is their fault they are poor, and they are ‘leaning’ on society, when all they really want is to be contributing like they used to. It’s no wonder they’re visiting the doctor.
But the problem is, they’ve all accepted the misdiagnosis of globalisation. The Brexit campaign, the Hansons, Xenophons and Trumps have made a villain of globalisation, and have promised a treatment to fix this disease which won’t do anything to cure it because it’s not the disease they are suffering from. What’s really making them sick are the ill-effects of neoliberalism. They’re suffering from neoliberalism playing out on a globalised scale. So what they really need is treatment to fix the down-side of neoliberalism, not a fix for globalisation.
Once people come to terms with what they are really suffering from, it becomes much easier to talk to them about positive steps to solve the problem. The first thing we need to do is to stop voting for political leaders who think neoliberalism is the right answer. Malcolm Turnbull, for instance. Taking out the ‘lisation’ and ‘lism’ words from this complex situation, you could describe globalisation as a world market, and neoliberalism as a way of removing government mediation from regulating this market. Therefore, the only way to treat the disease is to change the rules by which the market operates, in order to share its spoils more evenly amongst all citizens.
I can already feel people flinching as they read the words ‘government regulation’, but that’s what we’re really talking about here. The treatment for the disease is government policy that aims to reduce wealth inequality which is caused by neoliberal agendas massively advantaging those who already have a foothold in the market over those who don’t. That means a legislated minimum wage and working conditions. That means supporting industries which are really important to the country, which employ lots of people, which in turn stimulates the economy and is therefore worth the investment – such as steel manufacturing, car manufacturing (it’s working for America!) and defence industries. It means investing government funds in high quality school, vocational and tertiary education so it is available to people who can’t afford to pay for it, in order to give them the resources they need to compete in a new market for jobs. It means healthcare available to everyone, no matter their income. It means guaranteeing those who are unemployed have enough government assistance to live in dignity, and be in a position to better their circumstances. It is providing infrastructure and government services which level out the playing field to make the opportunities of globalisation more evenly distributed amongst the whole society.
There are many advantages to globalisation which are hard to embrace when you’re suffering from neoliberalism. For instance, the availability of world markets for those engaged in high-paid, interesting and challenging work, such as in technology, engineering, professional services, design, science, academic, arts and entertainment fields. If you don’t have an education that makes you eligible for such positions (because you haven’t had your government-funded treatment for neoliberalism), it makes it hard to see these benefits. But once you feel better, globalisation doesn’t seem so bad.
The paradox is, the people offering the treatment to solve globalisation refuse to acknowledge that neoliberalism is the real villain here. Like Voldermort in Harry Potter, neoliberalism has become he who shall not be named and therefore it who shall not be blamed. It might sound like a story too good to be true: that you can have your globalisation cake and eat your more equally distributed economic growth too. But, all it takes is for voters to trust a government who is prepared to mediate the world market to make sure economic benefits of globalisation flow more evenly, not just to the privileged few.
Neoliberal governments, instead of offering the treatment people need, have been cutting back, stripping, undermining and hollowing out government’s role in every policy area imaginable. In doing so, they’re hurting economic growth, hurting the wealth of their country, and hurting the wealth of the individuals in these countries. We can all be better off by making all of us better off. We just need to identify the right treatment for the right disease.