To me this article embodies a certain —THE certain— “liberal” mindset at the moment, and not just because it’s Amanda “Poor People are Fascists” Taub interviewing Michael Ignatieff, who once, seemingly forever ago in a universe we seem to be trying to forget, was the biggest Iraq War booster on Earth not named Dick Cheney or Jonathan Chait, and who made his name declaring that the US should establish a Humanitarian Empire over the world. Anyway, regardless of the relative merits of these two lovely people, they’re bringing some standard Elite Consensus assumptions to the table that I think undermine their argument.
The first is apparent in Taub’s initial question. “Brexit took a lot of people by surprise as an…expression of some larger trends. One of those is rising nationalism despite globalization…” Yes, rising nationalism despite globalization. From Taub’s viewpoint as a Vox columnist and NYT contributor, it is a surprise that the intertwined forces of globalization and Thatcher/Blair neoliberal economics, which ripped apart towns and cities across the UK, took good jobs and pride and replaced them with nothing, might make people upset enough at London and Europe and immigrants and whoever else to vote for Brexit. The fact that they had no electoral solution, that the aforementioned trends were not arrested but perpetuated by a “leftist” Labour party abandoning the working class, does not seem to enter the equation.
To his credit, Ignatieff seems to understand these things. His diagnosis of the divide between a global cosmopolitan elite and the alienated masses is apt. However, I would object to his assumption, shared by a lot of commentators on what the British press is calling the “soft left,” whatever that means, that globalization (and, by extension, a neoliberal policy environment) is an inevitable force with distinct winners and losers which can’t be ameliorated or improved (and by the way, fuck you, we’re busting your union, you racist). It’s basically Thomas Friedman’s thesis and it’s good for people like him because it absolves the “cosmopolitan elite” of responsibility to assist those people in Sunderland and Wigan. Note his lack of policy prescriptions. No talk of actual help for people, union support or regional investment or at least a halt to austerity. Just let Jesus take the wheel as we drift into the globalization lane.
And that’s the real challenge of the 21st century: not “who belongs” or how to handle (read: repress) nationalism or anti-immigrant populism, which although worrisome are symptoms not causes. It’s how to provide solutions to national inequality in the context of a globalized world.