NEW YORK – Google, according to Rupert Murdoch, has overawed the “posh boys in Downing Street” and elsewhere. The News Corp. chairman was responding last week to news that the U.S.-based Internet giant would pay Britain the measly sum of $185 million in underpaid taxes. Murdoch continued, “Google has cleverly planted dozens of their people in White House, Downing St, other governments. Most brilliant new lobbying effort yet.”
While Murdoch sounded like Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump’s recent screeds against hedge fund managers have seemed to invoke his inner Bernie Sanders. Multibillionaires are just the latest individuals to add their voices to a worldwide chorus condemning hyper-connected posh boys. They confirm that the hoary distinction between the left and the right needs to be updated.
Marine Le Pen, ostensibly on the far right, attacks France’s Socialist government for pampering “globalized elites at the expense of the people.” She vows to replace the “neo-liberal” French establishment with an aggressively interventionist state. Nationalization of banks is on the agenda of far-right governments in Hungary and Poland, along with more predictable anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies.
The blending of left- and right-wing programs is hardly novel. The Nazis proudly called themselves National Socialists. And Benito Mussolini, who started out as a diehard socialist, didn’t give up his core belief in state control even after he found a more effective way of rousing disaffected Italian masses. From the late 19th century onward, political movements and parties on the right have combined xenophobic patriotism and economic nationalism.
In all cases, they’ve tried to exploit widespread distress caused by uneven economic growth and political dysfunction. Their competitors for much of this period were internationalist socialists mobilizing for working-class revolution, or cosmopolitan liberals hoping for a gradual extension of economic prosperity and political freedoms.
Today’s far-right populists are similarly buoyed by a global economic slowdown. It’s now clear that the bonanza of globalization has been divided grossly unequally. Whatever the reasons for this — technological innovation or financial liberalization — a small number of networked people have grown disproportionately rich in many democracies.
Consequently, anger, distrust and hostility reign in the broader public sphere against the Davos Men and their apparent accomplices in politics and media. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which annually appraises reputations of businesses, government and other institutions, reveals a widening gap between elite and mass perceptions in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, India and Australia.
Immigration, while helping business, has aggravated financial and cultural insecurities among ordinary people: The foreigner, whether high-skilled migrant, refugee or asylum-seeker, has come to embody the opaque forces that threaten jobs and livelihoods.
At the same time, far-right populists no longer face strong challengers on the liberal-left. Socialists promising redistribution if not revolution have abruptly emerged in Britain, as well as Greece and Spain. But his forthright internationalist commitments to immigration and refugees make Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn unelectable. And liberals, such as Hillary Clinton in America or New Labour in Britain, appear too complicit with globalized elites.
The old right and left are desperately trying to improvise and catch up with the populists. David Cameron’s recent remarks about Muslim women and refugees indicate that Britain’s posh boys, forced to appease Google and other multinational corporations, may be trying out U.S. President Richard Nixon’s dog whistles to the silent majority — stoking white male resentment of liberal elitists and ostensibly assertive minorities.
In France, the Socialist government has borrowed from Le Pen’s playbook with its seemingly endless state of emergency and its absurd plan to strip convicted French-born terrorists of their citizenship.
Perhaps it’s time now to stop mapping political differences along the left-right dichotomy. The great political, intellectual and emotional chasm of our world runs between transnational elites with access to diverse forms of social, economic and cultural power, and masses who feel left out from the global party and who express their fury and resentment through social media and xenophobic movements.
We have entered a perilous new era in politics, where a whirlwind of raw emotions is blowing away all the verities of the past. The global elites, whose competence and moral legitimacy are questioned like never before, need, as Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times last week, “to work out intelligent responses.” Until then, progressively more and more intemperate outbursts against posh boys will define political life.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.