Globalization and the discontentment it brings
Chris Hawke
Palermo Port in Sicily, Italy. /CGTN Photo by Miguel Sanchez

Palermo Port in Sicily, Italy. /CGTN Photo by Miguel Sanchez

Editor's Note: Chris Hawke is a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a journalist who has reported for over two decades from Beijing, New York, the United Nations, Tokyo, Bangkok, Islamabad and Kabul for AP, UPI, and CBS. The article reflects the author's views and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The New York Times recently ran an article that traced the roots of the rising far-right movement in Italy to competition from China. The article focuses on the Tuscan city of Prato, which has been renowned for its textiles since the Middle Ages.

Prato operated as a free commune in the Middle Ages, with its economy driven by textiles. And in modern times, its people fervently supported the Italian Communist Party. However, recently, its residents have embraced the far-right wing League party, which according to polls is the most popular party in Italy at the moment, although it is not part of the current government coalition.

This swing from the left to right wing occurred, according to the article, because competition from Chinese textile manufacturers driving artisans using traditional methods out of business. Aggravating matters, Chinese manufacturers came in and bought up empty textile factories, and started making fabrics with "Made in Italy" labels, while using Chinese techniques to keep costs down.

The article says many local residents lump the local Chinese workers together with refugees and migrants fleeing from Africa and the Middle East. The residents support the League party's call to shut Italy's gates to immigrants in order to protect jobs for Italians and preserve Italian culture.

This upswing in anti-immigrant, isolationist sentiment is occurring around the world. This sentiment pushed U.S. President Donald Trump to power, and is fueling the Brexit drive. Its power will continue to grow, possibly taking increasingly irrational and violent forms, unless the root grievances driving it are understood and addressed.

Globalization has brought cheaper goods to all people, making it easier for them to enter the middle class. It has also helped lift many people in developing countries out of poverty, a phenomenon famously described by economist Jeffrey Sachs.

However, amid the euphoria around these positive effects, the fact that globalization leads to winners and losers was mostly ignored by people with their hands on the levers of power, who were profiting the most.

The losers, people with little power at all, mostly had jobs that could be done equally well by relatively cheaper laborers in a poorer country, and people whose jobs were lost to automation or technological obsolescence.

Mainstream political parties have ignored these people since the 1980s, as unions lost power. They don't make big campaign donations. They are usually not politically engaged, perhaps because they are busy trying to make a living. They do not have a voice in the mainstream media.

Economists blithely concluded this population would need to move to areas with more jobs and adapt by learning new skills in order to make it in the new globalized economy. Unsurprisingly, most former factory workers or people with skills left obsolete by modernization have not learned computer coding or become social media influencers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte shake hands after signing trade agreements at Villa Madama in Rome, March 23, 2019. /Reuters Photo

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte shake hands after signing trade agreements at Villa Madama in Rome, March 23, 2019. /Reuters Photo

Many of them were unwilling to or constrained from moving to big urban centers or regions with more jobs. They stayed put, and found their earning power dropping or vanishing altogether. They witnessed migrants willing to go where the work was "stealing" their jobs. Exacerbating the problem, this is a group that is by definition unable — due to circumstance or other reasons — to take the actions necessary to help themselves out of their worsening situations. This group has become angry, and started blaming other people or groups for their problems.

The problem is, they mostly started blaming the wrong people. For example, in Prato, the problem is not the Chinese. It is a changing of the times, making their products no longer desirable, coupled with the indifference of elites, including a string of Italian administrations and European bureaucrats, who benefited from globalization but did not share those benefits with people like the tradespeople of Prato. The Chinese, as the New York Times article pointed out, is actually creating jobs in today's Prato.

This problem is global in scale. A quick look at countries like the U.S., the UK and Italy shows vibrant urban areas with strong growth in the creative, financial, and knowledge worker classes. In rural areas and among those without the background to thrive in these fields, people are hurting. Governments are doing little to help these people, perhaps under the theory that they are doing little to help themselves. Structural income disparity is starting to tear societies apart, as we can see from recent rioting in places like Chile.

The job losses that started with globalization are accelerating with automation and advances in fields like artificial intelligence. The skills set of huge swaths of people are becoming obsolete. It is difficult to see a way out for these people. Making the problem more intractable, this demographic has never had a powerful voice in society. The collapse of unions has worsened this problem. These disenfranchised people are being bamboozled by right-wing leaders with simplistic solutions.

Brexit is a good example of this. It is appealing partly because it aggravates the elites who ignored the interests of the disenfranchised for so long. However, Brexit will almost certainly make working-class Britons live more difficult in almost every aspect. The economy will weaken.  Regulations that protected workers will no longer be in force. Subsidies for farmers will vanish. The architects of Brexit will make the country more competitive by giving workers less.

In one sense, the rise of right wing movements that are overturning the established political order is a deserved comeuppance to a class of people on all sides of the so enticed with the gains they were making under globalization that they didn't think to share. This greed and nearsightedness risks bringing down the structures that have created unprecedented wealth and peace since the end of World War Two.

Until someone builds a consensus on out how to address these inequities effectively, right-wing movements and their simplistic, hateful, lose-lose solutions will continue gaining momentum.

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