In France, Europe Finds A Slender Hope

The French presidential election seemed like a collective primal scream, the electorate emptying itself of every emotion. Like the catharsis in a classical Greek drama, everything got left on the floor. Fury? Yup, the established parties were rejected outright. Hope? That would be Emmanuel Macron on stage. Anger? That was Jean-Luc Melenchon speaking. Resentment, bitterness? Marine LePen appeared. Fear and trepidation? See Francois Fillon.

So you can pick among the shards of this collective venting to find the pieces of any narrative you want to write. In the English-speaking world, and especially the business press, the dominant story for a long time has been that Europe is on the brink of implosion, and France the country that might set it off. The Fifth Republic is certainly in a bad way. Its sluggish and hide-bound economy and heavy debt leave the government little room for manoeuvre at a time when the demands on public resources continue rising.

As for the European project, it’s sputtering. Built atop an idealised vision of an alternative model for the West from the dominant, post-war American one, European integrationists promoted a vision of a community of nations that was liberal, open and tolerant, with an approach to the world that privileged friendly nudges over big sticks. This vision has, however, been tattered for some time, Europe having sunk over the last two decades into a neoliberal mire. Growing discontent at this drift finally exploded into the open after the global financial crises, and the punishing austerity which then followed for ordinary Europeans. A wave of anger at Brussels across the continent has since propelled radicals and populists towards power in Spain and Greece, with surges in Italy, Germany and now France. In response, self-congratulatory strains of populist rhetoric have begun emerging from London and Washington, DC in the wake of the Brexit and presidential votes, respectively, saying that the spark lit initially in London in last June’s referendum has set off a fire that will consume the West and burn the globalist Establishment to the ground.

Then again, it might not. I detected early signs of populism’s peak in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and the evidence from Europe continues to suggest that, quietly, tentatively, Europeans are pulling back from radical solutions for now. Right-wing populists disappointed in March’s Dutch elections. In France, the National Front’s hope of approaching 30% in the first-round vote and then using that as a springboard into the second, which seemed not unreasonable a few months back, was dashed two weeks ago. When in the dying hours of the campaign the Macron campaigns emails were hacked and dumped onto the Intenet, the right-wing twitterverse went into overdrive, framing this as the next battle in the assault on globalism. To no avail. And if recent poll trends are anything to go by, the globalist fight-back continues: Germany’s far-right Alternative party, which had been well into the double-digits just a few months back, has seen its popularity fall sharply since the new year.

None of this translates into a new vote of confidence in the European project, let alone globalisation. After all, nearly half of France’s voters initially supported candidates who opposed it – far more than the quarter lured by Macron’s Europhilia in the first round. And while Macron talks of renewing Europe, the challenges are immense. There probably needs to be a top-to-bottom redesign of the model if there is to be any hope of salvaging it, but it’s not clear that anyone has a mandate to do this. Still, it’s significant that for all their grumbling, the voters of France decided to give Europe another chance.

In his speech after the first round, Emmanuel Macron seemed more subdued than jubilant, as if he appreciated the weight of the task ahead of him. Declaring that he wanted to become the President of all French, he now faces a monumental task in trying to forge unity amid deep division. He must reform an economy which is fundamentally sick, help forge a model of European integration that pays heed to the rising economic and cultural anxieties of millions of his compatriots, and do it all without the support of an established party to mobilise support for change.

His first step will be to try and cobble together a majority in support of his legislative agenda in June’s parliamentary elections. His ‘En Marche’ movement is barely a year old. The energy of his supporters will probably carry his momentum forward, but he will have to rely on the institutional support of Republicans and Socialists willing to coalesce in some form around his platform. It’s not impossible, but he will have to show tremendous skill if he is to avoid the fate of recent French presidents, and running aground.

Perhaps the most that a Europhile can take from the French election is that it is a stay of execution for a project whose declarations of death have so far proved premature. The populists in Britain and the US, who imagined they had stormed the Bastille, may yet find themselves alone outside its gates.


Your Home Is Wrecking the Economy

‘Buy a home’ a wise man once told me, ‘it’s the best investment I ever made.’ And he’s right, real estate has made lots of people in Western countries better off – but at a high price to national development. Because while home-buying is good for the individual, it can be terrible for the economy.

Think about it. A house produces nothing. As a country, we ought to be putting our resources into training our workers and starting new businesses. While countries like Germany seem to get this, investing heavily in skills training, others gear their education policy towards producing lots of university degrees, which do little to improve productivity.

As for launching new businesses, sadly, in much of the West new investment goes heavily into real estate. Last year Adair Turner, who headed Britain’s Financial Services Authority at the time of the global financial crisis, came to Cambridge to deliver a lecture in which he pointed out that over the last half century, real estate has become so important that it now accounts for more than half of all investment in the developed economies. In the United Kingdom, only about a sixth of new bank lending goes towards creating or expanding businesses. While the ratio of wealth to income has risen across the West, which Thomas Piketty has argued is itself a serious problem, most of this growth has been due to the rising value of real estate, which is where we’re sinking ever more of our money.

As a result, home-ownership has actually become a serious obstacle to economic growth. In his new book, Tyler Cowen points out that people who own their homes are much less likely to pack up and go to where the opportunities are. Americans, the folk whose restless spirit once led them to answer calls to ‘go west young man,’ now stick with dead-end jobs – or even no jobs – because they can’t flip their houses.

I was recently chatting over pints with a friend of mine who said he’d be delighted to move to London to take advantage of the opportunities here, and to apply his considerable talents, but reckons he’ll never be able to contemplate the move due to the sheer cost of housing here. And don’t even think of starting a business or opening a shop unless you have deep pockets. London rents will absorb most of your revenues, leaving little to develop new products or improve your technology.

A recent study by the Bank for International Settlements has revealed that where house prices are strong, growth is weak. With investment skewed towards acquiring real estate, as Lord Turner noted, the only thing underpinning growth is consumption. Home-owners who see their property values going up will boost their home-equity loans and hit the shopping centres. With little new business investment, though, productivity remains low. Britain is now trapped in a bizarre syndrome that one third of its people now earn more from their houses than they do from their jobs. Why create an enterprise or upgrade your skills when you’re sitting on a magic box that churns gold out of nothing? It’s the fairy-tale dream.

The solution? Governments need to stop privileging home-ownership and adopt policies that weaken, rather than strengthen, the housing market, like improving the rights of renters or confronting the NIMBY Syndrome: opening up more development and building more housing units. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, though. All these measures would hobble and possibly depress real estate prices. And with a majority of voters invested in real estate, and with home-owners more likely to vote than renters, governments everywhere bend over backwards to keep them happy.

Politicians and economists celebrate the bank bailouts of the last financial crisis for having staved off crisis, and keeping millions of peoples in their homes. But there’s another way to look at it. Imagine the housing market had been allowed to collapse. The un- or underemployed would have walked away from their homes and gone looking for new opportunities, and low real-estate costs would have allowed more people to afford houses and open new businesses. Instead, we’re stuck with the perverse situation that amid stagnant productivity growth but pricey real estate, London, for one, now has eight empty houses for every person rough-sleeping on its streets.

The uncomfortable fact is that what’s good for our investment portfolios is slowly strangling the economy. Those of us with houses might leave our children and grand-children a nice home, but deprive them of a lot of the opportunities we and our parents had. Still, change may be coming. Young people, operating in the gig economy and renting, or even sharing their accommodation, are rising as a political force. With more interest in a flexible economy geared to renting and entrepreneurship, their votes may eventually tip the balance. This division between owners and renters may exert a greater impact on our future politics.

Image: Outside the Tower of London, March 2017


Is Steve Bannon a Fascist?

Probably not, but he keeps some pretty unpleasant company. And his approach to remaking America will ultimately fail.

The sinister figure concocted by SNL, a cross between the grim reaper and Darth Vader, may give more credit than is due to the rumpled strategist feeding ideas to Donald Trump. Yet while he’s no genius, Bannon has a coherent theory for America’s ostensibly-fallen state.

A one-time banker, Bannon believes that entrepreneurs made America great. Thus, he regards the rise of the large corporations as a sort of slide into decadence: run by bureaucrats, their CEOs stifle innovation and instead lobby politicians for favourable treatment. With businessmen and politicians thus lining each other’s pockets, there results the little clique spotted at Davos each year – remote from the common people, tight with each other.

Bannon therefore breaks with his old colleagues who see the bank bailouts of 2008-2009 as having successfully staved off economic collapse. He, instead, sees them as a catastrophic failure, engineered by a crony-capitalist elite, to pass the cost for cleaning up their mess onto ordinary Americans — a sentiment most of his compatriots share. He thus hews closely to the Austrian Economics so widespread in the Tea Party, which sees market crashes are nature’s way of culling an economic herd.

However, in one vital respect, he parts with the great Austrian thinkers of the past, like Joseph Schumpeter and Friedrich Hayek. Whereas they took a Darwinian view of life, believing the free market the best way to weed out nature’s fittest while allowing little role for morality, Bannon injects his conservative Catholicism into his worldview. What made America great, he maintains, was Christianity. It was when America strayed from its moral foundation, amid the secularism and individual liberation of the sixties generation, that it began to decay. Not loose regulation, but loose morals, caused the financial crisis.

At the heart of Bannon’s worldview is an age-old thesis: that moral and material abundance coincide. One of the most famous expressions of this thesis is Edward Gibbon’s monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Published in 1776, the year America threw off British rule, Gibbon’s theory has had a lasting impact on American conservative thought.

That it should do so is ironic, because Gibbon argued that Christianity toppled Rome. He said the Empire’s greatness had been built by its civic religion, which gave its governing elite a unity and sense of purpose. Once Christianity wormed its way into the empire, Romans lost their sense of natural superiority, and the martial spirit that had united the governing class broke down. They lost the will and stomach to fight the barbarians at their gates.

Bannon transposes this theory onto modern America. Substituting Christianity for Roman paganism, he maintains that religion was central to the mission of the founding fathers — a point, incidentally, of considerable debate among historians. He thus blames America’s relative decline on America’s turn away from its Christian heritage, something for which he blames the baby-boom generation of the 1960s. Ergo, it is vital to him that America shore up its cultural integrity by stemming the flow of immigrants, and by favouring Christians among those it does accept.

You don’t have to be a conservative to hold that America has suffered a moral decline. You could, as do many liberal Christians, believe that Westerners have become too selfish, abused the environment, and exploited colonised peoples. Yet Bannon’s type of spirituality takes a contrary view. Attributing the ability to dominate other peoples to an inherent superiority – to the moral winner goes the spoils, if you will – he sticks to the Gibbon line, echoed in the works of twentieth-century authors like Oswald Spengler, that culture makes a great civilisation, and its erosion marks its decay.

Despite Spengler’s own uneasy relationship with Germany’s Nazis, he shaped their thinking about German racial superiority. It’s thus through such channels that fascist thinkers have entered Bannon’s world. He may not embrace fascist thinkers like Julius Evola and their American progeny, like Richard Spencer. But he kind of gets them. He mightn’t turn President Trump into a fascist stooge. But he has helped create a more welcoming environment for those who want America to assert its greatness in aggressive ways.

The fatal flaw in Bannon’s worldview isn’t that it is offensive, though, it’s that it’s wrong. As Peter Heather has written, Gibbon was mistaken about Rome: it fell not due to decay from within, but because Roman imperialism created countervailing forces that led its victims to turn against it. As I have written before, and as Peter and I argue in our upcoming book, this is an eternal rule of empires: they sow the seeds for their own eventual demise, and nothing Steve Bannon or anyone else tries to do can change this fact of life.

But that’s not to say we can’t creatively engage this transition and exploit its opportunities – of which there will be many. We have to change, but we don’t have to fall. But a turn to Bannon’s vision risks converting a gentle decline into a crash.

Trump Said One True Thing: We’re Overpaid

Given his propensity to lies, half-truths and ‘alternative facts,’ it’s perhaps not surprising that Donald Trump would withdraw one of the few true things he said. Early in the Republican primaries, he said America was losing jobs because its wages were too high. This obviously didn’t go down well with the rust-belt crowd he was trying to impress, and he soon rowed back his comments. Instead, he has begun harassing the migrants who accept lower wages while threatening to block trade with low-wage countries.

As I’ve written before, in the short term this will probably boost the economy but undermine its long-term position. The party will end badly. The simple fact is anyone trying to restore the growth rates of old to Western societies is paddling up river, and the only thing they can do is inflate speculative bubbles that juice short-term growth, then burst. The dotcom bubble of the Clinton years, the housing bubble of the Bush years, and now a new stock-market bubble caused by Trumponomics will go the way of every other one. Ordinary Americans will be left with another hangover.

Growth in the Western economy hasn’t stopped, but it has dwindled to an annual average of around one percent per year, and shows no signs of returning to the levels our parents and grand-parents knew. That’s because, to put it crudely, we’ve all grown too rich and lazy. There are billions of people in developing countries, willing and eager to do the job for less.

That’s not a normative statement, it’s just a fact. Ha-Joon Chang points out that a Swedish bus driver earns fifty times what an Indian bus driver does, but you’d be hard-pressed to say the Swedish bus driver has the harder job or applies more ingenuity to the task (thereby earning what economists call a skill premium). If anything, the opposite is true.

The standard response on the left to this blatant discrepancy in earning-power is to say that we all deserve higher wages, both the Swedish and Indian bus driver. But that reasoning is actually a bit lazy. The high incomes of western societies were, for the last two centuries, subsidised by the booty of empire, but now the empire can no longer assert its dominance. In fact, measured in financial capital flows, the net direction of the movement has switched in the opposite direction, with capital flowing to the periphery.

This has been a golden rule of empires throughout history. The empire expands when the rich go looking for cheap land and labour abroad. It peaks, then the poor come looking for their opportunities. If they don’t move into the heartland, as happened in the Roman Empire, the empire goes looking for them. Given that capital today is so mobile, it has started out-sourcing to low-wage zones to maintain its position.

If we compel capital to stay at home, as President Trump is trying to do by bullying and cajoling firms to stay in America, the end result will be higher output prices and a lower standard of living. As the labour supply dwindles in the West amid an aging population, and as the cost of looking after those old people rises, what’s keeping us afloat is that we’re still able to import human capital from the periphery: migrants who come with skills and work-ethic and who keep the economy turning over. Send them back home, and you might as well fasten your seatbelts: after a few years of cruising on a highway of higher growth  and rising wages, the car’s gonna crash.

I’m not saying we have to live by the rules of the free market. I’m saying the market has never been free, but was backed up with the force of arms. The slaves that helped power the rise of the West didn’t freely enter their contracts, nor by and large did the native populations in the Americas, Antipodes and Africa who gave up their land and resources.

But, every empire has its day, and we have had ours. Even though Third-World countries won their independence in the middle of the last century, it took them until the end of the century to build up the bureaucratic and political capacity to start getting fairer trade deals and creating the policy environments that encouraged the development of their own economies.

As I have always written, the inevitability of relative Western decline — and let’s remember it’s relative, because our economies will continue growing — needn’t be a cause for fatalism or resignation. Instead, it’s an opportunity for imagination. You see, there may be something to gain from slower growth. There are grounds for believing the gains in well-being due to income growth have peaked, and that our future well-being will be tied not to getting more, but to using what we have more wisely. However, a left pining for the good old days isn’t going to get us any closer to crafting that new narrative.

Image: Thames Embankment, after the rain

Who Becomes A Jihadist?

When the American commandos who killed Osama bin Laden found what they thought was porn in his compound, the US treated it like forensic evidence, testing it rigorously to confirm it really was. You wonder who got that job. But it was an important point to them because it fulfilled their narrative that Osama was a false prophet.

Why would the discovery surprise us, though? Don’t alcoholics curse alcohol, and libertine youths grow into repressive parents? Osama’s was the passion of the convert. Born into a wealthy family of real estate developers in the Persian Gulf, he’d led a life typical of the Gulf elite. He traveled widely, shopped abroad and gleefully sank into Beirut’s fleshpots, the virtual rite of passage for wealthy young Saudi men. But, while at university in Saudi Arabia, he fell under the spell of one of his lecturers, and his life changed forever. Abdullah Azzam, an influential thinker in the Muslim Brotherhood, introduced Osama to Islamic fundamentalism. Ever after, Osama’s seemed to be expiating the sins of his past life with his fanaticism.

Contrary to popular perceptions that radical Islam stems from deep traditions among ignorant savages, it usually emerges in the most modern of environments — in urban settings at the cutting edge of globalization (very often, in fact, in First-World cities). Overwhelmingly, it develops among young men who have had secular educations to a relatively high level and display fairly normal psychological profiles, save for one thing: they tend to have experienced a period of social isolation or alienation, often while working or studying abroad, in which they seek some sense of belonging — the local mosque offering an obvious welcoming community.

While most such young men don’t radicalize, a few will do as Osama did and fall in with a peer group who feel their alienation and rejection most acutely, thereby developing an obsession with revenge. Having departed from the ways of their ancestors, they purge themselves of their worldly contaminations, often blaming their former religious mentors for failing to keep them grounded during their secular wanderings. When the old mullahs then decry their zealotry as un-Islamic, it only confirms their view of the religious establishment as hopelessly corrupt and lacking in conviction.

Thus, once you isolate the key correlates of terrorism — single young men who feel outcast — radical jihad appears in a very different light. What we’re dealing with, primarily, is not a religious issue, but an age-old problem: where there are young men, there is a greater likelihood of violence, which alienation can accentuate. Add the overlay of Islam and what do you find?

Surprisingly, the religion would actually appear to have, if anything, a pacifying effect. As frightening as the prospect of ending up in the hands of ISIS or being bulldozed by a hate-filled terrorist in a truck may be, the fact is you’re more likely to get killed by a piece of your own furniture (mind you, you’d probably drop dead if your refrigerator one day suddenly screamed God is great). You’re at much greater risk from a random gunman, a dog and even an asteroid. And in America, despite President Trump’s fumbling efforts at a Muslim ban, if you do suffer the rare misfortune of dying at the hands of terrorists, it’s more likely they’ll be right-wing extremists than Islamists.

Which kind of makes you wonder what all the fuss is about. Faced with this disjuncture between fear and reality, liberals labour to educate the public, setting up fact-checking websites and bombarding us with data in the hopes the deplorables will stop clinging to alternative facts. I’m not sure how much this accomplishes – not because people aren’t listening, but because they probably already know. We intuit these things. In our social network, we know of people who’ve suffered violence, we appreciate its scale, yet we have little experience of Islamic radicalism.

But that’s not the point. I think what people fear – and the politicians nurturing and cultivating these fears realise this — is not death itself, but something in its character. Something about being killed by a Muslim, or an immigrant, seems to be particularly unnerving to people who already feel vulnerable or somehow threatened. Xenophobic politicians and journalists have crafted a narrative which, blatantly false though it may be, resonates with a significant share of the population. As I wrote recently, many people have legitimate reasons for feeling fearful about the way the world is changing around them. Telling them they don’t, or that they’re just ignorant, is hardly going to change their minds.

What is needed instead is a compelling counter-narrative about how the challenges posed by globalisation, immigration or religious minorities will ultimately enhance our lives. That’s easier said than done. But until we on the left do that, many people will still find comfort in falsehoods, because they at least give them a tale that helps them make sense of what’s happening around them.


How A Pension-Fund Produced Jihad

Sometime ago, when I was chatting with a recently-retired gentleman during an American sojourn, he said he supported then-candidate Donald Trump’s call for a Muslim ban in order to defend his way of life. Ever one for an argument, I told him that his way of life was responsible for radical Islam, and that his pension-fund had produced jihad.

Well, that got his attention, so he insisted I explain my reasoning. So here goes my logic. In his best-selling account of the fall of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather coined ‘Newton’s Third Law of Empires’ – that ‘the exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they so reorganize themselves as to blunt the imperial edge.’ And this sort of blowback effect, Peter and I argue in a book on which we’re currently working, explains much of what is happening in our world today.

Our capitalist system was built atop imperialism, which provided the markets and supplies for the factories of the West. As the West grew richer, its states grew stronger, ultimately providing a range of services – feeding the poor, educating children, giving everyone a sense of belonging and security – for which our ancestors had once looked to the heavens and their churches. Societies grew less religious, and as that happened, our traditions changed. Pensions, for example, freed us from the necessity of having large families to look after us in our dotage. We came to think of ourselves as independent, looking after our own needs from cradle to grave by paying into a fund.

However, pensions are really just an ingenious sleight of hand which create a few degrees of separation between you and the children who’ll look after you when you stop working. Your fund-manager is but the closest link in a long chain of contractual obligations, at the end of which are the people who’ll support you when you retire. Your payments into your fund merely buy you a share of the eventual fruits of someone else’s labour. Instead of later living off your children, you’ll live off someone else’s.

That makes things interesting. Since most of us aren’t having many kids any more, the so-called dependency ratio is rising. The number of working people who are generating the surpluses off which the inactive population live, is getting too small to support us all. That means fund-managers have to go looking for workers elsewhere. They can either go to those societies where poverty and insecurity ensure that people still have large families – which is to say the Third World – or they can bring those people here.

In fact, we’re doing both. Private pension-funds have made good returns investing in firms which out-source their production elsewhere. The resulting de-industrialisation at home has helped power the rise of the angry white male, who provides a base for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politicians. But at the same time, Western societies have been importing immigrants from Third-World countries to pay the taxes needed to support public pensions. Since immigrants tend to settle disproportionately in working-class communities, this clash between nativism and foreigners grows acute on our own soil.

Unlike Western societies, which have grown less religious and more diverse, Third-World societies have grown more religious and less diverse ever since the days of empire. Whereas we, aided by our governments, have felt we could look after ourselves without divine intervention, the same couldn’t be said of the Third World, where religion has become ever more important to the victims of our prosperity. This religious upsurge gained speed and intensity after the 1970s, when neoliberal reforms in developing countries eliminated many of the state programmes Third-World countries used to create safety nets for their citizens.

But while the message of a restored spirituality was itself appealing in such circumstances, the real strength of the newly-revived religious groups was that they provided ordinary people with access to the material resources the state had said it would provide them, but was now failing to deliver. Time and again, research has revealed that religious foundations have used charity to build virtual welfare-states in poor communities of the Third World, plugging the gaps of retreating states. Such secure bases have then provided a small minority of radical jihadists safe spaces from which to launch attacks on the West. Meanwhile, the rising hostility towards Muslims in Western societies, fanned by nativist politicians, has provided a fertile harvest of young recruits with bones to pick with the countries that raised, but rejected them.

So, voila, a pension-fund has created the vectors of communication along which hostile forms of religious revivalism could work their way back into the West, and recruits to jihad. Such is the price of keeping ourselves in the style to which we’ve grown accustomed. We might as well grow accustomed to it, because for now, in our determination to maintain ourselves at all cost, the nexus is only tightening.

Image: Westminster at Night, London, February 2017

What’s Wrong with Fear?

Once, a few years ago, I was trying to arrange a meeting with a colleague who, like me, was travelling a great deal. Finding a common place and time to meet was a challenge, until one day we both happened to have connecting flights in Atlanta. Thus, we finally managed to cross paths at a coffee shop in the arrivals lounge, as each of us awaited our onward flights.

The Iraq War was then in full swing and airplanes were disgorging soldiers in their fatigues. Each time the doors of the customs hall opened and some emerged, people in the waiting area and surrounding restaurants applauded. I found this gesture touching, but my friend chuckled ironically at what he considered a jingoistic display.

We on the left are meant to be pacifists who disdain anything that smacks of militarism or authority, as my colleague did. And yet, as both the son and father of men who served, I have always felt there is some nobility to what soldiers do. I also feel that we on the left can at times act hypocritically when it comes to law and order: happy to live in a stable and free society and avail ourselves of all its freedoms, but unwilling to acknowledge the sometimes ugly deeds which free us from fear.

Donald Trump and his ilk cultivate fear and reap its political fruit in the most abhorrent way. In his first television interview after becoming President, Mr Trump shocked we bien-pensants with his dark vision of the world, describing it as ‘a mess: the world is as angry as it gets.’ While Mr Trump is nurturing fear to justify self-serving policies, we on the left are equally guilty of peddling a false narrative.

A classic example is Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book Better Angels of our Nature, which argued that thanks to the triumph of Enlightenment values over traditional beliefs, the world is becoming an increasingly peaceful and civilised place. But in his review of Pinker’s book, John Gray pointed out that peace came to the West in no small part because it out-sourced its wars to the Third World. In Generation Kill, for instance, Evan Wright related how American soldiers who fought in Iraq understood that by taking the fight to foreign shores, they enabled people like me to take our coffee in peace in Atlanta Airport.

Although Professor Pinker might not come across it much in Harvard Square, there is in fact a lot of anger out there. If you’ve lived for any length of time in the Third World, as I have done, you know that – because you feel it yourself: anger at the suffering in your midst which co-exists, and sometimes directly supports, the peace and comfort in which Westerners live. As I argue in my upcoming book, the very Enlightenment which Pinker celebrates was sustained in no small part by brutal oppression in the colonies, and periods of contemporary Western prosperity have often fed on Third World suffering (the most recent instance being the 1990s boom, for which American liberal feel so nostalgic).

A small number of disaffected young men, no doubt wrestling with identity and masculinity issues, have managed to turn this anger into a self-righteous rage. Yet they are exploiting something which is real. As I have written before, neoliberal globalisation has essentially squeezed the traditional working-class to enrich the professional elites and business-owners who have become the backbone of the neoliberal left. It’s easy to feel smug about progress if you’re captaining the plane that’s lifting us into a brave new future. But if you’re the passenger who’s been told that due to a shortage of life-vests, you’re the one who’s been singled out to stay on board in the event of a crash, you’re got a right to feel scared.

The truly progressive response to this fear would not be to pretend it doesn’t exist because everyone in the world is singing kumbayah – they’re not – but to recognise its legitimate well-springs and address those, pulling the carpet out from under the terrorists and right-wing populists. Instead, liberals have too often resorted to ostracising the working-class victims of globalisation, obscuring the economic injustice thrust upon them by focusing on their retrograde culture.

Yes, the culture of the traditional working class had elements of racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. Yet it was not without its virtues, including a rough-hewn egalitarianism, work ethic and civic-mindedness. By airbrushing this out of the picture and singling working-class culture out for a sort of annihilation in the name of progress, we have only heightened the fear of the ‘forgotten,’ who feel their entire world is being taken away from them.

Trucking in a different sort of fear — fear of the angry white male’s vengeance — will solve nothing. How much better it would be to recognise legitimate fear, and stop wilfully leaving behind those whom globalisation has bypassed. That means that we, the winners of globalisation, will have to stop hugging up all its fruits. Are we on the left yet ready for such a discourse of sacrifice?