Over the long term globalisation promises a much more equal world where incomes are going up and lives are getting better in a much wider share of countries. But that is not how it feels if you make your living through manual labour in the rust belt of America or are juggling a series of temporary low paid contracts and dodging the loan sharks in modern Britain. There the globalisation looks very threatening indeed and it is this that is driving the dangerous drift to the right of modern politics.
I believe that the only way forward in a global economy is to accept that it requires a much stronger degree of international and indeed global economic management. When capitalism is left unmanaged it produces extremes of rich and poor and dangerous booms and busts. We saw that in the UK in the 1800s and the way we dealt with it was to build up the strength of local and then national government and to organise and plan a lot more of what happened in a market economy. This enabled us to build a welfare state in which it was possible for everyone to live their lives in a reasonable degree of security whilst businesses still had the freedom to innovate and change.
In an unregulated global economy we are back to the extremes of wealth and poverty. No one country can effectively tax a multinational corporations profits and the incomes that can be earned by the few individuals who own the rights to a few very successful profits are out of all proportion to any gifts of innovation or hard work that we might wish to reward. Bill Gates is, I am sure, a lovely man, a philanthropist and no doubt very clever. But I don't think he works several billion dollars harder than others or needs quite that much money to incentivise him to innovate. Donald Trump is, I am sure, a very nasty man and no doubt he is very clever in his own way. I don't think he has built up enough resources to buy his way into a Presidential election contest by sheer hard work and insight. The very rich have got a lot bigger share of international income because economic and ideological forces have concentrated wealth amongst the successful and prevented national governments from taxing them effectively.
The way forward is to create effective global management of a global economy. The huge forces of the international economy need proper international guidance in the same way that national ones once did. Without such management the system is exceptionally fragile. There is a dangerous herd mentality in financial markets which results in unpredictable but increasingly wild booms and busts that are damaging for the individual people who get caught up in them and ultimately are not good for business. Something like the 2008 crisis is highly likely to happen again. Last time the problem nearly caused the entire capitalist system to collapse in a very unpleasant way and next time we look like having even less intellectual and organisational tools available to deal with the fall out.
In this insecure world people are ceasing to believe that the old fashioned politicians have adequate answers. Something feels very badly wrong to a lot of people in the first world, especially to people in the working classes who have seen the most extreme changes to their lifestyle. This makes some people prepared to listen to positive proposals to change that are very different and leaves others inclined to believe that if we can just shut out the foreigners and build a wall it will all be OK.
Fortunately the second big change that is underway is pushing much more strongly in a positive direction. Global technology is changing. Once the economy was dominated by agriculture and run by the manual labour of people or animals. Then it depended on coal, industry, iron and steam. In the 1900s it moved on to operate via electricity and it oil and gas reserves. Now it is moving very rapidly towards alternative sources of power generation and storage. The huge levels of investment which are now pouring into the technology of power are driving very rapid changes in the efficiency, the cost and the convenience of power generation, low power technology and energy storage. Technical changes of this nature come along once a generation and when they happen they happen much faster than anyone every expected. I speak as someone who has walked inside a computer and turned the handle on a calculator.
A dependence on oil concentrates significant economic power in the hands of some very unpleasant people. For example one of the strongest drivers of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is the use of significant amounts of oil revenues to fund extreme religious propaganda across the world. The power of those oil revenues has left the vast majority of Western nations keener on getting some of it back via arms sales than they are on delivering the message that allowing funding to flow to religious fanatics who pilot planes into your cities is simply unacceptable.
Oil driven technology gives you wars to control the territory on which that oil happens to sit. It creates wealth not for creators of new and innovative ideas. Market forces simply dump large quantities of cash into the hands of the lucky or powerful people who happen to sit on top of some fossils and have the weapons to control that resource.
The next phase of technology looks like being much more positive. Solar, wind and water technologies can be deployed almost anywhere. They are local and relatively small scale. They depend on scientific research and technological innovation. So market forces are likely to reward the scientists and the technologists who create the best ways of doing them. They also require, and are now beginning to get, serious state support to get off the ground and reach economic takeoff. That means collaboration between state and industry often internationally.
If I am even vaguely right in this analysis then we have a difficult 10 to 20 years ahead of us but a very bright future. The long term prospects are for the economy and society to be much less militaristic, much more dependent on science technology and education, much more localised and massively less damaging for the environment. Unfortunately right now that is not as evident as the damage that has been caused by the worst excesses of the last phase of technology.
The key challenge for us all is therefore this. Can we hold off the aggressive drive of some very unpleasant politicians to stoke the fears of ordinary people for long enough for the benefits of the next phase of technology to start to come clearly through? We are in a battle for hearts and minds that has never been more important. Are we going to allow our politicians to convince us that they can take us back to the old world where the working class in the affluent nations had never had it so good? Or are we going to succeed in persuading people that the clue to a happier more successful future is investing heavily and quickly in the technology, industry, business, skills and science that lead to a much more promising future?