Here in London, the American presidential circus has taken a back seat in the press to a fast-approaching referendum that will decide whether the United Kingdom leaves or stays in the European Union. The decision, dubbed the Brexit, is slated for the 23rd of June and has quickly become a source of bitter contention among Britons.
The Brexit has seemingly split British society right down the middle — Prime Minister David Cameron is a staunch opponent of leaving the EU, but many high-profile politicians have supported the move, most prominent among them Boris Johnson, the eccentric but popular mayor of London. The Guardian’s most recent survey placed popular approval for the Brexit at 52 percent and disapproval at 48 percent.
If it’s true that history moves in cycles of action and reaction, contraction and relaxation, then we might be witnessing a severe backlash against the globalization of the latter half of the 20th century.
Western governments knitted together the bitter enemies of France, Germany and England in 1993 to form the EU, believing they could keep tensions to a minimum by making war between the old rivals economically unfeasible.
Treaties like NAFTA and the creation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area supplied the U.S. with cheap labor and hordes of consumers while providing the people of Asia and Central and South America a dizzying array of new products.
Trade was bringing everyone together; it was making everyone richer, and it was giving everyone better and cheaper things.
But now, populist candidates around the world are raking in the votes on promises to scale back globalization.
Supporters of the Brexit argue that the U.K. has been paying the difference when the weaker economies of countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal come up short.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to fund a bailout for Greece’s flailing economy was deeply unpopular in her country. And in the U.S., of course, Donald Trump captured the Republican Party’s presidential nomination by promising to bring jobs back from Asia and threatening to start a trade war with China.
It’s true that globalization has produced big winners and big losers in the past 50 years.
The winners tend to be the few who had the capital to open factories or import-export operations in countries with dirt-cheap labor and lenient protective tariffs — people like Trump, coincidentally, whose signature line of ties is manufactured in China.
The losers, however, are many. Chief among them are blue-collar workers in countries that saw entire industries pack up and leave in search of greener, less-expensive pastures.
The jury’s still out on whether the people who make up the aforementioned dirt-cheap labor in places like China and Bangladesh have benefited from the miracle of globalization, but when you hear about accidents like the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed 1,130 people, or Apple factory hands in China throwing themselves off of parking garages after 14-hour workdays, you really start to think twice before singing the praises of a global economy.
The problem is we’ve grown used to the conveniences of said economy, even as we’re applauding politicians who promise to throw the process in reverse.
Here in England, nativist parties decry the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and even more mainstream parties — like Cameron’s own Conservative Party — have voiced concerns over the permeability of England’s borders as part of the Schengen Agreement.
There aren’t enough jobs in England as it is, they say.
Why let in even more job-seeking immigrants?
In the U.S., Trump tells his supporters he’ll wrench back the jobs our callous politicians signed over to China. We’ll make things in America, for Americans, he says. Only that plan won’t work, not if Americans are unwilling to work for the five cents an hour that Bangladeshi sweatshops pay. It won’t work if Americans are unwilling to pay some $30 for a T-shirt, the price retailers would be forced to charge to cover the cost of hiring American laborTake American Apparel, for example. The company was founded on a basic premise: Make everything in America, with American workers, and pay those workers a decent wage. Sounds a lot like Trump’s plan to patch up a middle class yet to recover from the flight of good factory jobs.
American Apparel filed for bankruptcy last October. It was a good idea, but in the end, American consumers were unwilling to spend $80 on a plain sweatshirt and $10 on a pair of socks. I doubt that will change anytime soon.
Even if the U.S. slapped astronomical protective tariffs on goods imported from Asia to make American-made goods competitive, and even if American companies decided to bring their factories back and with them millions of steady blue-collar jobs, the prices of consumer goods would be so high we’d be forced to spend a vastly increased percentage of our incomes on things like clothes, cars and appliances — things we’re used to getting dirt-cheap because we can pay people in countries without unions and without minimum wages or meaningful safety regulations next to nothing.
In England, take out those Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants and you’d be left with a country without bus drivers, janitors, waiters, cabbies — all jobs most Britons tend to think they’re above. It’s the same in America.
Trump says he’s going to deport all the undocumented immigrants in the U.S., but he knows that too many industries depend on a pool of workers they can underpay, who are terrified of going to the police and who are unable to join a union.
Here and at home it comes down to the same thing: Britons and Americans want the pluses of both a globalized and a protectionist economy, but we don’t want the flip sides of either.
We want the cheap goods, the $5 T-shirts from big-box retailers and the TV’s that seem to get less expensive every year. We want the jobs to stay in England and America, and we want them to pay enough to lead a decent life on. But we don’t want to pay $80 for a sweatshirt, and we don’t want factories to decamp for Asia and Mexico.
It’ll come down to a question of what we value more: jobs or cheap stuff. But there could be a third option — workers in places like China and Bangladesh could unionize, gain representation and push for livable wages that could raise the cost of doing business in those countries.
U.S. wages could become competitive again, and so long as the factory owners fail to find a new unregulated and nonunionized pool of labor to draw from the Chinese and Bangladeshi workers would not necessarily be sacked. We’d have a truly competitive global economy, one in which certain pools of workers are not favored over others simply because they are vastly cheaper or vastly more expensive to employ.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.