Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer

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Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: An invigorating and surprisingly accessible account of the problems caused by ever-increasing globalisation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: April 2018
Publisher: Portfolio
ISBN: 978-0525533184

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It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it? Every day seems to bring yet more news of doom and gloom. The spectre of terrorism hangs over most of the world, fuelling refugee crises and worries about national security. People keep saying that robots are coming to take all our jobs. Anti-establishment political parties are making huge gains in countries all around the world. And inequality is as much of a problem as it ever was – if not more so.

None of this is exactly a revelation unless you've been asleep since 1998. But the question Us Vs Them seeks to answer is: are all these things just an unavoidable consequence of globalism? And if it isn't, who the hell should we blame for mucking things up so badly?

One instantly-apparent answer is the persistent failure of politics to adapt to rapidly-changing times. Politicians love nothing more than to boast about high employment; none of them likes to admit that the proliferation of precarious, low-wage and part-time employment has played a major role in this. Another oft-repeated soundbite is how trade creates jobs: none of them likes to admit that it can kill them too. More and more, the old certainties are not standing up to new realities. When this is considered, the backlash against out-of-touch elites seems so inevitable it's almost not worth talking about. The question of what government is actually for is emphasised across the course of the book: should it enable change, or create change itself? Should it pursue a friendly and collaborative foreign policy, or aggressively defend its own national interest? Everyone agrees it should guarantee the security of its citizens, but how far should it go?

The us versus them narrative is hardly a new one – indeed, it's as old as human history – but the increasing ease with which populists are adopting and exploiting this is disturbing. Whether the them in question refers to immigrants, perceived scroungers, elites, people of another political persuasion, or even adjacent countries, one of the most pervasive effects of globalism seems to be how easy it is to convince people that they're missing out.

Another ugly aspect of this division Bremmer identifies is the desire to put up walls – both metaphorical and physical. America, of course, elected a president who spoke about building a wall on the Mexican border; polls frequently suggest a majority of people living in Europe would like to see an end to free movement. For many, protectionism is the only answer to a world that's being forced closer and closer together every day.

Refreshingly, Bremmer's scope is not limited to Western countries. A chunk of the book is set aside to examining the issues facing some of the major developing nations of the world, such as Egypt, China, India, and Indonesia, and exploring the pressures affecting one. Though the sociology and demographic factors differ, similar issues blight all of these nations: youth unemployment, stalling living standards, and a lack of prospects for unskilled workers are generally the factors at play.

Not content with summarising the problems the world is facing now, Bremmer also paints a rather grim picture of the future, pointing to what might happen if all these problems aren't addressed. Terrorism is unlikely to stop being a problem any time soon; neither will the steady flow of immigrants and refugees. Governments around the world are failing to adequately deal with either, and their failure is putting something else at risk: our trust in democracy. With the gap between rich and poor widening rapidly, it leaves demagogues and populists with the space they need to rise to power. The fault lies with a political culture that leaves so many people feeling unrepresented: one which has not adequately explained to them why they remain poor while everyone else seems to enjoy success.

There's enough food for thought in Us vs Them to fill a heavyweight tome, but the book is a deceptively slim read. It's one of the most balanced and informed viewpoints I've read, touching on a whole host of ideas. And in a lot of ways, it's pretty damn depressing reading. But the conclusion is – broadly – a positive one. The times we live in might be challenging, but as a species, we've been through worse. Humans are adaptable and resourceful, and we will find a way to carry on.

You could shelve this book next to Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World by Ian Bremmer. Whether you're a PPE nerd or you're just getting into the topic, there are lots I can recommend as your next read. I read Peter Hitchen's The Broken Compass earlier this year, finding it to be a thoughtful – if occasionally tinny – reflection on how things have ended up the way they did. Further ruminations on the state of our society can be found in Capitalism and Human Values by Tony Wilkinson.

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