Future of Globalization, EconoMatters

Back to the Global Vertical

With the decline of the middle classes, social classes are back on the global agenda. That is politically dangerous.

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Takeaways


  • In many ways, we are moving from the horizontal to the vertical dimension of global affairs.
  • The social escalator is not working as in previous eras, despite renewed growth in many economies.
  • As Marc Fleurbaey of Princeton University argues, we must ‘prepare people for life and support them in life.’

There are horizontal periods – indeed some people, Thomas Friedman among them, believed some years ago that the world was definitively flat. And then there are periods in which verticality imposes itself again.

In many ways, we are once again moving from the horizontal to the vertical dimension of global affairs.

Friedman was wrong

This “verticality” is making itself especially felt in social terms. Social classes are back on the agenda, although not in the traditional Marxist sense of class struggle.

Rather, we are now coping with the decline of the middle classes and the emergence of a broader “precariat.”

The social escalator is not working as in previous eras, despite renewed growth in many economies following the crisis. Benefits that were taken for granted, such as full-time jobs with social security protections, are disappearing in significant numbers.

The great decoupling

Perhaps we are witnessing what Dennis J. Snower calls the “great decoupling,” which he labels “dangerous,” unlike its predecessor, which was “convenient.”

When economic progress is not mirrored or is not linked to social progress, discontent is generated in those left behind. This decoupling ends up manifesting itself in politics.

This is what may be going on in many countries amid the prospect of recovery, an uneven emergence from the crisis and, before that, globalization, which is now generally acknowledged to have produced winners and losers.

It wasn’t supposed to happen here

The decoupling phenomenon is arising when the advanced economies, both industrial and post-industrial, are recovering from the crisis.

As Marc Fleurbaey of Princeton University argues, we must “prepare people for life and support them in life.”

Central to that is the commitment to education, particularly amid the challenge of technology and its controversial impact on employment and the concept of work.

A smart policy approach in that regard, as Ylva Johansson, the Swedish Employment Minister, points out, is not protecting specific jobs (which may be dying) as protecting workers (which need to be actively equipped and/or a guided toward a new one).

Conclusion

Somehow or other, although no one knows how, remedying the great decoupling will induce the vertical to become more horizontal again. Or so one hopes.

Failing to achieve this will only accentuate more verticality. And vertical moments, as we know, tend to be the more dangerous ones.

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Andres Ortega’s Global Spectator column, which he writes for the Elcano Royal Institute.

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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