The Russian parliament is discussing several drafts of a law which will oblige civil servants to transfer all their foreign-based assets and property back home to Russia. This measure has clearly been designed to please the public; however the authorities are divided over its application. The government feels it will discriminate against civil servants, whereas President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party are all for it.
The political significance of this discussion is clear – especially since both the authorities and the opposition agree that anti-corruption measures are needed. But this issue also touches on something more interesting: a phenomenon that links Russia (despite all its local peculiarities) with the rest of the world. In any country, the ruling classes look for ways to win public support, while at the same time becoming increasingly detached from those they govern.
Francis Fukuyama, who declared the impending triumph of liberal democracy in the late 1980s, has sounded the alarm. He describes a middle class under growing pressure from today’s globalized capitalism, continuing technological development, and the hundreds of millions of new workers in developing countries joining the global workforce. This erosion of the middle class, he warns, may even lead to the collapse of public faith in the democratic process. The middle class is commonly seen as the basis of, and even as a necessary condition for, sustainable democracy.
Fukuyama, who once proclaimed “the end of history,” or the historical defeat of the opponents of the Free World ideology, is now writing about the bankruptcy of “the left.” The lack of any rational alternative to liberal ideas, which advocate a return to moderate protectionism and the role of the state, heightens people’s doubts in the current model’s efficiency and, more importantly, in its legitimacy.
Legitimacy, or the right of those who govern to govern, is becoming the decisive political issue. It is telling that the Arab Spring toppled those regimes that could not prove their authority was legitimate, in countries where “the throne” was held or ceded without any form of consultation with “the people.” At the same time, monarchies, which are also undemocratic, have (so far) survived. Perhaps this is because the legitimacy of a monarch’s hereditary right to rule raises fewer questions.
The ruling class’s responsibility before the middle and lower classes is also a major issue in industrialized countries, but it has not yet led to such destructive results. One of Barack Obama’s strongest arguments as he goes head-to-head against Mitt Romney is that Romney’s investment firm, Bain Capital, pioneered the outsourcing of American jobs to China, meaning that Romney profited at the expense of regular Americans.
Many Europeans no longer understand how the increasingly complicated structure of united Europe benefits them, or why their tax burden should be increased to save Greece and other debtor countries. It is often said that they are not stepping in to support the people of Greece or Spain, but German, French and other large banks that prospered by investing in south European bubbles and now want their money back. Some argue that letting the EU collapse would cost more than bailing out “spendthrift southerners.” But this is an issue that needs thorough analysis, and that is not an activity in which “the public” typically likes to engage.
Ruling elites lead similar lives across the world, from the richest to the poorest countries. They are “global citizens,” and though there may be hundreds of thousands of them in some countries and only a few dozen in others, they have a great deal in common.
They may even have more in common with each other – across national borders – than with their compatriots. Most people, whether they live in the United States or Mali, are “local citizens” in terms of their mindset and lifestyle. They are broadly wary of, or even hostile to, “globality” (the end-state of globalization) despite the elites’ efforts to convince their “subjects” of its benefits.
But as dictatorships become unstable (and unfashionable) on a global scale, these “global citizens” find themselves increasingly forced to acquire convincing legitimacy, something they can only get from “local citizens.”
Loyalty, therefore, is becoming an indispensable commodity. It is mostly advocated through rhetoric but also sometimes by practical actions. In the United States there are calls to protect the country from Chinese domination, although it is unclear how this will work if China is their largest creditor. In France, President Hollande plans to introduce a 75% tax on the rich, although even diehard socialists doubt its efficiency. In Russia, the authorities have proposed that civil servants should be forced to transfer their assets and property back into the country.
None of these measures will change the system of globalized markets and the growing interconnectedness of economies across the globe. At the same time, economic stratification is compounded by differences between states in both politics and policy. Economic interconnection did nothing to dampen great-power rivalry, and so the elites now need the support of “the masses” to bolster their position.
Anticipating the appearance of a new ideology, Fukuyama writes that it “would be populist; the message would begin with a critique of the elites that allowed the benefit of the many to be sacrificed to that of the few and a critique of the money politics, especially in Washington, that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy.” It seems we are making good progress on populism, but that there are no real “guiding ideas” as yet within sight.