Michael O'Sullivan's new book comes about at the perfect moment to consider and address the existential questions around, and potential tensions between, globalization and representational democracy.
In the wake of this past weekend's European Union parliamentary elections, which saw wins by far-right nationalist parties in the U.K., France, Italy, Hungary, and Austria, it is clear that those ascending in power (however little power the European Parliament actually holds) have more interest in undoing the international order they were elected to help lead than in protecting and extending it.
It wasn't as dramatic a win as most had projected for the far-right—and more liberal, pro-European Union parties like the Greens gained ground, as well, continuing a trend toward the political extremes rather than political consensus—but it was a win nonetheless. Two years after Emmanuel Macron emerged with 66.1 percent of the vote in France, in the words of Michael O'Sullivan's new book The Levelling "a leader with the ideas and energy to lead Europe," Marine Le Pen's National Rally party ever so narrowly won the day. It is yet another example of what O'Sullivan calls "the wrecking balls of the system that has grown up since the fall of communism."
In politics, there is Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the emergence in Europe of new, mostly right-wing political parties that are starting to disrupt traditional parties and politics. The rise of radical politics is spreading to emerging nations, notably Brazil. Voter volatility, apathy toward established political parties, and distrust in politics have risen to levels not seen since the Second World War. Gravely, democracy as a political choice looks as if it has peaked. More countries are now veering toward rule by strongmen, or to be more polite, toward “managed democracy.” Other countries no longer see democracy as an indispensable part of the road map of progress and development.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
So wrote W. B. Yeats at the close of the first World War. It was an apocalyptic warning that would come true in the war that would follow. It continues:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As O'Sullivan notes in the book—reflecting on a sign saying “The World Is Out of Control” on a stand selling evangelical books outside of Versailles in France—"doomsaying is always a good advertising strategy." As Yeats proves, it is also sometimes called for. So it's not surprising that O'Sullivan returns to the time just after Yeats published that verse in the early '20s of the last century to illustrate the challenges we face today:
Wealth creation and wealth inequality are both at all-time highs, though many business leaders and politicians don’t seem to mind this contradiction. These phenomena are rare historically and have tended to be followed by social, political, and economic crises. Predictably, I can cite the late 1920s as an example.
But he turns to an even older source for potential answers—the Levellers who he names the book in honor of, who were active during the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s. Why? For the answer we turned to his publisher, PublicAffairs, for an excerpt. The excerpt doesn't end on a high note, but the book itself ends with a challenge to engage—with ideas from the distant past, and the political process of today—that does offer some hope. The "Mere anarchy … loosed upon the world" in Yeats' poem is not inevitable if "the best" reclaim some of the "passionate intensity" of the moment. Perhaps a lesson from history can help light the way.
The Levelling is about how the center of gravity in our world, societies, and economies is changing, the confusion those changes create, and the ideas that will help bring new structure to what is a disordered world. At the time of writing, the debate in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and Brazil is focused on uncertainty and the breakdown in well-established ways of doing things. Many people feel that their countries have strayed off the path to progress, and many more feel that the road ahead is an uncertain one.
My aim is to provide the frameworks and ideas that can help breathe new life into politics, policy making, and economic growth. They are not magic bullets but simply ways of focusing attention on fundamentally important issues, such as what makes a stable society and how to think through important political issues of the twenty-first century, including the role of intangible infrastructure in generating economic growth, the demise of international institutions, the rise to power of central banks, and the legal aspects of genetic engineering. The world we live in today, be the reader in Shanghai or Santiago or Stockholm, is very different from that of any other point in history. Forms of human interaction like social media didn’t exist before. In economics, central banks have never before exerted so much influence on the world economy. In markets, the United States used to be the locus and architect of stability across emerging markets, either through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the US Treasury Department; now it is the provocateur of volatility. This time, as they say, is different.
There is also a sense that the cycles of the rise and fall of nations are repeating themselves and that, as over the past four hundred years, we are again grappling with basic issues such as the quality of public life, equality, and the workings of democracy. As a result, history can help prod today’s debate in the right direction. It also provides ammunition for many scaremongers, and warnings—with some reason—that the world will soon revisit the bleak 1930s are now commonplace.
There is plenty in our history books to both inform and mislead us as to what might happen next to our societies. However, one period I am drawn to is the middle of the seventeenth century and its momentous events. The end of the Thirty Years’ War through the Peace of Westphalia gave rise to the concept of nation-states as we know them. It was also a moment when laws and institutions were formed and began to be respected.
In England and, later, the United States and France, the first stirrings of democracy arose, along with the notion of popular rule. My own country, Ireland, is bounded by these three Atlantic powers, and much of its history has been determined by its relationship with them. I have spent my life moving between Ireland, England, America, France, and Switzerland and am naturally biased toward this corner of the world and its heritage. One thread that runs through all four Atlantic-facing countries is the idea of the republic. In simple, modern terms, a republic is a state that is run by its people, with equality among them. I would add strong institutions and laws to this mix.
The echo of this idea still courses powerfully through the twenty-first century. In France, the currency of the “republic” is still strong and prominent. In America, the institutions and checks and balances created by the Founding Fathers are still working and relevant. One of those Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, will make a guest appearance later in this book.
The American and French Revolutions represent the explosion into life of democracy and what we understand as the republic, but their seeds were sown a century earlier, in the mid-seventeenth century. A hidden gem in English history—which gives its name to this book—is a good basis for the repair of politics, economics, and finance today. Later in the book, we will discuss this gem in full, and at the risk of perhaps sounding a bit like the writer Dan Brown, I will take you on a tour of old churches, missing manuscripts, and historical intrigues.
To give a quick glimpse, the inspiration for this book came from running alongside the River Thames, frequently passing St. Mary’s Church in Putney. Having heard of the Putney Debates, which took place there in 1647, I eventually stopped to explore the church and, by extension, the Putney Debates. The debates have recently been acknowledged as one of the most important moments in English history and as the crucible of modern constitutional democracy. More than a year earlier, King Charles I had lost the English Civil War—a conflict fought over how England would be governed—to forces led by Oliver Cromwell. The debates took place between the officers and the rank and file of Cromwell’s New Model Army to discuss the future constitution of England following the imprisonment of Charles.
The largest group involved in those debates, the Levellers, crafted arguments for equality and constitutional democracy, arguments that they framed as the “Agreements of the People.” Those agreements resonate today as the first popular, written expressions of constitutional democracy. With democracy now under attack, it is to the Levellers we must turn for inspiration.
As political ruptures occurred across Europe during and after the eurozone crisis and as the 2016 US presidential campaign intensified, the Putney Debates and the Levellers who inspired them kept coming to my mind. One of the first texts on the Levellers I read was The World Turned Upside Down, by the historian and former master of Balliol College Christopher Hill. In it Hill tracks the emergence of radical political groups in mid-seventeenth-century England as they played a formative role in the emergence of democracy as we now know it. It is hard not to draw comparisons between the Levellers’ demands and the strong desire by many people in many countries today for more satisfying political choices and more balanced economic circumstances.
The Levellers’ story and the agreements they crafted deserve to be dusted off and reexamined. Their aims, their sentiments, and the forces that propelled them are relevant to the world in which we live and provide an apt starting point for processing and ordering the many changes percolating through the international political-economic order today. Their achievement was to set out a contract between the people and those who represented and governed them. Today there is little sense that such a contract is in place.
In fact, today the contract people thought they had with politicians, governments, institutions, and potentially each other is disintegrating. If anything, the order of the last thirty years is crumbling.
Excerpted from The Levelling: What's Next After Globalization.
Published by PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
Copyright 2019 by Michael O'Sullivan.
All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael O'Sullivan grew up in Ireland where he studied economics and finance, and then earned MPhil and DPhil degrees in international finance as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He then continued life as a professor at Princeton University and later moved back to Europe as investment strategist at UBS and now at Credit Suisse as chief investment officer where he uses the tough discipline of market forces to assess what is happening in the world in real time.