The sense of 2016 as an annus mirabilis apparently rests on just two events: Brexit — the vote by the U.K. to leave the European Union after 43 years of association; and the vote in the U.S. for Donald Trump as the next president of the United States of America — a billionaire businessman whose campaign played fast and loose with facts, but was able to persuade the plurality of voters of his miracle-working credentials. Otherwise, 2016 was not that much different from every other year since the turn of this millennium. The Middle East was no less restive – indeed, barring Syria and Yemen, the shoots of a new order are discernible in the region, especially as IS is moved on to its back foot. Political leaders on the African continent were no less besotted by power, nor for that matter, better able to rule. Fringe (anti-immigrant) parties in Europe continued to make gains at the margins, even as a new illiberal worldview appeared to seize the imagination of states newly-freed from communist rule.
True, for most liberals, both Brexit and the U.S. vote represented a root-and-branch challenge to supposedly settled perspectives: open economies are necessarily better at allocating scarce resources, so lower tariffs, and a lot more trade pacts are as desirable, as is the need for free movement of goods, services, labour, and capital. Globalisation, within this context was not only desirable, but inevitable. Technological advances and the emergence of globe-straddling supply chains ensured that businesses of all sorts were leaner, and their goods/services cheaper and available increasingly globally.
The world was becoming a better place. Or was it? Globalisation has had two consequences for the workforce, especially in developed economies. On one hand, technology’s takeover of the factory floor has meant far fewer hands now produce most of the world’s manufactures than were required a decade ago. And this number need have more education than the average factory hand required so many years back if it is to handle the new digital user interfaces (with which most work place automation is controlled) at work proficiently. On the other hand, lower level manufacturing continues to migrate to jurisdictions where labour is cheap and infrastructure abundant (even China is seeing most such jobs cross over to other East Asian countries).
Left behind by these trends, are workers without a post-secondary school education. These, then, were the shock troops of the political insurrections that educated last year’s miracles.
In a sense, these events, processes and the people purporting to give life to them, simply describe a climacteric. The globalisation pendulum arguably reached its apogee last year, and as it swings back a new cycle begins. What is the nature of this cycle? Illiberal? Maybe. But is it as illiberal as past cycles, including those leading up to the two world wars? Two things will matter in responding to this. First, is the extent to which the considerable advances in technology and communications help support more open perspectives in the debate on the road ahead that will inevitably occur. And second, is how clear evidence of a change in social attitudes worldwide, including tolerance of difference across social spaces, will play in the new conversation.
The evidence from Poland (a civil society gradually bestirring itself to check the excesses of an illiberal administration) provide much cheer in this regard. However, the bigger challenge for those who see both Brexit and the outcome of the U.S. presidential vote as a setback, is to begin to describe policies that address the concerns of those left behind by globalisation, while persuading governments thus minded to remove their foot from the brake pedal of the longer-term folly of this course of action. Is this also an argument for redressing the increasingly poor returns to labour vis-à-vis capital? Without doubt. But is the argument for free movement of labour globally related to demographic skews worldwide? Not if the challenge is to leave the path to the movement of other factors of production free, so that the world could continue to take advantage of cheap labour in those places where the youth population is large and growing.
For populations like ours, with large and growing youth cohorts, this conversation forces a complementary challenge. To educate properly and to ensure that the population is in fine fettle, and able because it has the necessary infrastructure endowment to fit into the global production chain.
All through 2016, though, our government looked to be obsessed by the need to strengthen our place on the global food chain — keep the naira strong, so that we may be able to import more. No wonder for most Nigerians, the year was annus horibilis.