Venkatesh Rao: The need for a blue collar cosmopolitanism

“Once you globalize an economy, you cannot really unglobalize it,” writes Venkatesh Rao in his article for our “Outlook 2017”. To tame the angry masses the discourse and narrative around cosmopolitanism would have to get democratized, and go through middle and working class levels of articulations.

People always seem to think that certain aspects of globalization are reversible– via protectionism for example. But once you globalize an economy, you cannot really unglobalize it.

Sure, a few big countries can opt for a nationalistic industrial development model, where they try to be highly autonomous and to develop an industrial base that can do everything from guns and nukes to space programs – countries like the US, China, Russia, EU as a unit, India, Brazil. But even then they can’t un-tell the whole story. You won’t go back from China-US relations being dependent on each other. This irreversibility is reflected in the secular evolution of global financial integration. At some point, the world economy went from print whatever money you like to sovereign bond issues – this is all part of globalization being irreversible.

But the pushback against globalization does have one legitimate element. Cosmopolitanism has become identified with the Davos set, which is basically the one per cent coming together to pretend to think about running the world but not really. Even if you don’t know what is the good or right way to define cosmopolitanism – the wrong way is Davos.

The discourse and narrative around cosmopolitanism has to get democratized, and go through sort of middle and working class levels of articulations. We need a blue collar cosmopolitanism. We need a middle class cosmopolitanism. The Trump people for example, are angry at the wrong people. The people who have gained most at their expense are the rising middle classes in Asia. So the honest moral question to ask is: Should someone with college education in Asia who’s worked hard to be qualified for a certain kind of work deserve that work more than someone who dropped out of high school in the US and expects a certain standard of living? The small working class elite in the West was used to 30, 40 years of privilege; then, when the ground starts getting equalized, it feels to them like oppression. That’s what’s happening to this crowd. And you have to resist the temptation to acknowledge the morality of their narrative. Yes, you can have compassion for their pain, but that does not mean their complaints are legitimate.

Unlike in 1910, we now have a significant cosmopolitan class who are not just one per cent and top diplomats – there are massive migrant population everywhere. It’s still small: less than three per cent of the people born today will visit another country. But it’s enough – air travel has really democratized things. People didn’t think so many people would be flying around and working in foreign countries. These people I believe form a new silent majority, to steal a phrase from Richard Nixon’s domestic politics in the 60s and 70s. There is a new silent majority  in town – it’s the global cosmopolitan middle class and blue collar class, there’s just too many of them, the world relies too critically on them, and their opinions actually matter.

Venkatesh Rao is an independent researcher and writes popular blogs at ribbonfarm.com and breakingsmart.com. Rao earned his PhD in aerospace engineering, in systems and control theory, from the University of Michigan in 2003 and has worked in startup, university, and large enterprise environments. More from Venkatesh Rao on cosmopolitanism.

“Outlook 2017”: These days are not just the beginning of a new year, they carry some transition or even disruption feeling: new conflicts, new actors, new risks. And, obviously, new opportunities. In the context of the “Future of Power“ conference the GDI asks speakers and further global experts, what they think what we are to expect. Their answers add up to our “Outlook 2017“.

Further reads: Fred Turner: What happens when you free media