When I came up to Oxford in the mid 1990s, there were already glimpses of the changes, innovations and economic trends what would shape our lives for the next twenty or so years – the first few coffee stands off the High Street gave a hint of the rise of the likes of Starbucks, while a select few then used mobile phones. More broadly, the aftermath of the communist system spurred the rise of democracy and in economics, emerging economies like China begun their ascent. At the time, few saw the potential and the power of globalisation, which has now driven so much before it.
Today however, we are arguably at the other bookend of this period of astonishing change. My book The Levelling (PublicAffairs) is about ‘what’s next’ after globalisation, and the kinds of constructive frameworks and ideas that can harvest order from the current, building sense of disorder in the world. It 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 topsy turvy world.
There is now a growing sense that globalisation has run its course in the sense that we are increasingly sensitive to its negative side effects.
In economics, for instance, we have growth with low productivity, high profit margins but tepid wage growth in the United States, and record indebtedness at the same time as odd, multicentury lows in interest rates in countries like France and Spain. Wealth creation and wealth inequality are both at all-time highs, though many business leaders and politicians don’t seem to mind this contradiction. 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.
In politics, the contract people thought they had with politicians, governments, institutions, and potentially each other is disintegrating. 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.
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.
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.
This book sets out a view of the world as entering a new era, a fundamental transition phase. On almost every vector, the world is turning away from globalization and toward a multipolar order. This process is undercut by many risks—debt is too high, humans are less productive, trade and military tensions are rising, to name a few.
The Levelling will happen in many ways: The levelling of political accountability and responsibility between political leaders and “the people” (Grandees versus Levellers, insiders versus outsiders, elites versus masses). The levelling of institutional power—away from central banks and defunct twentieth-century institutions such as the WTO and IMF and toward new treaties (on risk and monetary policy) and new institutions (for example, a truly effective and powerful climate body and an institution or agreement that oversees cybersecurity). The levelling out of wealth—between rich and poor countries and between the very rich and “the rest,” preferably with “the rest” enjoying both better organic growth and a greater share of this growth. Then the levelling out of power between nations and regions is what the concept of the multipolar world is about, and within it, different regions will have different reserves of power.
The exciting and challenging element of the new era is that it is one where new political templates and parties are either in the process of being created or will need to be created, a world in which a new framework for organic economic growth will need to be discovered, and a world where many artificial stimulants to growth—such as indebtedness and central-bank asset purchases—will need to be pared back. In this emerging multipolar world, many of the international institutions of the twentieth century will become redundant as new formations of nations and new institutional arrangements spring up.
In this sense, the goal of this book is to jump to the next stage in the debate and to set out some ideas and frameworks that will help tease out how public life will evolve in the next fifteen years, what kind of society people in developed and developing countries really want, and how their wishes can be better represented by their elected leaders. My hope is that young and old Rhodes Scholars will be prominent here, and we might agree that the likes of Pete Buttigieg is a sign of this.
In the last chapter I resurrect Alexander Hamilton and ask him what kind of advice he would give to the USA, EU and China. American Rhodes Scholars will know of his many achievements, and the wider Rhodes community will also find him inspiring. I single him out because he was interested in both democracy and the idea of the classical republic (i.e., its institutions and laws) and was keenly aware that they served different purposes. Hamilton was an architect and implementer of intangible infrastructure to such an extent and level of excellence that few historical figures can match him.
So I use “Hamilton” as shorthand for the establishment of institutions, laws, and skill sets needed for countries—or here, regions—to be able to enjoy durable economic growth, high human development, and a stable public life. More than many other groups, I think these factors and principles are dear to the philosophy that drives the Rhodes program.
I hope you will all agree, and more importantly that you will enjoy The Levelling.
Michael O’Sullivan (Ireland & Balliol 1995) is a Rhodes Scholar from Ireland, and obtained M.Phil and D.Phil degrees from Balliol College, he was until recently the chief investment officer at Credit Suisse Wealth Management and is now author of ‘The Levelling’ (PublicAffairs). His email is email@example.com.