The End of History Is Well and Truly Over
Decades of rule by establishment politicians opened the door for right-wing populists like Donald Trump to cynically claim to represent the marginalized. They rose on the back of crises that are here with us to stay.
- Interview by
- Samuel McIlhagga
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge and the author of Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century. In the second part of her interview with Jacobin, she spoke about the causes of the populist moment that made possible the candidacy of Donald Trump and other right-wing populists. These political actors, Thompson argues, were able to take the position of insider-outsiders, attacking the excesses of dynastic political systems from which they themselves had benefited.
Superficially, the victory of figures like Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron suggests that a successful restoration is underway. But looking forward, Thompson sees three key fault lines that could undermine attempts across both sides of the Atlantic to reestablish the pre-populist political order. These are the contradiction between the fossil fuel–dependent development goals of much of the Global South and the West’s plans for a green transition; the rising geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States; and the uneven distribution of the precious minerals required to sustain the new green energy infrastructure.
There is, Thompson claims, no way of addressing these challenges within the parameters of our current global political system. What this means for the future is unclear, but one thing is certain: the much-discussed “end of history” is well and truly over.
You use the term “aristocratic excess” to describe modern problems with democracy. What do you mean by this?
To give one example, we could look at the way that the 2016 American election was supposed to happen, according to the establishment script, which planned out a contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. You could not get a politics that represents, not just aristocratic excess, but dynastic excess, so clearly!
You could also point, outside the Anglophone world, to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in the Indian National Congress as a long-term model of dynastic excess within a democratic, if not social democratic, system, which has been upended by an anti-aristocratic or anti-Brahmin Narendra Modi and the BJP [the Bharatiya Janata Party].
Yes, absolutely. My initial interpretation in 2016 was that both Bernie Sanders’s and Donald Trump’s success, in the nominations, had to be understood as spanners thrown into the works of America’s dynastic contest. Trump was interesting, in an analytical sense, because some of the things he was doing seemed to me to be the way that an insider-outsider of the aristocracy would behave in the late Roman republic.
You mean in the way that renegade Roman patricians would cynically lead the “populares” (supporters of the people) against the “optimates” (best ones) or senatorial elite?
Absolutely. I had in the pre-pandemic version of the introduction a good amount on the optimates against the populares in the Roman Republic. I wanted to argue that you have to understand Trump as somebody who is, within a politics of aristocratic excess, of which he is very much a part, using the grievances of a section of the citizenry in a factional struggle with other members of the aristocracy. I found my way to the Polybius cycle through those Roman republican observations about Trump.
How much do you buy the materialist or Marxist characterization of the last decade’s populism as, not a contest between the people and the elites, but instead a competition between a regional petty bourgeois that feels disenfranchised, and a centralized professional-managerial, corporate, and ultimately “aristocratic” elite — with the mass of the population essentially uninvolved?
It seems to me that the huge problem — I’m using the shorthand of “populism,” because I never really liked the term — within populism in Europe and the United States was that it ignored the European Union. The United States doesn’t have a politics that makes claims against a supranational authority.
The US has federal politics obviously. But each aspect of that politics is clearly informed by democratic principles. Whereas, what you have in the European Union, in the post–Maastricht Treaty version, particularly in the eurozone, is technocratic politics. Conceptually, I was willing to move between aristocratic excess, in the economic sense, bound up with wealth inequality and inequality of political influence — and an aristocratic excess described by technocracy.
I think the complicating factor for populism in Europe is the EU dynamic.
Specifically, in terms of Britain and Brexit, you have to bring in a clear material cause. In my analysis, this cause is characterized by the UK’s status as a large European country both in the single market, outside the eurozone, and financially dominant through the City of London.
You can’t understand [British prime minister between 2010 and 2016] David Cameron’s early decisions that brought him to the EU Bloomberg speech in 2013 unless you take that material relation seriously. You could, in a way, reduce all this to a technocratic political issue. But I think it’s more than that and more than just British dynamics. I try to suggest that there is a pretty long line that runs from the French referendum in 2005, which rejects the EU constitutional treaty, all the way to Emmanuel Macron blowing up the traditional French party system in 2017.
I don’t think the EU’s structural effects and crises are singularly British. But the contradictions work out in Britain through a different trajectory — partly because the Conservative Party takes the position that it does while the French Socialist Party goes off in a different direction in terms of dealing with what is the same underlying European problem.
You could have a more democratic European Union, but unless Britain had, in joining the European Union, jettisoned its constitution and gone for something else, I think some version of 2016 would have happened. This might have occurred far in the future. I certainly think that Brexit needed the euro and single market issues to speed it along. You can’t really understand why Brexit happened without grappling with all that. But you need more than materialism. You need more than a class-based analysis, although it is not that class hasn’t got anything to do with Brexit.
In Disorder, you talk about the Bretton Woods system ending, Richard Nixon’s financial reforms, the Volcker Shock on interest rates, the formation of OPEC, and the spread of Eurodollar finance globally. Disorder argues that these events have framed modern politics for the last forty years. Do you think this is still the case? Are we still living in the tail end of the 1970s? You say in Disorder that the ’70s set the economic and material tone for our epoch. But then in the 1990s, the American shale boom essentially gave us a small window of respite from overhead trends of stagflation, energy crisis, and high interest rates. Are we returning to a larger reemerging pattern? Was the relative abundance of the early twenty-first century a contingent blip?
If anything, I probably overemphasize the importance of the 1970s in Disorder. Obviously, the ’70s was a profoundly important decade. It always makes me nervous when I say that because I’m a child of the 1970s.
But even for me, being born in the mid-to-late 1990s, I look back at the ’70s as a watershed decade, especially around the oil crisis, inflation, and the emergence of neoliberalism.
There are some objective reasons why you might say that. There were two profound structural changes that still affect how we live in the world. The first would be the end of dollar-gold convertibility and the move to fiat currencies: the removal of metal in any form as a constraint on monetary matters. We could not have QE [quantitative easing] without the end of dollar-to-gold conversion. We couldn’t have conceivably dealt with the pandemic, in the way in which we did, i.e., stopping economically, without QE.
Do you think that contemporary ideas, originating in the frontier of economic theory and practice, might have their start at the end of gold-dollar convertibility? I’m thinking about, on one hand, theories like MMT [Modern Monetary Theory] that embrace the fiat notion of, to quote J. M. Keynes, “anything we can actually do, we can afford.” But I’m also thinking about, in contrast, the innovations we are seeing in central bank digital currencies (CBDC) on the blockchain that are developing in Russia and emerging markets — where there is an attempt to synthesize a digital version of metal, through blockchain, to discipline inflation and public spending.
If you think of the whole of monetary history before 1971 as one epoch — and then think that we’re only fifty years on from the end of Bretton Woods — it becomes hard to predict where this actually ends up. I think the energy crisis aspect of the era is different in the sense that we live in the world that the 1970s made in one absolute respect.
The ’70s was the end of the informal European energy empire and with it the end of the age of international oil companies controlling world oil production. We have not gone back to a world, in any way, in which seven international oil companies control 90 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The attempt to get some of those Western oil companies, or their successors, back into Iraq, started in the 2000s, but basically, they are in retreat again.
I guess it is hard to maintain revenues if you’re, say, Glencore, while rocket fire is being exchanged and the Sykes-Picot line between Syria and Iraq is dissolving under an ISIS blitzkrieg.
Yes, that world of European energy stability in the Middle East has ended. We live in a postimperial era, and that really matters where energy is concerned. However, I think there were certain energy interludes, one of which is the 1990s when offshore drilling in the North Sea and Alaska upped supply.
These energy dynamics are producing blips where inflation goes down — all eased along by easy credit, right?
I think the monetary and financial environment in the 1970s, and the easy credit that comes with it, buys time for new oil supply to arrive and get things going again. Then you run into a new problem with the financial crisis of 2005 to 2008. The revealing thing about the 2005 oil crisis is that it is indicative of the fact that we have left the 1970s behind. It is the same problem as the 1970s, in a way, surrounding energy.
But on the demand side, the issue is now coming from China and India as consumers. While in the 1970s, in what was still only just a postimperial world, energy consumption was Western-centric. Instead, demand is now global. China and India are two very large countries that are driving an increase in demand. On the supply side, we’re dealing with some of the same things. But on the demand side, we’re living in a radically changed world.
Starting in the 1970s, under the chairman of the Communist Party Deng Xiaoping, there was a rise in Chinese export-led growth. This is another dominant story in your book. Yet as of the late 2010s, Chinese growth has slowed, there are large levels of debt in the property market, and now Chairman Xi Jinping has proposed a more domestic-led growth strategy under “the common prosperity doctrine” and “dual circulation” where exports are going to be tailed off slightly in favor of internal markets. I wonder how this will affect the United States’ and Europe’s reliance on cheap goods and emerging markets’ reliance on debt financing through the Belt and Road Initiative.
I think this is a hard question. We should take it seriously. We have to understand that, if you look at Chinese strategy in terms of the dual circulation policy, this is as much about China creating dependencies for others on Beijing as it is a sign of China in retreat.
Already, we can see in practice China’s dominance of metals and minerals supply chains for low-carbon energy. There was a clash with the United States coming out on the technology side, at a certain point, around 2019. I think the frame of geopolitical ambitions is a better way of thinking about these questions, especially in the context of what happened in the last years of the 2010s. The Biden administration has really doubled down on the tech war with China.
I think what has changed, since I wrote the book, is the supply chain issue around semiconductors and its relation to Taiwan. Obviously, because of Taiwan’s place in the manufacturing of advanced chips, that risk preexisted. But given that military tensions have, just in the last year, ramped up very considerably, the chip question is now functioning in a different context.
So in rejecting the idea of a “revolution,” do you think any energy transition will have to happen over the extremely long term?
It’s strange to me that the aspiration even gets described as an energy transition because clearly, it is “revolutionary” in its conception. It is “revolutionary” that over a thirty-year period, we could, by 2050, revamp the entire energy basis of modern civilization. I think what we are seeing is the possibility of a higher proportion of low-carbon energy in electricity. There might be some quite startling leaps if technological breakthroughs around storage happen reasonably quickly. However, the electrification part, replacing what oil does in transportation, is going to be much slower.
Regarding geopolitics: it is clear that metals and minerals are arbitrarily distributed under the earth’s surface in the same way in which hydrocarbons are underneath the sea. But they are perhaps not so arbitrarily distributed. China’s dominance of metals, so far, is only partly a function of geography. It is also the case that China has had a strategic policy around extraction since the early 1950s Mao period, whereas even the United States is playing catch up. Europe is different; it’s not likely to be as advantaged. But the problem in Europe, which is partially true in the US too, is that for many citizens, the idea of extraction is politically, ethically, and environmentally unpalatable. That is going to make the particular parts of the world where there is a willingness to extract very geopolitically important. This is going to become a matter of international politics.
If you look at Latin America, already we are seeing a clash between the new wave of Pink Tide governments, who built initial wealth in the 2000s out of extraction and taxing surplus to build welfare programs, and more radical environmentalism. For instance, Brazil’s Lula da Silva has slowly shifted from extraction financing of social programs to a hesitant ecology. In contrast to Pink Tide developmentalism, there is an emerging powerful indigenous movement that is anti-extraction. There are now two competing Latin American left traditions responding to the energy “transition.” Will we see new political fault lines in commodity-rich countries open up in the medium term, even among allies?
There are definitely powerful anti-extraction politics in a number of Latin American countries. These are some of the countries that are, increasingly, very important to prospecting processes for the metals required to transition. Once you ally Latin America with African countries in relation to the narrative that’s coming from European governments, you get a strange situation. For instance, European states telling African countries — think of what happened regarding the Uganda-Tanzania pipeline — that “we don’t want you to spend the money on fossil fuel energy infrastructure, but we do want you to do extraction from which we will benefit while we carry on using fossil fuel energy as an insurance policy through the energy transition.” This is incoherent and lethal to workable politics between the European Union and African countries surrounding the future of the energy transition.