British historian, author and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash talks free speech, populism and polarisation.
The current global ecosystem reflects the triumphs and failures of the 20th century, in which the Soviet Union and the United States battled for economic, political, and cultural dominance. Yet, the end of history never arrived. Rather, things became even more complex and uncertain. Capitalism overcame Communism, but began to suffer deformations that have created momentous inequality and the concentration and centralisation of power in the hands of a few, a trend exacerbated by globalisation.
Representative democracy has helped accentuate polarisation, allowing elites on either side to hijack the political system while creating a new generation of political outsiders that many times represent the worst of both sides. And technological innovation, which has greatly improved our wellbeing, has permeated every aspect of our lives, with a world of information at our fingertips but also making us vulnerable to manipulation, both to enhance our consumerism or to influence an election.
While things aren’t quite that bad, Western hegemony is in crisis. Enter Timothy Garton Ash, an “historian of the present” who acutely documented the end of the Cold War and the consolidation of Europe as a unified bloc.
A self-proclaimed liberal internationalist, Garton Ash has continued to examine the defining trends of our times, acknowledging capitalism and globalisation’s shortcomings but still believing them to be a positive force, with some modifications. His research into free speech behind the Iron Curtain also gives him a perfect viewpoint from which to analyze the implications of the rise of Google and Facebook on privacy and freedom.
Garton Ash came to Buenos Aires in the context of Argentina 2030 – an initiative by the Office of the Cabinet Chief to generate alternative spaces for dialogue and debate with some of the world’s most renowned intellectuals – and sat with the Times for a chat.
Since capitalism has become the dominant economic system in the world, supported by representative democracies, we have seen a concentration of economic power that has benefitted the wealthy and those how have amassed capital at the expense of the middle and lower classes. How do we reconcile liberal globalisation with a world that is increasingly more unequal?
Well, it’s the key question of our time because specifically western democratic capitalism in it’s globalised form, what I call ‘financialised globalisation,’ has become two things: globalisation and a ‘financialisation’ of capitalism, right? So more and more it’s about money and financial products rather than things.
The effect of ‘financialised globalisation has been to produce increased inequality with the top few percent doing incredibly well, both within countries and world-wide, and an increasing closeness between political elites and financial elites, an intertwining of political and financial elites. And the people who are voting for Donald Trump or Brexit or the populist parties across Europe are partly protesting about that.
That’s what they are very much against. And there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t develop a different model of capitalism which does not that have that extreme inequality and does not have that intertwining of the financial and political elites.
How would that happen?
I actually think that we are in the middle of a digital revolution. This is transforming the world of work, destroying a lot of existing jobs, maybe not creating new ones, and I think we have to think quite radically so, for example, ideas that come from the left like a universal basic income, or a minimum inheritance guaranteed by the state, or a job guarantee, combined with taxes, inheritance taxes, higher taxes on the rich, combined with stricter rules of what politicians are allowed to do and their relationships with business.
Enforcing the rules that are there and that simply are not enforced. If you take a country like Britain, where traditionally politicians and civil servants would have a long interval before they went off and did another job, these days they go straight off to work in the banks or the financial services which they were regulating the day before. You can imagine the effects of that. I think that’s part of why people are pushing back against populism – and I know I’m using populism negatively.
Do you think that part of the deeper polarisation we’re seeing across the globe is a consequence of liberal globalisation?
Why, in different countries, in different societies, with very different dividing lines, you keep getting these 50/50 splits, these tribal splits, countries keep dividing in halves? Part of the answer is that advanced societies have, in a way, split in half. Half the society went to university, went to live in the city, globalised, cosmopolitan, and really feels they have more in common with elites in other countries than they do with the other half of their societies.
So one thing we – liberal internationalists – got wrong is that we have neglected the other half of our societies in favour of the other half of the planet. But there’s another part of the story, which is the hyper-polarisation of the media. Something has happened to the media so that if you take the American media landscape, if you watch Fox News, you listen to talk radio, you read Breitbart, you have one view of the world, one set of facts, you think the economy was doing worse under Obama and is now doing well under Trump. If you read The New York Times, listen to NPR, you think the opposite, one set of facts. And if you go around the world, you see that polarisation.
How do you imagine liberal globalisation can be implemented in a country like Argentina such a large welfare state which we can’t pay for? Can globalisation work for a peripheral nation or is it only beneficial for rich countries?
It’s not a very good idea to divide up the cake before you have a cake. I was talking about a situation where you have a lot of cake and the question is how do you divide it up. First you’ve got to have the basic structure of wealth creation.
About Argentina, economists have this phrase: ‘The advantages of backwardness.’ I’m not saying by that that Argentina is a backward country. What I’m saying is, you can learn from other people’s mistakes and see what they got right. Like, for example, education is fantastic, both top end and for innovation. And what Germany did so well is technical education, so they’ve got really good plumbers and really good electricians. Learn those lessons and how you go about it, while thinking about the 21st century economy and society. The problem is how to get to there from here.
There’s a famous joke about an American tourist stopping at a crossroads in rural Ireland and asking for directions and this old farmer he stops his bike and says ‘If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here.’ In a way, that’s your problem. You wouldn’t want to start from here to get there.
What is your historical take on Peronismo?
Probably the longest-running populism in the world. You have a world record for longevity for populism - I can’t think of another country in the world where populism has been keeping going for so long, 70 years.
It’s obviously been a deep, historical problem for Argentina. You have to reform - and as far as I can see, I think what President Macri is trying to do is the right way to go - but don’t neglect the other half of your society, don’t neglect your people along the way and don’t make the same mistakes that dynamic, Western economies have made in recent years.
Also, you mentioned ‘peripheral,’ now an economic historian would call it ‘peripheral’ but we’re in a different world now where the geometry is kind of different because there’s no longer this one single core, the West, which is prosperous and modern, there are competing modernities. There’s China, which is investing in Argentina and elsewhere, it’s a question of where do you position yourself.
How would you pitch liberal globalisation to a middle class Argentine who hears the Western powers speak wonders of President Macri, yet sees inflation is worsening, a deepening recession, the dollar becoming ever more expensive?
I don’t have an easy answer for that. But I think one of the mistakes we made over the last 40 years is what I might call ‘scientism’: believing that running economies or running societies is like a computer science and that economics is the science that tells you how to do it. And what you’re seeing here is the human factor, everything you dislike – the problem with the currency, the problem with foreign investors – is about the human factor. It’s about trust and imagination, people have a certain distrust of what’s going to happen in Argentina because of that long history that we’ve described. So you have to take into account that human factor. And of course one of the big problems, let’s be clear, is it’s not only the history, it’s one of the largest public defaults ever.
You also have Kirchnerismo still there. Still waiting in the wings. Still waiting to come back. So the foreign investor, the currency markets, global markets altogether are thinking ‘I’m not sure’. And the notion – one of the great fallacies of the last 40 years – is that it’s rational. And of course, it’s deeply irrational, they’re human beings.
What’s your view of the construction of a narratives in a digital world dominated by smartphones?
My last book was about free speech and this whole complete transformation, what I call ‘cosmopolis,’ an unprecedented world where everyone has become neighbours with everybody else, we’ve never had a world like that. I’m talking to your smartphone, through that little magic box you can communicate directly with half of humankind. And in that world, it becomes easy to appeal to emotion, to fantasy, to tell the kind of story that Donald Trump tells.
The challenge for us, liberals and the ones of us who like to live in a reality-based world, is to find stories that are inspiring and emotionally appealing, but are still true, still based on reality. And that’s more difficult because facts are often dull things and complicated things too.
Do you believe profit-seeking firms like Google and Facebook could be harming free speech while generating the conditions for manipulation?
I spend every Summer at Stanford University in Silicon Valley and I work a lot, particularly with Facebook, so I’ve just come a few days ago from Facebook where I was talking to them about these issues.
Step back for a moment. For hundreds of years, the question of free speech was about the state, political power. Before that, it was the Church. It’s been the State. What does the State allow me to say? And what doesn’t it allow me? Now, your free speech and mine is as much a product, a consequences of what Facebook allows me to say as much as what a government allows me to say. And the position until now is that Facebook has been making non-transparent, non-accountable, non-appealable decisions about what I can say on Facebook for more than two billion people. And that’s completely without precedent. That’s not satisfactory. I and others are trying to move that position, whereby those decisions would become more accountable and more appealable. And that’s moving in the right direction.
The alternative to that is have the governments do that again and this is where Germany has started to do so with its new law on online content, Britain is now planning to do it, President Macron in France is planning to do it. And President Putin and Xi Jinping love that because they want to get back to a world in which the governments decide what everyone can say, a world in which a government can say what’s true and what’s is fake news.
You need functioning markets, but both of these companies are monopolistic.
They’re quasi-monopolies. So here I agree with you too. We were originally on content, but the other part of it is competition. And I totally support what the European Union is doing – the largest single market in the world – which is doing what the US authorities are failing to do, which is anti-trust, which is trying to ensure competition, starting with the simple fact that you can defend the way in which Facebook and Google became very big because online network effects are very strong - the more people you have connected, the more people come to you. What you can’t do then is have them just buying up the competition. Facebook and Google now own WhatsApp and Instagram and in my work on free speech I’ve travelled all over the world - Asia, Africa, Middle East, the Americas - and wherever you go, it’s the same story: People in their 20s and 30s are on Facebook and if they’re younger they’re on Instagram and WhatsApp, right? So I absolutely think we should think about creating more competition. And the first thing to do would be – if we work out how to do it – would be to take apart Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram etc.
Traditional media is asking regulators to charge Google and Facebook because of an economic necessity. What is your view of the role of traditional media in this digital ecosystem?
It’s not as if we had a perfect media universe before. This great American writer on journalism, A. J. Liebling, said ‘Freedom of the press is enjoyed only by those who own one.’ He was describing the situation in most great American cities in the early 20th century, where there was essentially one dominant newspaper. So things weren’t perfect before. What I argue in my book and on the website connected to it - www.freespeech.com - is you need uncensored, diverse and trustworthy sources of news. Uncensored is obvious. Diverse so there has to be a multiplicity, and trustworthy so you have to be able to trust them one way or another and that is what we need to get to. I don’t think it makes much sense anymore to talk about traditional media or new media - everything is mixed up together now - but we need those two things: diverse and trustworthy. And the danger is that we’re getting monopoly and not trustworthy.
So you think that journalism and the traditional methods of journalism – which is to have a relatively well-paid, instructed, informed person, cultivating sources, looking for information and then publishing it through an entity that has gained the trust of a person – you think that has a place in this new world order?
I spent a significant part of my life working as a journalist and what I think, what I say in my book is that journalism, the business of journalism, has changed out of recognition in the last 40 years. The qualities of a good journalist have changed not a bit. What makes a good journalist or a bad journalist is exactly the same as it was 40 years ago when I started writing my first articles for the spectator from Albania. But the question is, how do those journalists make a living? And I say that – my younger son works as a journalist so I know what I’m talking about! And that’s the key bit that’s missing in the business model, for 150 years, by happy accident, it turned out we could finance newspapers by two things: advertising and people paying for it, and both those things have been blown out of the water by the Internet and we’re all hunting around for the new models of how to do it.
There will not be one single magic wand. If you have public service broadcasting, like the BBC, hang onto it for dear life and double the budget, because that’s fantastically important. Magazines have a clear future, because people still like reading The New Yorker - they like the whole product. Printed daily newspapers? No future, in my view. In 20 years, I don’t think we will have the printed daily newspaper at all. So that’s going to be online. So the question is, how do you finance expensive high-quality journalists. And foreign reporting.
What is your take on the Malvinas/Falklands conflict in the context of liberal globalisation and the 21st century?
Well look, first of all I don’t know all the complicated story of the Malvinas and the Falklands, but in my instinctive response – I was talking to a very distinguished Argentine diplomat yesterday, who was telling me actually the foreign ministers, the diplomats, have got a very long way toward a compromise, or some sort of condominium, shared sovereignty, I mean we’re in the 21st century, not the 19th century. And my instinctive feeling is that must be the way to go.
It’s impossible to imagine Britain simply giving up the sovereignty overnight, against the will of the islanders. It’s impossible to imagine Argentina giving up its claim. But there must be a path for us to imagine in this century, along the lines of shared sovereignty.
Would liberal internationalism call for the military invasion of Venezuela to remove Nicolas Maduro?
The responsibility to protect, the liberal interventionism, sets a very high bar. The bar is something approaching genocide, so I don’t think you could justify an intervention of that kind. But if we, by intervening, mean supporting civil society and supporting pro-democratic forces, supporting independent media so people in Venezuela can get where they need to go, I’m for that.