Review Essay

Brand New Left, Same Old Problems

What Populism Can and Can’t Achieve

In This Review

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?
Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?
By Robert Kuttner
W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, 384 pp. Purchase

Globalization’s friends are fast defecting. Some economists who once extolled the virtues of free trade and the free flow of capital now point out that globalization has brought smaller gains than were once claimed, while destroying working-class jobs and communities. The American public’s views of foreign trade have grown more positive as the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, but in 2014, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, only 20 percent of Americans thought that trade created new jobs, and just 17 percent believed that it raised wages. A populist anti-trade backlash is in full swing.

As globalization’s defenders retreat from the field, a different vision has emerged of how to achieve prosperity. On both the left and the right, economic nationalism has returned. Both camps hark back to a supposed U.S. golden age, when well-guarded borders kept out foreign goods, services, money, and people that would otherwise have disrupted national well-being. For U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers, the slogan “Make America Great Again” captures the sentiment, even if the precise moment in history to which they want to return is left unspecified. For thinkers on the left, the golden age started with the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and lasted until the 1960s. Over this period, the economy and society of the United States were structured by the policies and institutions of the New Deal.

Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? is the latest in a stream of works that see the New Deal as proof that government can tame the kind of unregulated capitalism that today has led to vast inequality in wealth and income, a collapse of social mobility, and a climate of insecurity. The history of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Great Depression, in Kuttner’s account, shows that societies can strike a better balance between capitalism, equality, and democracy. 

Kuttner’s criticism of modern inequality hits its mark, but the solutions

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