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How the digital age is killing the old political order

A worker at a warehouse for Amazon, one of the companies that has helped changed how people think about political priorities. Getty / Matt Cardy

As unseemly waves of an increasingly ideological debate confront parts of the European political elites, powered by fears of an immigration crisis, I’d argue that political nationalism, as we knew it, is diminishing in real and practical terms. Its killer wasn’t one of the old ideological enemies – socialism or communism or social democracy – it’s the Internet, and the borderless consumerism it has enabled.

World economic leaders gathered last week in Davos for the World Economic Forum to muted reaction from anti-globalisation activists who a short decade ago would have clogged the streets in protest. Those days might be over in fact. The Internet’s promise of cheap, global commerce has largely been realised, and overwhelmingly, the new reality of consumerism is chosen over the old debates.

Thanks to the Internet, new, easier and cheaper products can compete on an essentially level playing field, released from the old enemies of free markets like protectionism and monopoly. We’ve seen it most recently in Australia with the emergence of Uber – and with a Prime Minister committed to a new age of Australian innovation, the next Uber is probably gestating in the mind of an Australian entrepreneur right now.

There is a natural tension between protecting national interests politically and a future in which those interests are subordinate to an agile and effective global consumer market. Australia is easing that tension by entering the fray directly, and daring to imagine a future where Parramatta or Geelong might be the next Santa Clara Valley of innovation.

Politicians can now only try to balance the scales between national political and economic concerns and the way the practical global market has muscled its way onto the screens and into the (increasingly digital) wallets of consumers. Citizens – or more importantly, voters – are already balancing their own nationalistic urges with consumer concerns everyday.

A new sense of community

People today are more acutely aware of what they want than ever before. Take cost of living concerns, or anxiety about employment, or concerns about economic growth. There’s now a very real social conscience; a communal, digitally-enabled empathy in the way people express those worries today compared to decades ago, when a person’s economic concerns would be specifically personal. Individuals have been balancing competing needs for a lot longer than our politicians, who seem to have only just woken up to the fact the new online economies put them in a very difficult position.

Take, for example, the recent debate on free trade at a Commonwealth level. Opponents of the Free Trade Agreement incorrectly predicted they were entering an ideological battlefield with the same topography it had 30 years ago, when Australians could be assumed to be reflexively against such a move. But today’s Australian public understand the axis between protectionism and the economic benefit of cheaper goods and services much better than perhaps the trade unions and Australian Labor Party gave them credit for. They now more swiftly compute the balance between the political and the personal, weigh up the cost-benefit ratio between national and private interests and understand moderate economic reforms that are respectful of both. Decision-makers do the public a tremendous disservice if they don’t respect the fact their voters are so engaged.

In the UK, voters contemplating an exit from the EU are weighing a similar set of competing interests. Conscientiousness of what such a move means is acute – the UK public are in the unenviable position of weighing their economic pride with the price of a discount EasyJet ticket to a Spanish beach. That’s the level to which the competing cases might reduce their campaign to, but the truth is much more complex – and, to an engaged public, misses the point completely.

The question of being in or out of the EU is arguably entirely redundant when considered beside the new borderless consumerism. The figuring of voters is that digital venture in San Francisco doesn’t need a political debate about the efficacy of a multi-billion dollar transnational regulatory body like the EU to engage with the Australian market, so why does a Croatian firm need one to do business in France? South African venture capital flows to Israeli start-ups without a joint Parliament to administer it. Tomorrow’s Turkish app-developers don’t need a session of the Middle Eastern Union to sell their products in Lebanon. To some the Brexit debate is a last century argument and the outcome, vital to vested interests and ideologues, is redundant to the next wave of innovators for whom political borders are less important than digital ones.

Borders – physical ones – are blurring, but the anxiety that is causing is sharp. In the United States tension over Latin American immigration forces individuals to balance questions of sovereignty with ones about labour costs and consumer benefits. American legislators, the smart ones at least, are forced to acknowledge that Latin economic migration has very real benefits to the US economy, but at a cost to their capacity to “protect” their borders. Australian political thinkers are more familiar than most with questions of border control, but the debates here and that in the United States are not based on the same predications.

A Californian voter staring in numb bewilderment at Donald Trump’s latest “solution” to unregulated Latin American migration understands that the potential illegal migrants Trump would lock out with a wall are also a vital part of that state’s economic prosperity. Again, politicians do their voters a disservice if they don’t recognise the public is capable of understanding the need for an axis between competing interests to be achieved.

No matter how big a wall you build to protect supposed national interests, the Internet will find a way to break it down. A Mexican woman finding irregular work as a cleaner across the border can book a job online using a $20 cell phone and free WiFi. American employers of illegal migrants can fill gaps in their workforces skills using online training courses from providers in still more countries.

Chattering commentators love buzzwords like “disruption” but that massively understates the impact of what’s happening to the way we do business and live our lives. It’s not disruption – it’s the practical redundancy of an old political order; one predicated on old power structures and old relationships between politicians and the public and replaced with something more democratic and much more representative.

If they’re not careful, and deeply respectful of those who elect them, how politicians respond to this might not even be up them. For Western democracies, the impact of ignoring these massive consumer changes is even worse than revolution. It’s irrelevance.

Mark Textor is co-founder of campaign strategy firm Crosby|Textor and chairs the Amy Gillett foundation. You can follow him on Twitter.

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