Subscriber OnlyBooks

The Levelling: An economist’s prescient warning of the growing debt crisis

Book review: When Michael O’Sullivan strays into politics he is on very uncertain ground

The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalisation
The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalisation
Author: Michael O’Sullivan
ISBN-13: 978-1-5417-2406-8
Publisher: Public Affairs
Guideline Price: €23

Is the era of globalisation coming to an end? Are we moving to an increasingly multipolar world? Will existing global institutions be replaced by new regional networks? Will lower growth rates and rising debt lead to another recession in 2020? And if so, what is the most appropriate political response to these mounting challenges?

These are the questions that former Princeton University economist and now chief investment officer at Credit Suisse Michael O'Sullivan grapples with in The Levelling.

At the heart of the book is a belief that the world is undergoing a period of profound economic and political change. Flattening growth rates, rising inequality, deepening polarisation and the emergence of a more insular and authoritarian politics has combined to bring the era of US-dominated globalisation to an end.

O’Sullivan argues that “globalisation is beginning to eat itself as companies and countries compete for what they now perceive to be a fixed pie of economic growth”. As the tide of economic growth goes out, we are left with “Brexit, Trump, Noise and Disruption”.


In the face of this reality, the author identifies two main responses. The “global elite” are refusing to recognise that globalisation has run its course; and a “vocal commentariat” are wrongly blaming globalisation for everyday economic ills. All the while, the majority of people, unclear as to how globalisation affects their daily lives, are left unsure and confused.

Critical of the “global elites” and the “vocal commentariat”, O’Sullivan adopts a curious lens through which to ask and answer the central questions of his book. Curious, that is, for an investment officer from one of the world’s largest investment and financial services companies.

Leveller movement

He claims to draw his inspiration from the radical ideas of the 17th-century English Leveller movement. Levellers were members of the rank and file of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army who, during the English civil war, called for wide-ranging political and economic reform. The term Leveller came from the deliberate knocking down of fences erected as part of the wide-scale privatisation of public land – the enclosure of the commons – during the 1600s.

While some levellers focused on purely political and legal reforms – equality before the law and extending the vote, for instance – others, such as Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers, adopted a more far-reaching economic programme.

At the core of the Leveller movement, both moderate and radical, was a profound challenge to the the political and economic status quo.

Unfortunately O’Sullivan drains the Levellers of any radical content and reduces them to a bland set of ideas aimed at improving governance in an otherwise unchanged socio-economic model of liberalism capitalism.

Indeed, in his discussions on what kind of politics and politicians can counter the ever-present threat of rising authoritarianism, O'Sullivan draws a bizarre continuity between the 17th-century Levellers and Emmanuel Macron, the politician who apparently will "reinvigorate France". Unfortunately for the author, the French electorate took a rather different view in the recent European Parliament elections, pushing the far right National Rally party into first place ahead of Macron's list despite an increased turnout.

And here lies the central weakness of O’Sullivan’s argument. He makes many interesting observations about the state of the global economy, some I agree with, such as his commentary on the coming debt crisis; and others I would question, such as his advocacy of EU fiscal federalism. But this is his area of expertise, and what he says is always interesting.

However, when he strays into history, philosophy and politics he is on very uncertain and unconvincing ground. A case in point is his argument for a new kind of “bio-politician” – more focused and responsive – as an antidote to self-serving careerism is both naive and at times ridiculous.

Thoughts for reform

The book's conclusion, where O'Sullivan sets out his own thoughts for political and economic reform, is also undermined by presenting it as the hypothetical modern-day views of the long deceased US founding father Alexander Hamilton. If you believe in the merit of your own arguments, there is no need to present them as the possible opinions of a man who died more than 200 years ago.

The Levelling gets some things right. O’Sullivan’s warnings of the growing debt crisis is prescient and should be listened to. His concern for the impact of social and economic inequality is also well argued. But the elephant in the room is the socio-economic model underpinning globalisation, namely neo-liberal capitalism, which O’Sullivan conspicuously avoids discussing.

Globalisation was always about much more than increased trade. Its origins lie in the liberalisation of finance and the weakening of nation states through the erosion of taxes on wealth and corporations, which in turn drove ever increasing levels of debt and inequality.

If the Levellers were with us today they would see the link between these economic dynamics and the polarisation taking place all around us. Unfortunately The Levelling studiously avoids this line of inquiry and is a much weaker book as a result.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman