Thoughtful critics of globalisation had always warned of the possibility of a backlash against it. The current conjuncture is making the spectre of that backlash more imminent. Unlike anti-globalisation movements of the recent past, the current anti-globalisation sentiment is now working through the electoral politics of almost all democracies and states. This makes it more subtle and powerful.
The desire for deepening global economic interconnections was never driven by a technical economic argument. Globalisation is more uneven and complex than presented in caricatures. But at its best, it had an ethical impulse, a new imagination about the possibilities of organising human society; at its worst, it was elites and special interests seeking new pastures of opportunity even when the overall benefits were in doubt. But for the last three decades, globalisation was undergirded by a set of meta-assumptions — part myth, part possibility — all of which are now being contested.
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The idea behind globalisation was that it is possible to imagine a system of economic interdependencies which are structured in such a way that mitigated the zero sum aspects of global trade. In an era that did produce some intra-country convergence, notably through the rise of China, the big beneficiary of the recent phase of globalisation, without seemingly provoking major political backlash in advanced economies, this assumption came to seem politically plausible. Even after the 2009 financial crisis, the inherited system of interdependence was strong enough to withstand calls for rolling back further liberalisation. But the basic undercurrent of contemporary politics is that further globalisation is very much a zero sum game. The stagnation of living standards in advanced economies has buttressed this argument, though the proportion of blame that should fall on technology- and productivity-related factors or globalisation is a matter of debate. But whatever the truth, globalisation will be blamed.
This is in part because politicians find it hard to prepare their populations for the idea that continual growth may not be taken for granted. It could be argued that the zero sum game construction was always a fantasy; it was an ideological mystification that allowed various policies to be enacted. But in a way the paradoxical case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that it is about positioning some countries advantageously, only gives the idea that globalisation is not about creating a zero sum game. The inherited complexity of globalisation may make drastic disengagement difficult; but the political pressure to do so will increase.
One argument is that the growing inequalities within the advanced countries are behind the resentment against globalisation. The scepticism of globalisation is really scepticism of the plutocracy, and the privilege that it produced. There is much to this argument. But this argument also has its limits. It assumes that anti-globalisation is a product of the revolt by the marginalised and dispossessed. This story is probably more mixed. In the United States, it appears to have taken roots amongst the white working class, the biggest losers in the recent phase of globalisation. It would be unfair to place the blame for xenophobia on the doors of the working class; you suspect often the interests of the working class are used by establishments to express their own nativism. But the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, right-wing parties, and greater xenophobia cannot all be explained by inequality: Scandinavian social democracies are as much susceptible to right-wing backlash as the US; within Europe, big successes like Poland are in its grip as much as economies that have done less well.
The discomforting thought is that the nationalist critique of globalisation is gaining ground. Globalisation did make many societies more deeply multi-cultural. But its proponents underestimated the political and cultural challenges to assimilation. The fears associated with globalisation have turned to embracing ethnic chauvinism. Some would argue this fear of ethnic chauvinism must not be generalised. In the contemporary era of globalisation, it has a specific target, Islam. In this view, the rise of xenophobia and nativism is less a product of globalisation; it is more straightforwardly a clash of “ideologies”. Islam has become the “other” of globalisation, in ways that now deeply threaten the globalisation project. But whether this shows the limits of Islam or the limits of liberal societies is a debatable question. But this construction of Islam has contributed to putting under stress the fantasy of globalisation replacing exclusionary nationalism.
Globalisation also had a complex relationship to military power. The fantasy of globalisation was to render territoriality less salient and to mitigate great-power military conflict. Territory-based great-power tensions are back on the agenda. From China to Turkey, the temptation to use power to exercise influence is growing; the contest between assertion of ambition and pure economics is growing.
The US is also in a complex position. In some ways, globalisation had this paradoxical positioning for American nationalism. At one level, it is a projection of American success, its ability to create Pax Americana. Globalisation was an intelligent way of enhancing its pre-eminence and influence. So, for a powerful hegemon like the US, it was easy to sustain the illusion of national power and globalisation both growing together. Liberal internationalism was just a smarter nationalism. But this was challenged from two directions. On the one hand, the ground realities of emerging multipolarity made sustaining that hegemony harder. But also the disastrous intervention in Iraq, the changes in global energy markets, the lowered appetite for bearing the costs of war made sustained intervention in the Middle East difficult. Barack Obama ran on a promise of that kind of disengagement. Libya was a massive mistake, not the least because it reduced options in Syria. The Syrian crisis has had far-reaching domestic political reverberations in Europe. Obama was caught in a “damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t” bind. But the net result is that in domestic politics, American engagement with the external world is now seen as being undertaken from a position of weakness. Hence the demand for a more “muscular” foreign policy is back.
Globalisation’s critics had a point that it was oversold, was uneven in its effects, and did not do enough for losers. It is being felt by nations as a loss of control. But at its best, it was a hope of a non-zero sum world, a faith in the possibilities of open societies, and a hope that the prosaic demands of commerce will trump the more exalted passions of national grandeur. As nationalism gains ground, there is a real danger that nuanced debates on globalisation will be replaced by a more atavistic revolt against its possibilities.