Neoliberal globalisation is in crisis--but it's an illusion to believe that we can turn back the clock on forty years of international economic integration. The left urgently needs to discover the ideas and agency necessary to resist the disaster capitalists of the right, and build a progressive reglobalisation.
The left needs to talk, again, about globalisation. You might think that quite enough ink has already been spilt about this ubiquitous term. Unfortunately, globalisation is still widely misunderstood, and it is too consequential a phenomenon for the argument to remain where it mostly sits in the general discourse of the (supposedly) developed capitalist world. (1) This is especially true during our era of profound--and profoundly disorientating--global upheaval. More to the point, and of special significance for the audience of this journal, it is our view that large parts of the left, in advocating--sincerely, but nonetheless erroneously--progressive forms of 'deglobalisation' have ultimately got it wrong when it comes to thinking through the politics, and political economy, of contemporary globalisation.
It is not that the left has not grasped the many social and economic problems associated with a long-decaying neoliberalism or the challenges these present to its broad vision of politics and society. Indeed, there is a bitter irony in the fact that the insightful critiques made by social democrats and socialists of the pathological effects of advanced, late-era neoliberal globalisation--about which too many centre-left politicians were too sanguine when in power before the crisis--now form the basis of a right-wing populist, hyper-nationalist backlash that promises to entrench globally even more dystopian forms of authoritarian capitalism. (2) The problem is that, in wanting to avoid the mistakes of the recent past, the left has frequently advocated a misguided strategic response to its broadly accurate analysis, abandoning attempts to reform globalisation and taking refuge in the re-empowerment of the nation state.
This is a profound mistake: one that confuses one form of globalisation for globalisation per se. While the existence of globalisation itself appears compelling, its character, and therefore its consequences, are profoundly contingent. All economic and social relations now take place, or find expression, on an unavoidably 'global' stage. Even the most seemingly 'local' manifestations of everyday life --from the organisation of family finances to the taking of a taxi or the purchase of a takeaway curry--are embedded in global flows of commodities, labour, capital, technology and knowledge. (3) In a sense, then, its cheerleaders were absolutely right that globalisation is probably here to stay: the sheer scale of cross-border integration renders any decisive retreat, if not impossible, certainly implausible. But they were utterly wrong to suggest that there is no alternative to their preferred neoliberal form of globalisation.
What is at stake here is not whether those processes exist and play out over a global scale, but rather how they are to be managed, by whom and with what outcomes for society. Put simply: globalisation can be better (or worse) governed, placed under greater (or lesser) democratic control, and shaped to produce more (or less) socially and environmentally beneficial outcomes. The left cannot escape the terrain of the global: instead, it has to learn new ways to imagine, conceive and engage politically. The only hope of creating a better world is for those on the left to think seriously in 'global' terms. If we do not, the disaster capitalists will build a kind of globalisation that suits only them.
The political economy of different globalisations
The core insight that underpins our argument is a straightforward one. Globalisation is, and has been, treated too often as if it embodies a kind of singular pre-ordained technological inevitability that has huge political consequences, but is at the same time somehow beyond political explanation. In fact, globalisation cannot be sensibly said to cause anything. (4) Thinking like this has the effect of turning it into an actor in the drama, propelled to the centre of the stage by some will or deity or force of nature. To be precise, it is to reify globalisation--to make it into a thing that of itself can act, behave and bring about outcomes. This does not really stand up to scrutiny since the concept actually refers to a highly complicated process of economic, social and political change that unfolds globally, and, arguably, is different and important precisely because it does unfold at that global level.
This was the insight that underpinned the classic definition of globalisation offered in 1999 in a brilliant overview of the early debate by David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt and Jonathan Perraton. They argued that globalisation should be thought of as nothing less--but also nothing more--than 'the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, from the cultural to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual'. (5) This definition stands up well to the test of time, although what perhaps could usefully have been added was a qualification that counter-processes to 'worldwide interconnectedness' could be mobilised at any time. The point we are making here is not an irrelevant academic argument about conceptual precision. It is rather that the framing of globalisation as some sort of external actor bearing down on all of us actually lets off the hook all of the politicians and institutions who, through consciously taken decisions, have succeeded in transforming global political economy since the early 1980s.
What is more, we know who these actors are. They are the big global corporations and financial institutions. They are the political leaders of the major Western states and bodies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and European Union (EU). They are the formers of opinion, in both the global media and leading universities, who have collectively built and defended the theory and practice of global neoliberalism. (6) Put starkly, it has been global neoliberals, understood as real people, who have knowingly driven forward and defended the new behaviours, practices, institutions, norms and values that have come, over time, to constitute what we think of as globalisation. Equally, it was real politicians who subsequently argued, as British prime minister Tony Blair did in his 2005 speech to the Labour Party conference, that we should not bother to 'stop and debate globalisation', because 'you might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer'. (7)
It is important, then, to see globalisation as a highly political process and not to be misled by the myth of its technological inevitability. What we mean by this is that, although dramatic technological progress from the 1970s onwards--especially in computing, communications and transport--unquestionably facilitated greater global interconnectedness and thereby helped to produce globalisation, it did not emerge and subsequently become entrenched of its own volition. It is important, too, to understand that we have lived under a distinct form of globalisation. To deploy again the phrase of Held et al, 'the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness' that took place progressed on specifically neoliberal terms and gained all of its social and political character from the major political shift towards the hegemony of neoliberalism that was initiated in the developed capitalist world in the early 1980s and rolled out thereafter.
In other words, while it is hard to conceive of a world without globalisation--and particularly so now given the extent of that interconnectedness--it certainly could in theory have been done differently, and it could have taken inspiration from a different set of ideological referents. At its heart, the term connotes only a spatial expansion of the terrain on which political economy functions. It was the neoliberal project that coloured it in practice, propelling it forward to become the 'actually-existing' globalisation that we live within and face today. We have not reached the fully-blown 'hyperglobalisation'--or 'borderless world'--envisioned by some liberals such as Kenichi Ohmae, wherein the market completely triumphs over states. (8) But, as the global financial crisis of 2007-8 showed, financial globalisation has been encouraged to a point where it is no longer properly under control and threatens the stability of the whole global political economy. The particular type of globalisation that has emerged is historically specific and distinctive to its times, and we must not make the mistake of forgetting this.
We must not make another mistake, either, which is to think that neoliberal globalisation has been all bad. This is really vital, especially as regards the position of the left. The problem here is that the bad aspects are both obvious to and much discussed by the left: the endemic instability (as above), the deepening trend towards inequality, the divisions enforced in societies between 'winners' and 'losers' in the process, the distorting pressure placed on local and national identities by homogenising global cultural artefacts. We could go on, and might also add --or rather reiterate--that it is unsurprising and perhaps even understandable that so many on the left might be quite happy to see the back of forty-odd years of globalisation that has brought with it a fair degree of misery.
But the reality is that there have also emerged other more satisfying features that characterise the neoliberal era of globalisation that need to be recognised in the balance: in general, the new opportunities opened up to so many people to live, work and love across borders and, specifically, the...