If a week is a long time in politics, two weeks has to be an era. The seven stages of grief have been very publicly demonstrated for the twitching corpse of Britain’s EU membership, from denial (No! We can have another referendum!) through anger (All those geriatric bastards who voted Leave don’t deserve a vote, they’ll die soon!), bargaining (Scotland can stay in the EU, right? Please?), and finally, acceptance. Which I guess is Lexit, or left wing exit, a horrible moniker for an equally self-indulgent worldview.
In amongst all this, verdicts have been delivered on why the result came in the way it did. Demographic divides among voters have been identified, pitting the old against the young, the rich against the poor, North against South, metropolitan elites against ordinary rural working folk, contemptuous snobs against uneducated peasants, marmite lovers against marmite haters, or whatever else.
Some idiots (not naming names) have pointed the finger for these splits at globalisation, or at least the effects thereof. Britain has effectively voted for isolationism and retrenchment, for withdrawing from the global project in favour of a mythical island solitude where honest folk made ships and cars, beer was cheap, watery and terrible, food was tasteless and boiled, and everybody was white.
It’s not strictly speaking wrong to pin this yearning for things as they used to be on globalisation, in a very loose macro sense. Globalisation is such a wide and varied process of change that defining it is almost impossible. That said, some aspects of globalisation as “the closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world which has been brought about by the enormous reduction of costs of transportation and communication, and the breaking down of artificial barriers to the flows of goods, services, capital, knowledge and, to a lesser extent, people across borders” definitely had an impact on the Brexit vote.
A rapidly changing economy shifting from manufacturing into service provision, a process which devalues certain skills and demands significant and unprecedented labour mobility is a real vector of globalisation. Relocation or replacement of many jobs makes large-scale economic sense, but that makes little difference to someone who’s now unemployed. Large-scale immigration, too, is a part of this, as the movement of labour to follow the flows of capital is a foreseeable progression of free trade. The logical endpoint of free trade doctrine is to abolish borders completely.
And again, in a macro sense, this is a good thing. Globalisation and free trade, in economic theory have tangible benefits. Economies grow and more money is produced by everyone involved. The price of goods fall when they can be imported from wherever’s cheapest, and everyone has a bit more money to spend on luxuries. The boom years of the mid-2000s are the perfect example of this. Everyone got a new TV, everyone got a mortgage.
The problem is that on a micro level, globalisation can be devastating. For a big company to relocate jobs to India might make sense for them, as it’ll lower costs to consumers, increase profits for shareholders and allow the board to make further investments in growing the company, but the people whose jobs are replaced are angry and economically damaged.
More, they’re disenfranchised and alienated, because the political system doesn’t really allow for any recourse. You can’t vote a multinational out of office, and there’s a limit to what politicians can do when some companies have a greater turnover than most states.
Immigration is another visible instantiation of the effects of globalisation, as instead of imaginary money being relocated to another market, there’s an actual person right there. Your doctor might be underfunded due to the national economy struggling because a traditional manufacturing base has been kneecapped by competing in the global market, leading to a transitioning economy which relied on a volatile financial services industry, which has since exploded, causing large-scale unemployment, resulting in lower tax revenue and decreased public spending based on flawed ideological premises aimed at correcting the imbalance. But that’s an awful lot to consider when you’re told it’ll be four weeks before you can get an appointment. And when you can look in the waiting room and see a bunch of foreigners, the easy solution is to blame it on them.
And so some of the effects of globalisation have led to Brexit. Or at least, the pace at which some of these changes have been pursued exacerbated underlying problems with globalisation, which successive British governments over a period of about three decades made a series of political choices not to address. There’s a housing shortage partly because of immigration, yes, but also partly because no British government since Thatcher has seriously prioritised building houses.
But the choice that was presented in the referendum was a false dichotomy. A choice between going back to some outdated platonic ideal from the 18th or 19th century about the sovereign nation-state or continuing with globalisation as is wasn’t, or if it was, shouldn’t have been what was posed.
That’s because the process of globalisation is irreversible, but it’s also dynamic. The world has changed in such a way that going back to what we used to be is impossible, as Leave campaigners are finding out. On the other hand, globalisation has incredible transformative potential. Handled the right way, it could be the greatest force for human good the world has ever known.
The problem is that globalisation has always, whether you want to define its start as being in the era of colonialism or the industrial revolution or whenever, served the privileged. Capitalists made money on the backs of workers, Western Europeans made money on the oppression of other peoples, men took advantage of gender imbalances to make money off women. The history of capitalism is one of exploitation, and globalisation was an outgrowth of capitalism from the beginning.
At the national level, the fundamentally exploitative nature of capitalism has been curbed by labour laws, trade unions, and other mechanisms. When exploitation is projected onto a global scale, though, there’s no regulatory counterbalance. Economic forces have formed with no democratic oversight or legitimacy. Globalisation, especially with the rise of neoliberalism, became a purely economic project which benefitted elites and entrenched existing power inequalities.
So it’s not globalisation as such which is the problem; rather, it’s the way the process has been pursued. A focus on economic globalisation, fuelled by neoliberal free trade doctrine and a belief in the beneficence of trickle-down economics, has resulted in huge, and widening, wealth inequality.
But that has started to change. The internet has democratised discourse, giving a voice to whosoever wants one (oh hai). Vast cross-border transfers of information have led to advances in democracy, empowerment, and rights. The spread of human rights around the world in the past couple of decades demonstrates the potential for change that globalisation can bring. Abuses of power by the privileged need no longer go unnoticed.
This spread of information has led to greater activism and the creation of a truly global civil society. It can fundamentally empower people, giving them a channel to take control of their own lives and the forces which affect them.
Moreover, the increase in wealth created by globalisation has led to incredible increases in living standards and advances in areas like public health. People around the world are living far longer, in far better conditions, than they were a simple fraction of human history ago. And that’s as a side effect of global capitalism! Imagine what could be achieved if meaningful human development was a core goal of globalisation rather than something which can increase profit margins.
Globalisation can be an immense force for good if it is pursued by the people who are affected. If wealth is spread more equally, and people are able to make meaningful decisions about their own lives, the destructive effects of economic globalisation can be minimised. The impact of a transitioning, increasingly automated economy could be minimised by a guaranteed basic income, for example.
The anger and disengagement from traditional politics that characterised Brexit were the result of groups of people feeling marginalised and excluded from the political process. This doesn’t need to be the case. All it requires is a shift in thinking, from worshipping the almighty dollar to recognising that money was created to serve people.
Issues like climate change, the power of large multinationals, international peace and security, cross-border crime and terrorism, and many others, all ignore borders. Just because Britain has ‘taken back control’ of its borders doesn’t mean we can turn back air pollution at Dover.
More than that, these problems affect everyone equally. Instead of yearning for an unattainable past, or blithely advocating the status quo, we should be searching for solutions that affect everyone equally as well.
Definition of globalisation above is taken from “Globalisation and its Discontents” by Joseph E. Stiglitz
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