A couple of years ago, if you were protesting against globalisation, you were assumed to be an anarchist or an eco-warrior. Nearly every major political party of right and left was signed up to the idea that globalisation was a good idea and that anyone who said otherwise was a wholly eared nutter.
However we now face the situation where the two major parties in the UK are essentially anti-globalisation (one hard left, the other authoritarian right). In America Trump is running on an anti-globalisation platform, while even Hilary has had to row back from her support of international trade agreements. What went wrong?
Firstly, I think it has to be acknowledged the benefits globalisation has brought. While I’d take the figures below from the world bank with a pinch of salt, it has to be said that globalisation has help lift millions out of poverty. It has helped push forward technological process, introduced us all to new ideas, its brought us multiculturalism, new and exotic tastes from far afield, and countries aren’t fighting world wars anymore (which is just as well given that we now have nuclear weapons). However it also must be said that experiences may vary. A rising tide has not lifted all ships.
This can be illustrated by the next graph, the so called “Elephant Graph” which plots the relative change in income over the last twenty years, depending on whether you are among the world’s poorest or richest. If you a subsistence farmer in the developing world (i.e. the very poorest) you’ve probably seen no change at all. If your one of the 10% of the world’s richest, you’ve had it pretty good over the two last decades. The working class and middle classes in Asia and the developing world have seen the most dramatic improvements of all, going in many cases from poverty to complaining about first world problems. If you are middle class in the West, you’ve seen some benefit, but you’ve probably noticed that others have gotten a lot better off and keeping up with the Joneses is that little bit harder. However, the working class in the West have seen very little change, indeed some are even worse off. This essentially is the heart of the problem.
And the problem, I would argue, is that somewhere along the way globalisation got bundled up, much like those toxic CDO’s that brought on the financial crisis, it got repacked with a lot of toxic neo-liberalism and outdated and rotting lassie-faire nonsense. It was then sold on as a complete package. Countries and electorates were told that they couldn’t have one without the other. That they must sacrifice their labour rights, wages, privatise public services and downside the state, all for the sake of globalisation. Now that everyone’s worked out that out that this globalisation CDO is filled with neo-liberal dog shit, people want to throw it away rather than simply unpick the good bits from the bad.
Not least because often the very people who sold this toxic CDO were the very neo-liberal types who packaged it up in the first place (i.e. parties like the Tories or the GOP) and the very same who are catching blowback from the consequences. And they are obviously reluctant to admit their error or abandon their long held ideology. Also their lies have started to catch up with them.
For years the go-to lie of many right wingers was to blame foreigners, poor people and organisations like the EU for all the worlds ills. Your local water supply has been privatised? Not our fault (even thought it was in our parties manifesto and one of our donors is on the hook to get the contract), the EU made us do it (only because we got the very legislation passed by them so we could dodge the flak!). Can’t get a hospital bed? that’s not because we failed to fund the NHS to account for an ageing society, its the fault of them nasty evil
hobbits foreigners comin over here and overloading local services. Your taxes too high? No, its not because of our failure to make the rich pay their taxes, its them scroungers living on benefits that’s the problem.
So when Corbyn tries to blame globalisation for causing brexit, I would argue that this is not entirely correct. It was this toxic neo-liberal agenda that along the way got mixed up with globalisation that’s the problem, plus the aforementioned lies of the right wing media. Like the boy who cried wolf, unwilling to admit to their error, they proceeded with the referendum. But the pleb’s, who they’d spent the last twenty years telling that everything was the fault of the EU and foreigners, actually voted leave. Confronted with the fact that actually you can’t keep the single market and end free movement, so they’ve doubled down and are going for a hard brexit. Similarly in the US, Trump is the inevitable consequences of this bundling of globalisation with neo-liberalism and the decades of lies told to the public by the right wing media (i.e. blame foreigners, China and poor people for everything….so a guy who blames these for all of America’s problems is suddenly popular!). In both cases baby, bath, water, tub and rubber ducky goes over the side.
There is no reason why we can’t unpick the two things however. The countries that have done best out of globalisation have certainly done so, to varying degrees. Unsurprisingly, communist China does not subscribe to the principle of lassie faire. They will intervene to protect local industries when they feel its necessary. The Germans and many other EU countries have hung on to their welfare state, offering some protection to those effected by the negative consequences of globalisation. They’ve also resisted, to varying degrees, the privatisation of public services (often merely floating public services off into state owned quangos). And they are willing incentivize growth in certain key industries (German renewables for example). Brazil and India have also adopted a policy of resisting privatisation and are trying to build up their welfare states to make sure the benefits are more evenly distributed.
Granted not everything is rosy in these countries, China for example has a lot to do to improve workers rights and there’s still lots of people in India who are desperately poor. The defacto coup by right wing politicians in Brazil (essentially a neo-liberal push back against the aforementioned measures) is hardly a positive. However, one has to compare and contrast with the pre-globalisation situation – workers in China then had no rights period, pretty much everyone in India was desperately poor and Brazil was ruled by a military Junta. But clearly there is no reason for globalisation to remain coupled to neo-liberalism. There is in essence another way. But as noted, the political right, and even some elements of the hard left, are unlikely to do this as this would be a direct affront to their long held ideologies.
However, rolling back globalisation will have consequences. Already there has been a growing trend of beggar-thy-neighbour style tit for tat protectionism. Unsurprisingly the US, the United States of France (a Time magazine jibe which is actually unfair on the French!) has been the worst offender. These measures however often end up being counter productive. As the BBC reports:
There was an outcry in 2012 when cheap Chinese tyres flooded into the US market, putting the viability of the domestic producers in question.
President Obama responded with punitive tariffs to get China “to play by the rules”.
The protectionist measures were well received in the US, but a study by the Peterson Institute established that the tariffs meant US consumers paid $1.1bn more for their tyres in 2011.
Each job that was saved effectively cost $900,000 with very little of that reaching the pockets of the workers.
Or put it another way, what the Trump’s, Theresa May’s or Corbyn’s of this world don’t tell you is that by opposing globalisation they think that the computer in front of you should cost you two or three times as much. It shouldn’t be nearly as advanced as those available in other parts of the world and it should be less reliable and less energy efficient. Now okay, those on a descent salary, like me, could still afford to pay such prices (or slip one into our luggage when we’re overseas on business). But I suspect those on a lower income will suddenly find that things like mobile phones, TV’s, laptops, cars, central heating, foreign holidays etc. all just became luxuries they can no longer afford. In short, roll back globalisation and suddenly many will find that the UK (or US) just became very unequal and life just became very unfair, very quickly.
The fact is we’ve all benefited from globalisation in ways the elephant graph above perhaps does not capture. I’m not that old and yet I remember when mobile phones were the size of a brick. When cars were so unreliable you had to carry tools around and work time into your morning schedule to account for the inevitable breakdown. When TV’s were so prone to failure some manufacturers made more money selling warranties on them breaking down than on selling TV’s. And your choice of drink in a cafe was builders tea or brown muddy water laughably referred to as “coffee” (Now we have lattes, cappuccinos, green teas and this thing called “salad”). Globalisation and the international competition that it brought forced companies to change. It provided them with the incentive to change, it drove technological progress, allowed them to buy in parts and materials or bring in expertise and investment from abroad to implement these changes.
Yes there were winners but also losers, some jobs did move overseas. Although it has to be said that other countries (not run by neo-liberals) fared better than either the UK or US. And, as I noted in a prior article, a lot of the job losses we blame on globalisation were largely a consequence of increasing automation (the UK now produces nearly as many cars as it did in the 1970’s, but with only a fraction of the work force). And there is little evidence to support the notion that foreigners are taking people’s jobs. Indeed the danger is jobs moving overseas (due to immigration restrictions making it impossible to recruit), or machines taking them. Both these mechanisms are in fact the main reason for the trends in the graph below.
Restricting immigration and leaving the free market will inevitably mean some companies will leave the UK (or the US in the case of Trump winning). The recent “flash crash” of the pound is a case in point. Its now believed to have been caused by a computer engaged in high frequency trading reading an FT article which had key words like “hard brexit”, “crisis” and “far right” in it, shat its electronic pants and sold everything it had. Now while human traders will be a little more discreet and careful about what they do, but they will essentially do the same….then relocate to Dublin or Frankfurt.
And the decline of 20% in the value of the pound to date essentially means you just lost 2 & a half a month’s salary, once those currency exchange differences work their way into retail and energy prices (oil and natural gas recall are generally priced in dollars). And WTO tariffs would push prices up yet further. A leaked treasury report now suggests brexit could cost the UK treasury £66 billion a year (£1.2 billion a week….rather than the extra £350 million the Brexiters promised).
Post-brexit the UK will find it increasingly hard to export, given the consequences of tit for tat tariff imposition and the fact that we’ll have cut ourselves off from the rest of the globalised world, which will mean the UK will no longer be able to attract the best and brightest (case in point, the Tories recently announced that no foreigners would be asked to advice on brexit policy, or in other words they don’t want the best and brightest available to advise them!). The country will slip further and further behind to the point where UK companies can’t export, unable to sell outside of the closed shop of the UK economy because anything we try to sell is just Lada like obsolete.
Over a long enough time period, the anti-globalisation brigade may well get their wish – more jobs for British people. Foreign multinationals will be streaming into the country, because the UK will have fallen so far behind that it essentially now counts as a developing world country and these companies will want to exploit an impoverished UK and its cheap labour costs. As Paul Mason puts it:
What happens when the investment banks move to Frankfurt, the carmakers to Hungary, the offshore finance wizards to Dublin, the tech companies to newly independent Scotland? What happens when, instead of Poles, it is poor white English pensioners herded into the polytunnels of Kent to pick strawberries for union-busting gangmasters?
Certainly there is a need to rethink globalisation. It needs to work for the benefit of everyone and we need to quit thinking that this “benefit” is measured in the form of dollar bills. The world faces many major problems, overpopulation, peak oil, climate change, ISIS you name it. These are global problems, they need global solutions, which means international co-operation, not more division.
But we also need to acknowledge that getting rid of globalisation would be a very bad idea. If the neo-liberals were correct, that downsizing government and privatising public services was a good idea, then Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government in several decades, would be the richest country in the world (instead its one of the poorest and most dangerous places on the planet). Similarly if the Brexiters (or Trump) are right, then North Korea, the country with the tightest border controls and lest free market trade agreements would be the worlds most dynamic economy….of course the opposite is true!
Opponents of globalisation, simply don’t seem to realise how much the world has changed and hence why we can’t just wind back the clock a few decades. And in many cases the medicine they proscribe would be much worse than what the propose to cure.