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Is globalization the problem?

Populist angst and anger is running through the United States presidential campaign, but also through the Brexit debates, directed at the political establishment, and also at globalization (with the European Union standing in for the latter in the UK context). This anger has taken policy elites by surprise, throwing wrenches into the works of carefully planned political campaigns by mainstream Republican, Democratic, Conservative, and Labour parties on either side of the Atlantic. Post-Brexit, European elites fear that this grassroots oppositional and anti-establishment politics also is diffusing across Europe (as resistance to free trade did in the 1860s).

Mainstream political and economic elites are quick to condemn these inconvenient voters for their inappropriate ‘implicit bias’—racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and untrammeled nationalism, and certain mass media for effectively stirring up these bad attitudes. Missing from these characterizations, however, is the impact of ‘bad latitudes’: Geography.

There is generic dissatisfaction, stemming from wage and employment stagnation, exploding income inequality, and post-democratic frustration with average voters’ political helplessness (relative to well-funded lobbyists, supranational institutions, and organizations). But there also is a particularity to those seeking to reassert their national identity against globalization. Socio-culturally, they are older, whiter, and more working class. Geographically, they reside in cities and counties characterized by deindustrialization and economic stagnation since the 1980s. These are the very places that experienced prosperity during the Fordist heydays of the 1950s-70s, a prosperity that Donald Trump and the Brexiteers disingenuously pledge a return to.

Labeling the problem as globalization misdirects populist anger, however. Globalization—creating a more interconnected and seemingly smaller world—has taken multiple forms since humans first trekked beyond the continent we now call Africa. When Marx and Engels called upon workers of the world to unite, they had a very different modality of globalization in mind than the currently hegemonic form. Geopolitically, the Cold War was a clash of contrasting global imaginaries, communism and capitalism, each seeking to influence those imagining a third way—the third world as articulated at the 1955 Bandung conference of newly independent nations. The currently hegemonic form is capitalist globalization, which is where the problem lies. Notwithstanding taken-for-granted claims that globalizing capitalism is capable of eliminating poverty while achieving socio-ecological sustainability, its internal logic countermands such claims. The logic of globalizing capitalism in the real world (unlike the artificial worlds of mainstream economic theory) is such that it continually reinvents its own geographies—spatial divisions of economic activity and asymmetric connectivities between places. These geographies reproduce socio-spatial inequality and undermine sustainability: Wealth and sustainable environments accrue in certain places and peoples at the expense of impoverishment and unsustainability elsewhere.

Dollar by MoneyBlogNewz. CC-BY- 2.0 via Flickr.

Globalizing capitalism dates back to the 15th century when, critically enabled by slavery and colonialism, northwestern Europe began to elevate itself from its backwater status (relative to prosperous and sophisticated south and east Asian societies), emerging as the workshop of the world. Contrary to those who credited Europe’s success to being a special kind of place, this success was based on bucking what are now seen as the rules of capitalist globalization (free trade, limited government intervention, free labor) in order to engineer asymmetric connectivities with the rest of the world. Colonialism and slavery brought prosperity to Europe, but depopulation, resource depletion, and deindustrialization to much of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

It was believed that this would change with the end of European colonialism. Newly sovereign countries, taking responsibility for their success within global capitalist markets, should now be able to participate equally on the world’s stage. But this was not to be. The inequalities created under colonialism proved resilient; less a failure of political will than of economic logic. Asymmetric connectivities favoring the first over the third world persisted, with the latter countries continuing their colonial role as providers of raw materials for the first world. Anger at these inequalizing processes stemmed from the third world and was directed at the first, through such initiatives as the Group of 77 seeking to renegotiate global terms of trade, but to little avail. Persistent impoverishment and economic stagnation in the third world underwrote Fordist prosperity in first world industrial regions, whose residents could regard globalization with equanimity.

This particular uneven geography began to unravel in the mid-1970s, as first world Fordism entered its terminal crisis. Manufacturing began to relocate elsewhere, bringing limited prosperity to selected peripheral regions and former third world countries, at the expense of economic crisis and unemployment for unionized workers in first world industrial regions. The dominant logic of globalizing capitalism also shifted, from state-led to neoliberal (most recently, finance-dominated) globalization, undermining organized labour, middle class purchasing power, and welfare-state safety nets in the first world.

Combined with China’s rise, this is visiting seemingly permanent economic stagnation and job shortages on first world people and places who believed that their past prosperity was attributable to working hard, rather than to unequal connectivities enabling them to benefit from impoverishment elsewhere. Little wonder, then, that they feel alienated by new geographies of globalizing capitalism that now disadvantage them. Yet those frustrated by the current geographical turn of capitalist globalization would be better advised to direct their anger against globalizing capitalism—a system inherently incapable of delivering on its promise of prosperity for all people and places conforming to its logic—not globalization.

Featured image credit: Globe by Luke Price. CC-BY- 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Carol M Dupre

    even intuitively Eric Sheppard’s approach seems right. Geographical sets, guidelines and limits have always played a major part over the ‘long run,’ depending as they have on the “unequal connectives” setting up the plotlines of failure. Thoughtful piece, thank you.

  2. Zily Popygaj

    – I think that both “globalism” and “capitalism” have been deliberately defined by those who eagerly and mercilessly engineered those asymmetric connectivities, and subsequently propagated by those who have benefitted, and continue to benefit, from the situation.
    – I think that the problem goes far deeper than even asymmetric connectivities, and is a problem with the aspects of human nature (meaning, the range of possible human emotions and psychology) which a society and subculture either nurtures or rejects.
    – *Very* few people can think outside of the boundaries which are inculcated from birth by their respective societies and subcultures.
    – If a society values justice, for example, then it nurtures a love of justice for *all* in its members, who then are likely to comport themselves accordingly in both private and public life, including business dealings.
    – What exists in most human cultures is, unfortunately, one culture for the vast majority, and another for the ultra-wealthy who live in isolation from the vast majority. For all of the shortcomings of the majority culture, the “upper crust” subculture has emphasized the aspects of human nature which have historically been the least sustainable.
    – To “fix globalism” or “fix capitalism” offer only short-term emergency treatments; what is required is a long-term repair of human *culture*.

  3. Noah Ebner

    Eric’s point–that globalizing capital is one specific and importantly, contingent, variant of globalization–is well-taken. The implication being that a ‘global’ problem requires a global solution (incidentally, the same is unfortunately true of global warming).

    The answer to the question, ‘is globalization the problem’ remains to be seen however. On the one hand, a counter-hegemonic form of globalization is one of the few forces capable of stemming the tide of globalizing capital. On the other hand, what exactly this counter hegemony looks like, who it will come from, and how it will organize power, is exactly the ‘problem’ that those of concerned with a different and hopefully more geographically even future are faced with.

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