For most radicals this has resulted in an automatic assumption that globalisation is essentially a bad thing. I don’t think that is right. I believe great harm has arisen from many aspects of globalisation but intrinsically it ought to be a positive development that open-minded progressives ought to embrace.
There is something immensely constructive about technology that enables a good idea to spread freely across the world via the internet in seconds. There is also something life affirming about living in an era when it is easy to link up with other cultures and visit other places. It adds to the pleasure of existence if you can enjoy food, music, art, and literature from across the planet and meet with people from a huge range of different backgrounds. Welcoming diversity and being open to ideas and people from other countries has always been a hallmark of progressive thinkers and an over confidence in the superiority of your own nation over others has done immense historical damage.
So the question ought not to be: “how can we best oppose globalisation?” The real question ought to be: “how can we get the best out of globalisation and avoid the worst?”
One of the most naïve and dangerous answers to that question is that we should just trust markets and they will sort it all out. I continue to believe that there are many areas of our lives where markets and free enterprise are actually very helpful and do need to operate with as few restrictions as possible. Yet the idea that we can trust them to always produce positive outcomes in a global economy is plainly failing.
In a completely free global market production of goods moves to the place on the planet where labour is the cheapest and where conditions of work are the least secure. If we just passively accept that fact then we guarantee that nowhere on the planet can any manufacturing worker have a decent standard of living for decades to come. It is far better to establish trading zones within which everyone agrees to maintain certain standards of safety, quality benchmarks, workers’ rights, child labour regulations and environmental standards. I see nothing wrong with such zones establishing tariff walls and regulations that require anyone importing goods into that zone to meet the same standards or else be charged heavy customs. That is the great irony of people living in rust belt ex-manufacturing locations voting to leave the EU. In a global economy the only realistic ways of preserving any kind of future for manufacturing industry are heavy investment in future technology, major re-training and re-skilling programmes or protection of standards within a trading block. The impact of going for a series of wonderful new trade deals with places like India and China would be yet another wave of destruction of UK manufacturing under cheap foreign competition.
One of the other major problems with free markets is that they drive companies to use cheapest and most productive techniques for their own immediate self interest and make no charge on those companies for the impact on everyone else of what they do. This means that if we do nothing then the best choice for bottom line immediate profits is to dredge up every drop of oil and gas and to burn it until such time as it becomes too expensive to get it out of the ground. The collective impact of doing this has already caused horrible damage via climate change, air pollution, and the wars that have broken out to secure control over the supply of fossil fuels. Logic therefore dictates that we need much stronger collective control over individual self interest before the damage that has already been done to the global climate gets utterly out of control.
That is only one example of the problem of the contrast between global self-interest and individual self-interest. Across the planet forests are being stripped away in order to earn a quick buck for multinational corporations and we are presiding over a destruction of wildlife, much of which can never be reversed. We are also dumping a layer of plastic across the planet so comprehensive that there is not a single beach in the world that is free of the debris and no part of the oceans where life isn’t at risk from it. Moreover, we are dependent on food production methods that soak the land in fertilizers and pesticides and frequently require more calories to be burned in the production, storage and supply of food than are provided for the person who eats it. Put bluntly our food supply methods are simply unsustainable and we have 8 billion people to feed.
All of which means that there needs to be better mechanisms for managing globalisation. We are in the bizarre situation of having a global economy, a global society and a global ecology but no serious global decision making. Faced with a major problem of rapidly accelerating climate change world leaders cobbled together a voluntary deal at Paris that is a significant and important step forward. It injects serious money into the markets and will make a big difference to the viability of alternative energy sources and help move us away from fossil fuels at speed. But it is a voluntary deal and the US – the biggest user of fossil fuels on the planet – has simply walked away from the deal without any sanctions whatsoever.
Voluntary measures are simply not enough to cope with the scale of the problem. Globalisation requires global governance. The nation state is an inadequate solution to a global society. Either humanity finds a way to construct effective global decision making bodies or we are going to fail to handle the global challenges that increasingly dominate our lives. Ecologically this ought to be self evident. Economically the 2008 worldwide crash ought to have been enough to convince us that we need international government organisations that are strong enough to control and guide massive financial movements and to prevent damaging booms and busts. On both counts we have weak voluntary alliances trying to get to grips with powerful challenges and failing.
That is what is so scary about the current retreat into the fearful politics of petty nationalism that comes from Trump, Putin and the Brexiteers. It is impossible to reverse globalisation. You can’t go back to an era when each nation produced most things for itself and had limited interaction with the rest of the world. Whether we like it or not the world is now completely interlinked and all of us are at the mercy of decisions made in other parts of the globe. But you can frighten people into believing that all their problems are caused by those outsiders who are out to ruin your country.
We badly need the courage to move beyond those fears and beyond the era of the dominance of the nation state. This doesn’t mean that I believe that centralised organisations must always dominate over local ones. We need powerful local communities and local decision making. Equally obviously we need the nation state. We also need regional collaborative structures. But what the world most needs right now is effective global decision making bodies and strong internationalism.
You can’t have globalisation without global government. Internationalism has moved from being a nice ideal to being an essential requirement for a successful future. We have a very long way to travel between the current weak and squabbling voluntary international deals to the kind of decisive internationalism that the planet now needs. We are not going to get there if we are scared of articulating the challenge and remain locked into thinking that belongs in a passing era when the nation state was the dominant organisational unit.