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The left and the case for ‘progressive reglobalisation’

Matthew Bishop, Tony Payne

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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 extraordinary economic growth and consequent escape from mass poverty attained by China, India and some other poor countries over the past three decades. Of course, the models of development pursued in many so-called ‘emerging countries’ have not been neoliberal in nature.9 Nor can anyone deny that growth in these countries has been attained at considerable environmental and some social cost. Neither China nor India are ideal cases of just and sustainable development. But this massive reduction in global poverty nonetheless happened on neoliberalism’s watch, so to speak, and it is in our judgement hard to imagine that China’s and India’s economic take-off could have happened so dramatically absent their greater integration within a relatively open global economy.

What all of this suggests to us is that there can be, as the heading above suggests, ‘different globalisations’. If, as we have argued, the neoliberal variant has been a political construction born of a particular political moment and possessed of positive and negative aspects, then it must at least be possible to move on from it by addressing the bad and seeking to maintain and even improve the good. Indeed, the reality is that neoliberal globalisation itself has also changed over the different phases of its history, in ways that we simply do not have the space here to delineate.10 Nevertheless, politics is always ultimately contingent on which economic and social forces are active and effective in any era, and it has been striking that alternative models of globalisation – including those that seek to wind it back – have lately begun to be advanced. Indeed, in the formulation of Ruchir Sharma, the Indian author and chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, ‘deglobalisation’ has become ‘the new buzzword’ of our times.

We consider this trend to be highly problematic. Sharma first used the word in a newspaper article in July 2016, just a month after the vote for Brexit in the EU referendum in Britain. He argued that this event moved the world into ‘the AC era – after the crisis of 2008’. Brexit was less cause than symptom: ‘a manifestation of global forces unleashed by the 2008 global financial crisis, including slower growth, rising inequality, and a widening backlash against open borders and incumbent leaders’. The consequences would be rising protectionism, falling global capital flows and reduced numbers of economically-dynamic migrants. Accordingly, his conclusion was stark: ‘globalisation as we know it is over’.11 Moreover, as we know only too well, most of these strategies of ‘deglobalisation’ emanate from the right. There is much that it is very tempting to say about Trump and Trumpism – as well as Le Pen, Orban, Farage and others – but this is not the purpose of this article.12 For, just as worryingly from our perspective, much ‘deglobalisation’ talk also flows from the left and it is to this vision of how best to react strategically to the complex legacy of neoliberal globalisation that we now turn.

‘Deglobalisation … from the left’

Many on the centre left in the developed capitalist world endorsed a form of globalisation about which they should have been more sceptical. There were plenty of others on the wider left, however, who always stood against the seemingly universal appeal of neoliberal globalisation. They were able to draw on a long history of critique of global capitalism. It is this strand of analysis that has again resurfaced today. Those advocating what we call ‘deglobalisation from the left’ advance a progressive left-wing – rather than a regressive right-wing – form of nationalism, but unfortunately reach much the same conclusion. Essentially, this is that globalisation needs to be pared back via a retreat behind domestic borders, the difference (compared to the Trumpists) being that this process should ostensibly serve progressive ends, such as the re-creation of national industrial capacity and the building of a ‘green state’.

This is an important intellectual and political development that needs to be taken seriously, not least because it challenges one of the supposed ‘lessons of history’ for the left. The Mitterrand experiment in France, which ran from May 1981 to March 1983, was the last time a full-throated socialist programme was attempted in an advanced capitalist country. As Jeffrey Sachs and Charles Wyplosz tell it, unemployment quickly rocketed to 10 per cent and growth collapsed. The emergence of European and global financial markets, as part of the incipient new neoliberal globalisation, meant that capital could easily flee. France’s trade deficit widened precipitously, generating a major currency crisis in 1983 and an immediate political retreat by Mitterrand – the notorious ‘tournant de la rigueur’. By 1985 the French left had imposed even harsher austerity than the right-wing regime that preceded it.13

In common with many others, Arthur Goldhammer concluded that Mitterrand’s programme was ‘rooted in a faulty diagnosis of the evolving global economy in the 1980s’.14 In consequence, a new orthodoxy was forged on the left in Europe: namely, that, under neoliberal globalisation, socialism – or even ‘dark-red’ social democracy – was impossible ‘in one country’. This of course explains in part the fateful embrace of neoliberal globalisation by the European centre left in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Yet this totem is now questioned by progressive nationalists, albeit often under the guise of criticising the perceived hold of neoliberalism upon the EU, rather than the neoliberal nature of globalisation per se. The irony, as Goldhammer himself noted, is that the French architects of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, many of whom had served in the bitter end-days of the Mitterrand experiment, were so scarred by the experience that they designed many of the EU treaty frameworks (and later the Eurozone) in more inflexible ways than otherwise might have been the case.

The new left critique of globalisation takes many forms. In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), calls for a new global economic regime based on ecological planning and ‘protectionism with solidarity’.15 As regards the EU, Mélenchon’s current platform commits to renegotiating, or simply ignoring, the EU’s ‘neoliberal’ treaties, but, as the mess in Britain intensifies, now explicitly disavows ‘Frexit’, leaving it to ‘hard-right sovereigntists’.16 In Germany there has emerged a distinct intellectual position, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cologne School’, associated with the writings of Wolfgang Streeck, Fritz Scharpf and Martin Höpner.17 Its claim is that the EU is ‘a non-democratic non-state without demos’ that is now lost to progressive causes and that the fight-back against neoliberalism can only be built from ‘retained’ nation states.18 As Manès Weisskircher has noted, these arguments have had an influence on the new ‘party-movement’ recently formed in Germany, Aufstehen (Rise Up).19

However, the most striking illustration of this new progressive nationalism is the case that has been made in Britain for a ‘Lexit’ (or left exit) from the EU, for which support exists in the Labour Party, including perhaps in the mind of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.20 Some have wrongly – and too blithely for our tastes – dismissed arguments for Lexit as little more than soundbites.21 In fact, they draw on a substantial intellectual base and possess an inherent credibility. As advanced by its most sophisticated exponents – for example, Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck, Samir Amin, Lee Jones, Costas Lapavitsas or Renewal’s Joe Guinan – the Lexit argument is that the EU has become too distant and anti-democratic and that governance needs therefore to be ‘re-scaled’ back to the national level.22 As Jones puts it, ‘the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies’.23 Typical in this view are the horrors of the Greek debt experience, which looms large in much Lexit analysis even though, as a non-Eurozone member, Britain has never faced the same financial constraints as Greece.

There is undoubtedly something in this critique. The EU, as presently constituted, does suffer from a massive democratic deficit that has lately allowed deflationary German ‘ordoliberal’ hegemony to become firmly institutionalised.24

Nevertheless, the conventional Lexit reading of the EU strikes us as too partial. It says little or nothing about ‘social Europe’, or the EU’s importance in global climate-change diplomacy, or its various initiatives to try to tax global financial transactions. It also paints the EU as fixed in stone, impervious to change, even though it argues, correctly (yet contradictorily), that the EU embraced neoliberalism as a result of conscious decisions made by political actors. In sum, the Lexit argument distorts, or underestimates, the complexity of the EU in order to make its case. This has the effect of obscuring, rather than illuminating, any serious understanding of the EU’s influence over global political and economic processes.

It is worth reminding ourselves too that, socially, a supposedly progressive nationalism as expressed through Lexit is potentially just as regressive as its right-wing variant, particularly when it comes to questions of migration and free movement, the negative consequences of which threaten to fall in painfully racialised ways on the non-white working classes.25 Other problems include the fact that – contrary to the almost-doctrinal belief on the part of many Lexit supporters – Brussels does relatively little to restrict a social-democratic programme of state-led industrial development. EU Single Market rules only proscribe certain policy tools, like indiscriminate state subsidies, which are not that useful in a serious industrial strategy anyway. as they simply generate rent-seeking.26 More importantly, the Single Market itself is an attempt to regulate, beyond the national level, global processes of production and consumption, and to do so in ways that balance the interests of workers and consumers against those of corporates. It could absolutely be argued that this balance has shifted too far in favour of the latter, but that is not a convincing argument for either undermining or completely evacuating the regulatory architecture itself.

Our primary purpose in this article is not, however, to adjudicate the Brexit debate, but rather to expose the big question unanswered by supporters of Lexit: how does Britain leaving the EU help in any way to resolve the neoliberal pathologies that concern them, and thus advance the interests of the left, either within Europe or globally? Brexit can only happen in three ways. Firstly, there is a ‘hard’ variant, which, in its original meaning, simply refers to leaving the Single Market. It would be a disaster for Britain’s highly integrated economy, especially in high value-added sectors like car manufacturing and services.27 Indeed, due to the uncertainty of the past three years, multinational automotive firms are already disinvesting, taking highly skilled jobs from places – often Labour constituencies – that have a desperate insufficiency of them. Secondly, there is an inordinately harder ‘no deal’ variant, which, as the Faragist ‘ultras’ in the Conservative Party and beyond have steadily warped the debate, has come to be wrongly described as ‘hard Brexit’ itself (we prefer to call it ‘apocalypse Brexit’, whilst Ben Rosamond, on Twitter, has also proposed ‘Chernobyl Brexit’). Either term captures evocatively the scale of the ensuing disaster: if it ever came to pass, it would devastate the economy overnight by pulling the country out of all of its existing global trading relationships. Make no mistake: a left that did not stop either scenario would be complicit in the unfolding catastrophe and, more importantly, would be seen to be so.28

Yet ‘no deal’ is fallacious in any case: if it did happen, we would only be further down the rabbit hole, with the preposterous spectacle of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ no-deal positions emerging: the former desiring some kind of new relationship with the EU (hence, not really ‘no deal’); the latter effectively advocating never again signing any diplomatic treaty with Britain’s previous major partner and still closest neighbour. One alternative to this nightmare prospect - the third Brexit option - is, of course, ‘soft Brexit’, which means leaving the political institutions of Europe while remaining in the Single Market. Economic logic has always dictated that this is where we should end up – even though it is essentially a second-class form of EU membership – but, at present, it seems further away than ever.29 However, the inescapable reality is that, on hard or no-deal Brexit day zero, a weakened Britain still has to negotiate with the EU, with any substantive continuity deal looking, atthe very minimum, rather like that which was negotiated by Theresa May, and taking on much of the EU’s regulatory acquis anyway, just with less say over it.30

The only question is the extent to which this happens in a humiliating fashion to a resentful nation – which in turn depends on the statesmanship of those managing the process. Yet all of this, in the final analysis, is in any case a largely pointless sideshow. What really matters is that – after any kind of Brexit – this diminished country would still have to re-find its niche within the shifting structures of neoliberal globalisation, and to do so rapidly, under a degree of self-inflicted pressure somewhere on the scale between extensive and exorbitant. Here, Aditya Chakrabortty’s disbelieving words capture the problem well: ‘Lexiteers … just know 29 March [or, we might now say, 31 October] will bring the death of neoliberalism even though the neoliberals will still be in charge’. 31

Ultimately, then, Lexit is a ‘faulty diagnosis’ – to repeat Goldhammer’s appraisal of Mitterrand – of the evolving global economy of the 2010s and beyond. Indeed, it runs away from the big challenge, which is how to tackle the power of ongoing but crisis-ridden and decaying neoliberal globalisation, specifically at the global level. It is surely even harder now to conceive of ‘socialism-in-one-country’ than it was in the 1980s. Global value chains and production networks are not going away: firms operating within them want transnational regulation and governance. Accordingly, the game that states have to play involves sitting at the top table influencing the development of these rules and systems in socially beneficial ways. If they do not, and try to deglobalise alone, the game just goes on without them. As Nissan and Honda have entirely predictably shown in recent months, cutting-edge firms will move to where regulation gives them the best and most predictable access to the biggest markets. Once that investment is gone, it is gone forever. 32 We on the left have to learn to play this game: we can seek power to build (and reform) global institutions in order to regulate global capitalist forces to serve progressive ends. But, if we choose not to, they will not simply evaporate. Right-wing, hyper-globalising neoliberals masquerading as nationalists will deregulate them in ways that serve regressive ends. In sum, ‘deglobalisation from the left’ is a chimera that avoids the crucial conundrum of how to offer global citizens substantive solutions to the problems created for them by neoliberal globalisation.

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