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Is globalization the issue? | OUPblog

Geographical

Is globalization the issue? | OUPblog

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Populist fear and anger run through the US presidential election campaign, but also through the Brexit debates, which are aimed at the political establishment and also at globalization (with the European Union stepping in for the latter in the British context). This anger has taken the political elites by surprise and has shaken the carefully planned political campaigns of mainstream Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Labor parties on both sides of the Atlantic. After Brexit, European elites fear that these grassroots opposition and anti-establishment policies will spread across Europe (as did the resistance to free trade in the 1860s).

Mainstream political and economic elites are quick to condemn these uncomfortable voters for their inappropriate “implicit bias” – racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and unbridled nationalism, as well as certain mass media that are effective in fueling these ill attitudes. In these characterizations, however, the influence of “bad latitudes” is missing: geography.

There is general dissatisfaction due to wage and employment stagnation, skyrocketing income inequality, and post-democratic frustration over the political helplessness of the average voter (compared to well-funded lobbyists, supranational institutions and organizations). But there is also something special for those who want to reassert their national identity in the face of globalization. Socio-culturally, they are older, whiter and more of the working class. Geographically, they live in cities and districts that have been characterized by deindustrialization and economic stagnation since the 1980s. These are the very places that saw prosperity during the Fordist heyday of the 1950s and 70s, a prosperity that Donald Trump and the Brexiteers insincere promise of a return to.

Calling the problem globalization, however, misleads populist anger. Globalization – which has created a more connected and seemingly smaller world – has taken various forms since people first migrated beyond what we now call Africa. When Marx and Engels called the workers of the world to unite, they had a very different modality of globalization in mind than the current hegemonic form. Geopolitically, the Cold War was a clash of opposing global ideas, communism and capitalism, all of which sought to influence those who envisioned a third path – the third world, as articulated at the 1955 Conference of New Independent Nations in Bandung. The currently hegemonic form is capitalist globalization, in which the problem lies. Notwithstanding the self-evident assertions that globalizing capitalism is able to eradicate poverty and at the same time achieve socio-ecological sustainability, its internal logic refutes such assertions. The logic of the globalization of capitalism in the real world (as opposed to the artificial worlds of mainstream economic theory) is such that it is constantly reinventing its own geographies – spatial divisions of economic activity and asymmetrical connections between places. These geographies reproduce socio-spatial inequality and undermine sustainability: prosperity and sustainable environments grow in certain places and peoples at the expense of impoverishment and unsustainability elsewhere.

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

Globalizing capitalism goes back to the 15th century, when northwest Europe, decisively made possible by slavery and colonialism, began to rise from its backlog status (compared to wealthy and highly developed South and East Asian societies) and to become the workshop of the world to develop. In contrast to those who ascribed Europe’s success as a special place, this success was based on opposing the rules of capitalist globalization (free trade, limited state intervention, free labor) in order to create asymmetrical connections with the rest of the world. Colonialism and slavery brought prosperity to Europe, but depopulation, depletion of resources and de-industrialization in large parts of America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

It was believed that this would change with the end of European colonialism. Newly sovereign countries that take responsibility for their success in global capitalist markets should now be able to participate on an equal footing on the world stage. But it shouldn’t be. The inequalities created under colonialism proved resilient; less a failure of political will than of economic logic. Asymmetrical connectivities in favor of the first versus the third world persisted, with the latter countries continuing their colonial role as suppliers of raw materials for the first world. Anger over these disparate processes originated in the Third World and was directed against the former through initiatives such as the Group of 77 that tried to renegotiate global trade terms, but to no avail. Persistent impoverishment and economic stagnation in the Third World established the Fordist prosperity in the industrial regions of the First World, whose inhabitants could view globalization with equanimity.

This particular uneven geography began to dissolve in the mid-1970s when First World Fordism got into its ultimate crisis. Manufacturing began to move elsewhere, bringing limited prosperity to select peripheral regions and former Third World countries at the expense of the economic crisis and the unemployment of unionized workers in the industrialized regions of the First World. The prevailing logic of globalizing capitalism also shifted from a state-led to a neoliberal (ultimately finance-dominated) globalization and undermined the organized workforce, the purchasing power of the middle class and the welfare state safety nets in the First World.

Combined with China’s rise, this leads to what appears to be permanent economic stagnation and job shortages among First World people and in places who believed their past wealth was due to hard work rather than the unequal connections that enabled them to move from the Benefit from poverty elsewhere. No wonder, then, that they feel alienated from the new geographies of globalizing capitalism that are now disadvantaging them. But those frustrated by the current geographic turnaround in capitalist globalization would be better off directing their anger against globalizing capitalism – a system that is inherently incapable of delivering its promise of prosperity for all people and places that corresponds to his logic – and not against globalization.

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

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