Has it fallen to the insurgent Right to end Globalisation?
President-elect Trump agrees with Mexican peasants
The ‘anti-globalisation’ movement announced itself to the world of the morning of the 1st January 1994. It was then that we found out about the existence of a small insurrectionary peasant-based movement in Mexico, the EZLN, or Zapatistas. This band of revolutionaries, led by Subcomandante Marcos, was demanding the scrapping of NAFTA, the free-trade agreement between North America, Canada and Mexico. Their appearance on the world stage was timed to coincide with the launching of NAFTA on New Year’s Day, 1994. How far we have come since then. In November 2016 the United States President-elect Donald Trump agreed with the Zapatistas that it is time to scrap NAFTA. I will attempt to set out how we got here.
What is globalisation?
From the moment the term ‘globalisation’ was coined in the 1960s it has been contested. In fact, even when the process began is a source of controversy. The Institute for Public Policy Research posits three distinct waves globalisation. Starting in the 1870s with the spread of industrial processes, a second wave after WW2, spearheaded by the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the third wave starting after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990. It could also be argued that globalisation really began with the first explorations of Christopher Columbus in 1492, when he ‘sailed the ocean blue’. However, the primary factors identified that made ‘third wave’ globalisation possible, which I am most concerned with here, has been the fall in both the costs of transport and communication.
The way in which globalisation is talked about today can be said to have really got going after the fall of the Berlin wall. The end of ‘communism’ as an economic system heralded a unipolar world in which there were largely no barriers to trade or interactions between people and companies. This was initially trumpeted as ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1989). There was certainly an intensification of trade, global markets were opened up and trade deals became the order of the day. Many of the reforms to economic and political order that had been implemented since the late 1970s and early 80s were accelerated across the globe. The ‘General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which had been created in the late 1940s as part of the Bretton Woods agreement became the World Trade Organisation or WTO in 1995. It was this organisation that was to become the focus of a great deal of attention and critique by the opponents of corporate globalisation from 1999 onwards.
The process of globalisation and the attendant unleashing of unrestrained market forces became the dominant ‘ideology’. Uncritical proponents of globalisation saw only the benefits to be accrued from free trade. “We need more global markets, not fewer, if we want to raise the living standards of the poor” is the argument that runs through the book Why Globalisation Works.
There are however other important social aspects that flow from globalisation. It brings nations into closer contact, out of which knowledge and culture become shared resources. The freer movement of people brings former strangers into contact with each other, thus facilitating greater awareness and appreciation of other cultures and national perspectives. Not that these facets of globalisation are uncontroversial either.
For a more nuanced account of globalisation we need, I would argue, to look to the writing of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist and former advisor to Bill Clinton and chief economist at the World Bank. In his account, Globalisation and its discontents, he at least can see some of the problems of globalisation or at least the way it has been implemented.
The left’s response
Visible opposition to globalisation may have begun in Mexico in the early 1990s but it soon spread to wealthy nations of the global north. There was a time, between the years 1999 to 2003, when the global institution seen as most responsible for globalisation, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), couldn’t meet anywhere in the world without attracting hundreds of thousands of protesters outside the gates of its chosen conference centre.
The contradiction always pointed out by the proponents of globalisation about this movement was that it was itself ‘globalised’ – and impossible to conceive of without the benefits of international travel and communication. The other criticism was that it knew what it was against but not what it was for. However, this movement did have articulate spokespeople, and the seminal text of the anti-globalisers, the new ‘Communist manifesto’ or Mao’s ‘little red book’ was No Logo.
I would summarise the left’s opposition to globalisation as characterised by internationalism and mostly concerned with the effects of this new orthodoxy on the small, less influential nations. Where Martin Wolf saw an increasing prosperity and a growing mutual understanding between nations and cultures the ‘antis’ saw spreading imiserisation, the imposition of inappropriate uniform economic solutions and the homogenous ‘McDonaldization’ of societies everywhere.
The high point of this movement was in 2001 in its mobilisation against the meeting of the heads of the eight most powerful nations, the G8, in Genoa, Italy. As an interesting aside, in July of 2001 I attended a public meeting in preparation for the Genoa protest. In one of the forums a participant mocked the authorities for trying to prevent the protest by claiming that the summit was under threat from an aerial attack by Osama bin Laden. Although this possibility was reported in a number of media outlets at the time, including the BBC, the speculation about this earlier security threat to representatives of world trade was all but forgotten after the horror of the actual attack on the twin-towers in New York City only three months later.
The events of September the 11th momentarily disorientated the anti-globalisation movement. But then all the energy and organizing capacity of the protesters was soon transferred into an anti-war movement. February 2003 saw the largest global demonstration against the coming war against Iraq. Despite garnering global opposition to war the attack on Iraq went ahead, with, as we now know, disastrous effects. This single act of hubris by George W. Bush and Tony Blair may have been done more damage to the political elites and their dreams of globalisation than the opposition to it ever could.
The European Union: The other global institution, despised by the Right (and some on the Left)
In recent decades the main focus of opposition to global institutions from the Right in Britain has been the European Union (EU). In the 1970s it was the Labour party that was riven with schisms over membership of what was then the EEC (European Economic Community), but in the 1980s it was the Tories turned the EU into a veritable blood sport. Margaret Thatcher, initially a supporter of the EEC, increasingly transformed into a Eurosceptic. John Major, who followed her as Prime Minister, signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the treaty that created the modern European Union, in the teeth of dogged opposition from within his own party.
Hostility towards the ‘European project’ has a long history in Britain. Britain has never been proud to be a member of the EU. In his briefing for journalists Morrison provides examples of media distortion of EU policy, ranging from hysterical headlines to ridicule of measures designed to keep workers safe. And although Britain has participated in elections to the European Parliament since 1979 information about what the Parliament in Brussels does is sketchy at best, and knowledge of its powers and structure are practically non-existent.
This recurrent lazy thinking and deliberate obfuscation has both reflected and fueled the rise and rise of euroscepticism in the UK, the most obvious exponent of this trend being the UK Independence Party (UKIP). If left-wing opposition to global institutions is based on its internationalism then I would argue that right-wing opposition to transnational institutions stems from its nationalism. And the nationalism that UKIP represents used to be very much on the fringes of British politics. Not any more.
The 2007 Credit Crunch and all that
The event I think which explains how we got to the point is the credit crunch of 2007. The catastrophic failure and near collapse of the banking system sent shockwaves through the system that we are we are still feeling the effects of. Money itself has become toxic, but also in short supply for many people. Wages across the developed world have stagnated. The days when the behemoths of world trade, the IMF, World Bank, WTO and the EU, shaped global policy but were ignored by most people while credit was easy to come by, are over. It has taken a few years to work its way through the system, but this period is beginning to resemble the 1930s: an economic slump leading to a bitter and polarised political landscape and the rise of nationalist populism. Last time around it led to world war. However whatever happens next 2016 will go down as a turning point in economic and political history.
Lessons from the last turning point
The year 1979 is seen in a similar light – as an economic and social watershed. Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in Britain. Her government implemented was then called ‘monetarist’ policies and the word ‘laissez-faire’ (‘anything goes’ or more accurately ‘letting things take their own course’) described the economic philosophy. What this signaled was an end to government intervention to maintain employment levels, and the focus shifted to controlling inflation. This later came to be known as ‘neo-liberalism’, a theory that claimed the market was supreme and real freedom was freedom from State interference, in both economic and social affairs. However, the irony is it required a great deal of state intervention to implement ‘neo-liberalism’.
Although Thatcher is seen as the ‘poster-girl’ for free-market economics and the election of her government appeared decisively to signal the end of the ‘post-war economic consensus’ of full employment, the social contract between employers and trade unions as well as a state directed industrial strategy, the reality is a little more complicated than that. The economic crisis in Britain in the 1970s, characterized by both stagnation and inflation – often referred to by the portmanteau word ‘stagflation’, forced the then Labour government to apply for an International Monetary Fund loan. This is one of the few occasions a leading Bretton Woods nation has had to make such a request. This is the process that began Britain’s painful transition from a welfare state to one driven by market forces.
Spending a little time studying this turbulent economic period could be beneficial in understanding current events. It looks on the surface that 2016 marked a decisive shift in economic and social policy. The Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the United States have been bracketed together to signify an insurgent right wing attack on the liberal social order of the past 36 years: liberal in both senses of the word – liberal economics and socially liberalism.
A bad mood rising
In reality the winds of change have been blowing for many years, since the early days of the credit crunch. Many governments across the western world, including Britain, used public money to bail out failing banks – in a move that looked increasingly like nationalization, the very remedy we were told was impossible. A Keynesian solution if ever there was one. The market oriented solutions that we were told that there was no alternative to have been upended – but with a neoliberal twist – to the benefit of the super wealthy, the 1%. So it is not a small irony that the person who has come to represent this angry and bitter mood is himself a billionaire. Donald Trump has succeeded where wealthy non-politicians of previous eras aiming for the White House failed, namely William Randolph Hearst in 1928 and Charles Lindbergh in 1940. We will have to wait until the 20th January 2017, when Trump is inaugurated, and beyond to see if the challenges he set himself are possible to deliver. The return of jobs to the United States that have been outsourced elsewhere. A $1 trillion stimulus package and huge infrastructure projects. America has often talked about being protectionist, at the same time intervening in every continent across the globe – at enormous cost to its treasury. To date it has been able to afford its global dominance. Only time will tell if they can, under President Trump, truly afford to withdraw from its commitments to globalisation, and remain the dominant power in the world.