In my first piece for Labour Vision, I argued that the left has to embrace globalisation – drawing on its positives, while working to ameliorate its worst effects. I thought it might be worth expanding on this idea just a little and explaining my rationale. But before I do, a controversial idea. What if people on the extremes of the political spectrum, both left and right, actually fail to understand what globalisation even is?
One of the most respected sociologists of the modern era, Anthony Giddens, described the phenomenon as ‘the intensification of world-wide social relations, which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’.
This is a great definition.
At a personal and somewhat trivial level, families and friends are brought closer together through interaction on FaceTime or Skype. And when someone hundreds of miles away does the mannequin challenge, I know about it instantly. These interactions may not be profound, but they are already integral to many people’s lives in our modern society.
Then we have the undeniably serious aspects of globalisation, when the local happenings might be, say, the threatened closure of a steel plant somewhere in the UK. This could be best explained by a cascade effect, in which decisions taken in Beijing on economic policy (and consequent political decisions taken in Brussels and Westminster) impact on a world far removed in a place such as Port Talbot. The social consequences can be severe and far-reaching: loss of jobs, social dislocation and anomie.
Globalisation is a relentless force and its effects are both positive and negative.
But it’s not a new phenomenon.
Notice how Giddens refers to the intensification of world-wide social relations. He is conscious of the fact that globalisation began long ago with the formation of disparate principalities into nation states. It expanded through imperialism and empire. It developed via multinational institutions such as the League of Nations. It was fostered by Victorian telegraph technology and the telephone and air travel, long before the internet became a reality. All that has happened in recent decades is that it has intensified significantly.
So where does the left of the Labour Party get it wrong?
First of all, they see globalisation as primarily an economic phenomenon, when actually that is only part of the story. The rest of the narrative is one of culture and technology and the political entrenchment of global connection through multinational institutions.
Second, they see globalisation as something imposed from above in recent times. In more conspiratorial circles, the imposition would come from a ‘neo-liberal’ elite. (Indeed, let’s be honest. In the more far-fetched corners of the web, neo-liberalism and ‘globalism’ are synonymous. But advocates of the free market are not the only globalists. Remember Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky pleading with the workers of the world to unite?)
And third, the left makes the same mistake as the Brexit-adoring right. They say that globalisation can be turned back. Jobs that were lost can return. The industries that have declined can revive.
This is a dangerous illusion.
Thinking that you are against globalisation in principle, or in favour of its reversal, doesn’t change the reality. As the American country/folk songstress Nanci Griffith once observed, ‘If wishes were changes, we’d all live in roses’.
The UK could be led by Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage, but people would still be interconnected via technology on a scale unimaginable 20 years ago. The Chinese government would still be making decisions about the price at which it sells steel internationally and Indian companies would still be making decisions about the viability of investments in the UK.
While we were busy setting up barriers, the world would move on. According to the Shanghai Daily recently, shopkeepers in the antiques markets of Buenos Aires now accept the Renminbi.
The left needs a different framework through which to view globalisation. So here’s my take on it, for what it’s worth. I think the most resonant message from the left is that global problems require global responses.
What are the biggest threats to all of us today?
Climate change and environmental catastrophe. The growth of fundamentalist terror and the consequent instability. Lack of control over the banking system and corporate taxation. The threat to jobs caused by automation. The list of course is much longer, but these would be pretty good starting points.
These issues simply cannot be addressed at a national level.
If we wish to counter the power of global corporations and help people weather the storms ahead, we need to be globalists ourselves. And in the short term for Labour, this means fighting to keep the closest possible relationship to Europe. A soft Brexit for increasingly hard times.