The political economies of different globalisations – Part 1: Neoliberal globalisation

Globalisation should not be seen as some kind of inevitable technological imperative but rather as a political construction born of a particular phase in history

We need to talk, again, about globalisation.  Yes, we know what you’re thinking … surely enough words have been devoted already to this ubiquitous term.   Unfortunately, however, globalisation is still widely misunderstood and it’s just too important a phenomenon for the argument to be left where it mostly sits in the general discourse, particularly during our era of profound – and profoundly disorientating – global upheaval.

The core problem can be simply expressed.  Globalisation is treated too often as if it has a kind of pre-ordained technological inevitability with huge political consequences, but is at the same time beyond political explanation.  It’s as if it always has to begin with a big G!  In fact, globalisation cannot be sensibly said to cause anything.  Thinking like this has the effect of turning globalisation 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 and behave and bring about outcomes.  This doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny since globalisation actually refers to a highly complicated process of economic, social and political change that unfolds at a global level 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 (the latter now Associate Fellow of SPERI).  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’ (p.2).  What perhaps needs now to be added to this definition is the 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 reification of globalisation as some sort of thing, the framing of it as some sort of external actor bearing down on all of us, actually lets off the hook all of the social and political forces – the real actors in the great game of the new globalising political economy – which have pushed Britain and all other countries to live and make their way in a political economy that is structurally different from that which prevailed, broadly speaking, from 1945 to the mid-1970s.

What’s more, as one of us wrote in a previous post on this blog in July 2016 just after the Brexit referendum, ‘we know who these actors are!’  They are:

‘the big global corporations, the political leaders of the major Western states; and the formers of opinion in the global media and in leading universities as well, all of whom have collectively built and defended ideologically the theory and practice of global neoliberalism that has been and still remains the ruling framework of governance within which Britain and so much of the world has been trapped for so long’. 

Put starkly, it has been global neoliberals, understood as real people, who have knowingly driven forward and defended the new behaviours that have, over time, come to constitute globalisation.  Equally, it was real politicians who subsequently argued, as did Tony Blair in his valedictory speech to his party conference in September 2005, that we should not bother to ‘stop and debate globalisation’, because ‘you might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer’.

It is important, then, to see globalisation as a highly political process and not to be misled by the myth of its technological inevitability.  It is important too to understand that it has been a neoliberal form of globalisation up until now.  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 West in the early 1980s and rolled out thereafter. 

In other words, globalisation could in theory have been done differently.  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 globalisation, propelling it forward to become the ‘actually existing’ globalisation that we live within and face today in 2019.  The transition to a fully-blown ‘hyperglobalisation’ – imagined in part by the notion of a ‘borderless world’ and envisioned by liberals like Kenichi Ohmae as one wherein the market completely triumphs over states – never materialised.  But, as the global financial crisis of 2007-8 has shown, finance has been steadily unleashed to a point where it is difficult to govern, which in turn has threatened the stability of the entire global political economy.  In short, 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.  The bad aspects are much discussed and obvious: the endemic instability (as above), the deepening trend towards inequality, the divisions enforced in societies between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the process, as well as  the distorting pressure placed on local and national identities by homogenising global cultural artefacts.  But there have been other, more satisfying aspects 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 which has been attained by China, India and some other poorer countries over the past three decades.

Indeed, on this blog in early 2013 the writer and journalist John Lanchester asked readers to take a moment to think about ‘humanity’s greatest collective achievement’ before going on to propose that it was the World Bank’s announcement a year earlier that ‘the proportion of the planet’s population living in absolute poverty … had halved from 1990 to 2010’.  We know that the models of development pursued in China and India have not been neoliberal in nature, but this massive reduction in global poverty happened on neoliberalism’s watch, so to speak, and it is hard to imagine that China’s and India’s take-off economically could have happened so dramatically outside of the framework of neoliberal globalisation.

What all of this suggests to us is that there can be, as we put it in our title, ‘different globalisations’.  If, as we have argued, the neoliberal variant has been a political construction born of a particular political moment and possessed of good and bad aspects, then it must 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 has also itself changed over the different phases of its history in ways that we don’t have space here to delineate. 

In the final analysis, politics is always contingent on which economic and social forces are active and effective in any era, and it has been striking that alternative models of globalisation have lately begun to be advanced.  We call these ‘deglobalisation from the right’ and ‘deglobalisation from the left’.  In the next two posts in this series we will examine these would-be global political economies and argue that both are actually dead ends.  Then, in a final post, we shall set out the case for seeking collectively to build a new and different globalisation, which we call ‘reglobalisation’, structured around different post-neoliberal ambitions and values.