Reglobalisation in action- Part 5: Towards a globalist feminist trade politics

A truly progressive agenda has to recognise the centrality of gendered and other social hierarchies to the deeper workings of the global political economy

Read Part 4 of this blog series.

Global trade has been both hailed and decried as the engine of globalisation. Yet, as recent actions by self-proclaimed anti-globalists such as President Donald Trump make clear, there is nothing inherently progressive about the abandonment of the multilateral trading system in favour of a system of bilateral trade relations whereby states with the most power are best able to secure their own interests. Applying a feminist perspective to global trade, we explore what trade relations and institutions might look like in a more progressive ‘post-neoliberal’ form of globalisation. Below, we first suggest that a return to ‘embedded liberalism’, as conceived by the architects of the post-World War II global economic order, does not offer us the adequate tools to achieve a more equitable global trading system. We argue that invoking the language of embedded liberalism has normative implications and we caution against pouring new wine into old bottles. In a second step, we present some suggestions for how to incorporate feminist principles into a more progressive and globalist trading regime.

In the era of embedded liberalism described in John Ruggie’s seminal text, trade relations often worked to perpetuate inequalities between states. For Ruggie, embedded liberalism combines global trade liberalisation with domestic interventionism. The goal of the former is to increase wealth within the global economy, while the goal of the latter is to achieve economic stability within nations. Embedded liberalism derived from changes in state-society relations in the hegemonic countries, as laissez-faire type economic adjustment shocks were no longer considered socially or politically acceptable in the Cold War context. Investments made in welfare helped reduce inequalities in many rich countries, but the costs were ultimately offloaded onto poorer countries, thereby increasing global inequalities.

Moreover, in a key passage, Ruggie claims that attempts to combine global liberalisation and national interventionism necessarily led to the ‘geographical, sectoral and institutional concentration’ of trade and financial flows of the 1950s and 60s. Geographically, embedded liberal trade became concentrated among the countries that had designed the rules of the embedded liberal trading system. This trade increasingly took place within the same economic sectors and among the same corporations, as both intra-sector and intra-firm trade produce smaller adjustment costs than laissez-faire liberalisation. Ruggie sees this as an issue because, under embedded liberalism, the gains from trade were increasingly directed towards a select number of individual sectors and firms. In some countries, this had the effect of increasing domestic economic inequality. Thus, one limit to the progressive potential of a re-embedded trading regime is offered by Ruggie himself.

A second note of caution about the progressive potential of the language of embeddedness comes from feminist scholarship, which has problematised the false distinction this creates between the state, the market, and society, thus rendering invisible essential forms of inequality in the global political economy. When political economists such as Ruggie – but also Karl Polanyi – analytically separate ‘the economic’ from ‘society’ (which includes political society and the family), they risk obscuring both the social relations that fundamentally constitute the economy and the hierarchical power relations that constitute society. As Nancy Fraser writes with respect to Polanyi:

Preoccupied exclusively with the corrosive effects of commodification upon communities, it [The Great Transformation] neglects injustices within communities, including injustices, such as slavery, serfdom and patriarchy, that depend on social constructions of labour, land and money precisely as non-commodities. Demonizing marketization, the book tends to idealize social protection, as it fails to note that protections have often served to entrench hierarchies and exclusions.

While Polanyi has provided an important contribution to critical political economy, we join Fraser in her wariness of the notion of ‘re-embedding’, which fails to capture adequately the extent to which ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’ are themselves imbued with hierarchies. In so doing, it risks reproducing socially constructed injustices.

From our perspective, a progressive agenda for a post-neoliberal form of globalisation has to recognise the centrality of gendered and other social hierarchies to the workings of the global economy. In terms of trade, gendered hierarchies operate at multiple sites and scales. Notably, (1) the relations of production and social reproduction that underpin the production of goods and services are gendered; (2) the actors who make the rules and the social norms regarding trade relations are gendered; (3) the ideas that drive the creation and application of trade rules are gendered; and (4) the impacts of trade are gendered. Bringing globalist and feminist values into the field of global trade and developing better global and domestic rules could involve a number of strategies and rules including, but not limited to, the following:

First, progressive global trade must recognise the centrality of social reproduction, which lets us consider the impacts of trade policy on households, care work, unpaid labour, the informal economy, and the broader ecological conditions under which social reproduction takes place. This involves a disruption of the ideas that underpin trade orthodoxy and ‘expertise’. In concrete terms, this means that mechanisms need to be in place to measure and mitigate the harms that may result from trade and which are disproportionately felt by women, the poor, racialised sectors of the population and others. These include the gendered impacts of the privatisation of public services and clauses in trade agreements that make essential items such as food products and medication more expensive or that prevent effective social and environmental regulation. In order to do so, there is a need for states and institutions to commit to comprehensive gender-based impact assessments of trade policy formulation, and then to establish ways of monitoring obligations, as we have spelled out elsewhere.

Reforming the rules of global trade in ways that afford states – especially states in the Global South – greater domestic policy space is a necessary step in this regard. But it is not a sufficient step as the state may itself work to reproduce inequalities as highlighted above. There is therefore a need for a more thorough shift in macroeconomic policymaking at the national and global levels so that, for instance, progressive forms of social reproduction are prioritised above economic growth, which is currently ‘locked-in’ to trade agreements and global institutions.

As part of this – and as the convenors of this series argue– there is a further need to democratise economic relations, including relations of trade governance, to make sure that all those affected by how the world trades are involved in deciding its rules. Policymakers need actively to engage civil society, especially feminist and women’s rights organisations. This is not something that is happening at the moment, despite the proliferation of commitments being made to supporting gender equality in the WTO, in bilateral trade agreements, and elsewhere. A progressive trading regime needs to be much more transparent and accountable in these terms.   

It further involves institutional commitments to addressing the feminisation of labour and improving labour conditions in areas where women are drawn into exploitative work as part of export-driven growth strategies. It will need to address low wages and gender wage gaps (which are perpetuated by trade liberalisation) and the mismatch between core labour standards and the structural causes that drive women and other vulnerable groups into exploitative work. Efforts aimed at drawing women into the labour market as workers and/or entrepreneurs need to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that this is decent work and does not increase women’s double-burden. The European Trade Union Confederation has devised a robust set of recommendations for how labour rights can be made effective in trade agreements which serve as one starting point for thinking through the labour and trade nexus, though there is a need for additional provisions that specifically support women’s rights.

All of this suggests that a more gender-equitable trading regime must move beyond neoliberalism, with which it is fundamentally incompatible. However, bringing globalist and feminist commitments to a reformed trading regime also reminds us of the limitations of embedded liberalism. A more progressive society requires transformations within economic and social relations as much as it involves a transformation in the relations between economic and social spheres. We have offered a series of suggestions for how existing institutions can be transformed along these lines, though much will rest on the insights and ingenuity of our progressive movements.

This blog is part of a series on ‘reglobalisation in action’. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.