Reglobalisation in action- Part 8: Steering towards the future

For all its disappointments and flaws, the G20 still has the best chance of delivering the comprehensive global oversight of global governance that we need

In this series and its predecessor we have sought to make two broad arguments. First, despite the many travails faced day-to-day by ‘actually-existing’ neoliberal globalisation, those that advocate ‘deglobalisation’ from both the right and the left are deeply misguided.  Globalisation as a process is here to stay; the questions are how it is shaped, by whom, and to what ends. Second, any progressive agenda in the contemporary era has to think globally: all politics fundamentally plays out on a global stage and it is above all our global institutions that urgently need to be refocused, recast and in some areas created, so that they can better serve the interests of the great mass of humanity.

Moreover, as the excellent blogs here have demonstrated, we can build a better globalisation. All of our authors consider ‘reglobalisation’ a worthy goal and, crucially, recognise that it is both possible and plausible: from publicly shaming tax avoiders via spillover assessments to sustaining the IMF’s recent bout of self-reflection and further institutionalising its novel concern with questions of poverty and inequality, they suggest that we live in fertile times for embedding progressive norms about what a ‘good’ globalisation looks like. In this sense, they share our view that there are some things that can be preserved from the existing global order while at the same time envisioning meaningful improvements and, especially, outlining practical ways to bring them into being.

They also recognise a key tension at the heart of decaying neoliberal globalisation: the substantial wealth that has been generated in this period has been distributed grotesquely unequally, leading to marked patterns of exclusion.  That is not, of course, an argument for making the world any less ‘global’, but rather for making globalisation work better. When it comes to the WTO and trade, our authors start from this fundamental assessment, but differ in respect of how radical the solutions might be.  It was persuasively argued, for example, that recognition of the hidden labour – or, rather, the very visible labour that powerful actors tend to overlook in conventional conceptualisations of what constitutes ‘work’ – that a feminist lens reveals needs to be taken into far better account when working out where and how value is created.

Yet, to our minds, this is not really a fundamental divergence: progressive politics is always about envisioning better futures, and a call for challenging orthodoxies and conventional forms of expertise along feminist lines to generate ‘transformations within economic and social relations’ is something that might be applied to all areas of global policy in order to build on the kinds of critique proposed here and further extend the boundaries of possibility. Indeed, channelling our inner Gramsci, what seems implausible or impossibly radical today can only become tomorrow’s ‘common sense’ if we do extend those boundaries as far as we can.

Another broad area of agreement is acknowledgment of just how partial our governance of globalisation is, always has been, and will remain if we do not determine otherwise. This reflects the fact that some areas of the global political economy are simply not adequately governed, with the result, by the same token, that our analysis of them is insufficiently extensive. Despite the proliferation of institutions and initiatives around the environment and climate emergency, we still have no real consensus on how to understand and respond to what is – of all areas of global policy – probably the most fundamental challenge to our way of life. This probably explains the intensity of anger amongst young people who, faced with an unremittingly bleak future on current trends, have driven the recent Extinction Rebellion protests and challenged powerful business-as-usual inertia.

Something similar, of course, might be said for migration: humans have always moved in massive numbers, and this is only likely to intensify; that we do not have an overarching framework to manage this – in a context where those migrating are amongst the most vulnerable people on the planet – represents a shocking failure of imagination. What is more, we have unavoidably missed many areas of global policy altogether from this series, areas in which governance is even less developed: the virtual world, the thorny challenge of digital monopolies, the informal economy, labour and decaying work conditions, the narcotics business (amongst others) are all ripe for inclusion within the broad contours of an imagined reglobalisation in both theory and practice.

A final point worth making in our recap here is that all of our authors acknowledge not only the partiality of global governance, but also its essential fragility. There is an irony here: progressives – for whom the default is always disappointment – tend to offer the most penetrating critiques of contemporary neoliberal globalisation and its management; yet this also provides ammunition to enemies who wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. For all that, and notwithstanding their many faults, it is surely clear that something very precious will be lost if we allow the institutions that we do have to (continue to) atrophy.

All of this has taken an even darker turn of late: a tendency to downgrade expert knowledge at the expense of pervasive ‘political bullshit’ spreading seemingly into every area of international policy.  This is something that, unsurprisingly, overlaps with the ideas vacuum of the hard-right ‘deglobalising’ narrative. Consequently, as Katrina Forrester has evocatively put it, ‘we’re living through a period of crisis’ in which the crisis itself has ‘become the new normal’, and therefore a substantive ‘rebuilding of … public institutions’ is desperately required.

Our only departure from this analysis is that our emphasis draws attention to the special need for global bodies beyond the domestic level, capable of addressing the collective action problems which are only multiplying regardless of attempts to retreat into regressive nationalisms. Indeed, as David Adler has suggested, it is remarkable that so much thinking on the left has been preoccupied with attempts to develop ‘a slate of new institutions to reimagine and reconfigure their domestic political economies’, with barely any consideration given to the international context in which these political economies are unavoidably enmeshed. Filling this vacuum, he argues, ‘is strategically necessary, politically desirable and morally urgent’.

For any kind of wide-ranging process of reglobalisation to work, though, it has to be coordinated. We have already discussed the political bargain that this requires, along with the kind of balance that needs to be struck between global rules (clearer, more transparent, equitable) and the necessary policy space for individual states, particularly poorer ones, to deviate to an extent from these rules in order to serve genuinely progressive, developmental ends.

We acknowledge, however, that we haven’t, as yet at least, said as much about how the range of issues facing us can be managed politically. This is partly because of constraints of space, but it is also the most difficult issue to confront.  The sad reality is that the coordinating function that the architects of Bretton Woods envisaged that the UN would ultimately play has deteriorated dramatically of late as multilateralism has faced an onslaught from ‘deglobalisers’ in almost every policy area.

As a result, there is, in our view, only one game left in town: namely, the G20. Much has been said – some of it by ourselves – about the many flaws, weaknesses and failings of this organisation. It is undeniably exclusionary, anti-democratic and enjoys far less popular legitimacy than the UN. Moreover, the summits themselves have consistently disappointed: each year the host country seeks to put together a thoughtful programme to deal with the weightiest issues facing humanity, and yet the meeting nearly always seems to descend into a circus, with the global media focusing relentlessly on trivia.

It can nevertheless be argued that the problems with the G20 reflect, at least in part, a paucity of high-calibre leaders – and therefore leadership – rather than any purely intrinsic failing. As the then UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, demonstrated in 2009, a purposive agenda, driven by ambitious leaders in an auspicious context, can pay dividends, for the very reason that the G20 – in what is the mirror image of its legitimacy deficit – can be extremely efficient at bringing together the most powerful actors from across the globe to make big decisions. In that sense, it still remains, importantly, an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the right kind of political imagination.

In our view, the best means by which to engineer the politics of reglobalisation is to return to the task of building the G20 into the coordinating mechanism of a revived and reformulated multilateralism. It needs, however, to undergo three interlocking changes.

First, it should be deepened and properly institutionalised, with a permanent secretariat (Singapore is often mooted as a good location), since it has for too long been trapped by its ‘occasionality’. Second, it should be widened to cover all aspects of the management of globalisation, including all the issue-areas we have discussed in this series, plus many others too as suggested earlier. Third – and this is the crucial point – it needs to develop a very focused view of its remit.  The job of the G20 should be to guide and coordinate all global action on these matters, to give political direction to the global institutions, to manage turf disputes between them, to deliver at the end of the day the genuinely comprehensive form of global oversight of global governance that we so badly need.

We could say much more about all of this, and in due course we will. But, for now, we end by thanking all of our authors for their brilliant contributions and alerting you that, if you would like to explore the issues covered in this blog series in greater depth, the various posts will all be published as full-length academic papers in a special issue of the journal Globalizations in 2020.