The penultimate instalment in our Globalisation Under Pressure series questions the concept of globalisation, suggesting that the so-called backlash against it is merely neoliberalism unmasked.
With the recent rise in nationalism, surge in protectionism and Donald Trump’s “America first” vision, it’s become common to declare that the golden age of globalisation has come to an end. That the three-decade-old “global village” is closing its doors.
But was globalisation ever really about internationalism and shared development? The fact is, globalisation has always been more political discourse than reality.
Even the term “global governance” is itself merely a strategic turn of phrase. Defined as “systems of rule at all levels of human activity, from the family to the international organisation, in which the pursuit of goals through the exercise of control has transnational repercussions”, the term obfuscates the real objectives of globalisation.
Over the past 30 years, this Western-led system, which is essentially a managerial approach to complex human and natural phenomena, has actually reproduced – intentionally – the problems it was theoretically intended to tackle through global collaboration: crime, environmental devastation, human trafficking, insecurity, terrorism, gender-based violence and political repression.
Globalisation, which is also referred to as neoliberalism, has mostly served to generate profit and reify white supremacy. And in that sense, it is alive and well today.
Scholars who draw from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s critique of neoliberalism argue that neoliberal states have actually ceased to be states that administer justice.
Today, we have managerial states that use policy (defined as government decision-making intended to modify or orientate social action in the form of a set of legal, political and technical elements based on social knowledge) to regulate the health and growth of the population.
They do so not via direct intervention in the style of welfare states, such as Norway or Ecuador, where governments actively seek to protect and promote the economic and social well-being of citizens.
Rather, neoliberal countries, such as the United States, reduce social policy to a bare minimum, providing the least for the poorest sector of society while encouraging the wealthy to leverage the corporate sector to fund health and education (“incenvitising the market”, say its defenders).
On the domestic front, the neoliberal government achieves its desired balance of maximum productivity and minimum social responsibility by convincing people that they are responsible for their own wealth and well-being – the old “bootstraps” narrative. Those who cannot afford what they need are mostly left to their fates.
The American free-market health insurance fiasco, which leaves out 33 million non-citizens, poor people, and young, healthy people, is the finest possible example of this (govern)mentality.
For modern capitalism to reproduce itself, people across the world must produce and consume, consume and produce. Global governance is how we manage the international costs this nonstop globalised market incurs.
From migration and the environment to terrorism and drugs, the powers behind globalisation have manipulated global forces to control populations both at home and abroad. A system originally “pitched as a strategy that would raise all boats in poor and rich countries alike”, as a 2015 assessment of globalisation in Forbes magazine put it, has in practice ensured the survival and reproduction of white and Western peoples.
If you’re dubious on this point, read this April 2016 Harper’s interview in which a former Nixon White House aide admits that the war on drugs was designed to criminalise “the blacks”.
Laws have been designed to profoundly marginalise the poorest and the darkest-skinned people of the world (and, in predominantly white societies, gay men and women), often to the point of death.
Nor are violence and environmental degradation unfortunate outcomes of unchecked free-market capitalism. They’re negative externalities that must be administered. Hence, we see homicide and pollution mostly produced in the developing world.
Central America is one such production centre. There, the environment is being rapidly destroyed as transnational corporations haul out timber, zinc, water, and other resources.
If rich countries must bear such problems, they are effectively relegated by policies both explicit and implicit to their poorest neighbourhoods. In the US, it’s Native Americans at Standing Rock who take the hit when oil companies come out swinging and black and Latino drug users who go to jail rather than their equally numerous white peers.
Migration and murder
Sometimes, people in the developing world grow sick of the struggle and seek to leave their poisoned or dangerous homelands. There’s a system for that, too: international and domestic migration policies.
The kind of immigration rhetoric favoured by Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and many others holds that border enforcement is a national security necessity: it protects natives against terror, violence and criminality.
Securitisation discourse, as this is called, generally depicts migrants in three ways, none of them good.
First, migrants are surreptitious transnational actors who pose strategic threats to host states. In the UK, right-wing politicians have made a debatable link between immigration and recent terrorist attacks, offering a xenophobic explanation for closing English borders.
Secondly, migrants pose a threat to national identity and to a country’s cultural and ethnic balance. This notion leads to racism and racial-identity politics like the various attempts to limit the use of Muslim veils and headscarves in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK, among other European countries.
Finally, migrants are economic competitors who profit from the Western welfare state’s social benefits. In this category are Trump’s promises to restore working class Americans’ jobs by deporting “illegal” Mexicans and the labour-market rationale behind Brexit.
Nothing new under the global sun
The unsettled state of politics today may seem scary and unknown, but substantively, very little has changed.
The current right-wing resurgence is merely the confirmation that neoliberalism, now entering its fourth decade, is so well entrenched that it no longer needs subtle political discourses about “global governance” and “international cooperation” to thrive.
Over the past year, racism, nationalism and chauvinism were democratically elected and approved at referendum, from the UK and the US to Hungary and Argentina. They are legitimate movements now, not subcultures or aberrations but bare-faced political preference.
This is fascism, getting uncomfortably close to the mainstream.