Is globalization reaching its end?... The question sounds more alarming than what it really means by “ its end”; but only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to ask. Clearly some of the things globalization has given us are here to stay, and are advantageous to all: particularly the interconnectedness in communication technologies and the ease of traveling around the globe. But in politics and economy, we see backlashes against globalization which are more contested, more controversial, and less clear on who exactly are the “winners” or “losers” of globalization. The very meaning of the word begins to shake.
Many such criticisms come from legitimate places; and we could look at very different arguments depending on whether we mean economics, politics or cultural shifts at large. Economically, there is very justified and righteous anger at globalization’s unfulfilled promises. Globalization was supposed to bring uniform economic prosperity. In some places, it has – China alone lifted millions of people out of poverty; but China has precisely pursued policies which are much less economically liberal than other global players would want.
In the West, we see a different story: low salaries, growing inequality, precariousness of jobs, and a fragile middle class that risks falling into poverty. Plus, we now have mass media, which allows many of those newly dispossessed people to realize that others live in unimaginable wealth, not necessarily through fair means. Sociological studies tell us that when everyone in a community is poor, people are OK with it and are even happy. But it’s inequality, and the frustration of realizing its many inherently unfair aspects pushes many into a violent frustration. This anger about globalization’s undelivered promises is justified, righteous even. Some protectionist policies, when applied correctly and depending on the context, can be very beneficial to producers and workers. Perhaps a return to local consumption, towards a focus on local markets and correctly applied policies of economic protection could signal a return towards “the local” and help strengthen middle classes.
In international politics however, we see trends which are more dangerous and where fears stand on shakier grounds. For the past century, the USA was understood to be the paragon of liberal democracy. We can have debates about US interventionism (especially in places like Latin America, where the USA supported dictatorships) and about whether this supposed defense of democratic values was true everywhere; but for all its flaws and vices, there still was a time where it was believed that democracy would triumph everywhere, global agencies like the United Nations would become moral unifiers, and that progressive social tendencies would advance uniformly. Recent backlash to these advancements is fierce – from Viktor Orbán declaring that he leads an “illiberal democracy” (really a dictatorship) in the heart of Europe, to right-wing and national-traditionalist movements gaining ground all across the west, to endless conflict and slips towards more authoritarianism in the Middle East. Massive elements of cultural resistance show in these tendencies; against what is understood to be “a globalist totalitarianism” of socially liberal values.
The problem is that often; these fears are based on straightforward conspiracies about this supposed “global political totalitarianism” and what its supposed goals are. Many believe now that the United Nations is a symbol of anything from “communist agendas”, to “anti-family LGBT lobbies” – showing profound ignorance about how the UN works –; such fears are easily stoked by populists from anywhere on the political spectrum who use the immense power of simplistic narratives, in order to push socially regressive agendas which may undermine the rights of indigenous people, LGBT groups, women or racial minorities. Confusing globalization with “political globalism” makes for easy boogeymen. Adding to this an atmosphere of mistrust, where anything could be fake news; is becoming deeply corrosive of democracies. We might start to witness movements “back into the local” in many senses – some of which will have beneficial effects. Others, unfortunately, might push back advancements in human rights, equality and fairness.