Globalization and Its Discontents
Just about a year ago, I wrote in this space about premature globalization, suggesting that it may have come too early in humanity's history and gone too far. Whatever the putative benefits of globalization, they appear to not be shared equally but have left many – the unprotected – behind. Well before the November election, it was already clear that Donald Trump was riding the wave of discontent with globalization and would be seen as the transformation candidate.
A fierce critic of globalization now sits in the White House right behind the new President, Steve Bannon. As David Ignatius notes, however, it would be incomplete, maybe even inaccurate, to see Bannon as simply an extreme nationalist. Rather, fusing criticisms from the left and right, Bannon sees globalization as benefiting “crony capitalists” and as a threat to working Americans. Under his guidance, Trump now seems to be undoing the global order of interconnectedness that has seemed increasingly unstoppable over the past few decades. Leaving the politics of this aside, this raises two questions: Whether globalization is indeed an evolutionary inevitability or something still subject to conscious intervention by we human beings? And, if it turns out to be an inevitability, what happens if Trump and Bannon succeed in taking the United States out of contention to continue to occupy the central role in the evolving global reality?
It may well be that the dynamics behind globalization are unstoppable. Human society has moved forward over the last 100 thousand years from small isolated groups to ever larger units that now exist as interconnected nations and organized states. Since the Industrial Revolution, the economic drivers have become mass production for consumption requiring ever-broadening networks of trade for resources and customers. Efficiencies have been gained not only through advances in technology but also through the ever more comprehensive and inclusive concentrations of wealth, organization, production, distribution and trade made possible by those advances. Even when networks extended into new areas far away, they utilized the technological and “free-trade” aspects of globalization to make distributed production more efficient than previous nationally based activities. Left to itself, globalization does not produce greater equality but it does seem to create greater wealth. Since Marx at least, it has been possible to see this ever increasing accumulation of wealth as an objectification of our existence as a species. Who can stop this? Is any effort simply doomed to fighting the logos of human history?
If globalization is inevitable, would Trump and Bannon’s effort to resist it simply take the US out of the center and leave it to some others to occupy? As it now stands, the US has in the last several decades invested mightily – in money and blood – in shaping the world as much as possible in its own image. If we close our borders, emphasize national productions over free trade, reduce our role in international affairs, do we leave it to China or Russia or even a compelled reinvigorated Europe? And if globalization is inevitable, what kind of future would that make for whatever the US becomes behind its walls?
These are questions and not answers. But it seems to me too early to simply surrender to globalization as inevitable. Logically, at least, it would seem possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. We could seek to address inequality. Perhaps some limits and standards for free trade have a role in this. It makes sense to seek to protect ourselves from sources of instability and insecurity around the world but through working multilaterally within the international system rather than unilateral armed interventions. Walls and fences may have a role too, but with careful attention more on how we let people in rather than keep them out. This may be were politics becomes most relevant.