Globalisation was always a pretty grand idea, and a tall order. As the world seemed to shrink in the second half of the twentieth century, powerful countries took on the job of policing flash-points to reduce the risk of another world war. International bodies from the UN to the IMF were set up to promote diplomacy on a global scale. An economic and cultural phenomenon began to be recognised, supported and, by many, applauded, globalisation.
It was a strangely communistic idea to emerge from countries in the grip of capitalism; led, as it was, by the western developed world. A sharing of economic attitude, of trade, the fostering of a homogenized perspective, an identikit anodyne airport-style uniformity: all of this would bring peace and prosperity to all. A tiny loss of national identity was, it seemed, the small price paid to take part in this emulsified utopia bringing stability, and a reliably standard Big Mac, to everybody from Atlanta to Zagreb.
Britain embraced this credo to such an extent that now, when Michael Gove calls for more recognition of British identity in education, few seem to be able to remember what that might actually mean. Is it cream teas and Blitz spirit? Or is it tolerance and multiculturalism? Is it, forsooth, quoting Shakespeare instead of saying ‘like’ all the time? Is it being rubbish at every single sport we invented? It can’t be anything from our shady past can it? Not colonialism or slavery or anything like that?
Right up until 2008, globalization seemed an unstoppable force with all the freer movement of goods, services, capital, labour, and technology that went with it. Then all that interlinked, shoulder to shoulder, reliance suddenly showed its dark side. The crash wasn’t just America dealing with some rogue bankers doing dodgy deals in the sub-prime market. We were standing like dominos right next to them. It wasn’t just their crash, it was global.
Policymakers around the world rushed to prevent the crash turning into a second Great Depression. For a while the forces ranged against globalisation murmured and gathered. But now, as the EU elections have shown, the backlash has begun in earnest.
Nationalism is on the rise. From UKIP to the Front National in France. Even the outlawed extreme right wing Golden Dawn movement in Greece earned a massive percentage of Greek votes. Populist, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration, even racist and antisemitic parties are finding ever greater numbers of supporters, ready to blame their poverty, and the economic mess they are in, firmly on the global community.
Economically the demands of the new nationalists are as homogenised as the layout of an Ikea store. They all want to protect national assets whilst imposing trade barriers, they all endorse anti-immigration policies, demonise foreign investment and claim to be promoting the rights and interests of domestic workers and companies above alien entities. They all claim to be of the people, of the many against the corrupt elite few. They are the voice of the common man. They’re real ale, they’re non-PC, they’re you and me… except, of course, they’re not.
Supranational governance like the WTO or the EU is an anathema to these nationalists and even the internet, a beacon of global economy, is facing balkanisation as authoritarian nations like China, Russia, Iran, and even Turkey, prevent access to social media and crack down on free expression.
‘The main causes of these trends are clear,’ says Nouriel Roubini professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University writing in The Guardian, ‘Anaemic economic recovery has provided an opening for populist parties, promoting protectionist policies, to blame foreign trade and foreign workers for the prolonged malaise. Add to this the rise in income and wealth inequality in most countries, and it is no wonder that the perception of a winner-take-all economy that benefits only elites and distorts the political system has become widespread. Nowadays, both advanced economies (like the United States, where unlimited financing of elected officials by financially powerful business interests is simply legalised corruption) and emerging markets (where oligarchs often dominate the economy and the political system) seem to be run for the few.’
The only way, it seems, for the promoters of Globalisation to win back hearts and minds is through our wallets. Nationalists thrive in poverty and discontent. But we’ve seen what happens when they come to dominate. I for one will swallow a Big Mac and sacrifice a cream tea, or the thwack of willow on leather, if that’s what it takes to avoid it.
First published in