Is Globalisation in a Retreat, and, if So, Why Not?

Is Globalisation in a Retreat, and, if So, Why Not?

07/2021  | Reading time: 12 minutes

The disruptions that the current global pandemic has caused are severe and tangible in many different spheres of our everyday lives. The ensuing economic, political, and social turmoil is arguably one of the worst upheavals of our times that also challenged many of the prevailing global frameworks. Looking at these processes, many even claimed that, due to the disadvantageous ramifications of the pandemic, globalisation seems to be over. But is it really so? Did the impacts of the pandemic lead to the end of globalisation, or are we dealing with rather different processes? With its rather limited scope and its concise message, the current blog post is trying to make sense of what is happening right now and argues that the current situation is just challenging the way we think about globalisation. Serving simply as yet another basis for discussion, the following entry aims to put the idea forward that globalisation is not in retreat, but has simply entered a different phase.

It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that the current pandemic represents a major global challenge that not just affects several aspects of our current lives but has the ability to substantially shape long-term political, economic, and social dynamics, as well. Recognising its pervasive and ubiquitous nature, in Germany, for instance, it was from the onset—and more systematically than elsewhere—discussed as a crisis (Coronakrise) that radically challenges existing frameworks and structures we all live our lives embedded in. In this context, one can even observe how the global risks and uncertainties of the new modernity, conceptualised decades ago by sociologists, such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, suddenly became tangible for everyone in a more profound way than ever in the last couple of decades. The pandemic thus laid bare the fact that risks would no longer be confined in space and time and—given the global interconnectedness and interdependencies—would affect all countries and social classes.

Not surprisingly, the turbulent events of early 2020 and the longevity of the pandemic gave rise to questions regarding the future of globalisation and the research on this issue has been particularly prolific during the last couple of months. Given these circumstances, the main question has been whether or not the pandemic will have lasting impacts on processes of globalisation. Interpreting current changes, a great number of experts have been arguing that globalisation is not just facing yet another existential crisis but we even entered the era of “deglobalisation.” While not disregarding the seriousness of the impacts of the pandemic on globalisation, others, however, see the current change as rather subtle and seeks to present a more nuanced view on the current processes. In this latter context—and keeping Jürgen Habermas’s bon mot from April 2020 in mind, stating that there has never been so much knowledge about our ignorance (“So viel Wissen über unser Nichwissen . . . gab es noch nie.”) and, hence, we should be cautious in assessing current processes—we should only like to highlight some aspects that could be of relevance in interpreting the pandemic-shaped conditions.

An old debate dressed up in new clothes

Globalisation is certainly one of the catchiest expressions of recent decades, which, after some earlier attempts, entered the scientific discourse in the early 1980s before gradually trickling down to the everyday language as a kind of universally applicable expression being adequate to explaining almost every cross-border political, economic, and cultural developments. Grounded in a belief that globalisation is an inevitable and irreversible trend that—as a Smithian invisible hand—would bring unprecedented prosperity to all parts of the world, it was, for decades, presented as a complete success story. However, the storms of globalisation, as former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder notoriously referred to the disadvantageous facets of the process against which the welfare state must be made resistant, substantially dampened this optimistic outlook and euphoric assessment over time.

Confronted with a growing crisis of legitimacy and increased resistance that culminated during and shortly after the financial crisis of 2008, major doubts have been cast upon the future of globalisation. In this context, Walden Bello, who is supposed to have coined the term “deglobalisation,” took a leading position and called for a new agenda for regulating globalisation and for the introduction of new values and rules for the game. Almost a decade later, the migration crisis, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States offered new and seemingly powerful incentives to declare the end of globalisation. Recently, yet again, a number of experts, politicians, and opinion leaders have been claiming that the spectre of deglobalisation is haunting the world and the current pandemic and its effects will reverse decades of global trends.

As it has become increasingly apparent in the last couple of months that the world is not flat, at least not in the way Thomas L. Friedman suggested it in his bestselling book, discourses on deglobalisation in the framework of the pandemic started to mushroom. While scrutinising the current processes, it seems, however, that these discourses might be too fast with their conclusions. Hence, the initial question of this blog entry remains whether the current changes would indeed weaken globalisation and led to an era of deglobalisation or we are facing rather different processes. Subscribing to the approach put forward by, among other, a number of scientific fora at Leipzig University, we argue that, despite the current crisis and its destructive repercussions on global dynamics, the pandemic does not mean the end of globalisation; it is just challenging the way we think about it, and—according to this reading of the current conditions—globalisation is not in retreat but has simply entered a different phase.

The multiplicity of globalisations

While globalisation has often been identified with its neoliberal/capitalist form that gained particular momentum after the 1970s, historians and area studies experts increasingly highlighted the fact in the last couple of years that it is not a result of a process that could only have developed in the West. Global historians, for instance, convincingly pointed out that, in the Cold War context, the classic narrative considering and defining the socialist bloc as a separate world, isolating itself from the world economy and standing outside the processes of globalisation, is in many ways misleading. Whereas even notable experts of globalisation, such as Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels Petersson, disseminated the view that, during this period, globalisation was split in two (halbierte Globalisierung), and, hence, alluded that globalisation could only happen in the capitalist “hemisphere,” new studies have shown that the worldwide export of socialism, being very much underway from the late 1950s, made a significant contribution to the intensification of globalisation processes, too. In this regard, the socialist bloc was not just not isolated from global processes, but it was even one of the post–World War II centres of global interactions.

Interestingly, some even go further and argue that the socialist states pursued a more genuine globalising project than the West, as they were not interested in maintaining the former metropole–colony relationships, but—at least at the level of propaganda—aimed at developing mutually advantageous relations between the two peripheries of the world economy. The neoliberal form of globalisation eventually managed to declare triumph over its competitors after 1989. Despite its universal claim of validity, the accommodation and adjustment to it did not last long, and its agenda found itself quite soon confronted with growing resistance.

As it was briefly pointed out above, once the world economy’s conditions had substantially changed in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008, new political contexts and narratives emerged that considered the neoliberal form of globalisation rather unsustainable. Aiming at remedying the problems linked to this neoliberal form of globalisation, various actors have appeared as counterpoints to the existing structure and articulated alternative globalisation projects. With China as one of the main actors in this regard, these projects providing new rules and directions for cooperation within the international economic system, and, thus, better integration for a number of countries suffering from disadvantageous interdependencies the neoliberal rules of the world economy have been imposed on them. From this perspective, and amid the pandemic, it is certainly an interesting issue how the global order built in the last four decades will be restructured and what kind of institutional basis will serve to promote the post-pandemic recovery.

What becomes evident here is the fact that the relatively uniform vision of globalisation as a supranatural force shepherding the whole globe into one direction is untenable, as there are (and there have been) competing projects of globalisation, underpinned by diverging values already in the past. Hence, perceiving globalisation as a unilateral and all-encompassing process without any alternatives and considering the advanced capitalist countries as the primary agents of this process is, in many ways, misleading. Instead, a nuanced interpretation of globalisation that emphasises the multiplicity and co-presence of globalising projects should be taken into account. In this understanding, the recent pandemic not so much threatens the globalisation itself but poses a great challenge to certain global projects in the scramble for controlling global flows.

The dialectics of globalisation

The multiplicity of global projects and the interactions, conflicts, and rearrangements between them have been particularly spectacular during the so-called critical junctures of globalisation, when—very roughly speaking—a new and long-term segmentation of the global order has took place. Such critical moments were, for example, the global economic shock of the 1970s and the already mentioned global financial crisis of 2008. Despite the limited historical perspective, we can also safely assume that the current pandemic would fit into this category, as well.

These moments, moreover, also shed light on the fact that the processes of globalisation do not develop in a straight line but cyclically, with fractures and detours. Hence, while the pandemic serves as a definitive proof to some observers that we are entering a phase of deglobalisation, some historians dispute their claims and argue that we should see what is going behind the scenes: if we carefully look at the longer dynamics of globalisation, we might be able to identify similar processes that could help us to get a better grasp on the current state of affairs. The debate among global historians on how to identify different waves of globalisation (periods of expansion and contraction) and the examination of this dialectics seem to be highly relevant here. A brief inquiry into the contracting periods, such as the one during the interwar period (with the Great Depression cutting it in half), could particularly yield some important insights, as they conclude that, while, for instance, the global flows of goods, services, and finances declined after the rapid growth of the previous three decades, other data indicate that the pace of global integration did not reverse.

While, given the different nature of the problems, comparing the current situation with previous crises might seem pointless, these vague historical contexts could provide an additional lens through which we can better conceptualise what we are facing today. Most notably, they could raise awareness of the fact that the current processes that followed the outbreak of the pandemic (e.g., protectionism, the decrease of global connectivity, increasing fragmentation, etc.) are not necessarily the signs of retreat, let alone the end of globalisation. In this line of thought, a crisis like the current one is simply another episode in a process of structural transformations within the global condition.

A concluding remark

The present global pandemic has produced significant disruption and instability with obvious consequences for the global order. What the above-mentioned examples could, nonetheless, show us is that the pandemic’s destabilising effect on the global order would not necessarily mean that globalisation is over. Rather, it would commence an era of reconfiguration among competing global projects and visions in which global hegemonies and interconnections will be renegotiated. To better observe these, we should think about globalisation in a different way, and not as a one-way and uniform process.


The opening pic is by ImageFlow/Shutterstock

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