Out of the Belly of Hell: COVID-19 and the Humanisation of Globalisation – Part 2: So What Is Globalisation Then?

Viewpoint by Anthony Barnett*

This article was originally published on openDemocracy. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News

LONDON (IDN) – The word ‘globalisation’ has different meanings. In the broadest sense of ‘the interconnectedness of humanity’ it began when early homo-sapiens in Asia reconnected with the first human communities in Africa to become a world-wide species, perhaps two million years ago.

While there is a flourishing study of global history that predates it, globalisation is more usually taken to have begun in the sixteenth century with the first circumnavigation of the globe and European expansion including the conquests and settlements of the Americas, followed by early colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade.

For generations, the loudest and ugliest part of this complex human story was colonialism. Which was intensified by industrialisation. The development of the telegraph and trans-oceanic cables initiated elements of a recognisably contemporary global economy, centred on the City of London, which by 1914 was more open than at any time since.

The period of the two world wars from 1914 to 1945 saw a collapse in world trade as autarkic blocs formed and fought and resulted in a global order shaped by American superiority decorated by the United Nations. This was to become the foundation for the phase of globalisation we have just lived through. The immediate consequence, however, was the sharply divided world of the Cold War and its three-fold separation between Western capitalism, Soviet communism and the ‘non-aligned’ countries, which were often newly independent colonies plunged into the proxy-battles of the Cold War.

The most intense of these, the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came close to war, was perhaps a prelude to an emotional globalisation when hundreds of millions held their breath. Had a thermonuclear holocaust been unleashed, it would have meant globalisation of a different kind, with much of the planet uninhabitable. The result, however, was to entrench the existing hierarchies of authority.

In the decades that followed two forms of globalisation developed. One was economic. It refers to the emergence and then rapid growth of a financial, trading and high-tech capitalism that overwhelmed communism and, so its celebrants proclaimed, made nation states increasingly redundant as economic actors.

There was a debate about its nature at the turn of the turn of the century with some arguing that it was by no means as novel or free of national determination as its endorsers made out1. It is the economic globalisation that commentators are referring to when they report on ‘deglobalisation’ due to ‘decoupling’ of economic supply chains after the pandemic, even though the experience of COVID-19 is clearly one of the most global events ever in terms of shared experience. 

This shared experience is the second form taken by globalisation. You could call it the social, or political, or cultural but each term seems to pocket it into an inadequate slot. It is the human impact of the virus. And this experience tells us that along with the economic another form of globalisation has been underway in terms of an underlying structure of feeling about human life on earth that does not give priority to corporate interests. It is made possible in part because of rapid electronic images but is about more than the spectacle. It is rooted in a sense that we as a human race have developed the power to hold the whole world in our hands and yet what is happening is beyond our control.

Globalisation in this sense and as we know it today began in 1968. The impact of the Vietnamese Tet offensive in January, the French barricades of May, and the Prague Spring that brought the Soviet Tanks into what was then Czechoslovakia, were high points in a whole series of challenges that altered the nature of what was possible. They were unexpected, unpredictable, popular uprisings against the established orders and expressed a far-reaching social transformation, one that had developed through a decade which had already seen the liberation of most African countries from colonisation.

It would prove to be revolutionary, although not in the way that the rhetoric of the time foresaw. It was the start of our contemporary globalisation, as it became clear that processes had been unleashed that had escaped the control of those supposedly in charge as well as the confinement to any single continent. 

It seems counter-intuitive to speak of 2020 and 1968 in the same breath. That was a time of liberation, of the breaking of restraint and restrictions, calling on the imagination to “seize power” and a “realism” that demanded “the impossible”.

This is a year of self-isolation, auto-imprisonment and punitive monitoring. 1968 was a year of boom, 2020 one of bust. The contrast is my point: these years will book-end the half-century of globalisation. 

1968 was a left-wing moment which led to five decades of right-wing domination culminating in Trump’s first term. For sure, the pandemic is already generating an eruption of reaction designed to strengthen corporate capitalism. At the same time, I believe it is going to initiate a long, progressive, democratic and ecological transformation. We are witnessing the force that will achieve this in the upwelling of solidarity that has been released in cities, towns, communities and networks, in response to the lockdowns and in support of frontline workers around the world. 

To assess the nature of the force I call humanisation calls for a re-assessment of globalisation. I am attempting this below with assertions that should be preceded by ‘perhaps’ or followed by ‘isn’t this so?’

First, I will look at some influential strands that weave their way continuously across the five decades since 1968.

Then I will look at how these ongoing strands are shaped by key historical moments, conjunctures that shape the history that has brought us to 2020. Their selection and interpretation may be controversial, but I am putting them forward to start a discussion and, especially, to highlight the contested nature of the last fifty years.

I hope you will not be impatient with this double approach which means there is some repetition. But it is essential to identify the deep tensions built up over the past five decades so that, in the final section, I can suggest how we can draw upon them to replace corporate domination and its free-market priorities. 

1968 to 2020 – strands that marked the half century

1) Unparalleled consumption

An immense, unsustainable rise in the use of raw materials, overwhelmingly consumed in wealthy countries, took place starting from the mid-century. It has been called the period of “the great acceleration”. While it is punctuated by busts and downturns the overall increase in almost everything underlies the period as a whole. 

The tragedy of globalisation is that its great material success guarantees a catastrophic failure if it continues. The drivers include corporate expansion and over-consumption, as well as the desire to catch up, to live in a warm apartment, to send children to university, to enjoy the freedom of good transport. Growth has been propelled in part by the increase in the world population from about 2.5 billion in 1950 to today’s 7.8 billion.

It is not an unsustainable population or the main cause of peak consumption. It is how we live, not our numbers, which is generating the mismatch between humanity’s demands on the earth and the planet’s capacities. It follows that we have to wean our assessment of success away from measurement of GDP. Improvements in the living standards of billions is a must, rightly they will not allow themselves to be deprived. To be sustainable and equitable as well as carbon neutral it is going to have to be growth of a different kind for all of us. 

2) People Flow 

There are five conversations about the exponential increase in the movement of people since 1968. 

  • There was a huge rise in travel for tourism and work. A measure of this is that on 29 June 2018, for the first time, more than 200,000 flights took off and landed on the same day. 202,157, to be exact. Worldwide, over a billion took to the sky in July and August 2019.  
  • Migration within countries, especially the exodus from the countryside to the cities, altered the nature of humanity as a whole. In 1970, 36% of the world’s population was urban, 1.3 billion people. By 2020, 56% lived in towns and cities, 4.3 billion of us. The tipping point was around2005 when humanity became an urban species numerically, although the urbanisation of rural life, especially in terms of media penetration, was much earlier. 
  • Then there is migration from one country to another, which I will come to.
  • There is also the debate over the ‘threat’ of immigration, which is distinct from actual immigration. Its concerns are identity, tradition and control. Thus, racist opposition to the newcomers who had rescued us from the fate of monocultural uniformity went mainstream in the UK in April 1968, when Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood” thanks to blacks settling amongst ‘us’. He was wrong. There was no such catastrophe. Yet he is regarded as a prophet not an idiot. This is because the ‘issue’ will not go away as it is seized upon time and again to stir fear of the other. 
  • Wars and persecution generate refugees and asylum seekers and humanitarian principles oblige everyone to offer shelter.

At the turn of the century a senior Dutch civil servant, Teo Veenkamp, was working on migration between countries. He recognised that it is a constant in the modern world, with up to three percent of people moving. He called this ‘People Flow’. He set out how to wrest it from the hands of people smugglers, ensure host societies gain direct financial benefit, confront the need for linguistic training, and help the communities who lose their skilled and energetic young. His political aim was to stop migration being treated as a ‘crisis’ that politicians sought to ‘solve’ so that it would then go away. Only by governing migration as a constant could its enormous value be shared and the issue made less toxic. Despite its practical foresight and authority the debate over People Flow was ignored. 

There is an important but little discussed aspect of today’s migration. Enormous numbers have worked or studied abroad and returned, or have a family member overseas who meet on WhatsApp, or are married to, or have relatives who are related to, foreigners. Thanks to this perhaps even a majority of the world’s population have directly or vicariously experienced life in another country. 

3) TV, the microchip and the global economy. 

An enormous shift in how contemporary events were perceived took place between 1965 and 1970 as colour television began and quickly became the norm. All previous history had been reproduced in black and white. It was democratising to see authority in its flesh colours. At the same time, an international political-media-entertainment complex was born that was anything but democratic, even though it exploited the end of paternalism.

Even as television swept all before it, 1968 saw the first seeds of a further transformation of communications, that would plough up industrial capitalism some decades later. The so-called Mother of all Demos took place in December. It signalled the development of the personal computer and mouse; while the foundation of Intel, also in 1968, initiated the coming era of the microchip. In addition to land, sea, air and, if you will, space, a new domain was about to be created. One within which humans now exist, reshaping our identities: cyberspace.

The multiple transformation of communications, however, was only part of the globalisation of the world economy. A crucial physical development was finalised in 1968 by ‘ISO 668’. This defined the dimensions for a universal system of containerisation across ships, rail and road transport. Economic globalisation would not have been possible without it, a development apparently encouraged by the US army wanting to secure its massive shipments from “Viet Cong pilfering”. A transformation of world trade and supply lines took place for which the developments in communications provided the nervous system. In addition, the first Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet emerged from its hanger in 1968, to go into commercial flight in 1970. In terms of mass tourism as well as international trade and digitisation, it was a breakthrough year in all respects.

4) Frustrated environmentalism and the rise of NGOs

It was the first image of earth-rise – taken by US astronauts above the moon in December 1968 – that was arguably the moment the modern environmental movement took off, as the ecosphere’s vulnerability became visible in a thumbnail. It has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. In 1970 the first Earth Day filled streets across America. But what happened to this movement?

This generation – my generation – invented the modern NGO: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Médecins Sans Frontières were founded, Oxfam and Amnesty, revitalised. Our peers were recruited into the great US foundations as well as new ones, where they funded progressive causes. 

An extraordinary range of amelioration was achieved, the worst pollution was reversed, poverty was alleviated and international development greatly helped. But the whole period is marked by a contest between the growing urgency of the need for environmental recuperation – and the systemic failure to implement it. 

There is nothing dishonourable about defeat. You can even overcome it if you face up to it. The great non-governmental movements, mobilisations and organisations were frustrated yet did not debate why. Instead, their literature endlessly proclaims how well they have done, while the world they exist to save burns. 

Certainly, market fundamentalism constricted politics and squeezed their influence. But marginalisation was also self-inflicted. One of the most noticeable failures was the World Social Forum that first met in Brazil in 2001 to challenge Davos style globalisation. It made a huge impact, then dissipated. By the time it was vindicated by the great financial crash of 2008, it had faded away. 

5) Feminism and our bodies become the basis for claiming control over our lives

Ecological consciousness was accompanied by another change familiar to all of us and theorised by feminism, but little considered in global politics: the rise of body-consciousness. Our bodies were sold back to us, women’s bodies first followed by men’s especially via sports. The commodification of intimate life and personal looks stimulated insatiable demand for attractive appearance. 

Across the half-century, as the human species became an urban genus, individual fitness, diet and mental well-being became a central part of modern life. It generated intense individualism, making health a private responsibility. The word ‘jogger’, for example, entered the English language in the early sixties and only became widespread in the latter part of the decade. A push back against this, while poorly funded, is strengthened by being true: our health and well-being are also intrinsically social. 

While we gained as well as suffered from better understanding of our bodies and their inter-relationships, this tremendously important area was confined to consumerism rather than citizenship. The issues were excluded from what passes for democracy which, by making politics less relevant, reinforced depoliticisation. 

The Greens tried to bring these issues of the personal and our lived relationships with our environment into policy making but this was used to ghettoise them. Now the nature of living on the planet in terms of our health, sexuality, hygiene and diet, needs to become political and coronavirus may help us to achieve this.

Especially thanks to feminism. It takes more than two generations to overcome the epochal subordinations of patriarchy. Although our joint emancipation from it as women and men is still ongoing, a profound transformation took place across the half century that will be vital to our surviving it. 

6) Moscow, Washington and Beijing but not Europe

Three clear shaping political processes stretch across the half-century: the fall of Soviet communism, the divide of American democracy along with the consolidation of the dollar’s supremacy, and the rise of authoritarian, capitalist China. There was also an unclear, flailing influence: the European Union.

The long-drawn-out termination of Soviet Communism ended the only organised and armed opposition to rule by the market. Although the Tet offensive which opened 1968 was planned by the most classic of communist parties, the Vietnamese, founded by Ho Chi Minh, its defiance inspired spontaneous risings against hierarchy and centralised authority from Germany to Mexico – including Stalinist authority. 

In France, May 68 confronted the Parti Communiste Français, the PCF, the largest Stalinist Communist party in the West, as well as President de Gaulle. Unlike the French state, the PCF never recovered. Within the Soviet bloc, the Prague Spring experimented with an open version of socialism and political freedom that would have terminated the Party’s ideological monopoly. It was crushed by Brezhnev’s tanks, which thereby ensured there would be no escape for Soviet Communism from fatal sclerosis, despite Gorbachev’s heroic efforts at resuscitation twenty years later. 

In China, Soviet style rule was shattered by Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution, which came to a head in 1968. It mobilised the young to “bombard the headquarters” and save Mao from being retired below decks by his pro-Soviet, ‘revisionist’ colleagues. These included the nominal head of state, Lui Shaoqi, Moscow trained and author of How to be a Good Communist, who was sentenced in December 1968 and died shortly after. 

When the Vietnamese finally drove the US out of their country in 1975 it looked as if the appeal of communism might revive. Instead, while the capitalist world was absorbing the energy of the sixties to good effect, communist states went to war with one another. 

China mobilised over a million troops along its border with Russia and invaded Vietnam to punish it for liberating Cambodia from Mao’s protégé Pol Pot – and the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Soviet ‘internationalism’ never recovered. Its momentous history gave Soviet influence a shadowy endurance after the USSR collapsed in 1991: a ruthless belief in manipulative centralism in the name of the working class still leaves its baleful effects on leftist political organisations as it takes far too long to wither away completely. 

The rise of China co-defines the half-century from 1968 to 2020. The most populous country on earth was isolated after its revolution in 1949, absurdly excluded even from membership of the ‘United Nations’ at the insistence of the United States. It was only in 1971, when Mao agreed to support the division of Vietnam, that America relented and China replaced Taiwan on the Security Council. 

Five years later, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping swung his country to market development, initiating the largest single-generation socio-economic transformation in history. Hundreds of millions migrated from the fields to city life. In 1968 Wuhan was a city of 2 million prone to flooding. In 2019 the coronavirus mutated into existence in a city of 11 million, with skyscrapers, infra-red thermometers and mobile CT scan units, and a stunning transport system that put western cities to shame.

While the Soviet Union was a full-scale military and ideological rival, it never came close to matching the United States economically. China has done so with awesome speed and intelligence and on its own autocratic terms, re-writing world history to create a formidable model of authoritarian capitalism. As Laurie Macfarlane has shown, the combination of Beijing’s hi-tech surveillance state and economic clout with Washington’s blundering obsession with ‘greatness’ threatens open societies everywhere.

Washington’s toleration of Beijing’s challenge had ended before COVID-19. Given the role of China’s growth in its own economy, severing the symbiotic relationship of the two Pacific powers will hit them both. But the US is undergoing an acute ideological crisis with deep roots. Arguably, it has never managed to recover from the domestic consequences of the Tet offensive. Militarily the rising was utterly crushed in Vietnam. Internationally, America’s genocidal impulses were exposed, scarring its appeal as a model for democracy.

This too it could brush aside. But at home it generated an opposition to US militarism that fused with the civil rights movement to create a still unresolved polarisation, exacerbated by astonishingly ignorant and arrogant leaders in Washington, Republicans especially. 

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of America, home to the finest humanism while massacring and assassinating non-stop, kept the world in its thrall for a good reason. While it has proved a chronic failure as a political model, leaving its liberal supporters continually aghast, its economic predominance remains. As Adam Tooze reports in detail, the Federal Reserve is responding to the financial upheavals of the pandemic with unprecedented speed and boldness, to retain its responsibility for the working of the world’s inter-linked financial systems. The dominance of the dollar and the reach of US corporations remains unbroken, as it has since 1945, a crucial factor in the continuity of the last fifty years.

In 1968, what is now the European Union consisted of the six countries that founded it in 1957 and de Gaulle had just vetoed a second British application to join. By 2020 it had 27 members, was the largest free-trade area in the world, and had just lost Britain, the first member state to leave. 

The expansion of the EU might have created an example for the world as its architects hoped. It still may do so, but it contains an unresolved element, the Euro, which instead of drawing member countries together spun them apart. As a result, the EU spends more time internalising its energies seeking to save itself than it does externalising them to influence others.  

Its actual, irreplaceable success has been to create a regulated space within which its national members can flourish. In effect its role has been to rescue European nations from their imperial, racist and belligerent pasts. But its headline project remains the conceit that it will somehow also replace them, to develop a unified executive equal to the US, China and Russia. The Euro embodies this contradiction and until the EU resolves its own nature it will not be able to help shape the world.

7) Equal but unequal

Socially, humanity has become more equal since 1968, a process empowered by the concept of fundamental human rights. Open segregation and racial supremacy are no longer acceptable even if we are still a long way from convivial, planetary humanism. The half-century stands out for the struggle for gender parity, which made enormous gains against the hierarchies and prejudices enforced by traditional authority. 

Cisgender male privilege did not crumble. Religiously-blessed male domination, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, continued to reproduce itself, as it does in secular forms in Chinese Communism and Japanese precedent. But however intransigent, it has become a rearguard action. 

Television and now video and social media have reinforced a demotic energy in all societies, deflating claims of intrinsic superiority everywhere. At the same time less penury has meant enormous, massively maldistributed increases in wealth, deepening inequality in two dramatic ways. 

While never have so many fought their way out of poverty so fast to earn the basics of a warmer, sanitary life and education, the rise of the ‘super-rich’ has been faster, appropriating an accumulation of personal wealth that was inconceivable in the mid-century. 

Meanwhile, the conditions of the poor in countries suffering forms of political disintegration and war is unimaginably dire shanty towns of destitution attached to the centres of urban wealth. Whatever the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends to prevent contagion, hundreds of millions can’t wash their hands as they have little access to soap and running water, cannot practise social distancing in cramped conditions, or stay away from work as their families may starve. 

8) Militarism 

The bitter irony of the decades that followed the Vietnam conflict was that a period of quite exceptional human progress was accompanied by non-stop wars and armed conflict. The imbalances that have led us to the climate emergency cannot but be linked to the perverse levels of military expenditure, a fraction of which could have helped diminish global warming. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) spreadsheet does not offer an estimate for Soviet military expenditure for 1968, but that year Europe and America spent over 800 billion in today’s dollars. Last year the world’s total of military expenditure had risen to 1,922 billion dollars excluding the Middle East, a record high. For the last half century, we have spent an average of more than a trillion dollars, that is over a thousand billion dollars, a year, on fighting and preparing to fight each other. The sheer perversity is maddening and spread across almost all societies (except perhaps Costa Rica which dissolved its army); my own country, for example, is spending tens of billions on a redundant submarine-platform nuclear missile system.

Arms expenditure on this scale probably causes wars and certainly deepens and lengthens them at a time when, along with better education, most countries have become more tolerant and peaceful. The Uppsala Conflict Data Programme has tracked conflicts since 1975 and reckons that 2,733,206 have been killed in conflicts since 1989. Many can be regarded as victims of the competitive form of globalisation we have experienced. “Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, there will be war” (quoted from Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974). 

9) Corruption

Decade after decade, the last fifty years has been laced with scandals, the most recent involving the direct subordination of democratic politics by dark money (see Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale). But the existence of oligarchs enjoying the protection of tax havens quite legally is the real scandal. A system of permissiveness has made the City of London into, in effect, a receiver of stolen revenues generated globally and cycled through tiny islands under British sovereignty (see The Great-Tax-Robbery: How Britain Became a Tax Haven for Fat Cats and Big Business). The illicit has public impacts, such as the costs of addiction and the criminality of the drug trade, itself a new kind of international, exposed in Misha Glenny’s McMafia

To preserve itself, protection money goes to support politicians who in turn support ‘light regulation’. The European Union’s belated efforts to close down offshore tax havens was one reason the Brexit campaign was flush with cash and backed by billionaires. Of course, there has always been crime. But in its imperial heyday the City of London profited from its global influence because of a belief it could be trusted. The closed shops and rituals of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ were highly efficient and integrity was perceived around the world as a sign of modernity. No more. 

10) Humanity as an agent

All of the above processes combined to transform the class system. On mid-century earth, industrial output was driven by massed, working class efforts, down mines and in vast factories, unionised in the west and lionised in Soviet propaganda and largely male. The labour movement was the rock of progressive politics, while its conscription into patriot loyalties ensured its allegiance to competing nation states. 

Fifty years later the division of society into badly educated, manual proletariats, middle class professionals and ruling establishments has vaporised. Working class politics has lost its Stalinist dead weight while collectivism has been dissolved by the market. Corporations took advantage of the dramatic weakening of organised labour to use global production lines and supply chains to break the influence of the unions. Now, the nature of work is undergoing a metamorphosis as financialisation and platform monopolies make insecurity and precarity almost a norm for the young, while digitalisation puts unparalleled creative powers into our hands. 

There are still very real class differences, between rich and poor for a start, often expressed in depression – or opioids in the USA. There are acute divisions between metropolises and declining towns, between the educated and those without training, between immigrants and the entrenched, and especially between generations. Attitudes within atomised electorates are closely surveyed by market research for commercial and political messages that manipulate our subjectivity. Under these pressures, across the half-century, traditional class solidarities have passed away. At the same time, and in response to the same pressures, the foundations for a new solidarity within nations and between people is emerging – that of humanity itself in all our different societies. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 June 2020]

* Anthony Barnett, an English writer and campaigner, is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Image credit: openDemocracy

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