The closing of borders because of the coronavirus pandemic has inflamed opinion around the world that the era of globalisation is coming to an end. Governments are raising the sovereignty flag, hunkering down behind their borders.
These developments are symptomatic of a wider scepticism about hopes for a cosmopolitan world coming into being, with states and peoples learning to live cooperatively and at peace with each other. However, it would be a catastrophic error to give up on the idea that the future is global. The questions that needs asking is: What kind of globalisation does the world need now?
The renowned American international law and politics scholar, Professor Richard Falk, distinguishes between what he labels globalisation-from-above and globalisation-from-below. He is highly critical of the former, while advocating strongly for the latter. This useful distinction needs to be revisited, especially by those who are cynical about the future of globalisation.
Globalisation-from-abovehas been the dominant form so far. And it is thoroughly deserving of our cynicism, if not repulsion. It is closely associated with the rise of neoliberalism, austerity budgets, and letting the free market rip across the globe. Some critics even refer to it as the Americanisation of the global economy, with Wall Street the leading the way into what Thomas Picketty calls “hypercapitalism”.
This destructive development has seen economic inequality burgeoning across the world with a few billionaires and trillionaires accruing to themselves unimaginable levels of wealth mostly squirrelled away in tax havens, and with which they also buy power. As Oxfam has shown, the richest one percent of the world’s population today own more capital than nearly seven billion of the rest of us (that is, nearly all of us!). By any rationale, not one of themis entitled to such riches: they are dead hands on the present and future of global peace, ecological sustainability, and economic security for all.
Moreover, globalisation-from-above delivered the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to the world economy. The greed-driven thugs and their property-developer cronies (think Trump, think Giuliani) at the top of the major financial institutions dreamt up such contemptible schemes as the sub-prime crisis that brought the world’s economy to its knees.
They should all be in prison, but only a meagre handful of their underlings have gone to jail – the poor fools whose bonus-bought loyalties turned them into their bosses’ scapegoats. The bosses whose institutions have managed to avoid collapse (through massive tax-paying bailouts) are still at it, doing exactly what they have always done, laying the foundations of the next GFC.
Globalisation-from-below is something altogether different. Richard Falk argues that it involves an evolving global civil society – the mobilisation across borders of a wide range of transnational social movements: climate change activists, human rights advocates, environmentalists, protesters against patriarchy, anti-nuclear weapons campaigners, fighters for democratic change in authoritarian states, peace movement promoters, critics of the use of torture and capital punishment, and so on. Increasingly, the activists and supporters working within these movements and organisations have more in common with similarly-committed citizens of other countries than they do with their own governments.
The evolving global civil society – still inchoate but evolving through social media contacting – is evidence that there is a growing concern that governments on their own are either incapable or unwilling to address what are becoming serious every-day challenges for ordinary people to survive, let alone live dignified lives.
In far too many instances, those challenges have been intensified by the destructiveness of globalisation-from-above. Consider the reluctance of the Trump administration to act swiftly to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the USA because it prioritised the grotesquely top-heavy American economy over the health of the American people. White billionaires first, African-American women and children last!
If the coronavirus pandemic teaches us anything at all it is that there are future challenges looming across the global horizon that simply cannot be met by sovereign states on their own.
The “greatest moral challenge of our time” remains the climate change crisis. Absolutely the only way of dealing with this terrible challenge to the survival of our healthy planet is for states to be obliged to subordinate their inflated defence of “sovereignty” through pressures from global civil society movements to end anthropocentrically generated global warming.
There will be future pandemics. The unstoppable global mobility of human populations guarantees that diseases will spread. Moreover, there are pockets of human deprivation and poverty that will be crucibles incubating new diseases and sending them forth. To curtail this demands two responses: (1) an extremely well-resourced World Health Organisation that can swiftly mobilise action programs to curtail infections; (2) a global commitment to eradicating world poverty.
There are numerous global challenges white-anting the pillars of contemporary human civilisation. The ugly fact of global poverty (for example, more than a billion people living on less than one dollar US a day) has all its hideous chickens coming home to roost: international crime, drug smuggling, human trafficking, refugees fleeing from torturous and murderous regimes, regional conflicts and global cold and hot wars …
In her 2019 book, The Cosmopolitan Tradition, Martha Nussbaum envisages “a world of nation-states bound together by an evolving international morality and some international laws, enforced primarily in each nation.” She also argues for those nation-states to be the primary providers of resources ensuring everyone within their borders has the capability to live secure and dignified lives. This is a noble ideal, but not all nation-states, struggling alone, have the resources to make it a reality. Nothing less than a global cooperative effort will be required to make it a reality.
The COVID-19 should be teaching us that retreating behind sovereign border, cutting ourselves off from the world, is bound to fail. The fact is that human dignity and human flourishing can only survive through intelligent, culturally sensitive, mutually respectful and sustained international cooperation. If we really want a future for our children and grandchildren, that future has to be global.
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.