Thursday, 10 March 2016

'Global Trends: Reasons to be cheerful?' by Professor Barrie Axford

(Source: Forbes Asia Oct 13 2015)
Last year I published an article called Trends and tendencies of global integration as the opening chapter in a collection of state-of-the-art reflections on global ethics. The aim was to provide a largely empirical account of globalization and a context for subsequent chapters on normative aspects of much the same issues [i].

Previously I had spent a lot of time deciding on what would or might constitute evidence of global integration, or else its lack, and decided to flesh out the idea by reference to eight indicators. I felt that these would allow me to sketch in some seminal, or at least indicative, aspects of globalization, a process comprised of interconnectivity, consciousness and institutionalization.

The indicators, each no more than a summary of complex trends, were:
  • ·       Closer integration of the world economy
  • ·       Protracted crisis in the liberal global order
  • ·       The transformation of production systems and labour markets
  • ·       The cultural economy of speed
  • ·       The media revolution and consumerism
  • ·       The spread of democracy as a global script
  • ·       The changing quality of global governance, and finally
  • ·       The making of world society and global consciousness

Inevitably things got messy. Between the first draft and subsequent versions, the world turned, sometimes pretty dramatically. Optimism about the democratic legacy of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa began to look increasingly strained, while China – for some time the key growth pole of the global economy - began to falter. When I started to write the chapter, the “global war on terror” was yesterday’s brand, but ISIS had yet to make its mark. Russia was still limiting its adventurism to weak states, largely out of mind for Western policy makers.

I could go on; but enough reminiscence for the moment. Thinking about what to write in this inaugural blog for the Centre for Global Politics Economy and Society (GPES), it occurred to me that a brief revisit to my indicators of global integration might be apposite and could make for interesting reading. The balance of judgement in that chapter was that while there was ample and growing evidence of a world in turmoil, there were stable and long-term trends towards integration, seen across all the indicators. Despite the danger of placing too much emphasis on selective evidence and newsworthy apercus since then, do I still think the same?

Closer integration of the world economy: In the chapter I argued that in a longer term rebalancing of the world economy, recent trends point to a more obvious multi-polarity. Notable in this respect is the sense that in the next couple of decades emerging and developing economies will constitute the main driver of global economic integration. That still appears as a secular trend, but the slow-down in China’s growth, itself partly a product of that country’s need to restructure its economy, is having a marked – though arguably short-term – impact on world trade and on investment. Elsewhere in the developing world there are signs that the slow-down in growth and worries about the spread of the Western debt crisis to these regions is triggering the dumping of assets held there as investors search for safer havens. In financial markets, and especially in banking, the spectre of recurrent crisis is never far away, but evidence of bear(ish) markets is still thought by many economists to be no more than a necessary readjustment to the heady market values seen in the recent past, and to the cyclical  -though unprecedently big – dip in oil prices.

Crisis in the liberal global order:  Here my argument was that the health of global economic liberalism and also its geo-political stability cannot be assumed. That said, It is hard to judge whether talk of crisis constitutes a seminal moment in the narrative of global economic integration since the early 1970’s, or whether it is just another fluctuation in the fortunes of global capitalism, falling well within its tolerances. While there are different views on whether the banking system is more equipped to ride out a financial crisis than it was in 2008, there remain chronic risks to the stability of global capitalism. These include currency and fiscal crises, along with asset wealth disintegration caused by the tension between the still growing clout of emerging economies and the high levels of debt troubling many advanced countries. Furthermore, savings and trade imbalances, both within and between countries, look increasingly fraught and unsustainable, as key parts of the world economy emerge from or struggle with recession or the chronic threat of it. Geo-economic crises are paralleled by and sometimes interlock with geo-political and strategic considerations – the EU’s crisis of cohesion and legitimacy, pressures on global water supply, nuclear proliferation, or the threat of it, along with regional conflicts spawning unprecedented and seemingly unmanageable forced migration.

The transformation of production systems: The creation of more flexible economies has been the hallmark of post-Fordist societies. Seen most obviously in labour practices and job (in)security, set against the variably successful rear-guard actions of national welfare states, the idea of a flexible economy extends to the increasingly unregulated movement of investment capital around the world. It also constitutes a revolution in the ways production and consumption are structured through “lean”, and ever more bespoke, commodity chains. This trend has been accelerating, for all the talk of a return to “slow” lifestyles and the mantra of work-life balance.

I am going to combine my 4th and 5th indicators, the cultural economy of speed and the media revolution:  Here it would be difficult to ignore the almost breakneck speed with which things have changed. Whether one can argue for the existence of a modal interconnectedness via the Web and the mobile internet, is still a live issue. But even talk of a “digital divide” between global north and global south and inside countries too, has to be qualified given the high levels of saturation of mobile devices in many populations. These and other developments in cultural economy – how people spend leisure time, the irrelevance of conventional TV for younger audiences, the deconstruction of mores about privacy and so on – are having a marked effect on patterns of sociality. There is also the promise and threat of those indifferent globalities seen in the emergence of the “Internet of Things” and the widely bruited “Fourth Industrial Revolution” hymned by corporate giants in the culture industries and canny politicians, or at least those who attended the Davos World Economic Summit in January. 

The spread of democracy:  On the face of it events seem to have dealt a blow to the idea a benign diffusion or take-up of the democratic impulse. The notion of democratization remains loaded of course, not least through its association with particularistic models of democracy derived from the Western cultural account. That noted, the democratic recession identified by Larry Diamond in 2008 seems to have deepened after 2011. Hopes for a democratic summer to follow the Arab Spring have been confounded everywhere, barring Tunisia; Syria has imploded and Russia plays fast and loose with the idea of national determination where countries like Ukraine are concerned. It is also true that Myanmar may be progressing crabwise to a rough pluralism. In the EU, theatre for a bold, if flawed experiment in political constitution beyond the territorial state, barriers to mobility, threats to leave and what might be a modal populism born of fear, all threaten the legitimacy of the enterprise.

The quality of global governance:  This is easy to caricature, because aside from the headline-grabbing instances of the failure of multilateral regimes and institutions, there lies a huge raft of routine and mundane governance activity involving state, sub-state and non-state actors. Global governance is a reality, but a flawed one. Cosmopolitanism, certainly in its ethical guise, continues to look improbable and the poor record of what might appear as self-evidently global or regional institutions of governance – the UN, the EU, the IMF and so on – in dealing with the current refugee crisis, in solving global financial instability and in bringing peace to the Middle –East, does not inspire confidence.

World society and global consciousness:  The least definable and measurable of all the indicators, this canvassed people’s sense of the global; their awareness of global opportunities and constraints. Of course, awareness need not imply empathy and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it can easily breed a politics of opposition to global pressures and what are perceived as cosmopolitan or rootless identities. Globalization implies the articulation of sameness and difference and both relativises and essentailizes identities; just as it may hybridize them. These are continuing and forceful dialectics in the playing out of global dynamics.

So overall, I did not feel that my reflections in the original publication were so vacuous as to require binning; nor so misplaced or ephemeral that they have been overtaken by the surge of events. There is however a greater, and maybe growing, amplitude in some indicators than in others. As I said in conclusion to the original piece, the idea of globalization as contradictory and indeterminate, as well as displaying secular tendencies and being subject to excruciating contingency, is conceptually imprecise, but probably an accurate depiction of the global condition.

[i] The collection is The Routledge Handbook on Global Ethics, edited by Daniel Moellendorf and Heather Widdows, London and New York, Routledge, 2015.

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