A remarkable ‘big switch’ has emerged from the turn of the millennium in terms of attitudes towards and discourses over globalisation. But while the world is currently witnessing a new backlash against economic globalisation, considerable support for globalisation within some parts of the Global South should not be overlooked.
While the world is currently witnessing a new backlash against economic globalisation, considerable support for globalisation within some parts of the Global South should not be overlooked. Supporters of the UK’s exit from the European Union seek to “take back control” from Brussels, while Donald Trump’s economic ethno-nationalism has promised to put “America first”. In contrast, the picture that emerges in the Global South is quite different, as part of a remarkable ‘big switch’ that has been taking place from the turn of the millennium in terms of attitudes towards and discourses over globalisation.
Support for globalisation in the global South
The polling company YouGov, in a 2016 survey of people across 19 countries, found that France, the US and the UK were the places where the fewest people believe that “globalisation has been a force for good”. In contrast, the survey found the most enthusiasm for globalisation in East and Southeast Asia, where over 70% of respondents in all countries believed it has been a force for good. The highest approval rate, 91%, was in Vietnam.
From a poor starting point, many in the Global South have experienced some improvement in basic development indicators in the 20th and 21st Centuries. People living in Asia accounted for the vast majority of those who experienced relative income gains from 1988 to 2008. In comparison with the 1990s, the Global South now earns a much larger share of world GDP, has more middle-income countries, more middle-class people, less dependency on foreign aid, considerably greater life expectancy, and lower child and maternal mortality rates.
Less of a backlash in the Global South necessarily means support for neoliberal globalisation—and the optimism in countries such as Vietnam may paradoxically be a result of an earlier rejection thereof. China, in particular, has not followed the same approach to economic globalisation as that which was encouraged by the US and organisations such as the IMF and World Bank in the late 20th Century.
Meanwhile, many of the world’s poorest in the Global South have seen very little improvement in quality of life in recent years, yet they are much more marginal and less well-positioned to express their frustrations than the ‘losers’ in countries such as the US and UK. They must not be forgotten.
China and India warn against deglobalisation
Most notably, the last two World Economic Forum gatherings at Davos have seen explicit statements from the respective leads of China and India warning against deglobalisation. In January 2017, China’s president Xi Jinping said that his country would assume the leadership of 21st Century globalisation. Defending the current economic order, Xi said that China was committed to making globalisation work for everyone—its responsibility as “leaders of our times”.
At Davos in 2018, Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, warned against deglobalisation:
It feels like the opposite of globalisation is happening. The negative impact of this kind of mindset and wrong priorities cannot be considered less dangerous than climate change or terrorism.
The ‘big switch’ on globalisation
It is remarkable that the backlash most associated with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US has emerged from the right of the political spectrum, in countries long recognised as the chief architects and beneficiaries of economic globalisation.
At the turn of the millennium, the primary opposition to globalisation was concerned with its impacts in the Global South. Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank, in his 2006 book Making Globalization Work wrote that “the rules of the game have been largely set by the advanced industrial countries”, who unsurprisingly “shaped globalization to further their own interests.” Their political influence was represented through dominant roles in organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO, and the corporate dominance of their multinationals.
In the 1990s the anti-globalisation movement opposed neoliberal economic integration from a range of perspectives, with a particular emphasis on the Global South. The movement was populated by activists, non-governmental organisations and groups with a variety of concerns: peace, climate change, conservation, indigenous rights, fair trade, debt relief, organised labour, sweatshops, and the AIDS pandemic.
Yet, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, UK prime minister Theresa May offered a sceptical assessment at the 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos, arguing that “talk of greater globalisation can make people fearful. For many, it means their jobs being outsourced and wages undercut. It means having to sit back as they watch their communities change around them.” The US, under Trump, subsequently began renegotiating NAFTA and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Significant proportions of the population in the US and other countries in the Global North have experienced limited, if any, income gains in the most recent era of globalisation. Leading global inequality expert Branko Milanovic has explored changes in real incomes between 1988 and 2008 to show who particularly lost out on relative gains in income. He found two groups lost most: the global upper middle class—those between the 75th and 90th percentiles on the global income distribution scale, of whom 86% were from advanced economies—and the poorest 5% of the world population.
Emerging evidence indicates that increased global trade has played a role in economic stagnation or decline for people in the North, especially in the US. MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues suggest that the ‘China shock’ has had major redistributive effects in the US, leading to declines in manufacturing employment.
Economists had previously argued that the “losers” from trade could be compensated by transfers of wealth. Autor and his colleagues found that while there have been increases in welfare payments to regions of the US hardest hit by the trade shock, they fall far short of compensating for the income loss.
Not just globalisation
Not all of the stagnation and decline experienced in the Global North can be attributed to economic globalisation. Technological change is a big factor and national policy choices around taxation and social welfare have also played key roles in shaping inequality patterns within countries. In such a context, ‘globalisation’ has been deployed as a scapegoat by some governments, invoking external blame for economic problems made at home.
A key lesson from the late 20th Century is to be wary of wholesale attacks on, and sweeping defences of, 21st Century economic globalisation. In light of the difficulties of establishing solidarity between ‘losers’ in different parts of the world, the challenge of our times is for an alter-globalisation movement which addresses all of them.
Moreover, if the stellar growth rates of the last 15-20 years slow down, the relatively positive view of globalisation in much of the global South may not continue, with the possibility of a backlash (re)emerging beyond the Global North.