This spring, the Economist joined numerous other pundits in proclaiming the coronavirus pandemic as the end of globalization. In our breathless media age, rushing to find the first and the last, the dramatic and the provocative is all too ordinary. However, when considering globalization, the pandemic “is not even [to adapt Churchill] “the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Of course, “globalization” is a bit of mushy phrase. Over the past thirty years, it has been used to connote a neoliberal triumph of corporate-driven capitalism; “exporting” jobs from reasonably well-off countries to emerging economics, particularly in Latin America and south and east Asia. Integrated supply chains deliver fashionista designs from Europe or U.S.-invented technology to manufacturing operations in Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Honduras for delivery to stores across the globe. Populists are concerned partially by the loss of jobs and partially by the loss of control by their governments. The consumer beneficiaries of this labor market competition are rarely heard.
From a broader and more considered perspective, however, globalization can be characterized as the process of connection and communication gradually expanding from hubs of human settlement and activity, including migration, trade, information and technology transfer, and even travel. Globalization has been going on in this way for millennia, as scholars have described, in the gradual establishment and thickening of trade routes and the interconnection of regional economies and cultures. It certainly hasn’t been a smooth curve, punctuated by natural and climactic developments, wars, famines, and other human activities; a list in which the disruptions of the past few months only loom so large because of their currency.
Globalization describes both the measurable flows and connections: number of containers shipped or intercontinental Zoom calls. But, even more than the material and financial measurements, globalization is best characterized by a mentalité: an awareness of the scope of the world and the connection that each individual has, through jobs, migrations, sympathies, or ‘stuff,’ with others on the planet.
Globalization is both a process and a state. We have been in the process of globalizing and now we live in a globalized world. One might say, from this perspective, we are just about to reach the end of the process of globalizing. Of course there’s more to come; but in terms of connectivity, goods, migration, and information, as a global population of ~8B, we are past the 80%-20% mark.
Most people are conscious of the scope of the world. By this I don’t just mean cosmopolitan elites eating fusion food. In rich societies, ordinary folks are part of the “jet-set” (that old term for the “rich-and-famous”). Global smartphone penetration is now about 50%. Social media and markets connect individuals and companies as consumers. Billions of workers (farmers, miners, and factory-workers) know they are paid through global commerce. Indeed, it is the very awareness of the impact of all this that has spurred the reaction.
This would be pretty hard to unravel; even if we have a Covid hiccup in travel for a couple of years, even if the Trumpish trade wars fester for a while. To be sure, there is nothing inevitable about further integration—more travel and migration, more trade, more exchange of ideas—or even maintaining the current levels. There are those who imagine a return to an idyllic (simplistic) world: autarkic, controllable, comprehensible. “America First”-ers and Brexiteers have their counterparts everywhere. Reconstructing global manufacturing, services, and agriculture would surely bring an increase in local jobs, but at the cost of jaw-dropping increases in consumer prices. This virus, or the next, or some other cataclysm may pause or reverse the course. The pause in the 20th century lasted for sixty years. But then….
More fundamentally, in terms of mentalité, its hard to imagine the psychological disconnect required for “the end of globalization.” Cultural ties are resilient. Migration plus telecommunications means that cultures are cross-embedded and will stay that way.
The shape of 21st century globalization will surely change from what we have seen for the past forty years. China (and perhaps even India) will likely resume leadership of global economies. Subsaharan Africa has yet to be heard from. Technologies continue to restructure the meaning of geographical location. The underlying economics will press forward. Reallocation of global wealth distribution will lead to new travel and migration patterns. Even the rich West, embedded in some degree of self-centeredness, will likely see itself as part (not the dominator) of the world. Globalization ain’t over yet…not by a long shot.