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Globalization in the Widening Gyre of COVID-19

Excerpts from the COVID-19 Series by Maximilian Forte, April 27, 2020

Borders and Distancing

Typically over the past 20-30 years, anyone who openly worried about the prospect of international passenger jets carrying contagion, would likely have been called a reactionary Luddite, a xenophobic demagogue, or even a racist for implicitly linking “the foreign” with “danger”. This crisis must be exceedingly embarrassing and inconvenient for the orthodox scribes who attend to the upkeep of the once dominant narrative. We are waiting to be reminded of how globalization has made the world more stable, and made our lives better. Behold how peaceful and prosperous is a world shut down and quarantined by capitalist globalization. Let’s hear three more cheers for capitalism, how it has made everyone safer, and remember: “capitalism works”. The coronavirus also works, and without any of the armies which capitalism used to annihilate alternatives.

The virus respects no borders”—this is what we heard from both the World Health Organization early on, and governments such as those of Canada, France, etc., that is until they did a radical about face. If borders really did not matter, then why self-isolate? Why the quarantines? Those are border-making processes. The neoliberal option was to transfer the principle of borders from the society-level, down to the individual level, in conformity with the neoliberal dictum that there is no society. Self-responsibilization was thus emphasized, as it too is a cornerstone of the neoliberal ethic. Thus we saw an ideologically-driven commitment to keeping borders open, even while imposing borders between individuals and sites within the society. The virus did not move magically across borders because it had some sort of contempt for borders, as if COVID-19 had been a regular participant at Davos gatherings. The virus had only to move inside people who were allowed to pass through borders. Saying that shutting down travel and restricting entry would be “ineffective” manifested the determined paralysis and deliberate inaction that purposefully sought to undermine basic principles of national sovereignty—at least for as long as it seemed politically feasible (not long at all). If restricting movement was truly ineffective, then so would quarantines and self-isolation.

Neoliberals such as Justin Trudeau did not shut down borders until the virus had been allowed ample entry into Canada, through multiple ports. Only when the virus began to rapidly escalate, and when other countries began restricting travel, did Canada follow suit. In any case, it didn’t matter: keeping borders open to countries that restricted travel made little sense. However, what was detectable for a couple of weeks was the neoliberal preference for open borders, and a society broken down into confined pockets. The primary goal was not in preventing people from getting sick, but preventing them from getting sick all at the same time. Political leaders are the technocratic managers of the transnational capitalist class, so their decisions in a time of crisis are instructive. Trudeau instructed Canadians that the length of the shutdown would “depend on the choices that Canadians make,” thus making individuals responsible for the policies imposed on them. He said so explicitly when he spoke of how Canadians needed to make “responsible choices”. This is the neoliberal idealization of agency. Canadians would need to automate their ability to act as a rational choice calculators, to deploy as informed and vigilant consumers, and to show deference to authority.

Yet in another respect, neoliberal management failed itself, because there is no winning in a crisis such as this one. The failure to enforce borders directly resulted in a shutdown of economic activity—a cardinal sin for any good neoliberal. “Creative destruction” is one thing, but this is starting to look like just destructive destruction. Stocks plunged to the most dramatic degree since the Great Depression, with unemployment skyrocketing to an extent also not seen in many decades. This was neoliberal mismanagement: a combination of dogma and indecision, of being actively deployed in a state of paralysis. There was no better example of this active paralysis than a quarantined prime minister and his infected wife, remaining in seclusion in his residence even after his wife’s recovery, pretending to operate the country via remote control.

One of the additional features of active paralysis has been absentee governance, or something approximating an absence of government at the federal level in Canada in terms of the reluctance to have elected parliamentarians sitting in the legislative assembly in Ottawa to do their jobs. Meanwhile, minimum-wage cashiers in supermarkets are required to risk their lives to serve the public. It is not just fear that would have a ruling party or head of government virtually or actually suspend parliament: it was out of a desire to avoid having to answer for their actions and decisions. Israel has now become a fully fledged dictatorship. Trump wanted to “adjourn” Congress—i.e., suspend parliament—while declaring that his power is total. (Next, he will cancel elections.) In Canada, Trudeau rules from isolation and digs his heels into the ground when it comes to having parliament sit.

What has become painfully evident to all of us is at least two things. One is that globalization, and the globalism that upholds it, have literally sickened people. All have been put in danger, many have already died, and more will die. Such a system cannot be allowed to continue, as a practical matter of survival. Concerns for “cost” and “efficiency” will necessarily have to be tossed aside. Goods may cost more, but it would also mean more local employment, and hopefully at higher rates of return. Emphasizing cheap costs means emphasizing low wages, which in turns means poverty creation and thus the production of a class of people who become especially vulnerable to viruses and to spreading them.

The second facet involves greater reflection on the wasteful, needless nature of the incessant travel that has occurred worldwide in ever increasing volumes over the past years and decades. People were jetting and cruising around as if it had been an ordinary, routine necessity of living—and now the reality that has exploded in everyone’s faces is just how harmful were such consumption patterns. In academia hopefully this will spell an end to the extreme travel culture that has taken hold, with many tens of thousands of academics jetting to-and-fro every week of the year to attend any of the countless conferences in dozens of disciplines, or to appear as guest speakers. Huge amounts of publicly funded research grants have been extinguished as exhaust in the atmosphere, by travellers who directly exposed themselves and their societies to needless exposure to actual or prospective viral outbreaks.

It is important that we become accustomed to Zoom video conferencing, or whatever alternative platform emerges. Personally, I would also recommend that universities move towards a greater mix in the delivery of courses, allowing some to be delivered online, or allowing some faculty (those who wish) to do all of their teaching online. Perhaps the latter move could reduce costs to students: a reduced tuition should follow from lessened demand on space and the various overhead expenses needed to maintain physical spaces. For cash-strapped universities, greater online teaching could free up enough physical space that whole buildings could be sold, or refitted and rented, immediately generating new revenue either way. Every university student and professor in North America today has had direct and recent experience with online teaching—so at least the very concept is no longer unthinkable. Online teaching has just entered the tried and tested column.

Distance Annihilates Globalization

Those in power have done something interesting by introducing the distancing ethic. Distancing is the exact opposite of the ethic of globalization. In Canada some in the media quibble over whether the better term is “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing,” when they amount to the same thing. Liberal Canadian media like to downplay the social impacts, reducing everything to individual human interest stories—they pretend that mediated “togetherness” is what counts most, and in-person distance is merely “physical”. The point is, however, that globalization promised an end to all distancing, particularly physical distancing. How “physical distancing” can become useful to the authorities is by reinforcing some other lessons: that your health is your responsibility; public health is a matter of individual decisions and individual practices. Physical distancing could emphasize individualism, if it magnifies and isolates the “I” and obliterates the “us”. On the other hand, individual distancing, motivated by a concern for the common good, would instead introduce a collectivist principle. In other words, little is really clear-cut in a crisis which has every social sector losing something. What is interesting to see is that globalization itself is proving to be one of the biggest of all the losers.

Among the famous phrases purporting to explain globalization, were ones such as “time-space compression,” and how “time had annihilated distance”. Globalization itself is projected to become one of the main “losers” of the coronavirus, both in the immediate and near-terms. That the new ethics of distancing and isolation, coupled with national self-supply, both mean the annihilation of globalization, is a fact that is now recognized by too many writers for all of them to have been lifelong, hard core anti-globalists. Outlines of the next economic model have come into focus.

However, to be clear not everything one may associate with globalization in all of its multiple forms, will just vanish. Some aspects may be strengthened, particularly the advance of digitization, Internet communication, and automation. Travel, hotels, airlines, international car rentals, AirBnB, all of these may suffer a deep and irreparable decline, and one can reasonably expect some businesses to fail utterly, including AirBnB. While travel and tourism can be expected to go into a deep and enduring decline, the value of the Internet has been enhanced. Thus de-globalization will be as partial and selective as globalization itself was.

Note also how the epicentres of the pandemic were most often the centres of the world economy: China, the US (particularly New York state), Italy and Spain in the EU, the UK. On the other hand, most of the periphery—minus major exceptions like Iran—still remains peripheral to the outbreak. COVID-19 is a disease that follows the pattern of global capitalist integration. The lesson here is a reverse of the globalist dogma taught in development studies for the past 30 plus years: now it’s those with fewer linkages that fare better. That does not mean that Africa, for example, has remained untouched—on the contrary, even the initial effects of the crisis have already been severe.

The new buzzwords in the North American media—still shy about calling it de-globalization—are “onshoring” (instead of the “offshoring” of companies, capital, and jobs), or “reshoring” (as in “bringing it back home” with reference to the production of strategic supplies). “De-coupling” is a rather oblique term, fashionable among Financial Times writers, for essentially speaking of de-globalization: a breaking off of linkages that rendered one country dependent on another. Suddenly it is common to hear about “supply chains,” particularly since it became evident that even supposedly major economies went into this crisis totally naked, without their own production and supply of masks, gloves, and medical gowns, let alone their own domestic supply of key pharmaceuticals. At the very least on the medical front alone, the post-COVID world will be remarkably altered, and it is already altering rapidly. This is not a hypothesis as much as an observation. We can expect that in academia new life will be breathed into Dependency Theory, which now seems much more relevant and useful than four decades of fluffy globalization theories.

As we now collectively begin to speak of national self-reliance, and look to ourselves and our own resources, skills, and abilities in meeting our own needs, another old realization will come back to the fore: we do not need any foreign master. We do not need any foreign master, whether new or old, whether it is China or the US. Some think (wishfully, not analytically) that it is only China’s alleged plan to become the centre of global power that will be harmed from this pandemic—but it is US hegemony that will now meet its fullest and most visible decline.

As an anthropologist I want to challenge readers to stop thinking of the world necessarily being polar, whether uni-polar, bi-polar, or multi-polar. The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of the time that humans have existed on this planet, our planet was non-polar. Global “poles” are an invention of the last 500 years—not a particularly good invention, rarely a welcome invention, and clearly not a sustainable invention. As we increasingly turn into a New Old World, let’s hope that the “old” part is really old.

Part 3 of this series turns squarely to questions of geopolitical dominance, especially where the two contending powers—China and the US—have both rooted their power in a highly deficient process: globalization.

April 27, 2020 - Posted by | Economics, Timeless or most popular |

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on kommonsentsjane and commented:
    Reblogged on kommonsentsjane/blogkommonsents.

    For your information.

    kommonsentsjane

    Like

    Comment by kommonsentsjane | April 28, 2020 | Reply


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