Governance SME Focus

Globalism vs. Tribalism – Reshaping Reality

Akram Miknas on how separatist and bigoted politics is destroying global economy and why the politics of ignorance should stop. 


As we entered the 21st century, a globalized vision for humanity appeared to be sweeping all before it; bringing us all closer together, leveling the barriers which divided us, and promising greater prosperity for everyone.

As much as anything, this suggested that economists were winning the argument. They preached in favor of widening economies of scale; supply from whoever offered competitive advantage; and a progressive reduction in economic inequalities around the world. All societies would become more tightly enmeshed in this globalized system, becoming more efficient and productive – and reaping the rewards.

Just a few years later it feels that we occupy a very different world governed by a very different set of ideologies. Wherever we look, populations are pressing their leaders to disengage from the outside world and withdraw into their own islands. This represents a politics and economics of neo-isolationism.

We saw this with the US presidential elections; with both candidates campaigning in a climate which took it for granted that trade deals and open commerce are bad. We also see it in the forces threatening to pull the EU apart; as people look at the difficulties facing the Euro zone and conclude that the whole European project must have been a mistake.

In the Arab world, we are not only withdrawing into our own little national islands, but these islands are dividing against themselves into tiny cantons; the same kind of cantons that the Zionist leader Ben-Gurion saw would leave the Palestinian nation divided and impotent. This is the politics of sectarianism, tribalism, extremism and cultural intolerance.

Over the past decade we have gone from an ethos of open borders and the promise of prosperity; to fragmenting economies and demands for bigger walls to keep out foreign workers, foreign goods, foreign refugees and foreign influences.

It is strange how for many people the fear of terrorism and refugees becomes confused with fears that foreign interference is damaging the economy – feeding into the Donald Trump narrative of simply building a wall to keep everything and everybody out.

These fears have encouraged us to go back to being very tribal in our outlook; we are suspicious and nervous of anything unfamiliar; we cannot admit 100 Syrian refugees, because one of them could be a terrorist.

While it is true that the world as a whole benefits from free trade, what has become very obvious is that certain demographics tend to get left behind. For example; the low-skilled workers in the US who have lost out to cheap foreign labor and consequently have been attracted by Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

This failure to do more to ease the redeployment of those who lost out – the failure to share our collective winnings around more evenly – has resulted in a situation where these demographics are voting as a bloc against political elites and against close global integration.

2016 is the first year since the Second World War that trade between nations declined during a period of economic growth; with the volume of global trade falling 0.8% in the second quarter of this year. Likewise the total value of US imports and exports has fallen for two years running.

Prosperity increases trade; and trade increases prosperity – it’s a virtuous circle. However, when levels of global economic growth go into reverse, precisely the opposite happens, i.e.; this decline in global trade makes us less prosperous and leads to trade further being reduced.

Yet things are scarier than they first seem. The decrease in international commerce combined with sluggish local economies leads to pressure upon governments to provide greater protection for businesses and workers – subsidizing products, raising tariffs and discriminating against foreign businesses and workers.

I’m sure that you are sufficiently literate in economic theory not to need to spell out the dangers of such protectionist pressures for the global economy. As we saw in the 1930s, retaliatory trade barriers go up all around the world and trade levels plunge, throwing the economy into the deep freeze.

The World Trade Organization’s admission that its members have implemented more than 2,100 new measures restricting trade since 2008 is a tangible example of this process already underway. This backlash against political engagement with the world and against economic globalization risk becoming the defining attributes of our time.

The 1990s were marked by a perhaps naive optimism towards globalism. Trade soared and barriers came down. The period after 9/11 shook us out of our complacency, but it was still a period of intense encounters between east and west. The 2008 economic crash followed by the so-called Arab Spring threw the world’s economy into panic and exacerbated political tensions, as crises in Syria, Libya and Iraq gained international dimensions and led to major political fault-lines between regional and global power blocs.

Thus, the economic and political optimism of the 1990s – when thinkers like Francis Fukuyama pronounced an “end of history” and the supremacy of a globalized liberal consensus – seem like a very distant memory.

A retreat into political, cultural and economic isolationism and tribalism would benefit nobody. I apologize if I sound too harsh in describing such a scenario as a triumph of the politics of fear and ignorance; but this does help us diagnose how we should respond.

 We can either accept the ascendancy of this politics of tribalism and isolationism; or we can unite to argue against these dangerous tendencies.

This politics of ignorance has triumphed because political elites everywhere are on the defensive. Instead of arguing articulately for more responsible models of free trade; politicians adopt the rhetoric of their most ignorant audiences and argue against global trade agreements; while making impossibly tough promises for keeping out refugees and immigrants.

This race to the bottom in political dialogue has normalized the far-right and the lunatic fringes of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia.

During the British debate on leaving the European Union, a leading Brexit politician notoriously stood up and said, “I think this country has had enough of experts.” Such a comment is what populist rhetoric looks like when it arrives at its lowest common denominator: a victory for ignorance.

The fight-back must therefore start with the experts calmly and clearly making the case for the benefits of re-engaging with the world; while showing the counterproductive consequences of the politics and economics of fear.

Meanwhile, politicians must learn that if they start treating their electorates like grown-ups, then the electorate will mostly behave like grown-ups. Businessmen, entrepreneurs and technocratic voices must also make themselves more audible in arguing why we all have a shared interest in not backing away from globalization and open trade.

We can either accept the ascendancy of this politics of tribalism and isolationism; or we can unite to argue against these dangerous tendencies.

The economic consequences of a failure to act are only too clear.


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