By Tommy Ullman
On 20th January 2017 Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States. For the first time in the modern era, the president of the mightiest country on earth questions the advantages of globalisation. But what does this mean and what has been the impact of globalisation on economic justice?
Globalisation is not a new phenomenon. Before the First World War people could travel rather freely, though few could afford it, and trade was fairly liberalised. Nationalism and world wars put an end to that. Some seventy years later the fall of communism, increasingly liberal values and the advent of the internet have been three main factors fuelling modern globalisation. Now the question is whether we have reached a turning point. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote are just two signs of a backlash against globalisation as we know it.
Competing perspectives on globalisation
Globalisation can mean many things. Typically, when we talk about globalisation we refer to it in the political and economic sense. This means lower trade barriers, greater international cooperation and limitations on national sovereignty. Open markets are an important part of this. Like with all big changes of society, there are those who oppose the new order. Some claim it increases inequalities in the world and thereby damages economic justice – a claim I will examine here.
The anti-globalisation movement has taken different forms since the concept of modern globalisation became an international issue in the 1990’s. At first it was mostly the left who raised concerns. The Attac movement is one such expression but they have so far failed to achieve broader public support. Now it seems the nationalist-populist right has come to dominate the anti-globalisation debate. Donald Trump is the most obvious example of this. While the left points to what they claim to be increased inequalities in a globalised world, the right are more concerned about increased immigration to rich countries, the loss of national control over borders, and perceived cultural threats. Anti-globalists on both sides of the spectrum worry about the loss of jobs in their respective countries. One could perhaps say that the left worries about globalisation for the sake of poor countries and for workers at home, while the right worries about the economic, cultural and security consequences for their own countries. On both sides there are accusations of injustice.
But it might not be as simple as the left or right wing critics claim. Liberals continue to argue that globalisation benefits the majority of people through increased trade and cultural and economic exchange, thereby improving standards of living around the world. I will not try to hide that I sympathise with this view.
The World Today
Statistics from the UN and from the World Bank are unequivocal. The rapid increase in globalisation over the last thirty years overlaps with an exceptional improvement in the standard of living for the very poorest. The improvement for the wealthiest in poor countries has, however, been greater than the economic gains of the poor. This is not unusual. When a country begins to develop, the prosperous are typically the most able to take advantage of new possibilities. At the same time, contrary to common belief, we can see a decrease in the income gaps between countries. This is partially due to a growing middle class in many developing countries.
In developed countries, growth has also been enjoyed disproportionately by the richest in society, whilst amongst the middle and working classes the improvement has been slower. This partially explains why many people in Western countries support Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, Wilders and the Sweden Democrats.
Conclusions about globalisation and justice
So what does all of this tell us about globalisation and justice? Globalisation seems to have increased equality between countries but fuelled inequality within countries – or at least this has occurred at the same time. It is also true, however, that absolute poverty across the world has fallen significantly. When people do not have to worry about basic needs anymore they are likely to see this as a good thing, even if the most affluent people in developed countries may access new opportunities even faster. Thus the impact of globalisation on justice and equality partially depends on ideological perspective. One could argue, like Donald Trump, that it is unjust as workers in developed countries have seen their jobs move overseas. One could also, like Attac and other leftists, argue that something that increases inequality within countries is unfair. Or one could claim that if most people, including the very poorest, are actually better off in absolute terms, globalisation must ultimately be just.
By Tommy Ullman