Globalisation is not going away, which means that it needs to be reformed and managed in better ways. Progressives need urgently to move into this debate.  But lately too many have been drawn towards a fatal embrace of nationalism and have articulated forms of ‘progressive deglobalisation’.  These are mistaken moves.  We need to turn instead towards the politics of building what we call a ‘progressive reglobalisation’.

Globalisation is not going away, and this poses a serious challenge to progressives. Part of the problem is that the concept itself is still widely misunderstood. It is treated too often as if it has a kind of pre-ordained technological inevitability that has huge political consequences, but is at the same time beyond political explanation.  

In fact, globalisation cannot be sensibly said to cause anything. It is not an actor with its own intentions, but an ongoing — albeit contested — process produced by the actions of real people. Moreover, it refers to nothing more, but also nothing less, than ‘the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, from the cultural to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual’. This was the classic definition offered in the path-breaking book Global Transformations by David Held and others twenty years ago. 

“Until now, globalisation has been decidedly ‘neoliberal’ in character, but this is only because the social and political forces that favoured and constructed it wanted it that way.”

As such, it could in theory have been done differently. At its heart, the term connotes only a spatial expansion of the terrain on which political economy functions. There is no reason why it must proceed on neoliberal terms and, indeed, the neoliberal variant was historically specific and distinctive to its times. It has also been thoroughly delegitimised since the 2008 crisis. 

It is unsurprising, then, that in the intervening decade, ever-louder calls for winding back globalisation have emerged, on both the right and left, underpinned by the ‘new buzzword’ of ‘deglobalisation’. We can identify both a ‘regressive’ and ‘progressive’ form of ‘deglobalisation’. The former is expressed most forcefully in by Trump in the US and the Brexiters in Britain, who advocate a rupture with the post-1945 liberal world order and a retreat into great-power politics. The irony here, though, is that these actors are actually hyper-neoliberals masquerading as nationalists: they wish to see yet more deregulation and the extension of corporate power into ever-increasing areas of life in order to entrench dystopian forms of authoritarian capitalism globally.

The latter position derives from a sincerely held view on the left that the many social and economic problems associated with a long-decaying neoliberalism undermine its broad vision of politics and society. Indeed, there is a long tradition of leftist critique that was rightly sceptical of the globalisation of the past — especially its more financialised elements — and has been largely proven right in terms of the anti-democratic and anti-social dimensions of late-era neoliberalism. To this extent, a progressive critique of globalisation starts out well enough, but it then makes a controversial move.

The substance of this is to argue that, accordingly, globalisation needs to be pared back via a retreat behind domestic borders, the difference from ‘regressive deglobalisation’ being only that this process should ostensibly serve progressive ends, such as the re-creation of national industrial capacity and the building of a ‘green state’. This is an important intellectual and political development in progressive politics that needs to be taken seriously and thought about hard, not least because it challenges one of the supposed ‘lessons of history’ for the left: the disastrous failure of the Mitterrand experiment in France. 

“The new left critique of globalisation takes many forms, and has a sceptical orientation towards the EU.”

In France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-populist party, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) calls for a new global economic regime based on ecological planning and ‘protectionism with solidarity’. In Germany, there has emerged a distinct intellectual position, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cologne School’, associated with the writings of Wolfgang StreeckFritz Scharpf and Martin Höpner. Its claim is that the EU is ‘a non-democratic non-state without demos’ that is now lost to progressive causes and that the fight-back against neoliberalism can only be built from ‘retained’ nation-states. As Manès Weisskircher has noted, these arguments have had an influence on the new ‘party-movement’ recently formed in Germany, Aufstehen (Rise Up).

However, the most striking illustration of this new progressive nationalism is the case that has been made in Britain for a ‘Lexit’ (or left exit) from the EU. Although some have dismissed Lexiter arguments as little more than soundbites, they draw on a substantial intellectual base and possess an inherent credibility.  As advanced by its most sophisticated exponents – for example, Chris Bickerton and Richard TuckSamir AminLee JonesCostas Lapavitsasor Richard Seymour – the Lexit argument is also that the EU has become too distant and anti-democratic and that governance needs therefore to be ‘re-scaled’ back to the national level.  As Jones puts it, ‘the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies’.

As we have said, there is undoubtedly something in this critique. The EU, as presently constituted, does suffer from a massive democratic deficit that has lately allowed deflationary German ‘ordoliberal’ hegemony to become firmly institutionalised.  Nevertheless, the conventional Lexiter reading of the EU is too partial: it says little about ‘social Europe’, EU pre-eminence in global climate-change diplomacy, or its various initiatives to try to tax global financial transactions. It is also contradictory: it paints the EU as fixed in stone, impervious to change politically, while arguing that it embracedneoliberalism as a result of conscious decisions made by political actors.

Moreover, socially, Lexit is potentially just as regressive as its right-wing variant, particularly when it comes to questions of migration and free movement. The EU also does relatively little to restrict a social democratic programme of state-led industrial development, and Single Market rules only proscribe certain policy tools, like indiscriminate state-aid subsidies, which are not that useful in a serious industrial strategy anyway. More importantly, the Single Market itself is an attempt to regulate, beyond the national level, global processes of production and consumption and to do so to the advantage of workers and consumers as much as corporates.  

This is the crucial point: Britain leaving the EU does not help in any way to resolve the neoliberal pathologies that concern progressive deglobalisers, nor advance the interests of the left, either within Europe or globally. On day zero, a weakened Britain still has to negotiate with the EU, and this diminished country also has to find its niche within presently continuing neoliberal globalisation. Ultimately, then, Lexit is a faulty diagnosis of the evolving global economy of the 2010s and beyond. Indeed, it runs away from the big challenge, which is how to tackle the power of ongoing, but crisis-ridden, neoliberal globalisation at the global level.  

So, what is the solution?  We turn to that in Part 2 when we introduce the notion of ‘progressive reglobalisation’.