Not so long ago, the argument over globalisation was seen as done and dusted—by parties of the left as much as of the right.
Tony Blair’s 2005 Labour conference speech gives a flavour of the time. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation,” Blair told his party. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” There would be disruptions and some might be left behind, but no matter: people needed to get on with it. Our “changing world” was, Blair continued, “replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt” and “slow to complain.”
No competent politician today would be likely to urge their voters not to grumble in this way. The Davos set, the Blairs and the Clintons are all scratching their heads, asking themselves how on Earth a process they insisted was inexorable has spun into reverse. Trade has stopped growing in relation to output, cross-border financial flows have still not bounced back from the global crisis of a decade ago, and after long years of stasis in world trade talks, an American nationalist has ridden a populist wave to the White House, where he disavows all efforts at multilateralism. Those that were cheerleaders of hyper-globalisation at the turn of the century stand no chance of understanding where it has gone wrong without realising how little they understood the process they were championing.
Back in 2005, in that same Blair conference speech, there was scope for doubt, and “no mystery about what works: an open, liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive.” What of social solidarity? Would globalisation sweep it away? Blair insisted it could survive, but only if it were repurposed. Communities could not be allowed to “resist the force of globalisation”; the role of progressive politics was merely to enable them “to prepare for it.” Globalisation was the foregone conclusion; the only question was whether society could adjust to the global competition.